Archive for September 30, 2011

Appreciation: The Ending of “The Bad News Bears.”

To be clear up front, we are talking the 1976 original with Tatum O’Neil, Walter Matthau, etc.

By the way, a shout out to the names of these characters: Amanda Whurlitzer, Coach Morris Buttermaker, Ogilvie, Engelberg, Jimmy Feldman, Rudi Stein, Tanner Boyle, Ahmad Abdul Rahim, Kelly Leak and Timmy Lupus. The names seem perfect to me now, especially when heard through the muttering lips of Coach Buttermaker, “Listen, Lupus, you didn’t come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did ya? Now get your ass out there and do the best you can.”

I’ve watched it several times, most recently about seven years ago. Great movie, though the language might startle you with its profanity and ethnic slurs. Pretty harsh by today’s politically-correct standards. The through-line of the movie moves inexorably toward the big, championship game. We’ve seen the Bears come together, struggle and lose, then learn to win, and now the stage is set for the film’s dramatic conclusion: The Big Game. We’ve seen this setup countless times before.

The first time I watched the movie, the game’s ending surprised me. It came down to a close play at home plate, the scrappy Bears about to tie it with two outs in the last inning . . . the baserunner slides, the catcher applies the tag, the dust rises . . . “Out!” the umpire calls.

Game over. The Bears lose.

What? Really?

For years I’ve marveled at (and appreciated) that decision by screenwriter Bill Lancaster and director Michael Ritchie. They didn’t allow the Bears to win the big game. Nope, they lost it. Because, when you think about it, winning was never actually the point to this story, not in a satire about Little League competition. But still, the Bears lost; it was shocking. Partly because you almost never see that in books and movies, for all sorts of reasons.

I might be more sensitized to endings than ever before, since I’ve been frequently queried about the ending to Bystander. I recently came across some of my early notes on the book that made it clear how I fully understood that my original ending lacked drama, it just didn’t hit it out of the park. I sensed that some readers might want more, particularly when considering their heightened feelings about fairness, justice. So I cooked up an alternative, a more satisfying ending, more complicated and conflict-oriented, and arrived at something pretty cool where the bad guy got it in the end. Not too shabby, way better from a purely dramatic point of view, but it didn’t satisfy me — because it didn’t ring true. Not to life as I knew it. So I reinstated my original ending, the one where life goes on without trumpets or tidy bows, unicorns or rainbows. The kid gets through it, basically. Survives. It gets better.

I don’t know what made me think of The Bad News Bears last night, but I remembered what happened in the scene immediately after the game. It was trophy time, that dreaded, heartless cheer, “Two, four, six, eight! Who do we appreciate?” The hated Yankees received a ludicrously-oversized trophy. And as consolation prize, the Bears were handed a dinky second-place trophy — and also, it should be recognized, offered grudging respect by the (still condescending) opposition.

It’s at this point, the movie’s true ending, when Tanner Boyle barks these immortal words:

“Hey, Yankees. You can take your apology,

and this trophy, and shove it straight up your ass!”

That was the film’s true ending, of course. It was never about the game. It was about winning respect, and self-respect. About being a team. In the end, Lancaster and Ritchie gave the Bears the much greater victory. There they were, hopping around like idiots, spritzing non-alcoholic beer on each other, happy and . . . triumphant. They lost the game, sure, so what, but ended the film on the perfect note. Pretty terrific, if you ask me.

See for yourself . . .

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Raymond Carver: Quote of the Day

In this age of desperate self-promotion, of tweets and status updates and high-cost book trailers, of authors being told, over and over again, about the importance of having a web presence, and — God help me, I’ve heard this — “the value of leveraging the media for maximum impact” — I am comforted by this quote, from one of the masters.

“Writers will be judged by what they write.”Raymond Carver.

Taken from a terrific interview from the Paris Review, conducted by my most respected pal, Lewis Buzbee, with Mona Simpson.

Fan Mail Wednesday #126 (Across Shared Solitudes)

Here’s one from Matthew . . .

Hello Mr. Preller. First of all, I love your books. I was wondering what inspired you to write your awesome books? How old were you when you began writing? I like the Jigsaw Jones series the best. My favorite is The Case of the Million Dollar Mystery. With a million dollars on the line, I was so nervous the case wouldn’t be solved in time. I love books that keep me turning the pages just to see what happens, and this was definitely one of them. Thanks for taking the time to read this and thanks for writing such great books!
I replied . . .
Thanks for your kind letter. It means a lot to me when readers take the time to reach out. It’s funny. As authors, we write in solitude, alone in a silent room (actually, I’m blasting the new Wilco CD right now). Reading is also a silent, solitary act. Yet somehow we communicate across those shared solitudes. You and me, together. Amazing.
When I was young, I used to make little comic books and sell them to the folks in my neighborhood. But in truth, I didn’t get serious about writing until college. That’s when I gradually came to love books, love reading: it fit my personality. At a certain point, I decided to try it for myself. Why not?
The curious thing is, I’m shy about certain things. I never want to embarrass myself, and that prevents me from being much of a risk-taker. For example, I never had the courage to act in a school play; I never dove off the high diving board in the town pool, worried that I might belly flop in front of so many people. Public dancing? Scary. But writing was something I could do by myself, in perfect safety. I could write and not share it with anyone. There was no one to laugh at me, poke fun at my failings.
So as writers, you and I can try new things, take new risks, without the worry of what others might think. Eventually, when you are ready (and not a moment before!), you might share your writing with a trusted friend or adult. Somehow that process worked for me, the boy who was always a little too concerned about what other people might think.
My best,

“One Book, One School” — One Amazed & Grateful Author

Found this via Google Alerts today . . .

