Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An Open Letter to NBC: More Things Happen at the Olympics Than Swimming

Dear NBC,

I love the Olympics.  I watch as much of them as I can, sometimes to the detriment of personal relationships (read: a husband who gets ignored for two weeks).  I look forward to the global pageantry, the spectacle, the amazing effort of all the athletes, and to seeing a number of sports that don’t normally get the same glory (or TV coverage) as the NFL or the NBA.     

But your coverage so far has done next to nothing to show America—and the world—what’s really happening in London.  According to one of your representatives, there are 302 medals to be given out in 32 sports.  Yet I can count the number you’ve shown in your prime-time broadcasts on one hand.  Beach volleyball, synchronized diving, swimming, and gymnastics.  That’s four.  Out of 32.  Four. 

Swimming and gymnastics are popular sports, to be sure—but is that all there is to it?  Based on the commercials shown during your broadcast, swimmers generate a great deal of ad revenue, which is likely a goal of your coverage.  Fencers, velodrome cyclists, archers, shooters, weightlifters, boxers, rowers, and equestrians do not generate ad revenue.  Is this why you haven’t shown these competitions in primetime at all?  Are the athletes who bring in ad revenue more worthy than those who struggle out of the limelight?  Your answer appears to be "yes."  

Perhaps you think that everyone has cable, and access to multiple sports channels where other Olympic sports can be viewed.  I do not.  Perhaps you think that everyone has unlimited bandwidth and data usage available for them to stream other Olympic sports.  I do not.  Rather stupidly, I depend on your primetime and late-night coverage to provide a well-rounded view of the games. 

I feel terrible for the members of Team USA who do not participate in swimming or gymnastics.  Their families won’t get to see them on TV.  The people they went to high school with won’t be surprised to see how far their old school mates have come.  No one will even know they’re there—not as long as you insist on showing endless heats for the endless number of swimming races instead of showing finals—people actually winning medals—in other sports. 

After Monday night’s disappointing primetime coverage, I stayed up late, thinking that the late-night edition would show something different.  What was the first sport covered?  Yet more swimming.  Really?  More than half of the primetime coverage was not sufficient?  There was nothing else happening anywhere in any of the other Olympic venues deemed worthy of being shown at 1 am? 

When the late-night program switched to covering whitewater canoeing, I sat up with interest.  Then I sat back down when valuable minutes were wasted interviewing John McEnroe and Shaun White—two people who are not even competing here.  Why not interview athletes who are living their dreams right now?  Why not interview some American medal winners who would never otherwise get to be on national TV?  Is this the way you treat the Americans who have trained and bled and cried and worked their hardest in order to get here?  In their one moment to shine, you chose to interview a famous spectator who has nothing to do with any of the sports in the summer games. 

Thanks, NBC. 

Thanks for doing absolutely nothing to showcase the wide range of talents and sports on display.  America’s athletes deserve better than what you have provided so far.  

Jenni Wiltz

Thursday, July 26, 2012

I'm Going to Be in Gargoyle!

It's not the best gargoyle photo in the world,
but it's the only one I had handy.
Westminster Abbey rocks, by the way.  
Woo-hoo! My short story, "Integers and Atoms," was accepted for publication in Gargoyle #60 (Summer 2013).

If you've never seen it, Gargoyle is an awesome literary journal that's been around for 35 years.  The editors, Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole, have published truly amazing writers, including Rita Dove, Jennifer Egan, T.C. Boyle, and Allen GinsbergNow I'm going to be a part of that list, too!  This is mind-blowing and probably calls for some champagne.

On their website, they provide a list of the awards the writers they published have won.  Here's a sampling:

6 National Book Award-winning authors, 3 PEN/Faulkner winners, 4 Pulitzer Prize winners, 2 MacArthur Fellows, 6 Iowa Short Fiction Award winners, 5 Flannery O'Connor Award winners, 5 Orange Prize Long List writers, 2 Orange Prize Short List writers, 2 National Book Critics Circle Award winners, 6 Lambda Literary Award winners, and 3 Firecracker Alternative Book Award winners. 

