getting deeper into the trees

Is it better to read five books once each, or is it better to read one book five times?

If you want to choose a good car to drive, it’s probably best to do research on a bunch of different ones, do some test drives, ask around from people who know cars, and so on.

However, if you want to figure out how to build a car, you might want to take one car apart and put it back together again, and then maybe do the same with another car, and so on.

When I first bought Inherent Vice (on my lunch hour, on the day it was published), I started to read it, and I ended up reading it pretty much continuously for the next five months, from the beginning to the end and then back to the beginning again, including listening to the audio book version many times. I figured out some interesting things about the book, wrote a lot of blog posts about it, and added extensive notes to the online Pynchon wiki.

I’m not sure if I learned any useful lessons to apply to my own writing, though. As I’ve mentioned before, when I’m reading Pynchon I’m always aware that any one of his sentences is better than any sentence I have ever written or am ever likely to write. So, not much to learn there.

Anyway, I am still poking around in Across the River and into the Trees, and I now have a second theory to add to my first one. I’m still testing them, though.

On the other hand, I’m definitely not going to devote five months to this project. There is pretty much no chance that I will figure out something which will elevate Across the River… to the level of Inherent Vice.

As I said in a comment on another blog:

“I’m reading Across the River and Into the Trees now, which is interesting. It’s taking some work, but I think I’m beginning to understand what he [Hemingway] was going after. As he said to A.E. Hotchner (talking about this book, and critics), ‘In this book I have moved into calculus, having started with straight math, then moved to geometry, then algebra; and the next time out it it will be trigonometry. If they don’t understand that, to hell with them.'”

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crimes of the future

Okay, this is exciting: “David Cronenberg’s Sci-Fi Movie Crimes of the Future Begins Production in Greece

I’m not completely sure why I’m so excited, but this is intriguing:

“As we begin filming Crimes of the Future, just two days into this new adventure with David Cronenberg, it feels like we’ve entered a story he collaborated on with Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, if that were possible,” said [Viggo] Mortensen in a statement. “We are being pulled into a world that is not quite like this or any other, and yet is one that feels strangely familiar, immediate and quite credible. I can’t wait to see where we end up.”

Or maybe it’s just this:

“Cronenberg serves up a rare original screenplay with Crimes of the Future (his last one was eXistenZ in 1999), which adds to the anticipation that’s surrounded the project since early details leaked this spring.”

eXistenZ. I was obsessed with that movie when it came out (I saw it four times in theaters — an all-time high for me) and wrote about it quite a bit.

I read the article linked to above just a few days ago, and since then I’ve watched eXistenZ three more times (not in a theater, unfortunately). It’s still as great as ever.

And as for the William Burroughs connection? Well, Cronenberg did direct Naked Lunch.

The Naked Lunch trailer gives you a sense of that movie, but it leaves out perhaps its best feature: a magnificent soundtrack by Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman. Shore also did the music for eXistenZ, and for the Lord of the Rings movies, and he is going to score Crimes of the Future.

Maybe that’s why I’m so excited.

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“the alligator is at the center of the platform”

I was taking a subway today, and, as we pulled into a station, I heard this announcement over the loudspeaker: “The alligator is at the center of the platform”

My first thought was, “Well, I’m glad I’m not getting off at this station.”

Then, thinking about it, I decided that the announcement had probably said “elevator,” rather than “alligator.”

This happens to me pretty regularly, especially when I have news radio on in the background while I’m focused on something else — I consistently hear things as weirder than they really are.

I decided to write a quick blog post about this, because for the last couple of weeks I’ve been assembling a list of possible short blog posts, and my idea was to write a long blog post, with a lot of little sections.

This idea (calling it a “plan” is probably giving it too much credit) has obviously resulted in a lack of actual blog posts. I thought about this when I read this article: “Hundreds of Ways to Get S#!+ Done—and We Still Don’t

I usually have a lot of different To Do lists in various places, electronic and on paper (my little list of possible blog posts is just a small segment of the overall confusion), and it was kind of a relief to read the article and to realize that this is a general problem.

Anyway, there should be a few (shorter) blog posts coming soon. If I can just remember where I put my list…

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followups and links

1) Following up on my recent post “Death in a Box,” this article in the New York Times caught my eye: “The Mystery of My Obsession With Agatha Christie.”

2) Following up, to some extent, on my last post, I have two thoughts about the movie Star Wars: Rogue One.

a) This article talks about all the difficulties there were in getting the movie made — a very common story these days where the huge corporations which control movies and the directors and writers who create them are often at odds, and the writers and directors often come and go because of it. But, as the article points out, in some cases, like this one, the movie ends up pretty damn good anyway.

