Saturday, December 31, 2011

Accidents & Postcards #3

I had this grand plan of getting up today and getting some stuff done around the house—a little bit of cleaning, take some recycling in—and then going out to take a walk around downtown to take a look at the progress on the last few legs of the Cultural Trail, along Washington Street and down Virginia Avenue toward Fountain Square. I also wanted to take a look at Georgia Street to see how that was progressing toward the pedestrian plaza they are envisioning for the Super Bowl.

But it was raining this afternoon when I got up, and it kept raining for most of the afternoon while I puttered around the house and tried to do a little bit of writing; and then around mid-afternoon it looked like it was going to clear up…sort of…so I started to get ready to go out, and put a bunch of recycling in the car, and then headed for the recycling center, which is just down the street. I dropped all of that stuff off, got paid for the aluminum cans, and then headed down to the Super Target in Southport for a few miscellaneous items. I narrowly avoided getting off of Southport Road onto 65 north when I saw some kind of traffic jam that went as far north as I could see from where I was—and as far south, too. Every bit of 65 that I could see from the Southport Road bridge was bumper to bumper, and stopped. I wound up taking back roads up to downtown and got started on my walk around five o’clock.

I parked on Park Avenue between Michigan Street and Mass Ave, one of the few places left downtown where you can still park for free at any time, and then headed for the library to take back a CD that had been with a book that Amy took back the other day. We had listened to the CD one night and forgotten to put it back in the book, so Amy asked me to take it back for her while she and Jackson were in Florida; but the library was closed by the time I got there, so that will have to wait for another day. Then I headed for the South Bend Chocolate Company on Monument Circle for a cup of coffee, and then I got the walk started properly.

There was a Pacers game tonight, so there were people out and about in the Wholesale District, having dinner and making their way toward whatever the arena the Pacers play in is called this week, and it was nice to walk around downtown at night when there were lots of other people milling about. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that, and I had almost forgotten how vibrant our downtown can be when there are events taking place. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like at the end of January, when everyone and their mother is downtown for the Super Bowl. The new plaza on Georgia Street, however, is pretty much just a walkway right now. I guess there will be more going on during the Super Bowl, but for now it’s just another place to walk. I went from there toward Virginia Avenue to check out the progress on the Cultural Trail, but then I changed my mind once I got to the sort-of three way intersection of Washington, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. With the sun down, it was getting colder in a hurry, and it’s a long way down Virginia Avenue to Fountain Square—and then back again. Amy and I had seen part of the Virginia Avenue leg of the Cultural Trail in its nearly-completed state when we ate at Siam Square for her birthday, earlier this month. Driving home, I observed that much of that leg of the trail was complete in Fountain Square itself, and in the downtown section—but that whatever they were going to do with it where it passed over the interstate still had much work to be done.

So instead of embarking on that long walk, I went up Pennsylvania Street and headed back toward the car; and it turned out to be fortuitous that things turned out that way, because as I was walking up Pennsylvania Street, I saw one of the 46 for XLVI murals on the south wall of the Summit Realty building at 241 North Pennsylvania (across the street from the courthouse). It was dark, and my blood was pumping from the walk, and I was feeling good—and then I saw the painting, of one guy in a hat playing the piano, and another guy sitting nearby with what looked like a cup of coffee.

Though the plaque on the building describing the mural proved my first thought incorrect, the painting made me think of what it might have been like in one of those old speakeasies, in the Jazz Age. I got a very Midnight in Paris kind of vibe, like a car was going to pull up next to me and Scott Fitzgerald would lean out and invite me to come have a drink with him and Zelda. Obviously, that did not happen; but I was headed toward Mass Ave, and I knew of a few places up that way where I could keep the feeling of that vibe going.

As I got further away from the Wholesale District, the sounds and footsteps of people out and about with the Pacers game on their minds became fainter, and after awhile it was just me out on the sidewalk, and I turned up Mass Ave and headed toward Agio, which has been closed for awhile now; and even though it has been closed now for some time, it looks almost as though you might be able to unlock the doors and get right to work serving dinner. You’d have to sweep out the leaves that have blown into the outdoor seating section, but all of tables inside are set with plates and folded napkins and silverware, as though the staff had prepped the place for the next day’s service before leaving one night, and then simply failed to come in the next day. It’s vaguely creepy, and reminds me of the way Stephen King describes one of the towns in ‘Salem’s Lot other than the eponymous one—a town that I think was called Momson, where it looked as though the people had just up and left one day, with dinner still on the table.

Then I ducked into the alley behind the Chatham Tap restaurant, an alley that is actually a tiny part of the Cultural Trail. It’s designed for people to walk on, but I would not have been surprised at all if there had been a car back there…the one with Scott and Zelda in it. Alas—again—it was not the case; but I was awfully glad that I had gone ahead and taken the walk that I had almost decided not to. It wasn’t the best day for a walk, but it was still pretty good for the penultimate day in December. Had it been as cold this December as it was last December, the storm that passed through today would have left several inches of snow on the ground, and I would certainly not have been out for a walk in that at night.

You can click here to check out information on those Super Bowl murals at the website of the Arts Council of Indianapolis. They have been painted by both local and national artists, and though they have gone up all around downtown only because of the fact that we are hosting the Super Bowl, they will remain as beautiful and amazing public art in our city for years after the Super Bowl craziness has passed. I have seen only a few of them, and I don’t intend to make a checklist and spend a day tracking down all of them. If I did that, I would miss the beautiful accidents like the one that led me to the “Pennway” mural this evening; and that’s one of the things I like most about walking around, both downtown and here in Irvington. I never know where or when I am going to be inspired by what I see or what happens.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Evolution of Bob Kravitz

I didn’t like Bob Kravitz when he first started writing a sports column for the Indianapolis Star. (I also don’t remember how long ago it was, but it was awhile. I’m pretty sure it was before they were assimilated by Gannett, back when the Star was as respectable as it was possible to be for a paper run by ultraconservative hillbillies.) I seem to recall his writing as being sort of mean-spirited and sarcastic (not unlike my own sometimes, but remember this was many years ago, and my awareness of self has been a long time incubating), and I got the feeling—I think—that he didn’t much like us. (Back then, I would have been filled with faux pride for Indiana. No longer, of course. Conservatives and other limited people probably feel right at home in a silly place like Indiana; but for anyone even slightly more evolved than that, the place is stifling.)

But Mr. Kravitz’s writing has evolved, as it was wont to do over time; my self-awareness and my thinking have both evolved, too; and I have come to find that I actually agree with some of the things that he writes. He once took the time to write a whole column about the way he writes, and why he says some of the abrasive things that he says. The bottom line was that, even though he was mainly a sports writer, part of his job was also to sell newspapers; and that meant that he would often write things that were designed almost or entirely to get a reaction—to get someone to buy the paper. I like that he copped to that, and I’m stunned that the paper let him get away with it.

And so I wonder how a Bob Kravitz column about the game Indiana lost to Michigan State last night would have read all those years ago. You have to factor out certain things, of course, like the fact that, all those years ago, Bob Knight was still the coach at Indiana. He was disliked as much as he was liked, especially by those possessing no affinity toward Indiana University, and its basketball program in particular. These days, however, Tom Crean is the coach at Indiana, and it would appear that he is genuinely liked and respected across the board. It would have been easy for Mr. Kravitz to be snide toward Indiana under Mr. Knight, and not so much for him to be snide toward Indiana under Mr. Crean—especially given the remarkable amount of progress that Indiana made in just its first twelve games this year.

The column in today’s paper, however, was not at all snide—no trying to sell papers here, just an honest look at what happened last night at the Breslin Center in East Lansing; and what happened was that Indiana got beat. It was the first loss for a much-improved Indiana team, on the road against a Michigan State team that had won 11 straight after dropping their first two games of the season to North Carolina and Duke—not exactly cupcakes. Mr. Kravitz pointed out things that Indiana has been doing well all season, but which they did not do well last night, including free throws, three point shooting, and getting production out of freshman phenom Cody Zeller.

And this was another one of those tests for an Indiana team that has not had much to brag about the last few years. So far this year, they have managed to obliterate cupcakes in Bloomington, stay competitive in games where they don’t dominate, win road games against respectable teams, and play hard and stay in the game with a ranked opponent at home. The icing on the cake was that remarkable win against Kentucky, on Christian Watford’s last-second three point shot. The Hoosiers faced those challenges—and won them all. What they had not faced so far this season, before last night (and with apologies to N.C. State fans), was a road game against a genuinely good team; and it’s the one hurdle they could not clear. Mr. Kravitz is correct, however, when he says that “this group is for real.”

