Monthly Archives: March 2017

‘Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve’ Crunches The (Literary) Numbers


Purple, Prose: The new book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve subjects thousands of books to statistical analysis.

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Purple, Prose: The new book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve subjects thousands of books to statistical analysis.

NPR Multimedia

Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve

What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing

by Ben Blatt

Hardcover, 271 pages |

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Let’s acknowledge this at the top: It’s a thin slice.

To gaze across the great swath of written English over the past few centuries — that teeming, jostling, elbow-throwing riot of characters and places and stories and ideas — only to isolate, with dispassionate precision, some stray, infinitesimal data point such as which author uses cliches like “missing the forest for the trees” the most, would be like …

Well. You get it. More like missing the forest for the raspberry seed stuck to the underside of the 395th leaf on the 139th branch of the 223,825th tree.

But that’s what statistician Ben Blatt’s new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, sets out to do, thin slice by thin slice.

He loaded thousands of books — classics and contemporary best-sellers — into various databases and let his hard drive churn through them, seeking to determine, for example, if our favorite authors follow conventional writing advice about using cliches, adverbs and exclamation points (they mostly do); if men and women write differently (yep); if an algorithm can identify a writer from his or her prose style (it can); and which authors use the shortest first sentences (Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Mark Twain) versus those who use the longest (Salman Rushdie, Michael Chabon, Edith Wharton).

I can hear thousands of monocles dropping into thousands of cups of Earl Grey from here. “But what of literature?” you sputter. “What does any of that technical folderol have to do,” — here you start wiping your monocle on your nosegay — “with ART?”

Not much, is the answer. Blatt’s book isn’t terribly interested in the art of writing. What it’s fascinated by — and is fascinating about — is the craft of writing.

Technique. Word choice. Sentence structure. Reading level. There’s something cheeky in the way Blatt throws genre best-sellers into his statistical blender alongside literary lions and hits puree, looking for patterns of style shared by, say, James Joyce and James Patterson.

A Balm For Bookish Know-it-Alls

Author Ben Blatt is a journalist and statistician.

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Author Ben Blatt is a journalist and statistician.

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To say that you likely won’t find much that’s truly surprising in Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve isn’t a critique. In fact, it’s kind of the point. Reading it, you experience the feeling, again and again, of having some vague, squishy notion you’ve always sort of held about a given author getting ruthlessly distilled into a stark, cold, numerical fact.

Which is, if you’re the kind of person who likes to get proven right (hi!), a hell of a lot of fun.

Now: It’s a book of statistics, and statistics rest on distinct sets of assumptions that must get made before any number can start getting well and truly crunched. So if you’re curious about Blatt’s methodology, boy are you in luck. Every chapter begins with Blatt chattily sharing with the reader — as chattily as a book this eager to walk us through the formula used to calculate Flesch-Kincaide Grade Levels can be — every aspect of his thinking. How he defines “Great Books.” What constitutes a long sentence. Which chapter-endings qualify as cliffhangers, and which merely … abrupt.

He drags you into the weeds with him, but he’s a personable writer, and he’s brought along a picnic lunch, so you don’t mind the bugs.

Herewith, some of my favorite of Blatt’s findings in Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve:

MEN WRITE LIKE THIS, BUT WOMEN WRITE LIKE THIS

Maidens, Interrupted: A chart of word use in classic literature, from Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve.

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Maidens, Interrupted: A chart of word use in classic literature, from Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve.

Simon & Schuster

It tuns out that — sit down for this next bit — authors who are women write equally about men and women, but men write overwhelmingly about men.

I know. I’m shaken, over here.

For every appearance of the word “she” in classics by male authors, Blatt found three uses of the word “he.” In classics by women, the ratio was pretty much one-to-one.

Also: Male authors of classic literature are three times as likely to write that a female character “interrupted” than male characters. In contemporary popular and literary fiction, the ratio is smaller, but it’s still there.

FAVORITE WORDS

Blatt looked for the specific words that authors use much more frequently than the rate at which those words generally occur in the rest of written English (i.e., compared to a huge sample of literary works — some 385 million words in total — written in English between 1810 and 2009, assembled by linguists at Brigham Young Univeristy).

His criteria: A favorite word -

  1. Must occur in at least half of the author’s books
  2. Must be used at a rate of at least once per 100,000 words
  3. Must not be so obscure that it’s used less than once per million in the BYU sample of written English
  4. Is not a proper noun

Here’s some that jumped out at me.

Jane Austen: civility, fancying, imprudence (Story checks out, right?)

Dan Brown: grail, masonic, pyramid (I am sagely nodding, over here.)

Truman Capote: clutter, zoo, geranium

John Cheever: infirmary, venereal, erotic (Boy howdy, that’s a whole Cheever short story, right there.)

Agatha Christie: inquest, alibi, frightful

F. Scott Fitzgerald: facetious, muddled, sanitarium

Ian Fleming: lavatory, trouser, spangled (“Pardon me, Blofeld; must dash to the lavatory, got something spangled on me trouser.”)

Ernest Hemingway: concierge, astern, cognac (Yuuup.)

Toni Morrison: messed, navel, slop

Vladimir Nabokov: mauve, banal, pun (As Blatt points out, Nabokov had synethesia, a condition that caused him to associate various colors with the sound and shape of letters and words. “Mauve” was his favorite: He used the word at a rate that’s 44 times higher than the rate at which it occurs in the BYU sample of written English.)

Jodi Picoult: courtroom, diaper, diner

Ayn Rand: transcontinental, comrade, proletarian

J.K. Rowlilng: wand, wizard, potion (Well, duh.)

Amy Tan: gourd, peanut, noodles

Mark Twain: hearted, shucks, satan

Edith Wharton: nearness, daresay, compunction (Man I love me some Edith Friggin’ Wharton.)

