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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

How did it all go so horribly wrong, Armistead Maupin?


After a marathon reading session from one in the afternoon to nine at night, I finished Maupin’s excellent The Night Listener, so utterly caught up in the lives of the people in the story, and Maupin’s ridiculously accurate exploration into the meaning of actual and perceived truth. It’s an original, complex, moving book.


Possible spoilers ahead


The Night Listenerby Armistead MaupinBantam2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]

The Night Listener
by Armistead Maupin
Bantam
2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]


So, excited to see what Maupin had done with the screenplay, I watch the Robin Williams film version the same night. Big mistake. The original, complex, moving book became a stock-standard, by-the-numbers, stupefyingly unoriginal screenplay with a twist ending so cringe-inducing, it’s almost impossible to watch. In the book, Maupin expertly develops a man in the grips of a personal crisis. In the movie, Robin Williams gets tazered in the back of a police car. Something is wrong with this picture.


Now, I understand books and movies are different. I understand the culling and condensing that must take place in order to lift a story from the page to the screen. It’s difficult, however, in a case like this, to adequately conclude why Maupin would shove the first 150 pages of his book into the film’s opening few minutes and then entirely re-write everything after. Especially something so meaningless.


Night Listener breakdown: Gabriel Noone is a radio show host in the middle of a burnout. He can’t get excited about his show or his writing, and his 10-year relationship is coming to an end. In the middle of all this, he befriends a young boy, Pete, by phone. The kid, stricken with AIDS, comes with a shocking back story of abuse to be detailed in an upcoming memoir. Noone becomes a mentor to Pete, and in his desperation, ignores the signs that perhaps this sad child is not a child at all.


Noone believes in the kid, and his need to prove Pete’s existence drives the book. It’s a desperate hope, and the hook on which everything else snatches, most effectively Noone’s relationship with his father and ex-lover, Jess. It’s very much a father, son, Holy Spirit thing, and as it pulls together, it’s so completely stirring. I almost lost it as Noone discovered the truth about his protégé. I, too, knew something was fishy, but, like Noone, refused to believe it. Maupin has infused Noone with such faith, that you experience the same.


The movie misses the mark on every level, but, then again, it never appears to want to reach those levels. Noone’s driving faith is non-existent, and he appears to know the truth very early on. The kid’s existence is almost never in question as the film plays stupid voice tricks during the Noone / Pete phone calls. Toni Collette as the kid’s mum is just immensely creepy from the moment we meet her. The book’s final, suspenseful chapters appear in the movie before the halfway mark, and instead of a film about patriarchal bonds and storytelling and a man’s creative resurrection, we get a semi-thriller of the is-it-real or is-it-not variety. No points for guessing correctly on that one. The movie doesn’t want to create doubt. In the book, Noone’s quest to validate the kid is a quest to do the same for himself. He is forced to examine what’s real and what isn’t in more than just his relationship with the kid, but with his father and Jesse.


And that ending? Maupin did more than change the story; he gave the kid’s mother a whole new set of weirdo psychologies that have very little connection to the woman in the book, or the woman she’s apparently based on who really did introduce her dying adopted son to Maupin.


Watching The Night Listener with my partner, it was all I could do not to shout at the screen “that didn’t happen!”, “this isn’t right!”, “what’s happening to this beautiful story?”


It’s a real mystery.


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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

The political reaction to the recent credit crisis has been in some ways predictable: Democrats (like Barney Frank in this FT editorial) have called for more regulation of rapacious, predatory lending markets that thrive on the ignorance or irrationality of their victims, while conservatives defend the ability of markets to sort out their own problems without government intervention or “nannying.” We wouldn’t want to hamper the innovation of financiers with regulatory impediments. That stance gets trickier, though, when it comes to what they argue the Fed should do. Wall Street types tend to cheer for a rate cut because it stimulates growth, which they are positioned to capitalize on. But the intellectually consistent—the ecnono-conservatives—want to see the Fed, like lawmakers, do nothing (not cut the federal funds rate, that is), thereby letting those who got themselves into trouble with reckless borrowing or financing be punished. This, the argument goes, will prevent moral hazard—the danger of lending recklessly because one is confident that the Fed will bail them out of any real trouble with a rate cut, the same way wearing a seat belt is presumed by some to make one a more reckless driver. Fed watcher James Grant, in a NYT editorial on Sunday, got into this:


What could account for the weakness of our credit markets? Why does the Fed feel the need to intervene at the drop of a market? The reasons have to do with an idea set firmly in place in the 1930s and expanded at every crisis up to the present. This is the notion that, while the risks inherent in the business of lending and borrowing should be finally borne by the public, the profits of that line of work should mainly accrue to the lenders and borrowers.


Nanny conservatives (as economist Dean Baker has styled them)—the bad-faith free marketeers who want profit without risk—expect government bailouts for poorly judged risks taken with ridiculous leverage but then fret and fulminate over “wasting” money on “handouts” to the poor. So it’s nice to see some commentators stick to their guns, even to the point of arguing that a recession might do the U.S. some good, as the Economist does in its most recent issue.


The economic and social costs of recession are painful: unemployment, lower wages and profits, and bankruptcy. These cannot be dismissed lightly. But there are also some purported benefits. Some economists believe that recessions are a necessary feature of economic growth. Joseph Schumpeter argued that recessions are a process of creative destruction in which inefficient firms are weeded out. Only by allowing the “winds of creative destruction” to blow freely could capital be released from dying firms to new industries.


This logic would seem to be even more persuasive with regard to the current problems in the credit market, which are a matter not of misallocated capital but mostly what might be considered phantom capital—paper assets generated by the loose money regime that has prevailed for the past half decade. What better than to blow away the profits investment banks secured without verifying the value of the underlying assets backing their loans—assets that vanished with the subprime borrower’s ability to make payments on a rejiggered ARM loan. Unfortunately these nonexistent assets were crafted (then aggregated and leveraged and collateralized and so on) from the toil of overstretched borrowers who seemed to have little idea of what they were getting into. Anecdotal reports suggest that many marginal mortgage borrowers were assured about the plausibility of their being able to make their payments by lenders who probably barely believed what they were saying. If the Fed bails out the financial sector with rate cuts, little of that benefit will trickle down to the borrowers already foreclosed upon, though the lenders will have already moved on to another round of victims, with fresh new cheap interest rates to tout.


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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

It’s that time again for another Wes Anderson dark comedy. Wes Anderson directed Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic, and produced The Squid and the Whale. With another star-filled cast, Anderson’s new comedy set in India, The Darjeeling Limited, will be released September 29th.



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Monday, Aug 27, 2007

We’re so attuned to the immediate quality of the media and the high adrenalin of the big stories—the explosion about to happen, the man-made tragedies and natural disasters—that it goes almost unnoticed that the Internet has been capturing the sweet scrapbook quality of an article clipped and slipped between the pages of a book, because it made someone smile.


New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik wrote in “Paris to the Moon,” the book he wrote after spending the last five years of the last century in Paris as the New Yorker’s correspondent there: “If there is a fault in reporting, after all, it is not that it is too ephemeral but that it is not ephemeral enough, too quickly concerned with what seems big at the time to see what is small and more likely to linger.”


My favourite form of journalism is the comic-sentimental essay in the form of community news, which has been practiced brilliantly at the New Yorker, from James Thurber from the magazine’s beginnings in the 1920’s, through to Adam Gopnik. In this week’s edition Adam Gopnik writes on community food projects:


Twelve-thirty on a beautiful summer day, and the chicken committee of the City Chicken Project is meeting at the Garden of Happiness, in the Crotona neighborhood of the Bronx. The chicken committee is devoted to the proliferation of egg-laying chickens in the outer boroughs, giving hens to people and having them raise the birds in community gardens and eat and even sell the eggs (“passing on the gift,” as this is called in the project), and thereby gain experience of chicken, eggs, and community—or fowl, food, and fellowship, as one of the more alliterative-minded organizers has said.


