My Uncle Charles

Hello everyone. I think some of you may already know, but others may not so I wanted to make a post so that everyone will know…

This past Monday my uncle Charles died unexpectedly. He was only 63. He collapsed in his apartment and my parents found him the next day when they couldn’t get a hold of him. Yesterday, we had a family viewing. It helped a lot because, honestly, a large part of my brain refused to believe it.

I was lucky to have had him as an uncle. He was the definition of the cool uncle. In the 1980s, he moved into Detroit – decades before it was the cool thing to do. I remember going to his apartment reading his copy of Rolling Stone magazine, looking at his newest book on 20th Century art and architecture, and listening to him talk about his latest trip to New York or L.A. to work on his latest ad campaign for Chrysler. He gave me a window into this vibrant world that was so very different than the staid suburban world I was growing up in. And I’m a lot better for it.

You always want more time. It still sucks. But I’m lucky to have had him as my uncle.

Thank you Charles. I hope I can be as cool an uncle to my nephews as you were to me.

Charles

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The Great Gatsby – A Near-perfect Adaptation

To begin with, I love Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I taught the novel for many years but I never grew tired of reading it. So, as I sat down to watch Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I expected to like the movie – his Romeo + Juliet is one of my favorite movies – but I wasn’t sure how anyone could capture the novel on film. It’s too poetic, too tragic, and too challenging (Is Jay Gatsby really a hero? Is the American Dream really an illusion, a carrot to make us good little worker bees?). I was happily mistaken. I think Luhrmann has created what might be the most faithful adaptation that could ever be made. I’m not sure how it could be closer.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised as Luhrmann is known for his stylized movies and Gatsby is a very stylized novel. It’s full of long descriptive passages that perch on the line between prose and poetry. For example, here’s the description of one of Gatsby’s parties:

The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath

Let me geek-out for a moment. This description is in the present tense while the novel is generally in the past tense. The party is happening right now (even though it is long since over). It is fresh and vibrant in the narrator’s mind unlike other memories which are fading. It is like a painting. The events captured on the canvas are always happening for the first time whenever someone looks at it. Let’s just pause a minute and marvel at Fitzgerald’s genius…

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Besides the use of figurative language, Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby in the first person and thus the novel is a record of the jumbled, dream-like memories of the narrator Nick Carroway. The events of chapter two actually take place after the events described in chapter three, and the novel continues to jump back and forth in time chapter by chapter. Even within chapters time can be an unstable thing. Here Nick describes leaving a drunken party:

Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed.

“Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.

“Where?”

“Anywhere.”

“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.

“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”

“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”

. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.

“Beauty and the Beast . . . Loneliness . . . Old Grocery Horse . . . Brook’n Bridge . . . .”

Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.

Just to be clear, those ellipses are not mine. They’re Fitzgerald’s. Then what just happened? How did Nick get from the party to Mr. McKee’s bedroom, and then to the station? Fitzgerald simple used the literary version of the jump cut or montage to represent what it’s like to be very, very drunk.

Ok, Fitzgerald’s novel is lyrical and dreamy. What does that have to do with the movie? Simply this: Many reviews have criticized the film for being all flash, over-whelming visuals, and little substance. Well, yes that might be true, but that’s actually how it should be. Indeed, that’s one of the points of the novel. Underneath its flash and spectacle, the Jazz Age was hollow. And thus Luhrmann’s jumpy, music-video style actually mirrors the prose and theme of the novel.

I will admit, Luhrmann’s Gatsby won’t be to everyone’s taste. It does not have a clear narrative, there are many showy set pieces that don’t seem to move the movie forward in any way, the characters are at best shallow or flawed, and it lacks a Hollywood ending. While I might criticize other movies for having these qualities, for Gatsby they are perfect. Luhrmann has given us a beautiful and faithful cinematic version of the novel.

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And the Oscar goes to…William Shakespeare

To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday I wrote this little piece on how the Bard can save Hollywood. You can find more Shakespeare birthday posts at Happy Birthday Shakespeare.

