Archive for March, 2008

In Memoriam: Anthony Minghella

March 30, 2008

Anthony MinghellaI’m a little late with this tribute. My husband has been berating me that I have written nothing about Anthony Minghella, or the superb writer that he was, since the news of his death a week and a half ago. He showed me Mark Harris’ memoriam of Minghella in Entertainment Weekly, the tribute I should have written on WordHappy. And I’m hard pressed to know why I’ve written nothing as well. Perhaps it’s because I don’t want to accept the reality. Minghella was such an immensely talented person; as fine a director as he was, one of the reasons is because he was first and foremost a writer.

If you look at his filmography, it’s jarring to see how few films are there. At least in my mind, he was so prominent a director that I expected to see more than eight films. Maybe he seemed so prominent a director because of those eight films (one of which, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, has not yet been released), there was not a dog in the bunch. His writer’s resume is longer than his director’s because he got his start writing for television, primarily in a British family series called “Grange Hill” (which I never saw), and as a writer for Jim Henson’s The Storyteller series (which I did see, and which was magnificent).

While Minghella won his well-deserved Oscar for directing The English Patient and was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for that movie as well as for Cold Mountain, it is for his first film, Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990) — which was his original creation and his directorial debut — that I admire him the most. Truly, Madly, Deeply is a gorgeous, moving film that had me bawling on the first viewing and still moves me to tears each time I watch it. It is absolutely one of my favorite films ever (as well as the origination of my deep crush on Alan Rickman). The movie begins with Nina (Juliet Stevenson), who is grieving the loss of her love, Jamie (Alan Rickman). When he reappears to her as a ghost, her joy is tempered with the growing realization that her life must move on, whether she wants it to or not. But threaded throughout the film, and what saves it from being too sentimental or maudlin, is a wry humor that undercuts the sadness.

Some of my favorite lines:

Nina (to Jamie): You’re dead and you’re still into party politics?

Jamie (on his coming back): …But, the pain. Your pain. I couldn’t bear that. There’s a little girl I see from time to time – Alice, who’s three. Well, three and a half. Oh, she’s great. Everyone loves her, but she’s not spoiled – Well, wasn’t spoiled. She was knocked over and she died. Her parents, and family, and friends from kindergarten… She used to go to this playground. See, they made an area in the park. Gave ’em money for swings, and little wooden animals, and there are these plaques on the sides of the swing, bottom of the horse: ‘From Alice’s mom and dad. In Memory of Alice, who used to play here’. And of course, Alice goes back there all the time. And when you see the parents take their child from the swing, and see the sign… They hold on to their son and daughter, so tightly, clinging on for dear life. And yet… The capacity that people have to love… Where does it go?

Goodbye and Godspeed, Anthony Minghella. You will be missed.

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Next to the Last Romantic: Josh Ritter

March 25, 2008

Josh Ritter Historical ConquestsWell over a year ago, I was reading my Entertainment Weekly Holiday issue, lamenting all the offerings I hadn’t gotten to see or hear or read. When I got to Stephen King’s column on the best music of 2006, I noted that he had laid his good fairy wand yet again on some relatively obscure artist named Josh Ritter, and thought, “Cool. I’ll have to check him out.” And promptly forgot.

Recently, only fourteen months later, I picked up two of his CDs: The Animal Years and his latest, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. Uncle Stevie was right. The boy can sing, and boy, can he write a song.

From “A Girl in the War,” off of The Animal Years:

Paul said to Peter you got to rock yourself a little harder
Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire
But I got a girl in the war
Paul the only thing I know to do
Is turn up the music and pray that she makes it through

And from his newest album, “Next to the Last Great Romantic”:

He’s stolen hearts like they’re horses
And horses when hearts can’t be found
He keeps riding from one horse to one horse to one horse towns (It gets him down)

What I like about Ritter’s lyrics is that they capture a mood so precisely, while at the same time twisting familiar images into something fresh and new. By combining the cliches of stealing hearts and stealing horses, he turns those old sawhorses into an evocative image of a wearying Casanova. And it doesn’t hurt that he sounds like a combination of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan (when he actually sings).