This is big time.  
This is awesome.
This is motivation to keep kicking ass.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I love me some Gillian Flynn.  Her first two books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, are phenomenal.  I know I write a lot of negative reviews here, but these two books are fan-freaking-tastic and I have no hesitation in saying this.

I am, however, hesitant to say the same about Gone Girl.  Here’s why:   On the back of the book, the publisher has printed raving blurbs from Tana French, Laura Lippman, Arthur Phillips, KateChristensen, and Karin Slaughter (among others...scroll down beneath the jacket copy).  If you read them, you’re expecting the awesomest book ever—filled with psychological insight, biting wit, razor-sharp humor, and electrifying writing.  I don’t think that’s what you get here.  I might be the one who missed the boat, but reading these blurbs before I read the book set my expectations at a level the book could not meet.     

Here’s what the book is about.  Nick and Amy are a married couple celebrating their five-year anniversary.  But on that day, Amy disappears.  From the get-go, it looks like Nick might be to blame.  He protests and claims innocence, but everything from forensic evidence to Amy’s diary implicates him.  With only his twin sister to believe in him, Nick is sucked into a roller-coaster of a summer as he faces family and friends who all think he killed Amy.  Of course, this being Gillian Flynn, little is as it seems and we’re given hints at how things may unfold and what really happened on Nick and Amy’s fifth anniversary. 

Let’s start with what’s good.

The suspense.  Flynn kicks ass at generating suspense.  As the search for Amy widens and the cops find evidence that implicates Nick, you can’t help but be swept up in the gritty realism of it all.  You feel Nick’s shock when each new piece of evidence seems to damn him further.  You know someone here isn’t telling the whole truth (Nick?  Amy?  The cops?), but you can’t wait to see what happens.  The middle of the book is close to perfection, as chapters intersperse Amy’s diary with Nick’s present-day narration.  I read 200 pages in one night, racing to see what happened next.  Hardly anyone creates page-turning suspense as well as Flynn.    
Marriage, for Nick and Amy, is like this: an endless
struggle to be top dog.

The creepy feeling of watching a marriage go sour.  Being a married person myself, this was hard to take.  As you read the first half of the book, you get Nick’s perspective and Amy’s perspective.  You hear about how they met and fell in love, and how they both got laid off and moved to Missouri so Nick could help take care of his dying mother.  There are so many miscommunications and spoiled moments where pride, despair, or stubbornness kept Nick and Amy from connecting.  They grew apart.  But there were still flashes where you could see the old Nick or the old Amy.  You can sympathize with each of them, but you can’t help thinking the people they were did not have to turn into the people they are.  It’s chilling and sad and haunting. 

(SPOILER ALERT:  You will eventually find out that some, of not all of this backstory, is faked.  These are not truthful characters, to say the least.  Still, the first time you read it, before you know it’s fake, you still feel your heart breaking for the relationship gone bad.)     

Now, let’s talk about what might not be so good.

Some of the writing itself.  I know Gillian Flynn can write, and extraordinarily well at that.  But there were parts of this book that felt sluggish, sloppy, and overwrought.  That might be because she was allowing the characters to use their voices to tell the story.  Both Nick and Amy are would-be writers who haven’t done much writing at all; Nick is a laid-off magazine writer while Amy wrote personality quizzes for women’s magazines.  They think they can write, so it makes sense that their narration would be capable yet flawed with things like too many sentence fragments and comma splices.  The more flaws I started seeing in the writing, the more I kept hoping Flynn was allowing Amy or Nick’s flaws to show through.  But is this the case?  I can’t be sure, which makes me wonder how much editing the book received. 

Nick’s writing style also seems to change throughout the book.  On the very first page, he’s obvious and writerly about describing something as simple as getting up in the morning:  “My eyes flipped open at exactly six A.M.  This was no avian fluttering of the lashes, no gentle blink toward consciousness.  The awakening was mechanical.  A spooky ventriloquist-dummy click of the lids:  The world is black and then, showtime!  6-0-0 the clock said—in my face, first thing I saw.  6-0-0.  It felt different.  I rarely woke at such a rounded time.  I was a man of jagged risings:  8:43, 11:51, 9:26.  My life was alarmless.”  

