Tag: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Top 50 Books List (2012 edition): 15-1

We’ve arrived at the end of our journey. These are my top 15 books of all time, and as such, they deserve a little more love. I’ll include not one but two whole quotes for each book, because they deserve it. As always, series count as only one entry, and any book that I have reviewed here have links to those reviews in the title of the book. Enjoy.

15. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

“Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides… I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life’s voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.”

“As many truths as men. Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent.”

This book is so new to this list that I hadn’t finished it yet when I added it. By the time I’ve gotten around to doing a write up here, though, I have finished it and it is glorious. The structure is great, the first half of six stories, each interrupting the one before it and interrupted by the one after it, followed by the back halves in reverse order. And each story is remarkably different in style. From nautical journal to post-WWI letters from one friend to another, a 70’s style pulp novel, then a prison break-out short, then a strange corpo-future, and finally a post apocalypse oral history. It’s a huge book in it’s scope and Mitchell pulls it off beautifully. His prose is wonderful to read, and his themes are diverse and well developed.

14. Bone – Jeff Smith

“CONTROL MYSELF?!! I’m a MONSTER! Monsters don’t control themselves! That’s the whole IDEA!”

“Here’s your problem Fone Bone! We’re off the map! Get a bigger map!”

Bone is an odd duck. It starts off as a total kids book (or series of books), full of slapstick and over-the-top-ness. But as it goes along it turns epic (the collected book is massive) and despairing. It’s an anti-war book and a journey to save a land. It’s a great demonstration of what comic books can do, and the black and white art is real pretty.

13.  Macbeth – William Shakespeare

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

“I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

Such a bloody play! I love the violence on display here, it really heightens the mood. It’s a horror story, really, full of ghosts and witches and moving forests. Macbeth is a man whose insanity is matched only by that of his wife. When the bodies start to pile up, they continue to break down. I love the connection between the rulers and the state of nature, to the point where it even uproots itself to rid the land of the contaminated king.

12. Slaughterhouse V – Kurt Vonnegut

“And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

“There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

How did a sci-fi book about a man taken to be in an alien zoo alongside a B-movie actress. As he lives on exhibit he becomes unstuck in time, able to see all points of his life at once. This forms the structure of the novel, as the story jumps around between his time on the alien planet and the rest of his life, including his time at Dresden during WWII as a POW before the city was fire-bombed. It’s not exactly anti-war, though. The thesis here is that everything that happens happens, the best thing to do is to go along with it. That’s kinda nice.

11. Blankets – Craig Thompson

“On my first visit to the public library, I was like a kid at a candy store where all the candy was free.

I gorged myself until my tummy ached.”

“And slowly the snow began to melt. First, doing a number on children’s constructions; Then retreating to the foundations of barns and other buildings. Mangy grass poked through the receding snow. Patches of white were swallowed up in the till of the fields. New shapes emerged. Areas of the forest became INACCESSIBLE now that the snow no longer weighed down the weeds and brier. …Nothing fits together anymore.”

Blankets is a memoir disguised as a comic book. It tells the story of Thompson’s adolescence, his first love, and his loss of religion. It’s a deeply heartfelt book, often dealing with very straightforward topics in very straightforward language. It can do that, though, because what he’s saying is so true, and the images he matches the words to so beautiful (again black and white only) that they elevate to true art.

10. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami

“Unclose your mind. You are not a prisoner. You are a bird in fight, searching the skies for dreams.”

“Once, when I was younger, I thought I could be someone else. I’d move to Casablanca, open a bar, and I’d meet Ingrid Bergman. Or more realistically – whether actually more realistic or not – I’d tune in on a better life, something more suited to my true self. Toward that end, I had to undergo training. I read The Greening of America, and I saw Easy Rider three times. But like a boat with a twisted rudder, I kept coming back to the same place. I wasn’t anywhere. I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.”

Half sci-fi adventure, half fantasy mystery, this book is all great. Murakami is distinctly Japanese, but writes with an impeccable sense of American pop culture. It’s two disparate stories that might not be so disparate as they seem. It’s magical realism, my favorite genre, and it’s the best of what Murakami can do.

9. The Giver – Lois Lowry

“For the first time, he heard something that he knew to be music. He heard people singing. Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps, it was only an echo.”

