Friday, August 1, 2014

My Summer So Far

It’s been more than a month since my last blog post, so I think I’ve firmly established the fact that I am not a regular blogger.  Lately, I’ve been trying to put a dent in a pile of backed-up work, and I haven’t been popping my head out of the hole much.  Among other things, I’ve been researching the geological history of Washington state.  And my brain hurts.

People often make a mistaken assumption about writers.  Someone who can write books, the assumption goes, must be brilliant.  The people who make this assumption also seem to forget how many books have been written by Kardashians.

Granted, the chances that any of the Kardashians actually wrote any of the books that bear their names are pretty slim.  In fact, if I weren’t a writer and actually had a lot of money to wager, I’d bet heavily against those chances.  Maybe the Kardashians were a bad example, but you get my point.

My experience has been that writing often makes me feel pretty dumb because it’s always reminding me of how much I don't know.

While researching Washington state geology, I encountered what appeared to me to be a different language.  The jargon, the terminology — after a few paragraphs, my head felt ready to explode.  I was writing a prologue that didn’t need to be very long, but somehow I had to give the impression that I had a handle on the subject matter.  With zero knowledge of the field of geology, I found that impossible to do in the time I had.  The suggestion was made that I “fake it,” a notion that made me freeze up because I didn’t know how to fake something I didn’t understand.  I knew what I wanted that prologue to be, I knew what I wanted it to do.  But that would require a lot more reading and learning and I just didn’t have the time for that.  I didn’t write the prologue I had in mind, but I think I accomplished what I needed to do just the same.

If you think you’re pretty smart, maybe a little above average, try writing a novel.  It will make you aware of the oceans of things you don’t know, of the mountains of information that you may be able to access but not necessarily understand, of all the little day-to-day details of life you pay no attention to and about which you know so little.  In short, writing a novel can make you feel like an idiot.

This is the first time I’ve worked on multiple projects at once.  In the past, I’ve always worked on one at a time because each one so totally consumed my brain that I couldn’t even think about working on anything else.  Hell, sometimes I've gotten so wrapped up in a book, I have a hard time functioning without Dawn around to remind me to put on my pants.

One project at a time is no longer possible, so I’m training myself to rotate projects.  It hasn’t been quite as difficult as I expected because I’ve found that as I get older, I’m not as intensely focused as I used to be.  One drawback of that is that I’m more easily distracted, but a benefit is that I can move more easily between projects.  That has enabled me to write several short stories, work on an unfinished novel, and start a new one all in one summer.

Since my last blog post, I have not found a cure for my insomnia and still end up spending the wee hours staring at the TV with sleepy eyes.  I’ve seen some good movies.

I remember reading Roger Ebert’s review of Barney's Version, screenwriter Michael Konyves’s adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel, directed by Richard J. Lewis.  I wanted to see the movie immediately, but it was playing in selected theaters and none of the theaters in my area had been selected.  When we got a free weekend of HBO earlier this year, I recorded the movie, and it’s been on the DVR ever since.  I recently watched it late one night.

Paul Giamatti plays paunchy, balding, cigar-smoking TV producer Barney Panofsky, an unremarkable man who makes some remarkably bad decisions.  For example, he walks out of his own wedding reception to follow a beautiful woman, one of the guests he’s just met, all the way to the train station to tell her he’s madly in love with her.  But, to be fair, she does turn out to be the love of his life.  Ebert summed up the movie beautifully:  “Barney's Version tells the story of a man distinguished largely by his flaws and the beautiful woman who loves him in spite of them.”  It’s a funny, sad, infuriating movie that’s messy in the same way that life and people are messy.  Giamatti, as usual, is outstanding, and Dustin Hoffman is hilarious as Barney’s retired detective father.

Writer-director Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene from 2011 is a quietly disturbing story about a young woman, Martha (Elizabeth Wilson), who escapes the cult she’s been in to go live with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).  She doesn’t tell them she’s been in a cult, and I’m not sure she knows she’s been in a cult.  I don’t think the word “cult” is ever spoken in the movie.  What we see is the damage done to Martha during the time she spent with the cult, the way the leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), stays with her even though she left him behind.  It’s a haunting movie about the effects of mind control, how it changes the way Martha sees herself, others, and the world.  Wilson gives a quietly convincing performance that will stay with you.

The best movie I’ve seen in some time is last year’s Prisoners, written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve.  When two little girls disappear, their parents are frantic and the police immediately begin following leads.  But when the girls are not found, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) caves under the pressure and kidnaps and tortures a young man he believes is either involved in the kidnaping himself or knows something about it.  Meanwhile, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is dealing with evidence, suspects, and the unstable and irrational Dover.

I don’t want to reveal any more than that about the story because I don’t want to deflate the experience for you.  Prisoners is best watched cold, knowing as little as possible about it, preferably nothing.  It’s the kind of movie that makes you forget you’re watching a movie.  It’s not a pleasant experience — it’s disturbing and painful and frightening, it's not light entertainment — but it is definitely a vivid and electric experience.  And a hell of a movie.
If you’re craving some political soap opera while you wait for the next season of House of Cards, you might want to check out Boss starring Kelsey Grammer as Chicago mayor Tom Kane, a man fighting to retain power while gradually being overtaken by a degenerative neurological disorder that is destroying his mind.  It’s a compelling series, but it was cancelled after the second season without resolving its storylines, which is rather frustrating.  Grammer was so good for so long in the role of Frasier Crane that it’s still difficult to adjust to him in a different role, but he’s equally good here playing a radically character.
Other than that, my summer so far has been pretty damned hot.  Yesterday, Dawn and I went out in the afternoon and the thermometer in her car read 113 degrees.  I’m ready for winter already.

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