Reviews, Screening Room

John Waters’s America

1. “A very American film.” That’s what John Waters called Pink Flamingos, his first movie to gain a significant distribution. “It deals with very American subjects – competitiveness and war – and concerns two groups of outcasts vying for the title ‘The Filthiest People Alive.’”  A couple has sex while rubbing a live chicken between them, decapitating it.  A contortionist flexes his sphincter to the beat of a pop song.  In the movie’s money shot, Divine, the colossus of transvestites, eats dogshit. Every homosexual invents homosexuality for himself. Every homosexual American invents his own America. And the America of Pink Flamingos is a trailer-park carnival where violence overwhelms sex and the monstrous becomes heroic. Waters’s camera didn’t cut away from his spectacles and Pink Flamingos has as much in common with a work of pornography as it does with a work of cinéma vérité. After I first saw the film in 1997, I walked out convinced that the entire cast had died in the 25 years since the film premiered, pursuing whatever they were pursuing on screen. I was wrong. They hadn’t all died at that point and Waters’s performers were very much performers. Divine, the John Wayne to Waters’s John Ford, was an actor who forced himself to smile for the dogshit-eating scene and later called the local hospital, freaking out that he may have done himself serious harm. Everything was scripted. Nothing was improvised. Still, Waters’s motive in not cutting away from his spectacles has something in common with the documentarian’s desire to capture the truth with his camera.  And some viewers’ assumptions suggest a subliminal knowledge of American history.  Since the seventeenth century, and probably before then, this continent has been home to transvestites who eat dogshit. In the back of his mind, Mark Twain probably imagined a dogshit-eating transvestite, but couldn’t find a place for him in Huckleberry Finn. And someone somewhere during the silent era probably filmed a dogshit-eating transvestite and then showed it to his buddies in a church basement. John Waters just concentrated his attention on that dogshit-eating transvestite, stood back and said, “America!”    In the years since, Waters’s carnival became tamer and tamer. His circle of misfits expanded beyond Baltimore’s outcasts of Divine, David Lochary, Edith Massey, and Mink Stole, to include the oddballs of American pop culture and respectable actors taking a vacation in the world of camp. There’s room in his world for Sonny Bono, Willem Dafoe, Patty Hearst, Johnny Knoxville, Ricki Lake, Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston. Like Fellini, he selects and sculpts perfect ugly faces. There’s a difference, of course. Fellini Satyricon can give you an erection. Female Trouble and Desperate Living can’t. In Waters’s carnival, Johnny Depp, Troy Donahue, and Traci Lords are virgins who can only imagine fucking as comedy. His new book Carsick presents Waters at his absolute tamest.  The book chronicles his adventures hitchhiking from Baltimore to Los Angeles playing the role of a “hobo homosexual.” It’s divided into three parts. The first two are novellas, “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen,” in which he imagines his journey playing out like one of his movies. The third part is the actual memoir, “The Real Thing,” in which Waters meets just the nicest people, some of whom recognize him with glee, some of whom have at least heard of him, and some of whom treat him as a friendly anonymous stranger. He eats at chain restaurants, including an Outback Steakhouse, which he had never heard of, and stays at a La Quinta Inn. His novellas aren’t as funny as any of his movies.  His sense of the berserk is stronger when he’s working with the moving image than when he’s working with the written word. His memoir is earnest, lacking the irony and introspection of his 1980s essay collections Shock Value and Crackpot.  People who eat at Applebee’s and humble farmers exist too, his book says. No one in Carsick is a stereotype, many are lovable eccentrics, but he doesn’t turn anyone into a grotesque. He’s a kind man who meets kind people. 2. Waters is not the first wandering homosexual in American literature. John Rechy’s 1963 novel City of Night depicts the life of a half-Irish, half-Mexican outlaw who lives an American Satyricon in New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Edmund White’s 1980 book States of Desire is a celebration of pre-AIDS gay America, and White’s niche celebrity as the author of The Joy of Gay Sex leads him to Hollywood’s kept boys, adorable campus activists, Cuban immigrants, celibates, pedophiles, Boston intellectuals, and an Indian who practices homosexuality as a tribal tradition. John Waters does not travel America as an adventurous hustler or as a celebrity unknown outside gay circles, but as “John Waters”, the “Prince of Puke”.  Early in the memoir he meets a 20-year-old who’s never heard of him, who happens to be the youngest City Council member in the state of Maryland, an affable Republican who picks up Waters out of grace and curiosity. While in the car the young man calls his mother and tells her what he’s doing. Waters enters panic mode, and imagines all the horrors she would discover if she did a Google search. “That I was just awarded the Outfest Gay Award and would be performing my one-man show, This Filthy World: Gayer and Filthier, in two months? Or my friendship with ex-Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten? Or the dogshit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos?” The punchline: No one is scared of his resume. The highlights include a couple of would-be grifters setting out to take advantage of North Dakota’s oil boom and a Republican farmer who says that he’s glad Obama came out for gay marriage, thus temporarily quelling Waters’s persistent gay paranoia. He meets disabled vets and hippies. The 20-year-old boy from earlier in the book returns and they enjoy a fun night in Reno. They share a misunderstood bromance. He likes everyone he meets and almost everything he sees, and yet he is always “John Waters”, the pervert who wants to discover new perversities. The guy who gave the world Tracy Turnblad is for some reason shocked by the fat teenagers he sees in Denver. “Four hundred pounds fat. All with giant plates of alarmingly unhealthy food piled in from of them in outdoor cafes.” He just adores the coal-mining town of Wellington, Utah with tiny houses painted in “gay pastel colors.” He eats tilapia at a Ruby Tuesday and discovers something fascinating. Ruby Tuesday serves good tilapia. 3. In the first novella of Carsick, John Waters imagines a meeting with Edith Massey, who was immortalized as The Egg Lady from Pink Flamingos.  Massey enjoyed a camp celebrity in the late ’70s and early ’80s, appeared in a music video during the early years of MTV and died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 66. In Waters’s fantasy, Massey never died. At 94, he finds her playing a new role, running a store in the middle of nowhere which sells “toiletries out of their boxes and thrown into a 25¢ bin, makeup jars half-filled, shampoo tubes squeezed almost empty, loose Band-Aids without the paper wrappers, outdated sunblock” and an assortment of unused prescription pills. Waters is writing one final role for one of his finest muses. It’s a touching scene, and one that upsets my immature assumption that everyone in Pink Flamingos met an untimely end doing the things they were doing on screen. It’s true that Divine’s morbid obesity probably led to the heart attack that felled him shortly after the filming of Hairspray and that David Lochary died of a drug overdose in 1977. But Waters’s camera didn’t capture Massey doing anything dangerous, just something disgusting and interesting and that’s exactly how he imagines her in advanced old age. There was nothing about Massey’s behavior onscreen that physically threatened her or anyone else. (To be fair, there was nothing about Lochary’s or Divine’s behavior onscreen that was all that dangerous either.) The puritan impulse teaches us that every eccentricity is a weapon that threatens the state and that threatens oneself. Waters’s oeuvre up to this point teaches that every eccentricity is absolutely a weapon that threatens the state but also a means of ennobling and even saving oneself. In recasting Massey in one final role, and in seeing an America he has never allowed himself to see before, John Waters finally settles into an uneasy peace.
Screening Room

If No One Sees It, Is it Still Art? On Finding Vivian Maier

The documentary Finding Vivian Maier recently joined the burgeoning conversation about its titular subject, a reclusive Chicago nanny whose collection of street photography was discovered at a storage auction shortly before her death in the form of thousands of undeveloped rolls of film. John Maloof, the lucky man who bought her negatives, started developing and sharing the photos on Flickr. Bolstered by the positive response, he applied for an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center that immediately became, as I recall, the only thing to talk about at brunch in spring 2011. Since then, the critical attention, reputation, and mystery of Vivian Maier has only grown, with some calling her one of the greatest street photographers of the 20th century. All of her known work is owned either by Maloof or Jeffrey Goldstein, another Chicago collector, both of whom work full-time managing their collections. There have been three books, with a fourth coming this fall, two documentaries, at least one feature film in pre-production, and exhibitions all over the world. Born in 1926, Maier grew up in New York and France before moving to Chicago in 1956, where she lived until her death in 2009. For most of that time she worked as a nanny for a long string of local families (including, for a short time, Phil Donohue’s). When interviewed for the documentary, her former employers and charges elaborate on the twin pillars of her posthumous reputation: she was always taking pictures, and she was a little crazy. Some stick with “eccentric” and a few are more comfortable suggesting mental illness — especially those who knew her later in her life — but the emerging picture of a woman who insisted on padlocking her bedroom door, hoarded newspapers, receipts, and movie stubs, and refused to give people her real name helps to explain why someone who was clearly passionate about photography never tried to share her work. Maloof, who co-directs, narrates, and figures prominently in the documentary, approaches this question for two obvious reasons. The first is that the enigma of Vivian Maier and her work is indeed fascinating. The second is to assure the viewer — or himself, as someone who now makes a nice livelihood off the photos she never shared — that he would have had her blessing. In his review of the film, Anthony Lane took umbrage with one of Maloof’s early takes to camera, in which he asks, stupefied, “Why is a nanny taking all these photos?” The better question, and the question that more accurately reflects Maloof’s obviously high opinion of Maier, is: Why is someone who takes so many photos a nanny? Why didn’t she ever develop her film? There is evidence that she knew she was a good photographer, was proud of her talent, but none that she attempted to share it or have it critiqued. It’s possible that the right answer is the prosaic one — that she was a single woman working as a nanny and no one would have paid attention. Or it may be that what can mildly be described as her control issues made sharing her work seem unappealing. Maloof’s position — and again, it could be a self-justifying one — is that her work is meant to be shared, that great art deserves recognition regardless of Maier’s intentions. It seems possible to me that Maier was genuinely ambivalent about whether her photography was ever appreciated. It left me thinking about the role that recognition plays in an artistic life. Describing some of Maier’s employers that appeared in the film, Lane writes: “none can quite believe that art, of a serious nature, was going on under their noses.” No better proof of our capacity to ignore the art under our noses is needed than 20 Feet from Stardom, another recent documentary, this one about back-up singers. That film introduces about a dozen women who have worked as back-up singers at various times since the 1960s — some quit when it became clear they wouldn’t rise any higher, some are still trying to break through, and some have made decades-long careers of singing back-up. The stories in 20 Feet from Stardom are presented with much less narrative bias than Finding Vivian Maier, but the central question that arises in each of them is: if you spend your life artistically, but unnoticed, is it enough? Each of the singers is tremendously talented. They’re touted as peers to Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, and the likes of Sting, Mick Jagger, and Bette Midler appear in the film testifying to their greatness. They all aspire(d) to solo careers, and have attempted them to varying degrees of success. Their inability to make it big is attributed to timing, luck, and sometimes a lack of the killer instinct, but never to a lack of talent. Their stories are full of both immense gratitude and extreme disappointment. Their unconditional love for music permeates the film, and it’s hard to feel too sorry for someone whose safety net is touring with The Rolling Stones. (One of the film’s subjects, Lisa Fischbeck, has a solo Grammy, another, Darlene Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, after the film came out, got to sing her acceptance speech at the Oscars.) And yet, the source of disappointment is right there in the title — they are literally so close, steps away from their dream. Like Vivian, they worked and worked and it didn’t make them famous, but unlike Vivian, they were hoping it would. I remember reading an interview with Jonathan Safran Foer a few years ago about the value of art that no one sees. Imagine my delight when I searched for it and realized he was talking about another documentary I could watch — Rivers and Tides about the artist Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy makes art in the natural world out of natural materials — in the film he makes a sculpture out of ice and stone that melts when the sun comes up, and an igloo-like structure out of branches in a river bed that floats away when the tide changes. Although he photographs his work, the physical art that he creates generally disappears in a matter of days, sometimes hours, often before anyone besides himself has seen it. But, Goldsworthy says, “it doesn’t feel at all like destruction.” For him, the artwork is not just the finished, viewed object, but the process of interacting with the natural world to create something and then letting that natural world take it away. “I haven’t simply made the piece to be destroyed by the sea. The work has been given to the sea as a gift, and the sea has taken the work and made more of it than I could have ever hoped for.” For very different reasons for each of these artists, the practice of their craft looms larger than recognition of it. Watching these films reminded me of a scene in Sister Act 2, obviously, in which Whoopi Goldberg’s character is encouraging Lauryn Hill’s character to nurture her singing talent. She says, “If you wake up in the morning and you can't think of anything but singing first, then you're supposed to be a singer, girl.”* Or as Fischbeck says in 20 Feet from Stardom, “Some people will do anything to get famous. I just want to sing.” By Sister Act 2 standards, Maier, Goldsworthy, Fischbeck, and Love are all artists, but these films looks at their complicated relationships to artistic recognition. Despite the accomplishment denoted in its title, Finding Vivian Maier has the murkiest picture of its subject. Making a documentary about a secretive person after her death means having to make much of very few details, and there were times I felt uncomfortable with the way the film went digging for secrets that Maier had worked so hard to keep, in the name of contextualizing her art. There’s a small Vivian Maier exhibit at the Chicago Public Library this summer, and a few days after I saw the film I went to see her photos there. My visit felt completist — a little extra credit on top of the documentary — but also repentant, as if after watching her life being dissected I needed to shift things back to her terms, let her decide what to put in the frame and what to exclude, and let her hide behind the camera again.   * I was gratified when I looked this up to realize that she was paraphrasing Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet: “If, when you wake up in the morning, you can think of nothing but writing...then you are a writer.”
Screening Room

