What’s so great about The Great Gatsby? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel centers on a pathological liar who invents an opulent life for himself in the hope of winning an unworthy woman. Yet for all its bleakness, the book has never lost its hold on Americans, who will see it in a new incarnation when the Baz Luhrmann movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio opens next week. Kevin Smokler and I will talk about The Great Gatsby with the novelist and professor Alexander Chee at #classicschat on Twitter on Friday, May 10, at 4 p.m. ET. Chee is the author, most recently, of The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Please join us on Twitter for a lively conversation about the book that the English literary critic John Carey has called “perhaps the supreme American novel.”
May 1, 2013
June 19, 2012
September 27, 2011
“Text means the sensory surface of a work of art. In film it’s the images onscreen and the soundtrack of dialogue, music, and sound effects. What we see. What we hear. What people say. What people do. Subtext is the life under that surface – thoughts and feelings both known and unknown, hidden by behavior.”
From Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (It Books/Harper Collins, 1997).
March 7, 2010
New Yorker Film Critic Anthony Lane on Oscar-Night Clothes — ‘The Men Always Let Their Ladies Down …’
Film critic Anthony Lane writes of the 1996 Oscar ceremony in an article reprinted in Nobody’s Perfect: Writings From The New Yorker (Vintage, 2002):
“We saw a fine parade of Empire lines and silk sheaths, and by far the most impressive array of natural greens since Linda Blair showed off the highlights of her supper in The Exorcist. There was peppermint, aquamarine, verdigris, iceberg, eau-de-nil, and a lemon-and-lime special from Marc Winningham. There were pinkish grays so soft and subtle that onlookers were reminded of the furring found on unclean kettles. Then there was Susan Sarandon’s Dolce & Gabbana ball gown, a sort of one-night stand between chocolate and bronze; it exactly matched the hue of her hair, though which came first was a matter of urgent debate.
“She was accompanied by Tim Robbins, whose jacket was scaly, sharkish, and distressingly similar to what he wore last year. How can a guy of such evident sense, whose movies are a rebuff to bad glitz, opt on an annual basis for a garment that was apparently woven overnight from a few strands of crude oil? The men always let their ladies down on Oscar night. Hollywood is essentially unable to grasp that the great advantage of a dinner jacket is that it is, in essence, a uniform. The basics are unwavering, the variations minimal. When you are asked to wear black tie, do not take this as a concealed excuse not to wear black tie. Do not be tempted by the current fad that omits the tie altogether in favor of a single black stud. You may find this sexy, but to the watching world it appears that you have leapt up from an emergency tracheotomy to attend the show.”
November 5, 2009
Has Hollywood Betrayed Roald Dahl by Adding ‘a PC Message’ to the New Movie of ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’? – Late Night With Jan Harayda
SPOILER WARNING! PLEASE STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ ABOUT THE ENDING OF A FILM THAT HAS NOT YET OPENED IN THE U.S.
I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but the critic Toby Young makes a good case that Hollywood has betrayed its spirit in a film version due out here on Nov. 25. Young saw the movie at the London Film Festival and said the voices of Mr. and Mrs. Fox – provided by George Clooney and Meryl Streep – are good.
But the movie gives the genteel thief Mr. Fox a son named Ash (unlike the book, in which Mr. Fox has four children who are, as Young puts it, “undifferentiated”). The filmmakers tell us that there’s something “different” about Ash, whose father is cool to him: “But what is the difference exactly? All is revealed in the film’s final scene, when we see Ash wearing what appears to be lipstick. The message couldn’t be clearer: Ash is gay.”
Young argues that what’s objectionable isn’t that the filmmakers have added a gay character to Fantastic Mr. Fox but that they have shoehorned a “politically correct message” into the story: “It’s a way of enlisting Dahl on behalf of the educational establishment, when what’s so attractive about him is that he seems to be on the side of children rather than those grownups who think they know what’s best for them.”
Dahl does appeal to children partly for that reason, and you can read Young’s full argument for why the film ought to have respected it in “Whose Bright Idea Was It to Shoehorn a PC Message into a Roald Dahl Story?”
October 26, 2009
October 17, 2009
Why did Where the Wild Things Are seem revolutionary when it appeared in 1963? What qualities helped it win the 1964 Caldecott Medal? And why has it lasted long enough to inspire a new Spike Jonze movie? A review of the trailblazing children’s book by Maurice Sendak appeared in the “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series on One-Minute Book Reviews.
August 12, 2009
‘The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived’ — Characters From Myths, Legends, and Books, Movies and TV Shows Who Made a Difference
The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Culture, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History. By Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. Harper, 317 pp., $13.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Publishers have a phrase for books like The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived – “an impulse buy at the bookstore.” Boy, do they know me. I can’t remember what I was looking for when I saw this book near the cash register at a bookstore. Whatever it was, it’s vanished from my mind an episode of Wife Swap. But I keep dipping into this dish of literary tacos with mild salsa.
Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter had the idea of selecting and ranking the 101 most influential people who never existed, giving you a few pages of sprightly text about each and defining “people” loosely enough to encompass King Kong (No. 74), Joe Camel (No. 78) and The Cat in the Hat (No. 79). This concept is nothing new. You can find similar books by searching Amazon for the “dictionary + fictional characters” or in the reference sections at many bookstores.
