Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Of Pine Needles and other infinite things

So I cleaned this weekend--really, really cleaned instead of just straightening and part of cleaning required vacuuming and dustbusting pine needles as well as dust bunnies. Now, the dust bunnies are self-replicating, of course, and will come back, but as far as I know, pine needles are not and yet, no matter how carefully I clean at some point in say, July, I shall pull out a book that was nowhere near the Christmas Tree and scatter a few sad pine needles on the floor.

While decorating for Christmas a sad piece of tinsel ended up on the floor.

We've never put tinsel on our tree.

So, despite having moved my husband's families ornaments into different boxes over the years, this remnant of his childhood had clung on waiting to fall in this apartment.

On our second Christmas together I gave my husband tree shaped confetti in his card. Periodically a tiny tree will appear in the bottom of a drawer. 18 years old and opened in another person's house, with two moves in between.

You Know What I Hate?

Mr. Smith: I move my finger one inch to use my turn signal. Why are these a$$holes so lazy they can't move their finger one f#@!ing measly inch to drive more safely? You wanna know why? DQ: Not particularly. Mr. Smith: Because these rich bastards have to be callous and inconsiderate in the first place to make all that money, so when they get on the road, they can't help themselves. They've gotta be callous and inconsiderate drivers too. It's in their nature.
--Shoot 'Em Up

Why, oh, why does no one use their turn signal? It helps them as much as us--lets us know what you are doing so we can accommodate it. Of course, it is seen as a sign of weakness in Boston--and people will take advantage of the fact that you are signalling your intentions to thwart you.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On God Bless America

On reflection I DO understand God Bless America. God Bless the concepts and principles of this nation. But God Bless all people everywhere.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Why I Voted for Barack Obama

This essay was originally going to be called “Why I’m Voting for Barack Obama” and I was going to post it a few days before the election. But then I got superstitious and decided not to jinx him and I wanted to finish reading Dreams From My Father—which I did, on election eve.

And then, once he’d won, I wanted to read The Audacity of Hope before I finished it, and so things I wanted to say played in and out of my mind for the next two months. Hopefully I’ll get to the point I’m trying to make before he takes office tomorrow. This is what I wrote a few months ago. I thought I would change it, but I still like it even if I’ve added more:



Do I think he’s the absolute best candidate for president ever? No.
I’m not sure what that person would look like.
But I think he is certainly the best running now.

A friend asked me recently if I liked him. Yes, I like him. I like him more and more as we approach the election. I like his calm, his grasp of rhetoric, his intelligence after eight years of a man who seemed at times barely functionally literate. I like his smile and his graciousness. And, as a multi-racial, Ivy-League educated, naturalized American, I like his back story because it relates to me. And that is the point, I think, that we do vote for whom we relate to, to a large extent. It is not a valid reason for Hockey Moms to vote for Palin even though they may be pro-choice themselves, or anti-gun, and it’s not enough of a reason for me to vote for him either. But there is a great deal more to my decision and it does start here, in my understanding of where he is coming from, because I have often faced the same questions.

I am reading his book, Dreams From My Father. I started it because I was tired of hearing the mis-quotes in the right-wing press and I wanted to form my own decisions. Would I give equal time and consideration to McCain’s book, Faith of My Fathers? Absolutely, but I started with Obama because I haven’t heard the McCain book misquoted.

Dreams From My Father is beautifully written, written in Senator Obama’s own voice as absolutely as if you were hearing him speak. It bogs down a bit—he has not crafted the narrative to make it more dramatic. It is himself coming to terms with the issues I mentioned above—of being multi-racial, of being intelligent but of making the choice to give something back and become involved because racism is not dead in this country and anyone who says or thinks that it is is lying to us or to themselves. It is himself coming to terms with what it means to be human with all our foibles and issues and baggage, seen through his own particular lens, and the lens of the mythical man who was his father.

