Category Archives: Literature

Carrie Fisher: Actress, Writer, Freedom Fighter

carrie

 

We all know that the witty, insightful actress and writer Carrie Fisher, who died today at age 60, began her career as an actress in the 1970s. She became a Hollywood star at age 20 when Star Wars was released in 1977. While many know that she went on to write books, screenplays and stage shows, far fewer people know that she was also a sought-after Hollywood script doctor. During the 1990s, she was frequently hired to repair weak screenplays, working on such movies as Hook, Sister Act, Lethal Weapon 3 and The Wedding Singer. The work was lucrative, but she was never credited by name as a writer for any of the films whose scripts she saved. (She is said to have been one of the script doctors who tried but failed to bring life to all three of the Star Wars prequel scripts, too.)
 

Fisher’s writing talents are evident from her memoirs, in her one-woman theatrical show, Wishful Drinking, and in the screenplay based on her autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. In late 2001, when the nation was deeply shaken after the September 11 attacks and frightened lawmakers began urging each other to limit Americans’ freedoms, Carrie Fisher donated an autographed copy of the screenplay for Postcards from the Edge to an auction of celebrity artifacts to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union. I was the winner of that auction, and my Carrie Fisher-autographed script is one of my prized possessions.

Fisher grew up as Hollywood royalty, the child of popular singer Eddie Fisher and America’s sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds, and was later the stepdaughter of Elizabeth Taylor and wife of musician Paul Simon. Despite such privilege, she also grew up seeing the seedy side of fame: her parents’ scandalous and very public divorce (her father left Debbie for Elizabeth); her father’s addiction to speed; and her mother’s financial catastrophes brought on by marriages to faithless gamblers who stole her money, diverted Debbie’s savings to their mistresses and brought prostitutes into their home.

In Fisher’s first big film role (in Warren Beatty’s film Shampoo,) she  played a jaded teenager who propositions the much older character played by Beatty.  Her character’s world-weary attitude and hard-edged directness in Shampoo show up again in her portrayals of Princess Leia in the first three Star Wars films. By her twenties, she was self-medicating and addicted to drugs. It was only when she learned that she had bipolar disorder that the reasons for her mood swings, depressions and hunger for intoxicants became clear to her. She sought to wean herself from her addictions and began to divert her insecurities and keen observations into her writing.

To the benefit of her readers, she shared her stories of her own depression, self-loathing, addictions and mental disorders, first through her art, then through memoirs and interviews. Fisher fought to destigmatize mental illness and encouraged people to be honest with themselves and others, to get help and to accept themselves as imperfect but worthy of love and understanding. For a woman who had grown up believing that putting on a perfect façade and never letting the world see her sweat was of paramount importance, her journey toward self-acceptance and her willingness to tell the world of her flaws and illness and her ultimate freedom from addiction was a brave one.

From her earliest days, Fisher had a steely confidence on screen and spoke in an authoritative voice that didn’t jibe with her fresh, youthful beauty. Her world-weary delivery and seeming steeliness made her a compelling Leia Organa. On screen she was a princess and the leader of a galactic rebellion, but behind her seeming confidence was enormous self-doubt. While her insecurities led her to dangerously self-defeating impulses in her youth, they also brought her to  deep insights which she used to fuel the raw, honest, hilarious but brutally true stories she wrote of her life. She showed us how smart, beautiful, rich and talented people could be just as fearful, self-defeating and confused as the rest of us.

Carrie Fisher was a woman who spent her life creating fictions through her acting and writing, but she lived her own life as fiercely and honestly as she was able. She laid herself bare in her writings, one-woman shows and interviews, including her recent discussion of her life and work with NPR’s Terry Gross. She laughed at herself before anyone else had a chance to, and let us know that it was okay to fail, to fear, to fall. Even a Hollywood princess is only human.

Just this year, the Harvard Humanist Hub gave Fisher the Outstanding Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, saying that “her forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness, and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy.”

