Archive | February, 2012

Much Prejudice, Little Pride, A review of P.D. James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley”

28 Feb

I have to admit, I am officially of two minds about P.D. James’ latest mystery novel, “Death Comes to Pemberley.”  Given James’ prodigiously wonderful way with a phrase, I expected that the book would be many things –  a parody, a tribute to, and an extenuation of the beloved novel written by Jane Austen, which is of course “Pride and Prejudice.”  But it turns out to be something more, and very much less, than that.  Disappointing in almost every way, it was still a book I laid down but reluctantly, and always looked forward to picking up again.

How’s that for fence-sitting?

 I’ve so far only glanced at the various sequels that the original book has engendered.  One of them began with a coach ride featuring an uncomfortable Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett), sore from having submitted to Darcy’s obviously gargantuan caresses on their wedding night.  Hastily I put that aside, thinking that Jane Austen quite rightly ended all her books at the altar, leaving the reader to only imagine what came next.  Then a friend loaned me a copy of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, which proved such an unresisting imbecility that I could stomach only the first two chapters before I hurled it against the wall; all the good parts had been lifted bodily from the original, and all the bad were merely relentless accounts of zombie attacks on the village of Meryton and elsewhere.  Talk about one joke being run into the ground!

But with P.D. James, I hoped that a writer of wit and culture was going to give me something to care about.  Alas, no.  Though Ms. James makes a very good attempt to duplicate the arch sophistication of Austen’s prose, and comes up with some wonderful Regency witticisms of her own, this type of writing is largely abandoned after the first chapter.  However, it is more than fascinating to see how James comes up with a few trenchant alternate explanations about Elizabeth’s real motives in snaring Darcy and how her so-called friends (I speak now of the duplicitous Ms. Charlotte Lucas) cynically reacted to their wedding.  Come chapter two, however, and the novel becomes a dry, British procedural, with only flashes of Austen’s brilliance surfacing from time to time.

When I think of “Pride and Prejudice), I am instantly in a world of sunlight and clarity.  But James’ novel is much more like the dark, turbid world of the Brontes, wherein even the landscape is bleak and moody (not to say muddy.)  Pemberley, it seems, is not the graceful baronial estate as described in the first book; instead it borders a hostile woodland in which even ghosts walk and where, we learn, Darcy’s great grandfather committed suicide with his dog.  (Yes, you’ve read that right – with his dog.)  Perhaps James is correct in creating this mood and setting for what is, after all, a murder mystery.  But it is a mystery that concerns only the most peripheral of Austen’s original characters, and we are left to struggle as to why she would bother to write it at all.

In the original, the inevitability of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s eventual union heats every page; here they barely have a scene together.   If you go in expecting to be reunited with one of the most famous pair of literary lovers in history, you will be greatly disappointed.  Though they have had two children since the last book ended, you may well ask yourself – how?  There is absolutely nothing between them.  Oh, they yearn and pine for one another, to be sure, but only in their fervid inner monologues.  One begins to furtively wish for Elizabeth to ache in her nether regions again, but this is obviously an area which P.D. James spurns.

And yet, and yet…I could never quite put it down.  Perhaps the novel will improve when I reread it.  James prose is always elegant, and she ties up all lose ends (resulting in a literary Gordion knot, if you want the truth); suffice to say my interest never flagged.  Next time, though, I will have shed all my hopes and assumptions and will be able to read “Death Comes to Pemberley” as just another excellent mystery from the estimable P.D. James.  But I will have also shed any hope of seeing my beloved Elizabeth and Darcy in this odd but oddly compelling book.

Have you read The Stand In? Available on Kindle, Nook, eBook, and iPad. Downloading the book is a great way to support this indie-author. 

Oscars Blah

27 Feb

The Oscars left a bad taste in my mouth.  They were never more irrelevant than last night.  I think Billy Crystal said it best – a bunch of millionaires giving themselves golden statues.  And Chris Rock proved extremely out of synch with his TV audience when he boasted about a getting a million dollars for such easy work as voice chores in an animated film – and then complaining about playing animals.  Talk about trying to have it both ways!  Made me a little nauseous.  Glad for Jean DuJardin – I think it was an amazing performance given the fact that he was deprived of an actor’s number one asset, his voice.  But as far as “The Artist” goes, it was a pleasant little diversion, with absolutely no mystery about where the story was going next.  And the lead actress in it was a grinning gargoyle who didn’t look period at all.  I loved “The Descendants” and “Moneyball” and, particularly, “Hugo” – movies far more worthy for consideration than “The Artist.”  But, then – they didn’t have Harvey Weinstein behind them, more’s the pity.  Highlights were the Focus Panel for “The Wizard of Oz” (I sure hope GWTW has flying monkeys!) and  Cirque du Soleil.  My god, if one of those straps had broken they could have taken out the entire Columbia Studios contingent!

