Lit, Camera, Action

This month's East Bay book gossip.

Ghost of a chance: Oakland cartoonist and author Dan Clowes was on the verge of “renting a prom tux” for Sunday night’s Academy Awards, when, like his fellow nominees, he was offered a free one. The Academy didn’t pick Clowes, who was nominated for cowriting the screenplay adaptation of his graphic novel, Ghost World (Fantagraphics, $9.95). Akiva Goldsman walked away with the trophy instead — not that Clowes was surprised.

“I can’t think of anything more torturous than having to give a speech in front of a billion people,” Clowes mused shortly before leaving for LA a week before the ceremony. “The minute this thing’s over, everything will be back to normal.” Clowes and cowriter/director Terry Zwigoff were up against the scribes behind A Beautiful Mind, Shrek, Lord of the Rings, and In the Bedroom: “We don’t have a prayer, thank God.”

Adapting his heartbreaking graphic novel about two teenage best friends into a critics’ darling of a film took major tweaking. “We started out trying to make the movie exactly like the comic, but I was bored out of my mind,” Clowes explained. Book-to-film adaptation is all about “your loyalty to the author. But I thought, ‘Hey, I’m the author.’ I don’t have to have loyalty to myself.”

NPR interviews and a New Yorker profile have been intensely flattering, but all the attention feels weird, Clowes said. “There’s a reason that we aren’t actors,” Clowes joked of cartoonists.

Clowes said those big Hollywood luncheons reminded him of high-school assemblies, where Russell Crowe and Marisa Tomei “are like the football players and cheerleaders, and Terry and I are like the guys in the model rocketry club. Context is everything.” Lunching, he kept thinking of all the writing and drawing he would rather be doing.

Clowes was well into several new projects a couple years back when the idea for the movie was born. “Everything was going great,” he laughed, “until this happened.”

He still isn’t sure who the Academy actually is. Nor does he ever announce his newfound status in hopes of wresting freebies from the service sector. It’s tempting, he says, but “I haven’t told my barber.”

Outta sight: The Fine Line Features film of Jennifer Egan’s debut novel, starring Cameron Diaz, opened last year — and closed so quickly that the author never got a chance to see it. UC Berkeley dropouts and clashes with Oakland cops pepper The Invisible Circus (Picador, $13), in which a Fleetwood Mac-era teen leaves the Bay Area to investigate the death of her hippie sister in Europe eight years before. Film critics winced; a Seattle reporter charged director Adam Brooks with “making a career out of unsuccessful adaptations of chick lit.” (Brooks’ past adaptation credits include French Kiss and Beloved.) After barely a week in New York theaters, its run was done.

“It would have been better if it had done well, but financially it was excellent for me, and if you’re going to take their money you can’t freak out when things don’t go the way you’d like,” says Egan, whose new novel Look at Me (Doubleday, $24.95) is a National Book Award finalist but not prime Hollywood material because a major character suffers serious facial damage. Hanging around those European sets was fun, Egan says, but “eerie, watching people act out a scene you’d had in your mind, as if they were dramatizing your dream.” Meanwhile, Egan remembers “sitting in that little room writing the novel, wondering if anyone would ever even read it.”

Acting like an author: Now that the title tale from his national bestseller The Palace Thief is big-screen bound, Bay Area doctor-turned-novelist Ethan Canin has been watching his work transmogrify. In the first finished scene he saw, a crowd of students rushes through a Gothic arch onto a playing field.

“It’s a gorgeous shot, the door into the movie, really, and a moment undoable in prose,” he recalls. “Just darkness and a feeling of claustrophobia, then this bursting open of light and color. I have that feeling sometimes in a baseball stadium; that first sighting, after the long tunnels, of the bright green grass.”

Watching one’s story on-screen is almost, though not quite, as difficult as reading one’s own writing, notes the California Book Award-winning author. “I learned a huge amount,” Canin says. He had a small part in the movie, and in the “hours and hours” it took to film his half-minute scene, Canin discovered that “I overact. As Kevin Kline pointed out to me after the fifth, sixth, and seventh takes, the trick to movie acting — unlike stage acting — is to do nothing.” But watching those takes and retakes became “an exercise in a kind of liberating wonder.” To see “Kline fixing his tie in a mirror, a heron taking off from a beach — and to go from there, to watch the way a movie is assembled from tiny jagged pieces, like a mosaic, into a story, is to see for the first time the underbelly of the craft.”

Canin also discovered his talent for screenwriting. “I don’t like to think about that,” he frets, “because I have more books to write.”

Reaction shot: He played a killer in In Cold Blood; now Robert Blake is embroiled in a real-life murder case involving his wife. Writing about it for Rolling Stone is Deanne Stillman, whose best-selling Twenty-Nine Palms (Morrow, $12.95), new in paperback, is based on yet another murder, partly set in Oakland, and up for Pulitzer consideration. Penetrating Hollywood for the Blake story was as hard, Stillman says, as cracking into the Marine Corps, which she had to do for Twenty-Nine Palms.

