Reviewing movies nobody cares about

I recently saw three critically acclaimed films that no one cares about anymore.

Bridge of Spies (2015):

Bridge of Spies is the most mediocre film I have ever seen–a shame considering that the story itself is a good one. Tom Hanks is James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is asked to defend Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy put on trial in 1957. Donovan is then whisked away to East Berlin where he has to negotiate the release of an American student and spy pilot in exchange for Abel. But any potential the story had is tossed in favor of the obvious and boring. This is because Spielberg has to remind us in nearly every scene that despite our righteousness against the Reds we were engaged in spy tactics and rigged trials as well. From the cartoonish judge to a police officer who scolds Donovan for defending a dirty Commie after someone shoots up his house, all the characters Donovan has to contend with aren’t really characters, but obstacles. The movie only appears to be critical of the actions of the U.S. during the Cold War, but its indictments are shallow for a majority of the characters are stereotypes. Spielberg had a great opportunity to explore the hypocrisies of the U.S. government and, as well, the psychology of Donovan, but instead he just ends-up being like every righteous, yet humble of course, Tom Hanks character.

Love and Mercy (2014):

In contrast, Love and Mercy does a decent job of depicting its subject. The film focuses on the life of former Beach Boys leader and “pop genius” Brian Wilson. We get a better sense of who Brian Wilson was as we witness two of the more well-known narratives surrounding his life: Wilson in the mid-sixties (portrayed by Paul Dano) working on Pet Sounds and Smile and in the eighties (portrayed by John Cusack) as a middle-aged man drugged-out and brainwashed by his psychotherapist and guardian Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The acting and writing is for the most part solid, but the problem is that the film dwells on only two ideas–Brian Wilson’s deterioration amidst his burgeoning creativity, and his abuse at the hands of father-figures such as by his actual father, the insecure Murray Wilson, and the sociopathic Landy–without going much deeper into those ideas. As a result, despite the film being well-executed, there is also a flatness to everything. In addition, while the two narratives are interwoven, they don’t really mesh all that well despite their thematic similarities. There’s also a staleness to Wilson’s depiction in the sixties. Not only is it an area of his life that we are aware of and have seen numerous times, the story of the musician suffering for his art is something that has been done over and over. As well-executed as it is the story isn’t approached in a unique way, as a consequence there really isn’t much gained from viewing, especially if you’re already familiar with the history of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson. Brian Wilson in the eighties might be a weaker story, but at least it’s a side to Wilson that hasn’t been done to death. Overall, Love and Mercy is a solid film and likely one of the best rock biopics out there, but despite weaving two different narratives, it’s kind of bland. But it could be worse–it could have been directed by Spielberg!

Boyhood (2014):

Out of all of the films, Boyhood was probably the best, however, that doesn’t mean it’s as great as critics claimed when it came out. Seriously, remember when everyone was just frothing at the mouth over this thing? Now nobody talks about it. But that doesn’t make it a bad film. I’ve put off seeing Boyhood for a while because I anticipated that it was just another “gimmick” film, the gimmick being, in this case, the film’s production which took place over 12 years so we can see the actors age alongside their characters, particularly the main character who we watch from ages 6 to 18 when he heads off to college. However, the gimmick actually does serve the film well. The problem is that the movie is three fucking hours long. Perhaps the length is due to Linklater not wanting to make the age-shifts too jarring. The length could also be due to Linklater wanting to give each time period within the main character’s life equal weight. The movie isn’t about any particular moment or time during the boy’s youth, but rather about the film’s macro, how the moments accumulate and develop the boy and his family.

This, however, goes into another flaw, and a bigger one at that: the movie is just about the kid’s development. There is no grand, underlying idea. All we’re invited to do is peer into the life of this kid, which is a positive in many ways as this approach eschews the Hollywood convention of placing plot over character, but it’s also a negative in that we’re not allowed to do anything deeper than to peer. It’s as if the movie is bones laid upon a dissection table. We get a good look, but we’re not given anything more. Linklater’s approach allows us to see that the character is real by witnessing various moments of his life, and we can empathize with him, but we’re not given a deeper “in” to his reality. In some ways, we learn more about the kid’s mother, both from her arc and from pieces of dialogue, especially her final lines she imparts as the kid heads off to college. It also helps that Patricia Arquette is a far better actor than the actor who plays the boy. It’s ironic that the subject of Boyhood ends-up being the film’s least interesting character.

But, despite the film’s uniquity, its uniquity is largely shallow. The trajectory of the film matches that of many coming-of-age films. Perhaps this is unfair as any film about a white, middle-class boy often follows a similar path (grows up, goes to college,) but there are ways to circumvent this, such as choosing to emphasis different things, or connect ideas an interesting way. Boyhood becomes almost like any other coming-of-age tale, albeit one that is, for the most part, well-done and watchable. It doesn’t fester in cliche, and while the beats that it shares with similar films, are allowed to be approached more organically, the movie also doesn’t do much to differentiate itself. It doesn’t comment on what these moments actually mean or how they affect the child internally. They just are. Boyhood is still a pretty good film containing some great moments, but since there really isn’t much to grasp onto those moments quickly pass through the mind. Still, it’s an enjoyable experience for the most part. I don’t care about anything.