Have You Read, The Stand In?

27 Feb
Couldn’t resist sharing my latest review on Amazon! Have you read it? You can download it on Kindle, Nook and iTunes for iPad.
New! B. Maxwell reviewed The Stand In
 Grabs You From Page One February 24, 2012
Given to me by a friend, I couldn’t put this book down! On its surface it’s about a 50’s Hollywood movie idol who uses his celebrity to seduce and kill young women until his studio mogul boss begins to suspect him. Instead of going to the police and risking his #1 asset, the mogul decides to secretly replace him with an innocent young actor with an uncanny resemblance. But will his true role be replacement or fall-guy? Along the way the plot twists and turns, drawing you in with characters that, true to life, are both seduced by their dreams of success and love, and battered by the reality of what this town does to you. So what author Geagley ends up unspooling is a seductive thriller with wry insider’s view of Hollywood. Oh, and you’ll never guess the ending.

Oh the Horror!

20 Feb

“Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.”  Paul Auster

I came across this quote the other day somewhere in my reading.  I don’t remember where I saw it, only that it hit me across the head like the proverbial sledge hammer.  It says, so elegantly and succinctly, what I’ve been trying to tell my students in every one of my writing classes; that writers are born, not made.  And I just have to write about that.

You can learn all the techniques for composition and how to write a grammatically correct sentence, of course.  You can learn how to properly format a screenplay or a play, for instance.  You can certainly learn clarity and how to get your point across without its real meaning being muddled or misconstrued.

But the drive to write, the compulsion to report, the urge to arrange words for the simple desire of communicating your thoughts, is natural only to born writers.  Really – who would wish to spend their time alone most of the day, locked in your head, trying to accurately describe the visions you see that seem to exist somewhere between your eyes and the computer screen…?  Isn’t that like schizophrenics trying to accurately describe the voices they hear?

Perhaps all writers should be medicated, if only to free them from their terrible Muse.  (God knows, I’ve tried the entire pharmacy.)  But the medications – booze, pills, dope, whatever – get in the way of the words and so I have to rid myself of pain killers.  The words rule.  The words dictate.  The words sap and diminish.  The words destroy.  The words kill.

I can’t remember being without the compulsion to write.  My first writing award came in third grade, when I was seven years old.  Later, when all the others in class moaned aloud whenever confronted with an essay question, I rejoiced.  (I hated to write greeting cards, however – absolute agony.  I wanted to write stories, not “keep in touch” – that’s what the telephone was for.)

Whenever I find such students in one of my classes, I look on them with recognition and pity.  “You’re a born writer,” I tell them.  “God help you.”

As Paul Auster says, you realize that you’re just not fit for anything else.  Yes, I can do a lot of other things well.  Producing, for one.  I loved to galvanize teams and get everyone to the finish line on time and on budget.  I had a talent for it; in fact, I was promoted to a Vice Presidency of Production because I was that good at it.

Ultimately, however, it was just a cover.  A beard.  By becoming a producer I was simply putting off being a writer because I was so scared of it.  There’s no one to hide behind when you’re a writer, no one to whom you can deflect the blame if it doesn’t come out so well.  When you’re a producer (or even a staff writer) you always have some dumb executive in the business office to blame, or any number of people in the marketing department.  When you publish a book, though – that’s you out there, naked, exposed, and alone.

Really – who would choose to do this?

Yet I had to leave producing, no matter what satisfaction it gave me and how lucrative a living it provided.  (Let’s face it, the real reason I put off writing for so long is that I knew I’d go through a lot of lean years.)

Ultimately, however, I couldn’t put it off.  There’s a line in “Cleopatra” that Richard Burton says, uttered directly after he shoves the sword into his guts:  “How could I have missed what I must have aimed for all my life?”

