On "Factotum" and "Basquiat"

I am concerned that all of the “good” artists and writers were on the fringe of society. Bukowski was a drunk and Basquiat was an addict. Critics claimed their work suffered when they were “clean.” Does one have to be repellent or an addict in order to be "Great?" Maybe not even just seen by others as Great, but even be capable of being Great? Many of the Great authors committed suicide or died in obscurity. Why? I am concerned that maybe they they understand things that others don’t, or that looking into the abyss for too long may make you cast yourself in.

I have spent a few hours (on the Internet) with Charles Bukowski and Jean-Michel Basquiat and I find them interesting and important. I had never heard of either of these artists before seeing the films about them, (Factotum and Basquiat) much the same as my fascination with Diane Arbus since seeing the movie “Fur.” With every new film I expand my appreciation for Art. I also believe in this idea or concept of Art, and that it is what makes us individuals and is innately human. Maybe it is that great capacity for individual creativity is what set apart Bukowski and Basquiat and in the end overwhelmed them.

Everyone should explore this ability even if it is just for themselves. Write-paint-draw-play-compose-move-dance-stitch-weave-construct-discover-CREATE. The capacity to create makes us human, and individuals.

The Death of Two Michaels

I have never really been struck by the death of a famous person. But the death of comic book artist Michael Turner STUNNED me, especially because he had been dead for several months when I found out. Maybe it was because he was my age. His art is a legacy that every comic book fan can recognize and appreciate. Maybe I was stunned because I had spent so many hours of my life collecting and searching for Michael Turner artwork. I had just assumed he would be around forever, like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I mean those guys are ancient, and the comic book industry is not a dangerous profession. I think Michael Turner brought the comic book industry back from the edge of obscurity and made every title he touched shine.

The recent death of Michael Crichton was also surprising in that I always pictured him as my age. (He was in his sixties actually.) He changed the way I thought about writing, and “Jurassic Park” was one of the texts in my Creative Writing class at Mankato State. I guess he helped me learn why I liked science fiction so much. Crichton’s ability to look just ahead of society and extrapolate our science and create a vision that was real enough to scare people. The social aspect of the future fascinates me, and I understand this because of Crichton.

To know that Crichton’s pen is no longer moving on the page and Turner’s pencil is no longer sketching at the drawing board makes me melancholy. That these two amazing people no longer share this round orb with me convinces me that I need to quit wasting time and make every second count. Thank you, Michael Turner and Michael Crichton for touching my life.

Imaginary Portraits

I love watching movies like Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, where I am left with many questions and quests. The quest of course can be many things, but in this case, I had no idea who Diane Arbus was, and felt I really needed to know her after the film was over. I of course started at Wikipedia, and then killed approximately two hours looking at Arbus photographs and reading about her life.

But this brings us to the question: Is a movie like Fur required to be "authentic" and factual? Can this work of art that stands on its own, be a valid work if it is imaginary? I guess what I liked about Fur specifically is that it tests the boundaries of what conventional movie goers expect. This is not a biopic per se, but a film about the essence of Diane Arbus. How does one capture an essence? I think of poetry, and how the medium of film is like poetry in that what poetry does with words, film can capture mood and tone with images. Arbus's pictures are that way, wrought with emotion, and I think the film captures that essence.

There is specifically one scene that is extremely thought provoking. When Diane's husband discovers that there is an emotional affair going on, and he discovers that her lover Lionel is going to die, he asks her, "What difference does it make. He is going to die anyway." I felt he was asking her, why is she hurting their family, and him so much by continuing on with her actions, if it is not going to come to any kind of fruition? My wife who was watching the film took it to mean that he was giving his wife (Arbus) permission to complete the affair physically, because it would not matter if Lionel was going to die anyway. Arbus kisses her husband and says, "I will go an end it." And proceeds to go up stairs and make love to Lionel. Is that really what the husband was expecting her to do? I thought that it was a nice piece of complex acting/writing to have two people watch the same scene, and have two distinctly different impressions about what was happening. It spawned several conversations about feminine and masculine perspectives, and a discussion over whether committing the physical act of adultery with a dying man really matter?
Nichole Kidman was captivating as Arbus in the film, she has that just so prim and proper manner about her, that when she is able to shed that veneer and show the true sensual woman inside her, it is powerful. I had a few moments during the film where I recalled Eyes Wide Shut, and I may need to see it again, now that I can't seem to stop thinking about this film.

The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard

So people are finally starting to figure out that Elmore Leonard is a master of fiction writing, and especially pacing and dialogue. Why Leonard is still "under the radar" is beyond me, but it would appear with his recent film successes he is finally getting some notoriety.

