Monday, August 30, 2010

Shreddings (Jillian)

The photo below is a window into my endeavors of the summer. I have become the Duchess of Shreddings. In scanning writings and musings from 1997 to 2000, I produced three of these boxes. Once I am finished with 2001-2002, I may have three... or five more. And I won't even think about the pile of paper from my last two years of high school.

Quite a feat, and an amusing one to boot. I'll admit, though, that there is a bit of wistfulness mixed into this scene, the tangle-y nest of paper strips that once had been the products of a determined pen. But it is no tragedy. While the thumb drive lasts, so do these whispers of yesteryear.

I was once told - at the very very dawn of my writing - that I should save everything because "you never know if you might need it." Honestly, though, I am starting to see a personal statute of limitations of that sort of need. In other words, if it sits in over-crowded binders for five-plus years, it is probably not as needed as it once was, and should be retired. Retired with Honors in the scanning ceremony, officiated by the Duchess herself... in fond memory.

This process has reminded me of long-dead ideas and failures; like looking back through time, I see my younger, early-teenage mind at work editing and creating in multiple colors of ink scratching out little details or changing a vital character's first name (sometimes several times, depending on my mood), asterisk-pocks in the margins, and prompt Xs over paragraphs that just didn't work. I may not ever use those ideas, characters or stories again, but they are still with me... and can fit in the palm of my hand.

So this is a shuffle, and an archiving ritual... not a chance to dance around a bondfire of my old self. After all, these words, as rough and uncut and unrefined as they are, are still a part of me.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How Some Stories Come About (Jillian)

As you well know, I love musing over stories and what writers have to say about their art. Today I happened upon an article about Justin Cronin, the author of The Passage. I haven't heard much about this novel, but I learned it is about vampires and is far, far darker than Twilight. Not that that is the reason I suddenly find my curiosity piqued. (Article by Peter Stanford of the Daily Telegraph.)

I was fascinated with the idea that he plotted-out the book with his young daughter. While bike-riding, they light-heartedly constructed a vampire story to pass the time. Only later did he turn it into a substantial and daunting piece of fiction. What a special experience that would be, to share a story with your loved ones in this way! The story has a history beyond itself. I'm reminded of how M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water was a bedtime story he told his children.

Some lovely tidbits:

"I wanted to write a book that had the attributes of literary fiction – meaning good careful writing and characters with human complexity – and that also operated simultaneously in a whole variety of genres – from the post-apocalyptic to the western. That literary-popular distinction is, in my view, vastly overstated. At the far poles there are clearly books that are purely commercial and purely literary... but the middle is where most people read and most people write.”

On mass-marketing of fiction:

"One thing that worried me was how writers get categorised and so they end up having to write the same kind of book again and again. That is fine if it is what you want to do, but I would rather be locked in the trunk of my car with a weasel than write the same book every three years until I die.”

Well said!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Ghost of Writer's Past (Jillian)

I have been absent from the blog for a while now, as I unavoidably had to contend with a move and the painstaking process of (finally) going through old papers and deciding what stays and what goes… what I should never have kept in the first place. Which brings me to today’s topic.

When I say “papers”, I mean many, many large binders overflowing with stories and schemes written by yours truly from 1997 to 2004. Some were the early creative explorations of a Star Wars fan; others are buds of novels, novellas, and stories; some were the journal entries of a writer beginning to understand her own voice. As you can imagine, the entirety of this collection weighs a ton… and takes up a lot of space, and could very well be a fire hazard. Hence, I have begun the task of scanning each page onto a flash drive, making this extensive archive more permanent, significantly lighter and much easier to peruse.

It is has proved a more introspective project than I thought it would… running across nuggets of narrative earnestness and awkwardness that make me laugh to this day. It is an extensive research project of the evolution of handwriting, of old type-written summaries created before my parents purchased a computer in December 1999; of specific plotlines and the way my ignorance gave my age away while my brain was cleverly constructing worlds and worlds of new horizons and people. I can see a girl who who planned things down to the last detail – from a language written for the aliens in my novels to the names and ages of the future children of the main characters - even if those ideas wouldn’t come out as planned.

These are some discoveries so far:

From a document entitled “Story Ideas”, early 2000:
Other secret agent ideas:
-has a metal plate in his head because aliens abducted him when he was a teenager
-His name won’t be Tristan Scott [another “secret agent”, evidently].
-girl will be called something else.
-girl has metal plate in her head, too, making them one of a kind.

I don’t remember the inspiration for this. Not sure that’s a horrible thing, either.

From a draft written in December 1999:
“Ignorancy is often the weakness of a corrupt soul.”

Eh. Right.

A nugget of wisdom I could use these days, from a free-write from the 8th grade:
“I practically forced myself to write the summaries of my own… adventures down. This took time. I’d lose interest and sometimes drive myself mad at completing them. They were supposed to be completely done before I did any serious writing. Then, I got to “The Revenger” which is at the end. That was still being constructed, and still is, actually. I was sick of summaries. I decided to stop the summaries and start to actually write. It sounds [is] great, as far as I’ve gotten.”

See?! Early on I knew that outline and planning can smother a novel to death. That is why I am taking the novel-is-writing-itself approach. The restless agitation of getting the story right before you even create it in words is counter-productive and perfectionistic. Not to mention exhausting.

“… I don’t care if someone hates my ideas. These are mine to cherish… My work has been long and hard on it [?]. Even though my sister can’t stand the thought of it, or people hate it or hate me or things stand in the way where I hadn’t seen before, I won’t give them [my stories] up for any reason. It is my alternative life. My second home…”

Fall 1999
Funky spelling: “hecktic.”

Hm… has a logic to it.

August 2000
“I’ll admit [it] – trying to dance with a CD “holster” is not a smart thing.”