Mr. Kravitz had a column about Purdue’s Robbie Hummel, earlier this year, that I also enjoyed. (I think I may have written about that in one of my NaNoWriMo warm-up posts.) I don’t know if the guy has mellowed with age or what; maybe it’s just that he genuinely loves sports and is inspired by what’s going on with Indiana and Purdue basketball. He’s also written some good columns about what has gone wrong with the Colts this season, and he tends to be critical of Bill Polian, which I totally support. (Bill Polian tried to use some expired passes once, and got pissy with me when I said that he couldn’t use them. Here’s one of the biggest big-shots in the NFL, and he gets pissy over twenty bucks worth of expired passes. Really? I wish I could say that he just accepted what I said and went on about his business, but like most customers these days, he just kept griping and complaining, like a child, until I let him use the passes. I don’t know who coined the phrase “the customer is always right,” but that person clearly never had to deal with actual customers. They have signs on the wall at a Jimmy John’s sub shop that I go to sometimes that say, “The customer is usually right.” [Emphasis mine.] I think even that is giving them too much credit. Based on my experience, customers are—maybe—a percentage point or two slightly more evolved than cattle. And usually wrong.)

But I digress. If you haven’t read Bob Kravitz in awhile, go check out the column. If you had formed a negative opinion of him from his early work at the paper formerly known as the Star, you might be surprised by this one.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Englished, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Girls with Tattoos

When it was first announced that an English version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was going to be made, I was irritated, without being asked to be, on behalf of all of the Swedish people who did such fine work to bring to release both the novel and the original Swedish film. I thought the making of an English version of the film was just a stupid sap to the weak people who refuse to see movies that they “have to read,” and I made up my mind not to see it. And then I was talking to Heather at work one day last week, and after stating my position on the movie, she got around to asking me what about translations of novels, from their original languages into English?

It’s not exactly the same thing, but it got me thinking. I can’t read any language besides English, other than a little bit of French—but not enough to sit down with a novel in its original French and be able to get anything out of it. There is no way that I would ever be able to consume Don Quixote or Crime and Punishment or One Hundred Years of Solitude if it were not for the translations of those novels from their original languages into English; but I can enjoy foreign films without knowing the original language because of two things: subtitles; and the fact that I can see what is happening on the screen.

I knew in the back of my mind that there were movies I had seen and enjoyed that had been re-made into English versions after the original foreign versions had already come out, including The Birdcage, The Departed, Vanilla Sky (yes, I liked it; and yes, I know that I’m the only one who did), Unfaithful, and Twelve Monkeys. Then I searched Google for films in English that had been adapted from foreign language films, and I found a list on Wikipedia that contained quite a few films that I had enjoyed without ever having had any idea that they were originally foreign films. That list includes Mixed Nuts (once again, I am aware that I am the only one who liked this film), Three Men and a Baby, True Lies, Scent of a Woman (it’s possible that I knew this one had been Englished, but I can’t be sure of that), and—hang on—The Lion King.

That was about the point when I realized that my argument wasn’t going to hold up. That there is a film in English that was originally released in a foreign language is not in itself a bad thing; but something was still bothering me about it, about this particular film. The novels have been ginormous bestsellers for years, so why did it take Hollywood so long to decide that they wanted to make movies out of them? Or perhaps more to the point, why did it take the relative success of the three Swedish films to make Hollywood realize that they should make English versions? (According to Box Office Mojo, the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the 24th highest-grossing foreign language film of all time. The two Swedish sequels are 30th and 62nd, respectively.)

You know, though, the more I think about it, the more I think that the argument is completely falling apart. Filming of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo commenced in early 2008, and the third film had been released in Europe before the end of 2009. For those of you scoring at home, that’s three films in less than two years—a fairly torrid pace, even by Woody Allen standards. The first novel was not published in the United States until late 2008, after filming on the first installment had already begun. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Paramount was contemplating a film adaptation shortly after the publication of the first novel in the United States; but filming on the English version did not ultimately commence (with the film now at Sony, not Paramount) until late 2010.

I am going to assume that there is material out there that can shed some light on why it took so long for American studios to get around to making their version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; but I’m not going to take the trouble to locate that information. There’s a concept in the movie biz called “development hell,” and it’s not just a clever name. Note the fact that it was less than two years from the time filming began on the Swedish version of the first film to the European release of the third—and that it took David Fincher and Sony over a year to get from the beginning of filming to the release of just the first film in the trilogy (and never mind the two years between the U.S. publication of the first novel and the start of filmmaking for Fincher’s version).

Based solely on the small amount of research I have done for this post, it seems plausible to me that studios in the U.S.—major ones, at that—had more than a passing interest in making films out of these novels. The Swedes just beat them to the punch. (It would not surprise me in the least to learn that it takes far less time for a Swedish studio to make a film than it does for a major American studio to make a film.) It would seem that English version of these films were inevitable, not the result of the devious behavior of American studio executives who just wanted an easy ride on the (Swedish) gravy train.

Having said all of that, I have almost managed to talk myself into wanting to see this new version of the film—almost. I’m intrigued by some of the casting, including Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, and Robin Wright—thought not by Daniel Craig or Rooney Mara; and Fincher, of course, is Fincher. Though he churns out the occasional crappy movie (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), his early work on dark, grisly films like Se7en and Fight Club leads me to believe that he’ll at least get the mood right on this one. I suppose the prospects for the English version could have been much worse—what if it had been a Michael Bay Joint?

I still probably won’t get around to seeing Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though not any longer because I necessarily hold a grudge against the picture or the people who decided that it needed to be made. Hollywood movies are about money, not art; and there is definitely money to be made with these films. I may get around to getting it from Netflix one of these days, and I suppose that I can hope that Rooney Mara is even a fraction as good in the Lisbeth Salander role as Noomi Rapace—but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Descendants

Matt King is a haole with Hawaiian blood that goes back a number of generations, and he is the trustee of 25,000 acres of nearly pristine land on Kauai that has been in his family for all of those years. As a successful lawyer, he is imminently qualified to determine the course of action to be taken with respect to which bid the family should accept when the time comes to sell that land. As a husband and father, he is less successful. He is a prudent, careful numbers guy, and not so much of a family man. When his wife suffers a severe head injury in a boating accident and goes into a coma, he finds himself in the position of having to care for two young daughters he barely knows. He has expended so much effort over the years to provide for his family that he has taken for granted that they will always be there for him, even though he is rarely there for them. Though he seems pretty well put together on the surface to outsiders, he’s actually sort of mess to the people who really know him.

I have a hard time buying George Clooney in this role—had a hard time buying it even as the film went on—but by the end, director and co-screenwriter Alexander Payne had me mostly convinced. He shot the film in cinemascope, to ensure good, tight close-up shots, and that’s probably the key to the film. The sometimes breathtaking location shots are very pretty to look at, but the story is another matter altogether. By way of those close-up shots, Payne forces the audience to look at Matt King as he begins to see the things he has refused to look at for so many years. The dynamics of dysfunction drive the narrative, as tragedy forces the characters to confront truths they seem always to have preferred to ignore.

The hardest part for me was trying to see the film through the eyes of someone who has not read the novel. I read the novel a few weeks ago, and thought it was quite good. Author Kaui Hart Hemmings (who makes a cameo in the film) does a good job of getting to the heart of the things that drive us most crazy about the people we’re supposed to love the most. She does this by writing in first person present tense, which allows Matt King to describe to the reader both what is going on currently, and what led those things to happen. It’s a fine device for a novel, and Hemmings deploys it skillfully, but it’s difficult to bring to the screen, because much of what informs the story is in the main character’s head. That generally translates into voice-over narration, and that is the case here.

And it’s not as though Payne doesn’t do a good job with what he has given himself to work with. In fact, pretty much everything in this film is done very well; I’m just not sure that there’s enough of it. Clooney eases into a role that’s one step removed from the kinds of roles that he steps into with ease—Ryan Bingham in Up In the Air, Danny Ocean, the eponymous Michael Clayton—but by the end of the film, he has mostly nailed it. Matthew Lillard wasn’t as bad as I thought he was going to be. I kept picturing Stu from Scream, but he’s aged fifteen years since that film came out, just like the rest of us. He’s not the actor that Clooney is, but he does just fine in a relatively small role. Shailene Woodley does well in the role of Alex, Matt King’s eldest daughter. She is away at school when we join the story, and the circumstances of that situation are never fully revealed. Woodley plays her as the teenage rebel we presume that she is, but she also shows us with Alex’s guard down, at times when the defiant young woman is overcome by emotions she hardly knew were there.

That’s where I have the most trouble seeing the film through the eyes of someone who hasn’t read the novel. Most of the characters feel vaguely incomplete, which makes it difficult to connect with them emotionally. Too much of the time, I got the feeling that Payne was relying on plain vanilla social conventions to generate emotion and drama. We should feel sadness and sympathy for someone who is in a coma and is probably going to die; we should feel anger and resentment at the prospect of marital infidelity; we should feel consternation (but also, of course, love) for children who buck authority wantonly and often fail to do what they are told; and we should feel contentment when, in the end, people do the right things.

All of those things are lovely and noble; but in and of themselves, they are not interesting. I didn’t quite feel a strong enough connection to these characters to become emotionally invested in what was happening to them—at least not as contrasted with the masterful way Hemmings dissects the same characters and lays them bare for the reader to examine. By way of example, there is a scene toward the end in which a piece of very bad news is related to King’s youngest daughter; but instead of letting the scene play out, with the attendant pain and awkwardness, Payne gives us the scene in a muted montage, avoiding, as he does throughout the film, the hardest things that these characters have to face.

