Tag Archives: woody allen

The Found Art of Letter Writing

letters cover

What would you say if I told you there is a brand new collection of letters that you just have to see?

“Letters,” I can hear you saying, “who writes letters, let alone reads letters, anymore?”

Well, bear with me a moment. I think you’ll find this worthwhile.

Might you be interested in a letter written by Emily Dickinson to her one, true love? Or one written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler? What about one by Philip K. Dick on getting a brief preview (he didn’t live to see the final cut) of Bladerunner, the movie adaptation of his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Or maybe a letter by Groucho Marx to Woody Allen might hit just the right spot?

Still not sold? There is a smoking note by Nick Cave to MTV, written with appropriate sarcastic grace (often referred to as the “My Muse is Not a Horse” Letter), in rejection of their nomination of “Best Male Artist of the Year.” Or a letter from Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando saying he’d be great as Dean Moriarty in a film version of On The Road. Or Mark David Chapmen to a memorabilia expert inquiring as to the possible worth of an album signed by John Lennon mere hours before he murdered him?

I could probably go on and on tantalizing you with glimpses into Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience.

Nearly as amazing as the contents, however, is the presentation. It is something of a coffee table book, though perhaps a bit on the smaller end of the format. The fact that it is a tad oversize is put to great advantage – it reproduces, in large format, the original typed or handwritten letters, telegrams (one from the Titanic), plus a clay tablet, alongside transcripts (particularly useful in deciphering the dodgy handwriting of creative types), as well as brief summaries giving context to the various exchanges.

May I mention just a few more? How about letters by Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper, Charles Bukowski, Leonardo da Vinci, Mary Stuart, and Albert Einstein addressing, respectively, the topics of public executions, unimaginably abominable behavior, censorship, employment as a military engineer, final thoughts before being executed, and a sixth grade class’s query as to whether scientists pray?

And, oh, yes, there is the thousand plus years old ancient Chinese form letter written in apology for drunken behavior at a dinner party the evening before. It begins:

Yesterday, having drunk too much, I was intoxicated as to pass all bounds; but none of the rude and coarse language I used was uttered in a conscious state. The next morning, after hearing others speak on the subject I realized what had happened, whereupon I was overwhelmed with confusion and ready to sink into the earth with shame.  …

That’s right, it’s a form letter – and you thought you knew how to party!

Billed by the publisher as a “spectacular collection of more than 125 letters,” this is no adperson’s hyberbole: it’s the real deal.

In my estimation, this collection is not the mourning of a passing art form but a celebration, a celebration perhaps not so much of the specific form itself (though it is, of course, that), but of the human races’ constant striving to communicate, to understand, and to survive.

Even if we don’t continue to write letters much anymore, we continue to communicate, which is reflected in the fact universities and libraries worldwide are collecting electronic correspondence as they once collected letters. The form may differ, but the creativity behind it is, if anything, becoming more varied and incredible as the years go by.

I do believe it might just be worth the wait to read the curated email correspondence of say, Margaret Atwood, or Neil Gaiman and, perhaps even of the notoriously reclusive Thomas Pynchon.

Just sayin’ or, more accurately, just readin’.

What follows is a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol in Letters of Note, at once charming, practical, and endearing, if sprinkled with casual obscenity, in a manner only Brits seem to be able to pull off with aplomb.

~ Don

jagger to warhol











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Hope: A Tragedy

Funny thing about humor – so very often on the page it falls, well, flat.

A great, or even good, funny novel is a rare thing, indeed. For those handsful of good or great funny novels that have stood the test of time, by far the most prevalent are dark comedies.  Books that trade in gallows humor, taboo topics, or the meaninglessness of it all pretty much own the corner.  A biting, even bitter, satirist is no one to go toe-to-toe with if you know what’s bad for you.

With Hope: a Tragedy, Shalom Auslander manages to muscle his way into some pretty esteemed company: Jonathan Swift (if you think the premise behind A Modest Proposal could never be matched on the outrageous scale, think again), Voltaire (who makes more than one appearance here in a virtual catalogue of allusions to great authors), Franz Kafka (didn’t think he was funny – think again), Kurt Vonnegut (Auslander’s pacing comes as close to KV as anyone has, ever), and Fay Weldon (for a sheer modern over-the-top premise and acerbic point of view).  Think Samuel Beckett, think of poor, hapless Job, deftly blended with Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield.

The immediate literary godfather here though is Philip Roth: Auslander is Roth without the misogyny, though the misanthropy is decidedly intact.

What’s the premise, you ask?  Solomon Kugel, our hero, flees the city for rural upstate New York, purchasing a 19th-century farmhouse for his family and himself. As soon as they move in, a mysterious arsonist targets farmhouses throughout the area. Hope opens with Kugel lying in bed, listening to all the sounds a 100-plus-year-old home can make, believing the arsonist has broken in with each and every sound he hears, and meditating on all the possible ways one may die and all the possible last things he might say with his last breath.

In addition, he thinks of the last words of many a famous person.  Who knew that the last thing Allen Ginsberg said was “Toodle-loo”?

Kugel finally convinces himself that he needs to go to the attic to investigate if the arsonist has broken in or, as he is hoping, to discover that it is “probably just mice.”


What he discovers, or, rather, whom he discovers, sets off a catastrophic chain of events that propels the novel:

Anne Frank.

That’s right, he discovers an aged, decrepit, slightly profane Anne Frank.  Hiding. In his attic.

