March 4, 2013

January 24, 2013

A Spotify Playlist for Our Twisted Lit Series

With Shakespeare as the inspiration for our novels, you might expect “Ren-Fair” lute muzak to factor into the equation. (Don’t worry, it didn’t.) Instead, the soundtrack essential to our writing process lent mood and kept us grounded in the present for our contemporized tales. Here are some of the songs that galvanized us as we worked on the first two books in our Twisted Lit series. (Go to the Spotifiy playlist.)

“Grace,” Jeff Buckley 
“Parting is such sweet sorrow.” --Romeo and Juliet.  Skye Kingston, the heroine of Exposure (our modern interpretation of Macbeth), has a Jeff Buckley poster hanging on the wall in her bedroom. That’s the superficial connection, but there’s a subtler one: Buckley was inspired to write this hauntingly gorgeous song by a tearful farewell with a girlfriend at an airport. Skye also has to say goodbye to the guy she loves, possibly forever, before she boards a flight from Anchorage, Alaska, where the book is set.

“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” The Police 
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” --The Tempest. Miranda Prospero, our heroine in Tempestuous is, of course, a combination of The Tempest’s Miranda and her father Prospero, the deposed king and sorcerer. While our Miranda isn’t a true magician, she certainly casts a spell with her charming, sometimes manipulative, behavior. And the opening bars of this song are pure pop magic as far as we’re concerned. If we had a desert island tune, this would be it.

Elevator to the Gallows Soundtrack, Miles Davis
Murder most foul.” --Hamlet. Miles Davis helped set the mood while we worked on a pivotal après-murder scene in Exposure. Davis wrote this moody, tension-filled score for the ’58 Loius Malle film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, a chilling, stylish noir about a man who commits murder for love.

“Simple Twist of Fate” Bob Dylan
“Out, damned spot.” --Macbeth.  In Exposure, Skye listens to Dylan’s aptly titled album Blood on the Tracks. As in Macbeth, a spot of blood turns out to be the visual evidence of profound guilt. And by one such “simple twist of fate,” our heroine becomes a party (possibly even an accessory) to it all.

“Snow and Lights,” Explosions in the Sky
“May the winds blow till they have waken'd death!” --Othello. This acoustic track would be perfect to accompany Miranda and crew’s forays around the mall, where they’re trapped all night during an epic blizzard. Like all of Explosions’ best songs, “Snow and Lights” takes you along on a journey. This one ends with explosive drums, like those played by Tempestuous character Chad Mathers, drummer for our fictional band, The Drunk Butlers.

January 23, 2013

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

The other night I had the great privilege to watch George Cukor's Romeo and Juliet with a former ballerina and choreographer who danced in the movie for her first Hollywood job when she was just fourteen. She later served as assistant choreographer on White Christmas, among her many other film credits. Seventy-six years later, she's still going strong as a popular ballet teacher in Santa Monica.

Cukor's film stars silver screen legends Leslie Howard as Romeo, Norma Shearer as Juliet, Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, and John Barrymore as Mercutio. Frankly, Mercutio has always been my favorite role in the circa 1594 play--I'm sure many of you would agree--and even perhaps a foreshadowing of Hamlet (whose role was written later, most likely in 1600-1601). John Barrymore definitely seemed too old for the part of Mercutio, but he goes for it with admirable gusto. He wasn't the only one: Howard was a practically ancient Romeo at 43 to Shearer's 34 year-old Juliet.

I recently re-watched Zeffirelli's 1968 adaptation for the gazillionth time, so it was interesting to compare the two movies. The most obvious difference would be that Zeffirelli took a completely different tack, going for a less-stylized, more "realistic" look and feel--though it's really unfair to compare the two films since movie-making had evolved so much in the years between the two films. Zeffirelli hired young unknowns for the roles of Romeo and Juliet (after first offering the role of Romeo to Paul McCartney). John McEnery is brilliant as Mercutio, and it's hard for me to imagine a more perfect Juliet than Olivia Hussey. 

