We share our favourite finds from the internet this week.
Jon Stewart has recently discovered that he’s a hit in China, from the millions of viewers who see his show in scattered internet clips. He recently joked that maybe he’s working the wrong continent, in a segment called ‘The Daily Show with Imperial Puppet’, peppered with China-specific jokes, seemed designed to push the boundaries. (‘What do you call a hundred Taiwanese citizens in a bathtub? Chinese! Because Taiwan does not exist independently.’)
The New Yorker tells why Stewart’s niche popularity ‘bodes well for the future of satire in China’.
In a scenario that seems straight out of a Stephen King novel (specifically, Misery), Charlaine Harris has received death threats, suicide threats … and threats to cancel book orders … from passionate fans displeased with the romantic conclusion of her final Sookie Stackhouse book.
It’s all about Gatsby this week … and opinions are divided on whether the film is a clever and faithful adaption of the book, whose beautiful surfaces and preoccupation with style over substance match Fitzgerald’s classic – or a travesty.
Nicki Greenberg adapted Gatbsy in an inventive graphic novel version a few years ago; she writes on the Readings blog about adaptations, her love of Gatsby and the ‘especially tough challenges’ it poses to those translating it for the screen.
It’s ‘lurid, shallow, glamorous, trashy, tasteless, seductive, sentimental, aloof, and artificial. It’s an excellent adaptation, in other words,’ writes Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker, while the magazine’s long-running film critic, David Denby, hated it. ‘Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.’
The Guardian agrees with Denby, calling it ‘ bombastic and excessive, like a 144-minute trailer for itself’. James Franco has defended the film, too. ‘Would anyone object to a production of Hamlet in outer space? Not as much as they object to the Gatsby adaptation, apparently.’
David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech has been made into a short film. It’s very literal, and a bit distracting from the words, but it’s also quite beautifully shot and edited, and a worthwhile curiosity.
A new editor has recently been appointed to the New York Times Book Review – one with, according to the Guardian, ‘pretty much, no writerly or literary credentials’. Her gigs include writing a few non-fiction (apparently ‘non-literary’) books, being children’s book editor at the review, and blogging with the Huffington Post. There is speculation that her appointment may signal a shift in priorities for the editor’s position – from literary chops to the ability to make and raise money.
‘While the NYTBR has been at the very center of the book business in New York and has been the most influential voice in book culture for the better part of a century, it is surely hard to say quite what to do with this weighty history. Not to mention, how to squeeze a buck out of it.’
By Anthony Morris
Game of Thrones is the hit show of the moment – and holds the dubious honour of producing some of the most pirated television episodes ever. It’s rare to hear a bad word about it, especially on social media. So when we overheard film and television critic, HBO aficionado and genre fan Anthony Morris looking for a critical article somewhere that might help him understand why he doesn’t like Game of Thrones, despite being someone who absolutely should (on paper), we asked him to write it himself.
I’m not sure when I first realised the relationship I was having with Game of Thrones wasn’t working out. There was no ‘I kicked in the screen when Ned Stark died’ or ‘I just can’t stand another scene where Jon Snow stands around pouting’ or even ‘wow, the CGI on those dragons is a bit crap, am I right guys?’ moment. Which is a problem, because this is meant to be an article about how Game of Thrones and I have never quite clicked, and a solid example of what I’m talking about would be handy right now. Maybe it’s a sign of just how ambivalent I am towards the series that I can’t even nail down exactly why it doesn’t work for me.
It’s not that I’m not a fantasy fan. In my teens I read The Lord of the Rings a half dozen times in two years, and from there I read everything fantasy-shaped I could find, from The Mists of Avalon to The Sword of Shannara, going back and forth between Julian May’s quasi-science fiction Pilocene Exile series and Stephen Donaldson’s guilt-laden Thomas Covenant books, before finally ending up with Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which was so good it spoiled me for all other fantasy fiction. I ran a handful of half-hearted Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, owned a stack of Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy books, and read up on heraldry – I was in about as deep as you can get without trying to make a suit of chain-mail out of ring pulls from soft drink cans.
And Game of Thrones was from HBO. The explosion of quality dramatic television series coming out of the US post-The Sopranos is hardly news. I didn’t know the original George R.R. Martin novels, but a long-form fantasy series as good as Deadwood or The Wire? Sign me up.
Fantasy (like science fiction) is a genre in ongoing conversation with itself, where current stories take up elements and arguments from previous stories to expand upon or refute. It seemed fairly clear to me from the start that Game of Thrones wanted to take the clichés that had built up around the fantasy genre since Tolkien and rub their noses in the dirt.
In reality, ye olden times were muddy and bloody and full of brutality, where the ideas of honour and gallantry were honoured almost entirely in the breech and only the harsh and brutal – the bad guys in any other series – would have survived. Having drifted away from fantasy in part because of my disinterest in the clichés, the idea of a series that would expose them to the harsh light of reality cheered me no end.
Of course, Game of Thrones doesn’t really want to bring reality to a fantasy world. It slaps a bit of mud on it and piles on the nudity, but beneath it all, the clichés still tick over. The brave knight might be a woman, the cunning hero might be a dwarf, the wise ruler might be an ocean away waiting for her dragons to grow up, but deep down all that’s changed is the casting. Still, that’s hardly a fatal flaw.
What was more deadly to my enjoyment was the utter seriousness with which it took itself. Like the Batman films, which daren’t crack a smile lest we realise that hang on, we’re watching a movie about a guy who dresses up as a bat, Game of Thrones is a basically silly concept (Dragons? Giants? Snow zombies? Assassins made of smoke? How do all these poverty-stricken medieval types manage to make such fancy costumes? What good are all those castles doing on top of crags in the middle of nowhere?) that can’t acknowledge its silliness for fear the whole structure will collapse.
Fantasy (and science fiction for that matter) requires a lot of world-building, and if you don’t take world-building seriously, the whole thing falls in a heap. In a drama set in the real world, you can mine humour from the way the world is or the way that people act. In a fantasy, doing that only draws attention to the fact that the world isn’t like this, and people aren’t like that. So getting laughs out of dragons or the wacky uneven seasons or the way all the endless sex slaves are really hot is out: Game of Thrones does the best it can at wringing laughs out of character interaction and physical bungling, but most of the characters are too thinly drawn for even that. (Tyrion only gets to be witty because that’s his thing.)
Ah, the characters. Producers Dan Weiss and David Benioff are often praised for their casting; a less charitable reviewer than I would suggest that’s because the casting has to do almost all the work when it comes to making the characters live. Many only get a handful of lines per episode, when they even appear in every episode; in situations like that, a suitable face will take you a lot further than the ability to bring a character to life through words and gesture.
This dour sourness – this teenage idea that the only way to be taken seriously is to be serious – mistakes length for depth. We’re up to season three now and fans of the books are saying things like ’ooh, it’s about to get really good now‘ (okay, it’s more like ‘This season’s set to be disaster porn – book fans are especially excited about season three because they cannot wait to see terrible things happen to important characters.’ Deadwood, which for mine is one of the best television series of the current age, only had three seasons. The Wire, which is the best series of the current age, only had five; likewise with Breaking Bad. Mad Men is set to finish with its seventh season. Meanwhile, we’re told that Game of Thrones is probably going to cover the events of George R.R. Martin’s third book in its third and fourth seasons.
If the rest of the books (five have been published, with at least another two to come) take up that much television real estate, we’re talking about a twelve-season series. That’s a soap opera. Killing Ned Stark in season one when he looked like the main character and Game of Thrones looked like a fantasy version of The Sopranos wasn’t a shockingly bold narrative twist; it merely turned the series into an endless horror movie where anyone can die at any time. But you can’t sustain that tension over twelve years; you can’t sustain it over twelve episodes. Eventually you become numb to the horror, and what then? What is Game of Thrones actually about?
The fantasy elements are downplayed so as not to distract from the realism of the show; the realistic elements of the show are sketched in over-the-top fantasy clichés. Individual stories are interesting, but they’re only handed out in bite-sized portions, while the big picture feels like a vast novelisation of a fantasy war-gaming session, where armies clash to and fro across a landscape that’s just lines on a map. It’s a skinfest soap opera aimed at people who are really into costuming and swords.
I’ll keep watching though. I don’t want to miss the part where the snow zombies eat everyone.
Anthony Morris is DVD editor of the Big Issue. He is also a freelance film and television writer who reviews regularly for Empire and other publications.
