TJROB

February 25, 2010

I have really, really enjoyed the first issue of The Jewish Review of Books. I’ve especially enjoyed reading the 11X19 print edition, particularly since Abe Socher’s introduction to the publication talks about the presumed death of print as prophesied by Dr. Egon Spengler. It can still be enjoyed online of course.

The content is quite varied, with contributions as disparate as Harvey Pekar, Dara Horn (writing on Isaac Rosenfeld and the death of the luftmentsch) and Hillel Halkin (who just strikes me as a baller).

Midway through his terrific new memoir Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life, Michael Greenberg describes pitching a potential film to someone he considers an up-and-coming directer.

I had pitched him a story I had lying around: A police reporter affects the outcome of the crimes he covers, then writes about them, hiding his involvement. ‘That’s the plot of Superman,’ he said without hesitation. That I had not considered this similarity myself made me realize I was out of my league.

I too felt that way, laughing at the description. Who would think to explain Superman this way? To boil it down to this one particular element of the story? Not a Superman that emphasizes heroism, immigration, America, or the continuing capacity for reinvention, but a Superman defined by his reportage.

This description of the Superman saga is akin to Gordon Hutner’s great description of the plot of The Sun Also Rises in What America Read:

The Sun Also Rises tells of an American newspaper writer with a war injury living in Paris who drinks heavily and gets involved in a frustrating romance with a promiscuous aristocrat.

Yes, both descriptions are true, but they leave out too many of the elements we consider essential to have much worth. Where is World War I in this description of TSAR? As beneath the Iceberg as in Hem’s account; or the trip to Spain? or Robert Cohn?

No, Greenberg’s pitch doesn’t quite describe Superman. Writing reportage that leaves Superman out of the story is something that Clark Kent could never do. Superman, after all, isn’t Batman trying to stay in the Shadows, more powerful, as the Burton films tell us, as an urban legend than a known quantity. It’s the uncertainty of Badman that makes him so terrifying in Burton’s gothic vision.

So I briefly considered writing a post arguing that Greenberg should write Superman. Beg, Borrow, Steal is one of the best books I’ve read recently. The prose is taught, unadorned but affecting, and the book is filled with funny moments that magnify Greenberg’s intellectualism. Moreover, his life experiences show that he can write anything. At least, he’s had to in order to make a living. But, in the end, I can’t see his style working for the Man of Steel. Maybe a one-shot or limited series about Clark Kent, something like “Under a Yellow Sun.”

No, in the end this is a post about the director who made the Superman connection. Does it show an ability to distill plots down to their barest elements? Or the ability to connect ideas to myth? Either way, it’s yet further proof of an idea in Steve Hely‘s How I Became a Famous Novelist: that Hollywood thinks on a different scale than other media.

“You’re realizing I’m much better than you at this, right?…I deal in movies. I need to get four, five million people watching, minimum, or I’m on my ass in this town. I can’t afford to fuck around like you can.”

How I Became a Famous Novelist was a terrifically entertaining book and I hope it was a big success. But while I was reading it, I kept trying to think what type of movie it would be, how I would adapt it. Oddly, I think the only way to go is to turn it into an art movie, something with an extremely limited release that can stay true to the characters and critique.

Or maybe I just don’t think about things on the right scale.

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If you aren’t yet doing so, check out The New Republic‘s new online book review. It’s great.

One of the most interesting attributes of comic books as a media form is the frequency with which creative teams change. It’s rare to see a show-runner leave a successful TV show, and even rarer to see multiple executive producers within a year. (Commander in Chief, is the rare recent exception, but one that hardly bodes well for the system’s prospects.) Movies sometimes change personal between sequels, but, most likely, no-one gave thought to the prospect of the sequel before the first movie was made. Creators also sometimes change in genre fiction, especially after the initial creator has passed (like the new Bond novels), but authors hardly change in serious fiction. Although I’d pay money to read Thomas Pynchon write a Zuckerman novel, it’s not something anyone’s likely to see.

