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August 2016

Against Likability

Someone told me the other day that the main character of my novel-in-progress wasn't likable enough. That my main character wasn't particularly likable didn't come as a surprise: she is a French opera singer who sings for the Nazis during World War II and has an affair with a German officer - the striving type who took her chance when she saw it. She isn't supposed to be likable. What puzzled me more was the strongly held opinion, strongly expressed by that reader and one other, that my main character should be likable. They read excerpts from the middle of the book without reading the beginning, which covers why the main character turned the way she did, and apparently her unlikability was too much, although she's not even as dark as I could have made her: she doesn't denounce anybody, she would do anything for her son (who loathes her for associating with the Nazis and joins the Resistance).

This struck me as a fundamental difference between French and American reading tastes. In France, The Kindly Ones, written in French by American-born Jonathan Littell, which focused on a (very unlikable) rising star in the SS, won the Goncourt prize and the Grand prix du roman de l'Academie Francaise, two of France's most prestigious literary awards. The English translation was panned by a number of media outlets in the U.S. French literary tastes are also less action-driven and more character-driven, a nice way to say that there can be tens of pages where nothing happens. My book is more action-driven but I have an instinctive distaste toward using likable characters with World War II as the backdrop. Then for me it'd become really trying to use a tragic history to make money by, say, having a heroine who locks her younger brother in a cupboard when the police comes to arrest them, thus causing his death by asphyxiation, or a heroine who goes blind when she was a child. All very cute. Likable protagonists sell a lot of books in the U.S., as did a likable would-be journalist writing about the situation faced by her African-American maid during the heights of segregation in the U.S. Those books have sold extremely well.

But what interests me isn't a story that a lot of people are going to find touching. Literature is a business and you don't write a touching story of epic scale unless you are hoping for the big bucks. I am writing this book because I want people to think about how collaborateurs - people who behaved disgracefully during the war - turned out the way they did, how they moved step by step toward the line that defines right from wrong, and crossed it. This for me is more interesting. I've said before and I'll say again that one of the most relevant metaphors I've encountered about life is the frog in boiling water. (And the engineers and scientists around me can't resist telling me that's not how a frog would behave in real life, to which I say: it's a metaphor, alright? let me finish my story). If a half-decent person sees something really bad all of a sudden, hopefully he would take a stand against it. But if he sees a small bad thing and doesn't let it bother him and then something just a tiny bit worse that doesn't seem so much different from the first thing, he probably won't bother speaking up, and then the third thing is only slightly worse than the second one so it doesn't seem worth speaking up about either, and in the end he witnesses terrible things and doesn't lift a finger. Now, some people did terrible things during the war and showed they were intrinsically evil. My main protagonist isn't one of those people, and I find her more interesting for that. She is an opportunist focused on her own success, that much is clear, and she will pay for her behavior at the end of the war.

I suppose what bothered some of my readers was that they weren't sure where I was going with it and didn't know if my protagonist would pay for her actions. (They're some of my newer readers. They haven't spent the last year slugging through my many rewrites.) There is only so much time one can spend watching someone do bad things - I am one of those people who enjoyed House of Cards's first season and then promptly got tired of it.

So my purpose for the book is to show readers what they don't want to become - but have them empathize enough with my protagonist that they follow her through her rise and fall and ultimate small-rebound-out-of-the-abyss-but-definitely-not-rise-again. This may be an ambitious goal for literature and I'm glad I have a day job to remove the need of writing a bestseller in order to pay the bills. In the end, I want to put the book into the hands of as many people for whom it will resonate as possible, but that's probably not going to mean everybody, although I wouldn't mind having my protagonist turn into the Scarlett O'Hara of the 21st century (people find Scarlett annoying but they always root for her, especially in the book where she is so much better than in the movie). Every time I hear about a character that should be made more likable, I worry it's the first step toward selling out. I don't want people to find my protagonist likable. I want them to recognize the risk they might turn like her under certain circumstances. What would people do to be successful today? Preventable environmental disasters, loans with soul-crushing interest rates, banks that push people toward foreclosure or bankruptcy: we have plenty of reasons to worry losing our humanity in the quest for more money. 

But then this is a long post because there is always the question of whether I'm writing in the right language - whether I was right to write in English for the past 15 years or if I should've stuck to French. Each country has the culture that fits its priorities. How many U.S. indie movies have you seen that were actually good? The U.S. has its blockbusters and its mega-stadiums and everything has to be big, cars, trucks, portion sizes at the restaurant, house sizes. There are some good U.S. novels that reach a wide audience, though. (They usually don't have any message so I can't say this bodes well of my book, but anyway I've enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, The Painter by Peter Heller and The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander. My fiction tastes are very different from my nonfiction ones, which center around theater, Eastern Europe and biographies... I actually like very few World War II novels.) Hopefully my novel can find its audience too. And if it doesn't, I can always translate it into French.


