Bob Schwartz

Category: Literature

Movies and Fairy Tales: Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”
Joan Didion, The White Album

Joan Didion is one of the great essayists, and The White Album may be her finest essay. It gave title to a superb collection published in 1979. The White Album is about the entwinement of her life and life in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, both of which she reflects on as being strange and even surreal.

Los Angeles in the late 1960s is also the subject of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Up a Time…In Hollywood. The center of the film is the event mentioned in Didion’s quote above: the murders of Sharon Tate Polanski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Steven Parent, and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in the Hollywood Hills by members of the Manson Family. But is about much more than that.

The title of Once Upon a Time gives away just what kind of story this is. It is a fairy tale. Fairy tales are not either absolutely light or dark. As modern scholars now regularly say, fairy tales are meant to reflect something about ourselves—who we are, what we need—and in that sense could not be just light or dark. They are merely true.

The opening paragraph of The White Album is one of the best explanations of story ever written:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

If you are a fan of some or all of Tarantino’s movies, you are already planning to see Once Upon a Time. If you are not a fan, or affirmatively dislike Tarantino, you should consider seeing it anyway. As with other movies that play with Hollywood as story (Robert Altman’s The Player is an excellent example), the inescapable point is that Hollywood makes things up, even as the movies may attempt to reflect actuality, because that is what they do. They tell and sell fairy tales. Light and dark. As long as we appreciate the subtle differences and similarities between actuality and story, we can be entertained and the better for it. We do, as Didion writes, tell ourselves stories in order to live.

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Heart of Darkness: A Flabby Devil of Pitiless Folly

“I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men—men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

“Humpty dumpty” was eighteenth-century slang for a short and clumsy person. (Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English)


Through the Looking Glass (Alice in Wonderland), Chapter 6

However, the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was Humpty Dumpty himself….

‘And how exactly like an egg he is!’ she said aloud, standing with her hands ready to catch him, for she was every moment expecting him to fall.

‘It’s very provoking,’ Humpty Dumpty said after a long silence, looking away from Alice as he spoke, ‘to be called an egg — very!’

‘I said you looked like an egg, Sir,’ Alice gently explained. ‘And some eggs are very pretty, you know’ she added, hoping to turn her remark into a sort of a compliment.

‘Some people,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking away from her as usual, ‘have no more sense than a baby!’…

‘What a beautiful belt you’ve got on!’ Alice suddenly remarked.

(They had had quite enough of the subject of age, she thought: and if they really were to take turns in choosing subjects, it was her turn now.) ‘At least,’ she corrected herself on second thoughts, ‘a beautiful cravat, I should have said — no, a belt, I mean — I beg your pardon!’ she added in dismay, for Humpty Dumpty looked thoroughly offended, and she began to wish she hadn’t chosen that subject. ‘If I only knew,’ the thought to herself, ‘which was neck and which was waist!’

Evidently Humpty Dumpty was very angry, though he said nothing for a minute or two. When he did speak again, it was in a deep growl.

‘It is a — most — provoking — thing,’ he said at last, ‘when a person doesn’t know a cravat from a belt!’

‘I know it’s very ignorant of me,’ Alice said, in so humble a tone that Humpty Dumpty relented.

‘It’s a cravat, child, and a beautiful one, as you say….

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

The Maddening Sound of Guilt: Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart

I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!
Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) is the story of someone who murders an old man, dismembers and hides the body beneath the floor boards, and is then driven to confess by the sound of the still beating heart.

A lesson for those who hide the truth and think they have nothing to fear. Even for the conscience-free, this is how it ends, with the police at the door.


From The Tell-Tale Heart:

As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart,—for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbor during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.

I smiled,—for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search—search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.

The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct:—it continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness—until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.

No doubt I now grew very pale;—but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!—

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

William Goldman Dies at 87

“As a writer I believe that all the basic human truths are known. And what we try to do as best we can is come at those truths from our own unique angle, to reilluminate those truths in a hopefully different way.”
William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade

New York Times:

William Goldman, who won Academy Awards for his screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men” and who, despite being one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters, was an outspoken critic of the movie industry, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 87.