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The House on Mango Street – Book Review (Full)

I just want to tell a story, and if people listen, and if it stays with you, it’s a story. For me, a story’s a story if people want to hear it…there are different times of your life that a story may come to you…We may say, “Oh, that story didn’t do anything for me,” instead of saying, “I’m not ready for that story.” We blame the author or the story itself; but I really think that you have to hear a good story at the right time in your life.

-Sandra Cisneros

 

The House on Mango Street isn’t a very good story. It’s a novel, of sorts, (though it’s somewhat autobiographical) that’s broken-up into “vignettes” all of which are told from the perspective of Esperanza, a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago. There is a single narrative thread that runs through the entirety of the work, that of Esperanza’s desire to escape the poverty-laden Mango Street, but the focus is mainly on certain moments or memories that reflect Esperanza’s increasing awareness of the world and of herself. This premise in and of itself isn’t bad, but what is being critiqued here is the execution. Sandra Cisneros could have written a good novel; unfortunately, The House on Mango Street is what I would call a “nothing-book”: a work that deals with ideas but in the most rudimentary and superficial ways. As a result, once the book ends it slips out of the reader’s mind. A story survives via its ability to latch onto the reader, but The House on Mango Street contains nothing that can help procure its memory: no poetic lines, no memorable characters, no imagery, no great ideas or insight. It is the literary equivalent of potato chips: a comfort food that might displace a certain gap, temporarily, but does so without providing any substantial benefit.

So let’s get into why this particular story isn’t very good. To do this let’s first look at how Cisneros decides to open her book:

“We didn’t always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can’t remember. But what I remember most is the moving a lot. Each time it seemed there’d be one more of us. By the time we got to Mango Street we were six—Mama, Papa, Carlos, Kiki, my sister Nenny and me.

The house on Mango Street is ours, and we don’t have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn’t a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it’s not the house we’d thought we’d get.”

Not exactly riveting, is it? Originally I was going to provide a brief summary of the events of the book, but do I really need to? An astute reader, just from the above paragraphs, should be able to predict the overall trajectory of the book. Perhaps the specifics will be missed, by you should already be able to guess the overall course of things. Here is another paragraph from the same chapter:

“But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb. Out back is a small garage for the car we don’t own yet and a small yard that looks smaller between the two buildings on either side. There are stairs in our house, but they’re ordinary hallway stairs, and the house had only one washroom. Everybody has to share a bedroom—Mama and Papa, Carlos and Kiki, me and Nenny.”

Okay, now you should be able to see what the novel’s going to look like: Esperanza is going to experience loneliness, she is going to interact with the other oddball characters in the neighborhood, she is going to feel shame for her poverty, she is going to find things about herself, etc. From reading the above it’s already pretty obvious what the author is trying to do and how she will touch upon these things in the succeeding chapters. Basically, if a computer were to write a novel about a young girl living in a poor neighborhood this is how it would choose to open. It’s that rote of a book. These paragraphs, at some point, should have been subverted in some way; alone, they are not only too shallow and hackneyed, but the reader already knows what to expect from the rest of the novel. There is nothing that really grabs or hooks the reader. Cisneros could have chosen a more poetic means to introduce the reader to Esperanza’s world, but she decided, instead, to do it in the most straightforward and obvious way.

One might argue that Cisneros is trying, with this opening, to reflect the diary of a young girl, but this is just excuse-making. It’s okay to use kid-speak, but the above demonstrates a bad author’s idea of how a child speaks and conceives things. Compare these paragraphs with the writing in Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy and Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Both works center on young characters growing-up poor, but they also capture a child’s perspective without sacrificing artistry, but look at the language Cisneros uses. There is no sense of poesy. The only real attempt at metaphor is of the windows being “so small you’d think they were holding their breath.” But what does that even mean? I don’t know about you, but when I hold my breath I tend to expand rather than shrink. There is only one real attempt at poetry in these three paragraphs and it completely fails. I imagine Cisneros thought it was how a child might describe the windows; however, does Esperanza’s age somehow justify this failure? Of course not. Bad writing is bad writing. But going beyond the sentence-level the entirety of the novel is simplistic to an extreme fault. Even children are capable of moments of depth and insight. Great authors are not only aware this but are able to cull such moments in both meaningful and novel ways.

Unfortunately, Cisneros is not a great author. Here is the ending of one of the book’s earliest vignettes entitled “Boys and Girls” which is supposed to emphasize Esperanza’s loneliness:

“Someday I will have a best friend all my own. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will understand my jokes without my having to explain them. Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.”

Again, even if this is something that a child, in those exact words, might think or write that doesn’t mean that those words should have been included, at least in this sequence and context. Underneath the child’s voice there still has to be the mature mind of the author using the child’s voice to get at deeper things. Mere replication isn’t enough; in fact, the above might demonstrate how it can be a hindrance. I mean, the symbolism of the red balloon? My God. Just because a child might think that doesn’t mean that it’s still not horrid or trite. To paraphrase critic Dan Schneider, writing about boredom is no excuse for boring writing. If one were to capture boredom in its full nature, the author cannot simply imitate boredom, for while the author would be recreating the surface-level, he would be failing to capture the actual substance of boredom; the author would be addressing simply the what instead of the how or why. It’s like attempting to capture someone’s life by pointing a camera at him while he’s sitting in a room reading. Yes, surface details are addressed, but that doesn’t mean that you are capturing anything more, let alone anything of actual depth about the man’s life. And, not only that, it would be fucking boring to watch. Everyone is aware of what boredom is in the same sense that everyone is aware of how a child sees and thinks about things. It’s kind of pointless and dull to just emulate; it’s about how such things are utilized. Basically, instead of mimicking a childlike voice the key is to use a childlike voice in a compelling way. Just like boredom, an artist can still get at a child’s world without letting the child’s world completely dominate. Art doesn’t just imitate reality, but it also uses reality in order to get at its core.

