Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review: Lynch on Lynch

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Lynch on Lynch - David Lynch Discusses Himself

Chris Rodley's collection of interviews with acclaimed director David Lynch is a fascinating peek inside the mind one of cinema's most important filmmakers.

There is no filmmaker working today quite as distinctive as David Lynch. He has created some of the strangest, scariest and most beautiful movies in modern cinema, resulting in a legion of fans dedicated to understanding his work. Analyzing Lynch is no small task, so the best idea is to let him do it himself. Lynch on Lynch, edited by Chris Rodley, is a book-length interview with Lynch that covers the filmmaker's entire career in a candid and sincere fashion.

Rodley structures the book chronologically, following the path of Lynch’s filmography. After two short introductions (one by Rodley for the book’s original printing, another one for this revised edition), the book begins with a section covering Lynch's childhood. From there each subsequent chapter revolves around a film from his career. The book ends with an index listing Lynch's films, shorts, and commercials, along with credits and technical information. Rodley's format for each chapter is a short introduction, followed by a question and answer session focusing on the chapter’s film. For example, the chapter on "Eraserhead" talks about Lynch’s life prior to "Eraserhead," the film’s production, and ending with its release and reaction. Lynch is very open and willing to talk about everything regarding his life and films.

But What Does It Mean?

Well, almost everything. Lynch has always been cagey about deeply analyzing the themes and meanings of his movies, and those looking for interpretations will be very disappointed. Rodley offers some thoughts on the films, but his attempts to probe Lynch into going beneath the films’ surfaces prove fruitless. Lynch usually offers a small, “I don’t want to influence anyone’s opinion,” response, but every once in a while he will completely clam up. When Rodley asks Lynch how he created the hideous baby prop in "Eraserhead," Lynch steadfastly refuses to answer. There’s nothing whimsical or funny about his refusal, as he genuinely seems to believe that revealing how he created the baby will ruin people’s belief in movie.

But even this caginess is fascinating, and the lack of interpretation should not be a problem for most people, as what Lynch does say is informative and enlightening. Throughout the book Lynch reveals his thoughts on growing up, philosophies on life and art, and copious amounts of production information. Lynch’s interpretation of life is one of optimism and wonder, as he really does see the world far differently than the rest of us. In fact, reading Lynch’s own beliefs does in a roundabout way help readers better understand his movies. His belief in the power of dreams in particular will undoubtedly assist readers in further analyzing "Mulholland Drive" and "Eraserhead."
Lynch Unfiltered

The best section of the book is on "Twin Peaks," Lynch’s genre-defying and deeply influential TV show. Reading Lynch’s thoughts on television and the production process are fascinating, and the reader can feel his sadness as the show evolves from a huge TV sensation to a hated feature-film adaptation. Indeed, Lynch’s discussion of the "Twin Peaks" movie, "Fire Walk With Me," is some of the best as he’s so forthright on what he tried to do on an emotional level. His disappointment with the film’s negative reaction is heartbreaking.

Especially amusing throughout the book is the back and forth between Rodley and Lynch. Rodley tries his best to draw out as much possible information from Lynch, but Lynch is a crafty one. He has fun dodging Rodley’s more probing queries into the films’ meanings, and seems to delight in surprising Rodley with his real thoughts and beliefs. Those expecting Lynch’s love of coffee, pie, and Americana to be ironic posing will be surprised to see he’s completely sincere in his appreciation. Mel Brooks describes Lynch in the book as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” and a more apt comparison is hard to find.

A book like this is hard to critique in some ways as it’s simply a collection of interviews. Thankfully, Chris Rodley has made this critic’s job much easier by producing a volume of fascinating insights from David Lynch. The sheer amount of information revealed is astonishing, and Lynch’s beliefs on a whole range of subjects are illuminating and helpful to any Lynch scholar. While David Lynch may never reveal all of his secrets, this book is the best look into his mind anyone could ever want. His world is both frightening and wonderful and no book on him has done a better job examining it.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: Anya's Ghost

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Anya's Ghost - A Coming of Age Ghost Story

Growing up is hard to do, especially when someone feels like he or she doesn’t fit in. That’s the problem facing Anya Borzakovskaya in Vera Brosgol’s terrific debut graphic novel, "Anya’s Ghost." Brosgol, a talented comic and animation artist, skillfully blends a coming of age tale with a classic ghost story, creating a wonderful portrait of teenage life and the struggle for a sense of self identity.

