Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Review: Going to Meet the Man: Stories by James Baldwin

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
~James Baldwin
I've always been somewhat fascinated by the phrase "La Petite Mort." For those who might be unfamiliar, the French phrase translates to 'the little death' and it's become a euphemism for an orgasm, specifically the moment right after an orgasm when it feels like all of the life force has been drained from your body. But as a phrase in and of itself, I find la petite mort to be fascinating and wide ranging. I've never thought it had to be relegated to sexual satisfaction, or exhaustion as the case may be. Indeed, I think active audience members experience the little death often. Whenever we're engaged with a great story, I think we get so wrapped up in the proceedings that the result can only be described as the little death. How many times have you put down a book or left a movie theater and thought "That was better than sex?"

This describes the experience I'm left with after every James Baldwin book and short story that I've ever read, and in the interest of full disclosure, I've read a lot of them lately. I am forever and irrevocably in love with this man. James Baldwin had a way of conveying human experience that I don't think I've ever seen before. To read his passages is to feel immersed in the experiences they describe. Whether he's writing about sitting in a Jazz bar or sitting in a church sermon, you'll feel it. James Baldwin is the kind of writer I long to be.

Going to Meet the Man is the first collection of Baldwin short stories I've read, and it creates a wholly different feeling than reading his novels or a short story on its own. As a fan of the short form, I've always been fascinated by collections of short stories. How do you decide which works to put into the collection? How do you decide what order to place the stories in so that they tell a grander story in the end? I've read a number of short story collections that don't seem to have a rhyme and reason behind these questions. The same cannot be said for this one; each story is clearly chosen with painstaking attention to detail and organized in the same fashion. Notice how so many of the stories deal with the struggles of African Americans living in America and having to deal with racist whites before you reach the last story, the titular Going to Meet the Man, and find a story told from the perspective of a racist white man. Notice in that story how some of the experiences Baldwin has explained time and time again from the perspective of blacks are now reversed and we see just how different they can look from the other side of the aisle. Brilliant.

The two stories that open the collection, The Rockpile and The Outing, are supplemental reading for his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain (which is also amazing by the way). The Rockpile doesn't do much to enhance one's understanding of Go Tell it since the scene it describes is actually just a rehash of another pivotal scene in the novel, but it's still a fascinating read. The Outing, on the other hand, is pure gold. There could be a complaint that Baldwin uses the story to take something implicit about his main character in the novel, John, and make it explicit, but the emotional journey the story takes you on makes it well worth the effort. If Rockpile starts the collection off slowly (at least for readers of Go Tell it), Outing is Baldwin slamming his foot on the gas pedal. The collection doesn't ease off until around the penultimate story in the series, Come Out the Wilderness, and even that story only starts slow before finally showing its teeth for the final 1/3 or so. 

Contained within these pages is an entire collection of Baldwin themes and messages. Everything I've seen coming up in his writings over and over again these last few months that I've dedicated myself so fully to his writings I found in these stories. Stories about race relations and sexuality and the intersection of those two things; themes about how things never seem to change and people don't change and on some level the world will be like this forever, but a continued and prolonged hopefulness that maybe we can make the best of it are all strung throughout these pages. And always, always, there is the beautiful and affective writing that strikes to the core of us all:

Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that we would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mamma and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother's face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father's brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel's tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

I could let that passage from Sonny's Blues (my review of just this story) carry this entire review and speak for itself; it's one of my favorite Baldwin passages, but I love it too much not to try and do a little heavy lifting myself. Look at how this scene, a scene of a brother listening to his estranged junky (recently reunited and sober) brother play jazz, is so perfectly rendered that you feel as though you're there. Baldwin's prose mirror Jazz so well that I'm not fully sure those are words and not just music notes on the page. His sentence structure and diction in this passage is alive and varied in a manner that a Jazz musician would be proud of. Baldwin gets it.

I could go on and on, but there are only so many ways that I can say I love this man and I love his stories. Literary critic Roland Barthes spoke of la petite mort as the chief objective of reading literature. He metaphorically used the concept to describe the feeling one should get when experiencing any great literature. Read James Baldwin and you will get that feeling! You'll get a fascinating look at Race in America in the 50s and 60s (and today for that matter), you'll see your own experience mirrored back at you in some fashion, you'll feel less alone in the world, and if all else fails, you'll fall in love with his prose. You won't regret picking up any one of his books, I promise!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Sometimes you finish reading a book and can't help but be overwhelmed by what you've just read. I'll say the same can be said for any story no matter the medium, but for the time being let's just focus on books. This was the case when I finished reading Neil Gaiman's latest novel: The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And given that I only just finished it a couple minutes ago and still find myself crafting semi-coherent sentences and stringing them together is a feat in and of itself; I demand your awe. Reading the book left me feeling, as do many of his books, that Gaiman might just be the most accomplished storyteller of our time. [Slight Spoilers and direct quotes from the book shall follow, enter at your own risk]

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about an unnamed protagonist who is drawn back to his childhood home after the furneral of someone close to him. There, he sits next to a pond half-remembered from a turbulent time in his youth and remembers fastastic experiences he'd long since forgotten. The events of a summer from his seventh year are recalled in amazing detail, and that anyone could have forgotten such events is amazing. There's magic and wonder, evil and danger, and the most important figure of his entire life--his young friend Lettie Hempstock. It all culminates in one wild and amazing ride that anyone and everyone should be happy to go on. 

