Interview: the writers of Carmilla

  Carmilla, J. Sheridan LeFanu's 1871 novella that predates Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a seminal work of genre fiction.  It introduces the idea of the lesbian vampire, something that later writers would expand into its own genre (check out Hammer's The Vampire Lovers for a fairly faithful, if overtly sexed-up, version).  It's also surprisingly contemporary in its writing style.  So Read more

Movie Review: Mythica, A Quest for Heroes

Back in 2011, I stumbled on Arrowstorm Entertainment's Dawn of the Dragonslayer, a low-budget fantasy epic that had the look of a much more expensive film. But what really got my attention was the care given to the performances: leads Richard McWilliams and Nicola Posener really dug into their characters, and director Anne Black gave them the time to Read more

Dramatics Interreptus

My younger son turns seven in about a month, and the other day I realized that I was about that age when I realized just how important stories were to me. My parents left me to stay with friends of the family for an afternoon; I have no memory why. But while I was there, I started watching the TV Read more

Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You're Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank). When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind Read more

Film Review: Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County

Posted on by Alex in filmmaking, folk music, Hum and the Shiver, isolation, music, reviews, storytelling, Tufa | 5 Comments

Way back in the early years of this century (being able to say that makes me smile), the spark of the idea that would become the Tufa struck me at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Also at that festival, I first heard Sheila Kay Adams at one of the midnight sessions, in a huge tent on a warm summer night. So her stories and music, and my fictional Tufa, have always been spiritually, if not literally, entwined.

Sheila Kay Adams

Sheila Kay is a traditional ballad singer, a woman who has dedicated her life to making sure that these old songs survive into the next generation. Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County is a documentary that takes us into her life, and shows how she’s passing on her traditions to the YouTube and iTunes generation. I first mentioned it here, when I interviewed director Kim Dryden during the film’s post-production.

The poster for “Over Home,” designed by Saro, who appears in the film.

You can watch the trailer:

 

and additional clips can be found here.

Sheila Kay learned these songs the old way, “knee to knee” on front porches from relatives who still gathered to share songs and stories when other more urban families were beginning to turn away from each other, to television, radio and other forms of passive mass communication. “They did not call them ballads,” she says in the film. “They called them love songs. And the gorier they were, the more I liked them. And if they mentioned cutting off heads and kicking them against the wall, I was all over it.” These were songs that came originally from Ireland, Scotland and other Celtic countries, brought with the first settlers and maintained intact among the isolated hills and hollows of Appalachia.

This is old stuff, literally and figuratively, if you’re a fan of my novel The Hum and the Shiver. But unlike my fictional Cloud County, the Madison County of this film is a real place, and the people you see in the film are genuine. Most compelling of the newcomers is sixteen-year-old Sarah Tucker, who bridges the traditional and the modern in a way that gives you real hope for the future of this music (and music in general). The scenery is expansive and beautiful, as are the Smoky Mountains themselves, but the most fascinating landscape of all is Sheila Kay Adams’s face as she talks about how music helped her persevere through personal tragedy.

Over Home is currently making the rounds of film festivals, and hopefully will soon be available on DVD and streaming. If it comes to a festival near you, definitely check it out (and if you have any pull in festival scheduling, I heartily recommend scheduling it).

Winter Passing: between the reaching and the touching

Posted on by Alex in adam rapp, ed harris, isolation, will ferrell, winter passing, writers, zooey deschanel | 1 Comment

Movies about writers tend to be pretty dull, because unless you’re sitting inside our skulls, what writers do is pretty dull. We stare at blank paper or screens, mutter to ourselves a lot, pace mindlessly and drink way too much (coffee and otherwise). Even writers with exciting lives don’t always make exciting films. For example, the atrocious In Love and War wants us to believe that dewey Chris O’Donnell could grow up to be Ernest Hemingway; I suspect just one of Hemingway’s sperm could kick Chris O’Donnell’s ass. But I digress.

I actually want to praise a wonderful movie from 2005 called Winter Passing. Written and directed by Adam Rapp, it tells of a New York actress faced with the chance to sell love letters from her father (a J.D. Salinger-like recluse) to her mother (a recent suicide). This entails visiting her old home in Michigan, and reopening old family wounds.

So far, so trite. But it’s the execution that makes this film stand out. Thematically it’s about the difficulty of expressing feelings, and because none of the characters are very good at it, the film has a firm sense of reserve. The scenes draw you in: you have to pay attention to subtle changes of expression, slight inflections in words, and the rhythms of body language. There are moments that could be played as full-blown Lifetime Network scream-and-sob fests, but instead are pitched as mild, realistic conversations true to the characters having them.

The cast gets it exactly right. Zooey Deschanel, whose minimal style has been problematic in a lot of her roles (i.e., SciFi’s miniseries Tin Man), is spot-on as the daughter who, it’s implied, has become an actress because she can express none of her own emotions. Ed Harris plays her father not as a egocentric tyrant but a kind-hearted yet befuddled man overwhelmed by his life. Even Will Ferrell backs his energy way down as one of Harris’ housemates, a sad outcast looking for purpose.

I know it sounds like a downer, but Winter Passing is not at all depressing. Nor is it a cheesy “love conquers all,” hugs-and-lessons fest. The characters don’t overcome their adversity, they just make small steps forward, and it’s that understatement that makes this so affecting.

For example, Deschanel has nursed a long-held grudge because her parents only came to see her perform once, in high school. A lesser film would have Harris in the front row on opening night of her next play, smiling with paternal pride as the music swells triumphantly. But instead, here he sends her an inscribed copy of one of his books, all he’s emotionally capable of doing. And she understands this, and accepts it as intended.

I think the central dilemma, the inability to really connect with other people (especially family), is something a lot of writers face. The distance between our inspiration and the effect we have on our audience is considerable compared to the more immediate arts. Musicians can play their song for you in three minutes; a painter’s finished product can be taken in at a glance. It takes a long time to write a book, and a long time to read one. So there’s often quite a lag between the reaching, and the touching.