I have heard artists say they are channeling God. You would have to have a really good gallery to say that.
---from The Painter by Peter Heller.
I have heard artists say they are channeling God. You would have to have a really good gallery to say that.
---from The Painter by Peter Heller.
Just about every shot in the trailer for Wild perfectly evokes a scene or image from the book it’s based on, Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir of a thousand mile plus hike she took in 1995 when she was twenty-six to cure herself of grief, heartbreak, and various addictions, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. That doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be a good movie. Sometimes movies based on books can be too faithful to their originals. But it’s a reminder of what a terrific book it is.
I walked all day, falling and skidding and trudging along, bracing so hard with my ski pole that my hand blistered. I switched to the other hand and it blistered too. Around every bend and over every ridge and on the other side of every meadow I hoped there would be no more snow. But there was always more snow amid the occasional patches where the ground was visible. Is that the [trail]? I’d wonder when I saw the actual ground. I could never be certain…
I sweated as I hiked, the whole backside of me wet where my pack covered my body, regardless of the temperature or what clothing I wore. When I stopped, I began shivering within minutes, my wet clothes suddenly icy cold. My muscles had at last begun to adjust to the demands of long-distance hiking, but now new demands were placed on them., and not only to brace myself in the constant effort to stay upright. If the ground upon which I was walking was on a slope, I had to chop out each step in order to get my footing, lest I slip down the mountain and crash inot the rocks and the bushes and trees below, or worse, go sailing over the edge. Methodically, I kicked into the snow’s icy crust, making footholds step-by-step…With all the kicking and bracing, my feet blistered in new places as well as in all the old places that had blistered back in my first days of hiking, the flesh on my hips and shoulders rubbed raw by [the straps of my pack].
Now, watch for that scene in the trailer.
Put in a call this morning to Steve Kuusisto up in the wilds of Syracuse to find out how he’s doing and what’s going on in his world these days. He’s doing fine, he reported in answer to the first question, and Nothing, nothing’s going on, he said to the second. “My life is boring. I’m boring.”
He was being hard on himself. Steve’s writing a memoir about his first guide dog, Corky, and he’s been working away at it doggedly. (Sometimes I just crack myself up.) Every day he gets up, walks the dogs, Nila and Harley, has a fortifying breakfast, and heads downstairs to his basement office to write. He types away until lunchtime, climbs the stairs to the kitchen, makes himself a sandwich, plays with the dogs, then returns to his desk for another couple of hours. “Boring. Boring, boring, boring.”
“Boring can be good,” I said, “Boring is maybe what you want.” And I told him how for the last twenty pages of the biography of John Updike I’m reading, Updike had been boring in the exact same way as he scribbled away at what would become Rabbit, Run. I wasn’t sure if dogs figured in Updike’s daily routine but otherwise it was just like Steve’s.
“But,” I said warningly, “He’s about to become un-boring. He’s not working at home anymore. He’s rented a little office in downtown Ipswich and he’s about to start doing research for Couples.”
I was referring, of course, to the serial adulteries that will soon wreck his marriage. Alongside the biography, I’ve been reading some of Updike’s fiction and poetry and, as it happened, yesterday, I’d just read the first chapter of Couples where he introduces the character I immediately identified as Research Subject Number 1, Angela Hanema:
“What did you make of the new couple?”
The Hanemas, Piet and Angela were undressing. Their bedchamber was a low-ceilinged Colonial room whose woodwork was painted the shade of off-white commercially called eggshell. A spring midnight pressed on the cold windows.
“Oh,” Angela answered vaguely, “They seemed young.” She was a fair soft brown-haired woman, thirty-four, going heavy in her haunches and waist yet with a girl’s fine hard ankles and a girl’s tentative way of moving, as if the pure air were loosely packed with obstructing cloths. Age had touched only the softened line of her jaw and her hands, their stringy backs and reddened fingertips.
First, “bedchamber”, Mr Updike? I’ll let that one slide because I’ve been in that room.
Second, did you notice how he follows up the deliberate banal but exact detail about the color of the woodwork with the impressionistic description of the time and weather, the spring midnight pressing on the cold windows? One of Updike’s best tricks. He does the trick in reverse at the end of his description of Angela.
Third, he knows that woman’s body too well.
At any rate, I didn’t quote that passage to Steve but I gave him the gist.
“So, see,” I concluded, “Boring is a good thing.”
Steve seemed to find that reassuring and after we spent some time lamenting the sorry state of the Red Sox we said goodbye and he diligently went back to being boring.
You can check on how dogged, diligent, and un-boring Steve’s being with his actual writing about Corky at his blog, Planet of the Blind.
Chon tells Ben and O that he literally has to get packing.
He goes back to his efficiency apartment on Glenneyre and packs a baseball bat into his ‘68 green Mustang----
---in honor of Steve McQueen---
---the King of Cool---
---and drives down to San Clemente, not far from Richard Nixon’s version of Elba and hence known in the latter half of the 1970s as
(Nixon, poor Nixon, the only truly tragic hero in the American political theater; the only recent president more Aeschylus than Rodgers and Hammerstein. First there was Camelot, then The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, then Richard?)
Chon drives not to the old Western White House.
The real name of which was, with presumably unintended irony, La Casa Pacifica
There was Nixon in Exile, prowling around the Peaceful House chatting with paintings, while down on the actual Pacific, Secret Service agents chased surfers away from the nearby famous break at Upper Trestles lest they organize an assassination attempt, which is, it should be noted, probably the first time that the words “surfers” and “organize” have been used in the same paragraph.
Surfers? An assassination attempt?
(“Okay, let’s coordinate our watches.”
Anyway, Chon drives to the hospital.
---from The Kings of Cool by Don Winslow.
“This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.”---Maya Angelou. April 4, 1928-May 28, 2014.
Funny how these things work. Events, movies, books, people can get locked in your head in the time they came into your life. When you go to revisit them---remember them---you don’t recall them by calling them into the present. You travel back in time to revisit them when and where you met them. Or so it can seem.
Back in college, freshman, maybe sophomore year, I decided I needed to read the work of Maya Angelou. So I did. All of it. In a week. I did this regularly in those days, assigned myself a writer or a set of writers or a period of history or an area of science and read just about every book the library had on the subject. This would have made me the best college student ever, except that usually none of it had anything to do with the courses I was taking and what it really amounted to was a highly pretentious form of procrastination. My grades suffered, but I was the most well-read C student in town. So there were seven days in there when I should have been reading something else I was reading nothing but Maya Angelou. That wouldn’t have meant many books at the time. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getin’ Merry Like Christmas, the first three collections of her poems. But it felt like an achievement. Which actually meant I felt I was done.
This is what often happened when I pulled this trick. I’d convince myself I now knew all I needed to know about an author or a subject and I could move onto something else without looking back. And this is how it happens that many writers are frozen in time in my memory. Doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten them or that they don’t matter to me or that they don’t continue to influence my thinking, my teaching, or my writing.
It’s simply the explanation for why I was shocked to find out that Angelou was eighty-six!
How did that happen?
In my head she’s still whatever age she was when I read those books. No. She’s whatever age she left herself at at the end of Singin’ and Swingin’, not yet thirty.
Maybe this is how writers become immortal.
Anyway, I’m trying to adjust things in my head to take into account the real passage of time. But I don’t want to be too much of a stickler about this. I want to leave it so she’ll always feel to me what she’s felt to me.
Have just started reading the important new book all of us should be reading right now.
What? Who? Glenn who? ]
That's not a book. I'm talking about the new biography of John Updike by Adam Begley. THAT'S a book!
I'm reading Updike sitting in my car, drinking coffee, at McDonald's, feeling I'm about to learn how my own life went wrong.
Which seems like a very Rabbit-esque thing to be doing.
Barnes & Noble. Thursday. April 17, 2014. Six forty five p.m.
A hundred less than solitudinous years ago when I was in Boston working in a bookstore and in charge of our literature section, Avon Books was publishing a series of paperback editions of the great Latin American writers of the day. Jorge Amado, Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, many others. The covers were white with fragmented paintings on the front, all in a similar style, maybe by the same artist. They were bright and rich with lush greens and sugary browns dominating the motifs, calling up images of jungles and cinnamon skin. Employees could take home as our own any paperback we desired by tearing off the front covers, which would be sent back to the publishers and written off as discards I rarely took advantage of this perk and I didn’t with this set because books have feelings and the covers were too pretty, too evocative, too much a part of the appeal of the books But we were also allowed to borrow books, encouraged to, in fact. The company wanted us to be able to make knowledgeable recommendations to customers. I borrowed most of these books over the course of a month and became insufferably knowledgeable. At that time, that was the point. Showing off my knowledge. I still thought of myself as a playwright in the making. I read fiction for fun or homework but not to help learn a craft.
I don’t know what kind of girl I thought would be impressed that I’d read Epitaph for a Small Winner.
Like I said, I read most of the ones we had in the store. Maybe all of them. All of them but one. However many I read, there was at least one I didn’t get to.
I don’t know why I stopped before I got that one or why I didn’t start with that one, since it was the most famous. Maybe I was saving it because it was the most famous. Maybe I thought that because it was the most famous it didn’t serve my purpose as an intellectual showoff. Everybody knew that one. Most likely what happened, however, is I found something else I felt needed to read first.
I never got around to reading that one.
Did you see this post by Michael Hiltzik at the LA Times?
I’ve read other books and stories by Marquez since. Autumn of the Patriarch. Love in the Time of Cholera. One Christmas when I was home from Iowa and it still seemed not just possible but likely I was about to become a novelist in my own right, Mom and Pop Mannion gave me his Collected Stories. I loved that book, for itself, for his sake, for what it seemed to promise for me and my career. Today I went down to the basement and retrieved it from the box where it had been stored since our move here from Syracuse, ten and a half years ago. A dozen other books in the box with it and it was the only one time and damp had touched, its cover slightly warped, a few of its back pages bloated. I put it between two heavy books, hoping it’ll flatten out. I’ll read a story or two from it tonight, and then I’ll open the copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude I just bought and finally begin that one.
Guess who this is:
[He] was born on January 30, 1941 in Lincoln, Nebraska, to a family of New Deal Democrats who struggled through the Great Depression and were proud their oldest son was born on Franklin Roosevelt’s birthday. His grandparents lost everything in the crisis except their house. His father…dropped out of college and worked for decades for the Soil Conservation Service teaching farmers how to rotate their crops. His mother…waited tables at the family-owned Dickey’s Cafe in Syracuse, Nebraska, until meeting the young public servant. At various points growing up [our man] lived on an uncle’s farm in a family friend’s basement.
You got it in one, right?
Just started reading Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker. I’m not very deep into it but so far Baker hasn’t explained or even given a serious look at the question, How did that happen? How did the son of New Deal Democrats grow up into not just a Republican conservative but the arch-Republican conservative of the first decade of the 21st Century? Maybe he’ll get into it later. The focus of the book is the eight years of George W. Bush’s Presidency and at this point Baker’s on a quick march through the five decades leading up to it, providing both personal and historical background, and he hasn’t slowed down often to editorialize, psychoanalyze personalities, or philosophize about politics. All he’s offered is that Cheney worked for Donald Rumsfeld when Rumsfeld headed Nixon’s “Office of Economic Opportunity overseeing the war on poverty” and then:
Cheney stayed with Rumsfeld when he took over the inflation-fighting Cost of Living Council. Both jobs soured Cheney on government intervention in the economy and the son of New Deal Democrats became a conservative Republican.
Which not only doesn’t explain anything, it seems wrong. Cheney was already a conservative Republican by then. That’s how he came to be working for Rumsfeld and Nixon. And along with that, Nixon’s way of fighting the war on poverty was to scale back Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society wherever and however he could---that was what “benign neglect” meant---and Cheney would have known that and approved. In fact, most likely he’d have seen his job as helping to sour others on government intervention in the economy and if anything his experiences would have soured him on the kind of Republican moderates and liberals who were in the Administration and Congress at the time and Cheney would probably have thought insufficiently neglectful and way too benign about it. (Baker does a good and swift job of establishing Cheney’s contempt for Nelson Rockefeller and implies that contempt extended, at least in the late 1970s, to George Herbert Walker Bush.) There’s an irony here that Baker also doesn’t explore. Cheney’s father’s job was essentially to implement the government’s interference in the economy at the most local level.
Like I said, so far Baker hasn’t shown interest in looking at how Cheney went over to the Dark Side and I have a feeling he’s not going to get into even when his story opens up and there’s room for it. Days of Fire is shaping up as a straight-forward chronicle of the Bush years told from the inside, which means that almost all of Baker’s sources were there and they have good reasons for putting the best face on everything about those days including their bosses. Who wants to go down in history as having worked for the most inept and corrupt Presidency since Warren G. Harding’s? And Baker, well-trained journalist that he is, perhaps too well-trained---he’s the White House correspondent for the New York Times---doesn’t seem inclined to report anything he didn’t get from straight from his sources. Baker zips right through W’s National Guard service without mentioning how he managed to come out of it without becoming the fighter pilot he later like to boast he was. So I suspect Days of Fire’s going to be a tough-read for a partisan like me who demands the kind of criticism and complaint I suspect are going to be in short supply.
At any rate, Baker leaves us to guess how and why Cheney came to reject his parents’ politics. We have a pretty good idea how that former staunch New Deal Democrat Ronald Reagan came to be the leader and prophet and now patron saint of Movement Conservatism. It started with his anti-communism and was completed when his work as a shill for General Electric showed him how much fun it was to be rich. There’s nothing that clear-cut in Cheney’s biography as reported by Baker in Days of Fire. Cheney’s story may have as its moral that where we grow up and the friends we make in high school and college---or didn’t make; Cheney didn’t much care for what he saw at Yale before he flunked out---have more influence on what kinds of adults we become than do our parents. It may be the case that Cheney’s relationship with his parents soured him on New Deal Democrats. It may be that he just inherited a dominant conservative gene from one ancient ancestor or another who didn’t like to share his mastodon steaks and thought the best way to handle possibly threatening visitors from other clans was to preemptively club them to death.
Probably not going to find any of that out from Days of Fire and that’s ok. But there is something I would like explained. Not necessarily by Baker but by Cheney himself.
Cheney’s days in the Ford White House proved formative to his governing philosophy. In the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era, he served at the nadir of the Presidency, when Congress was chipping away at executive power through the War Powers Resolution and other legislation that altered the balance of power in American government. The Church Committee investigation into abuses by the CIA, he felt, undercut the nation’s premier spy agency. Bryce Harlow, a veteran of the Eisenhower White House and a colleague in Ford’s, warned Cheney about the need to protect the prerogatives of the executive. “One of the things he would say is, ‘Look, we have to make sure we leave the institution of the Presidency with the same authorities and powers that the Constitution intended,’” Rumsfeld later recalled. “Once an executive acquiesces in something that infringes on that or is weak or the Congress is a quid pro quo for something, it doesn’t just affect your Presidency; it affects the institution.” That, Rumsfeld said, made a lasting impression on him and Cheney. “I felt that way, and I know he felt that way,” Rumsfeld said. Cheney later told reporters as vice-president, “A lot of things around Watergate and Vietnam, both, in the 70s served to erode the authority, I think. The President needs to be effective, especially in the national security area.”
We know how this attitude played out over the course of Cheney’s vice-presidency and it’s bound to be a theme of the main part of Days of Fire. The question I want asked, not necessarily by Baker, unless he gets the chance, is “If this is how you feel, Mr Vice-President, why have you taken every opportunity you’ve had since 2009 to encourage disrespect, even contempt for President Obama and undermine his authority and cheer the Republicans in Congress on as they attempt to embarrass, weaken, and humiliate him?”
Makes it tough for the President to be effective, especially in the national security area, don’t you think?
Always amazed and appalled when I think about what Elizabethans were willing to suffer (and inflict) in the name of their religion. Grisly torture, grislier and torturous deaths, disembowelment, hanging, beheading, drawing and quartering, immolation. Catholics took the worst of it during the time Shakespeare was learning and plying the playwright’s trade; Protestants, a generation before. Catholics and Protestants both went to their deaths or sent others to their deaths, all over how much God had invested in a piece of magic bread.
Still reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and I’m having no trouble imagining living in Shakespeare’s day, except for that. It’s not that I can’t imagine people doing all that to each other. I can’t imagine caring enough to do it. Of course, much of it was really about power not God. It was political more than it was religious, whatever the martyrs and martyr-makers told themselves. But it just seems to me that it would have been easy for anyone of either sect to pretend to be practicing whatever was in favor at the moment.
“Are you Protestant or Catholic?”
Probably that’s what most people did.
It’s what I’d have done.
But then I’m imagining that if I’d grown up in the late 16th Century I’d have somehow grown up into a 21st Century American.
But it’s a big mistake, an act of self-delusion and self-flattery to imagine that if you’d lived "back then", you’d have known better. You’re imagining that you’d have been you, that is, the you you know. Think you know. The you who from birth to wherever you are in life’s passage has lived in a world lit bright as midday in the middle of the night by electric light, in which medicine works, where news travels instantly around the world, and not in a time when most people couldn’t read, when they were helpless against the regular outbreaks of plague, when friends and relatives in the next county over where farther away and harder to get word to or from than people an ocean apart are today, when executions were state and Church sanctioned atrocities, grisly, grotesque, intentionally cruel, appallingly frequent, and a form of public entertainment.
No wonder people back then believed Heaven and Hell were as real as London. They lived in not just a demon-haunted world but an angel-infested and God-bothered one. They believed the borders between this world and either of the next were permeable and devils and angels were roaming back and forth between here and whichever place they called home and taking living human beings with them as they went. Essentially this meant they believed that this world wasn’t quite real, and you can hardly blame them for that.