This is a LOT of heavy-handed stylistic detailing just to say, “I woke up.”  This feels like a writer clearing her throat, trying to find the style her character will speak it.  It feels like something that should have been streamlined in the editing process but wasn’t. 

Compare this waking up to one that happens on page 354:  “I woke up on my sister’s couch with a raging hangover and an urge to kill my wife.”   Far simpler, far more effective, far less contrived. 

The first 60 or 70 pages of the book read like the first quotation.  It’s alarming, especially after reading Flynn’s two previous books, which are simple in the best way.  No extraneous words or sentences.  She’s sharp, so sharp it hurts.  Then you get to the first 70 pages here, and it’s like when you see someone wearing stripes, paisley, floral print, and polka dots all at once.  You just want to tell them to take something off and chill out.  Yes, it might be part of painting a portrait of a psychopath.  But until you reveal the character is a psychopath, your reader just thinks you’ve forgotten how to revise. 

The italics.  These characters use italics.  A lot.  It gets really annoying.  On page 20, Nick says, “Amy, I don’t get why I need to prove my love to you by remembering the exact same things you do, the exact same way you do…”  A paragraph later, Nick’s sister says, “I’m guessing—five years—she’s going to get really pissed…”  Are any of these italics actually necessary?  Do they change the meaning of the sentence in any way?  Or is it just a lame way of making the way characters enunciate their sentences a form of characterization? 

The dirty tricks.  Any time you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, as both Nick and Amy turn out to be, you have to be very careful.  You don’t want to deliberately withhold information from the reader unless the character has a good reason.  Yet Flynn does this.  

In the first half of the book, after Amy’s disappearance, we’re told several times that Nick carries a disposable cell phone in addition to his regular cell phone.  We’re told he makes and receives several calls on this phone.  But we’re never told to whom or from whom.  (This doesn’t come out until later.)  This is bad.  If the character is hiding crucial information from us (he is), why even mention the disposable phone before that secret is ready to come out?  Why include that stupidly tormenting detail in the first place and then hope the reader sort of forgets about it until later?  It would have been far more effective  to have Nick tell the reader:  "I know you’re upset that I’m not telling you who called.  You’ll find out later, I promise."  Use the “meta” moment for all it’s worth, as long as you’re going there.  Otherwise, it’s kind of annoying as well as unnecessary.       

The extraneous supblots.  This book is long.  Or, maybe it’s just that it starts to feel long toward the end.  There is a lot of set up.  A lot of time spent on subplots like the Blue Book Boys.  A lot of time spent with Nick’s sister, Go (a character who, ironically, goes nowhere).  A lot of scenes with Nick’s father, a woman-hater with Alzheimer’s.  This character is necessary, but the time spent on him and with him is probably not.  Overall, it feels like this book could have been tightened considerably.  Another couple of months, another 60-70 pages edited out could have made this an even better book.    

The ending.  The last hundred pages are weird.  Just flat-out weird.  Once I finished the book, I sat back and tried to imagine a different way to end the book.  But I had trouble with that, too.  I’m not sure where you go with a story like this.  The characters are so flawed and so troubled, that any ending seems wrong for them.  The ending they get feels too easy.  Everyone essentially gets off the hook.  Of course, getting off the hook is its own purgatory for these characters, but still.  I’m left with the feeling that the past 400 pages just got washed away, and this ending could have been arrived at with oh, say, 70 pages.  A novella. 

In the end, I think this book is a beautiful, blissful experiment in unreliable narrators who manipulate the reader and each other.  I’m just not convinced that the experiment worked.  I hate saying this, because I love, love, love Flynn’s first two books.  And I will be first in line to get her next book.  I just can't recommend this book as wholeheartedly as I did her first two.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Movie Review: Savages

Gators are pretty savage.
But so is Benicio Del Toro.
I don’t usually review movies here, but since I read the book the movie is based on, I’m gonna go for it.  

