Can I Borrow This?

Once upon a time a man named Walt Disney started an empire by parodying a popular film in his own cartoon. Today that empire would call such parodying of one of their own works copyright violation…

One of the toughest questions facing our culture today is the nature of copyright. How far do the rights of the creator of a work extend into both the present and future? And do bloggers, for instance, or critics, or teachers, or even other artists, have the right to use parts of a larger work or to parody a work for their own purposes? The answer, as this fairy tale will explain, is yes.

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Book ‘Em: Beyond Shrek.

Sylvester And The Magic Pebble by William Steig
(Simon & Schuster, 1969, Caldecott Award Winner)

When Everybody Wore A Hat by William Steig
(Harper Collins, 2003)

Anyone who recognizes the name William Steig probably knows him as the author of the children’s book Shrek, on which the film was loosely based. In fact the original story was darker and stranger, but that’s Hollywood for you: with very few exceptions film adaptations of children’s stories bear very little resemblance to the originals, and the names of authors like Carlo Collodi or Lewis Carrol tend to be forgotten. William Steig, born in 1907, will probably be best remembered by history as the creator of the ogre Shrek, although he was also once dubbed “King of Cartoons” by Newsweek, having produced over sixteen-hundred cartoons and one-hundred and seventeen covers for the magazine. He began writing children’s books at sixty-one, and his third children’s book, Sylvester And The Magic Pebble won the prestigious Caldecott Medal. The story of a young donkey who finds a magic pebble, it’s a bittersweet tale. Although Sylvester makes a wish that gets him in trouble, it’s morally ambiguous. As an author Steig is more interested in characters and their feelings than in trying to preach, which makes his work appealing. This ambiguity runs through much of his work, including the much later story Wizzil (illustrated by Quentin Blake). Everything turns out all right in the end, and while characters may make poor choices, very few are really good or evil.

In 2003, the year he died, Steig published  the children’s book called When Everybody Wore A Hat. The book is slightly autobiographical, but Steig focues on people he knew more than himself. Accompanying the text with childlike illustrations he  describes his world when he was eight in short, simple sentences: “In 1916, when I was eight years old, there were almost no electric lights, cars, or telephones–and definitely no TV.” Later on he says, “In those days, women wore corsets and heels and hats–sometimes with fruit. There was no such thing as a hatless human being. Cops had hats. Criminals had hats. Even monkeys.” In the end he says, “When I grew up I wanted to be an artist or a seaman.” There are two photos of Steig: one of him when he was eight and one as an adult. He doesn’t wear a hat in either one.


This Explains A Few Things…

 At the risk of undermining my comments on the films of Roger Corman and, in particular, A Bucket Of Blood, a very funny conversation took place between me and my parents one night. I’d never heard of the film until I picked it up as part of a DVD collection that included Little Shop Of Horrors (the only reason I bought it), The Terror, and The Wasp Woman (the less said about those two the better). A few months later I had dinner with my parents. My mother was describing a recent art exhibit of life-size statues they’d been to. As they walked through the gallery she’d turned to my father and said, “This reminds me of A Bucket Of Blood.” She then explained going to see this movie was one of their first dates.

My father turned to me and said, “Have you ever heard of A Bucket Of Blood?” I said, “Heard of it? I have it on DVD!”

My mother was mildly surprised, while my father simply rolled his eyes, as if to say, “Only our son…”

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Bucket Of Money (Part 2)

Art imitates death.

When I said that Roger Corman’s film A Bucket Of Blood made art history, I wasn’t joking or trying to be facetious. It is easily the best of Corman’s films, and if that seems like setting the bar low, bear in mind that Corman gave early assistance to some of Hollywood’s biggest and most respected names. His reputation as a second-rate director, in addition to failing to consider his contributions, is ironic, since A Bucket Of Blood is about a man with artistic ambitions who fails to achieve them. Continue Reading


Not Everybody’s A Blogger, Either.

In the April 29th issue of the Los Angeles Times, author Michael Connolly wrote a defense of book reviews. It was smart, solid, and thoughtful, and should have made many bottom-line watchers stop and think about whether cutting book reviews was really in their best financial interest.

Now, however, the same Los Angeles Times is trying to undermine that sort of thoughtful analysis with the opinion piece Not Everybody’s A Critic by Richard Schickel. Objecting to an article in the New York Times which said that the disappearance of book reviews might not be a bad thing while literary blogs are part of “an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books”, Schickel fires a sarcastic warning shot: “Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity.” While he concedes that most reviewing is “hack work”, he says, “let’s think about what reviewing ought to be.” And he’s right: let’s think about what reviewing out to be. It ought not to be sarcastic, off-the-cuff, ill-informed ranting about, say, a New York Times article, even if it contains “The most grating words I’ve read in a newspaper lately”. Reviewing ought not to set up a straw man–say, the generic literary blogger–only to bash it with critics such as Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Edmund Wilson, and George Orwell, without citing any specific examples on either side. Perhaps I’m being unfair, though. After all, Schickel was writing an opinion piece (or “yammering”), so he doesn’t have to hold himself to the same high standards he expects of criticism.

