Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dickens'...uh, Disney's...A Christmas Carol

It says something about the imagination of Charles Dickens that only in 2009 could technology finally give an adequate expression of the artistic vision encompassed in a story he wrote in 1843. The Disney movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis, (Forrest Gump, The Polar Express, Beowulf) is only the latest cinematic expression of "A Christmas Carol," but it also shows technology can only do so much to compete against the ghosts of Scrooges past.

First of all, Zemeckis' movie is slavishly faithful to the Dickens original. Moments that are sometimes excised from the narrative - for example, the twin children Want and Ignorance hidden in the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present - live in this version. Zemeckis, who wrote the screenplay, uses Dickens' dialogue almost totally, and when the text does stray, it still manages to remain faithful. For example, Gary Oldman's Bob Cratchit pronounces the verdict of the book's narrator, that Scrooge in the end was "better than his word." This is a sensible artistic choice, given that Dickens' narrative is not only perfectly suited to the constrains of a two-hour movie but that the dialogue still crackles with life and a familiarity that can only be compared to Shakespeare.

Jim Carrey's Scrooge is surprisingly restrained. I expected it to veer into broad comedy and pratfalls but the old miser keeps his dignity much longer than I would have guessed, even as the three spirits strip the last vestiges of his pride away from him. I wasn't sure if it was the computer animation, or the quality of his performance, but I found myself wanting some of the nuance I remembered from previous performances by George C. Scott, or Albert Finney, or the great Alastair Sim. By giving such an understated, and faithful, interpretation, it allows the more sentimental aspects of Dickens story to show themselves. Scrooge is revealed as a surprisingly easy touch - his brutishness, so clearly displayed to the charity men who accost him in his office early on - wilts depressingly easy once he is carried through the events of his early life.

The movie also reminds us of why "A Christmas Carol" continues to grip our imagination - much like its American cousin, "It's a Wonderful Life." That's because it has the ability to scare the Scrooge out of us. When Marley's ghost appears in all his morbid glory, he is there to remind Scrooge - and us - that life is not an endless proposition. When the Ghost of Christmas Past bids Scrooge return to the still-familiar corners of his forgotten life, we see the choices he has made and the life he unconsciously created in the pursuit of wealth. But Marley's epitaph for himself - "Mankind should have been my business!" - rings in the air.

Even the relatively saccharine scares of the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present have teeth - Past is unafraid of showing Scrooge the great failures of his personal life until Scrooge forcibly ends the journey. Present, with a booming laugh and an image of endless gluttony, propels Scrooge to every stop where his name is cursed and ridiculed. Both ghosts seem to exist to remind him of the terrors of life; of failure and waste, want and cruelty, the sorts of things that make the joys of Christmas ring hollow in our hearts.

All three ghosts are not at all inviting - which gives us a contradiction at the heart of the celebrated Christmas story. Christmas can be a terrible thing, as Scrooge himself observes at the beginning, a time "for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself another year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?" One presumes that if the ghosts appeared to another, they might take on other forms, but they seem to exist with the idea of torment in order to remind a twisted heart of the season's - and life's - meaning. At Christmas, we look around and measure it against its previous incarnations - who is alive, who is dead, are we better off than the previous year, did we get everything we wanted, were we able to provide what others wanted. The ghosts serve almost the same function as Christmas, with its mental balancing of life's books at the year's very end - both for good and ill.

Only Tiny Tim, the object of so much of the audience's fear, can inspire hope. Tim Cratchit's presence, so appallingly sentimental - a lame, brave, good-hearted child ("good as gold") who hopes to inspire church-goers to remember "who made lame beggars walk and blind men see" - points the way to the hinted-at end of the story. Tiny Tim, whom the narrator assures us "did NOT die," gives Scrooge a tangible life for his money and newfound benevolence to save. And Dickens, who leaves the figure of Christ carefully off-stage in this Christmas pageant, indicates that perhaps this lame beggar did walk because a blind man - Scrooge - finally was able to see something besides the coins he had striven his whole life to hold.

One of the strengths of Dickens incredible art is that no technology can adequately show the change wrought in a life by hope - even terrifying hope.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

So many of E.L. Doctorow's novels resemble the home of the two Collyer brothers - vast rooms of antique splendor littered with what some might consider refuse, seemingly preserved for a reason known only to the assembler of the vast collection. Then, when one arrives at the end, one is left with a satisfying appreciation of what remains and how it was assembled.

