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Tuesday, Mar 11, 2008

Recently I finished Australian author Markus Zusak’s fantastic novel, The Book Thief (2006). Coming off of a disappointing read (see my post on Labyrinth), this book reaffirmed my faith in the beauty of prose—and the amazement that comes with reading something entirely new. Besides being an incredible story, this book is creative with words in a way I haven’t seen for too long. Words have an active presence, a forcefulness, almost a will of their own. Liesel, the central character in a narrative told by a surprisingly sensitive Death, is handed over to a foster mother who uses words as weapons:


She seemed to collect the words in her hand, pat them together, and hurl them across the table (35).


Elizabeth Chang writes for The Washington Post:


Death, like Liesel, has a way with words. And he recognizes them not only for the good they can do, but for the evil as well. What would Hitler have been, after all, without words? As this book reminds us, what would any of us be?


Liesel’s claim to fame, her own way of validating her existence in the bizarre microcosm of Nazi Germany, is to steal books, even before she learns how to read at the late-blooming age of 10. Once she starts the thievery, she can’t stop, and it becomes her small act of rebellion in the restrictive confines of 1940s German society.


I thought of Liesel recently when I was asked at my library job to take a pile of denuded (read: coverless), unwanted books to the recycling dumpster behind the high school cafeteria. Tossing in armful after armful of dusty, unread, out of date library books, I thought of Liesel digging a precious overheated tome out of a Nazi literary funeral pyre and hiding it under her jacket, burning herself to save the words (122). She would go to any length to save a book, no matter the effort it cost her, and no matter what the book was. And here I was, tossing them into a dumpster. I took a moment to ponder the literary relativity and the value of words. Death narrates:


Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain (80).


I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Zusak’s award-winning 2005 novel I am the Messenger, which was already checked out of the library when I finished The Book Thief. What was your last read that made you appreciate language in a new way?


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Monday, Mar 10, 2008

In celebration of the Coen Brothers’ Oscar winning No Country for Old Men (arriving on DVD today, 11 March), Short Ends and Leader looks back at a May 2007 piece regarding the promise of the latest offering from the filmmakers, as well as their overall career trajectory.


The review in the most recent Variety says it all – after half a decade in the cinematic wilderness, the Coen Brothers have apparently returned to their original, brilliant filmmaking forte. The movie in question is their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s drug and death thriller No Country for Old Men, and advanced word is more than favorable. Indeed, it’s the kind of unmitigated praise (with words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘masterpiece’ tossed around) that the skilled siblings once attained with surprising regularity. Fans who have long hoped for a return to form should be smiling from ear to ear, and while we will have to wait until sometime in late November to see if the Cannes screening buzz is true, any promise of their previous brilliance is worth celebrating.


You see, the Coens were, at one time, undeniable gods of quirky, unconventional filmmaking. While they never delivered a monster mainstream motion picture (2000’s O’ Brother Where Art Thou? is the closest they every came to a certified hit) they also never really hid behind a veil of independent or outsider auteurship. Instead, writer/producer Ethan and writer/director Joel have openly helmed some of the most memorable movies of the last two decades, remarkable masterworks with titles like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In all, the nine films they made over their first 17 years in the industry represent the best that modern cinema can achieve. They even achieved that rarity for visionary artists – an actual Oscar (for crafting the screenplay for Fargo).


But something happened in 2001, right around the time that their black and white opus The Man Who Wasn’t There was hitting theaters. For a long time, the Coens had hated the idea of working outside the system. While their films had always been embraced by the studios (well, mostly), they had never really had a concrete deal to depend on. But when O’ Brother went ballistic, giving former ER star George Clooney a substantial boost into the realm of superstardom, the boys appeared ready to bathe in the limelight of legitimacy. They took a sketchy divorce comedy by a pair of unheralded Hollywood hacks (Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, responsible for Life, Big Trouble, and the horrid Man of the House), reworked the material to fit their idiosyncratic ideals, and got their pal George back on board. Suddenly, Intolerable Cruelty was on the production fast track.


