Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

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Thoughts on American Sniper

My reaction when I heard the slate of Best Picture nominees was “UGH FINE I will go see American Sniper.” Mark and I try to see all the Best Picture nominees every year, and while some of them are a challenge, we had no excuse for missing this one. It’s going to be in theaters well into February. So last night I bit the bullet (ha ha) and went to see it with a couple friends (Mark, who was working, promised to see it later).

There is probably a very good movie to be made about the life of Chris Kyle, the titular sniper, and it would cover the space between two scenes about 125 minutes into this 134-minute movie. The story of overcoming the impact of spending the better part of a decade in Iraq killing people to come home and adjust to normal life is a fascinating one, and maybe even more so when you’ve become exalted as a hero as Kyle was. To put it another way: most of “American Sniper” should have been the five-minute prologue to the movie about Chris Kyle.

The faults of the movie have been well documented: it’s very loosely based on an autobiography that was factually questionable to begin with (though perhaps not so much about his actual tours in Iraq). It ventures into the comic-bookish realm with an invented villain who might as well be named “Drill-Man” and an enemy sniper who was barely mentioned in Kyle’s account of his own life but who becomes his main foil. It shows a lot of violence–yes, in a movie about the guy credited with more kills than any other sniper in U.S. military history, you expect to see gunshots and violence, but the violence here is fetishized to a disturbing extent. The U.S. involvement in Iraq is painted in broad black and white strokes: Kyle is there to protect “our boys” from the “savages,” and while there are occasionally Iraqis who (reluctantly) help Kyle, the motivation of the people he’s fighting is never explored. Kyle’s wife is introduced as a strong woman who shoots down (sorry) a guy trying to pick her up, only to fall for Kyle’s charms; she spends the rest of the movie begging him to come back to his family.

It is the worst Best Picture nominee I can remember seeing. I’ll give Bradley Cooper credit for his performance; other people have criticized it because his natural charm and exuberance are leashed, but I admire him for being able to slip into another character that way. Technical awards, sure. It’s a beautiful movie in many places and I give them a lot of credit for never losing Cooper among all the similarly uniformed soldiers. The action scenes are filmed tautly and are easy to follow, and the sound is terrific. No, the nomination that bothers me the most is for its dull, mediocre screenplay. Stealing from Mark Harris of Grantland in his review of the Oscar nominations, it is stunning to me that this was nominated over Gillian Flynn’s screenplay for “Gone Girl.” That was a well-written, gripping film (and written by the author of the source material; maybe part of the reason for the snub is that she’s not a career screenwriter, while Jason Hall is at least an actor and has two other screenplays to his name); this was basically a war piece that verged on propaganda, and not even clever propaganda.

So anyway. If you’re an Oscar completist, go ahead and see the movie. Otherwise I don’t think most people reading this blog will care much for it.


299 Years To Go

…until we reach the future of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, or at least that calendar year. If Robinson’s book follows the trend of other books predicting the state of the world in certain years, then (NSA scandal aside, Orwell fans), probably the world of 299 years from now will not resemble the world in his book. And that’s a shame.

What I think I can say pretty confidently is that even if the world looks nothing like Robinson’s fantastic future of bubble worlds, cities on rails, experimental bodies, planetary ring-surfing, crater-sized art, and ultra-smart AIs, the people will be very much like his people. They will be bold, artistic, introverted, curious, loving, cruel, desperate, longing, confused, compassionate, social, secretive, and in every other way as human as we are, as the people who lived in 1712 were. Robinson has always had a firm grasp on what humans are like, as well as the questions we all repeatedly ask ourselves, and that experience lies at the heart of 2312.

And what a big heart it is. Played out against the canvas of our solar system in a rich, broad palette, the story nominally follows 130-year-old Swan’s attempt to deal with her grief over losing her grandmother Alex, and then her attempt to find out more about her grandmother’s secret project. Other “agents,” friends of her grandmother, contact her, and together they piece together what Alex was trying to keep off the computers while Swan seeks out company and then rejects it, attempting to give voice to the confusion and loneliness she feels (which sometimes, paradoxically, is best soothed by retreating from all other humans).

The plot and world share Robinson’s love of intricate complexity and yet remain highly accessible to the reader. I found “Red Mars” engaging but ultimately too dense and not quite my cup of tea; “2312” is possibly a longer book but it flows more easily, skipping ahead and enticing the reader to follow along with the promise of new delights on the next page. It’s the kind of book that makes me wish I could write it, and at the same time it seems to tell me that it’s okay that I can’t.

I have read a few of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books (“The Wild Shore” was one of my favorite books for several years). I also had the good fortune to meet him briefly a couple years ago, but honestly, I think I know him better from his books than from one evening of conversation in a group. And “2312” is very much his book. It demonstrates a capacity to think and imagine, to follow details and trends, to imagine humans playing in a sandbox the size of the solar system and yet playing the same games we have played for centuries, games of power and romance. And underneath it all is the sense of how much the author cares about people, about our Earth, about our future, and how much he wants it to succeed. It is a very optimistic book, and a joyful one. And although it starts with a death (not an uncommon theme), it celebrates life.

So when I say I wish I could write a book like this, I mean that I am envious of the skill and concentration and imagination on display in its pages. But knowing Robinson through his other works, I know that these are his gifts, not necessarily mine. But what this book urges me to do is to write the best book that is still my book, that embodies the qualities I cherish and highlights the things I do well. And I think that is not just my reading into the story; that message is there on its pages. Each of us can excel at being ourself, and no matter what tools we are given to express that, the job falls to us to use them the best way we can. So I came away from it a bit envious, yes, but also smiling and hopeful.

“2312” is beautiful, touching, sad, and inspirational. It will take you a while to read, even if you read it on several plane flights and then in your hotel room trying to get over jetlag. But you will be glad you did.