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Book Review: A Painted House by John Grisham

[March 25, 2001] John Grisham’s latest novel, a nostalgic coming of age tale, is an inviting story about rural life in Arkansas. Like his legal thrillers, A Painted House is filled with interesting characters in a particularly Southern setting ensnared by misdeeds that cry out for justice, though Grisham’s peculiar sense of justice is often unsatisfying.

As seven-year-old Lucas Chandler introduces life on his family’s cotton farm in 1952, it’s clear that the simple life of biscuits, chores and the cotton gin will give way to worldly disruption. The drama unfolds at a slow, leisurely pace with the boy, known as Luke, as the story’s narrator.

Luke, who lives with his mother, father and grandparents in an unpainted house, explains that this year’s promising cotton crop – in perpetual danger from the rains – must rely on the hard work of hired hands. In Black Oak, Arkansas, that means an unlikely alliance of Chandlers, Mexicans and those folks who descend from the Ozark Mountains called the Hill People.

The Mexicans, who are dirty, poor and hardworking, present no immediate threat to Luke, who yearns to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. But the Spruills from the Ozarks get off to an ominous start when they set up camp on the Chandlers’ front lawn, which serves as Luke’s private playground.

That first night, after his mother and grandmother shell peas and butter beans, as the family frets over the prospect of a good crop, Luke “sat on the steps, holding my Rawlings glove, squeezing my baseball inside it, watching the shadows of the Spruills in the distance and wondering how anyone could be so thoughtless as to build a fire on home plate.”

Luke soon falls for shapely 17-year-old Tally Spruill, who makes eyes at one of the Mexicans, who clashes with her brother, Hank, a brute who knows he’s brutal. There are many long, hot days of cotton-picking, a carnival, a rising river and, as the story reaches its climax, blood is spilled, fortunes are lost, a baby is born, and Luke’s keeping more secrets than the town busybody. The plot moves slowly but steadily.

A Painted House is not a legal thriller, as Grisham reminds his fans in an introductory note. The popular author applies his sense of small town law and order to create a wistful tale of youth and treachery amidst life on a farm in the Fifties.

For some readers, those days gone by are best forgotten. Luke’s grandfather Pappy is prone to such homespun wisdom as the proclamation that “women do stupid things” and the Chandlers’ notion of loyalty to family at all costs strikes the reader as more cruel than charming. It is also implausible that Luke would – or should – bear such heavy burdens. But it’s unlikely that fans will be disappointed; John Grisham is a skillful writer and he has written an evocative, if undemanding, story of the South.

Originally published as the lead fiction review in the March 25, 2001, edition of the Dallas Morning News and other newspapers upon publication.

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Interview: Alejandro Amenabar on Agora (2009)

Filmed in Malta between March and June 2008, Agora, co-written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside), takes place in ancient Alexandria, Egypt.

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The story concerns the rise of religious fundamentalism through the lives of three individuals: astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), whose father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is the last director of the surviving library in Alexandria, and two young men in love with her: a bright, willful student named Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and her equally intelligent slave, Davus (Max Minghella). The motion picture will be playing in both New York and Los Angeles by June 4, 2010.

Director Amenabar, whom I first met and interviewed at the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard to discuss his haunting, Oscar-winning The Sea Inside in 2004, talked briefly with me about Agora from Spain during an interview by telephone. The South American-born composer, writer and director, who speaks in a thick Spanish accent, talked about Agora’s ideas.


Scott Holleran: Is Hypatia an agnostic or an atheist?

Alejandro Amenabar: She is obviously looking for something [meaningful] but she doesn’t believe in God. I don’t think the word atheist even existed in that time, but she is fed up with all these [moral] codes that get people to kill each other.

Scott Holleran: Yet you told the New York Times that Agora is “a very Christian film.” Why?

Alejandro Amenabar: It all depends on what we consider by being Christian. We see Hypatia being merciful and we see [the Christians] torturing her and [wanting to] skin her alive so in that sense I found that the character Hypatia is more Christian than those killing people. The movie’s not against Christians and Jews; it’s against fanatics. I don’t think Christians should be offended and I would feel ashamed if that happened. There were Christians and Moslems and Jews [working on the film’s production] and we insisted on that idea because offending them isn’t my intention. Some of the actors are very strong Christians and we openly discussed ideas while we were on the set. The problem is when people of faith start killing people who don’t have faith. Personally, I lost my faith when I did The Others [in 2001] and at the time I considered myself an agnostic. Now, I consider myself an atheist. That doesn’t mean I don’t identify with taking care of the people nobody wanted. So [in Agora] I tried to show that side of Christians—as good people.

Scott Holleran: What was the turning point?

