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21 MAY, 2012

Joan Didion on Self-Respect

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“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”

For the past half-century, Joan Didion has been dissecting the complexities of cultural chaos with equal parts elegant anxiety, keen criticism, and moral imagination. From her 1968 anthology of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (public library), comes “On Self Respect” — a magnificent meditation on what it means to live well in one’s soul, touching on previously explored inadequate externalities like prestige, approval, and conventions of success. Didion writes:

The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals with one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

[…]

Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.

[…]

Self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

[…]

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan; no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called ‘alienation from self.’ In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves — there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click for details.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a superb read in its entirety. Also from it, Didion on keeping a notebook.

Thanks, Lexi

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21 MAY, 2012

Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life: Ray Bradbury on Creative Purpose in the Face of Rejection

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“The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.”

Famous advice on writing abounds — Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips on how to make a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers. In Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life, Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz, son of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, bring a delightfully refreshing lens to the writing advice genre by asking 30 famous authors and entertainers to each respond to a favorite Snoopy comic strip with a 500-word essay on the triumphs and tribulations of the writing life. The all-star roster includes William F. Buckley, Jr., Julia Child, Ed McBain, and Elizabeth George, but my favorite contribution comes from the always-insightful Ray Bradbury:

The amazing Blackstone came to town when I was seven, and I saw how he came alive onstage and thought, God, I want to grow up to be like that! And I ran up to help him vanish an elephant. To this day I don’t know where the elephant went. One moment it was there, the next — abracadabra — with a wave of the wand it was gone!

In 1929 Buck Rogers came into the world, and on that day in October a single panel of Buck Rogers comic strip hurled me into the future. I never came back.

It was only natural when I was twelve that I decided to become a writer and laid out a huge roll of butcher paper to begin scribbling an endless tale that scrolled right on up to Now, never guessing that the butcher paper would run forever.

Snoopy has written me on many occasions from his miniature typewriter, asking me to explain what happened to me in the great blizzard of rejection slips of 1935. Then there was the snowstorm of rejection slips in ’37 and ’38 and an even worse winter snowstorm of rejections when I was twenty-one and twenty-two. That almost tells it, doesn’t it, that starting when I was fifteen I began to send short stories to magazines like Esquire, and they, very promptly, sent them back two days before they got them! I have several walls in several rooms of my house covered with the snowstorm of rejections, but they didn’t realize what a strong person I was; I persevered and wrote a thousand more dreadful short stories, which were rejected in turn. Then, during the late forties, I actually began to sell short stories and accomplished some sort of deliverance from snowstorms in my fourth decade. But even today, my latest books of short stories contain at least seven stories that were rejected by every magazine in the United States and also in Sweden! So, dear Snoopy, take heart from this. The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.

What a fine complement to this recent omnibus of wisdom on how to find your purpose and do what you love.

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18 MAY, 2012

100 Ideas That Changed Film

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How the seventh art went from magic lanterns to state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery in 100 years.

When a small handful of enthusiasts gathered at the first cinema show at the Grand Cafe in Paris on December 27, 1895, to celebrate early experimental film, they didn’t know that over the next century, their fringe fascination would carve its place in history as the “seventh art.” But how, exactly, did that happen? In 100 Ideas that Changed Film, Oxford Times film reviewer David Parkinson and publisher Laurence King — who brought us 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design and the epic Saul Bass monograph — offer a concise and intelligent chronicle of the most influential developments since the dawn of cinema.

From technologies like magic lanterns (#1), the kinetoscope (#3), and the handheld camera (#78), to genres like slapstick (#21), poetic realism (#50), and queer cinema (#97), to system-level developments like the star system (#23), film schools (#38), and censorship (#48), to cultural phenomena like fan magazines (#31), television (#63), and feminist film theory (#86), the book blends the illuminating factuality of an encyclopedia with the strong point of view of a museum curator to reveal, beneath this changing flow of technologies and techniques, cinema’s deeper capacity for playing on universal emotions and engaging our timeless longing for escapism, entertainment, and self-expression.

Parkinson promises in the introduction:

What follows is as much a chronology of business opportunism and technical pragmatism, as a celebration of artistry, social commitment, and showmanship.

Idea # 1: MAGIC LANTERNS

Images from a set of 24 glass slides based on Sir John Tenniel’s original drawings for Alice in Wonderland

These optical lanterns contained the principal elements later found in film projectors: a source of illumination; a mechanism for moving frames through the light-proofed casing; and lenses for condensing and projecting images onto a distant screen. As an early form of mass entertainment, they also anticipated the storytelling experiments of later filmmakers.

