Monday, June 21, 2010

Losing Literature: Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis is the type of author who doesn't leave you guessing where he draws his inspiration from. Most of his stories are framed around aspects of his real life; the most glaring example of this being his 2005 novel, "Lunar Park," which follows the exploits of an up-and-coming author by the name of, well, Bret Easton Ellis.

The chronicling of Ellis' life through his fiction has been characteristic of his writing since his literary career began 25 years ago when his first novel, "Less Than Zero," was published in 1985 before he had even graduated from Bennington College in Vermont.

A snapshot of Ellis' native Los Angeles in the mid-'80s, "Less Than Zero" was an indictment of the decadence and waywardness of the author's generation. The novel focuses on its young, perpetually despondent protagonist, Clay, as he returns home to L.A. for his college's winter break. Upon arriving in L.A., Clay reconnects with his high school friends and soon discovers that while he was away, many of them have become severely twisted by a combination of drugs, apathy and heartless entitlement.

On June 15, Ellis and Knopf Publishers released the follow-up to "Less Than Zero," titled "Imperial Bedrooms." Though Ellis maintains that he had never intended to write the next installment in the story of Clay, life intervened and brought his hand to the page.

"It took a couple years, in fact, to even get to the point to start making notes for 'Imperial Bedrooms,'" Ellis said. "During that time I was finishing 'Lunar Park' and I was also just wandering around thinking about a lot of things that were going on in my life: I was moving back to Los Angeles, I was working more heavily in the movie industry, I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, I was wondering where Clay was, and all these things kind of form a cloud that you become enveloped in and then you begin to write notes."

The sequel follows Clay, now working as a screenwriter, as he travels to L.A. 25 years after the events of "Less Than Zero" to cast roles for an '80s-themed flick which he penned. The book is a collage of the old and new, with many familiar faces returning from the original novel who are either suffering the consequences of their youthful debauchery or still indulging in it. It is not only a reunion for the characters in Clay's world, but also of Ellis and a straightforward, clean writing style he had long since abandoned.

"Part of the attraction of this project when I was thinking about it was how attractive it would be to go back to that kind of minimalism, in that style I haven't written in, I don't know, 25 years," Ellis said. "And that was very fun and exciting and after writing some verbose novels that were very long and were narrated by people who talked a lot. It was exciting to go back to this stripped, bare minimalism and just try to achieve an effect or a mood with few words as possible. It almost becomes kind of a game."

As the plot progresses in "Imperial Bedrooms," the story becomes less of a cautionary tale of the dangers of reckless excess and, instead, takes a noirish turn as Clay becomes obsessed with a young actress named Rain Turner during his casting calls. His infatuation leads him down a path of haunting paranoia, strange text messages and gruesome acts of violence.

Just the same, the world has been a little different for Ellis since "Less Than Zero" first hit the shelves. One of the main differences Ellis has noticed over the years is the reduction of an environment that has been essential to his career: that of the literary book culture.

"It's just a very different culture now," he said. "My friends, if you talked to them five years ago, at least they'd have a book going next to the nightstand and I'd be able to talk about a literary novel. I don't have those discussions anymore, they diminished by 70 percent and they say, 'Oh, yeah, my computer, or 'I'm watching movies.' It's a different culture now in terms of that kind of book. ... You can argue that it's kind of a transitional period; we're still figuring out how to make money off of technology and selling books. Maybe down the road, it'll be a different world, but right now, it's kind of shaky and I think people are a little freaked out by the general public's lack of interest in book culture."

How will the withering literary culture affect the writers Ellis writes about? Maybe a character will drop a hint in his next story.

» Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Mon., June 21, 7 p.m., free.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo by Jeff Burton

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Against Tradition: Steven Greenstreet of "8: The Mormon Proposition"

The film "8: The Mormon Proposition," has all the makings of a Dan Brown novel: political intrigue, front organizations and questionable church practices. The difference is that the people in this story are real. It isn't even fictional intrigue the documentary scrutinizes, but the events — some might say manipulations — that culminated with the passing of California's Proposition 8 in November 2008.

The measure banned same-sex marriage by defining marriage in the state's constitution as only valid between opposite-sex couples. The move came just six months after same-sex marriage had been ruled constitutional by the California Supreme Court. The documentary examines the role that the Mormon church played in supporting Prop 8 and the estimated $22 million that it spent in the months leading up to the election.

For co-director, Steven Greenstreet, "8" has been a personal endeavor — he was raised in a Mormon household.

"To make a film that criticizes that thing [the Mormon church] that for so long defined my life was at moments harrowing and at other moments liberating," he said.

The film premieres June 18 at the AFI Silver Theatre — a day and two years after the first same-sex marriage took place in California.
» EXPRESS: Was there anything that came as a revelation to you as you made this movie?
» GREENSTREET: Even having grown up in the church and being a Mormon missionary, I was still shocked when we got a hold of the internal documents kind of outlining the church's battle plan against gay marriage. It seems less of a plan written by representatives of God and more a plan written by political lobbyists in Washington. It was this kind of very politically scheming; all of the values I was taught in the Mormon church, of charity, of love, of loving your neighbor and tolerance were void in all of these documents that I was reading. It was so anti-gay it was mind-boggling.

» EXPRESS: How has your family reacted to your involvement with the film?
» GREENSTREET: When I made this film, I feared division and arguments within my own family and I had to battle with that every day on my involvement in this film. ...I feared horrible encounters with my own family and, luckily, that hasn't happened. My family has just been amazing and they love me no matter what and they understand that it's important to me. While we may disagree religiously and politically, they understand that love conquers all of that and I'm glad we've been unified despite our differences.

» AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; opens Fri., through Sun., $10. (Silver Spring)

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo by Brandon Bloch

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Stage of Development: Source Festival at Source Theater

The arrival of summer means it's festival season, and from beer to bands, there's an event for every fancy.

Theater buffs can get their kicks over the course of the next three weeks, as 300 artists descend on D.C. to take part in the third annual Source Festival. The festival — the reincarnation of the late Washington Theater Festival — will showcase artists as they perform varied and versatile forms of theater during each week of the event's run.

The fest kicks off with a week of 18 original, 10-minute plays. The second week will feature the culmination of what producer Jenny McConnell Frederick describes as "artistic blind dates." These "dates" consist of 12 selected artists who have never previously collaborated and were first brought together in the fall to create four pieces to perform at the festival. Finally, the third week will be composed of three full-length plays.

According to Frederick, the festival not only promotes the arts, but also serves as a bridge between rising stars and those who have already established themselves within the theater community.

"One of the major components of the festival is the bringing together of early-career artists, of later-career artists," she said, "to create a synergy and to help launch some careers in Washington."

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

» Source Theater, 1835 14th St. NW; opens Sat., through July 3, 8 p.m., $18 per night