Archive for the ‘On Books’ Category

Thelma Louise and Emma Bovary

Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, and Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary

There is a great depressing theme in 19th-century literature of woman who – thwarted in their efforts to achieve independence and agency – turn to suicide.

Lily Bart in House of Mirth dies from an (accidental?) overdose of a sleeping drug. Edna Pontellier in The Awakening drowns herself. Anna Karenina throws herself under a train. And Emma Bovary poisons herself with arsenic. There is no place for the lives they desire in the worlds they live, and so death becomes the only liberty they can choose.

This theme jumped up and slapped me in the face recently when for the first time since 1991, I watched Thelma & Louise, starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and directed by Ridley Scott.

The film concerns two women who plan a weekend getaway together. Thelma (played by Davis) wants to escape from her bullying lout of a husband and Louise (played by Sarandon) is looking for a break from her job as a diner waitress.  When a man Thelma meets at a bar tries to rape her in a parking lot, Louise shoots him dead and sets the movie in motion.

Thelma and Louise travel cross-country from their native Arkansas, simultaneously fleeing from the law following them in pursuit and toward a freedom that the film embodies in the American West. But society – or the machine of the plot – drives them to a choice between prison and death. Thelma and Louise choose death.

Thelma & Louise & Emma Bovary

There are a whole bunch of differences between Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Ridley Scott’s film (including artistic quality) but the characters and in particular the situation of the characters are similar, and it is with the similarities among the characters that I would like to start.

Geena Davis’ Thelma is a more obvious match for Emma Bovary than Sarandon’s Louise. Like Emma, Thelma is trapped in a marriage to an (at best) mildly successful buffoon in a provincial town that severely circumscribes her choices. Also like Emma Bovary, Thelma knows vaguely – and feels deeply – that something is wrong with her life, but isn’t able to articulate what the problem is and lacks the power to make effective changes. So Thelma, like Emma, falls into a transgressive form of rebellion for her time: highway banditry in contrast to Emma’s adultery.

Susan Sarandon’s Louise is a more subtle, and so to my lights, more moving character. She is in her middle-late thirties and seems to feel the possibilities of her life shrinking around her. Scott frequently films Sarandon staring in the mirror and pushing at her just-beginning to age face – often surrounded by younger women. She works in a diner. Her apartment is scrupulously neat and empty. We learn that she was a victim of rape in Texas years before. Her life is circumscribed it seems by age, and loneliness, and trauma. Louise shows hints of complexity in Scott’s often too simple world.

Thelma & Louise is Full of Ridiculous Male Stereotypes … Oh, Wait a Minute

It is a fool’s errand for a man to say a movie (or a book or anything) is or isn’t a feminist movie (or book or anything) – because he can never be right – so I’m not going to even try – but I will say that Thelma & Louise provides a great deal of rich material for people brave enough to wade into the discussion.

Part of the material is the panorama of male villains who seem over-the-top until you start thinking about them, and then they start to look pretty typical. So we have the insulting, demeaning, and emotionally abusive husband of Thelma.  We have the self-entitled rapist who thinks Thelma owes him sex because he wants it. We have the charismatic stud who knows how to tickle Thelma’s nether regions, then steals her money without a qualm (Brad Pitt). And we have the cool boyfriend – Louise’s in this case – who just isn’t quite ready to commit, but who is just nice enough to seriously mess with a woman’s head (Michael Madsen).

Another part of the material is Davis and Sarandon’s appropriation of typically male film tropes. You don’t have to look very hard to see Thelma & Louise as a remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (even the titles echo) or, for that matter, dozens of other films about men. You have the deep but platonic friendship. The cheerful flouting of the law in pursuit of their own best desires. Sexual liberty. The possession and expert use of fire arms combined with a reluctance to commit actual acts of violence. The freedom of the vast American west.

The comparison breaks down when it comes to motivation. Newman and Redford choose their outlaw status from what seems to be pure joie de vivre. Thelma and Louise are driven to it by an act of (wholly justifiable in my mind) revenge. Louise shoots the man who assaults Thelma – but only after she has safely rescued Thelma from him.