Alejandro Amenabar: When I was doing The Sea Inside, I became aware [lead character] Ramon Sampedro [played by Javier Bardem] was an atheist. It’s not that I don’t want to believe and it’s not that I don’t want to believe in something superior or that I didn’t read the Old Testament or something. I prefer to call it nature. When Einstein was studying the theory of relativity, he was looking for something higher—but he was using reason. I try to do things from a humanistic approach. I do have a moral code but I know that you don’t have to live by the Ten Commandments to be a good person.

Scott Holleran: Is Hypatia a martyr?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. Again, I found links to her story and to the story of Jesus Christ. They were dragged through the streets, tortured and killed. We don’t know if she knew what was coming. The fact is that she was a woman who wanted to be treated as an equal to a man. She was very prominent in the city.

Scott Holleran: Agora’s marketing has been underwhelming; the film isn’t indexed on major online movie resources. Why isn’t Agora being promoted in the United States?

Alejandro Amenabar: It’s not an easy film. It looks like an epic film but it’s not a traditional epic. It’s about astronomy and it’s also this weird mixture of history and science—and you expect her to have an affair.

Scott Holleran: Have there been any threats from religious fundamentalists?

Alejandro Amenabar: No.

Scott Holleran: Is Agora making money?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes, though it hasn’t made all the money that it should. In Spain, it’s done very well and in Italy it’s doing very well but I don’t think it’s going to be a hit in the United States. We made the movie just before the financial crisis and in these times people just want comedy or horror or action. Agora is not that movie.

Scott Holleran: Some critics have said your film is strident. How do you respond?

I understand the criticism. It’s a movie that challenges the audience in terms of reasoning and trying to get into the story. I kept saying the movie is about astronomy and I wanted to express concepts that we study in school—science, mathematics—that don’t show how fascinating the topic is [the way the subjects are taught in modern education]. I wanted to translate [man’s] fascination with the pursuit of knowledge. I wanted to show astronomy and those who study it in the most appealing way. Those are the real heroes of the movie.

Scott Holleran: Has Agora been screened at the Vatican?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. From what I have heard, no one said anything. I think there were some priests and journalists there and there was no reaction at all.

Scott Holleran: Why was Agora submitted to the Vatican in the first place?

Alejandro Amenabar: It was the distribution company—I think they wanted to check the reaction of the Vatican and also for the translation into Italian [from English]. There’s one scene in which Cyril reads from St. Paul and [the Vatican] tried to look for the softest version. In the English version, it’s taken from the King James version of the Bible. But I don’t think there is a softer way of saying that women should shut up.

Scott Holleran: Do you think fundamentalists are corrupting Judeo-Christianity?

Alejandro Amenabar: I consider myself a moderate. I think Hypatia was a moderate. I don’t like big revolutions with a lot of blood and violence. I don’t like extremism.

Scott Holleran: If a philosophy is good, shouldn’t it strive to be consistent?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. But [a good] philosophy has one principle and that’s that you can refute what your master taught you. Einstein’s biggest idol was Isaac Newton and he dared to refute Newton—he was able to come up with improved theories. Sometimes, you have to play against what your masters taught. Ptolemy was saying one thing [about astronomy] and Copernicus was brave enough to challenge him.

Scott Holleran: What is the theme of Agora?

Alejandro Amenabar: To me, it’s a difficult question. I always say it’s a story of a woman, a civilization, and a planet. I tried to see the earth in perspective. I tried to look at the earth as small—as small as possible.

Scott Holleran: Yes, you frequently pull the camera back to emphasize man’s smallness. Do you see man as small and insignificant?

Yes and, at the same time, as great—you see these highly developed people as small as ants knowing so much about the universe. So the movie shows man at his best and at his worst.

Scott Holleran: What is your personal favorite scene, as seen within the context of the final picture?

Alejandro Amenabar: There’s one shot that I love, when we see the earth as very, very little and you hear the screaming of the women and children—and we’re lost.

Scott Holleran: Which scene was hardest to shoot?

Alejandro Amenabar: The destruction of the library.

Scott Holleran: Why is it called Agora as against Hypatia?

Alejandro Amenabar: We thought about calling it Hypatia but people have problems with pronunciation [it’s pronounced hy-pay-shuh]. It’s probably different in every place and it’s not a beautiful name. That was one of the trickiest things. So, we said let’s call it the place where the old Greeks met and discussed ideas—this changed the world. Agora is the place where we all have to live.

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Book Review: Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials

Can one be good without God? Those who have no doubt – whether yes or no – shouldn’t bother reading Wendy Kaminer’s Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety (Pantheon Books, $24). Those who do will find it thought-provoking.

