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Literary Novels

Do you want to write a Literary Novel but don’t know how to start? Fear not!

Follow these 11 easy steps and you too can write a masterpiece of fiction. Soon, you will enjoy critical praise, fawning audiences, fancy cocktail parties, cushy academic appointments, prestigious fellowships, and modest sales. Does that sound good? Then let’s get it going!

Step 1 – Make your Literary Novel Serious

It’s the rare comic novel that joins the pantheon of literature. Comedy works in your favor if you excel at tragedy too (Shakespeare), if it is suffused with deep undercurrents of sadness (Chekhov), or if it comes with dazzling social insights (Austen). Otherwise, you are condemned to lightweight status no matter how blinding your brilliance.

Step 2 – Make your Literary Novel Sad

A corollary to Step 1. No one who is happy is a serious person. Happiness indicates you are entirely lacking in the basic insight necessary to be sad or that you have been hoodwinked by capitalism, the church, the NFL, Cosmo magazine, the makers of antidepressant medication, or the Republican party.

Step 3 – Make your Literary Novel characters Introverts

Extroverts don’t sit in rooms by themselves reading about other people’s lives. They are out in the world living their own lives. Always make your Literary Novel about your audience. Your audience is introverts.

Step 4 – Make your Literary Novel characters Introspective

A corollary to Step 3. Being an introvert doesn’t do you much good unless you are living your interior life more deeply, more consciously, and more fiercely than everyone else is living theirs. Passionate introspection and self-conscious brooding are to introverts what sky-diving and tech start-ups are to extroverts: high-status ways of demonstrating you are more successful than your peers.

Step 5 – Make your Literary Novel characters Hyper-articulate

A corollary to Steps 3 and 4. It doesn’t do you much good to live a passionate interior life if you can’t get the damn thing out of your head and into the world prancing around impressing people. So make your characters impossibly articulate especially in circumstances that should render them speechless, such as tumbling inside a fatal avalanche or porking the hottie of their dreams.

Step 6 – Make your Literary Novel Big

This is especially important if you are a male writer. Size definitely DOES matter to the male literary novelist and the bigger the better. You don’t want to be dangling some elegant slender volume praised for its jewel-like perfections when you are standing next to Jonathan Franzen, do you?

If you are a woman, you have it easier. You can say exactly what you want to say, in exactly the number of words you need to say it – and no more – and trust the intelligence and good taste of your readers to recognize your qualities. You should also trust you will hear a lot of sniffing about lady writers.

Step 7 – Make your Literary Novel Boring

Never make the mistake of entertaining the reader. You might accidentally become a popular success and popular success is for hacks. (Just ask Shakespeare or Twain or Fitzgerald or Nabokov or … well you get the point.)

The easiest way to make your Literary Novel boring is to assume that every passing thought you have is a rare gift to the world that must be shared. If you’ve ever used social media, this should be simple enough. Another easy way to bore the reader is to avoid plot. Be sure to let people know your book is deliberately boring by giving interviews in which you talk about subverting reader expectations or offering a stinging critique of the zombie-producing distractions of a debased all-for-profit culture.

Step 8 – Use Big Words in your Literary Novel

Hey, we coughed up forty bucks for the hardcover version of your frickin’ doorstop. We want our money’s worth. That means big words and lots of them. Even if they don’t quite work in the sentence.

Step 9 – Use Obscure References in your Literary Novel

A corollary to Step 8. One of the most important reasons people read Literary Novels is to look and feel smarter than people who don’t. Obscure references are essential to this process. So make sure you put in plenty. I mean, you do want to be the next Sirin right? (Did you get my reference? You did? Welcome to the club! You didn’t? Ha ha!)

Step 10 – Criticize Society in your Literary Novel

You should always criticize society in your Literary Novel as long as you are criticizing its insidious lack of liberal progress. Never criticize society for being too progressive. That is not literature!

Express outrage no one has fixed the problems you identify. Imply every problem would magically disappear if it weren’t for the malignant, soul-deadening, tyrannical machinations of the power elite. Do not make the mistake of offering solutions to the problems you see. Literary Novels are not in the solutions business.

