April 2011

I have lived in Brooklyn for decades, and when I think about it, there is nothing new architecturally–and that would be fine with most Brooklynites. What defines Brooklyn are its brownstones and the Brooklyn Bridge. There are pricey modern houses in Manhattan Beach and Mill Basin, but they are more or less tucked away. From what I have seen of the plans, the new construction downtown on the waterfront will not look really new.

The revolution in Brooklyn has been gentrification and the influx of artists. (And now lately the influx of immigrants in South Brooklyn.) I worked on Washington St. below the Brooklyn Bridge in an old warehouse, in the early 1990s, that then was a mixed use building. There was almost nothing down there other than a few restaurants, an art gallery on the dirt floor of an empty building, Gleason’s Gym, and a nice greensward park along the waterfront. Then it was developed into Dumbo, without any serious dislocation to the eye.

It sounds like Williamsburg will luck out, with the redesign of the old sugar factory keeping its iconic sign. I like the conveyer chute joining the two buildings in the photo below top. I would make it an escalator. I’ll bet there’s a lot to play with inside. The worst thing that could have happened would have been to hire Frank Geary to put a flashy Biblao-style monstrosity along the waterfront. making everything else around it look out of place.

The secret of Brooklyn is that older buildings provide shelter and inspiration to new generations with (sometimes) great ideas. Now, please don’t tell anyone I said that.

Comment made to The Nostalgia Trap by Wayne Curtis, in the May 2011 Atlantic Magazine

By Hudson Owen


When we think of the modern world, we think of progress and reason, science and technology. The latter has provided us with many gifts and toys, including photography, cinema and means of photo manipulation. As well, we think of the modern world as progressing in social justice, especially for minorities and women.

However, our relationship to the modern world has been complex, starting perhaps, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The mad scientist and his comedic kin, the efficiency expert of the 1950s, told us of the danger and futility of a totally rational society. Everyone remembers Hal, the malevolent computer with the unblinking camera eye, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

We leave the modern world in flights of fantasy, from Peter Pan to Star Trek. No matter how many light years we travel from home, we always return home. This is because the modern world is our world, the world of today and tomorrow. We have imagined the apocalypse many times, as World War III, or a world of mutants or robots and cyborgs—but those scenarios are a ways off.

However, in more recent times, the modern world has seemed increasingly a trap. More people seem to share less in the benefits of progress, especially in terms of higher wages so as to enjoy all these gifts and toys. We have become astonishingly accepting of authoritarian thought systems, of looking over our shoulder for the thought police. Women have flipped men and usurped them, beating them at their own games.

We have become cynical as our world becomes more crowded and less livable. The real world is less appealing to us. As a result, we escape into ever more complex fantasy worlds: in video games, movies and television. The future is dubious, and we have seen rather too many cartoon characters and chase chase, boom boom action flicks.

HBO’s new fantasy series, A Game of Thrones has premiered to rave reviews. It is based on the first book by the same name in A Song of Fire and Ice, a series of epic fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin. This one is vast and deep, a world you can really get lost in. It is already a trading card game, board game, and roleplaying game, featuring many characters and plotlines.

In Thrones, the viewer is thrown back into Medieval times. Bearish men ride on horseback and administer swift justice with broadswords. No court appointed lawyers and legal loopholes here. Merry wenches pile into bed with a dwarf (God gave him one gift), exposing their bottoms and breasts. This is, after all, premium tv and you get soft porn for your hard earned dollar. Rear entry seems to be the only sexual position in this kingdom, for royals, as well. I wonder about the authenticity of this, but never mind.

Life is basic in Winterfell’s wintry kingdom, but no one complains about the lack of indoor plumbing. Indoors we are regaled by feasts with plenty of food and candles and fires in braziers. Life under the covers doesn’t seem so bad. The sexy blonde princess enjoys a hot bath, as the viewer enjoys her naked beauty. And just when you might be tiring from winter (although Ireland, where the show is filmed, is beautiful in any season), a second plotline takes the viewer to southern climes, what looks like the Mediterranean. The natives there like to kill each other for sport and resemble the kind primitives National Geographic used to feature: bare breasts in the name of ethnography.

