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Wednesday
Nov122014

A Potpourri of Hitchcock, Vampires, and Other Savages

A minister recently opined to me that America's pop culture was on a downward spiral. His reasoning: so many books, movies, and tv shows glorify evil characters. In particular, he took offense to the growing trend of stories that depict vampires and witches as good guys.

This is quite a statement from a man who has been known to quote The Godfather from the Sunday morning pulpit. After all, his generation gave us A Clockwork Orange and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The best my generation can do, it seems, is Twilight and Wicked.

That's the way it is with perceptions, though, especially as you get older. The past gets rosier and the present gets bleaker. One day I'll probably have to listen to my kids wax poetic about "classic" movies like Thor 2 and Avatar.

Puh-leeze! Give me Marty McFly, Robocop, and Ghostbusters any day. 

* * *

Speaking of perceptions,   Hollywood released a pair of very interesting pictures last year focused on the life of Alfred Hitchcock. They are a fun study in how perception influences reality. Both movies showcase acclaimed actors who nail the voice, the mannerisms, and the presence of the great director. Both movies address his complicated, sometimes troubled marriage to his writing partner. Both movies examine his obsession with his blonde leading ladies, his self-esteem issues over his weight, and his meticulous demanding creative process. There's very little contradicting factual accounts in these two films, but their perceptions of the man could not be more polar opposite.

Hichtcock stars Anthony Hopkins in the titular role, surrounded by an A-list all-star cast including Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson. It takes place during the creation of Psycho, arguably the highlight of Hitchcock's oeuvre, or at least a pivotal revitalization of his career. The film, of course, turned Janet Leigh into a superstar and typecast Anthony Perkins for 35 years. Hopkins portrays the man as an eccentric but fundamentally decent creative giant. Sure, he drinks a little too much, he flirts shamelessly with pretty blondes, and he tends to take his wife for granted. But at the end of the day, he's humble enough to admit his mistakes and cares mostly about just making good movies.

The Girl takes a much different tone. It stars Sienna Miller in the title role as Tippi Hedron, opposite Toby Jones as Hitchcock. This one is set immediately after Psycho, during the making of The Birds and Marnie. Janet Leigh has been replaced by Tippi, and here Hitchcock is portrayed as a monster who preys on vulnerable young women but who has carefully constructed a public alter-ego to hide his inner rage and impotence. Toby's Hitch outright terrorizes Tippi after she refuses his sexual advances and then destroys her career when she walked away from a 7-movie contract. This Hitch is trapped in a deeply dysfunctional, loveless marriage. Toby Jones slithers through his scenes with an almost palpable malice.

Most critics agree Hitchcock is probably the more accurate film, because The Girl is based almost entirely on Tippi Hedron's account with little to no corroborating support from other eyewitnesses. Of course, that's the way it is with sexual harassment most of the time. 

* * *

Universities serve a nefarious purpose in our culture:  To identify raw talent and squash it.

(Now, before I go any further on this point, let me qualify: Formal education has its uses, especially in the world of commerce. When I hire an employee, the first thing I do is check to see how much school she completed. I know the top 2% of the population is smart enough to educate themselves--a degree is nothing more than wasted years and a piece of paper for the Steve Jobs of the world--but among the populace of the self-educated, separating wheat from chaff can be dicey. A degree is a safety net for a hiring manager. It says someone possesses a reasonable ability to retain information and was persistent enough to finish a long-term endeavor. By looking for the right college creds, I am denying myself the chance to hire the self-educated top 2%, but I'm also ensuring I weed out the bottom 40%. )

But I believe universities are a slaughterhouse for the Arts. Institutions can only teach you how to critique. They can't teach you to create.

Case in point: Karen Russell is widely considered one of the most promising young voices in American fiction today. She graduated from Columbia's MFA program. She has a Guggenheim grant. Her debut novel was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She is a Serious Writer. Her latest short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove has been racking up critical praise since it was released several months ago. The internet is littered with glowing reviews for these 8 stories.

Mine is not going to be one of them.

Karen Russell was born with a brilliant, quirky, wonderful mind. Somewhere along the way, her creative writing teachers taught it how to be mediocre.

