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Spielberg Tells a Story

And it’s a good one, “Bridge of Spies.” I won’t reiterate the plot here as I am sure, dear reader, you will see it soon enough or have already read the euphoric reviews. Steven Spielberg rarely disappoints, he has the clout to hire the best actors, the best screenwriters (the Coen brothers share the credit with Matt Charman), the best of everything. Tom Hanks, in one of the most resonant performances of his career, has the stature of Bogart. Mark Rylance is Mark Rylance. And as my husband said as we walked out: “This is an old-fashioned Hollywood movie. Spielberg’s a great cinematic story-teller.”

We had been to a screening at the Director’s Guild with directors, screenwriters and actors. No food, no drinks allowed, no advertisements before the movie begins, no cell phones on, please. There is security to make sure no one is filming the film and—a final rule—stay in your seat until the last credit rolls.

In other words, the all-professional audience is paying attention—to the script, to the acting, to the cinematography, everything. We are not just there to be entertained, but to study how a film is made and whether or not it has been made well. There is usually some applause at the end, or not. Spielberg: applause. Discussion afterward on the long line to the restroom—it was a long film: So, what did you think? And off we go.

I was a lone dissenter because I do feel—dare I say it—that Spielberg sometimes indulges a sentimental weakness. And maybe if I had a net worth of 3.6 billion dollars, I would do the same. And he doesn’t always do it—certainly not in “Schindler’s List.”

I remembered my disappointment when I went to see “The Color Purple.” It was made in 1985 and starred Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover, two good actors. Adapted from Alice Walker’s masterpiece, the adaption was mostly okay until the very end. Spielberg changed the ending into a kind of happier ending with a parade of dancing and singing people rolling down the street. I was mortified.

It’s been a while, and I may not be remembering this particular movie correctly, but I have experienced other mortified moments like this watching a Spielberg film, and I had at least one last night.

(No spoilers, don’t worry.)

Consider this scene: a GDR attorney general, obviously a former Nazi, takes a phone call during his conversation with lawyer/negotiator Donovan (Hanks), and before we know it, we are witnessing a Peter Sellers caricature of a Nazi. It mars the scene—a dead serious scene—because it made me laugh. It was indulgent, over the top, and this is not the actor’s responsibility, it’s the director’s. We know that Spielberg cares a lot about Jewish Holocaust history (The Shoah Project) so what was he trying to say here? And what was in the original script before it became a shooting script? I’m curious.

I know that when an artist becomes rich and famous, those close to him—editors , for example, in the case of a writer—don’t have the courage to speak up. I wish that a colleague of Spielberg would tell him about this creative tic so that he could eliminate it from his cinematic vocabulary. I am always grateful when someone tells me about my tics. We all have them.  Read More 
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What's Real and What Isn't

I launched "Nomads 2," my new collection of mini-stories, at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village last night. It’s a well known performance space and I was pleased to get a slot in their schedule so close to my appearance there for the first "Nomads" last January. On both occasions, I collaborated with actors, I didn’t read my own work, and I have been learning a lot. Friends, family, students, and some strangers were present. People laughed, they applauded, all in the most unexpected places for me, the writer. What’s real and what isn’t? This odd question kept occurring to me all night. The prose on the page is real, I know what everything means, or what I meant to say. But an audience, especially if actors are re-interpreting my words, experience what I wrote differently. And this sets me to thinking about ways to improve, to get the story straight, and to make the best use of words. These mini-stories are disciplined distillations. I love writing them.

And then, this morning, my husband—who doesn’t read my work until it is published—asked me if one particular story was based on a real incident. He recognized a snippet of dialogue and he wanted to know if it really happened. I was uncomfortable and became defensive. Had I appropriated something from his life that he wanted to write about? No, that wasn’t it. So what was it? “Is this fact or fiction?” he asked. “Is the line clear?”

He’s an historian and journalist by training and most of his imaginative writing—in the form of screenplays—is fact-based. I had thought he understood that these stories were clearly fiction, but he does not write fiction, so he doesn’t understand: a fiction writer has the prerogative to use the raw material of her life to create a work. It’s a process of transformation which may or may not involve research as well as imagination. But nothing is only imaginative or only fact-based; it comes from somewhere, it is transformed into art. And if a snippet of dialogue, for example, sounds familiar to those near and dear, we do not have to explain, unless we want to. I don’t.  Read More 
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I confess I am smitten with Holder, a detective in “The Killing.” The actor, Joel Kinnaman, is Swedish but he sounds African-American. His performance is intriguing. I'm hooked and have just started Season 3. Oh it is dark, monstrous indeed. And I’ve finished the most recent Netflix additions of “Longmire,” all of “Foyle’s War,” all the back episodes of “Blue Bloods,” “Paradise,”(PBS), and on we go. I recommend series to friends and family and they recommend series to me. It’s a bonanza, a renaissance. And it seems that with all the bad news every day, we need this escape. Everyone I know is doing it.

My husband has different tastes and other favorites. There are nights, usually late at night—our binging time—too tired to read or do anything else that needs doing—that we sit side by side on the couch, one of us on an ipad with a headset, the other with a headset for the TV. (We alternate.) Headsets—an electronic miracle—have saved and/or amplified our marriage. The next day we might say, “So how is your program going?” It’s a life-affirming diversion from the latest news about ISIL, IFIL or school shootings. Another this week. How many have there been since Obama took office? In a strong, well-written speech (he has good writers and is a good writer), I think he said: 18. No wonder we binge.

But how does a working writer justify this binging? And is it interfering with the writing life? I am not sure. For certain, I must curtail my viewing and read more if I want to make progress on a writing project. But I also know that it is relaxing, compelling even to watch these shows, mostly well scripted with high production values. And I admire a good script, strong plots and deep characterization with interesting backstory. When I am writing fiction, plotting is not my strength, so I am paying attention. My husband is a screenwriter and he is able to parse the script in a way I can’t. We’re working on a screen treatment together at the moment (we’ve done two together so far) and the learning curve is still steep for me—visualizing scenes and so on. I do believe—another justification, perhaps—that binging has helped my visualization muscle.

So there’s that. I’m absorbing, studying and relaxing all at the same time. And I still binge on authors, reading their entire oeuvre, something I have done for years. It’s a wonderful way to get into the author’s head: What are her obsessions? Her narrative choices? How has her work changed as she has matured? How happy I was to discover that I could download all of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Trollope, Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, Dickens, and so much more, all for free! I read a lot, sometimes two or three books at the same time—fiction and nonfiction. And I have finally installed the Overdrive app on my iPad so I can borrow e-books from the library. They don’t have everything I want to read—and I am impatient—but I can put books on hold and also recommend books. They have to be read within three weeks, so no binging if a book from the library has to get read. I stop cold turkey. This reassures me that I am not addicted.

Once upon a time there was a website called “Readerville,” avid readers and writers chatting about the books they were reading. One of the threads was devoted to comments about authors and their oeuvre, all of the oeuvre. We all binged on favorite writers, many in the chat room were writers, and it was easy to imagine—though it took some hubris—that one day someone would binge on our oeuvre. I miss that site , which shut down too soon, though I learned recently that there is a thread of former Readerville “members” on Goodreads. I’ll have to check it out.
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