I wonder if the characters might have felt more developed if Payne had used a few more strategic bits of voice-over or allowed the characters to talk to each other a little more in the quiet moments—rather than using so many lingering shots of the landscape. Matt King’s character explains in voice-over, early in the film, that even though Hawaii is beautiful, it has its bad neighborhoods and dirty streets and downtrodden citizens, just like the other forty-nine states; but this bit of exposition is a bait-and-switch. Those parts of Hawaii undoubtedly exist; but they have nothing to do with this story, just as Hawaii itself, both as a place and as a concept, has far less to do with the story than Payne seems to believe. He has constructed a fine—but not great—film, but only a fair adaptation.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Deep Thoughts #67 - Special Topical Reactionary Twit Edition

Twitter should encourage this apologizing for nothing thing nationwide. People would tweet even more meaningless drivel than they tweet now!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

If you take away that Elton John song; the shot of her standing over the sidewalk vent from The Seven Year Itch; that she was married to a couple of the guys she was married to (Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio are the ones I’m thinking of, and I guess I’m not 100% sure that she was actually married to DiMaggio); and maybe a handful of the films she was in (the aforementioned picture with the infmaous street scene, Some Like it Hot, and…yeah, those are actually the only two that I can come up with), then the only thing I could tell you for sure that I know about Marilyn Monroe is that she was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived.

And that, contends this new picture starring Michelle Williams as the iconic Monroe, might just have been the problem. The film tells the story of the week that Colin Clark spent with Monroe while he was the third assistant to director Laurence Olivier while the latter was filming The Prince and the Showgirl, which starred Monroe. It’s a little bit dangerous for me to write anything about this film, since I don’t, in fact, know all that much about Monroe. There is a subset of human being that obsesses over her, and I can totally believe that they spend a lot of time patrolling the magic internets so that they can flame anyone who gets even the most minuscule fact about Monroe wrong.

I thought that, anyway; and then I found proof positive of it when I landed on the Amazon page listing the book upon which this film is based, one that collects two books by Clark into a single volume for the first time—The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me: The Colin Clark Diaries and My Week with Marilyn, the first being Clark’s diary from the set of the film, and the second being a memoir of the period. There are two user reviews, both of which seem to take great umbrage at the fact that Clark’s books do not square precisely with how they have come to know their dear, dear Marilyn. The second of these goes on and on about how Clark could not have been on hand to witness Monroe having a miscarriage.

I don’t know how that plays in the book (though I do plan to read it, so I guess we’ll see), but I can tell you for sure that the miscarriage scene is so quick as to be inconsequential in the film. David came in while I was watching the film last Tuesday night, to tell me that he had finished watching his own movie and was getting ready to leave; and in the one or two minutes we were talking, the miscarriage scene came and went, and then was not alluded to again. The Amazon reviewer writes as though Clark has personally besmirched him, noting that Monroe, having passed, cannot defend herself. Perhaps the reviewer did not take the time to learn that Clark has also passed and is also unable to defend himself.

Alas, however, this is not a documentary. It is a dramatization, and as such, it has to conform to certain standards pertaining to the narrative arc. There are not a great many people whose lives have been textbook narrative arc material, which is another way of saying that even many of the most interesting people who have ever lived need to have a few things either made up about them or embellished up from the foundation of the truth in order to make their life stories interesting enough to sustain modes of entertainment like novels and feature films. (Which is not to say that people should just make stuff up about other people in order to sell books and movies. But at the same time, people need to realize that sometimes the larger story cannot be told without an exaggeration here or an embellishment there. No matter how much care is taken with the procurement and presentation of facts, even the most the rigorous piece of non-fiction is, at bottom, also a work of fiction.)

So with all of those annoying caveats out of the way, what else is there to say about the movie? The big thing is that Michelle Williams is excellent as Marilyn Monroe. She plays a Monroe who is both confident and terribly insecure, and in many scenes she says just as much with her eyes as she does with words. Her version of Marilyn Monroe gives us the young woman who wants to be more than just the manufactured sex symbol—except that she can’t manage to convince anyone that there is more to her than her sex appeal; it is both her stock in trade and the seeming bane of her existence, a self-fulfilling prophecy in which she is both trapped and aware that she is trapped.

The script takes some liberties with history, compressing time so that Clark can be on hand for the aforementioned miscarriage, and so that he can be there for Marilyn to hang out with after husband Miller returns to New York. According to the commenter on the Amazon site—and yes! I’m using an internet commenter as a source!—Miller had left for America and then returned to the UK in time to be there for Monroe’s miscarriage, a fact that would have precluded quite a bit of what happened in the film; and whether that internet commenter is correct or not, much of what takes place when Clark and Monroe get to spend time together has the feel of a fairy tale—which I think in the end comes back to haunt the film.

Eddie Redmayne is fine as Colin Clark, neither overly impressive nor particularly awkward. Kenneth Branagh is over the top as Olivier, but after all these years, does anyone really expect Branagh to be anything but over the top? I don’t know anything about Olivier either, but Branagh’s performance seemed to fit the character pretty well; and for all of that bluster, there were a few genuine moments that an actor less nuanced than Branagh (who can be so when he wants to be) might have fumbled. The saddest part of the movie is the waste made of Emma Watson, in her first live-action role in a film that does not begin with the words Harry Potter. She plays the production’s costume girl that Clark had been flirting with and had asked out—before he became so besotted with Monroe. She doesn’t have much of a part, and so can probably be forgiven for failing to bring much to her few lines; but it would have nice to be able to see her flex her acting chops without the aid of a wand. (That chance is coming, however; Watson stars in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for the Gen Y set, next year.)

The point of a movie like this is to see Marilyn Monroe as portrayed by someone else; everything else is ancillary, including the background story, and some of that background material gets short shrift here. A lot of the time, a sudden, intense attraction between two people turns out to be a temporary thing. In Clark’s case, the attraction was one-sided; Monroe simply used him to get things that she wanted or needed. (I suppose you could make the case that she was attracted to him too, but I think it’s a weak argument, especially considering how manipulative Monroe—as portrayed by Williams—tended to be.) The grounded-in-reality part of the story that frames the would-be fairy tale, then, should either be razor thin and without serious distraction, or fully involved in the initial and further development of the character at the heart of the fairy tale. Neither is the case here, unfortunately. The addition of the Watson character muddles what the audience is given to ponder about Colin Clark, and that also takes away from the clarity of the fairy tale.

The filmmakers seem to get the idea that they have an interesting story to tell, but they seem to have much less of an idea about how to place that story in a larger context. It’s almost as though they expended so much effort on the Marilyn parts that they didn’t have enough left in the tank for the rest of the film; and it’s important for the rest of the film to be strong, or else Williams’ performance is just a performance, and not a part of something greater—but I’m afraid that in the end, that’s what we have: a really strong performance by Williams, and not much more than that.

Winning & Blegging

I can barely believe that almost the whole month of November has already shot by. I was all giddy to get started with National Novel Writing Month back on the 1st, a Tuesday. It was just about all I could do to wait until midnight on Monday night to start writing, but it worked out for me. I got to 50,000 words last night, and validated the word count for my second NaNoWriMo win in a row. It was the wee hours of the 28th, but for me it was still the 27th, so I count that as having gotten to 50,000 words three days early—better than last year by two days. By every conceivable metric, it was a better NaNoWriMo for me this year than it was last year.

Unfortunately, what I have now is a scattershot sort of manuscript that bounces all the over the place and pretty much completely lacks cohesion. I kept making up new sections as I went along, going with whatever thread felt like it was going to bring forth words each night when I sat down to write—but I’m sort of excited about taking what I have now and weaving it into something coherent. It has many of the elements that I have tried (and failed) to write about in the past, including college and the Mafia; but there are also things I’ve never even thought of writing about before, like one character who went to Japan as a foreign exchance student and wound up getting heavily involved in the burgeoning ramen trend—and she might wind up having a brush with the Yakuza too, I’m not sure.

And what’s sort of funny is that I wound up writing much less about Irvington than I would have guessed was possible for a book that I intended to be a long novel about Irvington. Part of that is because I’m still trying to work out how I want Irvington to operate as a character in the story, part of it is because I still need to figure out how each of the things that are important to me about Irvington fit into the larger story, and the last bit of it is that I need to gather more information on the darker side of Irvington. I have made a small amount of progress on that front by getting books out of the library; but I have also run into problems in that regard, too.

I have so far been unable to find well-written books about haunted places in Irvington and Indiana; and it happens that my luck is actualy getting worse. I’ve read the Irvington Haunts books a couple of times each now, and the writing in those books, while not remotely good, is at least passable. Where my luck has gotten worse is with a book called Haunted Backroads: Central Indiana (and other stories), by Nicole R. Kobrowski. The writing in this book is actively bad and completely inconsistent. The Kobrowski book and both volumes of the Irvington Haunts books list Westfield, Indiana, as their publication address, which does little to raise my opinion of the wasteland that is Hamilton County. This is where the blegging part comes in: I would love to read some books about haunted places in Indiana generally and Irvington specifically, and I would love for those books also to be well-written. If anyone out there knows of any books that fit both categories, I would love to hear from you in the comments section.

