Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Formalities

"If you think the gift of prophecy has been given you; then, by all means, write your bad poems, your insufferable fictions, enjoy the fame that easy ideas often offer, ride the flatulent winds of change, fly like the latest fad to the nearest dead tree; but do not try to count the seasons of your oblivion (Gass 35)."

Like virtually every writer at the ripe age of 25, I'm still working on my skills, finding my voice (in both fictional and non-fictional writing, and both on the page and in real life), and hoping to eventually be published. Whether this publishing comes via a short story in a magazine or as my first novel, it will be the culmination of many years' worth of effort. Most young writer scoff at mass-market reads, and in their determined, penniless states dream of creating art. This being said, I can only hope that William H. Gass is fully retired from criticism by the time I get published. After re-reading his excellent essay "Finding a Form" (from the essay collection by the same name), I realize that, because of my inexperience, a veteran like Gass would flick me aside like a cat toying with a stunned mouse. This is not to say that my first published effort will be bad, but after a few close readings of the essay, it's obvious that older, established writers have seen it all. The primary argument in Gass's essay is that the power of fiction lies in the craft of the sentences as opposed to the plot and the characters.

"In any event, and after many years of scribble and erasure, I came finally to the belief that sentences were containers of consciousness, that they were directly thought itself, which is one thing that goes on in consciousness, but they were other things as well, in more devious, indirect ways. Insofar as the words referred, they involved--through those designations--our perceptions; thus a good sentence had to see and hear and smell and touch or taste whatever it was supposed to see and hear and smell and touch or taste; that acuity and accuracy of sensation was, in those sentences that invoked it, essential. Even in sentences that describe a thought instead of a perception, the thought has to be well seen (Gass 39)."

That statement alone can lead to some very time-consuming yet relevant writing practices. This is an example I came up with, trying to put Gass's ideas into action:

1.) I like waffles.
2.) I like waffles with a little butter and maple syrup.
3.) Waffles are best when toasted to a light, almost wood-like brown, their squares containing just enough butter and maple syrup to combine the three distinct flavors equally.

Of course, I could keep going on with this example until I look like I have a waffle fetish. All kidding aside, sometimes the simplest sentences require long stretches of attention and snipping. A critic like Gass would be allowed to say "If you don't put enough attention into your work, then why should I put any attention into reading it?"

While I still have a lot of work to put into my fiction, I've often been complimented on my writing of dialogue, which Gass also places importance upon: "The finest writing is for the voice. There are several good, not to say decisive, reasons for this. No word is a word by itself. Every word is multiple, and not simply because there are homonyms and homophones hanging around, pretending to be friends. A word is made of sounds. A word is made of marks. A word is made of the little muscle movements in the throat which accompany our interior speech--that invisible, inaudible, yet clearly heard interior talk of which Samuel Beckett made himself a master...if we allow the written word to stand for the spoken one, and silent speech to precede both, then the written word words in three realms at once, not just one (Gass 42)."

His description here is almost scientific, whereas my personal emphasis on fictional dialogue is based more on sociology. How to people talk? What do they talk about? Yes, it's based on the characters doing the speaking. However, I don't edit dialogue as closely as I do descriptions. More often than not, everyday conversations don't have as much thought and editing. People speak quickly, and they occasionally say the wrong things. Gass's opinion and mine are in desperate need of a happy medium. Written dialogue needs to be given equal care, just like non-dialogue, yet it's sometimes easy to run the risk of a fictional conversation sounding "too fictional."

"Stories are sneaky justifications. You can buy stories at the store, where they are a dime a dozen. Stories are interesting only when they are floors in buildings. Stories are a bore. What one wants to do with stories is screw them up. Stories ought to be in pictures. They're wonderful to see (Gass 46)."

This is where I run into the most problems and confusion with Gass. I agree that the ideas of a plot can fatally override form and craft, but some of the greatest novels have strong plots as their backbones. It also presents a question as old as fiction itself: "Are art and storytelling inherently different, or can they be properly combined?" For example, Jack Kerouac can be considered both an artist and a storyteller. Another example would be Raymond Carver. Some of his short stories are long on delicate craftsmanship, with discernible plots being an afterthought. There are hundreds of critics and theorists with hundreds of different opinions, but I more or less agree with this broad summary of Gass's argument--As a writer, if you take care of the most important details, everything else will fall into place. Whether "the most important details" are sentences or entire pieces is up to the author.

