Posts Tagged 'Jonathan Franzen'

Point, Counterpoint

Upon further reflection and continued readings, I may remove Malcolm Gladwell’s book from my favorites of non-fiction. His is among the most popular in a trend of high-concept quirk non-fiction; books investigating social phenomena in macro, boiled down in easy-to-digest case studies.

For instance: I was intrigued by the preview for “Freakonomics” this fall, but when the movie got mediocre-to-poor reviews, my interest waned and I decided why not just read the book instead? And what an exercise in frustration that turned out to be. The concept is intriguing – unearthing the hidden and strange truth behind all sorts of conventional wisdom – and every chapter title contains a clever idea – comparisons of school teachers and sumo wrestlers, or Ku Klux Klan and real-estate agents. The introduction to the book dazzled me enough to write in the margins: “Why isn’t all writing this exciting?”

Let's Get Our Freak On

Oh for short-lived enthusiasm. On page four, I wrote, “Uh-oh. My skepticism meter is acting up.” On page nine, talking about political contributions, they state, as if we all know this already, “Chances are you’ll give the money in one of two situations: a close race, in which you think the money will influence the outcome; or a campaign in which one candidate is a sure winner…” My note: “How did they arrive at this position?” It may well be true, but they haven’t explained how they know it’s true (and now wait a second now that you mention it, isn’t that assumption itself another instance of conventional wisdom?). By page 31, I was downright annoyed and I took it out on the paperback’s margins: “By writing complicated things as forgone conclusions you a)don’t respect your readers and b)turn the inspiration behind the book into a gimmick.” Settle down, self.

My frustration continued throughout the book, although there are some very interesting ideas and case studies in it. I’m just not so sure that they mean exactly what the writers want them to mean. Often they draw general conclusions from a single situation, instead of providing further investigation to see how anomalous that situation is/is not. Again, I think they are right about some of this stuff, but they don’t convince us. In fact, they fall into the very trap the book professes to condemn. It doesn’t shatter the notion of “conventional wisdom,” it substitutes a new unfounded or poorly investigated conclusion for another.

Sometimes, though, it was frustrating how bold the illogic was. Near the end of the book, talking about common first names, they list the Top 20 names that signify low-education parents (minimum 100 occurrences) and the the Top 20 names that signify high education parents (minimum 10 occurrences). Unless there was a typo- in the book, there is a problem here. The charts tell us that certain names tend to have poorly- or well-educated parents. The low education names are normal-ish names while the high education names are all very obscure. Hmm… of course they are. The way a name gets on the list, after all, is not dependent on the number of times the name comes up, it’s dependent on the education of the parent. By requiring at least 100 occurrences for low-income names, you ensure that the names on the list will be more common. If there were only 11 occurrences of poorly-educated parents naming their kids “Clementine” or “Waverly,” (both names on the well-educated list), it would not make the low-education list, because there weren’t enough occurrences. The inverse is true as well. By requiring fewer occurrences of a given name for the high-education list, while using the parent’s education, not the child’s name, as the basis for inclusion, you basically create the conclusion you want: well-educated parents’ kids have unique names while poorly-educated parents’ kids have common/bland names. The lists would look different if you made the requirements equal, but it probably wouldn’t create the kind of disparity that the authors wanted to include. As a result, the book posits a more dynamic gap between the poorly- and well-educated. The only problem, of course, being it’s not necessarily true. I don’t think this is some kind of conspiracy, I think more likely it’s the kind of combination of sloppy research mixed with faulty logic that fills and plagues the book.

It may be human nature to desire difficult things to be simplified and made easier to digest. There is value and validity to moving slowly during introductions to difficult concepts, such as in classroom settings. But over the last decade especially – and I point here to a correlation (though not necessarily causation) between this and the sheer amount of mew media (which does, incidentally include blogs like this one) and the emphasis on the push to share the same information in as many different sources as possible – the simplified version of events, of analysis is often the only one offered (on one hand) and the only one sought (on the other). It’s an ironic, ugly trend. It overlooks important aspects, leaves much unexamined, and presents complicated, intriguing things as boring-shaped, limitation-based digestibles… in more formats than ever before. It’s like the not-so-harebrained scheme from Ryan on “The Office” to link up every conceivable communication portal through one system: WUPHF!