I have two others that I got from the library last week: Haunted Travels of Indiana, by Mark Marimen; and Hoosier Hauntings, by K.T. MacRorie. Neither of them is published out of Westfield, Indiana, so I guess there’s that; and neither of them is very long, either. There is also a series called Haunted Hoosier Trails that I plan to look into, but if these other two are disappointing, I may have to give up on that for awhile.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Two Constitutionals in Haunted Irvingotn

This started out as a blog about National Novel Writing Month, and then would up becoming one about the walks that Jackson and I take around Irvington each Wednesday afternoon when the weather is nice. When I started typing up these notes at work the other night, it was about NaNoWriMo and how well that was going so far this year; but then it took a long detour around the places where we walked last Tuesday (we took our walk last week on that day because I needed to go vote—and that ended up being a good thing, because the weather on Wednesday was not remotely conducive to taking a walk), and how my memories of those places is helping to shape the things I am writing about for NaNoWriMo this year.

We stared out by going over to the Irvington Presbyterian Church, by way of the library so I could drop off some items, and then after I voted, we went over to Lazy Daze; and then after that, we walked back around Johnson Avenue to Audubon Road and took that south to Irving Circle, which we followed one quarter of the way around, to University Avenue. I don’t remember precisely why I chose to walk along University, which I usually avoid because the sidewalks are horrible if you’re pushing a stroller, but that’s where we went; and when we got to the intersection of University and Oak, I realized that we had never—that I could recall, anyway—continued along the stretch of Unversity that goes from Oak to Arlington (on foot).

Irvington is the old stomping grounds of a great many people that I met in college—including my wife—and one of the many nice things about living in Irvington and taking walks around the neighborhood is that I get the chance to reminisce on those days when I happen to pass by a house where one of those friends from college used to live. There are two such houses along that stretch of University between Oak and Arlington, though I don’t remember the exact location of one of them, just that it’s along that stretch of University. So instead of passing it by, we went down that stretch of University, and then wound up at the corner of Arlington. Nothing really caught my eye or got my attention, though, so I didn’t linger on it—and instead thought about walking by another Irvington landmark, though one that bears no relation at all to anyone I knew in college (or so I thought before I sought it out).

For some reason, I looked up H.H. Holmes on the magic internets the other night, and I found a website that I had seen before but not marked, maintained by the people who currently live on the lot where once there stood a house that was rented by one Mr. H.H. Holmes. Legend has it that Holmes took up residence in the house specifically so that he could bring a young boy there and kill him, thereby adding the house (which was either demolished at some point or…moved?) to the haunted lore of Irvington. (The story is dramatized in a novel called The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, and there is also a documentary about it available on DVD.) While looking at the website, I noted the address of the house that currently occupies the lot where the Holmes house once stood. I knew by the address number—5811 Julian—that it was a place I had walked past at some point, but that particular Irvington legend had never stuck with me, so I had never marked the address the way I had marked others. But since I’m working on a very long Irvington story for NaNoWriMo, I’ve been trying to make note of more of those types of things—so I decided that I wanted to walk by the house and have a look.

When I first thought about walking by that house, I had planned to save it for Wednesday, when I would have more time to be out and about, without having to worry about getting home at a certain time so that I could go to work. But that Tuesday it didn’t take long to vote, and it also didn’t take long to stop at the library or the coffee shop—and the unexpected jaunt out University to Arlington pretty much meant that I could swing by the place on my way home without going any further out of my way—and at that point, there was still plenty of time left in the two hours that I had budgeted for the walk. So away we went, going north along Arlington to Julian; and I resisted the urge to get off of Arlington (or its sidewalk, at any rate), thinking—correctly, as it turned out—that none of the cross streets would lead me to where I wanted to go without some serious backtracking. So we turned left on Julian, and I started looking out for number 5811.

And it turns out that 5811 Julian is at the corner of Julian and Bolton—and that the house is literally three doors down (sorry) from another of those houses where someone I knew from college used to live. I grew up way the hell out near 10th and Post, where nothing remotely interesting has ever taken place. But all of these people I used to hang out with in college grew up in Irvington, including the girl who used to live on Bolton, three doors down (sorry again) from the lot that used to be owned by a fellow who is now thought of as America’s first serial killer. The website Holmes in Irvington, the one maintained by the people who live on the lot, indicates that as of March 2011, they were thinking of selling their house and moving on. I don’t know if I could sell my own house and move into that one—nor that it would be good idea to try, especially considering the roughly ten grand we’ve dropped on fixing up the house we currently live in—but man, does the idea of living on haunted land strike a chord with the overactive imagination that led me down the path of letters.

And wouldn’t you know that this story has an epilogue? The day after election day last week was very windy, and it got progressively colder as the day went on; and by the time I was ready to go out on my usual Wednesday walk with Jackson, it was not only windy and cold, but also a little bit rainy—not really rainy, but that fine sort of mist doesn’t give you enough cause to open your umbrella, but winds up getting you wet, eventually, anyway. It was an unpleasant day to be out in the world, at least with people who aren’t hardy enough to stand up very well to such things. Four-year-olds are not very hardy when it comes to cold, wet, windy weather; but I was too much in the mindset for a walk, even if it was going to have be a short one—and that’s what it wound up being, just a quick jaunt out to the coffee shop and then an even quicker nip past that Holmes house/lot one more time.

Nothing at all creative came to me that second time I walked past it, but I had had an idea for the title of my NaNoWriMo project the day before, after we had walked by it and I had started thinking about how close it was to a house I had actually been inside of once or twice before (and maybe that my wife had too, since she was good friends with the person who used to live there when they were in high school together), and about all of the other things in Irvington that are either haunted or are reputed to be. The unexpected Tuesday walk wasn’t just a good walk for a Tuesday, it was a good walk, period; and I had almost passed on it, because we never go for walks on Tuesdays.

Next: An actual post about how National Novel Writing Month is going for me this year, and hopefully some pictures of Jackson. I got the big idea to separate all of the Jackson pictures from the non-Jackson pictures, and then label and categorize the non-Jackson pictures, mostly so I have an idea of what Irvington things I have photographed, so that I can go back and look at those things for reference, if I need to.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

There’s a fine line between finding out enough about a film to decide whether or not you want to see it and hearing so much about what other people thought of it that you wind up with your mind part of the way made up before you even sit down in the auditorium. That nearly happened with me and this film, because I heard from most of the people who watched it before we opened it that it wasn’t all that good. On the one hand, that gave me a bit of hope, because I often tend to like the quirky indie pictures that other people find irritating or boring; but on the other hand, the opinions were pretty much negative or blandly equivocal across the board. That doesn’t bother me when it comes from the general public, which tends to like bad movies and not even understand good ones; but our staff is several notches more evolved than the general public when it comes to film appreciation, which made their solid dislike of the picture a bit worrisome.

That didn’t kill my desire to see the film, but it did color what I thought of probably the first third or so of it when I watched it last Friday night after I got off work. Things that I like when other directors do them got under my skin here. This is director Sean Durkin’s first feature, and early on it felt very much like a first feature. There were a lot of shots in the beginning of a stationary camera that simply observed what happened in the frame, not moving when the focal point of the shot moved off screen. That’s classic arthouse technique—just sit there and watch while I capture art, rather than chase it all over the place like a spastic cat. Kelly Reichardt is practically an expert at composing a shot and letting that shot speak for itself; but then, she was a professional photographer before she started making films, so she had that kind of training. I’m having a spot of trouble finding out what else Durkin has done, other than a couple of shorts—well, apart from film school. He obviously went to film school, because he’s clearly showing us all the artsy things that he learned there.

But really, that’s just picking at nits. It isn’t that his shots aren’t well composed, it’s just that I was ready to be disappointed by what I was about to watch; and it didn’t help that it looked a lot like he was trying to replicate something that a director I admire very much is very adept at herself. Durkin’s temporal cross-cuts weren’t bad either—and probably would have seemed pretty clever and well executed if I hadn’t already seen them done, and in much the same way, by Derek Cianfrance in Blue Valentine; but the thing with Cianfrance’s cuts in the earlier film is that his were much more jarring—you didn’t realize that he had skipped backward or forward in time until something happened in the scene that was completely out of sync with what took place in the previous scene. By contrast, Durkin foreshadows most of his cuts; and while this serves the higher purpose of informing his characters, it feels like another chapter out of the film school textbook.

I will grant you, however, that it’s an advanced chapter out of the textbook; and it’s to his credit that he wants to make sure the audience follows the progression of the narrative closely. This is a character-driven film that relies on Durkin’s ability (as both writer and director) to impart information gradually. If the foreshadowing feels a little bit ham-handed at times—and it does—that, too, is in the service of a higher purpose, allowing Durkin to make direct connections between Martha’s past and present, which helps the audience to get into Martha’s head—not at all an organized place to be.