“Always in the dream, it seemed as if there were a destination: a something–he could not grasp what-that lay beyond the place where the thickness of snow brought the sled to a stop. He was left, upon awakening, with the feeling that he wanted, even somehow needed, to reach the something that waited in the distance. The feeling that it was good. That it was welcoming. That it was significant. But he did not know how to get there.”

I was assigned this book to read in middle school and I took it home and finished it in one night. It’s a beautiful book, a utopia that isn’t quite what it seems. There’s no color, and no lying, and no history. Jonas is picked to be the receiver of memories. As he is given these memories of love and death and war and music and color, he discovers how much the rest of his community is missing. It’s a great book, the best of the YA dystopias.

8. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

“Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop”

“Do you think I’ve gone round the bend?”
“I’m afraid so. You’re mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

Alice is one of literature’s greatest characters. She navigates the insanity of Wonderland, taking all of the oddness in stride. What happens when people mean what they say and say what they mean? It’s a book about language and logic and learning and growing up and it’s devilishly funny. Talk about subversive!

7. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

“I like to see people reunited, I like to see people run to each other, I like the kissing and the crying, I like the impatience, the stories that the mouth can’t tell fast enough, the ears that aren’t big enough, the eyes that can’t take in all of the change, I like the hugging, the bringing together, the end of missing someone.”

“What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar. One weird thing is, I wonder if everyone’s hearts would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don’t really want to know about. That would be so weird, except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn’t have had time to match up their heartbeats yet. And at the finish line at the end of the New York City Marathon it would sound like war.”

A family history told in three parts by three different characters, this book is a deeply emotional work about love and loss. It incorporates 9/11 without exploiting it, the main story is of young Oskar’s search for the hole which is unlocked by a key left behind by his father, who died that horrible day. Foer weaves in the terror of WWII and the breakdown of a long marriage as well. It’s a huge book crammed into a relatively small number of pages, messy and all over the place. And that’s why I love it.

6. The Sandman series – Neil Gaiman

“Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.”

“October knew, of course, that the action of turning a page, of ending a chapter or of shutting a book, did not end a tale. Having admitted that, he would also avow that happy endings were never difficult to find: “It is simply a matter,” he explained to April, “of finding a sunny place in a garden, where the light is golden and the grass is soft; somewhere to rest, to stop reading, and to be content.”

The Sandman series follows the titular character, one of 7 Endless who each reign over a different aspect of the human condition. There’s Death and Destiny and Destruction and Despair and Desire and Delirium and Dream. Dream is the master of stories, and the series often deals in metafiction, stories about storytelling. It’s a huge work, complete with gorgeous artwork and some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. There’s nothing like it.

5. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

“That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride.”

“That’s the one trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.”

“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know where he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.”

Here’s an experiment of a book. A family goes through rough times in the south following the death of the matriarch and must bring her body to a town a distance away. Each member of the family gets some chapters to narrate for themselves, including the youngest, who muses that his mother is a fish, and the mother herself, post-mortem. It’s audacious, a quality matched only by its emotional breadth and depth.

4. Dubliners – James Joyce

“It was cold autumn weather, but in spite of the cold they wandered up and down the roads of the Park for nearly three hours. They agreed to break off their intercourse; every bond, he said, is a bond to sorrow.”

“He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a verb in the past tense.”

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Short stories are too often neglected when it comes to literature. You read some in school and then you move on to more adult novels. But short stories can accomplish things just as Igreat as novels can. Joyce’s Dubliners is the ultimate example. Each story is set in the same world, though they tell very different stories. His language and sense of place is perfect. The final story in this collection, “The Dead”, is the very definition of literature. It should be given to you at birth and read every year on your birthday and then finally on your deathbed. It’s affirmation and melancholy rolled into one miniature piece of perfection.

3. Calvin and Hobbes – Bill Watterson

Calvin and Hobbes were a force throughout my childhood and into my adulthood. Watterson masterfully captures the joy of childhood, the ability to question and go along with things at will. The imagination and the limits placed on children become who we grow up, and Calvin and Hobbes is that at its best.

2. A Song of Ice and Fire series – George R.R. Martin

“You’re mine,” she whispered. “Mine, as I’m yours. And if we die, we die. All men must die, Jon Snow. But first, we’ll live.”

“It all goes back and back,” Tyrion thought, “to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance in our steads.”

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.”