Oliver Stone’s movie is based on Don Winslow’s book.  The book is about Ben and Chon, two twenty-something friends who grow the best pot in the world and run their empire from a SoCal beach house.  They share a girlfriend, named Ophelia (“O” for short), who is a stoned beach bunny/trust fund girl.  When a Mexican drug cartel wants in on Ben and Chon’s operation, Ben and Chon refuse.  To help them reconsider, the cartel kidnaps O.  Instead of knuckling under, Ben and Chon decide to take action and get her back.  The book follows the dangerous and disastrous consequences of that decision. 

Winslow’s style is fast-paced, humorous, and gritty.  The book has the best first chapter in the history of literature.  (I’m not kidding.  Pick it up and read just the first page.  It’s a fast read, I promise.)  The storytelling is accomplished through straight narration as well as script dialogue, complete with stage directions.  The breezy style keeps things moving, and as the reader, I turned pages quickly to find out what happened next.  This isn’t to say the book didn’t have serious problems.  It does.  And those same problems nearly sink the movie. 

First, a bit about the movie.  It follows the book pretty closely, for the most part, which is likely due to Winslow having a screenwriting credit.  Ben is played by Aaron Johnson (I have no idea who this person is), Chon is played by Taylor Kitsch (I have no idea who this person is, either), and O is played by Blake Lively (I am an avid Gossip Girl fan, so at least I know who she is).  The head of the Mexican cartel is Elena “La Reina,” played by Salma Hayek.  Elena’s right hand hit man, Lado, is played by Benicio Del ToroJohn Travolta lends a hand as a corrupt government agent who plays both sides.  With a cast like this, you should immediately notice two things:  the main characters do not have one-tenth of the acting chops of the supporting cast.  I am not sure if this was done on purpose or it just happened that way.  It mirrors a serious problem in the book, however.

Problem the First:  None of the three main characters are interesting, unique, or likable. 

In the book, Ben is a wimp.  He’s smart enough to grow the world’s best pot using his UC Berkeley education, but he’s not smart enough to hand over his operation to the cartel, cash out, and enjoy a work-free life for the next sixty years.  The cartel beheads people with axes and knives and chainsaws and whatever other garden tools they can find.  A sheltered California beach bum isn’t smart enough to cut and run at the sight of this?  Are you kidding me?  There better be some pretty good motivation behind his decision.  And guess what?  There isn’t.  This guy makes no sense.  He shows no spine and no development.   

Chon is also a pretty flat, undeveloped character.  He is an emotionally scarred war veteran after several tours in the Middle East.  This, at least, is a reason for his strong, silent characterization.  He likes beating people up, doing it with Ophelia, getting high, and not much else.  This will never change.  He never changes throughout the course of the book or the movie.  At least he has a good reason. 

Ophelia is one of the lamest, most annoying female characters I’ve read in years.  She does absolutely nothing and adds absolutely nothing.  She is vacant and empty.  There is no personality there.  I think we’re supposed to feel sorry for her because she is somewhat the product of a shitty childhood—rich mother, several stepfathers, no one to care about her having sex too young or smoking pot since the 8th grade.  Boo hoo.  Even so, she has no goals or ambition.  She goes shopping.  That’s it.  I have no idea why either Ben or Chon actually likes having her around, other than the fact that she lets both of them do it with her at the same time.  (There’s a gross three-way scene in the book that is begun but mercifully cut short in the movie.)         

All of these flaws are replicated in the movie.  Ben is flat, lame, and uninteresting.  Chon is flat, but moderately interesting since he knows how to blow shit up.  Ophelia is a black hole, a swirling vortex of nothing that still seems to suck in everything around her, including Oliver Stone.  Stone chose to make Ophelia the narrator of the movie, and seems obsessed with Blake Lively.  There are tons of close-ups of her eyes, her skin, her teeth, her fake butterfly tattoos.  She’s beautiful, yes.  She fits the role incredibly well, which may or may not be a compliment.  Is telling someone they’re a perfect zombie a compliment?  The voice-over narration is dull and dead-eyed and the movie would have been better without it.  Still, Lively wasn’t given anything to work with, so I can’t really say she did a bad job.  She did a great job, but zero times zero is still zero.