Darren’s Ark: On Noah

Last week was a week for festivity and observance.  On the second day, I attended a Seder, with 14 pounds of beef brisket.  On the fifth day, I saw Noah, with Russell Crowe looking like 14 pounds of brisket in a distressed denim bag.   On the sixth day, I wrestled with Robert Alter's Five Books of Moses and ate mini spanakopitas.  On the seventh day, I rested; while others feasted on paschal ham, I watched Black Swan in bed with the curtains drawn.  And it was good, all of it. I have been looking forward to Noah.  I love epics, I love Russell Crowe, and I’m willing to admit that my taste in cinema is basically that of an 11-year-old girl (“Harriet thought the movie was a gas. Zeus was very angry all the time and made a lot of temples fall over every time something displeased him”). I also love weird things, and the very fact that Darren Aronofsky was at the helm of a Biblical epic was sufficiently weird to thrill me.  David Denby, patriarch of film critics, called Aronofsky's Black Swan “a luridly beautiful farrago,” and about Noah, forsaking all synonyms, he spake thus: “an epic farrago.” This was reason enough to spend $30 on movie tickets and Sour S'ghetti -- in addition to the above, I also happen to love a good farrago. Epics can be purveyors of wonder and disappointment in proportion with their outlandish budgets, and there’s a mysterious measure -- like something Biblical no longer in use -- of magic that makes one epic pleasing while it maketh the other to blow.  This is why I love Gladiator and find Troy, which I managed to see four times in the movie theater, a sandy, sterile flop.  I don’t know what I was expecting of Noah, exactly.  It wasn’t the corny gold font of the credits ("Ten Commandments," my viewing mates called it) or its robin’s egg sky like unto that of a 1970s nature film.  I didn't expect the giant rock angels, like Ents created for The Neverending Story, and I expected even less to be finally moved by them, to feel the agony of trapped light in mangled stone bodies.  I didn't expect Russell Crowe to look so old, nor did I expect to cry at the sight of his leonine grey head lavishing kisses on babies cradled by Hermione Granger.  And yet all of these things came to pass. Like someone examining the carcass on an abandoned holiday table, Darren Aronofsky is good at finding new meat in seemingly sparse and picked-over stories.  Because here’s the thing about the Real Story of Noah: it’s short, boring, and incomprehensible.  Everyone is hundreds of years old.  Enoch begets Mehujael, who begets Mathusael, who begets Lamech, who begets Jabal and Jubal.  And yet, at the same time in some parallel but separate family tree, a different Enoch begets Methuselah, who begets Lamech, who begets Noah.  Reading even Robert Alter's wonderful translation, I found these dueling genealogies so maddening that it hardened my heart against Genesis 6:1 to 10:32. It is ever thus for me and the Testaments, old and new.  I come from the Christian tradition, in my pallid, heterodox little way, but for me the drama of the stories, the occasionally overwhelmingly beautiful language and imagery of the sacred texts always comes up against, not only the begats, but what James Wood calls “the stony reticence” of Biblical style, where, for example, “Joseph’s response to his brothers works by starving us of information.”  I love God's breath on the surface of the waters, but then there are five different Enochs and so many quotas of bricks, so many bales of straw, and nary a good chunk of fulsome exposition about the things that one feels really matter.  I'm a "In the beginning was the Word" type; I need Robert Alter, or James Wood, to glean for me the surprising charms of Old Testament mode.  And evidently I needed Darren Aronofsky, because, brought up as I was in the Tomie dePaola, cute-animals-on-boats school of Biblical exegesis, I had never really thought about what Noah was asked to do. And so what if he was never asked, as in the film, to smite down babies issued from previously barren wombs?  Genesis has miracles!  Genesis has people making unreasonable sacrifices at God's behest, or his perceived behest (people still argue about this).  Some viewers have been awfully pedantic about the Biblical inaccuracy of Noah, but what's silly is thinking about Noah all on its own.  You need the context of Genesis proper, which, as Alter points out in his invaluable introduction to his translation, "has set the terms, not scientifically but symbolically, for much of the way we have thought about human nature and culture ever since."  The context of "ever since" doesn't hurt either.  For all that you can find Noah's outfits or its rock monsters or its Anthony Hopkins ludicrous, there's really nothing wrong with its message, from my veteran youth grouper perspective -- the gnarliness of the Old Testament is blended with the warm fuzzies of the New.  God is unreasonable.  Man is unreasonable.  Bad things are going to happen.  Good things, too.  Love one another, as he purports to love you.  Moreover, the particulars are necessarily informed by the problems of our day, which have to do with our ravaged environment, and which promise to achieve Biblical proportions. The best stories are ones we’ve heard before, in some form.  I also get bogged down around the last third of Swan Lake, another story with somewhat shrouded (if more recent) origins that has received the Aronofsky treatment.  I love the music and I love ballet, and yet it’s very long.  But where I am lazy, Darren Aronofsky is imaginative; he respects these laconic but meaningful stories enough to think more about them, and he is not deterred by their inconsistencies or their longueurs.  At the same time, he is sacrilegious enough to make weird new things out of them, things that work for some and fail for others. Why should Swan Lake carry within itself the possibility of Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in flagrante, in a dingy bedroom filled with stuffed animals?  And yet, for me, it worked.  And for me, his take on Noah as a vegan environmentalist, irksome to the most literal- and bloody-minded Christianists, worked.   His goofy effects, irksome to some of the heathen viewers, worked.  Me, I would have welcomed more, more disco Instagram colors, more stop-motion nature footage, more animals. I love a good farrago, and Darren Aronofsky never phones his in.
Screening Room

Digging Beneath the Cliché of Ruin Porn in Detroit

There are two new documentaries that add to the rising chorus – of filmmakers and journalists, writers and artists, even businessmen and politicians – who are proclaiming that the same old song about Detroit is played-out. It's time for a new tune, these people are saying, one that goes beyond the tired cliché that the Motor City is nothing but miles of abandoned factories, boarded-up houses, and empty prairie. The first of these documentaries, American Revolutionary, opens with a shot of a little white-haired lady pushing her walker up to the massive Packard plant in Detroit, an abandoned auto factory in a state of such rococo decay that it helped spawn a lurid genre of photography known as "ruin porn." "The devastation is so fabulous, so incredible," the woman says, gazing at the rotting factory with a mixture of awe and horror familiar to anyone who has been to Detroit in recent years. "This is a symbol of how great things fail. It's obvious that what used to work doesn't work anymore." The woman's name is Grace Lee Boggs, the documentary's 98-year-old title character, a Detroit-based activist and writer who lived through the city's glory years and its long decline and now, in the twilight of her life, is still busy nurturing and enjoying the undeniable signs of its rebirth. "American Revolutionary" is the work of Grace Lee, a Korean-American filmmaker who first met Boggs while making The Grace Lee Project, her 2005 documentary about women who share her oppressively common name. The Grace Lees of this world, according to Grace Lee the filmmaker, are "thousands of interchangeable drones." If so, Grace Lee the activist is the exception who proves the rule. Born into a middle-class Chinese American family, she first became aware of discrimination against African Americans while living in Chicago. Her urge to unite workers led her to Detroit, where she fell in love with and married a black autoworker from North Carolina named James Boggs. Together they began to agitate to revolutionize American society – pushing for workers' rights, civil rights, and, eventually, women's rights. And so Grace Lee Boggs became that rarest of insiders, an Asian American woman deeply involved in a movement dominated by black men. As the civil rights and Black Power movements gained momentum in the 1960s, she evolved from a hard-core Marxist into a hard-nosed pragmatist. She was initially partial to fiery Malcolm X over mellifluous Martin Luther King Jr., but, like so much of her thinking, this changed with time. One of the most telling shifts in her thought was her revelation about what the civil rights movement was all about. "I realized that black people did not want to become equal to whites," she says. "They wanted to become equal to their idea of themselves." Whether she was writing books, lecturing, forming political parties, or helping young people plant gardens and paint murals, Boggs, to her credit, never abandoned some of the core beliefs she shares with so many black Detroiters. On camera she tells a stunned Bill Moyers that by the 1960s the Detroit Police Department had become "a white occupation army." And what happened in Detroit in July of 1967 – a conflagration that scorched great swaths of the city and left 43 people dead – was not a race riot. It was, Boggs says, "a rebellion." That rebellion helped make Detroit the first black-controlled city in America  In 1974 a former union organizer and state senator named Coleman A. Young was elected the city's first black mayor – or "Mayor Motherfucker," as he liked to be called. He would rule the city with an iron grip and a salty tongue for the next twenty years. Though it didn't ignite white flight – Detroiters had begun moving out to the suburbs in the early 1950s – there's no denying that the summer of 1967 accelerated the city's decline. Coleman Young, depending on your point of view, either greased the city's skids or did everything in his limited power to apply the brakes. Detroit's demise, as Boggs sees it, can't be pinned on any one event or any one man. It was a collective failure to change after the seizure of political power by blacks. Instead of coming together, people split into warring camps: blacks vs. whites, city vs. suburbs, management vs. organized labor. "A rebellion is an outburst of anger," Boggs says, "while a revolution is an evolution toward something greater. Just being angry and resentful does not constitute a revolution." She adds wistfully, "Changing was more trouble than not changing." That may be changing, at long last. People are discovering what Boggs has known for half a century – that there's more to Detroit than crime, ruin porn, racial strife, and economic woe. The city's music scene has always been unkillable, and now alongside it there is a proliferation of start-up businesses, urban gardens and farms, a growing creative class, a booming downtown and a healthy auto industry. Let's not forget abundant cheap real estate. As the city struggles to emerge from bankruptcy, everyone agrees that the good old days are not coming back. As Boggs puts it, "It's time for a new dream." Among the ashes, there are enough sprouts to suggest that the time just might be at hand. If it is, it will be because of groups like the Navin Field Grounds Crew, the subject of a new documentary called Stealing Home by Jason Roche, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. The film is an homage to a crew that could come together only in Detroit: people who took it upon themselves to maintain a vast patch of grass at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull near downtown – simply "The Corner," in local parlance – the field where the Detroit Tigers played baseball from the late 19th century until 1999, when they decamped to a shiny new ballyard downtown. The powers that be then went about demolishing the grandstands of the stadium – originally Bennett Park, then renamed Navin Field, Briggs Stadium, and, finally Tiger Stadium – one of the most cherished pieces of the city's soul. The Navin Field Grounds Crew is headed by Tom Derry, a native Detroiter who grew up going to ballgames at The Corner. After the demolition was complete, he cajoled a group of fellow Tigers fans to spend their weekends picking up trash, pulling weeds, raking the infield dirt, and mowing the outfield grass where Al Kaline and Willie Horton used to roam. "Something happens to you when you're here – a tingling," Derry says, trying to explain the allure of a place he regards as "sacred ground," but which the city sees as a nothing more than a parcel that might one day become the site of a big-box store. Despite the city's hostility to their cause, the Grounds Crew has gotten media attention from ESPN The Magazine, the New York Times, even Australian TV. In keeping with the If-you-mow-it-they-will-come mantra popularized by the movie Field of Dreams, tourists now come to The Corner from all over the world to play pickup games, snap pictures, and swap memories. Stealing Home is not flawless. Though I love baseball and have been a Tigers fan since I was in short pants, I have to admit that the sight of middle-aged guys riding sit-down lawnmowers doesn't always make for riveting viewing. And the documentary sometimes has a high quotient of gas, such as one guy likening baseball to Homer's Odyssey, and another, a "mythologist" no less, proclaiming that all humans share "an irresistible longing to connect to their roots." Fortunately, Roche has also woven in archival footage that takes us beyond the bromides and the outfield wall – images of bustling auto plants, civil rights marches, and the bloody summer of 1967. The last word belongs to a member of the Grounds Crew, who sums up the movie's message nicely: "This shows what Detroiters can do when we come together." Indeed it does. The Navin Field Grounds Crew is emblematic of what's happening in a broken city where a lot of people have come to the realization that the old ways are gone forever and the only way to get some things done is to do them yourself. And so Detroiters pamper an old ballfield, they spruce up parks the city can't afford to maintain, they patrol neighborhoods the city can't afford to police, they turn entire neighborhoods into works of art, they plant gardens, start businesses, renovate houses that haven't slid beyond salvation. In a word, they figure out a way to endure. The current DIY ethic was explained to me in 2012, when I was in Detroit on a newspaper assignment and wound up talking to George Royce, a waiter by day and a rock 'n' roll drummer by night, who had recently moved from upstate Michigan into a downtown loft. "There's a bizarre combination of things here in Detroit," Royce told me. "Exquisite grand architecture and other buildings that are broken down. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty right next to each other. The people who live here usually have something going on. They're artistic, they're handy, they're self-starters. People who are finicky don't come to Detroit  You've got to have self-sufficiency." Yes, but why do they come here? "They come," Boggs says, "to be part of this new world." Only a true Pollyanna would try to minimize Detroit's staggering problems. But buying into the dreary old ruin-porn narrative is, in its way, as myopic as rosy optimism. Despite their many differences in approach, subject matter and tone, these two documentaries arrive at the same conclusion, one that may hold the key to the salvation of Detroit and countless other troubled American cities. The conclusion, in Boggs's words, is this: "The changes are not going to come from the top." No, the changes are not going to come from governments or corporations or philanthropists; the changes are going to come from the below, from the street, from individuals and small groups who believe that what they do can make a difference. Even if what they do is as humble as fixing up an abandoned house, or showing kids how to plant a garden, or taking care of a patch of sacred ground. Image via davescaglione/Flickr
Notable Articles, Screening Room