I was curious to see William Strunk  Jr. of Strunk and White's Elements of Style listed in the 1936 film's credits as Literary Consultant. Irving Thalberg, the producer, told Strunk, "Your job is to protect Shakespeare from us." (Source: IMDB)

If you're interested, do visit the film's IMDB page for lots of interesting trivia. --Kim

January 8, 2013

Celebrating the Lost Art of Letter-Writing

My handwriting is ungodly, and the U.S. Postal Service doesn't approve of my red sealing wax (it mucks up the machinery apparently), nevertheless, there's something about writing an old-fashioned letter that makes one feel so very proper and refined in a "Jane Austen heroine" sort of way. I feel as though I should be relaying scandalous gossip or turning down a suitor most delicately. 


Alas, most of the stamped missives I send are directed to the DWP and phone company, but in honor of Universal Letter Writing Week, I thought I'd share some of my favorite epistolary novels and their film adaptations.

Dangerous Liasons
There have been a number of film adaptations of de Laclos's tale of ruthless games of the heart, most notably, the 1998 version starring Glenn Close as Marquise de Mertueil and John Malkovich as Vicomte de Valmont. This clip alone is filled with priceless quotes.

The Color Purple
I'm always confused when I remember that Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel didn't win any Oscars. It's hard to believe, really, but at least we'll always have Oprah's "All my life..." speech. (You go, girl.)

The Moonstone
Greg Wise (swoon!) and Keeley Hawes star in a late ’90s version of Wilkie Collins's tome, considered to be the first "detective novel" in the English language.

We all know and love Boris Karloff as Mary Shelley's famous monster in the 1931 film, but it's hard to top the all-star cast (Kenneth Branaugh, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Ian Holm and Aidan Quinn) in this 1994 adaptation, which features none other than Robert DeNiro as the monster. Alas, the film didn't quite pass muster with most critics, as this clip (and Branaugh's ridiculous mullet) might help exhibit:

The Tenent of Wildfell Hall
Toby Stephens (who, as an aside, I loved as Rochester in this version of Jane Eyre) and Rupert Graves star in this TV miniseries, which I'm bummed to have missed. It's based on the novel by that other Bronte sister, Anne, and is considered "the most shocking" of the Bronte clan's collected works. The entire story is framed as a letter from a man to his brother-in-law, relaying the tale of how he came to meet his wife. This clip makes me all melty inside:

Where'd You Go, Bernadette
Annapurna Pictures has snagged the movie rights for this book by Maria Semple, which tells the story (through correspondence) of an outlandish (but troubled) woman who goes missing and the teenage daughter who attempts to track her down. According to imdb, it's slated for a 2015 release. I (Amy) just read the novel over the holidays and loved it, so am excited for this one.

January 3, 2013

"What is a 'Week END?'"

...she could freeze a room with a look, orate in a perfectly timed silence, break your heart by simply squaring her shoulders or settling her shawl.

I love that sentence from a recent profile of Dame Maggie Smith in the Los Angeles Times. 

The article reminded me that Smith starred in a movie I'm very fond of: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie based on the novel by Muriel Spark. If you've never watched this 1969 film, I'd call it a cross between Auntie Mame and Dead Poets Society, with Smith playing the audaciously eyebrow-raising teacher at an all-girls boarding school in Edinburgh. The film is actually much darker than this trailer from the time period (gotta love the narrator on this one) would lead you to believe.

Very much looking forward to seeing what snort-worthy snide remarks the Dowager Countess has for us on this season of Downton Abbey, which kicks off on Sunday night. To whet your appetite, here's a compilation of some of "Cousin Violet's" most memorable quips from previous seasons:

January 2, 2013

Ready to Get Your Wassail On?

Twelfth Night. Yes, it's the title of a Shakespeare play, but it's also a legit holiday that rolls around this weekend (there's apparently some debate over whether the Twelfth Night falls on Jan. 5 or 6, which is problematic in that you may reap bad mojo if you leave your holiday decor up past Twelfth Night). From what I can glean, it's basically a festival to celebrate the Epiphany (in Christianity), to mark the end of the 12 Days of Christmas, and generally, to give people a religious excuse to eat, drink, and be merry for just a few more days into the New Year.

I was trolling ye olde Wikipedia looking for info, fully intent on writing up a little primer, when I came across author Sarah M. Eden's informative blog post about it.