When A-listers Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thorton and Geoffrey Rush signed on, it looked like the Coens would finally see some solid commercial returns. And they didn’t intend to totally abandon their esoteric cinematic style. As they saw it, this was a chance to meld their vision with a viable high profile product. Unfortunately, they failed both demographics. Devotees destroyed the film, seeing nothing of their favorite filmmakers in the dull, derivative mess. Even worse, audiences outside the boys’ normal sphere of influence discovered very little to like about this cobbled together collection of clipped dialogue, oddball characters, and stylized visual imagery. After a few feeble weeks at the box office, the film only earned back half of its $60 million price tag.


Luckily, the guys had already lined up their next project. Looking for something to subvert his normal nice guy image onscreen, megastar Tom Hanks provided the duo with their crumbling career safety net. He hooked up with the Coens for their planned remake of the Alec Guiness classic The Ladykillers, hoping that by playing a corrupt con man looking to rob a local bank he could win back a little of the acting credibility he once had (the man owns a pair of Academy brass, remember). The cast was fleshed out with additional faces unfamiliar to the boys’ standard acting crew (J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans), and while Hanks excelled in the lead, the rest of the movie felt oddly off balance. Even the staunchest Coen supporters had a hard time defending its flatness.


The result was a flop of reputational, not financial, proportions (the movie made money, believe it or not). What was happening to the brothers was something they had never experienced in the past. With the weak one-two punch of these underperforming efforts, followers began to doubt their inherent artistic acumen. At one time, their amiable aesthetic was unquestionable. The guys were geniuses and that was that. But somehow, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers showed that these irrefutable emperors did indeed have some frayed bits in their otherwise fanciful clothes. Of course, such a conclusion was only partly true, but the status carried. Suddenly, the one time deities of motion picture mastery were viewed as vulnerable, flawed, and very, very human.


Again, it’s not hard to see why. Modern writers/directors would give up their posh seats at the trendiest restaurant of the moment to claim any one of the Coens’ previous efforts. Blood Simple was such a shock to the system that mainstream critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were beside themselves with praise. The follow-up, the comedy classic Raising Arizona remains one of the great ensemble laugh fests ever formulated. With those two projects alone, most moviemakers would be satisfied, but the Coens continued their scorching streak of cinematic stalwarts.


During an unusual period of writer’s block, the brothers managed to salvage two scripts from the depths of literary despair. The final products – Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink – stand as the best examples of the boys’ early period works. Dense, obtuse and frighteningly fleshed out, their takes on the period crime caper (Crossing) and the Golden Era of Hollywood (Fink) function as fascinating bookends, movies that completely encapsulate and explain the Coens’ interpretation of the language of film. Both projects wallowed in excessive detail, used sequences of startling violence, and just the slightest hint of socially unacceptable behavior (drinking, death) to round out their splashy, flashy finesse.


After their massive critical success, the pair was picked up by super producer Joel Silver to make their next movie – a satiric screwball comedy about big business entitled The Hudsucker Proxy. Like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying sans the music and misguided optimism, the Coens riffed on everything old fashioned and mannered about the post-War Tinsel Town comedies, and came up with a bafflingly insular work that few outside the fanbase could cotton to. From Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mysterious Kate Hepburn brogue to a plot premised on stock market fluctuations and company corruption, it took a few years of reconsideration before anyone considered Hudsucker a worthy companion to the boys’ previous gems.


Fargo, of course, was the duo’s final coming out. When Gene Siskel declared that he was sure he would not see a better film the rest of the year – and it was MARCH 1996 when he made such a statement – you just knew something special was in the offing. Driven by an idiosyncratic setting (upper Minnesota) and equally arcane accents, the Coens created a kidnapping/murder mystery with as much buffoonery as bite. With Oscar worthy performances from William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi, and an Award winning turn by star Frances McDormand, the guys finally received the industry idolatry they so richly deserved (and statuettes for Best Original Screenplay).