Step 11 – Make your Literary Novel Difficult

This is the most important step of all. Your Literary Novel must be difficult to read. Remember, a truly original work of art is indistinguishable from a hot mess to its first audience. Further, no one is going to spend the time carefully reading an interminable and terminally boring new Literary Novel to figure out if it is a hot mess. They are going to play it safe and praise the book instead. This works great for you unless you really are a genius in which case, honey I’m sorry to tell you, you’re screwed.

That’s it! I look forward to your Literary Novel appearing in The New Yorker ten years from now. I did mention these bastards take a long time to write, and cause you unbearable suffering while you write them, didn’t I?

 

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Selma MovieFor a movie as universally praised – and as well deserving of that praise – as Selma, the film is getting curiously little positive attention lately.

Despite examining the life of arguably the most important American of the 20th century (Martin Luther King Jr.) and one of the major events in that century (Civil Rights), the discussion of U.S. history Selma has provoked is dominated by questions of the film’s representation of Lyndon B. Johnson, the president during the Selma marches.

And despite being better written, acted, and directed than the vast majority of films Hollywood produces, including the “issue” films through which the industry loves to celebrate itself, Selma was largely snubbed by the Oscars.

The question is Why? Having considered carefully, I’ve come up with the answer. Because director Ava DuVernay didn’t make the white guy the hero.

Now this sounds like the kind of provocation on which bloggers depend, but it happens to be my true opinion. And highly defensible. Here’s why.

Selma the Movie Versus History

The first thing to know about any work of art that dramatizes historical people and events is that when the needs of the dramatist conflict with the truth of the historian, the truth of the historian always loses.

This is the nature of storytelling, and we would all be better off if more storytellers would acknowledge this fact up front and more historians would stop bitching about storytellers failing to do their jobs for them, and instead embrace the opportunity to talk about history that movies like Selma offer.

The right questions we should ask film-makers like Ms. DuVernay are What did you change? and Why did you change it?

These are the questions DuVernay answered in a January 5 Rolling Stone interview. She reduced Johnson’s role in Selma because she was “interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma” and because she wanted to portray Lyndon Johnson as a “reluctant hero”.

That is what she achieved. Watching the movie, and reviewing the historical arguments swirling around it, the worst you could say about DuVernay’s LBJ in regards to the Voting Rights Act is that he saw it as somewhat less of a priority than the historical LBJ. But both Johnsons worked with Dr. King, both Johnsons cared about the bill, and both worked to get it passed.

You wouldn’t know this from the reaction of Joseph Califano, a top Johnson aid from 1965 to 1969, who acts as if DuVernay did a full-on Shakespearean Richard III hatchet job on Johnson; who claims Selma was all Johnson’s idea and implies LBJ cared more passionately about voting rights than the people of the Civil Rights movement; and whose self-righteous appeal to the “facts” of history don’t quite fit the facts he quotes (see the New Yorker article).

Califano and other critics are on much more solid ground when they complain that the movie portrays Johnson as behind the FBI secretly taping Dr. King’s extra-marital affairs. If they want to ding DuVernay for that, have at her. While I think the spying is important to include in Selma, the way DuVernay included it in the film is clunky and her defense of the inclusion, clunkier.

But in all the outrage over the horrendous slander against Lyndon Johnson people like Califano express, it would be nice if they paused to also express some outrage at the government spying on one of its own citizens to stop him from claiming rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Or perhaps even a little outrage over the fact that men in the pay of government routinely beat the living sh*t out of people – beat these people with impunity and without consequence – as they tried to claim the same rights. If the truth about LBJ in 1965 is worth getting upset over, shouldn’t the truth about everyone else in 1965 still matter too?

Selma the Movie, What Sells Tickets, and The Great Oscar Snub

The answer is clearly “no” or the experience of the men and women of the Civil Rights movement would be part of the conversation too. To understand the reason why it’s not, the best place to go is Hollywood.

Hollywood is even more attuned to what people want than governments, because while governments can make you give them money whether you like it or not, Hollywood has to convince you to open your wallet through pure selling.

Mostly what Hollywood sells are fantasies of sex, money, love, power, and freedom from social restraint. Occasionally, they sell stories about inspiration, uplift, and redemption. And occasionally within this subset of inspiration, the stories are about real people and real events.