In his long career, which began in the 1960s and lasted into the 21st century, Mr. Goldman also wrote the screenplays for popular films like “Misery,” “A Bridge Too Far,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Chaplin.” He was a prolific novelist as well, and several of his screenplays were adapted from his own novels, notably “The Princess Bride” and “Marathon Man.”

There are plenty of reasons to admire William Goldman—as a writer and as a writer who cast a realistic light on writing—but nothing is higher than The Princess Bride.

The movie, written by Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner, is a gem, worth watching at least once a year. But in its own way, his novel from which he adapted the screenplay, is even better.

If you know the movie, it is a comic romance and adventure set in a fantasy kingdom, framed by a grandfather reading this story to his grandson. But the novel is much more meta. Goldman places himself in the novel, as a writer with a fictionalized family, condensing and adapting a book by S. Morgenstern that his father had read to him, which adaptation is…The Princess Bride. The trick that Goldman pulls off is that you come away believing that everything he has told you—about his career, his family, the non-existent book by the non-existent S. Morgenstern—are all true.

The bigger trick—the bigger truth—is that everything he wrote in The Princess Bride is absolutely true. Even though he made it all up. If you are a writer or a reader, and don’t fully understand that, read William Goldman, starting with The Princess Bride.

Tilted Room

Tilted Room

Dreams are the tilted room
In the funhouse of sleep.
Outside (you hope)
The world is still level
But when you exit this way
You feel yourself
Falling over.

©

Note: Writing this poem, I realized that some readers have never experienced a funhouse, or even know what it is. It was an essential part of carnivals and amusement parks, before amusement parks became theme parks (and, presumably, amusement became themes). It is an awesome way for children to learn that things are not what they seem, but that that could be simultaneously fun and scary.

And in the spirit of tail wagging dog, or note wagging poem, note that funhouse also served as a titular inspiration for an important but now pretty neglected work of fiction. John Barth’s collection of short pieces Lost in the Funhouse (1968) is considered “a major landmark of experimental fiction.” Barth is better known for novels (often long novels) such as Giles Goat Boy (“a fantasy of theology, sociology, and sex”), but Lost in the Funhouse is an easy introduction to the early days of what is now called postmodern fiction. (A seriously misleading and meaningless conceit, since Joyce and others had been writing weird and wonderful formally transgressive things for decades, writing that delights and defies total comprehension.)

Anyway, Barth writes that the first piece in Funhouse, Frame-Tale “happens to be, I believe, the shortest short story in the English language (ten words); on the other hand, it’s endless.” Endless because it is a Moebius strip:

The rest of the collection, and his novels, are not so brief, filled with many more words of charged and challenging writing:

“One way or another, no matter which theory of our journey is correct, it’s myself I address; to whom I rehearse as to a stranger our history and condition, and will disclose my secret hope though I sink for it.

“Is the journey my invention? Do the night, the sea, exist at all, I ask myself, apart from my experience of them? Do I myself exist, or is this a dream? Sometimes I wonder. And if I am, who am I? The Heritage I supposedly transport? But how can I be both vessel and contents? Such are the questions that beset my intervals of rest.

“My trouble is, I lack conviction. Many accounts of our situation seem plausible to me—where and what we are, why we swim and whither. But implausible ones as well, perhaps especially those, I must admit as possibly correct. Even likely. If at times, in certain humors—stroking in unison, say, with my neighbors and chanting with them ‘Onward! Upward!’—I have supposed that we have after all a common Maker, Whose nature and motives we may not know, but Who engendered us in some mysterious wise and launched us forth toward some end known but to Him—if (for a moodslength only) I have been able to entertain such notions, very popular in certain quarters, it is because our night-sea journey partakes of their absurdity. One might even say: I can believe them because they are absurd.