She obviously has a lot of talent and imagination. She knows how to set up a great story premise. I was enthralled at the half-way point of many of the stories--Proving Up, The New Veterans and Vampires in the Lemon Grove in particular. Her prose was rich and crackling. Her characters were intriguing, and she frequently mixed elements of magical realism without overwhelming the "literary" story being told.

Proving Up is a great example of such a setup. Several homesteaders in Iowa are trying to get ownership of 160 acres of farmland from the U.S. government. For five years, they have braved famine and natural disasters; they have sacrificed family members to brutal winters and lack of healthcare. They have met every requirement of the U.S. government but one: they are too poor to afford glass windows on their houses. The story opens on young boy of 11 whose father has found one intact window in a deserted hovel, and it is the boy's job to ferry the window to each of his neighbor's houses in turn, so they can all trick the Inspector to obtain their land titles. 

The first half of this tale introduces the characters and establishes their backstories; it works beautifully. Until it goes off the rails.

The problem is Russell comes from a university creative writing tradition which emphasizes tone, characterization, and imagery but de-emphasizes any actual storytelling. I once had a professor tell me in an undergraduate course, "Plot doesn't matter. The best stories don't even have one." This is absurd, and Russell's stories show why. Once the characters and backstory are established, they have nowhere to go. They peter out.

Let's go back to Proving Up. This should be a powerful story of sacrifice, suspense, and a community on the brink. The author establishes great characters with all this historical backstory, but then clearly she has no way to drive the plot to a satisfying conclusion. Instead, more than 2/3rds through the story, a murderous (possibly demonic) villain is abruptly introduced to kill everyone. 

Huh?

It's like a dumb-ass splatterpunk ending 13-year old boy would think up. With bigger words.

Instead of a satisfying plot and a logical conclusion, Russell instead chose to insert a literary game of Decode-My- Metaphors-To-Reveal-A-Hidden-Meaning game with this story.

This is a very popular game in academic circles, mostly because only a select few (i.e., people with college MFA's) know the secret code.

When asked about the villain by Interview Magazine, Russell described him as the "zombie" embodiment of "a hope that outlasts any possibility of its fulfillment, this undead hope in a landscape that is just completely inhospitable to it, this hope that has kind of gone rancid and killed its host."

Again: Huh? 

I didn't want a story that introduced a zombie-as-metaphor bad guy. I wanted a story about the homesteader characters I had grown to admire, a story about an 11-year old boy on a quest to save his family's farm, a story that told me whether this vibrant unique community survived or failed in its quest for legitimacy and respect.

Russell writes fiction in order to Ask Big Questions. She wants readers to Discuss Important Themes.

Here's what she doesn't do: actually Tell A Story.

Now don't get the wrong idea:  these stories weren't all bad. Reeling for the Empire was the strongest in the book. It's the tale of some young women who are enslaved by the Chinese Empire and turned into human silkworms. It's their story of regret and ultimate redemption. The Barn at the End of Our Term was also memorable, based on the whacky but thin premise that U.S. presidents are all reincarnated as horses on a farm somewhere in mid-America. It's funny but preachy. 

I say skip this book. It would make a lousy movie anyway.

***

The best book I've read so far this year was Savages by Don Winslow. I picked up this novel at my local library after I saw the preview for the movie starring Blake Lively and Benicio del Toro. I thought it would be fun to read the book, then Redbox the dvd.

The funny thing is... I enjoyed the book so much that now I don't want to see the movie. I know it can't possibly live up.

Winslow does for crime fiction in this decade what Elmore Leonard did in the 1970's. He captures the language, the cadence, and the zeitgeist of the streets. Or, to be more accurate, his dialogue sounds so authentic that I believe it must be how criminals talk. (I don't plan to actually mix myself up in a drug war on the Mexican border to find out.)

Winslow excels at all those stylistic techniques the University critics like so much:  tone, imagery, characterization. He's avante garde. Whole chapters are written in poetic verse. Other chapters are written as screenplays. His third person omniscient narrator skips from character to character like a schizophrenic squirrel. He breaks down the fourth wall to address the reader directly, usually only to tell bad jokes.

But the cheese-and-wine crowd will never embrace Savages. It's all-out in-your-face genre fiction, full of low-life characters who get over their heads in drugs, murder, and cartel wars. Every character is motivated by the same three Darwinian forces:  Get Rich, Stay Alive, and Always Shoot First.

It is the American dream.