I half hope so myself sometimes, 21st Century American that I am.
At one point in Saving Mr. Banks, an exasperated Walt Disney, desperately trying to figure out what makes author P.L. Travers tick so he can get an angle on how to finally convince her to sell him the film rights to her novel Mary Poppins, asks her, “Where did Mary Poppins come from?”
And an even more exasperated but also angrily defensive Travers tries to deflect the question. “I don’t know. She just flew in through the window.”
Now, I don’t know if the screenwriters were using the line as an in-joke to show they’d done their homework or if the line was an inspired bit of improvisation by Emma Thompson. But, whichever and however it came to be in there, it’s also a missed opportunity.
Travers is telling the truth but the truth is not that one day she was suddenly and unexpectedly inspired as if Mary Poppins appeared in her imagination whole and in flight with her talking umbrella and bottomless carpetbag.
Mary Poppins flies but she would never be so impertinent or impolite as to come into someone’s house through a window.
She lands primly and properly on the doorstep and knocks.
But someone else flies in through windows, uninvited, and flies out of them too, with enthralled children in tow, leaving his shadow behind.
As a synecdoche for how stories inspire more stories, you can’t do better than Peter Pan.
And one of the themes of Saving Mister Banks is how people use stories to both understand life and to hide from it or at least disguise its true nature.
But as it happens, Peter Pan is the story---one of the stories---behind this story.
Saving Mr. Banks exists as a story to be told because the movie Mary Poppins exists, and Mary Poppins exists because the novel Mary Poppins exists, and Mary Poppins the novel exists because Peter Pan exists.
P.L. Travers, who began her adult career as an actress, was a great admirer of J.M. Barrie and when she sat down to write Mary Poppins she consciously used Barrie’s novelization of his play Peter Pan as one of her models.
Travers wasn’t the only child whose imagination Peter carried off with him to Neverland or the only adult for whom he left behind his shadow.
Walt Disney always said it was a touring company production of Peter Pan he saw as a boy that inspired him to become a storyteller as well as an artist.
In real life, Disney would have recognized Travers’ allusion immediately and he’d have used it to try to make the connection he’s struggling to make in Saving Mr. Banks.
But in the movie, he treats it as merely the deflection she intends and continues to focus on the business at hand.
Disney’s failure to pause and take notice of what she’s just said is a...well, a synecdoche---Don’t often get to use that word even once in a blog post.---for one of the flaws of Saving Mister Banks, a generally enjoyable movie mainly enjoyable for Emma Thompson’s and Tom Hanks’ performances.
Let’s get this out of the way first.
Emma Thompson has been robbed.
She deserved to have been nominated at every venue this Awards Season, including and especially the Oscars.
Meryl Streep? Again? What is there, a California Law that Meryl Streep has to be nominated every year no matter what movie she does? And it wasn't even the actual lead.
And I adore Amy Adams as much as anyone but the only explanation I can come up with for why she was nominated for American Hustle is that after nominating Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, Academy members were worried she’d feel left out and nobody wanted to make Amy Adams cry.
Well, there you have me.
But if Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine was the standard this go-round, then Thompson more than meets it.
As P.L. Travers, Thompson has a task similar to Blanchett’s as Jasmine. She has to carry a whole movie while playing a difficult, often dislikable, and, in a different way than Jasmine but still hard to sympathize with, destructive character. And she has to do it without the same or as many opportunities to act. Jasmine is an alcoholic and prescription drug addict. Travers is addicted to…tea. You just don’t look as dramatic spooning in the sugar as you can popping pills and tossing back a vodka martini.
Plus, Blanchett has help from a large and varied troupe of character actors. Thompson’s small company of supporting players, which includes Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, and Melanie Paxson, do a fine job but that job mainly consists of sitting there looking stunned as Travers alternates between bullying them, insulting them, insulting their beloved boss, and making impossible demands. The difference is the like the difference between a solo and a sonata. Blanchett has more to play off of and play with. Thompson has more scenes that depend on what she can do on her own.
Then there’s the fact Thompson has no lines that were written by Woody Allen.
Don’t get me wrong. Blanchett’s performance was edgier and riskier. Jasmine isn’t only her own worst enemy. She’s the enemy of just about every sympathetic character we meet, to the point she’s practically the villain of the story, and Allen and Blanchett constantly tempt us to turn completely against her.
Saving Mister Banks is always, if not always whole-heartedly, on Travers’. She’s unlikeable and disagreeable and abrasive and only some of that is warranted by her situation. But the movie takes a We All Have Our Faults view and so makes no attempt to punish her for her flaws and foibles. And it doesn’t take the position she should have just accepted that Uncle Walt knew best. She’s not expected to be able to see into the future and know that the movie she’s resisting being made out of her book will be a classic. We’re allowed to be amused when she objects to something that we know will turn out to be a favorite part of Mary Poppins but we’re not for a moment to think her objections are foolish or her suggestions are bad in themselves. We’re even encouraged to think she might have at least half a point as she’s busy trying to sabotage one of the most beloved movies of all time.
Still, it’s a tall order and you don’t have to take my word for it that Thompson carries it off brilliantly. Here’s Meryl Streep presenting one of the awards Thompson was not robbed of, the Best Actress Award from the National Board of Review:
Nobody can swashbuckle a quit-witted riposte like Emma Thompson. She’s a writer, a real writer, and she has a relish for the well-chosen word. But some of the most sublime moments in Saving Mr. Banks are completely wordless. They live in the transitions where P.L. traverses from her public face to her private spaces. I’m talking about her relentlessness when she has her verbal dukes up, and then it moves to the relaxation of her brow when she retreats into the past. It’s her stillness, her attentiveness to her younger self; her perfect aliveness, her girlish alertness.
What I said, about Thompson and the Oscars? Robbed!
Tom Hanks was robbed too. Not for Saving Mr. Banks. For Captain Phillips. Still, he’s very good as Walt Disney. More convincing as Walt Disney than Walt Disney was himself. Hanks plays the character Disney tried to play in his introductory scenes on The Wonderful World of Color. Kindly, genial, avuncular, with a touch of gruffness that lets you know he’s not someone you want mad at you but without the real Disney’s mean streak or will to dominate, an artist who can’t always keep his own creations under control, a Merlin with still a touch of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and that’s how he seems to think of Travers---as one of his own cartoon characters who’s come to life with a mind and will of her own. She baffles him, frustrates him, makes his blood boil, but, fundamentally, she amuses him and makes him a little proud. This mixture of vanity, condescension, paternalism, and solipsism keeps Hanks’ Disney from becoming just the loveable old Uncle Walt Walt tried to pass himself off as and helps keep us on Travers’ side. No matter how wrong she might ultimately be about how to make her book into a good movie, she’s right to resist being turned into a Walt Disney character along with her Mary Poppins.
Saving Mr. Banks is a slight film. You could argue it’s a dishonest film. I know you can because I’ve seen people do it. It’s dishonest not in the usual Hollywood way of leaving out facts or altering them or making things up to suit the needs of the plot, although of course it does that. But Hollywood and its audience long ago came to an understanding about that sort of dishonesty.
If you want to make the case Saving Mr. Banks is dishonest, its dishonesty is in its refusal to take its two main characters seriously, either as artists or as difficult, complicated, and problematic personalities. The movie presents it as a settled question that both Travers and Disney were genius storytellers, with Disney being the greater genius, of course, or at least the broader-thinking one. And the serious defects in each of their characters are glossed over or treated like harmless eccentricities.
By 1962, when the movie takes place, Walt Disney hadn’t been an artist in his own right in years. He had ceased to be a great entertainer or even a showman. He was a salesman selling Disney-ness, not as a brand, but as a way of life, almost as a place to live, with the theme parks being model neighborhoods.
But the possibility that Disney was a showboating fraud and a ruthless corporatist who made his name and his dough exploiting true artists like Travers, either because that’s what he’d become or that’s what he’d always been, is never considered.
And, as I said, Hanks leaves out his mean streak. And left out of the script is his appalling sexism. Meryl Streep again:
When I saw the film, I could just imagine Walt Disney’s chagrin at having to cultivate P.L. Travers’ favor for 20 years that it took to secure the rights to her work. It must have killed him to encounter, in a woman, an equally disdainful and superior creature, a person dismissive of his own, considerable gifts and prodigious output and imagination.
Streep could imagine it, but the movie doesn’t, not really. In the few moments when Disney's sexism is allowed to surface, it’s presented comically, as the understandable bafflement of a typical man of his time having to deal with an individual who refuses to conform to his idea of how a typical woman of the time should behave. And he’s immediately set straight by his executive secretary. In this, Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t just reflect the times. It’s practically an apology for them.
On the other side, the fact that the real Pamela Travers could be a ruthless go-getter in her own right who exploited and abused others as she needed on her way to a level of success and personal happiness that always eluded her is also never considered. Neither is the possibility that she was a posturing mediocrity, a poetaster (and poet-chaser) who’d luckily hit on a late-blooming career as a children’s author by shamelessly mimicking the works of her literary idols.
The opposite isn’t there either. Travers isn’t set up as a champion of artistic integrity (as opposed to a defender of her own artistic creation) opposing a one-time fellow genius who could no longer distinguish between a work of art and a commodity.
Travers doesn’t like what Disney sells and she’s sharply critical of what about it she doesn’t like but she offers no real critique of it, either in what she says or what she does. She is not, as Streep would like to imagine, the least bit “dismissive of his considerable gifts.” And for his part, Disney is certain of Travers’ talent because his daughter loved Mary Poppins when she was little and the judgment of children is always pure and never wrong.
Neither one doubts or questions his self or herself as an artists. Neither doubts or questions the other.
In short, they don’t talk about Peter Pan.
They don’t discuss or even bring up how it inspired both of them but in very different ways to very different purposes.
At any rate, you could make the case that in leaving all that out or in giving it short shrift, Saving Mr. Banks is a dishonest movie if it was a movie for grown-ups or just for grown-ups.
Saving Mr. Banks is a movie for children who love the movie Mary Poppins and for those children’s parents and grandparents who loved Mary Poppins when they were children themselves and as such it’s not meant to be realistic.
It’s meant to be something of a fairy tale, like Mary Poppins, Disney’s movie and Travers’ novel.
Saving Mister Banks is a just-so story about stories and about how stories come into being or, in this case, how a story almost didn’t come into being.
Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t have a full-time narrator, but it opens with a short bit of narration spoken by a voice we'll come to recognize as that of Travers' wistful, romantic, and soul-tortured father.
Winds in the east / Mist coming in / Like something is brewing / About to begin / Can't put me finger / On what lies in store / But I feel what's to happen / All happened before.
Which happens to be a variation on the opening lines of both Disney's Mary Poppins and Peter Pan.
Behind every story is another story, a true story. And behind that story is another story. Sometimes the hidden story is a funny one about grownups behaving like children, like the story you’re watching now. And sometimes the story is a sad one about grownups and children who are unhappy and in pain, like the story behind this story, which, as it happens, thanks to the magic of movies, you’re also watching at the same time.
That other, sad story is the story of Travers’ less than happy childhood in Australia where she lived an emotionally and financially precarious life with her younger sisters and their alcoholic but charismatic and doting father (Colin Farrell) and their emotionally fragile mother (Ruth Wilson) who probably would have had a hard time coping even if her husband had been more reliable and their life more stable.
But despite her father’s inability to make himself reliable or provide that needed stability, he is still a hero to his eldest daughter and he passes along two great gifts.
A faith in the power of stories to make life bearable and beautiful and a confidence in her own abilities as a storyteller.
The problem that past creates in the present, that is the complication that sad story causes in the plot of the comic story Saving Mr. Banks is telling is that Travers has come to see all her stories, including and especially Mary Poppins, as bound up in her very mixed feelings about her father. Basically, she can separate her story from his story and, as Saving Mr. Banks has Walt Disney intuit, she can’t let go of Mary Poppins the way he needs her to in order to make his movie (tell the story he wants to tell) because in her mind Mary Poppins is her father’s story and in letting go she’d be betraying him.
And as soon as Disney realizes this, he hits on the solution.
The still floundering and exasperated Disney tells the still angry and defensive Travers a story. The story of his childhood and his relationship with his father. I should say a story. An alternative story. It’s a true story but it’s not the story because it’s not the story Disney has chosen to be the story of his life. He could have made that story a story about being cold and alone and put-upon and exploited and neglected. He could have made his father the villain of his life. Instead, he calls his father “a good man.”
Any armchair psychologists want to speculate on what the young Walt would have made of the fact that the actor playing Mr Darling also played Captain Hook?
Same thing a lot of children make of it, I’d wager.
Now of course Walt Disney would have had more reason than most people to think his life worked out ok not just in spite of what he had to endure as a kid but because of it. But his point is that the story of a person’s life is the story as she tells it to herself. Travers, he’s implying, is letting the story tell her. She sees it as a story about how she failed her father. And because of that, she sees her own novel as a compensatory fantasy. That’s why she’s so defensive of it. It’s her defense against guilt and self-loathing. It’s not working that way. But it’s all she’s got. She thinks. Disney figures out that she’s stalled, as an artist and as soul. She’s not frigid, as at one point another character accuses her of being. She’s frozen in place. And Disney blames it on her getting her own story wrong. It’s not the story of her father’s and her own failures. It is, in his view, the story of her success.
Well, he would.
But his point is that that story, that success, is Travers’ creation of Mary Poppins. “Finish the story,” he urges. And the finish is that she gives Mary Poppins to the whole world by selling him the film rights.
Well, he’d see it that way too.
At any rate, that’s what I liked about Saving Mr. Banks. Here’s what Emma Thompson herself liked about it (This is from her speech accepting the award Streep presented.):
I’d like to thank Kelly Marcel for writing someone so relentlessly unpleasant. Actually, it was an artistic chance to let out my real and true inner self. It was such bliss torturing all those young men, and I include Hanks, obviously, in that category. He’s always looked like he needed a good smack.
And Alison Owen, who produced a film about a 60-year-old woman which wasn’t about her being a wife or a mother. When does that happen? Never. Extraordinary.
And, of course, John Lee Hancock, who corralled a group of actors who would literally sell their internal organs to get the laugh. We would do anything to get a laugh, and he managed to make us look quite poignant in the end, which was extraordinary, I thought.
The end, but one more thing before they all lived happily ever after, which they didn’t and the movie, to its credit, doesn’t try to make us believe they did.
I still wish upon a star that more had been made of the Peter Pan allusion.
I wouldn’t have wanted to listen to two hours of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers arguing about art, the nature and uses of storytelling, and the corrupting influence of the Almighty Dollar.
That might have made an interesting two-character play, although not necessarily a more true to life story.
But a couple of lines that would have let Thompson and Hanks play the moment would have done the trick.
It would have been fun and funny to see the shock of recognition on both their faces.
Saving Mr. Banks isn't exactly the cinematic equivalent of the best creative non-fiction, but from reading Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers by Valerie Lawson, I was pleased to learn it's a lot more true to the facts than carping commentary on the internet led me to expect. Here's an interview Lawson did with the Chicago Tribune.
And from Smithsonian.com: How Did P.L. Travers, the Prickly Author of Mary Poppins, Really Fare Against Walt Disney?: Historian Amy Henderson searches for the spoonfuls of sugar-coated truth in the new film, "Saving Mr. Banks".
Saving Mr. Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock, written by Kelly Marshall and Sue Smith. Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Bradley Whitford, Ruth Wilson, Annie Rose Buckley, and Melanie Paxson. Rated PG-13. Still in some theaters but coming to DVD and available to watch instantly at Amazon on March 18.
There was also for Judith---as for many of them---another element to her diligence, though it was one she tended not to dwell on in her adult life: She was Jewish. Her family was not observant in the Orthodox sense of the word---they didn’t keep kosher, didn’t refrain from watching television or handling money on Friday night. But Judaism was important to them. The belonged to a Reform synagogue, went once a month for Shabbat and on many of the (major) holidays. They participated in any food drives the synagogue held and made regular donations to MAZON and to the ADL, understanding such giving to be as much a practice of their religion as eating matzo on Passover. There was Judaic artwork throughout the house, a mezuzah on the front door. Hannah, whose own mother was a survivor of Buchenwald, always set her novels among the highly Jewish milieu in Philadelphia in which she’d been raised; she won a Brochstein Medal for her translation of Yiddish poetry. And perhaps most powerfully---there was among the family a collective reverence for thought, for academics, for scholarship. For Judith, the obligation to study had been inextricable from her idea of what it meant to be a Jew. The Jews, she was taught, were the Chosen People---and this was not a guarantee of exceptionalism but instead an obligation to carry on a tradition that included the articulation of monotheism, the founding of many of the world’s great philosophies, the invention of psychotherapy, and the discovery of relative physics. Her most profound moments of religious feeling came not in temple, but rather when she would be in her bedroom working on a paper or problem set, and hear her father typing away in his study; hear her mother gently, quietly reciting verse. Then Judith would feel---she would feel she knew---that God was real…
---from The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman.
I always get a kick out of it when I’m reminded what a fine journalist and nature writer Homer was.
There is an island covered with forests, not far
from the harbor of the Cyclopes, yet not so near,
and upon it the wild goats breed in numberless flocks
and are never disturbed by the comings and goings of humans,
since hunters never visit to force their way
through the thick woods and over the mountain ridges.
Nobody grazes flocks there or till the fields,
but the land is unsown, unplowed, empty of men,
and is just a habitation for bleating goats,
because the Cyclopes don’t have ships; there are no
shipwrights among them to build strong sailing vessels
that would take them across the sea to visit the towns
of others, as human beings do in their travels.
