Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach (2011)


I decided to read The Art of Fielding after it was recommended to me by the same anonymous poster that suggested The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.  The comments are worth reading, but I will not re-post them in the body of this review.

Did I find this book truly amazing?  It may not surprise you, but, as is often the case: yes and no.  During the first 150-200 pages, I was flirting with adding it to the "best books" list (which can be found on my profile on the right) at the time, but then I foolishly checked what Entertainment Weekly had to say with its nifty letter grade.  They gave it a B+.  They said it was great, totally great--but the characters were a bit undeveloped.  I totally agree--but I would personally give it an A- because it is close to being a great book.

I am wary of spoiling this book by providing deeper detail to my criticisms, but I feel that I must.  Do not read below the asterisks if you don't like spoilers (I do know at least one person that actively seeks out spoilers).

This book is about a lot of things, but it's mainly about baseball.  It's the quintessential campus novel.  There are probably tons of references to Moby Dick, but I can't really be sure since I haven't read it yet.  The different themes in the novel work very well together, and nothing exactly feels out of place.  But after a couple hundred pages it's almost as if Harbach is content to finish the book on auto-pilot.  There are still wonderful, beautifully written passages, and some truly off the wall happenings, but the characters oddly seem less believable at the end than they do at the beginning.  It's almost as if their decisions are random, that Harbach outlined the plot of the novel and forced the characters to do things that feel unnatural.  Again this will be gotten into beneath the asterisks.

It's pretty easy to describe the plot.  Henry Skrimshander is an antisocial baseball nut who has obsessively read The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez, a former shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals who took a very philosophical approach to his profession and nearly became the President of Venezuela.  Henry is "discovered" by Mike Schwartz, who is one year older than him, and catches for the Westish Harpooners.  Mike recruits Henry for the college, and a "beautiful friendship" develops.

Westish is a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin not far off the shores of Lake Michigan.  At first I thought it was going to be a stand-in for Northwestern, but it's probably closer to Beloit College (though that is further from the lake).  The novel contains a series of unlikely events, and it starts with the school: the recruiting for the baseball team is all over the place.  They do find Henry, and a couple other players destined for big league franchises (*cough*cubsandcardinals*cough*), but then they have a bunch of random players that just seem to be on the team because they feel like it.

Obviously this is where I need to start in on Owen, who casually owns a copy of Henry's favorite niche-specific book and doesn't seem to care at all about the coincidence.

But quickly: the novel is not about Henry.  This is one of the more pleasant surprises of The Art of Fielding: it's not content to just sit with one or two characters, and sports a more classic approach to the novel.  There are five main characters, and their stories dovetail with one another up until the final scene.  They are Henry, Mike Schwartz, Owen Dunne, Guert Affenlight (the 60-year-old college president) and Pella Affenlight (his 23-year-old soon-to-be-divorced daughter).  Now I have said above that this is a great book, and that it should make the list of best books reviewed on Flying Houses, but really considering these characters I have to say that only the Affenlights are well-developed characters--and Pella should be qualified by a "barely."

Before we get to the spoilers (and my specific criticisms), I want to reiterate that I do recommend this book and cannot recall reading a better book about baseball.  It appears popular for authors to blurb that, while they don't love baseball, Harbach got them into it.  Baseball is an endlessly mythological game that has unfortunately been overshadowed by flashier athletic competitions in recent years, along with frequently being derided as "boring."  Personally, I have been watching and following baseball since roughly 1991, and I love the recent history that has defined the last couple generations.  Unfortunately again, today the words "baseball" and "steroids" will almost always be found together, and some of the more outlandish accomplishments (*cough*barrybondsrogerclemens*cough*) can't be celebrated like the 1998 home run race.  This is significant for Harbach's focus.  The star player of the Harpooners is not a power hitter, but an Ozzie Smith-esque shortstop whose landmark accomplishment is consecutive error-less games.

Another thing: why isn't Aparicio Rodriguez just called Ozzie Smith instead of being some pretend amalgam of Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith?  I understand if Smith hasn't written a book like Aparicio's Art of Fielding, but he played shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals for his entire career, bolstered by flawless fielding--and I even think there is a reference somewhere to Aparicio performing a full flip on the field, as Smith once famously did.  Then again, there are bigger problems with the book than this.

***

The Art of Fielding has a terrific opening, and is relatively engrossing.  However, it becomes a "novel" when Affenlight betrays his inappropriate gay crush on Owen--and this is not very deep into it, maybe fifty pages or sixty pages.  It really comes out of nowhere and catches the reader off-guard (unless they like spoilers).  And to me, a reader that has gushed about Death in Venice, the references to that work are either eerily coincidental, or intentional.  I prefer to think they are intentional, the most obvious of which is Guert Affenlight's initials mirroring those of Gustav Aschenbach, not to mention their literary pedigrees, deceased wives, and middled-ages.  Even more noteworthy is the way Harbach describes the "silent crush"--until the novel makes its first of several missteps.

