Tuesday, October 26, 2010

“There’s no sound people make when drama’s working.”

Another online addendum: New York magazine’s culture website, Vulture, has put up a longer version of my conversation with Judd Apatow. I liked this answer of his in particular:
Funny People seemed to show that influence in terms of writing about your own experience, even when it’s dark, and still being funny. Are you working on anything now that is moving in that direction?

We’ll see. Sometimes you make a movie and your intention is to make people deliriously happy. And when you’re working on a movie like that you understand the rules: The 40-year-old virgin needs to get laid, and when he does, the audience should be happy. And you’re trying to make every scene as unique and funny as you can. You know, with Funny People, I was trying to get big laughs, but also talk about issues which are not usually talked about in a comedy, and some of it is not meant to be entertaining as much as thought-provoking. And it’s a very different experience to try to walk that line than to make a movie where the final judge of every moment is, “Did it get a laugh?” There’s no sound people make when drama’s working. I wish there was. At a preview for the movie, maybe every time a dramatic moment’s working they could make a sort of squeal-y noise. But they don’t … I found that to be a very fulfilling experience, but it’s also painful because you’re really putting your heart into something and putting yourself out there. There are people who really take to it and see what you’re going for, and there are people who say, “Why isn’t it funnier?”
Read the rest. Above: Apatow again (a couple of times).

Monday, October 25, 2010

What Makes Judd Apatow Laugh?

I talked to Judd Apatow about the new book he edited, the pilot Conan O’Brien wrote for Adam West, Frederick Exley’s A Fans Notes, Raymond Carver, and, among a few other subjects, Woody Allen:
I did notice there’s nothing [in the book] by Woody Allen.
I continue to follow everything he does. He’s very up-front about making movies to avoid existential issues, and I try to think of myself as someone who’s more along the philosophical lines of James Brooks and Cameron Crowe—writers who are looking to say something positive about our time on earth. I’m not as old as Woody, and I still want to feel that life is good and you don’t need to make 90 movies to avoid your fear of death. As much as I love him, I wish he would tell me that things are going to be okay at some point. But I don’t think he will.
Read the rest. (Above, Apatow gets Barbara Walters to give thumbs down to Jay Leno.)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Off the Road

A small addendum to the review posted last week: on the LRB blog, I explain why Tao Lin sort of reminds me, just a little bit, of Jack Kerouac (pictured left... singing?).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Kind of Gnawing Offness

In the latest issue of the London Review of Books, I take a look at Tao Lin’s new novel, Richard Yates, along with his five previous books—and I consider his method for rendering online experience in his fiction (more successfully, I think, than Daniel Kehlmann does):
In an email exchange published earlier this year, David Gates asked Jonathan Lethem: ‘If I write about people for whom the internet is—as far as the reader can see—peripheral or nonexistent, am I not essentially writing historical fiction?’ If the answer is yes, then nearly every major author in America is now writing historical fiction. Writers seem stuck on the challenge of depicting the seamlessness with which the internet is already woven into our lives. Lin’s solution is to do what writers have done with handwritten letters for centuries. He quotes from instant messaging conversations extensively in both Shoplifting from American Apparel and Richard Yates, but he punctuates them the same way he punctuates the other dialogue, and everything is spelled correctly. This sacrifices some degree of verisimilitude—there are no real-life typos, and capital letters (unusually for him) are in the proper places—in order to show that online conversations don’t stand out anymore for many of us; they certainly wouldn’t for Lin’s characters. And they don’t stand out in his prose either.
If you subscribe to the LRB, you can read the rest here. If not, well, Lin has put up the whole thing on his site, so...

(Above, Tao Lin poses for a parody of this Jonathan Franzen/Time magazine cover.)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Disappointed in “Fame”

I reviewed Fame—Daniel Kehlmann’s collection of nine linked “episodes,” newly translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway—for The National:
Characterisation has never been Kehlmann’s forte, to judge, at least, from the three of his books available in English. Measuring the World, his sporadically fanciful but mostly historical novel about Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt, works well partly because Kehlmann does not burden the story with psychological nuance; he speeds briskly through two lives crowded with incident, one belonging to the owner of an unimaginably brilliant, abstract mind and the other to a fearless man restless for discovery. Me and Kaminski, an earlier book, suffers because its shallowly rendered characters do far less interesting things (though the ending is clever). The same can be said about most of Kehlmann’s latest, too.
Read the rest (but don’t blame me for the headline). That’s Kehlmann looking almost Zuckerberg-like in the hoodie above.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

No Great Work of Art Can Be “Spoiled”

I've written another piece for The Awl, this one about “spoilers”:

Consider this: Alfred Hitchcock knew as much about creating suspense as perhaps any narrative artist of the past century; and when he made what is, hands down, his most artistically ambitious movie, Vertigo, he went out of his way to spoil the mystery halfway through. Vertigo is the story of one woman pretending to be another in an effort to deceive a man, and Hitchcock easily could have preserved the mystery of that woman’s identity until the end of the film.

But the pleasures and satisfactions of Vertigo don’t depend on not knowing a basic aspect of the plot. They derive from the movie’s brilliant illustration of love and desire and the ways we idealize and romanticize particular human beings and then become disappointed or even disgusted by their simple, physical humanity. It’s the best thing Hitchcock ever did, and knowing who is actually who doesn’t change that.

On the other hand you have The Usual Suspects, which, after you have learned the identity of Keyser Soze, really isn’t very good.

Read the rest. (Pictured above: Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Kim Novak, in a publicity image for Vertigo.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Where have all the Sontags gone?

At The Awl, I respond to an essay by Lee Siegel:
It would be easy to dismiss Lee Siegels piece—Where Have All the Mailers [he means Norman] Gone?) in the New York Observer this week—but what fun would that be? Siegel, writing in typically bombastic fashion, obviously intends to start an argument. His essay is essentially a lament for the disappearance of fiction from just that sort of debate: the shared (and perhaps largely imaginary) upper-middle-brow cultural conversation many of us try to engage in by reading magazines like the New Yorker and going to see certain movies, etc. I enjoy that conversation, too; so let's have at it.

(Pictured above: Susan Sontag in 1962, photographed by Fred W. McDarrah.)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Where is the Great Mormon Novel?

I tackle that question for Slate, in light of a new book by Brady Udall:
In 1888, a bishop and one-time newspaper editor spoke to a gathering of young Mormons about literature. “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own,” he told them. It was more prediction than prophecy, but Orson F. Whitney eventually became an apostle of the church, and his words, published in a short-lived Mormon monthly, survived; I first heard them in my teens, quoted by a Sunday school teacher. More than a century after his remarks, bookish Mormons still occasionally get to thinking about those latter-day Miltons and Shakespeares and ask, “Well, where are they?”
Read the rest. And check out Alan Wolfe’s take, also published today by Slate, on the Book of Mormon as a literary text. I wrote about the Book of Mormon myself several years ago, for the London Review of Books.

(Pictured above: Orson F. Whitney.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Baseball’s biggest bargain

My brief review of The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de MacorĂ­s, by Mark Kurlansky, is up at the Barnes & Noble Review:
In 1960, the U.S. government began an embargo against Cuba; five years later, Major League Baseball instituted the amateur draft. As Mark Kurlansky points out in The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de MacorĂ­s, these two decisions helped make the Dominican Republic—a small country that until 1956 had not produced a single Major League player—the world’s greatest per capita source of Major Leaguers. Dominican players became baseball’s biggest bargain; last year, one in every ten Major Leaguers was Dominican.
Read the rest. And go Sox.

(The pitcher above is Juan Marichal, still the only Dominican in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame.)