Sunday, January 25, 2009

Grub Gone Wrong

Friday night Liz and I drove into Boston for the festive Grub Street event, Grub Gone Wrong.

Three times a year, Grub Street holds a series of Grub Gone shindigs, featuring a different theme and authors reading excerpts of their work that fit the theme. There’s been Grub Gone Spooky (Halloween) and Sweaty (mid-July heat and torpor), and Silly (funny ha ha). This time the Grub Gone series celebrated the wrong, with mistakes, devolutions, and foolish choices.

One of the main reasons I wanted to attend was to support fellow writer Randy Susan Meyers, who recently sold a book for publication. I met Randy in Ms. X’s Grub workshop and so was familiar with her work. Randy is the first writer from one of Ms. X’s classes to be published. Exciting on many counts, one that it bodes well for us writers noodling away at our novels and also any publishing success story is welcome in this dismal fiscal climate.

When we arrived, the place was packed, the event having sold out. Ms. X was there as well as a few other writers that have taken Ms. X’s class over the past few years, including Cecile Corona, Iris Gomez, and Javed Jahangir. Always good to catch up with Ms. X. I pointedly do not ask her how her new novel is progressing. I don’t know if this irks her or not, but my attitude is, give the lady a break already. Of course, as any good concerned teacher, she always asks after my own work.

Me, the mysterious Ms. X, and Cecile.

Around eight the festivities got under way. Chris Castellani, working author and Grub’s artistic director, welcomed everyone and introduced the night’s M.C., Steve Almond. Who then in turn introduced the night’s readers. Randy was first up, and read a wrenching scene from her novel, tentatively titled Adopting Adults, but that’s the working title and will undoubtedly change. Her novel concerns two young sisters who witness the murder of their mother at the hands of their father and how this trauma dogs them through their adult lives, along with some twists I already know about but won’t divulge. Only to say, when this book comes out in about a year, I’ll be on line to purchase a copy and procure an author inscription.

Randy and Steve.

Randy’s got a commanding presence. Like any good reader, she knows which words and lines of dialogue need punching, when to pause for effect, and when to speed through a sequence to create tension. Hearing her read reminded me what makes Randy a great writer: it’s her word choice, giving the reader just enough information, paring off the stuff that would just slow you down. Also, she laces scenes of emotional heavy-osity with black humor while filtering out that bothersome sentimentality that clogs up the works of many literary novels. I’ve also read some of her novel-in-progress, and those characters and their situations have stayed with me for the past few months. So anyway: shameless plug for Randy Susan Meyers. Be on the lookout.

After Randy was Sarah Banse, with a humorous if cringe inducing piece about what to do when your kid’s school nurse calls you up and says, come get your son, he’s got head lice. Let’s just say, a mother does what needs doing. And it ain’t pretty. Next it was Jane Roper reading an excerpt from her as-yet unpublished novel; An affecting, humorous story of a young woman who has a crush on and subsequent affair with an older married man who is also her boss.

Next up: Jorge Vega, a comic book writer and illustrator, Grub instructor, and winner of Platinum Studios’ 2007 Comic Book Challenge. Jorge projected panels of a new work on the wall of Grub’s front room. One of his hapless assistants held the projector sideways to correct the image while Jorge read from what sounded like a screenplay. Each panel had a description of the action and the accompanying dialogue. I couldn’t see the projection because I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Which was fine because the assistant was blocking my view. Foiled at every turn. Still, Jorge’s reading grabbed the room’s attention with an intense and violent story of a young pregnant girl killing the abusive father of her unborn child. That scene was cross-cut with an emotional, rain-drenched high school track meet.

The evening’s readings culminated with Keith Lee Morris, whose new novel, The Dart League King, was recently published by Tin House Books to some great reviews. He riveted the room with his rendition of one of the books’ characters, Vince.

Keith Lee Morris.

In a few pages, Keith nailed Vince’s voice, through which we learn of his history in the Idaho town where he grew up and still lives, and how, due to both fate and the coincidence of lost opportunity, he became a fuck-up and minor-league drug dealer. With a sullen, pissed off logic, Vince schemes to finally get enough money to extricate himself from this dreary town. I haven’t read the book yet, but I imagine things will probably not go as planned for Vince. And I can’t wait to see how badly they do (and Vince isn’t even the main character).