If Thelma & Louise were a typical revenge film, and Louise were a man, the movie would have been devoted to the male Louise tracking down the rapist and brutally killing him in a world where police do not exist. But since Louise is a woman, and Thelma and Louise take the tools of men into their own hands, the police track them down and put half a battalion of firepower on their asses instead. Particular, ain’t it?

Thelma & Louise: Deeply Subversive or Crassly Exploitative?

What prevents Thelma & Louise from being a great movie – as opposed to the moderately good to pretty good film that we have – is Ridley Scott’s weakness for empty, pretty spectacle and his heavy-handedness.

There is a glossy glamour in his shots that screams out “Hollywood!” instead of serving the story. Many times, Thelma and Louise seem as driven by the film’s desire to deliver a popular action movie as they are by the circumstances of their lives and society. You would be hard pressed to call any of Scott’s characterizations subtle (except for some of the details in Sarandon’s performance previously noted) and there is no ambiguity.

The problems are nicely contained in a scene near the end of the film, in which Thelma and Louise confront a trucker who has been making crude comments at them throughout the movie. The man is crass, sexist, and deeply stupid. When he refuses to apologize, Thelma and Louse shoot his truck which erupts in an enormous fireball while the man yells “Bitches from hell!” It’s sorta satisfying and sorta fun, I admit. But it also feels cheap.

As does the ending, when Thelma and Louise drive their convertible over the edge of the Grand Canyon and the shot freezes in mid-air, the frame brightens to white, and we’re treated to a montage of happy Thelma and Louises from earlier in the film instead of the wreckage of blood, bone, and metal which is their real end.

There is a lot in Thelma & Louise that can leave you unsettled and unhappy if you look for it. But when Scott has to choose between selling unsettled and unhappy – or selling KA-BOOM! Wow! Ha ha ha! – well, he chooses the ka-boom.

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Attendant #43

I thought you
Felt trapped in the
Prison of your face,
Oppressed by your
Relentless beauty,
Harassed by your
Ruthless allure;

But I noticed you always
Sought the attention of
Most consequence –
Even such drab scraps
You might get from me:
I am your attendant #43.

.

© 2014 Peter Galen Massey

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to hack or not to hack

To hack or not to hack, that is the question.

An article in the New York Times last month describes several start-up companies whose goals are “to do for books what Netflix did for movies and Spotify for music.”

As an incentive for authors and publishers to add their work to these online collections, the companies promise to deliver insights into reader behavior: how many finished the books or skipped to the end, which passages readers lingered over and which they skimmed, and so on.

The article goes on to question the viability of the business model, and quotes one writer who is both interested in seeing this reader data and worried that it might reduce her creativity or her willingness to take risks.

All in all, “E-Books are Reading You” was a good article. Thoroughly reported. Balanced in its considerations. And temperate.

This is more than I can say for the Letters to the Editors selected by the Times to publish in response to the article, under the headline “Writers Desperately Seeking Readers,” which are as neat a collection of vanity, arrogance, contempt, elitism, and reductionist thinking as you are likely to find on a mere one-eighth of a standard broadsheet.

From this description, you might think I didn’t like these letters. But I did. Because they encapsulate so many of things I find wrong with writers.

I’m not going to out the authors of these letters – they are quite easily found through Google with the information I’ve provided anyhow – I’ll simply provide my response to what they wrote. To wit:

Art is a supremely individual expression.

Yes, I agree with that.

It doesn’t ask permission; it doesn’t take an exit poll and adjust accordingly.

It doesn’t? You mean no artist has ever taken an audience’s reaction into account? How about the opinions of mentors, other artists, editors, agents, critics, friends, spouses, or lovers? Where does acting on feedback end and pandering begin? Or does the definition depend on the status of who is giving the feedback?

Artists say what they know … they have no choice in the matter.

Yes, I agree with that too. Unfortunately.

And it’s our privilege to be brought into their world.

