Sunday, October 26, 2008

Won't Someone Help Willy Loman Tonight?

I just finished Death of a Salesman again. For me, Death of a Salesman is like It’s a Wonderful Life turned on its head. Imagine George Bailey really did jump off the bridge, with no angel to come to his rescue and no friends to come to his aid. That’s Death of a Salesman. Sounds depressing, I know, but for me Willy Loman has just as much appeal as George Bailey, it’s just that his story ends tragically. Too simple a comparison? I don’t think so.

People may think that Death of a Salesman is just another one of those depressing stories you study in English class where someone dies (and if you’re thinking I’m giving anything away here, you’re obviously not paying attention to the title). Well, it is one of those stories that people study in English class where someone dies, but even so, I believe that this is one of the few literary deaths that has a point.

Sometimes death in books makes me want to bang my head against the wall. Maybe this is why I dislike Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. All the pointless death. Literature is swimming in death, such as in Huxley’s Brave New World; John Knowles’s A Separate Peace; Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Some “good” deaths, in my opinion, are Sidney Carton in Tale of Two Cities, Beth in Little Women. all the deaths since the fourth Harry Potter book. But Oedipus Rex is worse than death. Oedipus doesn’t die, but in his case, death would have been a mercy.

And movies are not immune to this either, a la Legend of the Fall. I’m on the fence about Dead Poets Society. It’s inspiring up to a point, and it does have that whole “Carpe diem” thing going for it, but then you have this character’s suicide to deal with, which is kind of like finding a fly in your soup. It ruins the whole thing. But Titanic, with all its death--and Jack Dawson’s in particular--is good. And a direct descendant of Romeo and Juliet would be the musical West Side Story. Like Romeo and Juliet, I can’t get myself to like it as much as other musicals, but I’ve come to understand the emotional impact of the death, so I’ve learned to tolerate it. On the other hand, the musical Carousel begins with a death, and it lends a more serious tone to the story, but I like it in this case.

I think what I’m trying to get at is the difference between sad and depressing. Sad is good. Sad can be therapeutic, moving, thought-provoking, all those good things. However, depressing, especially when it’s touted as art, is awful. Depression, in every sense, is pointless. Sad is when you care that the characters have lived or died at all. Depressing is when you feel like you’ve wasted your time caring about them. Like Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. You care about him all the more because how and why he dies is pointless, but the death itself isn’t pointless period. Death, really, has nothing to do with it. So I’ll restate my thesis: It’s not death in art that annoys me, it’s depression. A story can be depressing without anybody dying, and someone can die in a story without it being depressing. It’s a very thin line. I’ve had to endure a lot of depressing to get through my English classes. For instance, I had to study A Separate Peace twice when I switched high schools. Ugh. Oedipus Rex in high school and college, Ernest Hemingway (enough said), Brave New World, and, of course, Shakespeare.

But, you argue, not everything has a silver lining or happily ever afters. It’s just how it is. To which I answer, pessimism is just as effective as depression.

What is the point of all this? Maybe it was to point out that Willy Loman’s demise is not depressing, but sad, and that distinction matters. Perhaps it is to say that, although not everything must end in ‘happily ever after,’ art exists to appeal to our higher natures, not to exalt our baser ones. Death of a Salesman doesn’t end happily, but you care about Willy. He was optimistic to a fault, but it’s also what makes you care about him. Or perhaps what I’m suggesting is that if Death of a Salesman had ended happily, it would have made a great Christmas story.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Secret Life of Bees: Perfect Cast


So I went and saw the Secret Life of Bees movie this weekend. Thumbs up. It’s been getting average reviews, mostly in the form of occasional slams for its being too sentimental, but honestly, this is a chick flick, people. Get over it.

The movie stuck close to the book, but there were little moments unique to the movie that I thought improved the story. Overall, I agree with what was cut--and changed--for the movie. It was interesting how Zach went missing instead of being arrested, but either way works fine. I like how they gave us a glimpse of T-Ray’s character in the past and how June initiated the final marriage proposal in the movie. It focused the moment on her character more. Another thing that I noticed was the question that Lily asks T-Ray before he leaves for good. It’s different in the movie, but I thought it was a good decision. Bottom line: This was a strong, faithful adaptation.