Virginia Woolf: flushing, blotting, mantelpiece (Chandler Bing: “Could they BE more Virginia Woolf?”)

ADVERBS

You know: nearly, suddenly, sloppily, etc. Writing teachers tell you to avoid them, that they sap the energy from a sentence. Strong, clear writing is fueled by verbs and nouns, they say, not by adjectives and adverbs.

Turns out, the adverb thing holds up: When Blatt combined several lists of the “Great Books” of the 20th century, he came up with 37 which were generally considered great.

Of these, 2 out of 3 — 67 percent — contained a significantly lower number of adverbs (less than 50 per 10,000 words) than occurs, on average, in written English.

EXCLAMATION POINTS

Well I mean: I hate ‘em, at least. My husband uses them like they’re powdered sugar and his emails are lemon bars. But I hate ‘em.

You know who doesn’t hate ‘em? Besides my husband, I mean? James Joyce. Dude loved them.

Blatt took a sample of 50 authors of classics and contemporary best-sellers, totaling 580 books. The authors who used the most exclamation points per 100,000 words were:

5. J.R.R. Tolkien (767)
4. E.B. White (782. Gasp; nobody tell Mr. Strunk.)
3. Sinclair Lewis (844. I guess it CAN happen here.)
2. Tom Wolfe (929)
1. James Joyce (1,105)

Elmore Leonard — bless him — used the fewest: Just 49 per 100,000 words.

IT’S RAINING CATS AND DOGS AND CLICHES

When it comes to use of cliches, there’s another gender split.

In Blatt’s list of 50 classic and best-selling authors (scroll down to the bottom of this post to see them all), those who use cliches most frequently? All men.

5. Chuck Palahniuk (129 per 100,000 words)

4. Salman Rushdie (131)

3. Kurt Vonnegut (140. All those “And so it goes”es in Slaughterhouse-Five really hurt him here, I bet.)

2. Tom Wolfe (143)

1. James Patterson (160)

(In fairness to Patterson, Blatt includes cliches found in dialogue, and Patterson’s characters aren’t exactly going around coining new phrases with a Joycean fervor.)

The authors who used the fewest cliches? All women.

5. Veronica Roth (69)

4. Willa Cather (67)

3. Virginia Woolf (62)

2. Edith Wharton (62)

1. Jane Austen (A paltry 45 per 100,000 words, about 1/3 of the rate at which James “More Cliches Than You Can Shake A Stick At” Patterson busts them out.)

Now, again: It’s a thin slice, looking at literature in this knowingly reductive way. It doesn’t tell you everything, and of course it doesn’t give you a true sense of the feeling you get when you read these authors for yourself.

But what it often succeeds in capturing, with astonishing clarity, is your feeling about these authors.

Case in point: The author who is most likely to mention the weather in the opening sentence?

Danielle Steele.

She does it in — precisely — 46 percent of her books.

A ranking of authors by cliche-use, from Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve.

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An Exoneree Shares His Story Of Wrongful Conviction In ‘Anatomy Of Innocence’


Jerry Miller says he always held out hope for exoneration. “I made a logical decision to do positive things and to think positive,” he says.

Courtesy of the Innocence Project


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Courtesy of the Innocence Project

Jerry Miller says he always held out hope for exoneration. “I made a logical decision to do positive things and to think positive,” he says.

Courtesy of the Innocence Project

Jerry Miller spent more than 25 years behind bars for kidnapping, rape and robbery — crimes he didn’t commit.

Miller was released from prison in 2006. In 2007, after decades of insisting he was innocent, Miller was finally vindicated: He became the 200th American to be cleared by DNA evidence of a wrongful conviction. Today, that number is closer to 350.

Miller’s story is now part of a new book called Anatomy of Innocence. It fleshes out personal accounts of wrongful convictions, with a twist: In each chapter, a mystery or thriller writer tells the story of a real-life exoneree.

Miller was paired with John Mankiewicz, an executive producer of the Netflix show House of Cards. Their chapter goes beyond the years Miller spent behind bars, and describes life after prison but before exoneration, when Miller had to wear an ankle bracelet, keep a 9 p.m. curfew and register as a sex offender. He couldn’t attend nieces and nephews’ birthday parties because he wasn’t allowed to be around children.

Miller shares his memories of the day he was exonerated, and Mankiewicz discusses the challenges of telling Miller’s story.

Interview Highlights

On how Miller managed to stay hopeful after his conviction

Miller: I had a life to live, so I had to choose how I wanted to live it, you know. What comes from a man who is negative and basically is mad at the world because he was wronged? You can’t, I can’t function — I couldn’t function like that. And I couldn’t draw people to my aid like that. You just have to accept what has happened and grow from it. You know, to just walk around angry, you know, in some cases an angry old man — I mean, that’s a waste of the rest of your life. I’m more practical than that. I made a logical decision to do positive things and to think positive.

On the day Miller was exonerated

Miller: Even now I kind of get a little shook. … I was getting ready to get my life back. I knew it was going to happen. It was strange and, you know, my family, we basically had a caravan. We rode out to the [Cook County, Ill.,] court building down at 26th and California. And everybody was dressed sharp and, you know, was happy for me. And I just was real proud that I didn’t give up. …

John Mankiewicz’s other TV credits include The Mentalist and House.

Courtesy of Laura Caldwell and Liveright Publishing


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Courtesy of Laura Caldwell and Liveright Publishing

John Mankiewicz’s other TV credits include The Mentalist and House.

Courtesy of Laura Caldwell and Liveright Publishing

When they called me up before the judge, I passed through people who was waiting to have their cases heard or whatever, and they saw the news media and they was like, “Who is that? Who is that? What’s going on?” … I’m hearing them, but I’m focused. I have to go up here and maintain my cool in front of this judge. And so when it all happened and they saw what was taking place, everybody — it was a lot of people, you know, waiting — and everybody started clapping.