I understand, okay.  Unless Affenlight and Owen become an "item," the book lacks a certain profluence.  I don't think that's a problem, though, because there are three other characters that are pushing the action forward.  And I don't think I'm wrong, either, that this relationship is the most engrossing aspect of the novel.  Anyone that wants can come pick on me and say, oh, of course you would think that, but I truly believe that is the case for everyone.  The rest of the characters are pretty ordinary, but these two characters break out of the comfort zone of collective consciousness.

So when they kissed, I was like, okay, this is one-upping Thomas Mann, but it felt like a cop-out.  I personally think this novel would have been way more interesting if no consummation had ever happened.  And if at one moment it seems as if the book will also take a Lolita-like turn, then it is all the more impressive for awakening such references.  This is of course, the scene with Genevieve, Owen's mother, who seems to be overtly flirting with Affenlight, who even suggests that Owen might get turned straight by Pella, who also joins them for an informal dinner party.  This was one of the most memorable scenes in the novel for me, and made me think this could actually make a really entertaining, humorous film, but then again maybe not.

There are nice moments though that I think would be stronger if Affenlight kept constantly trying to think of ways to get Owen's attention, which maybe might not work until page 500 rather than page 200.  I would have liked that ending better than the actual one.  Some nice details emerge before both characters know exactly what is what:

"'Oh, I'm sure you do,' Owen said coyly.  'He was much better-looking than I am  He might even have been better-looking than you.' Owen scratched his chin, his tone evaluative and probably slightly teasing.  Affenlight blanched.  If Owen though Jason was slightly better-looking than Affenlight but much better looking than Owen, then Owen thought that Affenlight was better-looking than Owen.  Which was a compliment.  But to be compared unfavorably to an ex-boyfriend: that was a slight.  But the conditional had been used: might even have been.  It was like an SAT for gay flirting.  Not that gay flirting differed from straight flirting.  But if it didn't differ, why was Affenlight so bad at it? Genevieve had returned and was perusing Affenlight's bookshelves, her back turned, sipping her wine." (185)

I'm trying to find "beautiful" passages, but I can't seem to find them from pure memory.  They're all over the place, though I seem to remember at least a couple taking place during a game.  The sports sequences are well-written, as is the entire novel.  I've already expressed my displeasure to the "consummation" of the relationship above, but it's not that bad of a miscue compared to the relationship between Pella and Mike, then between Pella and Henry.  It feels cliched that Henry would hook up with his teammate/mentor/best friend's girlfriend, as it does when there is much commotion about it in the locker room.  Given the way the novel ends, I think it's unnecessary, except to show Pella as a "nurturer," which I don't really believe anyways.

Pella was married to David who was like ten years older than her and he comes back to visit at one part of the novel that was memorable but seemed sort of anticlimactic in relation to its build-up.  I found Pella the least interesting of the characters--though probably more interesting than Mike.  Mike's story is only notable in that he only applies to six law schools and gets rejected by them all.  It arouses suspicion that he didn't apply to any more realistic options, but I think his thought process is right on the money.  It feels unintentional, but this novel also offers helpful guidance on whether to attend law school.

Eventually, Henry develops an anxiety about throwing the ball:

"'Do you know who Steve Blass is?' Sarah asked.
'Never heard of him,' Henry lied.  Steve Blass was an all-star pitcher on the Pirates in the early 70's.  In the spring of 1973 he suddenly, inexplicably, became unable to throw the ball over the plate.  He struggled for two years to regain his control and then, defeated, retired.
'What about Mackey Sasser?'
'Never heard of him.' Sasser was a catcher for the Mets who'd developed a paralyzing fear of tossing the ball back to the pitcher.  He would double-, triple-, quadruple-, quintuple-pump, unable to believe it was okay to let go.  Opposing fans would loudly, gleefully count the number of pumps.  Opposing players would run around the bases.  Total humiliation.  When it happened to Sasser, they said he had Steve Blass disease.
'Steve Sax?  Chuck Knoblauch?  Mark Wohlers?  Rick Ankiel?'
If Sarah X. Pessel hadn't been a girl, Henry might have socked her in the face.  Her middle name probably didn't even start with X; she probably just liked the way it looked in her byline.  'None of those guys were shortstops,' he said." (215)

I remember Mark Wohlers being one of the great closers of his day, one of the guys who could throw really hard, like high 90's.  Then I remember him pitching against the Cubs one day after being injured for a while and how he could not throw a strike to save his life, and everyone knew it, and the Cubs just stood in the batter's box and waited to get walked.  Two or three runs were walked in before the manager pulled him.  He retired not long after.  I didn't know about the other guys, though.