Blogging is also not strictly a democratic activity. It requires access to the Internet, which means a computer, a power supply, and some form of connection, and it requires at least a basic level of literacy. Not all blogs are created equal, either. I could never hope to compete with Bookslut, for instance, or numerous other literary blogs, but that doesn’t keep me from trying to make my own small contribution.

Schickel sets the newspaper critic on a higher level than the blogger by explaining that “The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.”

This is confusing the medium with the message. Is Schickel honestly saying that a blog is “mere yammering”, while writing for a newspaper–a daily publication–has “an implication of permanence”? Is writing on a typewriter superior to writing on a computer? Is writing longhand superior to typing? Maybe we should go back to chiseling words in stone, which certainly concentrates the mind. It’s true that a blog post can be altered after the fact. (I’m not proud of it, but I’ve done it myself.) An article written for a newspaper can be altered by an editor, it can be be cut before publication, and, if the information turns out to be incorrect, the newspaper can print a retraction. Paper is not necessarily more stable than a web page, either. Paper burns, disintegrates, or, in the case of newspaper, simply smudges and can become unreadable. If some writers write only for blogs does that make their writing inherently inferior because the medium doesn’t “concentrate the mind most wonderfully”? Writers who write blogs may hope that their works will achieve permanence; the act of writing, regardless of the medium, is a message to the future, and it’s the message that matters.

Perhaps Schickel should put aside Orwell and Wilson and Sainte-Beuve, briefly, and instead pick up John Milton, who argued, in A Speech For The Liberty Of Unlicensed Printing, that when the powerful silence their subjects they undermine the values they hope to instill. While Milton never had bloggers in mind, and while Schickel wouldn’t say he’s in favor of censorship, he does say criticism should be “an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object).” And he presumes to know better than anyone else, or at least better than most, what sort of individuals deserve the right to undertake the “elite enterprise”. The unwashed masses, he’s suggesting, are free to speak, but only the elite truly contribute to culture.

Milton was speaking in the first-person, but he spoke for everyone–high and low–when he said, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”


Sorry, Mr. Tombaugh (again).

As usual I’m a day late and a dollar short, but, as the Chicago Tribune reported, the town of Streator, Illinois, held their first ever Pluto Expo on May 18th and 19th to celebrate hometown hero Clyde Tombaugh (born February 4, 1904, died January 17, 1997) and his 1930 discovery of what was, until 2006, the ninth planet of our Solar System. Hopefully it will become an annual event.

The only planet (if you still believe it’s a planet) to be discovered in the 20th Century, as well as the only one to be discovered by an American astronomer, there is something special about Pluto. If it’s not the last planet then it’s the first marker of that strange expanse known as the Kuiper Belt, birthplace of comets.

Even if you don’t think Pluto is a planet, you have to respect the diligence and sharp eyes of astronomer Clyde Tombaugh. And keep looking up.


Book ‘Em: The Other Final Frontier.

Don’t forget to enter the Just Write Summer Reading Contest!

The Deep
Edited by Claire Nouvian
(University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Only a small number of people will ever be lucky enough to travel to the very deepest parts of the ocean. Tourists to the Grand Cayman Islands can descend to as much as 1000 feet, but the ocean is much, much deeper than that. The bathyscaphe Trieste, crewed by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and engineer Jacques Piccard, traveled to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, reaching a depth of more than 35,800 feet in 1960, but deep-sea diving is still expensive and dangerous.

For those of us who would like to see the depths but will never get there, there are a lot of documentaries but even the best documentary can leave you saying, “What was that? Can you tell me more?” And there are very few books, at least for laypeople, about the ocean depths. Fortunately we now have The Deep, edited by journalist, film director, and producer Claire Nouvian. The book has chapters on various biospheres and animals of the deep as well as gorgeous, full-color photographs of some of the weirdest animals you’ll ever see. (Check out the gallery at the book’s web site for just a taste of what the book itself offers.) Still largely unexplored, the deepest parts of the ocean harbor both some of the harshest environments on the planet as well as possibly the greatest diversity of life. And this is in spite of the fact that, as the book explains, plants don’t grow below 200 meters (656 feet). Plants rule terrestrial rainforests, but in the abyss it’s animals who are supreme.

The book’s only weakness is the occasional computer-generated picture, because these don’t compare to the more than 200 spectacular pictures of real animals, including several of Vampyroteuthis infernalis (the “vampire squid from Hell”), and many of animals that have been photographed for the first time. The fact that some are simply listed as “unidentified species” is a poignant reminder of how much more we have to learn about the largest part of our planet.


Bucket of Money (Part 1)

Don’t forget to enter the Just Write Summer Reading Contest!

