le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Monday, November 30, 2009

foxes fantastic, encore & films of the future

I think I need to see FANTASTIC MISTER FOX again.

I'm going to try to give it a little more time, so I'm not seeing it in back-to-back weeks, but I really want to see that film again.

I'm also planning to see THE PRINCESS & THE FROG, when it's released on 11 December. I don't have any strong feelings toward it - princesses, even jazz-age black princesses from new orleans, aren't really my cup of tea, and frogs certainly are not (unless, of course, it is Frog of Frog and Toad fame).  But - like it or not - Disney is a cultural touchstone, and when a cultural touchstone produces an intentional, self-proclaimed milestone film (first African-American Princess!) - well, for academic and cultural reasons I need to see this one. I'm cringing already, since the First African-American Princess spends part of her movie in the form of a frog (why, Disney? why couldn't you have just gone with a straight human princess plot? there are hundreds of fairytales, thousands of stories, lurking in forgotten collections of folktales - many of which feature *only* human princesses).

It's rare for me to have so many movies lined up that I plan to see: THE PRINCESS & THE FROG, and then in February, THE LIGHTNING THIEF, and in March, Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

I go to about three or four movies a year in theatres if it's a good year. I think there have been years when I haven't seen a single film in a theatre. But I have three coming up in the next four months - and with the very fantastic MISTER FOX, that makes four in four months.

But an encore screening of FANTASTIC MISTER FOX is an absolute requirement for the near future. I can't get those characters out of my mind - and that's not a bad thing.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

the fox fantastic

I saw Fantastic Mister Fox last night - opening night, no less! - and was delighted. BEYOND delighted.

 A brief history: Fantastic Mr Fox is one of the few children's books I remember receiving and reading in my own actual childhood. It turned up in my Easter basket one year, probably when I was seven or thereabouts, and I remember being thrilled with it. My edition (like the one at left) has these wonderful, gorgeous illustrations by Donald Chaffin, which I think made me see the book in a very different way; as a softer, more tragic (and thus ultimately more joyful) book than if I had first encountered it with Quentin Blake's illustrations.
After plucking the book from my Easter basket, I sat down and read the whole thing in one sitting, no really great feat since it's only about 50 pages long (possibly fewer). But I've re-read it countless times since then, and it's always lurked in the back of my mind as my favorite Dahl book.

Which is why I was both nervous and excited when I first heard, years ago, that Wes Anderson planned to make a movie adaptation of Mister Fox. This was probably around the time that The Life Aquatic came out - 2004? I had seen The Life Aquatic and loved it, and have since seen most of Anderson's films - enough to know that he makes wondrous movies. He has a touch of magic in all his movies, a touch of the wonder-full, that is somehow exactly what I want out of a movie.

Fantastic Mister Fox has the best of both worlds: Dahl's and Anderson's. It's beautiful to look at; the aesthetic of the film is perfect to its content. The effect of the stop-motion animation is to give a very joyful, very whimsical tone to the movie, especially when the animals break into dance (which they do rather often). In particular, a scene in Ash's room, at night, featuring a toy train and then a real train, is heartbreakingly beautiful. The plot of the novel has been developed and carefully added on to - the spirit and sense of the novel is absolutely present, even in the new additions - like the Foxes nephew, Kristofferson (who is adorable) and the development of the youngest member of the Fox family, Ash, whose rivalry with Kristofferson and his desire to be seen as an athlete (and not as a little....odd) form a thoroughly Andersonian sideplot that somehow meshes perfectly with Dahl's original tone.

Ash is, by far, my favorite character. He's quirky and odd and growls and wears a cape - he first appears clad only in underwear, trying to avoid going to school. Denied a bandit mask, he fashions one of his own from a tube sock, resulting in a mask with a bobbling, periscope-like sockfoot above his head. He's strange and unaware of his own strangeness, which makes him even more endearing; he truly sees himself as an athlete, a capewearing hero.

What the movie does best - and what I love Anderson for - is to add more story, more heart, to Dahl's already outstanding story without ever stepping over the bounds of Dahl's resolutely unsentimental, funny aesthetic. Scenes between Mr & Mrs Fox, between Ash and Kristofferson, between Mr Fox and Ash, approach moments of sentimentality, of learning valuable lessons about life and love and what really matters -- but the beauty of the film is that these cliched, syrupy moments never actually come off. A gesture, an approach, is the closest we get, before the quotidian (or hilarious) intervenes and saves us from sappiness. A particularly fantastic example of this comes at the film's end and features a wolf.

