Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Guide to the Best of Open Salon, 2009

There was a lot of excellent writing on Open Salon this year – much more than I got to read, I’m sure. For any one new to the site, I would suggest the eerie and compelling stories of Sandra Stephens, like Peter Bird

and The Call

along with her lovely and sometimes harrowing autobiographical pieces, especially Writing Down the Bones her anorexia post:

There are many stark insights in this short essay, but this one struck me particularly hard:

Like many addicts I was a sly creature - a double agent. Even as I lashed myself with deprivation and rigid expectations of titanic accomplishment, I took a secret, gloating pleasure in the pathos of my appearance. I liked imagining that when I returned home for the holidays and attended church with my family, that people were noting my weight and looking with disapproval at my parents. My starved body was testimony to the fact that something was wrong.

I liked the way my appearance belied our happy family picture – a picture we were too-well trained not to project. You can scream with your mouth and nobody hears, I learned; I also learned that you can scream with your body, and people can hear with their eyes.

On a lighter note, I have consistently enjoyed John Blumenthal’s Hollywood posts. He’s a veteran of that crazy world and his anecdotes have the ring on truth. I would especially advise all aspiring screenwriters to read Why Writing a Spec Script Will Get You Nowhere

and Why Disney Studios Was a Screenwriter’s Nightmare.

Here’s a sample of his astringent advice:

More harsh reality: Knowing that you are desperate, most producers who option a script will pay you nothing, the idea being that he will shop your screenplay around on spec to the studios for an agreed-upon period of time, say six months. And if he actually buys an option for money, the amount will usually be peanuts. The Writers' Guild has a special term for this arrangement: Robbery.

I also enjoyed JK Brady’s intelligent posts on Canadian health care, missed her when she left for the ashram, and enjoyed her photographic essays. Her recent hilarious cry of feminist despair is worth a look, to get you started:

For political commentary here, I generally turn to Saturn Smith, one of the few bloggers who regularly migrates to the main Salon home page. Her comparison of California to Dubai, as that country teetered on the edge of collapse was particularly compelling:

Think of it: one state in a group of united states that has had to make its fortunes mostly on real estate, tourism/entertainment, and the goodwill of celebrities looking for a place to have a good time. It spends lavishly to create a place that's unlike any other within the country, a place people mark not only as a travel destination but as a desired dream locale. It's able to highly leverage what money it starts with because, even when its spending seems out of control -- beyond any means it might have -- everyone knows that its debts must be (wink, wink) guaranteed by its sister states.

People are antsy about what a Dubai World default might mean because it could signal that somewhere, a government is willing to let a state-sponsored entity fall. When you shift "entity" to "state," though, the conversation gets more complicated and, I think, closer to where it should be. What do you do, as a country, when your shining star goes supernova?

A relatively new blogger I find compelling – I fist noticed him when he commented on my Ayn Rand essay – is a lawyer who calls himself Neilpaul here. His gritty street stories of life in Boston are toucvhing and sometimes scary, always scalpel sharp, Real ‘screen scrollers’ , since ‘page turners’ seems a little outmoded here. This hopeful reflection on of his low-life legal clients gives a good sense of his stubborn blunted optimism:

As I walked back to my car I started to picture it. He would call me with a problem he couldn’t solve. Some issue he didn’t understand. Maybe he would need some money, not a fortune, just a couple of bucks. A minor amount of money that I wouldn’t miss, one less dinner in the South End, a slightly smaller 401K, one less day in Cozumel or in Europe. And I started to look forward to playing that role in his life. Not a major role, but a positive one just the same. All he had to do was call me, or hit me up, as he put it.

But he never did.