Time will tell whether the viewer will stay with this series, learning the many characters and their own unique language. I have not read the novel and don’t know what adventures lie ahead. A bard singing serviceable verse would be a treat for me.

Anyway, the show is off to a terrific start, with those twin engines of sex & violence purring at full throttle. Mr. Martin resembles a Hobbit at age 62, with a white beard and Hobbit glasses. I wonder about the R.R. middle name. Wasn’t there a another R.R. of fantasy fame? Mr. Martin is seeing his vision on film in his lifetime. It just goes to show you what folks from New Jersey are able to accomplish in getting themselves noticed in this world.

Update: After ten episodes, the first season of the series has concluded, with strong plotlines for the three storylines going into 2012 season: the struggle for the iron throne on the continent of Westeros, the tasks of the Night’s Watch on the northern border of Westeros, and the quest of Daenerys Targaryen, on the continent of Essos, to reclaim the iron throne. The old order is mostly dead; the future belongs mainly to the children of the fallen.

The least promising, to me, is the Night’s Watch, with its all male crew mostly prattling on about girls and presumed bogeymen in dreary, freezing settings. The bogeymen finally show up, but they don’t scare or entertain me; and how much more wintry can it get up there on the northern border inasmuch as the viewer is constantly reminded that “winter is coming,” before all hands desert for the equivalent of Florida?

The uneven seasons of this vast universe of Mr. Martin’s imagination are a minor irk. There is nothing in the sky to support other than a single sun solar system. You can bend fantasy so far, then it becomes ridiculous. Mentioned events of significance to the present happening thousands of years in the past are also irksome. There is nothing as clever in “Thrones” as the plot device left behind by ancient aliens in the sci-fi classic Total Recall.

Not being a dedicated fan, I found it difficult to follow or care about the stories of minor characters who made moves in the past but do not appear onscreen as the story unfolds, especially considering as there are no flashbacks to prior events. In a story more complex than anything in Shakespeare or Homer, or The Lord of the Rings, how much time do you want to spend with these characters?

There are significant differences between Mr. Martin’s work, which is heavily influenced by Tolkien’s Ring cycle. I am comparing the film versions. There is no sex in Rings, and no large scale battles yet in Thrones. Rings is a smaller, more comprehensible world and is complete in three grand films. Thrones will have at least, what, ten more episodes? Egad. Sex, in considerable variety, grounds Thrones in adult human behavior. In that way, it is less fantasy and more like a pseudo-history, an alternate history. It also makes a shrewd, limited use of magic. In this way, it is less like science fiction and the over abundance of special effects.

Despite the occasional scenes of feasting and merriment, the world of Thrones is grim, with endless plottings, bloodlettings and cruelty as we know are true of much of history. Seldom does a character pause to enjoy the view. You can say that life in Medieval times—and that is the historical analog of the story—was hard. But you cannot say it was joyless. Author and producer Martin’s vision trends toward a state of joylessness.

In the final episode, a bard recites his song with musical instrument before newly imposed king Joffrey, to the young king’s displeasure. The king gives the bard a choice: to preserve his tongue or his hands. The bard chooses hands, and so loses his tongue, cruelly, on the spot. Realistic, you might say; but a missed opportunity for light to shine in the dark realm of the iron throne made of swords.

The dialogue is direct, pointed, occasionally eloquent, but never quite poetic. It delivers the monstrously complicated story. So Shakespeare it is not. Overall, Game of Thrones, in its monumental scope and fine detail, is a considerable achievement for television. It’s a fictional world well worth entering, and worth leaving, especially with winter coming.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

Somewhere in the film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, if memory serves, the tycoon, Monroe Stahr, who can “rent your brains,” confronts a screenwriter. Stahr berates the writer, telling him that if he doesn’t like his job in Hollywood’s script factory, “you can go back to your poetry.”