She summed up all the nitty gritty far better than I, an oblivious Yankee, ever could. Bottom line, I'm all for any holiday that manages to milk a few more days of holiday indulgence, though with all that king cake and mulled wine, it seems certain to mess with many people's healthy New Year's Resolutions.

December 31, 2012

Chris Askew on Withnail and I

My sister, Chris, recently watched Romancing the Tome favorite Withnail and I for the first time. Here are her thoughts on this cult flick, which happens to be a perfect accompaniment to any mid-winter ennui one might be feeling. --Kim

When I sat down to write this little love letter for Withnail and I, it was, of course, mandatory to quote at least a few of those wonderfully memorable lines. The trouble came when trying to settle on which ones to use. It's all so brilliantly written. Line after line of hilarious, witty, and unique dialogue. When Uncle Monty discusses his fondness for (ahem...) gardening: "I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees." I cracked up when Withnail and Marwood approached the farmer in a desperate attempt to obtain food and warmth after they've come to the country cottage completely unprepared "We've come on holiday by mistake!" "We're not from London!" but although I laughed from beginning to end, the film is as heartbreaking as it is funny. Along with all the wit and fun is a moving coming-of-age story about outgrowing a lifestyle and outgrowing a friendship. We see throughout the film that Withnail is a self-serving coward "It's you he wants! Offer yourself to him!," but we like him still. We are laughing and loving watching Withnail drink the lighter fluid and the both of them digging in the sink:
  "Something's floating up!!" 
  "What is it?"
  "It's MATTER!"
We are laughing and loving it but we know it can't last. We know their lifestyle is robbing them of ever fulfilling their hopes and dreams... and it is clear that although Marwood is prepared to take the risk of leaving the comfortably familiar for the challenges of the unknown when he takes a job in Manchester, Withnail will stay behind, continue to deteriorate and very likely lose what little of a life he has left. And so it is bittersweet when we watch them say goodbye knowing somehow that they will never see one another again. In reality, that is exactly what happened to the writer/director Bruce Robinson and his Camden flatmate and close friend Vivian MacKerrell who was indeed the inspiration for Withnail. The two parted ways when Robinson realized he had to end their friendship or he wouldn't survive to tell the tale. Apparently the lighter fluid scene was based on a very real incident which left MacKerrell blind for days! --Chris Askew

December 27, 2012

Little Women's New Year's Eve for Introverts

In Chapter 3: The Laurence Boy, Jo officially meets Laurie for the first time at a New Year's Eve party at the home of Meg's friend Sallie Gardner, where Jo is hiding behind a curtain. Best wishes for a Happy New Year to you all! --Kim 

Meg knew Sallie and was at her ease very soon, but Jo, who didn't care much for girls or girlish gossip, stood about, with her back carefully against the wall, and felt as much out of place as a colt in a flower garden. Half a dozen jovial lads were talking about skates in another part of the room, and she longed to go and join them, for skating was one of the joys of her life. She telegraphed her wish to Meg, but the eyebrows went up so alarmingly that she dared not stir. No one came to talk to her, and one by one the group dwindled away till she was left alone. She could not roam about and amuse herself, for the burned breadth would show, so she stared at people rather forlornly till the dancing began. Meg was asked at once, and the tight slippers tripped about so briskly that none would have guessed the pain their wearer suffered smilingly. Jo saw a big red headed youth approaching her corner, and fearing he meant to engage her, she slipped into a curtained recess, intending to peep and enjoy herself in peace. Unfortunately, another bashful person had chosen the same refuge, for, as the curtain fell behind her, she found herself face to face with the 'Laurence boy'. Keep reading.

December 21, 2012

The Leopard & Sofia Coppola’s Redemption by Robert Fay

To celebrate the launch of Tempestuous, the first book in our Twisted Lit series, we're featuring guest bloggers all week. Today's guest is writer Robert Fay who recently completed his memoir and is a monthly contributor to Full Stop Magazine. (He's also responsible for introducing me to Javier Marias's superb trilogy Your Face Tomorrow.) Thanks so much, Robert, for helping us fête our book launch! --Kim

Francis Ford Coppola has apparently become nostalgic for his big-studio 1970s self. News reports indicate he plans to mothball his art-house sensibility and begin working on a big-budget generational saga set in New York.  Now, as much I love Coppola’s small, personal films—his 2009 film Tetro is a minor classic—I miss the man who could work with the competing star power of Pacino, Brando, Keaton, Duvall, and Cann, all-the-while telling a grand, sweeping story of America during the first half of the 20th century.