In 2000 I admired John McCain. I certainly admired him more than Bush. I ignored his temper and the Keating Five scandal and saw a good man who’d made some mistakes. I saw a man who reminded me in some ways of my father and for whom I think my father would have voted. I also saw a man who I believed might be able to bridge the middle. I believe that in the intervening 8 years he has made every effort to court the neo-con, right-wing base in order to win this election. In 2000 he denounced the hate mongering of the evangelicals, while in this campaign he has accepted the endorsements and/or shared stages with the likes of Falwell and Hagee. I still believe that he is in some ways a good man who believes that the ends—his presidency—is worth any means, but I think if he were elected, he would find that it is not possible to lease your soul out and then expect to get it back, no strings attached. I have referenced this to many people, that Lyndon Johnson wanted to do so much good but made so many deals along the way that he found himself hog-tied in office—owing allegiance to those who got him there. I think that McCain would find himself in the same position. I am not the first to say that the John McCain of 2000 would not vote for the John McCain of 2008.

To a certain extent I, like so many other people, am voting not for a candidate, but against a continuation of the last eight years. I am sick to death of politics in America, of the Rovian/Cheneyesque style of attack your enemy with hot button words and evade punishment of your own treachery and corruption. Of this bullying, McCarthyesque labeling—if you can brand your enemy with being un-American then you can sway the public even if you can never actually define what that means. Of feeding an “Us vs. Them” mentality that reduces your enemy to less than human instead of accepting differences of opinion.

Like Michelle Obama I have not been proud of America these last eight years, and perhaps not ever. I am ashamed of Guantanamo and the Patriot Act. I am horrified that incompetence and outright treachery is ignored. That no one was punished for outing a CIA operative—a truly, legally treasonous action, as opposed to the so-called treasonous action of standing up and saying, “I believe the policies being pursued by this administration are wrong.” The first is in the law books. The second is the most Patriotic thing one can do, because the government is of the people and by the people and the majority of Americans think this administration is corrupt. I am angry that Alberto Gonzales and other Bush cronies will not be punished for at best monumental incompetence, at worst, outright lying and cover-up.

The further collapse of John McCain in my eyes is his acceptance and use of tactics which were used against him in 2000 and which he decried then, but because they work, has begun to use now. The cheap smears, the blaming of the press, the Swift-boat attacks… Don’t even get me started on Sarah Palin. She is not running for president, and so should not be the focus, but she and McCain have made her the focus and she exemplifies to me everything that is wrong with the Conservative party today. She came out of the gate attacking not leading. All that she has done has been to attack Senator Obama with meaningless smears, dancing away from details and facts before she is called upon to prove them. It was the basis of her acceptance speech and it has been her raison d’etre ever since. Her excuse for her absolutely mortifying performance with Katie Couric? “Well, she wouldn’t let me talk about what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about Senator Obama.” I’m sorry, Governor Palin, you serve at our discretion, and we want to know what your policies have been, what you have done and will do, not what you think of Senator Obama. You are not there to repeat gossip and innuendo; you are there to prove that you have the intelligence and the temperament to lead.

One of the things that I do not understand in America is this reverence of the stupid. That somehow being educated and intelligent (though the two do not always go hand in hand) is seen as somehow suspect. That by merely not dumming oneself down, one is seen as presenting oneself as superior. Do you know why we have an electoral college, when we are the only nation that still does so? It was because those revered Founding Fathers, the most educated men of their time, in a time when most of the population could not read or write, believed that the general public was too stupid to be trusted with the vote.

I personally would like to believe that the people governing the country are the smartest and the most educated. That they are not people I would drink beer with because I would not be smart enough to join in their conversation. I believe that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to see the world in shades of grey. The world is not this simple black and white. I will take an intelligent man who is able to change his mind honestly and weigh different points over a rigid “decider” any day. To me, Palin suffers from the same hubris as Bush, Cheney and their crew. Because she believes her cause to be just, she can break any law. After all, she’s doing it for our own good. Dictators think this way. The tales of corruption and rule bending in her Alaskan dealings are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the power she thinks she deserves. She scares me because she thinks she knows what is right. Wisdom is knowing what you do not know. We have suffered through eight years of a man who either took no counsel but his own, or only took counsel that agreed with what he had already decided. We need a leader who will take counsel from those who disagree with him. Lincoln knew that. Jefferson and Adams knew that.

But again, to vote against something is not the reason to vote for a candidate. The Germans voted for someone who promised something different in the 1930’s. The French Revolution gave way to the Reign of Terror.

So, I am voting for Senator Obama because I agree with him. Because the things about him that scare so many people in America are things that I embrace when they are true and ignore when they are false.

