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Archive for December, 2008

In honor of Harold Pinter’s passing, I picked up a DVD of The Servant from the library.  It’s representative of Pinter’s craft, full of meaningful silences and darkly funny moments.  Those silences can come across awkwardly in films, but The Servant has Dirk Bogarde on its side.  In his hands, those silences are punctuated by certain physical hesitations that reveal his thoughts, and that’s a beautiful thing: when an actor can sell you on the idea that he’s not acting, but living in the mind of the character.

The premise is a simple one–the hiring of a manservant–but one slightly outmoded even in 1963 Britain.  Young aristocrat, Tony, buys a townhouse and hires Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as his butler cum valet cum cook.  Tony’s fiancee, Susan, seems startled at first by the notion that Tony has hired a servant, but she quickly becomes suspicious of him.  The moments when Susan and Barrett are alone in a room together are some of the most effective silences, full of uncertainty and hostility.  She wants him gone and does he feel the same way about her?

What begins as the formal relationship between master and servant is overturned by the introduction of Vera, allegedly Barrett’s sister, but later revealed to be his lover (and accomplice?)  There is evidently a machination at work, when Vera seduces Tony with Barrett’s approval, but it’s never clear what the intent is.  Do Barrett and Vera have a specific malevolent act in mind or are they simply eking out the most comfortable living they can by manipulating Tony’s emotions?

Regardless of intent, an emotional rupture separates Barrett and Tony, and an awkward (and perhaps staged) reunion and apology bring them back together.  They are less master and servant then, and more in the line of housemates.  Tony still pays the bills and Barrett still cooks and cleans, but there is a steady erosion of formality, until the two are playing ball games in the foyer.

From a storytelling viewpoint, the most powerful moment in the film comes at the very end, when prematurely matronly Susan (Miss Stewart) enters the lair of the now-chummy servant and master.  In the master’s bedroom, a party is going on.  Familiar music plays, while booze and girls of questionable morals lie scattered about the room.  Susan watches with her pinched-pained-disapproving look, while one of the party girls (Hazel Terry, more of a cougarish barfly by 1963) sprawls a drunken Tony across the bed.  Susan glares disconsolately as Barrett flirts with a pair of girls.  (It’s clear that Pinter and director Joseph Losey never want us to like Susan, with her vapid conversation and her middle-aged haircut.  )

For a moment, Susan plunges into truth.  She sees Barrett for what he is: stronger willed than his master.  He is in control.  He is the only one who can deliver Tony back to her.  She approaches Barrett and puts her hands on the lapels of his smoking jacket.  Then, in a moment that pleases and shocks, she kisses him.  The would-be lady of the house abases herself to the servant, but she isn’t as strong as she is brave.  When he returns the kiss forcibly, she tries to repel him.  He makes several attempts, laughing as he does, before she manages to remove herself from his embrace and flee the house.

If this movie were made now, in Hollywood, that would the point of it: debauchery and betrayal and a viper in the bosom of “good people.”  That’s how these stories play out in American movies, with obsessive roommates and malevolent nannies.

At the heart of The Servant, though, is an ugly truth that Hollywood isn’t ready to look at: servitude corrupts.  The existence of systems of class, whereby people are divided by wealth, the wealthy will always be corrupted by their power over the poor.

By the end of the film, the servant seems like a British bourgeois Svengali, leading his plummy-mouthed master into the belly of debauchery.  It’s played straight, with the servant dark and brooding, with an air of greasiness about him–not just his hair but his soul–while the master is tall, blond, and clean.

In a Disney world it’s easy to read that as the servant debauching the master, but in Harold Pinter’s world, rest assured it’s a more subtle dig than that.  It’s the service that debauches Tony.  The very act of being so idle and wealthy that one might want a servant to take care of the little quotidien household matters is the poison.  The servant, for all his oily manipulations, is only a tool of the class system that produced him.  If Barrett is the source of Tony’s moral downfall, who’s fault is that?  Who brought Barrett into his home?  Who made him the priest of household gods?  Wealthy, spoiled, socially desirable Tony.

