This Reuters article describes how the British publishing house, Jonathan Cape, was forced to release Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday, early because the Evening Standard broke a publicity embargo and ran an interview two weeks to soon. Naturally, other newspapers, not wanting to be scooped by the Standard, also ran stories about McEwan’s book too early. Suddenly, Saturday was getting tons of press, but the books weren’t in stores, and now Bertelsmann’s Random House, which owns Jonathan Cape, wants the Standard to pay for the lost revenue that resulted from the runaway publicity chain reaction. The subtext to all of this, especially if you consider the story in light of the creation of the new made-for-tv Quill Awards, is that publishing companies, most of which are now owned by media conglomerates, are trying to market and sell books in the same way they might market and sell movies or music. In Hollywood, the financial success of many a film is determined by the opening weekend, or even the opening night, and all the marketing resources go towards getting people into the movie theatre on the opening weekend. The primary – though unstated – purpose of awards shows is to convince people to see the movies or buy the music that is being honored, not simply to honor it. My experience as a bookseller tells me that books don’t work this way. The book is the ultimate “word of mouth” product. The desire to read a good book is many times more likely to be initiated by a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader (or bookseller) than by a piece of clever marketing or even a prominent review. It’s my opinion that publishers shouldn’t be pushing for the huge first week numbers – forcing a book to boom or bust – but they should give books a chance to survive and thrive on their own merits… the way McEwan’s last book, Atonement, did.
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To be a woman in a movie is usually to be someone’s girlfriend, wife, or mother. If you’re single, you’re probably in a romantic comedy en route to marriage, or you’re in an ensemble comedy, lamenting the fact of your singleness. If you have a job, you’re likely a journalist or an assistant, but if you happen to be the boss, it’s at the expense of your personal life, which you secretly prize more than anything else. You’re probably straight, and you’re probably white. You’re probably quite thin with great skin and a large wardrobe. Your living space is probably very clean and well decorated. You’re probably smiling. Or laughing. If you’re crying, you look really beautiful while the tears stream down your face, and men fall in love with you. Three movies I saw this year broke free of this mold: Certain Women, 20th Century Women, and Hidden Figures. Their titles could almost be interchangeable. They featured women whose characters, motivations, and desires were not defined by their personal relationships to men, but I can’t say I was aware of that while I was watching. It wasn’t until I stepped away from the films that I realized how radical their characterization was. While I was watching them, I simply reveled in seeing women that I genuinely admired and recognized from life. Certain Women almost had a different title. Director Kelly Reichardt originally planned to call it Livingston, after the Montana town where it was filmed. While I can see the merits of that title, especially for a film that looks closely at daily life, the small choices and compromises that the characters make are so specific to the female experience that the title Certain Women strikes me as just about perfect. The film, adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy, is structured like a miniature short story collection, and contains three short films about three different women living in present-day Montana. Ancillary characters vaguely link the women, but what really links them is a sense of restlessness. These women have jobs, autonomy, and a certain amount of authority, but they don’t move through the world as freely as they would like. They are reserved because they have to be, in order to get what they want. But that same reserve also leaves them lonely. The screening I attended to was followed by a surprise Q&A with one of the film’s stars, Michelle Williams. In her conversation, she mentioned that Reichardt had insisted on a cinematography that did not include any “beauty shots” of the spectacular Montana landscape -- no gorgeous “big sky country” sunsets, no framing of perfect views. Instead, she wanted the dramatic landscape to exist as it did for her characters; something they lived with and enjoyed, but which did not symbolize freedom, adventure, or conquest. This gave the film a quiet, lingering beauty and a kind of defiance in its unwillingness to engage with or evoke Hollywood’s usual myths about the American West. In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening embodies quiet defiance in the character of Dorothea Fielding. A child of the depression, Dorothea marries late and has her first (and only) child, a boy, at age 40. The marriage doesn't last and so she raises her son, Jamie, on her own. This puts her out of step with her generation. She doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, but she tries. She buys an old house in Santa Barbara and restores it. She takes in younger, more radical boarders: an earnest, new-age mechanic (Billy Crudup), and Abbie, a 20-something photographer recovering from cervical cancer (Greta Gerwig). The film takes place in 1979, when Jamie is 15, and smack dab in his awkward teenage years. Dorothea listens to his records, Talking Heads and Black Flag, in an effort to understand him. Feeling at a loss, she enlists two younger women to help Jamie grow up and become a man. (Or is it to help