The soundtrack for the movie is inspired. Though the opening 10 minutes of WALL-E will always be the best opening of any movie ever, the first few minutes of Mr Fox rates very highly in comparison. The soundtrack has lots of jazzy, swingy mid-century instrumentals, and songs by the Rolling Stones, the beach boys and Burl Ives, who is very heavily represented in the soundtrack. It's dead right for this movie, somehow - the gesture to sentimentality without ever actually lapsing into it.

After taking a class on Adaptation in my first year at Pitt, I've spent an inordinate amount of time puzzling over the problem of transmediating book to film, and how to "judge" the resulting movie. The standard assessment, which our class rapidly dismissed (perhaps hastily, very probably a bit scornfully) is fidelity to the original text. But the course also evolved a more complicated way of determining success, and that ended up being - for me, at least - a kind of fidelity to the spirit of the original text. The truly brilliant adaptations maintain the spirit of the original source - the meaning of the original text - but also add on new embellishments and flourishes that extend that original spirit and meaning, additions that make the viewer reflect on the original text in new and interesting ways. The two works become kind of like mirrors facing each other, but mirrors that manage to reflect and capture new angles. Once you have viewed the book through the prism of the successful film, the book is never the same again - in a good way. Likewise, watching the film after knowing the book alters the film - for the better, as well. They become both thoroughly independent and thoroughly complementary, intertwined works of art.

And that is what Fantastic Mister Fox does - it offers up the glorious original story while simultaneously making that original story more glorious through its own new additions.

in other words, and to paraphrase Mrs Fox "This movie is a fantastic film."

Friday, November 20, 2009

modern classics?

Booking through Thursday this week has a good one, brought to my attention via my remarkably well-read and articulate sister:

Do you think any current author is of the same caliber as Dickens, Austen, Bronte, or any of the classic authors? If so, who, and why do you think so? If not, why not? What books from this era might be read 100 years from now?

As I posted in her comments, this is a tough question. Even shakespeare got "dropped" for awhile before being rediscovered (he never really did go away, of course). And Dickens was pop fiction in his day. and some of the late 19th/early 20th century classics (Arnold Bennett, anyone?) are mostly unread today. Reading reviews of these authors' work published concurrently with the books in question is always a very revealing exercise (in fact, a project I recently dreamed up - and will never undertake, probably - is compiling a collection of contemporary reviews from as many older children's books as I can: Alice, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, etc, as well as the shorter, less famous, works by Dinah Craik and Juliana Ewing and all the other (mostly female) writers for children).

There are loads of brilliant books being written nowadays. Haruki Murakami takes the cake for sheer poetic beauty, brilliance and craft; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore are absolute masterpieces. Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo might make the cut, as well, though Pynchon may end up being the Arnold Bennett of our time.

But in the children's bookworld, there are some stellar entries. Topping out my list of ANY modern classics (children's or otherwise) is Philip Pullman's exquisite trilogy. I get shivery just thinking about certain passages from those books. The scope and sweep of his project with His Dark Materials - and its intertextual relationship with Milton's Paradise Lost - virtually guarantees it a place in the canon of the future (if, of course, people still bother with a canon, or reading, in the future).

I'll place M.T. Anderson in my modern classics, as well, if only for his astonishing range of talent: the glorious historical fiction (plausible imitation 18th century prose!) of the Octavian Nothing books, the quasi-Gothic for younger reads of The Game of Sunken Places, the heartbreaking dystopia of Feed - the man can do it all, and he does it exceptionally well.

I'm in a swoon over Markus Zusak lately; the buzz is about The Book Thief, which is great and fabulouso and all (and what the hell, it's narrated by DEATH - how many books narrated by Death does one come across [probably more than I know of, actually....]), but I Am The Messenger just blew my mind so completely and so wonderfully. And frankly - though this sounds appalling - it's easy to wring tears and pluck heartstrings in a book about children during World War II. Nazis and the Holocaust make for loads of tragedy in any fictional story.  But producing an eloquent, beautiful, powerful book about a teenage taxi driver, his stinky dog, his equally shiftless buddies, and the grimy ends of a city?  THAT takes serious talent.

