Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Seeing The Master

So, after many weeks adding up to months of anticipation, I saw The Master last night in Boston. This undoubtedly comes as welcome news for my friends and family, as now I’ll probably finally be able to shut up about it. Maybe. (Apologies also to those following my tweets; I know it’s been inordinately heavy on the #THEMASTER70MM hashtag lately.)

It was also my introduction to the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which has the only 70mm print of The Master in New England. It’s a seriously cool venue. It has the trappings of a vintage movie house, the auditorium is cozy and charmingly theatrical, and they have beer on tap. The screen was nice and big, and the sound was nice and loud. I could see myself frequenting the place every week, if only it wasn’t three hours away.

Here’s a panoramic view from where I was sitting.
The 70 mm experience was delightful. It was the first time I’ve ever seen a 70 mm projection and I think I’m in love with it. Every frame compelled my interest. Colors seemed especially lush, and details were startlingly clear (especially on some of the closeups). It was really quite gorgeous. And of course it had that analog “warmth” as well; it was quite something to see those “cigarette marks” alerting everyone that a changeover of reels was about to occur. In an age when the term is, for better or worse, an anachronym, it was really exciting to see a true “film” once again.
So what did I think of The Master? Well, I liked it. In truth, I’m a little in awe of it. The common refrain is that it all but requires multiple viewings, and I suppose I endorse this point of view since I’m planning to see it again next week, this time a mere 3 miles from my house. (And in digital, which will be good for comparison’s sake, image quality-wise.)
I think it was not as big a revelation as There Will Be Blood, but only because PTA prepped us for this new one with his previous film. In many ways, I think The Master is a more shocking and audacious movie than TWBB, which bodes well for its impact down the road, when we decide just how good it is, really. (Instant classic? Or failed experiment? Or something in between?)
I could write a review that would probably end up being embarrassing 6 months or 2 years or 5 years down the road. I remember coming out of TWBB and not exactly knowing what to make of it. If you had forced me to put down my thoughts right then, it’d probably read like a lot of asinine babbling now, especially when I’m pretty much on board with everyone else who says that it’s a modern classic, an assessment that was not at all clear to me after the initial viewing.
What I’m coming to find out about movies by true visionaries is that you don’t need to make a decision whether they are “good” or “bad” right away. Let it turn over in your mind a little, and if it’s compelling enough, you’ll revisit it. I’ve found that to be the most important question after a movie: Is it compelling? If it’s compelling, you’ll rewatch it, even if you didn’t think it was very good. And during those rewatches, you’ll open yourself up to the movie again, and you’ll be responsive to any of those little things a director puts in a movie that he or she thinks will make the movie better and a more worthwhile experience and maybe even the best thing ever put on screen. And if the movie is made by eminently talented people, there’s a good chance you’re seeing great art.
But if a movie isn’t compelling, it really just sort of lies there, neither art nor entertainment, just a vague memory of passing time. If you thought it was bad, it remains bad. If you thought it was good, it never exceeds that initial judgment—it stays just as good as you initially thought. And maybe it actually isn’t very good, or, perhaps, it’s even better than you thought, and if it is in fact great art, there’s almost no way you would be able to take in all the nuances it has to offer with just one viewing. (Maybe if you were Pauline Kael you’d be able to, but I’m talking about the rest of us mortals.)
Compelling things offer us the chance to have a conversation with them, to engage in an intellectual and emotional back-and-forth, to change as we change, to grow alongside us. These are the sorts of interactions that have the best chance of ultimately enriching our lives, to affect the way we think, feel, respond—forever. And that’s a lot more rewarding than just saying “This is good” or “This sucks” all willy-nilly. Making snap judgments is pretty unfulfilling and empty, and no one comes to art to feel emptier. That’s why, when something singularly compelling comes along, we should be excited instead of rushing to praise or condemn it. In an ephemeral world, compelling things have a defiant permanence. In a world where there is accretive pressure to get everyone to think the exact same way, compelling things give you thoughts you’ve never had before. They are opportunities for personal growth.
I’m not sure if it’s a modern classic, but if there’s one thing The Master is, it’s compelling. Very, very much so. And that is more than enough reason to celebrate it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

General Update (and a bit on the difference between books and novels that isn’t quite substantial enough to be its own blog post)

Hi all. Sorry for the lack of updates lately. I’ve been in full-on-writing-the-next-book mode and it’s consuming every last bit of spare time I have these days. Which is good. I’m sure you’ll agree that a completed book trumps a few blog entries every time. And before you ask, the writing’s going well. I remain cautiously optimistic that there will be a major release from me by the end of the year. It may, in fact, almost be time to start talking in public venues about what this release will be. Not quite yet, but almost.

