When I lived in Washington, DC, I remember there being a slew of excitement in the local newspapers and in local bookstores when a book like Primary Colors came out. Local interest is a big seller in books, especially when there’s scandal involved. Here in Los Angeles this means that books about Hollywood get top billing, and there are lots of them on the local bestseller lists at any given time. They come in a few different flavors. There’s the now-we-can-finally-make-all-those-juicy-stories-public, recent-history-of-Hollywood books. These books come out a generation or so after the action depicted in the book takes place. The main players have either died or they no longer wield any power so their stories are fair game for the reading public. Connie Bruck’s biography of Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, When Hollywood Had a King and A. Scott Berg’s biography of Katherine Hepburn, Kate Remembered are two recent examples. Then there’s the down-in-the-trenches, you-have-to-be-there-to-really-get-it, borderline-inside-joke, behind-the-scenes-entertainment-industry-workplace-dramas. Take David Rensin’s book The Mailroom, which, as far as I can tell, you would only want to read for one of two reasons. You once worked in Hollywood mailroom and you want to reminisce about those high-energy, low-pay days back before you became a high-powered agent, or you desperately want to become a high-powered agent and you want to read up about what it’s like in the mailroom, your first step on the road to glitz and glamour. Finally there is the true story thinly disguised as fiction like producer Robert Cort’s recent novel, Action!. I got to thinking about all of this Hollywood literature because of a recent review by Caryn James in the New York Times that assesses the latest crop of Hollywood lit. (LINK). Wading through big-selling tell-alls like Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures and Joe Eszterhas’ Hollywood Animal and all the rest, she finds a novel that transcends the Hollywood genre in The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters and also mentions that when it comes to books about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West is “unsurpassed.”
James Cameron’s new movie Avatar is well on its way to becoming a global cultural phenomenon. The director’s latest mash-up of romance, action, and big-budget special effects has, like his previous film Titanic, drawn in record setting audiences across the globe. From New York to Shanghai, people have waited for hours to immerse themselves in Avatar’s 3-D fantasy world, an alien planet called Pandora.
In the West, Avatar has been praised more for its feats of technical ingenuity than its unsophisticated stance on such social ills as corporate greed, environmental degradation, and colonialism. But in China, Cameron’s depiction of the struggle between ruthless developers and the alien Na’vi has opened an unexpected Pandora’s Box. The film has provoked both praise and criticism from Chinese viewers, who see parallels between the movie’s plot and one of the nation’s most prominent social issues: the forced removal of Chinese citizens from their homes for government development projects.
With few exceptions, land in China is owned by the state. Although private citizens can lease land for varying periods, the government retains strong privileges of eminent domain, and it often exercises its power to claim prime pieces of real estate for development. The reasons for these seizures range from the benign to the corrupt. While some lands are claimed for essential public works projects, others become shopping malls and vacation resorts, cash cows to line the pockets of China’s elite.
Public opposition to these seizures has always existed. But as Chinese real estate values skyrocket and land confiscations cost residents more than ever, the number and visibility of protests have shot up. Passive resistance has become a popular strategy for those threatened by eminent domain, and the Chinese media is increasingly filled with stories of brave homeowners facing down bulldozers. In a recent case that galvanized public opinion, a woman set herself on fire rather than allow developers to force her from her home.
In this environment, Avatar has set off a firestorm of controversy. Across the Chinese blogosphere, debate has focused on the parallels between the movie’s story and recent incidents in China, prompting some to wonder if Cameron’s film might be intended as an attack on the Chinese government. Others have rallied behind the film, arguing that it has raised public awareness of the unfairness of China’s eminent domain laws. Writing in the government-run newspaper China Daily, Raymond Zhou noted, “[Avatar has] inadvertently hit… a nerve in a country where the bulldozer is a sign of both progress and threat.”
While in the U.S. controversy often translates into increased ticket sales, in China, it is equally likely to get a movie banned. Chinese officials have become increasingly worried about domestic instability arising from public dissatisfaction with government policies, and they have moved to quash potential sources of disquiet, censoring social networking sites, gagging novelists, and applying pressure to foreign events that feature Chinese dissidents. Now, as the debate surrounding Avatar heats up, prominent media critics are speculating that the film might disappear from Chinese theaters. If that were to happen, the decision would no doubt come as a shock to Cameron, who is more often criticized for his films’ enormous budgets than their political content.
Hollywood is no place for nonsense. That’s presumably why Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Disney’s 2010 movie Alice in Wonderland, features organizing principles absent from Lewis Carroll’s books: Alice’s search for a “chronometer” — a time travel device that’s also a pacemaker for Father Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, with mutton chops, German accent, and mustache) — paired with a search for the missing family of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, eyes painted yellow like a gecko).