Idea # 20: SERIALS

Betty Hutton relives the glory days of the silent serial in The Perils of Pauline, a 1947 biopic of the legendary chapterplay heroine, Pearl White.

Over 470 serials were produced in the United States between 1912 and 1956. In telling continuous stories in 10-15 weekly episodes of 15-25 minutes each, chapterplays, as they were also known, helped turn moviegoing into a habit.

Idea # 28: GENRE

Alfred Hitchcock so excelled at the thriller that he was nicknamed ‘The Master of Suspense’.

Idea # 36: EXPRESSIONISM

This poster for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) conveys the angularity of the stars and Walter Röhrig, Hermann Warm and Walter Reimann’s sets.

Employing exterior or objective representation to convey interior or subjective stats, the silent Schauerfilme (horror films), Kammerspielfilme (chamber dramas), and Strassenfilme (street films) produced in Weimar Germany between 1919 and 1929 continue to have a major influence on world cinema.

Idea # 44: MUSICAL SCORES

Riffing on the notes E and F, John Williams's 'shark' theme proved crucial to ratcheting up the suspense in Jaws (1975).

Idea # 52: B MOVIES

Shot in just three weeks, Jean Rollin’s Lèvres de Sang (1975) is a superior example of the erotic European horror Bs produced in the 1960s and ’70s.

Idea # 54: SHORTS

Ben Turpin crosses Charlie Chaplin in Essanay’s two-reel lampoon of showbiz types, His New Job (1915).

Idea # 61: THE BLACKLIST

A protest supporting the Hollywood Ten – Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo.

The impact of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee’s investigation into Communism in HOllywood can never fully be assessed: after all, it’s impossible to assess the caliber of scripts never written and performances never given. Nevertheless, the witch hunt that took place between 1947 and 1952 represents the studio system’s darkest hour.

Idea # 70: TRAILERS

Alfred Hitchcock fronted an amusing five-minute lecture with a shock ending to trail The Birds (1963).

Idea # 73: CANNES

Poster from the 1953 festival showing the original Palais des Festivals, which was inaugurated on La Croisette in 1949 and demolished in 1988.

Idea # 86: FEMINIST FILM THEORY

Dorothy Arzner depicted strong, independent women in The Wild Party (1929), Christopher Strong (1933) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940).

The audience for Hollywood features was predominantly female into the 1950s, yet the studio front offices were exclusively occupied by men. Feminist film theory posed a radical challenge to this gender imbalance in the 1970s — but has anything really changed?

Idea # 97: QUEER CINEMA

Written by Christa Winsloe and directed by Leontine Sagan, Girls in Uniform (1931) had an all-female cast and featured same-sex romantic situations, a rarity at the time.

Homosexuality was illegal in many countries for much of cinema’s first century. Consequently, the representation of openly gay or lesbian characters in mainstream films was nigh on impossible until the late 1960s launched a revolution in the West, not just in the way films were made but also how they were interpreted.

From the trick films (#6) of cinemagician Georges Méliès to the experimental cinema (#42) of Maya Deren to the rise of animation (#55), 100 Ideas that Changed Film is an indispensable guide to one our most expressive and resonant forms of storytelling.

Images courtesy of Laurence King

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18 MAY, 2012

5½ Timeless Commencement Speeches to Teach You to Define Your Own Success

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The great and terrible truth of clichés, why success is a dangerous bedfellow, and how disappointment paves the way for originality.

It’s that time of year again, the time when cultural icons and luminaries of various stripes flock to podiums around the world to impart their wisdom on a fresh crop of graduating seniors hungry to take on the world. After last year’s omnibus of timeless commencement addresses by J. K. Rowling (“Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is something on which to pride yourself. But poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.”), Steve Jobs (“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”), Robert Krulwich (“You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back. This is the era of Friends in Low Places.”), Meryl Streep (“This is your time, and it feels normal to you. But, really, there is no ‘normal.’ There’s only change, and resistance to it, and then more change.”), and Jeff Bezos (“Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice.”), here are five-ish more packets of timeless wisdom.

Across them runs a common thread of what seems to be as much a critical message, the message, for the young as it is an essential lifelong reminder for all: No social convention of success should lure you away from or could be a substitute for finding your purpose and doing what you love.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE AT KENYON COLLEGE (2005)

In 2005, David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class at Kenyon College with a remarkable speech that revealed in equal measure his singular, potent, wildly eclectic mind and his wounded spirit, peeling the curtain on the triumphs and tragedies of being David Foster Wallace. When Wallace took his own life in 2008 in a way referenced from the podium, the address took on a whole new layer of meaning for those who revered, mourned, and tried to understand the beloved writer. In 2009, the speech was adapted into a short book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

Full transcript here.