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I’m not the first person to suggest that if he lived today William Shakespeare would be one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Shakespeare acted, he wrote scripts, and the company he co-founded owned two theaters and had a royal patent – in other words, he was a studio head/producer. He was also adept at politics. His company went from being the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men as the Tutor dynasty ended and the Stewart dynasty began. Shakespeare was The Man. And by that I mean, he was at the center of both the cultural and political establishment of his day.

Shakespeare didn’t just do these things. He did them very well. His dialogue is beautifully crafted. His characters are a mess of emotions and contradictions. I vacillate from feeling sorry for Hamlet to wanting to tell him to “man up” and kill Claudius already. His plays are filled with – I can’t help but use the phrase – cinematic action. It’s really not surprising that I like Shakespeare and action movies.

Moreover, he wasn’t above pandering to the crowd with crude and sophomoric humor, or portraying Queen Elizabeth’s father and grandfather in a complementary light. He played to his audience and endeavored to bring them along with him. He did not expect his audience to come to him high atop the mountain of pure art – wherever that is.

This raises the question, does the fact that Richard III ends with Henry Tutor saving the day and bringing peace and prosperity to England reduce the art of the play? Let me put it another way. If Shakespeare was that Hollywood heavy weight I described above, would his plays be popcorn movies, released as potential summer blockbusters? Or would they be given a limited art house released? This is a trick question, of course, because Shakespeare was both popular and high brow. Today we divide movies into Hollywood/mainstream/commercial on the one hand and art on the other.

But why do we divide movies in this way? This is actually a big question that deserves its own post. For the moment, let me merely say this division is a shame because it is possible for a movie to be both. One of the best recent examples is Gladiator which was an art movie disguised as an action movie. Or an action movie disguised as art movie depending on your perspective.

In the past few years there has been a lot of hand wringing in the film industry about declining and/or stagnant movie ticket sales. But today, on his birthday, William Shakespeare can provide the solution. All filmmakers have to do is this: Go watch some of Shakespeare’s plays, learn from them, and start making action movies that are also art movies, or art movies that are also action movies. Then the multi-plexes would be as full today as the Globe was in its day.

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Movies: John Carter

I saw John Carter yesterday, and in short, I really enjoyed the movie. The movie, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), balances action and world building better than most sci-fi/fantasy movies. With its sweeping vistas of Mars, this is one of those movies that must be seen on the big screen. It will lose a lot if viewed on even a large TV.

The best part of the movie, however, was the characters. John Carter is one of the rare movies in which the heroes are more interesting than the villains (this is a topic that deserves its own post). The title character is a haunted veteran of the Civil War who goes West seeking gold, and who has little use for other people or their causes. He fought for a cause, and in doing so, he lost everything. As the movie opens, it is clear he does not want to make that mistake again. Dejah Thoris, the Princess of the book’s title, is a scholar and warrior who flees her besieged city to escape a political marriage with an enemy ruler. Very quickly their paths cross, and it is their crossed purposes – his desire to get back to his gold in the Arizona Hills, and hers to find a way to save her city – that provides most the conflict and drama of the story.

As for the film’s villains, they could be best described as personifications of greed, violence, and entropy. In a way, they are the perfect 21st-Century villains. They are shadowy, faceless parasites, slowly sucking the life out of Mars, not unlike the evils Earth faces today: Climate change, terrorism, and the financial meltdown (with its arcane credit-default swaps and “securitization” of sub-prime mortgages). John Carter smartly, I think, leaves the villains as forces of nature (like the shark in Jaws), and focuses on the heroes, and how they face challenges that are bigger than any one person. This is a refreshing change from the revenge-motivated, I-can-kill-everything hero and the all-too-interesting villain so often found in recent action movies.

See John Carter in the theater. It is well worth the time and money.

