Quote of the Day: Terry Southern on Hollywood, Writing, “Freakishness”

(Library of Congress)
Somewhere in Southern California (Library of Congress)

Today’s bit of perception about one of America’s most over-analyzed, unloved, and misunderstood “cities” comes courtesy of surrealist pie-thrower and comic raconteur Terry Southern (CandyDr. Strangelove). Interviewed at length for The Paris Review‘s occasional series on screenwriters (the interview took place in 1967 but wasn’t published until 2012) the Texas-born Southern expounded on that great Southern California sinkhole of creative energy and dashed dreams:

Hollywood, that is to say, Los Angeles, is not, of course, a city, and its sinister forces are very oblique. There’s no public transportation system whatever, so the people drive around as though they were living in Des Moines, and it has all the rest of the disadvantages of a small town, only filled with displaced persons. On the other hand, life there has an engaging surrealist quality, an almost exciting grotesqueness.

The cultural scene there in general is sped up, sort of concentrated. Southern California is a mecca for all manner of freakishness, beginning on the most middle-class level—hot-dog stands in the shape of a hot dog. If you go there, you’ll immediately see a carnival, Disneyland aspect that is different from any other place in America.

Southern also notes the differences between the ladies of Hollywood and those of the East Coast:

… girls who want to be ­writers come to the Village and girls who want to be actresses go to Hollywood.

Writer’s Corner: James Franco is a Poet Now, Too

At some point, you would think that the whirling creative polymath that is James Franco would settle down. Onetime heartthrob actor turned creator of curious art installment films (Interior. Leather Bar), star of trashy-smart comedies (This Is the End), director of small-scale literary adaptations (As I Lay Dying), author of novels and short stories, and now: poetry.

francobook1Instead of going with a big press for his collection, Directing Herbert White, Franco smartly went with one of the more respected small poetry outfits out there: the expert Minnesota-based indie Graywolf Press. You can read an excerpt from the collection here.

How is the poetry itself? Not that memorable, but not noticeably worse than much of what’s out there and not necessarily contingent on Franco’s name.

As David Orr puts it in last week’s Times‘ Sunday Book Review, it’s:

“Directing Herbert White” is the sort of collection written by reasonably talented M.F.A. students in hundreds of M.F.A. programs stretching from sea to shining sea. Which is perhaps not surprising, since Franco actually has an M.F.A. in poetry…

…uniformly written in the kind of flat, prosy free verse that has dominated American poetry for ages (typical line: “New Orleans Square is my favorite part of Disneyland”), with stanzas that aren’t so much stanzas as elongated paragraphs.

One could argue that it’s just that flat and unadorned poetic style which all too often reads as lazy and slashed-up prose than actual lyricism which has helped reduce poetry to its currently weakened state.

But Orr’s ultimate take on the book is probably the right one. In short, there’s a lot of bad poetry out there. Better that somebody with the name recognition of Franco is at least taking up the flag and giving it an honest go:

Poetry is the weak sister of its sibling arts, alternately ignored and swaddled like a 19th-century invalid, and that will change only by means of a long, tedious and possibly futile effort at persuasion. Perhaps it’s a blessing to have James Franco on one’s side in that struggle.

New in Theaters: ‘A Most Wanted Man’

Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'A Most Wanted Man' (Roadside Attractions)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘A Most Wanted Man’ (Roadside Attractions)

mostwantedman-posterThe latest John Le Carre adaptation is also one of the final film performances of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and just about nearly worth seeing just for him alone.

A Most Wanted Man is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

This elegant, sparse, and scrupulously acted but dramatically stunted adaptation is like Anton Corbijn’s last film,The American: tasteful in a Europhilic way and not quite human. Although set right in the middle of the post-9/11, post-Cold War chaos that supposedly put an end to the old ways of sleuthing, the film has us harkening back to spy business essentials. These operatives certainly make good use of bleeding-edge gadgetry; after all, one of the great draws of those old spy stories was their showing off of then-new technology, catalog-like. But the fixation is really on those classic skills of patience and mousetrap-springing that the modern espionage thriller has essentially jettisoned like Jason Bourne leaping out a window. It would seem gauche if one of these guys even pulled out a gun. That careful sense of professionals going about their work with grim diligence is some of the best of what Corbijn’s film has to offer. What it doesn’t present is a pulse…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: July 25, 2014

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New in Theaters: ‘Lucy’ Will Require Only About One Percent of Your Brain

Scarlett Johansson achieves hyper-intelligence in the not-so-smart 'Lucy' (Universal Pictures)
Scarlett Johansson achieves hyper-intelligence in the not-so-smart ‘Lucy’ (Universal Pictures)

Lucy-posterLuc Besson hasn’t written and directed a major action film since 1997’s gonzo sci-fi flick The Fifth Element. His newest, Lucy, is a curious amalgam of The MatrixFlowers for Algernon, and a whole bag full of bunk about humans only using 10 percent of their brains that shows Besson may have been away from the game for too long.