It's hard to make comparisons transhistorically, though; the quantity of books being written AND published now just vastly overtakes the quantity of books being produced in the 18th and 19th centuries. From the massive heap of books churned out today, it's hard to sift through to find the best. There's no accounting for future tastes, either; I'm sure there are plenty of 18th century dead people spinning in their graves at the thought of the canonization of, say, Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver's Travels.  So perhaps in 200 years it'll be all Dan Brown and Sue Monk Kidd and John Grisham in the university literature survey courses - who knows?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

death and the child

A few years ago, I was TA for a course dealing with children and culture. One of the articles assigned in the class (actually a book chapter, I believe) made me slightly crazy. I can't find my copy of it, so I can't provide the specific cite (I think it was by Viviana Zelizer, but I cannot swear to it). The article was about attitudes toward death and children, and the way those attitudes shifted substantially in the mid-to-late 19th century.

One of the claims made in the article - which I think was actually a simple repetition of one of Philippe Aries's claims - was that prior to the late 18th/19th centuries, most people had a very pragmatic, detached view toward child deaths. It also suggested that even in New England, during the colonial Puritan years, families wouldn't name their new children until the child had lived to a certain age. The students were assigned a writing exercise on this essay, so I read, over and over (times almost 50, the number of students I was responsible for), about the way that people in the Olden Days were relatively unmoved by the deaths of their children. One of the quotes that got used in all these student papers came from (I think) Aries - that people in the early modern era would simply throw the corpses of their dead children out like so much trash, or bury them in yards in the way we now bury our pets.

I always felt like this could not be true across the board. I wouldn't argue with the suggestion that occasionally, some (probably very poor) people disposed of their young dead this way. Just about everything imaginable has happened in the course of history. But to square that image of dead-disposal with the fact that, until VERY recently, Europe and North America were mostly exceedingly serious Christians - it's ludicrous. No Christian would throw away the body of a dead child; they would inter them in consecrated ground. And even way back in the medieval period, Christians took burial seriously. But I could never find real confirmation for my suspicions about dead children.

Two weeks ago, I was in Boston for a conference. I had a fair bit of free time, and decided to tourist myself around the city; I hadn't been to Boston since I was about five or six. I did the Freedom Trail, since it's free and easy, and while I felt very uneasy about the "Freedom" and "liberty" propaganda [I had just re-read Octavian Nothing], I mostly quite enjoyed it.
Especially the cemeteries.
I ended up in two very old, pre-Revolutionary cemeteries: Copps Hill and Granary Burial Ground. Copps Hill, located just a few blocks from Old North Church (of  one if by land, two if by sea fame), was really mesmerizing. Both cemeteries were, really, but Granary holds the graves of Hancock, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and was more touristy.
I spent a very long time inspecting the gravestones, and taking photos of them. They were macabre and worn, but beautiful in their way. And utterly fascinating.  The amount of text on the gravestones was surprising to me; one quoted Milton, which I found unexpectedly moving.  Paradise Lost is quoted and revered today, now, in 2009; the grave on which a line from the epic is quoted was established 260 years ago or more (only about 100 years after Paradise Lost was written!)

But I found the stones of a number of children, some of whom had their ages inscribed on the gravestone, along with their dates. The saddest of these, and the one that proved my earlier instinct that people were not just tossing out their unnamed dead babies with the trash, was for an infant born and buried in 1696.


Transcription of the epitaph:
Joseph the son/ of Joseph & /Hannah Dol/Beare. Born/ & Died Janua/ry 31, 1696.

Born and died on the same day, small Joseph Dolbeare, son of Joseph and Hannah, buried under a small stone in the Granary Burial Ground in 1696, near the then-heart of Boston. In the same small cemetery where John Hancock and Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and Peter Faneuil, and other leaders of the Revolution, would be interred.

Not exactly tossed out, uncared for, unloved, unnamed, like so much garbage.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Ear, The Eye & The Arm, and my brain

Tonight I tried teaching Nancy Farmer's The Ear, The Eye and The Arm for the first time. I'm fairly certain it was not a smash hit with my class; it was also one of those unfortunate classes where I felt myself talking seemingly ad infinitum (I do not like when this happens).

However, evidently my brain has been working hard at thinking about the book. One of the first questions that was raised was a great one: why is the book called The Ear, The Eye and The Arm? Ear, Eye and Arm are secondary characters at best. A number of people seemed baffled at their inclusion at all, and suggested the book might be better without them (or at least, that they are not necessary for the novel).

