Writer’s Corner: Hints from Lovecraft

(LibriVox)
(LibriVox)

H.P. Lovecraft was the Stephen King of his day, if King had been a depressive type with a thing for turning horror fiction into fantasies of existential dread. He’s remembered these days almost exclusively for his Cthulhu mythos, in which unlucky humans occasionally run afoul of the ancient deities whose foul existence predates known history and any sense of modern morality.

But Lovecraft was also a student of the form, and not just horror (though his writings on “weird” and supernatural fiction are excellent in themselves). In his essay “Literary Composition,” the master of eldritch horrors from beyond the ken of mere mortals opines on the proper way to turn a sentence. Here’s a few snippets of still-applicable advice on what to avoid:

  • Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep.
  • Use of like for as, as “I strive to write like Pope wrote.”
  • Errors of taste, including vulgarisms, pompousness, repetition, vagueness, ambiguousness, colloquialism, bathos, bombast, pleonasm, tautology, harshness, mixed metaphor, and every sort of rhetorical awkwardness.

Keep an eye on that last one in particular, no matter how tempting the market may be for work filled with vulgarisms and bombast.

New in Theaters: ‘Unbroken’

Jack O'Connell faces down a sadistic prison guard in 'Unbroken' (Universal Pictures)
Jack O’Connell faces down a sadistic prison guard in ‘Unbroken’ (Universal Pictures)

unbroken-coverLaura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken has been sitting atop the bestseller lists for close to 200 weeks now, which is no surprise, given its incredible true story of Louis Zamperini, who went from a record-breaking performance running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics to being a brutalized Japanese prisoner of war. Angelina Jolie’s (yes, she directed) take on the book is respectful and professionally done, but never quite gets at what made Zamperini such a survivor.

Unbroken opened wide on Christmas Day. My review is at Film Racket:

If one learns anything from a handsomely-told World War II survival fable like Unbroken, it’s that if you are marooned at sea for weeks and then tossed into a brutal prison camp, it’s best to do so with an Olympic runner by your side…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘The Gambler’

Mark Wahlberg in 'The Gambler' (Paramount Pictures)
Mark Wahlberg educates the youth in ‘The Gambler’ (Paramount Pictures)

In the newest film from William Monaghan, writer of The Departed, Mark Wahlberg plays a professor who’s burning the candle at both ends, what with all the late-night gambling, fooling around with students, and those loan sharks who keep dropping by.

The Gambler opened wide on Christmas Day as a curious piece of award-film counter-programming. My review is at Film Journal International:

In the world of The Gambler, a hyperactive head-scratcher of an addle-brained disaster, many things are possible. Compulsive gamblers can play hand after hand of blackjack where the cards magically fall their way. Mobsters freely dispense philosophical koans like beads thrown from a Mardi Gras float. Level-headed, beautiful blondes get weak at the knees at the approach of self-centered boors. Mark Wahlberg can play a novelist and professor of literature. The film’s sense of realism is, to put it mildly, elastic. Not that this would necessarily matter were the material at hand more compelling. But this is a pulp confection that never manages to commit to the ludicrousness of its central conceit and ends up shortchanging the entire enterprise…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘American Sniper’

Bradley Cooper (right) as Chris Kyle in 'American Sniper' (Warner Bros.)
Bradley Cooper (right) as Chris Kyle in ‘American Sniper’ (Warner Bros.)

americansniper-cover1Before Chris Kyle was murdered at the age of 38, he had amassed a legendary kill record as an army sniper; possibly the most lethal one in American military history. His bestselling memoir, American Sniper, was originally planned as a Steven Spielberg project, but the film was ultimately directed by Clint Eastwood, no stranger to squint-eyed dramas of force and will.

American Sniper hit theaters today. My review is at Film Racket:

Bradley Cooper is rarely the sort to grab one’s attention at center stage; he only truly lights up films like American Hustle or The Hangover series when there’s a co-star for him to bounce his nervy patter and blue eyes off of. But Cooper’s performance as Kyle delivers the proper mix of humility and bottled-up frustration called for in a soldier from whom so much is expected. The film starts off with Kyle on a rooftop in Iraq, covering a column of Marines advancing through a city. He sees a woman hand a grenade to a young boy, who runs with the weapon towards the Marines. No other soldiers have eyes on the pair. His spotter reminds him that if he gets it wrong, “they’ll burn you”…

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Holiday Reading: December 24, 2014

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New in Theaters: ‘Two Days, One Night’

(IFC Films)
‘Two Days, One Night’ (IFC Films)

twodaysonenight-posterIn the latest film from the Dardennes brothers, Marion Cotillard deglams to play a factory worker who has to fight for her job in a particularly grueling way.  Hopefully, it’ll be the odds-on favorite for the Oscars next year.