I think the amount that Henry works out is unrealistic, as is his scene of jumping into Lake Michigan.  It just seems kind of counter-productive--when you work out as hard as he does, I think you enter territory where toning it down yields the same gains.  And then there is the matter of the ending.  I think it's a pretty cliched ending, the way Henry gets to go to the game, and join the team.  The manner in which he helps the team is not cliched in itself, however, so the last scene is good.  It's everything that comes after that stinks.  I mean, part of me is angry that, when asked to interpret a poem ("The Relic") by John Donne, for a British Literature I final exam, I wrote that Donne wanted the reader to go physically dig up his grave to see if he had really been buried in the same coffin as his wife.  I received an F.  So it seems incredible that at least this famous figure might have known where I was coming from:

"'I can't believe Affenlight's your dad,' he mused.  'That guy gives a hell of a speech.'
'I know.'
'He's the reason I came to school here.  Not that I had a lot of options.  But I drove up here for prefrosh weekend, and he gave a speech I'll never forget.  About Emerson.'
Pella nodded.  She knew the Emerson riff by heart, but Mike clearly wanted to tell it, and if that would cheer him up she was willing to listen.
'His first wife died young, of tuberculosis.  Emerson was shattered.  Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave.  Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of this woman he loved.  Can you imagine?  It must have been terrible.  Just a terrible thing to do.  But the thing is, Emerson had to do it.  He needed to see for himself.  To understand death.  To make death real.  Your dad said that the need to see for yourself, even  in the most difficult circumstances, was what educa--'
'Ellen was nineteen,' Pella interruped to say.  She hated the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.  'One of the cures the doctors prescribed for tuberculosis back then was 'jolting.' Which meant going for high-speed carriage rides on deeply rutted roads.  Months, weeks before she died.  Coughing up blood all the way.'" (118)

This probably isn't everything I wanted to say about this book, but I think I've written enough.  You should know by now whether you want to check it out or not.  Just don't blame me if I spoiled it for you.  I warned you!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Shellac - Dude Incredible (2014)

I just noticed that there were about 7 posts in May of 2010 devoted to albums released around that time (some of them are still memorable and classic--i.e. This is Happening and Sisterworld) so I should remind everyone that Flying Houses is not just a book and occasional movie blog, but a blog about the arts.  Dude Incredible came out in September of 2014, so this review is way, way late, but I have been listening to this album and other Shellac albums constantly since then, and I think any band that keeps you listening over, and over, and over, should be written about (even if they aren't that great--though Shellac is great), because it says something about your personality.  Something about that music touches you.

So what is it about Shellac that I find "touching?"  Their viscosity.  Their viciousness.

I started listening to Dude Incredible on YouTube but quickly downloaded it.  I didn't buy it.  Steve Albini has full permission to call me a douchebag, but I justify it.  I justify it because I bought 1000 Hurts and Excellent Italian Greyhound from Reckless Records back in 2006 and 2007.  The weird thing was, I never really listened closely to Shellac until now.  Let's just cut to the chase and point out that I discovered "Wingwalker" at the same time as this album, and it changed my life. (Rediscovering "Watch Song" was also notable, but not as revelatory.)

"Wingwalker" was released in 1994 as a B-side on the single "Doris."  This was shortly before their debut album At Action Park was released.  "Doris" is not a bad song at all, but it is only slightly awesome when compared to "Wingwalker."

Now I had heard 1000 Hurts as early as 2003, from a friend at NYU.  I later bought it, and Excellent Italian Greyhound when it came out in the summer of 2007.  I guess I didn't see what all the fuss was about, and never looked into their first two albums.

Mistake!

I got At Action Park through a friend in Austin, TX that let me import a few gigabytes of music off his iTunes.  I listened to it a bit, but never obsessively.  Now I realize that the run of songs between "The Admiral" and "A Minute" is almost perfection.

I didn't listen to Terraform until after my obsession took root.  Maybe I became so obsessed because Terraform was basically new to me, and it was like hearing two new albums at the same time.

But "Wingwalker."  "Wingwalker" was mentioned in a Pitchfork review or two and I absently clicked on it on YouTube after listening to a couple tracks from Dude Incredible.  It was almost as if, during the first listen, I had found my favorite song of all time.

How had no one ever played this for me before?
Did all of my musician friends just pretend they liked indie punk rock, and never really listen to it?

I don't really know what "Wingwalker" is about, but it seems to be about an aeronautic engineer that has sacrificed everything else in his life in the name of building a perfect plane.  It could be the theme song for The Wind Rises except that the tone of the song is a thousand times more menacing than that film.  It has an extremely dark, foreboding rumbling bass line, and a textbook loud-quiet-loud guitar part.  Except the entire song is loud.  There is also a breakdown in the middle of the song where Albini delivers a monologue about how the plane has become a metaphor for his life.  I have probably listened to the song hundreds of times (I listen to it about 1-3 times per day) and have not gotten bored.

Enter Dude Incredible.  After thoroughly ingesting all of the Shellac albums, I have to say this one is about as strong as all of their other albums, minus Excellent Italian Greyhound.  I would never say Excellent Italian Greyhound is a bad album by any stretch--I just get bored with more than half the songs on it.  Not the case for any other Shellac album.  Dude Incredible is short.  It's barely over 30 minutes and there are 9 tracks.  The opening track, the title track, is the best song on the album.  "All the Surveyors" and "Surveyor" are nearly as good.  The rest of the songs are pretty awesome, and I rarely skip them except "Gary" and "Mayor/Surveyor."  Probably the best parts of the album are the very beginning and the very end: the lyrics to both songs ("Dude Incredible" and "Surveyor") are awesome, but they are the best parts because there is so much to look forward to, and because ending the album with a quote by George Washington is pretty badass.