After the readings Steve announced winners of the night’s contest, which had Grubbies answer the question, What’s Your Secret Confession? The prize? Free drinks.

I didn’t enter because I couldn’t think of anything. How lame is that? Some fiction writer I am.

Here are some of the winning confessions:

• I sound like Chewbacca when I make love.

• I didn’t want to come here alone.

• I got a priest to make a pass at me

• I tape every episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire

Liz’s confession didn’t win, so we had to buy our drinks. We wandered the Grub rooms and halls. I poked my head in the back room where two games of poker were just starting up. I caught sight of Andrew, from one of Ms X’s classes a couple years ago. The last piece he workshopped, about a boy growing up in New York with some absolutely crazy relatives, was a wonderful evocation of environment and character. I hope he’s still working on it.

Then we stood online to buy a copy of Keith’s book. He had brought fifteen copies with him, the last of the first editions (Nice—let’s get that second print run started). He inscribed the book to both Liz and me as I stumbled over some words and made a general ass of myself. Liz endeared herself and saved the moment by asking when he could come to our house and read to us; by way of saying she had enjoyed his reading and the character of Vince.

Here’s looking forward to the next Grub Gone event.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

New Yorker Stories

I discovered a literary blog called The Millions the other day and found a great post from earlier this month. It’s a review of every story the The New Yorker published in 2008. Each story is synopsized briefly with a bit of the old thumbs up or down. Also, and this may be the best part, there are links to each story posted on the New Yorker website.

It’s interesting to see which authors showed up (lots of familiar names), and which ones had more than one story featured in that 12 month period. A few had more than one story, including T. Coraghessan Boyle, John Updike, Roddy Doyle, and Janet Frame. Alice Munro ended up with four. Neat trick. Good for her, but admittedly a little disheartening to see how the magazine keeps falling back to the same few dozen authors year after year. There are thousands of other writers of short fiction who would kill to have just one little story in the New Yorker. But hey, who am I to complain? I’m just happy any magazine, especially a weekly, especially one with such a pedigree, deems to continue featuring great literature on printed pages.

At the end of the article, the author gives his or her summation of the best stories of the year. I have to admit: I haven’t read many of these stories, but I will. After I get through the dozens of novels sitting in wait on my home shelving units.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Anatomy of a Chapter

This week I dusted off the first chapter of the novel I’m currently shopping, A Little Disappeared. My last insightful reader, I’ll call her Reader X, gave me some great feedback and made some wonderful comments about the manuscript. She admitted she’s not a big novel reader anymore. She thinks much of the stuff aimed at a thirty-something woman comes across as disingenuous, pandering, and worst of all, unbelievable. I’m paraphrasing, and I’ll let Liz, who was at the critique, correct me (although I am, if nothing else, unreliable). Reader X went on to say that she got my story, and that I presented it in a way that seemed real to her. Very nice things to say.

She also commented that she didn’t really get into the story until after the first chapter. Whoops. The horror. That’s not good. Because as all writers know, it’s the first chapter, the first few pages, the first couple paragraphs, which sell your book. If you don’t hook the reader in the first chapter, than you’ve lost them. I always felt the first chapter didn’t really speak/sing/shout for its dinner as loudly as the rest of the novel. But I hoped nobody would notice. I’ve done been found out.

So I dusted it off for a rewrite. I have a hard time coming back to a piece of writing after thinking it’s finished. I mean, it’s done, what else can I do to it? But I had to rearrange this thinking, approach the pages in a new way. I started by reading it over, and making a few small changes. Nothing major. Then I broke down the structure of it. It’s only 11 pages, but it needs to introduce the main character, show his roadblocks, let us know what he wants, and set him in motion.

Let’s see. Main character: Keith, a tavern manager from Somerville, Massachusetts. Check. His wife, Sarah, has left him. Righto. He needs to figure out why she disappeared and try to save his marriage. Okay. So he heads off to find her. Done. Simple enough, I guess. But if I don’t make it engaging, entertaining, interesting, and show the world I can put words into sentences, and string sentences together in a way that tempts readers to stay with me for 335 pages, then I’m screwed.

