What We Talk About When We Talk About “Birdman”

imagesThere is so much to talk about in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman.  I have tons to say about the point of view of a single shot, for example.

Then there’s all the complicated references between real world/movie world/theater world. We’re aware Michael Keaton was Batman, and now he’s playing an actor who was Birdman. We’re wondering: “Is Michael Keaton a good actor? Was he a good actor in the ’80s or just a celebrity? Is he good in this film? In the play inside the film? What will this film mean to his career? And what about the character he is playing– is that guy a good actor?”

raymond-carverFor me, there was an extra layer, and another multi-layered story about art and celebrity, in the fact that the play being staged is an adaptation of the short stories of Raymond Carver. So all I actually want to talk about in this blog entry is Raymond Carver.

When I was in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College for creative writing (1988-1991), Raymond Carver was a total celebrity. His work was everywhere. People who knew him told stories about him. It was a great tragedy that he had died, in August 1988, of lung cancer. There were strong connections between our program and Syracuse, where he had taught and lived with the poet Tess Gallagher. There was a strong cult around his stories and her poems, particularly poems about their relationship. Carver had gotten sober just before meeting her, and after almost killing himself with drink in the 1970s, he had turned his life around. He was portrayed, romantically, as both a terrific drunk in the mold of John Cheever, and a tragic hero, for losing his life after cleaning up and finding love, at the very young age of 50.

I still remember one story told about him. A writer had supposedly told Carver the story of taking a walk in a canyon and witnessing a hawk diving down and grabbing some small prey. In no time, the scene of a writer walking in a canyon and observing a hawk and its prey appeared in one of Carver’s stories. The writer confronted Carver, saying: “I told you that story, Ray. It was my story. You stole it from me.” To which Carver replied, “I take walks.” The moral of this story was, “Human experience doesn’t belong to anyone. Go ahead and use whatever you can get hold of.”

I read all the stories, and felt it was a great tragedy that, as a young, romantic writer myself, I had not gotten a chance to meet Carver or hear him read in person. After Sarah Lawrence, when I received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, Raymond Carver was among the most revered former fellows. It made us feel important to be following in his footsteps.

However, later, as a teacher I began to see Carver differently. Carver was always hailed as a great minimalist, a Hemingway. His stories of mostly working class people, of their relationships and experiences– losing a child, finding a girl’s body on a fishing trip, talking around and beyond each other as a marriage cracked, making money on a sex hotline while raising small children– were trimmed to their essences. The stories were spare and real.

images-2But it was the editor Gordon Lish, not Carver,  who made them that way. No set of Carver stories was more heavily edited by Lish (you could even say excised) than What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the volume that gives its name to the play by Michael Keaton’s character Riggan Thomson. Carver so objected to the changes made by Lish that he later broke off his relationship with the editor. Tess Gallagher fought for the rights to the original stories and later had them published under the title Beginners. (Really too bad since the original title is SO good!) I used to discuss companion stories, Carver’s draft and Lish’s draft of the same story, with creative writing students. It was a great lesson for revision and also discussions of the role of an editor. It also clearly showed that Carver was not a minimalist.

birdmanmovie-600x338So I watched with great fascination an early scene in Birdman, where Riggan (Keaton) and younger, respected stage actor Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton) are rehearsing a scene from the play. Mike has all the lines memorized already (he’s been practicing with his girlfriend, who is also in the play, an insecure actress played by Naomi Watts), and he is taking over the role from an actor whom Riggan cruelly sabotaged. Shiner is contemptuous of the celebrity Riggan and, in fact, he’s contemptuous of the play Riggan has written.

As they start to do the scene, Mike interrupts. He doesn’t like Riggan’s line. It’s repetitive. Why say something three times when once will suffice– and then Mike can come in quickly. His changes immediately improve the scene. Now it feels like real dialogue, like real people at a dinner party. Mike is good. Mike knows what he’s doing. But also, in that scene, it feels like he and Riggan have established a rapport. They will be able to work together.

