The Sound and the Fury of Birdman

Birdman

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman (from an a script inexplicable penned by the director and three others) might be a film about a washed-up action star writing and directing a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s classic short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but it’s that old Shakespeare quote about life being, “…a tale.  Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.  Signifying nothing.” which inspired the title of William Faulkner’s alleged magnum opus (I’m not going to go off on a side-rant here about how Light in August is really his magnum opus and not The Sound and the Fury, which to me was always so…well…kinda like this Birdman here…self-indulgent) that runs through a viewer’s mind while watching Michael Keaton ACT!

Birdman is the super hero Riggan Thomson (Keaton) played twenty years ago and made him a mega-celebrity.  The Carver play is the intimate character-driven art piece he so desperately wants to restore his street cred and remake him into an Actor rather than a celebrity.  Inarritu’s film, in which the Birdman, the man who played him, and the play he creates exist, is exactly the type of film that people who watch only movies like Birdman (as in the explosion filled super hero movie within the film Birdman, not the actual film Birdman) think people who go to watch films like Birdman (the film, not the movie within the film) go to watch.  I can tell you now, Birdman, at times, is the worst type of those types of films that I like to watch.   It’s also, at times, maddeningly brilliant.

Inarritu’s central conceit is all so very meta and insular, appealing to those who believe in the myth of the tortured artist (“What do you risk?” Keaton blusteringly asks a brusk Broadway critic, “I RISK EVERYTHING ON THE STAGE!”) and those who live it.  It’s been dissected many times before.  It brought to mind the lines from a classic episode of Seinfeld where Jerry is forced to wear a fur coat and man-purse and the building super Silvio mocks him saying, “No, he’s very fancy! Want me, love me! Shower me with kisses!”  So then, how does a Director and a Cast make this often mocked mindset seem fresh and meaningful?  Surround it with sound and fury. Continue reading

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Book to Film Adaptations I Would Love to See

2014 marks the year two of my favorite novels will finally reach the silver screen:  the oddly still kept under wraps adaptation of Ron Rash’s Serena (from Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier and staring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), and Saul Dibb’s Oscar-baiting adaptation of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (well- cast with Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas).  Which made me think…what other recent or favorite reads are ripe for cinematic plucking?

Heart of a Tiger by Herschel Cobb

Ty Cobb Sliding

A young boy in the 1950’s struggles to find hope and happiness under the harsh shadows of his rage-fueled father and alcoholic mother.  In his loving grandfather he finds refuge and meaning in life.

Sounds like a trite, sachrine, run-of-the-mill, triumph over child abuse tale…except for one thing.  That loving grandfather was none other than Tyrus R. Cobb – statistically speaking the greatest baseball player of all time; American myth; and generally regarded as a world-class mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch who drove his baseball spikes into opponents, beat up fans in the stands, and was a racist, alcoholic hell-raiser.  Part of his scandal are the tall-tales that have been taken as fact, and most people seem to forget that his savvy business mind (he was a great investor in the early days of Coca-Cola) allowed him to, in old age, be a great benefactor to many good causes – from giving no-strings-attached monetary gifts to down-and-out former teammates to a scholarship fund for impoverished Georgian kids that to this day continues to fund higher education for thousands of children.  He also apparently took a shining to the children of his loose-cannon son after the son died of a heart-attack.

Herschel’s Cobb memoir is colored through the lens of a kid who loved his grandfather, so yeah, there’s a bias, but a clever screenwriter could intertwine the uplift of the book with the more colorful moments from Cobb’s legendary playing days, maybe even glimpses into Ty’s own childhood – layers upon layers, flashbacks upon flashbacks – that could weave an epic character arc of a multi-faceted man who saw the darkness in himself, recognized the cruelty of others, and attempted to rescue his grandchildren from it all and stop the cycle of abuse.  Baseball, nostalgia, dysfunctional families, tortured childhoods and redemption – it’s the stuff of great drama.  Take an up-and-coming director like Jeff Nichols who is no stranger to the themes, put some make-up and a Southern accent on Michael Shannon so he can take the lead role, and voila…you could have a gritty, sentimental barn-burner on your hands.

I mean, c’mon, wouldn’t you love to see Michael Shannon utter this famous Cobb quote to his grandson?

