Archive | July, 2013

The New Yorker: July 29, 2013

31 Jul

Cover
My favorite kind of cover. An interesting drawing. If there’s a current-events meaning, it went totally over my head. I liked the way the trees are framed (in a window?). Good play between foreground and background.

The address label was in a distracting place. My understanding is that the magazine used to be shipped in a paper bag so that the cover stayed pristine. That’s probably cost prohibitive now. And bad for trees I guess. What they do now is put the label on not with glue but with that like rubbery adhesive strip stuff. That’s a bad description. It’s everywhere now. The idea is that you can peel it off and have your pretty cover. Except the adhesive leaves two like grease strips on the paper when you pull it off that are usually quite visible. Not much better. They could at least put the label on the back. Why doesn’t every magazine do this? Is the back cover ad space so valuable that they can’t carve out a 1”x3” box for the label?

Front
There was a good and out-of-place illustration of Blue Jasmine in Goings On. The movie’s reviewed in the back, not blurbed in the front. The picture isn’t even on the movies page. I assume the editors commission an illustration for every movie they review and then pick the one they like the best for the back? Its probably more likely that the illustration selection is based on the review that gets the most words. That was Fruitvale Station this week. Kind of a boring picture for that one.

Interesting Comment by Jelani Cobb about the NRA and black people. Mr. Cobb makes note of an NRA ad featuring a black guy pointing out how black people should love gun rights. That was kind of funny to me. Here’s my idea of the best possible anti-gun ad targeting NRA members: We see a young black man with a gun wearing baggy clothes. He looks at the camera and says something like “I own a gun. If I feel threatened by you I won’t hesitate to shoot you.” I wonder how many white gun nuts would be terrified of that ad.

Good piece by James Surowiecki on Barnes & Noble. B&N loses a lot of money selling e-readers and makes a lot of money selling actual books. Mr. Surowiecki has some thoughts about that. Here–quickly–are mine. I don’t think books will become obsolete like CDs. E-books have real limitations that technology enthusiasts like to pretend don’t exist. You can’t annotate an e-book. You can’t page through an e-book. You can’t “own” an e-book in any meaningful way. You can’t loan an e-book to a friend. You can’t give an individual e-book as a gift. (I guess you can. Giving a digital file seems so impersonal and lame. If you’re going to give a digital file, why not just give a giftcard?) You can’t inscribe an e-book. You can’t have an author sign an e-book. I could go on. I like reading books and I read a lot of them. I have no desire to buy an e-reader.

Middle
Patricia Marx on brain exercise was interesting. It mostly made me worry about my own brain deteriorating. According to Ms. Marx, it’s already happening. Realizing you’re on way down instead of the way up is no fun.

John Hodgman! Shouts & Murmurs! I like Mr. Hodgman. His This American Life stories are some of my favorites. Here’s his best one. He has another about the Mall of America that I like. Oh, and of course Cuervo Man. Check out the full archive.

I’ve repeatedly heaped praise on TNY’s medical reporting. An OK piece by Atul Gawande this week. A little Gladwelly for my taste. A lot of good information. It would have worked better as a straight report instead of using that stupid artificial “Look at these two things. Isn’t it odd that they are so similar/different?” framing device that has become the scourge of magazine writing.

I loved Bill Buford’s thing about cooking with Daniel Boulud. I don’t know how to categorize it. Kind of in between TNY genres. The pictures really added to it. The big duck press with the huge wheel on the top? Great. Some crazy stuff in fancy restaurants. Using roasted bird heads as a garnish, for example.

Fiction
I don’t know if this one was especially noteworthy.

Back
Emily Nussbaum is TNY’s TV critic. I read her less than I should. I frequently avoid reading her stuff to avoid spoilers. Even if she’s not trying to put them in. I’m the same way with movies, but I see the movies I want to see pretty promptly. I don’t watch TV shows like that. So I don’t want to read anyone’s thoughts on the new season of Mad Men, for example. I guess that’s the price I pay for not having cable.

That was a good preface. Main point: this week Ms. Nussbaum had an essay not about current TV that I really enjoyed. It was about how Sex and the City hasn’t been able to sustain its once-stellar reputation as an excellent TV show. I’ve hardly seen any of the show, so I don’t have any real comment on the merit, but it’s an interesting thing to think about. The Sopranos is the great measuring stick for every TV writer now. I don’t get that. I think The Sopranos is wildly overrated. For most of its run it HBO’s third-best show. Six Feet Under and The Wire are better. I don’t really think The Sopranos is close. Sorry. This got off-topic.