For the story to make sense, director James Bobin needed a proper quest with proper villains attached; most of all, he needed a linear story that unfolds in time. But time is almost totally meaningless in Carroll’s Wonderland. On the contrary, a timeless, dreamy indolence prevails. In Carroll’s books, there isn’t any story in the conservative Hollywood sense, and there’s certainly no systematic antagonist to satisfy a Hollywood film editor.
The only villain in Carroll’s Wonderland is overzealous conscience, and the means available to combat it are wholly stylistic, a unique brand of literary anarchy that owes much to the repressive Victorian era: Carroll was born in the teeth of the Evangelical religious revival that defined it. As Josef Altholz writes, “The most important thing to remember about religion in Victorian England is that there was an awful lot of it.” Threatened by the advance of science and secularism in the 18th century, clergymen of the 19th fought to defend the old moral order by clamping down firmly on new ideas. Lewis Carroll’s father was a reverend and archdeacon in this reactionary Evangelical movement, which also conscripted Carroll himself. Biographer Derek Hudson writes that “it is beyond dispute that Lewis Carroll modeled his outward character largely on his authoritarian father.” Carroll was ordained a clergyman like his father and his colleagues in mathematics at Oxford. But this proper “outward character” had a rebellious counterpart in an inner character that authored puckish, nonsensical books.
Verbal humor was from childhood Carroll’s favored means of breaking rules. When he was 13, he wrote a satirical poem called “Rules and Regulations” and another called “My Fairy.” His “fairy” was an inner voice of conscience whose basic message was You mustn’t…do anything. This was the beginning of Carroll’s career undermining authority figures by impersonating their voices, a strategy that would culminate in hilarious creations like the King and Queen of Hearts, the Duchess, and the Mock Turtle. Their lunacy derives not so much from disregard for rules as from rigid observation of rules that don’t make any sense. The system of Wonderland runs on madness and everybody living there abides by it. Thus the Cheshire Cat judiciously assures Alice that she needn’t bother avoiding mad people in Wonderland. “Oh, you can’t help that,” he says, “we’re all mad here.”
Consider how the Duchess, depicted by 19th-century illustrator John Tenniel as a man in a squared Elizabethan headdress, nurses her baby in a kitchen full of pepper. “I speak severely to my boy, I beat him when he sneezes,” she sings. And then this:
‘Here! You may nurse it a bit, if you like!’ the Duchess said to Alice, flinging the baby at her as she spoke. ‘I must go and get ready to play croquet with the Queen,’ and she hurried out of the room. The cook threw a frying-pan after her as she went, but it just missed her.
It’s telling that the insane Duchess’s favorite word, as Carroll later observes, is “moral.” It is her devotion to a crooked dogma that makes her seem unhinged: an infant is not allowed to sneeze; a game of croquet outweighs the baby’s needs. Invitations to the Queen’s officious game of croquet, meanwhile, arrive in large wax-sealed letters, whence footmen read them aloud. To make all this ceremony even more preposterous, the game is ultimately played with flamingoes and hedgehogs instead of mallets and balls. The courtiers’ fastidious efforts at croquet quickly bring about nothing but chaos as the animate balls, mallets, and wickets wander off. The game is mad, not the players.
Sigmund Freud said that good jokes free us from the prohibitions of reserved, polite society, and Carroll sets us all free: authority figures so corrupt and ridiculous can’t enforce their prohibitions. The Queen of Hearts, Carroll says, has “only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small” — and that is to cry, “Off with his head!” She and the King, who eventually serves as the most maddening trial judge in all literature, are a perfect picture of the excess and irrationality of a neurotic conscience. Alice accordingly rejects their corrupt judgments; when the Queen hysterically demands Alice’s head, Alice silences her with this assessment of her moral code: “Nonsense!”
The Cheshire Cat is one of the few characters who seems in on the joke of Wonderland. So is the Gryphon, who doesn’t fear “that savage Queen.” In fact, he says, she’s “fun.” “It’s all her fancy, that,” says the Gryphon in his candid patois. “They never executes nobody, you know.” The Gryphon pronounces a similar verdict on his companion, the sorrowful Mock Turtle, whose name derives from a Victorian dish called “mock turtle soup.” “It’s all his fancy, that,” says the Gryphon. “He hasn’t got no sorrow, you know.” In Wonderland, sorrow is just another preposterous rule. Carroll illustrates this point when Alice asks the source of the Mock Turtle’s woe and receives this sniffling and incomplete explanation: “Once, I was a real Turtle.” His sorrow derives, it seems, from an affectation, a “mock sorrow” to which he feels unaccountably obliged. But the reader recognizes instantly the absurdity of this obligation. We have as little to fear from mock sorrow as we do from the Queen’s mock executions.