Something I do to try and stay balanced is listen to as much of the right wing attack mongering as I can stand. If there is something that I haven’t heard from the left I research it. There is a particularly odious radio personality here in the Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh school who likes to say that the left says that anyone who uses Obama’s middle name is a racist. Well, no. It is the fact that the right glories in saying his middle name for its fear value. Do we equally hear John McCain’s middle name? Sarah Palin’s? The S. in Harry S. Truman didn’t stand for anything. When has a candidate’s middle name every mattered until now?

And, (and this is a big one) what if he WERE Muslim? The rise of the neo-conservative, Evangelical movement in America has kept the presidency the right of white, Christian men. Since no one can come right out and say, “We can’t elect him because he’s black,” they will instead say, “We can’t elect him because he’s Muslim.” Would we be equally afraid if his name were Benjamin Ben Gurion? We have not had a Jewish President either. Or as I recently joked with friends if his name were Brock O’Bama. Would the American public then believe that he must be tied to the IRA? The Founding Fathers, the ones that the right likes to reference, believed in separation of church and state. That were not Evangelicals. They came from different denominations and different faiths. They were men of the age of Reason. Their God was the Great Watch Maker who did not send Katrina to kill homosexuals.




These words still stand. A few weeks before the election, I was speaking with two different friends, long-time liberals, and they were still voting against Bush and not for Obama. They had been Hillary supporters. They said that they still didn’t know what he stood for. That surprised me as I read Audacity of Hope, because it is all right there. He sees that there are a multitude of answers for every problem and that we respond to problems both emotionally and rationally, and sometimes we have to wait for the emotion to pass before we can make a rational and long lasting decision. That each answer has pros and cons and that each person who disagrees with you has reasons, some logical and some emotional, for believing as they do. That you must learn what motivates people before you can work with them and you CAN work with them if you will take the time and not dismiss them as “crazies” whom we must work against. And I will be the first to admit that these tactics are not the purview of the right, but I do not believe they are the tactics of Barack Obama

I like him. I really like him. I like him more with every appointment he makes, with every unflappable appearance. I’ve never supported a candidate the way I’ve supported him—with donations and purchases. I’ve never put a candidate’s magnet on my car until now. I proudly wore the button. His way of thinking is my way of thinking and that is at the heart what it is about. Will I agree with him on every decision? Absolutely not. Do I believe that I will understand why he is doing what he is doing? Yes, and that is something that has been sorely lacking in government for sometime.

I have been asked if I think he can do everything he says that he is going to do—well, no. There are things any presidential candidate does not know on the campaign trail that he is told when he is elected and only a fool would think that a decision can be made without all of the facts in evidence. President Obama knows that and has said that and I don’t think it’s waffling or giving himself an out to acknowledge that he doesn’t know everything. Instead it makes him human and wise—more wise I think that those who ignore facts for their own pre-agenda. Will he do it all? We can hope and pray, but even if he fails in some things, a man’s reach should always exceed his grasp.

Perhaps it is fitting that I am wrapping this up on Martin Luther King Day. I remember when the holiday was being debated and my parents were against it. Looking up the public timeline and my own personally timeline I must have been 10 or 11. I don’t think they had any racist reasons, simply the feeling that not enough time had passed. I disagreed and I remember getting on a chair and reciting the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Hindsight makes us all geniuses but I believe that I knew, even then, that the white world that my parents lived in was different than the world that my minority friends lived in, and that I, as a “Mutt” to use the new president’s term, existed in a strange limbo in between. This is why I have looked at the actual transcripts of Reverend Wright and seen a patriotic man who wants to point out in strong terms that America is not perfect and ignoring the problems do not make them go away.

As I grew older and I lived through poverty and failed to “pull myself out of” depressions and to succeed in the Ayn Randian ideal of the far right, I realized that life is not so simple as the platitudes of gung-ho individualism. Perhaps they never were, but certainly not in a world where the wealthiest one per cent of households control a third of the national wealth. When I was born it was still possible to buy a house on one average income—now it is virtually impossible.