As rehearsals progress (in previews, so all these rehearsals are before a live audience), we see that Riggan has given himself some juicy parts, and some big speeches. This is the comeback role he has written, produced and directed for himself. Mike continues to throw a wrench in things, dashing a glass to pieces and breaking character when he realizes Riggan has replaced his onstage gin with water, and strutting around with a giant hard-on after the (in real life impotent Mike) is turned on by his girlfriend playing his mistress on stage. This “realism” messes with the “art,” and builds to the ultimate reveal on opening night.

Riggan’s taste is also called into question when we see from the wings, multiple times, one of the four actors in the ensemble standing on a wintry stage festooned with sparkly trees and reindeer to give her own dramatic monologue about losing a child. It is so at odds with Carver, so full of spectacle, that even the actress draws attention to it. We have to at least suspect that this might not be a great play, though it is certainly an attempt at a highbrow vehicle. And I believe “vehicle” is the right word, because in the end the film sets up a bunch of dichotomies: celebrity vs. actor; plays vs. film; real life vs. fantasy; realism vs. artifice; superhero vs. human; actor vs. role, and so on, that are either not resolved, or are resolved in a number of contradictory ways by the multiple endings of the film (I count three endings). In the end, we’re left with all sorts of judgments to make given the raw material of the film (which can also be taken as a series of short stories, really amazing gems of scenes, like the ones in Riggan’s dressing room with his ex-wife (played by Amy Ryan), or the ones on the roof with Mike and Riggan’s daughter (played by Emma Stone).

UnknownAnd, of course, there is yet another layer of references here. Robert Altman did a film, Short Cuts, that adapted and interwove nine Raymond Carver Stories. The main criticism of that film (a fantastic film, IMHO), was that he set the stories in Hollywood, and gave them a Hollywood frame, when Carver’s stories are set in the Pacific Northwest. It was star-studded and also broke up the stories (edited them), to interweave them, in ways people didn’t like. As I remember it, the most controversial and talked about scene in the film was the same scene we see enacted in Birdman. But in Altman’s film a husband and wife are getting ready for a dinner party and the wife, played by Julianne Moore, takes off her skirt and irons it. She is not wearing underwear– brave, brave, Julianne! Such a thing to do on film!!

And lest we forget, the film Robert Altman made before Short Cuts was The Player. Like Birdman, it is a black comedy (the blackest) about the film industry. And it opens with a very famous, very long, single shot…

Birdman opens with a quote that is engraved on Raymond Carver’s gravestone. It is as poignant a quote about love vs. celebrity as one can find, and in this context reflects on Carver as well as Riggan Thomson:

“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?”
“I did.”
“And what did you want?”
“To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

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Serial and the Art of Storytelling

stuff_serial_46[1]I have turned against Serial, the podcast from This American Life that has been sweeping the nation. Oh, I’m going to listen to every episode, but I don’t understand why a quick search of the Internet turns up only praise for this project. I don’t understand why everyone seems willing to accept it without question. I don’t understand why the discussion is only on social media, not known for analysis. News outlets and cultural commentary is on the level of the Pittsburgh City Pages site where I got the photo above, in a feature called “Stuff we like.” The only story out there is: “look how popular it is.”

For those who don’t know, Serial takes a single story and broadcasts it over the course of a season. The story is of Adnan Syed, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his high school girlfriend, back in 1999. He has always proclaimed his innocence, and the case against him was weak. Over the course of the podcast, reporter Sarah Koenig is reviewing everything and discussing the case and trial with everyone (friends, acquaintances, experts) and even reenacting some key aspects. It is predicted that it will run 12 hour-long episodes. And there’s the first red flag. Why don’t they know how many episodes it will take to tell this story? (More on that later.) (And yes, that is a reference to one of  Serial’s most common techniques.)