This would have allowed them to settle the island and make
a colony there, for the land is extremely fertile
and would yield fine crops in their season. Along the shore
are lush waters meadows where grapevine would never fail;
there is land that is level for plowing, and they could be sure
of always reaping a good crop at every harvest,
so rich is the soil beneath. And the island has
an excellent harbor, where ships can easily land
without any need for anchor-stones of stern-cables;
you can beach your ships and wait there until the crew
are ready to leave and the wind blows fair for departing.
And then, at the head of the harbor, there is a spring
of fresh water that gushes out from beneath a cave,
and on either side of it is a large grove of poplars.
That’s from Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of The Odyssey, which arrived in the mail the other day and from which I’ve now learned that I shouldn’t call the poet who wrote The Odyssey Homer.
According to Mitchell in his introduction, Homer wrote The Iliad; scholars have decided another poet working after Homer and heavily influenced by him but still with a talent and style all his own wrote The Odyssey.
News to me.
On two counts, the second being that scholars have decided that each epic was written by a single poet, just not the same poet. Last I checked in with the scholars, there was no Homer. Homer was just an umbrella name for the many poets and bards who over a long period time---centuries, maybe---collectively created what somebody eventually wrote down as if it had all been written by one person.
At any rate, now we’re back to an individual poet. Poets. And Mitchell calls the second one the Odyssey poet. I suppose I should too, except that it says Homer right there on the cover. So Homer it is.
Thing is, I didn’t start re-reading The Odyssey because UPS dropped Mitchell’s translation on the doorstep. I was already re-reading it---Robert Fagels’ translation---for my class.
My other class.
Don’t think I’ve mentioned here that in addition to the Wired Critics course I’m teaching a seminar for first semester Honors students called Harry Potter and His Avatars: Myth and Fairy Tale in Popular Culture. Here's the official course description:
Harry Potter, Clark Kent, Luke Skywalker, King Arthur, and Hercules share common origins in a number of myths and fairy tales and their stories can be read as re-tellings of those old stories, the ones Sam Gamgee says "really mattered." And that's what we're going to be doing in this course, looking at some of those myths, like the coming of the Chosen One and the Hero's Journey, and tales to throw light on their stories, throwing in Bilbo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen, and anyone else we can think of, and then turning things around to use their stories to bring new life to those old tales and adventures. In class, we'll be telling each other stories and watching clips from relevant movies and taking turns leading discussions. The course will finish with a group trip to see a performance of the SU's School of Drama's production of Bertholt Brecht's anti-heroic The Good Woman of Setzuan.
These 100 level seminars are intended to get students thinking of themselves as honors students and that means getting them to understand what’s expected of them and what their responsibilities are. But part of the point is also to introduce them to some of their fellow honors students and encourage them to see themselves as part of community of scholars and intellectual leaders. And it’s supposed to be done in a fun way with no heavy lifting. Since they’re required to take one of these seminars on top of a regular course load, the amount of reading and writing they’re to have to do is to kept to a minimum.
That means no textbooks.
If we had a formal reading list, though, The Odyssey would be on it, along with The Hobbit, Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex, Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, and several of the Potter books.
You notice how I’ve arranged to be able to talk about comic books in class?
I chose to build the class around Harry Potter for several reasons.
Since there would be no reading list, I wanted students to have a shared literary background and frames of reference they could call on in class discussions and I could count on anyone signing up for a course called Harry Potter and His Avatars having read a few of the books, even all of them, several times over, which turns out to be the case.
Harry Potter is the myth of their generation. It means as much to them as Star Wars does to Gen Xers and Tolkien did to many Boomers. Not that they don’t also know and love Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. But for many of them, Harry was the foundation of their imaginative lives.
And I like Harry Potter myself. The books and the movies.
Except for Goblet of Fire.
The movie and the book.
Even so, we haven’t started out focusing on Harry. We’ve started with Odysseus.
And Bilbo Baggins.
And Tony Stark.
I can’t have them read the whole of The Odyssey. But I can have them read parts of it. And that’s what I’ve led off with.
I had them read Book IX, Odysseus’ adventure in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus and then we watched clips from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Iron Man:
Riddles in the Dark…
…and Tony Stark building it in a cave with a box of scraps.
Here are the questions I had them mulling over in class. In what ways are Tony’s and Bilbo’s adventures in their caves like Odysseus’ adventure in Polyphemus’ caves? In what ways are Tony and Bilbo like Odysseus? What do they each come out their caves with? What effect does it have on the course of their next adventures?
Why a cave?
They had good answers but I won’t get into them now in case you want to put your own answers in the comments.
We followed up with listing all the cave scenes from the Harry Potter books. There’s at least one in just about every book. The most obvious one is the climax of The Chamber of Secrets, which is also a visit to the dragon’s lair scene, another favorite trope of myths and fairy tales that we’ll be getting into later. But another important cave scene occurs in The Half-Blood Prince. That’s a case where J.K. Rowling really shows she was up on her Tolkien. But it’s also the case that Harry and Dumbledore aren’t the avatars of Odysseus or Bilbo you might take them for at first glance. They’re too late. They’re following in the footsteps of Regulus Black and he’s the one who apparently had the adventure in the cave of myth of legend.
Probably better to see it as the three of them dividing the role of Odysseus’ avatar, since Regulus fails to complete the adventure himself and it’s up to Harry to see that the job gets done.
Rowling was often coming back to Regulus Black but never following through. Made me wonder if she was planning another series built around him. Her Lord of the Rings, the adult fantasy that grew out of a children’s book.
Or her Odyssey to her own Illiad. The story of a trickster anti-hero following up her war epic.
Just a thought.
We’re going to be picking up Wednesday with wood scenes. Lots of those in the Potter books too.
What does it mean when characters go into the woods?
But back to caves.
One of my students wondered if the scene in The Sorcerer’s Stone where Harry visits Ollivander’s Wand Shop can be considered a cave scene. After all, it’s a descent into the dark and Harry comes out of it with a magical weapon and a new sense of identity or at least the beginning traces of one. But Harry isn’t trapped, Ollivander isn’t a monster or a threat or Harry’s shadow self, and Harry doesn’t have to trick Ollivander out of the wand or connive his way out of there. What it’s more like is another trope in which the hero encounters a weird stranger---weird as in wyrd, unearthly, mysterious, magical, but not necessarily odd, eccentric, or bizarre, although that’s often the case---who gives him a weapon or special knowledge that will carry him through the next stage of his adventure. And this brings me to something else I recently learned.
In the original version of The Hobbit Tolkien published 1937, Bilbo doesn’t steal the ring from Gollum or trick him out of it. According to Corey Olsen, in Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Gollum gives it to him as the prize for winning the game of riddles. And it is a prize. Tolkien himself didn’t know the ring the Ring because he didn’t know yet what he was going to do with it when he got down to writing the story that became The Lord of the Rings.
As we begin to approach Gollum, we must recognize the fact that he is the character that people are most likely to be familiar with already when they read The Hobbit for the first time. This is even more true of Gollum than of Bilbo, for we get to know Gollum much better as a character in The Lord of the Rings than we do Bilbo. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will find The Hobbit’s Gollum quite familiar and will see his encounter with Bilbo as anticipating and setting up Gollum’s relationship with Frodo later on.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that this similarity was imposed upon Gollum retroactively. When Tolkien set down to write The Lord of the Rings as a sequel to The Hobbit. He wanted, therefore, some link that he could establish between the story of The Hobbit and the later story, some seed that he could take from The Hobbit and grow into a new story. The link he decided on was Bilbo’s magic ring, but in the process of developing the story of The Lord of the Rings, he decided that Bilbo’s ring would be much more than just a very useful invisibility ring. That change in the nature of the ring did not conflict with all of The Hobbit but it did require a significant reconsideration of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter, and of the character of Gollum in particular. When Tolkien sent his publisher some corrections to the text of The Hobbit in 1950, therefore, he made some very important changes to his original depiction of Gollum, making him much more like the [wicked and miserable] Gollum that we read about in The Fellowship of the Ring and finally meet in The Two Towers. Thus, though the story of Bilbo and Gollum’s meeting was published twenty years before The Fellowship of the Ring, I think it is fair to say that the Gollum in The Hobbit, as it now stands, is actually based on the Gollum of The Lord of the Rings, and not the other way around.
In other words, Tolkien himself did to his book The Hobbit what a lot of people, including Tolkien’s son Christopher, are mad at Peter Jackson for doing with his movie versions, changing things to make it more of a piece with The Lord of the Rings.
Author P.L. Travers (Emma Thomspon) on the defensive as she squares off against Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in negotiations over the film rights to Travers’ novel Mary Poppins in Saving Mr Banks, a sentimental just-so story New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik calls “The Birth of a Nation of family movies.”
It takes a special breed of literary snob to argue the world would be better off if the movie Mary Poppins had never been made and the only way we knew of the world's most famous nanny was through P.L. Travers’ novels alone and instead.
On another front, I have never enjoyed a film that I disapproved of so much as “Saving Mr. Banks.” It is, so to speak, the “Birth of a Nation” of family movies: it presents so skewed and fundamentally vile a view of the essential matter at hand that you are all the more astounded by how well it’s done. The story, if you have missed it, concerns the “Mary Poppins” author, Pamela Lyndon Travers, coming to Hollywood to resist allowing Walt Disney to adapt her books (though, at last, she is persuaded). Emma Thompson is so good as the author, and Tom Hanks is so good as Disney, that it seems surly and ungrateful to point out that the tale the movie tells is a lie, and an ugly one. (Hanks, as Disney, gives the most subtle performance of his career, making the cartoon-meister one of those handsome, dark-souled, mid-century middle-Americans who built amazing empires but were never truly at ease, even in worlds they had wholly made for their own pleasure, while dominating their employees with coercive, first-name intimacy.)
The moral of the movie’s story is not that a poet’s art got betrayed by American schlock—as, actually, it did—but, instead, that a frigid Englishwoman got “humanized” by American schmalz. My sister Alison, who is not given to emotion or excess in her opinions, writes that “Travers realized that the movie was going to be, as it is, an utter and obscene travesty, turning all the points of the books upside-down, and the idea that she was a cranky woman made to realize the value of friendship etc. by Disney is a bit like saying that Bulgakov would have realized that all his problems were due to his father if only he’d talked to Stalin a little more.” There are a couple of nice songs (minor-key waltzes, appropriately) in the movie—but the rest is schlock that betrays Travers’s intention with every frame. The movie is saying, basically, that Disney did P. L. Travers a favor by traducing her books. They didn’t. He didn’t.
That's Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker. And it’s Saving Mr Banks he’s calling schlock there at the end of the second paragraph. Mary Poppins,the movie, he dismisses as schmaltz, although he sometimes seems to be conflating the two, the schlock with the schmaltz, Banks with Poppins. That's his sister calling Mary Poppins an "obscene travesty" but Gopnik seems to agree or at least see her point. Even if he meant it as a hyperbolic joke, The Birth of a Nation crack shows Gopnik is too much of a white guy for his own good. His sister’s comparing Walt Disney to Josef Stalin makes me wonder what she thinks Walt did that was the equivalent of mass murdering millions of people. Walt Disney was far from being an American saint, but Stalin had Isaac Babel shot, Disney made P.L. Travers rich.
Well, more famous.
However good you think Travers’ book is, however much better than the movie you might believe it is, you’ve got to admit, it’s still read by many more people, children and adults, than would be reading it if the movie hadn’t been made or if it had been made the way Travers had wanted it made.
Ok. I suspect Gopnik of trying his hand at some Slate-like trolling. “You all love Mary Poppins, do you? Well, it’s going to take more than a spoonful of sugar to make this medicine go down!” I don’t think he out and out wishes the movie hadn’t been made.
He sure doesn’t like it though.
It surprises me he still liked Saving Mr Banks. Seems to have surprised himself on that count, as well.
I enjoyed Saving Mr Banks and for the same reasons Gopnik enjoyed it despite himself. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. Especially Thompson who has been repeatedly robbed over the course of this awards season. But I don’t think the movie portrays Travers as a frigid Englishwoman in need of humanizing by the Disney touch. I think the filmmakers are on her side the whole way. They treat her as very much humanized on her own. Maybe a little too human for her own good. But her problem is that she’s taken what the movie---and the audience---can’t help seeing as an indefensible position. She’s out to stop a beloved classic movie from being made.
Of course she doesn’t know that’s what she’s doing. She can’t see into the future. And the filmmakers don’t expect her to. Mary Poppins could have been a terrible movie (Believe it or not, more people than the Gopniks think it is.) or at any rate a much less than great one. At the time Mary Poppins was going into production, Disney Studios was concentrating on live-action movies, some of which were pretty good, most of which were so-so, all of which had a Disney look that hasn’t dated well and probably looked a little cheap to audiences back then as well. I’m not sure but I think many of them were actually made to be shown on The Wonderful World of Color and only made the rounds of the theaters to give them some artistic cachet at a time when television was still regarded as a second-rate medium. They included Old Yeller…
Come on. Admit it. Who cried when Old Yeller dies?
Like I said. Some pretty good ones, some somewhat less than pretty good. But all with that Disney look.
Travers couldn’t have predicted that Mary Poppins was going to become a classic, but based on those movies she would have had some compelling clues as to what an adaptation of her book was likely to look like.
We’re not required to be familiar with all those films ourselves. All we need to know is that Travers had an idea of what a Disney movie was and she didn’t care for it. And her idea isn’t treated as ridiculous or wrong.
She also couldn’t have known ahead of her visit to Disney Studios that the movie in the works was going to have a lot more in common, visually and stylistically, with Disney’s great cartoons.
That might not have mattered.
Saving Mr Banks has it that Travers didn’t like cartoons in any form and so wouldn’t have regarded Snow White, Pinocchio, Peter Pan and the rest as great. I can understand that. I’m not a real fan of any of them. I don’t love any of them, at any rate. I happen to think the Golden Age of Disney animation began with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and continued through the 1990s finishing with Mulan and Tarzan. Sue me. But the last three full-length animated features Disney had turned out before Mary Poppins wrapped were Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, and The Sword in the Stone.
Whatever you think of the first one, the second two are not top-notch. But if you want to imagine what an animated Mary Poppins might have looked like, 101 Dalmatians is probably a good model.
Travers arrives in California at the end of her professional rope. She’d rather not sell the rights to her book to anyone let alone Walt Disney but she needs the money. She feels lost and alone in hostile territory. She knows what she’s going up against too. On top of this she’s haunted by memories of her childhood in Australia and her adoration for her lost soul of a father, a drunk and a dreamer who bestowed upon her, his favorite, the mixed blessing of a faith in the power of imagination to get her through life. It’s not clear if these memories and the attendant guilt and self-reproach, have plagued her all her life or if they’ve been triggered by the prospect that she’s about to give away the work that has been her imaginative connection to her long-dead father. It doesn’t matter. What matters is she’s unhappy and in pain and she’s angry and defensive because of it, and we’re meant to sympathize and root for her.
We understand she doesn’t need humanizing or friendship, which she does happen to get, the friendship I mean, but not from Walt Disney. She needs release. And that’s something she has to get and the movie lets her get for herself.
She gets caught up in the spirit of things, thanks to the genius and patience of the composer-songwriter Sherman Brothers, but then she believes she's been lied to by Walt Disney himself and, furious at him and herself for falling for his sales pitch and mistaking it for a sincere offer of artistic collaboration, she takes her book and goes home. She changes her mind again but not because she’s humanized by American schmaltz. The schmaltz hasn’t gotten off the drawing boards yet. Disney apologizes and using the example of his own life with a difficult father, who unlike Travers’ father sounds like a bully and a sadist and not someone who sounds like a candidate for sympathy or forgiveness, persuades her not let someone else’s story, even though you are a character in it, become your story.
She saves herself by letting go of the ghosts who have taken over her stories, her own and Mary Poppins’.
It’s a sentimental just-so story, but hardly a “fundamentally vile a view of the essential matter at hand”.
What it is, though, is not the story Gopnik would have preferred.
He wanted a tragedy about how commerce defeated art, which isn’t what happened. Travers’ book didn’t get removed from the bookstores and libraries. It gained a great new audience (even though it didn’t include me) and Travers followed it up with more Poppins books.
To believe that’s what happened you have to know that a faithful adaptation of the novel would have been a better movie or believe that no adaptation at all would have been the better outcome so that all the generations of children who have come of reading age since 1964 would have only known Travers’ Mary Poppins and they’d have taken her to heart the way J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter’s been taken to heart.
I don’t think I want to know what Gopnik thinks of the Potter movies or of the books.
But that brings me to this:
With that calm verdict in mind, it is at least possible to return again to the original “Mary Poppins” books, which reward grown up re-reading as much as they please kids. They are, outside of the work of Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, and T. H. White, the most distinguished poetic literature ever written for children.
I dislike Travers’ Mary Poppins. Always have. When I was a kid I outright hated it. But then I read it after seeing the movie. When I got a bit older I realized that was unfair, that books and movies were different and you shouldn’t judge one by the other. So I tried again.
Still didn’t like it. But I just figured I was too old to appreciate a book for children.
But when I was truly older and had children of my own and we were introducing the young Mannion boys to the world beyond picture books, I tried reading them Mary Poppins and they didn’t like it.
Wasn’t because they were picky or lacking in taste either. And they hadn’t seen the movie yet.
There were just too many works of “distinguished poetic literature” they liked better. Because they were better. Much better, in the judgment of this grown-up unrewarded by re-reading Mary Poppins.