We Cast The Goldfinch Movie so Hollywood Doesn’t Have To

We learned earlier this month that Nina Jacobson, a movie producer responsible for the the Hunger Games franchise, among other things, has acquired the rights to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and is looking for a director to make it into a film or mini-series. Lucky for Jacobson, dream-casting the movie version of a book is one of my life’s true passions, and my colleague Edan Lepucki and I hereby submit our ideas for the Goldfinch cast. The process reveals the bizarre extent to which I think I understand the Hollywood casting processes (and how often my first choice is ten years too late), which starlets we think play trashy the best, and how it might be worth it to turn the cast on its head to let Michael B. Jordan play Theo. [Warning: Our discussion of what will be required to play these characters results in many spoilers.] Audrey Decker: Janet: It strikes me that almost any beautiful actress past her starlet age could swoop in and play an angelic, sophisticated mother who loved art and New York and whom we will probably see in fuzzy, nostalgic flashbacks for the duration of the film. Ten years ago it would have been Julianne Moore’s in a heartbeat, but now I picture Rachel Weisz or Michelle Monaghan (probably because we all just saw her play a lovely woman who married the wrong guy young in True Detective). Edan: I love the idea of Rachel Weisz playing this role -- she does elegant/maternal very well. The same goes for Kate Winslet. (I’m sorry, but a chair can act better than Michelle Monaghan.) I’d also suggest Kerry Washington for the role; her face can go from assured to vulnerable in a millisecond, and she’s got a powerful presence that both Theo and the audience will grieve. Imagine, too, a non-white Theo Decker...his outsider status might then take on a whole other dimension... Larry Decker: Janet: Theo’s father is complicated. At one point he wooed Rachel Weisz up there, and continues to be a charming, charismatic guy, but ends up running schemes in Vegas. The part of me that likes to think I understand Hollywood surmises that it’s not a big enough role for the likes of Ben Affleck or Bradley Cooper, who would both be great but might be too busy on the A list. I could see Josh Brolin or Mark Ruffalo, though. They’ve both got the range and the tragic good looks. Edan: If Mark Ruffalo knocked on my door right now, I’d open it naked. Yes! Ruffalo! I also could see Peter Krause of Six Feet Under (and Parenthood) fame -- he’s handsome enough, and he emits a slight aura of bratty rage that playing Larry Decker would require. Xandra: Janet: Larry’s girlfriend is introduced as “a strange woman, tan and very fit-looking: flat gray eyes, lined coppery skin, and teeth that went in, with a split between them. Although she was older than my mother, or at any rate older-looking, she was dressed like someone younger: red platform sandals; low-slung jeans; wide belt; lots of gold jewelry. Her hair, the color of caramel straw, was very straight and tattered at the ends; she was chewing gum and a strong smell of Juicy Fruit was coming off her.” So not Amy Adams, is what I’m saying. I could see Anna Paquin (who already has a gap in her teeth) or Chloe Sevigny taking a fun trip to trashville to play Xandra, or, if they stick to the age described, Rachel Griffiths. Edan: Like Hollywood would ever stick to the age described! I bet the producers cast Elle Fanning, those ageists! Though I love Paquin and Sevigny, Paquin strikes me as too round-faced, and Sevigny is far too rich girl for me to believe her as Xandra. She’d be better off as a Barbour with her George Plimpton-esque mid-Atlantic accent! My pick for this role is Taryn Manning; her meth-head-turned-religious savior in Orange is the New Black is by turns gleeful, hideous, frightening, and humanizing. That girl can trash it up, and she is so fun to watch. [Janet: With Peter Krause as Larry and Rachel Griffiths as Xandra we could have a Six Feet Under reunion on our hands. Think about it.] Young Theo/Young Boris: Janet: The first section of the book follows Theo from age 13 to 18, and Boris comes in about halfway through, so it’s hard to know how that will be cast—maybe they’ll shrink the timeline so that one actor can play all those years, because I can’t imagine them getting both a middle school Theo and a high school Theo. Teenage Theo and Boris are also pretty weighty parts, so they can’t just find kids who look like a young version of their leading men to fill in for the first 20 minutes — like Jennifer Garner’s doppelganger in 13 Going on 30. Not that any of this matters, because I’m not familiar with a lot of young teenage actors, so I’ll just name the three I know because of Divergent or The Fault in Our Stars: Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, and Nat Wolff. (Ten years ago: Nicholas Hoult.) Edan: I have no opinions about man-boy actors. Just don’t cast the teenage son from USA’s Necessary Roughness; I have nightmares about his Ken-doll face. Theo: Janet: Theo is an intentionally divisive character. I found myself loving and hating him in equal measure, and getting the wrong actor could push the character too far in either direction. And, like his father, Theo is equally conversant in New York society, the antiques world, a life of crime, and a drug habit, so the actor has to have the same versatility. Andrew Garfield and Joseph Gordon Levitt both came to mind as bankable leading men, but they might be too adorable for Theo. (And can you imagine Joseph Gordon Levitt pining for but never winning Pippa? Hahahaha no.) Our colleague Lydia suggested Adrien Grenier, Adam Brody, and Zachary Quinto, each of whom have varying degrees of edge. My prediction is Jake Gyllenhaal, because I think he’s established enough that a studio would trust him to carry the movie (why am I talking like this?). But my dream actor is Emile Hirsch. He’s that perfect tragic-hero mix of magnetic, melancholy, doomed, but likable, and I’ve been waiting for the rest of America to fall in love with him since Into the Wild. Edan: You think Joseph Gordon Levitt is that irresistible? [Janet: YES.] I mean, he’s adorable, yes, but he’s also small -- he looks short on screen, which must mean he’s a teeny-tiny person. There’s also a strain of nerdery in him that could work for this role and make him less Mr. Cool. However, I love your idea to cast Emile Hirsch -- what a phenomenal actor. If Kerry Washington is cast as the mother, however, might I suggest Donald Glover from Community in this role? Or, the incredible Michael B. Jordan from The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and Fruitvale Station? (Hell, cast Jordan anyway! His eyes -- they convey innocence, rage, curiosity and longing all at once!) Boris: Janet: Oh Boris, you lying knave. I can’t get past the idea of how great a younger Leonardo DiCaprio would be, so I have no ideas. Lydia astutely suggested Paul Dano. But I know you have a strong opinion... Edan: Adam Driver is the only man for this role. That pale skin! Those jug ears! He looks like a boy raised on vodka! Driver continually surprises me as Hannah Horvath’s boyfriend on Girls. He imbues every line of dialogue with unexpected nuance, and his physical presence is fascinating, discomfiting, sexy, comic, and tragic. Plus, he’d do something great with Boris’s accent! Young Pippa: Janet: This will probably be some child actress we’ve never seen before, but Kiernan Shipka would be great. Edan: I vote for an unknown here. Pippa: Janet: Saintly, delicate Pippa is the European boarding school-educated flautist whom Theo doesn’t know how to quit. I think Emma Watson would do nicely. And she kind of looks like Kiernan Shipka! Edan: I’m the only person (on Tumblr) who hated the film adaptation of Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Emma Watson’s bad American accent was part of that hatred. Shipka can have it. Or perhaps Saoirse Ronan (from Atonement and Hanna) is available? She’s like a younger, prettier, and more ethereal version of myself, so of course I’m rooting for her always. Hobie: Janet: Widely decried as the most two-dimensional character in the book, lovely old Hobie could basically be played by any amicable actor who has time on their hands. I thought of Michael Gambon, who is most likely too old. Jeff Bridges or William Hurt would also be good, although both too American. Screw it, let’s give it to Cumberbatch. Edan: I would have loved to have cast Philip Seymour Hoffman in this role. If we want bona fide English, I’d go for Steve Coogan. Everyone loves Coogan, right? Kitsey “Kitten” Barbour: Janet: Theo’s high-society, two-timing fiancee. Leighton Meester or no one at all. Edan:  I’ve never seen Gossip Girl, but I’ve read the gossip rags for many years, so I am all about Ms. Meester and her snobby, beautiful face. She looks like she was born wearing a sweater set and pearls. Various Barbours and background players: Janet: Mrs. Barbour is a surprisingly complex minor character that you’d just have to be elegant and icy to play. Jennifer Connelly, perhaps (ten years ago: Joan Allen). I have a sinking feeling Paul Giamatti will be Mr. Barbour because he shows up everywhere, and I don’t have any strong opinions about their children other than Kitten. Matt Dillon could show up as the guy who comes to threaten Theo’s dad with a baseball bat. Edan: Let’s just call Meryl and see if she’ll play Mrs. Barbour, though I also love Connelly’s skinny-woman-ice. I’d love to see Robert Englund play a member of the criminal art underworld. Oh, and of course: a little known actor named Omar Little would be perfect as Popchik. (I’m Omar’s momager; call me if you’re interested!)
Screening Room