The CD “holster” was actually an ugly, brown, bulbous fanny-pack-purse contraption in which I carried my portable CD player. The days before the iPod and the sleek elastic armband.

Star Wars-esque alcoholic beverages, November 2000:
Sekulian botlach, saranda wine, giff.

I can’t tell you much about these creations… only that giff is supposed to be a bit like whiskey. Of course.

December 2000, I developed an interesting rough-draft process. If I needed to add a line or a paragraph, I would mark the place with an astericks and proceed to complete it in the margin, complete with the date and exact time of entry (military time, of course).


It has taken me years to look back, and doing so puts these preserved moments in perspective – these were little steps to the place I am now. Writing made me happy, cloaked me when I wasn’t, and allowed me to expand my thinking in unusual ways. Fifteen years is a long time, 60% of my life so far. But it is still a sliver of what is to come, I hope. My journey as a writer can only get better from here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Final Thoughts on Lost (Jillian)

As a writer, I find it difficult to articulate gut reactions without enough time to let my thoughts cook a bit. Hence, my belated notes on the end of Lost.

I'm not a mega-fan, who sifts and speculates on every mystery. The only way I could watch the final season unfold was to suspend questions and accept the enigmatic, sometimes ridiculously twisted, story presented to us. So, I won't speculate here. Lost ended well. It was by no means a perfectly-written or clearly rendered story, but I am impressed by its capacity for making viewers think... especially in an age where entertainment is for the most part easy and mindless. In watching this show, I had no idea what to expect from week to week, no idea what all the pieces were leading to. And, of course, there are far too many to recount here.

And even better, the writers of Lost do not answer all of the questions. They answer what is important by focusing on the characters in the richness of a flashback/flashforward/flashsideways story. Flash sideways in particular and the links between one's real life and the afterlife, those connections between characters that we thought were once lost but definitely are not (i.e. Claire and Charley, Sawyer and Juliette). And... death is not the end of all that we know; it isn't lonely; it isn't sad. It's the peaceful beginning of something new.

For these and many other things in the crazy saga that was Lost, I am completely satisfied. The mysteries live on. They will keep fans and viewers thinking for decades to come. Bravo!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Nurture By Silence (Jillian)

One delightful thing I have discovered that helps me in my daily quest for writing is silence.

I'm not talking about the heavy, daunting kind of silence, but the rich, lightly-flavored silence that nurtures my whimsy instead of crushing it with boredom. Spring is rich with it. Especially after a long, hard winter, the mere idea of birds singing bell-like arias, new plants growing up out of what once had been a brown, dead garden, and the peace of a warm breeze coming in an opened window create an environment that is nurturing to the creative spirit. It is May, and I find myself surprised to see sunshine and go out into mild coolness instead of frigid air.

Situated with the background of wind through trees, wind-chimes, and - because it is unavoidable - traffic, I find it easier to just give into instincts and pour words onto a page. I'm even finding inexpressible contentment in writing without music. Ah, simplicity,

I suppose that is the defining nature of our writing journeys - we're always searching for our own, custom-made equilibrium, that place where we are the freest and our ideas are the clearest.

Where is yours?

Wisdom from Emily Dickinson:

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
that day.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dilemma of the Hood (Jillian)

There are a few stories of which I am vehemently protective. These range from depictions of Joan of Arc (don't mess with her!) to George Lucas' mishandling of his Star Wars saga to the utter joy of watching Jane Eyre beautifully captured by Masterpiece Theatre. Inevitably, as the summer movie season draws ever nearer, I go into that guardian-mode, growling like a Twilight-vampire about to strike... in defense of Robin Hood.

One reason I love this story - and will always love this story - is that it is a legend that has vined up through the ages and has been passed from folk ballad to poem to theatre to film. People are still drawn to the subliminal magic of the outlaw in the woods standing up for the oppressed and defending his beloved England. There have been countless interpretations. Robin and Marian and the Merry Men have been captured in varying shades of light, color, texture and shadow. It is organic and uncontainable. It will continue to evolve, thrive and vine until the end of time, because it reflects the determination of the human spirit and the prevailing power of faith, loyalty and love in the midst of darkness.

I am, however, very, very skeptical of Ridley Scott's version, due to arrive in theatres this summer. As a general rule, I try to refrain from passing judgment on art until I have seen and experienced it; and I endeavor to be positive. But there are exceptions to this rule. I grow queasy when I see the trailers showing big, muscle-bound Russell Crowe leaping into battle on a horse - mud and blood flying everywhere. To paraphrase my sister, it looks way more like The Gladiator than a retelling of the spritely, elusive legend. Of course, because it's Scott, it is going to look that way. It is going to be wrought with war and shadow and grit and agony, etc. But that is not the story I know.

"A retelling! A retelling!" you might exclaim, pointing to a previous paragraph. Sometimes, I admit, there have to be new verses that don't necessarily reflect the original strain of the song we've heard before. But in this case, if the song, the ballad changes too much, is it the same story? Is Robin Hood still Robin Hood if Ridley Scott retells his story as a brutual, hopeless bloodbath?

I don't know. I can only say that previous retellings including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the BBC television series starring Jonas Armstrong are closer to my heart (particularly the latter). They achieve the right balance of wit, energy, cleverness and bravery. They are not devoid of blood, but they aren't saturated in it, either. Particularly when it comes to the BBC series, there is a brilliant balance of newness and traditional elements to make it fresh and exciting... and to keep me guessing, crying and laughing. It paints the picture of a legend of an outlaw sacrificing himself for the good of his people, his king and the woman he loves, rather than an epic on the scale of the Iliad.