The final three films in their notable nine movie run were equally important. The Big Lebowski proved that the Coens had lost none of their ridiculous razor’s edge, turning the story of a stoner and a case of mistaken identity into a fresh and full bodied farce. O’ Brother showcased the power in music, as well as the boys’ understanding of rural America revisionism. And when The Man Who Wasn’t There offered up a similar theme of flat feloniousness among small town folk, its anti-histrionic take on such acts of desperation was a revelation. So it’s no substantial shock that Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers would feel like letdowns. Neither was an original creation from the guy’s unusual perspective, and neither tried to funnel their fascinating film fusion into a cohesive or vital vision. In fact, when the quirkiest element involved remains Tom Hank’s Southern dandy accent, you know you’ve swayed from what made you famous in the first place.


So it’s great to hear the outpouring of praise for No Country for Old Men. It’s been a long time since the Coens captured the imagination of the creative community, and though they’ve only been out of consideration for a few years, their exile from importance seems infinite. At one time, they wrote the new rules on how to deliver motion pictures from the mundane and the stagnant. They catered to characterization instead of high concepts, and smoothed out their scripts with a narrative flow as fluid as a puddle of pulsating mercury. If they end up winning Cannes’ biggest prizes (as they have done several times before) or simply walk away with the word of mouth necessary to jumpstart their next few films, then all is right in the cinematic universe. The Coens used to be said cosmos’ brightest stars. It’s wonderful to know they haven’t supernova-ed, at least not yet.


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Monday, Mar 10, 2008

When composer/saxist John Zorn invited journalists to a pair of weekend shows, his one request was that they would not write about it. Of course, the next thing that happened was that a flurry of angry exchanges were unleashed with some defending Zorn and others calling him crazy and conceited. I was there for one of the shows but I paid for my ticket and wrote about it. Later though, I wondered again about the strange relationships that develop between artists and writers.


A mentor of mine warned me that it was never a good idea to get chummy with musicians. He occasionally broke the rule himself but tried to maintain it in general. My batting average is about the same but I know the reasoning behind this idea—you don’t wanna have to call your friend out on a bad album in print. Even it’s constructive, it can still sting. Unfortunately, I’ve found the same thing with other writers—most of the time when you’re asked ‘what do you think of my article,’ they’re really asking ‘could you please find something nice to say about it?’


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Sunday, Mar 9, 2008


Historians hate it when movies take liberties with the archeological truth. From the homoerotic overkill of something like 300, which got blasted for turning Spartans into studly supermodels, to the recent reaming given to The Other Boleyn Girl for Harlequin-ing the reign of Henry VIII, the past gets perverted a great deal of the time. Now, no one is expecting a 100% accurate depiction of events long ago, and the only engaging documentary of the time would be one actually made in said era (Morgan Spurlock presents Renaissance Me!). So in essence, we have to take the good with the bad, the dramatic license with the downright ludicrous (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, anyone?).


Now comes Roland Emmerich’s Neanderthal nonsense 10,000 BC. It mixes and matches its historic perspective in a mishmash of anthropology and inanity. Aside from the fact that several phases of human existence seem to be living within a few days walk of each other, we get beasts and byplay from several significant epochs. Clearly, this pulp popcorn movie is not meant to be an educational trek through time. But one has to wonder what real lessons could be learned from studying the stupidity onscreen. After a weekend of rumination, here are some suggestions for the clear cut instruction it provides. In many cases, the educational elements are more intriguing than the entertainment - or lack thereof:



Great ‘White’ Messiahs Figure Prominently in All Prehistoric Myth


You’d think that only your standard Caucasian clan of the cave bear would worship a bearded, long haired proto-human with magical powers. But back before the actual Christ, almost every wilderness tribe supposedly had a fable focusing on a great white savior. No matter the skin color, tribal make-up, or hunter/gatherer mentality, seems only Anglos can be angels in the prehistoric world.



