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2019 – A New Year

Call Me Mother (2018 Korean Drama)

It has been some time since my last post – over six months. In that time, I have read many good books, watched many excellent films, and developed a new passion for Korean drama. I have not, however, been able to write about any of that, but I want to correct that this year.

I have been considering whether or not to include the occasional review of Korean dramas (called Kdramas) on this blog. They are often 16 episode series, which tell a continuous story. They can be thrillers or romances or comedies or fantasies…though Kdramas often seem very comfortable including random, unexplained fantasy elements in their stories: the ability to read someone’s mind, time travel, made-up medical syndromes. My own persona favorite Korean drama is the 2018 series called Call Me Mother, a low-level thriller that is really a drama about motherhood in all its manifestations.

But since Korean dramas do not exactly fit in with the general theme of my blog, I am hesitating about including any reviews. However, I might try one or two reviews, just to see how things go.

I have also been continuing with my passion for Japanese Cinema. I am thinking of writing a piece on some of the great Japanese directors of the 1950s: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse.

Another lovely discovery has been the two French film comedians and directors: Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix. They made films during the ’50’s, ’60’s, and ’70’s, but are heavily influenced by silent comedy, though they also make inspired and hilarious use of sound.

I would like to develop a post about my growing (highly amateur) appreciation of cinema as an art form worthy of the same respect as poetry, architecture, opera, drama, or any other recognized art. I would also like to air out a theory about the use of music in a film. I’m beginning to get very opinionated about that, actually. Maybe that will be my next post! I will include Tati, Etaix, the film Dunkirk, Lord of the Rings, Pre-code cinema, Ozu and silent movies.

Yasujiro Ozu – I cannot admire his films too much!

I’ve been reading a lot of British literature from the Victorian era, as well. I would like to perhaps write some reviews on some of the books I have read (and am reading). I am currently also reading Les Miserables, which I have decided is part history, part journalism, and part fictional story. Victor Hugo seems to have never met a literary aside that he didn’t like or want to share. He is positively brimming with opinions and things he wants to share with his reader. He makes Charles Dickens’ look positively restrained! But there is no denying the power of his story or his writing (when he isn’t telling the reader about the battle of Waterloo; it takes him about sixty pages just to get back to the story). But his story is well-nigh un-killable. It even survives bad adaptations (for a really good adaptation, try the 1934 French version of Les Miserables, directed by Raymond Bernard).

Sir Walter Scott has also been on my radar, mostly because he was so vastly influential on the Victorians (most notably the Brontë sisters). His poetry is mentioned in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. There are a small group of dedicated fans who maintain that his literature is far more artful than is generally credited and I am willing to give him a try, focusing on his novels set in Scotland, rather than his most popular medieval work, Ivanhoe.

I hope everyone else is doing well. I would love to hear what everyone is reading, watching, thinking, music they are listening to. It should be a good year of movies, music, and books! I look forward to it.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2019 in Books, Movies

 

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What We See When We Read – by Peter Mendelsund

download (5)Peter Mendelsund is a cover artist at Alfred A. Knopf. You can see his illustrations and designs at work in his book, What We See When We Read, a reflection on the nature of our experience when we read. It’s not a scientific treatise, but more of a musing. Although the book is 400 pages  it is so heavily (and fascinatingly) illustrated that it is more like an essay than an actual book.

So what do you see? Do we see the whole picture or individual details? Some people tell me they are highly visual. My images tend to be more inchoate: part feeling, part impression, and part random, telling details.

Interestingly, Peter Mendelsund doesn’t entirely believe the people who say they can see images as clear as day. He always asks those people to describe a character they see and invariably they give him a few specific details, descriptions of their movements and lots of adjectives about their personality. He brings up an interesting point that personality, movement, and appearance – in our mind – is often inextricably linked. We mistake one for the other and so on.

Though ultimately, we never really know what other people see and what they mean when they say they can see. If a person could paint what they were seeing, is what they paint really everything that they see? Do they see more or less? When I write, it never comes out exactly as I mean. It is always less than the fullness of my thoughts. Is painting the same?