That said, I dread Ridley Scott's Robin Hood as an excuse to create yet another money-grabbing blockbuster with big names and little semblence of the original spirit of the story. Quite frankly, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, while they are excellent actors, are a little too old and a little too well-known to make me comfortable. I see only Crowe and Blanchett, not Robin and Maid Marian.

I've heard other whispers that this film might "change" other things as well: that Robin isn't battling the Sheriff of Nottingham so much as the French, which may seem historically accurate, but in the grand scheme of things is more irrelevant. (Why? If we're looking Robin Hood from a more historical perspective, if it is set in the 1109s, France was still under control of England, and King Richard I spent most of his reign, when not crusading, in France.) So the Sheriff and Prince John aren't the primary villians, but the French are. Eh?

Thankfully we are spared Scott's experimental idea of making Robin and the Sheriff two sides of the same character. Bleh!

In conclusion to this long rant of disconcert, I am a proponent of retelling stories - of making them eternal and forever blooming with human hope. But stories deserve to be respected and preserved as well. Just because one can retell it a certain way, doesn't mean one should... just because one can envision Robin Hood as a solemn, dirty warrior, doesn't mean he reflects the heart of his story.

Perhaps I am blowing this out of proportion. But I worry when critics and film fans interpret such films as "the most accurate" or "the best version"... when every version of the story is inevitably (and thankfully) different.

For a nice article on the origins of the Robin Hood legend, read this Telegraph article. Ridley Scott thinks his film is the most realistic, but I wonder: "In what sense?"

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Change of Hands (Jillian)

For those of you who don't know, Doctor Who has recently come under the creative direction of Steven Moffat. Series 5 begins with a fresh face, a new coat of paint and a redecorated TARDIS, and a offering of new stories.

Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor
At the end of "The End of Time", the tenth Doctor struggles toward the TARDIS, on the fringe of his regeneration, leaving an Ood to reassure us that "the story never ends." However, it was hard to believe when David Tennant disappeared and Matt Smith stood up in his suit that this could work. Of course it was hard! It's always hard! But two episodes in, I am beginning to breathe easier - Doctor Eleven is the same man as Doctor Ten. The story goes on. The story-teller changes. But that only adds to the richness that is Doctor Who.

As attached as I was to The Way Things Were, I am already quite fond of the newness. Steven Moffat is a writer with a very keen sense of suspense... of things hidden in the shadows. To paraphrase from last week's Confidential, Doctor Who is more fairy tale than science fiction... to which I (sitting eagerly on the floor in front of the television) did exclaim: "Yes! Yes!"

Moffat understands the poetry and suspense flowing through the veins of this endless story. He wrote in previous series of childhood nightmares and broken clocks, messages left behind on aging wallpaper and angel-statues ("Don't blink! Blink and you're dead!"), ravenous shadows and abandoned libraries. His stories show the dusty, underside of things... unveils the vibrant, unwordable undertones of the human psyche. That, I think, is why this is going to be a refreshing take on the beloved series; he is not a clone of Russell T. Davies. Granted, I have my reservations, too, but I'd prefer to be optimistic on this one!

Some images from Doctor Who Series 5:

* An ordinary crack in a wall is actually crack in time.

* A room hidden in the corner of your eye; you know it's there in the back of your mind, but you don't dare go near it.

* Amy Pond begins her journey as companion in her nightgown, like Wendy in Peter Pan.

* To get a feel for space, the Doctor anchors Amy by the ankle as she floats outside the doors of the TARDIS.

* A future where Great Britain is strapped to the back of a star-whale who cannot bear to see the children cry.

I look forward to more such images in the very near future!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Jane, Emma and the Healing Magic of Writing (Jillian)

There has been another interesting article from Jojo Moyes this week in the Telegraph - the wonderful Emma Thompson has recently divulged how writing the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility helped her through the depression surrounding her divorce from Kenneth Branagh. From all I've read about this so far, Emma seems so very honest, very human about that struggle. (One little tidbit I never knew is that she would later marry Greg Wise, who played Willoughby in the film.)

“I used to crawl from the bedroom to the computer and just sit and write, and then I was all right, because I was not present... Sense and Sensibility really saved me from going under, I think, in a very nasty way.”

The heart of Jojo's article highlights how literature is a place of refuge for those of us in need of healing... more than escapism but as a reassurance that that the sun will indeed come out at the end of life's storms. It's medicinial, remedial and good for the soul.

(Please, please read the article, too. It's lovely!)

"Austen, like Shakespeare, still resonates because she tells us modern truths: that decent people end up in impossible situations through no fault of their own. And that if they are good (Emma Woodhouse), honest (Lizzie Bennett), and true (Fanny Price) there is a good chance it will all come right in the end."

"But it’s not just about comfort and escapism. When Thompson was still shrouding herself in ex-husband Kenneth Branagh’s dressing gown, she was no doubt pondering literature’s other great gift: how to explain the inexplicable nature of human behaviour."

"And it’s a message that literature delivers far more effectively than most self-help books, or the velvety tones of Oprah Winfrey: you will endure this, just as other people have endured it. And you can survive."

Thank you, Jojo, for articulating this!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The New Doctor (Jillian)

I read bits of an interview this week with Matt Smith, the eleventh incarnation of our beloved Doctor. The more I know about him, the more I like him... and the more curious I am to see him in the TARDIS.

Apparently, he carries a sonic screwdriver with him at all times... to twist around in his fingers or play with. He was recently stopped at Heathrow for walking through security with it on his person, and he's broken at least four of them so far.

And - I love this - in order to get acquainted with his new role, he wrote short stories involving adventures of the Doctor with Albert Einstein as his sidekick. His inspiration: the famous photograph of Einstein sticking out his tongue.