In Carrie Fisher’s memory, I’m making a donation to the ACLU today, because the leader of the rebel alliance would want us to keep up the good fight against the demagogues who hope to round us up, wall us off and shut us up. Carrie Fisher was, after all, the woman who embodied Princess Leia Organa, leader of the rebellion against the ruthless Empire. Making a donation to keep civil liberties safe seems like a small but meaningful thing to do to honor someone who spoke her mind, made us laugh and brought us so much joy through her work. Won’t you join me?

Charles Dickens: “Mankind Was My Business”

Christmas Carol Cover

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

—A Christmas Carol

In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story.  Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.

When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.

This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.

In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.

Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published on this day, 143 years ago.

 

 

Nihilism and Nightlights

little-man

The Little Man movie rating system has been used by the San Francisco Chronicle since 1942. The excited Little Man above signifies a critic’s greatest satisfaction and is equivalent to a four-star rating.

• • • • • • •

The following is one of a series of six film review parodies I wrote for the Sunday Punch section of the San Francisco Chronicle some years ago. In each piece I wrote about outrageous, nonexistent foreign films and reviewed them in the voice of a pompous film critic. This was the second parody of the six.

• • • • • • •

Among the new foreign film releases this season are two films by female directors: Bebe Francobolli’s ode to Dada, Ciao Chow Chow, and Christiane de Geronimo’s children’s thriller, Nightlight.

Francobolli is the daughter of the Suprematist painter Mazlow Molotov (“The Black Russian”) and Constructivist painter Kiri de Kulpe Kloonig (a former courtesan known as “The Dutch Treat”). Bebe’s parents met in Rome at an international stamp-collecting convention and became Italian citizens before their only child was born.

Named Bebe Francobolli (literally Baby Postage Stamps) after her parents’ avocation, she refused to become a philatelist and rejected the art of her ancestors. She turned to Dada, the nihilistic movement that created “non-art,” laughed at overly serious artists and spawned Surrealism.

These influences can be seen clearly in Ciao Chow Chow, in which Bebe herself stars. Translated from Italian into English, and then back into Italian again, with no subtitles, the film begins and ends with Bebe waving goodbye to her beloved Chow dog, Antipasto, symbol of her lost youth and of her ridiculous early films.

Ciao is a parody of a self-parody, masterful in its simplicity and in its bold statement that life is to be laughed at, and that nothing is serious or sacred.

Basically nihilistic, with Dadaist subject matter and camera angles, this film is convoluted and uneven, personalized and stylized, and will make no sense to anyone who has not seen Bebe’s early travelogue films. Yet, Bebe promises that it will be her last film work, and that alone has prompted critical acclaim.

Avant-garde director Christiane de Geronimo’s Nightlight tells the terrifying story of the night the Mickey Mouse nightlight burned out in the Turner household. Little Bobby Turner is forced to face The Clown Puppet, The Vicious Animal Slippers and The Dreaded Man from Under the Bed.

Filmed in black and white, Nightlight captures the shadowy horror of every child’s bedroom, and forces even the adult viewer to come to grips with The Thing in the Closet. Not for the squeamish.

De Geronimo’s earlier attempts at children’s thrillers include The Teddy Bear with No Face, Scream, Barbie, Scream and Revenge of the Katzenjammer Kids, in which comic-strip characters from the past are set loose on an unwitting Nebraska farm town.

Nightlight, the third of her bedtime stories series, features the late French film star Estella de Lumiere in her final role before the dreadful accident on the set of Murder on the Trampoline.

Next month, two recent remakes: Canadian filmmaker and ice-hockey champion Pete Steed’s sport-oriented version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Fujiko Shiatsu’s sumo wrestling remake of The Music Man.

 

Dylan: The Man Who Knows Which Way the Wind Blows

“Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows”

—From “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

The Nobel Committee’s decision to honor folksinging musical legend Bob Dylan with a Nobel Prize in Literature is inspired.

One of history’s most influential songwriters and lyricists,  Bob Dylan has meandered through the musical disciplines of folk and protest songs, blues, pop and rock and come out the other end with his own amalgam of raw, bleating authenticity, intimacy, cynicism and wordplay. It’s hard to think of a voice that has threaded its way into the world’s consciousness more powerfully over the past half century.

