I’m working on an article for Open Letters Monthly on the Romance Writers of America annual conference, which just ended in NYC. Here are some quick notes while I think about it…. [I know, I know I should have been tweeting and posting the whole time! But how do people get to all that?! she whines]
- Best snippet of a session I heard: Liz Pelletier’s Spotlight on Entangled, where she wowed me with ten minutes of anecdotes about her editing process, including how she trains their interns in editing. As it ended the woman next to me said with similar awe: “who was that?”
- Strangest snapshots: Goody Room Before and Afters. The last day the room looked like a tornado had hit it– with boxes of Harlequins of every stripe and sub-stripe on the floor; piles of bookmarks, buttons, and random swag; and a handwritten note from a peeved author: “To the person who took my promo out of its basket, left the promo, and took the basket. I hope karma bites you in the butt.”
- Most appreciated gesture from a total stranger: At the Avon Meet and Greet author Candis Terry saw me standing alone, nervously, and went out of her way to introduce me to her editors. I was painfully grateful and now I’ll go read her books!
- Worst moment of the conference: on my way there on Saturday morning I was late and rushing and when a stroller on the sidewalk blocked my path I must have shown something BAD on my face because the woman pushing it said “seriously? you’ve got to lose the attitude!” And I brooded on it ALL DAY. Because I hated that I gave her grief and I hated that she gave me back even more than I gave her.
- Best quote from a session: romance novelist Eloisa James saying “E.L. James did not make my life any easier.”
- New vocabulary words I learned: perma-free, street team, lookalike audiences
- Most common advice to writers: “ask for what you want!”
Cape Kennedy, Florida (1969)
I’ve always had a fondness for Garry Winogrand’s work, especially this iconic photograph.
I remember seeing it when I was a child and understanding it. The woman faced the wrong way! And the photographer caught her photographing the wrong thing! Figuring that out was a delicious surprise. Photographs could say things they didn’t seem to say. This photograph wasn’t about the rocket launch at all.
At the huge Garry Winogrand retrospective now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York I expected to feel fondness for all of his photos, to experience that flash of understanding over and over again. But I didn’t. Seen all together in such a large group it’s harder to make sense of it. There are the early photos for magazines, the city scenes from the 1950s, then suburban tableaux from the 1960s and 1970s. Then his untimely death in 1984 at age 56. In between he received Guggenheim fellowships, and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. He had plenty of success and recognition, though this is the first show that includes the full range of his work and even some chosen from the many rolls of undeveloped film he left behind.
The exhibit shows off his eye, his ability to see and capture the interesting angle, but the photos also blurred together after awhile. There were too many; they were too alike. When Winogrand is quirky, as in the photo above, I think Diane Arbus does it better: she implicates us in the subject’s difference more than Winogrand does. When he is more sociological, as in the photograph below, I think Robert Frank does it better: he stays with his subjects longer whereas Winogrand seems to drift past them. I was disappointed. Did the show take on too much? Or do I just miss that first epiphany?
New York World’s Fair (1964)
Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) seems seamless. It’s special gift is its amazing wholeness — how performances and writing and directing all work together without any one overshadowing the others. Seeing it again was to notice slow, small moments tidily encapsulated in a film about rage. The short moment where Jake La Motta (played by Robert DeNiro) watches Vickie (played by Cathy Moriarty) splashing her legs at the public pool. The long moment when Jake finally approaches the ring for his championship fight and the crowd noise gets louder and louder and louder….
Watch Jake’s brother Joey, played by Joe Pesci, in the slow-building scene above: his brow creases and he shifts in his chair as he gives in to Jake’s bullying…. In many ways it’s a quiet scene, with just the two faces and no fancy camera shots, but it is portentous as Jake will continually ask for punishment from those around him and then lash out at them for giving it. The black and white cinematography helps us focus on the interpersonal here — there is nothing on the wall behind Jake until they stand up, nothing else to look at but these brothers fighting as they have and will. The radio plays on.
“What does it prove?” Joey asks a good question, and we can’t answer it yet at that point in the film. The scene is all suggestion — that fighting begins at home (notice the woman, Jake’s wife, with whom he has already fought, peeking through the door?) and that Jake’s inability to divide public and private, fighting and family will escalate the suffering around him. The film is best known for its operatic violence, its spraying blood and pulpy faces, but these quieter bits are just as impressive.
In the clip above from Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010) Werner Herzog narrates the lives of Russian trappers in the remote wilderness on the edge of Siberia. His inimitable grave voice battles the sentimental soundtrack as Herzog tells us that these men, who spend months each year alone with their dogs, are self sufficient and thus “truly free.” The documentary, directed by Herzog with Dmitry Vasyukov, is wonderful — beautifully photographed and obsessed as only Herzog can be with the details of the trappers’ lives: sculpting canoes, hauling gear through treacherous waters, protecting food from bears, making their own skis…. The men are impressive craftsmen, and they can make whatever they need from the materials at hand. Living in a land only accessible by boat or helicopter for a few months a year, they have snowmobiles and television sets, but rely on food they grow or catch.
It’s no surprise that Herzog would romanticize this life as he has always been interested in the relationship of man and nature, especially in extremis. This film has the usual omissions: the men spend more time talking about training their dogs than raising their children, for example. Women are scarcely mentioned, nor are the ethics of the fur trade, tensions with indigenous peoples, or environmental concerns. But Herzog’s narration is more understated than in Grizzly Man, for example, where he makes more claims about Human Nature as well as Nature and Civilization. Here he only once or twice refers to his claim that the trappers are “happy people” because they live simple, self-sufficient lives….To his credit, Herzog doesn’t spend a lot of time defending that position. Instead he dramatizes the daily lives of the trappers across the seasons, showing us their enthusiasm for their work as the best proof possible. One trapper hardly stops smiling, even when a fallen tree caves in the roof of his hut. They may be happy, but these men are always one small step from disaster, it seems — which makes the film much more complicated and rewarding than the title might imply.
There was so much to like about American Hustle (2013)! The performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence were all strong in subtle ways. The story by Eric Singer and David O. Russell–about an improvised sting operation run by a rogue FBI agent with two ex-cons– was terrific. And David O. Russell’s direction was assured and well paced. The clip below shows his mastery of visual storytelling as it gradually reveals the couple’s relationship and the film’s theme of pretending. The screenplay continually questions what or who is “real” and in this strange but moving dress-up scene we paradoxically see this couple as themselves– falling in love in a dry cleaner’s store as the plastic-wrapped clothes encircle them in a world of their own.
Yet as a whole the movie didn’t cohere for me. I wasn’t sure where this messy engaging story was going, which was part of the point of the twists and turns of the plot. But what was the main focus or idea of the film? Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) learning how to be real with themselves and each other? The conflicts that occur when one person’s reality clashes with another’s? The failures that spring from good intentions? There are lots of ideas played out here, but no clear focus to the whole–which is a shame because the parts are so good.