And again, look no further than this blog. My twitter feed is available on the right side, and my twitter links to my blog, as does my Facebook. But that’s a tiny example. I’m talking about when people require a single to device to be phone, iPod, word-processor, GPS, camera, edit-bay, Television, video-game console, credit card machine, and live-in lover. Or when something needs to go from a website to twitter to phone apps to Facebook group. Or that cool-looking commercial with the guy who insists on watching his movie in every room of his house while he gets a drink of water. Pause the fucking movie! You’re not giving it your full attention anyway!

It goes without saying that there are people in every avenue providing depth of content. Some of them shy away from new media completely, some utilize it better than anyone. But are those the exceptions or the norm? Most of what bombards us is any combination of cheap, fast, simple, and bland. But there is so much of it that everything, from art to politics to how we live our lives, is entrenched in it. And it’s yet another difficult, maybe impossible job to figure out exactly how everything influences and affects the others. I can’t bring myself to listen to music on the radio anymore. Most “indie” movies are just as monotonously plodded as studio films (because more and more indie movies are studio films now, or at least they’re made with the same mentality: SELL YOUR MOVIE, MAKE A PROFIT!!!). And Oh My God Reality TV is a bigger, more destructive evil than the Venom symbiont.

I tell ya, I don't believe he really has that many arms.

A recent Newsweek article discusses the notion that the modern presidency is a larger responsibility than one man can handle. That the country is too diverse in its needs, the political culture too complex for one man to successfully handle, even if he has the support of Congress. “Lincoln had time to think…That kind of downtime just doesn’t exist anymore.” There are too many programs, too much activity. And while I voted for an Obama I believed (and do still believe) could be the leader of change by navigating those complexities through delegation and intelligent government programs for jobs, welfare, and education, many of his biggest enthusiasts are learning that their notion of Obama as a one-man presidential rock-show was not only naive, it was downright anachronistic.

Meanwhile, 24-hour news channels simplify more and more for more and more minutes of every day. And hey, maybe they have to. How do you cover everything everywhere when all of it is happening at the same time all the time? A better question might be, is it an intelligent aim to seek to report accurately and extensively on everything that happens? Is everything news worthy? Right now the answer is, Yes, if a given story is important to the other major stations, or if it isn’t important to the other major stations but there’s the possibility that the right spin can make it appear as though it should be.

Who is getting frustrated, by show of hands? Overwhelmed? Now that’s progress you can count. Nobody wants to be frustrated, or to feel like they don’t understand fully. It’s psychic numbing (a fascinating subject explored in the great documentary, “Reporter,” which is currently not available). But we don’t understand fully and feeling like we do only exacerbates the extent of our un-understanding. In the same way that the problem is the fault of both sides, so will be the solution. More complex, insight-filled reporting won’t help if no one wants to avail themselves of it, because they get overwhelmed. We need to get over being overwhelmed. Maybe if we’re frustrated for just a little while, we can start to see things more clearly and fully and then work to not be so frustrated and overwhelmed.

(Warning: more Jonathan Franzen praise ahead) Back to the book. Sometimes broad strokes are enough, but research shouldn’t be one of them. To make sure I wasn’t insane, I looked over Jonathan Franzen’s great 2003 collection of essays, How to Be Alone, which includes a brilliant, in-depth essay about the Chicago postal system. It was written in 1994 (Yeah, I know!). It’s 40+ pages long and is, essentially, a case study. But the difference is in the idea. Freakonomics feels like a newspaper article, stretched out to a book. It moves too fast and doesn’t cover enough ground. Franzen’s is an essay. It’s considerate of all sorts of different angles, it comments, it derives meaning from detail. It allows for complications and difficulties and doesn’t make an attempt to tie everything up. Let’s observe an engaging passage:

When postal workers hang out together, they talk about who slept with whom for a promotion, and which handler was found dead of natural causes on a sofa in the employee lounge. They speculate about the reason [Postmaster General] Marvin Runyon’s eyes weren’t blinking during an interview, about whether it was due to medication for his back pain. They revel in dog lore. I’m advised that if I’m ever set upon by a pack of strays I should Mace the one that barks first. I’m told the story of a suburban carrier who was forced to take refuge from an enraged German shepherd in a storage mailbox that he’d been throwing his banana peels and milk cartons into all summer.