But there are rules that must be followed. Some of these rules are that such movies should be simplistic, over-obvious, and end in triumph. An iron-clad rule is that they must make the audience (that is “white people”) comfortable by assuring them they are right-thinking, right-acting human beings firmly on the right side of history.

Call this the Dances with Wolves model or if you like, the “white savior” model, which is what DuVernay told Rolling Stone she wanted to avoid making Selma. And boy she sure did.

Her Selma gets the formula half right. The movie clearly identifies the “bad” white people like Alabama Governor George Wallace and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark who we can all congratulate ourselves for despising. But Selma then fails to give us (again “us” means “white people”) the counter-balance of the unambiguous white hero whose actions are absolutely essential to achieving the ending’s triumph and with whom we (“white people” still) can identify.

DuVernay takes away LBJ as simple hero and then does more. She mixes into her Lyndon Johnson qualities that fall between those of the obvious hero and those of the obvious villain – those inaccuracies previously discussed. She has King say all those who do nothing while innocent people are killed share complicity in those killings. And she closes the movie with Common and John Legend singing a song (“Glory”) that explicitly connects Selma to Ferguson, which when you compare the news footage of the two events look, ah, kinda similar.

The result? A whole lot of white people going frickin’ bat sh*t because Selma suggests that maybe they aren’t quite as right-thinking and right-acting as they’d like to believe.

This seems to me to be the heart of the matter. The objections to the historical inaccuracies in Selma look strangely out of proportion to the inaccuracies themselves until we see them as damaging the image of LBJ as “white savior” and so damaging the self-esteem of people like Califano who want to identify with him as such. What else would explain Califano over-playing Johnson’s importance to voting rights, after bitterly complaining Selma under-plays it, except that Califano is reflexively defending his self image?

This also explains the strange pattern of Oscar snubs the academy has bestowed on Selma. No person associated with Selma was nominated. Many of these nominations went to other less accomplished, though perfectly serviceable “serious” films like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Only Selma the movie itself and the closing song were nominated. In other words, things.

Things the academy can claim as their own, celebrate, and congratulate themselves as right-thinking, right-acting people for celebrating.

That is what they sell, after all.

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shakespeare

Portraits of “Shakespeare” from Wikipedia

The greatest and most amusing — and most tedious – literary conspiracy theory bouncing around is the assertion that “Shakespeare” the genius dramatist was not actually the historical William Shakespeare but some other far more deserving (and often far more aristocratic) person.

The various theories against Shakespeare’s authorship are amusing because conspiracy fans insistent on them so stubbornly while arguing for versions of the “truth” that often require a greater suspension of disbelief than the generally accepted “Shakespeare” story. These theories are tedious because they entirely miss what is important about Will.

But to the entertainment first. There are a couple reasons why Shakespeare conspiracy theories are so persistent. The one good reason is that there are relatively few documented facts about the historical William Shakespeare’s life, and within these few strong facts that link him to the authorship of the plays. This lack of conclusive documentation offers a fertile opportunity for the paranoid at loose ends for an object on which to fix their obsessions; or academics in need of their next publishing topic; or the occasional aesthete who is offended by the idea that the brightest star in English literature was also a grubby businessman.

This fertile opportunity is supplemented by two dubious assumptions that the conspiracy fans like to promote as self-evident facts. The first is that it is impossible for a person to become an artist of any quality unless he or she has received a highly privileged education. The second is that it is impossible for an artist to write persuasively about persons or topics unless he or she has had direct experience with those persons and topics; which in Shakespeare’s particular case means kings, queens, and nobles for the persons and the dynamics and psychology of power within a monarchy for the topics.

The first assumption of the conspiracy fans is dubious because it is contradicted by life. We can find many examples of people with intelligence, talent, energy, and determination who thrived without an elite education or special privileges. Robert Zimmerman, a college dropout from Hibbing Minnesota whose family possessed no special distinction moves to New York City and within a few years explodes into the culture as Bob Dylan. By the logic of the conspiracy fans, such an artistic life should not be possible and Dylan’s works should actually be the secret production of Pete Seeger, son of a Harvard-trained musicologist and a concert violinist who enjoyed all sorts of advantages and opportunities. (I’m not trying to bust on Pete here, just saying.)