Enter Terraform.  Terraform is technically their second album, and I will not comment on The Futurist here except to say it is definitely their weakest album, but still, could not be called "bad."  The song most people mention when talking about this album is "Didn't We Deserve a Look at the Way You Really Are?" and they usually don't have kind things to say about it.  The song runs for 12 minutes and is basically a two-note bass line with a couple crazy moments of guitar crash and typical Shellac lyrical poignancy (Caught a glimpse of you in an unselfconscious smile/reveal yourself/didn't we deserve a look at the way you really are?).  I personally love this song because "This is a Picture" follows it, and "This is a Picture" is definitely on my top 5 Shellac songs list [(1) "Wingwalker"; (2) "Watch Song"; (3) "This is a Picture"; (4) "Dude Incredible"; (5) "Surveyor"].  It also has my favorite line: "You know where there'd be angels?/Heaven that's where/..../I can't wait to die/I can find me some/That's where I'll find my wife/When I'm through with my present one."

Every song on Terraform is pretty good once you get past the first track, but I like the way the first track just goes on forever and how the rest of the album flies by (except "House Full of Garbage," which is not the best song but also means a lot to me personally for reasons I will not discuss here).  "Disgrace," "Mouthpiece," and "Rush Job" each have really cool parts.  Some people think "Mouthpiece" is boring but I think the bass line in it is one of the hottest things they have done.

That is pretty much all I wanted to say.  Yes, I didn't pay for this album.  Yes, I missed the July concert at Lincoln Hall, and yes, I will pay $20 or $30 to see them live next time they play in Chicago.  And I will gladly play my top 5 songs by them for anyone with an open mind.  I liked a lot of albums in 2014 (the new St. Vincent, the Ex Hex album, Owls II...) but listened to this more than anything else--so, my favorite.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Interview - Dir. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (2014)

Yesterday, I received this review from my counterpart and collaborator.  Some of the same points were brought up in my review, but the fact that two of us independently came to the same conclusions renders the additional opinion valuable.  Plus, Jay's classic bombast is always worth a few minutes of your time.


               Riddle me this ladies and gentlemen, how does one make a simple silly stoner movie into the biggest hit of the holiday season? The answer: quite simply, Honey-dick the whole world into an international incident.  The beauty and genius of The Interview is that the people behind it have, with the utmost cleverness, produced a meta-opus of life imitating art imitating life, and have done it with textbook perfect writing and structure, along with a delightful cast.
                First off let’s address this controversy. Rogen had to know from the beginning that any film he made vaguely involving the DPRK was sure to draw the ire of Kim Jong Un, (hereafter referred to as #KJU) So while it may seem unlikely, all the heinous things from the movie—the starvation, the not having a butthole, all the other odd facts that seemed crazy—are completely true. North Korea is a fucked up place, and the truth is always far stranger than fiction. To be completely honest I don’t know at all really what #KJU was upset about. The movie is extremely generous with the character of #KJU. He’s quite likeable, seems almost misunderstood, and at one point, Franco’s character even refuses to kill him. To this extent I feel Rogen’s last line in the film is almost a wink at how fucked up a situation this was. One of the greatest aspects of this whole movie was the fact that Rogen honey-dicked #KJU into giving this movie press that money couldn’t buy. (For an explanation of what honey-dicking is, one should view the movie.)
                Putting controversy aside and viewing this movie for what it is, it even gets better. First off let’s address the other elephant in the room. This is a movie, not a film, don’t make the mistake for a fleeting second that a FRANCO/ROGEN joint was going to be a high art film bound for black tie screenings and touching emotional reviews. This is a MOVIE, a classic Hollywood good time, there are tanks and helicopters and tigers and good laughs, and SPOILER ALERT, the Bad Guy loses.  But beyond that, the writing was excellent: everything is foreshadowed, everything—to the point of brilliance. The special effects weren’t out of control, but they were Michael Bay quality, and the sound direction was exquisite.
                The acting wasn’t bad, either. Rogen and Franco are both very believable in their albeit highly silly roles, and their on screen chemistry gets better with every movie. Randall Park who plays #KJU is great; he’s funny, likeable, and the perfect foil to Franco. The big surprise to me is that the sexy CIA agent Lacey WASN’T Zooey Deschanel. Now I understand that Zooey Deschanel has become a “look,” but the gorgeous Lizzy Caplan could be her twin. Everyone’s acting was as stellar as possible for a slapstick dick joke stoner comedy, it was honestly everything that a red-blooded, white, popcorn- eating, blue-Icee-drinking, American movie going public wants.

                Controversy or not THE INTERVIEW delivers. It’s well written, completely tactless and rude, but will leave you laughing.  It does run a bit long at 112 minutes, but you don’t feel like it needs to end just because you’re afraid you might lose your bladder if there is one more really funny joke. Franco and Rogen make a very specific type of film for a very specific type of audience, as long as you don’t go in expecting the next Schindler’s List you’ll have a great time. And don’t ask me about the puppy, but I give him a thumbs up too.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Interview - Dir. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (2014)


It has been something of a tradition between my brothers and I to see a movie on Christmas night.  Then again we have only done it twice: Rocky Balboa in 2006 (I swore that was 2007 or 2008...) and Django Unchained in 2012.  Technically, we saw Django on December 27th, too.  So maybe it's not all that solemn a tradition, but last night we decided to stream The Interview online for $6.00 instead of driving out to Littleton, CO from Boulder.  At a certain point, maybe 30 or 45 minutes before the end, I thought it would make for a brilliant review to write, because it would get a ton of hits.  But I don't feel that special anymore, seeing how it made $1 million in theaters yesterday.