But there are times where Cisneros attempts to get at deeper things. One of the themes of the novel is feminism. Esperanza becomes increasingly aware of how women are treated and how gender roles are incubated and perpetuated. Here is from a chapter where she despairs at her Spanish name and how it sounds (another tired trope of Chicano Literature,) which leads to this (emphasis mine):

“It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse–which is supposed to be bad luck if you’re born female–but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their women strong.

Look at this shit. You can write about your culture, you can write about misogyny and gender roles, but you have to do so well. You shouldn’t just state the message of your book so bluntly or else the reader will feel like he’s being talked down to. As mentioned before, this isn’t a book of depth, but comfort food masquerading as an important work. Cisneros treats all her ideas similarly throughout the book, with the broadest of strokes. Here is also a moment in which Esperanza demonstrates her own brand of feminist rebellion:

“I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.”

Yeah, take that patriarchy! Here are two excerpts from the chapter “Smart Cookie.” The first:

“I could’ve been somebody, you know? my mother says and sighs. She has lived in this city her whole life. She can speak two languages. She can sing an opera. She knows how to fix a T.V. But she doesn’t know which subway train to take to get downtown. I hold her hand very tight while we wait for the right train to arrive.”

Which is soon followed-by:

“Today while cooking oatmeal she is Madame Butterfly until she sighs and points the wooden spoon at me. I could’ve been somebody, you know? Esperanza, you go to school. Study hard. That Madame Butterfly was a fool. She stirs the oatmeal. Look at my comadres. She means Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead. Got to take care all your own, she says shaking her head.

Then out of nowhere:

Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.

Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then.”

And that’s how the chapter ends, like the other chapters. One could justify this by suggesting how she is undermining any potential melodrama by cutting things short. However, I would argue that her approach might be too extreme: she castrates each vignette before something of depth can be reached in the name of capturing some sort of “poetic” or “significant” moment. However, as I pointed out, many of the moments that she hones in are banal yet the fact that she just focuses on them, giving them a weight, suggests that she wants us to believe that these moments, by themselves, represent something more. What they’re supposed to represent is obvious, but they fail to fulfill anything of substance. Here, we get a moment with Esperanza’s mother, but it’s rote and pallid. I could have seen the mother’s “reveal” miles away. The way this scene is structured makes whatever Cisneros is trying to do completely apparent. It ends up just coming across as a lesson from a storybook rather than a real scene between two fleshed-out characters. We get how the mother, in the simplest terms, could have been “something” but was too ashamed to go to school because she didn’t have nice clothes. Could you get more obvious? Actually, you can. There is one chapter where Cisneros shows Esperanza discovering the feminine power of high-heels and then rejecting that power when men start ogling at her. I’m not kidding you.

Okay, here’s another chunk on a different topic. This one is from “Those Who Don’t”:

“Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.

But we aren’t afraid. We know the guy with the crooked eye is Davey the Baby’s Brother, and the tall one next to him in the straw brim, that’s Rosa’s Eddie V., and the big one that looks like a dumb grown man, he’s Fat Boy, though he’s not fat anymore nor a boy.

All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood or another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes.”

And it goes and goes…From “Geraldo”:

“They never saw the kitchenettes. They never knew about the two-room flats and sleeping rooms he rented, the weekly money orders are sent home, the currency exchange. How could they?

His name was Geraldo. And his home is in another country. The ones he left behind are far away, will wonder, shrug, remember. Geraldo—he went north…we never heard from him again.”

The problem with this particular excerpt, like the previous one, is that it goes about taking a rather superficial and predictable approach. Look at the limp way she attempts to show the dehumanization of the character of Geraldo as he is shown to be perceived as just some Mexican who was killed in a drive-by: “They never saw the kitchenettes. They never knew about the two-room flats…” Anyone could have written this. If someone is thinking about how to write dehumanization this is exactly the first tactic he would think of employing. “How could they?” is a narrative cliché if there ever was one.

If a writer wishes to communicate ideas, or bring awareness to the reader, the writer must not write in a way that deadens the narrative; this means avoiding predictability and cliché. Many a Cisneros apologist have argued that The House on Mango Street is telling the story of people who are neglected, invisible to society (even though we have numerous stories about similar people who are downtrodden, but whatever,) but here’s the ending to the chapter entitled “Marin,” where the titular character is an older, lonely girl that Esperanza knows:

“Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.”

This is, again, another ending that shows how Cisneros has no clue as to what constitutes as a lasting poetic image or idea that could help us define, or at least intuit, a particular character. We get narrative clichés (a character dancing underneath a streetlight) and clichés at the sentence-level (“a star to fall, someone to change her life.”) If she had just cut out that last paragraph the vignette would have ended as thus:

“…Marin is older than us in many ways, the boys who do pass by say stupid things like I am in love with those two green apples you call eyes, give them to me why don’t you. And Marin just looks at them without even blinking and is not afraid.”