(BTW, here’s a handy tip: Never ask a writer how his writing’s going. Because it’s either going bad, in which case he’ll wear a pained expression and basically start evincing an unhappiness that’ll bring down everyone in the vicinity, or it’s going great and he won’t be able to keep an annoyingly giddy smile off his face and there’ll be a strong possibility that all he’ll want to talk about is how his characters are coming alive most vividly or how he successfully solved a plot problem with particular élan and you won’t be able to shut him up. Both scenarios make for an unpleasant evening for you and everyone else in the room.)

I will say I’m writing the first book in a multi-volume series. I have high hopes and high expectations, and I look forward to the challenges involved with working on a giant canvas.

When I say I’m working on a book, I do mean just that—a book, as opposed to a novel. What’s the difference? To be honest, I’m not sure there technically is one, at least in the way I’m thinking. Yes, novels are generally book-length works of fiction, while a “book” can be any genre. All novels are books, but not all books are novels, that sort of thing.

But I also use the term “book” to describe a particular kind of fiction as well, something distinct from “novels.” To me, “novels” imply a more literary-minded sort of fiction. “Novels” win prestigious awards like the Nobel Prize or the Pulitzer. They teach “novels” in college classes. These are not the types of books I write.

I admit that this is largely a semantic exercise. A lot of people would call Deadly Reflections a novel, and they wouldn’t be wrong. This is just a distinction I feel on a gut level.

It’s kind of like the difference between “movies” and “films.” There’s really no difference between those two terms, but we all instinctively know there are some movies we would never call “films.” House at the End of the Street is not a “film.” Neither is Resident Evil: Retribution. They aren’t out to change cinematic history, nor do they aspire to be some great artistic achievement. They are just out to entertain as many people as possible on a Saturday night in 2012.

Likewise, my stories are meant to entertain, to provide an experience that is as diverting and pleasurable as possible. I feel weird attaching such a loaded and elevated term as “novel” to them. Hence, they are just “books” to me.

This is not to say that “novels” are inherently better than “books,” or that “films” are better than “movies.” I wouldn’t call Iron Man a “film,” but it is a supremely kick-ass movie, and certainly better than a lot of so-called “films.” It is true that films have more on their mind. They tackle the big questions and big themes. But even though films and novels might illuminate the human condition (or try to), many do so at the expense of fun. On the other hand, movies and books, as I define them, get to devote themselves solely to entertainment, an endeavor that I consider no more or less important than what the more highbrow artwork out there is trying to accomplish. There is something vital and necessary about a great piece of entertainment, which is why I think Stephen King’s and Elmore Leonard’s books will prove to be just as immortal as Salinger’s and Updike’s.

Ultimately, there is room for both entertainment and edification. Sometimes you feel like one and sometimes you feel like the other. Most people are willing participants in either audience, depending on how they feel at the time. (“Should I read this novel that’ll make me a better person, or this other book that will just be plain fun?”) As for what an artist decides to do, I can tell you it isn’t much of a decision. An author just writes words as they occur to him, and essentially does what he feels he can do, and offers what he can in a way not dissimilar to how most people live their day-to-day lives. It became clear to me early on that I may not be able to give everyone the secret to life or uncover universal truths in a virtuosic way.

But I could probably tell a pretty engaging yarn. So I tossed my hat into the entertainment arena and haven’t looked back and am so far without regret.
With all that said, I’m going to see a film tomorrow. J I’ll be at the 6:30 showing of The Master in 70mm at The Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston. I’ve never been there before, and I’m very excited because it looks like a pretty classy place, a perfect venue to see what may very well turn out to be my most anticipated movie of the next 5 years (or until PTA makes another film). I’m not looking forward to the roughly five-and-a-half hours of travel time involved to get there and back, but on the bright side it will afford me plenty of writing time.

