Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The man behind the typewriter (Final Piece)

            Lemony Snicket does not exist. Children who show up to his book tours hoping to hear from the alleged author of works like A Series of Unfortunate Events or “Who Could That Be At This Hour?” will instead meet his representative — and actual author of the novels — Daniel Handler.
Handler is a slightly graying man in his early 40s. He plays the accordion and he adores San Francisco, where he currently lives with his wife, an illustrator, and his elementary school-aged son.
The theatrics are an effort, however transparent, to keep the mystery of books alive. Handler told John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley of Lightspeed Magazine that he came up with the act after watching another children’s author present at a book event.
“I thought she was terrible. And she told me later that what she liked to do was to dispel the mystery behind writing,” Handler said in the interview. He decided this was an awful idea.
“The actual writing is someone sitting at a desk writing, which is very boring,” he said. “I thought, ‘What can I do to increase the mystery of writing rather than decrease it?’”
Handler’s love of mystery permeates his novels. The 13 books in A Series of Unfortunate Events draw from the gothic genre, telling the story of three orphans who find themselves involved in a secret organization and frequently confront misfortune.
“Who Could That Be At This Hour,” the first book in a new four-part series called All The Wrong Questions, plays on the noir genre, following a young Snicket as he solves the mystery of a missing object. Handler alludes to the Maltese Falcon and Duke Ellington with plot devices and character names.
Beneath all of this mystery lies Handler’s unique way of dealing with the world of childhood. Today’s kids face news like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, but fiction books often gloss over the grittier parts of life.
Handler likes to confront them head on, leaving situations unsettled and morally ambiguous. It’s a fine line to walk — Count Olaf’s threats to the Baudelaire children, including capturing their friends and locking them in the basement of an apartment building, are sometimes terrifying. But these same situations can make rough patches in children’s lives seem manageable.
In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Handler said his Jewish upbringing affects his writing. His father escaped from Hitler’s Germany as a young child, and dinnertime stories often involved tales of “daring escapes and lucky rescues.” But his family also told stories about who wasn’t able to get out.
“I think that also had a huge effect on Series of Unfortunate Events, just that notion that terrible things can happen for any reason and they’re not punishment for bad behavior,” Handler said. “[The series] reminds you that a terrible thing can happen at any moment and that it is up to you to persevere through it.”
This is what Handler thinks kids need. In a piece he wrote for the New York Times the month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Handler said he fielded a lot of questions from reporters about whether his stories were appropriate for children in that environment.
“My young readers are not only finding a diversion in the melodrama of the Baudelaires’ lives, but they are also finding ways of contemplating our current troubles through stories,” he wrote. “When children write to me asking if Count Olaf is a terrorist, if the Baudelaires were anywhere near the World Trade Center… it is clear they are struggling with the same issues as the rest of us.”
The All The Wrong Questions series seems, from its first book, to take a lighter tone than A Series of Unfortunate Events. There are no villains hanging infants out of windows in birdcages or threatening children with knives — all of which happen in the first and arguably scariest book of the older series.
But Handler still confronts childhood in his trademark way. The story has foolish adults who give children unhelpful information. Young Snicket participates in activities that would make most parents cringe, like dropping from a hawser into a tree or riding around in a car driven by two small children, one who works the pedals and one who steers.
In an early scene, Snicket narrowly avoids drinking tea laced with a sedative given to him by two adults who may or may not be his parents.
When Gross asked him if this might deter people shopping for children’s books, Handler answered with his usual dry sense of humor.
“As a parent… I think if anything, ‘Who Could That Be At This Hour?’ makes a powerful case for not drugging children,” he told her. “Other children’s authors have expressed no opinion on this. Where’s Beverly Cleary on this issue, I wonder?”
Humor is what makes the books less scary, which is a valuable lesson for youngsters.  It’s frightening that people in the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, the setting for “Who Could That Be At This Hour” have to wear masks sometimes to protect themselves from salt lung. But it’s funny that the masks look like underwater equipment even though the sea around the town dried up years ago.
Handler hopes his books, after all, ultimately reassure children. He told Gross that he had his own fears as a child, specifically of being kidnapped. His mother told him the family didn’t have enough money to be targets for that.
At book events, he makes small talk with children by asking them if they have ever been kidnapped and about how much money their parents would pay for their safe return
“It’s under the guise of whether I’m calculating it enough, so if it seems like enough money for me to kidnap them,” he said. “But I hope it’s also reassuring when they realize they probably won’t be kidnapped.”
Childhood involves various types of frightening events. Handler’s unique way of dealing with them is a pleasant reminder that everything will be all right.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Final project pitch