Writing had been, always was, what I was aiming for all my life.

And since I’ve become a full time writer it’s been every bit as scary, as impoverishing, as awful as I had imagined.  It kills you as slowly and insidiously as an inoperable tumor.  (And a tumor is exactly what this compulsion to write feels like – it’s always there, a deadening pain that forces you to forgo all other pleasures until you get those pages written.)

A friend of mine, Steve, has recently given up writing.  He can’t stand the lugubrious pace of the work, or the setbacks, or the 99 disappointments for every single success you have.  “It’s different with you,” he says.  “You like writing.”

No, I don’t.  I don’t think that anyone likes to write.  I like having written.  Writing “The End” on a novel you’ve just completed is the greatest orgasm of relief and joy that anyone can ever feel.  Everything that occurs prior to that is just so much horror.

Yet I have to keep doing it.  God knows, if for nothing else, my retirement plan can be summed up in three words:

Write.  Best.  Seller.

Here’s hoping that my latest, The Stand In, can do it for me.  But, really – who would choose to do this?

Brad Geagley’s List of Essential Films

13 Feb

After my last blog, many of you have asked to see my list of films that I give out to my classes – so here it is.  As I’ve repeatedly said, this is a very eclectic list that I use for a variety of reasons:

 

  1. To acquaint the students with (mainly) films from the American Studio System after sound was introduced.
  2. Some are true classics that they should know, if only for cultural reference, i.e., famous for being famous, like “Gone With the Wind” or “Lawrence of Arabia”.
  3. Sometimes a film (such as “Stage Door”) has been included because I want to introduce them to actors or actresses with whom they may not be familiar – such as Katherine Hepburn or Eve Arden.
  4. All the films have extremely strong stories, and utilize the storytelling elements I teach in class superbly.
  5. Some are included to illustrate specific storytelling elements:  “All About Eve” for dialog, for instance, “Cleopatra” for spectacle, “Sunset Boulevard” for the clash of two styles (silent and sound) or “Inherit the Wind” for those films based on a real news story.

 

Because of the above-stated reasons, you’ll notice that many of the famed classics are missing, the most obvious of which is “Citizen Kane”.  Sorry, I’ve never found it interesting or emotionally compelling enough to include.  My apologies to its legion of admirers – but it’s my class, after all!

 

1930s

Stage Door

Camille

Ninotchka

A Tale of Two Cities

Gone With The Wind

Bride of Frankenstein

The Awful Truth

The Wizard of Oz

 

1940s

The Lady Eve

The Shop Around the Corner

Meet Me In Saint Louis

Citizen Kane

The Heiress

The Little Foxes

The Best Years of Our Lives

Casablanca

Mildred Pierce

Shadow of a Doubt

 

1950s

All About Eve

The Bad Seed

Some Like It Hot

Sunset Boulevard

North by Northwest

Marty

On the Waterfront

Singin’ in the Rain

Rebel Without a Cause

A Place in the Sun

Paths of Glory

 

1960s

West Side Story

Lilies of the Field

The Haunting

Cleopatra

Rosemary’s Baby

Bonnie & Clyde

Night of the Living Dead

Spartacus

Inherit the Wind

Lawrence of Arabia

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

The Graduate

Petulia

Patton

Psycho

Splendor in the Grass

To Kill a Mockingbird

 

1970s

The Godfather

The Godfather, Part 2

Cabaret

Chinatown

The Last Picture Show

Nashville

Annie Hall

 

1980s

Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels

A Room With A View

E.T., the Extra Terrestrial

Amadeus

Blue Velvet

Raising Arizona

Terms of Endearment

Ordinary People

Broadcast News

Moonstruck

Out of Africa

Remains of the Day

 

1990s

Searching for Bobby Fischer

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

The English Patient

Raise the Red Lantern (Chinese)

American Beauty

Shakespeare in Love

Unforgiven

Goodfellas

 

2000s

To Die For

A Beautiful Mind

No Country For Old Men

American Beauty

O Brother, Where Art Thou

The Queen

Chicago

Agora

The Descendants

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Milk

 

As I’ve said, there are a lot of necessary films missing from this list.  Write and tell me what films you’ve seen from the list, and also some more films I should include.

