26 February 2012

The 54th Academy Awards

The only Oscars ceremony that had a specific effect on my life happened thirty years ago, when I was six years old. It was the 54th Academy Awards, and On Golden Pond was our local hero, having mostly been filmed about ten miles away from my house. Everybody I knew seemed to have at least a little connection to it somehow, or claimed to. At six years old, I didn't really understand what any of it meant, but I knew how much the adults seemed to care, and how special the moment seemed to them. The movie immediately became an indelible part of my life.

If that had been it, I'd look back on the 1982 Oscar ceremony with the sort of gauzy nostalgia that fills the movie. But Ernest Thompson won an Oscar that night for adapting his play into a screenplay, and I've known Ernest now for an amount of years neither of us will admit to, and worked with him on numerous local projects. We have really different aesthetics, and I love that — he's been at times the ideal teacher, editor, and director for me because he would never approach a story the way I do, and vice versa. He's intimidatingly smart and articulate, and so better than anybody I've ever met at steering me away from self-indulgent flourishes. (Ernest's commentary track on the anniversary edition DVD of On Golden Pond is a gem, and gives a good sense of his tell-it-like-it-is personality.)

Golden Pond is as close to a part of my DNA as a movie can be, and it's a film that is sacred to folks around here, because Squam Lake still looks quite a bit like it did in the movie, and plenty of people remember seeing Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Dabney Coleman around town.

I hadn't paid much attention to what the other nominees were that year until recently. If I remembered anything, it was that Chariots of Fire won for Best Picture and Ernest beat Harold Pinter for Best Adapted Screenplay (Pinter's adaptation of The French Lieutenant's Woman verges on genius, finding cinematic/dramatic ways to replicate the novel's very novelistic complexities of narrative and structure, making an "unfilmable book" into a generally interesting film. I'm glad Ernest won, though.) But though 1981 was hardly an annus miribilis for cinema, there was some interesting work released that year. Among the movies not getting major notice from the Academy, there was Fassbinder's Lola and Lili Marleen; Blow OutCoup de Torchon; Escape from New YorkThe Road Warrior; Mommie Dearest; Ms. 45My Dinner with André; Pennies from Heaven; Polyester; Scanners; Thief; Time Bandits; and a bunch of horror movies: American Werewolf in LondonThe Evil Dead, Friday the 13th pt. 2, Halloween 2The Howling, Wolfen, etc. (It was a good year for werewolves and slashers.)

The nominees for Best Picture were a fairly diverse lot: On Golden Pond, Chariots of Fire, Atlantic City, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Reds. People are saying this year is a particularly nostalgic one for the Academy, but look at that list — the only movie on there that takes place in the present in Golden Pond!* That tends to be how the Best Picture nominees go. It's not easy to find a set of Best Picture nominees where the majority are concerned with present-day realism. (I'm not saying there should be. But to be surprised that the Oscars favor nostalgic or historical films is to be surprised that the Oscars are the Oscars.)

I have great love for the great mess that is Reds, but it wasn't until I looked at the various Oscar nominees and winners that I realized it came out in the same year as Ragtime, another politically-charged film about the early 20th century. While Maureen Stapleton won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Emma Goldman in Reds, the character of Emma Goldman was cut out of the film of Ragtime (though a scene with her is available as an extra feature on the DVD). I hope in the coming weeks to revisit both films and write about them a bit here.

For now, though, I just wanted to note that 30 years have passed since On Golden Pond was at the top of the world. For me, that fact alone presents plenty to get nostalgic about.

*Update: As Patrick Murtha points out in the comments, my memory of Atlantic City (which I haven't seen in at least a decade) is faulty. Though I remember it as set in the past, it's set in my past, not the movie's past. So I was wrong. Golden Pond and Atlantic City are both set in their own present, but both are certainly concerned with the past and nostalgia, so my larger point remains.