I thought the online revenue was where this movie might be a game changer (a la Radiohead) if the controversial "cancellation" had been an ingenious publicity stunt.  While I don't see how it could be more profitable than a traditional wide theatrical release, I do believe the controversy created a larger audience for this movie than otherwise.  This is a review, though, not a special comment, so I will desist from further speculation and any post-structuralist interpretations.

The Interview is a spiritual sequel to Pineapple Express, but notably is almost completely devoid of pot references.  It is about as good as Pineapple Express, too; I really liked it and think most people will too if their expectations aren't unrealistic.

***

I watched this movie with my younger brother, his friend, and two older brothers.  My younger brother orchestrated the viewing.  When I first met my older brother on the 23rd in Boulder, I asked, "What movie do you want to see?"  He said, "The Interview," as a joke, I think.  We had settled on an IMAX version of Interstellar instead.  When the time came on Christmas though, it had been decided to try to stream the film.  The friend came over, and we got baked in the garage, after some major difficulties with my 7 year old nephew, who had decided to antagonize us and repeatedly slide down the basement stairs on the new boogie board shaped sled he had gotten that morning.  After about 20-30 minutes of trying to convince him to leave, because we were going to file into the garage for naughty (but legal!) activities and then watch a naughty movie, I carried him in a firm grip upstairs to my sisters and parents, who were watching a DVRed The Sound of Music sing along version.  I said, "Contain him."  He ran back down, and we held the door shut for about five minutes,then turned out the lights, and went to the garage.

This may seem superfluous, but I believe the truly special thing about The Interview is the circumstances which surround its viewing.  If it soon gets a regular wide release, it will also reduce the magic that is associated with "getting to see" this movie.  Also I think I liked it way more because of getting baked.

My brother's friend said that he liked it, but some of it was just too much.  Plot elements were absurd, and there were way too many gay jokes.  I repeated what I had said earlier after a similar comment from him: it's all part of their shtick.

***

There are a lot of gay jokes in this movie and I will attempt to remember as many as I can, four days after viewing [note: use of asterisks to denote separate writing times will now only be used when time is directly referenced, as it should be for this review]: (1) Eminem leaving a "breadcrumb trail of gayness"; (2) repeated references to Seth Rogen being the Frodo/Sam to James Franco's Sam/Frodo and the "come here, my precious" speech; (3) Franco masturbating imaginary cocks in his face while explaining that anonymously killing Kim Jong Un with ricin would deprive viewers of the "money shot"; (4) Franco sucking imaginary cocks while Rogen tries to draw his attention towards a dying guard; (5) Rogen shoving a large drone up his asshole, Franco inspiring him with "I've been there before, it looks big but you can take it"; (6) Franco telling Kim Jong Un, "If liking margaritas and Katy Perry is gay, who wants to be straight?"; (7) Franco making out with Kim Jong Un; (8) CIA agent telling Rogen and Franco that he will give them a blow job if they complete the mission (I might be screwing up some detail on that one, and I'll stop there because honestly I can't remember anymore).

I don't think this is offensive, though, because it's not homophobic humor.

Other people criticize this movie on the grounds that it downplays the significance of human rights abuses in North Korea, but I don't think that's true either.  It is only focused on one issue (hunger), but it does effectively portray how totalitarian leaders can formulate propaganda.

It's not a great film, but it doesn't feel overlong at 112 minutes, and the chemistry between Rogen and Franco continues to develop and improve with each successive effort.  In short, the scenes between them make this movie worth watching--but then again, if you aren't already a fan, it may seem like a big fuss for nothing.  The plot is, ironically, secondary to their scenes discussing the absurdity of the plot--and I feel that the last 20 minutes of the movie could have been much more interesting if the players had taken a less conventional route.

But I wholeheartedly recommend it, and suggest holding a viewing party with a handful of friends that liked Pineapple Express.  My only fear is that, as time goes on, it will not be as special an event.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Gone Girl - Dir. David Fincher (2014)


So I saw this movie over a month ago and I don't remember many specific details.  Of course there is one detail that most people will not forget, but I don't want to dwell on it or make any stupid jokes.  More recently, the film has garnered several Golden Globe nominations: Best Director, Best Actress in a Drama, Best Screenplay, and Best Score.  Because of how long it has been since I saw the movie, and because I think I treated the book review as something of a quasi-film adaptation review, I will address the question of whether it will win.  Please keep in mind that I am far from a comprehensive critic that is employed full-time digesting all of the noteworthy titles of the year.  I know myself, but that is all.