I have come to believe that investment in health care and education IS investment in American infrastructure and not theft from the rich as it is portrayed. The specter of socialism was used throughout this election as if we were still fighting the Cold War. The fact that Russia was not at the height of the Cold War, practicing socialism or communism as it was written is always ignored. It is time for the United States to understand that it is part of the global economy whether it likes it or not—we cannot go back or ignore the world outside our borders. International business and the Internet have made that impossible. I do not view it as a bad thing but whether I do or not, it is not going to stop. Perhaps it is my international birth that has always made me question the intention of “God Bless America.” God bless us all. The accident of birth is not an assurance of anything. If life were fair then most immigrants are the truest Americans because they have gone through the most to earn it.

President Obama has existed in this same limbo as I have—never white but never black enough. He has been poor. He has been unhappy and he has made mistakes. He is also able to speak of those times in clear and sometimes beautiful language. In this I think he speaks for far more Americans than ever before. And that is why I voted for Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States. God bless him and keep him safe. God bless us all.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Oh, damn it!

Now Sir John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey and author of one of the best little books of essays I've ever read. I realize that all of these men were over 80 (Wyeth over 90), but really

And now for something completely different--and funny (if you like Japanese)

So, I'm talking to my Japanese friend about Patrick McGoohan's death because her husband, like my husband, is a big Prisoner fan, and I mention that PM was in some of the Colombo films of the 70's and she says she loved those. So, I'm trying to imagine Peter Falk speaking in Japanese. And we talk about more shows that crossed the ocean and she tells me that she saw Mr. Ed as a child--subbed in Japanese.

And I say: Ed-u San?
And then I think about the show for a moment and say: Actually it should have been Ed-u Sensai or at least Ed-u Sempai.

Of all the shows to take over...I wonder how close the translations were--HA!

More sad...

And now Andrew Wyeth, RIP.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sad day

We have lost both Patrick McGoohan and Ricardo Montalban. :(

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sports in our house

It's time for the annual battle between the dust bunnies and the pine needles. The pine needles have taken a substantial lead.

Crusoe and the A-B problem

They've brought back Crusoe and stuck it on Saturday nights--a sure way to kill anything.

I like Crusoe, but it's always going to be limited by the A-B problem. Crusoe can never get off of the island, no matter what happens. Something must always thwart it at the last minute. Unfortunately that renders it a more literate Gilligan's Island.

What good are visions you cannot use?

I often dream of fashions I cannot sew. Last night I dreamt of jewelry and art I cannot make. I lack even the ability to draw them as accurately as I would like so that someone else can make them. I can hear music in my head that I cannot transcribe.

Should I take classes to try and learn the skills I would need to bring these to reality? And what would I do with them then? What do I do with the things that I sew and create now?

I also dream of stories that I should write and that I can do, but then I grow afraid--thinking of what will I do with it when it's done, when I should just think of getting it down and seeing what it is.

Does this happen to other people?

Dentists and the service industry.

So now I have to get a crown (which I didn't realize was almost always necessary after a root canal--especially in a molar) and I have to decide whether I should go to my regular dentist or to my new dentist. This is my post on trying to figure out the pros and cons of either and it brings up an interesting point that relates to my job.

Part of what my company does is coach financial planners on how to get and retain high net worth clients (or any clients, for that matter), and we've had some speakers talk about presentation of office etc.

My old dentist, let us call him A, has a beautiful private office in the first floor of what was once a house outside of Davis Square in Somerville. This used to be relatively easy to access from my old address, but is somewhat harder now (it is where I learned to ride a bike). The waiting room has a TV, and a large array of magazines and some lovely art (because the dentist owns a share in an art gallery on Newbury St.). There are several hygienists and the rooms are relatively private. There's mouthwash and toothpaste available in the bathroom. There's always unobtrusive rock and roll playing. There are plants.

I generally see the hygienist and only see the dentist for cavities. He's nice and thorough, and the practice uses the most modern equipment including showing you a slide of the lovely bacteria in your mouth on a big screen. It also, IMO oversells. They like you to come in every three months. They've scaled both my teeth and my husbands, convinced us to buy a water pick and seem to end each session with some new product you should really try--special toothpaste, mouthwash, etc. Most I resist and if I do buy, I don't buy it from them but find a lower price elsewhere. I'm sure it's how he is able to have such a lovely office. Parking is on the street, but I've never really had a problem.