What always strikes me most about Gaiman's storytelling is his confidence. He is confident in his reader and he is confident in his story and it shows in the most amazing fashion. Magic happens in Gaiman's worlds, and when it does, it tends to be accepted and understood in the most amazing fashion. His characters don't react in hysterics when fantastic things are happening around them or to them, and as such the reader doesn't panic either. There's a transportation that takes place when reading this story; by not feeling the need to bog the magical elements down with long lines of exposition, Gaiman allows for the most amazing sense of escapism to take hold of the reader. 

The confidence doesn't end with the fantasy elements of the story, however. Gaiman's stories have a tendency to cross between genres and age boundaries with an ease that's almost unprecedented. All at once, the story is a fantasy, a period piece, a coming of age drama, and a romance; it's for children and for adults as well. This is because Gaiman, as an adult, fully understands what it means to be a child witnessing the grownup world in a manner that he might not fully be able to comprehend or rationalize. The protagonist witnesses things he shouldn't, but finds himself incapable of understanding them beyond his own limited scope, so he doesn't try. He takes the information necessary for himself and moves on. Even the present day adult narrator that the child has become doesn't attempt to apply his learned logic to the proceedings. In this way, the events of the story are unadultrated and remain pure for a younger audience while still being interesting for an older reader.

Gaiman also deals with a number of themes and deeper messages that one typically doesn't find in YA books. My favorite comes from a passage towards the end of the story that makes for a great allegory of depression and suicide:
How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time, until your loved ones give you poison and sell you to anatomy, and even then you will die with a hole inside you, and you will wail and curse at a life ill-lived. But you won't grow. You can come out, and we will end it, cleanly, or you can die in there, of hunger and of fear.
I think anyone who has suffered from depression will understand this fear, this constant droning that it's not ok, will never be ok, and there's nothing that can fix it but death, and even then it won't be fixed properly. It's heavy stuff to find in a kid's book when viewed through that adult lens, but when viewed through the eyes of a child, it's just a scary moment in which the monsters are trying to get what they want. It's brilliant.

But beyond everything that Gaiman is doing in the background of the story, the simple truth is that his words never cease to be anything but beautiful:
A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn't I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don't change.
With a full 178 pages of phrasing and language like this, how could anyone not love this book and this man's writing? I wanted to highlight just about every single sentence; I lost track of the number of times I had to put the book down and just marvel at it after reading a line or a paragraph that took my breath away.

In short, Gaiman's book works on multiple levels. It's fun, it's entertaining, it's suspenseful, it's young, it's old, it's just plain great. Forgive me for slipping into cliche, but this book is perfect for all ages. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Story Analisys: Guinness Commercial

A big part of the focus on the teaching of craft within storytelling is the question of what constitutes a story. I think the most basic definition that I've ever heard is that a story must have a beginning a middle and an end. Granted the only rule within much of any art form is that there aren't any rules, so films like Children of Men and Broken Flowers might be breaking the rule of the necessity of an ending, but they do so skillfully so it's perfectly fine. But I digress, my main question here is whether or not a sixty-two second commercial can ever truly constitute a story?

By their very nature, commercials are meant to be quick, simple, and message based. They lack distinct arcs and character development. They're meant to convince the viewers that they need—can't live without—this or that product. But the easiest way to work on a person's sympathies and emotions is often through storytelling. And with the proliferation of DVRs, commercials have needed to be all the more interesting to attract viewer's attention. So if companies grew to understand that, it serves to suggest that they would have edited their model accordingly.

Enter the latest batch of Guinness commercials; specifically the basketball one which happens to be my favorite commercial since the E*Trade baby hit the scene. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm one of those DVR owners who habitually fast forwards as quickly as possible through each commercial break. The only time I ever watch live TV is when I'm watching sports or Sports Center. Lucky for me, this commercial airs during just about every break ESPN takes.

So if this is a story, then what element makes it so? Could the point be argued that there is a (very loose) plot here? A group of highly competitive friends get together at the gym to play a game of basketball. Afterwards they all go out for drinks. On its own, I'm not sure that this constitutes a plot. God is in the details, and so something would need to happen during the game or drinks in order to make this a story. Furthermore, there doesn't seem to be a set beginning, middle, or end to all of this. Basketball and then drinks are fairly standard activities. If I told you that I went to work today and then came home, would that be a story in and of itself?