On how writing Miller’s story was different from writing House of Cards

Mankiewicz: I felt a big responsibility to tell the story right. … I had a very small audience of one [Miller] that I cared about … thinking that I’d gotten it right. … So many other people had been telling lies about him over a period of 26 years, you know, what happened to him. And I wanted to get it right for him.

And, by the way, you’re writing House of Cards; the worst thing that can happen is it’s a bad show. It’s TV. I felt the stakes were a little higher here. …

If you think about every exoneree, every single one who’s actually innocent, no one has believed them and no one has been interested in hearing what the real story was until they’re exonerated. You know, they’re just another man or woman in jail saying, “I’m innocent. I didn’t do it. How am I going to prove it?” … While we were doing this, writing the story, which I over reported by a factor of 10 because I was so nervous … I wanted to get it right.

On what Miller hopes the book will accomplish

Miller: I’ve heard stories even worse than mine, but the interesting stories in there are about reality. You know, it’s not a fantasy, it’s nothing made-up; these are real people who suffered real pain, who [have] to find their way back to being a productive citizen. And they need support.

For people not to hear this story, I mean, they would be missing out on the triumphs of human beings and how they’re able to struggle hard enough to regain their life back and, you know, clear their family’s name. They’re important stories that need to be told. … People don’t know … what it takes to accomplish what exonerees do. They’re like the phoenix: They’re redone, resurrected.

Editor Jessica Deahl, producer Sam Gringlas and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this report.

Young Women Bedeviled By Darkness In Moody ‘The Blackcoat’s Daughter’


Highway to Hell (and Environs): Joan (Emma Roberts) hitches a fateful ride in The Blackcoat’s Daughter.

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Highway to Hell (and Environs): Joan (Emma Roberts) hitches a fateful ride in The Blackcoat’s Daughter.

Petr Maur/A24

Knives are the weapon of choice in the dread-soaked horror film The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and for debut director Osgood Perkins, that’s a prime example of steering into the skid. Perkins’ father is the late Anthony Perkins, who wielded the most famous knife in film history as Norman Bates in Psycho, and he seems determined to carry that same horror classicism into the 21st century. Along with his superb follow-up I Am the Pretty Girl Who Lives in the House — which premiered on Netflix last year — the film feels determinedly old-fashioned, awash in a hypnotic ambience that’s only occasionally punctured by violence. Like his father, Perkins makes his jolts count.

If anything, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (which played festivals under the substantially less evocative title February) plays it too coy for too long, establishing a mood without much in the way of action or follow-through. For a first-time director, Perkins shows remarkable confidence in building his unsettling premise on enigmas and ellipses, essentially deferring the answers to all questions until the final act. When the twists finally arrive, they’re not surprising in and of themselves — the signs are not hidden well enough in plain sight — but the shocks sting hard, like a coiled snake that’s been waiting patiently in the underbrush.

When a prestigious Catholic boarding school for girls lets out for winter break, two students are left behind because their parents either forgot to pick them up or were delayed by snowstorms. (Or, perhaps, there’s a third and more nefarious explanation.) Channeling much of the enigmatic power she brought to Sally Draper on Mad Men, Kieran Shipka plays Kat, a quiet freshman who appears disturbed by some unknown specter, but doesn’t articulate what. The other student, Rose (Lucy Boynton), does more of the talking, but as an upperclass mean-girl type, she doesn’t take that keen an interest in Kat.

Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, Joan (Emma Roberts) is hitchhiking her way toward campus, driven by a couple of grieving parents (James Remar and Lauren Holly) who have may have ulterior motives. A band on Joan’s wrists suggests that she’s earned a recent and likely unauthorized release from the hospital, but it’s unclear what her relationship is to the school and why she’s traveling there when it’s out of session.

In both the Kat/Rose thread and the Joan/grieving parents thread, the tension comes from wondering who’s the threat and who’s the threatened, or if there’s some external force that’s bearing down on them. Then there’s the additional question of how these threads will intertwine once Joan finally reaches her destination. Perkins pulls off one genuine structural surprise, but the strength of The Blackcoat’s Daughter lies in its stately evocation of the occult, which brings it in line with the retro-1980s Satanic horror of Ti West’s The House of the Devil. His cinematographer, Julie Kirkwood, works in wintery hues that render the outdoors a permanent slate-gray and the interiors so dim that the characters (and the audience) have to squint through it. The score, by his brother Elvis, works in the lower registers, with occasional shrieks of violin poking through an ambient bed of heebie-jeebies.

At worst, The Blackcoat’s Daughter plays like a throat-clearing exercise for a horror prodigy, a minor attempt to class up a demon possession subgenre that’s only gotten grosser and more extreme since The Exorcist. But within those narrow parameters, Perkins captures the intense feelings of loneliness and alienation that make these young women vulnerable to menace. On a campus virtually without students, swathed in snow and darkness, there almost doesn’t have to be an evil presence to make life seem oppressive for the girls who are left behind. Here, Satan can seem like a friend.

Caged By Its Noble Intentions: ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’


Borne, Freed: Jessica Chastain as the lion-hearted Antonina Zabinski in The Zookeeper’s Wife.

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Borne, Freed: Jessica Chastain as the lion-hearted Antonina Zabinski in The Zookeeper’s Wife.

Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features

You’d think the absolute worst thing that a WWII movie could do is compare its huddled masses of Jews to animals. But The Zookeeper’s Wife turns out to have a pretty good justification for equating the two.