America Always Gets the RoboCop It Deserves

Of all the things gnawing on George W. Bush as he shuffles around his retirement ranch in Texas, I'm guessing the most galling is the fact that he is the only president in the past quarter century who did not have a RoboCop movie released on his watch.  That's got to hurt.  In the course of every presidential administration since the Gipper's -- with the notable exception of W's -- a new RoboCop has come out.  And down through those many years, America has always gotten the RoboCop it deserved. (Surely Bush fils is asking himself, "What did I do to deserve...nothing?"  The answer: Plenty.) The latest installment in the RoboCop franchise, now playing in a multiplex near you, once again proves that these movies may fail as movies, but they never fail to illuminate the zeitgeist in which they're made.  The new movie, like its three predecessors, is set in the not-too-distant future in my hometown, Detroit, a city that was chosen as the setting for the original movie in 1987 because it was already well on its way to becoming the sort of dysfunctional dystopia the filmmakers needed to convey their message.  The Motor City, once the mightiest industrial dynamo on the planet, had morphed in a few short years into Murder City -- the perfect proving ground for a crime-fighter who was, as the movie's poster put it, "Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop." We Detroiters tend to be inordinately proud of our city's history, both the good and the bad -- its music, its cars, its sports teams, its struggles on behalf of working men and women, its rough edges.  In his terrific 2012 book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, Mark Binelli beautifully captured this skewed civic pride: "Back when I was a boy, growing up just outside Detroit, my friends and I beheld any mention of the city in popular culture with a special thrill.  We loved how Detroit was deemed terrifying enough to be chosen as the dystopian locale of 'RoboCop,' the science fiction film set in a coyly undated 'near future,' when Detroit had become so dangerous that the outsourcing of law enforcement to an armored, heavily weaponized cyborg would seem a prudent and necessary move." The original RoboCop is now regarded as a sci-fi classic, largely because it asked a question of enduring interest: Are machines capable of emotions?  But even as the RoboCop movies have declined in quality, they have served as ever-sharper reflections of what's been going on in the culture at large.  Let's follow the downward spiral: RoboCop (1987) The 1970s were the last hurrah for the American middle class. Then along came Ronald Reagan to begin the long, ongoing job of dismantling the middle class by shifting its wealth and political power to corporate, government and wealthy elites. Today, thanks in no small part to Ronald Reagan and his spawn, more wealth is in fewer hands than at any time since the stock market crash of 1929. RoboCop arrived at the perfect moment. Reagan's second term was about to segue into the lone term of Papa Bush, and many Americans were feeling fat and happy and proud to be American, provided they didn't live in a blighted pocket like inner-city Detroit or hadn't had their job outsourced to an autoworker in Mexico.  Peter Weller starred as Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop killed by drug dealers in the line of duty, who then has his vitals harvested and installed in a cyborg, turning him into a virtually indestructible cop. This nifty trick is the handiwork of a greedy conglomerate called Omni Consumer Products, which has taken over the Detroit police force and has big plans to build a development in the heart of the city and control its lucrative drug, gambling, and prostitution rackets. Privatizing a big-city police department -- it's very 1980s, an idea only Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher could love. "Trickle-down economics" can be seen trickling in the only direction it ever knew -- straight up to the corporate boardroom. The movie was deftly directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner.  The writers are blessed with a droll sense of humor, slipping in a mention of Lee Iacocca Elementary School, a nod to the best-selling 1984 book by the Chrysler CEO, an egomaniacal tycoon cut from Reaganite cloth. There are also jabs at dumbed-down TV news, a recurring theme in the coming movies, as when a blow-dried newscaster intones, "You give us three minutes, we'll give you the world." There's even a jab at Star Wars -- Reagan's La-La-Land defense fantasy, not the movie. Amid all the corporate greed, violent crime, and official corruption, the thing that gives the movie its humanity is, oddly, its cyborg.  RoboCop is tortured by scraps of memories of his previous life.  "I can feel them but I can't remember them," he says of Alex Murphy's wife and young son.  But RoboCop's best line is a blend of Dirty Harry and that other icon from the pumped-up Reagan '80s, The Terminator.  Staring down a criminal, RoboCop says, "Your move, creep." RoboCop 2 (1990) This first of two sequels was a perfect fit for its times -- a re-tread movie released during George H.W. Bush's re-tread presidency.  Both flopped.  Unlike the Bush presidency, though, the movie franchise got another chance. Weller returned in the title role, but Verhoeven was replaced by director Irvin Kershner.  Worse, the screenwriters Neumeier and Miner were replaced by Walon Green and Frank Miller.  The result has none of the original's wit or snap. This time Omni Consumer Products wants to privatize the whole city of Detroit, and there's a new designer drug on the streets called Nuke.  Otherwise the movie feels as bland and generic as the era during which it was made.  The only sign that we're in Detroit are the logos on the police car doors.  (The movie was shot mostly in Houston and L.A.)  The TV newscasters are the witty ones here, as when a chirpy blonde talking head is told that environmentalists are warning that a pesky little nuclear meltdown could lead to a massive environmental disaster.  "Don't they always say that?" she says before going to a commercial break. One reviewer noted that RoboCop 2 was "as savagely graphic as its predecessor but less skillful by half."  The same could be said of the Bush and Reagan presidencies. RoboCop 3 (1993) In the first year of the Clinton administration, long before Monica and the Gap dress, the keepers of the flame brought out RoboCop 3, directed by Fred Dekker and written by him and Frank Miller.  Peter Weller climbed out of the metal suit once and for all -- he described it as the most unpleasant acting experience of his career -- and Robert John Burke stepped in. The movie is a dreary rehash, but it does offer one timely twist.  A Japanese conglomerate called Kanemitsu now owns and operates all of Detroit, and it plans to clear out thousands of residents in order to complete the Delta City development.  But some plucky Detroiters refuse to budge, igniting a civil war between the corporation's minions and the citizenry.  When the corporate thugs have trouble evicting tenants, the head of Kanemitsu fumes, "Incompetent Americans, you are fat and lazy!" But the best line belongs to McDaggett, the brutal general who tells Rip Torn, the new CEO of OmniCorp: "If you're just figuring out that the line between big business and war is a little blurry, then you're even farther over the hill than they say you are." This movie goes a long way toward explaining why RoboCop vanished during the George W. Bush presidency.  Years before W was elected, RoboCop 3 laid out the doctrine that would define his presidency: War is big business, and vice-versa; xenophobia is cool; and anyone who disagrees with the government is, de facto, a terrorist. Even in 1993, the message was stale.  Roger Ebert asked himself why people persist in making such re-tread movies.  His answer: "Because 'RoboCop' is a brand name, I guess, and this is this year's new model.  It's an old tradition in Detroit to take an old design and slap on some fresh chrome." The Detroiter in me hates to admit it, but the man was right. RoboCop (2014) There is exactly one worthwhile scene in the new RoboCop, which is a remake of the 1987 original, unlike the second and third movies in the series, which were sequels.  There's a big difference.  Sequels try to say something new with familiar material; remakes are content to update and rearrange the furniture. As this new remake opens, we're in the future on the streets of Tehran, the capital of America's latest Middle Eastern enemy.  A TV news crew, led by yet another chirpy blonde, is getting ready to deliver live footage of the new generation of cyborgs that allow America to fight its pointless wars without any pointless risk to American lives.  While drone aircraft swoop overhead and gigantic Transformer-esque machines stomp through the streets, robots electronically scan terrified Iranian civilians for signs of bombs, weapons or other threats.  Meanwhile, inside a nearby building, a group of Iranian men are strapping explosives to their torsos and reminding each other that "the goal is to die on TV." This is meta.  This has potential.  But as soon as the American machines slaughter the Iranian martyrs, the movie abruptly abandons the timely questions it has raised about the morality of drone warfare and the complicity of the news media in promoting the government's dubious agenda.  Instead, the movie shifts to Detroit, where it proceeds to ignore another potentially rich vein: Detroit's current bankruptcy, the largest in American history, which has left the city so broken that it takes an hour for cops to respond to emergency calls, most streetlights never get turned on, the population has fallen by more than half, and rich philanthropists had to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars to keep debt-collecting wolves from ransacking one of the city's last assets, its glorious Institute of Arts.  This isn't some futuristic dystopia; this is Detroit today. But this RoboCop has no interest in examining such pungent contemporary material because it's content to remain a fantasy.  Once again, the result is generic escapism that could have been made anywhere.  (Other than some nice aerial shots of Detroit, most of it was filmed in Canada.)  The only splash of local color the movie gets right is Detroit's rococo strain of official corruption.  In the movie, several Detroit cops have been funneling high-powered rifles from the evidence locker to a local arms merchant, with the full cooperation of the chief of police.  Now that's verisimilitude.  In 1992, Detroit police chief William Hart was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing $2.6 million from a police fund used for making undercover narcotics buys. But that splash of local color is washed away by the bombastic, jingoistic histrionics of a TV pundit named Pat Novak, played by Samuel L. Jackson.  It's painful to watch this talented actor slog through material that doesn't even rise to the level of a parody of a parody of Bill O'Reilly.  Yet somehow these dreadful Novak segments fit perfectly into a movie that refuses to address the interesting questions it raises -- about drone warfare, the morality of crime-fighting techniques, the human cost of corporate greed.  The movie wastes other talented actors, including Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jennifer Ehle, and leading man Joel Kinnaman, already a star in Sweden and soon to become one here.  This squandering of opportunity is a tidy metaphor for what Barack Obama has done with his 2008 mandate to make fundamental changes in the way America functions.  Dream on. The filmmakers seem to have decided -- no doubt correctly -- that after a dozen years of pointless, endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public is worn out.  The American public doesn't want to think about international wars, political corruption, urban decay, or the gutting of the news media and the middle class   The American public just wants to be entertained.  And so the makers of the new RoboCop have dutifully given them what they want -- another noisy, gimmicky diversion that makes the world go away for all of 108 minutes. Which is to say that, once again, America has gotten the RoboCop it deserves.
Essays, Screening Room

