Archive for February, 2013

Goodbye to The Hour

I'm going to miss these folks.

I’m going to miss these folks. Also Hector, Marnie, Angus, and Randall.

Every character was fascinating. Every bit of dialogue needed to be heard. Not one moment of screen time was wasted. The Hour spun stunning interwoven tales of ambition, corruption, intrigue, romance, and grief–one big arc for each season. It was most beautiful to look at: rich, deep, and dark in color, but never muddy or dim. The visual composition was impeccable. Television doesn’t get any better.

Since its recent cancellation, I have been muttering about the criminality of taking something this good off the air before its planned run is over. The creators had planned three of these six-show seasons; now, it’s ending at two. The BBC stated, ” We love the show, but have to make hard choices to bring new shows through.”

What they bring through in its place might well be more popular, but it is unlikely to be anywhere near as good.

And it ended on something of a season cliffhanger, as we don’t know for sure if Freddie survives his injuries, although it is a pretty sure bet that he does. I can’t imagine the writers killing him off; he’s too central a character.

Sad, sad, sad.

On the other hand, I would rather have a show taken off too soon than to stay on too long. Those that stay on too long are like a favorite restaurant that changes ownership, like a Mexican place my husband and I went to years ago. We went one evening, and the name had changed. Same menu, and no change in decor. We even recognized most of the employees. The manager assured us everything was exactly the same. But when our meals arrived, I wanted to stand and shout, “NO! This is not the same food! You have used canned refried beans! Did you not think we could tell the difference!??”

House was canned refried beans at the end. So was the American version of The Office (although I did not watch it all the way till the end). I could name many others, and so could you. And that canned taste lingers. Sadly, a tinny taste will taint my memory of the entire series. The early best efforts are poisoned by mediocrity at the end.

Ending a series is an art. Some of my favorite final episodes were of Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under, although the latter certainly had its wobbly moments toward the end of its run. I’m looking forward to a good ending for Breaking Bad, for Mad Men, and for The Good Wife, when they’re done. Every great series deserves a great ending. I wish The Hour could have had theirs.

Photo:Hour1.jpg

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Read My Attire

Last month, I went with friends to see three excellent exhibits at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, one of which was a roomful of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s pin collection.

The story of Albright’s pins begins with a meeting with Iraqi officials. Before the meeting, she was criticized and labelled in the Iraqi press as an “unparalleled serpent.” To the subsequent meeting, she chose to wear a golden snake lapel pin. That was easy to read. Other pins in the exhibition included a spaceship (complete with descending aliens) to wear when negotiations took a weird turn. Others were serious, to express solidarity with victims of violence or tragedy.

Many of us attempt to send messages with what we wear, whether consciously or unconsciously, but few, probably, are as conscious and direct with what they wear as Secretary Albright was with her pins. Some of us notice clothes, jewelry, and shoes a lot; some, not at all. Some are good at symbols; some are blind to them.

As a fiction writer and creator of characters, I see Madeleine Albright’s pins as inspiration for making my characters send their own signals. Merely to think about what a character wears, how they wear it, and why, opens a range of possibilities for communicating with  readers. Many writers know and practice costume design. In historical romantic fiction, many paragraphs are devoted to costume design. In other fiction, the author doesn’t bother much with it, and I can’t remember what anyone was wearing.

But what an opportunity! Running over fictional examples of costume-as-character-developer, I can think of 1) Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker hat, 2) “Suit up!” Barney in How I Met Your Mother, 3) Scarlett O’Hara’s green velvet drapery dress (and Carol Burnett’s hilarious spoof thereof), and dozens of others. But what to do if all your characters are in uniform? One way is show how a particular character wears the costume. The original Star Trek featured Captain Kirk as quite the ladies’ man. I remember one scene in which he is wrapping up a tryst, shall we say. For less than one second after the commercial break, we see a fully-uniformed Kirk sitting on the side of the bed, adjusting his uniform pant leg over his boot. Pant leg over boot. That’s all we saw, but that action indicated previous action.

