Fame and Endurance

Interesting post from the New Yorker on literature that lasts.

Moments of Ecstatic Passion

Just last week I was able to hear Werner Herzog in conversation with film students at UMass.

What was so cool was Herzog’s advice to film students to read, read, read the world’s great literature. Here’s his “Rogue Film School” reading list.

•    Virgil: Georgics
•    J.A. Baker: The Peregrine
•    Hemingway: The Short, Happy Life of Frances Macumber
•    Diaz del Castillo: The Conquest of the New Spain
•    Warren Commission Report on the assassination of JFK

Interesting assortment, no?

Someone asked why his films featured only, or nearly only, male characters. He spoke about screenplays he’s written with female leads that he hasn’t found funding for yet. I noted to myself that the film industry is still predominately a “white guys rule” world. Though women are up and coming, especially in documentary.

Discussing his Antarctic film Encounters at the End of the World, he described the impossibility of explaining the enormity of the continent. Making that film, he realized you don’t explain the world in film, you name the glory. He showed a clip where that seemed to happen. Here’s the trailer, which opens with a Russian song that “names the glory.”

The books on his reading list are all about naming the glory.

His remarks on editing struck a chord with me, as I spend most of my writing time selecting what works, cutting what doesn’t. Most of what I write ends up on the cutting room floor.

Here’s his process. He goes through all footage with editor in a sitting or two, and keeps a log with rough time indicator. He notes what’s there and puts ! or !! or !!! by footage times that he thinks are really good. Three exclamation points for footage that he feels life wouldn’t be worth living if he left them out.

Then he selects only the footage with the exclamation points and makes that into a film. He says the best footage will fit together. You don’t have to worry about preparing an arc before hand, or outlining. What is most important is the tone of a film, and using only the footage that “names the glory” keeps the tone consistent.

The most important thing for a filmmaker is to know “the heart of man.” Life experience tells you where to look, what to ask your subjects, how to find “moments of ecstatic passion,” “moments of illumination.”

He doesn’t think of himself as an artist, he thinks of himself as a soldier.

True enough. To be a filmmaker–or a writer–one does have to combat all the obstacles the world imposes, including critics and the demands of an overly commercialized market place. In the process one suffers wounds the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” At times one must make tactical retreats. And then again one “takes arms against the sea of troubles” and moves forward.

Yeah, Shakespeare had that “moments of ecstatic passion” thing down pat.

Memories of Empire

Amherst is great. A couple of weeks ago Paul & I saw John Sayles introduce his film Amigo at Amherst Cinema and answer questions after viewing.  It took him a long time to find the funding. He had to focus on a village to encapsulate a very large experience, which he wrote about in a sprawling 900-page novel A Moment in the Sun . He eventually found a portion that told a story he could fit into a space small and intimate enough to make a low budget film.

Here is Sayles on modern parallels with Amigo at Amherst Cinema.

And here is a link to his own blog post on the trip to Amherst.

Post-Colonialism, Post-Soviet Style

Post this under “recently read.”  The book club read Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan–set in post-Soviet Azerbaijan–a few months ago, and then, after finding the book incredibly sexist, decided to read a female take on the changes in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. For that Tea Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife–set in the former Yugoslavia–by fit the bill perfectly.

A propos of Absurdistan is the featured book on the Leonard Lopate show book club on WNYC-FM. Shteyngart will be on to discuss his novel on January 10, 2012.

On the Lopate Book Club page, you can find interviews with Salman Rushdie on Midnight’s Children (also one of our book club post-colonial-themed reads).

On Absurdistan, I found it interesting that Halliburton and the oil industry have replaced the Soviets as a colonizing force. One of our members felt the main character had some of the characteristics in the “holy fool” tradition in Russian literature. Others disliked the book–either because the satire didn’t ring true, they were offended by the profoundly negative and sexualized depiction of women. That all the female characters were prostitutes or near-prostitutes bothered me as well. It seemed to me to be a cheap path for an author to take, although I did find the humor and the critique of post-Soviet globalization sharp and incisive.

The World as It Should Be

Tintin at Sea

Over the holiday, I saw three movies that I really liked. Tintin, Hugo, and The Descendants. Of the three, I found Tintin to be the most unusual. This New York Times review by Charles McGrath pinpoints some of the reasons why. And this New Yorker review by “Front Row” blogger Richard Brody teases out a few more reasons why.

McGrath points out that Tintin is an unusual adventure hero, having no extraordinary powers. Brodie underlines the lack of violence and murder despite the tremendously fast pace of the film.

These two reasons are probably why I enjoyed the film so much. It was tremendously charming and fast moving, without ever creating the anxiety that adventure films usually do, even though there was plenty of fighting and numerous explosions. Part of this was the result of the visual beauty of the film.

It’s always nice to see someone win superhuman struggles without having access to superhero strengths. It appeals to my sense of justice in an unjust time — the world as it should be, not as it is.

Great Read

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

I loved this book. Takes one from Proust’s Paris to contemporary Japan, via Vienna and the Holocaust. A history of Jews and anti-Semitism by following a tiny netsuke hare down the rabbit hole. Told by a ceramist with an eye for craft, kitsch, and beauty.

Novels about Colonialism

For March the reading is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

Novels about Colonialism:

Everyone in the Reading Group enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. It’s about Dutch colonialism (or trade at least) in the Pacific and the relationship with Japan.

My own thoughts: I especially liked the first and third parts. The second part seemed to me to be a variation on vampire stories (monks killing women and babies to gain immortal life). It was a quick, exciting read, with a dashing denoument. However, I tend to like a slightly deeper treatment of real historical and social circumstances (with plenty of thrills, of course). For many of the members, it was a bit difficult to get into as they found the opening slow.

My preference by way of historical, but still exciting, fiction about colonialism is  Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. It’s a difficult read because of the rich use of many languages (Bengali, Hindi, English, French), but extremely rewarding. The book illustrates the social, gender, caste, and class boundaries encountered by Indians, British, Americans (including a mixed race American) in a way that is fascinating and provocative. It will set you thinking about the limitations that our origins impose on us; and about how many limitations and boundaries were affected by colonization by Europeans throughout the 17th-19th centuries. Plus there’s  a fabulous, swashbuckling finish!

The next part of what promises to be a trilogy, centered around Britain’s Opium Wars in China, will be published this coming fall. I can’t wait!