The Hot Kid is an excellent novel where Leonard has left his somewhat traditional Detroit for the dusty Prohibition Era Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bank robbers, gun molls, and U. S. Marshals make up the cast of characters that come alive as part of the intricate world that Leonard has created. U. S. Marshal Carl Webster is the at the center of the action, making a name for himself as a marshall who always gets his man. As we see Carl develop as a man and marshall, we see the parallel life of Jack Beaumont, and his rise to a nationally infamous wanted criminal.

Leonard excels in crime writing, and obviously the western. One of my all time favorite western short stories is The Tonto Woman. Now he can add historical fiction to the numerous feathers in his cap. Leonard has a way with dialogue and characterization that makes the reader even like the "villains". He name drops and alludes to activities that are not elaborated upon in the novel, but it gives a depth to the narrative and allows Leonard to jump off at any point and stick a short story in here and there to develop his world even further out side the confines of the novel. I had read two short stories, Louly and Pretty Boy (Louly becomes Carl's wife), and Tenkiller (the story of Carl's grandson), are both excellent stories in their own right, and it is definitely something I have learned from Leonard. The story does not end on the page. If you know, REALLY know your characters (enough to write tons of material about them) then that will translate directly to the page.

An Ode to Suzanne Pleshette, Tippi Hedron, and Daphne du Maurier

When I heard that Suzanne Pleshette died January 19, 2008, and that she was getting a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, it really got me thinking about The Birds, and her character Annie Hayworth. Tippi Hedren and Pleshette really could make the most out of a pregnant pause. Words would just hang in the air, and Pleshette just oozed sexuality. What blonde bombshell Hedron lacked in acting ability, she made up for in pluck and style. These two ladies sizzled on the screen, and for a classic like The Birds from 1963 to still hold the attention of a “modern” film going man, is a real testament to the film, the actresses, and the period. Where has the sensuality and subtlety gone in modern film? Maybe we don't give smoking enough credit. It is hard to pause for dramatic effect if there is nothing to occupy the speaker, no smoke hanging in the air, or ice in the low balls... but I digress. Suzanne Pleshette, you embodied an era.

Also worth pointing out in the film is that Alfred Hitchcock is also breaking some molds of his own. He used an unknown model to star in the film, and many of the roles of women in the film are not stereotypical. Well, maybe stereotypical with a twist: Melanie Daniels, self-aware socialite; Annie Hayworth, independent school teacher. But remember, the most knowledgeable person in Bodega Bay? Why the scholarly professor, Mrs. Bundy. Possibly a scene that puts a fine point on how Hollywood is trying to grow, is where Hedron is running an outboard motor boat in a full length fur, skirt-suit, handbag, and heels—but she can drive a boat! Don’t get me wrong, Hitchcock did not shake the world with the roles of his female characters, but you could see Hollywood struggling to break free of the mold.

Maybe it is because the original author of The Birds, Daphne du Maurier, was a fem-fatale herself. She wrote this science fiction story in 1952, probably while smoking her cigarette at the typewriter. One reviewer wrote that her fiction could be classified as escapist. I think today it would be called Speculative Fiction. Not many female authors in the 1950s were considered "escapist" writers.

Time, Art & Criticism by Paul Trembling

I was linking the fabulous website East of the Web to my blog page, when I stumbled across the excellent sci-fi short story Time, Art & Criticism by Paul Trembling.

A would-be artist, Taran Vechery, has used the alien technology of time control to capture a tree and make it grow from acorn to death in one minute, it grows, and the seasons change-- everything--then the process begins over again. The most influential art critic in the world, Demidi De Soliel, has passed judgment that what Vechery has created is not even art. But just an engineers imitation of life, and poorly done at that. After several attempts with different and more sophisticated pieces, Vechery still cannot convince De Soliel at creates a final sculpture that contains... De Soliel himself.

This is an excellent story that at its heart tackles the question, "What is Art?" Is a piece of work called "art" because the person who created it says it is, or does it have to mean something to someone else, too? Well then, what makes it "good"? This is something that every person asks himself or herself at some point in his or her life. How do we know what is beautiful? If something helps us illuminate the human condition, or touches us personally in some way, it is something that affects us. Why?

I think that using the genre of science fiction is excellent choice as well, because this story is exactly what science fiction is about, social criticism. Here Trembling tackles several topics such as art, science (technophobes), racism (xenophobes) and crime. Is it a crime if the act of trapping De Soliel in a time warp is something for which there is no law? We have this scenario cropping up everyday, most recently internet stalking and bullying--"crimes" for which there are no laws. Youtube and Blogger have recently updated their terms of agreement to reflect certain attitudes and self censoring (Like against hate crimes and racist rants) that will probably become laws some day. Just because we may feel for Vechery and because De Soliel is the kind of person that needs to reap what he sows, does he deserve what happens to him?

This seems like a traditional Ray Bradbury story, and he does tend to get a twinkle in his eye when he talks about stories that involve the comeuppance of a character like this... I'm sure he would approve.