David Denby wrote a serviceable review of Fruitvale Station. He managed not to say much beyond summary. Probably for the best. I haven’t seen Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine yet so I only skimmed through that review. I did catch a reference to the movie being set in the milieu of “low-rent San Francisco”. I wonder if it’s Mr. Denby or Mr. Allen who hasn’t figured out that there aren’t any “low-rent” parts of San Francisco anymore. I guess I’ll find out when the movie opens here.

Cartoons
I liked the Edward Steed camouflage one on page 45. I like his drawing style.

Caption contest entry
“It’s all in your head. It’s all in your head. Dead fish can’t talk”

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Film review quarterly: 2013 Q2

30 Jul

So I planned to stop writing the quarterly film review since I’m writing more frequently about movies these days. That was a bad idea. My team of SEO wizards has gotten me on the first page of Google results for searches like “2013 q1 movies”. I didn’t know people searched for that. But I get some pageviews that way. So I’m going to keep doing it.

I realize this is a month late and I don’t care. Now that I’ve decided to write it, I think this is a good idea. A nice recap of the past three months. My plan going forward is to write about each movie individually and then I’ll do this every quarter. Then I’ll write some kind of year-end thing. So I’ve written about all of these movies before. Click on the titles for more. I’m just going to do a quick little blurblet or something for each of them here. Spoilers as always.

The Silence
Blah. This could have been such a good movie. Needed a rewrite. Some of the characters were pretty far from believable.

To the Wonder
I want to see this one again. I think I might have been prejudiced by my dislike for Ben Affleck and by reading some bad press. It would make me sad if Terrence Malick made a bad movie.

The Place Beyond the Pines
This one has stuck with me. Especially the Ryan Gosling section. And Dane DeHaan as his son. The opening tracking shot has gotten some notice. I want to take a closer look here, because I think there’s a little trick involved. Watch the clip first.

OK. The big takeaway for a lot of people is “WOW, look at Ryan Gosling doing that crazy motorcycle stunt!” I don’t think so. Pay attention at 2:28. Ol’ RyRy GosGos rides out of the frame. The camera stays on the other two guys, then swings back to show the Sphere of Death or whatever with him already in it. Or his stunt rider, I should say. Busted. Although I think that adds to the technical impressiveness of the shot. Just something to point out.

In the House
This is another foreign movie that felt like it should have been better. I was hoping for more fireworks in the last act.

The Great Gatsby
I wrote a lot about this one. I still have good feelings about Gatsby. After some time, it’s easier to forget about the bad parts and remember the good parts.

Stories We Tell
This might function better as an academic exercise than as a narrative. “What if I made a documentary like this” kind of thing. I still enjoyed it. Keeping my eye out for Sarah Polley.

Room 237
I don’t get why people thought this was interesting.

Frances Ha
I like Greta Gerwig and I like this movie. Maybe at the 7/10 level or thereabouts. I stand by my anti-New York thoughts. Fewer movies set in New York please.

What Maisie Knew
Steve Coogan is a versatile performer. Alexander Skarsgård’s performance might be one of my favorites so far this year.

Before Midnight
Looking forward to the next installment. I listened to the Slate Spoiler Special about this one, glad to hear I’m not the only one who likes Julie Delpy much more than Ethan Hawke.

The East
Almost a really great and memorable movie. I think Brit Marling will put one together eventually.

The Bling Ring
Yuck. This was a huge misfire.

The Place Beyond the Pines was the best movie of Q2. I think Stoker is still my favorite so far this year, but it’s close.

Shakespeare in Love

28 Jul

I watched Shakespeare in Love this week as part of my ongoing quest to see every movie that’s won the Oscar for Best Picture. I’ve seen most of them. Now I’m at the point of actively seeking out the ones I’ve missed. Mostly the less famous and less good winners. This is one of those. I was kind of curious, but I didn’t have any special desire to see it, honestly. The biggest draw for me was that it stars Gwyneth Paltrow in the stage of her career where she was, as I’ve written before, almost impossibly pretty.