The title of the film comprises the three names the main character is given at various points in the story. Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, a young woman with a troubled present predicated entirely on her troubled past. Some of the people I talked to before I saw the film said that nothing much happens over the course of the nearly two hours it goes on. To an extent, this is true; but what that analysis misses is that the whole thrust of the narrative is simply to get to know this girl, with very little offered up in the way of direct information. It reminded me of a card game I played a few times in college, called Mr. Mao. As the story went, the point of the game was to learn the rules. (You were also supposed to get rid of all the cards in your hand, but you had to learn how to do that by playing the game and learning the rules. It’s definitely the kind of thing that could get annoying, but I thought it was fascinating.)

It’s entirely possible that this particular narrative strategy, and the story it serves, are more film school tricks—but here I’m not so sure. It’s important for the audience to connect with the main character, and Durkin offers up an interesting challenge by making getting to know the main character the whole point of the film. It’s an ambitious feat for a first-time director, and that Durkin is ultimately able to pull it off redeems his reliance on standard tropes to get the thing off the ground.

And since the point of the film is to get to know its main character, it’s a little bit hard to say too much about the story itself without giving away that which makes the film a joy to watch. Olsen, aged twenty-two, has the voice and bearing of someone much older and wiser. At some point in her life, it seems that Martha joined up with a cult, led by the charismatic, but intensely creepy, Patrick (John Hawkes), who christens her Marcy May, because he must act as both creator and Christ figure to the women he keeps. That she is part of this cult is established early on; the specifics of her joining are never revealed, though the process by which anyone can be assimilated is hinted at later; and the reasons she might have had for abandoning her previous life and joining the cult are also hinted at later.

She escapes the cult—the only major issue I had with the film was how easy this seemed to be for her to accomplish—and winds up staying with her sister Lucy and brother-in-law Ted at their summer place in rural Connecticut. One of my favorite lines in the film comes the day after Martha escapes, when she is talking to her sister and she asks how far away they are. The sister says, “From what?” and Martha replies, “From yesterday.” It’s an easy leap from the literal to the figurative, but Olsen’s delivery is haunting. Martha spends the next several days trying to adjust to life on the outside without actually addressing what happened to her while she was “away,” the excuse she gives to her sister for having been out of touch for two years.

The balance of the film reveals things that happened to Martha while she was in the cult, a series of flashbacks that Durkin places in chronological order to show Martha’s gradual indoctrination into the cult—the process by which she goes from Martha to Marcy May; and as Marcy May climbs the ranks of the women on Patrick’s farm, the flashbacks reveal a series of events that should make the audience wonder whether everything is as it seems.

As a family drama, it doesn’t work as well as it might because the characters of Lucy and Ted are stubbornly one-dimensional. For most of the film, they seem almost willfully ignorant of how troubled Martha is, of how desperately she needs serious professional help to deal with what has happened to her. In this respect, Martha is an enabler—she fails to reveal exactly what happened to her. She makes only passing references to the time she has spent “away,” thereby neatly folding the episode into what is gradually revealed to be a lingering problem of how little Lucy was there for her after the passing of their mother.

If some of Durkin’s visual tricks early in the film are too clever by half, he more than makes up for it with how cleverly he employs ambiguity to propel the narrative. Is Martha so traumatized that she is unable to speak about what has happened to her—or is there something more sinister at play, something that forces her not to speak about what happened to her? Durkin uses this ambiguity throughout to ratchet up the suspense as the story unfolds, and ultimately he is able to craft an effective thriller out of what might have been merely a mildly interesting family drama. By weaving the two together, he demonstrates a far greater mastery of screenwriting than he does of direction. (And yet he is also able to coax this remarkable performance from Olsen, which does, in fact, demonstrate some directing chops—though it must be said that he gets a big boost here from Olsen, who is extremely gifted.)

Perhaps the strongest element of the film is just how satisfying and effective this ambiguity is, a feat that has flummoxed greater directors than Durkin. The Coen brothers could speak from personal experience, having crafted a series of ambiguities, toward the end of their version of No Country for Old Men, that were made much clearer in Cormac McCarthy’s source novel of the same name—to the consternation of many a viewer and reviewer; but Durkin does something so subtle that I am afraid it will be missed, and the damnable misery of it is that I just can’t bring myself to explain exactly how he does it. To do so would ruin the ending. When I mentioned the angle that I am thinking of to Dione at work, after we had both seen the film, she thought it was interesting, and said that it had not crossed her mind either while she was watching the film or when she talked about it with folks afterward; and she’s usually pretty good about reading movies like that, to pick up the little things that often get missed.

And this is definitely a film that begs a close reading. It’s also one of those that I’m going to be rooting for when Oscar nominations come out—and, if it gets some, a month later when the awards are handed out. This is the kind of difficult, challenging film that Oscar should pay attention to and reward—but seldom does. That this is the first major film for both Olsen and Durkin makes the achievement all the more impressive.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

National Novel Writing Month 2011 #1

I started on my NaNoWriMo project Tuesday morning (or Monday night, or whatever) at literally the stroke of midnight; but then, of course, I felt way too much pressure to get down something that was just right, and perfect, and so I wound up sitting there for like twenty minutes before anything came out. And then what came out wasn’t anything to write home about. I started to wonder about the wisdom of starting to write when I was only going to give myself about an hour to get 1700 words. (I expected to start on it Monday night after midnight, and then do more on it Tuesday afternoon, and maybe Tuesday night after work; but I wanted to start on it as soon as possible, because Tuesday is usually the toughest day of the week for me to get any writing done.)

Slowly but surely, though, the words began to take shape, and then they began to flow; and about one hour later, I had just over 1000 words. I thought most of them were pretty good, but what I liked best was the way the tone of those words struck me. I won’t say that I’m trying to write like Tom Perrotta, but I have a great appreciation for the darkly comic tone that he brings to his work. He often begins with seemingly tragic characters, and yet seems to wind up in a place where there’s a little bit of hope—not a riding-off-into-the-sunset kind of disingenuously cloying hope, but the kind of honest hope that makes you think you can wish for it to happen with at least a reasonable expectation that it might. I’m not precisely trying to write like that, but I do hope to tap into the same kinds of themes—whatever it is about middle America that makes people of certain means who get there wish that they had just kept going.

By the time I finished work Tuesday afternoon, I had over 2000 words, which is a very healthy start; and I managed to get a few more down at work, and by the time I knocked off for the night, with my first full day of writing complete, I was at almost 3000 words, which is a very good start—especially considering that I got that many words during the part of the week that is generally not all that conducive to getting a lot of writing done.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Halloween Poem

Before they go out for trick or treat,
This is what straw-colored fruit bats eat.

This straw-colored fruit bat lives at the zoo.

And this one is frightfully scary, too!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Too-Tender Hearts Upon Our Sleeves, Or Skin As Thick As Thieves

I recently read, I think in an e-mail from Indianapolis Monthly, that there was a new local food magazine called Edible Indy; and I thought I saw some people walking around with copies at the Irvington Fall Festival this afternoon, so I was on the lookout for whichever booth had sample copies that they were giving away. This was after we had been there for a little bit and eaten already and done one pass around all of the booths. Amy and Jackson were waiting in line for one of several bounce houses, and I was doing yet another pass to see if I could find the place where they were giving out that magazine*, and at one point I found myself looking at a dude wearing sunglasses and pushing a stroller…and sort of looking at me liked he recognized me, the way I was sort of looking at him like I recognized him.

For a second, I thought that he looked vaguely like Ana’s husband, Damien; but they are in Australia, so there’s no way that I would run into either one of them randomly like that at the Irvington Fall Festival. I almost kept walking, but then decided that there was no way that the person could have made me think of Damien, and been looking at me like he recognized me, and not actually be Damien. So I turned around and stopped and took another look, and sure enough, there was Ana, and in the stroller was their little girl, Nara Elgin; and of course, it was Damien. How I recognized him behind sunglasses on a street full of people when it had been years since I had seen him? No idea. No idea whatsoever. But there you go.

And I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say, despite the fact that I am super fired up about National Novel Writing Month starting here in a couple of days and the fact that I have just recently submitted three different stories—one of which I think is quite good—to three different writing contests, which constitutes as much real effort put into getting my work out there and published (and maybe paid for) as I have ever done. That didn’t come out right. What I meant to say was that I’ve only ever sent stories to about three other contests before, in all of the years that I have been writing and that I should have been sending things in to contests.

(And of course, I had to go back and figure out exactly how many contests I had entered since I started writing. I wouldn’t be moderately OCD if I could mention something like that, not be 100% sure of the exact number, and then let the thing pass. No…that would be semi-normal—none of that nonsense for me. And the answer, if you’re interested, is that I had previously entered four contests—two in late 2002, one in late 2003, and one in late 2009. I did not win any of them, but got subscriptions to [or prize issues of] the journals in question, and received a form rejection letter from two of them. I never read the copies of the journals that I got from the first three contests—until I cracked open the copy of Mississippi Review mostly by accident earlier this fall—but I did read most of the two issues that constituted the subscription to the journal for the contest I entered in 2009. I don’t have any record, near to hand anyway, of entering a fifth contest, but I have a copy of the Missouri Review on my shelf, and I can’t imagine that I would have just come across that at a bokstore and picked it up—especially since the date on it places it within the time frame when I was entering contests the first time. And of course, being moderately OCD [though undiagnosed], I will have to go back through some of my writing folders later tonight to see if I can turn up any record of having submitted a story to the Missouri Review.)

