26 October 2012

In his review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, John Banville writes:

The Dream of the Celt is, like its subject, stout-hearted, well-intentioned, tender, and somewhat naive. It is not in any real sense a novel, but is, rather, a biography overlaid with a light wash of novelistic speculation. It is an exoskeletal work, in that it wears its research on the outside. The author has read widely and diligently on his subject, but the material gathered, instead of being absorbed organically into the narrative, is presented to the reader in the form of raw data. The forays that Vargas Llosa makes into Casement’s thoughts and dreams, although warmly sympathetic, are less than inspired. The novelist has fallen in love with his subject, which is admirable, but his amatory approach does not help the novel.

Vargas Llosa would have done well to remember Henry James’s repeated injunction to himself in his notebooks: “Dramatize! Dramatize!” Yet Casement’s story is so absorbing, and the background against which it unfolds is so fascinating, that the reader will be swept along regardless of the novel’s flaws as a work of fiction. In The Dream of the Celt, for all its shortcomings, Mario Vargas Llosa has done an inestimable service to the memory of a great man.

I found this to be a strange conclusion to a review of a novel; Banville seems to forgive Llosa for writing an underwhelming novel, because he has delivered to us compelling historical information.

I was thinking about this in relation to ARGO, which I saw last week.  I enjoyed it, I recommend it; but I was also left thinking that the film could have been so much better.  The material was fascinating, and dramatic; the film delivered the action but gave us, I thought, very little character.  Since it was conceived as a narrative feature, not a documentary, I wanted to see artistry and history working together to create for the viewer an experience.  It sort of did that, but not fully.

I guess what I’m feeling is: if you’re going to work with the dramatic forms — narrative film, novels — then do it!  Your material alone won’t carry you.  A great concept is just half the hog.

21 October 2012

As we get closer to election day, as we get ready to watch the candidates debate on TV one more time, I am reminded of one of my peeves: this habit of blaming the President for gas prices, on both sides.  A couple of articles (there are many more) to debunk that idea, which is among the cheapest of campaign strategies:

From a blog called The Moderate Voice

From the NY Times

It’s a fundamental problem of the democratic process, it seems to me — that the economy, and the workings of government, are more complex than the average citizen can get her head around.  We ascribe to the President powers he doesn’t have, and are ignorant of others that he does have (in the area of national security, for instance).  We hold the wrong people accountable.  We have short-term memories and short attention spans.  We are susceptible to performance over substance.  Uy.  It’s a weighty responsibility, this voting right of ours.  May we all work just a little harder, do just a little more fact-checking, every time we get ready to exercise it.

15 October 2012

My monthly column at The Common, “Annals of Mobility,” is up today.  For this second installment, I write about mobility as adolescence, and the moral implications thereof — through the eyes of Wes Anderson, Wendell Berry, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Esther Freud.

14 October 2012

We’ve just finished watching Season One of Homeland (so don’t tell me what happens in Season Two if you’ve got cable).  If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve usually got some TV series obsession going on, and that I’m always a season behind (unless it’s a network TV show).  It’s been interesting to me how much TV has been a part of my life over the past few years, ever since (like so many others of my “cultural class”) The Wire rocked my world.

In particular, I learn a lot from all these intense drama series about plot and suspense. No surprise there.   But the best ones also show us how to build complex characters—often exasperatingly flawed, and yet at the same time utterly compelling.

One thing I’m thinking about in terms of Homeland‘s strengths and weaknesses is its failure to build a convincing, dimensional, intricately-developed world—something that the very best of the TV dramas do extremely well (The Wire, Mad Men, The West Wing, Breaking Bad). While both Carrie Mathison’s and Nicholas Brody’s characters are well-developed, and the acting is stellar, I find myself frustrated by the limited scope of the world in which they exist.  The political universe, for example, feels thin and sparsely populated: it is as if the Vice President is the only locus of power, which is both unsatisfying and unlikely.  The same goes for the CIA. One would imagine that there is just one guy (the character named David Estes) calling shots, one room in which counter-terrorism happens, one lone bi-polar gal (Carrie/Claire Danes) going after the bad guys.  I remember having this discussion with a student of mine, who is writing a novel about a megachurch: how to give the impression/feel of thousands of people while only focusing on 4 or 5? The example I gave, in fact, was from The West Wing—how, when shooting the Democratic National Convention, they had about 100 extras to shoot scenes intended to give the feeling of a packed arena of thousands.  They used lights, low camera angles, dubbed-in noise.  What are the literary analogies?

On the level of plot and suspense, too, Homeland is just a little loose and flabby.  The key to effective suspense, it seems to me, is planting nagging questions in the viewer’s mind and revealing shades of answers at just the right pacing.  In Homeland, that pacing is just slightly off: the questions pile up and remain unanswered for too long, which is to say that the characters themselves would not wait as long as the viewer is asked to for answers.  An example: there is a murky mystery around the supposed death of Sergeant Brody’s co-POW Tom Walker by his own hands.  Why doesn’t Carrie wonder about this earlier? Why doesn’t anyone?  In other words, the writers have developed characters so razor-sharp that the viewer can’t buy their ignorance, or delayed intelligence, for as long as we’re asked to.  Another example: Brody’s daughter, who sees/notices everything about him, sees him put the suicide-bomb vest in the trunk of the car.  She knows something is  odd about it when her father insists it’s “nothing.”  He leaves it there overnight.  She never goes back to the car to investigate.  We’re thinking, no way, she’s too smart to let that go.

All that said, I’ll be watching Season Two as soon as it’s out on DVD.  Which tells me that, for this viewer/reader, character is king.

7 October 2012

Checkerboard Films’s documentary James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime, will be screening at the Hamptons International Film Festival today — the film’s US premiere (and my first film credit)!

More info here.

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