It tells the story of the Zabinski family, who ran the Warsaw Zoo during the war and who secretly helped relocate hundreds of Jews fleeing German-occupied Poland. The Zabinskis used their abandoned cages in storage — which had held animals, until the Nazis either relocated the beasts to German zoos or shot them — as waystations for the refugees, who’d just escaped a much harsher caged existence in the Warsaw Ghetto. Now they had to huddle amidst the hay and feeding products, and train themselves not to fidget or make a sound until they heard Antonina Zabinski play a certain melody on the piano.

We are seeing this story play out from the perspective of the Zabinskis, who are naturally compassionate people but prior to the war had only needed to exercise that compassion on their zoo collection. So it makes perfect sense not to encounter the Jews they saved all that closely as true characters, even though the omission feels crude from a distance. Director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman have created, perhaps unintentionally, a sensible balance sheet for all living things. Zookeepers protect animals because they are alive and unique and deserving of our love; why not do the same for people, just because?

When it comes to spotlighting its heroes, though, there’s another balance sheet the film can’t square. As we see, patriarch Jan Zabinski (Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh, from The Broken Circle Breakdown) is the family member who first decides to house Jews on their grounds. Once Jan convinces the Germans to let him turn the empty zoo into a pig farm, he’s also the one who must venture in and out of the ghetto to smuggle people out in a truck filled with pig feed — Jews saved by treyf. But author Diane Ackerman, who wrote the nonfiction book the film is based on, drew from Jan’s wife Antonina’s diaries for research; this explains why Antonina’s title is front and center, and why the film insists Jessica Chastain’s pure-hearted portrayal of her is the only lead role. (Chastain is also an executive producer.)

To be sure, Antonina worked in tandem with Jan and was as essential to the Jew-smuggling operation as she was to the animal upkeep — the title is meant to be ironic. And Chastain (who, like Heldenbergh, can fake a good Polish accent to distract us from the fact she’s still speaking English) makes her into a magnetic, principled force who can hold her own even when sharing the screen with a live rabbit. But the movie never shows Antonina writing in her diary, so we miss the context of why it’s her story. We also miss a lot of the fascinating details of her character that informed the book: for example, that she gave animal code names to her refugees, further drawing home the unsettling parallel that makes the story so distinctive.

Instead, to fill time and add artificial layers of steely determination, we see Antonina try to outmaneuver some horndoggery from villain Lutz Heck, head of the Berlin Zoo and Hitler’s chief zoologist (played by poor Daniel Brühl, Hollywood’s go-to Nazi and/or Nazi descendant). Heck was, in real life, a man of untenable contradictions. Though a professed lover of animals, he didn’t hesitate to kill the four-legged denizens of the Warsaw Zoo; he also launched a Jurassic Park-style breeding program attempting to resurrect extinct species of cattle and horse, including the mythical auroch. But the film’s characterization of him is lazy, making him a kind face for the first act before flipping him to abject, predatory evil. Jan pouts jealously in the background whenever Heck pays Antonina any attention, as though she chose to entertain the affections of her zoo’s Nazi occupier.

The early scenes in 1939, as the war breaches Poland, are the most compelling. When the zoo becomes the target of a sustained bombing campaign, Caro cuts between several heartbreaking shots of the animals in their cages, panicking at this strange threat but unable to flee it: cheetahs pawing uselessly, monkeys screeching to no one. Having already been put on display for man’s enjoyment, they must now die at the hands of man’s wars. Caro overdoes this symbolic power a few scenes later, when Heck shoots a bald eagle (of all things). But this feels, for a little while, like the rare WWII movie with the power to speak to injustice in many different forms. If only a lumpy second act didn’t come along to mute that power with bait-and-switch heart-tuggers and some truly idiotic behavior on the part of Antonina’s bratty son Ryszard (Val Maloku).

We are invited to compare The Zookeeper’s Wife to its most obvious reference point, Schindler’s List, which also revolved around one citizen’s clandestine operations to save hundreds of Jews. Though Oskar Schindler’s evolution from proud servant of the Nazi Party to secret humanitarian was a far more cinematic journey, the Zabinskis were local figures of merit who took a principled stand for goodness, making them more appropriate to our current era. The Zookeeper’s Wife is more of a utilitarian exercise than Spielberg’s genre-defining monument, as Caro fails to find the same spark of compassionate moviemaking that ignited her masterpiece Whale Rider, or even her perfectly enjoyable take on sports movies, McFarland, USA. But it certainly has more going for it than, say, 2015’s Woman in Gold, which cynically glad-handed its audience in an effort to convince them a battle over art restitution could count as a variant on “Never Forget.”

Perhaps this film’s promotional partnership with the International Rescue Commission, which aims to help today’s refugee populations from all over the world, has given it a grander sense of purpose. Too bad no one could let it out of the cage where we keep the American-made Holocaust melodramas. The Zookeeper’s Wife will be condemned to pace back and forth on display for an easily pigeonholed audience, never truly knowing freedom.

A Painter, A Novelist And A Contentious Lifelong Friendship: ‘Cézanne et Moi’


A Study In Contrasts: Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet) and Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) in Cézanne et Moi.

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A Study In Contrasts: Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet) and Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) in Cézanne et Moi.

Magnolia Pictures

Cézanne et Moi opens with one of the most difficult things to depict on screen: the inner toil of an artist at work. Yet the first character to appear is not painter Paul Cezanne but the movie’s “moi”: novelist Emile Zola, a friend of Cézanne for most of his life.

Aside from being historically authentic, the relationship is neatly suited to a twin biopic. Zola was a poor outsider in Aix-en-Provence when he met elementary-school classmate Cézanne, who came from a wealthy family. Cézanne protected Zola, but later the roles reversed. The writer became successful and prosperous, while the painter rarely sold a canvas. After Cézanne’s father cut his allowance, Zola subsidized his friend.