Oh, and the irony of writing a review about a story featuring criticism is not lost on me.

I am a Wikipedia addict

I'm sorry to admit that I am a bit of a Wikipedia addict. Here's what happens: I see a movie preview, or read about something that interests me, and I go to the internet to learn more. Of course, I Google the topic at hand and the first or second entry listed is at Wikipedia. So I click. Now I know that Wikipedia is not the end-all be-all of information, but it is a damn good start. So then I learn way more about a subject than maybe I even wanted to know, and usually have burned up about 2 hours or more on something like the movie, I Am Legend. I look it up, and find out that not only has it been made into a movie before, it is based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. You can see from my previous entry, I went to the film, and had high hopes due to the plot summary I read (on Wikipedia) about the book. As I have already discussed, I was sorely disappointed that they did not stick to the point of Matheson's novel. So I felt obligated to read the novel as well, and now, write several blog entires about the film, novel, and my over-all problem as a whole. All because of Wikipedia.

Today, as if we need more examples, I was looking at some of the details of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and I stumbled onto the fact that the film Children of Men is based on the novel by P. D. James. Ugh. Here we go again...

A Hard Worker by Gina Zucker

Tin House Magazine - Issue 33 - Fantastic Women

Gina Zucker’s A Hard Worker is an excellent example of short fiction at its finest. In the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Zucker’s future for the women in her story is a bleak one. Certain social conditions exist in the future that restrict women in the story to certain roles. In Atwood’s story we are left to the "Historical Note" section where she tells us what eventually ends up happening, at least to humanity as a whole. Here in Zucker’s story, we are limited in scope to a small moment in the narrator’s life, a realization of exploitation. The beauty of fiction is that through Zucker’s story, we can see in a few short pages the exploitation that occurs, where the narrator has lived an entire life before she realizes the truth of the situation.

The simple-minded narrator, Dolly, lives at Mrs. Robert’s Home for Girls (a brothel). She is a member of a service team and she serves her clients with zest and obedience to earn rewards and privileges. Her “sister” Annique was also left on the doorstep of the home, and the girls are raised with others to specifically serve their clients. While on a service call, Annique and Dolly watch a film clip that has been altered to become extremely visually stimulating, almost to the point of causing orgasm. Obtuse Dolly is not affected at all by the film, and is terrified by what is happening to Annique. Dolly is adamant about how they are not to receive pleasure from their clients, and here is Annique doing just that. Dolly ends up confused and runs out of the room after hurting one of the clients.

Zucker combines her complex concept of visual stimulation via chromatic saturation with her narrator’s limited capacity for understanding to explore several social issues. Are the readers to see this as a bleak future, where women are objects, and pleasure isn’t important, or because of our dubious narrator, to see that pleasure is being explored and defined, even worth scientific experimentation and only these prostituted women are being exploited? Is the situation as dire as it appears to be for humanity, or just for poor Dolly? It would appear that Annique may have been purchased and freed of her circumstances, or she may have been sold into a different kind of experimental slavery. Either way, Dolly is a changed person and it seems obvious that her eyes are being opened to the fact that she is being used and refuses to be used in the future.

Zucker cleverly uses the device of s simple-minded narrator to get around dense scientific jargon that may have cluttered the narrative. She doesn’t have to go into the details of how visual stimulation works in her short fiction world, because she is limited to what the narrator Dolly knows and can understand. Even the name Annique is masterful in that is resembles antique and unique. Is the character an antique, in that she should give up being an individual with wants and desires and give in to her lot in life and serve her clients, or is she unique, in that she can take pleasure from them and has held on to her individuality?

In the story, the Janssen brothers (who are the clients the Dolly and Annique are to service) have altered a film clip, possibly from Jaws, to cause physical arousal after viewing. A tip of the cap here goes to the Wachowski Brothers, and a scene in Matrix Reloaded where The Merovingian causes a woman in the matrix to have an orgasm from eating a slice of digital chocolate cake. This theme does not appear to be too far fetched, as many scientists theorize that virtual pleasure is in the near future, as many consider pleasure to only be a matter of sending certain types of electrical stimulus to the brain.

Personally, for pleasure, I'll take more of Zucker's prose.

I Am Legend... Albiet the Usual One...

I Am Legend , a film review...

In typical Hollywood fashion, a film that took over 15 years to make it to the screen mangles the original story based on I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Sure, I Am Legend is going to make money at the box office. It is a sci-fi movie staring a graying Will Smith (Independence Day, I Robot) as Robert Neville, I mean profits are almost guaranteed at this point. The theater I was in was packed with young college men, home on break with a pocket full of fresh money from their mommies, and heading to the theater to be followed by the bar. Those guys lucky enough to have dates were in trouble, because obviously they had duped their dates into coming to a “guy” movie.

