Thoughts on Movies and Books
HOW FICTION WORKS
By James Wood
Out of all the books I’ve read in my entire life, HOW FICTION WORKS is the only one, fiction or nonfiction, that having come to the very last page, I immediately turned again to the first and continued reading. And not because I had a thought like, Oh I’d like to read this book again, or, What was it he said at the start? It was a spontaneous gesture, like simply turning to the next page. It surprised me. I felt I’d been taken on a remarkable journey through literature, and my impressions at the end were just as vivid as my impression at the beginning. So much was packed into this little book, with such clarity and finesse, one reading was not enough.
James Wood is a well-known and respected literary critic who these days writes for The New Yorker. I stumbled upon his books about fiction via poking around for comments on Joshua Ferris’ TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR, a book that got a lot of praise but in which I found a good deal of tedium despite the flashes of brilliance and amusement. Somehow, I ended up reading Wood’s wonderful essay for The New Republic called “How Flaubert Changed Literature Forever.”
This subject is enlarged upon in HOW FICTION WORKS. I think it’s maybe a bit of a beginner’s primmer on Wood’s literary theory, and as one who hasn’t read much contemporary criticism, this is a great introduction. There are so many things I love about this book. For one, it is remarkably clear. It’s divided into ten chapters, some that focus on the elements of fiction, such as “Character,” “Detail,” and “Narrating,” and some that give an overview of changes in these elements through literary history, such as “Flaubert and the Modern Narrative” or “A Brief History of Consciousness.” Wood’s clarity takes organization a step further than usual: Each chapter is ordered into small, numbered points that flow, one to the next, yet remain distinct to be considered individually. Within the chapter, running heads, like “Introducing Characters” or “Believing Too Much in Character” further organize and define Wood’s small, numbered sections. It’s easy to understand and agree or disagree with his arguments, and with more than usual precision.
This book is an explication of style – maybe a subject a writer is more interested in that the casual reader. But in addition to being clear, Wood is also a wonderful stylist. His writing is not only exceedingly well organized, it is also lyrical. It’s lyrical and at the same time, very down to earth, familiar and intimate. Wood’s style is apparent in almost any section. Take, for example, from “The Importance of Noticing:”
Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail,
and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to
notice—to notice the way my mother, say, often wipes her lips just
before kissing me; the drilling sound of a London cab when its diesel
engine is flabbily idling; the way old leather jackets have white lines
in them like the striations of fat in pieces of meat; the way fresh snow
“creaks” underfoot …. (p64)
As an undergraduate, still mightily influenced by my antipathy for my mother’s literary condescension, I made the choice to study the sciences more than the literature, though I already knew I wanted to be a writer. Through James Wood, who so skillfully plunders literary technique, I am at last able to enter into my mother’s world, which now (in my later years) I understand was for her simply one of sheer delight in the ways of our mysterious human language and all the stories – real and imagined – we make of our lives.
LA LA LAND
Am I the only person in the entire United States who hated this film? In fact, I hated it twice; I was so surprised the first time, I saw it again. I know I’m not the only one because I heard people going out of the movie theater muttering to companions, “I don’t know why it’s supposed to be so great.” Both times.
For me, this was a stunningly narcissistic production about stunningly narcissistic people. I love musicals, on stage and in movies, and I’m a huge fan of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, so don’t get me wrong, I am not a Bergmanesque film-snob. But come on, folks: These stars can’t dance.
The opening number was clumsy, so stylized it clearly was meant to evoke the grand old movies of yore, but the technique and choreography was nothing to write home about. Later, the romantic number was just plain dull.
But more to the point, this movie was about Hollywood for Hollywood. I guess that’s how I justify the many awards and accolades it garnered. After all, it’s Hollywood’s finest who award the Oscars. They obviously loved it.
The movie is about two obscure (but “talented”) performers struggling to get recognition and success, hard to come by in the careless, ego-centric world of multimedia multimillionaires, those dismissive and disrespectful hot-shots wielding power, who tremble only under the lash of bigger hot-shots wielding more power.
The two struggling artists (an actress and a jazz musician) fall in love, and of course they sacrifice love to their careers. But instead of seeing any real pain or heartbreak, what we see are their individual brilliant successes … and only five years later! The fantasy of the love that might have been, which comes at the end, is whimsical, maybe a little sad. Of genuine suffering, there is none … except maybe for some people in the audience.
My claim is this: La La Land is a small movie, made for a small audience. This story resonates for actors and maybe writers or musicians who have experienced the harshness, the rejection and the personal sacrifice they had to make in order to become famous, rich and successful. As for insight about the human values with which this movie flirts – the egoism, the cruelty, the ambition, the self-sacrifice – there was none.