All these bloggers are wonderful and there are others Emma Peel who everybody seems to know, Connie Mack who’s less prominent here, Lisa Solod Warren who publishes on Huffington Post as well; but I want to save the end of this round up for my all-time favorite Open Salon blogger, Silksotone. She’s the one whose posts I look forward to the most. Maybe it’s because she’s writing about Mad Men, my all-time favorite television series, but really it’s the way she writes about it, the surgical brilliance with which she deconstructs every episode. I’ve long felt that Mad Men was more like an intricate novel than a normal TV show, but after my years in an MFA program, Silkstone makes me feel like I’m in a workshop again – that sinking feeling when the smartest student makes a comment on the piece in front of you that makes your own carefully worked-out critique seem puny and shallow. I hasten to add – that’s not a bad feeling! In fact, it was the feeling I liked most at Vermont College: listening to someone much smarter than me unlock all the connections and leit-motifs and image patterns and thematic sub-text in a story I hadn’t studied hard enough, or thought about deeply enough, on my own.

Silkstone did that every week this year, showing me new facets and giving me new insight into Matthew Weiner’s remarkable on-going narrative. I admit that sometimes I read her analysis before I watched the episode in question, just so I could feel smart in real time.

Here are some links and examples

From her essay on The Hobo and the Gypsy episode

While the focus is on Don, Betty reveals herself as well, saying that she’d always assumed that Don was “some football hero who hated his father” and that she’d known he grew up poor because he "doesn’t understand money," a comment which carries echoes of her father’s sneers to Don that “you people think everything is about money’ as well as Roger’s rich-boy country club put-downs. Like those two men, Betty thinks people don’t understand money if they don’t see it exactly the same way she does, as a signifier of class and position, rather than as merely a useful tool (the way Don does).
Similarly, Don and Betty have differing views of identity. Don, seeing identity as a tool just like money, argues facilely that “people change their names, Bets. You did.” To which she retorts, “I did, I took your name” – a name which she now knows is false, and thus an affront to the deep familial and social meaning that names have for her (as they did for her parents).

From her analysis of Episode 9:

Having recently hallucinated about his father (in the motel room with the two proto-hippies who robbed him) and having been sideswiped by Betty’s sour mood after their rapprochement in Rome, as well as chafing under his many contractual obligations (both at home and at work), Don grasps at Hilton’s approval, despite having just recently explained to Betty the art of keeping people wanting you rather than the other way around.

Don’s famous elusiveness that seduces all who encounter him is being eroded by his increasing commitment in all areas of his life, but never more so than when he finally lets himself want something: Not just Hilton’s approval but his love (as Hilton astutely notices). Having been as smoothly seduced by Hilton as he has seduced countless others, Don experiences a karmic turnabout when Hilton also mimics Don’s own withdrawal and parsimoniousness of feeling. Don has failed to give Hilton exactly what he wants and while that’s not an unfamiliar experience in his marriage, being rejected so soundly by a client is clearly foreign to him, leaving him scrambling and uncharacteristically clumsy, telling Hilton: I’m sure there’s a way to fit that into this.

But there isn’t. Hilton acknowledges that the campaign Don has produced is clever -- it just isn’t what he wants, which is literally the moon. Having shared moonshine with this gruff paterfamilias in the wee small hours, as well as having been made an honorary son, Don is blindsided by the rejection, as well as confounded by his rare failure to understand what a client wants. Interestingly, while missing the aspirational “man on the moon” idea, what he heard was the domestic side – about turning exotic places into home – a neat symbol of how Don himself is being tamed and domesticated.

And finally, from her most recent essay, deconstructing the season finale:

TThe episode begins with Don waking up in the spare room that we’ve seen both Grandpa and baby Gene sleeping in, making Don a cross between a newborn and a dead man, which is exactly right for someone who in the course of a couple days ends one life and starts another.

This brief note clarified so much for me, as did all her posts.

All in all, I’ve probably spent way too much time, reading and writing on Open Salon – it refines the internet’s genius for procrastination to a new level. But’s a fascinating cranky and oddly supportive community, so I’ll be sticking around, looking forward to 2010.

(Maybe Silkstone will write about “Lost” this winter!)

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