Would this have been a good chapter ending? No, but at least it would have been more fitting and effective as we are left with something that actually encapsulates Marin rather than present empty maudlin. However, another reason I chose to emphasize this part is to refute the claims of her defenders: even as Cisneros attempts to “tell the story” of these people, she ends up stereotyping them and indulging in cliché. As I mentioned before, clichés deaden writing, making it difficult for the reader to give a shit about what’s happening.

If Cisneros wanted to do people like Marin and Geraldo justice she should have put more effort into the art itself. Instead, she decided to not even write characters at all, but stereotypes. The people within the book pop in and out, most for the purpose of demonstrating or representing whatever it is Cisneros wishes to comment on. In one chapter there’s a character whose only purpose is to feel homesick for Mexico as she scolds her son for speaking English. There are numerous female characters throughout that contain no inner-lives and are just there to be possessed and treated poorly by males, showcasing the wretched cycle of abuse as perpetuated by societal expectations when it comes to gender. In other chapters there are male characters whose sole function is to treat Esperanza like an object as they attempt to kiss and touch her. Some critics have declaimed The House on Mango Street as “man-hating,” but that accusation ignores something larger: the fact that all of the characters are barely and poorly written. This is the bigger crime.

This leads me to “The Monkey Garden”. This is one of the longest chapters in the book and easily the best one. This is because the symbolism isn’t that bad and we get interactions between characters that are somewhat realistic, unlike the other chapters where the characters behave in such a way to only showcase whatever point Cisneros is attempting to convey. And the symbolism contained is allowed to stand alone without Cisneros explicitly stating what is supposed to be represented. Here is how this particular chapter begins:

“The monkey doesn’t live there anymore. The monkey moved—to Kentucky—and took his people with him. And I was glad because I couldn’t listen anymore to his wild screaming at night, the twangy yakkety-yak of the people who owned him. The green metal cage, the porcelain table top, the family that spoke like guitars. Monkey, gamily, table. All gone.”

Not a brilliant opening, but compare it to the others I’ve quoted: the reader isn’t exactly cued into what is to be expected, at least not with as much blunt. As a result, the reader is more inclined to continue-on. Also, note how more natural sounding the narration is here; it’s much more organic in portraying how a child might speak and prioritize certain things. In other words, this vignette doesn’t seem like it’s going to become a simple-minded lecture, at least not yet.

What follows is some description which could have been parsed, but some of it isn’t bad, although not very good. However, we suddenly get some insight into what attracts Esperanza to the yard the “monkey and his people” left behind:

“We liked to think the garden could hide things for a thousand years. There beneath the roots of soggy flowers were the bones of murdered pirates and dinosaurs, the eye of a unicorn turned to coal.”

The above might actually be the best part of the book. Note both the image and musicality of that final phrase. Not amazing stuff, but just compare it to “a balloon tied to an anchor,” or the preciousness of “windows so small they’re holding their breath.” The garden then is revealed to be a place for Esperanza to hide from the rest of the world and to maintain her little bubble of innocence. In contrast, she describes another neighborhood girl, Sally, as being too distracted by a group of boys to play and run around in the forsaken yard. We find out about a game “[o]ne of the boys invented” where they toss each other Sally’s keys, and she, pretending to be annoyed, attempts to get them back though she is participating in her given role within the game. Yes, it’s obvious what Cisneros is trying to do: it’s another “insight” on how children are indoctrinated into gender roles and become willing participants, hence perpetuating the cycle, but at least there is some realism involved between the characters. The characters, at least in this instance, don’t become mere marionettes for Cisneros, but seemingly real people.

Esperanza gets mad at Sally and it’s implied that she is frustrated by the ease in which Sally has abandoned her innocence in favor of boys. Esperanza fears that she will easily fall to the same fate after one parent declines to intervene. We still get some triteness and, as mentioned before, the whole thing is still heavy-handed, but there is at least some artistic effort involved. This might be because Cisneros, with this vignette, decided to expand rather than let a tiny, banal moment stand in importance

Unfortunately, look at how she decides to follow this chapter:

“Sally, you lied. It wasn’t what you said at all. What he did. Where he touched me. I didn’t want it, Sally. The way they said it, the way it’s supposed to be, all the storybooks and movies, why did you lie to me?”

Completely unnecessary. Basically this chapter attempts to do what the previous did, making it sort of redundant.

“Sally Sally a hundred times. Why didn’t you hear me when I called? Why didn’t you tell them to leave me alone? The one who grabbed me by the arm, he wouldn’t let me go. He said I love you, Spanish girl, I love you, and pressed his sour mouth to mine.”

Okay, maybe the accusations of “man-hating” aren’t completely unfounded; 90 percent of the males in this book are sickos emptied of nuance and humanity, but whatever. As I just said, “Monkey Garden” covers Sally and Esperanza’s relation with her much better than this utterly cliché of a chapter does. Can you count all of the clichés? Do I even need to mention the title of the vignette—“Red Clowns”—and the conflation, though not explicitly stated, of the boys and the red (or devilish) clowns? Oh wait, I just did. Moving-on.