Dentist B, on the other hand is in Malden and were the weather permitting, I could easily walk there. There is a parking lot, but it's kind of tricky to get to. She's in an old office building. The office is spare and she has only one hygienist and privacy is a little less. She's Chinese, and didn't always understand me during small talk but always understood when I said I was still feeling pain or had other concerns. I don't think she was using the most modern techniques (but I don't' know since this was my first root canal), and even though she prescribed pain killers for me she spoke of her own belief in only holistic and homeopathic medicine.

Here's the thing. I don't think I really like Dentist A and I liked Dentist B, for all of the limitations. She seemed more concerned, even though Dentist A called me several times (I had left messages telling him of my problem) assuring me that he would fit me in to relieve the pain even though he was fully booked. He worked very hard to get my bite right from the filling--but this was the first time that I had ever had a problem with a bite and I don't know if that was him speeding through the filling or just a fluke and didn't charge me to redo his own work, but somehow she just seemed more gentle and more responsive. On the negative, both seem to have slightly ditzy assistants. Dentist B also seems a little disorganized, scrambling to get everything together, while Dentist A clearly has a system, with everything in it's place. Not something you want to worry about as you lay there with your mouth painfully open, and strange machines buzzing.

So I'm probably leaning towards switching dentists. So what do we make of the better office theory of our speakers. In the end, it's about concern and listening and not the showy office or expensive decorations. I'm not sure if most financial planners get that.

Unusual Teeth

Wouldn't that be a great name for a band?

So, I had my first Root Canal on Friday afternoon. At first I wondered what all the fuss was about--nothing worse than a regular filling, but then as it went on and on, and with the ongoing tenderness in my jaw, I'm understanding (although it seems to be receding) why it has such a bad reputation. I wish I had looked up exactly what was involved before I did it, but perhaps it was better that I not know.

Strangely, I feel a certain shame that I needed a root canal at my age. As if I do not take good care of my teeth. As one might feel shame that one had lice or bed bugs. I had gotten a filling in late summer and afterwards experienced much tenderness which I attributed to a bad bite form and the dentist kept filing away but finally around Thanksgiving I was having pain and he removed the first filling, added different seal that was supposed to relieve sensitivity but warned me that if I had pain again I would need a root canal. So I had a few twinges, but nothing more until New Years Day (of course--grrr...) .

The dentist that I ended up visiting because she could see me immediately was not my regular dentist. She relieved the pain and sent me home with antibiotics. She also told me it wasn't my fault! I have unusual teeth. I have four root canals in that molar instead of two or three and the pulp came up very high (and does in many of my teeth according to x-ray)--higher than usual so much closer to the filling. Whew.

Turns out my root canals were also very curved, also unusual--the procedure took almost 3 and a half hours. Blech. Strangely though, I almost prefer a root canal to a breast exam. It's a close race. On the one hand, the breast exam is very short, but I often do have bruising or tenderness the next day, and there is the whole fear factor too. Since I have no medical history except that I was born in a country where agent orange was prevalent and since I had a lump (benign) at 34 it's a great unknown. That I will have to go in and get my boobs squashed for the rest of my life is deeply upsetting to me.

I remember in my teens I had all four wisdom teeth out at once with only local because I didn't have dental care that provided for general (which I learned later is often used). Also, because my teeth were coming in sideways I couldn't just have them pulled. I had a friend who had hers intact in a small box. Mine had to be broken in my jaw and pulled out piece by piece. The ongoing joy of unusual teeth.

The ability of humans to inflict pain.

Last week's Law and Order broke my heart. I couldn't stop crying. I put it in my Twitter feed. It was about adoptees which is a hard place for me to begin with and then--I had heard of people adopting children to get servants, but the self congratulation of these "parents" as though they were doing a "good" thing and the place where it led took me apart. Ruth Rendell wrote a novel about the problem in Britain called Simisola and that one shook me too. Rather like the Elizabeth George novel "What Came Before He Shot Her." All we get is the result--child becomes murderer. Not the terrible whys that could take a sweet child there.


How is it that we are so ready to inflict pain both mental and physical on other humans? That we spend so much time and energy planning it--we as a race--through out recorded time. We caught a show the other night on torture devices of the middle ages--and I thought, as I've often thought, who thought of those devices. Who sat around with the limited knowledge of the human body of the time and thought of ways to inflict the most pain without actually killing. Who thought of waterboarding--that ancient and so simple torture (and it is torture). It is bad enough of course that film makers must think of imaginary ways to kill--that the ante is always upped to create something never seen, but of course, they need not consider that the people would probably die of shock and blood loss long before the final frame of Saw or any other of the new and bloodier horror films. The torturers wanted long and slow pain before death--to bring you close to death but not quite.