“I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me… but I beat them and left them in the ditch.”

Continue reading

A Wheel Upon the Earth

While living for six years in the New South at the turn of the millennium, I was struck by a certain I-don’t-know-what-ness.  Underneath the smothering yet genuine gentility and kindness there was still an undercurrent of “sticking to your own kind” – and it wasn’t just down lines of race, but down political, religious and social class lines.  Birds of a feather should flock together.  This certainly isn’t unique to the New South.  This undercurrent (sometimes seen as a tidal wave) has always existed to varying degrees across the world.  But what made it unique in my eyes, and positively Southern, was that it was coupled with this melancholic and melodic nostalgia for a time before that was better than now – yet it was a time that was not clearly defined, only dreamt about, perhaps having never really existed and only ever dreamt about.  It begs the questions, when exactly was it better?  What about the good ol’ days of Jim Crow?  Was it better during the Great Depression?  Was it better during the days of Slavery?  Or maybe it was better before any white or black men set foot on the land and there were only trees, beasts and Native Americans? 

Yet even I found the milieu intoxicating…the whole “Country Time Lemonade” commercial-ness of it all – lazy Sunday afternoons on the porch, Ma and Pa sipping on sweet tea, the kids running barefoot through the tall grass – the kind of laid-back twilight feeling that “once upon a time…it was always like this…it could always be like this…if only….”  And for the better part of those six years I yearned to let my North East jackass-ery and uptight-ness slip away into a world of Yes, Sir’sNo, Ma’am’s…and Thank You Kindly’s.

I think maybe writer director Robert Persons was trying to capture that I-don’t-know-what-ness of the New South in his troubling yet haunting experiment, General Orders No. 9, which exists as an amalgamation of poetic voice-over, ambient music, stunning images verging on still-life, animated maps and an overall “otherworldliness” of bygone times set to the crawling cadence of 72-minutes on film. Continue reading

Upstate Royalty

The Proctor Boys are a strange lot – three grizzled old men who have spent their entire lives in stifling isolation on a dairy farm in Upstate New York.  When the eldest, Vernon, winds up dead one morning in the bed all three shared, the youngest, Creed, gets swept up into accusation while the emotionally crippled simpleton (and middle brother), Audie, barely grasps the gravity of the situation.

Jon Clinch’s second novel, Kings of the Earth, was inspired by actual events.  Clearly fashioning himself a 21st century William Faulkner, Clinch spans his book across generations and voices.  Each chapter is titled by a year and a character’s name – with POV’s shifting from 1st person to 2nd person to 3rd person, but never omniscient – eerily reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.  Those not familiar with the style may find it a challenge, while fans of Faulkner will probably favor it as a nice homage, but it pales in comparison to the master.  This isn’t to say Clinch hasn’t achieved something memorable nearing mythic stature here. Continue reading

Of Al Capone, The Thief Maker and Death by Baklava

On a whim this Saturday I decided to take a friend on a Thief Maker Reality Tour by visiting the famous Philadelphia neighborhood where the majority of my book was set, touring Eastern State Penitentiary and dining at one of my all-time favorite restaurants.  

It had been a well over a year (maybe even two) since I had been back to the Art Museum District centered around Fairmount Avenue (and I’ll be there again next weekend for the Late Renoir Exhibit at the PMA).  Though I’ve only ever been a visitor to the area, it was like returning home as it had lived in my imagination for so long and served as the inspiration for the primary setting of my “first” novel, which now seems like such a distant memory.  It was great stomping around my old haunts, and for the first time, I played the part of a true tourist by paying to enter the famed Eastern State Penitentiary – former home of Al Capone. Continue reading

William Faulkner’s Two Soldiers Shall Not Perish

Making the rounds at the local art-house has been the trailer for the Robert Duvall/Bill Murray starring, character-study, period-piece Get Low — as in, “it’s time for me to –“.

Along with the indie darling Winter’s Bone and Christopher “Fritz” Nolan’s mega-budgeted, high-concept thriller Inception, Get Low ranks as one of the summer’s most anticipated films in my neck of the woods.  Come to find, the writer director Aaron Schneider won an Oscar a few years back for a short film, which just happened to be a an adaptation of what surely is one of my all time favorite short stories…William Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers” – the classic tale of a young boy desperately wanting to join his older brother as he heads off to war.