By Andie Fox
Middle age can make you a more savvy audience for art … but also a lazier one, as it must be squeezed into an ever-more time-poor life. Andie Fox realises that she’s become so risk averse when it comes to books and films that she’s missing out on the unexpected pleasures and new ideas art can offer.
Last year there were at least a dozen books I started reading and did not finish. When I grew tired of the way a book was unfolding or the style of its writing, I didn’t persist, I simply put the book down regretfully and moved on to the next novel in my pile. Actually, in all honesty, I began to find myself gleefully discarding them. After the first few times you give up you discover a certain reckless abandon in subsequent disappointments.
Partly, I wasn’t picking the best novels and partly, I wasn’t in a generous frame of mind. The rejections were like a new freedom for me. Each one emphasized the importance of my own time. There’s so little of it, you see, that isn’t now claimed by work and family responsibilities. I never used to be like this – to be such a scanning, flicking, rejecting kind of consumer of the arts. It is not that my taste is particularly niche or peculiar now, it’s that through necessity I have attained ruthless efficiency in assessing the things I love. I have never surrendered so many loves at once as during my thirties.
Some of the things lost were smashed and chipped and pulled apart, but others were neglected so badly they stopped calling, or interrupted so many times I forgot how to do them or even, to want to do them. The sacrifices began to highlight the trade-offs. This book or more sleep, or this book or that film, or this book or seeing a friend, or this book or reading to my child (who will only be little for a couple more years). Occasionally, all the weighing up is paralysing and I simply can’t choose and so instead I miss out on everything.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently in The Atlantic that at this stage of his life he no longer prioritises ‘difficult books’. Instead, he wants to read books that make him work, not so much as a reader, but as a thinker. My refusal to finish certain books last year was less about the difficulty of those books and more about an intolerance for frustrations of all varieties. But I relate to this sentiment of Coates. I’m tired and rushed, as I imagine him to also be, but I’m still hungry for thoughts. More than ever now. I am skipping breakfast, racing to catch a train, rewriting drafts, reading reminder notices on unpaid bills and arguing with my children about cleaning their teeth – so, I’m dying for big thoughts that will weave their way through my head for weeks or months to come.
In fact, if I had to pick a difference between me in my twenties and me in my thirties I would say that this is it. When I was young I looked to the arts for ideas about everything and anything. In a way, I asked a lot of what I viewed while bringing very little myself. In my thirties, I look to everything with particular puzzles in mind, hoping to find something to excite new ways of resolving them. This is what I think Coates referred to when he said he wants to work as a thinker. And when I find these insights in someone’s creation I am awestruck, because not only do I understand the hard work involved in its realisation, but through the artist’s astute observations I am released from some of my own struggle. Frankly, I am a better audience at this age than I was in my twenties. But there’s a catch.
Like Coates, I want the big, interesting thoughts but I don’t want to run a gauntlet for them. As I’ve described, I’ve become impatient. And it is not just books, I’m impatient with film, too. My current short-cut to an evening of thoughts comes via a diet of HBO and Showtime television series, that I watch for minimal cost in my lounge room, with a glass of cheap wine. In comparison, the cost of an evening at the cinema involves not only my painful awareness of the opportunity cost of other longings denied, but the ticket price must now include $80 worth of babysitting too. At this price, one does not need to try very hard to be cranky enough to find a film disappointing.
On the other hand, an evening watching Walking Dead or Mad Men is as cheap and reliable as a franchise restaurant menu. And for someone like me, struggling to keep up with much of anything at the moment, there is undeniable pleasure in seeing something current enough to have me re-join the dinner party conversation.
But like fast food, these television shows never quite deliver the complexity and spectacle that truly amazing films will when seen on enormous cinema screens. My consumption decisions have become so risk-averse that not only am I avoiding the so-so events and the tedious flops, I am also missing the chance happenings – those nights out when you are unexpectedly transformed by the art you see. And short-cuts can become ruts. I lack the conservatism to believe all the great books and music have already been made and I’ve seen them, but I worry I’m losing my skills to appreciate experimentation.
For instance, I have long adored surrealism but for those years when I had a toddler, my appetite for the surprise juxtaposition was significantly reduced. Toddlers are the original Dada practitioners – leaving utterly random items in your handbag and spilling out phrases of charming nonsense incessantly. They will exhaust you with the abstract, and in this state I found myself bored by any art trying to change its parameters. Possibly this problem is not exclusive to mothers.
Some of my childless friends work twelve-hour days, chewing through endless piles of 30 second email interactions, and say they now struggle with the attention span required for a one-hour episode of HBO television, let alone a languid three-hour film. Another friend of mine, a playwright and the father of a young child, says he finds it tough to summon the energy for seeing live performance now that he realises he is not also there to get laid or loaded. You can see how we become the kind of dreary consumers the art world hates, only able to cope with linear plots in bite-size format and wanting it all to be finished in time for an early night. One way or another my friends and I, like Coates, are all doing the equivalent of avoiding difficult books. It seems that we are being changed by the years entering middle-age.
Except, some out there make different decisions. Some art-lovers continue to prioritise the difficult books and choose the path less travelled into middle age. (I assume it is a path also involving less time with toddlers). And I’m grateful these people exist, because this year I made the resolution to prioritise similarly and I need their advice. I won’t see and read and listen to everything, as I used to – for I love my new life, too – but I will allow myself more of a chance to try the difficult things.
Because the problem with risk aversion in my art consumption is that I’d accepted a bargain with certainty, rather than possibility. After a time, I stopped questioning my sacrifices.
So, for a year I will read difficult books again, and see new art, and turn off the television sometimes to watch films on big screens. I have new puzzles to solve and I want very big, new thoughts.
Andie Fox blogs regularly about motherhood, feminism and what’s on her mind at Blue Milk.
We share some of our favourite links and articles found on the internet this week.
The US presidential campaign has taken another bizarre pop culture twist in the past week. First, there was Clint Eastwood and the chair. Now, Sesame Street’s Big Bird has reluctantly taken the stage. In the first presidential debate (which Obama thoroughly lost), Mitt Romney stated that he would cut subsidies to PBS. ‘I love Big Bird,’ Romney said. ‘But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.’
The Obama campaign responded with a funny (though dubiously useful) ad that jumped on the Big Bird statement. ‘Big. Yellow. A menace to our economy. Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street.’
‘You have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird,’ Romney told an Iowa crowd this week. And most media commentators (including The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart) think he has a point. On his show last night, Stewart showed a clip of Will.i.am addressing a university crowd with Obama, grinning and playing the Sesame Street song. The Children’s Television Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street, have asked the Obama campaign to remove the ad.
The Atlantic has a slideshow of images created by the internet to mark this pop cultural moment.
It was Banned Book Week recently in the US, and to commemorate the occasion, Lawrence Public Library commissioned a set of seven Banned Book trading cards, with artwork submitted by local artists and facts about why the books were banned, and how they affected the artists' lives. The titles chosen included Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species (banned in Tennesee from 1925 to 1967) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (banned in Soviet Russia for its political theories, banned in the US for its political theories, banned in the United Arab Emirates for imagery contradicting Islamic values).
As western culture becomes ever more food-obsessed, elevating chefs like Jamie Oliver and critics like Matt Preston to the status of artists or rock stars, a discomfort with our culinary worship is starting to creep in for many. Steven Poole’s new book, You Aren’t What You Eat is a clever and often funny skewering (pun intended) of the cult of foodism. A lengthy and fascinating extract in the Guardian will give you a taste.
It should be obvious that a steak is not like a symphony, a pie not like a passaglia, foie gras not like a fugue; that the “composition” of a menu is not like the composition of a requiem; that the cook heating things in the kitchen and arranging them on a plate is not the artistic equal of Charlie Parker.
If you’ve ever ironically tweeted or complained about ‘first world problems’ (and how many of us haven’t?), this ingenious ad campaign will make you feel a little ashamed and a lot lucky. Created by relief organisation Water For Life, this one-minute video feature Haitians standing in front of their houses, in ruins or among pigs and chickens, reading ‘complaints’ like ‘I hate it when my neighbors block their wifi’ and ‘I hate it when I tell them no pickles and they give me pickles’. Moving and thought-provoking.
In a beautiful and inspiring essay, Maria Tumarkin considers the afterlife of books – how they touch readers' lives and what they can mean for the individuals who connect with them. Some of the books she looks at are Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, Anthony Macris’s When Horse Became Saw and Maggie Mackellar’s When it Rains. She asks the question:
What books can sustain you, hold the pieces of you together, remind you of who you are and what matters to you, not ever lie to you no matter what?