20 February 2012

The Artist

I went to see The Artist yesterday, and since a friend this morning asked me some questions about it, I thought I'd take a moment here to record a few thoughts, and, more importantly, link to people who have more interesting things to say about it than I do.

It's a nice little movie.

I really have trouble coming up with more than that. Its clear frontrunner status in many categories going into the Oscars is a bit baffling, but not inexplicable. I can think of three major reasons it's such awards bait, and I'm sure there are more: 1.) it's different enough from other movies released last year to stand out from the crowd, but not different enough to alienate any crowd; 2.) if you know things about movies and you like movies, it makes you feel good for being you; 3.) Harvey Weinstein is distributing it, and Harvey Weinstein is one of the most successful people in the history of the motion picture industry at getting awards attention for his movies.

Also, it's a hard movie to hate. You could, like me, find it a pleasant enough entertainment that isn't a lot more, but it's perfectly inoffensive. Certainly, the hype and awards are annoying, especially if you step back and realize what a good year 2011 was for interesting films, but the hype and awards aren't the movie's fault. And there are good things in The Artist that can get obscured by frustration with the huge acclaim.

(What would I say are the best of the year? you ask. I haven't seen tons of 2011 films, so I wouldn't make an absolute Top 10 list, but here are 2011 features I got more from than The Artist, in alphabetical order:  Albert Nobbs; Attack the Block; Beginners; A Dangerous Method; Incendies; In Darkness; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Tree of LifeWe Need to Talk About KevinWeekend -- and I'm probably forgetting a few. Oh, Hugo, which I actually wasn't very enthusiastic about, but definitely enjoyed more than The Artist. And Le Havre, which, again, I had problems with, but think is certainly more substantial than The Artist in lots of different ways.)

Ultimately, I'm with Jon at Films Worth Watching, who said, "its uniqueness, as I see it, is the fact that it’s a silent film in a non-silent era." His entire post is well worth reading. (And a commenter notes that the movie's charms are more apparent on a second viewing. Perhaps.)

In contrast to that negative opinion, there is the thoughtful, extremely positive view of the film offered by James Clark at Wonders in the Dark.

Richard Brody at The New Yorker has an interesting post on the Oscar contenders, with some insightful comments on The Artist.

Glenn Kenny and Glenn Whipp have a pro-and-con discussion of the movie at MSN.

Chuck Tryon's post at The Chutry Experiment on "Navigating Nostalgia" has some useful thoughts when considering why it is that Oscar voters so love movies like The Artist and Hugo.

Finally, don't forget that Oscar voters are primarily old, white, and male.

18 February 2012

An Argument Against Hate Crimes Legislation

A frustratingly superficial article at The New Inquiry includes a link to a powerfully compelling letter from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, arguing against added hate crimes provisions in New York's proposed Gender Employment Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA). The letter also includes a very useful collection of links to reference material on hate crimes.

The entire letter is worth reading, but here's an excerpt to convince you to click over there:
As a nation, we lock up more people per capita than any other country in the world; one in one hundred adults are behind bars in the U.S. Our penalties are harsher and sentences longer than they are anywhere else on the planet, and hate crime laws with sentencing enhancements make them harsher and longer. By supporting longer periods of incarceration and putting a more threatening weapon in the state’s hands, this kind of legislation places an enormous amount of faith in our deeply flawed, transphobic, and racist criminal legal system. The application of this increased power and extended punishment is entirely at to the discretion of a system riddled with prejudice, institutional bias, economic motives, and corruption.

Trans people, people of color, and other marginalized groups are disproportionately incarcerated to an overwhelming degree. Trans and gender non-conforming people, particularly trans women of color, are regularly profiled and falsely arrested for doing nothing more than walking down the street. Almost 95% of the people locked up on Riker’s Island are black or Latin@. Many of us have been arrested ourselves or seen our friends, members, clients, colleagues, and lovers arrested, often when they themselves were the victims of a violent attack.