Anya isn’t happy. She has trouble in school, can’t talk to a boy she has a crush on, and is slightly ashamed of her Russian heritage. But mostly she feels like an outsider with no one to call a true friend. After stumbling down an abandoned well one day, Anya discovers the skeletal remains of a person, and a ghost attached to those remains. The ghost, Emily, is delighted to find someone to talk to after years of isolation in the well, and takes a great interest in Anya. Anya is reluctant at first, but soon the two become friends, and Emily begins to devote her time to improving Anya’s social standing. Anya's grades improve, she’s more confident, and that cute boy Sean has taken a shine to her.

However, Anya soon learns there’s a price to be paid for her upward social mobility and assimilation, and Emily’s growing obsession with Anya’s life is a little bit creepy. The secret of Emily’s past is soon revealed, and Anya’s life will never be the same.

The Trials of Anya

The beauty of "Anya’s Ghost" is how well Brosgol captures the pain of growing up. Anya’s angst will feel all too familiar to many readers as she attempts to find her own sense of identity in high school. High school is in fact the perfect setting for a story such as this as it is a holding place for different kinds of people, all trying to create the best self-image for themselves. Some just do it better than others.

What helps Anya’s Ghost rise above the glut of young adult novels is its subtext of identity, particularly cultural identity. Initially Anya is ashamed of her Russian heritage, and insists her last name is the generic “Brown,” rather than Borzakovskaya, to a school administrator. She also tries to ignore the nerdy but kind Dima, a recent Russian immigrant and reminder of her own cultural heritage. Anya’s mom later laments that Anya hasn’t attended her Russian church in weeks.

Anya is a character who wants to ignore her background so she can assimilate into the popular crowd. Her goal throughout the novel in essence is to replace Sean’s girlfriend with herself. Emily gleefully abets Anya in her quest and constantly encourages Anya to push herself farther and farther. But near the story’s third act Anya realizes the consequences of her actions and what her denial could do to her life. She discovers Sean’s current girlfriend isn’t some dumb bimbo and Sean might not be the boy of her dreams.
Anya’s cultural anxiety is a great new spin on the tired “be yourself” maxim. She learns throughout the book that she can’t divorce herself from her background, as it informs so much of who she is. But she also comes to realize that she doesn’t have to be a slave to it either, and the book ends with Anya a little wiser and ready to move on with her life.

Ghostly Images

One definite highlight of the book is Brosgol’s art style. All the characters are drawn in a very round, appealing manner, with big expressive eyes and thick and thin lines. The characters both feel like classic cartoon characters (think 1940s comic strips), while still retaining a modern edge. Compared to the incredibly detailed designs of super hero comics and magna, Brosgol’s style is real breath of fresh air. Emily’s design in particular is very good as her swooping curves and pupil-less eyes create a nice ethereal look, as compared to Anya, who is more realistically drawn. The book’s limited purple-tone color palette is also quite striking and perfectly fits the story’s somber and reflective mood.

Brosgol served as a storyboard artist on the stop-motion feature, "Coraline," and the experience served her well as the staging in "Anya’s Ghost" is both very cinematic and very clear. At no point during the book will the reader ever be confused by the layout as Brosgol has a keen understanding of visual storytelling. Indeed there are a number of sequences in the book where Brosgol completely eschews dialogue, creating wordless scenes that accomplish an incredible amount of emotion and depth.