Doctorow is sometimes erroneously called a historical novelist, but his work merely uses history as a starting point. To tell his story, Doctorow feels no inclination to "stick to the facts." "Homer and Langley" is a prime example of this. The story seems a natural for Doctorow, which his love of Old New York and the passage of American life. But Doctorow takes the tale of the infamous hoarders and moves it from Harlem to Fifth Avenue, extending the lives of the brothers into the seventies.

The story is told through the eyes of Homer, which is interesting since Homer is blind. The novel begins when the brothers' parents are still alive, taking us through Langley's return from World War I forever changed. As Homer loses his sight and becomes more dependent on his brother, he also begins to witness - from a distance, emotional and visual - his brother's decline into madness.

Over the decades, the Collyers turn their home into a safe house - for musicians, a Nisei family enduring suspicion during World War II, a gangster, hippies. And of course, for the wretched refuse of New York; chiefly, the newspapers Langley hordes in his attempt to create a one-time newspaper for the ages cataloging the times of their lives.

Langley fancies himself as a rationalist, unable to believe in anything except the absurdity and cruelty of life. When the brothers receive a letter from a missionary friend, he observes that it is "interesting that someone in the grip of such a monstrous religious fantasy - believing she is doing the Lord's work - is doing the work that the Lord would be doing if there was a Lord?" When they are left alone by a gangster on the lamb, Langley remembers how, as a boy, he decided he wanted no part of Heaven. "And if God is there after all, we should thank Him for reminding us of His hideous creation and dispelling any residual hope we might have had for an afterlife of fatuitous happiness in His presence."

All we need know of Homer is his response to this: "Langley was always able to life my dark moods for me." Homer trusts his brother, even as he seems him sink deeper into disconnection. Homer cries out for a companion, a protector, especially a female presence. His existence is a reminder to Langley that life is unfair and some things are beyond our control. But the brother nevertheless forges on with his quest to remain aloof from the world, untroubled by it, passing judgment from behind their shuttered rooms, choked floor to ceiling with clutter.

Much of this novel deals with the illusion of control, and the worlds we construct in order to flee the one outside our doors. But Doctorow's story, which could easily have been absolutely dark, instead brims with comedy and warmth. He lingers predictably over the familiar baby boomer touchstones of the sixties, but the journey is never obvious or heavy-handed. Instead, one feels some admiration for these brothers, each blind in his own way, viewing their lives through the yellowing headlines of a lifetime's collection.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog

Anyone who has seen the wild-eyed, white suited Klaus Kinski gesticulating wildly into the South American jungle in Herzog's film "Fitzcarraldo" knows what obsession is. The motion picture tells the story of a European who decides to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle in order to lure Enrico Caruso to perform there. But after a boat trip down the Pongo, our hero decides his multi-ton steamboat must be towed over a mountain to the other side of the river to complete the trip. Only his faith in his own lunacy, and the help of scores of inscrutable Indians, are able to make the dreams of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald real.

"Conquest of the Useless" is a journal kept by the director, Werner Herzog, during the making of this ill-starred production. Though they are notes kept contemporaneous with the filming of the movie, they are by no means a diary of the production. Those hunting set gossip will find all too little within this book. Instead, one samples Herzog's daily observations on the jungle and the collision he creates between the modern and the primordial. In the process, he creates a modern-day rendering of "Heart of Darkness," with Herzog not sure whether he is Kurtz or the tale's narrator, or both at the same time.

There's no small humor that at the beginning of this book, Herzog is at the home of Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the Godfather films who is wrestling with is own obsession - "Apocalpyse Now." It too deals with a "Heart of Darkness" theme, and it's production history was perhaps even more infamous than that of "Fitzcarraldo." By the end of Herzog's production, he would have to recast key scenes in the film and refilm some of its most grueling passages.

One appreciates Herzog's language as he struggles to describe what he sees in the Amazonian jungle. There is a sense that nothing has changed in centuries out there in the water and vines. The jungle is the book's largest character - a steamy, sweaty, malevolent, amoral presence which does not value human life and corrupts it just as it rusts the equipment brought into it to record its excesses. This is a land where babies die in their mother's arms, where soldiers' bodies come bobbing down the river and are left to drift further, where the loudest sounds are the snapping and falling of trees alive since before Columbus crossed the ocean:

"The jungle is obscene. Everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin. The voices in the jungle are silent; nothing is stirring, and a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything."