Elmo Keep is a writer and broadcaster whose non-fiction work has appeared in places like The Awl, the Age, Meanjin, the Big Issue and The Rumpus. She was a writer/producer on three series of ABC TV’s Hungry Beast, was digital media producer with Zapruder’s Other Films and works currently as digital producer on the feature film, Kath & Kimderella, in Melbourne. Elmo’s first book-length work of non-fiction will be published by Scribe in 2014.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
Not counting scintillating copy I filed in the high school newspaper re: changes to the tuck shop menu, an indignant missive in the Rolling Stone letters section detailing Moby’s crimes against music, printed when I was 18. Very proud of you, younger self! (On both counts.)
What’s the best part of your job?
When everything comes together on a story. Supportive editors. Talking shop with other writers. When you write something that connects with people and they get in touch to let you know. It doesn’t happen all that often but it’s the single biggest thing which motivates me to write.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The days when nothing comes, or it does but it’s a horrifying struggle that makes you feel like it might abandon you altogether one day. I would rather stare into the void on days like that but I’ve found that getting out of the house and doing something physical is much more helpful. That, and chasing invoices for work you’ve already done and which has been published. There aren’t many other industries where the workers would stand being treated like that, but writers do. They shouldn’t.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Signing a book deal with Scribe and being taken on by the Naher Agency. Two huge things which happened one on top of the other earlier this year.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The best advice is what everyone gives, which is to read voraciously. I once had a great teacher at university who warned us off reading any canon texts we didn’t enjoy. I think that was really smart advice to young writers; to read what really turns you on, not what you feel like you should be reading. There is a whole lifetime to get into difficult books that you will appreciate a lot more from the perspective of later life, I think. It’s about being inspired, not necessarily being classically learned, when you’re young.
Bad advice? Probably someone who once told me it was fine to go cold and unprepared into an interview with a subject. NEVER, EVER do that.
Everything else is covered in this great list from the Atlantic.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
I try and not read about myself, so I don’t know. If you have a Google alert for your name set up, turn it off now unless you have disposable cash for therapy.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I don’t make a living from writing, so I am doing those other things which is working in television production as a digital media producer. The money I earn from writing is just gravy money, because it’s usually quite small amounts and a lot of publications are pretty lax in terms of paying on time.
I work at other jobs to pay the bills, which is something that really works for me twofold: I never waste the time that I do have for writing, and I get a lot out of being around people. It’s the most important thing for a non-fiction writer to understand other people’s lives. It can be a pretty short path to becoming self-absorbed if all you ever do is sit at your computer all day, which is the opposite way to be for someone who wants to connect with people through their writing.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
It can definitely be improved, I think, when someone points out your flaws to you. You can pick up some tools that will give you perspective for specific things, like if you’re blocked and how to get around it. I’m not sure why this is such an impassioned debate. If people want to spend their time and money learning and being with other writers, I don’t see that there is any harm in it whatsoever. It’s about getting outside of yourself and classes can be a great avenue for that.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
You have to be disciplined, that’s the first thing. It’s not about sitting and waiting for inspiration to strike you, it’s work. You have to do it every day. If you are talking about being a full-time freelancer, you have to have a very specific temperament for that, which if you don’t have will make your professional life a struggle. You have to sell yourself, constantly, that is basically the job of a freelancer. I’m too slow a writer to do that now, it takes me a long time to come up with ideas and then even longer to execute them.
Have something else that will pay the bills that won’t take up your whole life: part-time teaching, research assisting, copywriting, all of these things pay well and will contribute to your skills as a writer. Don’t be above a day job. If I get to the point one day where writing pays all my bills again (I freelanced full-time in my twenties) I will obviously be thrilled, but I’m also reasonably happy in my work life and I think that’s an achievement.
Poverty is a great impediment to doing the work you want to do, especially if you need to travel to interview people, file FOIs, pay for transcribing and all the other things that go into non-fiction writing. It can also make you resentful of your life choices when your sense of self is eroded by your bank balance. You need to strike a balance between paying work and doing the writing you love. For me, I’m working full-time at the moment this year to buy a whole year off next year to write my book. Literally every minute I spend at work now is buying those minutes next year, so it’s very worth it for me to do that.
And have at least one story in you that you’re so desperate to tell that you would do it for nothing.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I am terrible but I’m digital all the way. The convenience is INSANE. We have reached peak laziness. It’s really, really bad for impulse buying, ‘buy with one-click’. I read even more than I used to though, on account of that convenience (like the rest of Gen Y). Some people find it distracting, but I love the deep-linking in e-books, and being able to look up definitions instantly. I love seeing the parts that other people have highlighted, it’s like finding library books with notes in the margins. Our bookshelves at home are rapidly becoming an installation piece with no function.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
Miss Amelia at the Sad Cafe, because she is a woman of such deep self-reserves. I would travel both spatially and through time to the American South, too. Carson McCullers was very affecting to me when I read her books in high school, the scenes and smells, the sticky air are all so vivid, the sense of place still looms large in my imagination. And this cafe was extremely popular! I want to try the gravy biscuits and talk about the meaning of love.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Reasons To Live, the collection of Amy Hempel’s short stories. To read this book is to read a collection with not a single redundant sentence, let alone word, in it. There are such agonising levels of discipline at work to achieve that, it’s mind-bending, but it reads as total effortlessness. There is a reason why ‘In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried’ is one of the most anthologised short stories ever written. It’s devastating. I never tire of re-reading it.
Elmo Keep will be publishing a series of interviews with Australian writers for the Wheeler Centre’s Dailies in late 2012 and early 2013. Watch this space.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is negotiating a major campaign obstacle, after a secret video was released of his candid remarks to a donor gathering, who he told that it’s not his job to worry about the 47% of Americans who vote for Obama. The Obama camp is already finding all kinds of ways to use this slip-up against him, including with this clever graphic.
This week at the Wheeler Centre, we talked about our love of American television as part of our ongoing AMERICA series. For those of you who share that love, here’s a little treat for you – a sneak peek at Lena Dunham’s Girls Season 2 (which will premiere in 2013).
The search for ‘authentic’ Mexican food may seem like a new fad, localised in the hipster enclaves of Brunswick and St Kilda – but in fact, it’s been going on for centuries. While people have been eating corn tortillas wrapped around meat or beans for more than a millennium, the idea of ‘tacos’ is a twentieth century one, and it’s deeply bound up in the messy history of American colonisation and globalism.
Italian artist Federico Pietrella has found a novel use for library date stamps: he uses them in his paintings, made from thousands of densely stamped ink dates. ‘In his enormous ink artworks Pietrella always stamps the current date, thus each of his pieces contains a clear timeline of the days he worked on it, often spanning two months.’
The latest classic to get a graphic novel adaptation is the much-loved YA novel, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. Take a peek at Hope Larson’s striking interpretation.
Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series, The Newsroom, is politely labelled ‘critically contested’. While it’s been lambasted for sexism, general awkwardness, smugness (and dodgy use of Coldplay), it also has its prominent defenders, who cite Sorkin’s idealism, intelligence and screwball romance.
The Newsroom is another in Sorkin’s series of television shows about the making of television shows. (Following Sports Night, his first foray into television, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, set behind the scenes of a comedy show much like Saturday Night Live.) There are also comparisons to The West Wing; both shows present idealised versions of institutional workplaces where, in reality, cynicism rules. And in both shows, the men at the helm prioritise ethics over politics or personal gain.
The Newsroom’s first episode opens with self-described ‘affable’ news anchor Will Macavoy (Jeff Daniels) snapping during a journalism school panel. Asked by a bright-eyed young student to explain why American is the greatest country in the world, he instead delivers a scathing, articulate rant on why it’s not. His outburst makes news headlines – and prompts his boss (Sam Waterson) to co-opt him on a crusade to make a ‘good’ news show, based on facts rather than sensationalism. The kicker? The producer hired to do the job, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is Will’s ex-girlfriend, just back from Iraq, setting the scene for a romantic sub-plot that runs parallel to the show’s workplace-based quest for truth in journalism.
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum set the tone for the critical response early on. ‘Clever people take turns admiring one another,’ she wrote, criticising its talkiness as ‘artificial intelligence, predicated on the notion that more words equals smarter’. Nussbaum’s colleague, film critic David Denby, offered a defence on the New Yorker’s blog.