The invention of the New York Times permalink has allowed us to create scrapbooks, to clip articles from newspapers and magazines, and over a cup of coffee on a slow day, when looking idly for something to read, they can be casually flipped through. It may seem like a flippant, time wasting activity, but with APEC starting in Sydney this weekend, and the security measures written about in the Sydney Morning Herald starting to read like an episode of the 1960’s television spy-spoof Get Smart, it’s illuminating to re-read the original review of Dr. Strangelove, published in the New York Times in 1964, which now seems more like a documentary than satire.


Stanley Kubrick’s new film, called Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across. And I say that with full recollection of some of the grim ones I’ve heard from Mort Sahl, some of the cartoons I’ve seen by Charles Addams, and some of the stuff I’ve read in Mad magazine. For this brazenly jesting speculation of what might happen within the Pentagon and within the most responsible council of the President of the United States if some maniac Air Force general should suddenly order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union is at the same time one of the cleverest and most incisive satiric thrusts at the awkwardness and folly of the military that has ever been on the screen. It opened yesterday at the Victoria and the Baronet.


Self Portrait with Lox and Bagel by Dayna Bateman

Self Portrait with Lox and Bagel by Dayna Bateman


Dayna Bateman is someone who riffs on articles from newspapers, finding the poetry and charm and ephemeral sweetness in stories, condensing them on her blog—suttonhoo—and running them with her photographs, which she features on Flickr.


A recent example:


we were at
at high mass
on a summer Sunday
in Prague


sitting below
a large bishop
in a swingy skirt
bottomed off
with gold booties


thinking
his moves had
a sort of stripper
quality to them


Found in Justine Hardy’s “Guilt in the Golden City”
in the 25 August issue of the Financial Times.



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Monday, Aug 27, 2007


It was, literally, a Pandora’s Box. Better yet, make that ‘boxes’. Three cardboard crates sitting on the floor of the title address, thirty years of a mother’s private recollections locked deep inside the numerous wire bound notebooks. For still grieving filmmaker Doug Block, the dilemma was severe. Desperate to remain connected to his deceased parent, he was also troubled by a sickening sense that he was, somehow, disrespecting her memory and her marriage by prying into this vault of familial secrets. Block had always suspected there was a rift between his closest kin, an unspoken secret that, for all intents and purposes, manifested itself three months after the funeral. It was during a trip to Florida that Block’s father Mike picked up the phone and informed his adult children that he was marrying his secretary, a whispered about woman named Kitty, from 30 years before. 


Thus began the wave of rumors and innuendo, siblings who thought they had a handle on their father suddenly faced a lifetime of possible lies and imagined decent…except, reality doesn’t always play out like the movies. And as he proves in his brilliant deconstruction of the unusual unit known as a family, Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street bends the rules in order to tell the truth. As a fledgling filmmaker who shoots weddings to supplement his documentary dreams, this director has seen a lot of couples come and go. He can usually predict the partnerships that will last from those that won’t make it past the reception. But he never imagined that when he turned his camera on mother Minn and father Mike for their 54th wedding anniversary, it would be for the last time as husband and wife, parent and guardian, and happy and contented couple. 


As a movie, 51 Birch Street is the creative counterpoint to Capturing the Friedmans. It’s not out to unlock legal woes or cast doubt on an accused pedophile’s guilt or innocence. Instead, this is a smaller, more focused film, a most intimate of looks at how life can throw you crater-sized curveballs just when you think you’ve got everything in focus. The rapid changes that occur in the six months between an idolized parent’s passing and some record breaking rebound nuptials are seismic in their significance. They seem to tell us, the audience, quite a bit about the Block family undercurrent. Indeed, there is a substantial subtext of unease and angst among these relatives. An older sister is startled that dad would disrespect her mother’s legacy so. The other daughter is delighted – though tentative – about her father’s newfound happiness. Caught in the middle is Doug, detached from the only meaningful male presence in his world and wondering what he’s missed.