In spite of the “troubled production”? Because of the “troubled production”? Who knows, and who cares. Movies, like all works of art, are exactly as good as they are. It matters not how they got that way. And I like Rogue One a lot.

b) As I talked about last time, there are quite a few “cavalry” moments in Rogue One, and they’re great despite the fact that (spoiler) every significant character in the movie who doesn’t have to survive dies.

(The movie takes place right before the original Star Wars, and a few of the characters from that movie are also in this one, so of course those specific characters are going to live.)

Rogue One is kind of the Les Miserables of Star Wars movies. Everybody dies, but they die for a cause, and we know that the cause ultimately wins.

Also, the movie gives us Darth Vader for a total of about ten minutes, and he’s magnificent. Villains don’t always need history and psychology and motivations and weaknesses (Vader was much diminished by getting those things later on) — sometimes they just need height and black armor and a deep voice and a lightsaber and a brutal fighting style (and a certain amount of sardonic humor — but the humor kept appropriately separate from the fighting). None of the Marvel movies have come even close to giving us a Darth Vader.

3) I’m still thinking about, and poking around in, Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway. It helped a bit to read the things he said about it to A. E. Hotchner right after the book was published, and I see now (I think) what he was doing in the beginning and ending chapters, which are quite good.

What he was trying to do in all those chapters in between, however, where the book veers from duck hunting to Colonel Cantwell’s weird and tedious (and doomed) romance with a young countess less than half his age, I have no clue. Yet.

It’s tempting to think that Renata is really just a fantasy lover that the colonel has conjured up as he’s nearing death, but Hemingway apparently anticipated this interpretation and there are quite a few things in the book which seem to have been placed there to discourage that idea.

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little jolts of pleasure

(This post has a lot of links, mostly to videos which — I hope — help make my points, but they’re all optional, so I put some of them at the end. I’m hoping I make the argument clear in what I’m writing.)

I’ve been planning for a while to write a blog post called “Little Jolts of Pleasure,” about how movies and television shows please audiences on a moment-to-moment basis, and then it made me think of the big kerfuffle a couple of years back when Martin Scorsese said that “Marvel movies aren’t cinema.”

I thought at the time that there was probably a case to be made, but that Scorsese did a lousy job of making it. He’s operating within a fixed set of assumptions, and he made an “argument” that seemed mostly designed to get nods and Likes from people who already share those assumptions.

But, since I really don’t care about what’s “cinema” and what isn’t in the first place, I dropped the idea of writing about it. “High art,” “low art,” “literary” vs. “genre” writing, “cinema,” “film,” “movies” — whatever. Seek out the good and avoid the crap.

But then I read this: “Kevin Feige Says Marvel Makes Movies Specifically for Packed Theaters

I thought about the classic movie moment when, in some form or other, the cavalry arrives to save the day. Audiences yell and cheer and pump their fists and share a moment. I haven’t seen every Marvel movie, but there are certainly a bunch of those moments in the movies I have seen. And that’s fine — everybody loves the arrival of the Big Damn Heroes (not from a Marvel movie).

But then I started dipping into videos of people watching episodes from Game of Thrones at a place called the Burlington Bar. And some of it is people really enjoying Sansa Stark finally getting the better of master manipulator Littlefinger, and Arya Stark leaping in at the last possible moment to save her brother Bran, and also the rest of humanity (spoiler).

But then there’s the “Loot Train Attack,” where everybody cheers the fact that Daenerys and her huge Dothraki army and her giant fire-breathing dragon are attacking the (evil) Lannisters, and in the process burning soldiers to death (cooking them inside their armor, in essence) and destroying a year’s worth of grain for the entire region, and you can see the people in the bar gradually quiet down as they see how brutal this all is. Dragons, if they existed, would be a horrible weapon to use against soldiers armed with swords and spears and arrows.

Even apart from the fact that, before the entire series is over (spoiler), Daenerys will burn an entire city to the ground (after the city surrendered to her), this is terrible to watch. The music brings this out wonderfully, too. I particularly love a shot of two horses galloping away while pulling a burning wagon, obviously trying desperately to escape the fire that’s attached to them.

Marvel movies don’t do that. When the cavalry arrives, in whatever form, you get the big rush of “Yeah!” and you can sit happily with that feeling for as long as you want.

Even Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel, which dealt a lot with “who can you trust?” and “who should you follow?” ended up with the main character definitely on the side of right, and the bad guys established as obviously and completely evil.

To bring this back to mystery stories, because everything relates to mystery stories, this was one thing I really liked about the Ellery Queen mysteries (the good ones). As I’ve talked about before, they occasionally examined and played with the general “mystery –> solution = triumph!” formula. Sometimes Ellery solved a mystery but held back the solution because of the harm it would cause, or he had trouble figuring out the best way to deal with what he (and nobody else) knew:

A man is haunted by nightmares that he killed his mother when he was young, though it was generally held that she had committed suicide. Ellery investigated, and he discovered that, in reality, the boy had (accidentally) poisoned his mother. So, Ellery constructed another explanation to try to help relieve the man’s torment, rather than reveal the truth.