‘Life may not work this way in the real world,’ he wrote, ‘but Sorkin’s complaint about America is that intelligence is in a semi-apologetic retreat, while emotionalism and stupidity are on the rise – in public policy and in the media. He’s setting up an ideal.’
Sorkin himself places The Newsroom in ‘that place of wish fulfilment’.
Some have compared The Newsroom’s fictional show-within-a-show to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. It’s a comparison Stewart would probably quibble with. In an interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace last year, he was careful to emphasise the difference between his show and news programs. ‘I’m a comedian first. My comedy is formed by an ideological background,’ he said. ‘The embarrassment is that I’m given credibility in this world because of the disappointment the public has with what the news media does.’
The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart goes head-to-head with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, in a thoughtful and surprisingly serious interview about modern news values.
Stewart’s job description may be distinct, but his views are not dissimilar to Sorkin’s (or the fictional Will McEvoy’s). ‘My agenda is at times liberal and at times conservative. It’s about absurdity and it’s about corruption. And that is the agenda we push. It is an anti-corruption, anti lack of authority, it’s anti contrivance and if I see what in one area more than the other, well then.’
Stewart derides the mainstream media’s bias ‘towards sensationalism and laziness’, preferring gossipy stories like the release of Sarah Palin’s emails or the Anthony Weiner sex scandal to policy-based stories on jobs, the economy or healthcare.
One of the themes of The Newsroom is the media’s false bias towards balance. The show’s news division president Charlie Skinner says, at one point, ‘the facts are the balance’.
In an interview with USA Today, Aaron Sorkin said, ‘Most of us have been raised to believe that there are two sides to every story, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And that’s simply not always the case. Sometimes there are five sides to a story, but sometimes there’s just one. Sometimes the truth doesn’t lie in the middle, it lies squarely on one side or the other. But you’ll never hear the word ‘lie’ on network news when something is plainly a lie.’
Things seem to be changing, at least a little, during this election campaign, with the media seemingly rallying against the statement from Mitt Romney’s campaign that ‘We will not allow this campaign to be dictated by fact-checkers’. James Fallows is just one of those who have been collecting and celebrating examples of reporters calling out falsehoods.
Given that The Newsroom’s news stories are taken from life (with an 18 month delay) and that the show has been renewed for a second season, it will be interested to see whether this new trend makes its way onto the screen.
The Wheeler Centre will be focusing on the US over the next fortnight, with our special AMERICA events series. Guests will include the Atlantic’s national correspondent James Fallows, a former speechwriter for ex-president Jimmy Carter.
Join us next Tuesday 25 September at 6.30pm for our Intelligence Squared Debate, Western Civilisation is in Terminal Decline.
This month, our AMERICA series features a whole host of great events focusing on the US, just as the world watches the ailing superpower as it heads into a presidential election. This week, we collect some of our favourite links and articles from around the internet on America.
Michael Lewis, author of Boomerang and Moneyball, is one of the most compulsively readable non-fiction writers working today; he writes with a blend of intelligence, reflection and sheer style. In the current issue of Vanity Fair (where he is contributing editor), he has published a profile of Obama based on months of interviews and intimate access.
‘Starting in January (and continuing through mid-August), he was allowed to sit up front with the president on Air Force One and ride with him in the presidential limousine. Lewis joined Obama on visits to foreign countries and several states, toured the White House residence with him, and even played basketball with him in one of his regular, highly competitive pickup games.’ Here’s a taste.
This month, we’re excited to be hosting an event where our guests will be geeking out on their love of American TV. One of the best TV programmes of recent years is Breaking Bad, a series that is coming to a definitive close next year. The last episode of this year’s run aired in the US last week, prompting a slew of interviews with creator Vince Gilligan.
Don’t read those interviews if you haven’t watched recent episodes (major spoiler alert), but if you know nothing about the series and are curious to know more, this Guardian profile is a great introduction to this series about an ordinary high school teacher who starts cooking meth after being diagnosed with cancer, then transforms, in the words of Vince Gilligan, ‘from Mr Chips into Scarface’. And if you’re interested in the science of the show, take a look at this interview with chemistry professor Donna Nelson, the show’s leading ‘meth consultant’.
An organisation called Patriot Update has created an anti-Obama You Tube video starring a six-year-old. The young boy gives ten reasons not to vote for Obama, including that he ‘wants to take guns away from good guys’, ‘doesn’t want Americans to drill for oil or mine for coal’, and ‘takes money from people who work hard and gives it to people who don’t work at all’.
Political junkies will want to book tickets fast to hear James Fallows, the Atlantic’s national correspondent (and former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter when he was president) give his take on the US election. He’s currently in the thick of covering it for the Atlantic, with many of his pieces appearing online.
Recently, he’s written about how the mainstream press is adjusting to ‘the realities of post-truth politics’. This includes calling out political parties for deliberately misrepresenting what their opponents have said – taking comments out of context – in order to discredit them. He’s also welcomed the way Paul Ryan’s factually shaky convention speech was reported. ‘They’re not simply quoting “critics” about things Ryan made up. They are outright saying that he is telling lies.’
Slate reports that for the first time, the Democrats are seeing gay rights as a potential political vote winner during a presidential election. More than a dozen speakers mentioned LGBT equality during the Democratic National Convention, including Michelle Obama, who said, ‘If proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love, then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream.’
Meanwhile, here in Australia, commentators like Michelle Grattan are saying that Julia Gillard did the right thing in boycotting the national conference of the Australian Christian Lobby, where she was to be a guest speaker, following Jim Wallace’s comparisons of the ‘health risks’ of a ‘gay lifestyle’ to smoking.
Just when you thought you’d seen and read everything you could possibly handle about The Wire (aka The Best TV Show Ever Made), here comes something you need to watch. It’s The Wire as told in Lego animation, with all your favourite characters: Omar, McNulty, Bunk, Stringer Bell. Watch and enjoy!
So, sports fans (and major event lovers) around the world are fired up with Olympics fever at the moment. And some of them are celebrating in their own unique ways. Australian shooter Lauryn Mark is promoting a positive image of her sport by posing in a green and gold bikini, with a shotgun, for zoo Weekly. Her husband and fellow competitor Russell Mark is complaining that he and his wife are being discriminated against for being heterosexual because they’ve been told they can’t room together in London.
Others have a more genteel, creative response to all the excitement – like one East London lady who knits up a storm to create a garden display for every major event. And right now, her yard is a knitted tribute to the Olympics. The Atlantic has posted a series of gorgeous photographs.
The world is still talking about 50 Shades of Grey, with new views, reviews and movie news posted every day. We highly recommend Andrew O'Hagan’s acerbic review in the London Review of Books, especially the classic line: ‘I suspect the book has taken the world’s mums by storm because there’s no mess on the carpet and there are hot showers afterwards.’
Newsweek has compiled the best 50 Shades parody videos in one handy post – from a musical to a Saturday Night Live satire starring Kristen Wiig (our favourite) and Ellen Degeneres reading the audiobook, complete with unenthusiastic sound effects.
Caitlin Moran’s very funny feminist bestseller, How to Be a Woman, is coming out in the US this week. And to celebrate, there’s a terrific long profile of Moran over at Slate, by Peggy Orenstein. She describes interviewing a Moran dressed in a T-shirt that reads, ‘My feminist Marxist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard’. Here’s a taste of Moran’s feminist approach to parenting:
As toddlers, Moran taught them to shout, ‘Thanks for that, the patriarchy!’ whenever they scraped a knee. At age 8, when Lizzie questioned Barbie’s improbable curves, Moran had her draw pictures of what the doll ought to look like (‘An outline that was kind of representative,’ Moran said, ‘feet big enough to stand on and a mono-brow because Lizzie has a mono-brow. Hair on her legs. And she made one breast slightly larger than the other, so I was like, Thanks.’) For Halloween last year, the girls dressed as suffragettes.
This video of Moran talking about how to apply feminism in your own home (shoes you can walk in! plasma TV bought with proceeds of not having Brazilians!) is completely brilliant:
What do you give the hipster kid who has everything? The latest kids' book only an adult would really enjoy (a genre in itself) is Thrill Murray, a colouring-in book celebration of ‘the great man of cinema’ in some of his most iconic roles and moments, illustrated by 23 different artists. Okay, it’s not really for kids; it’s a cool toy for those who are kids at heart.
The Wheeler Centre’s Shannon Hick confesses her unexpected passion for the daytime soap Days of Our Lives – and how she once shaped her uni schedule around it, so as not to miss the antics of Devil Marlena or the evil, sister-betraying, date-raping Sami.