This looks AWESOME.

Either way, I’m done with the book and have moved on to the staggeringly good Michael Chabon novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It’s about comic book writers during the 40’s & 50’s and it takes its cue from their profession. The book is littered with interesting characters: magicians, circus performers, Nazis, Salvador Dali even makes a brief, near-death appearance. The book’s two heroic comic book creators follow in their characters’ footsteps and the title’s promise and have exciting, dramatic, suspenseful, rich adventures. And to complement it, I’ve been taking short breaks to read some classic comics. I took in “Batman: HUSH,” which was dark and dense and great, as well as the Fantastic Four reboot from the mid-90’s, “Heroes Reborn.” This is one of the few times it’s really paid to have a comic enthusiast as a roommate. The FF storyline was expertly drawn, and the stories were just what I was looking for: ridiculous. Every single villain either turns into a super-monster or has a super-monster laying-in-wait to do its bidding. Giganto, the massive whale?! Moleman and his total control of underground elements?! Super-Skrull?! I can’t make this shit up, but someone else didn’t have a problem doing it. Every threat extreme, every situation dire, every character a symbolic sculpture of the best of mankind. In other words, fantastic.

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Introductions

About 150 pages into Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, one thing about the evolution of his writing style has become clear. Where his first two novels were large-canvass thrillers – tapestries of a dozen or so characters at a given time, surrounding a given social issue – his next two are each about one specific family, and the way that the full breadth of their pasts illuminates themes latent in the short term present.

Read This Book

It’s a curious way to construct a story, it’s decidedly literary, since it wouldn’t work even half as well in Television or film – anytime multiple actors play the same role, you risk doing the math wrong when trying to add up multiple individual performances to equal one complete character (though exceptions certainly exist, sure I get that). This technique works brilliantly in The Corrections, which re-reading made me see the book more clearly and enjoy more completely but also have to admit that my 19-year old self’s initial reaction that it was the best book ever written was a bit naive. So far, Freedom‘s math is mostly accurate, although I’ll wait to judge for sure until Franzen shows his work a bit.

Anyway, there are two friends, Walter and Richard, and we’ve seen them so far age from early-20s into mid-40s, and it struck me how much weight the relationship carries. These aren’t friends who see each other all the time or even talk all the time, but when they interact, the scenes feel fuller and bigger because of the range of the relationship.

This isn’t anything ground-breaking or really that new; that our earliest relationships tend to be the ones we return to, even if the people aren’t anything like they were. There is comfort in the known, there is ease in sinking into a history, in having a conversation that’s been happening for years.

It’s strange. I live near my friend Tyler, who I’ve known for 11 years now, and who, it’s become evident, will be someone I see often all my life. There are other people I’ve come to know who I get that sense with, too. Like, “We’ll be seeing each other for a while, won’t we?” These are the people, I find, I am most willing to argue with, which is a strange form of almost anti-affection, but it also shows someone that you trust them to be willing to disagree with them sometimes and still want to be friends, because there’s so much more that you do agree about.

Then there are those people who you’re friends with but you know it’s temporary. You can just see the writing on the wall, especially in a city like this: these people have other places to go and things to do. A lot of things are temporal here, and that doesn’t necessarily make them void of meaning. It’s just at some point their lives will take them away and that will be okay. It will be a loss that you’ve been expecting. Contact will minimize, you’ll lose touch, and both of you will notice it, but what’s to be done, that’s life?

But introductions are powerful. I haven’t seen my high school friend, Royce since January of 2009. I haven’t talked to him in over a year, since just after he became a father. And okay, I feel a bit guilty about that, because chances are he’s busier than I am, so I could’ve made an effort. But there is an implied scope to the friendship, though. This is two years out of a lifetime. I’ve got decades to see him. Catching up with him and his wife could be accomplished over a long weekend. With friends like these, where enough history is involved, the relationship sortof sustains itself in separation. Because we’ve been friends for a long time, already.