Bound and (Un)gagged: Why Orange Is the New Black Appeals to Us Outside

1. In the opening montage for Orange Is the New Black, the made-for-Netflix series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, disembodied lips of different races and ethnicities mouth the words to Regina Spektor’s song “You’ve Got Time.”  The message is clear: we are all the same (we all have lips, I suppose). The faces are both stripped of identity, yet are identifiably female. The introduction sets the stage for the show’s focus on the idea of a universal feminine experience. From the illicit groping between Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) to the hair salon run by Sophia (the awesome Laverne Cox), the show treats its viewers to a titillating version of female camaraderie that might exist on the WB or in the catalogues of a Seven Sisters college. In fact, Piper Kerman (renamed “Chapman” for the Netflix series) invites the comparison to an all-women’s collegiate experience herself in her memoir. “I was surviving,” she writes about her time in a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., “perhaps [because] I had gone to an elite women’s college. Single-sex living has certain constants, whether it’s upscale or down and dirty...There was less bulimia and more fights...but the same feminine ethos was present -- empathetic camaraderie and bawdy humor on good days, and histrionic drama...on bad.” The series reflects this same “all women be crazy” ethos, and the comparison to college dormitory living does seems apt. The viewing experience is really a lot like Felicity in its gossipy will-they-or-won’t-they feel, down to the symbolic meaning attributed to hairstyles (for some reason, this is the sine qua non of feminine culture on popular television). It’s also deliciously, compulsively watchable, not just because the acting is compelling, but also because it reinforces what the audience would like to view as a universal truth: there isn’t much difference between people on the inside and people on the outside. The success of both the show and the memoir evince the public’s current insatiable thirst for prison narratives -- so long as they aren’t too violent or dirty. (Kerman inoculates her memoir, and the show, against any charges of girl-on-girl sexual assault: Oz this is not.) Still, one wonders, is this perceived similarity between those on the inside and us on the outside just to make us (liberal, middle-class, educated) feel better (or worse) about the prison state that is the U.S., circa now? 2. The prison narrative has been around for a long time. Not only have great authors spent time in prison (Thomas More, Marquis de Sade) but great works have also been written about prisons (The Count of Monte Cristo, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). “Prison lit,” as a dedicated genre consisting of first-person accounts of trial and punishment, seems to have come about around the 16th century as large numbers of literate, educated dissenters spent time behind bars; they wrote as a way to spark conversation about the role of incarceration in society. Not coincidentally, the 16th century also saw the rise of imprisonment as legal punishment. On top of the religious and political minorities, there were also greater numbers of vagrants and debtors who were locked up. Similarly, the American tradition of “prison lit” has its roots in social protest. Thoreau, in Resistance to Civil Government, wrote that, “[u]nder a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” launching the idealistic notion that great thinking and writing come from behind prison walls. Early 20th century prison writings were generally by activists who sought to expose the inequities of the justice system. My Life in Prison by Donald Lowrie was one of the first widely-read first-person accounts of prison life. Lowrie was sentenced to 15 years at San Quentin for burglary (he was out in 10 on good behavior). Lowrie attempts to chronicle the daily humiliations of prison life while also maintaining the idea that he wasn’t a born criminal, but rather a victim of bad circumstances that conspired against him: “And despite a long term in prison, I am not yet a criminal.” He separates himself and his fellow inmates from their crimes: “But I know that all men are human.” This idea of a constant humanity resonates with the same appeal as other “outsider” narratives. During the Civil Rights era, prison literature became a way to unite both individual struggles with political ones, although the works were arguably still the product of a few great minds. The Autobiography of Malcom X, for example, galvanized a movement. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice similarly links the African-American male prison experience with the greater historical atrocities of colonialism and slavery, crimes where African-Americans lost their ability to move freely. Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard, published in 1967, is heralded as one of the greatest prison novels, reveling in psychological verity and presenting an array of criminal “types” familiar to any outside audience today. Unsurprisingly, the rise of prison narratives in America coincided with a dramatic increase in prison populations during the '70s, putatively as a reaction to the anti-establishment mores of the '60s. This trend continues today at least partially because of popular anti-crime campaigns, the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” political rhetoric. Various memoirs and stories emerged to expose the horrendous conditions of most penitentiaries; not coincidentally, many of them focus on social conditions preceding incarceration, like poverty, lack of family support, substance abuse, homelessness, and exposure to criminal activity. Many of these narratives are written by African American writers addressing a presumptively white audience and take on a semi-educational stance not unlike slave narratives: John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984), for example, in addition to the works mentioned above. One role of the prison narrative is to combat the dehumanizing process that is the modern prison system. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explained incarceration as a way for the State to maintain its absolute power and authority over its citizens. Certainly, penal institutions try their very best to effectively erase the individual as we know it. For this reason, prisons separate inmates by race, women are housed separately from men, and a series of bureaucratic trials are imposed -- bodies are counted at certain times of day, sleeping situations are altered, and procedural delays are rampant. Some states also have versions of various laws that prevent author-inmates from profiting off of their writing, which limits free expression, a Constitutional ideal that we profess to hold dear. It makes sense, then, that prison literature today seeks to reaffirm the triumph of the human spirit, so to speak. Kerman, as an example, continually reasserts her ability to maintain her can-do pluckiness: “I hated the control the prison exercised over my life, but the only way to fight it was in my head.” Rather than dwell on her misfortune or become too accustomed to prison life, Kerman stages a protest, Oprah-style: no one can keep her down. She still has her favorite things: her radio, her running, her prison “cheesecake,” and the companionship of the other women. At the same time, the inmate-author is in a unique position to testify as to the conditions and injustices rampant in the system. Interestingly, contemporary prison narratives rarely claim that incarceration is wrong in itself, but rather focus on cruel and inhumane treatment. Kerman relates in detail the administrative nightmare that is the judicial process -- she pleads guilty and surrenders but must wait over a year for her sentence to begin. Yet, she does not ever argue that she did not deserve punishment. The PEN Prison Writing Program’s website includes thoughtful essays about concerns like solitary confinement and the death penalty without exhorting the reader to rethink the concept of the penitentiary more generally. No one, it seems, wants to argue that murderers and rapists don’t belong in prison. For example, in writing about the death penalty, J. Michael Stanfield Jr. speaks directly to us, the outsiders: “Okay, so maybe I’m coming off as just a tad bit facetious here, but it doesn’t change the fact that murder, even the government-approved variety, is still murder, by the very definition of the law. What’s more (and I’m going out on a limb here), capital punishment is immoral, and it’s a sin of our modem, civilized society.” The reader of this cannot help but be morally implicated, particularly since the political reality is that prisoners cannot vote (and most states limit the ability of ex-felons to vote in some manner). In Stanfield’s piece, the reader, who is viewed as potentially complicit with the government, becomes an agent for moral decision-making: we can decide that murder, in all its varieties, is immoral and, therefore, seek to eliminate the death sentence. Yet, Stanfield doesn’t argue that crimes (like murder) are undeserving of punishment; in fact, he says quite the opposite. Prison narratives exert their moral authority by emphasizing their “truth.” Whether the piece is fiction or not, readers want to feel as though the information or story is conveyed with some deeper understanding, similar to the way readers want to read about war but never actually want to go there. One way that present-day prison writing emphasizes the notion of “truth” is by sheer volume. Infamous bastions like San Quentin publish anthologies of inmates’ stories and verse, and the PEN Program fosters prison writing’s “restorative and rehabilitative” powers and sponsors writing contests. Wally Lamb has assembled two anthologies (Couldn't Keep It to Myself and I'll Fly Away) of work by women inmates in a Connecticut women’s maximum-security prison. In these cases, the emphasis is on a collection of writing, a community on the inside speaking truth to us on the outside. Rather than one great writer, like Thomas More, writing for a small intellectual elite, these anthologies are mass marketed for a consumer audience of liberals. We cannot deny the power of these stories because there are just too many of them; however, the highly consumable quality of the publications -- not entirely unlike the idea of watching a whole season of Orange at one sitting -- makes it less likely we will act. 3. In truth, the American prison system is in crisis. The number of people in prison since the 1980s has more than tripled, to 751 per 100,000 people (that’s nearly 1 percent of our population). The U.S. puts more people behind bars than any other country in the world. We house half of the world’s prison population. Over half of those in prison are African-American or Hispanic. There are more black men within the various incarnations of incarceration -- prison, probation or parole -- than there were slaves during the height of slavery. For many urban, minority communities, prison is simply a fact of everyday life (as is prison rape, if evidenced by the number of times detectives on Law & Order: SVU threaten accused rapists and pedophiles with it). The penitentiary is both a subculture and the dominant culture all in one. Whatever you may think about the causes of the prison population explosion or what should be done about it, America has long held contradictory views about incarceration. On the one hand, incarceration is perhaps ideally all about rehabilitation: after a certain amount of time (not necessarily commensurate with the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines), we assume or believe, given evidence, that an offender can grow to regret his crimes and become a productive member of society. There are a lot of problems with that view, not the least of which being that overcrowded prisons seem unlikely to produce anything productive. It does, however, explain the surge in prison programs that teach inmates job training, anger management, art, drama, music, writing, etc. The idea is that these programs reduce recidivism, and most of them seem to do so. Reducing recidivism is popular among the public and politicians alike -- while no one wants to be seen as “soft on crime” (especially when it comes to violent offenders -- it’s a bit easier to make the case for nonviolent offenses), arguing that programs prevent ex-cons from returning to prison reduces costs all around. But rehabilitation is at war with the other main ideology driving prison sentencing, retribution. In other words, people should be punished for what they do. This is, after all, the American way -- submitting oneself to a greater authority (God and/or the state), manfully accepting that one has done wrong and deserves punishment. In his book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, author Robert Perkinson traces this foundation back to slavery -- subjugate, discipline, punish (especially African-Americans). Yet, even more contrarily, the manner in which prisons dehumanize individuals -- stripping them of possessions, bodily integrity, identity, community, and dignity -- confuses the issue of retribution. If someone who commits a crime is a monster, someone with whom we don’t want to identify, then the arduous procedural elements of the criminal justice process -- the hearings, the trial, the parole board hearings, the write-ups for good or bad behavior, the psychological profiles -- simply impede the public’s desire for good old retribution. Hangings in the public square at least are consistent, and possibly more humane than solitary confinement in a supermax. As some said, or thought, when Ariel Castro hung himself in his cell, good riddance. In other words, he was so subhuman that he didn’t deserve the chance to be stripped of his humanity. It’s often even the same voices who so quickly demonize unlikable offenders -- people who, say, shoot down innocent civilians in a movie theater or plant bombs at the end of the Boston marathon -- that will also exhort the virtues of rehabilitation. Furthermore, advances in science may well indicate that the causes of violent behavior are at least partially biological, which may mean that rehabilitation is simply asking the wrong questions. Retribution is fundamentally inconsistent with rehabilitation. Retribution relies on a theory of individual choice, arguing that wrong-doers deserve punishment, while rehabilitation accepts that some people may not have been capable of making other choices at that moment (but they should know better in the future once they are schooled in guilt). You cannot think that people deserve to be punished for wrongdoing and simultaneously believe that people who commit offenses are wrong-headed and need guidance to find the proper path. And, yet, we do. 4. You can see these conflicting ideologies within any prison memoir. In the PEN anthologies and others like it, the author chooses how much he would like to reveal about his crime and the events which landed him in prison. Does it affect our reading of the work? It only seems to serve as a way to further sell the outside audience on an authentic experience while also making the author an autonomous agent capable of self-reflection, even though that self-reflection is state-imposed. Part of the current allure of the authorial gesture in contemporary prison writing is that the writer is permitted to become someone else -- the past is in the past. As the tagline of an O magazine article on Wally Lamb’s work with inmate-writers states: “In prison, they are robbers and murders. On paper, they are women not so different from the rest of us.” Even if the crime is revealed, usually a redemptive gesture follows to argue that this crime merely represents one bad decision or moment; the writer’s life is (or now is) composed of more than that. This rehabilitative gesture allows us, the readers, to see the inmate as like us on the outside (presumably the readership of O magazine does not include large numbers of incarcerated individuals). I was at a performance in San Quentin where inmate-actors all gave their own short pieces based on their life experiences. Someone in the audience said, “It made me think about my own life.”  This move -- my, he is relatable/yes, I am just like you -- explains the enduring appeal of these narratives. Wouldn’t we all like to truly understand our motives and improve ourselves if only we had the time to do so? And in order to make this mental turn, to go from seeing oneself as worthless to worthy of someone’s time and attention, requires a belief in personal agency, both the ability to commit crimes of one’s own free will and to seek forgiveness for them. The writer must feel the pain of his acts, an action consistent with parole board hearing where an inmate must express requisite apologies. At the same time, a prison narrative must reinforce its boundaries, physical and emotional. In other words, since the very function of a prison is to display the mighty power of the state, a prison narrative must focus on the day-to-day, mundane nature of life behind bars. In Kerman’s memoir, I lost count of the number of times she runs around the track. Bray’s novel spends many pages on the mundane details of prison life alongside the portrayal of each character’s inner struggles. The potential for growth in a prison narrative comes from the interior journey. Since prison, by its very nature, circumscribes a person’s ability to move freely (and is very, very boring), writers have ample opportunity to reflect on past events and motivations. 5. Part of what makes Orange so interesting is the fact that Piper Kerman is the presumptive consumer of her own material. She is white, liberal, educated, scornful of the trappings of uneducated femininity (like big weddings), with just a bit of a wild streak (which I like to fancy I have myself). This places her in the unique position to both testify to her own dehumanizing treatment and advocate for the better treatment for others who cannot achieve her level of discourse. It’s a forgone conclusion that Piper is dreadfully sorry for what she has done. She writes this over and over. Yet, is this memoir a rehabilitative one? Did Piper need to spend 16 months in a federal prison to learn that being involved in a drug cartel was a bad idea? Per the book, no. Piper spends little time dwelling on why she made that decision -- instead, at moments, she seems to glorify the freewheeling, thug life she had. She very judiciously states that she is “no better” than anyone else she meets in prison. And yet, in saying so, she clearly marks herself as not from the inside. Her time in prison is like a student spending a study abroad trip in South America, a dip into an exotic culture. What about the other inmates? Do they exercise the same autonomous agency that Kerman claims she possesses? Both the show and the books seem to argue no. The other inmate characters’ crimes are as accidents, the wrong place at the wrong time, born of circumstances like poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. The show deals with this neatly -- it provides each character an intriguing backstory, giving them psychological motives for their crimes, but also humanizing them, so that the audience can imagine, if they wish, that the characters have the ability to reclaim their non-criminal individual identities. Yet Kerman/Chapman herself never wrestles with this question of her own agency, so she is always an outsider, placing any authenticity of her claim to self-improvement in question. Since the writing of the memoir and the production of the Netflix series, Kerman mostly devotes herself to advocating for improvement in prison conditions, a worthy goal. Certainly, Kerman and other writers of prison narratives are not defending the current penal system; the contradictions in their narratives are related to the contradictions inherent in the criminal justice system. But as a consumer audience, we can wonder whether these works really serve the political purposes they’d like. We must acknowledge that, like all creative works, prison narratives are intended for consumption by readers like us. Do we read them just to exorcise our guilt? That seems to take away from the profoundly moving nature of the genre. Whether it’s because people are seeking authenticity of individual expression in an era where so much feels prepackaged and marketed or whether it’s because incarceration speaks to some kind of universal human experience, I am not sure. But the emotions are not manufactured. During the performance I attended at San Quentin, people in the audience were profoundly, genuinely moved -- I saw tears and handholding, a vast swelling of catharsis among the non-incarcerated audience. Even I wanted to believe. Image Credit: Flickr/wallyg
Prizes, Screening Room