From Night-Sea Journey

Frankenstein: The Republican Creature

“The Creature showed unparalleled malignity and selfishness in evil; he destroyed my friends; he devoted to destruction beings who possessed exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom; nor do I know where this thirst for vengeance may end. Miserable himself that he may render no other wretched, he ought to die. The task of his destruction was mine, but I have failed.”
Frankenstein

I was at first touched by the expressions of his misery; yet, when I called to mind what Frankenstein had said of his powers of eloquence and persuasion, and when I again cast my eyes on the lifeless form of my friend, indignation was rekindled within me. “Wretch!” I said. “It is well that you come here to whine over the desolation that you have made. You throw a torch into a pile of buildings, and when they are consumed, you sit among the ruins and lament the fall.”
Frankenstein

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s monumental work of modern literature. The characters and story have been fashioned into hundreds of forms, some truer to the original than others. One basic element is inescapable: the story of a skilled technician trying to create something new, only to discover that the Creature is ultimately destructive of much that is cherished and good.

That is where the Republican Party finds itself with Trump. Admittedly, Trump has more fans than Victor Frankenstein’s Creature ever did, but is similarly an uncontrollable force of twisted nature.

In the final chapter of Frankenstein, Captain Walton concludes the narrative letters that chronicle his passenger Victor Frankenstein’s relating the tale of the Creature he created:

You have read this strange and terrific story, Margaret; and do you not feel your blood congeal with horror, like that which even now curdles mine?…

Sometimes I endeavoured to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation, but on this point he was impenetrable. “Are you mad, my friend?” said he. “Or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you? Would you also create for yourself and the world a demoniacal enemy? Peace, peace! Learn my miseries and do not seek to increase your own.”…

“Oh! My friend, if you had known me as I once was, you would not recognize me in this state of degradation. Despondency rarely visited my heart; a high destiny seemed to bear me on, until I fell, never, never again to rise.”…

“If I were engaged in any high undertaking or design, fraught with extensive utility to my fellow creatures, then could I live to fulfil it. But such is not my destiny; I must pursue and destroy the being to whom I gave existence; then my lot on earth will be fulfilled and I may die.”…

“He [the Creature] showed unparalleled malignity and selfishness in evil; he destroyed my friends; he devoted to destruction beings who possessed exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom; nor do I know where this thirst for vengeance may end. Miserable himself that he may render no other wretched, he ought to die. The task of his destruction was mine, but I have failed.”…

I entered the cabin where lay the remains of my ill-fated and admirable friend. Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe — gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions. As he hung over the coffin, his face was concealed by long locks of ragged hair; but one vast hand was extended, in colour and apparent texture like that of a mummy. When he heard the sound of my approach, he ceased to utter exclamations of grief and horror and sprung towards the window. Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome yet appalling hideousness….

I was at first touched by the expressions of his misery; yet, when I called to mind what Frankenstein had said of his powers of eloquence and persuasion, and when I again cast my eyes on the lifeless form of my friend, indignation was rekindled within me. “Wretch!” I said. “It is well that you come here to whine over the desolation that you have made. You throw a torch into a pile of buildings, and when they are consumed, you sit among the ruins and lament the fall.”

Will Eisner Week

Will Eisner (1917-2005) was a pioneer in the comic art form, the godfather of the graphic novel with publication of A Contract with God (1978), a teacher and theoretician of the medium with publication of Comics and Sequential Art (1985). The major award in the medium is named after him.

This is officially his week.

I see myself age 7, standing on a corner in the Bronx, reading a Superboy comic book I had just bought at the candy store. I couldn’t wait to get it back to our apartment.

I didn’t know then that comic books would shape me as much as any other cultural influence. I didn’t know that comic books would evolve into “real” literature in the form of graphic novels. I didn’t know that by 2018 comic books and graphic novels would end up being the multi-billion dollar backbone of the movie and TV industry.

I didn’t know about Will Eisner either, but I would learn that he, more than any other person, was responsible for the breakthrough that turned cheap disposable entertainment for kids into a major art form of the twentieth—and now the twenty-first—century.

The poster for Will Eisner Week says “Read a Graphic Novel!” If you haven’t ever, you should.