And there wasn’t even any great dancing.
THE SHAPE OF WATER
A friend of mine whose intelligence and discernment I respect hated this movie, but he’s the type who loves mainly biopics. I adored this film.
First I will admit it is a fantasy, but so real in its emotion and stark cinematography, so elevated to the level of myth, maybe even some fantasy-haters will like it. The pictorial quality, the sets, the scenes, the furnishings of the entire film are imbued with peculiar personality and a presence of the past, not quite black and white, not sepia, but more a sense of sepia. The film takes place some time in the past: It seems like the 1950s. Actually, it’s 1962 but “the sixties” evokes the wrong image to me; this is early sixties, the hold-over of uptight fifties; it’s the cusp, the left-behind, the height of the cold war.
Second I will admit it is a romance. But one of a most peculiar nature. A lonely woman who works as a cleaning lady in a government science facility falls in love with a science experiment: An aquatic fish-man, a merman of perfect proportions but inhuman face, a god worshiped by the denizens of South America where he was discovered, imprisoned, and hauled back to America for vivisection.
Some critics have complained that Elisa’s affair with the aquatic creature is unbelievable, but to me it seemed natural. Water is a central image in the film and central to Elisa’s fertility. We discover Elisa came into the world as a foundling, discovered in or by a river, her throat gashed in such a way as to leave gill-like scars. Every morning, Elisa pleasures herself in her brimming bathtub. And this while her eggs are boiling in water on the stove.
Elisa’s isolation and longing for connection is palpable in her friendships with her neighbor, a commercial artist whose expertise is passing into obsolescence, and her co-worker, a black woman who at the time was surely a member of an oppressed minority. Each of them struggles within the confines of their own small prisons to break through.
It’s the eggs that create the first connection between the aquatic creature and Elisa, eggs that she offers him while he is still chained within his liquid cell. Neither can speak with voices. Elisa is mute, though she can hear, and so is the creature. So it is with offerings, gestures, and music in which they find meaning.
All is threatened by the perversity of men who are bent on supremacy, whose purpose it is to take and to dominate, who are willing to kill without scruples.
This fable is about the life-force versus human destruction, the cold war and the ambition of cold men pitted against something other, something better, something more powerful. We discover that the merman, or god, or whatever he is, can heal wounds, can even bring back life itself. Love, friendship, and the commitment to life lifts these ordinary people up to heroic proportions, and Elisa herself is transformed, healed.
It is a beautiful and moving film. Writers Vanessa Taylor and Guillermo del Toro, (with del Toro as director) have created a story that is infused with the extraordinary imagery of a contemporary myth. Anybody who doesn’t like it is, in my opinion, just a little bit too literal.
A WRINKLE IN TIME
This movie was a must-see for me because it’s based on one of my favorite children’s books of the same name. I was ten when I first read it, and it opened a door to the amazing world of science fiction, which has been my most surprising thought-provocateur, my greatest escape, my raft though many of life’s tragedies.
I knew as soon as I saw the trailer I was going to be disappointed. I love sci-fi that expresses that sense of the ineffable within the scientific, that wonder at the surprise of biology, the physics of the life of the spirit. Madeline L’Engle’s work expresses all three, and it’s what has made this book such a classic. But even in the trailer, I could see these characters had feet of clay. Or make that faces of clay.
Is it possible for make-up to ruin a movie? My biggest gripe is the badly made-up faces of the three spirits. They look like somebody at a craft fair face-painting booth did the honors.
These three spirits guide the heroes of the story to rescue their father, who has been (in his great pride and scientific genius) captured by an entity of evil. The spirit-guides are often funny and rather whimsical in the book. They signify that the great Good in the universe is not only a shining beacon, but also has a sense of humor. In the movie, the spirit guides just seem a little ridiculous. Sometimes they glow, but shining they are not.
Was it make-up and costume? Could such seemingly minor factors be critical to our sense of reality inside the alternate reality? I think so! The acting was decent. The story followed the original. What went wrong?
I’m put in mind of the fairy godmother in Disney’s most recent version of Cinderella (2015), maybe the most gorgeous picture I’ve seen in decades. The fairy godmother morphs from a grotesquery of nature into a magical beauty; some of that technical genius would have worked well in this film.
Was the blunder the result of playing to an adult’s idea of child-mentality, instead of using imagery that pays homage to a great author’s subtlety? Of course, it is hard to translate a classic, even a short classic, from words into images. But I suspect the artistic decisions were heartfelt wishes to not “glamorize” L’Engle’s classic, and in so doing, the movie fell short of the book’s metaphor.