Saturday, December 10, 2011

My Top 25 Film Picks

I have not posted anything on my blog for several months, as I've committed almost all of my time to writing my second novel. However, since the holiday season usually brings with it free time to do such "frivolous" things as watching movies, I have decided to depart from my usual musings by offering a list of my favorite 25 films (listed alphabetically). These are movies that I consider to be "classics". To me, a classic film is one that can be viewed repeatedly and never gets stale. In fact, the viewer sees new things in it every time it's played. It's a simple definition, but sometimes the simplest explanations are the most apt. I've watched all of these movies again and again, and I'm not embarrassed to admit that even the sight of the names in this list makes me want to run out and watch each one of them one more time. Hope you enjoy!

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Brothers McMullen (1995)

Casablanca (1942)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Crossing Delancey (1988)

David Copperfield (1935)

The Family Man (2000)

The Firm (1993)

The Fugitive (1993)

The Great Escape (1963)

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

High Noon (1952)

It Could Happen to You (1994)

It Happened One Night (1934)

Moonstruck (1987)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

North by Northwest (1959)

Notorious (1946)

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Saboteur (1942)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

She’s the One (1996)

Spellbound (1945)

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Who knows more—the writer or the reader?

When I first started writing my novel Come Back for Me, I had no intention of composing a symbolic tale about the Jewish people and their fate in the modern world. I was simply writing the story of an individual Jew who struggles to find happiness after losing everything in the war. Yet now that I have finished the novel, several readers have commented that my novel truly captures the essence of the modern Jewish experience. Of course I am gratified that they view it that way. Perhaps I did unconsciously try to portray something essential about Jewish life in modern times. But I didn’t set out to do that. I just wrote what came naturally to me.

Although my book has yet to hit the marketplace (it’s about to be submitted to publishers by my wonderful agent!), I expect that once it is out in the world at large, readers and critics will offer a variety of interpretations about what the book conveys. Some of what they say might ring true to me. Other interpretations might seem off base. Yet, slowly my opinion will diminish in importance. Once the book is out in the world, it will take on a life of its own.

The question is: do writers understand their own work better than their readers? It reminds me of a humorous story I once heard about the Nobel prize-winning novelist S.Y. Agnon. After attending a lecture about his work given by the esteemed critic Baruch Kurzweil, Agnon apparently exclaimed, “Now I finally understand my own work.” Although Agnon was undoubtedly being ironic, there is a hint of seriousness in his statement. Sometimes authors do not grasp the hidden elements in their own work, perhaps because “art” is partly the result of unconscious forces that emerge in the creative process. It is possible that readers might interpret a work in ways that the writer might never have fathomed. And such interpretations certainly have some validity.

This leads back to my original question about intention. To what extent does a writer control what emerges? My answer would be: almost all of it. A writer might rely on the unconscious for the initial creative burst, but the finished product is based on a high degree of editing, refining, honing, and perfecting. What serious writer doesn’t know the intense labor that goes into each sentence of his work? Often, every word is tried and discarded multiple times. So when it comes to deciphering a writer’s work, a reader can assume that most of what is written is conscious and intentional. But there is still that small bit, that essence, which arises from some unknown place that may even take the writer by surprise. And when it comes to understanding that, surely anything is possible.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Significance of Titles

Some people believe that words have mystical powers. There are others (mainly kabbalists) who think that even individual letters possess a mysterious force that when viewed in particular combinations, can reveal clues to the secrets of the universe. I was never one to take such things seriously until something happened that made me think twice about the power of words. But it was not just any words. It was the words of a title. My title. The title of my book.

I originally called my novel Tenacity. I liked the title for its simplicity and its suggestion of strength and stubborn resistance. But inside, I knew it was not the right title for my book. And I am sure that others knew it too, although they were probably too polite to say it out loud.

As soon as I dropped the title, it was as if the book had been reborn. Of course, I must admit that before I did so, I made major revisions to the novel itself. I added and changed and fixed and polished until I was confident it was as perfect as it could be. Yet something was askew. It still felt flawed. And then it hit me: the title. It was all wrong.

Almost miraculously (in a matter of minutes?), the new title came to me as if it had been waiting for me all along: Come Back for Me.

Yes. That was it. It felt so right. And I immediately knew that others felt it too. As soon as I’d mention it to them, there was a reaction. A good one. They would look up and smile, as if they could hear it gently humming in their ears: Come Back for Me.

Certainly titles cannot make a book speak to the human heart. The book must do that itself. But a title can beckon a reader. It can draw them near. And if not for that wondrous meeting, what is writing for?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Sneer

I used to think that a sneer was a facial expression -- turning up the nose -- implying ‎contempt, disgust and derision. I have come to realize that a sneer also appears in written ‎form: it can be a scornful turn of phrase, a tone of disparagement or even a single ‎mocking word. But the thing that distinguishes a sneer from other forms of loathing is ‎that it combines contempt with an air of superiority. The “sneerer” possesses so much ‎confidence in his own cleverness that he assumes that all clever people must agree with ‎him. No rational argument need be presented in order to justify the sneer. It stands on its ‎own as a self-evident truth. And if you dare object—well, watch out. You’ll be viewed as ‎a mindless boor who never learned to use his brain. Perhaps worst of all, you’ll be ‎sneered at too.‎

So what is all this sneering about? It’s about many things—the suburbs, religion (other ‎than primitive tribes), SUVs, shopping malls, June Cleaver, chivalry, polyester, red meat, ‎discipline, carpeting, plastic bags, politicians, iceberg lettuce, florescent bulbs (to name ‎only a few).‎

Now, as a Jew with a well-developed sneer detector, I’ve noticed that the sneer has ‎increasingly crept into one particular venue: journalistic articles about Israel. For ‎example, I was recently reading what started out as an informative piece about one of the ‎first Israeli hit songs to gain an international audience, the song “Tzena Tzena”. The ‎author ably traced the origin of the song and described how it grew in popularity, until it ‎eventually reached the number 2 position on the American charts. But the article did not ‎end with that factual observation. At the end of the article, there it was: a sneer—subtle ‎yet condescending—about how the song idealized Israelis and helped propagate the ‎‎(supposedly false) notion of their attractiveness. The author states, “With its romantic ‎depiction of young women lusting after righteous male soldiers, the song fulfilled the ‎expectations of Israel held by many American Jews in 1951”. Now I don’t mean to sound ‎over-sensitive, but why is it that Israelis cannot be allowed to take pride in a successful ‎song without having it pointed out that it promoted a romantic myth? And why are ‎American Jews being blamed, as if they concocted the myth in order to make themselves ‎feel good about themselves? Are Jews not allowed to take pride in anything? ‎

Now it may be that the author did not intend it as a sneer at all, and was merely reflecting ‎an earlier zeitgeist: that in those days, Israeli soldiers were considered righteous, and that ‎woman lusted after them for that reason. But this assumes that we now know better. We ‎‎(the clever of today) know that there is no glory in being a soldier and any woman who ‎thinks so is foolish. If one wanted to argue this point, then surely it can be done through ‎the presentation of persuasive facts. But with a sneer? To my mind, that’s cheating. ‎

I have come to the conclusion that the sneer should come out in the open and declare its ‎position candidly. If it has validity, then it should be forthright about it. And prove it with ‎evidence. It is not enough to merely turn up your nose--whether it is in person, or on ‎paper. A sneer after all, is merely a form of mockery. And mockery is only a slightly ‎classier version of a snub.‎