Writer-director Danièle Thompson, who’s known for such lithe comedies as Avenue Montaigne, gives this 19th-century saga a contemporary look. Working with cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou, Thompson contrasts the widescreen format with a restless handheld camera and many closeups, so the movie feels both sweeping and intimate. Dreujou captures natural light a painter might well envy, while Guillaume Canet (best known as the director of Tell No One) and Guillaume Gallienne persuasively embody Zola and Cézanne, respectively, across several decades.

Thompson’s dialogue, especially as rendered in the English subtitles, is less subtle. Its up-to-date bluntness and vulgarity may be designed to engage viewers who’ve barely heard of the central characters. But the movie is still most likely to appeal to those who know not only them, but also such supporting players as Manet, Pissaro, Renoir, and Maupassant.

The story opens in 1888, when the two men were middle-aged and antagonistic, then flashes back and forward in a mostly chronological progression. The break comes when Cézanne accuses Zola of pillaging the painter’s life for his 1886 novel, usually rendered in English as The Masterpiece. According to Thompson’s lightly fictionalized account, Cézanne was indeed Zola’s source of inspiration, but only in part. There was another (and not too surprising) component to the novelist’s characterization of an artist who failed to fulfill his potential.

Thompson focuses so tightly on Cézanne and Zola’s contentious friendship that she barely mentions the most dramatic episode in the latter’s life: his defense of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jewish officer wrongly convicted of treason. This heroic episode was the crux of a 1937 Hollywood drama, The Life of Emile Zola, but here it’s dismissed quickly in an epilogue.

The director is more interested in the men and women around them, many of them artist’s models seen in various states of undress. The lusty Cézanne paints and beds Alexandrine (Alice Pol), then moves on; the more cautious Zola marries her, although that’s not the final chapter in his romantic life. Also significant to the story are Cézanne and Zola’s mothers (Sabine Azéma, who’s unusually subdued, and Isabelle Candelier).

The film’s title suggests that Zola is its narrator, but Thompson avoids that hackneyed device. Instead, she highlights the writer’s words in a series of cunningly staged scenes in which one man overhears the other.

Cézanne gets top billing not because he’s Zola’s subject, but because — in this telling — the novelist who was hailed in his lifetime has proved to be less influential than the painter who was reviled during his. Such a conclusion may be a cliche of tortured-artist biopics, but in the case of Cézanne and Zola, it’s also a valid judgment.

An Exoneree Shares His Story Of Wrongful Conviction In ‘Anatomy Of Innocence’


Jerry Miller says he always held out hope for exoneration. “I made a logical decision to do positive things and to think positive,” he says.

Courtesy of the Innocence Project


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Courtesy of the Innocence Project

Jerry Miller says he always held out hope for exoneration. “I made a logical decision to do positive things and to think positive,” he says.

Courtesy of the Innocence Project

Jerry Miller spent more than 25 years behind bars for kidnapping, rape and robbery — crimes he didn’t commit.

Miller was released from prison in 2006. In 2007, after decades of insisting he was innocent, Miller was finally vindicated: He became the 200th American to be cleared by DNA evidence of a wrongful conviction. Today, that number is closer to 350.

Miller’s story is now part of a new book called Anatomy of Innocence. It fleshes out personal accounts of wrongful convictions, with a twist: In each chapter, a mystery or thriller writer tells the story of a real-life exoneree.

Miller was paired with John Mankiewicz, an executive producer of the Netflix show House of Cards. Their chapter goes beyond the years Miller spent behind bars, and describes life after prison but before exoneration, when Miller had to wear an ankle bracelet, keep a 9 p.m. curfew and register as a sex offender. He couldn’t attend nieces and nephews’ birthday parties because he wasn’t allowed to be around children.

Miller shares his memories of the day he was exonerated, and Mankiewicz discusses the challenges of telling Miller’s story.

Interview Highlights

On how Miller managed to stay hopeful after his conviction

Miller: I had a life to live, so I had to choose how I wanted to live it, you know. What comes from a man who is negative and basically is mad at the world because he was wronged? You can’t, I can’t function — I couldn’t function like that. And I couldn’t draw people to my aid like that. You just have to accept what has happened and grow from it. You know, to just walk around angry, you know, in some cases an angry old man — I mean, that’s a waste of the rest of your life. I’m more practical than that. I made a logical decision to do positive things and to think positive.

On the day Miller was exonerated

Miller: Even now I kind of get a little shook. … I was getting ready to get my life back. I knew it was going to happen. It was strange and, you know, my family, we basically had a caravan. We rode out to the [Cook County, Ill.,] court building down at 26th and California. And everybody was dressed sharp and, you know, was happy for me. And I just was real proud that I didn’t give up. …

John Mankiewicz’s other TV credits include The Mentalist and House.

Courtesy of Laura Caldwell and Liveright Publishing


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Courtesy of Laura Caldwell and Liveright Publishing

John Mankiewicz’s other TV credits include The Mentalist and House.

Courtesy of Laura Caldwell and Liveright Publishing

When they called me up before the judge, I passed through people who was waiting to have their cases heard or whatever, and they saw the news media and they was like, “Who is that? Who is that? What’s going on?” … I’m hearing them, but I’m focused. I have to go up here and maintain my cool in front of this judge. And so when it all happened and they saw what was taking place, everybody — it was a lot of people, you know, waiting — and everybody started clapping.

On how writing Miller’s story was different from writing House of Cards

Mankiewicz: I felt a big responsibility to tell the story right. … I had a very small audience of one [Miller] that I cared about … thinking that I’d gotten it right. … So many other people had been telling lies about him over a period of 26 years, you know, what happened to him. And I wanted to get it right for him.

And, by the way, you’re writing House of Cards; the worst thing that can happen is it’s a bad show. It’s TV. I felt the stakes were a little higher here. …

If you think about every exoneree, every single one who’s actually innocent, no one has believed them and no one has been interested in hearing what the real story was until they’re exonerated. You know, they’re just another man or woman in jail saying, “I’m innocent. I didn’t do it. How am I going to prove it?” … While we were doing this, writing the story, which I over reported by a factor of 10 because I was so nervous … I wanted to get it right.

