Midnight in Paris: The Whiny Writer

Full disclosure: I don’t belong to the film elite, the people whose opinions move and shake the film industry. I am also not someone who is compelled, either through scholastic training or peer pressure, to mold my opinions in accordance with those of the film elite. In short, I like what I like; I hate what I hate. I don’t care how many Oscars and “Oscar nods” a movie receives.

In light of the fact that Midnight in Paris won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and received nominations for Best Motion Picture of the Year (wow), Best Achievement in Directing (hmm), and Best Achievement in Art Direction (Sure, this. It was a gorgeous movie), I still wasn’t impressed. The film was not memorable for me. It did not stimulate me past the outermost layer of my skin’s skin. In other words, it was very pleasant, just not impressive.

I’ll start with what I did like. I liked the movie as a love letter to Paris. There were beautiful shots of Paris in the opening scene, and throughout the film. I liked the funny dialog, which, of course, is synonymous with Woody Allen movies. I could run naked through his dialog. I also always enjoy how people are gently ridiculed in Woody Allen movies; but it never feels mean-spirited. There is a lot of whining in Allen’s films, usually by the main character – Owen Wilson in this case, instead of Woody Allen himself – but I tend to forgive the whining because it’s funny.

I liked the cardboard stereotypes of the fiancée, Inez, and her parents, not because they felt original, but because, by using exaggeration, the characters illustrated a typical problem in relationships. The couple, Gil and Inez, love each other (or, at least, they are attracted to each other), but they really have nothing in common, do not respect each other, and envision completely different futures for themselves. Inez’s parents are living manifestations of a future Gil is desperately trying to avoid. Gil’s attempts to interest Inez in his dreams are just as futile as her attempts to squash them.  Despite the humor in this, it’s pretty realistic. Sometimes two people just really don’t want the same things. In that case, the kindest thing to do is to let your loved one go his own way. For a while, this means allowing Gil to explore his fantasy of the Roaring’ Twenties.

I very much loved the characters of the 1920’s. Although they also seemed like stereotypes of themselves, they were delightful – especially Hemingway. Hemingway was masculine and resolute, unlike Gil. Kathy Bates’ character, Gertrude Stein, was the only woman in the film that interested me. Adriana, the alluring French muse, pretty as she was, did not hold my attention. However, she seemed like the perfect person to project one’s unfulfilled fantasies on. So, in that sense, she was perfect.

Now that I’ve hailed the film as basically pleasant, I’d like to try to articulate why the film left me flat and uninspired. It wasn’t anything major – it was several small things that added up. Just like with a brief and uninspiring relationship – it’s not terrible, there are just several things that combine to turn you off.

First, Gil felt one-dimensional and un-nuanced to me. He was about as deep as a used tissue stuck to a wet back on a hot summer day. His grand epiphany was something the “pedantic” Paul said some ten minutes into the movie: “Nostalgia is denial. Golden Age thinking…is a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” So, although this is hardly a revolutionary statement, we have to wait a couple more hours for Gil to reach the same conclusion (without crediting Paul, of course).

Secondly, although inspiration comes in many forms – not the least of which is where we live – it seems simple to attribute a lack of literary success to living in the wrong city. It seems just as simple as attributing magic to a certain time period, which the movie critiques. Some of the best writers live in towns I wouldn’t give two eyelashes for. If Gil has any future success in Paris, it will be because he finally stood up for his dream. It won’t be because he relocated to Paris.

Thirdly, there is a hodge-podge of annoying odds and ends that, as I said earlier, worked to leave me cold. Gil jabs his father-in-law with little political digs, but somehow the father-in-law never has any real comeback. I’m sure this feels good to write, but it’s not at all realistic or fair. All the conservatives I know are just as opinionated and bull-headed as the liberals. Also, it’s unfair and disingenuous to depict screenwriting as easy, something to look down one’s nose at (easy to say when you have money and a string of successes behind you – I’m talking to you, Woody!). This is yet another case of the grass being greener on the other side. But the character seems oblivious to it. We also never really see him writing. Gil gets his review from Gertrude Stein, goes back, and bangs out Hemingway-worthy prose the next day. This, even though all he’s done thus far are screenplays. Gil himself admits they are not the same. I know it’s a movie, but let’s not insult the craft!

