Archive for September, 2008

Best Paul Newman Films: Tribute to a Great Man

September 27, 2008

Every once in a while, someone famous dies with whom I had no personal relationship at all. But because of this person’s presence in my life, I still feel like I’ve lost someone. I felt that way when Jim Henson died, and I feel that way today, with the death of Paul Newman.

I have only the most tangential relationship with Newman, as a fellow alumnus of Kenyon College in Ohio. But Newman’s presence was always there; he contributed heavily to the college, making news back in 2007 with the endowment of a $10 million scholarship fund. His quiet philanthropy always impressed me, and maybe even influenced some of my own views of how best we can give back to the world. I also thought his marriage and creative partnership with his wife Joanne Woodward, at least as far as the public was allowed to see, was a role model of what a marriage should be.

But how he was first known to me, and known to most of us, was as an actor. So as a tribute to him, I’d like to give you my personal list of Paul Newman’s best films. How does this pertain to writing? Do you really have to ask? A great actor can make schlock seem palatable, and can make great writing seem like a 7-course feast. These films are the 7-course feasts, my friends.

Cars (2006, story credits by John Lasseter, Joe Ranft and Jorgen Klubian): If you have kids, you probably own this movie. Newman’s portrayal of Doc Hudson took the audience on a moving journey of watching an aging car get the recognition he always deserved.

Nobody’s Fool (1994, novel by Richard Russo and screenplay by Robert Benton): Newman got a chance to display his sense of humor in acting the role of Sully; it’s a wonderful ensemble film.

The Verdict (1982, novel by Barry Reed, screenplay by David Mamet): A carnivore of a film, Newman’s Frank Galvin traveled the road from hell to redemption, all because of a single case. One of the all-time great lawyer films.

The Sting (1973, written by David S. Ward): One of the first movies I ever saw starring Newman, and a completely wild ride as we travel the con with Newman’s Henry Gondorff and Robert Redford’s Johnny Hooker.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, written by William Goldman): Hello, boys! The respective hotness of Robert Redford and Newman as young ‘uns drew me in; the engaging story and the fun they clearly had working on the film kept me engaged.

What are some of your favorite Paul Newman films?


Congrats, Emmy Writing Winners!

September 22, 2008

And the writing Emmys go to. . . . (sound of ripping envelope)

For Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series30 Rock – “Cooter” – written by Tina Fey

For Outstanding Writing in a Drama SeriesMad Men – “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Pilot) – written by Matthew Weiner

Ahem, ahem – must I remind you all that these shows were celebrated here first? Thus adding credibility to my outrageous claims of having the best taste in writing of anyone you don’t know but read on a blog.

Congrats, guys!! Well deserved.

Guilty Pleasure: Sugarland’s Love on the Inside

September 21, 2008

I have a dirty little secret. I am deeply, deeply in like with a country music album. See, here’s where I alienate any country music fans, for why should I be defensive about this, as well as lose street cred with non-country music listeners who can’t deal with the twang. But let me shoot myself in the foot a little more and see if I can’t convert a few to my way of thinking.

I first read about Sugarland in a profile written by Whitney Pastorek from that magazine chock-full of potential bad influences, Entertainment Weekly. Now, my normal musical taste runs toward folk-rock, 80’s pop (sorry – formative school years – can’t help it), singer-songwriters, and alt-country bluegrass (which is so obscure that it’s totally hip). The last country artist I bought was Mary Chapin Carpenter (who, frankly, never sounded all that country in the first place and really fell into my singer-songwriter category). But this EW article made Sugarland sound as if they’d had some of the same musical influences I’d had, so I had to check them out. And was promptly blown away.

Sugarland is currently led by two musicians – Jennifer Nettles, who sounds like Reba McIntyre on steroids, and Kristian Bush, formerly of the folk rock band Billy Pilgrim. They have an insane amount of energy that practically bursts out of the stereo. But what has kept me coming back to the songs again and again is their lyrics. There’s the rapid fire rant of “It Happens,” (written by Nettles, Bush, and Bobby Pinson) sung without taking a deep breath:

Now it’s poor me, why me, oh me, boring
The same old worn out, blah, blah story
There’s no good explanation for it at all

There are the haunting, poetic images framed in the questions of “Love” (written by Nettles, Bush, and Tim Owens):

Is it the one you call home
Is it the Holy Land
Is it standing right here holding your hand
Is it just like the movies
Is it rice and white lace
Is it the feeling I get when I wake to your face

And there’s the hilarious insanity of a tribute to “Steve Earle”(written by Nettles and Bush):

Steve Earle, Steve Earle, please write a song for me
I promise I won’t take a dime when it comes my time to leave
The others wanted your whole heart
But I just want your sleeve
Steve Earle, Steve Earle, please write a song for me.