ELLEN DEGENERES AT TULANE (2009)

In 2009, the great Ellen DeGeneres — icon, notorious happy-dancer, and one of my big heroes — sent off the graduating “Katrina class” at New Orleans’ Tulane University with a hurricane of a speech that swirls you into a whirlwind of wit and humor, shakes you up with its humility and deeply personal candor, and puts you back down with a new understanding of

As you grow, you’ll realize the definition of success changes. For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity, and not to give into peer pressure; to try to be something that you’re not. To live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way. So to conclude my conclusion: follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, and by all means you should follow that.

AARON SORKIN AT SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY (2012)

Earlier this week, Aaron Sorkin took the stage at Syracuse University and addressed the graduating class with equal parts wit, wisdom, and disarming candor. His remarks about how the government failed to address the dawn of the AIDS epidemic because a disease that affected mostly homosexuals didn’t seem worth the trouble, and how misguided that was in retrospect, make one think of the recent momentous strides forward for LGBT rights and wonder with what mix of bewilderment and shame we might look back on the days of government-sanctioned bigotry in a few decades.

Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt. My junior and senior years at Syracuse, I shared a five-bedroom apartment at the top of East Adams with four roommates, one of whom was a fellow theater major named Chris. Chris was a sweet guy with a sly sense of humor and a sunny stage presence. He was born out of his time, and would have felt most at home playing Mickey Rooney’s sidekick in “Babes on Broadway.” I had subscriptions back then to TIME and Newsweek. Chris used to enjoy making fun of what he felt was an odd interest in world events that had nothing to do with the arts. I lost touch with Chris after we graduated and so I’m not quite certain when he died. But I remember about a year and a half after the last time I saw him, I read an article in Newsweek about a virus that was burning its way across the country. The Centers for Disease Control was calling it “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” or AIDS for short. And they were asking the White House for $35 million for research, care and cure. The White House felt that $35 million was way too much money to spend on a disease that was only affecting homosexuals, and they passed. Which I’m sure they wouldn’t have done if they’d known that $35 million was a steal compared to the $2 billion it would cost only 10 years later.

Am I saying that Chris would be alive today if only he’d read Newsweek? Of course not. But it seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less of each other, and that’s got to change. Your friends, your family, this school expect more of you than vocational success.

BARACK OBAMA AT WESLEYAN (2008)

Philosopher Daniel Dennett once offered his key to the secret of happiness: “Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” In his 2008 address to the graduating class at Wesleyan University, Barack Obama put it just as eloquently: “[O]ur individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.”

[S]hould you take the path of service, should you choose to take up one of these causes as your own, know that you’ll experience the occasional frustrations and the occasional failures. Even your successes will be marked by imperfections and unintended consequences. I guarantee you, there will be times when friends or family urge you to pursue more sensible endeavors with more tangible rewards. And there will be times where you will be tempted to take their advice.

But I hope you’ll remember, during those times of doubt and frustration, that there is nothing naïve about your impulse to change the world. Because all it takes is one act of service — one blow against injustice — to send forth what Robert Kennedy called that tiny ripple of hope. That’s what changes the world. That one act.

CONAN O’BRIEN AT DARTMOUTH (2011)

Count on Conan to hit on the Big Truths with his signature blend of irreverence, self-derision, and keen cultural observation.

For decades, in show business, the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host The Tonight Show. It was the Holy Grail, and like many people I thought that achieving that goal would define me as successful. But that is not true. No specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you. In 2000 — in 2000 — I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.

BONUS: RAY BRADBURY (2001)

Though not technically a commencement speech, this remarkable keynote address by Ray Bradbury at The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea is brimming with the kind of invaluable wisdom you wish someone had pinned to your mind in your early twenties, so you could laminate it for the rest of your life.

I want your loves to be multiple. I don’t want you to be a snob about anything. Anything you love, you do it. It’s got to be with a great sense of fun. Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say “Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…”, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.

Now, what I’m thinking of is, people always saying “Well, what do we do about a sudden blockage in your writing? What if you have a blockage and you don’t know what to do about it?” Well, it’s obvious you’re doing the wrong thing, don’t you? In the middle of writing something you go blank and your mind says: “No, that’s it.” Ok. You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying “I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for.” You’re being political, or you’re being socially aware. You’re writing things that will benefit the world. To hell with that! I don’t write things to benefit the world. If it happens that they do, swell. I didn’t set out to do that. I set out to have a hell of a lot of fun.

I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. I want you to envy me, my joy. Get out of here tonight and say: “Am I being joyful?” And if you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.

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