I think that’s one of the reasons the new film by David Fincher, “The Social Network,” is so effective. The drama of betrayal and acceptance and status feels stronger when we’re in our late teens/early 20s, because the relationships and events are formative. Change is possible at any stage of life, but it gets more difficult.

Think of the ways that pain stays with us from childhood or adolescence. Most of us still hate someone from high school, because of something that, compared to the perils of life in college, as a young adult, as a parent, et al, is mostly insignificant. The meager weight of the incident itself is overcome by the weight of how it felt when it happened, plus time; or, history.

Guilty As Charged

It’s true for other things as well, though. Think of your introductions to your favorite music or films or books (or internet videos). I know The Corrections isn’t the best book ever written (although it’s very VERY good and great), I know “American Beauty” isn’t the best film ever made, and I sure as hell know that Everclear isn’t even remotely close to the best music ever made (feel the pain), but because those represented introductions in some way to really considering the power of those forms, they all have significance to me disproportionate to their actual worth – except probably The Corrections, I’m telling you, it’s amazing.

I saw a movie the other night, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” It’s down-the-line mediocre, with a notably solid performance by Zach Galifianakis. But watching it, I couldn’t help but admire it for being unabashedly meant for its intended audience – high schoolers. It’s quirky and funny and structured so that every single character has a little arc and everyone learns a lesson and there is a musical number and an animated sequence and some romance. It’s everything the typical high school kid wants in a movie about high school kids. It’s not the best movie of the year or even of this past week, but it’s a fine introduction to movies for a lot of teenagers out there.

Birthday Weekend Extravaganza

Initially, I’d thought to go Thursday through Sunday, day by day, since a lot happened each day in my 4-day b-day blowout. Instead, moving topically through the terrain seems like a more cohesive method of conveyance.

All-Things Jonathan Franzen:

He’s got my vote

I’m about half way through re-reading his 3rd novel, 2001’s The Corrections, and what I’ve immediately noticed this time is the increased strength of his prose from the end of his 2nd novel to the beginning of this one. Don’t get me wrong, I love his first novel, The 27th City and most of Strong Motion, but he is on a whole new level here. All of this, of course, is in preparation for his new novel, Freedom, which my mother got me for my birthday and which has been earning him immense praise. TIME magazine had him on the cover as the new Great American Novelist, and he was just recently on “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” discussing the novel as well as his relationship to blog-favorite David Foster Wallace. They’re very different writers. VERY. I first read The Corrections the spring of my freshman year of college; and things have changed since I was 19. It’s still very high on my list of favorite novels, but I can safely say its #1 slot has been reconsidered. That doesn’t mean it isn’t brilliant. It is. The characters’ obsession with viewing their lives in terms of the corrections they’re making to either their parents or siblings or neighbors or society-at-large is so universal yet always incredibly specific within the story’s context. And the way Franzen allows the main character of each section to subtly influence the 3rd person omniscient narrator is one of my favorite aspects of the book. He gets inside so many disparate perspectives so completely that the reader identifies with each one. It also moves very nicely, setting up plot, providing character exposition, establishing themes, exploring ideas and relationships – he weaves these seamlessly into and out of each other so that the book never feels like it’s moving too slowly (his previous novel did unfortunately feel like bout 65% exposition), but also never ignores an important aspect. That is quite a balancing act.

Reservations:

Poster designed by Adam Rebottaro

The more I thought about it, the happier I got. As soon as I hit on the idea for my Birthday Party, I knew it was going to be interesting and fun. I haven’t had a “party” per se in a long time (I think since I was 21 – wow), but this year was a good twist on it. Instead of a regular party, we had a screening night. We got pizza, we drank some good beer (thanks to my friend Will, I was in full supply of Delirium Nocturnum all night), ate some lemon cake courtesy of a good cook I know, and watched seven short films made by or starring people in my circle of friends – all of which led up to the public unveiling of my new short film, “Reservations,” which many in attendance were also a part of.