The chapter has three parts:

Part 1: When the book opens Keith is already on the road, in an Arkansas motel room. He's brought his wedding video on the road, and takes a look at the vows again, looking for clues about why Sarah left. He marvels at finding new details about his wedding day each time he views the tape.

Part 2: Keith rolls out of his motel bed the next morning. He goes to the motel lobby to partake of the continental breakfast and strikes up a conversation with Heather, a young woman who, as it turns out, is traveling with an abusive boyfriend. She will play a roll in Keith’s journey: in two chapters he will help her escape the creepy dude and she’ll help him find his wife.

Part 3: Flashback to 5 days ago and Keith coming home at midnight from a double shift, finding the apartment empty and all the lights burning. Sarah has left a note saying she’s sorry, she still loves him, but she has to leave. Cue anger, confusion, and desperation.

So, what to do? Scrap it and start over? Not yet. I decided to switch parts 2 and 3. The flashback now happens just after Keith watches the video and ends just before he wakes up and gets coffee and a bagel and meets Heather. Now it feels more like Keith has almost self-induced the flashback of finding Sarah’s note because he watched their wedding video just before bed. And in the morning, as Keith walks through the motel to the lobby, he’s thinking of Sarah, feeling like he dreamt of her even though he can’t remember the dream. So there’s continuity there. More of a logical scene flow.

Why don't I start the book with Keith finding the note, then moving the action forward from there? I’ve been asked that before. And I did try it. But it seemed really over-the-top, it’s like starting a horror movie with one of the main characters getting killed. You got to build up to it a little bit. And surround it a bit with scenes that aren’t at the same pitch to cushion what I’ve discovered is a potentially histrionic gigglefest of a scene (“Sarah!!!! Why did you leave me???? What have I done to make you curse me so????? What will become of me????!!??)

Hmm. We’ll see if it the structural switchero works magic or highlights the need for more revision. Or, maybe it was just fine the way was before I started messing with it. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Meanwhile, let me know how you approach revising work you thought was long finished.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Snatching Wood, Part 2

I needed wood, so one Tuesday morning I finally broke down and called some guy who advertised in the paper. I ordered a half cord. He said he’d be over first thing Wednesday morning. He finally showed up Wednesday night after dinner. He had to back down the incline at the side of the house adjacent to the railroad tie stairs my dad built. He upended the bed of his truck and the wood roared out to form short, poorly executed teepee.

I wrote him a check. The cost was about half of what I had left in my savings. Because he was a nice family guy who seemed really busy with his new wood business, I didn’t notice when he explained the wood was freshly cut and ready for burning. Because it was dark I didn’t notice the green of the wood. A lot of it was also encrusted with snow, so it was damp. After he drove off I brought in a few armfuls of wood and dropped them in the greenhouse.

I started to lay a fire in the woodstove, trying to build the biggest and hottest fire I could to heat up the house. I started properly with lots of newspaper and kindling, and then I placed a couple of smaller logs, and one larger one on top. I lit the paper and waited for heat. The paper burned, and the kindling, but the logs wouldn’t catch. They were both too damp and too green. I had bought wood that wouldn’t burn.

I spent the next afternoon stacking the wood in a long flat-topped pyramid, running it along the side of the yard. I brought in the smaller logs that would fit in the stove, and took to chopping the larger logs that wouldn’t fit. I had been splitting logs for a few years. I enjoyed it and I would rather do it than watch my father, although he was fine at it. It was just hard to watch. (To this day I can’t watch someone using a knife or other sharp instrument). It was hard work and I worked up a good sweat. Maybe I could just split logs to keep warm.

I was sure that there was no way I would convince the guy who sold me the wood to come on back with his truck and take away this green cord and leave me a seasoned one. I was the sucker. I had laid out good money, and I had to learn from this mistake.

A few days later my friend Jeff from school came to visit. It was my birthday and he didn’t want me to be alone. I told him, Come on down, I’ve got wood now. On his first night I tried to get a roaring fire going. I got a few logs to burn, but I wouldn’t call it a good fire and for the nights that he stayed it was freezing in the house. He slept in a sleeping bag on the floor by the stove. He didn’t mind.