Our privilege? I would like to decide for myself whether entering that world is a “privilege”. Many times it is. However, from my experience, when someone declares that my attention to their work is a “privilege” this is often a sign that it ain’t. In any case, I think an audience’s attention to a work of art is also a “privilege” that is earned by the artist, rather than something that is his or her natural right. Or something to be demanded in a fantasy-fascist world where the artist, self-proclaimed or otherwise, rules as a cult-of-personality dictator.

Once artists start asking how many “likes” they’ve garnered, or listening to customer-satisfaction surveys to increase their sales, they’re no longer making art: they’re moving product.

Okay, here we go. Did Shakespeare move “product”? Because we have a fair amount of evidence that he did, from his output and popularity, to his becoming one of the owners of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to the records of his investments and property purchases including New Place in Stratford. Will didn’t start rich. But he ended up that way. And he did so while becoming, as it turns out, the immortal genius of literature in English.

Then we have the famous Robert Greene, who seems – with some scholarly doubt, but not too much — to be referring to Shakespeare in his comment about “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers … [who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.”

I have two points to make here. The first is that earning money from art, and earning it through popular success, is in no way incompatible with the highest artistic achievement; and the examples of this are so numerous and so decisive you would think there would be no need to have the discussion. Dickens. Bob Dylan. Heck, even Nabokov. I bet you can name plenty of your own. All these guys made serious coin. But not one of them ever once considered the satisfaction of their “customers”? (Well, I’ll give you Nabokov.) No real artist ever once bent to a requirement of a pope with gold or a publisher who could pay or to what people or a patron seemed to like? They never once took a commission? Really? Hum.

The second point is that a great number of the attitudes I’m spanking the hell out of here, possibly to my peril, are not really about art. They are about the vanity of people who want to be seen as artists and who jealously guard the elevated social status that perception confers.

This is where Greene comes in to play. Greene was a university-educated playwright who clearly believed Shakespeare was infringing on his turf. Where is Greene’s work now? Or consider where the reputation of Shakespeare’s two long “art” poems sit compared to his plays.

Another way to say it is that the intention to create art is no guarantee of artistic success just as the intention to please an audience is no guarantee of artistic failure. And these are just two of the many complex factors, complexly interacting, that actually drive the act of creation.

Writers such as these could be described as ‘tech savvy’ or known by an adjective that predates the digital age: hacks.

A variation on the theme here, but a couple points. First is the idea that a “hack” appears to be someone who acts on aggregate feedback from a large audience. The author of this letter describes himself as an editor. I assume that if a writer listens to his editorial feedback, he does not think this makes the writer a hack. But if so, I would like to know the reasons why acting on his advice is not pandering too.

Hovering around the fringes of these letters are two relevant ideas. The first is the genre fiction / literary fiction divide, in which the former is characterized by the low-quality pursuit of money and the latter by the high-quality pursuit of art. The second is that the categories are absolute. You are either Fifty Shades of Grey or you are The Waves; you are either a hack or you are not; you either listen to everybody or you listen to nobody but your own genius muse.

But there is actually a wide spectrum between these two poles and different artists, and different works by the same artist, fall all over the place between them. Some work that is perceived to pursue popularity and profit turns out to be art (Shakespeare again). Some work that is perceived to be art sinks into rightful oblivion. Some art is art and some crap is crap. Then there is a whole lot of mediocrity muddling around in the middle. It’s all incredibly hard to categorize, and the best we can do is begin with individual reactions to individual works.

I’d like to think that valuing integrity over popularity is fundamental to … writing books.

Ah, the idealism of youth (the writer identifies himself as 19). Actually, he seems like a nice fellow and I have no desire to criticize him. But question. Are integrity and popularity mutually exclusive?

Because by now, you know I don’t think they are and that most books are built, in part, from some combination of integrity and popularity: or if you will, the amount of work the reader performs to approach the author versus the amount of work the author performs to approach the reader. Also, popularity we can measure in all sorts of ways. How do we measure integrity?

Let’s keep going. Is integrity founded on intention or results? Let’s say for example – I don’t know this, but give it to me as a “for instance” – that E.L. James intended to write a good / high quality / literary book but her talent wasn’t up to the task of producing anything other than Fifty Shades of Grey. Does that mean the novel has integrity?