It Really Was a Territorial Tower of Babel


Language is often called the original prejudice. Even today, it remains a barrier to better understanding and international accord. But back at the dawn of man, people really didn’t communicate with each other, and for good reason - they couldn’t. With broken English the regional standard, few were fluent in either gobbledygook or mumbo jumbo. Some could swing a few words of claptrap. Unintelligible gibberish, on the other hand, remained the true mother tongue.



Reincarnation Rules!


It’s always sad when you lose a loved one. It’s even worse when her death is meant as a symbolic gesture of karmic adjustment and potential narrative melodrama. But there’s no real need to worry - old people’s souls are here! That’s right, as long as the proper cosmic connections are made, and the running time has reached the right point, a dying old coot will supply your dead love with a new infusion of life-giving spirit.



Saber-Toothed Tigers Understand Situational Ethics


So you’re a legendary feline, mouth filled with an impressive pair of torso-tearing incisors. You’re trapped in a hole that is rapidly filling up, flash flood style, with water. You’re about to die when - Eureka! - you’re saved by a waifish caveman. Do you - (a) eat the caveman? (b) eat the caveman? or (c) ignore your eons of instinctual behavior and spare the human, only to later become his benefactor and bodyguard?



Mammoths/ Mastodons Can Really Haul Ass


Wooly and elephantine, few would view these oversized behemoths as Triple Crown contenders. But, apparently, if you get a group of hygienically challenged prairie dwellers with spears made from your relatives chasing after you, it’s Preakness time! That’s right, these two ton terrors are rather fleet of foot when scrawny, hungry Cro-Magnons come calling. Even better, they’ll go Lord of the Rings Mumak on you if given half a chance.



Religious Superstitution = an Empire’s Undoing


So, you’ve mastered engineering, using ancient technology and science to develop complex construction systems. You’re learning is so advanced that you’ve also mastered both land and sea. You even have domain over man and his animal brethren. Yet the minute some gal comes along with a symbolic scar on her hand, you get all gooey. In fact, your false beliefs are so great you instantly find yourself vulnerable to complete destruction. And the value of your faith is what again?



Blue Eyes = Bad Omens


From the most primitive biped to the least Aryan Nazi, Topaz peepers can only mean one thing - troubles a’ brewin’. Though we take it for granted nowadays, and tend to celebrate those who’ve been “blessed” with Cobalt coloration, the indigenous peoples of several eons ago went bonkers upon seeing such an optically gifted individual. Apparently, it has something to do with the rarity of the condition, the startling appearance, and the overall concept of dreaminess.



Oversized Ostrich Buzzards Were the Velociraptros of 10,000 BC


Though they looked like a cornball version of John Dante’s demons from Twilight Zone: The Movie, the gigantic dino-birds of ages part actually resemble their supposed genetic ancestry. They stalk and hunt their prey in high foliage fashion, popping out at predetermined internals to give anyone watching a complimentary jolt. They use their beaks for ripping and shredding. They can climb great heights with little or no predisposition toward same. And they squawk like Hell.



Megalomaniacal Godlike Figures Are Way Too Fashion Conscious


When you’re trying to dictate the direction of your domain’s inhabitants - both natural born and “invited” - it’s imperative that you keep the references to Jean-Paul Gautier and Tarsem to a minimum. You should look like a ruler, a visionary leader of all creatures great and small, not some foreign filmmaker’s fever dream. Covering oneself from head to toe with what looks like a teenage girl’s canopy bed drape is hilarious, not heroic…or haute couture.
 


Sloppy CGI Spectacle Still Fills Seats


Audiences never learn, do they? Even when the reviews indicate that a film will be nothing more than a semi-involving example of cheesy effects and stilted dialogue, they still plunk down their dosh and turn those styles. 10,000 BC raked in over $3,500 per year over the 7 March weekend, taking the number one spot away from position pretenders Raven Simone (College Road Trip) and Jeremy Statham (The Bank Job). Apparently, there’s an equally exponential amount of suckers born every minute.