If you haven’t taken a listen to them yet, go try it now. I’ll keep your secret.

SNL Palin/Clinton Skit: When Satire Hits the Bullseye

September 14, 2008

I am jumping on this bandwagon as surely as the leaves are gonna fall, but I cannot help myself. In the past 24 hours, there have been a flurry of Twitter tweets and links to last night’s Saturday Night Live opening skit, even on the NPR website itself. So, in the event that you, like I, are happily dreaming on Saturday nights like the good nerds we are, I refer to you SNL’s spot-on national address by Sarah Palin (Tina Fey) and Hillary Clinton (Amy Poehler). In a Presidential campaign that seems to be deteriorating before my very eyes into mean-spiritedness and outright lies, it is so refreshing to be able to take a step back and laugh at the whole thing.

Here’s the thing about satire. In the political arena, it can be more potent as a tool to expose the truth about the fictions that the parties and/or politicians are trying to feed us than any other form of writing. I don’t know if Tina Fey and Amy Poehler wrote this particular opening skit (and they well may have), but props to the writers of this address for highlighting some of the biggest absurdities of the campaign to date.

Political Writing: Raging Against the Semantic Machine

September 9, 2008

Y’know, I just haven’t been able to muster much enthusiasm for all the political rhetoric this season, even after (especially after) the DNC and RNC. It’s all “Sarah” this and “Biden” that, people having Obasms everyone – and in public, mind you. And to me, it just sounds like the teachers in the Charlie Brown television specials – “Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah.”

But I have found a new hero, and his name is Leonard Pitts, Jr. A Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald, he wrote an absolute pip of a column the other day on gobbledygook and intellectual dishonesty. Pitts rails against Mitt Romney’s speech given at the RNC in St. Paul on Sept. 3, in which Romney threw out the challenge to “throw out the big-government liberals.”  According to Pitts, this is pure gobbledygook, and he responds with his own:

I mean, baffle gab on the freak flake. Really.

That is my new favorite line ever. Seriously. Say it five times and tell me that you don’t feel better.

Anyway, Pitts defines intellectual dishonesty as arguing “that which you know to be untrue” and substituting ideology for intellect “to the degree that you’ll do violence to language and logic rather than cross the party line.” Now, I’m not certain I buy Pitts’ railing against the Republicans only; to me, it seems more a bipartisan effort, with each party throwing stones at the other’s glass houses. But what I love about the column is the passion and Pitts’ dedication to calling out intellectual dishonesty. He writes that people admire the words, not daring to pull them apart to see if the message holds. But not him:

Unfortunately, some of us are too plodding and earthbound, too blind to the seduction of art, too stubbornly wedded to some vestigial notion that intellectual honesty matters, to walk past a steaming pile of bovine excreta without calling it a steaming pile of bovine excreta.

By the way, “steaming pile of bovine excreta” is my second favorite new line.

Go read the column in its entirety, and then come back here and let’s have some discussion about intellectual honesty and politics. Do you think it’s possible for politicians – particularly in a campaign year – to break free of the ideological talking points and say something true?

Baffle grab on the freak flake.

Carefully Written: Elizabeth George’s Careless in Red

September 4, 2008

Why Elizabeth George isn’t a mega-famous writer I will never know.  Maybe I’m wrong; maybe she is. All I know is that if I were at a party and mentioned Stephen King or Nora Roberts, everyone would know who I was talking about; if I mentioned Elizabeth George, I bet I’d be met with many more blank looks. Which is a shame, because she’s one of the finest writers I’ve ever ever ever read.

Even if you are a mystery lover, you may not have read Elizabeth George. This is because, while she is an American writer, she writes mysteries in the English style.  American crime fiction tends to be fast-paced, bodies being thrown out a window or otherwise dispatched every other chapter or so. British crime fiction, conversely, tends to have a slower pace, giving much more emphasis on character. You question such a gross generalization, you say? No less a writer than P.D. James has said:

The American crime novel seems to be very much in the hard-boiled tradition that emerged in the aftermath of the First World War – the end of puritanism, the Depression, Prohibition, gangsterism and so on. Your heroes tend to be tough and sensational, reacting very instinctively to danger and absorbing more punishment. Your stories are also generally set in a more violent society. While on the whole the British detective story is gentler, more pastoral. Because it is firmly rooted in the soil of British literary tradition, it shares assumptions that are strong in our literature; for example, the assumption that we live in an intelligible and benevolent universe; the assumption that law and order, peace and tranquillity are the norm; that crime and violence are the aberration; and that the proper preoccupation of man is to bring order out of chaos.

