Archive | June, 2013

First lines. Work in progress. Novellas.

28 Jun

Finished second draft of new novellas. They are tentatively titled 1. The Sleepless Dragon on the Snow-white Sands; 2. The Utility Organism; and 3. The Brotherhood of the Eye and the Nation of Perverts. Here are the first lines:

1.

Sleepless Dragon:

“February 5. Dear Evan, You’re in Afghanistan by now, and I’m in Pensacola, and I don’t know who has it worse. That’s a joke.”

2.

Utility Organism:

“The dawn appears in silver ribbons and Joe’s head aches with his love for the world.”

3.

Brotherhood:

“September 14. I’ve been instructed by my doctor to keep a diary. He’s established some rules.”

Will keep people updated. Wish me luck.

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Simone calls the movie “Guys and Dolls” “Dolls and Toys.”

28 Jun

It’s adorable.

Marlon Brando, in an underrated performance, in one of  Simone's new favorite movies.

Marlon Brando, in an underrated performance, in one of Simone’s new favorite movies.

Couple of fantastic lines from Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar.

28 Jun

Reading Ross Macdonald. A very fine writer and superb crime writer. Strangely under-recognized. Here’s a great little paragraph:

“He put on a black rubber raincoat. Lion and I followed him down a narrow aisle between two lines of wrecked cars. With their crumpled grilles and hoods, shattered windshields, torn fenders, collapsed roofs, disemboweled seats, and blown-out tires, they made me think of some ultimate freeway disaster. Somebody with an eye for detail should make a study of automobile graveyards, I thought, the way they study the ruins and potsherds of vanished civilizations. It could provide a clue as to why our civilization is vanishing.”

Here’s another:

“There were shadows huddling with shadows behind the bar. I raised my glass to them in a gesture I didn’t quite understand, except that there was relief in darkness and silence in whisky.”

Godspell. Book of Mormon. Me

18 Jun

1.

I’ve always felt closest to God during musicals. There’s something about the rousing majesty of a great performance that stirs my soul. There’s a healing power in the right kind of musical theatre, and I know it sounds silly but I don’t care.

I just saw The Book of Mormon and I can’t stop thinking about it. Or humming the songs. It’s a wonderful experience, a raging blast of raucous joy and a (misunderstood) testament to the power of faith.

The last play that got to me with such ecstatic spiritual power was Godspell.

I’ve seen Godspell five or six times. It’s the Book of Matthew as acted by urban, possibly homeless, clowns, and it captures—at the time I thought uniquely—the soaring, rousing, sexual feeling, a prolonged adrenaline rush towards the eternal sun that is spiritual belief.

Godspell is mocked, derided, and often dismissed. But it’s a superb, magical play.[1] It pulls off a tricky thing—it separates the Gospel of Matthew from the context of the Bible. So there’s no wrathful God of the Old Testament, no slaughter, plagues, assassinations, animal sacrifices and so on. Because of this, the play feels like a feel-good, free-loving version of Christianity—the love and good works without the steel and blood and spikes. The play doesn’t soft-pedal Christian theology, but rather infuses it with a warm, gentle glow.

And killer songs. The best is probably “Bless the Lord.”

2.

I’ve dedicated myself to Christ, publicly, multiple times. It’s a feeling of great liberation, of sliding through a tunnel of light. Euphoria, sunbeams and spinning galaxies—followed by serenity and a deep sense of purpose. There’s nothing else quite like it.

My relationship with Jesus didn’t last. The predictable forces of history, literature, philosophy and science pummeled my belief relentlessly. At 20, I fought back, re-upped church, stayed away from parties and booze. I prayed. I even joined a Bible study. But eventually I let Jesus go. I didn’t have an epiphany. I didn’t wake up an unbeliever. I just lost my religious beliefs a little at a time. And then, only a dull ache and (rarer and rarer) occasional guilt.

God didn’t last much longer. A few years of straining against the certainty that it was all smoke and mirrors. A yearning for some cosmic certainty of good in the universe. Some painful soul-searching. And plenty of existential angst.

Godspell cast a spell on me, burrowing into my slackening faith. The play stifled my cynicism and disbelief for over a year. It even got me back into church, if only for a little while. The play reignited my passion for Christ.

It didn’t last. I’m left with the gnaw, the absence of the divine, a sense of (measured) peace about death, and occasional rumblings of Gnostic mysticism.

I was probably happier—if also more haunted, worried, anxious, less capable and more unstable—as a believer. For me, the darkness and the light went together.

3.

The Book of Mormon is aggressive, raunchy, hilarious. It’s also the most profound evocation of Tertullian’s assertion: “I believe because it is absurd.”

Mormon follows Price and Cunningham, two teenage Mormon missionaries (but it’s really about all religious believers), on their two-year mission to Uganda. Cunningham is an inveterate liar and socially awkward mess who knows nothing about Mormonism. But Cunningham has an intrinsic understanding of the value of big lies. Price is handsome, driven, and schooled in the church, but he’s blind to the actual needs of real people. Price wants to be important; Cunningham just wants to help. When confronted with the violent reality of a tiny Ugandan village beset by an outbreak of AIDS, immense poverty, and a vicious warlord, Price wilts. Cunningham responds by trying to help, only his head is so full of useless pop culture he begins filling the villagers heads with his own form of Mormonism, a mish mash of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and so on. It’s lies upon lies, but the villagers love it. And, strangely, through their belief in Cunningham’s lies, they begin to find peace and solace, healing and contentment. It’s a cynical, bitter lesson, and yet beautiful. The Book of Mormon offers a radical vision of religion. Lie if it helps people; believe in nonsense if it makes you happy; persevere in the face of overwhelming evidence. Just don’t hurt anyone.