The Future of Reading (Jillian)

I have to say, I just read a Newsweek article by Anna Quindlen - "Reading Has a Strong Future". I found it wonderfully hopeful about the future of writing and literacy in our increasingly technological age. As iPads and Kindles have made their debut into the world, there has been a pressing question... whether or not they will eventually replace books... and whether or not that is a terrible thing. I encourage you to read it for yourself!!

Some of my favorite snippets:

"The invention of television led to predictions about the demise of radio. The making of movies was to be the death knell of live theater; recorded music, the end of concerts. All these forms still exist—sometimes overshadowed by their siblings, but not smothered by them."

"There is and has always been more than a whiff of snobbery about lamentations that reading is doomed to extinction. That's because they're really judgments on human nature."

"Reading is not simply an intellectual pursuit but an emotional and spiritual one. It lights the candle in the hurricane lamp of self; that's why it survives. There are book clubs and book Web sites and books on tape and books online. There are still millions of people who like the paper version, at least for now. And if that changes—well, what is a book, really? Is it its body, or its soul?"

(Soul! SOUL!!!!)


Innovations like this have happened before. Television and radio. Movies and theatre. Typewriters and legal pads. And now books and kindle. Notice that books are still holding their own in our culture. No one has abandoned them yet. These innovations are simply creating new options for enjoying literature, not erasing it or taking it for granted. Kindles and iPads and whatever new inkling of genius that follows will still convey that flame... readers will read, writers will write.

And honestly, I don't think books will disappear as fast as some people fear. ;)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Creeped Out - Hitler the Artist (Jillian)

Something has been bugging me for a while now - one of those little current events that surfaces now and then. It is coming to light more and more recently that Adolf Hitler, before he became the monster that history has proved him to be, was an artist. His paintings and etchings are on auction blocks and expected to fetch millions.

Yes, this creeps me out, and I am certain I'm not overreacting. To put "a Hitler" alongside, say, "a Monet" is inconcievable to me.

Art is powerful, no matter what the medium. It speaks volumes. It touches the soul. It is almost ineffable, sacred. That is why writing and painting and photography and dance, etc, etc, are incredibly important - they are created out of the struggles, triumphs and musings of the human spirit. If those creations are from Hitler, I want to stay as far away from them as possible. Not that I am worried about subliminal messages... but that anything I'd see is tainted by the knowledge of the Holocaust. It isn't the sort of art that belongs on a wall, displayed in glory.

Some art is visually disturbing and is meant to be. Just look at Francisco Goya's painting of Saturn devouring his children. (You might want to google it; I really don't want to post that horror here.) I cannot look at it without incurring nightmares. In Hitler's case, it is disturbing in the historical context that cannot be erased or forgotten on an auction block.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Matter with Women's Fiction (Jillian)

On the today, (honestly, where else?) an interesting little article by Jojo Moyes sprang up about women’s fiction being unsufferably miserable. “There’s not been much wit and not much joy; there’s a lot of grimness out there… There are a lot of books about Asian sisters […], a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing,” says Daisy Goodwin, who is an Orange Prize judge.

Moyes sympathizes but ultimately concludes: “We’re damned for writing fluffy, upbeat chick-lit about shoes and cake, damned if we write about domestic abuse within a geo-political conflict… the biggest problem facing ‘women’s fiction’ (a term that is patronizing in itself) is that critics still don’t take it seriously.”

I found this article to be spotlighting the trends I see splattered and scattered on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, etc. By my estimation, a good 75 to 80 percent of modern “literature” on the market these days is this brand of writing – the fluffy, brainless kind, or the agonizing kind. So many of these are written by women. Even without having read many of them (listening to my gut instincts and running in the other direction), I’ve been wary of the great disparity between too much fluff and too little joy… mediocre microcosms of dysfunctional realities and self-indulgences. Very few of these novels seem to offer much in the way of “great literature”, but that is what sells. And, unfortunately, it is hard to tell the difference between literature and shelf-filler.

I remember back to my wrath over the historical fiction blunder The Illuminator (Brenda Rickman Vantrease), wherein the lady of a 14th century manor lauds the death of her husband who, as if you couldn’t guess, was an abuser; she has an affair with the illuminator who works out of her home; has to deal with the sexual innocence and unwanted pregnancies of the teenage children in her care (her son, the illuminator’s daughter)… even going so far as to attempt an abortion. (It seems so emotionally 21st century, I wanted to throw up.) Strategically-timed to coincide with the events of the Peasants’ Revolt, the lady’s twin sons end up killing each other, she is raped by the evil steward, and a poor, misunderstood dwarf marries the girl of his dreams. Sorry if I spoiled it for you, but believe me, I am saving you the trouble of wasting fifteen dollars… in case you happen to see its pretty cover and are lured in.

I am still trying to understand it. Again, to use Michelle’s term, this “emotional unkindness” about the past – especially an era of time that seems so cruel and backwater to our “enlightened” culture– is merely an excuse to fabricate a situation and write about misery and violence and its stereotypical manifestations, instead of a.) putting the 14th century in any sort of accurate or enlightened perspective; b.) showing exceptions to stereotypes, and making the characters more than empty vessels fulfilling predictable roles; and/or c.) to show any semblence of inner strength, redemption or character evolution to conclude and save a bitter story. No, this novel ends in rampant deaths… none of them peaceful, either. No fluffy, sugary or smiley-faced endings here. Just a high body count.

So… if I want to win a literary prize, I need to cram as much visceral misery as I can into my novel, a story about orphans or an abused and/or neglicted wife (regardless of whether or not I am one). But if I want to gain a huge reader following and lead the market, I must write about how much I like chocolate. Because, evidently, I am a woman and cannot write about anything else. (Or so it seems.)