Work Cited:
Gass, William H. Finding a Form. Copyright 1996 by William H. Gass.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Just Read

My more recent posts have been film-based, which is fine and good, but I'm hoping, at least in the next couple of weeks, to return to more thoughts and essays on literature and writing. As for my personal readings, I've decided to swing for the metaphorical fences, embarking on a study that will have great highs and frustrating lows, perhaps in equal measure, or maybe with the lows taking the edge. I'm reading William Gaddis' 1975 novel JR. I'm fully prepared (but hoping against) for the possibility of tossing it aside in frustration. On a more modest, optimistic note, I will succeed if I can finish it and at least have a basic understanding of the plot. I've caught some of the references and metaphors in the 102 pages I've read so far (out of 726...not a daunting task for another book, but keep in mind that JR has no chapter breaks, no quotations, and lightning-quick scene transitions). I'm sure I've missed twice as many of the references as I've picked up on, but so far, I'm surprised at how enjoyable and witty it's been.

This is my second attempt at the book, since I'm finding notes and underlinings that I have no memories of making. I bought it three years ago after taking many classes where William Gaddis was discussed in awed, hushed tones, as well as after my many readings of Jonathan Franzen's "Mr. Difficult" essay (I'm proud of myself, since I don't think I've referenced Franzen in at least two months on this blog). In part, Franzen writes in the essay about the satisfaction of reading The Recognitions (Gaddis' 1955 debut), and the frustrations of giving up on reading JR. After many hours of reading ABOUT JR, I felt it was time to jump right in. A couple of days ago, I read a few pages, was following along quite nicely, and immediately put it down. It was almost as if I was scared to keep going, since I didn't want to be disappointed when the hilarious, twisting dialogue kept turning into a headache-inducing labyrinth. Last night, I picked it up again, now determined to see it to the end.

I hope to write about it again once I'm finished, but so far, so good (read: understandable). Most reviews/summaries of the novel describe it as a satire of American capitalism and greed (JR, the main character, is an eleven year-old, semi-accidental business magnate). While that description is true and warranted, what I love so far is that Gaddis had a natural knack for business language, namely, as George Carlin put it best, the language of bullshit. When JR's class takes a field trip to a stock exchange to buy a single stock in Diamond Cable (and therefore, as is said many times, to buy a piece of America), one of the brokers gives them a tour:

"--This is the board room, where your board of directors meets. They sit right in the very chairs you're sitting in and, oh Carol just bring those in and pass them around. This is your company's Annual Report boys and girls, we put it out because we believe that you, and all the other company owners, have a right to know all about your company and the activities it's engaged in Carol tell him to get that projector going, the many varied ways your company serves our great country with cable of every kind you can imagine from the defense industry to communications of every sort, the... (Gaddis 91)."

Gaddis hilariously mixes pompous speeches like the one above with dialogue among the brokers by themselves, a great splice of B.S. and honesty.

I'm hoping to have the book finished in the near future, with more thoughts and descriptions to come. In his introduction to the Penguin paperback edition of the book, Frederick R. Karl mentions the double meaning of "JR," stating how it also stands for "Junior," a play on the protagonist's age. For me, "JR" means "Just Read." I've been tip-toeing around it for so long, so it's about time that I just rolled up my sleeves.

Work Cited:

Gaddis, William. JR. Copyright 1975 by William Gaddis.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Powerhouse Performance! "Chicago Ex-Patriate" Has Never Been Better!

In a way, this essay is a continuation of the theme of my last full post. I'm still going with "Ramblings About Films That Opened Two Weeks Ago That I Probably Won't Actually See." This was supposed to be up awhile back, but traveling and planning got in the way. Film advertising and promotions are the primary focus today, in relation to the maddening television spots for the film Swing Vote.

TV commercials have, especially in the past ten years (based on my own developmental awareness), been a double-edged sword. On one side, you can't help but keep in mind that ads have only one goal: to generate revenues for the given company. Yes, this is an obvious declaration, but no matter how witty or inventive a given ad can be, the company presenting it wants the viewer to buy something. I'll leave the necessary outrage and outcries against corporate greed to other bloggers, but I don't want to come across as someone who can be consistently driven to buy something based on a commercial. On the other side, everyone of us has, at least once, seen the opening of a familiar commercial, turned to the person sitting next to us, and said "Oh/Oh God, this commercial is great/awful."

Over a month ago, I saw the first commercial for Swing Vote. Kelsey Grammer, portraying a political candidate, walks with a group of gay Americans, stating assuredly that gays deserve equal treatment and rights. This ad works on two levels. One, it's not something that a real candidate would normally say, and two, it's clever. It doesn't say what the film's plot is, and it leaves the viewer wondering: "What is this movie really about? Is it about an equality-driven, honest candidate? Is it tongue in cheek? Is there more to it?"

A few weeks later, full ads for the film started to run. The curiosity was still there, but the intended effect totally backfired. More characters were introduced: Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Stanley Tucci, and Nathan Lane. The spot reinforced that Swing Vote is a political comedy (more specifically, an election comedy), but there was no indication of what the film is actually about. By this time, it was infuriating. It was only after watching the theatrical trailer online and reading the review in The Seattle Times that I found out the plot--Costner's character has the lone vote to elect the next President, with the two candidates played by Grammer and Hopper. As of this writing, I've read three reviews of the film, all of them marking the film as mediocre at best. The advertisers started off well with the original Kelsey Grammer spot, but the follow-up trailer brought it down, all due to the lack of a tidy, easy summary.