But boy, do I digress. The point was that I could not think of anything interesting to say to these two friends of mine—at least I hope that’s what they are—whom I had not seen in years, even though there were at least a few interesting—if minor—things going on in my life at the moment. I’m proud of those things, even if they’re not much, and I talk about them ad nasueum in this blog space—so why am I reluctant to talk about them out loud, to actual in-the-flesh human beings?

That, friends and neighbors, is a hell of a good question; and I don’t know that I have a good answer for it. It’s possible that I am not as proud of these little half-accomplishments as it feels like I am when I write about them at home, alone, in front of the computer. If it were not for the Stats that you can check on Google, I would not even be sure that anyone reads this blog anymore; and while that is fine—I have long maintained that what I am up to here is now mostly writing exercises for my own edification, and that if others find such material to be interesting, then that’s cool, but it’s not what motivates me to write or to post these musings—it may be creating some kind of false bravado, an artificial sense that I am doing anything more than writing in a vacuum.

I might also be blowing it way out of proportion, too. I hadn’t any coffee at that point, and I was heading in the direction of the coffee shop when I ran into them. Yes, I was keeping an eye out for that magazine, but I was also heading for coffee. It’s a dodgy business getting coffee at Lazy Daze on the day of the Fall Festival. I don’t know for sure if it’s their busiest day of the year or not, but I would be willing to bet that it is—and that means you can lose a lot of your day waiting in line. There is a Starbucks in Irvington, but I have no idea if it is their busiest day of the year, too. I have literally never set foot inside that store. I can’t really think of a valid to go into Starbucks at all, given how many great indie coffee shops we have in Indianapolis; and I certainly can’t of a valid reason to go into a Starbucks when one of those great indie coffee shops—maybe the greatest of them—is literally two blocks away.

The truth of the matter, though, is probably that I am just socially awkward—or that I have become socially awkward over the years. I tend to avoid that kind of social interaction, but once I realized that it was, in fact, Damien I had seen, I wanted to turn around and say hi to those guys. In fact, it felt like I wheeled around so fast that there might have been a collision if someone had been walking too close behind me. And then when I got turned around and said hi, I didn’t know what else to say, nor how to say it. Looking back on it now, with the benefit of a few hours, I probably looked and sounded like an idiot.

I have trained myself to avoid running into people like that, because I am not proud of the fact that I am still doing the same stupid shit I was doing thirteen years ago when I got out of college. I’m still working at a movie theatre (and even if it’s a little bit better than the movie theatres I have worked at in the past, and even if I spend more time now thinking about cost of goods and payroll dollars than I do popping popcorn and sweeping floors, it’s still a movie theatre, one that, I’m sorry to say, is getting more and more like the ones it used to be better than as each day goes by); and I still haven’t published any writing. I haven’t really even written anything for anyone to reject, other than those aforementioned stories—and the ones from those first few contests were not very good. It’s so rare for me to want to see anyone from back before I hadn’t done anything with my life that I literally have no idea what to do or what to say when that does happen. My brain cannot compute what is going on in front of its thin candy shell.

But oddly enough, for all of that looking and sounding like an idiot, if that was indeed how I came off, and with the benefit of being able to think about it in the hours since—I have figured out something important about myself; and that is that, though I have over the last couple of years made progress with my writing and am proud of that, I still experience the reflexive emotion of not being proud of what I have done with my life since college. (And that lack of pride has nothing to do with Amy and Jackson. They’re awesome. I’m talking about work here. Things I have done—or in this case, not done.) I am extremely happy with and proud of what I have accomplished over the last couple of years, including two very short stories published in Ichabod’s Sketchbook, winning National Novel Writing Month last year, submitting three stories to contests this year, mostly completing a draft of a novel within the time frame I set for myself earlier this year, writing in my journal every day, and focusing the things I write in this blog in a way that I hope is helping me to always improve and sharpen my writing. It’s not enough just to have done those things that I feel good about, and to feel good about having done them. I also have to feel good about sharing the things I have done and how having done those things makes me feel with the people that I care about.

* Yes, I know that that seems like a lot of work to go to for a magazine. I could easily afford to subscribe to the magazine, which is $32 a year for four issues; but that’s not the point. The point is that it would be foolish to throw down any amount of money on an unknown when you can get a sample for nothing. I can hope for something that is as good as Lucky Peach, but I probably won’t be that…ahem…lucky. (And yes, given my occasionally vocal disdain of Dave Eggers, I’m a little bit surprised to hear myself express appreciation for Lucky Peach—but you have to give credit where credit is due, and Lucky Peach, or the first issue anyway, is a great magazine.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Monster Season

I was all set to start writing another warm-up exercise today before I went to work, and it was going to be about Steve Jobs and Apple, a piece that I had started writing shortly after Jobs passed away, but which I stopped working on because there was already so much out there. I basically had what I have already written here, and then I checked my e-mail and got an IU basketball newsletter from the Star.

And then Bob Kravitz goes and drops a question in today’s column that is impossible for me to resist, so now there will be two things for me to write today, and an even bigger challenge. Can you do two 1700-word posts, thereby potentially getting two day’s worth of work done in the span of one? I have to return to the idea that it’s much easier to write when you are channeling things onto (virtual) paper that you already have in your head, which is what I have been doing with these long posts over the course of the last week or so; and I sort of wish that I could start in on my NaNoWriMo project, just to see if I really can get 1700 words on that as easily and quickly as I have been getting 1700 words on all of these other things. That would be cheating, though, and there’s no point in doing National Novel Writing Month if you don’t want to do it the right way, because the whole point of it is to be the kind of exercise that helps you to find out if you can do that kind of work in that amount of time.

So then, to Mr. Kravitz’s question. First we link to his column for today, and then we speak briefly about it. He makes twelve observations about the Big Ten (in honor of the twelve teams in the conference*), one of which is that, “If Purdue’s Rob Hummel can stay healthy and have the kind of season most expect him to have, it will be one of the best college basketball stories of the year. Even IU fans have to feel like rooting for this guy. (Right?)”

It’s sometimes hard for me to tell where the friendly nature of a rivalry ends for some people, and where it turns into outright dislike. I have talked about this once before, and it still puzzles me. Unless there’s a silly little trophy involved—which, in and of itself, has no more meaning than the game over which it is being played—how is it any sweeter for Indiana to beat Purdue than it is for them to beat anyone else? (Hell, anymore, it’s nice when Indiana can manage to beat anybody, regardless of whether or not it’s Purdue—and regardless of whether it’s in football or basketball) I can understand the concept of rivalry a little bit more with respect to the Colts and the Patriots, because there is often—though most assuredly not this year—something big at stake when those two teams play each other. Plus, for a long time it was the Patriots that the Colts could not beat—neither in the regular season, nor in the playoffs, when it really counted; and the Colts-Patriots rivalry is a relatively recent thing—maybe going back ten years, but probably less than that. Indiana and Purdue have been playing each in everything for like a million years or something.

Some years Indiana is better, and some years Purdue is better. I just don’t get the point of hating another school just because they are your rival. I know I’m not a very good sports fan anymore, but I just don’t get it—haven’t really understood it for a long time. I hope Robbie Hummel comes back fully healed and has a great season, even if it seems like the odds are against him. For those who don’t know, Hummel was a standout at Purdue through most of three seasons, before he tore his ACL and missed the end of his junior season. He was expected to return for his senior season, but then re-tore the ACL during a practice and missed that season as well. After surgery and rehab, he is on track to return (again) for his senior season this year.

And Indiana fans have sort of been in the same boat. Though not of the same caliber as Hummel, Maurice Creek has missed parts of the last two seasons at Indiana because of injury; and he, too, is on track to return to the floor this year—for what should be a much-improved Indiana team, with the addition of high school phenom Cody Zeller. So Indiana fans, especially, should understand what their Purdue counterparts are going through, and they should be rooting almost as loud for Hummel to come back and have a monster senior season as the Purdue fans are. I don’t imagine many of them are, but they should be. Purdue’s head coach, Matt Painter—who is going into his seventh year as the head coach at Purdue, and I can barely believe that that many years have gone by since he took over for Gene Keady—is doing a great job with that program, developing talent in much the same way that his predecessor did.

Tom Crean is slowly but surely getting the Indiana program back on its feet, after it was demolished by Kelvin Sampson. Crean has the aforementioned Zeller in this year, and he currently has the #1 recruiting class in the country coming in for 2012. Painter and his crew will have to be on their toes if they want to be able to compete with Indiana in the next couple of years—and that seems like the logical end to the concept of rivalry to me, a friendly kind of excitement when you think about the idea of playing a particular team. You want to beat your in-state rival for bragging rights, or whatever, but it should never get beyond fun and games, and there should be handshakes all around when the game is over. There’s always next year!

