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Monday, March 30, 2009

"The Brothers Warner" and Writing To Educate

My family attended the Kent Film Festival this weekend, in Kent, Connecticut (population: 2,858), nestled next to the mighty Housatonic River in the Litchfield Hills. We love visiting Kent because it’s so different from New York City: forests with deer, bobcats, and bears, and a small-town sensibility and pace that bring you back to the peace of sitting under a giant oak to read a book in solitude.

We saw an excellent documentary, “The Brothers Warner,” about the four brothers who created the film studio famous for making everything from “Casablanca” to “Looney Tunes.” The film was directed and narrated by Cass Warner, the granddaughter of Harry Warner, and what struck me was her description of why the brothers originally went into moviemaking and how different the industry is today. Their goal, of course, was to entertain audiences, but the brothers also wanted to educate and enlighten them. They saw films as powerful tools for promoting the social good.

For example, Warner Brothers made the first anti-Nazi film in the late 1930’s, even when the U.S. State Department was warning them not to do it. Warner Brothers also pioneered movies depicting racism against blacks, teenage rebellion (“Rebel Without A Cause”), and even the history of medicine (“The Story of Louis Pasteur”). One of the points of the documentary was that the brothers Warner often sacrificed profit for message and that marketing did not rule their decisions about what movies to make. They repeatedly put their “toochis ofn tish,” a Yiddish phrase meaning they put their “ass on the table.” The brothers took risks, political, social, and economic risks, to communicate something new through movies.

Not only did this make me think of all the junk movies today, hooked on the steroids of special effects or hot bodies, movies memorable for about five minutes; but the documentary also made me think of my industry and how marketing and celebrity literature have overwhelmed the world of books. Most of the books produced today are meant to be disposable, a quick hit to the bottom line of a corporation, and then forgotten and shredded. Rarely do commercial publishers publish anything that they don’t think will be a huge financial success, and so they follow often outmoded, safe realities of what editors, agents, and reviewers think will sell.

For example, I appeared in a new anthology this month, Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, and a reviewer from Publishers Weekly criticized the anthology for not having “fiction examining distinctively Latino themes.” What stereotypical box does this reviewer want us to fit in before he or she gives writers a chance to tell their stories? The anthology was published, not surprisingly, by a non-profit press, Arte Publico from Houston. If the anthology sells, perhaps more doors will be opened to Latino writers wanting to write stories outside of preconceived notions of who or what Latinos should be. But don’t expect commercial publishers to lead the charge to educate a changing public about what deserves to be American literature today.

I find the most interesting movies are created by independent producers, and the most interesting books are published by small, often non-profit presses. These are the creative works in which it is still important to entertain, but the point is also to enlighten, to explore a subject that has been overlooked or forgotten, to perfect a work that will sustain its brilliance for a long time, and to challenge and break stereotypes. If you want to take a voyage that truly opens your eyes, rather than lulls you to sleep or gives you a fleeting high, then go independent, go non-profit, and experience the thrill of new thinking.


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