Kaminer, author of five books, is like a preacher looking for sinners in Las Vegas; she relishes finding the snake oil and she knows it’s everywhere. “Ours is an evangelical culture,” she writes. From Nancy Reagan’s astrologer to Hillary Clinton’s ghosts, Kaminer chronicles what she dubs “the celebration of subjectivity.” Citing, among other groundless claims, the repressed memory hysteria that resulted in hundreds of ruined, innocent lives, she argues that today’s world is dominated by the notion that, as she puts it: “A fact is simply what is true for you.”

Kaminer warns that subjectivism is poison – her chapter on junk science shows how – but she fails to offer the antidote and the lack of depth makes Sleeping an extended essay on what she thinks is wrong with the world.

Kaminer’s philosophy, however, is weak. Her definition of faith – ”the capacity to entertain ideals in spite of harsh realities” – is seriously flawed; grit is not faith. At least Kaminer is honest about her shortcomings. “Not quite brave enough for atheism,” she writes, “or absolutely sure of my judgment, I fall back on agnosticism–either a cowardly or judicious alternative to religious belief.

Still, she cuts through much of today’s nonsense. After quoting some gibberish about the womb of the universe from Deepak Chopra, she asks: “What is he talking about?” and rips him to shreds. Those who regard The Celestine Prophecy and Conversations with God as harmless will be shocked by Kaminer’s cogent warnings, which reveal that Conversations insists that Hitler went to heaven and Celestine is an assault on reason. During an especially horrifying critique, Kaminer shows that most of these bestsellers propose that victims of murder actually chose to die.

Kaminer offers lots of attitude–even intelligent evaluations–but not a lot of answers. By the end, she admits that she regards faith as a talent and her some-have-it, some-don’t, philosophy explains why Kaminer fails to grasp the spontaneous mourning of Princess Diana and the appeal of the CBS drama Touched by an Angel. Focusing on the religious aspects, it never occurs to Kaminer that their popularity may be, for some, rooted in that which is completely rational. Diana was also intelligent, beautiful, and, at times, independent and the unhip Touched by an Angel offers a comprehensible plot about human values in a sea of plotless shows about random human action, (i.e., ER).

Mystics will have no use for Kaminer’s doubts. Neither will the doubters, whose rejection of religion is often a sneer at the universe. For those who reject irrationalism while seeking to embrace a meaningful life, they may appreciate Kaminer’s observations, but they will have to find rational salvation elsewhere.

A version of this review was published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal and Dallas Morning News upon the book’s publication.

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Alexandre Desplat on The King’s Speech

Composer Alexandre Desplat recently spoke with me from Paris about his new score for The King’s Speech. He has scored some of Hollywood’s best motion pictures, including Casanova, The Upside of Anger, The Queen, The Painted Veil, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We talked about them all during our interview.


 

Scott Holleran (SH): Do your motion picture scores express how you feel about the movie—or how you want the viewer to feel about the movie?

Alexandre Desplat (AD): I guess it is a combination of both. I come with a certain heritage and emotions and desires when I see a film and I apply it to the music. My job is also to serve what the movie is calling for—a lot of music, a little music, big or small—and the dramatic arc [of the story] must be emphasized.

SH: Did the fact that The King’s Speech is about making something important for people to hear make you more attuned to the material?

AD: Yes, it’s actually one of the main elements, the fact that this man [Bertie, played by Colin Firth] lives in silence. He can’t [easily] express himself or his feelings and I had to take that into consideration for all the elements—the melodies, etc.— to be integrated.

SH: Did you choose Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (II) for the crucial first encounter between Bertie, the royal prince, and Lionel, the speech instructor?

AD: I did not—it was [director Tom Hooper’s] editor who found this idea of solemnity. At the time, Beethoven was a sonic figure for the French resistance and there was also the irony of using a German composer. When I first heard it, I was asked to replace it, and I said ‘are you joking?’ It is completely in sync with the scene.

SH: Do you know if that piece was actually used by the king?

AD: That I don’t know. What we know is that [Lionel] Logue [portrayed in the movie by Geoffrey Rush] was using a lot of classical material—[Joseph] Haydn, Beethoven—as part of his imaginarium.

SH: You wrote that you were immediately impressed by the masterful direction of The King’s Speech. Why?

AD: The film itself stands for two hours with no faults. It manages to have all these elements crystallized—which is very difficult. I was impressed by how incredibly crafted this is; how [director] Tom [Hooper] challenged the placement of the camera, the use of the frame, everything is very thoughtful. The frame is used as vocabulary and, in cinema, the frame is the vocabulary of the art—cinema is used to tell a story. Even the use of camera lenses work into the commodity. They are not just there by accident; they are from the [distinctive] point of view of the director, who wants you to feel what the characters are feeling, being overwhelmed by the rest of the world. All of this is very thoughtful. You forget the technical aspects and the movie goes beyond that. You never think: ‘there’s a crane in that shot’. You get completely immersed.