Have a good evening everyone.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The 3 Major Revelations About David Foster Wallace Gleaned From DT Max's Biography, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, For The People Who Are Considerably More Well-versed in Wallace Than Those With Just a Casual Interest in Him

If you're like me—and I suspect there're more of you out there than one might think—you've been eagerly awaiting D.T. Max's bio of David Foster Wallace ever since it was excerpted in The New Yorker 3.5 years ago. And you've also, like me, read and re-read all of Wallace's published output. You've even tracked down his unpublished stuff, and are rather blasé about the impending release of Both Flesh and Not, a volume of previously uncollected work, because you're pretty sure you've read it all. (Which doesn't mean you won't get it on release day and read everything again, gratefully.) You own multiple copies of Infinite Jest. You follow Nick Maniatis on Twitter and compulsively click on every link he deems tweet-worthy. You own the Charlie Rose interviews on DVD. You have 9 hours of DFW interviews on your iPod, 3.4 hours of readings (not including audiobooks), 4.4 hours of tributes and remembrances. You've torn out the pages of a yard sale copy of IJ so you could put the story in chronological order.
So, if you're such a person, a self-admitted DFW nut, does Max's book have any juicy new nuggets to offer you, anything you didn’t already know? Well, there are a couple things, but nothing too major. The simple fact is that if you've read all the books and all the interviews and all the tributes (and listened to all the audio tributes and radio interviews, natch) and have gone through all the supplemental material like the Conversations With book and Lipsky's Although Of Course... and Boswell’s Understanding and Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity and both editions of Stephen Burn’s IJ companion, and have even watched stuff like that hour-long videotaped interview with Bonnie Nadell and all the videos of the Ransom Center symposia on YouTube, if you’ve done all that, well, Max's bio is going to cover a lot of familiar ground for you. There are some things in Every Love Story you can tell would be new and interesting for the casual reader, but you end up kind of skimming a lot of it because when, for example, Max does stuff like quote from a syllabus from a Wallace-taught class, you not only recognize the words, you've seen scans of the actual syllabus.
The best part of the book by far is when Max quotes from Wallace's letters. (Well, when he quotes from letters you haven't already read/heard other people read aloud/seen scans of.) Wallace was an inveterate writer of letters and apparently there are copious amounts of epistolary correspondence; Max had some 850 pages of Wallace-penned letters at his disposal. (It seems he wrote to DeLillo about pretty much Everything, from writing tips to problems with his publisher to buying a new house.) The letters are written in DFW's familiar (and therefore comforting) voice; he wrote them with the same intelligence, wit, and insight with which he wrote gosh darn near everything. (In that respect he rivals Fitzgerald for having never ever written a weak sentence. Like, ever. [apologies to TS]) When a volume of his letters is eventually published, it will be a true event, and pretty close to Holy Grail-type material for Wallace fans—rivaled perhaps only by a facsimile of the handwritten IJ manuscript or "Author's Cut" of IJ with hundreds of pages of restored cuts (one of the amusing tidbits in the bio: Michael Silverblatt called up Pietsch to see if he could read the IJ outtakes).

I will say that Max's bio is a nice compendium/repository of most of the available info out there and is especially helpful in the chronology dept (when exactly Wallace wrote/published a certain story or essay, where he was living at the time, etc.). I liked it and I recommend it, and I hope this endorsement isn't attenuated by the fact that I like reading really anything about Wallace; Every Love Story is a legitimately good biography. (Though one little cavil: There's no account of the publication of The Pale King. Max takes the uncompromising view that the story ends on Sept 12 2008, and most of the last 15 pages or so seem to be taken verbatim from his New Yorker article. Which is ultimately fine (after all, most of the Pale King info is out there if one wanted to track it down) but I was reading Every Love Story on a Kindle and didn't realize that there were 50+ pages of endnotes, sources, and appendices (an index? Really? In this day and age?), and so when I came to the end (only 74% of the book, according to the progress bar), I fully expected at least a couple dozen more pages, making the ending for me far more abrupt and aposiopetic than the ending of Infinite Jest is accused of being.)

Anyway, onward with the big reveals for even the DFW cognoscenti...

