Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The movie is nearly as good

Ian McEwan's Atonement remains one of my favorite novels, so it was just a matter of time before I got around to seeing the movie. Mostly, I was curious to see how a director and his screenwriters could make sense of a such a nuanced work, one that relies so heavily on interior dialog. I'm impressed. Although I've not yet talked with anyone who saw the movie without first reading the book, the film deserves the praise it's getting, and I'll be recommending a few key Oscars -- just as soon as my Academy credentials come through.

Best supporting actress won't be among them, though. Saoirse Ronan is fine as the young Briony Tallis, but the character is later played by two other women, neither of whom particularly resemble her in appearance, mannerism or emotional demeanor. Should this matter? To me it does. Sorry, Saoirse (I hope I'm pronouncing that right), but you've got a long career ahead of you.

In many ways, Atonement is an old-school film, much as the book was an old-school novel: an elegantly-told tale of star-crossed passions that are no match for the tidal forces of history. I was reminded of Dr. Zhivago. There is one thoroughly modern touch: the much-discussed continuous shot, more than five minutes long, depicting the chaos among routed soldiers trapped on the shores of Dunkirk. It's an amazing sequence -- so amazing that it might actually undercut the film by making the viewer aware of the difficulty of shooting it. Or so goes the argument. My conclusion: It puts you in the movie more than it takes you out.

I still have to see Juno and There Will Be Blood to round out the list of best-picture nominees. Thus far, I'd rank Atonement as the best of the nominees I've seen, followed closely by Michael Clayton and, much further back, No Country For Old Men. (I have a foolish bet with the wife that No Country will not win -- I see it as far too bleak and unsatisfying as a story to sway Academy voters; she notes the awards it's garnered already and detects a whiff of inevitability. We shall see. For the record, she hated it.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Wake up, America, and get a life

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt ... wait, this just in: There are no regular readers of this blog. Perhaps it has something to do with the infrequent updates, which now coincide roughly with lunar eclipses. And maybe the reason for that is, I haven't read any fiction worth blogging about for the last couple of months. Yes, I know it's out there; I just haven't read it. In fact, I haven't done much of anything except play a dumb computer game called "Lord of the Rings Online" and go to work. No excuses here; I'm going to lay it all off on Seasonal Affective Disorder. Won't you please help?

So. No books on the nightstand; let me talk about work. For the past year and a half, my job has consisted of editing letters to the editor. It has exposed me to the dark underbelly of this community -- a world of querulous oldsters, mostly, and a few other bitter souls to whom the rules of grammar and spelling are further evidence of Mainstream Media elitism. It is a world where no argument can't be improved with a liberal sprinkling of exclamation points, no point can't be driven home with random and frequent capitalization. In this world, all thoughts, no matter how convoluted, are summarized with the phrase, “Wake up, America!!!!!”

It's dangerous, dirty work. But somebody has to do it. Otherwise a lot of this stuff might not get in the paper. Without skills like mine, you'd get one long, rambling letter each day, instead of a lot of short ones. And how else would readers learn of liberal plots to socialize America, and conservative plots to nuke Iran? How else would they know that the war in Iraq is not working out so well, or that illegal immigrants are interested chiefly in forcing us to learn Spanish?

In this spirit, here are a few tips for submitting letters to the editor. Follow them, and no matter what newspaper you're writing to, I guarantee your prose will see print. Or not.

  • Exclamation points: One is too many. If you find yourself repeatedly tapping that key, ask yourself why there are no exclamation points in the Gettysburg Address.

  • Capital letters: Making any word or phrase in your letter all caps is the same as scrawling it in crayon. You look like a lunatic.

  • Length: At our paper, the guideline is 200 words, so most letters arrive at 500. The Gettysburg address was 272 words. Unless you're writing about an issue of equal significance, something shorter should suffice.

  • Colorful fonts: Highlighting the thesis of your argument in red or green Rockwell Extra Bold does not make it more convincing; it makes your letter look like a pitch for penis enlargement, which already accounts for about 92 percent of my e-mail.

  • The word “lose”: That's how it's spelled: L-O-S-E. Not “loose.”

  • “So-called”: People use this phrase to denote sarcasm, but it never works. “Our so-called leaders” or “my so-called parents” have roughly the same tone – that of a sullen seventh-grader.

  • “Get a life”: This phrase, considered a hip dismissal of another's argument for about three weeks in 1987, now carries the same intellectual heft as the F-word. Its only meaning is that the speaker is incapable of saying anything else.

I could go on and on. In fact, I have gone on and on, quite a ways past 200 words. But then that's why the Good Lord gave us blogs, isn't it?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Dreaming of a world without crappy TV

Personally, I don't care if this writers strike never ends. The longer it goes on, the better I like it. We're already seeing big dividends: the cancellation of this year's Golden Globes. Instead of the usual parade of vain and vacant actors and their unusual wardrobes, it'll be a one-hour press conference Sunday night. Now there's some compelling television: CSPAN with Botox. I won't be tuning in, but if you do there's no need to touch that remote: The press conference will be followed by a rerun of American Gladiators.

I like the strike for two reasons. First, it's useful to occasionally remind Americans that actors don't think up those wise and witty things they say, that without printed words written by others, they can't even give each other awards. Second, it is proving what many have longed thought true: It really doesn't matter what's on TV; people will watch it anyway. A rerun of American Gladiators? The contempt this shows for the viewing public is breathtaking. But hey: It's better than kicking the writers a bigger share of "new media" money.