Alright, here is how the whole thing ends (spoilers!):

“One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.

Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?

They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.”

Yes, this book truly is a piece of shit. Cisneros eventually did “go back” to Mango Street via this book for the ones who couldn’t escape like she did, but, as I’ve previously stated, she did not do them justice. She took the people that populated her memory and melted them down to a pool of nothingess. Characters pop in and out, barred from growing and taking shape; they are simply tools for dull-minded lessons. The only character that comes close to becoming “real” is Sally, but that’s because a few chapters are dedicated to her; however, she still ends up becoming a stereotype. There are tired symbols like “the four skinny trees” which Esperanza tells the reader represent strength. There is, of course, the house itself which Esperanza is, of course, ashamed of. And I didn’t even touch on the chapters where Cisneros denigrates the rich for disregarding the presence of the poor (how brave!) Despite claims to the contrary, Cisneros does not capture a world neglected by mainstream thought for she provides the reader no access to that world. She only gives us words: empty, accessible, comforting words.

But The House on Mango Street does have its place. It’s good for teachers who want to introduce children to the (very) basics of racism and misogyny. It’s good for grandma’s book club which thrives on limp and safe discussions on “deeper matters.” As literary comfort food it’s a substantial meal for someone who knows nothing but fast food and potato chips. But to say it’s a great work of art would be wrong and demonstrably so, regardless of whether you like the book or not. You might, for whatever reason, have a fondness for a one-legged chair, but that doesn’t mean that that chair fulfills its function well. In the same sense, a work of art is measured in how well it communicates, and to say The House on Mango Street communicates anything well is to expose one’s lack of artistic knowledge and instinct. “But, I really felt something when I was reading this book! I was engaged! That has to mean it’s doing something right!” Well, it means something; it either means you haven’t read a lot of books, or that you happen to be on the same wavelength as this particular novel. The worth of a piece of art is measured by its potential to affect without relying on individual biases. I personally hate The Doors, but I cannot objectively say they are a terrible band just because I’m not crazy about organ music or Jim Morrison’s singing style. Their music is effective; I may not be able to be receptive to this effectiveness, but I can still argue how someone who isn’t possessed by my biases could still be. However, if you are affected by something that is a piece of crap, chances are you are the one that is putting in the effort, not the work itself, whether you are aware of it or not. You are the one bringing your feelings to the work and rendering it something it’s not. People are affected by the rantings of a Donald Trump or an Anne Coulter—does that mean they are good communicators, or rather that their followers are allowing themselves to be effected by their stolid words? So, with this I say if you still are not convinced by my assessment put aside your feelings and wants (the things you bring to the words,) and just look at the words I’ve quoted above by themselves, and then ask yourself: do they stay?

Originally published on Cosmoetica

The Quick and the Dead (1995) – Movie Review

On the surface, everything needed for a thrilling Western seems to be there: we have gun-duels, a revenge plot, a cheesy score (replete with whipping sounds,) explosions, bodies getting tossed about, tits, etc. However, despite containing all of these elements the movie is missing one key thing: excitement. Everything in the film that is supposed to be tense or gratifying is completely undermined by how predictable it all seems. The Quick and the Dead (directed by Sam Raimi) is supposed to be a love letter to the genre, but the problem is that anyone who has seen even only a few Westerns will likely be bored by this film. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a homage, but it’s as if they just took every trope and cobbled them together with little regard for things like narrative, imagery and character development. A movie can’t just be a collection of references and cliches; it has to be able to stand on its own; it has to have something.

The Quick and the Boring begins with Sharon Stone as a gunslinger who strolls into town after stealing a horse from some bloke. The wide-shots of the plains and the shots of the drunkards and prostitutes already indicates to the audience that this movie has no original ideas. Sharon Stone’s character, especially, is a stoic dressed-up as Clint Eastwood; she isn’t even given a name as she’s mostly referred to as “The Lady.” It’s almost as if they were attempting to create a mythic character out of her a la “The Man With No Name,” but it doesn’t work. This is because 1.) Sharon Stone just doesn’t have the same presence as a Clint Eastwood to totally pull this off and 2.) the writing doesn’t do anything with the potential archetype; we’re just expected to accept the nature of her character despite not being offered anything original or interesting to latch onto.

Anyway, the town, called Redemption (do I need to tell you that this is going to be a theme of the film?), is holding an annual dueling competition. We are soon introduced to a flurry of characters including the town’s tyrant Herod (Gene Hackman), a preacher and Herod’s former henchman Cort (Russel Crowe) and The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio) who we later find out is Herod’s illegitimate son. The aforementioned competition and characters are all introduced within a single, quickly-paced saloon scene. The problem with this is that it’s information overload to the point that, when Herod finally enters and nearly hangs Cort for refusing to enter the contest (Herod is obsessed with showing that Cort is, deep-down, still a killer,) and The Lady intervenes we sort of don’t give a shit. There is hardly any tension, just the empty spectacle of Cort nearly being hanged within the bar. It’s also obvious that The Lady has something against Herod (though what is revealed, gradually, over time,) but instead of the audience wondering about her possible motivations all we’re thinking is “Oh, I guess there’s a past between them suddenly. Okay. Whatever.” This is because it’s all shoved into the scene so swiftly and with nary any subtlety. We’re just supposed to accept and care about these characters.