Martin is a man of certain abilities. He can create a superbly realized world. Westeros is by far the best fantasy realm I’ve ever read. He can write with many voices. Each book is filled with numerous POV characters, some noble, some shrewd, some insane, some broken, some proud, some shameful. And more importantly, he allows each character to be a real person. They grow, change, live. And die. That’s his other ability. He kills without remorse. Nobody is safe, and that makes everything mean something, even in the fourth book, where things slow down for a time. It’s a war of good and evil when nobody is truly good or truly evil. It’s remarkably complex.

1. The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

“Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”

“I know one thing for certain; it is much harder to tell whether you are lost than whether you were lost, for, on many occasions, where you are going is exactly where you are. On the other hand, if you often find that where you’ve been is not at all where you should have gone, and, since it’s much more difficult to find your way back from someplace you’ve never left, I suggest you go there immediately and then decide.”

“I don’t think you understand,” said Milo timidly as the watchdog growled a warning. “We’re looking for a place to spend the night.”
“It’s not yours to spend,” the bird shrieked again, and followed it with the same horrible laugh.
“That doesn’t make any sense, you see—” he started to explain.
“Dollars or cents, it’s still not yours to spend,” the bird replied haughtily.
“But I didn’t mean—” insisted Milo.
“Of course you’re mean,” interrupted the bird, closing the eye that had been open and opening the one that had been closed. “Anyone who’d spend a night that doesn’t belong to him is very mean.”
“Well, I thought that by—” he tried again desperately.
“That’s a different story,” interjected the bird a bit more amiably. “If you want to buy, I’m sure I can arrange to sell, but with what you’re doing you’ll probably end up in a cell anyway.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” said Milo helplessly, for, with the bird taking everything the wrong way, he hardly knew what he was saying.
“Agreed,” said the bird, with a sharp click of his beak, “but neither is it left, although if I were you I would have left a long time ago.”

This was the book that made me a lifelong reader. It’s a journey through a fantasy land where Conclusions is a place you literally jump to and you must be careful to avoid The Terrible Trivium, or else you’ll spend all your time moving grains of sand from one pile to another. It’s a place where the colors and time of the day is played by an orchestra which should not be disturbed. It’s a place where a little boy bored by everything can go and be interested in anything. That’s what literature does.

Book Reviews: Everything is Illuminated and Wonderstruck

“The images of his infinite pasts and infinite futures washed over him as he waited, paralyzed, in the present.”

– Everything is Illuminated

“Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey decimal system. That way you’d be able to find whatever you were looking for, like the meaning of your dream, or your dad.”

– Wonderstruck

I was planning on reviewing Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated yesterday, but I got caught up in the next book I picked to read and by the time this morning rolled around I had already finished Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. So now you get two reviews for the price of one (which, incidentally, is also the price of none).  

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I don’t know why it took me more than half a year after I finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to finally read Foer’s previous novel, Everything is Illuminated. ELaIC rocketed to a top spot in my list of favorite books of all time and I had no reason to think that EiI would be any different when it comes to quality. It’s not. In fact, the two books work quite well together. It’s clear they are written by the same author since they tackle many of the same themes despite being wildly different in their characters and stories. Each book is multigenerational in scope, exploring the ways we love, lose, and live.

EiL is a novel told in three ways. The first is one side of correspondence from a young Ukrainian man – Alex, or Sasha, or Alexi-stop-spleening-me –  who, along with his grandfather and his grandfather’s dog, is hired by a young American man named Jonathan Safran Foer to find the woman in a photograph who saved his grandfather’s life when the Nazis rolled through the area. Foer the character is much like Foer the author, a writer, and the novel he is writing about his lineage makes up another part of the book. The final part is the story of how Alex and Jonathan search for the woman in the photograph. These three different methods of storytelling achieve a similar goal to the multiple perspectives in ELaIC, doling out information and emotions with extreme care and artful elegance. Events are foreshadowed and backshadowed and right-now-shadowed. Their emotional impact hits like a hammer, one that you saw coming and came out of nowhere at the same time, one that changes everything that you know about the characters and makes perfect sense with what you’ve seen so far. It’s not as emotionally affecting as ELaIC was for me, but it’s up there. There are not a few passage that brought tears to my eyes, though they never fell.way we love and lose across time and space. Each is a mystery novel at heart, with multiple characters searching for meaning in the face of great tragedy in addition to more physical bounties. And each is surprisingly funny for such sad topics as 9/11 and the rise of Nazi Germany.