I have always assumed that one of the reason’s I cannot paint or draw is that I do not have a vivid imagination. I can’t seem to grasp the concept of dimensions (my imagination is essentially flat…or is it?) and I assumed that great artists were the kind of people who could imagine details, but is that really true?

What Mendelsund’s book really captures is the wonderment of reading. Part of the problem, as he points out, is that we are not consciously aware of ourselves when we are reading. We can’t analyze what we see and read at the same time. It’s like trying to analyze one’s half-conscious, dozing state.

Do we see the entire picture or just zero in on certain details? When a long description is provided, do we gradually add to our inner image to create one highly detailed whole or do we see individual details individually, as they are described? Mendelsund also discuses metonymy and how we tend to substitute the part for the whole, like how Tolstoy describes Anna Karenina (Mendelsund’s example) as having grey eyes or slender hands. Do people fill the details themselves or do they never really quite see her clearly beyond those details. What kind of nose does she have? How tall is she? What is her chin like? What is the shape of her face? The shape of her eyes? Any facial blemishes, beauty marks? Does anyone know?

Do any of these actresses look like your Anna Karenina?

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But Mendelsund’s right; we do tend to assign meaning to the few details that are given. No matter how descriptive a writer is, they are never able to give us all the details, so the ones they give tend to be freighted with importance.

Reading is actually an incredibly fluid, dynamic and changeable experience. Mendelsund talks about how we are constantly adjusting our mental images of people, events, and places based on new information and descriptions. But we don’t remember that process, he says. We only remember a cohesive experience that bears no resemblance to what actually happened.

Mendelsund argues that life, like a novel, is full of “cracks” and “fissures,” but that we tend to smooth all that over in our memory. It’s kind of like a movie, actually. Our eye doesn’t see the individual frames, but only the fluid whole that looks like movement. In the end, Mendelsund concludes that authors actually are simplifying and reducing reality (real life, but also how things really look) so that the reader can make sense of it, since no on can absorb or observe everything.

Authors are the curators of experience. They filter the world’s noise, and out of that noise they make the purest signal they can – out of disorder they create narrative. They administer this narrative in the form of a book, and preside in some ineffable way, over the reading experience….

We reduce. Writers reduce when they write and readers reduce when they read.

In other words, he believes that we are never really seeing as clearly as we think (though I still don’t really know what it looks like in someone else’s head).

I knew someone who said that reading took her a long time, because she liked to visualize the world and even walk around in it. Another person told me she felt cheated if something like a monster was not described, because it felt more like a void than an actual monster. Others tell me reading is as vivid as watching a movie. My friend Andrea tells me that if she could draw better, she could draw the characters in books exactly as she sees them.

Buster Keaton steps into a movie

Buster Keaton steps into a movie

Sometimes I fear I have an impoverished imagination, which is more emotional than visual. The air can literally be thick with tension from the book and I find myself catching my breath. But my predominate experience of reading is actually aural. I hear voices (creepy, I know). It narrates, it follows the flow of words up and down, modulates, captures the different vocal inflections of the characters or even of the author, stops and pauses, exclaims and whispers.

This is why I have trouble reading contemporary fiction and tend to favor books written at least fifty or sixty years ago, if not older. My inner voice reads a lot of contemporary fiction in a monotone. There is something about the way sentences are structured, especially in American fiction. Too many short sentences? To direct, with the subject always at the beginning and so on? Also, the modern ideal of having the narration be impersonal and divorced from the voice of the author (unlike say, Dickens, who is definitely present in his narrative) can read rather flatly in my head and I simply lose interest.

However, I rarely have trouble with movies taking over my imagination when I’m reading a book (unless the movie is unusually close to the book). If you were to say “Mr. Darcy” right now, I would picture Colin Firth. But if I were to read about Mr. Darcy, I would see someone completely different.