Herzog struggles to hold himself together, even as his life seems to him nothing more than an invention "with its pathos, its banalities, its dramas, it's idling." His film, which threatens to spiral everything out of his control, eventually gets made but that story seems strangely secondary by the end. He is merely trying to survive. That is what this diary is about - the survival of aspiration. "Is the desire to fly innate to all creatures?" the director asks, even as he lugs his own great ship up into the clouds.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mad Men: Shut the Door, Have a Seat

"It's going to be temporary," says Don Draper to his two children, as he begins to explain to them that his marriage to their mother is ending. Betty shakes her head silently. The truth, ever elusive in this drama, hurts too much for childish ears. Don, an eternal childman, is suddenly forced to grow up, but cannot bring himself to admit it to other childish ears.

This was just one moment of the season three finale of "Mad Men," "Shut the Door, Have a Seat," wherein Don's advertising agency, Sterling Cooper, suddenly finds itself without its partners as they break off to form their own firm in December 1963. When we saw Don a week ago, he and his colleagues were all dealing with the calamitous events of Nov. 22. When Don's children asked him what would happen after the murder of President Kennedy, he assured that all would be well after a little mourning. But Betty, his wife, wants a divorce, after having discovered the secret that Don has kept from them for their whole marriage - that he is in fact Dick Whitman, living on a borrowed identity from the Korean War.

"It's going to be temporary." One remembers Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous valediction on the Kennedy years - "We'll laugh again, but we'll never be young again." The sixties are humbling Don and the other characters with change - massive doses of it. Roger Sterling embraced change in the form of his 20-something wife, and now seems to regret it. Joan Harris married a man she should have known would disappoint her, but she quit her job nonetheless. Pete Campbell, so desperate to get ahead, looked for any way out of what he perceived a dead-end job. Price, the British executive, found his faith in the company betrayed when it seemed happy to jettison him. As Don tells Peggy Olson of the people their ads reach, "The way that they saw themselves is gone."

But Don Draper, the show's hero, has been humbled this season. He was maneuvered into signing a contract, beaten by drifters at one point and forced to confront his real life as his marriage disintegrates. When Conrad Hilton saw Don's desk earlier this season, he observes that Don has no Bible nor any family photographs on it. In doing so, he sums up Don as a man who believes in nothing but himself. The truth is only what will get him through the day. But the certainties - his abilities, his charm, his bullying power - are going. Even as Don tries to assure himself it's only temporary, he knows it isn't.

It's interesting that after so much drama, the finale should end on a light, hopeful note - Sterling Cooper reborn in a hotel room, the secretarial pool and its thuggish office politics seemingly wiped away. Sharing smiles over sandwiches, the new partners look on their new horizon at a time when the nation was still in a deep funk over losing a symbol of the best parts of itself.

One of the reasons television comforts us is that it gives us situations that we can return to where change can safely be held at bay. We live our lives with the illusion of status - that routine and tradition are unshakable and will hold us no matter what happens. We depend on them, and we do so at the risk of great disappointment. When Don tries to tell his children how things will be apart from them, he tells that wherever they go will still be home. "It's just a different home." That elusive home that Don has always been looking for - that he never had as a child, that he is now deprived of both personally and professionally - lies in the future.

Perhaps, armed with a new understanding of what he can do, he might find it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Brilliant Disguises - The Soundtrack

Since the narrator of "Brilliant Disguises," Cameron Leon, is posing as a Christian, I began looking for songs by "secular" groups which either mention Jesus, or use Jesus in the title, or have a slightly Christian theme.

Imagine my surprise when I found how extensive a list that is! However, after some careful pruning, I have come up with a playlist you may enjoy while reading the novel. If you have a suggestion, e-mail one in.

1. The Word - The Beatles/Rubber Soul
2. Reach Out To Jesus - Elvis Presley/Ultimate Gospel
3. Spirit In the Sky -Norman Greenbaum/The Definitive Anthology
4. Personal Jesus - Depeche Mode/Violator (there's also a very good Johnny Cash version)
5. Jesus Just Left Chicago - ZZ Top/The Best
6. Jesus - Queen/Queen
7. The Cross - Prince/Sign "O" The Times
8. Property of Jesus - Bob Dylan/Shot of Love
9. They Laid Jesus Christ In His Grave - Woody Guthrie/The Library of Congress Recordings
10. Gloria - U2/October
11. I Have Forgiven Jesus - Morrissey/You Are the Quarry
12. Loves Me Like a Rock- Paul Simon/Negotiations and Love Songs
13. Jesus to a Child - George Michael/Ladies and Gentlemen
14. Jesus Is Just Alright - The Doobie Brothers/Best
15. Jesus Walking On the Water - Violent Femmes/Hallowed Ground
16. Jesus Was an Only Son - Bruce Springsteen/Devils and Dust
17. Jesus - The Velvet Underground/The Velvet Underground
18. Beatitudes - Sweet Honey From the Rock/Gospel Live from Mountain Stage
19. I Just Want to See His Face - The Rolling Stones/Exile on Main Street
20. Are You Gonna Go My Way? - Lenny Kravitz/Greatest Hits
21. The Lord's Prayer - Frank Sinatra/Christmas Songs by Sinatra