The direct experience assumption is even more problematic. First, it assumes that the characters of the nobility and the dynamics are monarchical power are fundamentally different from those of – for example – ordinary people competing for position in a theater company. And yet we often find Shakespeare’s nobles sympathetic and their problems familiar. If these nobles are a different breed than us, why would we understand or care about them? If they aren’t a different breed – and that is my assertion – then Shakespeare would not need to have been at court to write about them and we would not need to be nobles to care.

Even worse, the direct experience assumption denies that artists possess any real creativity. If artists can only depict what they know or have experienced personally, that makes them, at best, recording clerks in whom the power of imagination is largely irrelevant.

Also, if we apply this logic consistently, then we’d have to delegitimize enormous numbers of artistic works. What are we going to do with all those paintings of the crucifixion? Clearly, no painters were present at the death of Jesus. Did the real author of Macbeth – Shakespeare or otherwise – personally know a murderous king? Because if he or she didn’t, by the conspiracy fan’s logic, the play couldn’t have been written and shouldn’t exist. Unless Melville survived a whale attack, he couldn’t have composed Moby Dick. And so on. There are convenient ways to get around this problem, of course. The most convenient is to assert that direct experience is necessary for acts of artistic creation. Except when it’s not.

These two assumptions cause additional mischief. Since they are used to “prove” Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays attributed to him, they also push the conspiracy fans to identify university-educated playwrights such as Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, or various aristocrats such as the Earl of Oxford, as the real Shakespeare. This produces some of the most fun to be had with the conspiracies, because the explanations are considerably more fantastic and more unlikely than Shakespeare’s own dullish biography.

In the case of Christopher Marlowe, as an example, the problem is that Marlowe was killed in 1593 while Shakespeare continued to write plays for a good twenty years afterwards. How does that work? Did Marlowe leave a trunk-full of unfinished plays? That’s quite an incredible explosion of unexploited creativity. Why didn’t Marlowe publish the plays himself or make arrangements to do so? How did Shakespeare get a hold of them? Were they written in secret? If so, why? How come nobody else except Shakespeare knew about them? Or if other people did know, why did they not care Shakespeare was presenting the plays as his own?

Or take this possibility. Marlowe faked his own death (perhaps to avoid a heresy investigation), succeeded at faking his death, was never found out, continued to write plays, used Shakespeare as a front to present these play, was never discovered or exposed as the real author, and presumably died in anonymous peace sometime around the time Shakespeare retired without Marlowe reappearing at the last moment to claim credit before he joined the bleeding choir invisible.

Really? As a potential movie starring Tom Hiddleston, stuff like this sounds superb. As history, considering we are talking about private citizens and matters that do not touch the vital interests of a state, it’s pretty ridiculous. The problems with the conspiracies generally fall under the categories of motive and means: why would another writer pretend to be Shakespeare and how did he pull it off? By contrast, all we need to believe about Will was that he was a slightly unlikely, extraordinarily talented autodidact.

When it comes to Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare conspiracies, I fall back on that old stand-by: Occam’s Razor. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation for an occurrence should be preferred. In this case, the simplest explanation is that “Shakespeare” really was Shakespeare. And until such time as new reliable evidence appears, which demonstrates that what sounds pretty ridiculous is gosh-darn-it the truth, that is where I will settle.

These who enjoy canvassing the question may continue to do so with all liberty, of course. But after a little time I find the whole debate boring. And depressing. Because what really matters about “Shakespeare” is our experience of his work, which is so wonderful, so deep, so multi-various, so entertaining and consoling. Who Shakespeare was doesn’t really matter. It’s what Shakespeare created that matters. Listening to the people who don’t understand that is amusing, for a minute or two. Then it becomes tedious.

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Flight Behavior Barbara KingsolverBarbara Kingsolver is such a good writer that she can make you forget — or forgive — some pretty substantial problems in a novel. This is a good thing because Flight Behavior has several although it is still a book well worth reading.

Flight Behavior has a number of shortcomings, but these do not include its language or characters, which are solid, complex, persuasive, and satisfying.

The novel’s central character is Dellarobia Turnbow who like many Kingsolver characters is a woman with an intelligence, spirit, and sex drive too large for her circumstances. In Dellarobia’s case, these circumstances are a small Appalachian town, an ill-matched husband acquired through a high-school pregnancy, a small confining house with two young children, and subsistence farming on the land of her resentful in-laws.