The genius of the book comes from the humor, really. Alex’s bastardization of the English language is a pleasure to read. He uses words that are close to the right ones but always one or two degrees off the mark. Foer captures the foreigner’s tongue so well that I had no trouble understanding what Alex was saying while laughing at the silliness of his expressions. He goes to the most premium night clubs and describes the invention of a certain sexual position with hilarious misunderstanding and mistranslating:

“This is the sixty-nine,” I told him, presenting the magazine in front of him. I put my fingers — two of them — on the action, so that he would not overlook it. “Why is it dubbed sixty-nine?” he asked, because he is a person hot on fire with curiosity. “It was invented in 1969. My friend Gregory knows a friend of the nephew of the inventor.” “What did people do before 1969?” “Merely blowjobs and masticating box, but never in chorus.”

The humor in the book serves to make it feel real. Nobody’s story, no matter how serious, is entirely humorless. Even in the more emotional final third of the book the touching aspects are balanced with some jokes and funny situations. There are a few pages taken from the town of Foer’s ancestors’s book of history that illustrate just how concepts like memory and history can become so closely entwined that they lose all definition and meld into one concept. This comes in one of the book’s novel sections, the part supposedly written by Foer the character. These sections have a magical realist feel to them, with men living for years and years with a saw blade embedded in their head and light shining from the act of making love. It’s wonderfully written, like the rest of the book, and Foer’s effortless blending of style and timelines and stories and themes makes it tough to wait for his next book. I promise to read it sooner than I did this one.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

And now for something completely different. Or not. On the surface this kidlit book would seem to be a world away from the very adult Everything is Illuminated, but when you look again there are a surprising number of similarities. It, too, spans time periods (this time 1977 and the late 20’s are the main settings) and tells of a young man trying to find a missing person. Wonderstruck is half told in regular prose and half in wordless pictures, much like Selznick’s previous work, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Ben, the boy in the prose section, recently lost his mother and he never knew his father. He also recently became deaf. He’s having a rough go. He decides to go off to New York City to find his father with only an address and his “museum box” to keep him company. Events conspire to bring him to the American Museum of Natural History where he meets a new friend and finds further clues to the identity and location of his father. Meanwhile, in the picture story, Rose is young and also deaf and also runs away and also visits the AMNH. The parallels in these two stories are a little more obvious than in Foer’s work, though they are almost equally moving by the end of the book.

It’s not hard to figure out where the book is going and how it’ll get there. It borrows semi-heavily from E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and the plot machinations are simple, mostly. But that’s not what matters here. The picture section feels a lot like a silent film, which suits the time period it covers and the story itself, which concerns a silent film star as well as the young Rose. Selznick implies a lot of motion in these still pictures, often showing only a foot or a hand entering or exiting a scene. And when the story gets to the museum there are some wonderfully detailed pictures showing the displays and exhibits. And when the two stories begin to crossover the magic of the book begins to take shape.

There’s nothing special about the story or the way Selznick writes the prose sections. Even the drawings aren’t breathtaking or anything. But the skill with which he combines them at the end of the book elevates them to become more than the sum of their parts. There are a few wonderful ideas and scenes in those final 150 pages (the pages fly by when the writing is so simple and the pictures take up about 3/4ths of the book’s girth) that make the book more than worthwhile. I don’t want to spoil the magic of the book, so I won’t describe what happens. It’s not even so much what happens as how it happens that really makes the book tick. It is predictable, but the execution and a few key details really land the punch to the gut.

The Necessity of Mediocrity

Wrong Turn is the epitome of mediocrity.

Mediocrity is climbing molehills without sweating. ~ Icelandic proverb

As I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, I’m reading Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s vampire book The Strain. It’s kind of pulpy fun, but it is no great shakes. And that’s okay. Recently I’ve found that things are divided into two categories: The Best Thing Ever and The Worst Thing Ever. There’s no middle ground. No room for a wide spectrum of quality. When you read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song you put it into one of those two boxes and then bash it or shout its merits from the rooftop. But is that really the best way to talk about art on the internet? Isn’t there some stuff that’s just okay?

Let’s get this straight first, though. There are some things that are just that awesome. Magnolia, my number 1 movie of all time, is super awesome. The National’s High Violet is super awesome. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is super awesome. Awesome things exist. So do crappy things. I really hate Idiocracy. I really hate Logicomix. But most things aren’t awesome, and most things aren’t crappy. Most things are pretty mediocre. Most things have good parts and bad parts and middling parts that mesh into a fine, gray, blobby blob. These things are worthy of conversation. They let us know where artists go right and where they go wrong, often in the same scene or song or whatever. They provide a case study in mediocrity, show us the ways they can be great and the pitfalls that sit waiting for us to fall into them.