Another criticism I’ve been hearing/reading is that the plot is predictable or cliche, more of a TV movie-caliber than feature film, to which I say, I kind of expected it. I mean, the plot structure of the book is solid to the point of being been-there-done-that, and it inevitably carried over easily into the film, but knowing this didn’t deter me from liking the book or the movie. You have to pick your battles. For the book, the writing/language and characters saved it from the predictable beats of the plot. In the film, the thing that saved it was undoubtedly the cast.

They couldn’t have gotten a better cast for this movie: Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Sophie Okonedo. Need I say more? And is it weird that the most interesting character in this story for me is T-Ray? He and Lily are alike in their suffering, and so he is a good foil for Lily's character: what she would have been without the Boatwright sisters. On the other hand, I think T-Ray shows signs of vulnerability, like he could change if he came upon the right people and conditions, as Lily had, and in that sense he isn’t a stereotypical deadbeat father figure at all. Paul Bettany played the role well, and, I think, got this element across. But that could be just me seeing what I want to see. If there was one scene I wish the movie had done more with, it would have been the one with Lily and T-Ray at the end. It went by too quickly.

This movie review by Time magazine, by Richard Corliss, probably reflects my sentiments the best: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1851105,00.html

I love it when the casting is just right: Lord of the Rings, Hairspray (2007), Steel Magnolias, Forrest Gump, Christopher Reeve as Superman, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the Harry Potter trio, Amy Adams as Giselle in Enchanted, Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in the play Wicked, and so on.

Just reading that list makes me want to give a big sigh of relief.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Good Titles



I’ve been reading The Secret Life of Bees. It’s kind of a rush job since the movie is coming out soon, and you know how I am about books and movies (See my first blog “What are you reading?”). So far I’ve enjoyed it. I spent a good part of Sunday reading it. Very relaxing.

Even though I’ve just recently picked it up, I’d been considering reading the book for some time, before I knew there was going to be a movie. It was getting good exposure at the bookstores, was on the bestseller lists, and it seemed to have staying power, but I always hesitated when I had the chance to buy it. Why? Probably for those very reasons I just mentioned. Not everything that’s popular is worth your time, and all I knew about the book was that it was popular, and therefore, I didn’t have enough reasons to invest in it.

Maybe this is why I so frequently wait for books to be made into movies: movie trailers are so convenient. They can tell you just enough about a story in a couple of minutes. It reminds me of what Ouisa says in Steel Magnolias: “I don’t read books because if they’re any good, they’ll make them into a mini-series!” Except in my case it prompts me to read more books instead of ignore them.

But The Secret Life of Bees had two things going for it besides its popularity that had caught my attention long before now: its cover and its title. Practically everyone is familiar with the saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ so you can probably understand why the cover still didn’t convince me to buy it. A pretty cover doesn't necessarily make a good book. Which leaves me with the title.

I love a good title. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good one. It’s not only interesting, but it has more meaning once you know the story. Frank Capra movies have some good ones. It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are so simple and unpretentious that you’d almost overlook them, yet they are deeply significant. Like his movies. One title that always gets me thinking is Carousel, from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. ‘Carousel’ is such a happy image, and yet the story is bittersweet, arguably the most serious of their works. And it wasn’t the original title of the source material either, so I always wonder why they chose that title. And then there’s Oklahoma!, which is probably Carousel’s polar opposite, brimming with optimism. I think the exclamation point makes all the difference. And Fiddler on the Roof is intriguing for its imagery alone.

Some book titles I like are A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, A Series of Unfortunate Events (I know--it's a book series title, but what the heck?), Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, The Once and Future King, and The Devil Wears Prada (Never read the book, but I'll admit it's a strong title. I did see the movie, and it was fun, but I'm content to leave it at that.). A short story title I really like is A Good Man is Hard to Find. The title fits, and yet at the same time, the story is definitely not what you'd expect. And of course, The Secret Life of Bees.

So if you're trying to pick out a book, stick with book titles, if nothing else. Book covers can change, but titles don't. Somehow I always knew that I should have picked up The Secret Life of Bees a lot sooner than I did because the title stuck with me. Movie trailers may tell you a story in a few minutes, but a book title--a good one--will tell you the story in a few words.