Writing is not easy, though the ones who do it well make it look easy. Acting is also not easy. Most of the acting in this film was fine. I’m not sure I ever really bought Owen Wilson as a self-effacing writer-type, though. He does has a way of aping Woody Allen’s speech patterns. Nevertheless, I’m sorry to say, I still didn’t buy it; nor was I all that invested in what happened to him at the end.

But, the good news is – no one cares what I think!

Cheers and happy writing,

Raven

Advertisements

What Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining Taught Me About Being a Writer

This week I watched The Shining for the second time. I was reminded of how valuable it is to watch (or read) something more than once. (I also read the book, a long time ago). This time around I noticed certain details. The long opening scene – the seemingly endless drive up the highway – feels like exposition at the beginning of a novel. Even if you knew nothing about the story, you’d get a sense of isolation, monotony, and a journey towards a destination. Two of the film’s motifs are the isolation of one mind from another – and how thoughts eventually manifest as actions; and the idea that certain encounters with people (or hotels, in this case) are predestined, meant-to be.

 

But, unlike most books and movies, The Shining does not give us a good sense of the main character’s condition before the events in the story. There is no “before and after” with Jack Torrance. Even before he and his family arrive at the hotel, there is no sense that Jack has any love or respect for his wife and son. He shows no affection toward Wendy; and Danny is afraid of him. Maybe he had to marry her because she got pregnant, and that’s why he treats her the way he does? Is that why he tells her she ruined his life? Who knows.

 

But there is no indication that Jack was ever happy, normal, kind, or even sane. So, his “descent” into madness really isn’t a descent at all; it’s more like the culmination of a journey he had already been on for years. Or, depending on how you interpret the ending, perhaps this is his inheritance or legacy – evil, or madness, handed down to him from a previous generation. Or perhaps he has “always” been a part of the hotel, like Mr. Grady.

 

There is a lot of creepy foreshadowing that adds to the fear factor. Foreshadowing, when done well, slowly draws out the emotions and feelings that will manifest later in full. In that sense, foreshadowing is kind of like forePLAY. The little actions leading up to the main action set the tone. They march us towards the emotional intensity of subsequent events in a teasing way. The movie is patient; it plays with us until it is ready to unleash its horror in full.

 

For example: Early on, we learn of the prior caretaker’s brutal murder of his wife and daughters. Mr. Hallorann, the cook, warns Danny to stay away from room 237, but insists he’s not afraid of it. Jack, alone, bores a dazed and predatory stare into a model of the hotel’s garden maze, then the scene cuts to Wendy and Danny walking in the real maze outside. We hear a television news report of a wife who went “missing” after being out on a hunting trip with her husband. These examples are all dark droplets of sinister information, telling us that these “loved ones” are somehow to become each other’s enemies. By the time we find Jack asleep at his typewriter having a violent nightmare – after which he goes back to drinking and takes complete leave of his senses – the fearful transformation is complete. Jack’s mind has gone off on its own way.

 

Danny’s mind, special as it is, is trapped in the body of a child.  Jack’s mind is demented and liquor-soaked. But both Jack’s and Danny’s minds are dependent; they each need outside help. Danny needs his mother’s help; Jack needs the help of Grady, his predecessor. Wendy, weak as she seems in the beginning, is us – or how we would be if everyone around us had gone mad at the same time. She tries to convince herself, for as long as she can, that everything is okay. In effect, she wants to ignore the mind altogether and focus on the external world. At the center of the horror is not some external force, though. The epicenter of the horror is the weak, impressionable, violent mind of a frustrated writer.

 

As a writer, Jack is eager to expel the demons inside of him and drop them onto the page, but he blames the fact that he can’t on his wife, on noise, on the environment, etc. The following exchange is telling, as we can see the tension between Jack the writer, and his non-writer wife. Her ignorance of what he’s going through as a writer, and his barely-contained contempt and resentment of that ignorance, is just beneath the surface. She starts in on him, innocently trying to help:

“Any ideas yet?”

“Lots of ideas; no good ones.”

“Well, something will come. “It’s just a matter of settling back into the habit of writing every day.”

(sarcastically) “Yep, that’s all it is!”

 

Most artists, especially writers, have had to deal with people’s ignorant or condescending remarks toward their art. People tend to think that writing is easy. Everyone thinks they can write a book, though precious few people do it well. Everyone thinks, like Wendy, “Eh, that’s all there is to it.” In that sense, I feel Jack’s pain.