Lemony Snicket is not a real person, but Daniel Handler is. Handler wrote the 13-book A Series of Unfortunate Events, the last installment of which was released on Friday the 13th of October, 2006. More recently, hereleased the first book of a new series. All The Wrong Questions is about young Lemony Snicket's efforts to solve a mystery in a seaside town no longer by the sea. "Who Could That Be At This Hour?," the first of four books, addresses the first incorrect question that he asks during the process.

Handler has an important place in children's literature. He addresses sinister topics, particularly in A Series of Unfortunate Events. He uses high literary allusions in his pieces (the Baudelaire orphans and Esme Squalor are some of his character names). A lot of these are more present in A Series of Unfortunate Events, but All The Wrong Questions is still a vocabulary lesson with mentions of other literary works.

Handler has written about his thoughts on talking to children about serious topics (here, for example). I will use this source as well as interviews with him to profile his motivations for writing about these topics and about what that means for children. I'd love to actually talk to him, but I'm assuming his publisher will shut me down on that one (probably going to call and try though...)

Monday, February 25, 2013

An evening of off-color comments

The theme of the 2013 Academy Awards was music at the movies, and the show appropriately began with host Seth MacFarlane performing a musical number of his own.
Less appropriate was the title of his performance: “We Saw Your Boobs.”  MacFarlane proceeded to list off the names of actresses who have showed their breasts in on-screen roles.
And not in a casual sense, mind you — the nudity in Brokeback Mountain is hardly something to mock Anne Hathaway for doing.
This was the lightest of many misogynistic moments during the ceremony. During the same (lengthy) opening, MacFarlane took jabs at eating disorders and domestic violence.
He made a crack at women who “got the flu” prior to the event so they could fit into their dresses.
He drew parallels between “Django Unchained” and an abusive relationship: “Django is a movie where a woman is subjected to violence, or as we call it, a Chris Brown and Rihanna date movie,” he said. He seemed a little uncomfortable afterward, telling the audience that it was the rudest joke he had for the evening.
Later MacFarlane joked about Selma Hayek’s accent, saying it was okay that the audience wouldn’t understand her because she is pretty.
To be fair, this crack extended to Javier Bardem, although abandoning gender for race seems hardly seems like an improvement in the entertainment department.
The offensive humor sometimes overshadowed the high points of the show. Musical numbers included Catherine Zeta-Jones performing “All That Jazz” and Jennifer Hudson doing a song from Dreamgirls.
Women dominated these interludes, proving that MacFarlane’s disparaging comments had little basis in reality.
The ceremony dragged, running over three hours. Best actress went to Jennifer Lawrence for her role in Silver Linings Playbook. She stumbled over her wide skirt while walking up the stairs but laughed it off once onstage.
Daniel Day-Lewis won best actor for his role in Lincoln, an award so expected that Meryl Streep didn’t bother to pause for suspense when she announced it.
And Argo took home the best picture award. It was a justified nod of recognition for Ben Affleck, who was left out of the best director nominations.
MacFarlane closed the show with Kristen Chenoweth, singing a song dedicated to the night’s losers. It took a direct shot at Quvenzhan√© Wallace who, at age nine, probably didn’t need to be mocked. It was a classless end to a classless evening.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Critic as Artist

"For it is the critical faculty that invents fresh forms."

I find Oscar Wilde's argument compelling, but I'm a little resistant to the idea that criticism is responsible for inventing new forms. Or rather, I'm resistant to this justifying arts criticism as a branch of journalism. I think that every artist has to be a critic in their field, otherwise progress doesn't happen. So in that sense I agree with Wilde's sentiment. When I do arts work I'm highly critical of what I'm doing and always think about my next project. But does this mean that we need critics publishing their thoughts in the media to advance art?