After all of the major characters sign-up for the competition we basically know how things pan out. As Herod tries to coerce Cort he isn’t go to fully revert back to his old ways; The Kid is going to get cocky and get killed; The Lady is going to have a number of opportunities to kill Herod, but the audience knows that they are destined to duel at the end, making such scenes where she is seemingly going to kill him seem pointless and drawn-out; etc.

There are no interesting narrative twists, no character or image that compels; basically nothing to offer aside from a rather predictable and rote story. There are also some rather inexcusable cliches, like when Herod makes his entrance the saloon doors open and a breeze moves across The Lady’s hair; we then get an intense close-up of her eyes as Herod enters as flames dance in the background (there is a “Day of the Dead” celebration happening outside with firelight.) Another notable example is at the film’s “low point,” which is so over-the-top that it’s nearly painful. The Lady, after killing a local asshole (she has a thing against killing,) abandons town only to find her father’s grave (we learn that she used to be marshal of the town.) She’s crying, it’s raining, she’s standing near tombstones, and an old fuck hands her her father’s badge. Do I need to tell you that this scene just plain sucks? You can’t even say the scene feels manipulative; it’s not clever enough to be even that. The audience just feels embarrassed. In order to present a character’s or narrative’s “low point” you have to do so less ham-fistedly lest the audience starts tuning-out. The Lady returns to the town and goes down on Cort after they have shared a few scenes together. We already knew that they were going to get together because there always has to be some sort of romance (has to be!); and, since we know this, we also know that it’s inevitable that they are going to have to duel each other. But, of course, when The Lady is shot we know that she isn’t dead. As the film progresses we are just waiting for her to return, making the part where she blows up half the town seem less exciting.

But, ultimately, like a lot of films, the reason this movie fails is because of the characters. They are all one-note, following a single, predictable trajectory. Not much else defines them. Just because a character has a backstory, or has an established arc, doesn’t mean the character is good; it just means the character is basic. We don’t really get “into” the characters. There lacks seemingly little moments that help define the figures on screen as human rather than stereotypes or props serving the narrative. Possibly the best major character is Cort, but even then we don’t get much out of him other than that he’s trying to redeem himself by becoming a preacher, a cliche that could work if something was done with it. We don’t get to explore Cort’s guilt, nor his animosity towards killing. The only real, “small” moment, that works decently is when he wins his first duel he looks down at his gun with surprise, as if the thing that killed his opponent wasn’t himself, but rather some other second nature that he’s been attempting to bury. Instead of capitalizing on such a moment and what it represents we instead get an awful scene in which Herod takes Cort to the gun shop ran by The Kid. As the Kid pulls out fancier, and fancier pistols we get close-ups of Cort’s eyes, filled with temptation. “Hey audience. This is how we want you to think of Cort. Get it?” Again, The Slow and the Dread really lacks subtlety. 

The Lady could have been a good character. After the saloon scene she wakes up in The Kid’s bed, hungover. This is a twist on the audience’s expectations because before we’ve seen The Lady as this complete stoic; now we see how much of this is a facade. But, again, the movie doesn’t really capitalize on this potential character development. What we really needed is an exchange between The Lady and Cort where they implicitly challenge the other’s motivations and character. The Lady could imply that Cort’s becoming a preacher is just a superficial “fix”: an easy and obvious way to deny one’s past sins; at the same time, Cort could question what The Lady will do once she got her revenge. Their reactions to such queries will open the characters up, and, as well, make their relationship more human, allowing the audience to care more deeply. The Lady could also describe how, in her attempts to save her father, ended-up killing him and she could explain that as the reasoning for saving Cort. It might be far-fetched for her character to doll such information out explicitly, but she could at least attempt to, but then slink back into herself. This would show us her vulnerability and her inability to connect with others. It’s stuff like that that allows us to give a shit about these characters as human.

The Kid, on the other hand, needs something more as well. Perhaps, as the film pushes forth, we see that he is just like his father or, perhaps, even worse. This could be shown in how he treats the other characters, or how he acts in private. Instead of him merely being one thing throughout, our expectations would become subverted. When a character seemingly changes direction halfway, but in a way that seems organic to the narrative, the audience is more inclined to want to see what happens next for how the events of the film will unfold becomes an even greater question.

So, in conclusion, I would not recommend The Quick and the Dead. Unlike some people I know, I don’t think it’s amazing. I mean, it’s not terrible, but it’s still a pretty empty experience, like drinking alone or going to your grandmother’s birthday. A film, in order to be good, needs to do more than just go from A to B to C whilst hitting every beat; that shit might impress a Screenwriting 101 course, but a film needs to go beyond fulfilling technique in order to be truly successful. There needs to be inspiration. Something to grasp onto. You may like the film for whatever reason, but otherwise, it is just a barren plane.

The House on Mango Street – Book Review

You can find a recent review I did on Cosmoetica, this one being on The House on Mango Street, the famous novel by Sandra Cisneros.