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Saturday, Mar 8, 2008

One of the big surprises during my recent trip to the big city, was that I came home without a single book. Usually, Melbourne is my number-one place to go for cheap remainders or hard-to-find second hand books. If you’re ever nearby, Arthur Daley’s on Spencer Street should be your first stop, then on and around to Flinders Books on Flinders. Book shopping this trip, however, wasn’t a priority, so a brief wander through a Dymocks was about all I managed.


It was there, though, that I found a really brilliant book, so short I could read it in the store, but a bit too expensive (at $50.00) to take home. The Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense Pop-Up Book (by Kees Moerbeek, Little Simon, 2006)  is, however, now on my eBay watch list. What a stunning book, what an amazing concept—key scenes from Hitchcock’s films rendered in detailed pop-ups. The birds fly off the page, the Vertigo vortex actually spins, and Paul Newman really does stick that guy’s head in the oven.


I had no idea when marveling at this, that pop-up books were in the middle of a major comeback. As early as 2 March, the Sacramento Bee featured two related stories, “Big jump in pop-up books” and “Pop-up star”, with Dixie Reid reporting that pop-up books, once aligned more with toys than literature are now considered “a mainstream format”.


Graceland: An Interactive Pop-Up Tourby Chuck MurphyQuirk Publishing, 2006

Graceland: An Interactive Pop-Up Tour
by Chuck Murphy
Quirk Publishing, 2006


In “Pop-up star”, Reid profiles master paper engineer and pop-up book maker David Carter. Carter talks about his designs, how he came to design pop-ups, and his theories on the enjoyment they provide. One of his catchphrases, which appears on the back covers of each of his books is “Please touch the art”.


Last October, Carter and his latest creation, the pop-up version of Horton Hears a Who, starred in an interactive pop-up book exhibition at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The Rochester City Newspaper wrote about the event describing it as full of “‘Wow!’ and ‘Look at this!’” moments. Pop-up books, the article notes, have come along way from basic three-dimensional shapes and pull-tabs. Now, pages can resemble mini-theatre stages, making stories move with numerous pull-tabs, complex paper and string structures, bits to lift, other bits to fold.


The Neiman Marcus Pop-Up Book

The Neiman Marcus Pop-Up Book


The Hitchcock book was full of “wow” moments, too. As amazing as one page looked, the next was even better. That awe had as much to do with actual artwork itself—bits of plastic and string holding together these intricate pieces—as it did with the very specific way the creator viewed the scene and then built the pop-up version to match that view.


What frightens us about The Birds, for instance? That they appear larger than life? Or is it the shattering phone booth glass as they repeatedly slam into it, causing too-large cracks? The pop-up book page takes these elements and creates its scene. The angles and shapes on the pages are very deliberate, and so the pop-up book is as much about the representation of a concept as is it is cutting and pasting.


A bit of digging, and I discovered that pop-up books exist for any purpose, and all tastes. Dr Seuss is in pop-up form, as is Alice in Wonderland, and even a recent, limited edition Neiman Marcus celebratory book.


The University of North Texas has a great section on its website devoted to pop-up art. The site’s introduction provides a fascinating history of the art form, from its very first appearance in the 1200s. From the introduction:


The first movable books actually predate the print culture. The earliest known examples of such interactive mechanisms are by Ramón Llull (c.1235-1316) of Majorca, a Catalán mystic and poet. His works contain volvelles or revolving discs, which he used to illustrate his complex philosophical search for truth.


The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordonby Stephen KingArtwork by Dingman, Abrahams, MoerbeekSimon & Schuster, 2004

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
by Stephen King
Artwork by Dingman, Abrahams, Moerbeek
Simon & Schuster, 2004


Prior to reading this, and to picking up the Hitchcock book, I had no idea pop up books had developed so far in terms of design and purpose. I think of pop-up books and I think of hedgehogs and bunnies just lifting from the centre of a book.


Now I see, for instance, the pop-up of Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, how the pull tabs make the rain fall, and I realize it’s more than childlike fun. It’s about lifting the story out of the page, to make it tangible and real.


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