I’ve watched it probably ten times in the last few weeks with various small groups of people (including my mother who miraculously liked it and didn’t chide me on the abundant use of the term “asshole”) – each time taking notes and making adjustments and re-watching to see how it all worked – and the incontrovertible result is a better film now than the one I had a month ago. It pays to listen to intelligent people. The night of the party was its biggest audience, maybe 15-20 people, and it proved to confirm that I had made the film I thought I was making and one that I am proud of. But the evening was better than just that. It was more about the immense talent pool within this group of people; people with unexpectedly greater reserves and abilities than their surfaces suggest (one girl said as much about my movie, too: “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I liked your movie a lot more than I expected to.”). Fair enough.

(NOTE: I recorded the commentary track with Tyler Smith and David Bax of “Battleship Pretension,” and you can Buy the DVD through their site, in fact. Which you should. Now.)

Battleship Pretension Live:

Never Forget

Everyone loves a good show, and this one was great. The first two live events were both solid in their own right, but – and I hope I’m being impartial – this one felt very complete. It’s half comedy show, half panel discussion, which creates a very interesting (and compelling) flow to the evening. I was fortunate to be asked to provide the show’s introduction, and it was with great relish that I constructed an opening to both celebrate and mock both the occasion and hosts. The writing was a sortof throwback to the introductions to my own short-lived (though astutely completed) podcast, “Experts and Intermediates,” in which the goal was to created concentric linguistic circles around the topic and then end with a clever punch-line. Because words can be fun toys. Also great is our traditional migration to the Mexican restaurant down the street. A tall Long Island Iced Tea, decent chips & salsa, good food, crappy service – it’s the complete package.

The highlight of the evening (aside from their giving away a copy of “Reservations” as a prize and my giving each of the show’s four guests a copy as well) was hands-down the story told by character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. I’ve previously explained the brilliance of his own podcast, “The Tobolowsky Files,” and he brought that same dynamic in person: the specificity of just the right details, the perfect blend of comedy and heart, the way he constructs meaning from life experience. I expected him to read from a typed version of his story, but he didn’t need it. He electrified the entire place with a story about a “chain” of The American Opinion Bookstore, during his preparation for “Mississippi Burning,” playing the clan leader Clayton Townley. His story concerned his journey to research his character, and the books he brought in earned an outright gasp from everybody. So did the story’s climax. You’ll hear it when the show is posted, but it was a mesmerizing moment. The fact that I got to talk to him briefly afterwards about working with “Deadwood” creator David Milch – and the fact that he had even more stories to tell about him!!! – was an extra special birthday treat.

Conclusion:

Someone asked me if this was a good birthday. I’m 27 now, an age I actually quite like (I’m not kidding, I like the number itself), and while I can’t say if this was “the best” birthday, because I didn’t have enough time to think about it on the spot, I do know it wasn’t the worst. It was better than just a day: it was a weekend spent with friends in celebration of another year alive, my first year in California, and the wonderful combination of friendship and artistry. So, yeah, maybe this was the best, because what could be better?

Things to Do at Work When It’s Slow

(NOTE re: my brain malfunction – originally I wrote “THANKS to do at Work When it’s Slow.” WOW, just… WOW. My sincerest apologies.)

Reading List:

I don't really care for the cover, though.

As if the stack of books in my room I haven’t read isn’t big enough. I may be coming into an explosion of free time soon, so I consider this preparation. The big one on the list for me is Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom. It’s his first work of fiction in nine years (since, in fact, The Corrections, which I will be  re-reading before I start this new one). Of course, I can’t get enough David Foster Wallace, but as much as he interests me, I’m intrigued and apprehensive about reading fellow writer David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, which is…what it says. But. I am interested in Wallace’s own book about set theory (see Wikipedia section below), called Everything and More: a Compact History of Infinity. In college, I really got into deductive logic and this seems like interesting if challenging fun. Also, it is way cheap on Amazon.com. I know some people are wary of ordering books or CDs or DVDs online. I’ve been doing it for years with excellent results. Other books: The Winter of Our Discontent,  by John Steinbeck, was recently highly recommended to me. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. And Russell Banks’ Continental Drift, which, now that I think of it, I might own. I’ve also been feeling like reading more Ray Bradbury, but I don’t know what. It’s difficult to justify buying more and more books that I may never get around to reading. A better system would be to buy a book only when I am going to read it, or a DVD only when I’m going to watch it. But then where’s the adventure in that?