Not that I'm in total solidarity with the strikers either. I mean, there's a good chance that some of them were involved with such series as Knight Rider, Reba or Desperate Housewives. And that kind of thing should not be rewarded. Also, keep in mind that these particular writers are not exactly suffering for their craft. They are all comparatively rich; the dispute is whether they should be even richer. Those who drive BMWs wish to drive Maseratis. This is not exactly Norma Rae we're talking about.

I'd like to see the strike continue through at least February, wrecking the Oscars and perhaps finally achieving some tipping point of public weariness for shows like Dancing With The Stars. or The Bachelor. Probably won't happen. But a man can dream.

Monday, January 7, 2008

'The Wire' enters like a lamb

Meh. That's my reaction to the first episode of the The Wire, Season 5, which premiered last night on HBO. I had debated whether to watch it at all, since Netflix had delivered the first disc of Season 4 only a couple of days before. The quandary: whether to watch the new season as it airs weekly, or hold off until I get through Season 4. I chose poorly. I regret tuning in last night, since it opened with one of those "previously on The Wire" montages that pretty much spoiled any surprise the Season 4 discs might have held. Aarrgh. Sometimes I miss the days of Dallas, when if you missed an episode, you were just out of luck until the show went into syndication years later.

But I'm still interested in this final season of The Wire, since it evidently focuses on the collapsing newspaper industry, via a fictional Baltimore Sun. As someone who escaped the real-world collapse (only slightly dazed and brushing off bits of debris), I'm happy to see it exploited for entertainment purposes. Corporate-run newspapers have never been more ripe for satire and criticism, and I am optimistic David Simon and company will not disappoint.

To start with, though, we get a stereotypical grizzled city editor -- think of a very profane Lou Grant -- bellowing for budget lines and lecturing reporters on usage and gleefully telling a council president to stuff it. I'm sure there are real city editors who match that description, but I've never met any in person. We also get a slick, transplanted editor who delivers the dread line "do more with less" -- and I have met a few of those. We get a newsroom crammed with overflowing desks and a lot of empty chairs. Check. We get a plucky young female reporter who ventures into a den of iniquity and returns with a front-page story about city corruption. Uh, hold on: In the real world, in the spirit of doing more with less, reporters tend not to leave the building unless something like 9/11 comes along.

The rest of the show offered few clues that this final season is headed anywhere in particular. McNulty is still a womanizing swine; Bubbles is still battling addiction; there's still trouble between the factions that rule Baltimore's drug trade; and the police effort against those factions is still crippled by politics. The theme of this show is dysfunction, I suppose, that in police departments or schools or city governments or drug gangs or dying newspapers, one step forward almost never comes without two steps back. No doubt this season will soon find its legs, but for now, the first episode left me with the feeling that I've seen it all before.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

My personal best and worst

Another holiday season has come to a close here at the ancestral manse. Today in a rare burst of energy I took down the tree and the somewhat austere decorations I'd thrown up around the front door. The cats watched it go with the same blank puzzlement they'd accorded its arrival. Unlike us, they have no sense of time passing, no reference with which to mark another year gone by. They have no vague unease at things undone, of possibilities wasted. They do not rue overeating and overdrinking. Perhaps somewhere in the periphery of their feline minds, they'll miss not having ornaments to bat to the carpet, but that's about it.

We're not so lucky. Like Janus, the Roman god for which this month is named, we gaze forward and we gaze back, ignoring the present. There's a reason lists are so popular at this time of year. It's the reassurance of enumerating the things we've done, the hope in adding up the things we mean to do. Also, for writers, it's a lot easier than coming up with an original idea.

In that spirit, here's my own very short little list (which I'll be updating over the next couple of days as I think of stuff):

Best fiction I read in 2007: Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. Sixteeen-year-old Ree Dolly sets out to find her drug-dealing dad and finds blood relations are no match for the code of silence that rules the Ozarks. Woodrell's sharply-drawn characters are harsh but human, and exude not a droplet of false sentiment.
The worst: Promise Me, by Harlan Coben. Series character Myron Bolitar blusters his way across New Jersey delivering cringe-inducing one-liners (or, more often, two- and three-liners) to an array of one-dimensional antagonists. There's a plot about missing girls, and a pair of preposterous assassins, but it doesn't matter. The book is a mess.

Best two movies I saw in 2007: Michael Clayton and The Lives of Others. Even those who hate George Clooney will appreciate the clever, nuanced writing that elevates this tale of corporate murder and coverup. I still think Tilda Swinton deserves an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a desperately ruthless executive, but her name doesn't seem to be coming up very often. Speaking of nuance, The Lives of Others was one of those Netflix surprises -- you hear a friend recommend a movie, and you check it out, not expecting very much. This story of police-state surveillance in 198os East Germany works as both a thriller and a deliberately-paced character study. You don't see that very often. Watching this, I was struck by how refreshing it is to see a movie that doesn't have big-name American stars, and a script rewritten to serve more as a celebrity "vehicle" than a real story about real people.

Worst movie (well, the worst of those considered good by most critics): Ratatouille. If you've seen one of these animated, fun-for-the-whole-family, celebrity-voiced confections, you've seen them all. Haven't you? These things are all good, technically, and they can be fun in the way stuffing your mouth with cannoli is fun, but they are not art. Finally, Ratatouille is another formulaic cartoon about finding one's dreams, and I am no longer amused.