But before that, one special note on Tyler Perry.  Perry played Tanner Bolt.  Notably, Tanner Bolt's wife did not make an appearance in the film, no doubt due to budget/time constraints, but since she was one of the very few African-American characters in the book, it makes sense that Tanner Bolt be depicted by a black man.  And Perry won an African-American Film Critic's Association award for Best Supporting Actor, tying with J.K. Simmons for Whiplash (the obvious favorite for the Oscar).  I haven't seen Whiplash, but Perry deserved this nomination if only because he brought levity to the film.  Sure, there are funny moments in Gone Girl, but one would certainly expect Neil Patrick Harris to bring the comic element home.  He does not do that, and I actually thought his depiction made for a weaker character than in the book, because Desi is an even more pronounced caricature.  But Perry brought the perfect blend of light humor, empathy and confidence to his role, and though I have never seen any of his movies, he may be at his best when not cross-dressing as a grandma.  He was the most pleasant surprise about the adaptation for me.

So then: David Fincher.  He is still most known for The Social Network, Se7en, and Fight Club.  He won the Golden Globe for The Social Network but was only nominated for the The Curious Case of Benjamin Button aside from that.  He still has not won an Oscar for directing, and I think most people will agree, in hindsight, that he was snubbed on both Se7en and Fight Club.  Fight Club may not have deserved to win Best Picture, and he may not have deserved to win Best Director--but he certainly deserved a nomination because that film demanded serious attention to detail, and he brought it.  Maybe it is interesting to compare that film to Gone Girl.  And basically, yeah, Gone Girl is nowhere near as unique and special a work as Fight Club.  Gone Girl is a ready-made blockbuster.  Nobody knew what the fuck Fight Club was when it came out, and I think it's safe to say the movie made the book way more popular afterwards.  It's become a cult phenomenon, and I was shocked to see it only made about $37 million at the box office.  DVD sales and syndication no doubt have made this film the majority of its earnings.  Is Gone Girl better than The Social Network?  Probably not, and I even found that film a bit annoying (i.e. it had an Aaron Sorkin screenplay).  So I do not think Fincher should win for this, nor do I think he has a prayer against the directors of either Birdman or Boyhood (I haven't seen Boyhood yet - insanely - but Richard Linklater also has gone too long without a win), or Wes Anderson for that matter.  Verdict: Lose

As for Rosamund Pike, it is good that she received the nomination as she plays the character well. And she actually has a shot at winning in her category, and getting nominated for the Oscar. Apparently she was in another movie reviewed on this site, but her performance was not cited directly.  Verdict: Win

I think it is safe to say that Gillian Flynn has already "won," but she has very stiff competition for her category and I think it will be a big shocker if neither Birdman, nor Boyhood, nor The Grand Budapest Hotel beats out Gone Girl in this category.  The script is about as good as the book--though I just read that Michelle Obama thought the book was way better and she is probably a better authority than me when it comes to such matters.  Side note: it would be hilarious if there were a sequel to Gone Girl and it was about Michelle Obama, post-White House.  Verdict: Lose

Finally, Trent Reznor always wins when he scores David Fincher films.  The score for this was especially good--better than The Social Network.  However, the score for Interstellar sounds sci-fi, epic and classic (I heard it when my roommate listened to it once) so that could win, and Birdman's nonstop jazz drums complements the film remarkably well.  I would still put my money on Trent, though.  Verdict: Win

Overall, a satisfying film that effectively replaces the book.  I am pretty sure I am the only cynic that will go so far as to suggest that the book is rendered moot by the movie.  People will still read it on their Kindle.  (But no one will strike up a conversation if they see you reading a Kindle, unless they are super nosy and literally read over your shoulder until they can identify the text.)




Sunday, December 14, 2014

Think and Grow Poor: Cultivating a Negative Mental Attitude Promotional Post

More than five and a half years ago, I mentioned that I was considering posting this book.  I declined to do so for "personal reasons":

 Later, this morning I decided against another, my most recent, still in its rough draft form and one I am not sure will ever be seriously revised, my NaNoWriMo project from last year, titled Think and Grow Poor: Cultivating a Negative Mental Attitude, a memoir of my life from July of 2007 through Election Day 2008--I decided against this for personal reasons, and though it is no small achievement, it is probably my weakest overall work, with only a few chapters in particular (maybe 5) that eclipse most of my other work."(http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2009/05/dst-promotional-post.html)

So having said that, five of these chapters are probably worth checking out more than the others:
"Pre-Existing Condition"
"Literary Criticism"
"The Launch" 
"I Want to Shroom at Disneyland" 
"Ashleigh"

This book is not great.  But the structure is what separates it from your "typical road novel."  Obviously, Kerouac is a major influence on this work.  I took a road trip and settled down for 9 months in L.A., then wrote about the experience in a very short period of time.  There are also several "themes" that run through the book and I would like to think that I present a near-expert perspective on each of them.

