The History of Literature #425 – Tom Stoppard (with Scott Carter)

425 Tom Stoppard (with Scott Carter)

Born Tomáš Sträussler, in what was then Czechoslovakia, celebrated playwright Tom Stoppard (1937- ) became one of the best known British playwrights in the world. Known for his with and humor, his facility with language, and the depth of his philosophical inquiries, he found success with plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Coast of Utopia, The Invention of Love, and The Real Thing. He has also been a successful writer for radio, television, and film, with scripts like Shakespeare in Love and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade benefiting from his eye for drama and ear for dialogue. In this episode, Jacke talks to television producer and playwright Scott Carter about his admiration for Tom Stoppard’s life and works.

Additional listening suggestions:

Samuel Beckett
114 Christopher Marlowe
353 Oscar Wilde in Prison (with Scott Carter)

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Aristophanes and Spike Lee

Our History of Literature journey takes us to Aristophanes next.  I’m working on the episode now, which of course will have a heavy emphasis on his play Lysistrata. And then I realize that the play has been adapted to a modern-day setting for a movie (Chi-Raq) by none other than Spike Lee.

I admire Spike Lee and his films, although I probably have only seen about half of them (and none of the recent ones). I’ve always viewed him as someone with a vision and a voice, who fights to get his movies made, sometimes taking on more commercial projects in order to fund his more personal ones, but not really succeeding at that in any clear way. It seems like there’s a parallel to be found between the career paths of Lee and Orson Welles – wildly successful early film, celebrity, a rush of follow-up projects that don’t go as well, and then a whole patchwork career of artistic successes, even more artistic compromises, tangling with the studios, projects done for money, more celebrity, an utter devotion to film and what it can do (even as the film industry and/or viewing public repeatedly disappoints the filmmaker), and still more celebrity. In short, a filmmaker to be reckoned with, and a model for how a person with talent and an independent streak wrestles with the film establishment of his time.

In any case, it’s easy to see Spike as an artist who can appreciate the potential of a story like Lysistrata…although, well, let’s just say that gender relations have never exactly been one of his strongest suits. And after reading this Stranger review I’m a little worried. A taste:

Here we were, the most antisocial people in the writing world, reaching out to share the pain we had just experienced. The pain of Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s ambitious new film tackling inner-city Chicago violence through the power of the pussy (I wish I were exaggerating, but it’s based on the ancient Greek playLysistrata). A fucking horrible film. This film is so bad, that even after 20 minutes of commiserating with other reviewers, even after bitching about it on my date later in the evening for another 20 minutes, I still don’t know how to pour all my hate for this film into one review.

Ouch. On the other hand, Chi-Raq has also gotten several good reviews. It’s free for those of us who can stream Amazon prime videos.* And–in true History of Literature podcast spirit–we can learn from artistic failures as well as successes. What makes the movie fail (if indeed it does)? What, if anything, does that say about Aristophanes?

I guess I’ll have to watch Chi-Raq to see where I stand on this.

*I was mistaken about this. The movie has been produced by Amazon but is being released in theaters. 

The Mirrors of Bergman

Bergman + Plath + Vivaldi = Exquisite:

Getting Closer! The Film Version of Joyce’s The Dead (John Huston’s Masterpiece)

We’re closing in! For those of you following along, we’re only a few days away from the culmination of our Dubliners project. If you haven’t been reading the stories each day, don’t worry. This isn’t assigned reading; I don’t give out homework.

Except for one thing. This year, you must reserve some time for The Dead on Christmas Eve. THAT is required.

Well, just kidding, of course. No, it’s not required – just highly, highly encouraged. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’m telling you, reading Joyce’s famous novella on Christmas Eve is as good as it gets. Up there with presents under the tree and It’s a Wonderful Life and my family’s great new tradition of buying a tree at the Home Depot parking lot* and then having lunch at Five Guys. (My kids are driving the Christmas train these days.)

But hey! There’s one tradition I get to keep for myself. It’s private and reflective and deeply enriching. And that’s reading The Dead on Christmas Eve.

We’ll get there! But for now, take a look at this video to whet your appetite. The Dead is not only a perfect story, it inspired a perfect movie, directed by John Huston (his last film). Only a genius director at the end of his career could have exercised the restraint necessary to make this film.

And here’s some commentary on the trailer.

Oh sure, it’s not Die Hard. But its quiet, devastating beauty are just as potent. So brew up a little Irish coffee, toss some more wood on the fire, and cozy up to this film.

That’s you this year: sitting under a big quilt with your special someone and/or those ghosts that chase us all and watching a beautiful film.

And then: keep reading the Dubliners, and we’ll all get to the story itself on Christmas Eve. Onward and upward!

* Part of the tradition: “Do you want some paper under this tree to protect the roof of your car?” says the man at the Home Depot. “Does anyone ever say no to that question?” I ask.

Movellas: An Update

Since the primary distinguishing characteristic of a novella is length, it occurs to me that our quest for the greatest novella-like movie may need to consider runtime as one of its qualities. I will somewhat arbitrarily say it needs to be longer than 60 minutes (to distinguish it from television episodes). Ninety minutes feels like the right cutoff, and I’ve already proposed two that were below that. (Woody Allen’s Zelig and John Huston’s The Dead.)  I see this particular quality (sub-90-minute movies) has been explored.

Rope is a good addition.

Also Before Sunrise (which I mentioned before). City Lights? I’d have to watch that again. Purple Rose of Cairo – well, maybe, but it is almost like a long short story. (Again, I’m basically reduced to going on feel.) Several of the Godard films work, and maybe the Bergman, although those are almost like short novels more than novellas.

Have a favorite movella? Let me know!