her let him go?) One of the women is her housemate, Abbie, and the other is her son's unrequited crush (Elle Fanning). Both women end up providing Jamie with a sentimental education that Dorothea doesn’t necessarily welcome and/or entirely disparage. Every once in a while, a character in a movie reminds me so completely of my mother that I feel like I’m dreaming it. Dorothea is in her mid-50s, which is how old my mother was, the last time I saw her. She doesn’t really look like my mother, but her wardrobe reminds me of my mother’s, especially in the way she mixes comfortable shoes and pants with conservative blouses and jewelry. Dorothea’s demeanor also reminded me of my mother -- a mixture of idealism and impatience, curiosity and constraint, delight and disappointment. It’s all tempered by a reserved deadpan that the other characters in the film sometimes mistake for humorlessness. Jamie apologizes for her, saying, “she’s a child of the Depression.” It’s his way of acknowledging that she was born too early to reap the benefits of women’s liberation. But the younger characters were born too early, too, and the film seems to understand that for women, freedom is always hard-won. Which brings me to Hidden Figures, a film that tells the true story of the black women who helped to put Neil Armstrong on the moon, based on a book of the same title, by Margot Lee Shetterly. (And recently highlighted by my colleague, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, in her Year in Reading.) If it's unusual to find a movie dominated by female characters, it's downright rare to see film with black women in lead roles, not to mention a mainstream Hollywood film. And Hidden Figures is definitely a crowd-pleasing movie, with a lot of Hollywood moments, including Kevin Costner demolishing segregated bathrooms with a sledgehammer -- a scene that was fabricated to show a white male character being a good guy. But the overwhelming message of this film, to borrow from a sign I saw at the Women’s March, was: Can you believe these women have to put up with this shit? In Hidden Figures, you meet three undeniably gifted people who also happen to be black women. One, Katherine Johnson, is a genius. The other two women, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, are mathematicians who do computations for NASA. They have a lot to offer to the space program, but they are given jobs at NASA only because the powers that be are so desperate to win the race to the moon that they are willing to ignore gender and race when seeking candidates. Even so, the "colored computers" are forced to work in separate offices, use separate bathrooms, lunch in separate cafeterias, and drink from separate coffee carafes. They also receive separate, smaller paychecks. It’s a blatantly sexist and racist situation, and there are a lot of show-stopping scenes to highlight that. Like when Mary (Janelle Monáe) petitions the court to attend night classes at an all-white school so that she can become an engineer. Or when Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) solves a crazy-long equation on a chalkboard to illustrate a new approach to a problem that has stumped her white male colleagues. Or when Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) earns a promotion by showing her white male bosses how to program the new, room-sized computer they’ve recently installed. I enjoyed these moments, but it was the smaller scenes of female solidarity that won me over. There’s the time when Katherine stays late and the other two wait for her to drive her home; the time when Mary is feeling down because she worries she’ll never be allowed to become an engineer and her friends throw an impromptu dance party to cheer her up; and then there’s the opening scene -- which you can see in at least one of the film’s trailers -- in which Dorothy fixes her broken-down car while the other two women deflect a nosy police officer. Finally, I loved the romance that blooms between Katherine and a veteran she meets at her church. Katherine is a widow with two small daughters. She lives with her mother and is not looking for love. But then the perfect man comes into her life and proposes marriage. It’s an utterly conventional subplot, but progressive in this scenario because Katherine is not asked to choose between her work and her personal life. She’s allowed to have both and is not conflicted by this dual identity. Hidden Figures has exceeded expectations at the box office. It outsold Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on its opening weekend, a film that also features a female lead. It’s a sign of progress that two recent, popular films star women, but it’s worth noting that even when women are the lead characters in film, they speak only slightly more than the male characters and receive less screen time. When women are not the lead, or when they co-lead with a male character, they are seen and heard even less. These findings are according to studies undertaken by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Davis founded the institute to fight unconscious gender bias, specifically in films targeted to children and families. She works with film executives to create stories that are more balanced between male and female characters. Her prescription is simple: put women on screen more often and allow them to speak. That’s it. The female characters don’t have to be role models or hold positions of power. Roles don’t even need to be created specifically for women -- more often than not, women can be cast in parts written for men. The point is for girls and women to be seen and heard on screen as often as boys and men are. It’s not a lot to ask and yet every time I see a movie in which female characters are allowed even half of the narrative, it feels like a small miracle.