What is new is the packaging of the book, a trade paperback with a conversational tone instead of the usual professorial door-stopper. So The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived could be a handy book for, say, baby boomers who are having trouble explaining to their grandchildren exactly why Archie Bunker (No. 32) was so different from other sitcom characters of his day. It wasn’t just that he called his liberal son-in-law “Meathead”:
“Archie expressed what ultraconservative white people said behind closed doors on topics such as rape and poverty (the victims were to blame), homosexuality (perverts), militia groups (real Americans), welfare recipients (cheats who took hard-earned money out of his pocket) , college students (all pinko Communists), and support for the Vietnam War (real patriotism).”
Lazar, Karlan and Salter offer no narrative thread to connect the entries, so their essays tend to lack a context. Most readers under 40 might find it easier to fathom how Archie’s bigotry ever made it to prime time if they knew that he descended spiritually from Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) on The Honeymooners, who was always threatening to belt his wife. (“One of these days, Alice – pow! – right in the kisser.”) You could also argue that, for that reason, Kramden and not Bunker belonged on the list. But part of the fun of this book is comparing your list with the authors’ rankings of characters like Hamlet (No. 5), Pandora (No. 47), Prometheus (No. 46), Nancy Drew (No. 62) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (No. 44). Anybody want to argue that Perry Mason (No. 86) had less clout than Ally McBeal?
Best line: About the Marlboro Man (No. 1): “Advertising Age picked the Marlboro Man as the most powerful brand image of the twentieth century.” Why? Philip Morris had marketed Marlboros as a women’s brand that was “Mild As May”: “Marlboro’s new image boosted its sales four-fold from 1955 to 1957, and by 1972 it had become the top cigarette brand both in the nation and the world.” The original Marlboro Man and two other actors used for the role all died from lung cancer or emphysema.
Worst line: About the Loch Ness Monster (No. 56): Nessie is “the most popular tourist attraction in Scotland.” The most popular tourist attraction in Scotland has for years been Edinburgh Castle. Nessie isn’t even among the top ten on some lists. The rest of this section is also weak. As proof of the nonexistence of the monster, the authors say that the most famous photo of it turned out to be a hoax. What about all the sonar and other scientific reports that have shown that the creature never existed?
Recommended if … you’re not looking for a scholarly reference book but for the views of enthusiastic amateurs who get some facts wrong and serve up essays of inconsistent quality. Some entries are well-written, while others read like rough drafts.
Editors: Carolyn Marino, Jennifer Civiletto and Wendy Lee
Published: October 2006
This review first appeared in March 2007.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
July 4, 2009
Pauline Kael calls Yankee Doodle Dandy “a big, enjoyable musical biography” starring “the astonishingly versatile James Cagney as the actor-playwright-songwriter George M. Cohan.” She adds in 5001 Nights at the Movies (Holt, 1991), a wonderful collection of thousands of capsule reviews adapted from her film criticism for The New Yorker:
“Made during the Second World War, it’s packed with jingoistic Americanism, but this ties in with Cohan’s own attitudes and the unself-conscious sentimentality of his songs, and Cagney’s stiff-backed hoofing is so spirited that the moldly plot turns hardly bother one. … It’s quite possible that he has more electricity than Cohan himself had.”
May 25, 2009
In the play that inspired Meet Joe Black, Death learns the power of love
Death Takes a Holiday: A Comedy in Three Acts. By Alberto Casella. Rewritten for the American Stage by Walter Ferris. Samuel French, 151 pp., $7.50, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Like Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday is one of those supernatural comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that lifted spirits lowered by the Depression and World War II. Whether the play would have the same effect in the age of swine flu and Afghanistan, I have no idea (though the producers of Meet Joe Black, a 1998 adaptation that starred Brad Pitt, apparently thought it would provide a welcome diversion from the Clinton sex scandals).
But in some ways Death Takes a Holiday has lost little of its appeal since it opened on Broadway two months after the stock market crash of 1929. Weary of “always being misunderstood,” Death suspends his activities for three days and takes on a human form to find out why people fear him. He conducts his experiment by dropping in on the castle of an Italian duke and, after gaining the nobleman’s consent, passing himself off to its residents as the visiting Prince Sirki. The project goes awry when Death falls in love and sees the flaw in his gambit.
“I gave myself life, not knowing the force that is in life, nor the force that is in love,” he laments.
Death’s ardor is returned by a young woman who must decide, as the end of his stay nears, whether love is stronger than death. And if answer seems obvious, Alberto Casella invests it with more suspense and interest than you might expect. Unlike Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday isn’t mainly about glorious repartee – it has heart and a seriousness of purpose. It is the unusual play about death that is funny and entertaining but doesn’t trivialize its subject and has an ageless message.
Early on, the as-yet-undisguised Death explains to Duke Lambert why he must don the garb of a prince:
“I’ve found that very few mortals can bear to face life as it really is. It seems to them stark and forbidding, like the outlines of my face, until Illusion softens it with her rosy lamp.”
Death has clearly learned a lesson that eluded the many of the leaders of companies that lately have ranged from Enron to AIG – that the real, however frightening, has a beauty that illusion can’t match.
Best line: Quoted above: “few mortals can bear to face life as it really is.”
Worst line: Major Whitread, a soldier in a medal-covered uniform Foreign Legion uniform, tells Death/Prince Sirki (also called “Shadow”): “I’ve been awfully anxious to meet you, sir.” The line isn’t bad but suggests one of the contrivances of the play: A legionnaire turns up, seemingly out-of-the-blue, to offer the perspective of someone who has seen death at close range.
Published: 1924 (first Italian production), 1929 (first Broadway production).
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