After Jeff went home I continued work on the screenplay. On sunny days the house was always warm and I sat at the dining room table that I had moved to the middle of the living room, right in front of the stereo speakers. I listened to music all day while I wrote. I made coffee in the morning and drank Pepsi all afternoon. By mid-afternoon I was ready to get out of the house, so I’d take Muffy for a walk or drive her to the beach. With this schedule I finished a first draft of the screenplay by the end of March.

By the time the weather broke, the wood was actually in decent shape. It was still pretty green, but not fresh, so I found more and more logs that would keep a decent fire going. When my parents returned, it was mid-April and the snow was long thawed and the winds were warming. They thanked me for buying wood and apologized that they hadn’t left more wood for me.

I stuck around the house for a few more months finishing up the screenplay. On July 7th 1990 I struck out for Los Angeles in my ’79 Honda Prelude that I had bought from my brother-in-law for $700.00. A couple weeks later I hit southern California at the tail end of a heat wave. I remember driving across the Mojave Desert in plus hundred degree weather, windows down, hot wind whipping through the car, the frigid cold of a Cape Cod winter long past.

By October when my parents built their first fire of the season, the wood was perfect and lasted the rest of the winter.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Snatching Wood, Part 1

I was getting to know about wood. Not the types of trees from which the wood was derived, but that I needed dry seasoned wood, not freshly cut. It was winter on Cape Cod and I was staying at my parents’ house. They were in Florida until April and I was on my own. It was a solar house, with only one alternate source of heat: the wood stove in the living room. So when I went through wood leftover from last winter, I had to find more.

First I went around our yard looking for fallen branches, dead wood, kindling. When I exhausted that supply, I had to spread my net wider. I thought that before I called up some supplier of cut wood, I could get along by scrounging scraps. Every day after I worked on my screenplay I went for a drive. On sunny days it wasn’t a problem: the solar surfaces along the south-facing walls worked to capture the sun’s heat and gently pumped it into the living room and two bedrooms. Also, there was the greenhouse that doubled as a dining room in the summer. This brought in more heat. That was fine, but when the sun set, the house just got cold. And on overcast days it never warmed up.

I finally ran out of both logs and kindling. After spending a few nights shivering in bed under all the blankets, even on top of an electric heating pad, I needed more wood. But I was too cheap to buy it. So I continued to scavenge. February was one of the quietest months on Cape Cod, an area that thrives on a summer economy. There were plenty of dirt roads leading to summer cottages I could drive to and nobody would notice me because there was nobody around.

My first day searching for wood away from the house, I drove down one of these dirt roads. This is what I did: I would park my car in the overgrown driveway of a cottage, cut the engine, and get out. Then I listened. If the only sounds that came to me were the breaking surf of the nearby bay, the call of seagulls and crows, the wind clawing and whipping through pines and oaks and maples, and no sign of other life, that’s when I took action. I moved quickly to the side of the house and kept my eyes ground ward scanning for wood. It seemed that many summer cottages and beach houses had at least a few pieces of cut wood tucked along the foundation, under the front porch, or littering spots in their side and back yards.

I grabbed what I could: cut wood, pieces of picket fencing, wooden stakes, old fallen branches, along with any rotten table and chair legs and other furniture parts. I had the trunk to my ‘79 Prelude already popped, and in I dropped my illicit booty. My heart ached from racing. My parents’ Lhasa Apso, Muffy, waited in the car until it was about ready to jump through the window it was so excited by my activity. I never broke into anyone’s house, but I’m sure they weren’t thrilled to finally get to their vacation home and find their fallback heating material gone. Those June nights can get mighty chilly, especially if you’re stuck in a non-winterized cabin.

Much of the wood I found was perfect. It was always old wood and it burned well. Sometimes I grabbed a piece that was painted or otherwise treated. That was not good to burn and I had to get rid of it by throwing it into the neighbors’ yard (high grass separated all the houses in our field) or keep the wood in the trunk and drop it under the next mark’s porch steps. I was paranoid that the cops would interrupt my new avocation, ask questions, and decide I was breaking and entering.