So there.

But back to Elizabeth George. Her latest novel, Careless in Red, is a continuation of the series of detective novels focusing on Sir Thomas Lynley, formerly of Scotland Yard. This is actually a magnificent book to read as a stand-alone way to enter the series, if you’ve never read the previous novels and don’t want to start at the beginning with A Great Deliverance. That’s because Lynley is essentially starting anew in this novel. Having recently lost his wife and unborn son to a horrific random murder, he’s resigned from Scotland Yard and run away from the violence of his world. Unfortunately, violence continues to follow him and he happens upon a death in the cliffside surfing town of Casvelyn.

Where George excels is her characters. There are no bit players in her novels. Every character having any relevance to the story has a full history and is utterly three-dimensional. Offhand, I can think of at least 12 major characters in this book, all of whom have sections devoted to their points of view. And yet the reader is never for an instant lost or left to wonder whose character is talking or did what to whom. She also describes her setting to the extent that it seems as real as the next room, and describes it in ways that give insight to the characters as well. For instance, when Lynley is first seen walking along the cliffsides, she writes:

A site marked the edge of the high pasture he’d been following and he climbed it and paused, waiting for the landscape to stop swimming in front of him long enough for him to find the descent to what would be yet another cove. He’d lost count of the inlets he’d come upon in his walk along the undulating coast. He had no idea what this one was called, any more than he’d been able to name the others.

This passage not only describes the landscape, but also Lynley’s grief-induced exhaustion and apathy.

Elizabeth George deserves to be read. She’s one of the very best there is.

By the way, if you want to debate the fine differences between American and British crime fiction, or if you disagree that there are any differences, fire away in the comments. I’ll take on all comers.

Digging Anne Tyler’s Digging To America

September 1, 2008

Does this ever happen to you? You reserve a whole big honkin’ list of books at the library, knowing it will be eons before the list rolls around you, and BAM! three or four of them arrive at the same time. It happens to me all the time.

The plus side to this situation is that I have gotten to read some fabulous books, albeit quickly. But the novels were so good that I would’ve read them quickly anyway because I was so invested in the story. Does this mean I let my children watch movies and play video games rather than spend quality time with them because I was immersed in a book? Pretty much. So I suppose it’s fortunate that I don’t read that many books that I fall in love with.

The first book I’ll discuss today is Anne Tyler‘s Digging to America. The book begins with two families waiting for an arriving flight – a flight that holds their infant adopted daughters who are arriving from Korea. One family is Iranian, the other American.  While fate has initially thrown these families together, their common bond sets the foundation of a genuine, if sometimes strained, friendship that lasts years. In an entirely organic and natural way, these characters question and explore the ideas of what it means to be “American;” how our cultures shape and limit us; and what friendship and love mean within these cultural overlaps.

In one scene, Maryam Yazdan speaks of how her granddaughter Susan told her that she wished they could celebrate Christmas the way other people do, and how it had broken Maryum’s heart. Dave, the grandfather of Jin-Ho, probes a little and finds that they’d had a tree, presents, caroling – the works:

He started laughing.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” he said. “You’re talking about every child in this country!”

She braked for a light and looked at him.

He said, “You don’t think that’s what all of them say? They say, ‘Other families celebrate better; on TV it seems much better; in my mind it was going to be better.’ That’s just Christmas! That’s how it works! They have these idealized expectations.”

She did seem to get his point, he saw. Something seemed to clear in her forehead.

“The kid’s one hundred percent American,” he said.

What I love about Anne Tyler’s books is how quiet and gentle they are. One article I read about her had her saying ‘there aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel.’ Today’s publishing world fights against the quiet novel. I’ve known more than one writer with a fistful of novel rejections because “quiet novels” are allegedly too hard to market. Of course, in all likelihood, none of these writers writes as well as Anne Tyler. But it’s nice to see her succeed, and it was a real pleasure to live with these characters in Digging to America.

I’ll post next on the other wonderful book I just finished reading: Elizabeth George’s Careless in Red. Keep an eye out for it.