I may post the review in full on this site as well, but in the meantime here are some points that I make in regards to art that were, in the end, excised from the review due to length:

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The problem, however, is when people start to conflate the comfort Cisneros provides with things of actual depth. Despite its being considered Chicano Lit it doesn’t do much to expand the reader’s purview or understanding, opting instead to provide confirmation of certain views. Do we really need to be told that Mexican-Americans are human, or that societal expectations affect women for the ill? Instead of exploring the substance of bigotry and its origins Cisneros is fine with feeding the reader the answers he is already aware of and in ways that are accessible and easy to swallow. The reader’s feelings of comfort are mistaken with the consumption of something substantial for ideas contained in the novel are “important.” As a result, you have a book that you can hold-up and say “See, this book talks about important things! It must be good, and I’m a good person for advocating such tripe!” But if you want a story to survive you have to do more than cater to the reader’s feelings and expectations. You have to do more than mimic what people want to “hear.” More has to be done.

When Moby-Dick was first published hardly anyone wanted to read it. Yet, it has managed to survive and is, rightfully, considered a classic today. It did not serve the needs or desires of the people in Melville’s time, but greatness does more than act as a gentle service for an individual or population. One could argue that The House on Mango Street has “survived” and, therefore, is a great work, but that just makes it an exception. Mango Street is an example of “The Bukowski Effect.” Despite Charles Bukowski’s mediocrity he is still being read two decades after his death; however, this isn’t because he actually provides anything to the reader of artistic or philosophical worth, but rather because he provides an “image” that people like to latch onto. His poetry isn’t very good, but his work in conjunction with “the man” conjures up an attractive image, that of the rebellious and tragic drunkard. One might call Bukowski “an original,” and in some ways he was, but I bet that you, the reader, can write a poem in his style that is equal to some of his best with little to no effort. Now, attempt the same with the style of a Yeats or Rilke. Even if you manage to capture Rilke’s voice I doubt that you would be able to write something as great as “The Panther.” Bukowski, despite his originality, is far easier to emulate both stylistically and qualitatively. Just because he was “the first” doesn’t mean that he was good.

Now let’s look at Mango Street with the same lens. It was first published in the eighties but is still being read today. Classes, from middle school to college, are assigned this dreck largely because of what it represents rather than what it accomplishes. Sure, it might have been a “first,” in the sense that it was a flagship book for Chicano Lit, introducing the literary world to Mexican-American and Latino Literature, but let’s consider something: if Mango Street was never written, would Chicano Lit be in an entirely different place as it is now within the mainstream? Perhaps, though I have a feeling that if Mango Street was never around some other book would have taken its place. Like Bukowski’s poetry, Mango Street is completely replicable and replaceable, regardless of the quality of its sentiments or the things it represents.

The point is is that the lasting popularity of works like Mango Street is largely due to chance and people’s artificial prolonging of its legacy. And besides, will Mango Street still be read a hundred years from now? What about 500? The book’s popularity hinges on its subject matter and accessibility and the times we currently live in. I doubt the claims for its “novelty” and “importance” would be enough to save it from becoming negated by time. There is simply no reason for a person in the year 2525 to read this piece of shit (hell, there’s no reason to read it now.) However, there would still be reason to read Black Boy or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for greatness always has something to offer that goes beyond the ephemeral. A thousand years from now, notions of “blackness” or “whiteness” may have long been dissolved, but Black Boy would still be relevant for it gets at the core of not just racism, but certain aspects human nature that allow such prejudice to arise. This is because Richard Wright was a writer who put his art at the forefront. Maybe Sandra Cisneros really prioritized “the art” when writing her book, but regardless of intentions her book fails because she is a lousy artist, not because of its message or subject matter.

How 2 Writ Gud: On Why Writing Guides and Tips are Bullshit

Lately, I’ve been looking at some of the articles dedicated to writing here on Medium and I can’t help but wonder: who are these even for? Most of the “tips” that these articles proffer are so generic that they cannot be of any use to anyone, let alone beginning writers. But instead of telling you what I think of writing guides, let me show you instead. Here are some of the more ubiquitous tips that I’ve come across:

“Write everyday.” Okay, I get it! Stop telling me to write everyday! I don’t need a billion articles telling me the same shit over and over as if this particular tip was the one, true ticket to greatness. Shit, Stephen King writes ten books a day and I doubt many people would call him one of the greats.

“Write for yourself.” God, I hate this “tip.” The reason why the internet is aflood with so many trite poems is because all people ever do is “write for themselves” instead of for others or for higher things. Writing isn’t just about me, me, me. And no, I don’t mean you should cater to the reader’s desires and emotions; you should, however, not insult the writer or pretend that art isn’t about communication. What are you communicating to me that hasn’t been said before when you’re writing a screed against your boss in prose broken-up into lines? Expressing yourself is fine, but if you want to be a serious writer you’re going to have to do more. You need to communicate ideas, and you need to do so well.

“Read and write.” No shit.

“Write in the morning.” Not terrible advice as you’re usually without distraction and your mind is, at least, somewhat alert, but it’s not as if this piece of advice guarantees anything. Besides, Wallace Stevens wrote his poetry at night and on weekends. So, how about just write whenever you can? Who gives a shit?

“Write clearly.” This is obvious, of course, but what they really mean by this is that one should avoid long sentences and complexity. This is good advice for hacks who are trying to emulate David Foster Wallace, but imagine someone telling this to Herman Melville, or James Joyce, or Hermann Hesse. Simplicity is good, sometimes, but so is intricacy and ambition.