That depth is all the more remarkable considering "Anya’s Ghost" is Vera Brosgols’s first graphic novel, and hopefully not her last. Her story of teenage angst and cultural identity is a powerful one, and something any reader could appreciate and enjoy. While not every reader had a ghost as best friend during high school, the story’s emotional truth resonates well beyond the supernatural trappings.

For more of Vera Brosgol's artwork, check out her website Verabee.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Pictures at a Revolution - How the New Hollywood Got Its Start

The 1970s is generally considered to be one golden eras of American filmmaking. During this decade a new generation of filmmakers, who would later be dubbed “The New Hollywood,” created hundreds of films that confronted the changing nature of America with brutal honesty and a love of cinema. However, filmmaking revolutions do not happen in a day, and author Mark Harris believes the late 1960s was the breeding ground for this filmic schism. "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood" uses the five Best Picture Academy Award nominees from 1967 to paint a picture of the Hollywood studio system in its decline and to show us how it gave birth to the New Hollywood.

Opening Night

Pictures at a Revolution tells the stories of 1967’s five Best Picture nominees: "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner," and "Dr. Doolittle." Harris tells the story each of film in a narrative fashion, beginning in 1963 with a look at the state of Hollywood at the time. As the decade wears on, the book intertwines between each film, documenting the films’ many production and personnel struggles. Harris ends the book at the 1967 Academy Awards held on April 10th, 1968 and briefly mentions the future for many the films’ participants.

Mark Harris’s greatest strength is his skill as a historian, as the amount of information in this book is truly staggering. The author has interviewed many of the key figures from the five films and uncovered an endless amount of archival interviews and news articles. Simply publishing a book of facts with no attempt to create a narrative would still make "Pictures at a Revolution" a must own; the information contained in the book is of incredible value to any film buff.

Thankfully Harris is no slouch at analysis as the book is fascinating portrait of the Hollywood studio system at the end of the 1960s. He convincing argues that the five films discussed are indicative of both the Old Hollywood studio system and the emerging New Hollywood style. "Dr. Doolittle" and "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" are representative of old-fashioned filmmaking techniques and dated cultural attitudes, according to Harris, while "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," and, to a lesser extent, "Into the Heat of the Night", embody the counter-cultural attitudes of a new generation of filmmakers. Harris sees the 1967 Oscars as the ultimate clash between the establishment and the rebels, and, not surprisingly, the least extreme of the New Hollywood’s films, "In the Heat of the Night," was the ultimate Best Picture winner.

Part of Harris’s strength is his ability to sympathize with and understand filmmakers he ultimately disagrees with. For example, Harris is no fan of "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" but he sees it as a legitimately important film and thoroughly analyzes the attitudes of the film’s producer and director, Stanley Kramer. Much time is spent discussing Kramer and his philosophies; a man who saw himself as a political progressive but was hobbled by his compromising instincts, resulting in a director and producer who tackled difficult subjects matter but never wanted to offend anyone. Not surprisingly, he had trouble appealing to the counter-culture, and the book’s anecdotes of Kramer holding college campus screenings of "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" are heartbreaking. Kramer so wants to fit in, but he can’t. He’s part of the Old Hollywood.

Closing Credits

If there’s one complaint to be had with "Pictures at a Revolution" it is that Harris skimps a bit at the end, and only provides mini-biographies for the book’s main participants that briefly discuss their careers post-1967. Unfortunately this does not cover the influence of the five films, particularly "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate," very well. Much time is spent near the end of the book examining the two films’ incredible impact on audiences and Harris does an excellent job explaining how exciting and fresh the films were at the time. However, a discussion of the two film’s impact on other films and the New Hollywood of the 1970s in general would hammer Harris’s point home that they helped birth a filmmaking revolution.