Podcasts:

The Universe expands. I’ve got between 70 and 90 minutes of commute each day. Which sounds like a lot and seems like a lot but isn’t nearly sufficient to bear the weight of podcast minutes each week. So, since things are slow at work, I’ve taken to listening during the day. My go-to podcasts, since the dawn of my iPod, are Filmspotting (which recently had an excellent meet-up here in LA, always great to talk with Adam Kempanaar) and This American Life. I’m also decidedly partial to the great Battleship Pretension, and the Creative Screenwriting Podcast is always interesting and insightful and has great writers discussing their process, projects, how they got started in writing (both personally and professionally). And then there are the shows I love but don’t necessarily listen to regularly, like Elvis Mitchell’s The Treatment (which this week has Christopher Nolan, so, yeah, I’m all about that one) and Radiolab, which is essentially This American Life but with science. Thankfully Watching Theology only has episodes every month or so. But then finally, there are two new podcasts; well, one isn’t really a podcast, it’s the weekly sermons of Reality LA, the church many of my friends go to. Nonetheless, the sermons are expertly crafted, spiritually and intellectually sound, and extremely in-depth. The other show is a podcast, and is kindof a cross between …Life and Creative Screenwriting. It’s The Tobolowsky Files, a series of stories about life, love, and the entertainment industry, as told by character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. You have no idea how amazing these stories are. How beautiful and engaging and strange and funny and wonderful. It’s a relatively young podcast, fewer than 50 episodes. I’m in the process of catching up, but this podcast is becoming one of the most vital. I can’t really explain it any better than by just imploring you to go and listen to episode 13: Conference Hour, which had me in both outrage and tears by the end. “Tobo” has lived such a rich, fascinating life, and the way he brings us through, the details he offers, the insight he achieves; it’s simply astounding (I usually load 3 or 4 onto my iPod at once and this morning, to my horror, I was out of new ones. Nooooo!!!)

Work:

The question is this. Does a lack of work to do make you complete the work you do have more easily and quickly, or does it make you annoyed to do anything now that you’ve gotten used to your distraction?

The News:

Since it’s one of the few things not blocked by our (hold on, phone call) firewall. So, I’ve been following up with the oil spill and the Senate vote for stricter regulations to avoid another financial crisis, which sounds good except that its critics think maybe it’s not going to really accomplish any damn single thing. I suppose we’ll see. I hope it works. Landmark legislation isn’t really so much of a landmark unless it accomplishes what it sets out to. Otherwise, isn’t it just wasting time? Also, I read a startling piece (here) about the ineffectiveness of regular exercising for people (mostly men) who spend the majority of their day sitting (or just being generally inactive). As someone whose day has been sitting in a car to come sit in a desk to go sit back in the car to go home and sit in front of a computer editing this is kindof frightening! Apparently the exercise can keep us in shape, but it doesn’t counter-act the negative effects in terms of decreasing serious health risks. Scary.

Wikipedia:

What I will look like if I keep working here

Aside from looking up information about every author I mentioned back in the Reading List section, and just a moment ago looking Flock of Seagulls for my Supervisor who’s at jury duty and trying to think of the group who sang “Don’t You Want Me Baby” (It’s Human League, the inter-web taught to me), I also got a cursory understanding of set theory and Russell’s Paradox, which contains the very wordplay David Foster Wallace purloined for his first novel. Mathematical systems have always fascinated me. I look back on the junior-in-high-school me who hit the wall with Pre-Calculus, and I wish I could go back now (Yep, my mathematical prowess here at 26 is that of a 17 yr old. Wow).