Even if you accept that T.H. White wrote The Once and Future King for children and ignore that Tolkien wrote more than The Hobbit and that more has come close to subsuming The Hobbit and is decidedly not for children and let it slide that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is...um...a little weird, if you put those authors' works at the top, between them and Mary Poppins come a shelf-ful of books by (in no particular order except that’s how they’re occurring to me as I’m typing this) Kenneth Grahame, A.A. Milne, J.M. Barrie, Edith Nesbit, Mark Twain, Beatrix Potter, C.S.Lewis, L.Frank Baum, Raold Dahl, Norton Juster, Frances Hodgson Burnett, A.L. Montgomery, Beverly Cleary, J.K. Rowling. and Lemony Snicket.
And,by the way, those few nice songs Gopnik mentions but doesn’t name? Chim Chimney. Feed the Birds. A Spoonful of Sugar. Let’s Go Fly a Kite.
A few nice songs. Sheesh.
Maybe Gopnik was trying to be funny again. Hard to tell. I hope so. I wouldn’t know what to say if he was just being dismissive.
Come to think of it, I know exactly what to say.
It’s what you say when you don’t know what to say.
Be sure to read Gopnik’s whole column, Behind Two Good Movies, Two Great Books. And for the record? In the first half, Gopnik convinces me I’d rather read The Mayor of MacDougal Street than see Inside Llewyn Davis.
Because everybody loves a post with a reading list.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
And yet we mustn’t get the wrong idea about the Eagles. They are not champions of goodness, soaring about looking for wrongs to right and damsels (or hobbits) to rescue. The eagles do save the dwarves, but they don’t actually care much about them. the Lord of the Eagles expresses gladness that they were able to do a good turn for Gandalf, but he says that the main reason they interfered was to “cheat the goblins of their sport.”…Saving the dwarves is more of a means than an end. The Lord of the Eagles further emphasizes their lack of investment in the dwarves or their quest when he is discussing plans for the next day. The eagles will help, but they are unwilling to put themselves in any danger in order to do so. “We will not risk ourselves for dwarves in the southward plains,” he says flatly…Gandalf the wizard may choose to accompany the dwarves far and at great danger to himself but the eagles are not as proactive nor as generous.
Even the eagles’ enmity with the goblins is actually quite casual. The narrator simply says that they neither love nor fear the goblins. They do at times swoop down on them and drive them shrieking back to their caves, we are told, but this doesn’t happen regularly or often…Most of the time, the eagles don’t really care all that much.
…The main reason they usually ignore goblins, the narrator tells us, is that they “did not eat such creatures”…
…The eagles are good, but they are thoroughly wild.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), lost in another daydream, momentarily escapes from the cold, corporate grayness threatening to swallow him up, in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a fortunately not very faithful adaptation of James Thurber’s short story.
Not sure what did it. Might have been the look on Ben Stiller’s face as he studies his checkbook and sees he has enough money to cover the deposit on his mother’s new room at the assisted living center and a few of his own immediate expenses but nothing left over for anything else.
The look includes half a smile and it mixes sadness, frustration, satisfaction, relief, and a determined good humor. It’s the perfect look for a man with a lot to be down about resolving not to let it get him down because, hey, things could be worse and, anyway, today is ok, problems are taken care of, at least for now.
It’s the look of someone whose life is circumscribed by responsibilities he has only a limited power to meet on his own. He can only do so much and the rest is up to luck and the charity, mercy, forbearance, and competence of other people, most of whom don’t know or care he’s alive. And the ones who do care have their own worries and problems.
In short, it’s a look that marks Stiller’s character, Walter Mitty, right away as an Everyperson.
He’s us. Most of us. The most of us who aren’t rich and extremely lucky but who are lucky enough at the moment not to be poor, sick, miserable, and totally without means to help ourselves. The most of us who can console ourselves with the thought Things really could be worse but then can’t help thinking But they could be a lot better and when we start wishing they were feeling vaguely guilty about that.
That look captures the mixture of wishfulness, frustration, guilt, and mustered faith and good cheer with which most of us live our lives and identifies Mitty as our hero.
But it also warns us not to expect too much of him.
His heroism will be of an ordinary and limited kind. We’ll be rooting for him not to triumph but to just get by on our behalf.
Whatever it was, that look or something else, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Stiller as well as starring him, had me choking up from practically its very first shot.
There have been a few movies that have done that to me, had me on the verge of tears from beginning to end, and all of them have been about the muddling through of ordinary people beset with the usual amounts of sorrow and care contriving to find satisfaction and enjoyment (even joy) in their less than wonderful lives, The Dead chief among them, a movie I insist earned its director, John Huston, a thousand years off in Purgatory.
Of course, even if I hadn’t known it from the trailers, I’d have been fairly sure The Secret Life of Walter Mitty wasn’t going to continue in this vein. Hollywood isn’t in the habit of lavishing big budgets on movies about the inescapable melancholy of ordinary life. That’s why Hollywood exists---to give us a momentary escape from ordinary life. But I was impressed with how long Stiller let the melancholy persist and how deep into his story he allowed it to seep.
Maybe too deep.
When, inevitably, Stiller switches gears in order to have Walter start living the kind of life Hollywood does like to make movies about---adventurous, romantic, heroic, thrilling, funny in a laugh out loud way and not a rueful, shaking of the head, boy, do I know what that’s like way---it feels like he’s cheating himself. And us.
I felt cheated, at any rate.
I felt like a sap for investing real emotion in what comes before the adventure begins and then like a cynic for not getting into the spirit of things as the plot takes over and the movie works its way towards a happy and triumphant ending, even though the ending isn’t that happy and triumphant and Walter’s adventure isn’t that Hollywood movie-level implausible. In fact, the middle section of Mitty reminded me a lot The Big Year, an overlooked movie I liked from a couple years back, starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black as three rather ordinary men who manage to have a satisfying adventure chasing a bird-watching record that doesn’t require them to lose their ordinariness. The adventure in The Big Year is realistic because real people undertake the same one every year. Walter’s adventure is not realistic in that way. But ignoring that time has to essentially stand still for him to pull it off in the very few days he manages to do it in, he doesn’t do much more than a real person (with a company credit card and no boss watching) couldn’t do.
So the cheat isn’t in the adventure. It’s in how Stiller begins to push Walter as a hero. Inexorably, it becomes clear that we’re not going to be left to see one of us rising to the occasion in a way we hope we’d rise. We going to be expected to cheer at his triumph, a triumph not on our behalf, but on Walter’s own. A movie that starts off being about how an Everyman manages to muddle through despite the cares and woes wearing him down turns into a movie about how wonderful it is to be Walter Mitty.
I suppose that by extension it’s about how wonderful it is to be the rest of us Mitty-esque Everypersons or at least how wonderful we could be if like Walter we find a way to break free from our ordinarily dull and dulling lives, shake off our inhibitions, unburden ourselves from unnecessary guilt, and put our too restricting senses of obligation aside, at least now and then, and…go for it!
But for the first third, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t just suffused with wishfulness and melancholy. It’s close to heartbreaking.
I haven’t heard of anyone complaining Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t faithful to the James Thurber short story it’s based on, possibly because few people read the story anymore. Which is too bad. It’s one of the great American short stories. But it’s easy to understand why Hollywood wouldn’t wan to ante up for a faithful adaptation.
As funny as it is on the surface, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a very dark, bleak, and depressing story. And its themes are antithetical to everything Hollywood stands for. In the story, ordinary life isn’t melancholy. It’s miserable. For Thurber, as much as for Sartre, hell is other people and there’s no exit. Romance is a fleeting illusion, love is a trap, and marriage is literally the equivalent of death.
And if that isn’t enough, Thurber makes it plain that the kind of escape from dreary reality movies offer is no escape at all. His Mitty’s daydreams are pastiches of movie clichés. The alternative heroic selves Mitty imagines are as ridiculous and empty of meaning and purpose and devoid of true heroic possibility as the self he inhabits. On top of his other problems, Mitty lacks a real imagination that would allow him to see his way out of his predicament or at least put his troubles in perspective. His ability to think for himself or about himself has been supplanted by bad movies. Hollywood does his dreaming for him.
Stiller’s Walter can think for himself. He has an imagination and he dreams real dreams. That’s one of the reasons he’s so sympathetic and why his situation is saddening. He’s self-aware. Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad don’t get carried away showing us their Walter’s daydreams. They give us just enough glimpses of the adventures and moments of romances occurring in his head to let us know how he’s compensating and sublimating and distracting himself at the moment and then cut them off before they turn into stories and mini-movies in their own rights---which is what happens in the 1947 Danny Kaye musical adaptation. Stiller’s Walter is made of sterner and less silly stuff than Kaye’s. His daydreams are just passing thoughts, not alternative realities. Walter’s mind wanders but he doesn’t get lost in his imagination. He’s too responsible to let that happen. Too tough and too brave for that matter, as well. Besides, he doesn’t want to live a different life. He just wants a little more out of the life he has.
It’s not too bad a life.
He has friends. He’s close to his mother and his sister who love him and depend upon him. He has a job he’s good at, that he’s proud of (to a degree), and that means something (although not as much as he wishes it did). He has some financial worries and he’s lonely. There’s a woman at work he has a crush on but can’t bring himself to ask out, partly because he doesn’t want to risk rejection, partly because by habit and temperament he can’t bring himself to do things that will make him happy when, in his own opinion, he should be trying harder to make his mother happy. But there’s nothing awful about his life at the moment. The worst that could happen happened twenty-six years ago when he was sixteen and his father died. He’s still feeling the effect of that all these years later, however; he’s stuck on the day after his father died when he decided to put aside all the dreams and ambitions his father had encouraged and helped prepare him to realize to become…responsible.
What happens, of course, is circumstances come along that force him to become irresponsible.
That is, he’s suddenly deprived of the means to continue to be responsible, which leaves him desperate enough to do what he’s afraid is the irresponsible thing, run off on an adventure.
It’s at this point Stiller begins to cheat. Like I said, the cheating isn’t in the adventure itself but in how Stiller tries to force us to cheer for the hero the adventure reveals Walter to be and to keep on cheering past the point there’s any more reason to cheer.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t exactly become The Public Apotheosis of Walter Mitty, but that’s not for want of trying on Stiller’s part.
Stiller the director, I should point out. Stiller the actor plays things more honestly and ironically.
For the better parts of the movie, that’s how Stiller directs it too, in the visual equivalent of a minor key quietly punctuated by comic and melancholy grace notes---one of Walter’s laid-off friends rescuing his potted plant from the moving men cleaning out the office, the car rental agent in Greenland’s pride in being able to offer Walter a choice of two cars, a red one and blue one, the care with which Walter carries a cake his sister has dropped off for his birthday, a pickup soccer game in the snow on the slope of a mountain. And it’s a beautiful looking film.
The dullness and numbing routine of Walter’s too ordinary and joyless life suggested by the grays and pale, cold whites of the magazine offices where he works are tricks of light. Look closely. They’re not grays and whites. They’re chromes and silvers in shadow. All it would take is for the light to shift and they’d shine and sparkle, an effect stunningly realized in the rocky and snowy landscapes and oceanscapes of Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas when Walter takes off on his adventure and shifts the light shining on his life for himself.
In style, tone, and theme, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminded my of Stranger Than Fiction. Both movies are stories of an Everyman trapped in the drab, gray routine of a too ordinary life, although Will Farrell’s Harold Crick is trapped by his addiction to his routines and Stiller’s Walter is trapped by his overburdened conscience. If Walter’s addicted to anything in his life, it’s to self-denial. Both our heroes are offered salvation by the sudden insertion (assertion) of art in their daily lives. Harold, of course, has to come to terms with the idea that he is art, somebody else’s art at that. But he then learns to make his own art. Art’s role in Walter’s salvation is less direct and less obvious. Ultimately, he has to wake up to the idea that what he does for a living is a form of art, but his adventure begins with running off to rescue someone else’s work of art. It’s not obvious that’s what he’s doing, though, because he thinks he’s just trying to save his job.
Stranger Than Fiction is a work of magic realism and yet seems more true to life for that. There’s magic in Walter Mitty’s world but it’s out there. It can’t be touched and doesn’t touch us directly. It can be felt and it can be glimpsed through things, wonderful things, like the sighting of a snow leopard, or fairly ordinary things, like the appearance of a friend coming to help you out just when you need him.
Both movies share the theme that a life doesn’t have to be like a movie in order for it to be worth the effort. You just have to make the effort. And if the effort’s made, then love, romance, beauty, joy, even a bit of adventure are all attainable.
A big difference between the two movies as movies is that Will Farrell shares the screen with a couple of acting powerhouses in showy roles given most of the best lines, Dustin Hoffman (“Dramatic irony, it’ll fuck you every time.”) and Emma Thompson. Thompson is in fact the second lead. Then there’s Queen Latifah, more understated but far from fading into the background. And as Ana, Harold’s love interest, Maggie Gyllenhaal is given a character to play who is more than just the love interest. Ana has a life and a sense of herself apart from her place in Harold’s story, and she doesn’t need him to rescue her in any way, except from himself in his role as the auditor of her unfiled tax returns.
Stiller almost never has to share the screen with anyone (characters or actors) capable of taking the focus off him and, when he does, it’s not for very long. Shirley MacLaine has a lovely cameo as Walter’s mother. Sean Penn appears just long enough to have made me wish there were more straight-forward heroic characters in his filmography. Patton Oswalt appears exactly when we need him. But I’d be surprised if you tallied up their collective screen time and it came to more than ten minutes. And as Cheryl, Walter’s love interest, Kristin Wiig is less of a person in her own right than the character she voiced in Despicable Me 2, Gru’s love interest, the overly enthusiastic secret agent Lucy Wilde, and she’s given fewer laughs. Her main job is to look like the kind of person Walter would find it nice to come home to. Cheryl has her own ordinary sorrows and cares as she’s also stuck in a life circumscribed by responsibilities she’s barely able to meet. But her predicament is too carefully contrived to be one Walter Mitty is perfectly suited to rescue her from.
I’m still not sure what to make of Adam Scott’s corporate weasel who becomes Walter’s antagonist at work. With his impossibly black and glossy Elvis pompadour and lumberjack beard, between which his baby face peeks like an infant’s who’s been dressed up for Halloween as his hipster dad by his comically-minded and too easily self-amused parents, Scott looks less like he’s been sent by corporate to play the villain on their behalf than like he’s been dreamed up by Walter himself, an imagined, cartoon version of such a person too silly to be a real threat.
Maybe that was the intent. The weasel has Walter pegged as a dreamer and is contemptuous of him for that. But it may be that he’s the real fantasist and has dreamed up a macho, hairy, swaggering bully of an alternate self to disguise the weakling toady and flunky he really is. This would be more likely if there were other characters in the movie daydreaming their way through their own lives.
But the key difference is that Stranger Than Fiction stays true to the theme that a worthwhile life doesn’t have to be like a movie and thus earns its payoff in its wonderful bit of closing narration:
As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren't any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true. And, so it was, a wristwatch saved Harold Crick.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it’s not Bavarian Sugar Cookies, it’s citrus cake.
Unfortunately, Stiller, the director again, flinches and backs away from this idea almost to the point of backing up into the opposite idea, that a life is only worth living when it is like a movie.
While I'm thinking of it, my reviews of The Big Year and Despicable Me 2: Life is for the Birds and Not enough minions turns out to be just the right number of minions.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller, screenplay by Steve Conrad, based on the short story by James Thurber. Starring Ben Stiller, Kristin Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, and Sean Penn. 1 hr and 54 minutes. Rated PG. Now in theaters.
Temptation of the hero-hobbit: The Ring begins to work its evil on Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
[M]ost people [forget] that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than the children themselves (who, on the whole, are quite keen on blood provided it’s shed by the deserving*)…
*That is to say, those who deserve to shed blood. Or possibly not. You never quite know with some kids.
----from Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.
One of my most disappointing reading experiences occurred the Christmas Santa left me a copy of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham .
This was when I was in seventh grade. My youngest sibling, Laura Mannion as was, is nine years younger than me so Santa came to our house until my senior year of high school.
I was thrilled when I saw that book under the tree. That was the year I’d read The Lord of the Rings, all three books in three days, and I couldn’t wait to get back into Middle-earth. I took it with me to Church and started reading as soon as we got into the car after Mass to go to my grandparents’ for Christmas dinner. I’m pretty sure I had the manners and the sense not to keep reading during dinner---if I forgot my manners, Nana Mannion, who, love me as she did, I don’t believe ever thought I had much sense, would have reminded me, sharply.---but I read continually enough to have finished both novellas before we got home. That in itself was disappointing, that they were quick and easy reads. I thought that as a reader of “grown-up” books now, it should take me a good while to get through a book. That was supposed to be one of the rewards of having outgrown the Hardy Boys. More time spent happily lost inside a good story. But I went to bed sort of ticked at Santa and wishing he’d thought to bring me a new Allistair MacLean or Agatha Christie instead for two other reasons.
The first disappointment was they struck me as stories for children. I didn’t know Tolkien intended them as jokes for adults. The Lord of the Rings certainly wasn't a children’s story. But neither was The Hobbit. Not in the way fretful adults think of children’s stories. The Hobbit was written for children but to be read by grownups who believe children need to be and want to be protected from life’s harsher realities.
The narrator’s jolly, confiding, chummy tone is meant to fool adults listening to themselves as they read out loud at bedtime that the story they’re telling won’t give the kids nightmares. They hear The Hobbit as a merry little fairy tale about a funny character with pointed ears, furry feet, and a pot-belly who goes on a treasure hunt and has some comical adventures along the way before coming home, safe and sound and rich, to live happily ever after in his snug little house in the ground in that cheerful and protected place with the comfortingly bucolic name the Shire and name that insists this is a place where nothing scary ever happens.
Children listening aren’t fooled. They know better.
The Hobbit is about what Terry Pratchett says all the old stories are about, sooner or later.