Actually, a search of the Internet turns up nothing but accounts of the show’s popularity and how many people are listening to it. There’s not much meaningful discussion of the form or content at all. If you want to know if people think Adnan is guilty or innocent, go to Twitter.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a considerable amount of time on the Serial website blog and Facebook page. There’s nothing on there that’s worth much– a bunch of chatter and love for the show, and images of some of the pieces of evidence that have been discussed on the show. But that is where I learned that they are still working on this program. They are still interviewing people and editing and so they aren’t sure how long the series will run. Which is kind of interesting if you’re doing what Charles Dickens did in the earliest serialized fiction (I actually believe Dickens always knew where he was going and how he was going to get there).

I think it’s a real problem if you’re doing investigative journalism and presenting a “true crime” story. Also, Sarah Koenig might be a perfectly good journalist, better than average, but she is not doing a good job, in my opinion, of telling this story! Maybe she doesn’t know exactly what the story is, but really the story is suffering as she gets more conflicting information, as she tries to keep neutral, not project guilt or innocence onto Adnan. (She does not give him the benefit of the doubt ever. For example, despite the fact that her reenactment of the timeline for the murder shows everything would have to go like clockwork and the murder would have had to happen very quickly, she says basically you could do it. But really, it is so unlikely as to be meaningless to use that timeline to convict him. Why not just say that and be done with it?)

She is not doing anything that I expect an author of a story (or a documentarian) to do. She is not filtering much and she’s not choosing a hierarchy of experts, let alone information. For example, I am so much more interested and invested in what the lawyers from the Innocence Project have to offer than anything random people who were on the track team with Adnan 15 years ago have to say. sarah-koeinig[1]Also, since when is this about Sarah Koenig? She seems to want to have things both ways– I am an objective journalist and I am a person experiencing this story as I uncover it. (for the source of the photo above and a story that continues to prove my point that the medium is the message, and misspells her name, click here.)

adnan and friends

Serial, for me, is a product of the wired world. It seems to owe its form and life to social media. There are no experts, really, or no hierarchy of experts. We won’t hear a word from the police detectives (a shame, she says, but let’s just keep moving…). We won’t hear (unless something happens while the story is still being made) from the murder victim’s family. Though there is this interesting post from Reddit, another social media site where the show is extensively discussed, by someone purporting to be the victim’s brother. It’s the only negative “article” of any length I’ve seen, and the headline “brother slams popular podcast” doesn’t really reflect his comments– hey, he thinks Sarah Koenig is doing a good job! He just wishes (totally understandably) that she wasn’t doing it. Twitter commenters of this post by the brother say Sarah Koenig’s e-mail asking him for an interview is a good example of how to broach difficult issues in e-mail. Huh?

facebookTwitter. Reddit. Facebook. This serial is playing out in a different world. (And if there is any critique of the podcast, it is a series of YouTube parodies that mostly make fun of people’s obsession with the show.) This is a world Dickens certainly couldn’t have imagined. I for one am not willing to just go with the flow and love it love it love it. I don’t want someone to pretend they are telling more of the story, the whole story, when really they’re just giving me what they could get. I want someone to shape the story before giving it to me. I want there to be a point of view that is not floundering around in the hours and hours of tape. Tell me a story.

And then there’s another question. Is it entertaining? Hell, yes. But is it enough for this story to entertain? And is that the right thing to do with a real life murder case? Is that something different than a documentary? Do different rules apply to fiction and documentary?

For more on that subject, stay tuned…

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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…

ski path with oakI am sure the Eskimos have a word for this kind of snow. I believe it can be translated as “January snow.” I went out for a little ski yesterday, my sister-in-law being kind enough to blaze the trail through the prairie. I was surprised by how mature the snow felt. It was not only over a foot deep, it was nicely packed and had a great texture. It wasn’t icy or mushy or crunchy… it was premium snow.

Premium snow definitely helps with the insanely early onslaught of winter. It’s true that we’re all having trouble adjusting. Even people who own snowblowers kind of went out o their minds and started looking for snow removal services, which are in short supply. We just don’t want to clear the snow! It fell on November 10th!!

november ski trailI trudged out through the snow on Tuesday and harvested the last of the kale in the cold frame. This was just in time, as last night was our first sub-zero night. Yes, that is when the temperature has a minus in front of it.