It’s really quite amazing how regularly comics change their creative teams. It’s such an established part of the genre that we don’t really think about it, yet something truly different and worth thinking about. Comics exist within a push-pull of long-term storylines and attracting new readers; being “true” to a character’s history and reinvention; remaining within continuity and a continuum and being accessible to anyone who buys the issue. Some stories, like “Final Crisis,” don’t even pretend to be comprehensible to the amateur reader, but other comics, like Superman, have to belong to everyone. Superman is such an American myth that any American needs to be able to read Superman and understand what’s going on. It’s why you can’t do anything truly radical to the character (like make him electric blue!)–at least not for too long. Also, while a storyline may be very good on its own (like upgrading Metropolis), there’s a strong chance that it will be diminished by later authors. Frank Miller’s “dark” superhero stories of the 80’s were brilliant, but much of what came after only cheapened them.

So it is that the first issue of the James Robinson run on Superman is just so-so. Robinson is one of the best authors working in comics. His Starman was probably the best superhero comic of the 90’s/early 200s; at least the most consistently great. Robinson made us care about every aspect of the character’s universe. His history, his city, his rogues gallery, his personal life. The lives of the families in the city. It was a completely unique world. His recent run on Batman was highly enjoyable, and one of the better Two-Face stories, even if not so unique. But his Superman, while promising, leaves a lot to be desired. Robinson clearly wants us to care about the characters, but his initial attempts (let’s let Krypto narrate part of the issue!) fell flat. Robinson has more than earned the benefit of the doubt (though, there’s always the danger that some characters are just too stupid to succeed) but on it’s own, Superman 677 was not an especially good issue and only time will tell if Robinson, a great writer, is a great writer of Superman.

Watchmen and Found

March 6, 2008

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Earlier today, Zack Snyder, director of the upcoming Watchmen adaptation, released photos of the aforementioned men. While part of me wants to get really excited, most of me is simply sick to my stomach. It’s no secret that the Saladeers are none too fond of Snyder’s 300; indeed, D. med Butwithawhimper’s post is the number one google hit for “300 worst movie ever.” As the picture of Rorschach demonstrates, The Watchmen photos exhibit the same faithfulness to the source material as Snyder’s 300: the look of the film is basically the same as the comic, if a little darker in color. Still, the visual look isn’t everything. As I’ve argued before, imitation of a visual style is not a particularly successful way of creating art. From another side, Benjamin argues in “The Task of the Translator” that the key in translation is not to translate word for word, but to find the essential (and here I mean relating to essence) translation, the one that best corresponds to the broader meaning of the piece. Snyder’s 300 is an interesting proof for Benjamin’s theory, as Benjamin discussed languages rather than media. Still, it’s safe to say that part of the reason 300 was so poor was its fidelity to the literal level of the source rather than its broader meaning. This is a mistake that Snyder seems to be making with Watchmen. His Comedian looks like the Comedian, yet the film version visually resembles the Punisher rather than the more nuanced ironic Comedian of the comic.

And speaking of Benjamin…I’ve managed to find some weird stuff in books recently. I discovered a letter about Hebrew grammar between people using Latin aliases, and I found a grocery list that I wrote last year in the Widener Library Copy of the Baer edition of Shebet Yehuda. I still haven’t bought half of those things. But my best recent find came from a text by Walter Benjamin. I’d somehow managed to read every essay in Illuminations except for “The Image of Proust,” and decided to correct that mistake. Lo and behold, this great quote about Proust, viz:

“Proust was most resourceful in creating complications. Once, late at night, he dropped in on Princess Clermont-Tonnerre and made his staying dependent on someone bringing him his medicine from his house. He sent a valet for it, giving him a lengthy description of the neighborhood and of the house. Finally he said: “You cannot miss it. It is the only window on the Boulevard Haussmann in which there still is a light burning!” Everything but the house number! Anyone who has tried to get the address of a brothel in a strange city and has received the most long-winded directions, everything but the name of the street and the house number, will understand what is meant here and what the connection is with Proust’s love of ceremony…”

If only all literary theorists explained textual nuances with stories about trying to find brothels.