I, for one, am getting a bit tired of the Hollywood money making vehicle that becomes so bland in the end that it feels like we have seen it twelve times already. I mean isn’t this just like The Postman? Or should I say Hollywood’s version of David Brin’s The Postman? Well, maybe it is a bit closer to 28 Days Later, but hey, there is ALWAYS a utopia out there for all of the survivors, right? Can’t we take a note from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (he has been doing it since the 60’s) and NOT have a happy ending? Or at least an ending you don’t expect or hope for? I have not read what Matheson thinks about the film yet, but I was hoping for HIS ending. The one where the freaky vampires rule the world, and humanity is altered forever. Needless to say, this is not what happens in the Bob-Marley-Don't-Worry-Be-Happy version that Hollywood has concocted for viewing public. The film has some of the ominous tone and fear that Matheson's novel has, but on the whole, the film and the novel are two completely different experiences.

But is the sugarization of the film industry I Am Legend’s fault? No. This movie was visually stimulating, emotionally moving (a bit), thought provoking (for sure), and over-all worth the ride. The CGI vampires were a bit over-done, but we have even begun to wink our collective eye at this type of animation and nod saying, “it’s okay, we know it’s fake but we like it.” And having nearly wet myself from a fright at one point, I can attest to the validity of such CGI shenanigans.

Will Smith’s interaction with store mannequins, and his loose grip on reality really holds the film together. At one point, Smith’s character Neville holds an assault rifle aimed at one of his mannequin “friends” “Fred”. “Fred” has been moved, obviously by someone or something, and Neville feels betrayed by Fred but at the same time questions whether or not Fred has actually come to life. The range of emotion demonstrated in this scene by Smith is amazing, and probably worth the price of admission alone. Trying to imagine Schwarzenegger in the title role, which he was originally slated for back in the mid-1990s, seems a stretch, and I think Smith was a much wiser and sophisticated choice.

With a relatively simple plot, this movie is one that movie goers can easily wrap their minds around, and delivers everything it promises, even if it is exactly what we expect.

On Patriotism

I am a SUN Magazine subscriber, and the topic for July 2008 is "patriotism". The deadline for this topic was December 1st, 2007, and that has sadly past. But I thought it was such a good story that I wanted to share it with someone, you here you are...

On Patriotism

On the Fourth of July, 1994, I attended a fireworks display at Blakeslee Stadium, at Mankato State University. There were approximately 3500 people in the stadium bleachers and on the football field that evening, many of them fellow college students. People were spreading out blankets and listening to portable radios playing patriotic music. Announcers were on the loud speakers giving fireworks display readiness updates and hawking products. I was watching the activity at the southeastern end of the field where shadowy people were scrambling to get everything connected and in place, when the festive chatter in the crowd turned to dismayed murmurs and boos.

I looked out at midfield and saw some students spreading out what at first I thought was a patriotically colored blanket. But it kept getting bigger, and bigger. As the “blanket” unfolded on the ground, I realized that it was a huge American Flag. In that instant I also knew it had to be the flag that had been stolen from the local Perkins restaurant the previous weekend. The students who had brought the flag began stepping on it, and one student walked to the center and plopped down with a large cooler and began motioning for his friends to sit down. There was about ten of them, and they looked pretty intimidating, and serious. The crowd’s dismay quickly turned to outrage, with people standing up and yelling for the police—only yards away—to do something. “Arrest them! That is stolen property!” a man next to me was yelling. But no one moved. I just kept looking back and forth from the crowd to the students, fearing I was about to see my first riot, and hoping for someone official to stop it before it happened.

The crowd began to part on the other side of the stadium; I thought for sure an out-of-control man was busting his way through the crowd to take care of the situation in his own way. To my surprise it was a woman who was working her way down to the ramp, and then she dropped thought the handrails and onto the field. She stomped toward the students and started shaking her fist and pointing at the flag on the ground. She was obviously livid, and the students were easily intimidated by this mother from the masses and immediately began to move off of the flag. The lone student in the middle refused to get up. The middle-aged woman began to gather the flag in her arms until she had almost all of it, except the small portion the student was still sitting on. With a tug, she got it all, dumping the man onto the grass. The crowd waited. She stomped over to police officers who were standing just yards away, and shoved the flag into the arms of one of them. It was a surreal feeling, and I could almost hear the mosquitoes buzzing it seemed so quiet.

The crowd roared.

People were whistling, and yelling, “Thank you!” and “You ROCK!” We clapped and cheered for that woman until our hands were red and our eyes were wet. We clapped because she did something that no one else did that night. In front of several thousand people she had the courage and patriotism to stand up for something she believed in, and wasn’t willing to let anyone trample on it. Almost fifteen years later, I am still clapping.