Friday, October 27

Pastoralia Ramblings

You might recall that my time with George Saunders was the literary highlight of my Bumbershoot experience in September. At that time I am fairly certain I was only familiar with the writer through an interview on The Sound of Young America and a discussion between he and Ben Marcus that is included in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. Saunders is a fascinating character. He has a B.A. in geophysical engineering, and worked in that field for about 15 years, picking up an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University along the way. He now teaches creative writing at Syracuse, and just this year he was awarded a 'genius grant' from the MacArthur Foundation and a Guggenheim Fellowship. I have just now gotten around to reading some of his short fiction. I picked up Pastoralia at the library earlier this week, and after reading the title story I remembered why I so much enjoyed hearing him read aloud nearly two months ago. There's a certain charm to his satire that I think is missing in the work of many others. I don't know if 'charm' is quite the right word, but there is an honesty and a playfulness to it all rather than a lurking coarseness and bitterness. Don't get me wrong, his writing can be quite dark, but it always seems to maintain a hint of optimism that is slightly antithetical to his reputation as a distopian writer. But perhaps not. Regardless, he is an original and important American writer. I recommend his work.

Listen to Saunders on The Sound of Young America (Begins at 22:05)

I have also been continuing my journey through the drug-, ego-, and testosterone-fueled history of 1970's American film in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. A little too gossipy for my tastes but a damn fun read. I wish I'd been making notes along the way because there are just too many great anecdotes to recount. One of my favorites involves the strategic drug use of the bat shit insane Dennis Hopper:
One director wouldn't use him after lunch, when the alcohol kicked in. Another knew that Dennis would grab whatever was around--uppers, downers, what have you--and worried that, say, if Dennis took one drug during a long shot in the morning and a different one during a close-up in the afternoon, the energy levels would be different, making it impossible to cut them together. The two men went through the script and agreed on what drug Dennis would use in each of his scenes. When Hopper got the next day's call sheet, there was a notation at the bottom indicating the appropriate drug.
I suppose this tidbit is of particular interest to me because it perfectly illustrates how, while the era is remembered for its freewheeling approach and active abandonment of Old Hollywood techniques, the people involved in these pictures were quite serious about their craft. I suppose that's obvious, you don't produce several of the greatest works in the history of film by simply ingesting drugs and letting the cameras role, but it's one of the major points that I take away from the book. Well, that and the understanding of how, like with so many great writers and musicians, the ego and ambition that fueled the work of, say, Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson, created relationships with friends and lovers that were tumultuous at best. They were endlessly philandering, self-absorbed and destructive. Indeed, it sometimes seems as though these traits are mandatory for achieving greatness in the arts.

So how might this relate to the previous Book-Loop discussion regarding the acquisition of a writer's sometimes upsetting biographical details. Perhaps it's instructive that my new understanding of the salacious details of these filmmaker's private and professional lives has done little to weaken my appreciation of their work. If anything, reading the book has probably enhanced my appreciation of the films. My perception of Hollywood is that it's a seedy place--always has been. I expect bacchanalian excess and dirty double crossing. Not only do I expect it, but I think it adds to the legend and might even be an essential part of America's (dwindling) love affair with motion pictures. The written word is very different. Filmmaking is a group affair, vulnerable to in fighting, abuses of power and mutiny. Writing is a solitary act, it is personal. Why I place writers on a higher moral plane I cannot really say. I think it's mostly affect, but maybe it also comes from the (false?) idea that writing comes from the soul while movie making is one big put on--actors, costumes, make-up, sets, special effects, etc.--and even when it's a personal tale or a so-called auteur picture it lacks the one-on-one interaction that a book offers.

Ah, this post is a rambling mess. I seem to ramble much more on this blog than I do on my own. I'm not sure why, but I like it.

Friday, October 20

Winning excerpts

"Instead of sulking, [Manny Ramirez] was more likely to put his cell-phone camera down his pants, take a picture, and interrupt other players' interviews to show them the image. Kevin Millar, apparently, was not impressed. Once he walked over to a naked Ramirez, pointed at his groin and exclaimed, "Forty home runs and 140 RBIs, and with this penis!" - Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top

"[Bob Rafelson] was handsome in the Jewish way, a shock of dark brown hair over a high forehead, rosebud lips frozen in a permanent pout under a fighter's battered nose." - Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood

Wednesday, October 11

Up from the ashes

After several weeks of literary dormancy today the gears in my brain strained into motion. Actually, they were humming from the get go. I woke up, grabbed José Saramago's Blindness and was enthralled right from page one. An incredible feeling after nearly a month without focus or patience. Whatever the reason (and I think I know it) I seem to be back to normal.

After breakfast I made my way to Elliott Bay Book Co. to do some browsing. I read the preface to Natural capitalism and very nearly bought it before having one of those little internal meltdowns where you decide that you must get out of the store as soon as possible because you simply do not possess the resources to procure even a single book, and if you stay much longer you will almost certainly wind up exiting the store with five. So I put it back and made my way to the door. A little book titled "Speech of Chief Sealth" caught my eye and I stopped to give its innards a once over. An elder lady crept up alongside me and leafed through a different Native American non-fiction. She wandered off just as four books indiscreetly tumbled from the shelf and onto the rustic wooden floor. I quickly made an effort to shepherd the lost books back to where they would be more comfortable. Once I had placed the books back neatly on the self the lady, offering a reaction sufficiently delayed so as to suggest an incertitude of cuplability where there truly was none, asked "Did I do that?" I responded, "Oh, no, I'm fairly certain it was gravity." I gave her a wry smile and once again made my way to the exit. Netted in once again, this time by an autographed copy of Michael Lewis's latest book, The Blind Side, my departure was delayed further. I soon spotted Feeding the Monster, which, were I of sound mind when it was released a few months back, I would have surely bought it the very day it came out. So I bought it.

Walking home I passed a smiley faced man handing out reading material on the street. 'Jesus Saves!' 'Go Vegetarian!' 'No on I-933!' I was not sure what he was distributing but I accepted his offering graciously. I made an attempt to read it. I could not. It was a blank sheet of white paper. All his papers were blank. The man is a genius! I went into a shopping center where I sat and read the introduction to Feeding the Monster. Upon leaving I passed the man again but declined his handout, telling him, "No thanks, I've already read it."