Throughout the books, it’s Alice who is the principal skeptic of Wonderland’s regulations and the spurious sorrow, guilt, and fear they entrain. By appointing a child the cynosure of wisdom in his books, Carroll broke with the standard approach to children’s literature in Victorian times. Victorian children’s literature treated children as eminently corruptible and sought to provide them with stern moral instruction. Carroll used Alice like a mini-Friedrich Nietzsche to do the opposite — to critique the bad morals of adults — and as a sort of straight man in a comic routine. She points out absurdity so that the reader can not only appreciate its latent social commentary, but enjoy it, revel in it, laugh at it. Nonsense is a relief to the child from the bullying strictures of reality, but it’s perhaps an even bigger relief to adults, who suffer even more of reality’s insults and constraints, and who have lost the childhood method of defying reality through nonsense.
Lewis Carroll, however, seemed to have recovered the pleasurable nonsense available to children by retaining in himself the ability to be a child. As is well-known, Carroll composed the earliest version of the Alice stories to entertain a real little girl, 10-year-old Alice Liddell, daughter of a lexicographer of ancient Greek at Oxford. His unorthodox friendships with Alice and other little girls have led some scholars to call him a pedophile; the intensity of Carroll’s interest in the Liddell girls may indeed have precipitated the break with the Liddell family that eventually ensued. Regardless of the ultimate propriety of these relationships, Carroll’s urge and ability to see the world through the eyes of a child is inseparable from his artistic vision. Among the many rules that Wonderland warps to the breaking point is that which divides big and small, adult and child. When Alice literally grows and shrinks in Wonderland, she seems to illustrate Carroll’s wish, and his corresponding ability, to toggle between child and adult by an act of mental flexion or extension. Age, like time, does not exist in Wonderland.
Carroll’s personal interest in the world of childhood, his professional interest in symbolic logic, and his rebellion against over-finicky rules all came together in nonsense verse like “Jabberwocky,” which famously begins, “Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Seth Lerer writes, “[T]he idea of nonsense as a force of the imagination, of nonsense as a challenge to the logic of adulthood and the laws of civil life — this was a new idea in Victorian England. The masters of that nonsense were, of course, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.” Carroll’s nonsense has indeed been influential and long-lived; it gave English the portmanteau word “chortle” and inspired The Beatles’s famous song “I Am the Walrus.” John Lennon told the BBC that his 1967 nonsense song refers to “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. A century after Carroll made war on the Victorians, Lennon channeled his nonsensical idol to continue the very same culture war, to relieve us of our mock sorrows.
It is this joyous relief and freedom that resounds throughout Wonderland. Adults continue to return to Lewis Carroll in order to retrieve what Freud called “the lost laughter of childhood.” Unlike J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, or A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh, Lewis Carroll grants no asylum to wistful acknowledgements that childhood must come to an end. The lost laughter of childhood needn’t be lost forever, he seems to say. Whether Hollywood, with all its starched conventions and obligations to the Almighty Dollar, can ever retrieve the lost laughter as well as Carroll did is an open question. The Alice movie currently in theaters now doesn’t really aim to. It peddles instead a familiar spectacle, manipulating the audience’s attention, which suited my kids just fine. This grown-up, though, finds more sense in Carroll’s nonsense. Maybe that’s why Carroll’s books are still in print. Nothing funnier has ever been written.
I saw Million Dollar Baby last night and enjoyed it. As with most boxing movies, there are some cartoonish moments, but the acting is great. The film relies upon a good deal of narration supplied by Morgan Freeman, and much of that narration comes directly out of the book from which the script was adapted. Rope Burns – which has been rereleased as Million Dollar Baby to tie in with the film – is a collection of boxing stories written by F.X. Toole, the nom de guerre of Jerry Boyd, who, before the book came out in 2000, “had been a bullfighter, a bartender, a cement truck driver and, for the past 20 years of his life, a boxing trainer and cut man,” according to this profile/movie review in the Sydney Morning Herald. Jerry Boyd died in 2002, but before he did he sat down for this very entertaining interview with Terri Gross.I’ve decided I’m going to follow the story of the impending big screen version of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections because 1) I think The Corrections is one of the more important books of the last ten years, and 2) like Scott at Conversational Reading said a few days ago, I’m skeptical that “Mr. I-don’t-want-The-Corrections-lowered-by-Oprah is going to be cool with a full Hollywood version of his opus” So, here’s the latest casting speculation from the movie rumor site Dark Horizons: “The latest word is that it will be starring Judi Dench (playing Enid, the family matriarch), Brad Pitt (playing the central character Chip), and Tim Robbins and Naomi Watts playing the other two grown children of the family.” Brad Pitt as Chip? (shudder)
The 10th Tribeca Film Festival, which ended May 1, was a richly musical affair. It featured movies about Kings of Leon, A Tribe Called Quest, Ozzy Osbourne, Miriam Makeba, the irrepressible Haitian band Septentrional, the Academy Award-winning songwriters Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, and a new Cameron Crowe documentary about Elton John and Leon Russell. Nearly lost in this pleasing din were two quiet movies, a feature and a documentary, that grew, respectively, out of a work of literature and the misguided urge to lionize writers.