Turns out, the Block marriage was a myth, a coming together of two totally divergent personality types that started falling apart almost immediately. Kids kept them connected, as did the prevailing post-War conservatism and restricted suburban sprawl. But one member of the coupling was secretly dying inside. This person hated their new life, and found themselves seeking fulfillment elsewhere. Initially, it came from therapy, but eventually, it required a lover. All the time no one else knew – not the other spouse, not the increasingly cognizant children, not the neighbors, friends, or casual acquaintances. Divorce was discussed, but tradition tripped up any planned separation. It just wasn’t done in those days, and partners frequently feigned happiness for the benefit of their social standing. In the end, it took actual death, and the discovery of some incredibly explicit journals, to shed light on a lifetime of pain and problems.


Who the actual sufferer was remains one of 51 Birch Street’s clandestine delights. Block obviously knew that the audience would draw one conclusion (the situation practically screams the answer), but perspective is not always perceptive, and the second act disclosures regarding adultery and fantasy frustration really throw us, and the narrative. In situations such as these, viewers enjoy playing heroes and villains, and switching sides in midstream stands as quite a trick. It speaks to Block’s ability behind the camera, his attention to detail in both his story and his overall tone. Besides, we are susceptible to the age old standards, and such suspicions are hard to shake, even in this enlightened age. As a result, this documentary does something that’s quite rare, even for the genre. It casts open our own ideas about love and fidelity, and causes us to reflect on the state of our own relationships, and the truth about those around us.


Even deeper, 51 Birch Street, asks us to take the unusual stance of looking at parents as actual people. Because of their part as our initial introduction to the world, we filter almost all our earliest experiences through the lessons and leanings of our Mom and Dad. In addition, society loves to stigmatize certain human facets, taking subjects like sex, drugs, and the suicidal loss of self directly off the table. No right minded adult would pretend to burden their offspring so. But Minn and Mike were different. They were an evolving couple that, one day, decided to simply stick with the status quo. We snicker as Doug’s sisters discuss their ‘hippie’ guardians, partaking of marijuana and contemplating wife swapping, and wonder how they managed to maintain a reasonable relationship while inside a stressful and aggressive set of individual therapies. The answer is obvious – they didn’t. But no one else in the Block family understood that fact. They continued on as if nothing was happening, oblivious to the estranged situation around them.


If there are flaws in this premise, it’s that Block as a narrator, is way too naïve for his 50-plus years. His mother, even in the minimal home video footage we see of her, is a completely measured woman, making sure her son understands that she loves her husband, but only on her terms. Watching Mike respond to his wife’s less than stellar sentiment is like seeing defeat illustrated. Similarly, the distance between father and son is an obvious outgrowth of the boy’s bond with his mother. No dad wants to be the wedge that comes between a loving parent/child connection, and so our forlorn guardian gave up. Now, some five decades into said denial, Block wants to vent, hug, and make up. He wants his dad to share in this emotional epiphany, but at 83, it’s hard to teach this tired old dog any necessitated new age tricks. A sequence with a noted PhD also goes nowhere, since Block’s befuddled questions seem more rhetorical than quizzical.


Yet thanks to the intrinsic intrigue in the slowly shifting storyline, our bond with the Blocks, and the last act denouements which clarify little but clearly bring closure – at least, for some – 51 Birch Street soars. We are touched by this remarkable saga, seeing ourselves and the people we came from in every painful recollection, remembering our own past right along with the filmmaker and his family. It won’t spoil much to say that both Minn and Mike are finally seen for who they really are, and were, by the closing moments of this movie. Similarly, the remaining Block brood size up the situations and resolve to let bygones be just that - gone. As the familiar fish out of water other woman, Kitty seems to sum things up best when she states that, until her golden years, marriage was a pressured rite of passage. She married her abusive first husband because he was blond. Now, she’s with someone who accepts her as she is – flaws and all. Had the first Block marriage began in such a fashion, this film would have never been made. Luckily for us, it didn’t


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