It’s about blood.
Things were looking pretty bad again, when suddenly Bilbo reappeared and charged into the astonished spiders unexpectedly from the side.
“Go on! Go on!” he shouted. “I will do the stinging.”
And he did. He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spider-threads, hacking at legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near. The spiders swelled with rage, and spluttered and frothed, and hissed out horrible curses; but they had become mortally afraid of Sting, and dared not come very near, now that it had come back. So curse as they would, their prey moved slowly but steadily away. It was a most terrible business, and seemed to take hours. But at last, just as when Bilbo felt that he could not lift his hand for a single stroke more, the spiders suddenly gave it up, and followed them no more, but went back disappointed to their dark colony.
There’s nothing like the battle with Shelob’s children in either Farmer Giles or Smith of Wootton Major. There’s nothing dark or threatening or scary. No danger. Nothing to be afraid of and so nothing to not be afraid of, which means no reason to feel brave which is what most children want to feel. Brave. Because they know. The world is a scary and dangerous place. There's no hiding from it by staying snug and warm and apparently safe in you Hobbit hole. The world will show up on your doorstep, force its way in, and drag you out and carry you off to face trolls and goblins and dragons.
In the real world, the eagles never come and the dragons never sleep.
There are no goblins in those novellas. No trolls. There’s a dragon in Farmer Giles of Ham but compared to Smaug he might as well be Puff. There are no orcs, no Wildmen, no white wizards who turn against humans and their wizard friends, no heroes who can be corrupted by their desire to be greater heroes, no hobbits who can have their hearts turned and their minds unhinged by just the barest contact with power. No blood. No evil.
And that, I felt, was wrapped up in the second reason for my disappointment.
Neither story is set in Middle-Earth.
I was shut out of the place I wanted to get back to. And I didn’t just want to go back to re-visit favorite tourist stops and historical landmarks. I wanted to explore new territories, meet new characters, fight new battles, and encounter and brave new dangers.
All these years later and I still feel that disappointment even just thinking about Smith’s and Farmer Giles’ stories, and I now get the jokes.
Which, by the way, aren’t funny.
So you can see why it wouldn’t bother me in principle that Peter Jackson hasn’t made an absolutely faithful adaptation of The Hobbit.
He’s using The Hobbit to do what I’d hoped to do with Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham and what I have done in many subsequent re-readings of The Hobbit and my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings, make his own way on another long explore of Middle-earth.
Of course, in doing so he’s showing that The Hobbit isn’t a children’s story in that way. He’s letting the blood show. He couldn’t help that. Do away with the narration and audiences can’t pretend they don’t see what children who aren’t fooled by the narrator’s diversions hear. Everything dark, violent, evil, scary, and strange that connects The Hobbit to The Lord of The Rings---and that’s what Jackson’s trying to do with these movies, make the connection---is there in the book. That’s a given. The real critical questions are where does he take us in Middle-earth and what does what he finds there have to do with making The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug a good movie?
Tolkien created a world and then lost control of it. He couldn’t comprehend the whole of it himself and his son Christopher, working feverishly in his wake, just kept expanding it. It was as if he’d imagined his way through to another universe and left the door open behind him. Or, to borrow an image from his friend C.S. Lewis, his books are the wardrobe that has let millions find their way to Middle-Earth which is endlessly open to exploration and adventure. Narnia is much more circumscribed. Its precincts come into being only when Lewis needs something to happen there as opposed to here. And nothing happens in Discworld Terry Pratchett hasn’t put there. But Middle-earth’s boundaries can be expanded, its population added to, its geography reconfigured and remapped, its history extended forwards and backwards and sideways in time, revised and rewritten by the imaginations of anyone and everyone who visits.
Given all that Jackson could have added, it’s worth noting how little he actually has invented. A lot of what some persnickety fans of the book and irritable film critics with too much on their plates because it’s December and the studios are releasing all their award season hopefuls in a rush dismiss as “padding” to fill out what they think should have been one two-hour movie instead of three nearly three-hour ones is the inevitable result of Jackson the filmmaker having to put into explicit images what Tolkien the writer could get away with implying and even leaving entirely to his readers’ imaginations. More movies should leave more to the imagination, but there’s a limit to that. The camera has to show something.
A picture is worth a thousand words if the words are the work of a mediocre writer and the picture is very good and stands still long enough for us to give it a good look. When the writing is good, one word is worth a thousand pictures.
Jackson may not have needed a thousand pictures for every one of Tolkien’s words, but Tolkien’s words conjure up pictures that don’t stand still and that take time to present on screen. Then there’s the problem of turning into dialog conversations Tolkien was content to summarize.
So the issue isn’t whether Jackson’s added scenes, characters, and dialog. You can’t make a movie out of a book without doing that.
And it’s not whether what he’s added is true to Tolkien if not to the published version of The Hobbit.
It’s whether what he’s added actually adds to the story he’s telling, which isn’t The Hobbit. No one was going to give Peter Jackson millions of dollars to adapt The Hobbit. It’s The Lord of the Rings as told for the screen by Peter Jackson. This Hobbit trilogy isn’t a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. It’s the first three chapters of what will be an eighteen hour movie that until last year was only half finished.
And when you think of it that way, then the orcs are there, Legolas is there, Radagast and his birds and rabbits are there, and the White Council does meet because something terrible is brewing at Dol Goldur. Jackson isn’t inventing. He’s showing what’s implied by what’s already been filmed.
But it doesn’t matter that Legolas is in there because, well, he would be, wouldn’t he? Mirkwood is his home. The wood-elf king is his father. As prince, wouldn’t he have taken part in the Battle of Five Armies? It makes storytelling sense, then, to get him on the scene ahead of time and not have him show up just to be glimpsed leading a charge of elves against the orcs.
What matters is that he appears to have something more to do than make a connection to The Lord of the Rings. Considering the wood elf king’s---Legolas’ father’s---antipathy to the dwarfs, his deciding to take part in the Battle of Five Armies has always seemed like a nakedly thematic choice on Tolkien’s part. Self-interest often wins out over prejudice in real life and in the book the Battle of Five Armies is not meant to be taken as glorious or heroic. It’s a clash of tribal egos and ambitions and greed. But something else is going on if it’s Legolas’ doing that the elves join in.
Something else again if they join despite him.
What also matters is that Legolas appears to be different from how he is in The Lord of the Rings. He’s more vain, more arrogant, crueler, and much more a hero in his own right than the hero’s perfect lieutenant which is his role as part of the Fellowship. The question is what softened him and when did it happen?
I suppose I could be misremembering what Legolas was like in The Lord of the Rings. It could be that Jackson or Orlando Bloom or both misremembered. It could be that Bloom, with ten years’ more experience as an actor in his quiver, didn’t want to repeat himself and figured out how to avoid it. But I hope more than that’s going on and we’re going to see him learn lessons in wisdom and humility in the next movie and I have a sinking feeling I know how he learns those lessons. Jackson is going to give us a reason somebody isn’t in The Lord of the Rings besides the fact Tolkien didn’t put that somebody in there.
Similarly, it doesn’t matter that Jackson has found things and characters in Middle-earth Tolkien didn’t put there or didn’t know were there himself.
It doesn’t matter that Jackson has concocted the character of the female warrior elf Tauriel all on his own and given her a torch to carry for Legolas and then burdened her with a compensatory crush on Fili, the handsomest, swashbucklingest of the dwarfs after Thorin. That seemed forced to me but I still kind of liked it because it prefigures the romantic triangle of Aragorn, Eowyn, and Faramir in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
What matters is whether Tauriel more than an avatar for girls playing the video game spinoffs. She isn’t as interesting a character as Eowyn who is more than her unrequitable love for Aragorn and her ability to fight like a boy. But that’s so far. She has potential but we’ll have to wait until The Hobbit: There and Back Again to find out where Jackson’s taking her.
It doesn’t matter where Jackson got all the backstory he’s piled on Bard the Bowman. All of it could have come straight from The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales and it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t make Bard interesting and give us a rooting interest in him. It’s always bothered me that in the book Bard isn’t much more than an attitude and there isn’t any reason to care he’s the one who’ll fire the black arrow except that somebody has to do it.
Judging how well all of this, invented outright or mined from other Tolkien sources, works depends on how Jackson follows up in next year’s next installment, which means that at least a third of The Desolation of Smaug is setup for There and Back Again.
I’m not saying that The Desolation of Smaug is just a bridge between An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again or that it isn’t at all faithful to the book (or books). It’s very much a continuation of the story and it is faithful to the book, much more faithful than it and An Unexpected Journey have been given credit for, particularly in the three set-pieces at the center of the part of the book The Desolation of Smaug is taken from: the battle with Shelob’s children, the barrel escape from Mirkwood---I mean from the point when Bilbo hatches his plan to when he finds himself in the river without a barrel of his own. The orcs chasing the barrels and the elves chasing the orcs chasing the barrels is another question. But the moment when Bilbo realizes he’s forgotten to arrange his own escape is a gem---and Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug.
But these scenes aren’t good simply because they’re faithful to Tolkien. In fact, if all they were was faithful they’d be dramatically flat. What I liked best about them is what Jackson does with Bilbo and to him with them.
And not just to Bilbo.
I should say to our understanding of Frodo.
As I said last Hobbit season in my review of An Unexpected Journey, one of the things I'm enjoying most about Jackson's adaptation is how, with considerable help from Martin Freeman, he's establishing that Bilbo is a hero. The hobbit hero. And Jackson and Freeman are doing it in a way that I think will carry over into all future viewings of The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo isn't Ian Holm anymore. Holm is Freeman's shadow.
For all his protesting at the beginning of An Unexpected Jouney that he's a Baggins of Bag End and therefore very much a stay at home sort of Hobbit, Gandalf has Bilbo’s number. There is a strong strain of adventuresome Took in him and it's coming out in The Desolation of Smaug.
Bilbo is getting to like adventuring. He's coming to like being in danger because, like children reading the book, he likes feeling brave. He's enjoying his role as the Burglar because to pull it off he has to solve problems---riddles---think for others, make decisions on their behalf, come to their rescue, and, when you get right down to it, take over from Thorin as the leader of the company.
In other words, he's getting a kick out of being a hero.
This is a good development in its own dramatic right for this set of movies. But it's good for Jackson's whole project because it calls attention to what he did with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
Now of course Bilbo had to change in order to become a hero. But in The Desolation of Smaug we're beginning to see how the change works on itself. Being a hero is changing him. Bilbo has started to look for opportunities to be heroic. He is growing into his role as hero, which means he is growing ambitious.
Frodo is not ambitious, because Frodo is not a hero.
I think a lot of readers who find their way from The Hobbit straight into The Lord of the Rings tend to see Frodo as Bilbo all over again.
Jules Rankin and Arthur Bass understood that. That's why in their cartoon adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King---which are both pretty good, The Hobbit especially, considering the limitations Rankin and Bass had to work within.---they drew Bilbo and Frodo as lookalikes and had Orson Bean provide the voices for both.
Jackson's Frodo is very different from his and Tolkien's Bilbo, and the scene that encapsulates that difference is Arwen's Ride in The Fellowship of the Ring.
In the book, Frodo makes the ride alone. And on his own he turns his pony and draws his sword to face the Nazgul and dares them to come and take the ring. He acts the part of a hero, just as Bilbo would have done in a similar fix.
But in the movie Frodo's in no shape to play the hero. He's close to dying from his wound (Note to myth watchers: a wound that will never truly heal.), barely conscious, and essentially helpless. He needs Arwen to protect and save him. Jackson didn't make this change just to give one of his very few female characters something important to do. It's a motif. Jackson's Frodo is always in need of saving. He needs Arwen and Gandalf and Sam and the other hobbits and the rest of the Fellowship to do the fighting for him. That’s the job of the Fellowship, to protect Frodo. And not simply because the journey's dangerous and there'll be minions of Sauron all along the way trying to take the ring from whoever's carrying it. It's because it's Frodo's job to carry the ring, and it's his job because he's not a hero.
He's a saint.
Carrying the ring is a burden and he's the only one up to taking it on. He's the only one up to enduring the suffering that goes with it and capable of resisting its temptations as well. Bilbo has already failed at that second part. In The Desolation of Smaug we see that failure begin, which means we see Jackson setting up a theme in his Hobbit movies that will tie it tight to his Lord of the Rings.
We know Bilbo kept the ring. What we maybe didn't know or maybe only suspected or knew in our hearts but didn't want to believe is that Bilbo didn't make a mistake because he didn't know better. Jackson is showing us that Bilbo knew and kept the ring anyway.
Right away after he finds it in An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo senses there's something odd and disturbing about the ring. In The Desolation of Smaug it's dawning on him he needs to get rid of it. Since we already know he's not going to, we know that what's ahead in There and Back Again is Bilbo's moral failure.
The hero-hobbit is going to fail to resist the temptation the hero-king Isildur failed to resist, the temptation the hero Boromir will fail to resist, the temptation Aragorn can only resist by letting Frodo continue to suffer on his and everyone else's behalf.
With what he's doing with Bilbo, Jackson's effectively gone back in time to set up the need for the Fellowship and the need for its being Frodo who carries the ring.
This is what really makes The Desolation of Smaug more than a bridge between An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again. It's the chapter in which the plot of The Lord of the Rings really gets underway.
Oddly, with all this intensified focus on Bilbo, it seemed to me that Jackson kept losing track of him. Even in scenes in which Bilbo ought to have been our main focus, the camera seemed to have a hard time staying with him.
I had a similar feeling the first time I saw An Unexpected Journey. The second time we went and when we watched it on DVD I didn’t notice it. The explanation I came up with then was that Jackson filmed it in 3D but we saw it on the screen in 2D which means Jackson had the camera focused on points that shifted in the translation. The second time we went my eye knew better where to look. That probably happened again this time out. We saw the 2D version. This might explain something else, as well.
There’s no point complaining anymore that Jackson didn’t need to make three movies out of a story that could have been told in one, which, by the way, I’m not so sure is the case. I think he would have had to rush things. Two movies, then. Two three hour movies, for sure. But he didn’t so we have what we have. And what we have so far are two two-hour and forty minute or so movies that I think could have benefited from being edited down to two-hours and thirty minutes or even two-hours and twenty. There seemed to be a lot of repetition within scenes. Images repeated each other. Dialog went on past the point where anything important or interesting was being said. Whole seconds went by at a time (and a second is a long time within a single shot) when nothing appeared to be going on. And I wonder if it was the case again that I just wasn’t seeing what the 3D camera was supposed to show.
This is either a reason that you should see The Desolation of Smaug in 3D or more evidence that 3D is a waste of time and gigabytes.
As for the movie as a movie apart from its place in Jackson’s grand scheme of things, it’s generally a rip-roaring good time with as much humor as An Unexpected Journey though with less comedy, if that makes sense.
The video game Jackson made of the barrel escape is fun and exciting because of the addition of the orcs and the elves and because it is integral to the plot. But the video game that ends the film is just a video game, and a routine one in which things appear and disappear just because they’re needed at the moment or they force the characters to continue on to the next level. Worse than that, however, is that coming where it does and going on and on as it does, it erases the effect of the great and key scene before it, Bilbo’s game of wits with Smaug.
And speaking of Smaug…actually, speaking of Smaug speaking, it was terrific news that Jackson had cast Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice (and face and body behind the motion capture) of Smaug. But went and made a huge mistake by not letting Smaug speak with Cumberbatch’s real voice. He’s distorted it so that Smaug roars and growls and snarls his way through his speechs in ways that could have been the work of any actor and that pretty much reduce Smaug to the level of a special effect like the orcs Azog and Bolg rather than a performance like Andy Serkis’ Gollum.
Smaug isn’t any old fire-breathing monster. He’s a highly intelligent dragon and, as these things go, a cultivated one. How much more appropriate and disturbing and frightening would it have been then if he spoke in Sherlock Holmes' plummy, seductive, and very human baritone? Plus, it would have been a treat for Sherlock fans to hear Freeman and Cumberbatch sounding like Watson and Holmes but talking to very different purpose.
So Cumberbatch’s kind of wasted. So is Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn the skin-changer, although in his case it’s because his whole character is wasted. Beorn’s chess set is more interesting than he is. I expect, though, he’ll have more to do in There and Back Again.
But Lee Pace is definitely not wasted as Legolas’ father, Thranduil, the wood-elf king. Pace is marvelously and gorgeously languid and decadent and yet still sinister and menacing as a once upon a time noble warrior corrupted and weakened in spirit and will by fear, hatred, and, it appears, boredom resulting from having lived too long to no special purpose. Pace gives him an extra note of self-loathing that Thranduil nurses by making arbitrary decisions and doing and saying things that disgust him, which gets to back to why Legolas’ presence comes across as necessary. Pace’s Thranduil is another lost father or father-figure like Denethor and Theoden in The Lord of the Rings who needs to be saved from himself by his children, which, by the way, is maybe what Thorin ought to be doing, saving his father, who is wandering Middle-earth mad and lost, instead of pursuing his ambition to take his grandfather’s place as king. (That he’s not, turns out to be on Gandalf who is playing Realpolitik and using Thorin to use Bilbo to use Smaug to unite dwarfs, elves, and men in alliance against you know who.) At any rate, the question raised here that I presume will be answered in There and Back Again is whether Thandruil is redeemable like Theoden or irredeemably lost like Denethor.
Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin continue to the good work they started in An Unexpected Journey. Ian McKellen as Gandalf is Ian McKellen as Gandalf. As Radagast the Brown, Barry Humphries has toned down the eccentricity and we can begin to see why Gandalf trusts Radagast.