The title of Roger Corman’s memoir, How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime, written with Jim Jerome, would seem to say it all. Corman’s known for directing and producing cheap, exploitative films with only a desire to make money. And yet Corman is more complicated than that. Early on in the book he takes the time to explain that his films are not “B” pictures, since that term applies to an earlier era of double features when one expensive film–the “A” film–would be paired with a cheaper film for a double feature. His films typically stood on their own, and he clearly takes some pride in his work. He is, of course, interested in money: the book’s includes some very dry details about how much money he made on a particular film, or how he bought a cheap foreign film, redubbed it, added an extra scene or two with American actors, and raked in the dough selling it as an American film. Why would anyone interested in making money go into filmmaking, though? For all that we hear about blockbusters more films fail than succeed, and there have been some huge disasters. Ishtar and Waterworld are just a couple of Hollywood’s biggest losers. Corman made small investments and made modest profits, usually enough to finance his next film. He also discovered, or helped out, some very well-known names: Francis Ford Coppola, Robert DeNiro, Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese, and even Jack Nicholson. He also concedes that, in spite of the book’s title, he did lose some money, in particular on The Intruder, a film about racism in the South, starring William Shatner. Continue Reading


Get Your Blood Flowing.

Don’t forget to enter the Just Write Summer Reading Contest!

Get out. Get out of your house, get out of your office, get out of your car. It’s Spring, almost Summer, so take a walk, get some fresh air. I don’t know about you but I’ve been cooped up inside for most of the winter and now it’s time to get out. I live in Nashville and I’m lucky enough to be able to take a walk to Centennial Park and back on my lunch break. If I can’t make time for that I climb the stairs of the parking garage next door. Parthenon, Centennial Park, Nashville, TN

If I had a little longer I might take a book. Here are a few suggestions to get your blood flowing:

Anyone who listens to NPR regularly will probably know Frank Deford as the curmudgeonly, often sarcastic commentator who’s as dead on the mark with his attacks on stupidity in the sports world as he is with his praise for its heroes. It’s a little hard to reconcile that persona with the author of An American Summer (Sourcebooks, 2002), a first-person novel about a fourteen year old boy who befriends a twenty-three year old woman in a wheelchair. Christy has just moved to Baltimore, and Kathryn, a former swimmer now crippled by polio, find they have something to offer each other. Deford avoids being sentimental, and An American Summer is the perfect book for the interminable hour after you’ve just eaten and you can’t swim.

If you’re a soccer fan, or just a fan of the Women’s United Soccer Association, or you want to read about a true hero and athlete, check out Brandi Chastain’s book It’s Not About The Bra. It’s an excellent reminder that, when life throws you a curve ball, you kick–or hit, dribble, punt, or put–it right back.


Weren’t We Just Here?

Don’t forget to enter the Just-Write Summer Reading Contest!

Former San Francisco Chronicle book critic and NEA Literature Director David Kipen has just published an article in Salon titled Last Exit to Book Land which, while similar to Michael Connelly’s op-ed in The Los Angeles Times , takes a slightly different tack. While Connelly warned, rightly, that newspapers were endangering their own futures by cutting book reviews, Kipen takes a broader view.

Referring readers to some staggeringly depressing statistics published in the NEA Report Reading At Risk Kipen also offers some hope for the future of reading. The National Book Critics circle has posted tips for saving book reviews, and is circulating a petition to reinstate Teresa Weaver, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s former book editor. As the petition points out, Atlanta is “#15 on the University of Wisconsin’s list of most literate cities in the U.S.”. Even if that wasn’t because of the newspaper’s book section, a major part of Atlanta’s community now has one less reason to keep subscribing–and possibly even a reason to cancel their subscription entirely.

Even if newspapers stop contributing to their communities culturally Kipen also offers hope in the form of the NEA’s Big Read program, helping to sponsor CityRead programs that started in cities like Seattle and Chicago. The Big Read program helps out cities with smaller library budgets. Personally I wonder about the effectiveness of programs that encourage an entire community to read a book, but then reading is a solitary activity. Even if these programs don’t foster literacy but only bring together people who are already reading it’s still contributing to a sense of community.

When I wrote about the subject of disappearing book review sections last week I also forgot to mention something extremely important: local weeklies. My home town has the Nashville Scene which carries book reviews in every issue, and sometimes books or authors of local interest are front-page stories. Not too shabby for a beat a growing number of dailies seem to consider not worth the ink. While not every city is big enough to have an alternative weekly, they are one place where book coverage still survives and thrives. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Update: Check out the article Battle of the Book Reviews in the Los Angeles Times Calendar Live. As staff writer Josh Getlin explains, traditional book reviewers and bloggers are battling it out and the time has come for a truce. Did it ever have to be a battle in the first place? Why would traditional reviewers feel threatened by bloggers, and why would bloggers feel threatened by traditional reviewers, especially when there’s so much cross-hybridization? Blogs can be anywhere and be accessed from anywhere. Increasingly the same is true of newspapers, but, in theory at least, a newspaper book reviewer should be someone from your community. What other purpose would a local newspaper serve–since book reviews are news?