I have a particular fondness for the scenes in The Godfather where Michael Corleone is exiled to rural Sicily. The heat and parched hills of Sicily—the cacti, bougainvillea, and ancient vendettas—contrast brilliantly with wintery 1940s New York with its post-war cheer and burgeoning materialism. I love the scene where Michael strolls along a rutted stone path with his new love Appolonia, and a few paces behind them is half the village, chaperoning them, as Michael seems to time travel back to traditional, Catholic Sicily where his father and ancestors lived and died for centuries.

If I was the secret film investor with “infinite money” as Coppola describes this mysterious individual, I would persuade Coppola that the generational saga he needed to make was not to be set in New York, but back in Sicily. I’d tell him he had to make a movie based on the novel The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1958). The Leopard is the only novel Giuseppe di Lampedusa ever wrote, but few writers have ever written as sublime a book. The novel is set in the 1860s in both Palermo and rural Sicily, where we witnesses the festering decay of an old aristocratic family from the perspective of the  patriarch, the Prince of Salina, Fabrizio Corbera. Amid the background chaos of Italian independence movements and wars, the seemingly eternal world and influence of the European aristocracy begins to crumble before the face of modernity.

Coppola, being the student of film history that he is, would remind me that The Leopard had been filmed in 1963 with Burt Lancaster as the Prince. I would reply, “Yes Francis, that’s true. But you’ve been away from the real Hollywood far too long. It’s all remakes these days. Get this: they made a Spider Man movie in 2002: and then they remade it—AGAIN—this year! Look Francis, no one except you, and maybe that film geek Martin Scorsese will recall the original Leopard. So let’s do it.” I’m not sure if Coppola would buy that line of reasoning, but then again, I’d be the one with the suitcases full of cash.

Once I had Coppola’s attention, I’d explain that we had to cast the movie a little differently than Luchino Visconti did back in the 1960s. Casting an A-list leading-man type like Burt Lancaster was fine during the Kennedy Administration, but in our self-conscious age, we need a little more irony and snarikiness in our protagonists. I’d push for casting funnyman Bill Murray in the lead. Not any Bill Murray mind you, but specifically the deflated CEO Murray of Rushmore fame. “Francis listen,” I’d say “In a modern American context, what is the difference between the head of a bankrupt aristocratic family, and the semi-depressed chief executive of a steel mill?” But I wouldn’t wait for him to answer. I’d immediately move straight on to my real agenda: the full-blown redemption of his daughter Sofia Coppola’s acting legacy.

In 1990 Sofia Coppola appeared in The Godfather III. She was 18 and had never studied acting, but the film press decided to ridicule her performance without mercy. I’d advise him to cast Sofia in his remake of The Leopard. I’d explain to Coppola that this was their opportunity to strike back at the hacks who laughed at her when she was an unknown. “Don’t make a big deal out of it Francis,” I’d say. “Perhaps write her in as Maria Stella, the Prince’s wife. Just give her a few lines and let the critics stew on how brilliant she is now: how she was nominated for an Oscar as best director, how she is beautiful and chic beyond belief, and that she had the good sense to settle in Paris and marry the lead singer of Phoenix.” 

Francis, being the sweet soul he is, would initially object: “It sounds petty. I don’t know, she has nothing to prove to anyone.”  I’d nod sympathetically, but then I’d add: “But an on-screen fall requires something of cinematic redemption, wouldn’t you agree Francis?” And that’s how I’d get him. That’s how I’d sink the hook in real good.