Once arrested, the degree of violence, abuse, humiliation, rape, and denial of needed medical care that our communities confront behind bars is truly shocking, and at times fatal.  In popular conception, hate crime laws were enacted to protect oppressed minorities against bigots who would seek to terrorize a community through violent crime: racist lynchings, gay-bashing, anti-Semitic violence, and so forth. Unfortunately, the popular imagining of the operation of hate crime laws does not bear out in reality. Hate crime laws do not distinguish between oppressed groups and groups with social and institutional power.

Continue reading

17 February 2012


Those who “choose to be gay” offer the disturbing possibility that attachments and affiliations can be chosen outside of state-sanctioned norms. That there are ways of living not envisioned in school textbooks. That how we choose to live matters just as much, if not more, than how we are supposed to live.

To choose what one “likes” over one’s “duty.”

12 February 2012

"Stories in the Key of Strange"

A not-strictly-new new piece of mine has just been posted at Weird Fiction Review, "Stories in the Key of Strange: A Collage of Encounters".

It's not-strictly-new because the collage is built from excerpts from things I've written over the past few years: blog posts, interviews, book reviews, Strange Horizons columns, stray essays. When the good folks at WFR asked me to contribute, I was up to my neck in grading student papers, etc., and though I wanted to contribute, I didn't have a spare brain cell to spend on something new. I thought putting together a collage would be an interesting exercise and easier than writing a new piece. It was definitely the former, but not the latter — I forgot how much I've written over the years... (Plenty of it is best left forgotten.)

Trying to organize it all in some vaguely coherent and resonant way was a fun challenge, although I'm too close to it all to know if it's at all effective. At the very least, it provides a kind of overview of the major themes to a lot of my nonfiction.

10 February 2012

First Six Issues of Amazing Stories Now Online

If you've ever wanted to encounter one of the primary origins of science fiction as we know it (for better or worse), now is your chance: the wonderful Pulp Magazines Project has put the first six issues (April-December 1926) of Amazing Stories online.

If you don't know why Amazing Stories is important to the history of science fiction, Wikipedia has a fairly good entry on it and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction also offers an overview. (And if you want to delve deeply into it, check out Mike Ashley and Robert A.W. Lowndes's Gernsback Days, Ashley's Time Machines, and Gary Westfahl's The Mechanics of Wonder and Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction.)

09 February 2012

Finely Aged Novelists

With every passing year, I get more interested in creative people who have done their most significant work late in life. I like late bloomers. They give me hope for humanity in some ways, because their stories are stories where the climax doesn't come in the first chapter.

Thus, I was interested in Rick Gekoski's post at The Guardian titled, "When novelists reach the end of their stories", which I hoped would explode the myth that novels are best left to the young.

Alas, it is youth-worshipping claptrap, built on a vastly incomplete set of examples used to prove an imaginary rule.

Luckily, though, the Guardian readers are not buying into the premise, and the comments section is full of great examples that disprove Gekoski's supposed rule, that question his basic premise, and that highlight the narrowness of his example set. Commenters have listed writers who have done great work throughout their careers, writers who have had long apprentice periods before doing great work, and writers who haven't even started work until the age of retirement.

One of the many problems with Gekoski's assumptions is that he blames everything on age and nothing on the myriad other elements of life. For instance, you can't write about creativity and age without noting the effect of a youth-worshipping culture and the hype machines that feed it. So much of the public perception of writers is not based on their actual texts, but the social texts constructed around them. Gekoski seems particularly hype-addled — look at the list he uses as the core of his argument: "Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift – that excellent generation of novelists whose best work is now, pretty clearly, behind them."

Dude, you need to read around more. Women have written stuff, too, you know. Some of them have written quite wonderful work, in fact, late in life — from Penelope Fitzgerald to Ursula Le Guin to Carol Emshwiller, just to name three who immediately come to mind. (Also, I'd argue Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is easily among his top work, and a perfection of some of the techiques he was working toward in some of his earliest books. You just have to read it right.)