After Thursday’s episode, I’m not so sure that “Lost” still deserves to be reckoned as one of the greatest shows on TV. Don’t get me wrong, the episode was still good, the acting still crisp and the story still intriguing, but things aren’t quite the same over on the main, non-Hydra Island. The “Lost” that we fell in love with is gone. Gone is the focus on character and exploration of personal redemption; in its place, mystery and obscurity for the sake of obscurity, the introduction of ever more and more organizations for the sake of further narrative complications, and the transformation of Walt into a spiritual Ghost Walt because of the producer’s inability to stop the effects of aging. For shame, Carlton Cuse, for shame.

I’ll say right off the bat that it is without a doubt too soon to write off “Lost.” The third season got off to a slow start, with the show turning into a bizarre version of Cool Hand Luke as Sawyer and Freckles went to work on a chain gang for the others.

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He Just Bugs the Establishment!

Still, things righted themselves in the end, and season 3 turned out to be incredibly entertaining. If not quite as good as season 1, the show was certainly better than in season 2, and the season 3 finale introduced wonderful new storytelling opportunities that had the show poised for greatness. Unfortunately, that potential is currently being squandered. The creators have unleashed a torrent of new characters rather than working them in gradually; instead of a flash(back/forward) focusing on an individual castaway or other, we received a jumbled flashback of multiple characters. It’s as if the show started to listen to its critics, started to listen to those who said everything was moving too slowly and that nothing was being revealed (legitimate criticisms), only the creators didn’t know what to do and decided just too move everything really fast and to have characters ask direct questions (yet without answers).

Although past experience has told me that the show will probably recover, there are more than a few reasons for concern. To adumbrate but a few:

1) Poor track record with new characters. There have only been two unmitigated successful additions to the main cast: Ben and Desmond. Now think about just how many characters they’ve introduced. Every other one, including Juliet and Ekko, has had a problematic relationship with the show. All the (new) tailies were killed off, casting a pall over the entirety of season 2. Only Bernard is escaped alone to tell thee, and he was a preexisting character. Why were so many new faces introduced only to be killed-off? Were there stories necessary? Why does no-one ever grieve? Each new character presents new challenges, and the show rarely rises to the task, leaving a mess of unsolved problems. We’re still waiting on the Desmond-Odysseus connection and any number of other mysteries. Read the rest of this entry »

Catching Up With…Ourselves

February 6, 2008

With all the movie coverage, football prognostications, and unscheduled breaks, I’ve gotten away from some of my favorite features here at Yesterday’s Salad. And while I know that word of the day columns and mass transit news are of absolutely no interest to most of our readers, herewith are a few tidbits for those whose eyes are brightened with nary a word.

Actually, our WORD OF THE DAY comes to us from the lede to The New York Times article about the Giant’s superbowl victory:

“The Giants were not even supposed to be here, taking an unlikely playoff path through the behemoths of their conference and regarded, once they alighted on Super Bowl XLII, as little more than charming foils for the New England Patriots’ assault on immortality.”

Certainly more playful than your average sports recap (where else are the Giants referred to as “charming foils”?), the lede features one truly bizarre stylistic use, the word “alight.” According to the OED, “alight” primarily refers to landing from above or dismounting from a horse, whence the obsolete definition, “To stop in a course or journey, to arrive.” [There’s also another obsolete verb alight meaning, natch, to make light, and another to lighten up or set fire.] But if it can’t actually be said that the Giants fell from the sky, how did they alight upon the Superbowl?

Another definition of “alight” is “To land, fall, or come upon anything without design,” as in this quote from The Great Gatsby: “I realized that so far his suspicions hadn’t alighted on Tom.” If so, can it really be said that the Giants came upon the Superbowl without design? Did no-one in the front office divine plans to make the Superbowl? Someone in the organization must have had a plan to make the Superbowl, didn’t they?

The Times‘ usage is in fitting with the general archaic sense of the word given by Merriam Webster, to come by chance. Though not as intricate as some of the others we’ve seen, it’ll serve us uncouth Americans quite well. Either way, it’s great to see an archaic sense of an obscure word making the lede to the cover article.