Evangeline Lilly’s effectiveness as Tauriel will depend on what she does with what Jackson does with her in There and Back Again. As Bard, Luke Evans is suitably grim but his grimness has reason. It the book it’s just his temperament. Here it’s both a mask and a shield. There’s much more to Bard than he dares let on if he wants to protect himself and his family from the political intriguers who run Laketown. Still, like Lilly, most of what he’s doing in The Desolation of Smaug is setting up what he’ll be doing in There and Back Again.
Stephen Fry is having a high old time as the oily, craven, and debauched Master of Laketown, but he seems to have wandered in from another sort of movie. I’ve noticed this is often the case with Stephen Fry. Some of this is the effect of his being so much bigger and broader than the other actors around him. But I think a lot it is that he always seems to be having much more fun than everybody else as well.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug directed by Peter Jackson; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien . Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Graham McTavish, Adam Brown, Peter Hambleton, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, John Bell, and Lawrence Makoare. 161 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Peter Jackson didn’t invent the eccentric woods-dwelling wizard Radagast the Brown and the cutsey and cuddly Disneyesque birds and animals that go with him for the The Hobbit movies. He just went to town with it. Radagast is a Tolkien creation. His original name, Aiwendil, means “Bird-friend” and Tolkien made him the wizard in charge of protecting Middle Earth’s flora and fauna. Terry Pratchett is obviously up on his Tolkien lore and makes use of it in his Discworld novels. So I got to think Sir Terry had Radagast in mind when he came up with Mustrum Ridcully, the Archchancellor of Unseen University:
Unseen University had had many different kinds of Archchancellor over the years. Big ones, small ones, cunning ones, slightly insane ones, extremely insane ones---they’d come, they’d served, in some cases not long enough for anyone to be able to complete the official painting to be hung in the Great Hall, and they’d died. The senior wizard in a world of magic has the same prospects of long-term employment as a pogo stick tester in a minefield.
However, from the Bursar’s point of view this didn’t really have to matter. The name might change occasionally, but what did matter was that there always was an Archchancellor and the Archchancellor’s most important job, as the Bursar saw it, was to sign things, preferably, from the Bursar’s point of view, without reading them first.
This one was different. For one thing, he was hardly ever in, except to change out of his muddy clothes. And he shouted at people. Usually at the Bursar.
And yet, at the time, it had seemed a really good idea to select an Archchancellor who hadn’t set foot in the University in forty years.
There had been so much in-fighting between the various orders of wizardry in recent years that, just for once, the senior wizards had agreed that what the University needed was a period of stability, so that they could get on with their intriguing and scheming in peace and quiet for a few months. A search of the records turned up Ridcully the Brown who, after becoming a Seventh Level Mage at the incredibly young age of twenty-seven, had quit the University in order to look after the family’s estates deep in the country.
He looked ideal.
“Just the chap,” they all said. “Clean sweep. New broom. A country wizard. Back to the thingumajigs, the roots of wizardry. Jolly old boy with a pipe and twinkly eyes. Sort of chap who can tell one herb from another, roams the high forest with every beast his brother kind of thing. Sleeps under the stars, like as not. Knows what the wind is saying, we shouldn’t wonder. Got a name for all the trees, you can bank on it. Speaks to the birds, too.”
A messenger had been sent. Ridcully the Brown had sighed, cursed a bit, found his staff in the kitchen garden where it had been supporting a scarecrow, and had set out.
“And if he’s any problem,” the wizards had added, in the privacy of their own heads, “anyone who talks to trees should be no trouble to get rid of.”
And then he’d arrived, and it turned out that Ridcully the Brown did speak to the birds. In fact, he shouted at birds, and what he normally shouted was, “Winged you, yer bastard!” ---from Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett.
Bogging down in J. Michael Lennon’s biography of Norman Mailer, A Double Life, just about the point where I’d have expected. The Naked and the Dead is a bestseller and Mailer’s trying to cope with his newly acquired celebrity---mostly by sleeping with as many women as he can find time to---hanging out in Hollywood, looking to sell the screen rights and struggling to come up with an idea for his next novel.
Which puts him in the same position he’ll be in for the rest of his life. A celebrity writer whose fame and reputation rest on his being a great novelist but who has no more great novels in him to write.
I should say the position he held when I first became aware of him almost thirty years later.
A sad way of looking at that is that at fifty, Mailer was still what he was at twenty-five.
A better way of looking at it is that at twenty-five he'd achieved a literary and intellectual prominence very few American writers of any age have come close to achieving and none has since Mailer left the stage.
Either way you look at it, it's still the case he didn't have that next great novel in him. And that seems to have been apparent from the moment he cashed his first royalty check from The Naked and the Dead.
I was hoping he book would help me better appreciate Mailer's other novels, Barbary Shore, The Deer Park, Why Are We in Vietnam?, even An American Dream and Tough Guys Don't Dance. Doesn't look like that's going to happen.
At this point in the story, he's toying almost aimlessly with ideas for his next book, none of which are grabbing him. It's likely he was intimidated by the expectation that he had to come up with something that would top The Naked and the Dead or at least prove it wasn't a fluke. It’s also possible he was distracted, having too much fun enjoying the perks of his fame and fortune. His friend Marlon Brando thought so. On his way out the door at a party Mailer and his wife were throwing for a house full of movie stars, Brando stopped to upbraid Mailer.
“Norman, what the fuck are you doing here [in Hollywood]? You’re not a screenwriter. Why aren’t you on a farm in Vermont writing your next novel?”
Probably though it was simply that he didn't have any stories of his own he felt compelled to tell. Having decided for reasons he doesn't appear to have been able to make clear to himself or anyone else, he left himself no options but to find stories in other people's lives or hope to live out a good one himself.
Turned out he was able to do both but both led to great journalism not fiction.
At the time though, he claimed he was on the lookout for a subject that would give him the chance to capture the historical sweep of the moment, an ambitious but vague goal. But he was thinking of himself as the heir of his literary hero. No. Not Hemingway. John Dos Passos. The Naked and the Dead owes more to the novels in Dos Passos' USA trilogy than to A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, something I'd never thought of until Lennon pointed it out.
The big subjects were there. The return of the G.I.'s to civilian life. The rise of McCarthyism. The Cold War. The early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Mailer tackled the first in Barbary Shore but lost his thread in the mélange of sex, politics, and Kafka-esque surrealism. (James Jones eventually made it his with Some Came Running .) He intended to take on the second in The Deer Park and I guess it's in there somewhere, although all I remember is the clumsy and self-aggrandizing attempts to make his fictional alter-ego, Sergius O’Shaughnessy, a better Hemingway hero than any of Hemingway's heroes. He didn't get around to the Cold War until Harlot's Ghost in 1991.
And thus he let the fifties and his reputation get away from him.
So it appears that what I have to look forward to is how Mailer recovered his status as celebrity novelist and public intellectual after turning out two weak novels during a decade when Saul Bellow, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, James Baldwin, James Jones, Carson McCullers, Herman Wouk, and Irwin Shaw were coming into their own and Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos were still alive and productive.
Meanwhile, I'm enjoying this Hollywood interlude, although I wish Lennon had more of a knack for anecdotes and character sketches. But you know who leaps off the page? Shelley Winters. I knew she was smart and savvy from her appearances on The Tonight Show and you can see the spark of humor and wit in even her most tragic roles from her noir days and the goofiest from her later great second career as a character actress. But it's fun reading how she bought her intelligence to bear as a young starlet. Lennon reports that she credited Mailer with her getting the part of Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun, George Stevens' updating of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, for which she earned an Oscar nomination.
Sometime shortly after the Mailers arrived [in L.A.], Shelley Winters asked for his help. She wanted desperately to get a role in an upcoming film, A Place in the Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which George Stevens was directing and producing for Paramount. According to Winters, after a dinner at a Mexican Restaurant with Mailer and Burt Lancaster (with whom she was having an affair), she asked Mailer to explain the novel to her, especially [the] factory girl who is murdered by the protagonist…(played by Montgomery Clift in the film.) After Lancaster left, Winters asked him to come to her apartment. Mailer remembered that he had his “own little agenda tucked into the middle of it. Hey, I’ll be alone with this blonde actress and maybe good things will come of it,” but Winters was “totally unsexy'” that night. She was very worried and looked “ready to go in for a strong case of the weeps,” he said. Winters was impressed by his blue eyes, and for several hours, she said, “the young handsome Norman Mailer talked to me about the inner workings of that girl’s mind and what Dreiser wanted the reader to feel about the whole American syndrome of success at any prince. Norman knew so much about Dreiser that I got the feeling he had been his protégé.” Mailer gave her the key character trait: [she] is “a girl completely without artifice.” Winters used the line with Stevens, got the role, and did a magnificent job in it. The film won seven Academy Awards, including best director, and Clift and Winters were nominated for Oscars. She told and re-told the story of he coached her many times, always acknowledging with gratitude his role in launching her career.
Mailer’s adventures among the movie people would make an interesting and colorful novel.
Too bad Mailer himself didn’t write it.
Instead he turned out The Deer Park.
Going to keep plugging away at A Double Life. Something else I’m hoping to find out---what’s the actual historical basis for my thinking of Mailer as the towering literary figure and one of the pre-eminent public intellectuals of the 1960s and 70s. As I wrote in my post Owing Norman Mailer one a couple weeks back, I became aware of Mailer as MAILER. He was a given. I don’t think I questioned his standing any more than I questioned Hemingway’s or Fitzgerald’s, with the difference being that it was my teachers who told me to revere Hemingway and Fitzgerald and it was people on television and in magazines and newspapers who were in awe of Mailer, even when they hated him and made fun of him and tried to dismiss him as a blowhard and a clown. Gore Vidal probably did more to convince me of Mailer’s importance than Mailer did himself. Ironic, ain’t it? I just figured that anybody who got under Vidal’s skin like that had to be some sort of real deal. Keep in mind I was and am a fan of Vidal in a way I never was and doubt I’ll ever be of Mailer. But when I was in eighth grade, I was more influenced by what I saw on television, and the grown-ups on my TV told me to pay attention, so I paid attention.
The question I didn’t ask and that I’m expecting A Double Life to answer, is just what those grown-ups were paying attention to.
By the way, I know how I became a fan of Vidal. A friend of mine in high school who was two years ahead of me was a fan. He could quote whole swatches of dialog from An Evening With Richard Nixon and… He pushed Vidal’s essays and Washington D.C. and Burr at me. Then Pop Mannion started subscribing to the New York Review of Books.
When I call myself a fan, though, I mean of Vidal’s style and wit as a writer and the way he played “Gore Vidal” on TV. I’ve since come to realize that as a writer he was an incorrigible liar and fabulist. He wrote things and professed to believe things he knew were not true just for the malicious fun of it. Mailer, I’ve always thought, wrote what he believed to be the truth and which, often and not coincidentally, was true.
But speaking of Vidal, did you read this sad story about Vidal’s miserable final years and his strange, almost perverse disposition of his estate in his will at the New York Times, For Gore Vidal, a Final Plot Twist?
Worth checking out.
Definitely worth checking out, the Self-Styled Siren’s appreciative eulogy for Shelley Winters, who died in 2006.
And, although it’s not directly related but since I did bring up James Jones’ novel Some Came Running: via Movie City News, an excerpt from Richard Elder’s book, The Best Film You’ve Never seen, here’s director Richard Linklater talking about Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 adaptation of Jones’ novel starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacClaine.
Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) watches as his brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans) blows up Sherlock’s cache of private papers for reasons not worth explaining here. But I’m hoping the fact that Mycroft knows how to build a bomb is a clue he isn’t just the playboy restauranteur he’s seemed to be so far on CBS’ Elementary.
The writers of Elementary have introduced their versions of Irene Adler, Professor Moriarty, and Mycroft Holmes and the disappointment of the blatant revisions of their characters as they originally appeared in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories is nothing compared to the infuriation caused by less immediately noticeable but even more truly fundamental changes.
Making Irene Adler a criminal and Holmes’ erstwhile lover has been done in the Guy Ritchie-Robert Downey Jr movies and, to kinkier effect and with more amusing perversity, in the BBC series Sherlock. And it’s nothing to have Moriarty a woman, especially after working a gender change on Watson, except that rather than the effect being feminist, it’s subtly misogynistic, depending on whether you think the good of having Holmes’ intellectual equal a woman outweighs the fact that evil female nemeses are a staple of insecure males’ nightmares. Also, it’s been done too: In Law and Order: Criminal Intent. By the way, Olivia d’Abo, who played Nicole Wallace, Bobby Goren’s female Moriarty, appeared in last week’s episode, The Marchioness, I hope as a wink to fans of both series and not just coincidentally. It’s even less than nothing to have slimmed Myrcroft down and sexed him up, and the idea that the Holmes Brothers are rivals with a complicated family history isn’t at all faithful to Conan Doyle’s stories, in which, although Sherlock is affectionately critical of his older brother’s apparent laziness and lack of ambition, the two men like and admire and trust each other, but it is a nod to---or an out and out steal from---Sherlock, where, however, the rivalry, animosity, and distrust are all on one side and symptoms of Sherlock’s personal dysfunctions. It’s also implicit in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and it's the stick---and schtick---that drives the plot of Gene Wilder’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, although the smarter brother isn’t Mycroft, it’s Sigerson, Wilder’s in-jokingly named invention.
Reducing Mycroft not just in bulk but in achievement and status from an important government official who likes a good meal to a playboy restauranteur may turn out to be a good, that is, actually creative, change. It’ll depend on how things play out and what surprises are in store. Mycroft is going to be a recurring character this season and it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s a good reason Alan Moore made Mycroft the second head of the agency that would become the MI6 of the James Bond universe in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (See The Bruce-Partington Plans.) He’s also the second in what, judging by Skyfall, is a long line of M’s for whom M is not just short for Minister.
So these changes don’t bother me---too much---because they hardly strike me as changes, except in the Been There, Done That, Bought a Higher-Quality T-Shirt way.
But having Irene Adler outsmart Holmes by being sexually manipulative, taking away Moriarty’s mathematics degree and professorship, and not allowing Mycroft to demonstrate he’s smarter than his brother diminishes those characters and diminishes Holmes in the process.
I’ll have a lot more to say about Moriarty and Irene Adler in a future post, but for now I need to say this about Elementary’s Irene versus Conan Doyle’s original:
I think it’s a given among casual fans of Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia that Holmes comes to admire Irene Adler and compliment her with the title the Woman because she outsmarts him. but that’s not quite the case. She barely does. They play a game of chess, trading pieces, until she contrives to upend the board.
It turns out that they’re playing against a clock, a fact she knows, because she’s arranged it, and he doesn’t, because she manages to keep him from discovering it until time’s up and it’s too late.
So she does outsmart him in that way.
But he’s used to being outsmarted. It happens. Not very often, and he doesn’t like to admit it when it does. But it does. There are cases he’s failed to solve, criminals who got away. Irene’s almost certainly the first woman to do it, and he admires her for pulling that off. But his admiration is for her is based on something more and less than that, as well.
Until she comes along, Holmes doesn’t believe that any women are capable of outsmarting him. It’s not that he thinks they’re unintelligent or less intelligent than men. He thinks they’re too emotional. Too flighty. Too undisciplined in their thinking. He doesn’t doubt their brains. He is contemptuous of their characters. However inherently intelligent they may be, they don’t have the willpower or the moral fortitude to act intelligently. (This, by the way, is his excuse when he is outsmarted by other women or feels that he might be: You can’t out-think someone who isn’t thinking.) Irene surprises him not just by being smart but by being pure of motive. She's honest and decent and, instead of indulging herself emotionally, she does the right, that is, the intelligent thing in the end.
This doesn’t change his opinion of women. He just makes an exception---the Exception---for her.
By having their Irene “outsmart” their Holmes by sexually beguiling and emotionally toying with him, the producers of Elementary have made her into exactly the sort of inferior being Conan Doyle’s Holmes takes all women to be. If he saw what happened to his 21st Century counterpart, he wouldn’t dub Adler the Woman. He’d say, “Isn’t that just like a woman” and feel confirmed in his misogyny.
Back to Mycroft.
Here’s how we’re introduced, through Watson, to Conan Doyle’s Mycroft in The Greek Interpreter.
Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock. His body was absolutely corpulent, but his face, though massive, had preserved something of the sharpness of expression which was so remarkable in that of his brother. His eyes, which were of a peculiarly light, watery gray, seemed to always retain that far-away, introspective look which I had only observed in Sherlock’s when he was exerting his full powers.
“I am glad to meet you, sir,” said he, putting out a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal. “I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler. By the way, Sherlock, I expected to see you round last week to consult me over that Manor House case. I thought you might be a little out of your depth.”
“No, I solved it,” said my friend, smiling.
“It was Adams, of course.”
“Yes, it was Adams.”
“I was sure of it from the first.” The two sat down together in the bow-window of the club. “To anyone who wishes to study mankind this is the spot,” said Mycroft. “Look at the magnificent types! Look at these two men who are coming towards us, for example.”
“The billiard-marker and the other?”
“Precisely. What do you make of the other?”
The two men had stopped opposite the window. Some chalk marks over the waistcoat pocket were the only signs of billiards which I could see in one of them. The other was a very small, dark fellow, with his hat pushed back and several packages under his arm.
“An old soldier, I perceive,” said Sherlock.
“And very recently discharged,” remarked the brother.
“Served in India, I see.”
“And a non-commissioned officer.”
“Royal Artillery, I fancy,” said Sherlock.
“And a widower.”
“But with a child.”
“Children, my dear boy, children.”
“Come,” said I, laughing, “this is a little too much.”
“Surely,” answered Holmes, “it is not hard to say that a man with that bearing, expression of authority, and sun-baked skin, is a soldier, is more than a private, and is not long from India.”