Writing:

This gets tricky. My roommate has the ideal situation for non-working-at-work. Graveyard shift, Fed-Ex Office. Eight hours often without a customer. Full internet. Can bring in stuff to work on. If that were me, I’d have a laptop with screenwriting software, a book, maybe a magazine, and untold pages of work done at the end of the night. When you look at it that way, working on personal things at work is the closest most of us come to getting paid to do what we love. I don’t think blogging qualifies, though. And while I am planning to try to do some actual writing after lunch, it’s nearly impossible. The atmosphere is all wrong. There is a focus I need that can’t be achieved with even occasional interruptions of Work-I’m-Being-Paid-to-do. And people. Too many people around. I need solitude. Public places are fine, they preserve personal anonymity. The real problem is co-workers. They know you, but they don’t know you, but they feel perfectly comfortable talking to you, sometimes much more than you’d like. It’s a very strange relationship. Aren’t my headphones a clear indication that I am busy? Or at least not to be disturbed for chit-chat? It seems, No. Because of that daily proximity, you can’t really be a jerk to them, or I can’t, even if I don’t like them. Regardless, their presence pulls me back into the setting of “workplace,” which is not an intrinsically creative one.

And now, here after five hours, after most of my day is gone, I’m taking a break. I’ve got first issue of my Creative Screenwriting Magazine subscription (which is supplemented by aforementioned podcast). Then, hopefully I’ll have a few more tasks to complete so I can feel some sense of worth, and hopefully I can end the day with some leisure reading. I think I saved a short story by Don DeLillo I could read.

Over-Analyze This

Found out tonight I’m recording an episode of the excellent podcast “Battleship Pretension” tomorrow on the subject of Over-analyzing movies – does it really exist? If so, to what extent is it a bad thing?

So, I’ve been compiling a list of questions, thoughts, and anecdotes since over-analyzing movies (and anything) is an accusation often lobbed at me. It never fails to provoke an eye-roll from me at the time, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t quietly worry over it at night.

As a filmmaker, I worry about it even more. Am I over-analyzing my own writing? Am I seeing things in this that aren’t there and won’t translate on-screen? Is there even a point in making this film? It’s worth noting that I’ve been at it for about 2 hours now, and not because I can’t think of what to contribute. We’re past that. Now we’re back on the roller-coaster of circular-logic about intelligent art vs. “dumb” art and how maybe it’s a sign of elitism that I would even try to label someone else’s art as dumb, and then the other part of me that says no, screw that, Writing X is smart and Writing Z is dumb. And dumb is bad. And I am smart. Am I smart?

A few weeks ago, I was in charge of the devotional for my Men’s Group and we discussed, for about two hours, to what extent FORM or PACKAGING does and should influence us. I promise it actually had a lot to do with God and how we receive His message and whether or not it’s necessarily Biblically WRONG to discount a sermon based on the way it’s delivered/written. We also talked about the rise of the over-packaged church. You know the one. Starbucks and bookshop and giant plasma screens everywhere and loud, thumping announcements with “cutting edge” graphics and music hip enough that, quote, “you won’t be ashamed to bring your unsaved friends!” How those things distract from the message in one way, but in another way, because one of the gifts God gives us is the ability to deliver His truth to other people, the way we package something is vital because good packaging (as form) points to a form higher than ourselves.

I’m off-topic.

Jonathan Franzen

So, the subject reminded me of a passage in Jonathan Franzen’s book How to Be Alone about writing intelligent fiction with a heightened vocabulary that most people can still understand. About the contract between reader and writer. Because one of the things I want to talk about tomorrow (we’ll see if we even get around to it) is, since I’m coming to the topic not only as a critic but also as an artist, whose work is the subject of the criticism (I’m speaking in the global sense, we’re not dissecting MY films on the show), that my view on the show’s topic might be that the ideas of the “Best Analysis” and the “Most Analysis” are two very different things; that Best Analysis relies not solely on the intellect when determining quality, while the Most Analysis refuses to base quality on anything but intellect.

I couldn’t find the passage (I have the paper-back edition, so if you stumble upon it, let me know), but I did get distracted and wound up in Franzen’s own personal struggle of why to write in one of the essays, called “Why Bother?” Here’s his predicament:

“Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of cultural change: How to design a craft that can float on history for as long as it takes to build it? The novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: Where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?”