Based on a True Story: The Fiction-Free Finalists for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar

There are, for my money, only two worthwhile moments in that perennial PR orgy known as the Academy Awards. The first comes when actresses prance down the red carpet in their vomitous million-dollar get-ups and an interviewer poses that weirdest of questions, "Who are you wearing?" The second moment comes when writers, who spend 364 days at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, get to belly up ever so briefly to the big banquet table. The Oscar for Adapted Screenplay is almost enough to convince me that the horror stories are untrue. Some people in Hollywood actually do read. In years past, the works of a galaxy of gifted novelists have inspired Oscar-winning screenplays. They include Edna Ferber, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Mitchell, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, James Jones, Jules Verne, Harper Lee, Henry Fielding, Boris Pasternak, Mario Puzo (twice), Ken Kesey, Lillian Hellman, Larry McMurtry, E.M. Forster (twice), Jane Austen, James Ellroy, John Irving, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Cormac McCarthy. This year, alas, the source material in the Adapted Screenplay category is immaculately fiction-free. This year all five finalists turned for inspiration to non-fiction -- memoirs, reportage, even earlier screenplays.  The reason, I suspect, is that writing an adapted screenplay is an act of alchemy.  Essentially it's the act -- the art? -- of transmuting ink on paper into gold on the screen.  It's a maddening thing to try to do, which is why the five most magical little words in Hollywood are Based on a true story. The key words here are "based" and "true."  "Based" gives the filmmakers a few acres of wiggle room, freedom to massage the truth to their artistic and commercial ends.  And "true" stories, in both books and movies, are usually easier to write, make, and sell.  They're also less likely to dazzle and amaze -- effects that are achieved, more often than not, by an imagination that's off the leash. Which is to say a novelist's imagination. This year's five nominees for the Best Adapted Screenplay spring from material that varies widely in tone and quality. This source material is not all bad, by any stretch. But there isn't the handiwork of an untethered imagination in the pack: Before Midnight This is the contender with the thinnest pedigree. Written by its director, Richard Linklater, and its two stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, it's the third installment in the ongoing 20-year romance between two adorable bohemians named Celine and Jesse. Under the Academy's arcane rules, sequels count as adaptations because they're based on previously published material, namely earlier screenplays. The dialog once again has a breezy, improvised feel, but the writers insist that what's on the screen hewed strictly to a taut script. "You can't cut things out of this screenplay," Delpy said. Maybe not, but as adaptations go, it's all a tick too inside-baseball for me. Maybe the Academy needs a new category for Perpetually Evolving Screenplay. The Wolf of Wall Street Terence Winter's script for this Martin Scorsese film was inspired by a memoir by Jordan Belfort, a kid from Queens who made millions running a shady stock brokerage, lived a life of excess that would have made most Roman emperors quail, then crashed and burned and went to prison. Belfort's memoir exhibits an appreciation for the cost of luxury goods that puts him in a league with Balzac. He lives on a diet of Quaaludes, cocaine, Xanax, and adrenaline, and he wears an $18,000 gold watch, walks on $120,000 Edward Fields carpets, pays his chambermaid $70,000 a year and his chauffeur $60,000. But there's no mistaking Belfort's prose for Balzac's. Here's Belfort walking across the trading room floor, listening to his salesmen bark into their telephones: Fuck this and fuck that! Shit here and shit there! It was the language of Wall Street. It was the essence of the mighty roar, and it cut through everything. It intoxicated you. It seduced you! It fucking liberated you! It helped you achieve goals you never dreamed yourself capable of! And it swept everyone away, especially me. (Full disclosure: This is not only the language of Wall Street. I once worked in a similar bucketshop in Los Angeles, selling oil leases in Oklahoma that, for all I knew, didn't even exist. The things my fellow brokers and I barked into our telephones were echoes of Belfort's mighty roar.) Winter's script for Wolf came in at a hefty 150 pages, well above the 100-or-so-page average. (A rule of thumb is that each page of a script translates to one minute of screen time.) The bloat of the writing shows: the movie runs, at full throttle, for three hours. But in this case bloat is not a dirty word. This is, after all, a story about success and excess, American-style, and Winter and Scorsese decided wisely to leave restraint off the menu. As Winter told an interviewer, "Very early on, we just said, 'We're just going to go for this, 100 percent, the whole way.'" And that's precisely what they did. Thanks to some superb performances, especially by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, the sheer foamy hog-wallow exuberance of this lifestyle becomes both humorous and strangely joyous, almost admirable. We all dream of throwing the rules of decorum and decency out the window, but these guys, for a brief glorious bawdy moment, actually went ahead and did it. 12 Years a Slave John Ridley spent four years turning Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir into a screenplay. It came in fat, too, at 157 pages, much of it lifted directly from Northup's account of living as a free black man in upstate New York before getting kidnapped in Washington, D.C., then sold into slavery in the Deep South. I'm guessing that this screenplay will win the Oscar because the only thing Hollywood loves more than those five magic little words is a story that allows a movie to ascend to the high moral ground. Some dragons are irresistible to Hollywood, such as the Holocaust, racism, big government, terrorists, pirates, the gun lobby, big pharma and, now, slavery. But there is a dark little problem at the heart of this noble exercise. Ridley's script is built on an appeal to counterfeit outrage: It asks us to feel bad for Solomon Northup because of the scalding injustice of having his freedom yanked away from him. But is his condition more appalling than the condition of his fellow slaves, fresh off the boat from Africa? This movie wants to say yes, but I say no. There is no way to calibrate pure evil. It is seamless, implacable. The high moral ground, it turns out, can be a slippery place. Philomena Martin Sixsmith has worked as a foreign correspondent with the BBC, a novelist, and a spin doctor for Prime Minister Tony Blair. In 2004 he met an Irishwoman who told him that her mother, Philomena Lee, had given birth to an illegitimate son in 1952 and been forced by Roman Catholic nuns to put the boy up for adoption. Sixsmith began investigating the claim and learned, as he wrote recently in The Daily Mail, that half a dozen convents "continued to send regular parties of so-called orphans to the U.S. for almost two decades. And no wonder -- the trade was a lucrative one." Sixsmith also learned that Philomena and her son spent years looking for each other, but the nuns did nothing to facilitate their reunion. The nuns, according to Sixsmith, regarded unwed mothers as "moral degenerates." Sixsmith's book, Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search was adapted for the screen by Jeff Pope and the English comedian Steve Coogan (who plays Sixsmith in the movie). The movie adds another wrenching chapter to the Catholic Church's long history of perfidy, and it has reduced audiences to tears. For his part, Coogan told an interviewer that his long career as a comedian left him hungry for something more than laughs. "Acerbic asides don't really feed the soul," he said, adding that the movie is "partly a conversation I'm having, out loud, about challenging my own cynicism." Captain Phillips Billy Ray adapted his script from A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. The book's subtitle is like one of those trailers that lays out the entire plot of the movie it's trying to sell -- it says it all, which is to say it says way too much. We're back in Dragon Country, this time the baddies being a gang of Somali pirates who board a container ship captained by a solid citizen played by -- who else? -- Tom Hanks, an Everyman who does heroic things. It's a perfectly fine story, and what winds up on the screen is perfectly workmanlike. That's not faint praise, but it's a long way short of glowing. The message is clear: This year, Hollywood screenwriters need to mix more fiction into their diet.
Screening Room