The aforementioned ad nearly led me to devote a full essay to the Quote Whores--the Earl Dittmans and Gene Shalits who slap hilariously rave quotes on posters and trailers for awful movies. However, the Quote Whores (I feel they deserve undeserved capitalization, just like the movies they promote) have already been properly lambasted by everyone from Jim Emerson of The Chicago Sun-Times to Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly. However, despite their incompetence and lack of film knowledge, they have gotten lazy in their hyperbole. I did not catch the name of the reviewer who said, about Swing Vote, that it's a movie that "will make you stand up and cheer!" I can only hope that the quote came from a Q.W., because respected film writers should certainly know better. I've seen many, many great films, but I've never, ever been compelled to stand up and cheer. The same goes for my fellow audience members. The closest I've ever come to that kind of emotional display was when Haley Joel Osment's character died in Pay It Forward, only because it was a horrible film.

Am I just a lethargic movie-goer? Do I sit with medicated audiences? If anyone has ever stood up to cheer during a film, I'd love to hear the story. I also welcome sarcastic ones as well.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Hiatus

Hey everyone--

I'm out of town for a wedding, so I probably won't have any new posts before next week. I might be able to get one or two done, but as of now, they'll probably resume in about a week. Any comments or critiques? By all means, keep them coming, and I'll respond accordingly.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Brendan Fraser Hypothesis

The Mummy: Tomb Of the Dragon Emperor opened today. I have no plans to see it, and the review in The Seattle Times was negative, citing bad dialogue, a trait that's evident in the commercials for the film on television. I've only seen the first installment of the Mummy series, many summers ago, and I actually thought it was quite enjoyable, taking these points into consideration: it was a hot summer night, it was a two-dollar rental from the video store near my house, and I was looking for some quick entertainment. I'm sure this latest installment will reach the top ten in the weekend box office receipts on Sunday, slowly descend as the weeks go on, and will make a quiet DVD debut before Christmas. Also, I'm sure the same can be said for the recently released Journey To the Center Of the Earth. In addition to being harmless, mindless summer blockbusters, these two new films share a common thread: Brendan Fraser.

A couple of months ago, I Netflixed (does anyone have a trademark on this verb yet?) the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, and found it really enjoyable. The acting was strong, and I'm a sucker for what seem to be faithful recreations of Old Hollywood. As I was watching it, I remembered the largely forgotten film The Quiet American. I saw it with a couple of friends at a late Saturday night showing back in 2002. I don't remember too much about it, but I do remember liking it. The reviews were favorable, Michael Caine was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award, and the film seemed to quickly disappear afterwards. However, now that Mr. Fraser has two summer movies in theaters right now, I feel that audiences are due for another one of his serious dramas. Simply put, we need another installment of "Brendan Fraser and An Old British Actor."

This is not a knock against Mr. Fraser. He always does what's expected of him in any given film, whether it's an action movie or otherwise. However, whenever he's gone in the direction of a serious drama, he's shared the screen with either Ian McKellen or Michael Caine. Also to his credit, his acting when paired up with one of these legends is decent, even if he's just looking like he's deep in thought during the dialogues. Perhaps he's the go-to "buff American foil" when filmmakers have a Caine or McKellen on their hands. (Note: When I discuss Fraser's forays into drama, I omit Crash for two reasons. One, I have not seen the film. Two, despite the fact that the Academy Award for Best Picture cannot be taken seriously sometimes, has there ever been a Best Picture winner that's been forgotten as quickly as Crash?)

The more I think about it, the Fraser/Old British Actor pairings have both followed the same basic acting themes: Fraser is the straight man (no pun intended for Gods and Monsters) to the British stars. While the venerable old actors have more memorable scenes and dialogue, Fraser is more subdued and pensive. In a way, it's a nice subversion of stereotypes. If these movies had been comedies, one would have expected a tired formula of the Ugly American and the Stuffy Brit. As I hinted before, I'm sure it's really a testament to Fraser's screen presence. He never looks out of place, whether he's shooting mummies or engaging in a psychological battle for the affections of a Vietnamese beauty. I think in the future, we should have some control experiments to see if this hypothesis holds any water. I hope that Fraser eventually gets paired up with Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall in two different films, to see how he does with two Old American Actors.

For now, we have to wait until 2009, when the theory takes a bold new turn. Fraser is starring in the fantasy film Inkheart, along with Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren. Fraser on screen with an Old British Actor AND an Old British Actress? I cannot wait.