 

The Heiress

10 Feb

ImageIt’s coming around again – spring semester at the college where I teach will begin on February 29.  It’s my fifth semester of teaching Screenplay Writing there.  And though I worked in entertainment for most of my professional life, where writing was basically what I did, let me tell you – you don’t know a subject well until you’ve taught it. 

“We teach what we need to know,” goes the old saying, and I don’t think there is a truer one.

As a result, I’ve been thinking about movies a lot lately.  The films I show in class are mainly the old classics.  I do this because my job, as Miss Jean Brodie says in the 1969 film, is “to put old heads on young shoulders.”  And it’s consistently surprising how many of my students – born in the early 90s, for the most part – have never seen a movie made before 1995.  Their idea of a fabulous old chestnut is “Titanic” (not the one starring Barbara Stanwyck, mind you, but the one with Leonardo and Kate!)  When I showed them “Some Like It Hot” last semester, when we were discussing comedy, I was shocked to learn that only two students out of twenty-five had ever seen a Marilyn Monroe film.   Most depressingly, they adore slasher, zombie and teenage romance movies.  (In fairness’ sake I must admit that when they ask me if I’ve seen whatever pimply romance is currently playing at the Cineplex, or the latest film displaying the latest medical pornographic effect that is currently demeaning our culture, my face becomes as blank as theirs.)    

And though they aspire to write, only a few of them read for pleasure.  Now I ask you – if they don’t read – if they don’t know literature – what are they going to steal from?  From what sources are they going to fill up their proverbial “tanks”?  When I tell them that Homer probably solved their problems three thousand years ago, they tell me they didn’t know that “The Simpsons” had run for that long.

(You can always tell who the teacher is in class these days – s/he’s the old gray haired figure quietly weeping in the corner.)

Therefore, the films I show them in class make up a pretty eclectic list, not at all drawn from the well-known classics of screen art.  Instead, I try to pick films that were based on great plays or great books, so that at least they’ll be exposed to the books or plays in some way.  I start first with “The Heiress”, which covers both books and plays; it began as Henry James’ “Washington Square”, then became a play on Broadway, and then went to the screen directed by the sublime William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland, a role for which she won a very deserved Oscar for Best Actress. 

An interesting story about “The Heiress” was that it was supposedly the film that inspired a young Martin Scorsese to become a film maker.  It seems that he went to see the companion feature at the neighborhood theater, a Western, but became so mesmerized by Wyler’s film that he stayed until its last performance of the day.  He had never seen a film so violent, he said. 

For the first couple of semesters I taught, I introduced the film with this story.  But then I had to explain who Martin Scorsese was and it ended with me weeping in the corner again.  Now I use “The Heiress” to introduce the concept of “conflict”, which is, of course, the essence of storytelling.  I tell them that you don’t need yellow explosions, or guns, or knives, or flesh-eating zombies to create conflict – that Martin Scorsese was just as enthralled by the emotional violence exhibited by the characters inhabiting “The Heiress”. 

And then I start the film.

It already has several strikes against it in my students’ eyes – the first is that it’s black-and-white and they don’t like that; the second is that it’s a costume drama, and that bores them; the third is that they know none of the actors. 

But by the end of the film they are standing up and shouting at the screen when Catherine Sloper jilts her faithless lover, played by Montgomery Clift in his very first role.  For many of them, “The Heiress” is the story of love betrayed that hooks them.  For others, it is about the derision and coldness displayed to Catherine by her cold-blooded father, who humiliates and debases her at every turn.  For the rest, it’s the revenge taken by Catherine against both her father and her lover that most excites them.

But the point is – it excites them!  

And my job is a piece of cake after that.      

Inspiration–What inspired you to become a writer?

6 Feb

What inspired you to become a writer?  Believe it or not this question came up last night for me when I was watching Madonna during the halftime show of the Super Bowl.  Her appearance, drawn on a moving float pulled by gladiators and costumed in cloth of gold, was –well, what was it?  An homage?  A parody?  A rip-off? – of Cleopatra’s Entrance Into Rome seen in the 1963 Joseph L. Mankiewicz film starring the late, great Elizabeth Taylor.

