Saturday, May 26, 2007


"I sometimes think that people's hearts are like deep wells. Nobody knows what's at the bottom. All you can do is guess from what comes floating to the surface every once in a while."

-- Haruki Murakami

"What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unkown."

-- Marcel Proust

The Shape of a Finely Made Story

"Story has a form that brings a certain order. The shape of a finely made story has the same energy as sexual energy or life energy. It's like the ebbing and flowing of tide and of storms. I think this goes through our bodies, it goes through our psyches, and the shape of story takes that same cyclical form."

--Maxine Hong Kingston speaking with Bill Moyers about her latest book Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. "For the past 15 years, Kingston has been working with veterans – more than 500 soldiers from World War II, from Vietnam, and now, from Iraq - as well as other survivors of war to convert the horrors they experienced into the words and stories that Kingston believes will help them cope and survive."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I Accepted Monsters In My Heart

Guillermo del Toro discussing his film, Pan's Labyrinth with Terry Gross (Fresh Air, 1/24/07):

When I was a kid I used to spend a lot of time in my grandmother’s garden, and I would actually do insane stuff. Like I would spend hours watching an ant hill. And I would try and recognize the ants from one another every day. And of course the garden was full of insects and I would name them and I admired them. I think they’re present in most of my movies because I have such admiration and fear of them. And I always thought, listening to Bible tales, I don’t know why, I always thought that archangels should look like insects, because archangels were sort of the tough guys of God’s army and I always imagined them looking like this. Shelled, armored creatures.

And I believe that the girl’s reality in the movie, you should be able to read it as existing in her mind or as being a really raggedy, left-out-in-the-rain kind of magical world because she has been gone from it for so long. So the movie allows you to interpret it both ways. For me, funny enough, to me what she see is a fully blown reality--a spiritual reality. But I believe her tale not to be just a reflection of the world around her, but to me she really turns into the princess of the underworld.
I think that there is a point in our life when we’re kids when literature and magic and fantasy has a strong presence in our soul as religion would have in later days. I think that it’s a spiritual reality as strong as when people say, “I accept Jesus in my heart.” Well, at a certain age, I accepted monsters in my heart. The girl is basically sort of autobiographical for me.
I think that the entire world we live in is fabricated. So when I think about, you know Republican, Democrat, left, right, morning, night, geography borders, all these things are conceits. Borders are not visible from a satellite picture. The fact that you can have a civil war where two sides kill each other and essentially from afar they look exactly the same. They are both the same human beings. They share the same taste for food. They sing the same songs and so on and so forth. This imagined conceit can create such horrors. And I think when people talk about fantasy and they demean it, like “Oh, fantasy is such a low concern,” well, I think politics, religion, are equal inventions for me at least.
The Pale Man is, in function, a prototypical ogre in the fairy tale—a devourer of children. But in appearance I wanted it to look like essentially a monster a child could imagine. A monster from the id.

What I noticed early on is I ordered first the make effects company to create sort of an old guy that had been very fat and had shrunken so the skin was loose and hanging, and at the same time, I asked them to remove the face. Because I remember manta rays upside down they have this thin mouth and the little nostril-like openings and they have a very disturbing neutrality to them.

And then one of the things I remember as a kid is one of the first things you do is you draw your own hand, you trace it, and you put an eye or a mouth or a face. And it is very often that child psychologists find that one of the first things a kid does in inventing a monster is displacing the mouth or displacing the eyes. And I came up with the idea since the character had stigmata, I said Let’s put the eyes in there. And what came out instinctively was an incredibly brutal incredibly Freudian or Jungian creature.

A Treatment of Our Own Life

"Every American may be working on a screenplay, but we are also continually updating a treatment of our own life — and the way in which we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave, new studies find. By better understanding how life stories are built, this work suggests, people may be able to alter their own narrative, in small ways and perhaps large ones."

--Benedict Carey, This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It), New York Times, 5/22/07.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Go Now

Away From Her is a heartbreaking film adapted from a beautifully crafted short story by Alice Munro. Julie Christie portrays Fiona, a woman with Alzheimers, who feels like she is disappearing. Grant, her husband of over forty years, watches powerlessly as she drifts away.