Shakespeare in Love is an OK movie I guess. I can see why people were charmed by it. But I can’t see how anyone who voted for it for Best Picture can look back with anything but embarrassment. It’s hard for me to remember which movies came out in which years. So I checked Wikipedia. I assume their list of “notable films released in 1998” is pretty complete.* Here are the movies I’ve seen from 1998 that I think are better than Shakespeare in Love: The Big Lebowski, Croupier, Happiness, The Last Days of Disco, Out of Sight, Pi, Run Lola Run, Rushmore, Saving Private Ryan, A Simple Plan, There’s Something About Mary, The Thin Red Line, The Truman Show. That’s thirteen. That I’ve seen. On the other hand, I just checked Rotten Tomatoes, and Shakespeare in Love is at 93%. So who knows.

*I recommend going through lists like this. Fun to look back at all the good/bad movies from a given year. Also a reminder of how many I’ve missed.

Maybe I just don’t have the personality to be taken in by a good romantic comedy. I guess that’s what this is. Although I didn’t think it was all that funny. You might call it witty or clever, and I can see that. The script is definitely the movie’s strength. I didn’t realize Tom Stoppard was involved. That’s a pretty serious name. I liked some of the clever little Shakespeare nods. The Twelfth Night parallel thing at the end was cool.

Ms. Paltrow definitely gave a good performance. She’s not at all believable as a man, but whatever. It’s a movie, after all. She’s charming, and this is a role that depends a lot on charm. What happened to Gwyneth? She hasn’t been in an interesting movie since The Royal Tenenbaums. I wonder why that is. Is she just too satisfied with her status in Hollywood and afraid to take risks? Too busy thinking of interesting baby names? I don’t know. She really is talented and she has a lot of years left. Maybe she’ll surprise me sometime and do something good.

You know who else was great in this? Ben Affleck. I’m not the biggest Ben Affleck fan. I’ve written bad things about him in the past. But credit where it’s due. He nailed this role and I really enjoyed his performance. Geoffrey Rush and Judi Dench both got Oscar nominations. Shrug from me. I didn’t think either were that great.

I also want to give a shoutout to Christopher Marlowe. I think most of the stuff about him in the movie is exaggerated or bogus, but some of it was interesting. There’s a scene where the theater guys are annoyed because every actor auditioning is reading the famous “face that launched a thousand ships…” speech from Doctor Faustus. I read Doctor Faustus in college. Come on, guys, don’t get annoyed. There’s a reason it’s one of the foundational pieces of the Western canon. Everyone should read that speech at least once. It starts on line 88.

Here’s what I really want to talk about: Gwyneth Paltrow’s breasts. More specifically, the issue of breasts in movies generally and how people think and write about same. I’ve seen a lot of “serious” movies with “tasteful” nudity, and almost every review of those movies studiously ignores its presence and doesn’t consider it relevant to the quality of the movie. I don’t get this. In my experience, almost all “tasteful” nudity in movies like this is totally unnecessary to the story, is shot in a way that makes it look totally unrealistic, and is just as exploitative or whatever as it is in R-rated teen comedies. Shakespeare in Love is probably the archetype of this and I think it really detracts from the movie. The topless shots of Ms. Paltrow are obviously meticulously composed and are meted out in a way that doesn’t make any sense from a plot or story perspective. The one place where breasts would not have seemed tacked-on and would have seemed erotic or whatever in a naturalistic sense was the famous scene where Shakespeare undoes Viola’s chest wrap thing after her day pretending to be a man. But no. That shot abruptly pans up as soon as the wrap unravels.

Then, in the next scene, all of a sudden, there are the breasts! They show up while the two are getting romantic, but at arms’ length from each other so the breasts are clearly visible. Is it normal for people to make out with their torsos a foot apart? Am I missing something? And God forbid old Bill Shakespeare might want to, say, touch a breast while getting down with his new lady. NOT TASTEFUL. Of course, it would also not be tasteful try to depict sex in any recognizable way. Maybe it’s Joseph Fiennes’s fault. Maybe he thinks you have sex by doing weird little half-push-ups while hovering over someone. And then there are the multiple occasions where Viola suddenly becomes very shy and covers her chest with sheets while she’s in a room alone with Shakespeare. Because we all know that after you have sex with someone you can’t let them see you naked anymore.