I did not want to put this up previously because it was "too soon."  But now, time has healed most wounds, and I can give this is its own blog.  I advertised this book on Facebook by asking the question of how many friends I might lose in the process of posting it, but I only dropped from 551 to 550.  While this is a book of creative nonfiction in its purest sense (only 2 name changes), I hope most people consider it "fiction" and do not decide to prejudge me on the basis of the activities described therein.  The majority of this action took place between August 2007 and September 2008, so I hope you realize that people have the capacity to change.  It was also written mostly in November 2008, and there are many, many changes I would make if I were going to sit down with it and publish it as a book.  I am mostly happy with the way it is (though I know it tends to drag on in self-serious, equivocating explanatory paragraphs), and was busy trying to complete NaNoWriMo in 2014 while posting each chapter in reverse chronological order and making "light edits" and trying to come up with something vaguely clever to tease each post on Facebook and Twitter.  It wasn't a big success, but also wasn't a huge failure.  To date it has 881 page views (which I know, sucks, but in comparison to DST, which is sitting at 2040 after 5.5 years, it can be counted as a slight success.  Then again, I never tried to do a similar promotional thing for DST.

There were about 10 people that seemed to regularly visit the site each day to see each new post.  I appreciate their attention and hope they found it worthwhile.  I hope you will consider checking it out, and letting me know what you think.  Because I've been very lazy lately, but really want to get back into writing the way I did in 2006 through 2009...and maybe even 2013.  I find myself strangely lacking motivation to try, but I know that eventually, I must.

http://thinkandgrowpoor.blogspot.com/

-Christopher J. Knorps
12/14/14 in Chicago, Illinois

Monday, December 8, 2014

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn (2012)


My roommate picked up Gone Girl at the local thrift shop for me.  The night before, I had bought The Corrections from there for $3.  It was a nice gesture, and I was mildly interested in reading Gone Girl before, if only because it would be educational to learn what it takes to build a blockbuster novel and film combo.  Whatever Gillian Flynn did, she did it right, and she deserves her success.  Because she wrote a book that wasn't aimed at children, nor a trilogy, and managed to create a nasty 1-2 punch of an enormously popular novel and a critically-acclaimed screen adaptation.  (Stayed tuned for a review of the film.)  I enjoyed this book very much, for the most part.  Ultimately, I felt that Flynn was constrained by the confines of the plot, and while she makes a very powerful statement, eventually gets bogged down in melodrama more suited to soap operas than literary fiction.  This is the problem with being a "genre writer," even though I feel like Flynn's next novel (presuming it does not take 20 years) will place her in a different category from most mystery or thriller writers.  She is "literary thriller."  It's when Gone Girl turns into more of a genre exercise than a sociopolitical statement that I started to get bored.

The opening of the novel reminded me of the recently-reviewed The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., at least in the way the early 30's single Brooklyn writers scene is depicted.  There are only a couple scenes of this at the beginning of Gone Girl, but I remember being struck by them in a way, because I didn't know what to expect.

My sister told me, over dinner at Ron of Japan, that she and her husband Stefan had gone to see it.  Stefan remarked, "I wanted to throw my soda at the screen."   My sister was similarly exasperated.  I said I was surprised--I thought it was good to so far.  She asked, "Did you get to Book Two yet?"  I said no.  She said, "Yeah, wait til you get there."

So I went in skeptical, and when I got to Book Two, I wasn't that disappointed.  I can honestly say though that no one spoiled the book or movie for me, and I don't intend to do so here.  I can genuinely say that I didn't know what was going to happen next at more than three crucial parts of the story.  Maybe I am just an idiot who was reading it very casually, or didn't care that much because it was already gradually turning into something that felt like a genre exercise, but it didn't feel predictable.

Gillian Flynn is one of the most famous writers now living in Chicago, so I kind of have to give a positive review.  This book takes place almost entirely in the town of North Carthage, with the remainder in New York City--primarily Brooklyn Heights.  Flynn recently appeared on a WTTW show called "My Chicago," where she rode around in a car and told one of the hosts about all of the noteworthy locations she had frequented in Chicago.  They picked up her husband, an attorney, and they ended the show at Logan Hardware, an arcade bar, (or maybe Emporium--whichever one has the combination record store).  I do hope to run into her randomly in the Loop one day and be like, can we hang?

Gone Girl has been characterized as misogynistic in the press--but it is in these unfiltered moments of truth (or stereotype) that the novel flourishes.  It is appropriate to include an example from an earlier section to illustrate:

 "Nick and I, we sometimes laugh, laugh out loud, at the horrible things women make their husbands do to prove their love.  The pointless tasks, the myriad sacrifices, the endless small surrenders.  We call these men the dancing monkeys.
Nick will come home, sweaty and salty and beer-loose from a day at the ballpark, and I'll curl up in his lap, ask him about the game, ask him if his friend Jack had a good time, and he'll say, 'Oh, he came down with a case of the dancing monkeys--poor Jennifer was having a "real stressful week" and really needed him at home.'
Or his buddy at work, who can't go out for drinks because his girlfriend really needs him to stop by some bistro where she is having dinner with a friend from out of town.  So they can finally meet.  And so she can show how obedient her dancing monkey is: He comes when I call, and look how well groomed!
Wear this, don't wear that.  Do this chore now and do this chore when you get a chance and by that I mean now.  And definitely, definitely, give up the things you love for me, so I will have proof that you love me best.  It's the female pissing contest--as we swan around our book clubs and our cocktail hours, there are few things women love more than being able to detail the sacrifices our men make for us.  A call-and-response, the response being: 'Ohhh, that's so sweet.'" (55)

Built into this is the implicit feeling that, if the husband refuses, it will count as a major breach in the relationship and will always come back to haunt them.  Flynn writes about mundane matters like this with the flair of a fine fiction writer, and I have to say that almost all of the novel that doesn't deal with the whole page-turning-thriller plot is very good, and the novel is only not "great" because the thriller plot dominates the mundane fiction part of the book.