And now, a word from our Sponsor…

I began writing the novel “Brilliant Disguises” in March of 2007. Kurt Vonnegut had only died a few days before, if memory serves, and his widely quoted passage from “Mother Night” was still probably ringing in my head - “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Vonnegut’s work, however, he had been talking about a man pretending to be a Nazi, who perhaps might be one, though he isn’t even sure.

I can remember a distinct moment of inspiration. I was in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Birmingham, AL looking through the stacks and saw “The Double,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I had never read it, and bought it instantly, going on nothing but the title. A man who looks like another. But beyond anything I might have found in between the covers, I had been bitten instantly by another idea - a man pretending to be a Christian. Immediately, I had a few questions about this proposition - why would he do so? How long could he keep it up? How hard would it be to fool anyone around him? Or, more importantly, how does one pretend to be a Christian?

The more I thought over the idea, the more I began to warm to it, and so the character of Cameron Leon was born. I soon began assembling him from conversations I’d had over the years with women and men who have spent lives in churches as pastors, deacons, volunteers, teachers, etc. As teenagers, they never could have foreseen themselves occupying those positions of spiritual responsibility, and suddenly, they found themselves feeling like imposters, waiting for their cover to slip. “What? Me a Sunday School Superintendent?” I understood that, in some ways, these are merely feelings of personal inadequacy, or doubt, or even simple amusement at the gentle ironies of life and faith. There are even those people who spend lives in churches, assuming great responsibilities, casting long shadows and leaving great reputations, only to step forward one day and ask for salvation, claiming they had never known it before. Whether or not they are, or were saved, is between them and the Lord.

But what about someone who really is an imposter?

I should also mention that, for some time before that, I had been fascinated with the idea of impersonation. The idea of assuming another name, for example, or attempting a slight or even major change in appearance, is something I’ve looked for in books and movies. I had tackled this several years before in a short story about a man who is able to mimic other people’s voices. He takes a silent pride in this ability, until one day he receives a desperate telephone call from the widow of his recently deceased brother. She wants to hear his voice again, and she knows the brother will be able to provide the correct impersonation.

And so, resurrecting this premise and marrying it to the one already on my mind, I began the novel. I was about halfway through one day when I was driving to work listening to one of my favorite songs - “Brilliant Disguise,” by Bruce Springsteen. I realized I had a title when he ended this moody, enigmatic song with the words:

Tonight our bed is cold
Lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man
Who doubts what he’s sure of

But where Springsteen’s anonymous narrator was troubled by the idea that his lover has another face unknown to him, Cameron Leon isn’t sure how many faces he has. Or how many are needed from him. Or which one may be his own, if one really exists.

The novel also gave me a chance to try something out. Though it wasn’t a model at the time, I can see looking over it again that Arthur Miller’s only novel, “Focus,” played some inspiration. In it, the hero Newman, a WASP, acquires a new pair of glasses and begins to be mistaken for a Jew. He, and the reader, experiences anti-Semitism as a case of mistaken identity.

Christianity itself, hinges on this idea of mistaken identity. We are called by Christ’s name to exhibit Him - His attitudes, His love, His caring, His anger at sin, His blessings for mankind. If someone sees something good, there’s often the question of whether they understand its source. If someone sees something else, will they attribute the negative to Jesus or to us?

But what Miller did - just as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and countless other Jewish-American writers of their generation - was make the Jewish-American cultural experience discernable to both Jew and Gentile. I decided that any novel I wrote from the Christian perspective should attempt something similar. Intellectually, there is much about the evangelical Christian in America’s cultural experience that is alien to the rest of the country. Some of that is understandable, given the political climate and the tenor of the times. But it is also a void that fiction can in part address. What is it about the evangelical that makes Jesus’ life an imperative for him or her? What can that mean for the faith? For the country? For the individual?

But Cameron Leon, our narrator, is not a Christian. How do all of the situations that the evangelical knows - prayer, church, volunteering, counseling - appear to an outsider? Indeed, on outsider who wants to remain so, even as he is inside? A mimic, who can’t even live his life without relying on the quotations of famous people and thoughts of others? Is his life his own? Is anyone’s life truly their own? Who really knows you?

I invite you to find out, though the life of an invented man, and the lives he invents for himself.