“That he has not left the service long is shown by his still wearing his ammunition boots, as they are called,” observed Mycroft.
“He had not the cavalry stride, yet he wore his hat on one side, as is shown by the lighter skin on that side of his brow. His weight is against his being a sapper. He is in the artillery.”
“Then, of course, his complete mourning shows that he has lost someone very dear. The fact that he is doing his own shopping looks as though it were his wife. He has been buying things for children, you perceive. There is a rattle, which shows that one of them is very young. The wife probably died in childbed. The fact that he has a picture-book under his arm shows that there is another child to be thought of.”
I began to understand what my friend meant when he said that his brother possessed even keener faculties than he did himself.
Over the course of last season, Elementary got better and better, and cheekier and cheekier, about riffing off the Conan Doyle stories, and when Mycroft was brought on screen (in the person of Rhys Ifans) in the first episode of this season, I expected the writers to play around with that.
Didn't happen last week either when Mycroft showed up in New York and there was an actual opening in the plot for the dueling deductionists bit as Mycroft followed his brother around through a clumsy homage to Silver Blaze (made clumsier by the writers having used the big reveal of that story, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, in a previous episode). But Mycroft doesn't interrupt as Sherlock walks and talks his way through his investigation to point out something Sherlock's missed or even show signs he's taking in at least the same things if not more than Sherlock observes, and Sherlock gives no clues he's expecting Mycroft to chime in and one-up him.
Maybe tonight, but I'm not holding my breath.
There’s some cheating by Conan Doyle in that scene from the Greek Interpreter. The Holmes brothers are indulging in guesswork and basing too much on assumptions and prejudices like the idea that an expression of authority can be seen, never mind defined, from a view from an upstairs window or that there’s such a thing as the cavalry stride. But otherwise they are working from observable physical facts that Watson could have and, Sherlock would say, should have seen himself. The difference is that Sherlock and Mycroft know what to look for.
This is how Shawn Spencer works on Psych.
Shawn is hyper-observant. He solves cases by seeing things that are there to be seen by anybody if only they knew to look (and they like him have 40-20 vision; some cheating by the writers goes on) and that they often do see but don't grasp the significance of or connect to other clues. Shawn makes the connections and this is how a case can turn on something as simple as his reading the shipping label on a packing crate and Shawn still comes off as the smartest person in the room, and keep in mind the room usually includes Gus, Juliet, Lassiter, and Henry, none of whom are dummies. Shawn's genius isn't in the deduction, but in his having thought to read the label.
This isn't how Elementary's Holmes works, though. He doesn't make deductions based on observable clues. He doesn't do much observing at all. He doesn't have to. He's able to pull things out of his head no one else could know unless they'd read ahead in the script. We've seen him perform the trick of taking in another character's life story at a glance, but without explaining how he's done it so we're left to infer he's seen something that was there to be seen by anyone if only they'd looked more closely, if they'd not just seen but observed. It turns out, however, this isn't what's been going on.
In another recent episode, Holmes takes Watson to the police station on a Friday night as part of her training as a junior detective and orders her to deduce what's landed each of the prisoners in the holding cell in jail. He doesn't flat out say, "You know my methods, apply them," but that's her assignment. And she comes through by...reading their body language.
Well, actually, by reading time-worn bits of business actors have used since the days of the Ancient Greeks to convey their characters ' emotional states to audience members way up in the cheap seats. But still, that's what she does, treats gestures, postures, and expressions as if they are as signifying as smudges of dirt on a shop clerk's trousers, wax drippings on a lost bowler hat, or a children's picture book under the arm of a man wearing widower's weeds and ammunition boots. And presumably this is how Holmes does it, which means, since real human beings aren't as obvious and predictable as mediocre actors, he's not so much observing clues as reading minds.
And when he's not solving cases by telepathy, he's solving them by being literally a know it all. This Holmes knows stuff. Tons of stuff. He reads and watches and memorizes everything. We've seen him training his mind to do the impossible, take in streams of information from multiple sources at once and file it all away in his mental attic from where it can be retrieved instantaneously the moment he needs it. Conan Doyle's Holmes makes a point of not knowing stuff. He keeps his mental attic as uncluttered as possible so that nothing extraneous is there to get in the way of his thinking a problem through, confident that if there's information he needs he can find it quickly outside his head. Transported to the 21st Century, Conan Doyle's Holmes would be a cheerful and enthusiastic user of Google. In fact, Sherlock's Sherlock is. He's as wedded to his smart phone as other, more traditional Holmeses have been wedded to their magnifying glasses. (Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes uses one of those too, a sign that there are things there to be seen. Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes doesn't need one since there's nothing he needs to see to solve a crime. Even if there was, he still wouldn't need one,because it turns out he has superpowers. "My senses are unnaturally keen," he's boasted, which makes him more like Adrian Monk than like Sherlock Holmes, although Monk has the good grace to be sorry about it, calling his OCD inflected abilities a blessing and a curse.) Elementary's Holmes has his smart phone with him at all times too and has an impressive computer set up at home as well. But when he takes to the internet it's generally to confirm what he already knows, which makes it basically a trope the writers use to convince us of the reality of Holmes brilliance: See, he really is that smart!
But what it all comes down to is that the only way Mycroft, or Irene Adler, or Moriarty, or Watson can be smarter than Holmes is by knowing stuff he doesn't know. But the show's already established that he knows everything. So the only way he can be outsmarted is by his lapsing into sudden stupidity, which is how it comes about that Irene Adler bests him by getting him to think with his...um...heart...and not his head.
It'll be interesting to see what they finally do with Mycroft and if and how he's revealed to be the smarter brother. I'm pretty sure there's more going on with him than he's letting on. I’ve heard that an episode based in part on The Bruce-Partington Plans is in the pipe. Maybe it's tonight's.
I don’t know if I should get my hopes up. Mycroft hasn’t shown he’s the more intelligent brother so far, but he’s proving to be the more sensitive one. Which is in keeping with Elementary’s emphasis on recovery and relationships. Whatever the case Holmes and Watson are working on in the main plot, the subplot is usually about someone getting in touch with their feelings. Although their originals got along happily, Elementary’s Sherlock and Mycroft have a number of issues to work out, starting with the reason for their current estrangement---Sherlock slept with Mycroft’s fiancée.
Yep, both these Holmes brothers are robustly heterosexually sexual.
The Non-Adventure of the Dueling Deductionists continues. Friday morning update with minimum spoilage: Last night's episode, Blood is Thicker, did do a take-off on The Bruce-Partington Plans, using the central gimmick of that story, a body mysteriously appearing on the roof of a moving vehicle, a delivery truck here instead of a train car. And it turned out to be a rare occasion when Holmes did the Shawn Spencer routine and came to a conclusion based on observable physical clues that anyone could have seen had they thought to look. But Mycroft didn't figure in solving the mystery at all. And there was another missed opportunity for him to one-up Sherlock or what would have been an opportunity had the writers been setting things up for it in Mycroft's two previous appearances. Early on, Mycroft wonders why Sherlock missed the opening of Mycroft's new restaurant, the Diogenes (Get it?), and Sherlock testily replies that he was busy solving the abduction of a teenage girl. Here, if the writers had been doing it right, Mycroft should have said quickly, "It was Adams, wasn't it?" He didn't and the brothers just continued on working out their personal issues.
There was a nice in-joke bit of casting though. Back in the 1980s there was a TV Movie called The Return of Sherlock Holmes in which Holmes wakes up in the late 20th Century after having been frozen like Austin Powers for 80 years and teams up with his old friend Doctor Watson's grand-daughter, Jane Watson. Jane was played by Margaret Colin. Last night's guest star on Elementary? Margaret Colin.
Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Aidan Quinn, and Jon Michael Hill, with, from time to time, Rhys Ifans. On CBS, Thursdays at 10 PM Eastern, 9 Central. Recent episodes are available to watch online at the Elementary website.
Students in Lance Mannion’s Spring 2014 honors seminar, Media Criticism for a Wired Audience, discuss the day’s class.
Decided on the reading list for the course I’m teaching in the spring, Media Criticism for a Wired Audience. High-fallutiin’ name for a class on how to write movie and book reviews like Lance Mannion only shorter, pithier, and with less pedantry. Students are going to read six books, watch seven movies, and write a lot of different things including some reviews but not just reviews.
So here’s the required reading and viewing, not necessarily in the order in which they’ll appear on the syllabus.
The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.
Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen.
Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks by Juliet Eilperin.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.
The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel.
We’re going to be busy.
I included a mix of genres, not just for variety’s sake, although I wanted there to be a little something for everyone, but to give the students different issues and questions to write about. Pairing up the movie and the book Silver Linings Playbook lets them tackle the problems of adaptation. Pairing up Frankel’s book about The Searchers with John Ford’s masterpiece lets them look into the history and the personalities behind a movie. Zero Dark Thirty opens up questions about the lines between journalism and fiction, history and dramatic license, politics and art. You get the idea. I think it’ll go over like gangbusters but who knows. Maybe it’ll go over like Gangster Squad. Maybe I should include Gangster Squad just so they can write about one real stinker of a film.
What do you think? The books have been ordered, but I can still change the movie list. I may have to drop one of them for the sake of time. Any suggestions? Would you sign up?
Copy of J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life arrived yesterday. Seven hundred and sixty-three pages of text to confront. (A hundred pages of notes!) But as far behind as I’ve fallen in my other reading and book reviewing, I’m wading in. I owe it to Mailer.
Mailer’s far from one of my favorite writers. I don’t dislike his work. Much of it’s brilliant, and you simply cannot make even a stab at understanding life in these United States until you’ve read The Executioner's Song. But I never took him to heart. I even can’t say I have a literary opinion about Mailer one way or another. That would be like saying I have a literary opinion about the Brooklyn Bridge or hurricanes. All my consciously intellectual life Mailer has just been there, a monument and a force of nature. He first came to my attention as a public figure rather than as a writer, more of a celebrity than an artist or even the public intellectual he was. He was on my TV long before he was on my bookshelf, and on TV he usually came across as a nut or a clown. Scratch that. He was usually portrayed as a nut or a clown. For a long time all I knew of his reputation as a writer was that he’d somehow “failed” as novelist. He was a Hemingway wannabe, aping the worst qualities of his hero, unable to get past his own gigantic ego to sit down and write anything but paeans to his own genius. Then there was his eroticization of violence and his raging misogyny.
I’m not going to get into the Jack Abbott fiasco, except to note that at the time it was used as an example of everything that was “wrong” with Mailer, while few noted it all began with an act of generosity on Mailer’s part. I remember it as another of many warnings that Mailer wasn’t somebody to take seriously except as an enemy of the intellectually and artistically righteous.
As if there was such a thing.
Oh, and he’d stabbed his wife.
All this was happening during the years when I was deciding I was going to be a writer, and the effect on me was that I didn’t read his stuff at a time when it might have had some influence on my development as a writer. It didn’t help that in the year I was setting off for grad school he published his first true novel in over a decade.
John Updike had won the Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit is Rich the year before. William Kennedy won it the year after for Ironweed. Saul Bellow was winding down his career with The Dean’s December, and Philip Roth was in the middle of re-assessing and redirecting his with the Zuckerman cycle. And Norman Mailer had written a 700 page doorstop on the liberating joys of anal rape.
Reincarnation figured in it in some lunatic way too.
Anyway, that’s what I remember of the reviews. I’m just telling you what I remember, not what I know to be what was going on.
By the way. I knew only one person at the Writers Workshop who’d read Ancient Evenings. A woman who grew up on a farm outside Paducah, Kentucky and went back there after earning her MFA. She claimed it was her favorite contemporary novel and she kept it on her desk to dip into for inspiration.
I didn’t read it. Still haven’t. Probably won’t ever at this point. But when I say I didn’t read Mailer’s stuff in my salad days, I mean his fiction. For reasons I can’t remember, while I was giving his fiction the skip, I made a point of reading his journalism. Over a period bridging high school and college, I read The Armies of the Night, Of A Fire on the Moon, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and The Fight. (I read The Executioner’s Song later, in my thirties.) I liked all of them but they didn’t inspire me to check out his novels. So based on the small percentage of his prodigious output I knew, I thought of Mailer not as a novelist---except as a mostly failed one---but as a journalist, a fine one, although not as fun to read as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.
Mailer didn’t see the distinction. He wanted it all to be taken as all of a piece, the novels, the journalism, the essays, the speeches, the interviews, the attempts at poetry, probably the movies too. And it wasn’t until I’d failed as a novelist myself---no consoling quotation marks around failed for me---and taken up blogging, that I began to see his point and appreciate it.
So you could say that what I owe Mailer is the solace of being able to see what I do here as being as literary and creative a pursuit as my filed away novels and multiply rejected short stories. I can tell myself that I didn’t give up being a writer to become a blogger. I just changed genres and found a new platform. I can take a pride in the sort of writing I do here I wouldn’t have thought any self-respecting creative writer could or should take back when I was young and green and arrogant enough to feel dismissive towards Norman Mailer.
I’m not very far into the A Double Life. Mailer’s at Harvard and already he’s a writer, in his heart and in fact, prolific and driven even at seventeen. At this point, he seems on his way to becoming Philip Roth, ten years before Roth himself started getting around to it, a chronicler of the second generation Jewish immigrant experience, and I wish he’d written his own Goodbye, Columbus before moving on, just to know what he’d have made of his dapper, English-accented gambler father. I wonder why he didn’t. Did the War change his direction? Was it as I was led to believe back in the day that sudden and spectacular and too early fame derailed him? Guess I’ll find out. I’m enjoying the book but I’d keep going even if I wasn’t. Like I said, I feel I owe it to Mailer.
But, see, what I owe him is due to something more than a possibly constructed literary influence. It’s a little more direct. Due to another act of generosity on his part.
Before Jack Henry Abbott, there was another beginning writer Mailer helped get started.
In 1972, a student at Frostburg State College in Maryland sent Mailer a copy of an article he’d written for the college paper about Mailer’s infamous appearance on The Dick Cavett Show with Gore Vidal. Mailer was impressed. Impressed enough to write to the editor of the Village Voice recommending he give the kid a job.
You know that if you’ve read James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out.
You probably know me, know this blog anyway, because thirty-odd years later Jim linked to one of my posts on his blog.
Jim was a precocious talent and it’s probable he’d have worked his way to where he is or somewhere very close by without Mailer’s help. But it’s hard for me not to see it this way. I’m here because Jim is where he is and he’s where he is because of Mailer.
Over at the New Yorker, Richard Brody's wondering the same thing I wondered, why Mailer never wrote his own Goodbye, Columbus, although Brody thinks that Mailer's "failure" as a novelist is due to his never having mined his Brooklyn roots for his fiction. Read The Novel That Norman Mailer Didn't Write.
Also at the New Yorker, also by Brody, Norman Mailer at the Movies.
Thoreau could be irascible company. He had a tendency to lecture, a judgmental streak, and a hard time seeing things from others’ points of view. His writings are full of wonderful character sketches but I can’t think of single portrait of a human being in his journals or books that includes as much affection for his subject as any offhand thing he had to say about his bean patch.
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly... perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough….
Brad detects a heartlessness in that passage. Whooping cough was a vicious killer of children in 1854 and it’s pretty callous of Thoreau to be so flip and dismissive of the idea of a child coming down with it.
I'm going to give Thoreau a little bit of benefit of doubt here. Brad doesn’t quote the whole paragraph and leaves out this key sentence that comes above what he does quote:
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.
Still pretty cold of Thoreau, if he meant that whooping cough was not a serious thing.
But I think what he might have meant was the telegraph would just bring back news about upsetting things that folks on this end could do nothing about and the implication is that worrying about Princess Adelaide would take the place of actually caring for people nearby it's our obligation not just to worry about but help.
People in New England in the mid-19th Century were just as prone to getting caught up in fantasies about the lifestyles of the rich and famous as people tuning into The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills today. European royalty were as popular subjects for gossip as movie stars or, for that matter, European royalty are now. Thoreau might have been expressing his disgust or dismay or bemusement at his neighbors’ obsession with far away strangers in the same way many of us these days can’t understand how Americans can be so emotionally involved with the news of Prince William and Princess Kate’s new baby while millions of babies here at home go to bed hungry and homeless.
(As far as I can tell after a bit of Googling, at the time there was no royal child name Princess Adelaide. The Princess Adelaide Thoreau’s readers would most likely have heard of was Queen Victoria’s aunt, who died at age fifty-seven, five years before Walden was published. Thoreau might have been using the name as a generic stand in, which would mean he wasn’t being quite as cold as someone snarking about the health of the new Prince James.)
Brad’s larger point is that Thoreau, thanks to his reflexive contrarianism, was obtuse about the usefulness of the telegraph. It could be used as a toy to distract people from serious business, but mostly it was a serious thing in itself, a tool for binding the nation together, for extending the network of sympathy, for spreading the material and intellectual wealth.
Maine may not have had much important to learn from Texas, but telegraphs reporting relative prices of Grand Bank codfish in Boston, Providence, New York, and Philadelphia were of great importance to Maine fishermen setting out.
Ever since the development of language one of humanity’s great powers is that our extraordinary drive to talk and gossip truly turns us into an anthology intelligence: what one of us in the group knows, if it is useful, pretty quickly becomes known by nearly everyone. The telegraph enlarges the relevant group from the village or township or guild to, potentially, the entire world. And that matters.
Thoreau was something of the original libertarian. Regularly he seems to be preaching a version of the golden rule that goes, You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone and we’ll all get along just fine. Getting along by getting out of each other’s way might cut down on arguments between neighbors but it cuts down on conversation too and shuts the door on sympathy as well. But, while he’s famous as an elegist for solitude, Thoreau was only anti-social when the mood took him. He hadn’t much patience for taciturn Yankees in the neighborhood who couldn’t be bothered to pause in going about their business for a friendly chat. And he could get worked up in a good cause.