And I started babbling talking, and suddenly realized that the book is composed of a series of isolated communities: the group at Dead Man's Vlei, the Matsika family (including the Mellower) in their home, the English tribe in Borrowdale, the villagers of Resthaven, the residents of the Cow's Guts, the micro-world within the Mile-High MacIlwaine, the Masks & Gondwannans in their Embassy and hideout. Each of these groups is deficient in some way, damaged (or damaging) in some way. In a way, Farmer's novel seems a bit like a very oddball echo of Walter Benjamin's "The Storyteller" essay - all these disparate groups forming their own communities, and then the outsiders: Tendai, Ear, Eye and Arm. Rita and Kuda function as outsiders to a degree, but not quite in the same way.

It seems to me, somehow, that Tendai and Arm especially, but Ear and Eye as well, are integrative characters: it is their task to make sense of the communities and link them together into one. Both Tendai and Arm are possessed by the mhondoro, the spirit of the land, and are able to bring together - at the very end of the novel - a gaggle of unrelated people to defeat the outsiders, the Gondwannans. It is the She Elephant who levels one of the death blows to the Masks, but Arm, Tendai, Mother, diners and waiters from the Starlight Room all play a role in defeating the Masks.

There's just something very, very interesting going on in this book, with all these fragmented and fractured communities. Intentional withdrawal, exile, being cast out, being simply insular in a snobbish or reactionary way - and then in the midst, Tendai and Arm, both being lost in dreams and quasi-memories of other times and places, and Arm, poor wonderful Arm, being swept up in the tide of other people's emotions, being buffeted and crushed and occasionally, very occasionally, heartened.

I don't quite know what to do with any of this, to be honest, but I also was quite surprised to discover my brain had been working this out without my knowing it - because frankly, as I spoke in class, I was finding those words coming out of my mouth without my having planned them (a fact that was probably extremely evident, but was still sort of wondrous; I haven't had that kind of stream-of-conscious critical analysis in ages).

I still think The Ear, The Eye and The Arm is a remarkable book for the ways it privileges imagination and empathy, and for the way it blurs the lines of "good" and "bad" (whatever those terms mean). In particular, the privileging of empathy is so uncommon that to find it in a book like this one is like coming across an especially lush, large oasis in a desert.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Ask and the Answer

Read it today, just gulped it right down. I don't really know who this Patrick Ness character is, but this Chaos Walking series (thus far only these two books, The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask & the Answer) is pretty fantastic.

Knife was a little better, I think, mainly because it's narrated entirely by Todd (Todd! Who names their dystopic hero Todd?), and his narrative voice is absolutely unbelievably amazing. I'm staggered by Todd's voice. He's not - as a character - well-educated or fully literate, and his narration is full of misspellings, efforts to suppress his own thoughts/narration - it's just brilliant. So much of the book(s) really do feel like transcribed thoughts, the kind of stuttering slow-motion repetition of horror, fear, anxiety, love.

Ask veers away from this, by alternating the narration between Todd and Viola; her voice isn't quite as compelling as his, though her story in this book may be the more gripping. But after having re-read Twilight last week (for an informal grad seminar I'm participating in this semester, NOT as a voluntary exercise in masochism), the strength of Viola and Todd's connection, their relationship, rings so much more true than the relationship between the sparkly vampire and klutzy Bella.  Viola and Todd, as a pair, are infinitely more engaging, and because of the immediacy of the narration coupled with the urgency of the actual plot, the quasi-operatic heights of the relationship don't feel forced, fake or like overblown teenage puppy love.

The political subcurrents of the books are also quite shocking - the banding/branding of the aliens (the Spackle, the name of which - unfortunately - only makes me think of that plaster-patching goop) and the women, the mind control, the dependence on "the cure" (pills) - have obvious resonance with recent and contemporary Western life.

The comparison of these books to The Hunger Games and DuPrau's Ember books still definitely rings true, but Ness's novels are amped up and feel more sophisticated and pressing than DuPrau's, certainly (I'm not sure about Collins's books - I think I need to re-read Hunger Games before I can fairly compare; fortunately, we'll be reading it in my class in just about two weeks, so I'll have my chance).