Maybe it was the ski, or maybe it was the sheer beauty of every branch and tree encased in frost and ice this morning, and the bright sun today, but I do feel better. I do feel like things are going to be OK. I’m not cruising Groupon for deals to Costa Rica.

But there was something else about that ski in that gorgeous snow. The whole landscape looked different. I’m not sure why, but the prairie, that mature prairie, was just so much more full than it seems during usual skis. I wondered if the trail had been altered from last year. I was skiing between high walls of dead prairie grasses and plants. There’s still so much poking through. Also, the wetland seemed closer to the trail, and more defined.

We have plans, which started this fall with an attempt to make some big inroads into busting buckthorn, to do more restoration of the wetlands. (FYI: The roof did not get onto the greenhouse, so there won’t be any winter experiments in there.) Now that the prairie is in good shape, we can move out farther and eradicate invasive grasses and improve the quality of the wetland. On my ski trip, I got a view only possible in winter when the ground is frozen. And because it’s so early, it looked more like the wetland it is, not just another snow field.

kale saladLast night I made a salad with some of the last of the fresh kale. It really is stunning to have a plate of such deep green leaves when there is snow on the ground. And this one, paired with lamb burgers, with pomegranate, feta, and roasted walnuts, was like Christmas.

kale salad dressedKale Salad with Pomegranate, Feta and Roasted Walnuts

6-8 cups kale, ribs removed, sliced to ribbons
2 lemons
1/2 cup roasted walnut pieces (or pine nuts)
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup feta cheese (or blue cheese or gorgonzola)
1/4 cup yogurt
1/4 cup olive oil (or walnut oil)
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 tsp tahini (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Massage the kale with your hands 3-5 minutes until it starts to break down. This will just make it more tender. Mix the kale with juice of 1/2 lemon and marinate for 1-3 hours.

For the dressing, whisk the oil into the yogurt, then blend in the juice of the other lemon half, mustard, and tahini. Season with salt and pepper. Roast the walnuts ahead, too, so they have time to cool down.

Put the kale in bowls and top with the walnuts, feta cheese and pomegranate seeds. Drizzle with the dressing.

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Mysteries of Lisbon

snow november 10 2014It’s snowing like crazy outside, and so I’m settling in for a bonus day of writing. In this spirit, we enjoyed a long, challenging film this weekend, the 4 1/2 hour period piece by Raul Ruiz, Mysteries of Lisbon.

I don’t know how I have so far missed this Chilean/French filmmaker, who made over 100 films before he died in 2011. Mysteries of Lisbon is his penultimate film and, no doubt, his masterpiece.

That said, I can only recommend it to you if you’re very interested in films, in storytelling (especially postmodern storytelling) or thinking about identity, and have a lot of patience. Personally, I smiled through most of it and was utterly delighted– it brings to mind the quirky and impeccable sets and random activity of Wes Anderson’s films, and I found the twists and turns delightful. But there is actually nothing random in these stories or this filmmaking.

UnknownMysteries of Lisbon is based on an 1854 novel of the same name by Camilo Castelo Branco, and set in the late 18th century and early 19th century. I imagine the novel is picaresque like Moll Flanders or Tristram Shandy. But in style, it reminded me more of the Latin American stories/novels like Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps, or work by Borges and the master Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was more like Don Quixote which, when I read it to teach it to community college students, stunned me with its brilliant playing with narrative.

Mysteries of Lisbon starts out with an orphan named Joao, a boy with no last name (in a world where people have multiple last names clearly stating their heritage and lineage) and no idea of who he is or where he came from. The other boys suggest he is the son of the priest. In truth, the priest plays a large part in his story, but he is not Joao’s father.