 

On the other hand, as writers, it is easy to do that – blame others. It is easy to think that, with the perfect environment, with the perfect support, with the perfect circumstances, we would be the next Ernest Hemingway. Some even embrace the “crazy artist” stereotype and convince themselves that they need to hold onto their demons and vices in order to make great work. However, sobriety and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Jack eventually gives up on both sobriety and creativity.

 

Not only does he destroy himself and his family, he fails to create great work. In surrendering to his inner demons, he is exposed as a hack. All he has written is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over and over again, for pages and pages and pages. Not only is this “work” mind-numbingly repetitive, it’s not even clever or original. Instead of transferring his madness to the page, he has become one with it. In doing so, he abandons his role as story-teller and becomes the story – just another man gone mad at The Overlook Hotel. Something for the townspeople to gossip about. He becomes a writer’s worst nightmare – a cliché.

 

As someone who considers herself a writer, I pay attention to protagonists who are writers. So, although I doubt that this was either Stephen King’s or Stanley Kubrick’s main reason for making their respective works called The Shining, here’s my take-away:

  • If you can’t write, it’s your fault, not your family’s, not your friends’
  • You don’t need to be isolated in order to write
  • You don’t need to drink, or abstain from drinking, in order to write
  • If you’re crazy, that doesn’t make you an artist
  • If you’re an artist, you don’t need to be crazy
  • If you stay in a room labeled 237 (or 217), terrible things will happen to you

 

Have a great weekend full of creativity and fun. And if you happen to stay in any hotels, remember – some of them “shine,” just like some people do.

 

 

 

 

 

A Woman’s Voice: The Power of Art

I started missing my art.

Because I’m busy trying to launch a business, while continuing to work my day job, I’ve had precious little time left over for Creative Me. I started feeling depressed, but couldn’t figure out why at first.  I felt an intense void.

It went on for more than a day before I realized why. I hadn’t had time to write! I hadn’t even read any poetry, let alone written any. And I certainly hadn’t had time to paint. I’ve discovered I really don’t do well if I’m separated from Creative Me for too long.

I have had time to read, however.  It’s so easy to sneak in little snatches while waiting for something else: standing in line, waiting for someone to get ready, riding the bus, etc.

I’ve been reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson. It’s a science fiction story that is centered around a main character who is a kind of monk/philosopher/agnostic/rebel. The story is set on another planet, in another time. It’s fascinating! The book is 932 pages long, and I’m only on page 382, so I have a ways to go. But this book is my little friend for the next several weeks.

However, I’ve still been craving poetry, so I decided to share a poem that I read today. The poem (below) is called Case in Point. It was written by June Jordan and can be found on page 121 of the anthology Poems from the Women’s Movement, edited by Honor Moore, published by American Poets Project, The Library of America, 2009.

The poem is painful, and comes with a ****TRIGGER WARNING**** as it contains graphic references to rape. But this is an important poem. It elucidates the common experience women have of lacking a voice – and, therefore, power – in many aspects of life, particularly when it comes to control over our own bodies.

Men are bigger than us, louder than us, control almost all of society’s institutions, and sometimes use violence – both physical and verbal – to reinforce their dominance. Every woman has experienced the voicelessness that comes from being shouted down and dismissed by an egocentric male. Most women have also had cause to be afraid of a man at some point.

These events can be frustrating on the light end – and terrifying on the heavy end. Sometimes poetry, art, and music are the only ways to have a voice in a world that cannot always hear us. Interestingly, the speaker in the poem is arguing against the point of another woman – a woman who has apparently bought into society’s view of women. This, too, is common among oppressed groups – the desire to side with the oppressor.

 

Case in Point

by June Jordan

 

A friend of mine who raised six daughters and

who never wrote what she regards as serious

until she

was fifty-three

tells me there is no silence peculiar

to the female

I have decided I have something to say

about female silence: so to speak

these are my 2 cents on the subject:

2 weeks ago I was raped for the second

time in my life the first occasion

being a whiteman and the most

recent situation being a blackman actually head of the local NAACP

 

2

Today is 2 weeks after the fact

of that man straddling

his knees either side of my chest

his hairy arm and powerful left hand

forcing my arms and hands over my head

flat to the pillow while he rammed

what he described as his quote big dick

unquote into my mouth

and shouted out “D’ya want to swallow

my big dick, well, do ya?”

 

He was being rhetorical.

My silence was peculiar

to the female.