The Nobel Committee has long sought out fresh voices that speak to the human condition in original and insightful ways. In past years the committee has honored writers who have explored enduring topics including folk tales, race and feminism, violence, poverty, segregation and myth through prose, poetry, reportage and social criticism. This year marks the first time a Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to a musician for his lyrical output. Since the prize was established in 1901, the Nobel Committee has sought to celebrate voices that express eternal conflicts, awaken minds and deepen compassion, and the work of Bob Dylan encompasses all of these themes.

Dylan’s voice was the urgent social conscience of the 1960s. The stripped-down simplicity of his musical messages was disarming, yet he convinced the world to recognize folk as a sophisticated medium and a driving social force. With his storytelling, Dylan altered the way we think and hear, and in so doing he changed the world.

 

How Shakespeare Sounded in Will’s Own Time

When I was a teen, I used to read Shakespeare plays aloud with my mother, a high school English teacher, for fun during summer vacations. Mom and I tended toward the tragedies, but when my own daughter and I read Shakespeare’s plays during her high school summer vacations, we read most of his comedies together. We’d take two different well-footnoted editions of his works and our dog with us on a walk to the park. There the three of us would sit in the sunshine while Lily and I read through an act or two of As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Lily and I usually only got through one act a day because as we read, we compared the footnotes in each edition to better understand the allusions and puns and to get pronunciation suggestions along the way. Together we delighted in just how funny Shakespeare’s plays really are—how bawdy, how full of puns and mischief and made-up words his plays are! Lily had a knack for understanding Shakespeare, but we both benefited greatly from reading the footnotes so we could catch the jokes and puns and historical background that we otherwise would have missed. Pronunciation and word meanings have changed so much over 400 years that even Anglophiles and literature fans can miss a great deal of Shakespeare’s naughty wit without a bit of context.

This fascinating little video featuring English linguist David Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, gives examples of how Shakespeare’s plays sounded when spoken during the playwright’s own lifetime, and explains some of the jokes that modern audiences miss. Give it a listen.

The Amorous Adventures of Bigfoot

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Above: A classic story of Bigfoot’s sexcapades from the late, lamented Weekly World News

There’s apparently a burgeoning market for a type of writing that could likely make me a tidy living if I didn’t mind writing sketchy, skeevy stories for money: it’s mythical creature erotica. I could even customize it for different localities and sell it in downloadable format on Amazon. Numerous enterprising young writers are making living wages by doing just that for an array of erotic niche markets: Minotaur erotica, troll porn, stories of hot and heavy encounters with dinosaurs and the ever-popular stories of scantily clad 40-foot-tall women running amok. (The market for stories about giant women is apparently surprisingly large according to David Sedaris.) If I wrote naughty Seattle-based mythical creature stories, I think the first one would have to begin like this:

“Brooke’s heaving bosom strained at the zipper of her olive green REI hoodie. Her pegged jeans were ripped and frayed, and she’d already lost a grande flat white AND a Teva sandal in the tussle with the eight-foot-tall beast. Drizzle was falling on the sculpture park, and the musky fur of the hairy behemoth who had dragged her away from the rhododendrons and toward the water began to curl in the damp air. She twisted and turned in the monster’s grip, and as he held her aloft, the big-footed brute was momentarily blinded by the glare from her septum ring which dazzled his monstrously large yet limpid eyes.

‘Ooook! Ook hmmmurgle’ he growled and grumbled, his breath reeking of salmon. He pulled her down hard into his chest, then fumbled for her iPhone. Grabbing it roughly from her hands before she could text her yoga teacher to ask for help, Sasquatch hurled Brooke’s last connection to civilization into Elliott Bay before he flung her over his matted shoulder with his huge, hirsute arms. Her asymmetrical lavender hair flew into his face, her tattooed fists bashed and battered his hot, hairy back, but he only grunted his assent: he liked his hipsters nice and feisty.”

But don’t you worry—in the end it turns out that our heroine and her hairy antagonist are just heavily into role-play. Brooke uses her safe word, her big-footed boyfriend respects her boundaries, and they put on vintage flannel shirts and then go out for Moscow mules and truffle fries at their favorite Belltown pub afterwards. It IS Seattle, after all.