On what Miller hopes the book will accomplish

Miller: I’ve heard stories even worse than mine, but the interesting stories in there are about reality. You know, it’s not a fantasy, it’s nothing made-up; these are real people who suffered real pain, who [have] to find their way back to being a productive citizen. And they need support.

For people not to hear this story, I mean, they would be missing out on the triumphs of human beings and how they’re able to struggle hard enough to regain their life back and, you know, clear their family’s name. They’re important stories that need to be told. … People don’t know … what it takes to accomplish what exonerees do. They’re like the phoenix: They’re redone, resurrected.

Editor Jessica Deahl, producer Sam Gringlas and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this report.

Young Women Bedeviled By Darkness In Moody ‘The Blackcoat’s Daughter’


Highway to Hell (and Environs): Joan (Emma Roberts) hitches a fateful ride in The Blackcoat’s Daughter.

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Highway to Hell (and Environs): Joan (Emma Roberts) hitches a fateful ride in The Blackcoat’s Daughter.

Petr Maur/A24

Knives are the weapon of choice in the dread-soaked horror film The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and for debut director Osgood Perkins, that’s a prime example of steering into the skid. Perkins’ father is the late Anthony Perkins, who wielded the most famous knife in film history as Norman Bates in Psycho, and he seems determined to carry that same horror classicism into the 21st century. Along with his superb follow-up I Am the Pretty Girl Who Lives in the House — which premiered on Netflix last year — the film feels determinedly old-fashioned, awash in a hypnotic ambience that’s only occasionally punctured by violence. Like his father, Perkins makes his jolts count.

If anything, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (which played festivals under the substantially less evocative title February) plays it too coy for too long, establishing a mood without much in the way of action or follow-through. For a first-time director, Perkins shows remarkable confidence in building his unsettling premise on enigmas and ellipses, essentially deferring the answers to all questions until the final act. When the twists finally arrive, they’re not surprising in and of themselves — the signs are not hidden well enough in plain sight — but the shocks sting hard, like a coiled snake that’s been waiting patiently in the underbrush.

When a prestigious Catholic boarding school for girls lets out for winter break, two students are left behind because their parents either forgot to pick them up or were delayed by snowstorms. (Or, perhaps, there’s a third and more nefarious explanation.) Channeling much of the enigmatic power she brought to Sally Draper on Mad Men, Kieran Shipka plays Kat, a quiet freshman who appears disturbed by some unknown specter, but doesn’t articulate what. The other student, Rose (Lucy Boynton), does more of the talking, but as an upperclass mean-girl type, she doesn’t take that keen an interest in Kat.

Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, Joan (Emma Roberts) is hitchhiking her way toward campus, driven by a couple of grieving parents (James Remar and Lauren Holly) who have may have ulterior motives. A band on Joan’s wrists suggests that she’s earned a recent and likely unauthorized release from the hospital, but it’s unclear what her relationship is to the school and why she’s traveling there when it’s out of session.

In both the Kat/Rose thread and the Joan/grieving parents thread, the tension comes from wondering who’s the threat and who’s the threatened, or if there’s some external force that’s bearing down on them. Then there’s the additional question of how these threads will intertwine once Joan finally reaches her destination. Perkins pulls off one genuine structural surprise, but the strength of The Blackcoat’s Daughter lies in its stately evocation of the occult, which brings it in line with the retro-1980s Satanic horror of Ti West’s The House of the Devil. His cinematographer, Julie Kirkwood, works in wintery hues that render the outdoors a permanent slate-gray and the interiors so dim that the characters (and the audience) have to squint through it. The score, by his brother Elvis, works in the lower registers, with occasional shrieks of violin poking through an ambient bed of heebie-jeebies.

At worst, The Blackcoat’s Daughter plays like a throat-clearing exercise for a horror prodigy, a minor attempt to class up a demon possession subgenre that’s only gotten grosser and more extreme since The Exorcist. But within those narrow parameters, Perkins captures the intense feelings of loneliness and alienation that make these young women vulnerable to menace. On a campus virtually without students, swathed in snow and darkness, there almost doesn’t have to be an evil presence to make life seem oppressive for the girls who are left behind. Here, Satan can seem like a friend.

Caged By Its Noble Intentions: ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’


Borne, Freed: Jessica Chastain as the lion-hearted Antonina Zabinski in The Zookeeper’s Wife.

Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features


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Borne, Freed: Jessica Chastain as the lion-hearted Antonina Zabinski in The Zookeeper’s Wife.

Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features

You’d think the absolute worst thing that a WWII movie could do is compare its huddled masses of Jews to animals. But The Zookeeper’s Wife turns out to have a pretty good justification for equating the two.

It tells the story of the Zabinski family, who ran the Warsaw Zoo during the war and who secretly helped relocate hundreds of Jews fleeing German-occupied Poland. The Zabinskis used their abandoned cages in storage — which had held animals, until the Nazis either relocated the beasts to German zoos or shot them — as waystations for the refugees, who’d just escaped a much harsher caged existence in the Warsaw Ghetto. Now they had to huddle amidst the hay and feeding products, and train themselves not to fidget or make a sound until they heard Antonina Zabinski play a certain melody on the piano.

We are seeing this story play out from the perspective of the Zabinskis, who are naturally compassionate people but prior to the war had only needed to exercise that compassion on their zoo collection. So it makes perfect sense not to encounter the Jews they saved all that closely as true characters, even though the omission feels crude from a distance. Director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman have created, perhaps unintentionally, a sensible balance sheet for all living things. Zookeepers protect animals because they are alive and unique and deserving of our love; why not do the same for people, just because?