I really don’t know what to say after that and that is probably a very good thing. The book is at once sacrilegious, hysterically funny, surprisingly moving,  and very good, indeed. How this event takes over his life (he thinks, I’ll call the police, then he imagines a NY Post-type headline: “Jew Drops Dime on Holocaust Survivor”), and impacts his mother, his wife, and his young son, Jonah, but most particularly himself, is the substance of the novel. A number of leitmotifs appear again and again throughout the novel, signaled by little catch phrases (a la Vonnegut’s “so it goes”).  The last words of famous people (Jean-Paul Sartre: “I failed”) appear again and again (Gary Gilmore: “Let’s do it”), unexpectedly, delightfully (“Toodle-loo”) even.

Kugel’s mother is over-the-top completely, disturbingly so, as in many a Jewish-American novel, and though the book is very funny, it has potential to offend. Humor and the Holocaust, catch phrases and concentration camps, are definitely not for everyone.

Then again books replete with anecdotes about Spinoza and his mother’s bed, Alan Dershowitz as cultural hero, matzoh, borscht, and wheat allergies, and a protaganist whose thoughts both outrage and endear do have a potential audience and Hope: a Tragedy is no exception. One thing I know for certain: this is a book that will be showing up on many end of the year best lists in 2012 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t walk away with a major prize or two.

If it is your kind of book, and you know who you are, don’t hesitate.  It doesn’t matter what your background or religion.

Shalom Auslander is an equal opportunity offender.

– Don


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Some Favorites

Ryan Gosling didn't get an Oscar nomination for "Drive," but he still has a better jacket than you. Image from: http://www.salon.com

This year’s Oscar nominations were just announced yesterday morning; I haven’t seen most of the films on offer yet, but have enjoyed both The Artist and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (hooray for Gary Oldman! How is this his first Oscar nomination, I ask you?) Since I’m lucky enough to work with a very large film collection on a daily basis, I tend to wait until most things come out on DVD. A few favorites from this past year:

Another Year

This is a very nice movie about a lovely older couple named Tom and Gerri. It follows their lives for an entire year, as they work at their jobs, invite friends over for dinner, and work in their garden. They live modest but fulfilling lives, and they seem mostly happy and very much in love, a rarity in the movies. This probably sounds horribly boring to most people, but since Mike Leigh is the director, the film is instead a touching and realistic portrayal of love and how people spend their time together. We should all be so lucky as to live a life as charmed as the central couple in this film. (Side note: this movie technically came out at the end of 2010 in limited release, but didn’t make it to video until this past summer).

Attack the Block

This might be the movie that Super 8 wanted (but failed) to become. Set on a council estate in South London, the film follows a group of teenagers who have to defend themselves and their neighbors from hostile alien invaders. I almost watched this one twice-in-a-row, because even though all the young, unknown actors are really great, their accents are rather heavy and I know I missed a few jokes the first time around. Next time I might turn the English subtitles on. Also of note: if you get a kick out of seeing how movies are made, there are lengthy (and highly entertaining) bonus features included, illuminating all the hard work that went into making this low-budget horror gem.


This is another nice movie about very nice people. It focuses primarily on father and son Hal (Christopher Plummer) and Oliver (Ewan McGregor), who both have recently begun new lives of sorts. After the death of his wife, Hal decides to come out of the closet at the ripe age of 75 and live his life to the absolute fullest. Meanwhile, Oliver realizes that he too has put his romantic life on hold for far too long, and decides to cautiously try his hand at love once more with the agreeable Anna (Mélanie Laurent). This is a lovely film about family and memory, as well as attempting to make more room in life for happiness. It also has an adorable dog that talks in subtitles, which is not nearly as obnoxious as it sounds, and Christopher Plummer just received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his supporting role.


This seedy little movie is all about a jacket–namely, a stained white bomber jacket with a yellow scorpion embroidered on the back. The jacket is worn by The Driver (we never learn his name), a wheelman for hire who works as a stunt driver for movie productions by day, and steers a getaway vehicle for armed heists by night. The Driver is played by the not-terrible-looking Ryan Gosling, who portrays him as a loner who speaks little and always carries a toothpick (and sometimes a hammer). Some things happen, the driver gets involved in a bad heist, and lots of nifty electronic pop music plays on the soundtrack.

Meek’s Cutoff

I have honestly never said to myself, “Boy, I sure wish someone would make a movie about pilgrims traveling the Oregon Trail.” I grew up in Oregon, and in school we had all that Oregon Trail whatnot shoved down our throats, and had to take boring field trips to see pilgrims’ graves…which means we would ride in a bus for 90 minutes so we could look at a large pile of rocks. I think this was supposed to make history more “real” for us, but hopefully in the future they’ll just show kids this movie instead. It’s good, and really does give one a sense of what it might have been like to cross the United States at the pace of an ox — scary, lonely, dirty and discouraging.

Midnight in Paris

Are you a Woody Allen fan? I’m honestly not sure if I am. I’ve liked some of his movies (Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters) and have been slightly unimpressed by others, but overall I feel like I haven’t seen enough of his films to decide whether Midnight in Paris is a typical Woody Allen film or not. What I do know is that I enjoyed it, and related to the central character Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) who travels to Paris with his fiancé, and winds up magically being transported to 1920s Paris each night at midnight. Gil’s time traveling allows for great artists and writers of the 1920s to make appearances in the film, including Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and the Fitzgeralds. The more Gil parties like it’s 1920, the harder he finds it to return to the Paris of 2011, as he remains firmly convinced that things really were better in the old days.

Sadly, I came to the realization while making this list that I didn’t watch many new documentaries this year—although I did take in a few wonderful older ones. Rest assured, I intend to rectify this situation in 2012 and will be checking out these films as soon as I’m able: Bill Cunningham New York, The Interrupters, Into the Abyss, The Last Mountain, Pina, Project Nim, and Resurrect Dead.

What about you? What were your favorite films this year? Am I missing anything good?



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