Stella Adler on Ibsen

StellaAdlerIbsenIf you care about good theater and in particular wonder what separates good actors from the rest, you really only need the books by William Esper teaching the Meisner technique, which I wrote about here, and the books by Stella Adler, whether on craft or on playwrights. Most recently I got Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, and I was stunned by the quality of her insights into Ibsen and Chekhov (I'm sure she gives an outstanding an analysis of Strindberg too, but I skipped over that part, having little interest in Miss Julie since I saw a widely overhyped production of it in Paris a few years ago with Juliette Binoche in the title role.) Her key argument is that an actor needs to know the context of the play in order to act his role convincingly, and for Doll's House in particular, Adler made a very convincing argument that Nora faces a bleak future after leaving her husband - she even suggests suicide - and her behavior, which makes the play's ending, had the effect of a bombshell in the nineteenth century. (She also has piercing insights into the supporting characters, but you'll have to read her essay to learn about that.)

I saw Doll's House at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) a few years ago and I very much enjoyed the performance, especially the rotating set that allowed the house to turn and show the audience different rooms where characters are presented behind closed doors, which reminded me of the Metropolitan Opera and was well-suited to the play. It was a good production. The revolutionary aspect of the play in its time, though, was lost in that Young Vic production, in the sense that the production was competently done but far from earth-shattering, and I say that as someone who did enjoy it. I suppose we have to put the blame on the way Hattie Morahan played the leading role, which seems so different from the way Adler tells us Nora would have behaved in that time period, in that small Norwegian village some distance from Oslo. I tend to side with Adler in everything.

My first introduction to Adler's teachings was through Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights. She has such depth of insights that one wishes she had been a theater professor at a university so that generations of students had benefited from her knowledge, but in the end she had just as big of an impact on aspiring actors through her acting schools in New York City and Los Angeles, and now on theater lovers through her books, although she died in 1992. 

Anyway, if you ever have to prepare for a role she covers in one of her books, start by reading what she has to say.


"Cafe Society" is a great movie

CafeSocietyI have to admit I'm not much of a Woody Allen fan. Years ago I enjoyed Annie Hall and Manhattan and that's about it. Of the last two Allen movies I remember seeing, Midnight in Paris felt awfully conceited (as if every self-respecting actor in Hollywood had wanted to check off an item on their bucket list, "let's act with Woody while pretending to be a realistic impersonator for this or that figure who lived in Paris decades ago although we don't look anywhere like them") and To Rome with Love was, quite simply, best forgotten. So when the new Allen movie Cafe Society came out, I didn't plan on seeing it. Rotten Tomatoes (which used to be my source of information on which movies to see and which ones to stay away from, until the disappointment of Don't Think Twice, read my previous post for that) gives it a Tomatometer (TM) of 70% and an audience score of 68% - nothing to get too excited about. Critics sniped that the best that could be said about that movie was that Kristen Stewart was really very pretty and commented on the fact that Jesse Eisenberg was an obvious stand-in for a young Allen himself. The New York Times "This is not Allen's Worst Movie" article counted as positive among the cacophony of lukewarm reviews. Yet, because it deals with the Los Angeles of the 1930s, I finally decided to give it a try after seeing Don't Think Twice - it simply couldn't be worse than that. And I was stunned, just stunned, by how good Cafe Society was. 

Simply put, it is about the love of two young people who ends up with different partners because one of them made the wrong choice. And they still love each other but they'll never be together and time changes and people grow up. SPOILER ALERT But it is not saccharine - the character played by Jesse Eisenberg (Bobby) becomes a successful businessman/nightclub owner with a gorgeous wife played by Blake Lively, and the character played by Kristen Stewart - Vonnie - marries Bobby's uncle Phil, for whom it is a second marriage, and becomes dazzled by the fancy trips and parties that she used to poke fun at when she was with Bobby. But the movie is full of funny moments, especially when Bobby's brother Ben, a thug, deals with his opponents. (You can imagine how. By the way, Ben might look familiar if you've watched Season 1 of House of Cards: the role is played by Corey Stoll, who was Congressman Peter Russo.) The audience in the theater also found the Jewish jokes very funny. Not being Jewish, I can't pronounce myself on that. When the end credits rolled, people all around me stated that it had been a really good movie. I loved the visuals, the sets, the costumes. An early scene with "Candy" was a little too Jesse-Eisenberg-as-neurotic-Woody-Allen-esque (you'll understand what I mean if you see it) and not pushing the plot forward, and the fact that Bobby's brother Ben ends up in the electric chair also surprised me because it changed the tenor of the movie, although it allowed for some extra jokes when Ben concerts from Judaism to Christianity, which I suppose was the point of the plot twist. My other minor complaint would be that Bobby is warned that Ben is under investigation and is advised to tell Ben to go away for a while, but it doesn't seem that Bobby ever tells Ben - so what was the point of that scene, except to let us know Ben is in trouble? Don't add scenes if they don't move the plot along. Contrary to what some critics have said, I didn't find the role of Blake Lively underwritten: this is Bobby and Vonnie's movie (Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart), and Lively just has enough dialogue so that her character can deliver her storytelling goals. 