Which is why I don’t think he was being as misanthropic as Brad does. I think he was trying for something like Emerson said in Self-Reliance:
Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; -- though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
Of course, that one's always bothered me and made me uneasy in my admiration for Emerson. I’ve never been able to completely convince myself that he wasn’t kidding there at the end. But I've always taken this to mean that charity spread too wide and thin is irresponnsible and serves no purpose but to gratify the vanity of the charitable. There was no safety net in those days. Taking care of the poor and the sick and the down on their luck was a matter of charity and handled locally, usually by the churches in the neighborhood. I think Emerson was saying it's trouble enough trying to take care of those right around us who need help here and now. In short, it's Emerson's riff on "Charity begins at home."
But then I can’t forget that one of Emerson’s great admirers was Frederich Nietzsche.
What Thoreau said about the telegraph might make you wonder what he’d have thought of the internet. I think he’d have come around eventually. After all, in his journals and notebooks he showed himself to be a natural blogger.
An annotated edition of Walden is online.
One-eyed blogging I'm a whiz at. One-eyed reading's trickier. I haven't been able to go back through my Elmore Leonard novels to find the passages I need to write the kind of tribute post I'd like to write. Fortunately, our old pal Nancy Nall, an even more devoted Leonard fan, has already written the kind of post I'd like to write:
Check it out. One of the best things, no link to Leonard's 10 Rules, on purpose. Nance is right. If you want to learn how to write like Leonard, read his books.
Nance is also right. Out of Sight is the best movie adaptation of any of his crime novels.
Nobody I've seen has mentioned Hombre, though, as the best adaptation of one of his Westerns.
And for the record, I'm the English professor friend of Nance's who says that "when the historians of the future want to know how we lived, the details of our daily lives, they’ll turn to the genre novelists to tell us." I stand by that thought.
David Copperfield, the main character and narrator of David Copperfield, the novel, written by Charles Dickens but ostensibly the autobiography of the aforesaid David Copperfield, character and narrator and, it's revealed, famous novelist, begins David Copperfield, again, the novel, with what amounts to practically an apology:
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
...as if he's warning us that he's not responsible for the story he's about to tell, which he isn't, since he's a character in that story being manipulated as much as every other character by the real human being writing the story. Dickens could be routinely and almost offhandedly meta. He was always present inside his own fictions and breaking through the fourth wall as the storyteller. He never let his readers forget they were being told a story, which is to say, that what they were reading was made up, a work of imagination, not real.
Dickens wasn't strictly speaking a realist.
He was a Dickens-ist.
But never mind.
Almost immediately those pages show that David Copperfield, the character and narrator, is not going to turn out to be the hero of his own life (or book) and that station will be held by somebody but not just anybody else. His eccentric fairy godmother, his formidable Aunt Betsey, bustles her way onto the scene, blesses the infant David in his crib in the very strangest and most roundabout way a fairy godmother has ever blessed a child she will protect until they all live happily ever after, and bustles out but not without putting her stamp on the story with such force that her presence is felt for the next two hundred pages while she is gone from the book.
David Copperfield was one of the first of Dickens' books I read and I read it at a very critical time, when it was guaranteed to make too great an impression, during Christmas break my freshman year of college. From that first reading (I've read it five or six times since. I've lost count.) I learned three things.
Dickens should always be read at Christmastime.
Realism is over-rated. Real is what a novelist starts with, the way a painter starts with a glance at the scenery or a glimpse of an interesting face.
A first person narrator should not be the hero of his own story if that story is going to be something other and better than one long brag, whine, or exercise in narcissistic self-directed psychotherapeutic excuse-making.
The first person narrators of many detective novels have to be the heroes of their stories for technical and conventional reasons, but...
Nick Carraway is not the hero of The Great Gatsby. Ishmael is not the hero of Moby-Dick. Jack Crabb isn't the hero of Little Big Man . Huck Finn is far from being his own hero or, if he is, he sure doesn't think of himself that way. Heroes and villains are Tom Sawyer 's department, the stuff of Tom's daydreams and games, and Tom's interference in Huck's story, when Tom assigns himself and Huck the roles of heroes, almost gets Jim killed.
Except for Augie March, Saul Bellows' first person narrators are practically the villains of their books.
Holden Caulfield isn't exactly the hero of Catcher in the Rye, but he thinks rather highly of himself compared to every other character in the novel except Phoebe, who is his ideal not his heroine, and that's why few readers over the age of eighteen can stand him. You have to be as adolescent as Holden to appreciate the virtues he attributes to himself.
In case you haven't guessed, I read Catcher in the Rye around the same time I read David Copperfield and Salinger lost out to Dickens.
But, getting back to Dickens, Pip isn't his own hero in Great Expectations. Almost the opposite. He is the object of his own intense self-criticism and self-satire.
The job of a first person narrator, I long ago decided, is to provide a personal, intimate, emotionally engaged but naturally limited point of view. There are things first person narrators just can't know from the outset and things they will never know. Crucial information is denied them and they have to spend their stories trying to figure things out and they don't always manage to do that. Huck has to work to get to know, understand, and sympathize with Jim. Nick has to work to gain insight into Gatsby. Ishmael never figures out Ahab.
And because there are things first person narrators can't know, there are things they miss and misinterpret and just get plain wrong. Their reliability is always in doubt.
Also, because they are characters in their own stories with volition and motivations of their own, they can have reason to be deliberately unreliable. They can try to make themselves look good. They can try to make themselves look bad. They can embellish. They can leave things out. They can lie. The fun might even be in knowing they're lying, as is the case with Aaron Burr in Gore Vidal's Burr, or in our not being sure just how much of what they're telling us is the truth, as it is with Jack Crabb.
Ariel Zinsky, the narrator of Ilan Mochari's debut novel, Zinsky the Obscure, is a young man looking back on the first thirty years of his not very event-filled or joy-filled life, searching for evidence that his being alive was worth the bother to himself, at least, if to no one else, and for a reason to keep bothering for another thirty.
Don't think, though, that Zinsky the Obscure is an extended riff on Hamlet's To be or not to be speech. It's simply an honestly and objectively attempted toting up and balancing off of losses and gains in a manner befitting the autobiography of an accountant.
Zinsky is the loving and devoted but selfish, because he's emotionally defensive and withdrawn, with good reason, son of a somewhat eccentric English teacher mother raising him on her own in genteel poverty after her divorce from his charismatic but physically abusive father. Which is what defines Zinsky and his life, the secret beatings his father gave him when he was a little boy whenever custodial visits forced them into each other's company.
Naturally, this has traumatized Zinsky and left him with a lifetime burden of shame and guilt, as if the beatings and his father's rage were his fault ---Mochari does an excellent job of portraying the manipulativeness of the abuser---but he developed his coping mechanisms early and he sticks with them throughout the novel, which are to keep himself aloof from strangers in case they might guess his secret, repress his own feelings so they can't be hurt, and scale back his expectations for happiness to the point of thinking that a good day is a day on which nothing too terrible happens. Since he's a pathological homebody---home is where the heart is for most people. For Zinsky home is where no one can touch you.---and he's taught himself never to take any physical or emotional risks, this has become the routine of his life, one dull, lonely but not too terrible day after another, the high points of which are, after he reaches puberty, his extended sessions of masturbation.
Zinsky the Obscure is the story of how an isolated, lonely, alienated, unhappy, and self-loathing young man becomes in slow stages and through very little effort of his own slightly less isolated, lonely , unhappy, and self-loathing.
As you might guess then, Zinsky is not the hero of his own story, which is a plus, I guess, although it might have been fun to read a story in which a character as lacking in heroic qualities as Zinsky is forced by circumstance into playing the role of hero.
He's not his own villain either. Zinsky is even more lacking in villainous qualities than he is in heroic ones. He's, generally, a decent-hearted, well-meaning guy, just ineffectual. A six foot eight inch tall, one hundred and fifty pound, prematurely bald nebbish with one not very overwhelming desire in life.
Not love. Not romance. Not passion. Not even erotic thrill. Just the release that comes from ejaculating into something more attractive and responsive than his own hand.
I should mention, although you've probably guessed, that Zinsky's masturbatory habits feature regularly in the novel and you might want to clear a place for it in that special section of your bookshelf next to Portnoy's Complaint and John McGahern’s The Dark.
As a narrator, Zinsky doesn't brag, although sometimes he comes perversely close to bragging that he has nothing to brag about. He doesn't whine; he just doesn't have much good news to report. He doesn't go in for the sort of intensive self-analysis that leads to psychotherapeutic catharsis, mainly because he's too self-protective, but partly because he bores himself. For the same reasons, he avoids self-criticism of the kind Pip subjects himself to nor is he the object of self-satire---he would need a sense of humor for that.
Possibly not the best choice for the narrator of a 342 page novel, a humorless, passive, self-obsessed, emotionally attenuated Peter Pan who can't fly, fight pirates, tame crocodiles, dance with Indians, flirt with mermaids, or bring himself to believe in fairies.
Zinsky is the kind of character you'd expect the world to gang up on just to make him wake up and pay attention.
For the most part, the world is as uninterested in Zinsky as he is in it.
What Zinsky the character is to Zinsky the narrator is an object of obsessive study. He is his main subject, practically his only subject. He stares into his past as ruthlessly as a teenager stares into a mirror determined to count every single one of his pimples. Zinsky the Obscure is a series of self-portraits by an artist who has made a vanity out of his lack of vanity. Here you see me in all my unattractive foolishness, he declares. Here I am at five sheepishly eating a McDonalds Happy Meal, effectively accepting a bribe from my father to not tell anyone how he beats me. Here I am at fifteen losing all my hair all at once for no medically explicable reason. Here I am as a teenager working in a grocery store and getting a co-worker fired as a result of my naive sense of right and wrong. Here I am in college failing at math but somehow passing my accounting classes. Here I am learning too late to make a career out of it or play on any school team that I'm pretty good at basketball. Here I am waiting tables in Boston. Here I am engaging in anal sex for the first time. Here I am getting caught masturbating by my mother. Here I am at twenty-eight on the day my girlfriend, one of three women who let me sleep with them despite my persistent charmlessness, told me she was pregnant and wanted to keep the baby and marry me and I decided to be a selfish dick about it.
What's a novelist to do with this as his main character? Where's a novel to go with this as its point of view?
Well, if Zinsky was your creation, one thing you could do is give him a vivid and active inner life, and, amazingly, Zinsky has one. It revolves around the sport he is physically and, for that matter, psychologically least suited to play, football. Zinsky, the failed mathematician and dissatisfied accounting major, realizes that football is as much a game of numbers as baseball and this insight leads to his becoming to football what Bill James was to baseball, the best analyst and best judge of talent the game has ever seen. His one and only passion and source of joy turns out to be his one and only area of real competence and this happy coincidence spurs him to the only independent and positive action in his life.
He begins to write and publish The Quintessential Guide to the NFL Draft, which although it comes close to bankrupting him at the outset, becomes indispensible to coaches, agents, and fantasy football leaguers across the nation and sets him on the road to fame and fortune. It also leads him into adventures, of sorts. He has to commit burglaries and hack into other people's computers to get the Guide up and going. But his narrative focus remains on the surface. He tells us a lot about the business side of running the Guide but he doesn't let us see the love and imagination working together to get the Guide written. The numbers he gives us are his production costs not the numbers he uses to evaluate players. We don't see him watching a game, so we don't see what he sees when he's either at work or just enjoying the play on the field. He is indifferent to and disconnected from his ever increasing number of rabid football fan readers, so he doesn't have to share his feelings and insights with us via them. He doesn't rhapsodize about any favorite players. He doesn't tell stories about great games of the past or, as you'd expect of such an obsessive, go deep into the details analyzing a specific series of downs or single play. He doesn't even apologize for liking the Jets over the Giants.
The sections of the novel dealing with the Guide turn out to be continuations of Zinsky's preferred Here I am doing this, now here I am doing the thing that followed from that mode of storytelling. The most interesting, vital, and attractive thing about him---regardless of how you feel about football, a great passion is always attractive---is presented purely as a money making enterprise. Zinsky might as well have opened a dry cleaners. In fact, it might have been better for the book if he had because he wouldn't have been able to hide from his customers and employees or if he did it would have been funny.
So, having written your way around your narrator's inner life and given away your chance to show him as imaginatively active and engaged with at least the world inside his own head, what's your next move?
You could throw him into a plot in which he is forced out the door and to act against his instincts, wishes, and self-interest. The cops could arrive during one of his breaking and entering adventures. Obsessed fans of the Guide could invade his life and make an unwilling celebrity of him. The Football Establishment could decide, as the Baseball Establishment did with Bill James, that he's an enemy and set out to shut him and the Guide down.
I think it's clear Mochari chose not to go this route.
You could, then, put him in the company of characters who are his opposites, active, outward going, emotionally engaged, looking to find happiness or escape trouble or cause problems.
In short, you could write more of a social novel instead of a purely autobiographical one.
This isn't a strategy Dickens adopted just for David Copperfield. It was his whole reason for being as a storyteller. The constant collisions of all sorts and conditions, of types and stereotypes, of men and women and monsters and grotesques, of virtue and vice, of good and evil, in public and private but always in a crowd, is the source of most of the action and all of the plots from Pickwick through Drood.
No matter how alone and forgotten David is as a boy or how wrapped up in himself he sometimes gets as a young man, the crowd impresses itself upon his consciousness and ignites his imagination.
You're probably thinking it's unfair to compare a young writer's first novel to the greatest novel of the greatest English novelist writing in his prime, and ordinarily I'd agree. But Mochari himself invites the comparisons. Actually, he insists on the comparisons.
The full title of Dickens’ novel (and David’s autobiography) is The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account).
Zinksy the Obscure is Molchari’s title for his novel. Zinksy’s title for his autobiography, announced in large letters on a page of its own at the beginning of the book, is The Personal History and Experience and Observation of Ariel Zinsky, An Only Child From New Hyde Park, Long Island.
Note the missing note of self-deprecation in Zinsky’s title.
As if that isn’t enough, Molchari opens with an intentionally shocking epigraph taken from David Copperfield and then essentially closes the book by letting Zinsky quote another passage from Copperfield to explain his thoughts and feelings as his story comes to an end without any apparent awareness that he's a thirty year old man claiming the feelings of a very small boy as his own.
David Copperfield plays two supporting roles in his own life story. First, he's a child from a fairy tale lost in the woods, then he is the juvenile love interest in a more realistic satire. But his main job is to become the writer capable of writing this book. And he shows us how this happens by showing his emotional and imaginative involvement with the host of other characters he gets entangled with. David is preternaturally self-aware, which is why he's so reliable when relating his own feelings. But he's even more aware of others and more interested in them. Some of that awareness is that of the older novelist imposing it upon scenes in which he's portraying himself as a lonely and neglected little boy and then as a self-absorbed adolescent and young man at times when he couldn't have been expected to have been paying much attention to anyone other than himself. But on some level he must have been taking it all in or else his adult self wouldn't have the memories from which to work.
Throughout the novel, there's an ironic contrast between what the young David thought was going on and what his older, writer self now knows was happening.
There is no contrast between the younger and older Zinskys.
Zinsky sees a lot, remembers a lot, and re-imagines none of it. He can't work his way back into his own past to "see" what he failed to see at times when he was too caught up in himself because he's still that caught up in himself. As a result, he can only report the past as if it's the present. There is no difference between Zinsky the narrator and Zinsky the character at different stages in his growing up. Zinsky at thirty seems pretty much the same person he was at fifteen.
Despite all this, there is one key and redeeming way Zinsky is forced to be more like David Copperfield. As much as he would like to, he can't get away from the crowd.
No matter how determined Zinsky is to be left alone, he keeps encountering other characters even more determined not to leave him that way. His father, his girlfriends, his step-sister, and, most importantly, his mother force their way into his life and make him pay attention to them and the larger world in which they thrive. And although Zinsky is nowhere near as capable as David Copperfield of imagining his way into the heads of others, he is observant and meticulous. He gets his facts straight and he's fair, even at his own expense. He's a good reporter.
Everything Zinsky does, every place he lives, works, or visits, everyone he meets are precisely and persuasively described. We may not get an intimate sense of what makes particular characters tick, but we do get the sense of knowing what they are like. And what we know about what Zinsky's mother Barbara is like is enough to tell us that, unlike her son, she is heroic.
She's not the heroine of Zinsky's life, at least not as directly as Aunt Betsey is the heroine of David's. But she’s the heroine of her own. A tragic heroine.
Barbara is a talented and dedicated teacher who could have been a great teacher if she'd felt free to be more ambitious. But she's devoted herself to raising her strange, socially incompetent, baffling child. Zinsky is lonely by choice. Barbara is lonely by necessity and it's not only to protect Zinsky. Plenty of men who would marry her, some of whom she might even like to marry, come and go as Zinsky is growing up, but she maintains her independence for the sake of caution and self-preservation.
Having made one disastrous choice in a first husband, she doesn't trust herself not to make another.
Zinsky sees what she's going through. He recognizes her decisions are costing her in ways he can only guess at. And that's just it. He can only guess because he can't imagine his way into her heart and head. As devoted as they are to each other and dependent on each other’s company, Zinsky and his mother remain essentially strangers. It takes him the whole novel to appreciate her sufferings and her small triumphs and by the time he does it's too late, which is a second tragedy in its own right, and it's what makes Zinsky the Obscure a sad and moving story despite its obtuse and irksome narrator.