There are other factors that affect novelists in age — consider Faulkner, whose best work was obviously done when he was in his 30s. He wasn't particularly well known, and he was a chronic alcoholic. By the time he was broadly famous, his best work was well behind him and his body was destroyed by booze. (Tom Dardis's The Thirsty Muse does a good job of showing how well alcohol eventually destroys creativity.)

For some writers, age brings change to their style and interests, and perception of their early work as "great" and their later work as something less than great may have as much to do with our early perception of the writer as it does the actual texts. J.M. Coetzee is a great example. His novels Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K are masterworks, absolutely (published when he was in his early 40s), but so is Disgrace, published in his late 50s, and the work he's published since becoming a bestseller and a Nobel laureate is a fascinating exploration of self-perception, fame, language, age, memory etc. — work he probably couldn't have even conceived before gaining the experience of age and of his own particular circumstances in life. The work since Disgrace is not likely ever to be as popular or revered as the earlier novels because it isn't as generally accessible, but in that sense Coetzee is following in the footsteps of one of the his greatest influences, Samuel Beckett, whose late work explored the limits of language, compressing it to diaphanous beauty — a project quite different from the early work, and especially the work that made him famous, but nonetheless full of genius and power, indispensible. (True, Beckett's later concerns made novel-writing an impossible paradox; the last work he wrote that could be called a novel is How It Is from 1961, so he fits into Gekoski's "rule", but in a similar way to Thomas Hardy, who stopped writing novels and turned to poetry.) Or consider David Markson, who did all sorts of writing throughout his life, but who really discovered his own form and subject matter after his 50th birthday.

Novelists have published brilliant work at all different ages, including well into the supposedly twilight years. If we were to somehow create a universal survey of when people published novels, it would probably graph as a bell curve with the 30s and 40s as the most productive decades of life — there are all sorts of reasons for those being most people's most productive years in many fields. But to extrapolate a rule from it, and to think such extrapolation produces valuable and insightful data, seems to me folly. Genius, especially, pops up unpredictably. Literary culture would be much poorer without writers of all different ages.

06 February 2012

American Empire, Writing

At The Kenyon Review website, Hilary Plum has been doing some excellent blogging about questions of empire, writing, canonicity, etc. I left a comment on one post that was mostly just me giving a short version of my canonical nationalism schtick, not because I thought the post was bad, but because the article Plum used as a basis for her thoughts annoyed me. (I wish I had made my gratitude for her own thinking clearer, but I was in a hurry, and it's internet, so...)

Most recently, she wrote a post titled "Writing American Empire" that collects a nice range of ideas about U.S. novelists and the lands the U.S. has been occupying, invading, bombing, etc. recently. Trying to summarize the different points of view would likely distort them, so I'll just exhort you to head over to the KR blog to see what it's all about. If you've ever felt either excited or queasy about the phrase "cultural appropriation", this is a discussion you should read.

Nairobi Heat by Mukoma wa Ngugi

I read Mukoma wa Ngugi's Nairobi Heat (part of Melville House's International Crime series) a few weeks ago, but haven't had the time to write much about it, so what I say here is likely to be more general than it would have been before. Though I think the novel has some significant flaws, those flaws are mitigated, for me at least, by a number of real strengths, and in the weeks since finishing it, moments from the novel have scratched through my thoughts and memory. For that reason, I think it's a book well worth reading.

First, to get unpleasantness out of the way, here's what I see as the novel's flaws: Events often feel like they exist for the sake of the plot's convenience and not for any reason organic to the narrative; some moments that should evoke an emotional connection from readers are not set up in a dramatic way that would allow such emotion to come to the surface and are instead sped through (a particular fault in the romantic relationship that propels some of the major events of the second half of the book); some of the characters are little more than hardboiled detective novel clichés in their general outline, if not their particulars.

However, I would not write about a small press publication of a writer's first novel if I didn't think its virtues were greater than its flaws, and it is the virtues I think worth spending time with here.