If you mourned Harold Pinter’s passing last week, now’s a wonderful time to look back over his more readily accessible oeuvre.  There’s a nice four-volume edition of Pinter’s collected works available, each under $15.  Plus, Netflix has The Servant, The Handmaid’s Tale, Sleuth, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (screenplays all by Pinter.)  Or watch him in Mansfield Park, The Tailor of Panama, or a handful of other films where he has cameos.

Happy New Year!

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As many of you know, I don’t celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Yule.  I belong to the very small cult of Cinemites (not to be confused with the Sin-a-mite cult, who really know how to throw parties.)  Each year on December 25, I indulge or over-indulge in movies.  Typically, Cinemas is celebrated at a large multi-plex theater, but it can also be observed in the more humble form of the Ritual of the DVD’s.

Most years, hubby and I see 3 or 4 movies, but one year we saw 4 movies at the theater and another 3 at home.  We spent the next day with our eyes burning, and a bit hungover from all the popcorn, pop, and candy.  Since then, we’ve tried to celebrate in moderation.

This year was a disappointment for a number of reasons, beginning with a concept called “Fork and Screen.”  This is billed as an upscale movie-dining experience, where you watch the movie while eating an alleged meal, which I suspect is a slight step up from the microwaved monstrosities already passing for food in the regular part of the theater.  The gimmick behind this is that not only does one pay exorbitantly for the dubious food stuffs, one pays extra for the privilege of watching a movie while listening to people chew openly on hamburgers and pizzas.  (As opposed to the common theater experience of listening to people nibble furtively on popcorn and candy.)

At the theater we visited, they enforce the gimmick by offering certain films only in the “Fork and Screen.”  Namely, you couldn’t see Milk in a normal theater.  You could only see it in the Foodatorium.  Because we didn’t want to pay into the gimmick, we didn’t get to see it.

It threw our entire schedule for the day off.  We hadn’t planned to see The Spirit, although we both enjoyed its precursor, Sin City.  However, it was the only movie starting at the time we’d intended to see Milk, and we weren’t opposed to seeing it.

We saw about forty minutes of it.  We would have seen even less, but I think hubby and I were both waiting for the other to cave first.  Finally, we both leaned together and whispered, “I can’t take this.”  It was so bad that we got our money back.  I rarely walk out of movies and never have I asked for my money back, but this was special.  I like comic book movies.  As long as they’re visually interesting, I don’t even mind the ones with stilted dialog and glaring plot holes.  The Spirit had both, plus half-hearted absurdism from a phoning-it-in Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansen.  And it wasn’t anywhere near as visually interesting as the original comic strip.

Walking out of that movie put us in another bind.  We hadn’t intended to see The Day the Earth Stood Still, but again: that’s what was playing at the right time.  At least it was in IMAX, which renders even mediocre things minimally interesting.  Which is good, because DESS was fairly mediocre.  There’s not even any point in adding to the jokes about Keanu Reevers doing well at emotionless aliens.  Its only selling point was that Jennifer Connelly is immenently watchable, even when she’s starring in dreck.  (Oh and getting to see The Watchmen trailer on the IMAX screen was a bonus.)

We abandoned ship after that.  There were other movies we wanted to see, but Cinemas seemed tainted somehow.

This is how you know I’m a true Cinemite.  You’ll never hear me complain about the cost of movie tickets, or even refreshments.  I don’t care.  I’d pay double to see a good movie.  The problem with the movie industry is mediocrity.  It sinks billions of dollars into movies that aren’t worth watching.  Storylines that are tired, dialog that’s forced, characters with uncertain motivations and goals, ninth inning changes of heart that are unbelievable, and enough deus ex machina to choke a Trojan horse.

It all serves as a good reminder of what not to do when writing a novel.  A reminder, too, that even if you write the best novel you can, Hollywood may devour your story and shit out a movie you’d hate to pay $10 to see.

On the bright side, at least no one got hurt at the theater where I celebrated Cinemas.  Unlike in Philadelphia, where a man shot someone for talking during the movies.  You know who I feel sorry for?  The other people in the theater.  First, some jackass talking in the movie and then another jackass pulling out a gun and shooting the place up.  This is a sacred temple, people.  Have some respect.

