Saturday, December 28, 2013

Walter Mitty: The everyman who became a war hero

By Lars Trodson

“War thundered and whined around the dugout and battered the door.” James Thurber wrote this sentence, which can be found in his short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The story has gained new currency because it has received its second big-budget Hollywood treatment, this time by director Ben Stiller.

The quote is important, in fact it's essential, because it is precisely this backdrop of war that gave the Mitty story its heft and meaning when published on March 18, 1939 in The New Yorker. One did not have to be a geo-political strategist to understand that the threat of war was growing throughout the world at that time and that the lives of men and women, in and out of uniform, were already in danger.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Greatest Gift: The Story Behind 'It's A Wonderful Life'

The story behind the story: The Inspiration for 'It's A Wonderful Life'

By Lars Trodson

If you go back to the beginning, the real beginning, there is no Bedford Falls, no Mary Hatch, no Zuzu or her petals, no Clarence Oddbody, no Sam Wainwright, no Violet Bic and no George Bailey. George Bailey had to be created in order to make all these other people and the town where they lived come to life.

This is the world of “The Greatest Gift,” the original short story on which “It’s A Wonderful Life” is based. Almost none of the characters, and not one with their original name, appeared in the little self-published story, written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943. The story was based on a dream Stern apparently had in 1939. It's a kind of reverse image of a famous story that also appeared in 1939, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," who dreamed not of never having lived but rather of doing great heroic deeds.

Reading “The Greatest Gift” today —it’s widely available online — is interesting for a couple of reasons. It’s not a great work of art, but the shadows and echoes it contains that are now so familiar because of the famous movie that came out of it. It's a cultural curiosity, because "It's A Wonderful Life" has been memorized by its fans, just as people anticipate each line in "A Christmas Carol." The source material also is instructive: the movie is an extreme example of how to turn what is essentially a vignette into a much broader, more fully-realized feature film.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Our Christmas Short Story: "December, 1977"

By Lars Trodson

But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.
- Robert Louis Stevenson
"Christmas At Sea"
“Boys.” The father’s voice was stern, but not unkind. The three boys bolted upright in their beds just as he spoke. Their father was poking his head around the bedroom door. “Get ready,” he said softly.
            The boys rolled out of bed. They were fully clothed except for their boots. They were even wearing their caps. Without a word they grabbed their blankets and flashlights and boots and ran out of their room. It was dark and in the middle of the night.
            When they went downstairs their father had turned on a Coleman lantern that was sitting on the kitchen table. The boys silently sat cross-legged on the floor to put on their shoes.
            "Longjohns?" their father said without looking up from the table, and all the boys nodded to say that they had them on.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Ron Burgundy marketing campaign is no game changer

Anchorman 2

By Lars Trodson

The media blitz otherwise known as the “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” marketing campaign is not the game changer that so many media outlets have proclaimed it to be.

Is it innovative? Yes. Is it entertaining? Certainly. But it is not a game changer. 

Let's look at a sample quote that's indicative of the hyperbole surrounding the launch of the movie: “The campaign is not only very 2013 but is also a model for the future of movie marketing. It encompasses native ads on The Huffington Post, including taking over the news site’s homepage logo on Dec. 16. And in an Onion-like gag, Burgundy will take to Huff Post to pontificate for several hundred words on something, well, newsy,” writes AdWeek’s Christopher Heine in an article titled “Will Ferrell’s Anchorman 2 is changing the way movies are marketed.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Short Story Review

A beautifully written short story is one of the great pleasures of literature. It can have the sudden impact of a thunderclap. Whether it's Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does A Man Need?" or Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" or Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain," a short story can create a completely realized, fully populated world in just a few pages. For some reason, short works are rarely reviewed on their own. Why not? Individual paintings or sculptures often inspire reviews, and of course, movies are reviewed as single entities, not as a connecting component to a writer or director's overall body of work.

This is our attempt to right a small wrong. We'll be reviewing short stories published in a variety of print and online publications, and we thought we'd start with the current story in The New Yorker.

Romesh Gunesekera's "Roadkill"

By Lars Trodson

Romesh Gunesekera
The metaphor in the beginning of the story is all wrong. The name Kilinochchi does not conjure up images of “a Clint Eastwood character striding in and notching the stock of his rifle with yet another senseless killing.” Kilinochchi sounds nothing like a town in the American west of the 19th century. It is, rather, the setting of Romesh Gunesekera’s short story, “Roadkill,” which appears in the Dec. 2 issue of The New Yorker. It doesn't help that Gunesekera’s attempt at continuing the western-fable terminology, “guns blazing” and “showdown” also appears lazy and off-key.