I’ve a Bee in My Bonnet for Pop Sonnets

*Pop Sonnets - Eric Didricksen

If William Shakespeare were alive today and writing lyrics to pop anthems, what would they sound like? Thanks to Erik Didricksen‘s Pop Sonnets blog, we now know. Pop Sonnets (popsonnet.tumblr.com) has given the Shakespearean treatment to dozens of tunes from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“My fate now seal’d, ’tis plain for all to see: The wind’s direction matters not to me”) to Daft Punk and Pharrell’s “Get Lucky” (“While ladies dance away the night for sport / So shall we too, their favor sweet to court”), to the lyrical demands of the Spice Girls, whose “Wannabe,” incorporates much spice-related wordplay:

Wannabe

Hast thou a hunger to hear the plaintive wail of Steve Perry exhorting, cajoling, nay, demanding that all and sundry hold fast to hope? Then thou art most fortunate, for Pop Sonnets doth present a poetic parody of “Don’t Stop Believing” which beginneth in this fashion:

A lonely maiden from a hamlet small—
A boy within a woeful city reared:
They both at midnight left their port of call
T’ward any destination volunteered.

The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” and songs by Katy Perry, Beastie Boys, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Green Day, even Britney Spears can be found among the Bard of Avon’s supposed works as channelled through Didricksen. Enjoy this rapturous take on “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars:

Uptown Funk

Pop Sonnets is available as a tumblr blog, but it will also be released in book form on October 6 in the US and Canada, October 8 in the UK. Think what a delectable gift the book would make for thy nearest and dearest!

Before you do depart, O gentle men and ladies fair,
Think not that I’ve no heart and would not leave a treasure rare.
For here before you, friends, I place a gift as bright as gold:
And once you’re read it through, you’ll cry—

“Alas, I’ve been Rickrolled!”

Never Gonna Give You Up

Happy Bloomsday

Lovers of literature celebrate today as Bloomsday in honor of the life and writings of Irish writer James Joyce. The events of his monumental novel Ulysses occur on June 16, 1904, a date made dear to Joyce’s heart because it was the day upon which he and his eventual wife and long-time love, Nora Barnacle, had their first outing together. The day’s name honors Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses.

In the late 1980s, eclectic and influential British singer/songwriter Kate Bush wanted to write a song based on Molly Bloom’s sexy, often censored soliloquy, which ends the novel. However, Joyce’s grandson Stephen Joyce, who has long held decision-making power over his grandfather’s estate, forbade it. He has been famously resistant to granting permission to other artists and writers who have sought to quote or incorporate elements of Joyce’s work into their own. Undaunted, Bush reworked the lyrics and created a beautiful work of art, her song “The Sensual World,” and released it as part of the album of the same name in 1989. The song is about Joyce’s character Molly Bloom stepping down off the pages of the novel into the real world of the senses, and it lifts phrases and ideas from Ulysses without quoting from the novel at great length or too directly.

In 2011, the Joyce estate at last granted Bush license to use her original material, and she rerecorded the song as “Flower of the Mountain,” and released it on the album Director’s Cut. Lovely as it is with Kate’s voice grown earthier with time, I prefer the lighter sound and lyrical flow of The Sensual World.

Happy Shakespeare Day

To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, let me share this delightful bit of his work (if he was indeed the author of the plays attributed to him). This performance is by Mark Rylance, who is considered by many to be the world’s greatest living Shakespearean actor—Stephen Fry believes him the best stage actor alive today.

Rylance, who has won Olivier, Tony and BAFTA awards for his acting, became the first director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London in 1995. It could have become a kitschy tourist attraction but he turned it into a true powerhouse of a theatrical company in the decade he spent at its helm. He is now the star of “Wolf Hall,” the BBC’s excellent production of the story of Tudor political genius Thomas Cromwell‘s tussles with King Henry VIII. The  series is currently showing in installments on PBS in the U.S. (If you’ve missed the first few episodes you can still stream them online for a short while.) Rylance is famed for his simplicity and naturalism; he’s not showy, and this performance isn’t the rousing, bold performance you might expect if you’ve seen Kenneth Branagh or Laurence Olivier deliver this speech. I thought I’d give you a more subtle taste of the Bard of Avon. (Interestingly, Rylance and fellow Shakespearean great Derek Jacobi don’t believe Shakespeare wrote “Shakespeare’s plays.”)