Some days I found almost no wood and those days I felt stupid for putting myself through this. It was like looking for cans and bottles to cash in. Often the expenditure of energy and time was not worth the trade in value of whatever treasure you found. I had enough food and I had a roof for shelter and this was the house where I had spent my high school years and college summers, so it should have been comforting. I spent much of my day writing a screenplay that I wanted to finish and take with me to Hollywood. But right now I was putting myself through an experience that tainted the whole thing. And which began to make me feel sick, like I was hurting myself.

When the writing was going well, which it did for almost two complete months in February and March, then these daily forays out didn’t seem so bad. I wrote the screenplay in the mornings, then left the house and hit a new road or area. The beach was another good place to find wood, but I was self-conscious about carrying driftwood along the beach and to my car.

There were usually other people on the beach, on nice days anyway, just walking or running their dogs. Muffy loved to run on the beach so I brought her along. She barked at me, saying, “Where is mom and dad? I hate you.” But she did what I told her. I had to let her sleep with me or she would whine all night to get through the closed bedroom door.

Finally, in late February, the weather was just too cold and I had run completely out of wood. There was snow on the ground and this made it nearly impossible to scavenge...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Midwinter Solstice

Winter Reading

Gifts from my family of readers and writers. There have been more books coming into the house than going out. I cannot possibly read fast enough. On my shelves currently are books that will take a literal decade to read. But, read them I will. I'm not quite ready for 2666, but should begin Junot Díaz after I finish Memorial (by Bruce Wagner), which is another of his scathing, hilarious looks at fucked up L.A. denizens. Bret Lott: had heard of him for years but had never read him. The first story is surreal, which must set the tone for the other stories. Bird By Bird starts off with an excellent intro, and looks to be a great read on the craft of writing. John McDonald is a Maine humorist. First story deals with the hilarious situation of a man waking to his wife dead in bed next to him. Hmm, Maine has an interesting idea about what's funny, but I'll give Mr. McDonald another whirl one of these days.

Winter Listening

The Pavement is a gift. The other stuff I bought recently on impulse. I guess it's finally happened: my musical tastes are living in the past. Can you blame me? How can the emo/electroclash/folk/thrash ramblings of a twenty-year-old hold my interest? Been there, heard that. It's all derivative of the stuff I've been listening to for years anyway. It's just shiny new and digital. With better hair. So, I love digging into the past few decades to see what I missed or to buy stuff like this Pavement reissue or Boston's own Big Dipper anthology, Supercluster. These lovingly restored releases come with bonus tracks, live stuff, unreleased tracks, and demo versions. It's like discovering the same music all over again. The Boo Radleys disc is from 1992 and is entirely influenced by the shoegazer sound of the time. Also sounds nothing like their later very British pop releases.

Winter Watching

Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, is now getting the full-on double-disc Criterion treatment. Haven't watched this yet, but am excited to. I actually bought it for Liz, but under the auspices of giving it to us as a couple.
I love Anderson's The Life Aquatic and The Royal Tenenbaums, but was all kinds of disappointed by his last movie, The Darjeeling Limited.

It exhibited all of Anderson’s worst storytelling tendencies, such as dropping a tragedy into the middle of the movie as a kind of trick to make the audience feel sympathetic for rather shallow, surly characters. Also, there is no real dramatic tension. The only scene that truly comes alive (aside from the gorgeous prelude section called Hotel Chevalier) is a flashback where the three main brother characters meet in Manhattan to deal with their newly dead father's car (if I remember correctly).

Part 1 of Hotel Chevalier (FYI: rated R, ya'll):

He's in preproduction now on The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The IMDB synopsis says it's about "Angry farmers, tired of sharing their chickens with a sly fox, look to get rid of their opponent and his family."

So Bottle Rocket will help pass the time until Anderson's next flick makes it to the big screen.

Now, what media should I partake of first?...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

New Year, New Writing Goals

I haven’t posted about writing much lately. So, you can imagine where my brain is at. Other stuff. But reading my sister’s blog got me thinking about resolutions and new year ideas. My sister is a romance writer. She’s been setting writing goals for herself like: finish writing a book, start writing another book, send out queries. She also tries to write everyday, no matter what. I think she sets a daily goal of a 100 words.