In my current project, which is set about eighty years in the future, I’ve paid attention so far to the clothing of only two of my characters. The first is a woman who cares deeply about expensive, sexy clothing, with a particular love for vintage manufactured clothing, that is, non-3D-printed clothing. The second, her mother, is inspired by a line in the Leonard Cohen song, “Closing Time.” She’s a hundred (actually 103), and she’s wearing something tight (but she looks pretty good). The majority of characters are nuns, serving in a religion I am making up. I have a lot of freedom to invent clothing, freedom I’m not certain how to exercise. These nuns did not come to the convent to worry about what they look like. Nonetheless, I do not want generic nun clothes. I will need character-revelaing descriptions of characters who don’t care too much how they look, and are wearing utilitarian, comfortable garb they can work in.

But there’s still room to play. There’s fit. Is one character’s uniform too loose or too tight? Has she altered it in someway to make it more attractive or comfortable? Can there be a wardrobe malfunction? Certainly our clothing will be “smart” by 2094, with temp controls and radiation protection, won’t it? And how do the characters feel in their clothing? Isn’t how we feel in our clothing the most important thing of all?

I understood what Cher was saying with her Oscar dresses, but I don't get this at all.

I understood what Cher was saying with her Oscar dresses, but I don’t get this at all.

Photo: Cristiano Del Riccio

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A Novel of Beauty

A year or so ago, I began announcing to various parties that I no longer had much interest in mainstream literature, that I seemed to be reading exclusively in the science fiction and fantasy fields, with an occasional weird slipstream thrown in. This was a bit of a surprise to me (the various parties I made my announcement to more-or-less shrugged), but I should have seen it coming.

What I have found over the years so attractive about sf and fantasy is that stories in these genres tend to be About Something, and they are about something less self-consciously than their mainstream counterparts, and they aren’t afraid to transport and entertain while they do so. They can be inquiries into science, politics, war, society, individual quests, religion, supernatural, psychology, humorous, adventure, and sometimes do almost all of the above within the covers of one book. Mainstream, lit-fic, seemed so bland, so two-dimensional by comparison.

Before I made the above shrug-inducing comment however, my husband gave me a new novel by Steve Martin. This was Christmas, 2010, and the new novel was An Object of Beauty. For reasons unknown, I picked it up and read it last week, and it turned out to be just what I was in the mood for.

Years ago I read Shopgirl, found it fresh and subtle, and so expected I would like this. I did. An Object of Beauty is About Something.

It is set on planet Earth, on the island of Manhattan, in the last decade of the twentieth century, and the first of the twenty-first. But with those two decades past us, hidden behind major historical and economic events, New York City in the 1990s seems as exotic as any alien planet, and its inhabitants as odd as any extraterrestrial life form. I follow our main character, a Manhattan Human named Lacey, and her friends, and I observe how they live: how they feed themselves, how they mate, and what objects they find sacred. Our first-person narrator, Daniel, understands the difficulty the reader might have entering this alien world, and is a faithful and reliable interpreter of the customs, totems, codes, and mores of this strange place and time.

The novel centers on a subculture of this alien land: The world of art, of galleries, auction houses, and money-laden collectors. It concerns the alliance, and the war, between beauty and commerce. It is all about what it means to be a sentient human in a very big universe with overwhelming forces pressed up against you. Some of those forces come from outside oneself, but many originate within. One can become a monster here without even realizing it.

Martin sees fit to include reproductions of some of the art that appears in the story. These are not glossy plates grouped in the center of the book, but simple cuts, reproductions of paintings placed precisely as they come up in the book. This makes for less-good resolution and picture quality. I found squinting, straining to see detail in these pieces. I assume, however, that this was the only way to achieve proper in-the-narrative placement, and that placement is dynamite. These pictures assault the reader. Lacey encounters them, we turn a page, and they jump out at us like highway robbers.

People this multi-talented are really annoying.

Comedian, Comedy Writer, Actor, Musician, Novelist, Playwright. Multi-talented people are really annoying. Can’t you just pick one thing to do well?

Reviews I glanced at were mixed. Some liked what I liked about it. Some were “disappointed.” One said (I think) that the setting overshadowed character. Aha, but for me, setting is character. These people cannot be who they are outside this setting. Some told me there were more sophisticated novels about the New York art scene. I’ve no doubt that’s true. But…for this alien to the art world, An Object of Beauty was just right.

Photo: TriviaKing

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