Why do movies do this? I don’t know. This is where I get out of my depth and stop having good ideas. I think that a lot of it is Hollywood people (directors, producers, actresses) being afraid of anything that shows sex too graphically or frankly, because they think people might find it tawdry or unbecoming for whatever reason. I think that’s mostly stupid. I think there are two ways to handle movie nudity. 1. Try to be as realistic as possible within the restraints of the ratings people. 2. Don’t show anything. It’s not a big deal. People will understand. I personally find scenes shot to totally conceal things to be less distracting than scenes that try to find an awkward halfway point. At least if you don’t show anything you’re being more intellectually honest with everyone than if you construct a couple gauzily lit and carefully blocked topless shots. Nothing about that is tasteful. Sorry.

I kind of feel like I should give a counterexample to end with. Take This Waltz is a movie I’ve mentioned a couple times. It’s one of the more memorable movies I’ve seen in the last couple years. There’s a scene in a gym shower that blew me away. If you’ve seen the movie you remember it. That’s how to use naked women to improve your movie.

Fruitvale Station

25 Jul

I don’t know if I have a lot to say about Fruitvale Station. It’s one of those movies that critics like to talk and write about. It was at Sundance and Cannes and critics have been talking about it since. I think for the intelligentsia the movie is old news and it hasn’t even opened nationwide yet. Most of what I’m going to write is little more than a summary of other reviews. Wesley Morris at Grantland wrote the best thing I’ve read. He also weaves in some Trayvon Martin/President Obama stuff in a way that worked well. I don’t have anything to add to that angle.

On the other hand, I feel like this is the one movie where I might be expected to have a strong opinion or have something interesting to say. This movie is set in my neighborhood. It’s (indirectly) about large social issues that Oakland is often at the epicenter of. Issues that someone smart might be able to say something deep about. Should I have some profound insight into “what this movie is about” because I live across the street from the hospital where Oscar Grant died? Is it a personal failing to avoid the inevitable political questions raised by the movie even though I sometimes board BART trains at Fruitvale? I don’t know.

On the topic of political questions, I’ll repeat what most other reviewers have said. I was expecting this movie to be overt. Polemical. I expected to see a much more negative depiction of the poor sections of the East Bay and the impact of crime/poverty/racism/police on people living in them. That wasn’t at all the case. Naturalistic is an overused new buzzword in film criticism, but I think it fits here as well as it fits anywhere. Where the movie is contrived and emotionally manipulative, it’s in the service of character development, not social conditions or race relations. That was a very pleasant surprise.

This was an intense movie. It opens with a clip of the most famous cell phone video of the Oscar Grant shooting. It then goes back and covers the day leading up to it. The tension builds and builds as the inevitable ending approaches. The tone and pacing were generally very restrained. I was very impressed by the director Ryan Coogler. He didn’t try to score easy emotional points–the prison flashback was the only place where the emotion was really dialed up before the big climax. I thought that was the perfect strategy. By not creating points for the audience to release tension throughout, he kept it building. And it did build. The big BART platform scene was executed really well. That’s a big feat since that scene is so well-known at this point. And even here, there was no big catharsis. People forget that Mr. Grant didn’t die until the next morning. The overnight hospital waiting room sequence was very strong. This is where the emotion all came out. There was a fair crowd in theater when I saw the movie, and there were a lot of people audibly crying. That is not a common occurrence at the movies. At least not at the movies I go to. And then it was over. There was a little title-card epilogue, but there was no depiction of the aftermath. That was a very smart decision. That’s where things could have gotten away from the director and made for a muddy unfocused movie. Once more, this was an intense movie.

Three plot contrivances detracted from things. The dog at the gas station, the fish fry girl who reappears, and the prison guy who reappears. They all felt unnecessary and distracting. It wasn’t a perfect movie. Most of the non-perfection comes from little things like this that are maybe a little too on-the-nose. The intent was obviously to capture real life in a realistic way, and real life is messy. Always. Sometimes Mr. Coogler shied away from that. I can understand why he did things the way he did for the sake of the narrative and keeping things interesting, but it didn’t always work. Maybe some of the problem was the choice to dramatize a single day. That’s an unexpected way to tell this story, and overall I think it was a very good decision, but the fact is that any single day doesn’t have all that much drama in it. Maybe things would have been boring if not for the little narrative touches. I don’t know.