Lucy opens everywhere on Friday. My review is at Short Ends & Leader:

Lucy [shows Besson] having apparently grown impatient with nearly every convention of storytelling. We have barely met his Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) before she’s thrown into a bloody meat-grinder of a crime syndicate plot that results in her becoming a superhuman, god-like creature. All we know about Lucy is that she’s an American student in Taipei who likes to go clubbing. This lack of background drains the drama out of her transformation into near-omnipotence, no matter how nifty it is to watch her drop a roomful of gunmen to the ground with a flick of her finger (more on than in a bit)….

The trailer is fun at least:

Readers’ Corner: Man Booker Prize Longlist

131023 MB2013 Winner Poster MIDThe Man Booker Prize just announced their longlist of titles being considered for their 2014 fiction prize. This is literary news of a sort—prizes like this being a boon for time-challenged readers looking for help in figuring out what to read next—but nothing that extraordinary in itself. After all, this happens every year.

But here’s something different: For the first time in the prize’s 46 years, the list includes writers from beyond the UK and Commonwealth. In short, that means a couple of Americans have been allowed in; though as Publishers Weekly notes, not Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which you will recall won (perhaps undeservingly, I and some others would argue) this year’s Pulitzer for fiction.

Here’s the full list, via PW (who helpfully annotated with author nationalities):

The 2014 Man Booker Longlist

  • Joshua Ferris (American) To Rise Again at a Decent Hour(Viking)
  • Richard Flanagan (Australian) The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus)
  • Karen Joy Fowler (American) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Siri Hustvedt (American) The Blazing World (Sceptre)
  • Howard Jacobson (British) J (Jonathan Cape)
  • Paul Kingsnorth (British) The Wake (Unbound)
  • David Mitchell (British) The Bone Clocks (Sceptre)
  • Neel Mukherjee (British) The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus)
  • David Nicholls (British) Us (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Joseph O’Neill (Irish/American) The Dog (Fourth Estate)
  • Richard Powers (American) Orfeo (Atlantic Books)
  • Ali Smith (British) How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Niall Williams (Irish) History of the Rain (Bloomsbury)

Writer’s Corner: Selling Your Book

(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

Ted Thompson’s first novel, The Land of Steady Habits, will hit stores in January. In his funny, honest essay for Salon, “I Sold My Book for $25,000,” he talks (a little) about the process and (a lot) about what he learned. It should be required reading for anybody new to the publishing game who’s got a novel in their head or hard drive and wants to know what awaits them.

tedthompsoncover1Firstly, Thompson brings a well-needed slap of reality to new writers’ often starry-eyed wishes, particularly the notion among many writers and lovers of quality work that a book is only as good as its writing:

Subject matter matters … Once a manuscript leaves your desk, subject matter is the primary (and often only) way it is discussed. So if you haven’t figured out a quick way to answer that cringe-inducing question “What’s your book about?” in a way that interests other people, somebody else will.

Though you wouldn’t know it from hearing all the self-publishing fanatics (the Hugh Howey types who insist that self-publishing is the only way to go) foam at the mouth about elitist publishers, Thompson insists quite correctly that the average publisher wants to like your book:

Every book they publish, especially if it’s by a first-time writer, is a risk to them and their reputation, and it’s one they take because they personally responded to the book. This was a revelation to me, the fact that the grand faceless facade of New York publishing turned out to be a collection of surprisingly normal people, all of whom were looking to fall in love with a manuscript.

And lastly, a point that can’t be made enough: Don’t expect to strike it rich. Thompson signed with a major publisher and even sold some foreign rights. Still, he made about $75,000, and that’s before agent and other fees.

So, even if you’re one of the chosen few who actually gets published by one of the major houses, it’s probably wiser to splurge a little on a new laptop and a few weeks at a writer’s colony for the next book, and bank the rest. In other words: Don’t quit the day job.

Writer’s Corner: James M. Cain

doubleindemnityAlthough famous for skillful thrillers like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain was at heart a higher-toned sort of writer than his output might have suggested. A onetime managing editor of the New Yorker, he left for California and a different style of writing. Although his novels were full-on potboilers about cynical but ultimately foolish men and the women who dragged them into murder, Cain had the heart of a true literati. Unlike his contemporary Raymond Chandler, though (who often appeared to think himself above what he wrote), Cain seemed more at home bridging the two worlds.

In this Paris Review interview, published not long after his death in 1977, Cain holds forth on a great number of topics, tossing off the bon mots like confetti. To wit:

  • New York is not even a city, it’s a congerie of rotten villages.
  • Editorials (we called them idiotorials) were written by trained seals whose only qualifications were that they be in favor of motherhood and against the man-eating shark.
  • I slip into the Vulgate every once in a while—an affectation I only half-understand. There I am speaking impeccable English and suddenly I lingo it up.
  • I tried to write the Great American Novel, and wrote three of them, none of them any good.
  • I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.