A man — a husband and father, an apparently nice guy — is accused of murder. After he is convicted, mostly due to circumstantial evidence, Ellery is called in to try to save him from the electric chair. Ellery “fails,” but he later reveals to one person that he had solved the case, and the nice family man was indeed a nice family man, and he was also a murderer. Ellery, who was obviously still somewhat conflicted, had decided it was better to let everybody think that he (Ellery) had failed, rather than to have him explain that their beloved husband and father was guilty.

If you do this on a regular basis, then it becomes another gimmick, another cliche, but if an audience goes into a movie knowing there’s absolutely no chance this will ever happen, then it really is an amusement park ride.

And so I think Scorsese’s argument is specifically about Marvel movies, which are all centrally planned out and controlled by Disney, rather than “superhero” movies or “action” movies or “genre” movies in general. In Alien, only Ripley survives, and there was no guarantee that she would. In the Marvel world, she’d be guaranteed to survive because Sigourney Weaver would already be under contract for three sequels.

By the way, I’m not holding up Game of Thrones as great art (for one thing, there are still some seasons I haven’t even watched, and the last few episodes definitely suck), and certainly it delivered a lot of great, unambiguous “the cavalry is here!” moments, but in GoT you can’t always rely on the fact that 1) the cavalry will show up in time, 2) the cavalry will win, or 3) the cavalry actually represents anything good.


Littlefinger’s death:

Reaction to Littlefinger’s death:

Loot train attack:

Reaction to the Loot Train Attack:

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paul temple, and more papa

Paul Temple

As I mentioned a couple of times ago, I’ve been listening avidly to the Paul Temple radio detective series. I was trying to find a way to describe it, but then from this article I found this:

In the words of the entertainment historian Keith Howes: “All the plots were hugely convoluted, usually set in and around shady nightclubs and studded with murders and attempted murders, halting deathbed revelations, breathtaking escapes from gunfire, flooded mills or burning boats, [and] a final episode gathering of the suspects.”

That’s an interesting mixture of genre elements, since the show has all the “gentleman detective” fixtures (the sophisticated detective and spouse, the comfortable lifestyle, the banter, the cocktails, the cigarettes, and the gathering of all the suspects at the end of the story — often for cocktails) but there are also all those exploding booby traps, and cars with the brake lines cut, and snipers.

And, unlike most “gentleman detective” stories, the bad guys are almost always criminal gangs, often drug smugglers or blackmailers (or both). So, the solution at the end often has two stages: 1) Of all the characters introduced, which ones are in the gang, and 2) Which one is the head of the gang?

It makes me think of the Ellery Queen stories, where a gangster sometimes appeared as a suspect, but experienced Queen readers always knew that this was a red herring. In one story, the police had actually arrested the gangster, and at the end, when Ellery explained the whole crime, he gently pointed out that they really needed to release the crook, who was, in this case at least, completely innocent.

More Papa Hemingway

In addition to reading Across the River and Into the Trees, as I talked about before, I’ve also reread Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, by A. E. Hotchner. So, I’m reading Across the River…, and simultaneously reading about the (mostly negative) reaction when it was published.

(By the way, I don’t think Across the River… is actually good, but it’s certainly not the worst book he ever wrote.)

The Hotchner book also brings out what Orson Welles talked about — Hemingway’s deteriorating mental condition when he killed himself. Some of that, especially the helplessness of the people who cared about him as they saw him slip further and further away from reality, is difficult to read.

That part had stuck with me from when I read the book the first time (some decades ago), but I had not remembered the amount of alcohol in the book. Up until the last portion of the book, when Hemingway’s health was bad and he was strictly limiting his drinking, everybody seems to be nearly drowning in booze. I had that in mind when I read this article in the Guardian: “Time to face the brutal truth: there’s no glamour at the bottom of a glass.”

Not that I’m against drinking in general (although I haven’t had a drink since the pandemic started), but the romanticized connection between drinking and writing (most of it by non-writers) is ridiculous.

The Guardian article starts:

When I was 21, I decided I should make a proper effort to be a writer. I knew what I needed: countless films and television shows had told me. I needed a typewriter, fags and a bottle of whisky. I acquired them, and set myself up at the kitchen table. Yep, I thought. Now I am the business. I was Dorothy Parker, Carson McCullers, Raymond Chandler. So I would die miserably – who cares? I was 21, and still immortal.

As always, I go back to my father’s words: “There is only one rule in writing: Write well.” I think Hemingway would have agreed with that.

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