A few local notes. My understanding of and appreciation for this movie was most definitely enhanced because I live in Oakland. Mr. Coogler is from Oakland and did a very good job of creating a sense of place and placing the story in a geographic context that I thought added to it. I know I wouldn’t feel that as strongly if I’d seen this movie before I moved here. Little things like street signs are a nice touch wherever a movie is set. That this was all filmed on location was apparent. That always adds a bit of juice. My fear going in was that there was going to be a lot of depressing East Oakland footage–some ”look how terrible the ghetto is” kind of nonsense. As I mentioned earlier there wasn’t any of that. Oakland as I know it was very well-portrayed. It’s a beautiful city. There are big industrial zones. There’s a lot of graffiti. Etc. One thing that I thought was a perfect touch was the repeated use of BART trains. Both the images and the sounds of BART trains. It’s such a distinct Bay Area touch. And, of course, it was a great narrative device. It kept the audience focused on the direction of the story.

The acting was very good. Michael B. Jordan seems to be getting a lot of plaudits, and he was good. Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend matched him. I like Octavia Spencer. I’ve been a fan since she was Serenity on Halfway Home, a short-lived and probably-forgotten show on Comedy Central. That kind of acting is about the polar opposite of this. I hope she gets a chance to do more interesting movies because I think she has a lot more range than your average moviegoer who only knows her from The Help would guess.

So I don’t have any big thesis or whatever. I liked Fruitvale Station a lot. A lot more than I thought I would. I’d recommend it. Go see it.

The New Yorker: July 22, 2013

24 Jul

Cover
It’s been a really rough stretch for TNY covers. I don’t get the point of this one. Cars are overrunning the Hamptons? People are overrunning the Hamptons? Who cares. This cover is pure White Rich. Do better.

Front
The most notable thing here was the Talk short about Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer. Written of course before the enjoyable news of one Carlos Danger. Should have held onto that one for a week.

Middle
Depressing reporting about the Middle East as per usual. Here’s my take on the Egypt situation based on my reading of this article and other TNY Egypt reporting. As far as I can tell, the religious parties are the only ones with a chance of winning. They all seem to have the same goal: to win the election and then maneuver to rewrite the constitution to suit them and to eliminate future elections. This seems like a bad way to start out your democracy. The first election is easy; it’s the second one that’s hard. My guess is that the military will also depose the next elected government. The whole thing is a total mess. I also don’t think the billion dollars and change the US gives to Egypt is doing much good. Especially considering that everyone there from all over the political spectrum seems to hate us. Of course, this raises the whole problem of US policy in the Middle East. On one hand, we want to support free elections. On the other hand, in free elections the candidates who win are the ones who hate the US the most. Kind of an awkward position for us to be in. Maybe time for a new strategy.

Shouts & Murmurs this week from Jack Handey. He’s best known for having deep thoughts. This was similar–a series of quick hitters. I wonder if he ever does any writing that’s longer than two sentences. Cool to see TNY publish this. I wish they did more off-beat stuff like this instead of their usual humor writing, which is so often half-hearted and boring. I also wish they would find more people who could write pieces in the vein of David Sedaris. Light humor stuff, but a little longer and character- or situation-driven, rather than just an extended simple joke on a single premise.

John Seabrook was good on the rebuilding of the Jersey Shore. The thing that makes it difficult/crazy is that the whole coastline is built on narrow barrier island that are always shifting and the beaches are always naturally washing away etc. It costs many billions of dollars to maintain the status quo. Sounds pretty dumb to me. I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for the whole scheme. I definitely don’t have any sympathy for the people involved. Maybe move back to the mainland and stop worrying about hurricanes and stop requiring my tax dollars to rebuild beaches and build seawalls and create huge sand dunes so your vacation home doesn’t wash away. And of course it’s just a matter of time until sea levels rise to the point that this is all irrelevant and every dollar being spent now is a sunk cost. Haha what a great joke get it sunk cost puns are hilarious.

I count on TNY to bring me stories of weirdos and fringe groups and all kinds of other nonsense. This week’s report on rare egg collectors in the UK did not disappoint. There are apparently lunatics who sneak around stealing eggs from the nests of endangered birds. There is also a crew of G-men (do they call them G-men in the UK?) whose job it is to catch them. The accompanying photo of two of these middle-aged British guys in their full-body camo gear is truly hilarious.

