July 31, 2013 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
Somewhere between Kardashian news and a blog detailing where to buy every outfit worn by Taylor Swift I hit rock bottom. In the space between where I wanted to be—asleep—and where I was stuck—awake—I had chosen the easiest route, whiling away the ink-black night, slack-jawed and blindly clicking through whatever late-night gossip lit up the computer screen.
The air was thick with heat on that sticky July night. No air trickled through the window screen. I was in a stupor, the particular sort of stupor that meant that nothing registered, that my reflexes were slow. I was vulnerable, mentally asleep, and regretfully awake. And I was hearing noises.
We had just moved to the country. I was used to city life, city noises, city nerves. In the city, you steel yourself for danger, but there’s a comfort to being in a populated area, close to neighbors and cops. The bucolic loneliness of the country offers promises of peace, but to me, it’s sinister. You’re the only person screaming for miles around. Read More »
May 15, 2013 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
“Would you wear this?” the Swede asked. His honey-colored hair flopped over one eye. He was in a much-loved ragged, red jacket that looked expensive on his lanky frame.
I wore my best-fitting jeans and my favorite shirt, a cowboy shirt with pearl-clasp buttons and that perfect stich in the chest pocket made for cigarettes or pens. My curly red hair was extra poofy, spiraling away from my head, thanks to some mousse applied by the Swede. The pièce de résistance of my outfit was this poncho-thing that could’ve been designed by Jennifer Beals in Flashdance for a Western-themed dance night, a beige sweatshirt stretched out into a boatneck collar, draping across my chest, festooned with fringe. I looked like a cowboy’s sidekick. I felt silly.
“I’ve never really worn fringe before,” I said. “I plead the fifth.”
It was my semester abroad. I was twenty years old and living in London. I had never been a particularly good liar, having been blessed with a round moon of a face that registered every thought. But as I assimilated among the English, a people with whom I assumed I’d get along very well, being of clearly similar native-of-Boston stock and having a love of nineties Britpop, it was becoming clear to me that I had a more pressing social problem: I did not know how to tell a white lie. I didn’t even have the grace to realize when you should tell a white lie. In my own well-meaning way, I was becoming a bit of an asshole. “I plead the fifth” was my catchphrase. In England. Read More »
April 5, 2013 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
This year our Spring Revel will take place on April 9. In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Paula Fox, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize.
When I saw the film adaptation of The Hunger Games last year, I left the theater feeling uneasy about the shaky-cam, blurry, PG-13–sanctioned violence of kids killing kids. It was videogame violence, the sort that disappeared in the span of a moment, not the sort of savagery that hits you in the gut, makes you understand what the cost of violence can be. Weeks later, the film did not sit well with me, lingering as a mediocrity only made palatable by the endless soul of Jennifer Lawrence’s presence onscreen.
And after rereading Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer, a 1974 Newbery Award–winning children’s novel, I wonder, seriously, what she would make of the glib work aimed at children these days, particularly the uneven aspects of the Hunger Games series—on book and film—a work that puts its characters in thrilling situations and often on the precipice of horrible choices that will define their humanity, but all too often stops and takes the easy way out, in the form of deus ex machinas and conspiracies that go all the way to the top.
Because here’s the thing about Paula Fox’s work: she never takes the easy way out. And in her work for children, she writes with evenness and truth, never lying to children about the horrors of the world. Rather, she gives them the chance to find some light on the other side. Read More »
September 27, 2012 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
The documentary Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters is a beautiful and contemplative look at Crewdson’s process, focusing on when he was working on Beneath the Roses, a multiyear project that brought film crews of sixty or so people to small towns in the Berkshires of Massachusetts to help produce his large-format photos. The film, a ten-years-in-the-making work directed by Ben Shapiro, is an intimate look inside Crewdson’s artistic process. Since that’s covered in the documentary, I wanted to talk to Crewdson about one of his big inspirations, the cinema. Crewdson invited me to his studio and home in the Berkshires, a former church hidden behind a fence, where we (along with another writer, Stu Sherman) had a free-ranging conversation starting with the movies and edging over into his work. We started, of course, with Mad Men, which Crewdson calls “the greatest work of sustained art in the past ten years, and I’d include any movie or book or art work, so that shows you what I think of it.”
When it comes to Mad Men, do you like the set design and period detail?
I think it’s perfect in so many different ways, but it’s so beautiful to look at, so exquisitely detailed and rendered. The light’s so beautiful and the decor all fits together like a complete, perfect set piece.
It’s funny that you love Mad Men so much. I have to admit that when I watch Breaking Bad—or even just seeing stills of characters, like of the wife, Skylar, on the bed—they’re very reminiscent to me of your work.
My pictures are very much influenced by movies, but it’s weird because now it seems like the opposite happens, and now it’s like the movies use my pictures as reference. It’s a dialogue or something. I guess it just happens.
June 5, 2012 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
The best films scramble your brain, changing you slightly. You emerge from the dark with new, blinking eyes, adjusting to a different world. It’s why for many of us a good movie is a small miracle, worthy of devotion. So far, Norwegian director Joachim Trier has made two such small miracles, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Two sharp films that, when I saw them, settled down into some small part of me, changing the way I thought about youth, ambition, and the meaning of life, if only for a night.
I suspect the films of Trier speak particularly to anyone with literary ambitions, anyone who knows what it’s like to be besotted by a work of art and anyone who wants to create something strong and beautiful and true. The director has an uncanny eye for the worries of sad young men afflicted with dreaminess about art and ideas, the same sort of disease written about in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer or Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. His exuberant, French New Wave–influenced debut, Reprise, is the story of two boyish twenty-something writers wrestling with literary ambitions and madness. Reprise is charming, formally daring, and focused on youthful folly; in Oslo, August 31st, the folly is over, and it’s time for the morning after.
November 29, 2011 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
Revolutionary times fuel William Kennedy’s newest book, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, which follows the career of journalist Daniel Quinn. The novel’s first half takes place in 1957 Cuba, where Quinn gets writing advice from Ernest Hemingway (“Shun adverbs, strenuously”), falls in love with a gunrunner named Renata, and hikes through the jungle for the ultimate journalist’s prize—an interview with Fidel Castro. The second half finds Quinn, eleven years later, witnessing another kind of revolution, this one in his hometown of Albany after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, as the city hovers on the verge of race riots. The eighth novel in Kennedy’s Albany Cycle—which includes the Pulitzer Prize–winning Ironweed—Chango’s Beads has a cast of characters that will feel familiar to readers of the earlier books, characters united by jazz, corruption, heroics, journalism, politics, and the perpetual revolution of history. I talked with the eighty-three-year-old Kennedy at his home in Albany—a townhouse where Jack Diamond, gangster, bootlegger, and the subject of Kennedy’s second novel, Legs, was shot to death. Read More »