On New Year's Day one of my teeth started aching. At first it was intermittent but by the night it was continuous. I ate a tube of Orajel and nothing helped. The pain would start with a slow burning sensation along the gum (possibly from overuse of Orajel) and progress rapidly to the sensation that a large house nail was being driven into my jaw. Oddly the only thing that relieved it (and thank God there was some form of relief) was to drink cold water--it gave blessed relief for about 5 minutes and then it would begin again. I spent the entire night drinking water and dozing between. On the hour I would go to the bathroom and refill my glass. By morning I had drunk an entire gallon of water. By 7:30 I was looking for dentists, any dentist who were open on Jan. 2nd and could see me immediately.


I remember thinking of those torture device--some of which were designed to drive the teeth together until the jaw was broken and I thought that if I was forced to endure that pain in all my teeth with no respite I would tell anything, sell anyone to make it stop.

Coen Brothers Films

Had sort of a Coen Brothers fest lately--probably because the stations have been running so many of them because of the DVD release of Burn After Reading.

Just watched it. It was funny, but I have to agree with the critics that this was not their best. Some of the expressions from Clooney and Pitt are priceless--that play upon the meta-of Clooney and Pitt being somewhat unattractive, schlubs--and the final coming together of the stories delightful.

My favorites remain "O, Brother" and "Barton Fink." I have not seen "The Ladykillers" because the original is so priceless and perfect with Alec Guinness that I kind of think a remake is a travesty. I absolutely do not get "The Big Lebowski" and quite frankly, having recently seen "No Country," I didn't get that either. I did miss the first 15 minutes or so of that and so perhaps my perception is skewed. I thought it okay, but I found none of the special qualities that make a Coen Bros. film and couldn't quite understand all of the praise that was heaped upon it.

On the second tier would be Intolerable Cruelty (fluff but so funny--second in what Clooney calls their trilogy of Clooney as idiot characters), The Man Who Wasn't There--very subtle for them, Fargo--of course, doncha know, Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing.

I only saw Raising Arizona a couple of weeks ago (amazing but true) and I laughed quite a bit, but it seemed oddly forced after their recent stuff. I always forget that Hudsucker is theirs and I haven't seen the short pieces that they did recently.

Burn After Reading (2008)
Chacun son cinéma ou Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s'éteint et que le film commence (2007) (segment "World Cinema") ... aka Chacun son cinéma (France: short title) ... aka To Each His Cinema (International: English title)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Paris, je t'aime (2006) (segment "Tuileries") ... aka Paris, I Love You (Hong Kong: English title)
The Ladykillers (2004)
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) ... aka O' Brother (France)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Fargo (1996)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) ... aka Hudsucker - Der große Sprung (Germany)
Barton Fink (1991)
Miller's Crossing (1990)
Raising Arizona (1987)
Blood Simple. (1984)

Shoes at Bush Part II
















I have mailed my shoes to Bush--Priority so it will get there in time, although, whether they will ever reach the president or if he will even be notified of their arrival (and I am sure many others) is very much in doubt. I went with the Shakespeare.


And lest anyone think that I am completely un-American, I also mailed our two old cell phones (2 generations old) to Cell Phones for Soldiers.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Funniest thing ever

Well, probably not, but still pretty funny. Funnier if you are familiar with Facebook AND Austen, but still pretty great even if you aren't.

http://www.much-ado.net/austenbook/

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Adapting a book--The Prestige

I was completely blown away by the movie of The Prestige, and I thought then about reading the novel, but it seemed too soon. So I carried the author's name around with me for over a year (Christopher Priest) and then, finally remembered to buy it through an odd sequence of events. We watched The Painted Veil based on the novel by Maugham starring Edward Norton, and while I decided I didn't want to read The Painted Veil because of it's differences from the film (which was more romantic and tragic) it reminded me that I had wanted to read Fight Club (the movie version of which starred Edward Norton) and that reminded me that I had wanted to read The Prestige (which did not star Edward Norton, but was up against The Illusionist which did). Whew...so it's all Edward Norton's fault.