One Fixed Point: “Sherlock,” Sherlock Holmes, and the British Imagination

[The only real spoilers for the new series of Sherlock, which concluded last weekend in the United Kingdom, are for the first episode, “The Empty Hearse,” and will be marked as such.] 1. In 1893, after two novels, twenty-four short stories, and wild public acclaim, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes. In “The Final Problem,” published, like most of the stories before it, in The Strand, Holmes and Moriarty fight atop and then tumble over a Swiss waterfall; Dr. Watson, witnessing the struggle from a distance, determines that “any attempt at recovering the bodies was absolutely hopeless,” and puts his friend to rest. It had been six years since Holmes had begun deducing his way across the page, and Conan Doyle had had enough of his hero: “Poor Holmes is dead and damned,” he wrote later. “I couldn’t revive him if I would (at least not for years), for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do toward pate de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.” Three years later, in a speech at the Author’s Club in London, he said that, “I have been blamed for doing that gentleman to death, but I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defense, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.” The public, unsurprisingly, was furious. At least 20,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand, flooding the offices with angry letters and, apocryphally, donning black armbands in mourning. The Strand, likely dismayed at losing their star revenue source, announced that: The news of the death of Sherlock Holmes has been received with most widespread regret, and readers have implored us to use our influence with Mr Conan Doyle to prevent the tragedy being consummated. We can only reply that we pleaded for his life in the most urgent, earnest and constant manner. Like hundreds of correspondents, we feel as if we have lost an old friend whom we could ill spare. Mr Doyle’s feeling was that he did not desire Sherlock to outstay his welcome, and that the public had had enough of him. This is not our opinion, nor is it the opinion of the public; but it is, we regret to say, Mr Doyle’s. While The Strand was throwing Conan Doyle under the proverbial bus, he put some physical distance between himself and the British public, retreating to the Continent with his family. But the outcry inevitably reached him, and he later wrote, “I was amazed at the concern expressed by the public. They say that a man is never properly appreciated until he is dead, and the general protest against my summary execution of Holmes taught me how many and how numerous were his friends. ‘You brute’ was the beginning of the letter of remonstrance which one lady sent me, and I expect she spoke for others beside herself. I heard of many who wept. I fear I was utterly callous myself.” In the years that followed he worked to put metaphorical distance between himself and his character, too, but while his more “serious” work, including the staunchly pro-imperial dispatches from the Boer War, was well-received, he failed to rekindle the extreme devotion of the British public. His 1899 A Duet with an Occasional Chorus, a love story that was by all accounts irredeemably sentimental, was outright panned — a book “quite unworthy of Mr. Conan Doyle’s reputation.” Andrew Lang, a prominent critic, summed it up: “It may be vulgar taste, but we decidedly prefer the adventures of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.” Conan Doyle was a practical man. Back from Africa in 1901, eight years after the death of Sherlock Holmes, he began to write a new story based on a long trip to the Devonshire moors. He had a mystery; he lacked a detective. In the end, it seemed almost inevitable: “Why should I invent such a character,” he said, “when I already have him in the form of Sherlock Holmes.” The Hound of the Baskervilles is set before Holmes’s canonical death, but Conan Doyle had shown his hand. When he was knighted the following year, legend suggests that he was encouraged by King Edward VII, a great Holmes fan, to resurrect the character for good. After a somewhat feeble explanation of how he survived and a relatively bland reunion (Watson faints, Holmes apologizes, and they shrug and go off crime-solving once again), the consulting detective returned. A final novel and 32 short stories kept Conan Doyle knocking out locked-room mysteries until just a few years before his death. The world changed drastically during these two decades, but the adventures of Holmes and Watson remained relatively constant — most of them were still set in the late-Victorian period, because the gap between Holmes’s death and resurrection, known as “The Great Hiatus” by fans, was just three years long. The public devoured them, but for many, and perhaps for Conan Doyle himself, something had been lost at the Reichenbach Falls. He wrote later, “Some have thought there was a falling off in the stories, and the criticism was neatly expressed by a Cornish boatman who said to me, ‘I think, sir, when Holmes fell over that cliff, he may not have killed himself, but all the same he was never quite the same man afterwards.’ I think, however, that if the reader began the series backwards, so that he brought a fresh mind to the last stories, he would agree with me that, though the general average may not be conspicuously high, still the last one is as good as the first.” 2. In 2012, after six feature-length episodes, myriad critical accolades and awards, and wild public acclaim, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat killed off Sherlock Holmes. But wait, no — you can’t talk about Sherlock without talking about the century that preceded it, because its foundations lay both in the stories and in the staggering number of iterations that followed. It’s hard these days to think of an oft-adapted character as “singular,” to use Holmes’s favorite expression. Hollywood has us drowning in a sea of remakes and retellings, a sort of empty spin on fanfiction in which screenwriters and movie producers ask a mild “What…” rather than a brain-bending “What if?!” But there is something singular about Holmes, the “most portrayed literary human character in film & TV.” (Guinness Book of World Records, 2012. The most portrayed non-human character? Dracula.) There are reasons why the public was drawn to Holmes in the first place, and there are reasons why he endures. The forces at work in the modern Holmes boom, which began with the Guy Ritchie films in 2009, the first major adaptation in more than a decade, culminate in two relatively different modernized television shows, Sherlock and Elementary. The consulting detective in the present day gets at a great deal of nuance, and Sherlock in particular in many ways is a study of adaptations as much as of the canon. (The term canon, by the way, traditionally referred to the Bible, but it was in fact first applied to literature with Sherlock Holmes fans and their fan works, in 1911.) To get at the heart of the appeal, you have to go to the source. The Victorian period saw a dramatic rise in crime, particularly in the British capital, and the invention of the literary detective was a direct response to public fears. Scotland Yard was formed in 1842, and through the establishment of methodical police work, crime rates began to decline. But as the century waned, public anxieties about crime actually rose: the Empire began to spill back onto domestic shores, and xenophobia bred somewhat unfounded fears about the safety of the streets, particularly in the nicer areas of London, far from the concentrated poverty and desolation of the East End. At the same time, rapid leaps in science were busy explaining away the modern world — as Sherlock Holmes came to fruition, many of Conan Doyle’s contemporaries were at work engaging with the ethical complexities of scientific advancement in their fiction, reconciling the romantic with the rational while dealing with growing worries about progress. Holmes hit at an exact convergence of the British public’s anxieties and desires — and he hopped around town solving crime with wit and flair, too. Sherlock Holmes is a magician who explains his tricks: the deductive leaps that are so easy to parody — “Ah! I can see from the smudge of dirt on your left trouser cuff that your wife is having an affair!” — lie at the heart of the appeal of these stories across all adaptations. We are Watson, or just a bit swifter — we know Holmes’s methods, and revel in watching how they are applied. Holmes is ultra-rational, but the crimes are fanciful. In “Sherlock Holmes, Crime, and the Anxieties of Globalization,” a comprehensive study that situates Holmes perfectly in the time in which he was conceived, Michael Allen Gillespie and John Samuel Harpham cast him as a perfect arbiter of “collective human power”: “Holmes is less an individual than a literary or even mythological representation of the capacities of modern science applied to the discovery of criminal behavior. We can believe in Holmes, in part, because we believe in modern science and its claim that there is an answer to every question and a solution to every problem.” Holmes works outside the law but endeavors, above all else, for justice to be done, a late-Victorian Batman, maybe, though not as tediously tortured. He is at his heart a conservative figure, working above all to restore order. His methods may test the bounds of morality from time to time, but he is imbued with an unshakable code of fairness. But most importantly, the stories are fun. Sure, they can be sloppy from time to time — I’ve seen it joked that the “C” in Conan Doyle stands for “continuity” (fans have been forced to speculate that with Watson’s war wound in the shoulder in one story and the leg in another, he must have been some sort of contortionist to manage such an injury). But nearly every story is an elegant little construction, a baffling case with a satisfyingly straightforward, rational solution. It’s easy to see what’s to love. And people have really, really loved them. Even while Conan Doyle was still alive and writing, the adaptations began. Conan Doyle sanctioned it, famously replying to a request to put Holmes onstage with the line, “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.” The practice of writing pastiches, essentially Holmesian fanfiction (though unlike most modern fanfiction, many have been written for traditional publication, and stand-outs like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer, have enjoyed great commercial success), has drawn enthusiasts for more than a century, including writers far more famous for other things, like J. M. Barrie, Dorothy Sayers, and Michael Chabon. The first screen adaptation was in 1900: “Sherlock Holmes Baffled.” Obsessives gathered; societies were formed; “The Game” was played. Some of the enduring appeal of the traditional adaptations lies in nostalgia for the late-Victorian period — see Vincent Starrett’s poem “221B” for a pure, unadulterated expression of that nostalgia, with its final couplet, “Here, though the world explode, these two survive/ And it is always eighteen ninety-five.” Holmes booms have come and gone over the decades — the last major influx of adaptations was in the seventies — and though most are set amongst the old ‘swirling-fog-and-hansom-cabs’, they manage to tap into the anxieties of the ages in which they were conceived. But then there are the direct modernizations, which began with the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce films in the forties: the filmmakers pulled Holmes and Watson into their own time, fifty years on from the source material. One might argue that the modernization in the new millennium began not with Sherlock but with House, a relatively loose adaptation but still Holmesian at its core. (One might also argue that Holmes has influenced huge swaths of twentieth-century storytelling and modern forensics-based deductive crime solving, on television and elsewhere, but there’s only so much a single essay can handle here.) Moffat and Gatiss cite the Rathbone iteration when they talk about their decision to set Sherlock in modern London. Elementary, set in current-day New York with a female Watson (not the first female Watson, by the way) partly owes a debt to House, a clever, Holmes-influenced procedural that remained, at its heart, a procedural. But in the modernization, all three work to get at something essential that’s changed in the past century, and Ashley D. Polasek draws parallels with them and the Ritchie films in “Surveying the Post-Millenial Sherlock Holmes: A Case for the Great Detective as a Man of Our Times.” “This is not just Holmes for the twenty-first century, but Holmes of the twenty-first century,” she writes, describing the shift from hero to “a more complex post-modern antihero” as fundamental to the new adaptations. The writers of these versions play on Holmes’s flaws, seen as eccentricities in many of the traditional adaptations, and position him as a child in need of management, with an overactive mind that needs to be engaged lest it slide into self-destruction. Despite these parallels, the three current franchises — soon to be joined by a fourth, Bill Condon’s film with Ian McKellen as an elderly consulting detective — are their own animals: it’s reductive to compare them when they are each working to do something relatively different. And all due respect to Elementary and the Ritchie films, but it is January 2014, and after an excruciating two years waiting for the cast and crews’ schedules to align, Sherlock is back on our screens. On New Year’s Day, nine million Britons tuned in to see how Sherlock survived a leap from the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital at the end of the last series. If that was the first question on the collective mind of the nation, the second must surely have been: was this worth the wait? 3. “It isn’t supposed to be like this,” Steven Moffat, the co-creator of Sherlock, said recently, referring to this series’ domestic ratings, which have been the highest yet this series. “This show, which we all thought would be our vanity project destined for three million in the ratings and possibly an award from an obscure European festival, has become a barnstorming international phenomenon.” The rapid rise in the popularity of Sherlock means that more and more people will have to suffer through the long wait, known only partly affectionately by fans as “hiatus,” a reference to the original not-so-great one. The unique format, three feature-length episodes per series, invariably changes the demands of the production schedule, but what feel like endless gaps — eighteen months between series one and two, and two full years between two and three — are mostly the result of the recent exponential rise of the careers of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the latter of whom has spent a good portion of the past few years halfway around the world, filming The Hobbit trilogy in New Zealand. But Moffat spins the delays as a positive thing: “This feels like a good form, and it works for us,” he said last month. “Gaps and starvation have become part of the ecology of this. It certainly maintains it as an event.” Sherlock is set in and often engages with ultra-modern London — the present-day capital, at least my corner of it, is a city that feels on the brink of perpetual change, steel and glass pressed up against ancient buildings. Sherlock sometimes feels like a similar mash-up, a layering of nearly 130 years of Holmes references carefully built by two of the world’s biggest fanboys, Moffat and Gatiss (it should be noted, too, that the episodes are peppered with homages to the history of film as well, though I’m more likely to spot an obscure Conan Doyle reference than literally anything at all from classic cinema). The longer episode length and the tendency toward sheer irreverence give Moffat and Gatiss space to prod at their characters, or, more often, to drag them through the fire. They’ve said it before, though they’ve never had to repeat it as vehemently as they have the past few weeks, that Sherlock is not a detective show, but rather a show about a detective. Like plenty of other shows with a big fan base, Sherlock devotees run the gamut from casual enthusiast to bona fide obsessive. In Great Britain, a country whose television watching habits feel a bit more old-fashioned than ours, a third of all televisions are tuned to the big shows any given week, from Sherlock and the Doctor Who specials to things like The X Factor and the hit of the recent holiday period, Mrs. Brown’s Boys, a lowest-common denominator comedy with a cross-dressing lead that feels like it travelled in a TARDIS straight from 1977. Like the most popular Holmesian iterations before it, Sherlock does not exist in a vacuum — the show and its charmingly obnoxious “high-functioning sociopath” lead detective are beloved by the British public. The solution to the final question posed by the series two finale — how did Sherlock survive a jump off the roof of a building? — occupied prime space in British newspapers in the weeks afterwards. Theories were spun, some wilder than others (some frankly insane), stuff involving masks and ropes and strange angles and sleeping draughts and body-switching and inflatable bouncy castles and, of course, a squash ball under the armpit, to stop the pulse. And herein lie the concrete spoilers for “The Empty Hearse,” and really, if you plan to watch it and haven’t yet, please stop reading now. Gatiss was tasked writing the first episode, which brings Sherlock back from the dead, and he took the clever route out — it’s a route out, undeniably, a clear acknowledgement that the public would never be fully satisfied with any solution. At the premiere of the episode at the BFI in December, the press were given a list of embargoed topics that included both how Sherlock survived and when in the episode this information is revealed — the two fake-out explanations and the final, most plausible one at the end. (Being given this information prior to the screening with no specifics was, as you can imagine, pretty confusing!) We are left with a heavy seed of doubt, even when the explanation comes from Sherlock’s own mouth: if we are inclined to be Anderson-like, we will continue to poke holes in the theory, or we’ll sigh and say, “Well. That’s not how I would have done it.” I found the concept very clever, and “The Empty Hearse,” a fan club that dons deerstalkers and meets to talk theory, tweeting out #sherlocklives when the detective returns from the dead, was a fascinating piece of meta-commentary, not least because, at the BBC’s prompting, that same hashtag had been tweeted at extraordinary rates for a publicity stunt, more than half a million times even before the final episode aired last week. But the British public was left divided. Because the episode, too, was leveled with (in my opinion, largely unfair) accusations of “fanservice” — in-jokes, nods to unlikely romantic pairings, and frequent references to the two prior series. Op-eds were penned, in The Guardian and elsewhere, suggesting there was no more room for a casual fan when a show’s writers were focused on the deeply devoted. And on a baser level, some were still left scratching their heads at the explanation of the fall. But, as to be expected, this is all far from new. In a recent hour-long conversation with Empire (a seriously interesting one for fans, by the way, but I can’t stress this enough: do not listen until you’ve seen all three episodes), Gatiss and Moffat chuckle at the parallels with Conan Doyle’s Holmes resurrection: Gatiss: We discovered a lovely review of “The Empty House,” Doyle’s original story, in which of course Doyle says that he escaped due to his knowledge of an obscure form of misspelled Japanese wrestling. And the reviewer basically says, "Oh, come on, Dr. Doyle." It’s rather thrilling, actually, that it’s the same sort of review now… Moffat: Down to every detail we get the same reaction. It’s quite extraordinary. And in both cases, in both “The Empty Hearse” and “The Empty House,” you are dependent on Sherlock Holmes’s own account of how he survived. Now keep in mind that he’s been lying for two years. Who’s to say any version of Sherlock Holmes has told the truth about how he did it? Asking a writer to work to satisfy to a specific audience — any audience, from the broadest of the general public to the most highly attuned fans — is absurd. But you don’t get the sense that Moffat and Gatiss are particularly bothered by all of this, though: it is at its heart their retelling, and they know perhaps better than any adapters who’ve come before them exactly how well-borrowed — and well-loved — these characters have always been. And if there’s any constant, it’s that the British public (who am I kidding, it’s the whole world these days) can’t stay silent when it comes to matters of Sherlock Holmes: they clamor for more and, like ageless critics from the Cornish boatman up to Anderson himself, mumble how they would have done things differently. Moffat and Gatiss actively encourage it: at the Q&A following the screening of the final episode, Moffat said, “What happens is — and I was part of this, I am part of this — is that you see something you love, you start doing your own version of it. Then you start disagreeing with the actual version and think ‘my version’s better,’ and then you discover you’ve made something entirely different and you go off and do your own thing.” In “His Last Bow,” chronologically the last Sherlock Holmes story, the detective remarks to his companion, “Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.” People have spent more than a century flipping that remark on its head: Holmes feels like the fixed point — though who am I to separate the best pair of friends in the history of literature? They can be fixed points together. These stories, and Sherlock, and Rathbone and Jeremy Brett and Basil of Baker Street: we are not revisiting these characters and conceits because we are out of new ideas. A very old idea resonates; it comforts and entertains. In the case of Sherlock, even after all these retellings, it still manages to surprise. Conan Doyle, lamenting over the fact that Sherlock Holmes overshadowed all his other work, wrote in 1923, “It is not a matter which troubles me, however, for I have always felt that justice is done in the end, and that the real merit of any work is never permanently lost.” The merit lies in the enduring popularity of his creation, because every engagement with this universe — a reading, an adaptation, a challenge, a critique, or even just a casual night in front of the television — is surely a testament of love to Sherlock Holmes.
Screening Room

