Tag Archives: Jonathan Shorman

Never Let Me Go

13 Apr

 

Monday and Tuesday were such bears of days that Tuesday evening I decided I needed a break so I found a RedBox and checked out Never Let Me Go on a whim.

I was vaguely aware that the movie existed (I think I saw a trailer for it and had liked the trailer) but other than that was a blank slate. Quite simply, Never Let Me Go proved that painful, evil things can still be beautiful. Or rather, that beautiful things can still exist amid insidious evil.

The story centers on the recent past in which a breakthrough medical discovery has significantly increased the life expectancy of most people. However, we quickly find out that this longevity has been bought through the creation of “donors.” The donors are people born and raised to young adulthood for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs for transplants. Each donor may be able to donate two or three organs before dying in their twenties.

The film follows the lives of three donors who grow up attending a boarding school for donor children. Here they are educated while being kept in pristine physical condition. The film follows their story as they mature, the ensuing complex love triangle and as they eventually move out of the school to begin their donations.

Watching how their mostly normal boarding-school childhoods increasingly confront the evil (is there a better word?) of what was to happen to them was particularly jarring.

The old school house, the English countryside and children themselves are all so beautiful. Yet, beneath the facade of beauty and goodness, lies something truly terrible. As if to acknowledge this, the colors of the film are muted, the green of the countryside turns a bluish-tint under overcast skies. The whole film feel cool to the touch.

And it is painful to watch the characters strain to develop the characteristics of a normal life – with passions and interests and loves – knowing that it will all be snuffed out so soon.

Yet the evil of it all that had me wanting to scream at the screen during various scenes was only nominally felt by the adults in charge and by the non-donors. It was an abstraction to them. Indeed, the teachers question whether the donors even have souls. The donors have been other-ized. Made to be less than human.

We may not harvest people for organs, but the film made me ask where we’ve done the same thing.

Never Let Me Go is the kind of film that haunts you long after the credits roll.

 

 

Fiction Writing and Me (Synthesis vs. Description)

4 Apr

School stretches on forever. At least that’s how I imagine the next few weeks will feel.

The first half of the semester flew by, through part adrenaline and part movement – I think I went home every other weekend for a good six or seven weeks. But now, during April, I face probably the longest uninterrupted stretch of school I’ve had in a while. No breaks, days off or going home until Easter.

I’m fine with that, though. After a much-needed spring break, I was ready to get on with it.

Over break I had the chance to work regularly on a fiction project I’ve been tackling since the fall. No, I’m not going to divulge details, I’m not there yet. And while it’s a bit of a truism that most journalists four or five “first chapters” lying around unfinished and neglected, I’ve gotten much farther in this project than any other previous long form attempt I’ve made.

That being said, I’m still plagued by an inability to add to it consistently. The drive to work on it comes in spurts, usually for a couple weeks and then recedes for maybe a month or so before coming back.

I’ve been reflecting on why this is and I have a couple observations about the difference between writers (or any artist or creative) who deals in creativity of synthesis and those who deal in the creativity of description.

1) The creativity of synthesis. These are the fiction writers. When I write fiction, I’m engaging in synthesis to create something new. I’m taking elements of truth, sometimes miniscule things I see – a personality trait, a physical detail – to big things – whole people, situations, events – and combining this with the power of imagination to synthesize something new.

As I’ve looked back at when I’ve found the constitution and drive to write fiction with any regularity, it’s been those times when quite frankly I’m almost bored. It’s also been those times when I’ve noticed I haven’t had as much social interaction. Not that I’ve been a hermit, just a little less than usual.

Why is this? I think it’s because while conjuring the real-life elements needed to make for good writing is somewhat easy (you need a good memory and a life full of experiences, something many people have) the synthesis part is incredibly taxing. The part where you have to invent and imagine storylines and plot and dialogue in convincing ways, that’s difficult.

Doing this well requires going into yourself, immersing yourself in your own imagination and your own created world. The reflection and immersion required doesn’t translate well into my everyday life, which is probably why it’s usually during breaks and the rare times when school is boring that it’s easier to sit down and write fiction.

2) The creativity of description. This is how I would classify my journalism and any of my non-fiction writing, such as this blog post. The creativity is not in invention, but in how best to use the tool of language to communicate the world you see around you. That’s where the creativity is. The creativity is in the technique, not the content. The content is the world as I’ve observed it, recorded it, talked to other people about it.

In contrast with fiction writing, my journalism is often best when I’m most immersed in the world around me, the time when I’m least aware of myself. So these are the times when I’m generally happy (but not estatic), and am not overly-stressed by school but am not completely bored either. In short, it is those rare moments when everything seems to be in equilibrium.

The whole enterprise is outwardly focused.

So is one mode of creating better than the other? No. I think there’s value in practicing both types from time to time, even if one has a clear strength and favorite.

I would have to lock myself in a room by myself for weeks on end if I was ever going to be a novelist. I wouldn’t want to do that. As refreshing as the introspection that fiction requires can be, I am too curious about the world around me to focus my curiosity inward for too long.