The important element of the commercial then is the twist of the basketball game in which it is revealed that the group of wheelchair bound friends actually aren't paraplegics. Only one of the men lives his life in the wheelchair; his friends get into the chairs in order to allow him to remain included in their regular basketball games. Again the question must be asked whether or not the twist in and of itself constitutes a story? (M Night Shyamalan would say yes) I'm not sure of the answer, but I will say that the twist itself has a profound affect on characterization. It's odd to consider a commercial as having fully flushed out characters, and yet the moment that the men all start to stand up and pat their buddy on the back, it's impossible for your entire understanding of them and of the commercial itself not to be reconstituted. If nothing else, I think this level of manipulation of viewer assumptions is deserving of a higher level of attention and appreciation than your typical commercial.

I don't think there's a hard and fast determining factor in designating what is and what isn't a story. I think if what you're reading or watching speaks to you in some kind of distinct fashion, then it can be considered a story. If you can look at it and see some sort of progression of events/revelations unfolding, then it is a story. This is one of the few commercials I've ever seen that I felt an immediate need to show to other people and discuss, and that's remarkable. More over, it made me want to go out and buy Guinness, and as a person who honestly isn't a fan of Stouts, that's saying something.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Film Review: The Shape of Things

The Shape of Things (2003)
Written and Directed by Neil LaBute

Last night I had the first of many movie nights with a couple of my friends. I got to make the first choice of what movie to watch and I chose LaBute's film adaptation of his own play The Shape of Things. The story is a classic LaBute tale about the dangers and pratfalls of relationships. Adam (Paul Rudd) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) meet cute at the museum where he works. Allow me to take this opportunity to point out how much I love the Adam and Eve elements of this story, and the play on their names works well. She's a grad student at the local college they both attend working on her Art Thesis, and he's an aimless undergrad, so of course the two start dating. What follows is a treatise on the manner in which two people in love with one another work to change each other and themselves in an attempt to be perfect.

I love this story, but I don't necessarily believe it's the best movie. The storytelling lacks subtlety and finesse. At times the characters feel less like people and more like talking heads concerned with conveying the grander elements of LaBute's point. But that's to take nothing away from the performances of Rudd and Weisz which carry the film through some of it's more awkwardly pedantic moments. The same cannot be said for co-stars Gretchen Mol and Fredrick Weller, but their characters exist to serve a very specific purpose and little more.

What works about the story is that LaBute's hyperbole is still highly entertaining and the message he's working so hard to get across is important and fascinating. The story not only brings up interesting issues about adult relationships, but it also has a lot to say about the nature of Art and the responsibilities/moral code of the artist.

Sometimes the method of the storytelling can be flawed. The dialogue, while fast and furious, is pedantic and more message based than character based. There are times when the film feels static as it tries to maintain the general feel it had on the stage. One of the elements of adaptation is that you can usually break free of some of the shackles imposed by the original medium, but LaBute seems more interested in maintaing the spacial integrity of the original work than making changes to suit the new medium. It's not a bad choice to make, per se, but it can leave you with a feeling that you're watching a play with better sets than an actual movie. But in spite of the flaws in the storytelling, when a story is strong, the experience of engaging with it will be entertaining and fulfilling. Such is the case with this film by one of my favorite contemporary minds.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Short Film Review: With a Piece of Chalk

With a Piece of Chalk wows me. Not only do we have an example of excellent storytelling in the short form, we also have a look at the power of purely visual storytelling. The score does a lot of the work as well (and this is also an excellent example of how filmmakers use music and melody to manipulate the viewer’s emotions), but ultimately you’re left with the fact that this is an entire story told without dialogue. It all hinges on the stellar performance of young Justin Beer, and the strength of visual presentation of who he is, what he’s going through, and how he copes and makes it through day by day. I’ve watched this through a couple of times now and it always gives me goosebumps and brings tears to my eyes. Also note the multicultural element of the casting. This is a very important, meaningful, and uplifting 3 minute film that I promise you’ll be glad to have watched.

Short Film Review: Eu Nao Quero Voltar Sozinho

I love shorts! Whether in film or just short stories, I find the excellence of storytelling required for properly condensing a tale into 15 minutes or 5 pages to be bar none. My newest find is the Brazilian film Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho (I Don't Want to go Back Alone)by Daniel Ribeiro. The story is a fairly basic first love/coming out tale with the twist that our protagonist is blind. This twist seems like a cheap gimmick, but the manner in which it pays off over the course of the film and culminates in the final moments is well worth it. I Don't Want to go Back Alone posts a lot of interesting questions about how we make it through life and what it can be like when someone's incapable of really seeing you. I highly recommend watching it.