Bonny Lee Bakley’s “whole life was all about either becoming a star or marrying one,” Stillman says of the victim. “She had hooked up with Jerry Lee Lewis and had an affair with Christian Brando.”

Suspicions swirl, but no one has been charged with her murder. “This is becoming the next JonBenet Ramsey case,” Stillman says.

Anime house: In the Realm of the Senses — that 1976 Japanese classic whose passion-addled heroine uses a knife to exact a very personal keepsake from her lover — airs April 8 at UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. To learn about that film and more, consult Donald Richie’s hefty new A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (Kodansha, $30). Former NYMOMA curator Richie distilled a lifelong passion into a comprehensive work that examines Rashomon and Pokemon and leaves no samurai unturned.

Writers on the storm: Syd Field was a student at UC Berkeley starring in a play circa 1960 when he met Jean Renoir at Wheeler Auditorium. The auteur was artist-in-residence that year and he took Field under his wing. Field now recalls the experience “changed my life forever.”

Over his next four decades as a screenwriter, Field was party to the making of some of the world’s best pictures. In his memoir Going to the Movies (Dell, $14.95), he recounts early days with Sam Peckinpah, Francis Ford Coppola, the Doors’ Ray Manzarek, and more, interweaving memories with astute analyses of films ranging from Chinatown to The Matrix, whose sequel was filmed in Alameda and about which Field happily declares, “This is the future.”

Hot dish: Renoir’s Grand Illusion is among a hundred picks in Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies (Broadway, $27.50). Dishing, TV’s favorite film critic dips back and forth behind the scenes, spanning eras, genres, and continents. He lauds local fave Vertigo, set in San Francisco, and Star Wars, whose creator George Lucas filmed a key scene of his 1971 picture THX 1138 in Berkeley’s still-unfinished BART station.

Little big stuff: Lucas isn’t likely to direct a film version of the latest haiku collection anytime soon. But books that only sell a few hundred copies, tops, still make impressions that last longer than popcorn. In Berkeley-based Small Press Distribution’s second annual “Underground California” program, dozens of independent bookstores statewide will specially feature small-press books all month and promote them with special events — such as Diesel’s April 28 poetry extravaganza.

Vamped: It’s sad to see the late Aaliyah’s befanged face on its cover, but a new movie tie-in edition of Queen of the Damned (Ballantine, $7.99) by ex-Berkeleyite Anne Rice revives the vampire Lestat yet again.

Wholly writ: You saw it onscreen in The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Last Temptation of … well, you know who. Now, in oh-so-post-paschal National Poetry Month, the story is back in a fluidly daring literary translation, The New Covenant (Riverhead, $35), by Oakland’s Willis Barnstone. Barnstone will be at Cody’s April 28.

Calling its characters by their Hebrew names (Jesus, hence, is Yeshua), Barnstone aims to refocus the New Testament “as a book by Jews arguing among themselves.” During this “very frightening” book’s ongoing reign as the world’s “main source of anti-Semitism,” Barnstone says, its thumpers tend to forget that most of its protagonists are Jewish.

“Had anyone attempted to accuse Yeshua or Paul of not being a Jew,” the Pulitzer nominee observes, “he would have been scandalized.”

Having already translated the works of Sappho and Heraclitus, Barnstone spent seven years rendering this work, whose Book of Revelations he calls the “great epic poem of the Bible, which is certainly as important as Beowulf,” into English from what he calls “very easy Greek. Wonderful Greek.” Each part had its own flavor; the Book of Mark — okay, Markos — “was pure Hemingway.”

Get crafty with kugel: Making a beaded purse out of a Manischewitz matzo-meal box? Reciting the words of tonight’s Passover seder in a Scooby Doo accent? Sisters Jennifer and Victoria Traig have what your Aunt Ethel might say is way too much fun with Jewish holidays, and share the wealth with step-by-step instructions in a cool new manual. Judaikitsch (Chronicle, $14.95) — which includes a chapter subtitled “I’m Too Sexy for My Shul” — mingles earthly celebrities with celestial ones. Davids Letterman, Duchovny, and Hasselhoff appear on a Star of David quilt. A Carmen Miranda yarmulke bears fruit. Also here are blueprints for a South Seas sukkah and gefilte-fish sushi. Call it “Jewshi,” urges Jennifer Traig, who dreamed up the book after realizing that other religions get all the glow-in-the-dark light-switch covers, keychains, and beads.

“They get the birdbaths,” says the UC Berkeley alumna, who gave a copy of the book to her Noe Valley rabbi. As for the Jewish American Princess Tiara, featuring teensy Tab cans and toy telephones, is it an in-joke or an ethnic slur?

“As long as you actually know what it’s like to be offended” by terms like J.A.P., reasons Traig, “I think it’s okay to say them.”

Shelf life: Books will be back in circulation amid safer, sleeker surroundings when Berkeley’s downtown library reopens April 6. So will a bigger, better video collection. Check it out.

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