A colleague was sick recently and had the day off work. Rather than ask if she was feeling better, I asked, ‘Did you watch Days of Our Lives?’ It wasn’t until I absorbed the puzzled looks around me that I realised I had given away one of my most embarrassing secrets … I watch, am fascinated by (and sometimes live vicariously through) the soapiest of soap operas, Days of Our Lives. And while the trappings of adulthood curtail my regular catch-ups with the residents of Salem these days, I’m not afraid to admit (in the spirit of full disclosure) that in my university undergrad years, Days was a central part of the days of my life.
For those who may not know it, or perhaps belong to The Bold and the Beautiful soapie camp (because you’re pretty much one or the other, I’m told), Days of Our Lives is one of the longest-running soap operas in the world. It chronicles the lives of several families who live in the middle-American town of Salem. Their love lives, marriages, divorces, live burials, frequent kidnappings, brain-washings and demonic possessions are chronicled in neat one-hour time slots each weekday – guaranteed until at least 2014. There’s something special about a show when you haven’t watched it for four years and then, one day while you’re sick on the couch surrounded by Kleenex, the hourglass opening credits begin and you immediately know exactly what is happening.
I was first exposed to Days aged eight or so. I was playing a friend’s house after school. While in a corner of the lounge room, we dressed her Barbie for the biggest party of her life, my friend’s mother sat on the couch with her Nescafe Blend 43 in front of the TV, which streamed soft-focus images of permed, heavily shoulder-padded women reciting dramatically adult things.
It wasn’t until after high school, following the cancellation of the teen-oriented supernatural soap Passions, that I found the ‘time’ to rediscover Days of Our Lives. Soon, the residents of Salem became part of my uni life routine. In between holding down a part-time job and managing a total of 16 or so contact hours, I quite willingly allowed myself to become intimately acquainted with all the characters in the show. I sat on the couch and pretended to read lecture and tutorial notes – when what I really did was watch Jerry Springer, Oprah and Days back-to-back, then run for the bus, a train and another bus to uni. Why ponder Baudrillard and his theories on postmodernism when I could drop into the televisual world of Brady’s pub, to watch the residents of Salem dodge and cover up their latest scandals?
Two of the most remarkable storylines, which kept me coming back for more each day, were the Carrie Brady/Sami Brady/Austin Reed love triangle and – everyone’s favorite – Marlena’s demonic possession.
The Carrie, Sami and Austin storyline was a highlight for several reasons, one being that the actor who played Austin was probably the hottest guy on the show. And curiously, I was fascinated by the measures evil genius Sami would go to, to ruin her sister’s life. Using her best trickery (and some date-rape drugs), Sami trapped Austin, her sister’s true love, into sleeping with her, and chaos predictably ensued.
The action wasn’t exactly served up thick and fast – it was drawn out over several months, even years, as time operates on a different continuum in daytime TV land. But it was unquestionably entertaining. Sami disrupted weddings, faked her son’s paternity, and had a convenient bout of temporary amnesia, all to get her claws into Austin. It was total brain trash and I loved it.
A showdown between feuding sisters Sami and Carrie Brady erupts into a full-blown catfight.
In perhaps one of the most infamous storylines in soap history, town doctor Marlena Evans became possessed by the devil. Marlena’s character has been kept busy over the years, avoiding the clutches of evil villain Stefano DiMera, who has an unhealthy obsession with her. A quick summary on Wikipedia reveals she’s been kidnapped numerous times, survived a 30-storey plummet, been used as a surrogate for genetically engineered babies during a four-year coma, and been brainwashed to believe she was a serial killer, all while holding down a respectable psychiatry position at Salem hospital. See … working women can have it all!
Marlena became possessed by the devil after Stefano moved in next-door to her and began secretly sneaking into her apartment and opening her soul, by giving her mind-altering drugs. As ‘Maredevil’, she began to wreak havoc on the town’s residents, trying to kill her own child, transforming into a panther, sending a swarm of bees after Shawn D, and attempting to seduce priest Father John Black (formerly, just plain old John Black, one of the loves of Marlena’s life). It’s weirdly impressive how head writer James E. Reilly (also creator of Passions) conjured up the devil so effortlessly with yellow contact lenses, pale make-up and few voice-altering tricks.
Devil Marlena in the lead-up to her excorcism.
With the devil cast out of Salem and more conventional story lines back to the forefront, Days of Our Lives continues to intrigue me. I like to catch glimpses of it every now and then, to check in on Marlena and see how much the make-up department go overboard on the orange fake tan for E. J. DiMera (Salem’s own British racing car driver – and new villain extraordinaire). And it’s nice to see that Salem is still the site of the fountain of youth. How else can you explain the reverse ageing of resident cop Hope Brady? (Once the focus of another of the show’s most popular storylines – as the writers placed ever-more preposterous obstacles in the way of her union with improbably named soulmate, Bo.)
Days of Our Lives is testament to the fact that a little escapist fantasy every now and then can put your own life into complete perspective … and as a bonus, I’ll have some idea of what to do if I’m ever kidnapped or blackmailed by a member of the DiMera family.
Shannon Hick is marketing coordinator at the Wheeler Centre.
You can hear two Melbourne personalities confess their Unexpected Passions to Sam Pang at the Wheeler Centre next Friday 27 June at 7pm. The event is free, but bookings are recommended.
Patrick Somerville’s account of his new book being panned in the New York Times seems, at first glance, like another authorial whinge about being misunderstood by entitled book reviewers. But it’s actually a hugely impressive look at the nuances of what goes on when a creative work is reviewed. When Somerville first reads Janet Maslin’s not-very-impressed review of his novel This Bright River, he’s devastated. But then he realises, when his fictional character receives an email from an editor at the Times, that the reviewer has literally misunderstood the events of his prologue, colouring her reading of the entire book. What happens next is well worth the read.
Aaron Sorkin’s eagerly awaited new television series, The Newsroom, has been slammed as vigorously as his best-loved show The West Wing is celebrated. The internet is crowded with scathing critiques, but a considered essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books looks at the failure of the show in the context of Sorkin’s wider career and the state of contemporary television.
While television has historically been focused on the producer or even actor as creative agent, and film is still very beholden to the director as prime mover, contemporary television alone is a cult of the writer. Since the days of David Lynch, television has tended toward indulgence with its screenwriters. But Aaron Sorkin, who frequently and publicly claimed unequivocal authorship of The West Wing, was one of the earliest and most visible popularizers of this model in this latest generation of quality TV. The writer is king on television, in part because Aaron Sorkin staged a coup.
Ever dreamed of getting around on foot without breaking a sweat (or burning a single calorie)? Well, that reality has pretty much come true in the Spanish city of Vitoria-Gasteiz,where a mechanical moving walkway has been installed right through the centre of town. Lazy or genius? You decide.
The Atlantic, with help from author William Poundstone (Priceless), shares 11 ways that most of us make irrational buying decisions, based on psychology, comparison and our own half-spun logic. These are the inside tricks marketers already know full well – and employ to their advantage.
You walk into a high-end store, let’s say it’s Hermès, and you see a $7,000 bag. ‘Haha, that’s so stupid!’ you tell your friend. ‘Seven grand for a bag!’ Then you spot an awesome watch for $367. Compared to a Timex, that’s wildly over-expensive. But compared to the $7,000 price tag you just put to memory, it’s a steal. In this way, stores can massage or ‘anchor’ your expectations for spending.
WNYC’s Radiolab podcast has long endeared itself to listeners by virtue of colourful storytelling and vivid sound design, but its most recent full-length episode – ‘Colors’ – takes us literally across the spectrum, as hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explore colour from a variety of angles.
Along the way, they find animals with far broader colour perception than humans, treat colour-blindness and explore the violent secrets of gamboge’s ‘perfect yellow’ pigment.
But what really piqued our interest was the programme’s profile of (19th century British Prime Minister) William Gladstone. Studying The Odyssey and The Iliad, Gladstone – a devoted fan of Homer – noticed something unusual about the epic poems' descriptions of colour. Where did these inquiries lead? You’ll have to listen to find out; what transpires is fascinating stuff that left us questioning the fullness of our own perceptions.
This week’s Friday High Five focuses on the small screen. It’s old news that television has entered something of a golden age, with the advent of DVD box-sets enabling ongoing narratives with the feel and complexity of novels. But television writing is also pretty good these days. We share five favourites. And yes, spoiler alerts ahead (in the links) if you haven’t watched the shows.