If Joyce wrote Ulysses in cynical bad faith, does that mean we should reject the book? And if Jonathan Livingston Seagull was written with total sincerity – which would make it even scarier in my opinion, but anyhow – does that mean we should embrace it?

In the end, I suppose I’m saying that it is the work that matters. The work is certainly much easier to access compared to the artist’s good or bad faith, in any case.

Well, that about wraps it up. Hope you have a good day. Now I have to get back to reading Count Fabio and the Sexy Pirate Queens on my Kindle. I’m skipping the dull parts.

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desolation of smaug hobbit peter jacksonThe only element of any real interest in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the question “What went wrong?” and even that is a pretty dull question because the answer is clear enough: the money people wrapped their fingers around the neck of this movie and strangled it to death.

By saying this, I am not trying to absolve Jackson of his responsibility. He signed the contract, cashed the check, and put his name on the film.

But Jackson was faced with formidable challenges in making Smaug. The biggest challenge was how to manage the legacy brand that he had created through Lord of the Rings, in which the safest route to profit was to deliver basically the same goods in basically the same package, even if those goods had grown a bit stale (ie, the preferred approach of the money people).

Jackson also had to keep his eye on the huge non-English-speaking and/or non-Western audiences for The Desolation of Smaug, since spectacle translates more easily than dialogue, and since special effects are less likely to cause cultural offense than stories or characters.

Jackson decided (or was asked) to pad out a book that would have potentially made one good film into three movies, with a total running time pushing eight hours. And while we’re at it, let’s note Smaug is the middle of the three films, with no natural beginning or end to help give shape to the story.

But with all that said, I’m surprised by how badly Jackson flubbed Smaug considering how well he managed the earlier Lord of the Rings films, in which he balanced character with action, drove the story through both internal and external conflicts, and gave shape to the overall plot.

The Desolation of Smaug is a plodding, tedious, frantic mess. I think the main culprit is the decision to expand the book’s story rather than edit it down. All the padding – particularly filming events that occur off the page in the book – destroys whatever dynamic tension the story arc in the Desolation of Smaug might have achieved and gives us a jumbled collection of scenes instead.

These scenes are not driven by situation, since the situations in Smaug are so many and so various that the connections among them quickly become lost; and these scenes are certainly not driven by character or emotion, which means the talents of at least two very good actors – Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Ian McKellan as Gandalf – go entirely to waste, with what moments of real human feeling they sometimes find soon swept away in the general noise and hubbub.

The result is a whole-movie version of what happens when actors find themselves stuck in a play that really doesn’t work. They fall back on acting bigger, louder, faster to cover up a lack of sense.

In the case of Smaug, this bigger-louder-faster extends to the action sequences and special effects, which are fine as far as they go, but they turn the film into just a roller-coaster ride: viscerally thrilling at times but empty of meaning.

I don’t have a problem with entertainment being entertainment, and businesses working to cash in big by selling to big audiences, but films don’t have to be as desultory as The Hobbit is to earn money for their investors. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers demonstrated that last year. Peter Jackson proved it with his Lord of the Rings movies. Entertainment can excel as high craft, without aspiring to or needing to achieve the goals of art. Craft is a worthy goal. Unfortunately, Smaug isn’t craft. It’s crap.

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Back in the summer, I posted a photo of the view out my bedroom window. Another season, another photo. Same tree!

photo

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cropped-pgm-photo-02.jpgOn Thursday, the journal Science published a study (Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind) that found people scored better on tests measuring empathy, social perceptiveness, and emotional intelligence after they had read literary fiction than after they had read popular fiction or rigorous non-fiction.

This result cheered members of the literary community and confirmed an idea that I’ve long argued using anecdotal evidence, which is one of the most important functions of literature is to strengthen emotional intelligence.

This function also explains why literature is the only art included in core educational curriculums. The ability to accurately read the feelings of other people is perhaps the most essential skill for living in social groups, and living in well functioning social groups is one of our key adaptations as a species.

So all this is good news — which I greeted with considerable apprehension and unease.