I don’t generally set strict goals for myself, especially for an entire 365 days in a row. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have goals hidden from view. Sometimes hidden from myself. If I start a novel, the unspoken, or implicit, goal is that I'm going to finish it. If I start a story, I aim to complete it. These goals aren’t always met (I have a problem finishing things), but I’m getting better.

And just because I don't always achieve my goals, that doesn't mean I can't come up with a few for this year:

•I’ve started writing a story based on a true story I heard over the Christmas holidays. I’ll finish that in another week or two and hand it off to Liz to read for an initial review.

• I’m joining a writing group. Ms. X is still busy writing her second novel on a deadline, so her restless students have convened beyond her reach and will be meeting every other week to critique whatever works were handed out during the prior meeting. I’ll probably hand out the above as-yet-unfinished story to this writing group for feedback.

• I recently received more feedback on my novel, A Little Disappeared. The critique was from a thirty-something female who had a mostly positive reaction. She had some reservations about the first and the last chapters. I never felt as strongly about the opening of the book as I did about what came after, and here was ancillary evidence that indeed the chapter warrants another look. So, add that to my list of goals: revise chapter 1.

• Ms. X may hold another class in the summer. If I attend, I will need to write a hundred pages of my next novel. Or significantly revise the last novel I workshopped with her, American Standard. I currently don’t have plans for either. So, perhaps, it’s time to start making novel-centric plans for this winter/spring. If I want to attend her workshop. If I’m indeed invited back.

• Over the weekend, when I wasn’t watching movies, I sent the first three chapters and a synopsis of A Little Disappeared to a small press, Two Dollar Radio. I’ve been considering forgoing agents and heading straight to publishers. Smaller ones, those that don’t care if your stuff is agented or not. Those that agents probably wouldn’t send stuff too, forgoing them for the six major U.S. publishing conglomerates. I haven’t heard back yet. But I plan to continue marketing A Little Disappeared in its current, or similar, state to agents and publishers. Trying all avenues before I begin the arduous, possibly odious task of restructuring it as two full-length novels (one adult literary, one young adult) as per Ms. X’s exegesis.

• I have a bunch of short stories that I’ve already written. They are mostly not finished. A few are in a state I would call complete, possibly publishable. I will continue to look at these older stories as candidates for revision with an eye toward publication. I will continue to (sporadically) send out the handful of stories that I think are finished.

I had considered taking about a year off from working on any novels, and concentrate on short pieces, trying to get something else published to get my name more established. Making my road to getting a novel published a little easier. But after struggling to revise dusty stories and fall in love with new stories, I miss novels. In fact, the steps to conceive them, write the drafts, and revise them have floated to the surface of my internal writing infrastructure, usurping the shorter pieces. I guess I’m a novelist first. All other writing second.

Thanks blog, for helping me prioritize my goals for the new year. I’ll check back in a year to see how I did.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

3 movies, 6 days (plot spoilers ahead)

That’s right. I saw three movies in theaters over the past six days. Unusual. First came my solo viewing of A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël), about a cute and cuddly animated…wait, no, it was about a dysfunctional French family home for the holidays, starring Catherine Deneuve as the matriarch and Mathieu Amalric (currently the bad guy in Quantum of Solace) as one of her three children. It’s all very French, with some insanity, sibling banishment, cheating spouses, and one possibly terminal parent. I’m a fan of the director Arnaud Desplechin. He directed one of my favorite movies from the ‘90s, My Sex Life, Or How I got Into an Argument. Also with Amalric. (Very talky, and not quite what the title implies—not for everybody, including my wife.)

Here’s a trailer for A Christmas Tale.

New Year’s Day, Liz and I went to see Wall-E, still playing, incredibly, at a second run art house cinema in Arlington: The Capitol Theatre, the same theater where I saw Tale. We braved the frigid temps and relatively fresh snow to make the drive. The theater was crowded and also very cold. We kept our coats on. But we got decent seats up front (no stadium seating here) and had a great time. About a little robot left to clean up Earth 700 years in the future, after humans recolonize in space. Shits and giggles ensue when he ends up in space with the humans, bringing proof (in the shape of a little plant) that Earth can again sustain life. The animation was wonderful and the story was entertaining and kind of subversive. There was even a pop song over the credits (Peter Gabriel). You can see Wall-E on DVD by now, but we were glad to catch it in a theater.