The Prestige is a very good novel, and yet, the movie differs from it considerably. And I am still trying to figure out what exactly that means. The central premise is the same, AND HERE BE SPOILERS for both the film and the book, and yet key facts are very different.

The film ups the ante. In the novel Borden accidentally causes the death of Angier's unborn child and doesn't know it. In the movie his arrogance causes the death of Angier's wife and he is well aware of it. In the movie the "Pact" which allows Borden to do his spectacular trick leads to his wife's suicide. In the movie the women in Borden's life (or lives) seem perfectly content and unaware (a point that some characters cannot buy and neither can I). In the movie Angier injures Borden's hands--as important to a magician as to an artist or musician. In the book they merely disrupt each other's shows. In the movie, Angier frames Borden for his (Angier's death), when he is not "really" dead and knowing that only one of the twins will die. In the book, Borden does accidentally cause Angier's "death" and then Angier accidentally causes his.

All of these could be attributable to making it more exciting for the movie as could the discarding of the "modern" story line with the descendants of both men, but the ultimate change is that in Angier's version of the trick where Tesla's machine causes a duplicate to be made, in the book the original dies, like a shell that is discarded, and in fact, the bodies do not rot or decay--but are merely inconvenient to dispose of. In the movie--and this is the crux of whether we like either of the characters ultimately--Angier MUST kill the double each and every time the trick is performed--much more horrific and altering for Angier.

Of course, the underlying point/message of both is where obsession takes you--the half life of the Borden brothers, or the supernatural/superscience and ultimately soul killing answer of Angier. The final moments of the novel, when it seems that Angier has cheated even death with Tesla's machine--is nowhere to be found in the movie. Likewise, the careful presentation of the death and destruction (of birds and other animals) inherent in magic tricks of the time is carefully spelled out as a foreshadowing technique in the movie by Michael Caine's character and is not in the book.

Now, apparently, according to IMDB, Sam Mendes approached Priest about adapting the book but Priest only wanted the Nolan brothers to adapt and direct based on Memento and Following. So they took his book and made something completely different with the same materials--not better, per se, but very different.

How does one do that? How does one adapt a book at all, but especially to change it so fundamentally? Some books are considered unadaptable, and some directors (and their teams) have made a practice of adapting just those books. Interestingly, Sam Mendes is one of those directors. Another is Phillip Kaufman.

Kaufman directed (and for the most part did his own adaptions of) The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June and Quills.

The first two considered too unwieldy and the last two being from diaries. I haven't read The Right Stuff, but I have read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and while many would disagree, I think he did an amazing job adapting a novel whose narrative is so liquid and undefined. Likewise he did a very good job adapting the diaries of Nin and de Sade into a contained story line for an interesting and engaging film.

Now he had little to work with in terms of plot and so his movies are very different from these books, but the Priest novel has an abundance of plot which the Nolan brothers rewrote. I'm not quite sure what to make of that. How, as an author, Priest could be happy with the radical changes to his book--to create what his novel should have been? One of Nolan's favorite films is Blade Runner, and I have often referred to Blade Runner as an amazing film which bears little resemblance to it's source material in a way that diminishes neither. I'm not quite sure I can say the same here.

But at the same time, I respect the director/auteur's right to make a better film. Interestingly, often the more true a film is to its source, the less good it is as a piece of film. The BBC adaptations are excellent adaptations--they are seldom cinematically relevant. It is one of my sorrows with the recent adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia. They are perfectly fine adaptations with minor changes to make the dialogue snappy and increase the action--Lewis was never a great describer of battles, etc., and yet I feel that they are somehow weaker than they could have been and I blame the director.

In contrast I consider Peter Jackson's movies of Tolkien both brilliant adaptations and amazing films in their own right--because he is a brilliant director AND because he was able to find the central piece and make it his own.

For all of their magic and creatures and Norse mythology, at their heart, TLOTR books are about a lost England. An England that Tolkien thought was gone in the chaos of WWI, in the industrial revolution (although, both he and Lewis wanted post-industrial amenities in their worlds, with pre-industrial impact). It is a love poem to England's mountains green. Peter Jackson's films are a love song to New Zealand's mountains green and it shows.

Which brings me back to my original point. The movie is more horrifying than the book, and I'm not sure if that diminishes the book, or increases it.