Will Ferrell Channels Raymond Carver
Everything Must Go, the writing and directing debut of Dan Rush, is adapted from a Raymond Carver short story called “Why Don’t You Dance?” Rush makes two crucial creative decisions, one necessary, one risky. First, he fleshes out Carver’s bare-bones story, which was little more than a sketch after it was edited – some would say butchered – by Gordon Lish’s heavy blue pencil. Then Rush makes a daring and, as it turns out, inspired casting choice: He puts ham-fisted funnyman Will Ferrell (Old School, Anchorman, Talladega Nights, etc.) in the dark lead role of Nick Halsey, a super-salesman who just got sacked from his job because of his drinking. As the movie opens, Nick is sitting in his parked car, gulping down a flask of whiskey while chanting salesman mantras and fuming over the indignity of his firing. His troubles haven’t begun. After stopping for a couple of 12-packs of beer, he returns to his home in a nameless Arizona suburb to find his possessions scattered across his front yard, the locks changed, his bank account frozen, his wife gone. A cop buddy from A.A. stops by with a three-day permit for a yard sale. That’s how long Nick has to get his act together, or fall into the blackest of holes. The narrative time bomb has begun ticking.
Rush wisely ignores the ticking and sets a leisurely pace, lets the camera linger, lets his actors build emotional momentum slowly, quietly. This is important to a Carver story, as Marilynne Robinson noted back in 1988: “His impulse to simplify is like an attempt to create a hush, not to hear less, but to hear better.”
And that’s what this movie comes down to – Nick’s process of learning how to hear, and see, better. Ferrell is outstanding as the wounded soul who can’t hear or see anything at the outset – until he meets Rush’s most inspired addition to Carver’s original cast, Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a chubby kid with demons of his own who becomes Nick’s unlikely ally, his teacher in the art of saving himself. Another addition is a pregnant neighbor named Samantha (Rebecca Hall), who is moving in across the street and will become the valve that allows Nick to empty the poison from his soul.
It works beautifully because Ferrell conveys an almost impossible stew of emotions – rage, self-pity, insecurity and a dry sense of humor that never comes close to turning hammy. What a pleasant pair of surprises: there’s a new director worth watching, and Will Ferrell can actually act.
The Creepy World of Mrs. Neal Cassady
The documentary Love Always, Carolyn has the (unintended?) virtue of showing us just how creepy literary hagiography can get. Directed by first-timers Maria Ramstrom and Malin Korkeasalo, it opens with its subject, Carolyn Cassady, telling the filmmakers, “I’m not known as a writer. The only reason anyone is interested in me is because I was married to Neal Cassady and was a lover of Jack Kerouac. No one has ever cared about anything else. Even you – so far.” It gets darker. “I wish I could stop talking about it,” Carolyn continues. “I have to keep saying the same things over and over. So it’s very tiresome.” And darker. “In a secret way I kind of dig the attention. So it’s, you know, a conflict.”
We learn other things about conflicted Carolyn Cassady, who is now an old lady with a crinkly, sour face. We learn that she wrote a book called Off the Road: My Years With Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg – “to set the record straight and not be bothered,” she claims. We learn that she’s still pissed off that she didn’t get a dime of royalties for the iconic photograph she took of Jack and Neal that graces the cover of Neal’s unfinished autobiography, The First Third. We learn that Neal frequently left her at home to raise their three children while he ricocheted around the country, to Tangier and Mexico City and back, fucking anything that walked upright, male or female, eventually abandoning his booze-marinated buddy Kerouac in favor of Ken Kesey and his acidophilic Merry Pranksters, tripping with them until he collapsed on some railroad tracks in Mexico and died at the age of 41. As Carolyn dryly notes, “He didn’t quite get the marriage thing together.”
Their son John, who is obviously damaged goods, says, “I was, like, Neal’s fan rather than his kid.” Yet John Cassady soldiers on, giving talks at the Beat Museum in San Francisco, introducing his mother at readings, exploring potential new revenue streams such as a beverage called “Cassady Wine” that comes in a jug with a handle to make it look like authentic hobo rotgut.
Sitting through this creepy movie was the longest 70 minutes I’ve spent outside a jail cell, and it reminded me of the recent William S. Burroughs documentary, A Man Within, which I wrote about here last year. They’re both part of the tsunami of beat documentaries, biographies, critical studies, feature films, magazine articles, memoirs, websites and blogs that just keeps rolling along. I said it last year, but after watching Love Always, Carolyn I’ll say it again: Will you Beat hagiographers please be quiet, please?