Magic and Menace: The Music of Värttinä

Icicles, those shimmering, elemental, diamond-like structures, may be nothing but water, but they can turn deadly in the right circumstances. Imagine a dark winter’s night in a Finnish forest, the sounds of icicles crashing down around you, the air filled with shattering noises and the wailing of the wind. You hear the cracking of tree limbs weighed down by their icy shrouds, the lowing of frightened animals in the barn, and your mind turns to the stories your grandmother told you about the spirits of the forest, the demons, the maleficent influence of the long dark nights, the wild animals, the errant hunters. This is the sound of Värttinä.

Over thirty years ago Finnish sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen took their love of Finnish and Karelian (southeastern Finnish) folklore and decided to add music to their recitations of poetry and epic stories. They named their group Värttinä, which means “spindle,” as a way to honor women’s traditions and creations, and ever since the group has sung in the Karelian dialect of the Finnish language accompanied by various acoustic instruments.

Värttinä has long been known for singing “korkeelta ja kovvoo” (high and loud) in a style Americans may recognize as sharing some elements of singing made popular by Bulgarian women’s choirs in the 1980s and early 1990s. The group mixes wonderfully intricate and unexpected rhythms with high, vibrato-free, intense women’s voices singing in close but dissonant harmonies. Their nasal, diaphonic, tension-filled sound isn’t what most of us who grew up on Western musical traditions usually find beautiful. Yet there is an intense and dramatic quality to their music, and their precision and power bring joy to what could otherwise be a jarring, even disturbing sound.

Many of their songs are based on Finnish folk tales involving death, darkness and misery, but there’s an open-throated ardency and precision to their music that helps one understand how sitting before the fire on a stormy night sharing bloody tales of horror could be a fascinating way to while away the long, dark Finnish winters.

Finland had an ancient tradition of oral storytelling and poetry, but it was overshadowed by the rise of European-style rhymed written poetry around the 18th century. During the 19th century Elias Lönnrot compiled centuries’ worth of Finnish (and probably ancient Estonian) folk tales and combined them into the written epic poem known as the Kalevala. The poem, first published in 1835, is the national epic of Karelia and Finland. The region spent ages under the thumb of Swedish and later Russian domination, and the compilation of stories into the Kalevala made it easier for Finns to share and treasure their history. This led to the rise of a Finnish national identity and inflamed the desire of Finns to be self-governing and to use and delight in their own language instead of subsuming their identity to conquering nations’ desires. The movement inspired by the power and popularity of the Kalevala is said to have propelled the growth of national pride that resulted in Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.

I first heard Värttinä on the PRI radio show “The World” in the late 1990s around the time that their album Vimha was released. The title cut, which means “The Ice Storm” in Finnish, captured my imagination instantly. I was captivated by the complexity of the rhythms, the unexpectedly bold and dissonant yet beautiful voices, and the joy of hearing rapid-fire Finnish, which was the first language of my beloved grandmother. She had sung to me in Finnish when I was a little girl, and I played and sang Finnish folk songs to her at the piano during my teens, though those songs were nothing like the wild, animalistic, galloping folksongs of Värttinä.

There is a tradition of darkness in Finnish culture which can also be found in Russian literature; it’s not surprising considering the bitterness and length of the dark winters and the dangers inherent in making a life in such inhospitable surroundings. But there is also an indomitable spirit to be witnessed and savored in their arts, and a powerful desire to face down death in order to reaffirm the life force. Värttinä adds a strong feminist element to this desire to acknowledge but laugh in the face of death. While this formerly all-female group has expanded to include men over time, and men have gone on to write much of their music, the power of women’s voices still underlies their modern take on roots music.