As a woman who is a writer, I feel left out of this on-going discussion. My work doesn’t feel particularly feminine or fluffy or miserable… nor do I want it to be. It isn’t that I am deliberately running from the above mode of “women’s fiction” but that the stories I feel compelled to write are not restricted to them. I am interesting in more than one plain of existence… in breaking down barriers in literary themes and seeing where the writing takes me… not where I take it. I am not interested in having an audience primarily made up of women, but of men, as well.

I feel the camps of “the market” and “the critics” do not and cannot dictate my creativity or my taste in books. Neither can probably measure or answer why I get so much more out of George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Susanna Clarke or Flannery O’Connor than I do from anything that is “marketed” in my general (very general) direction. Not because they are women - because they write (or, wrote, as they case may be), stories that are not the status quo. Perhaps this means, scary thought, that I am thinking and writing less like a woman (gasp!) and more like… a writer!

Not, to clarify, that it this a matter of down playing my feminity, but not making it the sole source or shape of my creative fire.


(P.S. Susanna Clarke wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is set in the early 19th century… Strange and Norrell are two competing magicians. Most of the characters are men, and yet this does not prevent Susanna from being true to her characters, male or female, or creating a fantastic, magically-intricate world. She is an exception to the “rule.”)

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Future of Story-telling (Jillian)

I grew up on the Star Trek: The Next Generation notion of the holodeck, literally a room where you could create/recreate your own worlds, your favorite stories as a form of recreation or escape. I enjoyed the idea of the characters of the show transporting themselves into Sherlock Holmes (does anyone remember which characters??) or Shakespeare - literally to interact with well-loved stories instead of just reading them or just merely watching the DVD.

These days, I am not so sure that's a good thing. This comes up as I'm reading an article on possible sequels for James Cameron's juggernaut 3D film Avatar. The producer for Avatar, Jon Landau, has said recently: "I don't think we will ever make another 2D film. Why would we make a movie in black and white if we have color? I think ultimately all movies are going to be in 3-D."

Really? All movies in 3D? I beg to differ. I don't deny what 3D films have brought to the movie-making industry - yes, it is innovative, clever and cutting-edge. But does it really tell the story better? Having seen Avatar, I can answer "No," with complete confidence. While the visual effects were breath-taking, the story was allowed to hover on the level of cliches and stereotypes... the same themes of the evil Americans plotting destruction of a Nature-worshipping native culture. Critics had every right to snicker and mutter "Dances with Wolves in space."

With this in mind, I cannot envision the future of film as an art form to be a very good one. Film is story-telling. When the writing is poor, everything else about the film suffers. But that doesn't seem to matter to an industry that sees dollar signs instead of innovations of the human spirit.

What I enjoyed about Avatar's technology was hardly the 3D eye candy. It was Cameron's ability to digitally create Pandora and recreate the actors to fit that world. Like turning Andy Serkis into Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, the doors are opened to turning actors into characters or create landscapes, animals, epic battles that couldn't otherwise be rendered with stunt-doubles and models. 3D is a sugar coating that makes all of those things feel as though they're surrounding you. But objects jumping out at you from the screen isn't anything more than a distraction and a catalyst for a headache. If you happen to be sitting in the middle of a theatre and the 3D glasses don't bother you... or if you don't have any conflicting vision problems, perhaps this isn't such a problem.

Avatar's severe story-deficiencies remind me of George Lucas' prequel Star Wars Trilogy. The script was poorly developed, and a green-screen created backdrop of a galaxy far, far away could not save the story. It was a profound disappointment and made me cling to the original trilogy all the more strongly. The prequels look more like a computer game than a film with the actors feeling like puppets rather than players. And honestly, I want a story, not a headache. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. 2D, Mr. Landau and Mr. Cameron, isn't a technological backwater; it is a medium - a canvas - that works and has worked for decades... because nothing can ever quite be the holodeck.

That is a good thing. Our personal imaginations need not be superseded by someone else's delusions of grandeur. Eye-candy is seems just an excuse not to be able to think and create for oneself.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

On Middlemarch (Jillian)

Recently, I have read George Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch. For those of you who have heard of the novel but have no idea what it could possibly be about or whether or not it is actually “any good”, it is a novel of interconnected lives in the fictional town of – you guessed it – Middlemarch, set in the 1830s, written in the 1870s. Much like Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and Cranford, it is set in a time of transition and reform when the railroads are beginning to weave their way across England. It is well worth reading.

One of its most dominant themes is marriage, but what makes it different from, say, Pride and Prejudice or other familiar 19th century romances, is that it is a solemn, sober view of marriage… primarily marriages made for the wrong reasons like money, social standing or a want of usefulness. One of the two primary plotlines involve Dorothea Brooke, an intelligent, feeling woman who has strong ambitions for doing good in the world, who marries a dreary clergyman-scholar, Mr. Casaubon, for his “great soul.” The other plotline focuses on the young, reform-minded doctor Lydgate who falls in love with and marries the beautiful but spoiled Rosamond Vincy. Lydgate falls into debt; Dorothea into disappointment. Eliot’s narration switches back and forth almost seamlessly between them, as part of the gossip-y, political, socially precarious life of Middlemarch (how rumor painted and ruined people before Twitter took over the world). It is a novel of many interwoven stories: the struggles of Fred Vincy, the mayor’s son (and Rosamond’s brother), as he endeavors to clear himself of reckless debts and marry plain and practically-minded Mary Garth; the story of Will Ladislaw, Mr. Casaubon’s wayward cousin, who falls in love with Dorothea; the reign of Mr. Bulstrode, the richest man in town who proclaims to be a man of God, but may have had a shadowy beginning. Above all, it is a beautiful tapestry. It is dense in places, sober and painful, and yet redemptive, bringing Dorothea, Lydgate and others out of the storm of uncertainty into a sunrise soaked with peace, if not raptures.