I watched a few movies over the past weekend. Outside of Black Narcissus, none of them were very good. Dreamcatcher, based on one of Stephen King’s lesser books, has a few tense moments and some pretty good performances but the movie is mired in silly dialogue and sillier aliens. It doesn’t work very well as a film, but there’s something to learn from it. I, for example, learned that what might work on the page as quirky dialogue that has developed among friends over many years doesn’t work when real people have to say dumb phrases over and over again. Cujo, too, is a movie full of great moments that suffers from a bad ending. The final attack on the mother by the rabid dog is super intense and scary. However, the ending kind of leaves you with a bad taste. The book ends with the kid dying, and it is bleak as hell. But that works. The kid shouldn’t survive such an ordeal. In the movie he seems like he dies, but he gasps for another breath right when you think he’s toast. Ugh.

Cujo almost avoids mediocrity, then it doesn't.

See? There’s room for the stuff that’s just ok. Not all art works as it is supposed to. If it was easy to create great art we’d have nothing to judge it against. Everything would meld together into one big boring mess. The bad stuff serves to tell us what to avoid and how to do it. The mediocre stuff fills the space between those great and crappy works. They are like our lives. In general, every day is kinda mediocre. There are bad days and great days, but most end up as a mix of the two. You spill coffee on your shirt, you find some money in a coat pocket. You have a good meal, you have a boring meal. You watch a good movie, you watch a bad movie. Or, you watch a mediocre movie, because most of them are just that. Mediocrity is our lives, our norm. It’s the way we’re able to distinguish good from bad, by knowing what’s in between.

By the time Poltergeist 3 came around, it was almost inevitably going to be mediocre. Just look at that mediocre car!

“Some thought required” or, The difference between a trailer and a movie


Advertising is legalized lying – H. G. Wells

The trailer for the film adaptation of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close came out earlier this week. The book on which the film is based is one of my favorite books of all time, and the prospect of translating the book to film is an interesting one. The book can be melodramatic and quirky, two words that strike fear into the hearts of many “serious” moviegoers. The people that know a lot about movies and have strong opinions on how they should and should not work. The people that write and read film blogs. The people that turn their nose up at the Oscars and watch them seemingly only to criticize how misguided they are. These people watched the trailer and instantly decided that the film was made to win Oscars and can therefore not be any good. But that’s probably the dumbest thing you can do when it comes to art.

The A.V. Club’s little write-up on the trailer hits all of the critical points here. The director has been nominated for Oscars before, the screenwriter has won an Oscar, and both of the big name stars have won an Oscar. And then they outline the plot in it’s most basic terms, son loses father, finds key, looks for lock. They mention how the WWII subplot seemingly exists to hit that Oscar demographic, building on the 9/11 plotline. And yes, all of these things have won Oscars in some way before, except for 9/11 which only has United 93’s two nominations to it’s pedigree, though we’ll have to excuse that for the relatively short distance between the event and today. If you want to call the film out for having people write and direct and star in it I guess I can’t stop you.

But none of this addresses the actual trailer. And here’s the thing, the trailer isn’t great. It, like the A.V. Club article, only hits the big notes and throws some quirk in there for good measure. It shows none of the WWII plot. It doesn’t show the bulk of the film other than in some quick montage in the middle. It’s really all setup. What it does show is a lot of Tom Hanks, who plays the father that dies on 9/11. A good bit of Hank’s performance is likely captured in this trailer. There’s only a scene or two that isn’t captured here in some way. The trailer plays him up, though, because he’s a big star. And that’s ok, because the one thing we must remember as intelligent filmgoers is that trailers exist to sell the film to the widest group possible. They’re usually not created by the filmmakers and they often use scenes that don’t even end up in the final film. Trailers are not movies, they’re advertisement. They distort the real product into a quick, easily digestible chunk that rarely delves into anything beyond a broad theme or story outline. There are exceptions, of course, Magnolia’s trailer, below, was cut by Paul Thomas Anderson, who also filmed shots specifically for the trailer. But the majority of movie trailers are handled by outside companies that get footage and assemble it into the most basic commercial they can.