SH: The film is humorous but it builds to a serious conclusion about rising to resist dictatorship—and, I wonder, since your mother is Greek and your father is French; did your parents live under Nazi occupation?

AD: Yes. My father was in the French resistance [against the National Socialists] and he fought in the Fifth Army with [United States Army General George] Patton. The Nazi invaders were in Greece, too.

SH: So, this is personal?

AD: Yes. It is very personal.

SH: Which is your favorite track?

AD: I never listen [after I have finished composing] because I hate it, but in thinking back, I like the opening scene, when I give the sense of wit and a gentle, childlike mood and I like the scene when [Bertie] manages to speak out about his childhood, which is very subtle and gentle and opens him up more deeply. The wall is pulled back.

The King's Speech: Original Motion Picture SoundtrackSH: Director Tom Hooper said your score is beautiful in its own right, with its own integrity and voice independent of the film. Are you pleased with the result?

AD: I am pleased with what we’ve achieved with this film. I think we found the right tone, emotion and subtlety—and razor’s edge wit, like at the rehearsal [scene] at Westminster Abbey, which follows the dramatic arc. Tom has a great sense of the arc.

SH: Had the musicians of the London Symphony Orchestra seen the film before their performance?

AD: No, but I always try to have a screen or two in the studio, so the musicians are not playing blind.

SH: Why did you seek what you call a “je ne sais quoi” romanticism for this film; what about The King’s Speech strikes you as romantic?

AD: [Pauses] It is a very romantic story because this man was not [necessarily] meant to be a king yet he has the strength to go over his ability and to drive an empire. So, there’s something epic about that. And the way Tom shows that by [depicting] the intimacy of the man, his family and his therapist. These are epic moments. He is going to help his country to resist [the Nazis] and be strong.

SH: You scored another recent Best Picture contender, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which is subtle yet lush and romantic. Some did not respond to the film and score, deeming it too abstract. Do you see why one might say that?

AD: [Chuckles] No. Movie soundtracks have to evolve. I think they can be very heavy-handed and obvious. The audience has grown up more than people think.

SH: You have said that a picture’s score should have a function and evoke a fiction. Which is more important?

AD: It should be 50/50. While I have an ideal of the music, I try to have the right balance.

SH: What is your favorite scene in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—when Benjamin takes his father to see the sunset?

AD: That’s a beautiful one. [Pauses] As we speak, I think about my father because he died last week.

SH: I am sorry to hear that—

AD: —No, no, it’s OK. I am glad you brought it up because that’s a favorite scene. You gave me a beautiful image of it. Thank you.

SH: What is the dominant emotion for the main theme to one of your earlier motion picture scores, The Upside of Anger?

AD: I wanted to keep the wit and lightness at the surface, but feel that deeper element, which is darker and sadder, and let one feel that it’s not just a comedy. Also, it’s not only about two lovers—it’s about a woman raising four girls, a mother who is trying to help these girls become adults.

SH: For The Queen, you’ve said that director Stephen Frears wanted you to create something original, without an agenda. Did you enjoy that process?

AD: [Laughs] It’s the same with [director] Roman Polanski [with whom Desplat worked for The Ghost Writer]. They are both incredible directors—both very meticulous—and they both want to bring their own identity [to a score]. As long as you are showing that, the freedom is great, so long as the director trusts you and you have a sense of the frame in which you have to express yourself.

SH: How did you become involved in composing two cues for Casanova, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who says that your music blends seamlessly with the masters?

AD: I love Lasse Hallstrom and his films. I’ve followed his work through the years. What happened is that Lasse worked with a music director [on that movie] and used a lot of classical pieces that were unbeatable. There’s a point where you can’t replace what’s there and the music can’t always connect to the story. In Casanova, the score is classical, and there was already so much. We had no room. I would love to work with him again, but I would want to have a [complete] score to create.

SH: For The Painted Veil, you also played piano, flute, percussion, keyboards on the soundtrack. Why?

AD: Because I like sometimes to take my flute, which is in a box, and take it out of the box—because I miss the mouthpiece and this instrument I’ve been playing since I was nine until I was 25. So, once in awhile I like to play. When I see other musicians going ballistic like on Harry Potter, I get excited and I want to play—it’s a kind of joy.

SH: You’ve said that creating a score is like piecing together a complex and delicate puzzle. When you see a film you’ve scored, does the puzzle come together so you consume the whole picture and score on its merits?

AD: What I try to do is go back to the first scene and forget all the technical issues—even the joy [of making the score] and the separate moments of recording and writing—and [just] enjoy the film and share it with the people around me. I try to forget whether it’s too loud or not loud enough. When a movie really moves you, you can watch it again and again.

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