I just don’t get how it develops into the kind of thing where you hate the other team or wish any kind of ill upon their players or coaches. I felt those kinds of things when I was a kid—especially for the Duke teams after 1992, the year that Duke beat Indiana in the Final Four; but college basketball was more important to me back then than it is now, and the fact remains that I was, in fact, a kid then. I grew up, and then grew out of it, because there was no reason for me to continue to bear any ill will toward Duke. I’m not going to say that it wasn’t pretty sweet, ten years later, when Indiana improbably knocked off a much better Duke team in the Sweet Sixteen. Was it a little bit sweeter because it was Duke that Indiana beat? Sure it was—but that’s all it was, just a little bit sweeter. There’s nothing wrong with Duke because they beat Indiana in 1992.

In fact, it should be something of a point of pride to Indiana fans that Duke is as good a program as it is. Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke head coach, broke into coaching as an assistant at Indiana, under the tutelage of Bob Knight. He only spent one year at Indiana, but he went on to coach at Army, where Knight started, and then took the head coaching job at Duke in 1980. This past season, Coach K won his 900th game as a head coach, becoming only the second coach in Division I history to win 900 games. The first coach to 900 was Bob Knight.

Okay. That’s all I’ve got. My writing time is just about up for tonight, and this has not been as good a post as some of the others that I have been writing as warm-ups for National Novel Writing Month. In fact, I’m using this especially lame last paragraph pretty much just as filler to get to 1700 words; but that’s also part of National Novel Writing Month—forcing yourself to keep going even when the writing isn’t very good or isn’t pouring out of you quite as well as you would like. What you have at the end of the month is going to be crap. The time for revision starts on December 1st. Before that, all you’re doing is writing, and trying to get as much down as you can. If this were actual NaNoWriMo work, it would be a prime target for revision after November 30th; but since this is only a warm-up, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is keeping it going, and getting through to the end.

Oh, and the answer to whether or not you can get two 1700-word posts done in one day? No. Not at this point, anyway. That would have been a lot of writing, and would have required way more time in front of the computer than I had at my disposal today.

* Yes, there are 12 teams in the Big Ten. For years, it actually made sense, and there were only 10 teams in the Big Ten. But don’t ever listen to anyone who tells you that college sports is about anything other than money, because college sports is all about money. The Big Ten added Penn State to the mix in 1990, largely because Penn State was a football powerhouse in a conference that—up to that time, and apart from Michigan and Ohio State—was mostly thought of as a basketball conference. I believe the theory was that adding Penn State would make the Big Ten slightly more competitive in the Rose Bowl, a New Year’s Day game that traditionally matches the champions of the Pac-10 and the Big Ten against one another, and which has mostly been dominated by the Pac-10. Penn State has appeared in all of two Rose Bowls since they entered the league, but I guess maybe it might have been more if not for that whole Bowl Championship Series thing, which is the worst idea ever in the history of sports, other than Myles Brand.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Feedback Loop

It’s possible that I have not made a go of the writing yet because I failed to take college seriously enough. I got through five years of college (one of those years was only part-time, nine hours each semester) without taking a single 400-level course. The requirements for the degree (back then) stated only that you had to have X number of hours at the 300- or 400-level; it never said anything about taking a certain number of 300-level classes and a certain number of 400-level classes. I was always afraid of the 400-level classes because they sounded hard in the course catalog. They were probably supposed to sound hard, but I never developed the right set of tools for working as hard in college as I should have done. The problem was that I got along for far too many years getting pretty good grades without really putting in a whole lot of effort.

See, I skipped second grade, and I was in the academically-advanced class in elementary school for grades four through six. Then I was in the X classes—what we called the academically-advanced classes when we moved up to the big bad world of Creston Junior High—in grades seven through nine (back then, only sophomores, juniors, and seniors attended Warren Central). By ninth grade, my grades were starting to flag in some of those X classes, and my first year at Warren Central, as a sophomore, would be my last in X classes. X English was the last one, and at the end of the semester, the teacher interviewed each student individually and made a recommendation for the next level in English. Most of the X kids were going on to the two-course Great Books series, with the caveat that the courses would be difficult and rigorous. She recommended that I not pursue this course, and I wound up taking 20th Century American Fiction.

She was marginally notorious, among the students at the time, for having supposedly had a nervous breakdown. I don’t recall if this alleged breakdown occurred at school or elsewhere—though I’m sure I knew how the rumor had it back then—but the result was that people thought she was a little goofy. I don’t recall a strong opinion of her either way, though I remember that she talked very quickly and sometimes had to repeat words. She also introduced the whole bunch of us in that sophomore X English class, albeit inadvertently, to author Bret Easton Ellis. His most recent novel at the time, American Psycho, was creating something of a stir for its strong, graphic descriptions of sex and violence. Though a number of men met gruesome ends at the hands of Patrick Bateman, he was particularly awful towards women—first by having sometimes violent sex with them, and then by, you know, cutting them.

Today, of course, a random mention of a novel like that would surely not take place inside a public school classroom, but things were different then—or at any rate, frivolous lawsuits and class actions, brought by the kind of shady lawyers who by rights should meet their own ends at the hands of Patrick Bateman, were not remotely as prevalent as they are today. I was deeply into horror fiction and horror movies back then, so I immediately checked the book out of the library—I would have been, let’s see, 14 or 15 at the time, and there was no self-checkout at the library back then, so the staff at the Warren Library must have thought nothing of letting me check out such a book at that age. I didn’t understand the novel at all, of course, but I liked reading it, because the sex and violence parts were titillating, which was part of the point—though the wild excesses of 1980s Wall Street that led Bateman to commit such horrific acts were lost on me; but Ellis would remain on my radar, and I would go back years later and read the novel again (several times), and I also saw the film, with Christian Bale, and once I got the satire Ellis employed—Bateman at one point introduces himself to a couple of girls at a bar by saying that he’s into “murders and executions,” instead of saying “mergers and acquisitions”—I liked the novel even more. Ellis has become one of my favorite writers, and I actually like an earlier novel, The Rules of Attraction, better than American Psycho.

But that’s not the best thing that she did for me. Though I wasn’t happy about it at the time, the best thing she did for me was to recommend that I not go into the Great Books courses. She steered me toward 20th Century American Fiction, as I said, and it was in that class that I got to know Mr. Neal Shortz. He would go on to have more of an influence on the writer I was to become than any other person I have ever known. But in 20th Century American Fiction, he mostly just gave reading assignments and then left us to read quietly to ourselves in class. There was some class discussion, but I don’t remember if there were papers or tests. It was in that class that I discovered A Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath, and Winesburg, Ohio. I also had the misfortune of reading All the King’s Men, which at the time was one of the most boring novels I had ever read not having to do with adultery and red letters. I should probably have another go at it, though, because I am much more interested in its subject matter of political corruption than I was in those days.

The class might well have helped to shape my interest in literature, but the main thing it did was get me acclimated to the personality and teaching style of Mr. Shortz, who would be my teacher for College Research and Review (commonly known as College Comp), the following year; and it would be in that class that I would learn—sometimes the hard way—how to master the building blocks of grammar to craft solid, persusaive pieces of writing. I don’t remember what all of the specific class assignments were—the things we wrote about—but each week would start with…actually, I don’t remember exactly how the assignments started, either. Maybe we got the reading assignment on Friday and had to have it done by Monday, and then we wrote the composition in class on Monday. Either way, Mr. Shortz would set some sort of reading assignment, and then we would spend one full class period writing a composition on that reading assignment. We would get the papers back the next day and then have the opportunity to revise them in class and also to take them home that night to complete the revisions. However, if you turned in a composition that contained even one sentence fragment or run-on sentence, you got an automatic 65 and could not hand in a revised composition.

I turned in one composition that semester that had either a fragment or a run-on, but only one. I sort of wish I still had those papers, but I imagine that they got lost in the shuffle between high school and now and got discarded at some point. I do still have the big research paper that was the equivalent of a final exam for that class, though. We all had to choose a subject or person from the Harlem Renaissance and write a paper on that subject or person. I wound up with Langston Hughes, and it was not just an opportunity to put everything I had learned about writing that semester to use; it was also a chance to learn about one of the most interesting periods of art and literature and music in American history. That introduction paved the way for me to enjoy a number of different works by black writers in several different classes I took in college, including one whole class on black literature at IUPUI; and I wound up getting a 95 on that paper, which was an A-, from a teacher who very rarely gave A grades.

When I started college, I thought that I wanted to major in business management, because I had spent part of the summer between high school and college “working” at a comic book shop inside a flea market near our house. That last summer, the guy who owned the shop was going through a rough patch in his marriage, and pretty much let me run the show in his absence. I opened the shop, worked all day, and then closed the shop—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, every weekend. The owner even had me make the rent payment for him a time or two. I enjoyed the autonomy and the work, and thought that I had a knack for it. What I did not have was a knack for the prerequisite classes that you needed to get into the business school. Unfortunately, I kept at it until sometime during my sophomore year, when I finally decided to dump the B-school—after having completed so much of the prerequisite work that I was actually admitted to the business school—and take on an English major.