The plot of the story is simple: an unnamed taxi driver brings a couple into Kilinochchi, the site of former rebel trouble that now may be on its way back to stability, although that's not a given. The couple, the Arunachalams, make their way up their room at the Spice Garden Inn, and the tax driver sits alone at the hotel restaurant and eats a very poor meal that reminds him that prosperity has not fully emerged in Kilinochchi. He encounters the hotel manager, a Miss Saraswati, who is enigmatic and intriguing — to both the taxi driver and the reader.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Write Like A Diamond Cutter

The craft and art of writing a first novel

By Lars Trodson

The quality of a diamond is judged on four things: carat, cut, color and clarity. Your first novel will be judged on the same merits: its substance, the precision of its prose, the depth of the ambiance you create and clarity of your vision and purpose. When you are done writing your novel it should sparkle, provide value, endure and be something its owners cherish.

I've been searching for writing advice that's practical because most of the rules that you read from famous writers aren't useful, even when the advice comes from those writers you admire. I got this idea a few years ago when I read an obituary in The New York Times about a famous diamond cutter. After I read the obit, I realized that every aspect of his exacting craft could be applied to writing. It was useful to think of writing in such a tactile way, rather than in the lofty, ephemeral, and sometimes oh-too-cute writing rules that famous writers sometimes offer. (Margaret Atwood's no. 1 rule: "Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils." Cute, but not much help in the age of laptops and voice recognition programs.)
So picture yourself as a diamond cutter sitting in a chair, looking through a powerful loupe, trying to craft the most beautiful thing imaginable.

One last thing: absolutely, fundamentally and unequivocally ignore any writer, critic, pundit or smartass that says the novel is dead.

Now, in order, carat, cut. color and clarity.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Our Halloween Tradition: “The Palmstone” Radio Play

By Lars Trodson

In recent years, the internet has provided us an opportunity to see pictures that showed us how Halloween was celebrated years ago. We have these treasures, black and white photos of kids in homemade costumes, and they have proved to be genuinely unsettling. The costumes were borne out of the fears and crude materials of nightmares. I think of Scout and Jem running home after the Halloween party through the woods.

I am old enough to remember that kind of Halloween — especially some of the ones we spent in Vermont when we were kids and we walked those dark country streets on our way to pick up some candy. When we were young there were always rumors that someone had slipped a razor blade into a candied apple. There was nothing creepier then seeing a big kid, some kind of punk, in a bloodied tee shirt carrying a pillowcase sagging under the weight of the candy he had collected. It looked more like extortion than anything else. It was a nightmare and not much fun. I’m told that on one of my first Halloweens I went walking with my friend Linda who was wearing a mask and I kept turning toward her and asking, “Linda? Linda? Linda?” and it’s true to this day that I don’t like masks. I can’t stand them.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Glory of Love

By Lars Trodson

When I read about Lou Reed the past day or so all I hear is that he sold no records, that he was more influential than he was popular and that he was dark dark dark. We hear these names that he was often associated with, Hubert Selby, Jr. and Nelson Algren and the others, particularly out of the New York scene, and one soon gets the impression that Reed was unpopular because he was so dark. And then everybody brings up “Metal Machine Music” to sort of seal the argument as to how weird he was.

Now, it would be useless to deny any of that. But that is not the whole story.

Listen to “Rock and Roll” — the Velvet Underground version — or “Waiting on My Man” and you hear at least two songs with undoubtedly strange lyrics (what is this business about amputations?) but also two songs that are some of the most joyous in the rock and roll pantheon. They’re street smart and funny. It’s like listening to two guys sitting behind you at Yankee Stadium. Those cats were both profane and hilarious, and that was Lou Reed.

And about that other song, the one song that everyone knows and the one song that everybody quoted when they found out he died (“Lou’s taking his final walk on the wild side…”), it’s also full of love and compassion and, in that old weird Lou Reed way, hope. So, you know, that old trope, that he was so dark was a comfortable fit only for those people who wanted to see Reed in that light. But by the time he was on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1989, Reed had distanced himself from that persona. (He had even put out a poppy record, “New Sensations,” about five years before.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

J.D. Salinger and the Glass Stories: How The Four Noble Truths Paved The Way In His Life and Art

By Lars Trodson

"Rarely if ever in literary history has a handful of stories aroused so much discussion, controversy, praise, denunciation, mystification and interpretation. There will be more Glass stories, Mr. Salinger says. Perhaps, when there are, a more coherent pattern will be apparent and certain mysteries and ambiguities will be explained."

This is what Orville Prescott wrote in his 1963 New York Times review of J.D. Salinger's "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction."

The Prescott quote is instructional because a coherent pattern was being executed by Salinger by the time "Raise High The Roofbeam" was published. Those “certain mysteries and ambiguities,” as Prescott put it, were already being explained. It's just that no one was paying attention. When Salinger published "Hapworth 16, 1924" in June of 1965, the set of clues was complete.

With three short story collections ("Nine Stories," "Franny and Zooey," and "Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters") and one novella (the "Hapworth" story), Salinger had presented a body of work that distinctly reflects, embodies, and celebrates the Four Noble Truths, the philosophical core of Vedanta Buddhism, which Salinger had been following since the late 1940s. 