What are your favorite Josh Ritter songs?

Political Writing: Obama Delivers the Goods

March 22, 2008

thmb_barack_profile.jpgSo I was quietly minding my own business this week when someone sent me a link to the text of Barack Obama’s March 18, 2008 speech, “A More Perfect Union.” A speech that came from Obama’s own pen, according to many sources. I didn’t have a chance to read it until today, and I’m glad I waited, because it was good to be able to take my time and savor the richness of the writing.

There are a multitude of websites at this point where you can watch the speech and/or read the transcript. I read the text on MSNBC’s First Read. It is truly an inspirational piece of political writing. For those who haven’t read or heard it yet, one of the main purposes of the speech was to respond to the inflammatory comments made by Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. And I thought Obama’s response was one of the most decent ways a man could respond to something like that:

As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

. . . As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

In this response, we see Obama’s immediate but measured response to a political controversy. But the speech transcends the controversy. By juxtaposing the conflicting elements within Rev. Wright and also his own grandmother, Obama exposes and juxtaposes his own loathing of racism against the love and loyalty of family. This side-by-side comparison of conflicting elements becomes a thematic motif of his speech, explicitly stated toward the beginning of his remarks:

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.

It is, quite simply, a speech that I believe will be read long after the campaigns have been forgotten, that may one day even become as iconic as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Final disclaimer: I am commenting solely on this as a piece of writing. Should anyone wish to steer me toward a Hillary Clinton or John McCain speech that they feel is particularly amazing, I will be happy to give them equal time.

Deliriously Lost in LOST

March 18, 2008

LOST - The ConstantI have been a fan of the ABC show LOST from the very beginning, with the terrifying crash of Oceanic 815 on the island (I don’t think airlines will ever be showing that episode anytime soon). I held on through seasons two and three, reveling in the introduction of Ben (played by Michael Emerson) – best multi-faceted villain EVER! – and even weathering through the bizarre introduction of Nikki and Paolo. And lo, I have been rewarded with this season of LOST, the very best of the LOST seasons yet.

What makes this show so great? Part of it is that the creators and writers of the series (hats off to you, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse) proceed on the assumption that the audience is pretty smart. Frankly, the series must be an absolute bear to plot out episode by episode: you have to keep the timeline of the island in mind, manage multiple inter-character relationships and dynamics, provide illuminating flashback or flashforward sequences, throw in clues to keep the ultimate mystery moving forward, and throw in Easter eggs and allusions to philosophy, religion, physics and more for the really obsessive fan (me, I’m only mildly obsessive).

But – and this is a big but (sorry, my inner fourteen year old couldn’t help itself) – many of the episodes stand up as standalone episodes, so that even the newer, uninitiated viewer could watch and be sucked into the drama. The best example of that from this season was “The Constant,” written by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. In this episode, Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) has the mother of all bad reactions while traveling to the ship and begins literally to ping back and forth through time; he must find something or someone constant to both times and places to survive. Confusing to the new viewer? You bet. But also confusing to the veteran fan, who spent the first act wondering what kind of bizarro flashback this was. Ultimately, the episode gives us one of the most moving love stories that LOST has given us to date. Desmond connects with his constant – his star-crossed love Penny, with whom he hasn’t spoken in eight years. Their conversation interrupts and overlaps like waves slapping against the shore:

Penny: I’ll find you, Des-
Desmond:-I promise-
Penny:-No matter what-
Desmond: -I’ll come back to you-
Penny: -I won’t give up-
Both: I promise. I love you.

Wow. Goosebumps and welling eyes. It was a truly powerful episode.

What’s been your favorite this season?

Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD: A Rewarding Trip

March 16, 2008

The RoadI have to confess something dark and deep about myself: I don’t like to be told what to read. Kind of ironic, if you think about the purpose of this blog and my self-appointed title of Diva of Good Taste. But there it is. So I actually avoided reading Cormac McCarthy‘s THE ROAD after it received the Oprah’s Book Club imprimatur. Not that I have anything against Oprah, per se; I just don’t like to be told what to read as one of the masses. It’s entirely another matter if someone I know and whose judgment I trust says “You should read this.”