Fiction
I liked this one. Every now and then TNY will hit with this kind of low-key surrealism or whatever you want to call it. Maybe that’s a bad descriptor. It’s not really magical realism or any other established genre I can think of. The kind of story that’s supposed to feel very modern and George Saundersy. Maybe that’s also bad. I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Kind of reminded me of Atria by Ramona Ausubel, which is one of my favorite TNY stories of the last couple years. Probably not that similar upon close inspection, but kind of a similar theme in a loose way.

Back
The trend toward memoir and away from interesting books is really sad for publishing. Now you can apparently write a book that gets reviewed in TNY if your dad was a well-known writer. James Wood tackled FOUR different ones this week. Yikes. How big a William Styron fan do you have to be to read his daughter’s book about him? And that’s one of the books where the author seems to at least sort of like her dad. Saul Bellow’s son apparently hates him or holds a big-time grudge or has unresolved issues and wrote a book about it. That sounds like a tedious and horrible reading experience. What’s the audience–people who like Saul Bellow or people who hate him? Anyway. I’d never read any of these books but I did enjoy this review. Especially the old John Cheever tidbits. That’s what his daughter should write. A compendium of tidbits. Short enough to publish in whole in this very magazine. Especially since Mr. Cheever’s relationship with the magazine is so central to him and his work.

Shoutout to this week’s Briefly Noted blurbster*, who said 30 is the new 20 in a review. Good to hear. And then an anti-shoutout for closing with this quote from the book: “We hope that at the end of it we wind up happier than our grandparents, who didn’t spend this vast period of their lives, these prime years, so thoroughly alone.” Thanks for reminding me, dick. I should mention the book if I’m going to quote from it. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Doesn’t sound like my thing.

*I can’t wait to see TPY referenced in the OED when this word I just invented becomes accepted into the language.

Cartoons
Proper tie stripes on page 45. Good work, Bob Epstein.

Caption contest entry
“Close the door Jerry, we have the air conditioner on.”

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

20 Jul

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a book I just read. Here are some thoughts about it.

I read the book after Julia Turner endorsed it on the previously-recommended Culture Gabfest podcast. It’s one of those light “beach read” kind of books. Ms. Turner assured me that it was neither a young adult novel nor chick lit. Imagine my horror, then, when I went to the library to check it out. It was located in the TEEN ZONE. This is the place that the library tries to make cool and hip, not realizing that the only kids who think the TEEN ZONE is cool and hip are the kids who would go to the library no matter how uncool or unhip it was. Try a better marketing strategy, libraries.

So I picked up the book. My trepidation was increased when I saw the cover, a stylized drawing of a woman with huge sunglasses. I always associate huge sunglasses with Joan Didion. Most people probably have a different association. Anyway, the book looked very young adult and very chick lit. Then I looked more closely. There was a blurb on the cover from none other than Jonathan Franzen. Now, I was going to check out and read the book regardless, but Mr. Franzen is a pretty good get as far as blurbs go. I was reassured.

I recommend Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It was a pretty breezy read. Highly engaging. A lot of reviews talked about how it was hilarious or uproarious or whatever. I didn’t find it to be that, really. Witty might be a better adjective. The author is Maria Semple, who has a background as a sitcom writer. Some forgettable 90’s stuff and Arrested Development. The third season, but still. That’s a pretty good job for a comedy writer to have on a résumé.

The most interesting thing to me was the book’s format. The whole thing is made up of a series of emails, letters, notes, etc. exchanged between different characters in the book with periodic narration by Bernadette’s daughter Bee. Eventually, there’s a plot point wherein it’s explained how Bee got her hands on all of this various communication. That was an interesting way to do it. Although I guess it was necessary, given that Bee would regularly break in and give commentary based on the other fragments. The variously-sourced epistolary structure would have worked on its own without explanation, almost like an omniscient narrator situation. But I thought having Bee’s perspective definitely was what held things together.

Another structure note. Since Ms. Semple was a TV writer, and this is a pretty good story, I thought some about a prospective film adaptation vis-à-vis the novel’s structure. Showing everyone sitting at a keyboard typing their emails as a way to advance the story wouldn’t really work in a movie. I think the best way to do it would be to abandon the epistolary conceit and just treat it as a straightforward narrative. It’s a lot easier to play around with structure and conventions and try odd things in a book than a movie. Just another of the joys of reading.