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In real life, we’ve gone full circle from people being named for their occupations, to names being hereditary, to people once again choosing their names to suit their occupation or personality.  (Or perceived personality.  Among the droves of modern witches calling themselves Morgana, I suspect there are only a few who are truly suited to the name.)

Once I even came across a surname that seemed suited to the modern era’s more common places of employment, fast food restaurants.  The name: Sackburger.
In fiction, it’s gone out of fashion to name characters after aspects of their personalities.  For the most part, modern readers frown on characters with names that are a bit too “spot-on.”  Not many writers could get away with naming a character prone to misusing language Mrs. Malaprop these days.

That’s what makes real-life instances of these names even more delightful.  Take Bernard Madoff, who’s recently been uncovered as the man behind a decade-long Ponzi scheme.  Madoff, as in “There, Officer, that’s the man who made off with my life savings.”

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Query Holiday

A lot of discussion has been raised recently by agent Stephen Barbara’s article in Publishers Weekly about how increasingly polished query letters have changed the shape of agent-prospective client interactions.  He laments, tongue-in-cheek, the passage of those halcyon days of query letters that hadn’t been workshopped to within an inch of their lives.  Of course, in some ways he’s right.  I belong to several writing groups and to a very large online writing community, where an entire enclave is devoted to brutalizing other writers’ query letters.  The goal is to end up with a query letter that will make an agent snap to attention and say, “Tell me more.”

It works.  It works too well sometimes.  I have seen query letters that went from woop-de-doo to wow!  I have also seen writers utterly crushed by the inevitable disappointment.  A fabulous query letter that produces multiple requests for full and partial manuscripts, followed by curt rejections.  No matter how much writers joke about it, it’s not easier to write a novel than it is to write a query letter.  Or at any rate, it’s not easier to write a good novel than to write a good query letter.  The letter is a paltry two or three paragraphs, and it’s no trick to get a dozen people to work those paragraphs over until they glisten in the sun like the tanned flesh of some nubile co-ed basking on the French Riviera.  If the novel hasn’t been given the same treatment, the agent is likely in for a disappointment, and the writer is in for the same.

Some people take Barbara’s lament seriously, but of course, this phenomena doesn’t ultimately harm the publishing industry–and certainly it isn’t as harmful as bad business decisions.  It just delays a rejection.

Still, writing query letters is a troubling thing.  In essence, it is the act of writing a letter to a complete stranger, asking for a favor. 

Dear Agent:

I’ve written this book which I think is quite good and I hope you’ll be kind enough to read it.

Sincerely,

Writer You Never Heard Of.

Firebrand Literary has decided on an interesting and old-fashioned approach: a query holiday.  Beginning today and running until January 15, they are not accepting query letters.  They’re simply asking writers to e-mail the first 20 pages of their novels.  The idea being that the agency will do what most readers do: open a book and start reading until it loses their interest.

I had a little frisson of delight when I sent off my sample chapters.  Without regard for how it turns out for me, I do wonder what the impact will be on the agency.  Will this be a one-shot that goes down as a failed idea?  Or will it usher in a new age?

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You’ll remember Mark Fuhrman from such media frenzies as O.J. Simpson’s trial for murder.  You may also recognize him more readily as the author of a series of sensationalist true-crime novels, but I recently read his book on the death penalty in Oklahoma.  My interest in the book began as practical research for a novel in which the main character is an inmate on Oklahoma’s death row.  It bloomed into a rather lengthy and intense look at my own attitudes toward the death penalty.

In Kansas, the death penalty gets very little play in the media for the simple reason that the state has not executed anyone since the death penalty was declared constitutional again in 1976.  There are nine men on death row in the state, so there is a chance albeit slim that we’ll eventually see our first execution in more than thirty years.

This only strikes me as odd when I consider the proximity of Kansas to Oklahoma, third in executions, behind Texas and Virginia.  Growing up just a few miles from the border between the two states, the difference between the two was indiscernible, and not only because the landscape is uninterrupted.  Yet attitudes toward the death penalty are sharply different.  Even my staunch Republican Kansas relatives are hesitant to militate for more capital convictions or more executions.