Which is exactly what happened. I was talking about the Oscars with a colleague of mine, and he mentioned how phenomenal THE ROAD was, and then loaned me his copy of the book. Now I had to read it. I was a little worried, I confess. I’ve gotten to an age where the stamp of “literary fiction” gives me pause. I just don’t want to have to work that hard to enjoy a book.

I needn’t have worried. THE ROAD is a total and complete page-turner, even while you’re stopping to think, “Whoa. That sentence was outstanding.” Set in a post-nuclear winter, THE ROAD follows a unnamed man and his son as they try to walk to the coast in the hope-against-hope that things might be a little better there:

He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.

This is a book that you find yourself thinking about long after you finish it. Wondering what would prompt them to cling so voraciously to life, to each other, when so much of the world lay in ashes around them. And admiring them the more for that tenacity. It’s just a tremendous book.

For anyone who’s read it, what you do have to say about it?

The Evolution of Wii Fit

March 12, 2008

Wii FitIn a fit of snowbound-crazed delirium, I recently bought a Nintendo Wii, which I must confess that I love. I love that Wii Sports makes me a pretty good bowler, and that I can almost beat my husband at tennis (as opposed to reality, where it’s fruitless even to try). So how happy have I been to know that Nintendo will in May release Wii Fit, the answer to all my exercising prayers?

Because I am so breathlessly anticipating the release of this product, I’ve read anything that falls across my way on the topic. One such offering was an interview with the makers of Wii Fit by Satoru Iwata, the president of Nintendo Co., Ltd. I originally envisioned skimming my way through the interview, only to emerge shaking my head in wonderment half an hour later. For anyone who is interested in vicariously experiencing the evolution of a product, from inception to completion, this set of interviews is a must-read. The idea arose as a fun way to weigh yourself — as if such a thing exists. From that kernel of an idea for a glorified scale came the contributions of many, many people –designers, programmers, executives, and more — and from that evolved a product that looks like a heck of a lot of fun.

See what you think.

THE WIRE Series Finale: Bowing Out Gracefully

March 11, 2008

McNultyMASSIVE SPOILER ALERT!!! If you have not watched the finale of The Wire and plan to, or if you are currently still watching earlier seasons and don’t want to know what happens to all your favorite characters, READ NO FURTHER. I do not want to spoil your fun.

For the rest of us, that was just a lovely way to complete the series. No “this was just a dream,” no fading to sudden black, just a bittersweet tying up of all the story threads hanging loose. The episode, entitled “-30-“, was written by David Simon, with its story by David Simon and Ed Burns, the true powerforces behind the series. While the episode was all about endings, like most episodes of The Wire, it took its time getting there, with all the humor and pathos we’ve come to expect out of those characters.

What I personally loved about the finale was that it wasn’t a pure happy ending, but wasn’t a pure downer either. Certain resolutions were unsurprising: Gus getting demoted to copy editor while that putz Scott Templeton wins a Pulitzer; Marlo getting off for his drug crimes; Carcetti succeeding to the Governor’s mansion. Certain ends were heartbreaking: Dukie shooting up, having lied to his former teacher and mentor Prez about going back to school (random note – how awesome was it to see Prez, my favorite character, show up again and be self-confident!!); the fall of Daniels as a direct result of being an honorable man. And certain ends had a transformative redemptive quality to them. I loved seeing McNulty leaving the alcohol orgy of his wake to go sit on the stoop with Beadie, although you could see the worry in her eyes, asking “How long can this last?” I loved seeing Bubbles, having allowed himself to be portrayed as a “good guy” in The Sun, put on his celebrity sunglasses as he sold papers, and be allowed into the main floor of his sister’s house, the basement door finally unlocked. And I especially loved the montage of Baltimore’s faces, which seemed to say to me, “There are a million stories here; we have touched upon only a few.”

My favorite lines from the finale:

At Jimmy’s “wake”:

Landsman: If I was laying there dead on some Baltimore street corner, I’d want it to be you standing over me catching the case. Because, brother, when you were good, you were the best we had.
Bunk: Shit, if you was layin’ there dead on some corner, it was probably Jimmy that done ya.