(I will pause here to express my awe-stricken appreciation of Ms. Ciccone’s exceptionally inflated ego, in that she would actually attempt to insert herself into Taylor’s place.  My stunned reaction was precisely reminiscent of my first sight of her in the “Material Girl” video, where she was costumed as the late, great Marilyn Monroe.  I was tempted to ask myself, as I did then, “What’s wrong with this picture?”  Madonna seems terminally undersized when she sets herself up in opposition to those truly great icons of 20th Century film stardom and it’s sad that she can never – quite – become what they were.  It must be so disappointing to her.  The fact that producers and executives are forever lavishing money and venues on her so that she can try again and again seems just another sign of our age’s own cultural impoverishment.  But – and I freely admit it – this attitude just may be me at a cranky 61 years of age, lamenting the “good old days” which usually weren’t.)

But Madonna did get me thinking…

In her wonderful biography of Maria Callas, Adriana Huffington (then Stassinopoulos) wrote that she had been caught by Callas’ magic when she was twelve years old.  She went on to philosophize that, for most creative people, something usually appears on the horizon at this time to interrupt the placidity of childhood, something that grabs you by the throat and yanks you out of babyhood into the world of adult appreciation.  Suddenly your world is no longer bounded by your neighborhood streets.  Instead, your world has become all wonderfully huge and, best, unexplored.  For Ms. Huffington, it was Callas.  For me it was “Cleopatra”.

Of course, the groundwork had already been laid.  I had always loved history, particularly Egyptian and Roman history.  The first movie I can remember seeing was “Land of the Pharaohs,” which starred Joan Collins as Nellifer, whose “treachery stained every stone of the pyramid!” (as the movie posters screamed.) The first adult book I remember reading, at ten years of age, was “The Egyptian” by Mika Waltari.  And then there were all those films like “The Robe”, “Demetrius and the Gladiators”, “Ben Hur” and “Spartacus”, all of which became my own personal fantasy worlds.

Then, when I was twelve years old, “Cleopatra” came into my life and everything abruptly came into focus.

I had not heard much about it, which is strange because the film’s tumultuous production and the adulterous love affair shared by Liz and Dick had been the most reported news events of 1962, generating more articles than even the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I remember that I was sitting in a chair at the La Mirada Shopping Center’s barber shop, waiting for my turn to get a haircut, when I picked up the Life Magazine that featured the cover story, “Cleopatra Barges in at Last.”  For the first time I underwent what could only be called an out-of-body experience. I literally fell headlong into the black-and-white production stills and was aware of nothing else.  The buzzing sounds of the electric shavers and the snips of scissors faded away into nothing. I don’t think I even responded when my name was called – for here was my fantasy world come alive at last.  They were photos of a past-life that I only suspected I had lived – and even the patterns on the costumes seemed thrillingly familiar.

In short, I was hooked.

I literally saw the film again and again and again.  Though many people find it turgid and slow, I became aware of wonderful words for the first time.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ script taught me that the beautiful placement and rhythms of speech can be as exciting as any car chase or yellow explosion.  And, more, these famous personages from history became instantly recognizable as more than mere historical placards; instead they were thinking, feeling, and achingly flawed people – just like me.  (In fact, the dysfunctional relationship between Cleopatra and Antony that Mankiewicz depicted was that of my own parents, but we won’t go into that today.)  In other words, I knew these characters; I lived with them.

What I want to say is that Joe Mankiewicz taught me how to write.  At first I slavishly copied him, endless rewriting “Cleopatra” in various teen aged forms.  But like the students of the master painters, who copied even the brushstrokes of their mentors, I gradually became free to develop my own style.  My first two books, “Year of the Hyenas” and “Day of the False King” were my own versions of those sex-and-sandal epics from the 1950s and 60s.  And, having written them (and successfully, too) I felt free to finally do my own work.  I’ve both been inspired by and have now exorcized, “Cleopatra”.  My newest novel “The Stand In” is the first in which my truest voice can be read, and it’s wonderful to know that even at 61 I am capable of growth and change and refinement.

So here’s to Joe Mankiewicz, Elizabeth Taylor, and even Madonna.  Without you I couldn’t have been who I am today.

My question to you readers is – what inspired you?  What opened your world?  What made you want to write and write and write?

Let me know.  And if it was “Cleopatra”, that’s fine too.

 (Have you downloaded my newest book, The Stand In? It’s on Kindle, Nook, and the iPad. Enjoy my five starred mystery for less than a latte and you’ll help support this indie-author so I can continue to inspire.) 

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