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.