As Flight Behavior opens, Dellarobia is set to destroy (and so escape) her marriage through a particularly reckless and desperate act of adultery. When she climbs up the wooded hills of her husband’s family’s land to meet her lover, she discovers the entire Monarch butterfly population of North America, which has settled for the winter in rural Tennessee rather than deep in Mexico, because of climate change. The vision of the butterflies turns Dellarobia around, literally and figuratively, and send her life in new and remarkable directions.

There is a great deal in Flight Behavior to enjoy and admire. Each of Kingsolver’s characters walk on to the page fully formed, convincing, and distinct: from Dellarobia’s husband Cub, to her best friend Dovey, to her family and the people in her church, to Dr. Ovid Byron, the lepidopterist who appears to study why the Monarchs have so radically changed the migration patterns hard-wired into their DNA. Kingsolver makes it easy to understand and empathize with her characters even when they aren’t necessarily likable. Her conversations are a pleasure to read. And she makes the emotional arc of Dellarobia’s story moving and real.

The problems in Flight Behavior come from its plot construction, which is a bit of a mess, and its “big themes” which are didactically over-emphasized to the extent that readers might feel the need to take notes in case there is a test at the end.

The plot problems begin with Dellarobia’s reaction to the butterflies, which she feels is some species of religious revelation, which causes confusion in Dellarobia and controversy in her church.  This is a fine and intriguing idea, and fair enough. The problem is that the religion angle fizzles out before we are a third of the way through Flight Behavior with no more explanation than Dellarobia and everyone just seemed to forget about it.

Another plot line that fizzles is Dellarobia’s romantic obsession with Ovid Byron that goes on for a tantalizingly long time before we discover it is the shaggiest of shaggy dog tales. Then for good measure, when we are in the home stretch, Kingsolver drops on us one of those shocking personal secrets that typically form the “big surprise” of 19th-century novels, only to have all the characters involved immediate disappear for the rest of the book, the surprise unexplored and unresolved. In a novel that clearly demonstrates its commitment to conventional plot architectures, these qualities can only be seen as flaws.

The biggest of Flight Behavior‘s big themes is global warming, which is not only disrupting the life cycles of the Monarch species but seemingly the weather of Dellarobia’s home as well, making the precarious economics of the Turnbow and neighboring farms more precarious still. Kingsolver clearly believes the globe is warming and human activity is a cause (as does the consensus of the scientific community and me too, by the by) but she pursues this theme through long conversations between Dellarobia and Ovid, which weaken the novel while having no impact what-so-ever on public opinion. The novel is weaker because Kingsolver’s management of the exposition is ham-handed and her talking points way too obvious. As for public opinion, climate-change deniers are thin on the ground among readers of literary fiction to begin with, and the few members of that choir who might be in need of a sermon on global warming are not going to be moved. Few things are less persuasive than a lecture. Particularly when your audience is captive and you had promised them a story not a seminar.

Kingsolver also has a reasonable amount to say about the conflicting world views, mutual misunderstanding, and reciprocal lack of respect between the religious, conservative, working-class (at best) residents of rural Tennessee and the wealthy, well-educated liberals who descend on Dellarobia’s home to study the butterflies, agitate to protect them, or use the Monarchs as an occasion to indulge their self-righteous narcissism. Like with her handling of climate change, the problem with this theme is that it is too often explored through explicit, long expository comments from Dellarobia. There’s nothing wrong with big ideas in novels, but big ideas in novels work best when they are implicit and handled with subtlety.

The good news is that there is so much good stuff going on in Flight Behavior, and Kingsolver’s talent is so mature and sturdy, that your pleasure will be only mildly diminished by the novel’s problems. And you’re likely to be impress by how well the book succeeds in spite of them.

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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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Sherlock Season 3 empty hearseI was looking forward to the US premiere Sunday night of the new season of Sherlock. So I’m sorry to say I thought “The Empty Hearse” came up short.

As I said in my Sunday post on Sherlock, what I particularly admired about Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ adaptation was the greater depth and feeling they gave to Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters and how well they crafted their plots based on Doyle’s stories. Both those strengths seemed to have abandoned them in “The Empty Hearse” however.