1. The essays were largely made-up

Grumblings about the veracity of the events in Wallace's non-fiction have been building over the last year, and it turns out with good cause. While the essays' jumping-off points remain verifiable (He did go to the State Fair, he did go on a cruise, etc.), the details contained within are probably at the very least exaggerated. There's no way of fact-checking every little thing, but Max does an admirable job of uncovering when authorial liberty was taken, pointing out when anecdotes were invented or stolen wholesale from another's experience. I didn't mind this revelation too much since I've always considered Wallace’s non-fiction less important than his fiction. And frankly, it does explain how, in those essays, everyone around him had a knack for doing/saying the exact right thing, constantly. But I can imagine the people who unreservedly love his essays getting their hackles raised as Max systematically shoots down or casts doubt on their favorite bits (the pinwheeling batons? Most likely exaggerated. The little girl chess prodigy who knew what “fianchettoing” was? Probably didn’t exist). For me, the most disappointing fudging Max points out is that Wallace didn’t belong to a church group, a group that reportedly also had as a member the person whose house Wallace casually strolls into Kramer-like in the essay “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s.” Granted, the dissimulation here wasn’t done for arbitrary or aesthetic reasons; the people in the essay were actually members of his recovery group, so their anonymity (and, by extension, his) was paramount. But still. It was one of those details it seemed the whole (not very long) essay hinged on: Watching the events of 9/11 unfold with members of your church. There was a whole other interesting layer to that essay that gets kind of stripped away now. (Wallace had to know how much more interesting the essay was with this invented detail. So notable was it that even Silverblatt went out of his way to bring it up during an interview.) This exposure dishearteningly casts doubt on all the other stuff in the essay. Think about that affecting story about his search for an American flag, the whole going to gas station after gas station, finally arriving at an out-of-the-way convenience store (that just happens to be owned by a Pakistani), making a homemade flag in the backroom. After reading Max’s book, it’s hard to imagine Wallace actually doing all that. It is, however, easy to imagine him writing about doing it.

 2. He almost wrote a porn epic instead of Infinite Jest
In the early nineties he did extensive research about porn with an eye toward writing some sort of reportage/fiction about it—it’s kind of unclear what it was going to be exactly. Whatever it would’ve been, it was going to be epic; he apparently got hundreds of (lost?) pages into it. He was interviewing porn stars, watching tons of porn, thinking about porn (“Why do many of the movies have a kind of shadowy, dramatically superfluous character who seems to stand for the man watching film…and whose final access to female lead(s) effects film’s closure?”), etc. A lot of his research turns up in his essay “Big Red Son,” passed off as newly discovered info (see #1). The whole project got derailed, perhaps thankfully, considering we got IJ instead, though one wonders what Wallace would’ve come up with. A comment made to a friend years later about the movie Boogie Nights offers a clue: He said it was exactly the story that he had been trying to write. (DFW would not be so kind to PTA’s next film, calling Magnolia pretentious and hollow and “100% gradschoolish in a bad way.” Ouch.) (And but also n.b.: That dream-team dinner just got even more interesting…)
3. He was a p*ssy hound
Apparently. Sure, many people recount him going off with random women after signings, and sure, he told Franzen that he wondered whether his only purpose on earth was “to put [his] penis in as many vaginas as possible.” But maybe he just went back to all those womens’ places and didn’t actually effect coitus or whatever—like what supposedly happened with Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation: they went back to her place, she decided she didn’t want to, they didn’t. (Leading him to base the title character in “The Depressed Person” on her, allegedly.) I mean it probably went down how it looks, it’s just that if he had slept with even half the number implied in the book, wouldn’t there be like a lot more self-congratulatory tumblrs out there, eg. “I Slept With A Literary God” or something like that? Or even like a blog account of the evening or something? Well, actually, maybe not.
A few other stray info-bits:
—Viking Penguin sent Wallace a bill for $324.51 for his reversal of some of the copyedits of The Broom of the System
—Excerpt of letter sent to copyeditor of Infinite Jest: “The following non-standard features of this mss. are intentional and will get stetted by the author if color-penciled by you: Neologisms, catachreses, solecisms, and non-standard syntax in sections concerning the characters Minty, Marathe, Antitoi, Krause, Pemulis, Steeply, Lenz, Orin Incandenza, Mario Incandenza, Fortier, Foltz, J.O. Incandenza Sr., Schtitt, Gompert.”
Girl With Curious Hair sold 2,200 hardcover copies
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again sold 15,000 hardcover copies
Oblivion sold 18,000 hardcover copies
—By 2006, 150,000 copies of Infinite Jest had been sold (one assumes it’s into seven digits by now)