Once upon a time, it was kind of embarassing for an actor to make the move from film to TV. But these days, everyone’s doing it (think Steve Buscemi and Kelly McDonald in Boardwalk Empire; Angelica Huston and Uma Thurman in Smash). A recently Vanity Fair article strongly argues the case that TV is, in fact, the better place to be these days:
TV is where the action is, the addictions forged, the dream machine operating on all cylinders. As I write this, the Academy Awards are a few days away, with The Artist the odds-on best-picture winner. Does anyone think The Artist is better than Mad Men?
The latest HBO show to become a cult favourite is Girls. It’s also the most written-about show of the moment. In the pilot, 25-year-old star Lena Dunham (also the show’s writer and creator) tells her parents, who have just financially cut her off, ‘I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.’
As a show about four female friends in New York City (more specifically: Brooklyn), all of them articulate hipsters, it lends itself to Sex in the City comparisons, musings on what it says about Dunham’s generation and even what the sex scenes say about the sexual mores of young women today.
And yesterday James Franco weighed in, writing that ‘The guys in the show are the biggest bunch of losers I’ve ever seen’ and weirdly calling its portrayal of men ‘fair payback … for Entourage’, which he sees as payback, in turn, for the ‘male dorks’ on Sex in the City.
Aaron ‘West Wing’ Sorkin makes his return to television with a typically talky new workplace-based HBO show, Newsroom, with a cast that includes Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer. Vanity Fair interviewed him about the show and his working method for their television issue. ‘I really like workplace shows,’ he told the magazine. ‘I like creating workplace families, and writing about people who are very good at what they do, and less good at everything else.’ He says:
‘I can only write the way I write. I’m not altering my writing style at all because it’s on HBO. Yes, I am able to – when I want to – use the language of adulthood when people get a little hot under the collar, which wasn’t something that I was able to do, say, on The West Wing. Frankly, I would have loved to be able to do it there.’
If you’d told us five years ago that a whole genre of television writing would be devoted to retelling the plot of shows that had already aired, we would have thought you were nuts. But recap culture is huge on the internet – and can be kinda addictive. The best recaps are like chatting about a show with someone far more articulate, witty and insightful than you.
Australia is a few episodes behind the US in Mad Men (on Pay TV and iTunes; free-to-air TV is far, far more behind). If you can’t resist peeking ahead, Nelle Engoron’s recaps on Salon are terrific reading, with astute analysis of the themes of the show. Locally, the Age runs tongue-in-cheek, gently satirical recaps of every episode of Masterchef, with a revolving cast that includes their Saturday TV columnist Ben Pobjie, author of the Superchef: A Parody.
The era of television-as-art is also the era of the TV auteur; many of the most-loved shows are as associated with their writer/creators as with their lead actors. (Just a few: Joss Whedon and Buffy, David Simon and The Wire, Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing, Matthew Weiner and Mad Men.) This week, the internet is buzzing with the firing of Dan Harmon, creator of quirky episodic comedy Community. The show follows the comic misadventures of a mismatched study group at an LA community college; but the setting and wacky characters are really just the props for Harmon to play with, as he combines killer one-liners and canny social observation with mad riffing on the construct of television itself.
Central character Abed, a TV addict with (never-quite-diagnosed) Asperger’s Syndrome, enables rapid-fire references that range from The Breakfast Club to Mad Men, Doctor Who and Goodfellas. A Wired profile of Harmon from last year revealed that Harmon, too, probably has Asperger’s Syndrome. The article is also a terrific look at how he crafts and creates the show, including a unique approach to narrative:
He wanted to codify the storytelling process – to find the hidden structure powering the movies and TV shows, even songs, he’d been absorbing since he was a kid. ‘I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this,’ he says of how stories are told. ‘Some simplicity.’ So he watched a lot of Die Hard, boiled down a lot of Joseph Campbell, and came up with the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps.
A terrific new coffee table book by the art director of the New Yorker, Françoise Mouly, collects her favourite covers that were either rejected (often for being too controversial) or have an intriguing story behind them. Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See comes with commentary by Mouly – and the images range from the shocking to the hilarious, to the absurd. Here’s a taste:
At the height of the Lewinsky affair, Art Spiegelman proposed this sketch titled ‘Clinton’s Last Request.’ ‘When a word like “blow job”, which you never dreamt of finding in the paper is on the front page every day,’ he explains, ‘I had to find a way for my image to be as explicit without being downright salacious.’
Sometimes it looks like an artist is poking fun at the more sedate New Yorker covers. This was proposed by M. Scott Miller, years before Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. He claims that the inspiration for this jeté is an experience familiar to anyone who follows classical ballet.
Fans of Wire and Treme, rejoice! David Simon, creator of what is generally agreed to be the Best Television Series Ever, is now blogging. Simon was a writer of journalism (and books) before he turned his hand to television, which means that his writing is well worth reading. What’s more, he’s opinionated and loves to share his opinions. The posts so far vary from an impassioned article on journalism, prize culture and the Pulitzer to bite-sized observations from the streets of Baltimore, or his own lounge room. Bookmark this one.
A Belgian not-for-profit, Responsible Young Drivers, has hit on a brilliant strategy for teaching teens that texting-and-driving is insanely dangerous. They tricked student drivers into believing that in order to pass their driving tests, they also had to demonstrate proficiency in texting while driving. The responses? ‘I’ll stop driving if this is introduced as law’, ‘People will die’ and ‘This is dangerous’.
It’s a bit like that urban myth, where a parent catches their kid smoking and forces them to chain-smoke an entire packet of cigarettes (and they never smoke again). From the looks on these kids' faces, the message has sunk in. This video is genuine car-crash viewing – almost literally.
Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House and co-founder of the New York Review of Books, has written optimistically for the former about why he believes ‘actual’ books will survive the digital age (as will bookshops and libraries), and will coexist with digital books:
Few technological victories are ever complete, and in the case of books this will be especially true. Bookstores will not disappear but will exploit digital technologies to increase their virtual and physical inventories, and perhaps become publishers themselves. So will libraries, whose vast and arcane holdings will soon be available to everyone everywhere.
All book lovers are fond of the idea that books are art. Chinese artist Lui Wei has taken the idea literally, creating intricate cityscape sculptures from stacks of schoolbooks, held together by steel rods and wood clamps. His sculptures include a range of iconic buildings from the Pentagon to Saint Peter’s Basilica, and depict cities in a state of metamorphosis, a concept familiar in his native Beijing.
We share five of our favourite links to news, reviews or articles that we’ve discovered on the web over the past week.
It’s a bit weird to think that one of the hottest topics of conversation in the literary world, from London to New York, is a book that began as a self-published fan fiction e-book, and is now an international erotic bestseller backed by a multi-million dollar deal.
Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek article, ‘Spanking Goes Mainstream’ on what she diagnoses as a ‘current vogue for domination’ (or, ‘the stylised theatre of female powerlessness’), epitomised by Fifty Shades and explored on HBO’s new zeitgeisty series, Girls. Roiphe says it’s a reaction to feminism, by women who find ‘free will a burden’. The internet has exploded in angry response.
For those wondering what all the fuss is about, The Vulture has produced ‘The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Fifty Shades of Grey’, including reasons why it’s just not sexy:
‘There are ways to write sex well. This is not that. This is like Tom Wolfe–bad sex scenes but punctuated by non-sex scenes that are gut-wrenchingly awful. A passage where we find out what Anastasia Steele looks like via girl-frowning-at-her-appearance-in-a-mirror exposition should be punishment for vehicular manslaughter in some states.’
Novelist, critic and Big Issue books editor Chris Flynn has been blogging a lot for Meanjin recently. This week, he writes about the influence of the Hatchet Job of the Year Award on the kinds of reviews that are being published; wondering if the rewarding of snark promoted by the award might be encouraging reviewers to be gratuitously mean, making it more about them than the work under consideration. ‘As a casual reviewer myself I’m beginning to wonder if I’m just not mean enough to be cut out for the task,’ he writes.
He singles out the infamous New York Times take-down of Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper (‘a textbook on how not to write fiction’) and Neil Genzlinger’s evisceration of television’s Game of Thrones – and its viewers (‘Dungeons and Dragons types [with a] fairly low reward threshold’).