Even if I have misremembered the quote—I swear I saw it somewhere—it will serve as an apt example of the movie mogul versus the puny writer. Fitzgerald, a fiction writer, belonged to the first wave of literary writers to head west from the concrete canyons of New York, or from the expat life in Paris, to the sunny shores of California in search of fatter paychecks and new adventures.

His time in Hollywood was not especially a happy one. Fitzgerald worked hard in his cubicle on the MGM lot, churning out several thousand pages of screenplays, treatments and notes, with very little to show for it other than a $1,000+ per week paycheck, great money during the Depression. He earned a credit for the 1938 movie The Three Comrades, starring Robert Taylor. Apparently, the studio deemed Fitzgerald’s dialogue “insufficiently catty.” Anita Loos was brought in to replace him on one project.

Nonetheless, Hollywood stereotypes notwithstanding, poems have shown up in a surprising number of films, in whole or in part. Three show up in Blade Runner: “The Fly,” “America: A Prophesy,” and William Blake’s “The Tyger.” W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” was prominently quoted in full in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” which prompted a new edition of Auden’s poems with the film mentioned on the cover.

More recently, “Invictus,” a stirring lyric poem by Victorian poet William Ernest Henley, supplied the title to the movie directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. When Mr. Freeman was interviewed by Charlie Rose, he recited the poem perfectly from memory. Snippets of verse pop up in other Eastwood movies.

Other films have featured a poet (Jane Campion’s Bright Star; Christine Jeff’s Sylvia; Howl, starring James Franco as the young Allen Ginsberg), or made poetry the main theme of the movie (Dead Poet’s Society; Jean Cocteau’s Orpheé, in which poetry emanates from a car radio.)

So it is not the case that bullying film dances in one corner while feeble poetry cowers across the ring.

What I am getting at is more the routine understanding of how actors speak in movies, particularly American males. In the general view, Americans talk like cowboys or detectives: keep it short, stupid. Just the facts. Our hearts and minds are filled with the joys and sorrows of the world; by the time such thoughts and emotions come to our mouths, though, we clam up. We’re too busy shooting guns or avoiding collisions in the high speed car chase to say much. We hem and haw, stutter, can’t quite get it together. Our action heroes are little more than extensions of their weapons.

The Brits, on the other hand, don’t mind telling you in detail just how things are with them. They’re not just voluble, they seem to enjoy the sound of their voices. Shakespeare made it ok for them to run through “all the stations of the breath,” as Dylan Thomas put it. Shakespeare was bigger than any tycoon. We give poets rich cash awards or name a bridge after them, but reserve the franchise for prose: The Great American Novel. The Baltimore Ravens were so named by the City of Baltimore due to its connection to Edgar Allen Poe, which I believe is the only American sports franchise named after a poem.

Poetry is vision. We know this from the classics, from Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, the Greeks. To announce a vision requires courage and clarity. The best we can manage in most cases, is the poetry of light; the art of the cinematographer. We expect even the most vile action movie to be beautifully filmed; that is, we expect the camera to be eloquent. Thus we have the poetry of light. Dialogue is necessary to move the story along, but we often seem to take little pleasure in the words.

In film, we have the poetry of silence. Seldom the poetry of poetry, despite the valiant exceptions I have noted.

Screenplays are made up of words—no diagrams, digital photos, or graphs. The screenwriter has no control over the lighting or music, in spec scripts. That leaves only dialogue and description. I prefer the full range of the voice; all the stations of the breath, not all of the time—the laconic mode has its charms—but I want to let it all out some of the time. Anger is not poetry, in my view, not according to the school of Beauty & Truth. Ranting is not the same thing as Henry V summoning his band of brothers.

Unfortunately, most script readers today, the gatekeepers, working for agents and production companies, fail to recognize poetry when they see it on the page. They apparently don’t learn literature in film school. They all know about character arc. They all know to scold the writer for dialogue of more than three or four sentences at a time. After all, if you don’t like the heat in the film world kitchen, you can go back to your poetry, where the lights are not quite as bright and the checks are minimal, although in a crowded world, getting to the top of the heap in any art form is a challenge.

By Hudson Owen. All rights reserved. April is National Poetry Month.