I'd argue that we don't. I think, as someone mentioned in class the other day, that artists compete with each other more than they strive to please critics. I guess part of that stems from needing to be noticed by critics and by the public. But I just don't know if I'd credit arts critics as the ones advancing the movement. It seems a little drastic. I think it undermines the autonomy of the artist and their ability to assess their own work and avoid re-creating the same pieces over and over. Also, some well-known people do that despite critics. It happens all the time.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"West of Memphis" and the judicial system

I haven't seen "West of Memphis," but I recently read this piece from The Atlantic about the film. The documentary is about the wrongful conviction of three young men who were wrongly tried as murderers in the 1990s. But the film also presents another person as the potential murderer, something that was never examined in court and has no official proof.

It got me thinking about the role of documentary film. After taking Intro to Doc last quarter, I got more comfortable with the idea that documentarians can put their own spin on a piece instead of reporting, but is this too much spin? I definitely think this is overstepping the line in terms of what a film should do, especially since one of the pardoned men helped produce it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Pauline Kael was the ultimate audience

Maggie Kane

Pauline Kael was a well-versed movie critic, and she let her readers know it. Lawrence Van Gelder wrote that she was “probably the most influential film critic of her time,” in an obituary that ran in the New York Times in 2001. Francis Davis credits her with “establish[ing] the movie review as a form of literature with the potential for social commentary.”
Kael was born in California in 1919. She saw movies go from black and white to color to 3D. In her critiques, which she wrote starting in 1953, she wove in history about the industry, showing a movie’s place in the broader scheme of the industry.
“There’s hardly a star in American movies today, and if we’ve got so used to the absence of stars that we no longer think about it much, we’ve also lost one of the great pleasures of moviegoing,” she wrote in a review of Funny Girl. Barbara Streisand remedied this, she thought. Her observation about the overall state of stardom legitimized her opinion on Streisand.
William Zinsser writes that a critic should love the medium they review. Kael expressed opinions that were uniquely her own and that did not try to fit in with what other reviewers thought, demonstrating her love for movies and what they can do for an audience.
She panned “Hiroshima Mon Amour” despite its status as a highly praised film, complaining about its repetition and lengthy discussions on emotion. Art house film did not pull her in, so she resisted talking it up in an effort to appear intellectual
Kael was secure in her knowledge of film, but in making that clear she tended to sound preachy. She could hardly fathom the idea that certain viewers might genuinely enjoy a film she disliked.  
“I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses ‘art’ films… [as] easy congratulation on their sensitivities and liberalism,” she wrote about “Hiroshima.”
In a review of “Dancing with Wolves,” she accused the audience of being stupid.
“Crowds of moviegoers love the movie, though—maybe partly because the issues have been made so simple,” she writes right after accusing the film, under “bland” direction, of having simpleminded characters.  
Kael tends to use “you” or “we” to directly address potential viewers, sometimes including herself as part of the audience.
This tactic may have contributed to the cult following she gathered during her career. Kael worked at McCalls, The New Republic and The New Yorker, contributing to other publications on the side. She inspired a group of critics known as “Paulettes” who hung on her every word.
Kael left her mark on the critic world. Her unapologetic way of critiquing film has influenced readers and writers both, even if it simultaneously attacks any way of thinking that strays from her standards.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The game is afoot!

Okay, could neither the Herald nor MLive think of any better way to start a Sherlock Holmes review than with lines from the play? Too much, too much. I preferred MLive's review to the Herald's in terms of both style and content. I liked that it put reaction to the play up front before adding in overview closer to the bottom. Since I saw the play already, this flowed nicely for me (although I'm aware that most readers would be looking at the review prior to seeing the performance). 

MLive gave a more negative review than the Herald, although both reviews concluded that it's a worthwhile play to see. The Herald praised most of the play's elements and used a lot of non-specific words like "great" and "fantastic." It gave the piece more of a conversational tone than I like to see and also didn't give me a great sense of what specifically made the play good.

I appreciate that MLive mentioned their connection to the play. When I first saw Marin's name with no nod to it I was worried, but they put a disclaimer further down. I thought that was an important thing for them to do for transparency.