When it comes to spotlighting its heroes, though, there’s another balance sheet the film can’t square. As we see, patriarch Jan Zabinski (Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh, from The Broken Circle Breakdown) is the family member who first decides to house Jews on their grounds. Once Jan convinces the Germans to let him turn the empty zoo into a pig farm, he’s also the one who must venture in and out of the ghetto to smuggle people out in a truck filled with pig feed — Jews saved by treyf. But author Diane Ackerman, who wrote the nonfiction book the film is based on, drew from Jan’s wife Antonina’s diaries for research; this explains why Antonina’s title is front and center, and why the film insists Jessica Chastain’s pure-hearted portrayal of her is the only lead role. (Chastain is also an executive producer.)

To be sure, Antonina worked in tandem with Jan and was as essential to the Jew-smuggling operation as she was to the animal upkeep — the title is meant to be ironic. And Chastain (who, like Heldenbergh, can fake a good Polish accent to distract us from the fact she’s still speaking English) makes her into a magnetic, principled force who can hold her own even when sharing the screen with a live rabbit. But the movie never shows Antonina writing in her diary, so we miss the context of why it’s her story. We also miss a lot of the fascinating details of her character that informed the book: for example, that she gave animal code names to her refugees, further drawing home the unsettling parallel that makes the story so distinctive.

Instead, to fill time and add artificial layers of steely determination, we see Antonina try to outmaneuver some horndoggery from villain Lutz Heck, head of the Berlin Zoo and Hitler’s chief zoologist (played by poor Daniel Brühl, Hollywood’s go-to Nazi and/or Nazi descendant). Heck was, in real life, a man of untenable contradictions. Though a professed lover of animals, he didn’t hesitate to kill the four-legged denizens of the Warsaw Zoo; he also launched a Jurassic Park-style breeding program attempting to resurrect extinct species of cattle and horse, including the mythical auroch. But the film’s characterization of him is lazy, making him a kind face for the first act before flipping him to abject, predatory evil. Jan pouts jealously in the background whenever Heck pays Antonina any attention, as though she chose to entertain the affections of her zoo’s Nazi occupier.

The early scenes in 1939, as the war breaches Poland, are the most compelling. When the zoo becomes the target of a sustained bombing campaign, Caro cuts between several heartbreaking shots of the animals in their cages, panicking at this strange threat but unable to flee it: cheetahs pawing uselessly, monkeys screeching to no one. Having already been put on display for man’s enjoyment, they must now die at the hands of man’s wars. Caro overdoes this symbolic power a few scenes later, when Heck shoots a bald eagle (of all things). But this feels, for a little while, like the rare WWII movie with the power to speak to injustice in many different forms. If only a lumpy second act didn’t come along to mute that power with bait-and-switch heart-tuggers and some truly idiotic behavior on the part of Antonina’s bratty son Ryszard (Val Maloku).

We are invited to compare The Zookeeper’s Wife to its most obvious reference point, Schindler’s List, which also revolved around one citizen’s clandestine operations to save hundreds of Jews. Though Oskar Schindler’s evolution from proud servant of the Nazi Party to secret humanitarian was a far more cinematic journey, the Zabinskis were local figures of merit who took a principled stand for goodness, making them more appropriate to our current era. The Zookeeper’s Wife is more of a utilitarian exercise than Spielberg’s genre-defining monument, as Caro fails to find the same spark of compassionate moviemaking that ignited her masterpiece Whale Rider, or even her perfectly enjoyable take on sports movies, McFarland, USA. But it certainly has more going for it than, say, 2015’s Woman in Gold, which cynically glad-handed its audience in an effort to convince them a battle over art restitution could count as a variant on “Never Forget.”

Perhaps this film’s promotional partnership with the International Rescue Commission, which aims to help today’s refugee populations from all over the world, has given it a grander sense of purpose. Too bad no one could let it out of the cage where we keep the American-made Holocaust melodramas. The Zookeeper’s Wife will be condemned to pace back and forth on display for an easily pigeonholed audience, never truly knowing freedom.

A Painter, A Novelist And A Contentious Lifelong Friendship: ‘Cézanne et Moi’


A Study In Contrasts: Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet) and Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) in Cézanne et Moi.

Magnolia Pictures


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A Study In Contrasts: Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet) and Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) in Cézanne et Moi.

Magnolia Pictures

Cézanne et Moi opens with one of the most difficult things to depict on screen: the inner toil of an artist at work. Yet the first character to appear is not painter Paul Cezanne but the movie’s “moi”: novelist Emile Zola, a friend of Cézanne for most of his life.

Aside from being historically authentic, the relationship is neatly suited to a twin biopic. Zola was a poor outsider in Aix-en-Provence when he met elementary-school classmate Cézanne, who came from a wealthy family. Cézanne protected Zola, but later the roles reversed. The writer became successful and prosperous, while the painter rarely sold a canvas. After Cézanne’s father cut his allowance, Zola subsidized his friend.

Writer-director Danièle Thompson, who’s known for such lithe comedies as Avenue Montaigne, gives this 19th-century saga a contemporary look. Working with cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou, Thompson contrasts the widescreen format with a restless handheld camera and many closeups, so the movie feels both sweeping and intimate. Dreujou captures natural light a painter might well envy, while Guillaume Canet (best known as the director of Tell No One) and Guillaume Gallienne persuasively embody Zola and Cézanne, respectively, across several decades.

Thompson’s dialogue, especially as rendered in the English subtitles, is less subtle. Its up-to-date bluntness and vulgarity may be designed to engage viewers who’ve barely heard of the central characters. But the movie is still most likely to appeal to those who know not only them, but also such supporting players as Manet, Pissaro, Renoir, and Maupassant.