Problem the Second:  The supporting cast steals the show.

Maybe this isn’t actually a problem, since the moviegoer is sitting in her seat thinking, Thank goodness someone here is doing their job.

The guy who plays Ben is flat.  Stone substitutes close-ups of his pale, pretty eyes for acting.  When things 
get intense, he goes blank.  The guy who plays Chon is marginally better, thanks to an outburst where he stabs John Travolta in the hand.  He’s going for “still waters run deep,” and he might actually pull it off.  Blake Lively is…well…Blake Lively.  She’s a one-trick pony, and that’s all that’s required here.  I doubt anyone could save this character, so might as well let Lively have it. 

But all anyone really wants to see is Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro.  These two really fuck some shit up, in the best possible way.  Salma Hayek’s Elena is bitchy, controlling, yet vulnerable.  She wears a jet-black blunt-banged wig throughout the movie, symbolizing her need for utter control.  Every hair is always in place, except for the scene when she learns that her beloved daughter has been put in danger.  Then, in a powerful moment, she rips off the wig as she sinks to the floor, sobbing.  Everything you need to know about this character is contained in that moment, in the best possible way. 

Benico Del Toro is creep-master supreme.  I’m not sure if he’s just a creepy guy in real life, but he plays a stone-cold killer like he IS a stone-cold killer.  There’s no hesitation, no regret, no guilt.  He goes for it. Shooting punk-ass lawyers in the kneecaps?  Check.  Shooting henchmen who hesitate to murder helpless women?  Check.  Bullwhipping a traitor’s face until his eyeball comes out?  Check.  Yeah, he’s that kind of hit man.  Now here’s a lesson in acting for the guy who plays Ben.  Benicio del Toro doesn’t need all kinds of facial contortions to express emotion.  His character undergoes fear and anger and happiness, and you’re completely aware of what he’s feeling though a few very small facial gestures and body positioning.  He gets it exactly right, every time, without resorting to Jack Nicholson grins or Tarantino-style theatrics.          


Problem the Third:  The super-sappy Hollywood ending the un-does the real ending. 

In the book, everyone dies.  It’s kind of disappointing since you’ve just spent 200 pages trying to muster up the enthusiasm to like them, and then they’re killed.  But it’s also fitting since these aimless losers drifted through life…let them drift into death, too, with the same kind of bored, unthinking abandon.        

In the movie, everyone dies, too.  Oh, wait, but then they don’t.  Ophelia’s drugged-out voiceover tells us that it might not have actually happened that way.  I’m instantly reminded of Clue, where they show you two “maybe” endings and then a real one where everyone committed one of the murders.  The movie backs up a few minutes, to before the death-carnage goes down, and it’s all re-done with the cavalry coming in to save the day, all the bad guys getting punished, and all the good guys living happily ever after.  Are you freaking kidding me?  This gang of losers takes down the Mexican cartel?  And they’re rewarded for their lame aimlessness with a tax-free life in Africa or Indonesia somewhere? 

I don’t know if Universal executives forced Stone to produce a happy ending for their big summer blockbuster, or if someone couldn’t bear to see Blake Lively bite the big one, or if Stone just wanted to give a big middle finger to the audience.  Whatever the reason, it was a stupid move and pretty much destroys any integrity the storyline might have had.  At least when the characters die, we’re presented with a lesson:  Try to get something for nothing, and you will die.  If you don’t care enough about yourself to even try to survive, you will die.  The California consumer lifestyle creates people of such unutterable aimlessness and vapidity that they can only die without producing anything of real value in life. See, death works as the outcome of all these ideas.  What does not work is letting them off scot-free, not a scratch, to live happily ever after.

Oh, well.  You win some, you lose some.  Savages is beautiful to watch, electrifying when the minor characters are on screen, but it has no soul.