Low and behold I shot that thing right up to the top of my Netflix queue, and before I knew it was rereading the tale and watching the film.  Continue reading

Light in September

In the Deep South of Faulkner Country it might be the Light in August that casts an inspirational glow, but in the Northeast nothing compares to the light in September.  On my annual daytrip out to Batsto Village, I was struck by how the light changed and undulated under the shade of the trees and passing cloud cover, casting an aura over the scenery that really only could’ve been appreciated with a continuously tracking camera that would capture all the nuances.  It’s times like these when I realize the limitations of the snapshot…but that’s not to say I didn’t capture as many of those moments and changes of light as I could.   Some of the photos around Batsto may appear as remakes or re-imaginings of shots from last year’s visit, but I also stopped at an ancient cemetery along Route 542 that boasted graves as far back as the mid-1800’s, and another picturesque graveyard in Hammonton along the White Horse Pike where new images were found. Continue reading

A Review of Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”

Orphans of the Storm

In Toni Morrison’s A Mercy we see life through the eyes of people physically and emotionally abandoned, orphans with names like Lina, Florens, Jacob, Rebekkah and Sorrow.  The storm is the clashing of cultures in pre-Revolutionary War America where the laws are not yet defined, everyone and everything is for sale, and all are threatened with annihilation by God, the environment or each other.  Europeans looking for a promised land of unending wealth or escape, Natives living through an apocalypse, indentured servants and slaves from Europe and Africa bound to barbaric institutions are all brought to a slow, simmering boil in the torrid fog rolling in over Mary-Land and Virginia…colonies ironically named for women but that are unmerciful and cruel to those females who come to their shores. Continue reading

Bring Out “The Dead”

CAPTION:  Man dies from boredom on Dublin’s Ha’Penny Bridge while reading a very long novel.  *Photo courtesy of  Philip Pankov (www.philpankov.com) and www.thenocturnes.com.

Kurt Vonnegut once said of novels that “reading one is like being married forever to somebody nobody else knows or cares about.”

I couldn’t agree more while I find myself in a laborious relationship with The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl.  The novel is a fictionalized account of a Baltimore lawyer’s quest to solve the mystery behind the death of Edgar Allan Poe.  This is one of those books with an interesting concept ruined by the author’s insistence on telling the story in the static, unimaginative style of prose from the stuffy time period in which the novel takes place.  It’s makes for a dry, boring read.  Much like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, I fear I may never finish it.  I’m currently stuck at about the 100 page mark.  I should’ve known better when I saw Carr’s glowingly positive blurb splattered on the cover of Matthew Pearl’s magnum opus.  Though I find the topic of Poe’s death fascinating, reading Pearl’s novel makes me feel…well, dead.

And that brings us to James Joyce and “The Dead.”  Thankfully for every bad novel I torture myself with, there are dozens of short stories I can read in between chapters that are as Vonnegut once described, “Buddhist catnaps.”  Short stories provide perfect little meditative escapes from everyday life and respite from bad novels.  Occasionally, I come across one that reaches the level of art.  James Joyce’s “The Dead” is one such story.  It’s possibly the greatest short story I have ever read.  Continue reading

The Greatest Novels of All Time

Halloween always brings to mind that classic of gothic literature, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Dracula1st.jpeg

This is a novel that has so enamored me over the years I once took a class dedicated solely to the study of it line by line.  The mythology it created is still alive and well today (witness the recent box office champ 30 Days of Night), and there have been a myriad of stage, film, and television adaptations that always seem unfaithful.  Over the years Count Dracula has been romanticized and made an object of sympathy, whereas in the novel he was always kept at arm’s length as a monster, and we learned of his story through a series of diary entries, letters, and notes from those in and around his inner circle of victims.  The book’s perversion of Victorian Era social mores and its inversion of the Christian sacraments made it an instant and subversive classic.  Its subtexts concerning child sexual abuse and modern man’s irrational fears of women’s liberation make it a point of controversy to this day.  Its lasting influence on future generations of writers and mythmakers will be bleeding and frightfully alive for years to come.  Does this make it one of the greatest novels of all time?

It made me wonder is it even possible (or practical) to make a list of the greatest novels of all time?  Continue reading