Fuhrman’s book, Death and Justice, gets at some of the elements in that difference.  He’s not a lyrical writer by any stretch, but he manages to hint at the way the line between justice and revenge goes grey in Oklahoma politics and society.  It helps that throughout the book he acknowledges his own biases about the death penalty.  If you read much about the way the death penalty is administered in this country, perhaps it won’t surprise you that Mr. Fuhrman experiences a shift in his understanding as he tours Unit H in McAlester, Oklahoma.

Fuhrman goes into the bermed facility convinced that the death penalty can be administered justly, that it serves a valuable purpose, but he leaves shaken.  After considering the conditions the inmates are kept in (Unit H has the dubious distinction of being the only underground death row in America), the judicial routes by which many of the inmates reached that point, and the prolonged waits for execution, his certainty erodes.  He leaves McAlester convinced that the death penalty is a mistake.  The book is a simple but eloquent statement on the dangers of our current system of incarceration and execution.

Flaws in the judicial system cast doubt on guilt and highlight discrimination, and as Fuhrman realizes, even if all the inmates on Unit H are assuredly guilty, they are being punished twice.  As the faulty system struggles to validate convictions, it forces inmates to serve out a prison sentence while they wade through the appeals process.  In some cases, the inmates may serve ten, fifteen, twenty years or more before they are executed.

At the root of it, as Fuhrman’s own shifting attitudes suggest, is America’s ambivalence about the death penalty.  Supporters are quick to proclaim that they have faith in the system and in the rightness of the sentence, but only the most hardline supporters would agree to radically shortening the appeals process.  Most Americans accept the lengthy appeals process as a hedge against something they know is suspect, both morally and judicially.  We have frequently expressed anxieties about executing the innocent, but more deep-seated are our anxieties about executing the guilty.

If we truly had any faith in capital punishment, we would execute the convicted in short order, without consideration for whether the technique is humane.  That we don’t do this is proof we are trying to back away from the very act itself.

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It’s the Eldridge Hotel now, but it stands on the site of what was called the Free State Hotel. On May 21, 1856, pro-slavery Missouri militiamen, riding under a red flag inscribed with the words “Southern Rights” sacked Lawrence.  Using a cannon, kegs of gunpowder, and eventually an incendiary device they finally reduced the Free State Hotel to a pile of smoking rubble.  They also looted the downtown and ransacked the two publishing houses in Lawrence, destroying the presses and throwing the type into the river*.

Technically speaking, the raid was perfectly legal.  At least as legal as the raid on David Koresh’s compound in Waco, TX, in this century.  Federal Marshal J.B. Donaldson issued an order that declared the abolitionist citizens of Lawrence to be engaged in what we would now call an “insurgency” against the pro-slavery state legislature that Washington, D.C., officially recognized as the legal government in the territory.  (Surprise: the government isn’t always on the side of good.)  Donaldson approved the “counter-insurgency measures” that ended in the destruction of the Free State Hotel.

It wasn’t the first or last scuffle Lawrence would be involved in.  The previous November, the Wakarusa War broke out, following a series of tit-for-tat killings between pro- and anti-slavery camps.  The siege on Lawrence that followed ended peacefully, but Lawrence and the most famous participant in the Wakarusa War–abolitionist John Brown–went on to bigger and bloodier things.

Seven years later, William Quantrill would lead more than 300 bushwhackers on a raid into Lawrence.  They killed nearly 200 men and boys, many of them unarmed, and burned almost every building in town to the ground, including the Free State Hotel, now known as the Eldridge Hotel.

As for John Brown, well, he went on to start the Civil War.  He was a radical, a dangerous man, a brave man, a religious man.  An extremist.  A terrorist.  A visionary.  He died just before noon on December 2, 1859, with a noose around his neck.  His last wish–denied–was that his wife be allowed to spend a last night with him.

*Legend has it that this ruined press type was later melted down and turned into shot and cannonballs, which were used to fight the Civil War.

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