Adam Mansbach (of Go the F**k to Sleep fame) has a very nice little satire in the New Yorker on the art of asking authors to ‘blurb’ (ie. endorse) your book. Here’s an excerpt from his pricing chart:
This is your first book. (+$100)
This is your first book in a decade. (+$150)
You’re still using the author photo from your ‘promising début’. (+$75)
I know you. (–$50)
I met you once. (–$20)
We made out at a party. (+$25)
We got drunk together at a literary festival once, but I could tell you were thinking the whole time about how now you could ask me for a blurb. (+$75)
One of the most popular articles we’ve published this year was our look at the pink-and-pastel hued ‘Lego for girls’, officially branded Lego Friends. This week, Salon reports that Lego executives have agreed to sit down to talk with SPARK, a group who hopes to get the company to include more characters in its standard Lego lines, and improve the Lego Friends line, which Time magazine compared to Disney Princess, ‘with its emphasis on physical appearance and limited career choices’.
Of course, Disney Princess – and Lego Friends – are fantastically successful with consumers, if not commentators. Salon is sceptical, thought its reporter says ‘it would be wise for a company founded nearly 50 years ago with the imperative to create toys for “girls and for boys” to remember that goal doesn’t mean “girl toys and boy toys.”’
The New York Times has launched a new regular series, ‘By the Book’, in which they interview writers about what they’re reading and recommending. They kick off with David Sedaris, who is characteristically entertaining and enlightening.
Among his confessions? ‘I like nonfiction books about people with wretched lives. The worse off the subjects, the more inclined I am to read about them. When it comes to fictional characters, I’m much less picky. Happy, confused, bitter: if I like the writing I’ll take all comers.’
The book that made him want to write? Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. ‘His short, simple sentences and familiar-seeming characters made writing look, if not exactly easy, then at least possible.’
In this week’s themed Friday High-Five, we look at five memorable interviews … some good, some so bad they’re good – but each of them fascinating in their own way.
We all know the ladies go gaga for Don Draper. But it seems like the men fall even harder for his real-life counterpart Jon Hamm, if his recent profiles are to be believed. ‘What’s it like to be too handsome?’ asked Guardian interviewer Stuart Jeffries, in an article published in yesterday’s Age. (‘That’s a ridiculous thing to say,’ replied Hamm.)
But Jeffries' comparisons to Pitt and Clooney were positively negative compared to Hamm’s Esquire interviewer last month, who dissolved into a so-bad-it’s-good puddle of cringeworthy prose in his presence:
When Jon Hamm talks about the St. Louis Cardinals, his face happily divides into the components of angular male handsomeness — chin, chin dimples, ruddy jaw, cheekbones, dark black eyes like a falcon’s or, better yet, an obscure snake-hunting eagle’s. Oh, why describe? Why winnow toward the accurate? He’s impossible, because he looks good and he looks like he is good, too. He dangles victory from his fingers, as if he had a key fob for every circumstance, as if his whole world started with an on button that works only when he is proximate. He treats good-looking the way you treat your favorite sweater: He leaves it on without thinking about it. He throws it on the chair next to his bed at night and knows where it’ll be in the morning.
Women can spectacularly collapse at the feet of fame, too. Take the example of this GQ interview with Avengers star Chris Evans, in which the journalist takes a ‘say yes to everything, try to be cool approach’. Which translates into something akin to Bridget Jones interviewing Colin Firth and repeatedly asking what it was like to do the scene where he climbed out of the lake with a wet shirt in Pride and Prejudice.
‘Since we’re both single and roughly the same age, it was hard for me not to treat our interview as a sort of date. Surprisingly, Chris did the same … [he] kept up frequent hand holding and lower-back touching, palm kissing and knee squeezing.’ She details forgetting to ask him all kinds of questions, getting so drunk she had to sleep it off in his guest bedroom, unwittingly telling a passing gossip reporter that her interview subject is ‘flirty’ and she has a crush on him, and recounts excruciating exchanges like this:
‘Is it going well?’ he asked.
‘It’s going really well,’ I said.
‘You’re nailing it.’
‘You’re nailing it also,’ he said. ‘I’m going to write an article about you.’
Robert Coleman’s interview with Bret Easton Ellis on the eve of his Wheeler Centre event has become, like the author himself, a cult classic. The self-aware Coleman confesses to his Three Thousand readers that he’d never finished any of Easton Ellis’s books and that he ‘substitut[ed] lack of research by watching American Psycho for the first time after nine beers only the night before’. In the weeks after the resulting interview was published, the phrase ‘doing a Robert Coleman’ was used as shorthand for ‘plunging in with no research and hoping for the best’.
After confessing his situation, the interview got interesting, in a car crash kind of way, but it was also surprisingly revealing. ‘This, this right now, happens very rarely, and this is the only time it has happened in Australia,’ Easton Ellis told him. ‘You get the more real me than anyone has gotten so far.’
B – With a straight face. Ask me the next question.
R – You’re going to piss your pants. Here goes: ‘re-reading recently…’
B – Haha, fuck!
R – Okay, going to cross that one out.
B – How do you feel about yourself now?
R – I’m sweating profusely. I’m slightly embarrassed. You have a piece of paper that I’d sincerely like to take back. I haven’t read your books … Also, I kind of think we’re better in conversation than with these questions.
B – I think we are.
R – Best interviews are not from a piece of paper, right?
B – Ohhhh, very good. Oh my, you have a lot of gall, don’t you? A lot of gall! Continue.
R – Was it difficult re-hashing and progressing the characters from Less Than Zero?
B – (laughing) … As if you give a shit!
It’s not always a bad idea to put yourself in the story. Nor to be slightly guileless: it can result in interview subjects relaxing and being surprisingly revealing. But you have to be very, very good to make it work. And it helps to be pretend-guileless: do your research, observe everything, but wear your intelligence lightly. Jon Ronson, who appeared at the Wheeler Centre last year to talk about his most recent book, The Psychopath Test, is a master at turning unassuming into a deadly effective art form.
Some of his journalism is archived online at the Guardian, including a version of his year-long series of interviews with Omar Bakri, the Islamic fundamentalist who asked Jon to taxi him to Officeworks to photocopy jihadist leaflets, and used Coca Cola money boxes to collect funds to defeat capitalism. There’s also an intriguing and disturbing interview with right-to-die activist Reverend George Exoo (whose clients were not terminally ill, just depressed) and a recent article about home chemists, including one Asperger’s man who was arrested for trying to split the atom in his kitchen.
Lynn Barber’s profiles, published in the Guardian, are never boring. They’re sharp, observant, brilliantly written – and absolutely fearless. (Incidentally, Lynn herself is far from boring: she wrote An Education, a memoir that was filmed with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, and launched the career of Carey Mulligan.)
For instance, interviewing Alain De Botton in 2009, she observed, ‘On the one hand he is friendly, charming and polite; on the other, there is something almost repellent about his politeness.’
Here’s a fascinating titbit, on his relationship with his ‘cruel tyrant’ father, from the interview:
‘I wrote four books in his lifetime and with each one he would manage to say something absolutely vile – I remember him in earshot saying: “I don’t think he’s succeeded with this one” – and it was tough to hear. But then I learnt that he’d sent copies of my books to his friends, so … it was a strange and schizophrenic, very troubled, relationship.’
We began our Monday morning at the Wheeler Centre with a bit of a giggle, after stumbling on a very funny website that brings literary characters to (startlingly) real life.
The creator of The Composites has gone through some of literature’s most beloved books – and run passages describing their characters through police composite sketch software. The results are very different from Hollywood imaginings of the same characters.
Flaubert described Emma Bovary thus:
She was pale all over, white as a sheet; the skin of her nose was drawn at the nostrils, her eyes looked at you vaguely. After discovering three grey hairs on her temples, she talked much of her old age…Her eyelids seemed chiseled expressly for her long amorous looks in which the pupil disappeared, while a strong inspiration expanded her delicate nostrils and raised the fleshy corner of her lips, shaded in the light by a little black down.
Here is Emma Bovary, as imagined by The Composites:
And here she is, as imagined by Hollywood in 1949 (played by Jennifer Jones):
And by the BBC in 2000 (played by Frances O’Connor):
This clever little exercise by The Composites is a bit of fun, but it’s also a stark illustration of the issues that can arise in translating the world of the page – which leaves gaps for the reader’s imagination – to the visual realm.
What’s a more faithful translation: the strict adherence to details that results in the eerie police sketches of The Composites, or those of film and television makers? The latter tend to present unusually attractive versions of even the most ordinary characters – using props such as messy hair, sloppy cardigans, glasses or unflattering make-up to signal that they’re supposed to be ordinary mortals.