Another thing that made this novel fascinating was the version of Middlemarch I bought over a year ago in a local used book store. The copy right date is 1957, and I’ve had to repair its cover with packing tape lest it should completely come apart. But that’s not the most exciting bit. The stranger who owned the book before me – a mysterious person known as C.W. Mignon (yes, like filet mignon) wrote intensive commentary on the inside cover and on many of the pages… underlining, analyzing and sometimes spewing frustrated opinions in the margins. It makes me wonder if Mr/Ms Mignon was an English teacher or a student writing an essay, as he/she underlines passages. He or she also draws comparisons between Eliot’s style and that of Dickens or Fielding… noting Eliot’s “multiple selective omniscience” and drawing connections of character types with Will, Dorothea, Fred and Caleb Garth… pointing out “casual relations” between actions of characters, and the moral evolutions that mark their journeys. Then at some points you’ll see CW scrawled in the margins, especially when Rosamond is being unreasonable about Lydate’s solutions to their money problems, “stupid bitch” or “he’s so damned cold” to vent frustration on Casaubon. Believe me, CW, such things pain me, too.

I believe "the posse" refers to Dorothea's determination
Lydgate in the narration
Character description

I appreciate the ability to write out one’s understanding in the margins of a book, even if it may seem like reiterating the obvious. (Admittedly, many times I think, “Okay, CW, I understand that Rosamond is intolerably spoilt. Must we use such language?” “Yes, CW, I understand perfectly well that the narrator is absolutely omniscient. You don’t have to tell me so many times.” “I agree with you; this is a perfect representation of Lydate’s inner thoughts.”) But over all, it is good to have these comments on the page; as though someone was reading along with me, making mile markers to keep on-course with the interwoven story. Middlemarch is not the easiest novel to read, so it is a comfort to know that the previous owner was noticing things too… that the story mattered enough to write these notes… even if they are at times unnecessary or downright blunt.
Using the entire page, a history of England ca. 1830
A working bibliography (p. 1 of 3)

One thing I didn’t realize would be so enjoyable was Eliot’s omniscient narrative style, describing her characters’ modes of thinking in almost comical terms. Her descriptions of things are so precise, poetical and sensual. Here are some of my favorite passages, some funny, some exquisite, some both:

Any human figure standing at ease under the archway in the early afternoon was as certain to attract companionship as a pigeon which has found something worth pecking at…
– p. 682, describing the mode of the gentlemen of the town discussing news/gossip.

If you think it incredible that to imagine Lydgate as a man of family could cause thrills of satisfaction which had anything to do with the sense that she [Rosamond] was in love with him, I will ask you to use your power of comparison a little more effectively, and consider whether red cloth and epaulets have never had an influence of that sort. Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers, but, dressed in their small wardrobe of notions, bring their provisions to a common store according to their appetite.
– p. 161, Rosamond's thought process - Eliot explains in detail.

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
p. 189

Each looked at the other as if they had been two flowers which had opened then and there.
– p. 349, Will and Dorothea

If you want to know more particularly how Mary looked, ten to one you will see a face like hers in the crowded street to-morrow.
– p. 391, George Eliot's descriptions of characters
Everything seemed dreary: the portents before the birth of Cyrus… oh dear! – devout epigrams – the sacred chime of favourite hymns – all alike were as flat as tunes beaten on wood: even the spring flowers and the grass had a dull shiver in them under the afternoon clouds that hid the sun fitfully: even the sustaining thoughts which had become habits seemed to have in them the weariness of long future days in which she would still live with them for her sole companions.
– p. 455, Dorothea returning home from her honeymoon

Driving was pleasant, for rain in the night had laid the dust, and the blue sky looked far off, away from the region of the great clouds that sailed in masses. The earth looked like a happy place under the vast heavens…
– p. 606 Infusing hope into the scenery.

His conscience was soothed by the enfolding wing of secrecy, which seemed just like an angel sent down for his relief.
– p. 678

Animal imagery – “falcon-faced” and “graceful long-necked bird”, “beaver-like noises”
It had taken long for her to come to that question, and there was light piercing into the room. She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off on the bending sky was a pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.
– p 750, Eliot speaks through her landscapes.

One little scrap of dialogue, Dorothea to Will:

“… I wonder what your vocation will turn out to be: perhaps you will be a poet?”
“To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel that discernment is but a hand playing with finely-ordered variety on the chords of emotion – a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.”
“But you leave out the poems,” said Dorothea. “I think they are wanted to complete the poet. I understand what you mean about knowledge passing into feeling, for that seems to be just what I experience. But I am sure I could never produce a poem.”
"You are a poem – and that is to be the best part of a poet – what makes up a poet’s consciousness in his best moods,” said Will, showing such originality as we all share with the morning and the spring-time and other endless renewals.

One final note: the 1994 miniseries captures the novel spectacularly! Granted, I would have liked the final scene between Will and Dorothea to have shown more of their inner struggles… but in all, it is a very small complaint to make. It is a heavy, long novel, and it has been properly reimagined in film. It might have something to do with Andrew Davies, who has been, as I understand it, the creative force behind other projects such as Wives and Daughters, North and South, and Sense and Sensibility.

Middlemarch: Mr. Casaubon and Dorothea in Rome, with Will Ladislaw looking on.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Stories Since Last We Met (Jillian)

I am very much aware that the creative world has been active in the months we Daedalus writers have been silent. Silent yes, but not idle.