And Daniels, talking with his ex-wife councilwoman, after she tells him, “The tree that doesn’t bend, breaks, Cedric.” Daniels replies, “Bend it too far, you’re already broken.”

The Wire never deviated from its vision. It never broke.

Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs: Sighworthy (in a Good Way)

March 6, 2008

Bridge of SighsWell, I just finished reading Richard Russo‘s latest book, Bridge of Sighs (Knopf, 2007). What a satisfying read. It wasn’t a page-turner; I wasn’t left breathless at the end of a chapter. Instead, the book seems to ask you to let it unfold at a leisurely pace. And you honor that request, because after reading the first pages, you don’t want to rush it.

The book begins with a recitation of facts by one of the narrators of the book, Louis Charles (“Lucy”) Lynch:

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about my life is that I’ve lived all of it in the same small town in upstate New York, a thing unheard of in this day and age. My wife’s parents moved here when she was a little girl, so she has few memories before Thomaston, and her situation isn’t much different from my own. Some people, upon learning how we’ve lived our lives, are unable to conceal their chagrin on our behalf, that our lives should be so limited, as if experience so geographically circumscribed could be neither rich nor satisfying. When I assure them it has been both, their smiles suggest we’ve been blessed with self-deception by way of compensation for all we’ve missed.

In these beginning pages, perhaps the reader takes the role of “some people,” indulging the narrator’s belief and suspending our own disbelief that there is drama to be found in a life lived in one place. But as the pages unfold, we begin to see exactly that: that the deeper the roots go, the greater the shock to the system when change takes place. For me, it’s gratifying to see a writer succeed at chronicling the lives of ordinary people. I can’t help but wonder, however, as a frustrated wanna-be novelist myself of “ordinary people” fiction, that if this were anyone but Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo, or even if it were his first novel, if an agent would have rejected the novel as being too hard to market in today’s publishing climate. Probably not. The writing is too rich to ignore. But it serves my hypothesis that “quiet” books are just as important in today’s publishing climate as ever.

Definitely read this novel. But give yourself time, at least three weeks, to savor it. You’ll be glad you made the investment.

Finger Flicking and Humming: The Language of Autism

March 3, 2008

BrainThere is an absolutely amazing article in this month’s issue of Wired magazine by David Wolman, entitled “Yeah, I’m Autistic: You got a problem with that? Online, the article is called “The Truth About Autism: Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know.” Now, it gets hard to find a topic more polarizing than autism in the first place. What kind of therapy is best? Is it caused by vaccines? Will an anti-gluten diet reduce or eliminate symptoms? Is there any magic bullet that will cure it? So I admit, it was a little jarring to come across an article describing a school of thought that autism is a difference, not a disability — much like the argument utilized by many in the deaf community that being deaf is merely a trait, no more a disability than having freckles or being nearsighted.

The article is well-written, thought-provoking and thorough. It cites research that concludes that using an IQ test called “Raven’s Progressive Matrices,” children with autism can score up to 30 points higher on the Raven than on the more language-dependent Wechsler Intelligence Scale. The article also touches on the probable reaction of many families of children with autism: that regardless of an IQ score, the ability to function in day-to-day activities, like dressing yourself or planning your meals, is also important – in fact, so important that an individual’s inability to perform them bespeaks of a disability, not a simple difference.

But the jaw-dropping aspect of the article is the YouTube video it references by an autism activist for the “difference model,” who has autism herself and is non-verbal. Her name is Amanda Baggs, and in the first several minutes of her video, she catalogs some of her own behaviors stereotypic of autism: hand flapping, humming, paper flicking. She then goes on to interpret some of these behaviors, using an augmentative communication device that speaks what she types. She describes these behaviors as being in a constant conversation with every aspect of her environment. Boy, can this woman write. She states:

Ironically, the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as “being in a world of my own.”

This video is an absolute must-see for anyone who knows someone affected by autism. Whether or not you subscribe to the “difference” model or believe autism to be a disability, it’s eye-opening to see the complexity of thought that may be running around but not communicated via traditional verbal models.

Please, send me your comments about this article and video.