But, for those times every so often when the mood strikes, my project will be there, waiting. And that’s enough for me.

Grenades or Smoke Bombs

20 Feb

Great journalism should be greatly creatively, right?

Right. But it doesn’t always work out that way. The point has been hammered home in the last several years (by people such as Jeff Jarvis), most fervently during the mid 00’s that journalism’s initial failure to grasp and adapt to the internet in the late 1990s and early 00’s led to the disastrous predicament that newspapers find themselves in now.

Journalists hung onto their established methods and resisted change. And death came upon them. In some cases the resistance came from the corporate level and highest levels of editorship. In other cases, shoe leather reporters were the worst offenders. In any case, the market (the advertising market, that is) is speaking, and innovaters, sensing weakness, have injected a stagnant field with creative juices.

Nick Denton, the founder of uber-popular gossip site Gawker, strikes me as the archetype of this new breed of innovators. He disdains questions about whether he’s a journalist. He’s abrasive. He’s British.

The very idea that he would forge a media empire and have a nonchalance about whether or not Gawker is journalism is perhaps the most jarring thing about the man. Media execs, journos and to a certain extent myself have spent the better part of the last decade arguing about what the word journalism means.

To see someone come along who doesn’t even care has shocked me.

Shocking in a good way. In a way that’s disturbed me.

The journalism world has spent so much energy arguing about what journalism is, in the hope that having a good answer would help us in the quest to move forward. We didn’t even stop to think about whether that debate was even worth having.

Even as the profession tried to have debates, to decide between what we think to be bold, new directions (“why yes, maybe bloggers can be journalists”) others like Denton and Arianna Huffington come along and utterly unconcerned by this brooding, press on into territory we haven’t even thought of yet.

Now that’s creativity.

Denton and others have been able to escape from the narratives of how we view the profession. It’s something we need to be able to do. Not abandon the narratives (truth, right to know, public interest, information greases the wheels of democracy, excuse the metaphor) but to look outside them and see what exists outside of them that might be of interest or helpful.

Don’t get me wrong, Denton’s not a saint of good practice. Gawker isn’t exactly a bastion of high brow or ethically pristine material, but it is creative and it does have an impact.

I see several parallels between the education field and journalism. I’ve even explored a few of those parallels before.

Watch the video above. Sir Ken Robinson speaks about creativity and education. He strikes me as a Nick Denton figure of education. So does Michelle Rhee – people who when you throw them into education act like grenades. They explode the systems around them, hopefully allowing new systems, new methods, new ways to emerge in their place.

From my own lay observation of education, it appears there’s been a greater willingness to throw grenades into education in the last few years. And it seems to me when those grenades are actually allowed to explode, the results can be good. But it’s also apparent to me that for every grenade, there’s also a number of smoke bombs: they look like grenades, but ultimately they just create a smokescreen and nothing actually changes.

Individual educators and the education establishment are having to decide whether they’re interested in grenades or smoke bombs.

And so are journalists. Nick Denton is a grenade. Arianna Huffington is a grenade. Jeff Jarvis is a grenade.

But others are smoke bombs. Rupert Murdoch is a smoke bomb. The Washington Post Company as a whole is a smoke bomb. They can look like grenades at times – heck, it’s hard not to feel like a rebel when you watch the intro video for Murdoch’s iPad Daily. But when it comes down to it, the flash tends to mask just how un-innovative they are.

We have to ask ourselves who we want to be?

Grenades or smoke bombs.

Greenberg

15 Nov

Greenberg, the film from earlier this year by Noah Baumbach, is kind of boring.

But it’s also kind of interesting.

Ben Stiller plays a middle-aged man who leaves New York and goes and takes care of his brother’s home in Los Angeles. He speaks with some old friends, mopes around the home and has an awkward romance with his brother’s assistant. Stiller’s character is flawed, but not fatally flawed. He’s narcissistic, selfish, broods a lot, and can sometimes be a jerk. In other words, his characters often acts like a real person. And real people are sometimes lovely and charming but are also sometimes kind of jerks.

Nothing supernaturally dramatic happens during the film. Most of the film involves Stiller awkwardly, sometimes painfully, interacting with other characters, who each, while still being more socially aware than Stiller, are flawed as well in their own ways. I think that’s why I found the film kind of boring. We’re watching normal, flawed people in normal, flawed social situations acting for the most part normally (or mostly normal). If a film is going to capture interest in a real way, one of these three elements need to be off. Either the characters, the situation or the way they react to the situation must be different. But in Greenberg, none of these three elements are different enough.

Greenberg is a movie of existential angst. But it isn’t all that angsty. Stiller, for the most part, broods about his existence but doesn’t do anything about it. Nor does he have some profound experience of enlightenment. The emotional climax of the film is an argument between Stiller and a friend about the flaws in each of them. But even that moment failed to excite me in any particular way. There was no punch to it.

Film should speak to the life of real people. That doesn’t mean it needs to replicate the life of real people.