Driving home, he noticed that the swamp hollow that had been filled with snow and the formal shadows of tree trunks was no lighted up with skunk lilies. Their fresh, edible-looking leaves were the size of platters. The flowers sprang straight up like candle flames, and there were so many of them, so pure a yellow, that they set a light shooting up from the earth on this cloudy day. Fiona had told him that they generated a heat of their own as well. Rummaging around in one of her concealed pockets of information, she said that you were supposed to be able to put your hand inside the curled petal and feel the heat. She said that she had tried it, but she couldn't be sure if what she felt was heat or her imagination. The heat attracted bugs.

"Nature doesn't fool around just being decorative."


In the town where he used to work there was a bookstore that he and Fiona had visited once or twice a year. He went back there by himself. He didn't feel like buying anything, but he had made a list and picked out a couple of the books on it, and then bought another book that he noticed by chance. It was about Iceland. A book of nineteenth-century watercolors made by a lady traveler to Iceland.

Fiona had never learned her mother's language and she had never shown much respect for the stories that it preserved--the stories that Grant had taught and written about, and still did write about, in his working life. She referred to their heroes as "old Naj" or "old Snorri." But in the last few years she had developed an interest in the country itself and looked at travel guides. She read about William Morris's trip, and Auden's. She didn't really plan to travel there. She said the weather was too dreadful. Also--she said--there ought to be one place you thought about and knew about and maybe longed for--but never did get to see.

First-time director Sarah Polley's wrote an essay, On Marriage and Fiction, which appeared in a recent issue of Zoetrope All-Story about making the significance of the story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which inspired the film.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Like the Fire Through the Mountain

"The truly contemporary force is something that is built of the past, but with a difference. Most of what calls itself contemporary is built, whether it knows it or not, out of a desire to be liked. It is created in imitation of what already exists and is already admired. There is, in other words, nothing new about it. To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air."

--Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook

Sunday, May 13, 2007

No Longer a Solitary Act

From Sex, Drugs, and Updating Your Blog by Clive Thompson (New York Times, 5/11/07):

When Jonathan Coulton first began writing his weekly songs, he carefully tracked how many people listened to each one on his Web site. His listenership rose steadily, from around 1,000 a week at first to 50,000 by the end of his yearlong song-a-week experiment. But there were exceptions to this gradual rise: five songs that became breakout “hits,” receiving almost 10 times as many listeners as the songs that preceded and followed them. The first hit was an improbable cover song: Coulton’s deadpan version of the 1992 Sir Mix-a-Lot rap song “Baby Got Back,” performed like a hippie folk ballad. Another was “Code Monkey,” his pop song about a disaffected cubicle worker.

Obviously, Coulton was thrilled when his numbers popped, not least because the surge of traffic produced thousands more dollars in sales. But the successes also tortured him: he would rack his brains trying to figure out why people loved those particular songs so much. What had he done right? Could he repeat the same trick?

“Every time I had a hit, it would sort of ruin me for a few weeks,” he told me. “I would feel myself being a little bit repressed in my creativity, and ideas would not come to me as easily. Or else I would censor myself a little bit more.” His fans, he realized, were most smitten by his geekier songs, the ones that referenced science fiction, mathematics or video games. Whenever he branches out and records more traditional pop fare, he worries it will alienate his audience.

For many of these ultraconnected artists, it seems the nature of creativity itself is changing. It is no longer a solitary act: their audiences are peering over their shoulders as they work, offering pointed comments and suggestions.

Code Monkey

Monday, May 07, 2007

Part of the Process

"...the writing gets easier; you become more skillful unless something is wrong. And you waste less time. I can remember this and I see it in my students—this idea that I have spent all these hours, days, even weeks, on these pages, on this story, they must be good. Well, the truth is that it is quite possible that they aren’t. It doesn’t matter that you spent all this time on it. It still might not work. And after you have done this for a while, you are much more willing, much smarter, you know, to throw that away. You have to realize that that’s part of the process and not this big waste. You are able to say that won’t work and cut it. Whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, a page or a whole story or chapter, you learn how to tell sooner when it’s not working. And you begin to feel more confident because you know you’re more skillful as a writer. But when it’s working, when the actual writing is going well and you know you’re doing a good day’s work, that’s enormously satisfying. And in that sense it is fun."

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Andrew Bird performs Spare-Ohs as he strolls through Montmartre at sunset.

Spare-Ohs is on Armchair Apocrypha which was released in March.

More Take-Away Shows from Blogotheque.