Weekend Reading: June 23, 2017


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Screening Room: AFI DOCS Film Festival

Last Wednesday through Sunday, Washington, D.C. hosted the AFI DOCS Film Festival, one of the country’s top showcases for nonfiction movies. Many of the documentaries screening there will be opening throughout the country in the coming weeks and months, with at least a couple likely Oscar nominees among the batch. A few of the highlights:

  • Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (Brian Knappenberger) — A taut and alarming look at how the entrenched interests of certain wealthy millionaires (Peter Thiel, Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump) could be threatening the future of the free press in America. Premiering on Netflix June 23.
  • For Akheem (Landon Van Soest, Jeremy S. Levine) — An emotional fly-on-the-wall study of a critical point in the life of Daje Shelton, an at-risk teenager trying to survive all the pitfalls of her North St. Louis neighborhood.
  • The Force (Peter Nicks) — A deep dive into the inner workings of the Oakland Police Department as it contends with chaotic leadership, corruption, and public fury over fatal shootings. From the director of the amazing Oscar-nominated The Waiting Room. Hits theaters in September.
  • A Suitable Girl (Smriti Mundhra, Sarita Khurana) — A charming audience-pleaser about three young Indian women trying to find an appropriate husband as customs and expectations around arranged marriages shift in the rapidly modernizing society.

I covered as many of the offerings as possible for Film Journal International, you can see my reviews here and here.

Writer’s Desk: It’s Not Hard


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Writing isn’t easy. All that time alone, the self-doubt, the back aches, the certainty that you could have nailed that one paragraph if you had just five more hours.

But on the other hand, it’s not that hard. You look at the page, put your hands on the keys, and start making stuff up. Eventually you stop.

Ethan Canin, whose cool and chiseled story collections like The Palace Thief don’t exactly feel off the cuff, cuts to the thick of it in this interview from The Atlantic where he’s talking about Saul Bellow:

In a way, plot is very simple: You have someone do something wrong. You don’t plan out a plot. You have somebody do something wrong, and that engenders other bad behavior. Behavior—especially bad behavior—is what forces character to emerge.

So: Think of a place. Put a character. Make them do something stupid. Watch them try to get out of it. There’s your story.

Weekend Reading: June 16, 2017


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Screening Room: ‘Okja’


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The movies of Bong Joon Ho (The Host, Snowpiercer) keep getting odder and less predictable; mostly for the better. His latest, Okja, is a story about a girl and her pet monster who get ensnarled in a byzantine corporate conspiracy featuring a mad-hatter turn from Tilda Swinton.

Okja opens in theaters and on Netflix on June 28. My review is at PopMatters:

South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has said that Netflix, the distributor of his new movie Okja, gave him final cut. That’s easy to believe. Because most studios, having spent some $50-odd million on a movie mostly about the relationship between a spunky young girl and her gentle giant pig, would have serious issues with the dark curve balls that Boon throws into a story thrumming with such strong, box office-friendly child-creature empathy. But Netflix is charting its own path in the current chaotic state of theatrical movies and for now, part of that means letting an artist like Boon do just what the hell he wants. (This open-wallet policy also means Netflix bankrolling the likes of Adam Sandler for now, but that’s for a different time.) Given what’s on screen in Okja, this is a welcome development…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Who Do You Write For?


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Denis Johnson, the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke among other great works of quasi-Beat genius, died a couple weeks back at the age of 67.

Although his rehab-stippled talent took a while to be recognized, he finally won the National Book Award back in 2007. In a blessedly brief interview about that award, he gave one of the best bits of writing advice ever. In response to the question of who his ideal reader or audience was, he responded:

I write for my wife, my agent, and my editor.

Does anybody else matter, truly?

Weekend Reading: June 9, 2017


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Writer’s Desk: Dorothy West


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When she died in 1998, Dorothy West—born last week in 1907—was described as the last living member of the true Harlem Renaissance. Raised in an upper-class black family in Boston, she won a writing contest while still a teenager and moved to Harlem to join up with the neighborhood’s burgeoning writers’ community. Though she was at the beating heart of the Renaissance, rooming with Zora Neale Hurston and palling around with Langston Hughes (who dubbed her “Kid”), not to mention publishing her own magazine, West was mostly forgotten until 1995, when she published her second novel, The Wedding, which was adapted into a miniseries by Oprah.

West, who spent much of her life on Martha’s Vineyard and befriended the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who helped her write The Wedding) and Hillary Clinton (who attended her ninetieth birthday party), passed along a decent piece of writing advice, received from her editor at the Vineyard paper she spent decades as a columnist for.

The editor, she said, told her:

Write your best, always write your best, not for the paper but for pride in your writing.

It’s better to have just one critic (yourself) than the entire world.

Weekend Reading: June 2, 2017

Writer’s Desk: Ian Fleming on Sticking With It


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Ian Fleming, who had a blast as a real spy for Her Majesty and then an even bigger blast writing about a made-up spy, was born today in 1908.

His James Bond novels weren’t the greatest pulp of the postwar era, but still generally smashing good fun (more so than the Sean Connery movies, that’s for sure). Even so, Fleming wasn’t a careless stylist; he worked at it.

According to Andrew Lycett’s Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond, Fleming once gave this advice on writing:

You will be constantly depressed by the progress of the opus and feel it is all nonsense and that nobody will be interested. Those are the moments when you must all the more obstinately stick to your schedule and do your daily stint . . . Don’t let anyone see the manuscript until you are very well on with it and above all don’t allow anything to interfere with your routine. Don’t worry about what you put in, it can always be cut on re-reading.

(h/t: Simon Read)