Pop Lit: Literary Magazines in Film and Television

“Small Magazines,” Ezra Pound’s 1931 appreciation of literary magazines, contains a confident proclamation: “the history of contemporary letters has, to a very manifest extent, been written in such magazines.” Commercial publications “have been content and are still more than content to take derivative products ten or twenty years after the germ has appeared in the free magazines.” Pound bemoans that larger publications are unable to “deal in experiment.” Instead, these commercial magazines poach from “periodicals of small circulation,” those “cheaply produced” in the same way a “penniless inventor produces in his barn or his attic.” Thus was created a romantic refrain: modern American writing has its foundation in literary magazines. Only one of Pound’s favorite magazines still publishes: Poetry. It might be difficult to call Harriet Monroe’s concern a “little magazine”: in 2002, philanthropist Ruth Lilly gave $100 million to the Modern Poetry Association, the publisher of Poetry. That organization has since become the Poetry Foundation, and, according to The New York Times, Lilly’s gift is “now estimated to be worth $200 million.” The gift has lead to an excellent website, interdisciplinary events and readings, television and radio promotion of poetry, and educational outreach programs. But how many readers outside of the traditional organs of American literature — aspiring and published poets, students in secondary classrooms and college campuses, and critics — know of, or read, Poetry? That might not be a fair question to ask. Literary magazines, by form and function, might require narrow focus. Narrow does not mean niche. Literary magazines have consistently enhanced and reflected larger literary trends without being as noticeable as those wider trends. Experimental publications helped spread Modernist writing and thought. As Travis Kurowski writes in the introduction to Paper Dreams, his comprehensive anthology of literary magazine history and culture, Modernist literary magazines “gave people a tie-in to an imagined community of readers.” Kurowski does not use “imagined” in the pejorative sense. Rather, he speculates that “literary magazines, due to their subject matter and even the smallness of their production, create a somehow more significant and longer lasting community than larger circulation magazines and newspapers.” Note Kurowski’s valorization of community over circulation. I might add further qualification. Literary magazines are uniquely important in observing the ripples, fragments, and failures within trends. They give readers and researchers the ability to see the flash beyond the snapshot, and in doing so, document moments in American literary history with more nuance than what is gained by only cataloging single-author books. Take Granta: 8, Summer 1983: the “Dirty Realism” issue. I once argued at Luna Park that it was the best single-issue ever of a literary magazine. The process was a thankless exercise, but I was attempting to make the point that even an individual issue of a literary magazine offers a complex cultural sample. Editor Bill Buford explains his collection of a strand of American writing marked by concise prose, destructive relationships, and a particular pessimism. The single issue contained writing by Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Ford, Frederick Barthelme, Tobias Wolff, Angela Carter, Carolyn Forché, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Elizabeth Tallent. Not a bad snapshot and flash. But I’m writing these words as a lover of literary magazines, an affection that was instilled in me at Susquehanna University. The Blough-Weis Library subscribed to Poetry and The Missouri Review, but also gems like Beloit Poetry Journal, where I finally read a poem — “Trout Are Moving” by Harry Humes — that connected me to the genre. If I held a collection by Humes, my 19 year-old mind might have lost interest after a few of his Pennsylvania-tinged, domestic elegies. Instead, I bounded to work by Ander Monson and Albert Goldbarth. Literary magazines made writing manageable and approachable. Our workshop professors used those publications as part of the curriculum, and not because they thought we could publish there. At least not yet. The point was that an awareness of contemporary publishing is necessary, particularly for undergraduates who think the only words that matter are the ones that come from their own pens. Now when I receive a review copy of a short story collection or purchase a new book of poetry, I immediately turn to the acknowledgments page. And this might be a personal quirk, but I try to find the original issues in which the pieces appeared, and read the work there tucked between writers both established and obscure. I loved Jamie Quatro’s debut, I Want to Show You More, and it yet it felt more personal to read “Demolition” in The Kenyon Review. Literary magazines are the legend to the map of American letters. Yet I worry that this appreciation reveals me for who I am: a writer who submits to these magazines, who uses them in the classroom. This cycle does speak to the insular world of small magazine publishing. Does anybody outside of our circle care? What is the wider cultural influence of literary magazines? To be certain, I am not sure there needs to be one. An insular economic system will likely fail, as evidenced by the graveyards of defunct magazines, but that does not mean an insular artistic system is inherently bad. Nor should we assume more literary magazines fail than niche publications or commercial releases. Here’s a better question: if for those of us in the circle — writers, readers, editors, teachers, and professors — literary magazines are a mark of credibility and authenticity, what are they to those on the outside? Do these publications carry any particular signification or importance within popular culture? It would be incorrect to simplify popular culture to film and television, but it is a useful place to begin this consideration. I recently wondered if and when literary magazines have been referenced or included in these visual mediums. I began with two examples that stuck in my mind. In the “Christmas Party” episode of The Office, Mindy Kaling’s character, Kelly Kapoor chooses a “book of short stories” during Michael Scott’s ill-advised game of Yankee Swap. At least to my eyes, that book is an issue of The Paris Review. A more direct literary magazine reference is in the 2007 film Juno, when the titular character says jocks really want girls who "play the cello and read McSweeney's and want to be childrens' librarians when they grow up.” The reference was probably lost on many, but on a small but aware crowd, it did its job. Even if that job was simplification. I couldn’t think of any more examples, so I went to that pop culture land of crowdsourcing, Facebook, for help. My literary friends delivered. What follows is a sampling of some of the most interesting occurrences, with original contributor citation in parentheses, plus my own investigations. 1. In Cheers, Diane receives a form rejection from West Coast magazine ZYZZYVA. Sam writes a poem that is later published in the magazine (Martin Ott). This appears in the “Everyone Imitates Art” episode, which originally aired on December 4, 1986, during the show’s fifth season. Diane enters the bar, overly excited about a letter from ZYZZYVA. Sam asks: “Who’s ZYZZYVA?” Diane responds: it’s “not a who. It’s a new literary review. Dedicated to publishing the prose and the poetry that’s right on the cutting edge.” The magazine was founded in 1985 by Howard Junker. Diane has submitted a poem, and received an extremely swift two-week response. Frasier Crane takes a skeptical look at the letter, and concludes that it is a form rejection. Diane disagrees, saying that it is a “soon and inevitably to be accepted later,” reading that “your work is not entirely without promise.” She proudly says they are “almost begging for another submission.” Sam agrees that the response is a form letter, and boasts that he could submit a poem that would receive the same type of response. The episode breaks, and when it returns, Diane asks about Sam’s poem. He points to a magazine on the bar, and tells her to open to page 37 and read “Nocturne”: by Sam Malone. She drops the issue and screeches. Diane thinks Sam has plagiarized the poem. She vaguely recognizes the overwritten lines. Somehow, in the span of three weeks, ZYZZYVA has received Sam’s submission, responded, and published it in an issue. Writers everywhere roll their eyes. Frasier tries to console Diane: “this literary magazine’s circulation must be 600.” Diane delivers the ultimate literary magazine rejection rant: “The original 600 readers drop their copies in buses and taxicabs and doctor’s offices and another 600 people pick them up and take them to the airport where they go all over the country. Then they get taken on international flights: Tierra del Fuego, Sierra Leone. All the remotest parts of the world. Soon, I defy you to find a house, a hut, an igloo, or a wickiup that doesn't have a copy on the coffee table. Then, then, everyone in the world, every living thing will be laughing at me because he got published and I did not!” More sting arrives later, when Woody sends in a poem of his own and receives the same form rejection as Diane. Dejected, Diane vents to Sam, who has created this mess. Sam finally admits that he copied the poem from Diane’s own love letters to him. She considers herself published and validated. In the words of Howard Junker himself, Onward! 2. The Paris Review is mentioned in the 2000 film, Wonder Boys (Neil Serven). Grady, a struggling novelist, talks about one of his students: “Hannah’s had two stories published in The Paris Review. You’d best dust off the ‘A’ material for her.” With no further explanation, the reference is an accepted barometer of literary quality. Yet for a magazine quite aware of its social status, the review’s cultural capital seems localized to the literary community. We might be stretching the parameters a bit too thin here, but co-founder George Plimpton appeared in the “I’m Spelling as Fast as I Can” episode of The Simpsons (Aaron Gilbreath). 3. We could spend years arguing whether The New Yorker should be considered a literary magazine proper, but it does regularly publish fiction and poetry, so it merits mention. The magazine appears in the film 42nd Street (1933). Dorothy Brock, played by Bebe Daniels, holds an issue of the magazine with Eustace Tilley on the cover (Win Bassett). In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Laura Linney’s character, Joan, is published in an unnamed literary magazine, and later appears in The New Yorker (Neil Serven). That more prestigious publication is revealed in a scene at a restaurant. Bernard, Joan’s estranged husband, is surprised to learn that an excerpt from her forthcoming novel appears in the magazine. Another character, Sophie, says the story “was kind of sad, but really good.” Bernard changes the subject. Later, their son Frank’s inappropriate behavior at school prompts a meeting with the principal, who, at the end of the conversation, says that she read and enjoyed Joan’s story in The New Yorker: “it was quite moving.” The magazine also appears often in Adaptation (2002), with the identifying “sprawling, New Yorker shit” (Alex Pruteanu). An early scene occurs at The New Yorker magazine office, where writer Susan Orlean — author of The Orchard Thief, which main character Charlie Kaufman is attempting to make into a film — discusses going to Florida to write an essay for the magazine. Kaufman is having trouble due to the “sprawling” nature of the book, hence the magazine reference as literary code. Kaufman first uses the word “stuff”; later, The New Yorker style is “sprawling...shit.” The magazine, with work by Orlean within, appears open and at a restaurant table in the film. Later, Kaufman watches Orlean, seated alone, reading another magazine. In Kaufman’s voiceover: “Reads Vanity Fair. Funny detail: New Yorker writer reads Vanity Fair. Use!” And the magazine’s cartoons were lampooned in “The Cartoon” episode during the final season of Seinfeld (Tim Horvath). The New Yorker’s Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff had some fun analyzing the episode here and here. 4.  In Mad Men, the character Ken Cosgrove has a story published in The Atlantic Monthly (Brenda Shaughnessy). The publication occurs in episode “5G,” the fifth episode overall of the series. The story is titled "Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning." His contributor bio is as follows: "A graduate of Columbia University, Kenneth Cosgrove has lived in the New York area for most of his life. Working for the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper puts Mr. Cosgrove in a unique position to observe and study the trends that shape America today. This is his first story to appear in The Atlantic." Pete Campbell, jealous, longs for his own fiction to appear in (you guessed it) The New Yorker, but is disappointed to learn that the piece only makes it into Boy’s Life Magazine (James Chesbro). The Missouri Review’s Managing Editor Michael Nye has a nice reflection on this episode, and the writer archetype in film, here. Can you add to the list in the comments? Image via Nigel Beale/Flickr