The seeds of not working hard enough in classes had been sown all throughout junior high and high school, as the work got harder and I was no longer able to get by on natural ability; and it didn’t help that I spent the first several semesters of my college career taking mostly classes that I didn’t care about at all. I was a solid C student the whole time I was taking business classes, and even into the semesters after I quit the business school; but I had moved up a whole letter grade by the time I graduated, finishing as a solid B student with a lit major—quite a ways from the yo-yo who couldn’t get into Great Books in high school. But if I had gotten into Great Books, I might not have had Mr. Shortz for College Comp, and the writing bug might not have bitten me as hard as it did.

The whole idea of a feedback loop seemed to work better in my head while I was thinking about it this morning at work. Now that I am at the end of this NaNoWriMo warm-up piece, the idea no longer seems so clear. By not working hard enough in high school, I managed to Plinko my way into a class with a teacher whose rigorous grading forced me to become a better writer in a very short amount of time; and yet in spite of how much better I got by working hard in College Comp, I coasted through college without working very hard and without speaking up much in class. I dropped really hard classes, and avoided the 400-level completely; and even after college, I still wasn’t working very hard, and it took me way too long to realize that I didn’t really know myself at all, that I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about, what I wanted to say. That, in some ways, goes back to family, what I wrote about in the previous post—and maybe that’s the real feedback loop. I don’t know if my lack of closeness to anyone in my family is because I didn’t express an interest in family, or because my parents never talked about it much, or because I wasn’t listening when they did. It’s probably a bit of each of those things, and it’s maybe too late in the game to try to pin down exactly what went wrong and why.

I am working hard now, though; and even if the writing doesn’t bear fruit—and by fruit, of course, I mean piles and piles of money—I sleep well knowing that it is good work, that it addresses themes that are important to me, and that the time I spend on it is time well spent, time spent learning more and more about myself and the world around me—and then, hopefully, expressing well with words those things that I have learned and that I am still learning.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Perfect Free Shipping for Large Price

After Shane M. White

So the thing I’m going to write about tonight is whether or not I should be a hypocrite when it comes to buying books on the magic Internets. Except, yeah, I’m not really buying books. I’d be buying two magazines, though both are girthy enough that they could pass for books. But you know what I did when I got online tonight? I looked them both up on Amazon, found them both for less money than I had expected to pay, and was nearly ready to check out when I thought that maybe I should at least call the Barnes & Noble at Clearwater Crossing to see if they were going to carry the one that is a current issue. Then I decided to call the other “nearby” Barnes & Noble stores to see if they were going to carry it. (I would not have had to call around if Borders still existed. River Crossing always carried Granta, and I would have just gone over between sets on Friday night and picked it up, no worries. But no—now I have to make calls, and check the Internet and whatnot.)

And just real quick, so you know what I’m talking about, the two magazines are Granta, issue 117, and The Comics Journal, issue 290. Granta is a quarterly literary journal—117 is the next one—with a different theme for each issue. The theme for issue 117 is Horror, and the issue features a new short story by Stephen King. I came by this information in a Stephen King Newsletter e-mail, but that e-mail also said that Granta 117 is available for sale on October 27th—that’s tomorrow to you and me, kids (or today, depending on when I get this finished and post it)—but the folks I talked to at Barnes & Noble tonight said that the current issue stays on sale until November 13th. Maybe it takes awhile for these things to get across the pond. (Granta is published out of the U.K.)

The Comics Journal stopped putting out a print magazine when they got to issue 300 in November 2009, but apparently came back with an even bigger issue 301 this past August. That’s what I’ve been able to gather from the Internet, anyway. Comics Journal 290 had a lengthy roundtable discussion with a handful of comics professionals and Monte Schulz, son of Charles, wherein they discussed the merits (or lack thereof) of the recently published biography of Charles Schulz, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, by David Michaelis. I read this biography and liked it very much, but the Schulz family, Monte in particular, has been very outspoken in their disappointment with it. Monte says that Michaelis cherry-picked his sources in order to support a pre-ordained agenda. Reviews of the biography, including one in the Wall Street Journal by Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, were positive, and I’ve been curious to read this roundtable, but I just never got around to getting online to get a copy of the issue in question. I happened to be thinking about it earlier tonight and realized that the cover prices of the issues would be more than $25, which would qualify for free shipping on Amazon—that’s mostly why I checked Amazon first. As will be made clear if you elect to keep reading, I looked into it further after I had that first inspiration.

I got a definitive “no” from the guy at the Clearwater Crossing Barnes & Noble. He told me about the re-evaluation they did with their magazines earlier this year—it’s all based on sales, he said…go figure, right?—but he also said that it looked like Granta had been dropped earlier than that. The folks at the Carmel and Greenwood Park Mall stores were less certain of themselves, but each eventually managed to conclude that the current issue doesn’t go off sale until November 13th. The Carmel store has that issue—I know because I have been to the store recently and seen the issue on the rack—but the guy at Greenwood said that they had not received any copies of the current issue, despite the fact that they usually carry the magazine.

I’ve been dropping money on literary magazines a little more than usual this year, partly because you need to know what kind of work journals are publishing if you want to submit to them, but also because I just like to read them, and I think that you ought to support the things you enjoy, to the extent that you are able. I don’t buy Granta very often, though, because it’s pretty expensive—cover price is $16.99—but the one or two issues I have bought I have thoroughly enjoyed. I know that the Stephen King story will just wind up being collected into his next book of stories that comes out, but I’ve always enjoyed horror writing in general, and I’m interested in the work of some of the other authors listed in the issue’s contents, including Don DeLillo and Roberto Bolaño. I’ve never read DeLillo, but have heard good things about him, especially a big novel he wrote called Underworld, which is set in New York, among other places. The late Bolaño has a pretty solid cult thing going on right now, mostly, I think, on the strength of his novel 2666, which I read last year and enjoyed very much. There’s also a story by Paul Auster, whose interview with The Believer I read not too long ago (and whose wife, Siri Hustvedt, was featured in a recent issue of Poets & Writers) and really enjoyed—one of the more enjoyable interviews in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers; and one by Daniel Alarcón, who read a Bolaño story called “Gómez Palacio” for a New Yorker podcast.

And now to procuring copies of both of these magazines. The library actually has a copy of Comics Journal 290, but it’s bound up in their archival magazines, and not available for checkout. I don’t recall exactly how long the Peanuts roundtable is, but it’s very long, and would take far too long to read for me to just sit there at a table in the library and knock it out. I called a few comics shops when I first heard about it, but none of them had back issues of the magazine, so that pretty much leaves just the Internet. I could probably come up with an excuse to go up to Carmel sometime and get a copy of Granta at Barnes & Noble, but it’s an awfully long way to go just for a magazine—and unless it’s a weekend trip, the traffic is bound to be bad

So the first place I looked was Amazon, where I found a used copy of Comics Journal 290 for $0.37, listed in “very good” condition from a third-party seller listed as “bargainbookstores”; but for $0.37, it could just about be falling apart at the seams, and I’d take it. They also had Granta 117 for $10.95, six dollars less than cover. The two together did not qualify for free shipping, but even with shipping at about four bucks for each item, the grand total would be less than if I had bought both at cover price and got the free shipping. The problem, of course, is that buying from an outfit like Amazon is part of the reason that bricks-and-mortar stores like Borders are going away. So I fired up Barnes & Noble to see what I could find there, and I found pretty much the same thing—used copy of Comics Journal 290 (it was even from the same third-party vendor, though here it’s $1.99) and new copy of Granta 117 at $10.95. The shipping was even the same, about four bucks each.

Not a whole lot of difference between the two, except that going with the Barnes & Noble website would at least be supporting a company that operates bricks-and-mortar bookstores. The online model might be cutting into actual sales at those bookstores that they operate, but getting my dollars that way instead of losing them to Amazon would at least help them to be able to continue to operate those bookstores. In the long run, of course, the few dollars that I am going to spend on this transaction are a drop in the bucket for either company, and will make no real difference in the grand scheme of things. Buying online will also push a tiny bit of business to the U.S. Postal Service, because I’m not about to spend any extra money to have it shipped in a day or two by one of those overnight couriers. The post office needs more help than Barnes & Noble, though, so in the end it’s probably a push. I help the post office by buying online, and I maybe help Barnes & Noble a little bit more by going out of my way to pick up the issue of Granta at their actual store in Carmel. (Of course, the sales tax would go to Hamilton County, which I’m not in favor of supporting, but what the hell? It's a buck and change. That won’t buy much in Brainardville.)

And then in the end I wound up not pulling the trigger on either transaction, the Barnes & Noble one or the Amazon one. No help from me for the postal service or the bookstore today. I’ll wind up doing it tomorrow, or making some excuse to go up to Carmel here in a week or two. There’s a new Stephen King book coming out on November 8th, and I’ll have to go by a Barnes & Noble to get that, and that might well be the excuse I need to go up to Carmel to see if they have Granta. I’ll have to go the Internet route at some point to get the issue of Comics Journal 290, and if that’s the only thing I’m going online for, it really won’t matter if I use Amazon or Barnes & Noble—except that in some small way it will matter, even though the fact that it matters won’t matter to anyone but me.