Department of Weekend Reading: July 18, 2014

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New in Theaters: ‘The Purge: Anarchy’ Takes Aim at the One Percent

In 'The Purge: Anarchy' all crime is legal for one annual twelve-hour free-for-all (Universal Pictures)
In ‘The Purge: Anarchy’ all crime is legal for one annual twelve-hour free-for-all (Universal Pictures)

purge-poster1Just last year, a little sci-fi/horror film called The Purge lit up theaters with its canny blend of exploitation thriller jolts and subversive agitprop. Now comes the inevitable sequel, which ramps up the class-conscious revolutionary rhetoric in an expanded story about a near-future America where one night a year all crime is legal for 12 hours.

The Purge: Anarchy opens this Friday everywhere. My review is at PopMatters:

 In the first film, the ridiculous rationale left open the suggestion that the Purge’s real purpose was even uglier. What if the big night isn’t a means to purge unwanted impulses, but rather, a way to get rid of unwanted people? In Anarchy, the politics read loud and clear. Sergeant and his carload of charges face down everyone from flamethrower-wielding ATV rednecks to storm troopers cruising around in armored big rigs and nihilist skateboard punks with ghostface makeup and machetes…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Begin Again’ Sings

Keira Knightley (left), Mark Ruffalo (right), and a passel of ready-for-anything musicians in 'Begin Again' (Weinstein Company)
Keira Knightley (left), Mark Ruffalo (right), and a passel of ready-for-anything musicians in ‘Begin Again’ (Weinstein Company)

When John Carney made the incomparable Dublin street-musical Once, he ginned up magic from the mundane. With the glitzier and slightly more stock Begin Again, he uses the same starry-eyed formula for almost equally wonderful results.

Begin_Again1Begin Again is playing now around the country. My review is at Film Racket:

Nothing in Begin Again, a grin-machine Roman candle of a film, should work. It features more cliches than should be legally allowed. A starry-eyed and uncompromising songwriter. A bum music producer needing one last shot. A rising star who just dumped the songwriter to get busy losing his soul. The comic relief guy. A fractured family that just needs their dad to get his act together. A basket full of dreams. Some beautiful songs that just need to be heard. New. York. City. But writer/director John Carney gets away with it, whipping through the stock situations with a hummingbird-light grace….

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘I Origins’

Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey in 'I Origins' (Fox Searchlight)
Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey in ‘I Origins’ (Fox Searchlight)

I Origins-posterA few years back, Mike Cahill made one of the more ghostly sci-fi movies of recent years with Another Earth. Now he’s back with that film’s enigmatic Brit Marling and Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Pitt for a globe-spanning story about, well, eyes.

I Origins opens this Friday in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

A haunted-looking Michael Pitt is the main attraction in Mike Cahill’s curious fandango of a science-fantasy story about fate, destiny, genetics and love, and that’s unfortunate. Pitt can usually excel when playing dreamers or tortured types befitting his sensuously languorous mien. But for I Origins, Pitt has to put on a sweater, adjust his glasses, and play a molecular biologist. For the many scenes that call for a sense of true obsession, he can’t quite summon the proper focus, deploying a Johnny Depp-like dourness. Without that, an already disjointed film drifts further apart…

You can see the trailer here:

Reader’s Corner: When Faulkner Reviewed Hemingway

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William Faulkner, 1954 (Library of Congress)

Ernest Hemingway had no problem with expounding on his talent, courage, or general manliness. To nobody’s surprise, this didn’t arise from a well of confidence but rather one of rabid insecurity. Just see his rivalry with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and all those petty little put-downs in A Moveable Feast.

Papa Hemingway also scrapped (albeit in a mildly literary way) with the other big prize-winning author of his time, William Faulkner. They respected each other, but found time to lob critiques back and forth.

oldmanandthesea1When the literary magazine Shenandoah prevailed upon Faulkner to review The Old Man and the Sea, he found room to list Hemingway’s faults but, interestingly, in the context of praising the novel. Here’s an excerpt of that review from Open Culture (emphasis added):

Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.

Makes you want to go back and hunt down all the glories of the novel which too many English teachers have managed to hide.

New in Theaters: ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Features Yet More Apes

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-eh002_0010_1647_comiconCCl_rgb
Caesar leads his primate army in ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (Twentieth Century Fox)

dawnplanetapes-posterThe ever-expanding world of sci-fi reboots gets another entry with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which rejiggers themes and even a few climactic scenes from the raggedy 1970s series (Conquest of…Battle for…, etc.) only without much satirical intent. Like 2011’s admittedly lamer Rise of the Planet of the Apes, none of it manages to stand out except, again, for Andy Serkis’ regal, affecting, and soulful performance as the leader of the apes, Caesar.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is now playing pretty much everywhere. My review is at PopMatters:

[The film is] expected to deliver summer action set-pieces, including the battle featuring a rifle-wielding ape cavalry that was promised in its saturation ad campaign. As misunderstandings accumulate and warmongers on both sides get their way, the battle is joined on the crumbled, vine-covered streets of San Francisco. Many, many apes are shot down but curiously, we see just about no humans killed. This may be a nod to a specist ratings board in order to keep a PG-13, but it also points to a general lack of interest in the human characters. Even the heroic humans are pallid and unmemorable, unlike the carefully delineated apes. By the time the apes do gear up for battle, the audience is ready to charge right along with them…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: July 11, 2014

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