Playing the Orchestra

I saw the new Danny Boyle film at a screening this week. I’m not sure which was more impressive — the film or the Q&A afterwards…. Boyle was there with the film’s editor Elliot Graham and the composer Daniel PembertoMV5BMjE0NTA2MTEwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzg4NzU2NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_n and they talked about their collaborative process in interweaving the three parts of the film. What I loved most about the film was its construction. I’ve admired the beauty and intelligence of Boyle’s films in the past– across a range of genres– but this one impressed most with its structure.

Organized in three parts around three product launches, the film has three different aesthetics that Boyle described in the Q&A. The first section takes place in 1984 at the Macintosh launch and it’s filmed in 16mm that gives it a home-video feel. The second takes place in a San Francisco opera theater in 1988 for the product launch of NEXT and it’s shot in 35 mm with a sharp, documentary focus and a roving handheld camera. The last section takes place at the 1998 product launch for the iMac and it’s shot on digital video, which Doyle pointed out later was a sort of gesture toward Jobs’ technological innovations in the Pixar-produced Toy Story in 1995. Boyle explicitly described this three-act composition in the Q&A as a theatrical metaphor and it works very well to focus what could otherwise be a sprawling narrative or a dull chronological biopic. Boyle then knits the pieces together through a small cast of characters with a few ongoing conflicts– like the ones between Jobs and Wozniak or between Steve and his daughter. This structure gives the film both a sort of universal human story as well as a specific reality in one man’s life.

Jobs, of course, was notoriously difficult and Boyle and the actor Michael Fassbender don’t shirk from his negative side, though the film will certainly be critiqued as a romanticized view because of its warm and fuzzy ending. Specifically, the film emphasizes Jobs’ inability to give credit to colleagues, or even to acknowledge other people (including his daughter). This becomes a sort of megalomania: he’s the god-like creator who sits above it all but doesn’t do any of the actual work. In Aaron Sorkin’s script Jobs describes himself as a conductor, who “plays the orchestra” instead of being a virtuoso musician. Yet throughout the film I imagined asking Boyle during the Q&A how he felt about the obvious parallel between directing a film and running a visionary company like Apple, between him and Jobs. I didn’t have to ask, though, because during the conversation he brought it up himself, admitting that he had none of the actual skills of his editors or composers or actors, but only the ability to recognize and synthesize those skills. It was a remarkable acknowledgment, that revealed both how close Boyle was to Jobs and how very far away. Sitting there at his own “product launch” with three colleagues talking about collaboration was yet another ending to a remarkable film.


NEW Cameron Interview!

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Kirsty Stonell Walker, biographer of Pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Cornforth, on her blog The Kissed Mouth. Our conversation about Julia Margaret Cameron and my middle-grade novel Word Blind  is posted here. Thanks, Kirsty!

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This is a good time to announce that Word Blind is now out on several new ebook platforms. If you’ve read it please consider posting reviews on any of these pages!

Barnes and Noble





Page Foundry

COMING SOON: Open Letters Monthly article on the Romance Writers of American convention and the ebook of my biography From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography.




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)

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)

New York World’s Fair (1964)


Hit Me

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.