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The studio released several trailers and clips for the movie. Below is my favorite. It was the first trailer released, and, ironically, I think it captures the film best. Especially nice is the use of Peter Gabriel’s cover of “My Body is a Cage.” If you are unfamiliar with the story, I won’t say any more – I don’t want to spoil anything. Just, watch (or watch again) this trailer after you’ve seen the movie. I think you’ll see what I mean.

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Happy Birthday Edgar!

Edar Allan Poe is one of my favorite writers. His use of first-person narration and lurid Gothic imagery gives him a unique voice. There’s nothing like reading “The Raven” on a cold, gray afternoon. Whenever I read Poe, the images in my mind’s eye possess almost no color. To use an analogy, I don’t see Poe’s stories as black and white films. Rather, I see them as color movies shot using a blue film stock. I’m not sure why – it’s just the picture that formed in my head when I first started reading Poe.

Detroit-born Roger Corman clearly visualized Poe’s work differently. Between 1959 and 1964, Corman made eight adaptations of Poe’s work (actually “The Haunted Palace” only takes its name from Poe – it’s actually based on H. P. Lovecraft’s The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but I’m willing it count it). These eight movies, sometimes called Corman’s Poe Cycle, were filmed in vivid color and often had few dark shadows.

While Corman’s bright palette is jarring for me, there’s something fun about his adaptations. Perhaps it’s Vincent Price chewing the scenery or perhaps it’s how he incorporated Poe’s “Hop-Frog” into “The Masque of the Red Death.”  Perhaps it’s that Corman hewed closely to Poe’s themes, if not his imagery.

Regardless, Poe’s birthday is a good excuse to watch one of Corman’s cult classics. And to whet your appetite here’s a trailer: From 1960, starring Vincent Price…”House of Usher”

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One of my Favorites: Casablanca

Casablanca (1943) is one of my favorite movies. It’s almost a cliché now, but it’s a brilliant film that to me never gets old. I could go on and on, but I will restrain myself to just two minutes of the film – the scene where Laszlo has Rick’s band play La Marseillaise to drown out the Germans singing. First, the direction is amazing. The camera focuses on all the major characters in a series of shot-countershots. Characters walk in and out of frame is a naturalistic way. This choreography is simply amazing.

While there are only three words of dialogue in this two-minute scene, it contains a lot of acting. As the camera focuses in on the characters, their expressions alone reveal so much. One person who was probably not acting is Madeleine LeBeau who played Yvonne, Rick’s jilted lover. LeBeau and her real-life husband, Marcel Dalio (Emil the croupier), escaped France in 1940, just ahead of the invading Germans. They traveled to Lisbon and eventually made it to America. I can’t help but think that the tear running down her face as she sang La Marseillaise and the passion in her cry of “Vive la France” were real.

Enjoy the scene!

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Happy Halloween!

Hello everyone. I’ve been working on a top-secret project that actually doesn’t have anything to do with creative writing. So I haven’t had much to write about. This morning, however, inspiration hit. I had my class do a five-minute free write and, to model the activity, I joined in. Below is what I came up with. I can’t take credit for the first sentence and the first sentence of the last paragraph. Those are from a “three-sentence story” I read years ago. I can’t remember the book it was from or who the author is; if anyone does, please let me know. Enjoy!

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I am the last person on earth. Years have passed since everything collapsed. At first, no one noticed that things were coming apart. But they were.
Now I sit in this crumbling house. I wish I could say that I share it with a squirrel or a bird, but even they are gone. It is overgrown with vines and trees and grass. I am now too old to do anything about it.

It must be around Halloween, but I can’t say for sure. However, I do know for certain winter is coming. The leaves changed from green to yellow, orange, and red. And then they turned brown and are now falling. I doubt I’ll make it through the coming cold and snow. So I sit composing some sort of last will and testament.

Wait, what was that? I think someone just knocked on the front door. Yes, yes someone – or something did. Ha! Maybe it’s some trick-or-treaters. I guess I’ll go and see.

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