New Moon (sequel number 1 to Twilight) emerged with rousing fanfare in November; despite criticism, it remains true to its novel and I enjoyed it immensely. My love of Twilight cannot be shaken by grumpy people who can't see the deeper layers of a beautiful, albeit imperfect, story. It is arguably the most painful of the saga, but the world deepens and makes it bearable. The Volturi, particularly Aro (Michael Sheen), balanced ancient-ness, style and down-right creepiness - the art of inflicting terror through serenity.
Then there was Avatar. I have to admit, I approached it with some skepticism, and though I saw the ground-breaking film under uncomfortable circumstances (second row + 3D glasses = headache) it was an enjoyable experience. I might not agree with the more preachy aspects of the film - soldiers ready to plunder the native Na'vi's world - but James Cameron created a massive world and filled it… and put characters in the midst of the world who were ready to explore it, drink it in and become part of it. I am not completely convinced that 3D is the future of entertainment however. In most cases, it is an added layer of fluff to a film already saturated with computer effects… and it only works if you're sitting in the middle of the theatre.
January came and so did the "End of the Time." The string of Doctor Who Specials came to an appropriately exhilarating end, as Russell T. Davies, who-writer extraordinaire, and the magnificent David Tennant, fly on to other things. I will probably spend a full post expressing my love for this awesome episode, but for now, I must report that the tenth Doctor did not go out with a whimper, but with a bang. The Master was resurrected. The Time Lords schemed to reawaken. The Doctor agonized over the man who would "knock four times" and announce his death. It was an episode of raw emotion, exquisite sacrifice and long-awaited goodbyes to companions scattered out across the stars. Sung to sleep by Ood-song, a new Doctor was born. For now I will say that I am at peace with this end, that the chapter is complete, and I am looking forward to see what Series Five has to offer. But I am still raw, still finding myself reeling about the poetry and the grace and the connected (and unconnected dots) of "The End of Time". I think I will be for a long time, in a good way.
Other events: I saw Lost last night, though I hadn't seen the previous two seasons, and had to make do with the re-cap episode. I have to admit, the story is interesting, but I see why I quit it after Charlie died; the story is severely out of balance between its questions and answers. I know; it seems to be the mode of Lost. One must be "lost", as well. But I don't like being jerked around indefinitely (which is why this final season is a godsend). I have been immersed in Doctor Who's season-long mysteries: Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Saxon, and "the stars are going out." Perhaps it has been easier with Who, because I trust an answer is actually there, thinly veiled in the cosmos. But is there an answer for the chaos that is Lost? Or will it diminish with only few stones unturned? I suppose there is no way to find out but to endure it for another season. Or perhaps I'll just watch Robin Hood instead. ;)

Speaking of Robin Hood, the third season finally came to DVD, and I am thrilled. Yes, a very important character died at the end of the second season (I won't say who in case you haven't seen it), but the show goes on… and characters are living in the aftermath. Jonas Armstrong is the perfect balance of boyish and broken. Richard Armitage gives Guy of Gisborn a conflicted soul. Keith Allen is hilarious as the evil, evil, EVIL Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin's gang is wonderful, and the right balance of brave and funny. Not to mention it reflects the 12th century in a very honest, creative way, even with modern undertones. I can't wait to see the fourth season!
So, that is Fall and Winter.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Matter of Mansfield (Jillian)

Fanny Price 2007 - Billie Piper
Fanny Price 1999 - Frances O'Connor
Fanny Price (and Edmund) 1986 - Sylvestra Le Touzel

It is a question that has plagued me for years now. This is probably the least regarded of Jane Austen's novels. A pity, really, because it is a sweet story of quietness and constancy: Fanny Price is sent to live at her wealthy uncle Sir Thomas Bertram's estate and is witness to the misbehaviors and self-importances of her cousins and their new "friends" the Crawfords. Fanny is good, genuine, dutiful and little appreciated. She is not Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, but she is beautiful, and kind and persistent in truth. She assists her sleepy, simple aunt Lady Bertram, endures the criticism from her Aunt Norris and resists the enticements of flatterer Henry Crawford. I love this novel, because Fanny endures to be true to herself and to her family.

There have been three movies/mini-series attempting to encapsulate Mansfield Park. The 1986 miniseries is the version closest to the book, and built more like a play than a film, it captures the story in its entirety (like two two excellent adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels Wives and Daughters and North and South). Over all, miniseries have the advantage in translating novels into a visual form, as they are long enough to adequately balance the major and minor details. The Billie Piper version, which aired on the BBC in 2007, while takes strange liberties with the story in order to shorten it, remains true to her character. These two versions understand that Fanny's goodness, kindness and selfless love are the heart of this story. The 1999 does not.

The choices that the writers of 2007 made for their version are understandable. I could write a paper on the comparisons - why Fanny's journey back to her native Portsmouth isn't fundamentally necessary, how the story is made to work without such elements. But I grow increasingly puzzled over the 1999 film, starring Frances O'Connor. Both 2007 and 1999 show a condensed story. Both had to "cut" elements in order to give it a cinematic pace. 1999 makes bold choices - perhaps too bold - and seems to be using Mansfield Park as a shell, a disguise for creating a film about the social improprieties and harshness of a household built on decadence and slavery in 1806. It is, as Michelle put it so wonderfully long ago, "emotionally unkind" about the past.

The writers of Mansfield Park1999 decided to make harsh implications , most particularly on the characters, that never existed in the first place. Sir Thomas has plantations in the West Indies in Antigua - the novel shows Sir Thomas taking his eldest son Tom with him to settle unspecified problems there. Naturally, the screenwriters thought this was an excuse to write Sir Thomas as an abusive land-holder; operating on the assumption: "well, if he has slaves and if he's having trouble with the plantation, he must be abusing them." Hence, uncomfortable discussions about abolition and comparing slaves to mules. In addition to this, Sir Thomas' personality is more than that of a distant father, but a man more inclined to anger, cruelty and innuendo. He is not supposed to be a scary man. But in Harold Pinter, who is too creepy for the part in my opinion, he is definitely one I would not like for my uncle. He is not supposed to have an evil eye… but Pinter gives him one.