The siege may soon be over. That's right, the WGA strike may be over by Christmas. If this is indeed true, it's unclear who "wins" in this scenario, other than TV viewers, who won't have to sit through any more reruns, and all the non-writer people who make a living in TV. Rob Long thinks the strike (and the effects of emerging media, in general) might make Hollywood find a more efficient way of producing content. That remains to be seen.In the meantime, the strike has produced some interesting sideshows, like the writers of "The Daily Show" taping a YouTube "webisode" outside Viacom headquarters, and the cast of "Saturday Night Live" performing an unaired episode of the show, complete with indie it-boy host Michael Cera and musical guest Yo La Tengo, to benefit the show's crew. The SNL performance used skits that couldn't make it onto the air, either because they were too raunchy or because they simply weren't that funny (Considering the quality of recent season of SNL, one has to wonder just how bad these skits really were). What does this mean for those of us living in Los Angeles? Well, on the plus side, the economy won't collapse. And there are likely to be more seats at the local coffee shop, as well. On the other hand, this might mean more episodes of "Cavemen."Peace, but at what cost?
What has surprised – and in a way instructed – me most is how effectively FNL employs what is essentially formulaic drama; that is, how aware we are of being immersed in a constructed moral universe, and yet how little the drama’s predictability compromises either one’s engagement or the show’s objective artfulness and excellence.
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Todd Walters is a graduate student at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He also co-authors the politics and culture blog Neither Property Nor StyleTonight, the roles of Socrates and Galileo will be played by Horton and the Mayor of Whoville, respectively.This past Friday night, I was dragged to see the new animated film Horton Hears a Who!, based on the well-known Dr. Seuss book published more than fifty years ago. Given my general antipathy to cartoons, I went in with low expectations. But despite my attitude and the lukewarm reviews that Horton has received, I realized that hiding just below the surface of this very simple tale about a well-meaning jungle elephant is a wonderful allegory about scientific and philosophical revolution, the dangers of autocracy, and the political implications of religious faith. Bear with me as I explain.While the screenplay augments the details of the original text, the overall plot remains fairly straightforward. Horton is a whimsical elephant residing in the Jungle of Nool, who one day notices a tiny, circular "speck" of dust floating around in the air. Being an elephant and all, Horton's extra-large ears provide him with a super sense of hearing. Thus, he is the only one in the jungle who hears the high-pitched yelps emanating from the speck, which he eventually realizes are the voices of the tiny people of the tiny town of Whoville located therein. Horton manages to make contact, by way of a tuba-horn-amplified drain pipe, with the bewildered Mayor of the town, who has already surmised that Whoville is not alone in the universe. The action heightens as Horton and the Mayor disclose their findings to everyone around them, and the crux of the story turns on the persecution of both noble protagonists by their respective societies for espousing these unacceptable beliefs.The original book does not depict Whoville or its internal political and social dynamics in any detail, so this must have been the invention of the screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, and it provides an apropos parallel to the events unfolding in the Jungle. There, children of various exotic species are already following in Horton's footsteps by looking for their own inhabited, floating specks of dust. But their fun is spoiled by an authoritarian Kangaroo who will have none of this nonsense. She haughtily dismisses the existence of anything that cannot be touched, seen, or heard, a notion that would certainly register with any moviegoers (whether old or young) who have ever pondered the existence of a higher power or reflected on the debate between materialism and spiritualism. The Kangaroo even goes so far as to hire a hit-man (well, a hit-eagle, actually) to confront Horton and destroy his precious speck along with whatever fanciful worlds live inside it. When the eagle fails in his mission, the Kangaroo then leads an angry mob to imprison Horton to put an end to all the tomfoolery.It seems, then, that we have in Horton a hint of Socrates, a pariah who has broken free from the conventional thinking of his contemporaries by way of an exceptional skill to grasp a deeper reality that is, in fact, real, but that cannot be empirically demonstrated to the average citizen. He has