The best song is probably “I Believe.” It sums up the plays essence: belief is ridiculous, but important and sublime.

The play has been characterized by its profane and nasty humor. I found it profoundly moving. The reprise of the play’s silliest and most offensive song—only this time after suffering and loss of faith—was one of the most moving theatre experiences I’ve ever had. I’m not ashamed to admit it; my face was wet with tears.

Godspell is a celebration of belief. The Book of Mormon is, too. I’m (almost) tempted to go back to church.

Almost.


[1] The film doesn’t do it justice, which is often the case with musicals.

Taking a break from writing fiction to say: go see Frances Ha.

10 Jun

1.

Frances Ha is amazing.

It’s a funny, big-hearted but unsentimental exploration of friendship, the perambulations, bedevilment and unbridled joy of a relationship that disintegrates, reforms, ebbs and flows, evolves.

Greta Gerwig stars as Frances, (she also co-wrote the movie) a not-so-young ingénue forced to confront her own deficiencies and become an adult. She’s flighty, talented, discontented, nervous, at times awkward, often charming, and wary of the world. The film charts her friendship with Sophie, who is moving along in her professional and romantic lives, while Frances seems stuck. Frances wants to be a professional dancer but can’t quite make it past the apprentice level. She’s living in a beautiful, but unforgiving, New York that keeps her stretched financially. She can’t quite figure out why people get married or have children. When Sophie moves out, Frances’s life begins to deteriorate. The bulk of the movie is her moving from one apartment to another, each living situation getting worse and worse. She bears many burdens: worries over money, her hopes of a dancing career disappearing, and the widening emotional distance with her best friend.

The centerpiece of the film is Frances’s failed trip to Paris. She spends money she doesn’t have to go, with no plan or purpose, and ends up sleeping through half the trip and waiting for a phone call for the rest. It’s a hilarious but heart-rending experience, followed by further indignity when Frances has to take a job as a summer R.A. at her old college.

What holds the movie together is a razor sharp script, beautiful visuals, and an affectionate and generous belief in Frances. But even as you cheer for her, you peer into her life as through a microscope, scrutinizing her motivations, flaws and mistakes.

It’s also the most realistic evocation of a friendship I’ve seen. Sophie and Frances squabble, they play, they roam and wander, they compete, they speak a private language. And they hurt each other, sometimes quite deeply. And yet they maintain a deep compassion and love for each other.

Two friends

A snapshot of two friends, moving through the slings and arrows of their late twenties.

Critics have focused on the influence of the French New Wave, and Truffaut is definitely the dominant inspiration of the movie—especially The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim—but there’s also a nod towards, and apotheosis of, the independent American cinema of the 1990s.

2.

Baumbach cut his teeth on Kicking and Screaming in the mid-1990s, his first film and a very fine movie that pulls off the difficult trick of peeling back the cynical affectations of upper class privilege to burrow down into the main character’s heart-breaking loss. But it’s a precious affected movie, too, overshadowed by the (at the time) more talented Whit Stillman, the more shocking Greg Araki, the wilder and more ambitious Quentin Tarantino, or the brash and obsessive Wes Anderson. Baumbach kept at it though, finding failure, closed doors, hardship. He emerged in the 2000s as a sometimes screenwriting partner of Wes Anderson, another wunderkind from those glorious 90s. The two major talents somehow brought out the worst in each other: precious, cloying, overly scripted and yet meandering movies that seem filled with bizarre tonal shifts into earnestness.

Baumbach returned to directing to make an autobiographical film about his childhood. And it’s a doozy. The Squid and the Whale is a superb film—funny and caustic and brisk and insightful—but it’s dedicated to the teenage protagonist’s failings and flaws. The movie delineates his snobbery and pretentiousness. The movie seems to enjoy his various embarrassments, his comeuppance, his suffering. Frances Ha, in contrast, details the main character’s struggles. Her struggles seem important.

He made Margot at the Wedding next. It’s a very fine, and underrated, movie. It didn’t find an audience because a. Rachel Getting Married came out around the same time, and b. the tone of the film is dark, but subtle and half-hidden, like a John Cheever story. Great acting, a smart script, but something feels a bit off. There’s too much vinegar in the wine.

The story of a lonely, angry, misanthropic dude who has learned exactly nothing.

The story of a lonely, angry, misanthropic dude who has learned exactly nothing.

Greenberg suffers from the same problem. Some great scenes and funny lines, but an underlying tartness that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I liked Greenberg but it left me feeling edgy, annoyed. I kept wanting it to open up a little, but it maintained (an admittedly impressive) dour tone.

Baumbach’s career seemed set. He would struggle to find funding to make these harsh, well-written films about nasty, unhappy people, making fewer and fewer of them, and then give up Hollywood altogether.

But then something odd happened. He decided to make a movie with Greta Gerwig, the costar of Greenberg.

3.

It was a great idea. Gerwig is a perfect writing partner for Baumbach. She’s generous where he’s misanthropic, she’s infused the film with compassion where Baumbach leans towards misanthropy, self-loathing and endlessly bickering characters. Both enjoy the discomfort of awkward social situations. She’s also a great actress, attractive and commanding but not glamorous. She trips, slips, spills. She maneuvers her face like the best physical comedians, stretching her lips into a rubbery snarl. Her career has been startling, similar to Parker Posey from the late 90s. She carries a kind of otherworldly innocence side by side a bruised wariness of the world. She imbues Frances with this gusto, touched by melancholy.

The film is both of our time, right now, and yet somehow feels timeless. And important. My gut tells me that Frances Ha will be the film of this generation.

The movie isn’t satire. It isn’t a metaphor. It isn’t a romance. Simple, elegant, moving, beautiful—it’s art, and I can’t wait to see it again.