Wednesday, January 26, 2011

notes on Humble Pie

Obvious similarities to Napoleon Dynamite, especially in its fetishism of small-town life. Doesn't quite manage to generate the intrigue of Napoleon though, probably because the characters don't feel as eccentric or boldly comfortable with their own eccentricity. Watching Napoleon Dynamite you feel impressed with how awesomely awkward the characters are; in Humble Pie you just feel sorry for the characters (with the possible exception of Billy Baldwin's character, who manages a bit of swagger).

Also makes me think of Todd Solondz films in that many of the characters are extremely vulnerable, and the plot makes them suffer. Solondz goes so far over the top that it manages a sort of absurd black humor (though I personally can't say I enjoy Solondz films). Humble Pie is not so ruthless, and rarely does it manage to be funny.

You can see the writer's hand often in the dialogue. You can imagine him thinking "I'll make Tracey mean to the handicapped woman in order to create internal conflict in the character, to make him complicated and real instead of uniformly likeable and too simple." Feels contrived. In an early scene Tracey talks with a co-worker about "being a somebody," and says he thinks passing the driving exam (which he has failed several times) would make him a somebody. Blatant cliche dialogue to get to overly simplistic character motivation.

The scene where Tracey comforts himself with a junk-food binge, after having been slighted by a character he idolizes, is actually very sad. Him trying to trick the cashier into thinking he's ordering for two people works toward achieving the sadness, but it's really the shot of him in a dark lot, wolfing down food from the tray balanced on top of a trash can, that drives the knife into your heart.

The plot development sometimes feels a bit flat footed. There's a scene about midway through that involves Tracey having a gun pressed to his temple. Near the end of the movie Tracey faces off with the same character who threatened him with the gun, and Tracey challenges him, and the only consequence is a punch in the face and a few weak kicks. If you've got a gun-to-temple early on, you can't reduce the physical stakes at the climax without it disappointing the viewer.


Billy Baldwin tries to distance himself from the narcissism of the character he plays, but his prominent fashion "flair" (rings on several fingers and on his thumb, a funky ethnic-looking necklace, hair with so much gel in it that it looks shellacked) make it hard to believe him.

When Kathleen Quinlan talks about her excitement for "Indie films," she sounds like what she's actually excited about is the idea of being a big fish in a small pond.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

SPARTINA by John Casey

One of the most satisfying novels I've read in the last year. I initially felt drawn to it for the direct, esoteric nautical information, and the vividness of the characters. Sort of feels like a working-class struggle-to-claw-out-of-misery story, like Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE. About a hundred pages in it veers into the subject of adultery, which brings about more ambiguity in the language and description (a good example of the sort of pretentious literary wordplay attacked by B.R. Myers in his A READER"S MANIFESTO), and get's so "deep" that it's hard at first to even gather that any sexual act has been committed. Kind of disappointed me when it took that turn, but it managed to maintain the characters vividness, and the plot continued to involve the sea-faring stuff that first pulled me in, and eventually the ambiguity of the writing about love and desire and infidelity developed into a tone that felt appropriate for the complexity and mystery of human psyches. Also, the book brings a happy sort of resolution that feels difficult enough to not be cheap.

One of the most interesting aspects of SPARTINA is the narration: told in third person but intimately, inseparably connected to the consciousness of the protagonist. The sentences capture his gruffness, his focus on the practical (despite the book's eventual wandering into the mists of human-relationships), but also show his intelligence and thoughtfulness. To create an intelligent character without giving any whiff of academia to him, it's a unique achievement.

Another interesting thing, related to this narrative approach, is that we are often given statements as if they are definitive, and then later we are given statements (with the same level of authority) that contradict the initial statements. A little confusing at first (I'm used to third person narration being 'infallible'), but unique in how it further reveals the mind of protagonist--he comes up with a perspective that is presented as if it's a golden truth, the sort that book's often hinge upon as their climax (an epiphany moment), but later that golden truth is replaced by a different one. The protagonist is wise, but fallible.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Best of 2010 Winner

I just found out that Autumn Letters chose my poem "sick fish" as their "Best of 2010" in the Word Section! This is one of the highest accolades I've received for my poetry, and I'm very proud and grateful for the honor.