“And The Leopard is fundamentally about redemption as I recall,” Coppola would blurt out, babbling now a mile-a-minute as if he were back on the set of Apocalypse Now, rapping with Dennis Hopper. I’d slap him on the back and I’d say, “Francis, let’s knock back a few espressos and start drafting a script, what do you say?” And so my work will have been done: another soul won for the enduring greatness of The Leopard—hallelujah. --Robert Fay

December 20, 2012

Edward Champion on Ironweed

To celebrate the launch of Tempestuous, the first book in our Twisted Lit series, we're featuring guest bloggers all week. Today's guest is the inimitable Edward Champion of Return of the Reluctant and The Bat Segundo Show, the celebrated literary podcast on which he's interviewed Martin Amis, Kate Christensen, David Mitchell, Michelle Richmond, China Mieville, and Joyce Carol Oates, to name but a few. Thanks so much, Ed, for stopping! 

It's criminal enough that the great William Kennedy doesn't get talked up nearly as often as he should by the highfalutin dopes who ignore regular Joes for the dry literary dregs in the tea room.  Even so, I've always wondered why nobody mentions the 1987 film adaptation of Ironweed.  I've been just as guilty as the next guy in ignoring this flick for such questionable allure as Eric Roberts's oeuvre.  (You'll have to corner me in a bar to learn just how many times I've seen the Best of the Best movies.)  So when Kim asked me to gab wise about literary flicks in a guest post, I decided to take it on.

The book is a tough and taut portrait of the invisible souls who seek shelter from a cold world while holding as hard as they can to their fragile dollars.  They try to redeem their failed lives through singing and toiling and laughing and drinking, but they are as dead to genteel eyes as the souls buried beneath the ground at Saint Agnes Cemetery.

The movie sounds like a golden trumpet on paper.  Get Bill Kennedy to adapt his plucky masterpiece.  Have Jack Nicholson star as gritty drifter Francis Phelan, with Meryl Streep as his sidekick Helen, and the prestige picture would sail its way into a peninsula of golden statues. (It came within spitting distance.  Nicholson and Streep were both nominated for Oscars.) 

There was just one problem: Héctor Babenco was a fairly toothless director.  Maybe Babenco could not grasp the rough feel of American transicence.  Perhaps he was intimidated by his star power.  He is too fixated on the new high-speed film stocks of the time for the night scenes and his awkward Steadicam shuffles don't make this film crackle with the vital life Kennedy established in his screenplay.  Nicholson delivers an early grief-stricken monologue kneeling before a grave, but without Kennedy's prose capturing the cemetery's souls receiving his words.  Babenco doesn't know how to block Nicholson's niceties with a soft touch, and the moment feels needlessly inert, as does another pivotal scene in which Helen sings at a bar. 

Nor does Francis lose “two thirds of a right index finger with a cleaver,” which neuters Kennedy's efforts to present the savage truths of the street.  And don't get me started on the way Babenco handles the dead people who haunt Francis, who are all dressed in white and are photographed in that chalky and stitled manner that was a visual cliche in low-budget television anthology series during that decade.  For those who like to track the careers of minor actors, Ironweed contains some oddball casting: a young Nathan Lane cast as the scab Francis killed years before, a pre-Roseanne Michael O'Keefe as Billy Phelan, and Tom Waits as Francis's fellow laborer, Rudy.

On the other hand, there's energy in the 1901 trolley strike that recalls John Sayles's deft hand in Matewan.  And if Rosskam does not quite sprout to life with his judgmental modifiers (“tidy,” “impatient,” “insensitive”) as Francis toils for him, he is given some heart and heft by character actor Hy Anzell.  It's astonishing to recall that there was once a time in which movies about the homeless and labor were actually bankrolled and released.  These days, our hefty films involve the anticlimactic novelty of Bill Murray as Roosevelt and Spielberg establishing a preprogrammed reaction in which all leave the theater with the same conclusion. 

Ironweed reminded me of Fielder Cook's surprisingly edgy 1986 adaptation of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day.  You know pretty early on that it's not going to work and that the director is overcompensating.  Yet there's a bare minimum in which the scripts are trying to make the source material come alive.  Presumably, it was this life that attracted stars like Jack Nicholson and Robin Williams.  Did hacky directors tend to become attached to the low-key literary adaptations of the 1980s because the producers couldn't find any other people to direct them?  It was certainly a weird and soulless decade, but you have to hand it to American cinema: there were more heartfelt efforts back then to realize literature than today.  --Edward Champion