The first half of the book is basically a group of highly unlikeable women sniping behind each others’ backs. That was kind of off-putting for a while. Like, was I supposed to be taking sides? Everyone just seemed very unpleasant. Things eventually progressed past that in a generally satisfying way, but that remains my largest complaint. The book is set in the world of the white upper class, full of private school nonsense and pointless rivalries that build out of stupid petty bullshit. That makes it hard to connect with anyone or, especially, to feel sympathy or empathy for anyone. It’s a fun story that I enjoyed reading, but Ms. Semple would have to go quite a bit deeper to make me actually care about any of her characters.

The climax of the story takes place on a cruise to Antarctica. I thought it worked pretty well. With 50 or so pages left, I thought I knew where things were going and then there was a pretty significant change in direction. I was disappointed when I saw what was happening, but Ms. Semple mostly pulled it off. I won’t spoil it. It’s not like reviewing current movies–probably unfair to expect people to have read random books that I write about.

The book is set in Seattle. I get the feeling that if I were familiar with Seattle, I would have been able to pull a lot more out of it. Lots of local references/jokes. I could tell from the context what Ms. Semple was going for, but when she talked about different neighborhoods, for example, I didn’t get that kind of smug insidery feeling that’s so great when you’re familiar with the setting of a piece of media. There’s a fine line there for writers between writing in a way that feels authentically from/of the setting and writing that feels like it’s using local detail as a substitute for actual insight. I thought Ms. Semple did a pretty good job. There was also a lot of stuff about Microsoft. I’m sure some of that was fictionalized (even beyond the obviously fictional parts) and I’m fine with that.

I mentioned the Antarctic cruise. I think I would like this kind of cruise. Maybe that’s crazy. Whales, penguins, endless ice, sounds kind of cool. Ms. Semple describes the landscape as having three horizontal bars: sky, ice, water. I thought that was a really cool image.

A big plot point was the existence of a swath of blackberry brambles on a hillside and their removal. I have a fair amount of blackberries in my yard. The bushes do, in fact, take over everything. I can see why people would want to get rid of them. On the other hand, I had fresh blackberries on my oatmeal today. They’re delicious. But the bushes are so thick and full of thorns that its hard to get to all of them. I think most of the berries will end up unpicked. A shame, that.

Wolf Hall and A Man for All Seasons

18 Jul

Wolf Hall is a book. A Man for All Seasons is a movie. They both tell the same story, more or less. The story is Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. This is a very famous sequence of events. There was a lot of political intrigue involved. Two of the main people involved were Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More. In A Man for All Seasons, More is the hero and Cromwell is the villain. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is the hero and More, while not a villain necessarily, isn’t exactly presented in a flattering light. This blog post is about those two pieces of media, both of which I recently consumed, and how they can be so different, and, like, some other thoughts. Think of it as a New Yorker Critic at Large piece, except slapdash and poorly-informed instead of tight and focused.

A little background on WH and AMFAS. WH is a novel from 2009 by Hilary Mantel. It was very highly regarded. It won the Man Booker Prize and probably has other accolades. AMFAS is a movie from 1966. It won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Paul Scofield as Thomas More). WH is a fairly long book, so it’s obviously more expansive. There’s a lot more stuff in it, and a lot of the characters are more fully developed. I’m only going to talk about the things that happen in both. Following is a hopefully brief and hopefully accurate summary.

This is a complicated story. Bear with me. I think the common conception is that Henry just decided what he wanted to do and then did it unilaterally. It surprised me to learn just what lengths he went to to conform both to English law and canon law. This is what made behind-the-scenes operators like Cromwell and More relevant in the first place. Here’s the rundown. Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, was the widow of Henry’s brother, Arthur. This required that Henry get a special dispensation from the Pope in order to marry her. He got the dispensation because Catherine said she and Arthur never consummated their marriage. (He died only weeks after the wedding; they were both 15.) So, many years later, Catherine had failed to give birth to any sons and Henry decided to divorce her. Rather than just casting her aside and telling the Pope to go fuck himself, he waged a long campaign to get the marriage annulled, on the logic that the original dispensation was invalid. The Pope never granted the annulment. Failing to get the Pope’s support, Henry had the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declare his marriage to Catherine void and Henry married Anne Boleyn. As part of this, Henry asserted that he, and not the Pope, was the head of the church in England. Henry and Cranmer were excommunicated and the Church of England was born.