“Show, don’t tell.” This advice is just dumb. If the author wants to get through information quickly then there’s nothing wrong with merely telling. Not every little detail or movement needs to be tossed at the reader’s face.

“Avoid passive voice.” Yes, your writing should be active and dynamic! Or else you will bore the poor monkey-brains that are trying to finish your novel! Look, there is nothing inherently wrong with passive voice. It’s just another tool that may or may not result in good writing.

“Avoid using cliches.” Yes, cliches like “write everyday” and “write for yourself.”

“Write original characters.” Well, duh. The problem lies in how one should go about this. “Wait, how about giving your character a flaw! What about a special quirk! Make your character wear a funny hat or have a passion for rainbow sherbet! Have you tried giving your character three arms? After all, this is something no one has ever done before!”

“And, most importantly, just do it!” Do what? Go outside? Call your parents? Stick your head in the oven? What? Why are you speaking in riddles?!

Okay, enough of this horse-hockey, I haven’t even gotten to the underlying problem with writing guides: not only are they condescending, but they push an idea that suggests that good writing is something that can be taught. What should be realized is that the best writers came into their own. The greats all have unique voices, disparate not just from one another, but from mediocrities. And this is because a writer, in order to be successful artistically, must take onto his own path. This means that a writer cannot simply read and absorb some advice for writing is a continual process that is most likely going to lead to failure; this is something that writing guides tend to avoid saying, but it’s the truth. Yes, there are some good tips out there, like “read and learn from the masters,” but I never needed to be told that. I’m a talentless hack and I already knew that that was something I should be doing. Humans, whenever they attempt something, always look to others as examples; it’s just a natural part of our collective behavior. What matters is how one absorbs the masters and utilizes what he has gained, but such an ability isn’t taught, nor is it given.

So, why all the articles on writing? Maybe they offer a myth that is comforting not just to the reader, but to the person writing the article, that good writing can be achieved from easily-applicable tips and not just from talent, which is something beyond our control. Maybe writing guides are just easy to write, but the ease probably comes from the fact that the only advice that one can offer in regards to writing is banal. It’s kind of like how certain artists think that the duty of art is to “speak the truth,” but what is the truth exactly? Instead of trying to dissect such an abstraction it’s easier to just offer things everyone has acknowledged to be the truth or a truth. How many poems or stories have you read that have declaimed the shittiness of war, or how about how awful rape is? With writing guides, we get the regurging of the same crap over and over because that is the crap that everyone thinks is good or that works. So, in order to write an article that will be “useful” you gotta write in banalities, but, as a result, the article turns into a nothingness that washes over the wannabee writer.

There is also the fact that there really isn’t anything aside from banalities that one can offer when it comes to writing, or at least when you’re writing an article that targets everyone. As mentioned before, becoming a writer is a solitary task, or succession of tasks. This means that writing guides and tips aren’t really much use for the individual because the individual is already on his path, trying to find his own way; a tip like “be more clear” will just bounce off of him for he’s attempting to discover how he write himself writes. Not saying that there isn’t advice people can offer, but the advice has to be specific to the writer’s needs in order to matter, it can’t be tripe like “don’t use semicolons!” or “not too many run-ons now!”

Originally posted on Medium.

On Writing: Communication v. Self-Expression

A few days ago I read an article someone posted on Medium advocating the idea that one should “write for one’s self” rather than sweating over being read or unread by anyone. Here was my response:

“I just want to write for myself.” There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself, and sometimes it’s this mindset that is most beneficial, but I think a lot of serious writers also want to be read, i.e. they’re not just writing for themselves, but are seeking an audience as well.

If you want to be read there are a few basic approaches. One is that you write something that will appeal to the majority. The problem with this is that there are a lot of mediocrities out there doing the same thing. So in order to stand-out you could either have an “original” premise, or market yourself. But, ultimately, the best, most substantial approach lies in not so much the content of the story, but the way it’s written. You could write a mediocre piece of crap that people will care about now, but does that mean it will be continued to be read 100 years from now? If you want to be read I think the reader should always be kept in mind, but that doesn’t mean you should merely appeal to his “likes” and “dislikes”; you should write something that is intellectually great, something that not only contains ideas, but carries those ideas to the reader in an interesting way. The works of Melville and Kafka, while neglected during their lifetimes, are today read all-over because they aren’t masturbatory journals, nor crappy pulp-novels that appeal to the lowest common denominator, but works of literature that actually offer something to the reader.

While I do think that a writer shouldn’t just cater to the biases and desires of the reader, the reader should still always been in mind when one writes. Despite some overlap there is a distinction between mere self-expression and communication. With the former all the writer cares about is putting himself out there. Yes, good writing and art can arise from this, but for the most part communicating ideas isn’t what’s pertinent, but rather it’s the ego of the writer. I sometimes scroll through WordPress and other sites, surveying some of the poetry that is constantly posted and 99 percent of it is garbage; this is largely because the people posting the poems don’t care about effectively communicating something to the reader, but are more concerned about just putting whatever thoughts and feelings they have onto a screen. A lot of “poets” don’t pay attention to the art of writing because there is no reason to; they’re just writing for themselves and that’s okay; but, if you want to be taken seriously as an artist, you have to do more than just write for yourself: you have to write well which means taking into account the reader’s intellect (not just his emotions!)