As with all literature, “best” is a matter of taste and interest. For me, and for many others, it is Watchmen (1986) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Time magazine listed it as one of the 100 Best Novels since 1923—that is best novels, not just graphic novels. Like all supreme literary works, it weaves so much into its pages that the reader is mesmerized way after the book is closed for the first, fifth or nth time. And like many works—including now many comic books and graphic novels—the attempt to transform it into film was good but only partly successful, and still not the experience of reading the book. So whether it is Watchmen or one of the many other worthies—Read a Graphic Novel!

Winnie the Pooh Censored in China

China President Xi Jinping wants to change the constitution to remain in power beyond the limit of two terms. China Digital Times  explains:

Chinese state media announced on Sunday a list of proposed amendments to China’s constitution, which are expected to be adopted next month at the National People’s Congress session in Beijing. Among the 21 proposed amendments, the one with perhaps the deepest potential impact on the future of Chinese politics and society deals with paragraph 3 of article 79, which would eradicate the current limit of PRC presidents and vice-presidents to two five-year terms. This would effectively set President Xi Jinping up to maintain his seat as president indefinitely….

Following state media’s announcement, censorship authorities began work to limit online discussion.

As part of that censorship, a growing list of terms have been blocked from being posted on the search engine Weibo. Along with seeming innocent phrases that are protest memes and obvious authors such as George Orwell, for a while the list also included the letter “N”:

N — While the letter “N” was temporarily blocked from being posted, as of 14:27 PST on February 26, it was no longer banned. At Language Log, Victor Mair speculates that this term was blocked “probably out of fear on the part of the government that “N” = “n terms in office”, where possibly n > 2.”

Most ridiculous of all is the blocking of Winnie the Pooh:

Winnie the Pooh (小熊维尼) — Images of Winnie the Pooh have been used to mock Xi Jinping since as early as 2013. The animated bear continues to be sensitive in China. Weibo users shared a post from Disney’s official account that showed Pooh hugging a large pot of honey along with the caption “find the thing you love and stick with it.”

I’ve written before about my high regard for Winnie the Pooh—the books by A.A. Milne, not the Disney version. It is great literature, not least in the character of the sweet, loyal, interesting, but seemingly not very smart bear (as he calls himself, “a bear of very little brain.”) Seemingly, because he may also be a bit of an enigmatic Zen master:

On Monday, when the sun is hot
I wonder to myself a lot:
“Now is it true, or is it not,”
“That what is which and which is what?”

I have never thought of Pooh as a political subversive. And yet, if you are a supreme ruler aiming to become eternally supreme, enemies are everywhere. Even a letter of the alphabet or a simple and adorable bear.

To Understand America 2018, Read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

We had the best education. We went to school every day. I only took the regular course. Reeling and Writhing to begin with. Then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland now. Again if it’s been a while, and definitely now if for the first time.

Lewis Carroll (born Charles Dodgson, 1832-1898) was famously creative as a mathematician and logician. He wove puzzles and tortured logic all through his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Puzzles and tortured logic seem likely to be a major component of America in 2018, as they were in 2017.

The leadership and the citizens of Wonderland are variously tyrannical, illogical, stupid, or just plain bizarre. Alice literally does not fit in. While she is only a child, she has more sense than everyone she meets combined.

If I had a news network like CNN, I’d interrupt the futile attempts to understand and explain what’s going on by having different news anchors read aloud one chapter from Alice in Wonderland every day. It would actually be more constructive—and more fun—than just listening to their trying to making sense of the nonsensical.

If Trump’s tweets were taken from Alice in Wonderland, would we know the difference? Would he?

Some Trump/Alice tweets:

We must have a trial. Really this morning I have nothing to do. With no jury or judge I’ll be Judge. I’ll be jury. I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.

We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad. A dog growls when it’s angry and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.

Be what you would seem to be. Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

You have no right to think. Just about as much right as pigs have to fly. I give you fair warning either you or your head must be off. Take your choice!

We had the best education. We went to school every day. I only took the regular course. Reeling and Writhing to begin with. Then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.