That concern aside, "Pictures at a Revolution" is still an essential book, not only for film enthusiasts, but for anyone interested the changing landscape of film. Harris convincingly argues for the importance of the five films and how some reflected the attitudes of old-fashioned Hollywood values and others protested for counter-cultural change. By the book’s end the reader will have a deeper appreciation for not only the 1970s New Hollywood, but this time period as well. Hollywood was undergoing a massive number of growing pains, but it matured into something wonderful. Maybe it will happen again.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review: Me, Myself and Bob

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Me, Myself, and Bob - The Rise and Fall of Big Idea

Starting a successful business is a dream for many Americans and countless numbers have worked tirelessly day and night to one day become CEOs of respected companies. For Phil Vischer, that dream came true with the his popular computer animated video series, VeggieTales, and the creation of his company, Big Idea. But nobody told Vischer how hard it would be to maintain that success, and in his fascinating, candid book, "Me, Myself, & Bob: A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables," he details the incredible rise of Big Idea and its spectacular fall. For Vischer it was hard watching his dream die, but he believes this book will help his fellow dreamers understand the perils of success.

"Me, Myself, & Bob" begins by charting the early of life of Phil Vischer, including his home life in Muscatine, Iowa, his strong Christian upbringing and his early fascination with movies. That interest in film, particularly special effects, led him take a career in computers and computer animation. From his deep belief in the importance of religious morality and love of filmmaking came VeggieTales, an animated video series teaching children religious lessons in an entertaining and meaningful way.

The early sections of the book are some of Vischer’s best as he does a terrific job documenting the trials and tribulations of an independent animator struggling not only to find work, but to support his wife and child as well. Of particular interest is the story of the first VeggieTales episode, which Vischer and his tiny crew slaved away over despite the primitiveness of early 1990s computer animation. At the time Pixar Animation Studios was only producing short films, making Big Idea an unheralded trailblazer in long-form animated production.

From here Vischer discusses the growth of VeggieTales as a franchise and the blossoming of Big Idea into a huge company dominated by infighting and instability. "Me, Myself, & Bob" is at its most compelling in these sections as Vischer exposes nearly every problem that plagued Big Idea, from executives who refused to discuss business plans with Vischer, to animators arguing over religious beliefs, and to a swelling of bureaucracy despite no noticeable increase in profits. Vischer’s candidness is astonishing as he is more than willing to lay the blame on himself for many of the company’s problems. The end of the book is particularly tragic as Vischer lays off his former friends and employees, and watches the company he built die a slow death through lawsuits and bankruptcy sales. How can one dream go so wrong?

Without a doubt the behind-the-scenes stories Vischer tells are the highlight of the book and any aspiring artist or business person will find Vischer’s stories informative and valuable. A later chapter even includes what Vischer considers the most important lessons he learned from the experience, which should be pasted in the office of any small-business owner. Vischer’s spirit is also quite a thing to witness as he suffers many hardships but always manages to pick himself up. For anyone who has struggled in his or her career Vischer is a model of stick-to-itiveness.

This review should mention that Vischer himself is a committed Christain, and the book itself is targeted towards a Christian audience, but "Me, Myself, and Bob" transcends its origins as a study in faith and becomes in essence a story about ambition and ego. Vischer expands the company as much as he did because he wanted to become the Christian Disney. The concept of a global company creating trusted religious entertainment was the driving force for many of Vischer’s decisions, but he lacked the knowhow to actually do it. So Vischer hired a number of executives who seemed unclear of his mission and did not have experience in the entertainment industry. Those actions laid the seeds for Big Idea’s eventual destruction.

Vischer believed he had a calling from God to create a media empire, but the religious aspect was incidental. What Vischer wanted to be was the next Walt Disney, but Disney himself never set out to become an industry giant. Disney was driven by a passion for new ideas and innovation in entertainment, while Vischer, in the later years of Big Idea, seemed more interested in the corporate aspect. Big Idea could have become as a big a force as the Walt Disney Company, but as the book demonstrates, it needed a leader who wanted to follow his own path, not follow in another’s footsteps. When Big Idea decided to expand beyond its ability to manage the company began to die. Vischer may have had a dream, and a noble one at that, but his ambitions exceeded his ability and knowledge. A tragic tale most certainly, but a valuable one as well, and Vischer has told it the best way he can.