I can, however, occasionally hear the voices of actors while reading, if the dialogue is the same. When I read the opening of Rebecca, I hear Joan Fontaine’s voice narrating (but only during the opening). I also kept hearing Humphrey Bogart reading his lines in The Maltese Falcon. And it is hard not to hear music while reading “Pygmalion.”

What do you see when you read? Or hear?

 
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Posted by on June 22, 2016 in Books

 

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Should You Read the Book or Watch the Movie First?

I used to almost always watch the movie before I read the book: The Lord of the RingsPride and PrejudiceMary PoppinsLes Miserables. My theory was that you could never be disappointed in a movie for not living up to the book if you had not read the book. Jane Eyre was an exception and I never have found a movie that does it full justice.

But then I had an attack of guilt. Wouldn’t it be more rewarding to read the book first? Wouldn’t it free my imagination from having to adhere to the dictates of someone else’s imagination as portrayed on film? Wouldn’t it at least slow my movie watching down somewhat closer to the speed at which I read?

I began to read more books before watching the movie. The result? Disappointment. Movies I would have enjoyed more suffered because I had the book in mind so closely I couldn’t let go and simply watch the movie for what it was. I began to rethink my dictum.

Only to rethink it again! I’m very double-minded on this point.

It really seems to depend on the book…and movie, which unfortunately means you often don’t know which should come first until you’ve both read and watched them. But I have noticed a few patterns to create a sort of guideline for myself (we’ll see how long I follow it).

The first thing I’ve discovered is that my imagination is not affected by movies. When reading, I seem to have no problem shedding memories of anything I’ve seen before and will generally see in my mind’s eye completely different people and settings than anything conjured on a screen.

Guideline #1 – If the adaptation is relatively close to the book, read the book first. That way it can enrich the movie you are watching, filling in any inevitable gaps that come from translating a story from print to screen. This was especially true for me with War and Peace. I could not seem to get through the 1972 BBC series until I read the book. Once I had done that, suddenly the series came alive.

Guideline #2 – If the adaptation is not close to the book, watch the movie first. It allows you to accept the film for the entertainment it is without trying to fit it into any preconceived notions. I had this trouble with She recently. I am convinced I would have enjoyed the movie more if I had not just read the book. Same thing with the 1935 The Mystery of Edwin Drood (with Claude Rains).

Barbossa_shoot11

The King of Guidelines

Qualifications or Caveats – In the words of Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean: “the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.” The moment I wrote my guidelines, I instantly thought of exceptions. To be honest, when it comes to BBC mini-series adaptations of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, etc., it honestly doesn’t seem to matter which order it comes in. My enjoyment of these books has never been dinted by having previously seen an adaptation, though perhaps it’s still true that my appreciation of the adaptation is enhanced by familiarity with the book. When it comes to long books and long adaptations, I’m not sure order is as critical.

But watching a good adaptation can be like debating with a friend about interpretation of a beloved novel.

Perhaps another guideline should be that if the book is short, read it first (this might apply to short stories, too). Trying to read The Maltese Falcon after watching the remarkably accurate 1941 film was, at times, less than gripping, because it was so close that I occasionally felt like I was reading a screenplay of the film. The book came most alive when I came across something that was not in the film. The same is true with Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (and the TV series from 2000 with Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin) and Agatha Christie’s novels. Maybe the guideline should be that if the story is a mystery, read it first.

But sometimes it honestly doesn’t seem to matter. I enjoyed reading James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips before watching the film, but didn’t suffer in the least when I watched Lost Horizon before reading it. And other times, a movie has made a difficult book more accessible.

What brought these thoughts on was an excellent review by FictionFan on Rumer Godden’s novelBlack Narcissus, and the Powell and Pressburger adaptation. She made me extremely eager to read it as well as revisit the movie to see if it made more sense to me. In other words, is this a case where it would have been better if I’d read the book before watching the movie? I guess I’ll have to wait to find out.

What do you think? Do you prefer to read the book or watch the movie first?

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2016 in Books, Movies

 

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