become one of the fortunate few to break free of his chains and exit Plato's cave, where the true nature of physical forms (in our case the speck of dust) can be understood for what they are, not merely for what they appear to be. Horton also stands accused, like Socrates before him, of corrupting society's youth with his alternative vision of the natural world.Similarly, the Mayor, as the only inhabitant of Whoville who senses any danger and, for most of the story, the only one who has actually spoken to Horton, encounters the same kind of resistance. When Horton warns of the potential doom that awaits Whoville, the Mayor takes the bold and courageous step of warning the other Whovillians about the threat. Like Horton, he is asking his society to accept what he knows on faith alone. But when the Mayor goes before the town's oligarchic council of elders, we see that he has no real power, but is a merely a puppet of this exalted body. In fact, when the Mayor suggests canceling an upcoming celebration that will honor the town's uninterrupted history of utopian hedonism, the elders bring down a giant glass barrier - what I can only describe as a "cone of silence" to any fans of the old "Get Smart" television show - in order to prevent the audience, i.e. the attending townspeople, from being exposed to so ludicrous an opinion. So it appears that the Mayor is the story's Galileo in having proven, through scientific instrument, the relation of his own world to the larger universe above and beyond. In other words, he has realized that the sun does not revolve around Whoville (with due acknowledgment to Copernicus).We see, then, in Whoville the dangers of autocratic rule, the secrecies it requires, its outright hostility to any sentiment that might disrupt the narrow party-line or the folkloric pillars on which it has been built. In short, the Council is putting Whoville at risk by not heeding the Mayor's warning. Their commitment to maintaining the town's utopian state of existence and their rejection of pluralism, though not conveyed by Dr. Seuss himself, nevertheless speak to the lessons that he may have been getting at in the post-World War II context in which he wrote - namely, the inevitable evils that lurk around the corner of any attempt to build a perfect society out of, in Kant's words, the "crooked timber of humanity."The events in Whoville also speak to the more general matter of authority and rebellion. A.O. Scott touched on this point in an insightful essay on Seuss called "Sense and Nonsense" in the New York Times Magazine back in 2000. "Seuss's moralism," he said, "was a vision not just of how children should behave, but also how the grown-up world should be. World War II, part of which Seuss spent making propaganda films for the Army...honed his temperamental distrust of authority to a fine political edge."The flip side of the autocratic regime, of course, is the dehumanization of the individual, and nothing defines Horton Hears a Who! if not its famous admonishment, "A person's a person, no matter how small." Scott commented on this dynamic, too, when he noted that, in Seuss's body of work, "An overt concern with social justice resounds through the anti-Fascist allegory of Yertle the Turtle, the satire of racism in The Sneetches and the humanism of Horton Hears a Who!" It is exactly that - humanism - that is the central lesson of the Horton story, and this lesson, we shouldn't have to be reminded, is worth teaching over and over and over again to both children and adults alike. The message was relevant when the book first came out in 1954 in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb (according to some accounts, the real target the author had in mind), and it remains relevant today for myriad reasons that should be obvious to all.As my brain generated this philosophical mumbo-jumbo while sitting in the movie theater, I had to constantly remind myself that, at the end of the day, for most viewers, Horton Hears a Who! will be nothing more than a colorful story about two imaginary worlds with a simple take-home lesson: Respect the rights of others regardless of their physical stature or societal position. So, despite the entertaining tale that it tells and the rich philosophical foundations on which it was built, I doubt that the film will garner a spot in the pantheon of great Western thinkers for either Dr. Seuss or the screenwriters of Horton. The latter, by the way, have also brought us the recently released movie College Road Trip, which I can only imagine must be an alternative take on Homer's Odyssey.
It's not often we think of recipes as a form of literature, but they are as formally exacting as the Spenserian stanza. And, as anyone who's ever ruined $40 worth of lamb knows, the stakes are higher. So Julia Child turns out not only to have been a kind of unfussy feminist; she was also a terrific writer.
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