I also will admit that I had never seen Kristen Stewart act before and I was amazed by how good she was in the role. Jesse Eisenberg was both endearing and convincing, never too sappy that we wouldn't believe he could become a successful businessman, never too ruthless or determined that we would conclude he's forgotten about Vonnie. (When he learns his new love interest is also named Veronica, he gives her the unusual nickname Vonnie that his previous love had.) Steve Carell was also excellent, drawing a complex portrait - in the few scenes he had - of a savvy Hollywood agent love-struck with his secretary, Vonnie. 

The movie is beautifully shot, characters change, you root for the main protagonist, the story tugs at your heartstrings without being cliche... What is there not to like? Certainly, Woody Allen the man has had his fair share of controversy, but if you only focus on this movie, it is hard to find something wrong with it. Obviously this is not an action movie full of special effects, so it targets a very specific part of the movie-going population, but if you care about film as a window into human nature, it turns out Allen still has interesting things left to say.


Why I didn't care for "Don't Think Twice"

DontThinkTwiceI saw the movie "Don't Think Twice" over the weekend, about a group of improv actors in New York City, and since the movie has received ridiculously positive reviews, maybe by people who wished they had been improv actors, I figured I'd share my thoughts so that you can all use the price of the movie ticket for better things. The movie has a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which I used to think was a reliable indicator of a good movie, but clearly I was wrong. (The website also says that 75% of people liked it. This is sad.) So, let's be honest: contrary to what the critics would like you to believe, this movie is neither genuinely moving nor laugh-out funny. In fact, my college friends did better improv than that, and it only highlights why the 30-somethings protagonists haven't succeeded in their chosen career path.

Early in the movie, the group of friends starts to imitate the way the father to one of them, who is on his deathbed after being hit by an 18-wheeler while on his motorcycle, said thank you to his son who came to visit him in the hospital. Expecting anyone to care about that top-tier sort of morons is a bit much to ask of an audience. So the movie lost me early on, and it only got worse from there. Ben Stiller does a cameo. The questions the group of friends asks him further highlight how far from prime time they are. Jack and Sam get auditions to Weekend Live (a fictionalized version of Saturday Night Live). Jack goes and SPOILER ALERT gets the role. Sam shows up, forgot her ID, sneaks in anyway (right...) and then decides she doesn't want to star on Weekend Live anyway and leaves before her audition. She insists she's perfectly fine in the minor leagues. Her friends either smoke pot (the reason the movie is rated R) or have been sitting on a comic book they wanted to write for 9 years or are teachers who sleep with their students in their own tiny room of the house most of them share. In other words, they're pathetic. 

Yet, they succeed! Jack gets the role, Sam finds herself perfectly content doing tiny-scale improv (I don't think it was explained how she makes a living, she arrived in New York to be a ballet dancer but it didn't work out), the pot-smoker is actually hired by Weekend Live to write sketches, the other woman who was sitting on the comic book finally writes her book, the friend who lost his father in the motorcycle accident helps her, and the loser-teacher who was sleeping with his students and who is the only person about whom it is said in the movie that he really didn't have what it takes to succeed (although he thought he had) ends up with a high school friend of his who is actually behaving most closely like an adult among them all but is pregnant by some guy she met in Brazil during a silent retreat. In other words, surprise! They all succeed, and even the loser-teacher who was supposed to have no talent finds happiness, but in fact he's the director of the movie anyway. 

I think the movie struck a chord among a certain segment of the population because of what it could have been. Plenty of talented actors come to New York to realize their dreams and don't make it, and the movie about them remains to be made - a movie about people who deserved to have the roles on Broadway, for instance, but never made it all the way to the audition to the blockbuster or career-defining role, people who struggled in New York City as long as they could and then left the city to do regional theater (which is populated these days by extremely talented people, although some New Yorkers in the business behave as if it is the first circle of hell) - or, worse even, people who never left and can't admit the roles aren't going to come. This would have made for a superb, heart-wrenching movie. "Don't Think Twice" is not that movie. It is a well-intentioned, feel-good piece of minor nothingness, with a slack story line at the beginning (in addition to the characters being jerks toward the father in the hospital bed, as mentioned earlier), little to no character development, and not enough information about each character to make us care. It's not a terrible movie but it is nowhere near good.That the rogerebert.com website gives this non-entity 3 1/2 stars raises serious questions about the credibility of film criticism today. The only rationale I have for it is that there seems to be quite a few movie critics with a soft spot for improv. Maybe that clouded some people's judgment.

If you really want to see a high-quality, well-done, both deeply moving and funny small-budget movie, go see Hunt for the Wilderpeople.