I'm not sure if I should spoil what happens--I think  it's generally an unfair thing to do because the first reason people read reviews of books or movies is to find out if it's worth their time or not.  I could discuss a bit more if I spoiled it, but that's no fair.  Perhaps the comments section will be used for "spoilers"--if anyone cares enough to point anything out.

There are 3 parts to this book.  The first is definitely the best and the reason to read the book.  Maybe stop there and then watch the movie.  Because the movie does the ending better.  The movie was playing at the Logan Theater one week ago, and since it's been out for a while, I feel its departure is imminent.  But I just checked and there it still is, a week later.  Anyways, I was at about page 400, and I kept saying I was going to finish the book before the movie, but then all of the sudden it was 2:40 and I needed to walk over.  I ended up needing to skim the last 15 pages.  I think it is probably the worst part of the book.  The corresponding part of the movie is not as bad.

In short, ironically, I felt that the last 15 pages were scribbled down hurriedly and aren't as elegantly-plotted as the rest of the book.  In truth, I could say that about the whole last 100 pages.  But the 15 are noteworthy due to my problem of not finishing before seeing the movie.  The story is resolved in an unsatisfactory way, and almost feels like it wants to open itself up to a sequel,  But that would be terrible.  After seeing the movie or reading the book, I don't think you will want to see the characters again in any new story.

I do want to comment on some nice parts the book has that the movie does not.  One is the time that Nick goes to a bar to get away from his situation with all of the press parked at his house and ends up doing a video interview with a young female journalist that is posted to her blog:

"Good morning!  I sat in bed with my laptop by my side, enjoying the online reviews of my impromptu interview.  My left eyeball was throbbing a bit, a light hangover from the cheap Scotch, but the rest of me was feeling pretty satisfied.  Last night I cast the first line to lure my wife back in.  I'm sorry, I will make it up to you, I will do whatever you want from now on, I will let the world know how special you are.
Because I was fucked unless Amy decided to show herself.  Tanner's detective (a wiry, clean-cut guy, not the boozy noir gumshoe I'd hope for) had come up with nothing so far--my wife had disappeared herself perfectly.  I had to convince Amy to come back to me, flush her out with compliments and capitulation.
If the reviews were any indication, I made the right call, because the reviews were good.  They were very good:
The Iceman Melteth!
I KNEW he was a good guy.
In vino veritas!
Maybe he didn't kill her after all.
Maybe he didn't kill her after all.
Maybe he didn't kill her after all.
And they'd stopped calling me Lance." (309)

Some characters are also excised from the book, the most memorable of which is Hilary Handy.  Tanner Bolt's wife is also cut, along with Stucks Buckley, and maybe one or two more.  And it occurs to me that Amy mentions Stucks Buckley in a diary entry and remarks that he has a stupid name.  So, perhaps, Flynn is being self-aware that, a lot of her character have dumb names and sound like the obvious plot devices they are.  Hilary Handy is certainly a handy person to have on your side.  Tanner Bolt just sounds like a superhero that comes in to save the day (though he is depicted as far from that).  Noelle Hawthorne and Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott all sound like realistic names, though.  Rhonda Boney just sounds goofy.

But Hilary Handy.  Maybe she was cut because her story struck me as a little more unrealistic than the rest of the book (and maybe people will think I am crazy for thinking this book is realistic--but I do think a good bit of the plot is very plausible and would be shocked if it didn't spawn a couple copycat crimes).  This part in particular:

"'Instead, she starts getting me to do things.  I don't realize it at the time, but she starts setting me up.  She asks if she can color my hair the same blond as hers, because mine's mousy, and it'll look so nice a brighter shade.  And she starts complaining about her parents.  I mean she's always complained about her parents, but now she really gets going on them--how they only love her as an idea and not really for who she is--so she says she wants to mess with her parents.  She has me start prank-calling her house, telling her parents I'm the new Amazing Amy.  We'd take the train into New York some weekends, and she'd tell me to stand outside their house--one time she had me run up to her mom and tell her I was going to get rid of Amy and be her new Amy or some crap like that.'
And you did it?'
'It was just dumb stuff girls do.  Back before cell phones and cyber-bullying.  A way to kill time.  We did prank stuff like that all the time, just dumb stuff.  Try to one-up each other on how daring and freaky we could be.'" (291)

It's a bit implausible.  It just wouldn't be cool to do that kind of stuff.

I've said about all I can about Gone Girl at this point.  It's a very clever book, and I recommend it.  Unfortunately, the movie is pretty good, so it sort of takes away an impetus to read the book.  And by the time I watched the movie, I was sick of the story.  It's best to experience one or the other--then maybe take a break for a long time, and experience the other one.  I would not recommend doing it back-to-back, or concurrently.

There's more I could say, but I will save that for the film review I will post in a few days...