Screening Room: Gore Vidal to African Death Metal

'Hank and Asha'

‘Hank and Asha’

Gore-Vidal_posterThe 2013 Rhode Island International Film Festival ran from August 6–13, with films playing mostly in Providence. It was a somewhat sparsely attended but extraordinarily well-curated event; nothing that a little more publicity couldn’t help.

My overview of some of the films that played ran in PopMatters, here’s some highlights:

Keep your eyes peeled for them to come to a fest or high-number cable channel near you soon.

 

Writer’s Room: Make It Hard on Yourself

The scarecrow was made of straw ... so it applies

Ta-Nehisi Coates posted a piece in The Atlantic a few days back about how to be the best kind of political-opinion journalist. His advise is well-suited for those many who make their livings opinionating throughout the Beltway mediaverse and blogosphere, but is also a good rule of thumb for writers in general:

…To paraphrase Douglass, a writer is worked on by what she works on. If you spend your time raging at the weakest arguments, or your most hysterical opponents, expect your own intellect to suffer. The intellect is a muscle; it must be exercised.

He’s talking about the bad habits of political writers, who tend to pick the most obvious strawmen to go after as a way of formulating their own beliefs. This is an attractive way of operating, but ultimately lazy.

But everybody who puts pen to paper or key to blog is well served with this advice: Don’t do what you’ve always done. This isn’t to say that all writers shouldn’t identify their areas of strength, but to never venture outside those safer realms is to risk creative calcification.

 

Writer’s Room: Neil Gaiman’s ‘Secret Freelancer Knowledge’

Gaiman_MakeGoodArtOne day we’ll get to a world where all writers make their living by delivering killer commencement speeches and then publishing said talks as nifty little standalone editions that might be considered self-help-y where it not for the name attached. Case in point: Neil Gaiman.

Last May, Gaiman gave the commencement address at Philadelphia’s The University of the Arts. He was everything one could hope for: wistful, self-deprecating, helpful, and occasionally inspirational. He also understood that what all those soon-to-graduate artists wanted is help and advice that would tell them: How Do I Do What It Is That I Want To Do?

A few notes from Gaiman’s speech where he lays out the attractions and trials of the freelance life, along with some “secret freelancer knowledge”:

  • A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.
  • And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art.
  • People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

Full transcript here.

The speech is going to be published this May in an edition designed by Chip Kidd.

Comics Corner: Hippies Hate Superman!

hippieolsen2

As one of the longest-surviving comics publishers in the business, DC Comics did so (like everyone else who made it) through a combination of quick turnaround, constant reinvention, and relentlessly squeezing every last penny out of their comics. In one of their less-inspired moves, in the 1950s, DC created a spinoff to their tentpole property Superman that came with the highly prosaic title Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.

hippieolsen1So far, so bad. However, in one of those granular moments of surreality that comes when publishers chase every cultural trend and damn the logic, that series produced one bona fide classic. We give you: 1969′s fabulous freakout Hippie Olsen’s Hate-In!

Firstly, there’s the issue that Jimmy Olsen looks here more like a bearded dandy from the Edwardian era than hippie (details). Then there’s Jimmy’s tendency throughout the entire series to want to kill Superman. Blog into Mystery notes:

…You don’t have to be Freud or Jung or whoever to see that he has some issues with the most important people in his life. He has no problem with dreaming about punching them, tripping them, or KILLING THEM, without a whole lot — let’s be honest – of provocation for any of those deeds.

This strikes me as a problem.

It seems that Superman has always had this problem. Unlike some superheros—Batman, Spider-man—whose enemies have wanted to do away with them for interfering with their dastardly plans, Superman’s very existence appears to be the driving force behind the hatred, from friend and foe. The very indestructibility that makes him so powerful a force for good and (unfortunately) so uninteresting as a character also engender some very mixed feelings in the all-too-weak people (villains and not) who surround him.

Must make for a lonely life.

New in Theaters: ’56 Up’

56up_posterEvery 7 years since 1964, director Michael Apted has been checking in on the same group of 14 British subjects he first interviewed for the groundbreaking (though it didn’t seem it at the time) documentary 7 Up. Now, everybody is 56 years old.

My full review is at PopMatters:

Eight films on, director Michael Apted (who worked as a researcher on the first film) has created something for the ages. The Up series is like a living, breathing cinematic experiment. (More than a few of the people appear to feel they are being watched under a microscope, and resent it.) But after each seven-year delay, when Apted and his crew returns to interview those of the original 14 still talking to them, the drama of it increases in small increments almost scientific in tone. We see person turn not just from children into adults, but from characters into people. By the time that 56 Up comes around, most involved have left so much of themselves on the screen that the impending clouds of sickness and mortality begin to carry an almost unbearable weight…

56 Up is playing in limited release right now, and should be available on DVD later in the year. It’s best to catch up on the earlier installments first.

You can see the trailer here:

Quote of the Day: Lauren Leto

Lauren Leto, author of Texts from Last Night: All the Texts No One Remembers Sending and Judging a Book By Its Lover,  was asked how she—being one of those voracious social media creatures and founder of a viral website—ended up writing books.

Her response, in part:

I am a voracious reader, because I like to not deal with reality very often.

Hear, hear.

DVD Tuesday: ‘Sound of My Voice’

One of the greater film surprises of 2012 was the blink-and-you-missed-it Sound of My Voice, which came out on DVD last week. My review is at AMC Movie Database:

Zal Batmanglij’s canny and suspenseful head-knotter Sound of My Voice initially seems of a piece with films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, United Red Army, and the new festival film First Winter. It, too, revolves around a small gang of earnest believers following a leader whose motives are suspect at best. Where Batmanglij’s film stands apart is in its unalloyed skill and confidence — this is one of the most assured feature debuts in recent memory — and in his ability to turn this exploration of cult indoctrination into both a profound character study and a nail-biting thriller. But for a conclusion that arrives long before the audience is ready for it to be over with, this would have been the runaway indie hit of the year…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Six Million and One’

 

My review of the new documentary Six Million and One is running now at Film Journal International:

Some of the most discomfiting imagery in films about the Holocaust comes not from wartime footage showing the savage effects on the prisoners or even the ghostly sites themselves. What creates the most emotional dissonance is more often the sight of these places of unbelievable butchery now sitting in well-manicured European suburbs, woven fully back into the fabric of everyday life. It begs the question: How does one live in the shadow of the unimaginable? In David Fisher’s emotional and acidic documentary Six Million and One, he digs into this question on a broader level, in effect asking: What is the point of memory? What and whom does it serve?…

Six Million and One is playing now in very limited release.

You can see the trailer here:

 

New in Books: ‘American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of The 1950′s’

My review of the nine novels in the Library of America’s new two-set volume American Science Fiction is now up at The Millions:

There was something in the air during the 1950s in America that bred an especially grand strain of science fiction whose like was never witnessed before and hasn’t been since. It was a heady concoction: postwar triumph and trauma, unprecedented technological advances, the true advent of mass media swamping the atmosphere, that pseudo-fascistic hum of nationalistic propaganda and blacklisting, and the incessant reminder that a mushroom cloud could end it all… like that. The new Library of America two-volume collection, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, dusts off nine lesser-known novels that illustrate the breadth and depth of what was happening in science fiction during that decade. With its crisply typeset cloth volumes totaling almost 3,000 pages, the sturdy box is a welcome reminder of past joys for some readers and a striking introduction to fresh futuristic wonders and Cold War chills for others…

You can also read essays on these novels by authors from William Gibson to Neil Gaiman at the Library of America site here.