The story opens in 1888, when the two men were middle-aged and antagonistic, then flashes back and forward in a mostly chronological progression. The break comes when Cézanne accuses Zola of pillaging the painter’s life for his 1886 novel, usually rendered in English as The Masterpiece. According to Thompson’s lightly fictionalized account, Cézanne was indeed Zola’s source of inspiration, but only in part. There was another (and not too surprising) component to the novelist’s characterization of an artist who failed to fulfill his potential.

Thompson focuses so tightly on Cézanne and Zola’s contentious friendship that she barely mentions the most dramatic episode in the latter’s life: his defense of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jewish officer wrongly convicted of treason. This heroic episode was the crux of a 1937 Hollywood drama, The Life of Emile Zola, but here it’s dismissed quickly in an epilogue.

The director is more interested in the men and women around them, many of them artist’s models seen in various states of undress. The lusty Cézanne paints and beds Alexandrine (Alice Pol), then moves on; the more cautious Zola marries her, although that’s not the final chapter in his romantic life. Also significant to the story are Cézanne and Zola’s mothers (Sabine Azéma, who’s unusually subdued, and Isabelle Candelier).

The film’s title suggests that Zola is its narrator, but Thompson avoids that hackneyed device. Instead, she highlights the writer’s words in a series of cunningly staged scenes in which one man overhears the other.

Cézanne gets top billing not because he’s Zola’s subject, but because — in this telling — the novelist who was hailed in his lifetime has proved to be less influential than the painter who was reviled during his. Such a conclusion may be a cliche of tortured-artist biopics, but in the case of Cézanne and Zola, it’s also a valid judgment.

In The Documentary ‘Karl Marx City,’ A Grim But Enlightening Homecoming


Petra Epperlein in the 5th grade, as seen in the documentary Karl Marx City, directed by Epperlein and Michael Tucker.

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Petra Epperlein in the 5th grade, as seen in the documentary Karl Marx City, directed by Epperlein and Michael Tucker.

BOND/360

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, documentary filmmaker Petra Epperlein had painful personal reasons to return from the United States, where she now lives, to her hometown of Chemnitz in what was once East Germany. The city had been renamed Karl Marx City under the German Democratic Republic, a Soviet satellite from just after World War II. A decade after the Wall came down in 1989, Epperlein’s beloved father destroyed all his papers and hung himself from a tree in the family’s garden, leaving Epperlein and her twin brothers with lingering suspicions that their father may have been an agent of the GDR’s notorious Stasi secret service.

He would hardly have been alone. The fascinating Karl Marx City, which Epperlein made with her husband Michael Tucker, is as much an inquiry into the mechanics of how autocratic regimes work as it is a search for the truth about one citizen’s tragic end in its clutches. As one witness observes drily, if three people were seated together anywhere in the GDR, it was assumed that at least one of them was among the thousands of civilian informants dragooned or blackmailed into service to maintain round-the-clock surveillance for the Stasi. Everyone was suspect, though of what crime mostly remained unclear.

As in every totalitarian regime the prisons were full, as is graphically illustrated in Broken (Kaputt): The Women’s Prison of Hoheneck, the beautifully animated short film that plays with Karl Marx City. But “prophylactic surveillance” — often by means of cameras hidden in the cracks of public and private spaces as well as more overt snooping — was the government’s most potent weapon, creating a corrosive, ubiquitous mistrust that guaranteed anticipatory conformity in the population at large.

As one historian of the GDR notes in the film, self-censoring obedience is the hallmark of the modern dictatorship. This quietly creeping autocracy may be why so many, like Epperlein’s mother (a painfully ambivalent participant in the film), look back on their past as “not that terrible — we lived our small life.” It may also be why the filmmaker counts herself among those who succumbed after the regime toppled to “Ostalgia,” a glossing-over of life under GDR rule that, critics have claimed, infected retrospective films like 2003’s Goodbye, Lenin (for some, a satire; for others an overfond look back at Soviet-sponsored Communism) and the ridiculously sentimental The Lives of Others, (2006), in which an afternoon spent listening to Mozart is all it takes to turn a hardened Stasi agent into a fanboy for democracy and freedom.

Some of Karl Marx City is a straight talking-heads documentary, and none the worse for it: The contextual background filled in by historians and a highly perceptive expert on the wave of suicides during and after the GDR is essential viewing. Epperlein visit to the Stasi archives in Berlin, where to this day staff painstakingly piece together documents hastily shredded by secret service officials after the Wall came down, is riveting, as is the agonized testimony of a childhood friend’s relative who admits to having been a Stasi apparatchik who routinely invaded “suspects'” homes looking for dirt, or just to drive them crazy by rearranging the furniture.

In its efforts to be artful, Karl Marx City suffers now and then from the same breathy tendency to overdramatize already incendiary material that marred Epperlein and Tucker’s 2005 Iraq doc Gunner Palace. Shot in alluring black-and-white, the film grows slightly histrionic when Epperlein goes walkabout around her former haunts, boom in hand and wearing an expression of unrelieved solemnity, or when she deploys a cloying little girl’s voice recollecting her childhood experiences in the third person. She gives little space to the bitter humor and satire that flourished below stairs in all quarters of the Soviet Union.

That said, the story of Epperlein’s family tragedy is enormously moving. Juxtaposing Chemnitz today (the city still sports a bust of Marx’s head so enormous it couldn’t be felled along with other monuments to an era many would rather forget) with declassified espionage footage from the GDR’s shameful past, she reveals a ghost town with a secret history whose exposure sparks a radical revision in the way the filmmaker comprehends a childhood she had remembered as idyllic. Epperlein gets a definitive answer to the question of whether or not her father was a Stasi informant. The reasons for his suicide remain opaque, but what becomes clear is that long after people have had enough and take to the streets and topple their oppressors, autocracies leave an appalling trail of collateral damage nursed in secret until, for their victims at least, it’s too late.