MysteriesOfLisbon-1Ostensibly, the film is about Joao, who becomes Pedro da Silva. He is reunited with his mother only briefly, long enough to hear her story. Over the course of the film we hear many people’s stories. You could even argue that the priest is actually the person this film is about (although in the end there are a few things left completely blank about his story– like what is the true relationship between him and his “sister,” the nun Dona Antonia). As for Pedro, he goes along, interacting with the various players in his life, even finding a benefactor at one point, moving to Paris, falling in love, challenging someone to a duel. But at the end of his life he is on a bed in Brazil with a collection of objects on a table: a portrait drawn by a noblewoman practicing her drawing in the park, a woman who, once she has drawn the picture, we never hear from again; a puppet theater his mother gave him, on which we’ve watched various stories play out in miniature; and a wooden ball. He lies down, feverish and lost, and begins to tell himself his story again. After all the stories, we are where we started, and so is Pedro, with no idea of who he is.

It will probably be evident to all why I loved this movie. I am a firm believer that telling one’s story is a way to cement one’s identity. It is necessary, I believe, to understand your own narrative.

If you were to look at my life, in fact, it was only after writing a full-length memoir of my life, making sense once and for all of the trajectory of my life and the things that had happened, that I “settled down.” To me it feels like coincidence, because I had reasons for all my moves– to Atlanta, to New York, To Northern California, to Chicago, to Joliet, to Reno, to Southern California– before coming to Minnesota. But if one wants to tell the story another way, I finished writing my own story only in the year I came to Minnesota, and once written, I was free to settle down. Things have turned out pretty well.

I don’t even speak about the “large events” of my childhood, which I obsessively shared for years during my formation as an adult and as a writer. It was through telling the story that I was able to confidently move forward as myself (for me a written event, but for many just an oral history, or just understood without the need to construct it, because the events and their meaning are unchallenged). I trulis1ly believe it made me whole.

And so, poor Joao! He is at the margins of his own life! His story belongs in the end to the priest, his mother, a pirate, a couple of counts, a noble French woman looking for revenge– everyone but himself! And though he seems to be trying to start anew, he is more than anything lying in the bed trying to arrive where he is, trying to tell himself the story of his own life so he can move forward at all.

For me, Mysteries of Lisbon gave me a broad space to think about these issues again. It reminded me of the thrill I felt when I first read Latin American literature, back when I was assigned to teach “Nonwestern Literature in Translation” at Joliet Junior College in 1998. I had no idea the riches that were there to be uncovered. The chief subject seemed to be how language made the world. The stories told created as much as reflected reality. And if you had no language for something, it did not exist. In this way reality is suppressed every day.

I wonder still, at my own journey. I am so full right now, with fiction and the stories I want to tell. This second novel is going wonderfully, with discoveries and the characters just chattering away with each other. There are whole worlds there. Perhaps in knowing one’s own story, one is also set free to tell others. In any event, it is something to think about. And thank goodness for winter, when these thoughts can be thought.

snow on the balcony

snow on the balcony

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Where I Live

I don’t think I live in an unusual place. But then something happens to remind me that I do. Walking out to get the mail, I walk by our pumpkin-headed scarecrow, our usual fall decoration.

And I see that someone has hung a very large rosary around his arm.

rosary scarecrowI am 99% sure this was not an addition from someone on the farm. A number of people walk back here on the gravel road, reach this turn and see the houses and turn around, realizing it’s basically a private drive.

This, though, is a first!


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NaNoWriMo II

granary train ardoch ndHi friends. Wonder where I’ve been since October 31?

Well, it’s not entirely true I haven’t been blogging… it’s just been on my Cowbird platform. I was really happy with this little piece for the changing of the clocks. As you’ll see if you read it, the day after we “fall back” is the most productive day of the year for me, using my extra hour over and over again.

But really what I’ve been doing the last five days is writing a NEW novel. I had so much fun last November, and for the many months afterward as I went through five more drafts of my novel Officer Down, that I decided to try another.

Also, when I got back from my North Dakota research trip for a short story I wanted to write, I realized there was a lot more “there” than I could use in just a story. And it interested me. I wrote one story from that trip, too, and posted it on Cowbird. There’s not much to it, but it kind of encapsulates what I care about in the story– the loss of a fundamental purposefulness to work in so much of today’s world.