While all of this was happening, More was the Lord Chancellor of England. He was opposed to the divorce, but accepted it and recognized Anne Boleyn as queen. What he could not tolerate was anyone but the Pope as head of the church. He resigned as Lord Chancellor and refused to swear an oath recognizing Henry, and not the Pope, as head of the church and Anne Boleyn’s eventual children as heirs. He was eventually executed for treason.

All of Henry’s various maneuvering was accompanied by a lot of politicking from divorce advocates, notably Cromwell. Parliament enacted a whole series of laws legitimizing Anne Boleyn, and Henry went abroad to get the approval of other monarchs. Cromwell played a key role in passing new laws giving Henry authority over church matters and generally used the whole affair to solidify himself as Henry’s closest adviser. He was also eventually executed for some shenanigans related to Anne of Cleves, but that was several years after this whole sordid mess and irrelevant to what I’m talking about.

OK. I think/hope I got all the important parts. I know I left out a lot of things, if you spend some time on Wikipedia I promise this whole saga is interesting.

In AMFAS, More is the hero. He stands up to the king and refuses to compromise his principles. The cunning and immoral Cromwell is the driving force behind his execution, employing some treachery to get false testimony that More has denied that the king is head of the church.

In WH, Cromwell is a self-made man, as opposed to everyone else, who is part of the landed gentry. He rises to the king’s right hand on his own merits. He helps end the Pope’s authority over politics. (There are sequences in the book where Cromwell thinks to himself, “Where in the Bible is the word ‘Pope’” or something to that effect.) Without his political skill, there might have been a revolt against Henry and the Reformation may never have happened.

There are a lot of easy and obvious points to make about the disparity. Everyone has biases, history is complicated, we as an audience should always be skeptical of a work’s point of view, etc. I don’t think those are points that need to be made.

When I think about these two works, it’s easy to see how there would be different perspectives. In the abstract, a case can be made that Cromwell is bad or good. A case can also be made that More is bad or good, and I don’t think they necessarily even have to be on opposite sides. That’s in the abstract. In reality, they both seem to be advocating opposite sides of a profoundly stupid argument that, even allowing for “oh it was a different time” etc., just doesn’t seem to allow for either man to look anything like heroic.

More was a man of principle. That’s highly valued by a lot of people. Especially in contemporary American politics, where “flip-flopper” is just about the worst thing you can call someone. But let’s think about what his principle was. He was so sure of the Pope’s supremacy that he was willing to die for it. Not God. The Pope. Clement VII was much more of a political figure than a religious one. He controlled extensive territories in Italy. He collected taxes on land in England. And of course all of the other nonsense happening in the Catholic Church at the time. I don’t think there are many Catholics out there today who would rather be beheaded than admit the right of protestant denominations to exist, but Thomas More is apparently a hero for doing so. Whatever. Plus he spent a lot of time arresting people for translating the Bible into English and, as Lord Chancellor, burned six people at the stake for heresy. Principles can sometimes make you do bad things too I guess. I think a better principle might have been to let everyone read the Bible in English and decide for themselves whether the Pope ought to be the boss. This is an area where the historical argument holds even less water for me. There were a lot of reformers all over Europe at the time. More was one of their strongest opponents. Maybe you have to be Catholic to get it. I don’t know.

Cromwell’s position is, to me, even less reasonable. Oh, Henry needs to have a son. I mean, a legitimate son. (He had at least one illegitimate son at the time. A son who he acknowledged as his own and made a Duke.) The monarchy is maybe the one institution of the time that was stupider than the papacy. The obsession with legitimacy and heirs and the purity of women (but never of men, keep in mind that Henry also had a long-running affair with Anne Boleyn’s sister) just seems like a big dumb waste of time. Especially in England. They had a parliament. The parliament passed laws that the king had to follow. It was well-established that a woman could be the monarch. Henry was basically a big petulant baby and Cromwell went above and beyond to enable him.

In conclusion. The Henry VIII saga is one of the most obsessed-over stories out there. For good reason. It just seems hard for me to look at it and identify anyone as a hero or an upstanding character or even a rational actor. AMFAS goes further down this road with its lionization of More, but every dramatization or narrative about it goes looking for a hero or maybe an anti-hero, which seems so popular these days. I don’t understand the motivation behind the people telling these stories. If I were to come up with a fictionalization of it, a lot of my thrust would be a kind of winking “hey, audience, let’s all agree everyone in this story is being ridiculous” tone about it.

This got kind of out of hand. Maybe there will be a major edit coming up soon.