Part of my unease comes from having observed that people who read literature don’t go about the business of becoming better people as often as they go about the business of bragging how they are better people because they read literature.

The Science study is likely to encourage the bragging folks to keep bragging about their exceptionalism; and exceptionalism is fundamentally at odds with the work of empathy, because exceptionalism encourages you to see yourself as different from others while empathy encourages you to see yourself as the same.

The Science study is also likely to reinforce certain class divisions that run right through the middle of literary reading, in which appreciation for literature is used to signal your membership in a high economic status group (ie, rich people read Shakespeare) or in a high social status group (ie, Bohemians read difficult or experimental fiction).

The use of literature as a signal of status is particularly pernicious because it actively works against the whole purpose of reading books, which is … reading books.

Instead, the status-signal readers are interested in reading “classes” of books. They read “literary” fiction not “genre” fiction or “popular” fiction, and so they look for books that conform in obvious and expected ways to these classes, in order to embrace them or reject them — even before they read them (if they ever read them).

In this world, “literary” is a synonym for “quality” and “genre” a synonym for “trash”. The problem with this is that a great deal of tedious, uninspired, self-important, plodding work is praised and a great deal of inspired, insightful, subversive work is ignored.

Now telling the difference between the two can be fiendishly difficult, especially because a truly original book is often indistinguishable from a hot mess on first encounter.

But it is the encounter that is essential: the active, engaged conversation between book and reader.

If the results of the Science study encourage more of this, all to the good. If the study just encourages more sniffing at cocktails parties, then the world will roll on much the same as before.

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UntitledLess than a week after it was released, Grand Theft Auto 5 has earned more than $1 billion in sales and reignited the debate about its rampant violence. The news coverage of the game’s more appalling details strikes me — a person whose reaction to the typical video game controller is confusion and boredom — as disturbing.

But my bigger question is this: What makes the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 different from the violence in other works of the imagination?

For example, Breaking Bad is a cultural phenomenon which has millions of Americans rooting for a man who cooks meth, manipulates his friends and family, kills adults as well as a child, and is in possession of a machine gun which is likely to figure in the show’s finale.

Macbeth is a monument of English literature which draws audiences of refinement and taste to watch the slaughter of kings, friends, innocent women and children, and soldiers while somehow persuading them to suspend judgment of the man who is the agent of all this slaughter.

I suppose the great difference among these works, if you can establish the difference, is that Grand Theft Auto 5 celebrates violence for the purposes of entertainment, while Breaking Bad and Macbeth explore the nature of violence to demonstrate its consequences.

The point of the video game is to be a criminal and win, or at least escape any consequences for your bad behavior. Macbeth, of course, doesn’t escape consequences in the Scottish play. And we are guessing that Walter White, who already exists in a self-created hell, is likely to suffer more before the show finishes at the end of the month.

But I’m not entirely persuaded by this argument I’ve just made. Part of my doubt is that I’m not sure you can demonstrate that the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 is of a different kind than Shakespeare’s.

Defenders of the game claim that it is a satire, which would turn the game into social commentary, although social commentary on the level of Brett Ellis’ American Psycho perhaps.

At this point, then, we are required to decide if Grand Theft Auto 5 is a satire done in good faith (ie, “we’re serious about our message”) or bad faith (ie, “we’re pornographers looking to protect our revenue”). And making that judgment is about as slippery a task as a critic could assign himself or herself without helpful emails provided by Edward Snowden.

I’m also not persuaded because of this question: Would Grand Theft Auto 5 or Breaking Bad or Macbeth be as popular as they are WITHOUT violence?

For example, would you really want to watch a play in which Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth talk about their frustrations with their lives and careers, while playing the polite host to King Duncan and making sure he likes the brie and that his room is comfortable? Not really.

The violence is an essential part of Macbeth‘s appeal: appealing, I think, to the dark impulses the human race all feels but which we as social animals need to suppress. These impulses also need an outlet however, and imaginary violence is a much better outlet than actual violence. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a more direct outlet than Macbeth, but this only makes it different in degree. Not different in kind.

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