The largest issue at the beginning of Season 3 was how Watson — who believed Holmes had died at the end of Season 2 and intensely grieved for him — would react to Holmes’ reappearance. This could have been a fearful reckoning, but instead Moffat and Gatiss’ play it for yucks and not just once, but again and again; and while the jokes were funny, they were also decidedly beside the point and began to get old as the episode ticked down to its conclusion.

The story also had problems. In the first two seasons, Moffat and Gatiss showed themselves to be masters at creating intricate, compelling mysteries that Holmes satisfyingly untangles while at the same time deepening the conflicts and relationships among their characters.

In “The Empty Hearse,” the terrorist plot is more perfunctory than intriguing; its solution hinges on resolving a single — and not very complicated — mystery; the bomb-diffusing climax is played for more laughs; and the story itself seems unsure of who the bomber is and why he is bomber-ing.

“The Empty Hearse” also doesn’t explain how Holmes faked his death at the end of Season 2. Instead, it offers three speculations, two thrilling and possible, one fake and hilarious (though cruel to Watson if you think about it), none confirmed. It seems as if the last explanation is the truth, but I have my doubts whether we are meant to believe it. The scene feels a bit too coy and a bit too cute to give me confidence. (Maybe I’m wrong.) I actually don’t mind that Moffat and Gatiss leave me in some uncertainty. But in the general messiness of the episode, that feels more like an oversight than their intention.

The result is that “The Empty Hearse” delivers a grab-bag of scenes and sketches that often entertain, sometimes move (primarily on the strength of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performances), but plain just don’t hang together. I’m hoping Moffat and Gatiss regain their stride this Sunday. We’ll see.

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sherlock winsIn preparation for the American premiere of the third season of PBS’ Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons and reading the original stories and novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. And I’ve come to a conclusion. Sherlock is superior to its source material.

Explaining why I think Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ adaptations are better than Conan Doyle’s work is relatively easy. Deciding how much credit Moffat and Gatiss get for their success was more more tricky. In the end, however, I think Doyle gets most of it.

What Arthur Conan Doyle Did Right

What Conan Doyle did superbly right in his stories and novels is create the vivid, particular character of Sherlock Holmes, who deserves his enduring fascination and appeal.

I think this fascination springs first from the fact that Sherlock Holmes is a fully-formed literary character who is at the same time largely two dimensional (a quality he shares with the other characters in Conan Doyle’s stories, unfortunately).

The reason this contradiction succeeds so brilliantly is that Sherlock Holmes seems to be suffering from an autism-spectrum disorder, which explains his intellectual powers, his deep knowledge of arcane subjects, his passionate focus on problems that interest him, his inability to read social cues or manage social interactions (though indifference might be the cause), and in particular, the but-faint glimmers we get of Holmes’ interior life.

With most of the characters in Sherlock Holmes, we cannot penetrate beyond their surfaces because they have no character beyond their surfaces. With Holmes, his impenetrability is part of his essence; we don’t understand him well because Holmes is indifferent to such questions himself; and perhaps the greatest mystery of all in the stories is the nature of Sherlock Holmes’ soul.

Conan Doyle gets full marks for investing Holmes with extraordinary powers of observation, analysis, reasoning, and deduction, and for creating compelling examples of these qualities in action.

Finally, he gets credit for filling his stories with intriguing hints: the loneliness of John Watson after his return from the Afghanistan wars; the suggestion that Mycroft Holmes occasionally “is the British government”; and of course the huge dramatic potential found in the character of Professor Moriarty.

What Conan Doyle Did Not Do At All

The problem is that Conan Doyle often does too little with these characters, and frankly too little with many of the stories in the Holmes canon; and I keep thinking the problems rise from either Conan Doyle’s lack of skill as a writer or his lack of interest in the stories themselves.

A Study in Scarlet is a good example. All the good things about Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are right there, already in place, right out of the gate: the character of Sherlock Holmes most especially, his great intellectual powers, and an impressively worked-out mystery.

But then there are the problems. Holmes and Watson meet cute, and Holmes jumps right off the page like Athena from the head of Zeus, but the management of the beginning of their relationship feels perfunctory. Doyle needs Watson and Holmes to come together and so they do; and the most basic of Holmes-ian questions is not answered, namely “Why?”