Closed NiagaraOne thing I’m not so happy about is it is another “guy” story. More fathers and sons. I have daughters, too, but the core of the story is a man riding around and delivering burial vaults with his aged father. Learning about and revisiting the past, struggling to make the present work, and wanting to have a say about their own lives and their own deaths. As far as we can, anyway.

I’m five days in, and so far so good. These people were more immediately alive to me, more real in some ways than the characters I had to work with last year. But also, there’s less plot, no mystery to solve. Which is fun in its own way, because I do know that these people know how to get themselves into trouble. I’m just not sure what it is yet.

So if I’m a little quieter than usual this November, or seem a bit distracted, it’s because I’m really in a different world, spending lots of time with people who don’t exist, trying to get to the heart of things.

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Coming Inside

kofta and squashThis morning there was ice on the pond. Not a good sign.

I went out and, indeed, the rest of the Brussels sprouts are frozen. We’ll eat them anyway, but I wish I’d saved them from the freeze by harvesting them last night. Not sure how I missed the memo!

Especially since this week I’ve been getting back to my “inside” routine. It’s the equivalent of putting away the summer clothes and taking out the sweaters. We’ve “eaten down” all the peppers and other must-eat-fresh produce and the refrigerator suddenly looks empty. Not to mention the countertop!

I moved the harvest cookbooks to the back of the shelf and took out my copy of Jerusalem

But first, there was one more project I wanted to get from the garden: kimchi. Yes, making kimchi is a winter activity, but one of my garden goals was to grow enough carrots, daikon, garlic and michili cabbage to make at least one batch of homegrown kimchi.

I haven’t quite gotten the hang of the michili cabbage. In fact, I was reading (in some greenhouse book) that michili is unusual in that it bolts in cold, not hot weather. It is a  warm/hot weather green. That is very good to know for next year, but this year, it means planting them spring and fall was not the way to go.

photo-25I did go to the lastkimchi october outdoor Farmers’ Market last Friday and one of the farmers had little boxes of small cabbages. So I bought those for my project instead. I had the daikon and carrot and garlic, mixed my paste and put it in the fermenter. Success!

But back to Yotam Ottolenghi… I had pulled out some ground beef and lamb, so of course there had to be kofta. I love the little torpedo-shaped meatballs bursting with flavor, drizzled with tahini sauce and sprinkled with pine nuts. But the real find was his recipe for roasted butternut squash and red onion wedges, doused with the same tahini sauce. Here is a link to the recipe. Use the za’atar liberally! And really, this would be a good side dish for Thanksgiving and is very easy.

But I couldn’t stop there. When I took out the cookbook, there was one bright pink flag in it. It was on the page for chocolate krantz cakes. The first time I saw the recipe I knew immediately that this was babka. Chocolate babka!! I’d been wanting to make this (although I’m not much of a baker) since I saw it on Seinfeld back in the ’90s. If you’ve never seen the episode, here is a not very good copy. I put the pink flag on the page because, well, it takes two days to make! It is more of a bread, a yeasted cake, that has to rise overnight, and rise another 1-2 hours before it goes in the oven. So it’s definitely an “inside time” recipe.

But I had another incentivbabka doughe, because the local Sam’s Club has again started carrying Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips in a giant bag for about $8.00. What joy. My sister-in-law is a member and she picks them up for me when they’re in stock. With a giant bag of those chips, I can say that it is going to be a good winter.

I had time to be around yesterday, so Wednesday night I made the dough and yesterday had the rest of the fun.

babka risingI followed the directions closely, but at the proposed rolled out size, the first “loaf” didn’t fit in the pan. I made the second one more squat, and I think it turned out better. One blogger said she rolls the dough out thin and trims it and managed to get three loaves out of the recipe (with high ratio of chocolate to dough), which sounds even better.

But no matter, the babka is delicious. I highly recommend. And on this last day of October, first freeze, it feels good to be inside with some leftover meatballs and a slice of babka…

finished babka


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