As I was with Catching Fire, I'm antsy and irked that I'll now have to wait the aeons and aeons before the third book comes out in the Chaos Walking series (and since The Ask & The Answer was just released, I'll be cooling my heels for awhile). Something will come along to fill the gap - it always does - but the waiting is never the easy part.

Friday, November 13, 2009

art lust

I received a link today to Bloomsbury Auctions' catalogue for what looks like an incredible auction: Capture the Imagination: Original Illustration and Fine Illustrated Books.  The catalogue online is gorgeous in itself, and worth the time to flip through.

It's an auction of original art and fine books, all from the children's book world. The auction includes quite a substantial collection of pieces by Tom Feelings (including some hauntingly beautiful wooden sculptures originating with The Middle Passage), a number of prints and books from the so-called Golden Age (including a number of Arthur Rackhams, which make my heart hurt with the desire to own one - I LOVE Rackham's work), and a wide selection of contemporary/20th century art and books. Some of the highlights for me include pieces from Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel (Frog & Toad!), Paul Zelinsky, including a few of his illustrations for some of E. Nesbit's books, William Steig and Edward Gorey. One of the Gorey items is a handmade cloth beanbag silver bat, which Gorey evidently made mainly for friends and rarely for general sale.

Naturally, every single piece is priced firmly out of my meagre reach (being a grad student just doesn't pay enough to keep me in a manner to which I would like to become accustomed).  But this is a treasure-trove of children's book art, and I'm pleased that it's being auctioned for the kinds of prices that guarantee the pieces will be valued, loved and well cared for.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

post-it blog

This is the electronic version of post-it notes (well, probably an ACTUAL e-post-it note system exists, but this is MY version), since I have midterms and walter benjamin waiting for me in my bedroom.

Two things:
1) Tonight (today) I read THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness, and WHOOP! what a book! There's a sequel, recently out, and I MUST get my hands on it, since KNIFE ends on a cliffhanger. A customer at Ye Olde Bookestore recommended them - an adult reader, too, so I knew something awesome had to be inside the book. And it is. was. some very odd gender stuff going on, too, but also some serious good storytelling with a terrific narrator. Sort of like Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember/People of Sparks books meets The Hunger Games with its own amazing twists and turns. I am smitten with the narrator (Todd). There is Bad, Bad Violence to an animal, though, which makes my blood run cold. I can read about humans being murdered and dying, but animals - no. The relationship between Todd and Viola is amazing, truly amazing, without ever making me feel creepy and cliched, as I often do about unlikely duos' romantic entanglements.

2). A system of Dorks is needed.
No: a system of understanding DORK NARRATORS is needed. I've been mulling this one over lately, a lot, since rereading KING DORK. And I wonder about who we laugh at, when we laugh at a humorous dork narrator. And why we laugh. And what we identify with. It's very hard for me to tell, because I am, myself, a former nerd-dork (former? CURRENT). I was a weirdo in high school with no group of friends, only a few friends snared from other groups, none of whom seemed to like each other very much (my friends, that is). And I didn't feel actually close to anyone, really, not until late in my junior year of high school. I was more invisible than actively harrassed, though I came in for my share of snide comments.
But what about the people who read these books and WEREN'T dorks in high school? Yeah, everyone has felt isolated or picked on, but some people - some people were at the top of the heap. A lot more people were at the top or middle of the heap than were in the ranks of dorkdom at the bottom.
All the I Heart Nerds stuff I see, the I Love Nerdy Boys tshirts - it's all a total scam. When and if a real nerd came along (and believe me: I KNOW some real nerds), most people would be ready to laugh or ignore or snicker at the nerd. It wouldn't be all Vote for Pedro t-shirts. It would be sidelong looks and shrinking away.

So what the heck is going ON, anyway, with dork books? It's like, representationally, you're either this awesome, hip dork {and if awesome & hip, not a dork} or you're glamorous Mean Girls like Gossip Girls or something.

I can't get my brain around the problem of the first-person dork narrator.

Which leads me to a corollary issue: the narrator of Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK, Melinda. First person, and amazing - SPEAK is a sensational book. But how to reconcile the way everyone feels that book is speaking directly to their own experiences in high school, when Melinda is depressed and a rape victim? How to understand the gender issue - that boy readers and girl readers seem to identify with Melinda equally, that my undergrads agreed that this book was "gender-neutral"? NOTHING in this world is gender neutral, and rape is very, very far from gender neutral.

so again: what the hell is going on here?