Then it is hard to read A Study in Scarlett and without concluding that Doyle simply does not manage plots very well. The majority of the story is advanced through exposition and halfway through the novel, the telling is handed over to the murderer and the scene abruptly shifts to the American West, where begins the long and tedious explanation of the murderer’s motives which involve dastardly Mormon polygamists and the outrages they commit against an innocent girl. (I’m not making that up.) Holmes utterly disappears and it is Holmes that makes Doyle worth reading.

The Final Problem – the story that features Holmes’ famous death at the Reichenbach Falls – has related problems. Here we discover Moriarty and see the only time Holmes and his arch-nemesis meet face to face. Moriarty is interesting. The conversation between Moriarty and Holmes is interesting. Doyle makes the friendship between Holmes and Watson, as they flee Moriarty, feel convincing. But the great chess game of move and counter-move Holmes tells us he’s playing with Moriarty happens entirely off the page, and we get no hint of the details. Worse, the death of Holmes also happens off the page. All this material has huge potential. Conan Doyle, and his readers, just need someone to come along and exploit it.

That’s Where Moffat and Gatiss and Their “Sherlock” Comes In

Perhaps the reason Sherlock Holmes is so enduring in adaptation is precisely because Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material is so full of untapped possibility. In any case, along come Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss – the latest in a long succession of people to take on the job – and succeed brilliantly.

First, they add a layer of internal conflict to the stories by filling out the characters and making their emotions drive the stories as much as the criminal mysteries. Holmes isn’t a natural candidate for the role, but Watson with his war experience and manifest loneliness is.

Moffat and Gatiss bring that loneliness forward, use it to help us understand how the friendship between Watson and Holmes developed so quickly, and most importantly make Watson the main character of their stories and his friendship with Holmes the show’s great beating heart. (I should say that Martin Freeman gets equal credit for the success.) Doyle gave us stories that entertain and delight. Moffat and Gatiss make Sherlock move us as well.

They get even more out of their adaptation of Mycroft Holmes. They add the perfectly logical deduction of sibling conflict between Mycroft and Sherlock; give the brothers contrasting yet similarly cold temperaments; and follow-up on Conan Doyle’s hint that Mycroft “is the British government” and make him England’s spy-master which opens up a rich vein of new conflicts and stories to pursue.

The espionage thriller aspects of Sherlock work particularly well with the increased role Moriarty plays in these stories (an idea that long pre-dates Moffat and Gatiss of course). Moriarty runs a vast, shadowy international criminal conspiracy which in technique and operations is largely indistinguishable from a nation-state’s intelligence service or for that matter a terrorist group. All three run themselves in similar ways: it is their motives and goals that differ.

So Moffat and Gatiss use Mycroft and Moriarty to produce both long-arc conflicts, that is plots that arc through a season or several seasons and tie the whole show together, and as drivers within individual shows, which each have a beginning, middle, and satisfying end. (Well, except for the Hound of the Baskerville’s episode, to my tastes.) Watson plays a similar role, with the emotions of his character producing both long-arc and short-arc conflicts.

I like Moffat and Gatiss’ updating just fine too, although I suppose I can see the point of those people who think it is “gimmicky”.  But to set the stories in modern London, you really do have to lay aside Holmes’ dependence on tobacco and cocaine, and you really do have to add cell phones, the internet, and texting.

I also like the “flashy” or “showy” editing, when the scene goes slow-motion and text labels and assorted graphics fly across the screen to illustrate Holmes’ thoughts. These are gimmicks. But they also solve the problem of having Watson ask, “My god, Holmes, how did you figure that out?” and Holmes saying “Elementary, my dear Watson ….” I think we all have had enough of that, haven’t we?

Then there is the running joke about Holmes and Watson being gay. On the one hand, I confess to thinking it is sort of funny. On the other, I’m beginning to think that cheerful jokes about homosexuality are as reactionary as the homophobia still rampant in America and elsewhere. After all, on the most essential level, it should be irrelevant whether Watson and Holmes are or aren’t gay. What is essential is that they care for each other.

Maybe the most interesting question of all is “Why does Sherlock Holmes continue to be so popular?” There must be something about the character that resonates deep in the culture. I have no answer, currently. Maybe after I watch Season 3 I will. Can’t wait to start!

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