So, a literary character made flesh is almost always more glamorous than the version on the page. But then again, Emma Bovary is an attractive, charismatic woman – not reflected at all in the strangely empty composite sketch, but captured in the screen versions. It’s the essence of the character rather than their physical description that’s most important, surely?
One of the most controversial literary casting decisions of recent times was that to cast British-Nigerian actor Sophie Okonedo as Aisha in The Slap. This meant her character’s background was changed from Indian to Mauritian. Some fans of the book protested, but author Christos Tsiolkas was unbothered. What mattered for Tsiolkas, said producer Robert Connolly, was that ‘Aisha regards herself as an outsider to mainstream Australia, a common bond that links her to Hector and his close-knit Greek family’. And she did a brilliantly job of capturing ‘Aisha’. Carbon-copy looks had little to do with it.
As The Slap writer Kris Myrska told the Wheeler Centre, translation from literature (or real life) to the screen often has nothing to do with upping the glamour quotient – decisions can be made for practical reasons, like how difficult a scene is to shoot. Also a writer on The King, the telemovie about the life of Graeme Kennedy, Myrska said complaints made about the ‘accuracy’ of that show included that Kennedy was depicted drinking brown spirits, when he preferred white. Why? ‘Clear fluid reads as water on the screen, while brown liquid says booze.’
In Moneyball, an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book, similar casting decisions were made for practical reasons. Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, whose real-life counterpart, Paul DePodesta, asked to have his name changed for the movie. The real-life DePodesta looks nothing like the chubby, child-like Hill; he’s lean and handsome. And far from being an Ivy League baseball outsider (like Hill’s character), he started his career as an advance scout for the Cleveland Indians. But the script – and the casting decision – made changes to amp up the dramatic contrast with Brad Pitt’s golden boy Billy Beane. ‘I was jarred by it when I first heard it, and then I thought, “My god, it could be brilliant,”’ Michael Lewis told Hollywood Reporter. ‘[Jonah Hill] is physically so unlike everybody else in this environment that it has a metaphoric power and it works brilliantly. His performance is spectacular.’
Sometimes it’s the other way round. What works on the page doesn’t ring true when translated too faithfully to the screen. Reviewing Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in the New Yorker recently, David Denby made just this point. He called the film, about a bright 11-year-old boy coping with his father’s 9/11 death in his own eccentric fashion, ‘an example of what happens when an author’s fluent literary conceits give way to the sight of all-too-human people moving and talking in the real-world spaces of a movie’:
‘Onscreen … the sound of a hyper-articulate boy talking semi-nonsense becomes very hard to take … Embodied, Oskar is a pain. After a while, we find ourselves thinking not of grief but of entitled kids who have been praised for every bright remark they’ve ever made.’
Of course, not everyone agrees with Denby – the film is nominated for Best Picture in this year’s Oscars race. Six of nine nominees in the category are literary adaptations.
And it’s been suggested recently that, in the wake of The Slap’s success, more screen adaptations could provide a much-needed boost to Australian books.
It seems that, for all its issues, the relationship between page and screen is more popular than ever.
To coincide with the screening of the screen adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas' novel The Slap, the first episode of which aired on the ABC last week, we’re republishing a piece by Kris Mrksa. It was originally published under the title, ‘The Truth in 42 Minutes’ on this site in November last year. Kris is one of the screenwriters to have adapted The Slap for television.
One of the things that first attracted me to script writing was that there could be no right or wrong. A TV script might be boring, vapid, clichéd or pretentious, but not incorrect. Or so I thought, until I joined the Underbelly team.
You know that thing it says at the start, “based on events”? Well, the Underbelly producers take that very seriously. Huge wedges of photocopied research material soon started to arrive at my home in express post packs, and I was expected not only to absorb it, but turn it into drama.
Readers are accustomed to literature that takes liberties with real characters, recasting them in fanciful and speculative roles, but their square-eyed opposite numbers are far less tolerant. Indeed, most of the criticism of Underbelly focussed on its historical accuracy. Lapses were pounced upon with glee, as a sign that the show had sold out.
Interestingly, the people who have the most cause to be offended by the liberties that Underbelly takes – the crooks themselves – are usually very forgiving. I also co-wrote The King, a telemovie about the life of Graham Kennedy, and I reckon I’m far more likely to be whacked by one of Gra Gra’s former gag writers than I am by any of the drug peddling scumbags I’ve depicted in Underbelly.
After The King premiered there was an avalanche of criticism, not focussed on its artistic merits, but on its accuracy. Kennedy was depicted as drinking brown spirits, while the truth is that he preferred white. He was shown driving to Noeline Brown’s place in a Rolls Royce, while in fact he’d traded the Roller in for a Mercedes by that time.
Such crimes against ‘The Truth’ deserve to be exposed in the popular press, and they were. Repeatedly. Yet there were practical explanations for these outrageous lapses. Clear fluid reads as water on the screen, while brown liquid says booze. And we could only afford a limited number of vintage luxury cars, unlike the King of TV himself.
Turning real lives into an hour or two of commercial television is a wrestle, and compromise is inevitable. But if liberties are taken they are more likely to be due to something boring like the budget bottom-line than a grubby writer’s desire to sex the story up.
Right now I’m working on a TV adaptation of The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas’ world conquering novel; a book which aroused passionate feelings among the literati. The characters aren’t real of course, so Hector and Harry won’t be coming round to my place to rough me up. But I do wonder if I’ll ever feel safe in a book shop again.
Kris Mrksa is a Melbourne-based writer and script editor. In the course of a 13-year career he has won many prizes and accolades, including two AFI Awards.
The Wheeler Centre is hosting a series of crime-related events we’re calling Law & Order Week from 7-10 November.
A new book claims that television shows such as Sesame Street propagate radical left-wing ideology. Newspapers across the world – including this Telegraph report, taken up in The Age – have reported on the publication of Primetime Propaganda, by US conservative columnist Ben Shapiro. Shapiro interviewed leading producers of shows like Sesame Street, and concluded they are trying to “shape America in their own leftist image”. This is how the Independent summarised the book’s findings: “The TV series Friends undermined family values; Sesame Street taught ethnic minorities about civil disobedience; Happy Days had a subtle anti-Vietnam subtext; and the 1980s cop show MacGyver tried to persuade pistol-packing Americans that guns are bad”.
It’s not the first time Sesame Street or its host network, the Public Broadcasting Service, have come under political fire – and it tends to come from both sides of politics. Sesame Street has regularly been accused of promoting a gay agenda. However, it’s also been criticised for its depiction of women and Latinos as well as for being “too wholesome” – here’s a Time review from 1970. In that same year, in just its second season, it was banned in the southern US state of Mississippi. Conversely, in 1973, Sesame Street was denounced in the USSR as “the latest example of United States cultural imperialism”. Rock, meet hard place. As of 2009, the show had won 118 Emmy awards.
Happy International Children’s Day.
A Perth-based fan of the Tim Winton classic Cloudstreet believes she’s narrowed the location of Tim Winton’s much-loved novel to the inner-city suburb of West Leederville. Heidi Ciriello has identified West Leederville’s Kimberley Street as the most likely location of the flaking mansion shared for two decades by the Pickles and Lambs.
The report of readers scouring the streets of a city in search of a house that might or might not be the template for a house in a book is testament to the place the novel holds in many readers' hearts. In a review of a three-part television adaptation in the May edition of The Monthly, MJ Hyland wrote of the novel, “Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is a compassionate masterpiece, which is to Australians what George Orwell’s 1984 is to the English and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird is to Americans.” In fact, in 2003, Cloudstreet topped an ABC/Australian Society of Authors poll of Australians' favourite Australian books. The following, it placed fifth in the ABC’s My Favourite Book promotion, ranking Australians' favourite books from anywhere. The book has also been adapted for the stage by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo.
The second part of the Cloudstreet adaptation, with a screenplay written by the author, airs this Sunday night on the cable channel Showtime. The adaptation has received mixed reviews. The Australian’s Michael Bodey has called the lead performances “inch-perfect”, characterising the lavish production “one of the best miniseries that we’ve produced here, [recalling] some of the best stuff Kennedy-Miller made in the 80s.” Hyland wrote, “Most of the novel’s deft magic is only thinly realised in what is often rushed and superficial summary.” Here’s what the publicity-shy Tim Winton makes of it all and here’s a Slow TV interview with director Matthew Saville on adapting the novel for the small screen.
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