When I was a kid I watched a lot of TV, cartoons and the like. All of the commercials were for toys, and most of those commercials came with disclaimers that said, “Real cooking time 10-12 minutes” or, “Some assembly required.” I think movie trailers should take a clue from these toy commercials and start running a little text at the bottom, warning the people watching that these 2 minutes are not necessarily indicative of the full 2 hour experience. And then they can have that guy come on at the end and say things like “Some thought required” to warn us that movies aren’t and shouldn’t be so quickly analyzed and dismissed. Trailers don’t have a great record of accuracy, and you’d think that us “serious” movie people would remember that, but we don’t. Every year there are trailers that don’t make their movies look any good and every year there are some movies with horrible trailers that end up being really great. We should remember that only the movie is the movie, and everything else is meaningless

Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I’ve cried plenty of times at movies, songs, and even TV shows. They’re able to reach that level where the emotions are high enough quickly and effectively through the combination of sound and (in the case of movies and TV) pictures. It almost seems like cheating. A book has never made me cry though a few have come close, including Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World and Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. But for whatever reason they never quite reached that point to turn words into tears. It’s probably not their fault, I don’t blame them any. It has as much to do with my investment as it does with the quality of the writing. There’s just something about the way books work which makes it harder for me to get attached enough to shed a tear. All of this was true until I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a book about a young boy dealing with his father’s death on 9/11 and looking for a lock to match a key. There was not one but two moments in the book that made me cry in addition to the countless others where I laughed and exclaimed in shock. What I’m saying is that this books is not only extremely well written and incredibly emotional but that those two combine to vault it into my short list of the best books I’ve ever read. 
Before September 11th, 2001, Oskar Schell’s life seemed to be pretty great. A loving mom and dad and grandma and an active imagination would provide him with a pretty idyllic childhood had his father not died on that horrible day. But after that day he withdraws into himself and invents gadgets like a microphone that projects everybody’s heartbeats so that they would eventually sync with each other and everybody could be together in that way. He is, understandably, devastated. Then he finds a key hidden in an envelope with the word “Black” written on it. He goes on a quest through the five (or is it six?) boroughs of New York City to find the lock that the key will unlock and maybe put an end to his grief about his father’s untimely and unexpected death. Sprinkled throughout his story we get the story of his grandfather and grandmother (his dad’s parents) and why they could never quite work out how to live with each other. This part, told through their autobiographies and diaries, contains the first moment that made me cry. When the grandfather leaves his wife after she told him she was pregnant he brings her two hands closer and closer and closer to each other until there was but a “dictionary page’s width” between them. This wordless (he lost his ability – or will –  to speak after the emotional trauma of the Dresden firebombings so vividly captured here and in Slaughterhouse-5) expression of a love that almost was but could never be is so well conceived that I had to stop reading for the night and wipe away some tears. The second moment comes when Oskar reaches the end of his quest. It’s oddly anticlimactic in a plot sense but the way that scene incorporates the father-son theme that runs throughout the book is what earns the waterworks. 
There are also a few moments where Oskar believes certain happenings to be about one thing which are later revealed to be about something else entirely that are both shocking and enlightening. Much like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, there’s a sense of the age-old idea that “all of this has happened before and will happen again.” There are echoes and reverberations throughout the novel, even in some of the photographic imagery that is incorporated (mostly as a part of Oskar’s book of Things That Happened To Me) the lock and key being of great importance along with the power of books, writing, and words along with the difficulty of using them to communicate. At one point the type runs together for pages because Oskar’s grandfather runs out of paper to write on but must continue to write. It’s a powerful image that is more than just gimmickry that some have called it out for. In fact, this book has received some not-insignificant amount of criticism. This piece encompasses most of the criticisms the book has endured, including the lack of originality and the precious nature of the characters/story/style. And the thing is that I can’t really argue against that article because it’s mostly right. The style is different from the normal novel. The characters are more like fairy tale characters dealing with real issues than fully real people. And it’s not really original. Nobody will deny that it is just taking things that worked from others and incorporating them into this story. What I will deny is that all of these things are bad. All too often we require our art to be developed in a void where nothing else can possibly influence the artist. Does it really matter if this story was told by somebody else about some other happening and in some other way? Not if this one works. Please do identify sources but don’t become beholden to them. Steal as long as you do something with your stolen goods. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close does plenty with its pieces, whether they were stolen or sprung fully formed from Foer’s head. That’s all that matters.