Sunday, May 19, 2013

Don't Give Up

Remember that post I wrote recently about whether it was time to give up?  Well, this weekend I got my answer.  It was most emphatically NOT time to give up.  I won't share details now, but suffice it to say I stand before you today prepared to shout from the rooftops to those of you who are feeling discouraged:  DON'T GIVE UP!  Do the work.  Write the story you have to tell.  Write other stories. Explore a variety of genres.  Keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Listen to the signals others send you.  Listen to your gut.  Keep cultivating the ground.  This is a marathon.  But there is hope.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Great Gatsby: The Movie

I am a fan of Baz Luhrmann.  I love his bold, sometimes crazy, never dull choices.  I love his distinctive style.  I love his fabulous, if sometimes flawed films.  There is no one else like him.  And when I heard he was directing a film version of THE GREAT GATSBY I said, "YES!!  That is a match made in heaven."

Why?  Well, F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing is rooted in richly textured sensory details and descriptive images that make you catch your breath and savor.  His themes and moods are embedded in that imagery.  It is his signature and what makes him great.  And the glittering magnificence of the surface is an essential element of his stories.

So, I had high expectations for this film.  And I knew there would be those who would hate it.  Baz isn't everybody's cup of tea.  I was right.  The reviews have been luke warm.  But from where I'm sitting, Baz knocked this one out of the park, and his cast did too.

First off, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire are perfectly cast.  DiCaprio captures not just Gatsby's surface layer but every other layer beneath it, and Maguire makes Nick Carraway's role in this story so clear, so essential.  Their performances, and Baz's direction, bring out Fitzgerald's themes of within and without, of the watcher and observer juxtaposed against the participants in life.

Now, I knew Baz would nail the over-the-top frenzied and desperate extravagance of Gatsby's parties, and he did.  But what took my breath away was his absolute grasp of the intimate quiet moments and the minute and subtle details.  Those are what make Fitzgerald's writing sing, and those were present.  Baz nailed the contrasts between the loud manic parties and the simple human emotions.

Purists take issue with the use of hip-hop music at times in the soundtrack, but to my mind it is the perfect way to convey to a modern sensibility the mood of a raise-the-roof so-loud-you-don't-have-to-think partying mentality.  At the same time, the way Baz uses those moments in the soundtrack, which are not constant but very carefully placed, forces us to recognize that this is not just a story of the Jazz Age, as it is so often characterized. Rather, it is a story of the American economic truth as it collides and recollides with individual human truth in the past, present and future.  The film's choice of language from the book, right down to the final moments, embraces this notion.  "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."  This is not just a story of that time, but of our time, of American experience, of the haves and have-nots, the 1% and the 99%, and everyone in-between.

As for the frame story of Carraway writing his tale while in a sanitorium, it's a choice that falls for me into the category of Baz's inevitable and forgivable mis-steps.  It didn't ruin the film for me.  In some ways, it may have enhanced Carraway's character a bit, and forced me to think about aspects of the story in a different way.  But it also provided one of a handful of subtle yet, to my mind, intentional nods towards the Orson Welles classic CITIZEN KANE, whose link with Gatsby had never before occurred to me and now seems incredibly obvious.  Both tales are rather hard, sad looks at the underlying messiness behind the classic rags-to-riches vision of the American dream.  I might almost have been afraid to make this connection with such a revered icon of American cinema had not my husband, the world's biggest Welles fan, mentioned it first.

Finally, a word about the other funky possible mis-step, the letters and words from the story that float across the screen.  Some might see this as heavy-handed.  I imagine the film would have worked brilliantly without it.  However, it didn't mar the experience for me, and I think it was a genuine gesture of respect and affection for the fact that this story is one of the great works of American literature.  The words, the language, are an integral part of its greatness, so Baz chose to emphasize and celebrate that through the visual medium.

Suffice it to say that I loved this film, I want to see it again, and I must now reread GATSBY. As for those who don't care for it and don't get it, I am mystified.  Let us nod politely to one another as we pass on the street of opinion and then walk on.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Playing with Order

I tease one of my critique partners because her number one thing to do is change the order of things.  Sometimes it makes me crazy.  But sometimes it's exactly what's needed.  The other day, I showed her a couple of short stories that I like but that just weren't getting the kind of responses I wanted to see, despite numerous submissions.  With  all my other shorts, I'd at least had a nibble here or there, but these two?  Nada.  It was time to get some fresh eyes on them.

My CP did her usual order switcheroos and, as we discussed the whys and wherefores, two things came clear in my mind, both related to the process and where these stories were in their development.  When you "pants it," writing without an outline and exploring an image or character or idea for the first time, as I tend to do on my short stories, the structure and order of the story is at first driven by that exploratory process.  There's some scene setting, some getting-to-know-you as you ease into the beginning of the story.  Sometimes, the crux of your theme may be right there from the beginning, because that's the nugget of idea that got you started on the story in the first place.  All of that is fine, but it doesn't always create the most effective experience for the reader.

Take the beginning.  A short story doesn't always have to have the kind of high-impact hook that you want in a high-concept novel, but it still needs a sense of tension from the get-go.  Instead of easing into the moment on one of the stories, my CP pulled a line from the bottom of page 1 and said "This is your opening.  This is where your tension is."  Spot on.

On the other hand, you don't want your beginning to give away the whole story.  You're going to build the conflict and build towards that thematic lynchpin that pulls you through the middle and brings the pieces together.  Get there too soon and your story turns redundant, covering that thematic ground over and over until your reader is, well, bored.  That was the fundamental problem with my other story.  Said my CP, "This whole section seems like it belongs closer to the end so you have somewhere to go."  And she was right.

In both cases, the original structure of the story had solidified too soon in the process, getting stuck at that exploratory draft stage so it wasn't serving the forward pull needed for the reader's experience, rather than the author's discovery experience.  Something to keep in mind when you're a "pantser."

Popular Posts