Reading that sentence sent me into a frenzy. Keep in mind, he wrote this article in 1996, nearly 15 years ago. How do you maintain culturally relevant work when the culture being reflected changes faster than you can create? I feel this way about movies; the peril must be amplified for the novelist. If this was the state of things in 1996, what calamity befalls the novelist now? How fast social phenomena come and go! How long do you think it will be before twitter and Facebook and MySpace (and blogs!?) are obsolete? For an easy example, look at cell-phones. The moment you buy one, five more have come out. In six months or a year, the model you bought will have been updated and expanded. It takes about two years to “earn” a phone-upgrade through the average cell-phone plan, provided you don’t change plans every so often. Think how movies have changed. Think how music has changed. How the delivery systems and modes of receiving them have changed. Now think how much the book has changed. Not much. Ink on paper, bound together. Sure, there’s that gizmo the Kindle, but it hasn’t caught on. For all the changes in everything else, most people still prefer to have a book and hold it. The newspaper can’t even boast that. The book is one of our most steadfast artistic endeavors. And yet so few people read.

I remembered that the article arrived at an answer to Franzen’s fear, if not a solution, and because at this point it was a little after 3:30am, I had to read ahead to figure out if his answers would satisfy me or, if they didn’t, if I could come up with a good enough counter-proposal to be able to go to sleep. In other words, I had to analyze. To an extent. Franzen’s answer is one I do find comforting.

Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society–to help solve our contemporary problems–seems to me to be a peculiarly American delusion. To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: Isn’t this enough? Isn’t it a lot?

Don DeLillo

It is enough. I started breathing again. A lot of times, too, a book or movie or whatever that is only about the RIGHT NOW will, itself, only be relevant right now. It will be a product of its time, and its own shelf-life will only be as long as that of the social phenomenon it’s about. And then it will be gone. But other things will last. Better things will remain. The film “25th Hour” got totally overlooked in 2002 when it came out. It was on my list of the best films of that year, because I sought it out. Zero Oscar nominations. Zero Golden Globe nominations. The movie was made by Spike Lee and has Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson, and Anna Paquin. Seven years later, it is appearing on numerous Best-of-the-Decade Lists. Seven years later, it has remained.

So, of course, this entry, which was supposed to be short, has gone long. I’ll close with more encouragement, from the end of Franzen’s essay. It comes from another favorite writer of mine, Don DeLillo, who wrote to Franzen personally when he (Franzen) appealed to him (DeLillo) for help.

“The writer leads, he doesn’t follow. The dynamic lives in the writer’s mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously, as an endangered spectacle. A reduced context but a more intense one.

Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”

2009 Reading List

Who watches The Watchmen?

Who watches The Watchmen?

 

1. Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer (finished on 1.20.09) – ** (look for a little blog about the book coming soon)

2. Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

3. Watchmen, by Alan Moore

4. The 27th City, by Jonathan Franzen

Welcome to your life

Welcome to your life

5. Purple America, by Rick Moody

6. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

7. Strong Motion, by Jonathan Franzen

8. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne

9. Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet

10. The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

11. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce

12. Yellow Dog, by Martin Amis

13. Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes

14. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

 

There is No Escape

There is No Escape

I am not reading nearly as many books this year. I often try to jam pack my life with as many as possible, just so I can get through them. And maybe it’s maturity, and maybe it’s laziness, but I came to feel when making my list that I have the rest of my life to read books. They’re not going anywhere. Yes, as each day passes, the list grows larger. But where’s the good in reading too fast to enjoy and really take in one book? Also, in exchange for sheer numbers, i have picked some behemoths – Tristam Shandy, Don Quixote, and Infinite Jest, most of all. The final of which is at least two books, maybe three books, wrapped in one. 

But there is a sense, with books, movies, and most things, that I have to do them now now now. No. I’ve seen the first 4 Seasons of “LOST” and the 5th is on right now. But I do not have time for it. I TiVo’d the season premiere and thought “Okay, here we go, I have NO idea how this will work.” And then I decided I’ll just wait. It’s a very good show, but does it require immediate attention? Not really.

I’m also forcing myself to do something I rarely do: re-read books. Jonathan Franzen is my favorite novelist, and after only one read, I decided The Corrections was my favorite novel. I haven’t read it in six years. It’s not old enough to be conisdered nostalgia, but I’ve done a lot of reading since then, and it will be interesting to see what it effect is this go around. Please feel free to comment on what you are reading, I would love to know.


It Has Come to This

November 2017
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