Saturday I caught The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Long movie, at 2 hours 45 minutes, and it did drag in parts. Overall though a very entertaining and technically brilliant piece of movie making. Brad Pitt plays the titular character. Born an old man, Benjamin lives his life in reverse, dying as an infant in his lover’s arms (sorry -- I told you I’d spoil it for you!). The whole idea of living one’s life backwards is sort of explained in an early sequence where a clockmaker builds a new clock for a city’s train station. When the clock is unveiled and first cranked to life, its works run backward. As the clock maker explains, so that his son (just killed in WW I) and all the other soldiers can return home as they first left.

Mortality as a theme runs just under the surface of every scene. Benjamin, born the size of an infant, but with withered old-man skin, grows into a not-as-old looking man. Soon he’s getting around in a wheel chair, and then a crutch. You get the idea. When he’s about ten or so mentally he meets Daisy, the granddaughter of a woman staying at the retirement home where he is being raised. Mentally, they’re (kind of, sort of) the same age, but of course Daisy is a regular ten year old (played by one of those ubiquitous little Fanning people). Still she’s attracted to him. I mean, he’s old and short, but he’s really starting to look like Brad Pitt at this point. So, who can blame her?

Daisy is the love of Benjamin’s life. And for the next couple decades their lives occasionally cross, but they never really connect. She turns out to be a great dancer and Benjamin turns out to look more and more like Brad Pitt. He has adventures (on the high seas during WWII, stationed for months in Russia where he has an affair with a lonely wife) but always comes back to the retirement home in New Orleans where he was raised. It’s fascinating to see Benjamin get younger as he ages. There’s inherent drama in this set up. He’s always a fish out of water, he never quite fits in. Until he’s around forty (and looks JUST like Brad Pitt), he and Daisy finally get it together long enough to get it on. This is where the tension in the movie starts draining away. The surprise is over: we’ve seen Brad old, now he’s just going to get younger and eventually die. And when it finally happens, it’s pretty anti-climatic.

After I saw the movie I came home and read the F. Scott Fitzgerald story upon which the movie is based. Or rather, claims to be based. (Download a free PDF of the story.) Most of what’s in the story has been stripped away. The general conceit remains (aging backwards), but the rest was thankfully jettisoned. There is no great love for Benjamin in the story. Most people don’t look very kindly on him. He’s just a freak and doesn’t live a very happy life. He attempts to go to college at different times, but he’s either too old or too young. He eventually graduates, but it’s toward the end of his life. He marries, but as soon as his wife gets older and their ages cross paths, he starts to find her disgusting. Fitzgerald seemed to enjoy putting his characters is embarrassing and humiliating situations. This story is full of that kind of thing, where people stare and snicker at his differences, and he only seems happy for a short time. In the movie, the main character is always a little befuddled, but most people accept him and even find him interesting (aside from his father, who initially abandoned him). The matter of education is never mentioned, he just never goes, and maybe that’s why the character is such a blank slate, letting life sweep him along. Into WW II, travel across the world, and various relationships.

All these films touch upon mortality. In A Christmas Tale, the mother is diagnosed with a rare genetic condition and needs a bone marrow transplant. It seems that even with the transplant (all her kids and her grandson are tested as a match) she won’t live a whole lot longer anyway. The transplant will add another two or three years to her life. In Wall-E, video images of a spokesman from 700 years in the past flicker in grainy messages. Humanity has been replaced by robots who take care of a race of overfed, overweight, over pampered humans living in space. (It’s not a big a bummer as it sounds. Pop songs! Animation! Disney!)

With Benjamin, death seems to be more acute, more eventual. He was born, one could speculate, moments before, had his life not been built to run backwards, in the moments after he would die if he were normal. His eventual death as an infant haunts every relationship, every love, every sub-story within the film’s construct. It’s not a feel bad movie, but it sure ain’t this season’s feel good movie. Still, it outshines the story it’s based on. And it sure is a hoot to watch Brad Pitt look like an old man.