Vedanta Buddhism, put across in a bold stroke, is a faith that embraces all paths to oneness with God, whether that path be Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian — or anything else. Salinger's stories invoke each of these religions (and certainly secular matters) at certain times, and his attempt to reach a oneness with God becomes more and more explicit with each Glass story. "Hapworth 16 1924" is a culmination of all these paths.

It is essential to note, but not to elaborate on here, Salinger's experiences as a soldier during World War II, which by all accounts were horrific. He was going to rectify the atrocities he saw in his mind, and through his writing.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Trashing the Past

Is there any artform that has any less respect and reverence for its own past than the film industry?

I see an ad for a movie called "Getaway" with Ethan Hawke and I'm thinking, uh-oh, dd they remake that again? No, its just a cheap little knockoff with the same title as the Sam Peckinpah movie from 1972. There are only something like 15 Sam Peckinpah movies and while "The Getaway" is not great, it's still Peckinpah, and it was already remade once (terribly) and now this.

I know it's a little thing, but there are entire websites devoted to unrelated movies with the same title. It's lazy and it's too bad, but no other artform trashes its own past like the movie industry.

— Lars Trodson

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Down these mean streets — of London?

Raymond Chandler was born on July 23, 1888. On the 125th anniversary of his birth, we take a look at the origin of his most iconic phrase, "mean streets." Who actually coined it, and who used it in a story first?

By Lars Trodson

Raymond Chandler is almost always cited as the man who coined the phrase "mean streets." His essay, "The Simple Art Of Murder," contains the oft-repeated quote: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." The essay first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944 and was reprinted in an anthology in 1950 under that same title.

The Library of America, on its page about Chandler, writes: "In his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), the classic private eye finds his full-fledged form as Philip Marlowe: at once tough, independent, brash, disillusioned, and sensitive—and man of weary honor threading his way (in Chandler's phrase) "down these mean streets" among blackmailers, pornographers, and murderers for hire."

In an article published on June 5, 2013 in Los Angeles Magazine titled "The 10 Most Iconic Cop Shows SetIn the Mean Streets of L.A", the author writes: "'Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean...' Raymond Chandler, the patron saint of pulp noir, once wrote."

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Is There Any Way To Breathe New Life Into "A Christmas Carol" — ?

By Lars Trodson

The thing that was going through my mind as I watched Jim Carrey’s version of “A Christmas Carol” when it was in theaters a few years back was whether that movie was finally going to put an end to any new filmed versions of the book. That 3D spectacle (produced by Disney) seemed so tired and spent, so devoid of any new ideas (I wondered if the screenwriters had actually read the book), that I thought it was the final nail in Jacob Marley. This turned out to be true. The versions that have come out in the four years since have been jokey, gimmicky, low-budget jobs (one has a character named Bob Crotchrot instead of Bob Cratchit, to give you an idea.)

But truth be told, the entire "Christmas Carol" franchise had already seemed to have grown damp and tired by 2009. The story had been repeated so many times, in so many way, that it no longer had any real power to surprise or delight. The novel is so slender that a 90 minute or two hour version pretty much contains everything that Dickens wrote. Even the classic half-hour version by Richard Williams from 1971 feels, in its own way, complete.

I think watching “A Christmas Carol” has become the tradition. We don't really have a transformative experience watching the story any more. We go through the motions; the viewing of the movie is now a bauble, an ornament, a connection to our past yuletide traditions. Scrooge opens his window and calls out to the boy ("A wonderful boy! An intelligent boy!") but it no longer moves us.

Friday, April 5, 2013

With Roger Ebert Gone, The Most Influential Movie Critic Today Is: Bosley Crowther

By Lars Trodson

There were four movie reviewers I paid attention to in the 1970s and 80s: Michael Janusonis, because he wrote for my local paper, the Providence Journal; Pauline Kael of The New Yorker and Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. I think the other famous movie reviewers of the time were Gene Shalit and Judith Crist, but they were on a much, much lesser scale than those other four — at least to me. Now there are a million movie reviewers and nobody knows who they are. This may have more to do with the state of movies than the quality of the writing — movies are no longer at the center of the American cultural zeitgeist.

Roger Ebert had been around long enough to see the ebb and flow of cinema’s significance, and he, in the end, may have had more influence on how movies are reviewed than any other 20th century critic. That is very much a double-edged sword. What Ebert (and Siskel) realized is that there is no nuance to film criticism. It's either, quite literally, thumbs up or thumbs down.

It didn't start out that way. Ebert was a self-taught scholar of film, and he wrote abut film with an encyclopedic knowledge of what had come before. He knew his history, and he knew about the people who made the movies. He knew nuance.

Because he started so young, he was about the last critic, who was still reviewing in the 21st century, to have actually seen the movies made by the lions of the new cinema when they were first released – Coppola, Scorcese, Woody Allen, Brian DePalma, Speilberg, Monte Hellman and others, as well as European filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertollucci, Truffaut, and Goddard.