More importantly is the issue of Fanny's character. Fanny is not Fanny in this version. She is a composite of Fanny and young Jane Austen. While it is an interesting experiment - to put Jane's words into the mouths of her characters - it makes me wonder if the screenwriters saw Fanny's quiet appreciation of churches, constellations and Cowper to be too mild. In making her a writer (a novelist at a time when novels were first manifesting as an art form), she is allowed a sharp tongue and an exuberant spirit. Her original traits of service, patience and love are eclipsed by her novel-writing, which is not a part of her personality in the novel. In the film, her relationship with Edmund is that of best friends, with strong inclinations toward silliness and chasing each other through the house (incurring shouts from grumpy Sir Thomas). In the novel, Edmund, who is supposed to be six years older, was the first to befriend Fanny and warmly accept her into the family; he was her teacher of sorts and they share many an intellectual discussion in the course of Jane's novel. They think alike. They respect each other. And Edmund goes to Fanny when he is troubled. In the film, his character is weaker… less tormented by his confusion over Mary Crawford. He more falls into Mary's clutches rather than cautiously debating whether or not he loves her.

Another issue is of Fanny's constancy or, rather, conviction. The scheming Henry Crawford, once enamored by Fanny's cousin Maria, asks Fanny to marry him and she refuses because she cannot trust him, and knows she cannot trust him. Sir Thomas is shocked, makes her feel guilty, believes she doesn't know her own feelings and quietly lets her spend three months in Portsmouth with her poor and noisy family. Crawford arrives there, heaps kindness on her family, but Fanny, despite his sincerity, still does not trust him. In the film, Crawford deliberately follows her to Portsmouth, presenting her with fireworks and offering to help her family financially until she eventually accepts him… only to refuse him the day after. "I have no gift for certainty," Fanny tells her sister Susan. This could not be farther from the novel. Instead, it is demonstrated that Fanny's knowledge of the truth holds out against Crawford's inconstancy… and eventually proves him to be false when he runs off with the married Maria. The affair is supposed to happen as a result of Crawford's inconstancy, not Fanny's inability to decide whether or not Crawford's intentions are true to his heart.

And here is a matter of Mary Crawford… portrayed by Embeth Davidtz. In the films, she is a woman of overt sexuality (um... was it really fashionable to show so much cleavage in 1806??), outwardly flirting, smoking her brother's cigar and accepting the part of Amelia in the sordid Lover's Vows with no hesitation. Regardless of my personal opinion that Embeth is too old, her Mary misses the mark by being too sharp, too certain of Edmund's love and his willingness to marry her. Do you see what I mean? In the novel, Mary's character flaws are the result of being "in the world", educated by London social circles. She is more ignorant than cunning, less willing to snare Edmund than she is in teasing him about being a clergyman or convince him to leave the profession. Edmund spends much of the novel agonizing over his feelings for her - always on the verge of asking for her hand, but never quite succeeding until final comments from her mouth make it obvious that she "was a creature of my imagination." Their lack of agreement on fundamental things keeps them apart.

So, Jillian, are there any good aspects of the 1999 film Mansfield Park? It makes an awesome effort to be pretty. Ball-room scenes are captured in slow motion. The music is exquisite. I like the ending of the film wherein Fanny narrates what becomes of Maria and Aunt Norris and the rest of the family, "It all could have turned out differently, I suppose… but it didn't." Unfortunately…I find the little unnecessarily-added details of Lady Bertram's opium habit (seemingly implanted to explain her perpetual fatigue), the deletion of the character of Fanny's beloved brother William, the missing quietness of Fanny's character and other "little" pieces distract me too much… and make me sad.

And 2007, starring Billie Piper? Billie is very true to the spirit of Fanny, which reconciles me to the rest of the film. It is only 90 minutes long, which required the eliminations of Portsmouth and a formal ball, but it makes a better attempt of retelling the story than using it to create something different. Again: Fanny's quietness and patience. Sir Thomas is a little harsh, but he learns to see Fanny as a daughter by the end. The story is redemptive and blossoms here. As it should. And who doesn't love Billie? I am convinced (perhaps out of Doctor Who bias for Rose Tyler) that she can do anything!

And 1986? Corny! Bad costuming! Questionable acting, especially when it comes to the creepy-looking Henry Crawford! But it deserves praise because it tries very hard to be true to Jane's novel, and makes no blatantly unkind assumptions about the characters or the story. It shows Fanny as a witness to the opinions and selfishness of those around her. She is a small, plain looking thing, but she is true to herself… and her love for Edmund is long-suffering and beautiful.

There aren't enough Fanny Prices in the literary world today. Perhaps the 1999 was an attempt to modernize her, to make her more interesting and not so buried in the back ground of the antics of her cousins, an independent thinker who hasn't been seemingly molded by Edmund's wisdom. Whatever the intent, she lost some of her trueness. Not to say that I blame Frances O'Connor - not at all! I just look to Billie and Sylvestra Le Touzel… because they fully reflect Fanny, the heart of Mansfield Park. If a film or a miniseries cannot reflect the unquestionable heart of the story it claims to portray, it is a sad, sad thing. Anyway, read the novel, explore the various film versions! Judge for yourself!

At Long Last (Jillian)

It has been August since any of the Daedalus writers has posted anything. Alas, we have been called away to graduate school or applying to graduate school or merely drifting through life's little pathways. Forgiveness, I ask of you! I'll try to write... and hopefully, kindness will bring back a reader or two!


to a blog by three people who write, for anyone else who wants to write. It's a cruel world for creators, and here we promise support, whimsy, and curiosity that will hopefully keep your pen moving and keyboard tapping!

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