Every student at Passage Middle School is reading “Bystanders,” a novel about bullying by James Preller, during the school’s “One Book, One School” initiative. The school spent about $5,360 to purchase 1,100 copies of the book, said librarian Patrice Lambusta.

The school’s 980 students began reading it Sept. 19 and will continue through late October. Lambusta, who kick-started the initiative, said teachers and students spend 20 minutes each morning reading one day and participating in anti-bullying activities the next.

Activities include learning about cyber-bullying, taking quizzes about bullying, and discussions on being a bystander when a peer is bullied.

The Newport News program is a play on the national “One School, One Book” program that is reserved mostly for elementary schools, Lambusta said.

I am honored, and grateful. Thank you for believing in my book, Patrice Lambusta. Now if we can get every school in America to do this, I’ll give up this lonely career to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a catwalk model.

Um, there’s lots on this blog about the book, just click on “Bystander” on the handy-dandy right sidebar under “CATEGORIES.” Or click here for a free sample of chapters 1 & 2.

Now if I can only learn how to walk a straight line . . .

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Confession: I Finally Got Around to Reading “A Wrinkle In Time”

“. . . one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.”

— Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle In Time.

When I was a kid, growing up in the 60’s, I didn’t read many children’s books. P.D. Eastman, of course, whom I liked better than Suess, some of the Little Golden Books, and later, the Hardy Boys. Frank and Joe, I think their names were. I have no memory of either of my parents reading to me, ever. It may have happened, must have happened, but I can’t recall it. I was the youngest of seven, born in 1961, and bed time wasn’t the hour-long ritual it’s become for so many kids today, with reading and talking and snuggling and sharing, etc. When I was a kid, it was more like, “Good night. And don’t forget to brush your teeth.”

The words that formed my reading habit came from the sports pages of The New York Daily News and The Long Island Press. I still maintain that my writing style, such as it is, was probably more influenced by Dick Young than anybody else: I faithfully read his column for many (formative) years. I also remember, as I reached my middle grade period, talking to my older brothers and sisters about books. They were readers, all of them, and loved Bradbury and Vonnegut and Brautigan and Robbins, so I picked up those books. I have a vivid recollection of writing a book report in 7th grade on any book I wanted. I chose Anthem by Ayn Rand, probably because it was a slenderest paperback on the family bookshelf.

I also read sports biographies, being an ex-boy, and still hold a special fondness for Go Up for Glory Bill Russell. It hit me like a thunderbolt, and for a time I was determined to grow into a very tall black man who’d willingly pass up a shot in order to set a fierce pick and then gladly roll into the paint, looking for the put-back.

Anyway, I basically missed the entire canon of children’s literature. I didn’t read Where the Wild Things Are until I worked at Scholastic as a junior copywriter in 1985, hauling in $12,500 a year, thank you very much. These days I still try to fill in the holes, though I’ll admit it: I love adult literature. After all, I’m an adult. Those are the books that lit my fuse. I am not giving up my grown-up books.

Now, about A Wrinkle In Time. I liked it. Some parts — the first few chapters, especially — I really, really admired. Other parts — after the tessering, and into the full-blown fantasy — I didn’t care for as much. It reminded me of the original Star Trek series (my brothers loved Star Trek and we watched it religiously). In sum: Dated, kind of corny, a little obvious, but entertaining and fast-paced and intelligent and provocative, too. There’s a quality to the book, a beating heart that you seldom find in most books, and after a while the beating of your own heart seems to match it, thump for thump, and book and reader are one. It must have been ground-breaking at the time, I  suppose, especially for the targeted audience. Today it reads a little like cliche, perhaps because it’s been so idolized and mimicked over the decades.

The problem: I’m not twelve anymore. And that’s what I wished for while I was reading the book. I wished I could have read it as a kid, experienced it with youthful eyes and heart. I’d bet the concept of “IT” might have blown me away, as opposed to now, when it feels too familiar and hackneyed. Very B-movie. So my appreciation comes from a distance; even that word, “appreciation,” feels cold and analytical and, I’m afraid, exactly right. I understand that it is widely considered one of the all-time greats of children’s literature, but I did not love the book on a visceral level; it didn’t speak to me. Not across so many years and these wrinkles in time on my face. I feel bad about that, like somehow I’ve let down the home team. But there it is, I said it.

I was born in 1961; L’Engle’s book was published in 1962. We should have grown up together, thump for thump, beat for beat. But, alas, we didn’t. And I think that was the main difficulty.

A few random lines I liked . . .

* But it was still not possible to think about her father without the danger of tears.

* “Why must everything happen to me?” she demanded of a large teddy bear.

* Mrs. Whatsit tugged at her second boot. “I said,” she grunted, shoving her foot down in, “that there is” — shove — “such a thing” — shove — “as a tesseract.” [Note: I read that sentence over and over, marveling at the punctuation.]

* “Maybe I don’t like being different,” Meg said, “but I don’t want to be like everybody else, either.”