Two Days, One Night opens on Christmas Eve in limited release and should expand around the country in the new year. My review is at Film Racket:

In the nervy pressure cooker Two Days, One Night, a hollow-eyed Belgian factory worker tries to convince her co-workers to keep her on at the company instead of getting a raise. The narrative is similar to those gladiator entertainments — see who wins and who goes home — but it’s structured around a different impulse. Here the protagonist is trying to succeed by convincing the other characters to listen to their altruistic instincts. It’s not the sort of thing people normally bet on…

The trailer is here:

New in Theaters: The March from ‘Selma’

Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) leads the charge in 'Selma' (Paramount Pictures)
Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) leads the charge in ‘Selma’ (Paramount Pictures)

Selma-posterThe passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 might have technically outlawed most racist policies in the United States, but that didn’t stop much of it in practice. When Martin Luther King, Jr. led the march from Selma to Birmingham, he wasn’t just making a symbolic act, he was deliberating provoking die-hard racists in order to force President Lyndon Johnson to pass a law that would help stop racism on the ground: The Voting Rights Act.

Ava DuVernay’s spectacular protest film Selma opens on Christmas Day; make sure to check it out. My review is at PopMatters:

Throughout the film, King makes no apologies for inciting trouble. His detractors in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), including a young John Lewis (Stephan James), initially resent the SCLC showing up in Selma where they’ve been working on voter issues for years. When they suggest that King is a publicity hound, he doesn’t disagree. To him, the motivating principle of nonviolent protest is not only its moral imperative, but also its demonstration to white Americans the persistent costs of racism and segregation. To do this, he and his colleagues seek news coverage, to reveal stories of violent repression in their morning newspaper headlines and evening TV broadcasts…

The trailer is here:

New in Theaters: It’s Time to Go ‘Into the Woods’

Emily Blunt and James Corden go 'Into the Woods' (Walt Disney)
Emily Blunt and James Corden go ‘Into the Woods’ (Walt Disney)

intothewoods-posterStephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical Into the Woods threw a couple Shrek ‘s worth of fairytales into the mix (Rapunzel to Cinderella and Red Riding Hood) and used them for a musically soaring but lyrically cynical story about the dangers of dreams granted. Rob Marshall’s lavish Disney adaptation is quite faithful to the original and comes packed with performances ranging from the unsurprisingly good (Meryl Streep’s Witch) to the revelatory (Chris Pine as the Prince).

Into the Woods opens on Christmas Day. My review is at PopMatters:

This narrative begins with a Baker and his Wife who are cursed with infertility by their witch neighbor. They can only break the curse by gathering up four talismans that helpfully bring all the other characters into play: “The cow as white as milk / The cape as red as blood / The hair as yellow as corn / The slipper as pure as gold”. The prologue includes an undertone as well, when the Baker adds, “I wish we had a child,” the juxtaposition typical of Sondheim’s best work, layered like so many fairy tales. Some 25 years ago, however, such layering was not the sort of thing that Disney’s heroes and gamines sang about. But the play’s reassessing of fairy tale tropes, its reinvigorating them with old Grimm’s blood and thunder, looked forward to the spunky heroines and broad-chested prince-villains who later cropped up in everything from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Big Eyes’

Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams fight over 'Big Eyes' (Weinstein)
Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams fight over ‘Big Eyes’ (Weinstein)

Big Eyes-posterPerhaps stung by the negative reception to his big-budget blowout take on the old campy gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, Tim Burton went smaller for his latest film, a more modest and quirky true story about an artist who never quite got her due.

Big Eyes opens on Christmas Day. My review is at PopMatters:

There was a time in the early ‘60s when Walter Keane was making more money than any other living artist in the Western world. He was a master of sales, making himself the subject of fawning interviews and Life magazine spreads, sidling up to celebrities for photo ops whenever he could. Originals and, especially, reproductions of his “big eye” paintings were snatched up an adoring public, who didn’t care one bit about the critics who called his work sentimental garbage. His success led to admiration and dissent: Woody Allen’s Sleeperposits a future where the paintings, like Xavier Cugat’s music, are viewed as masterpieces.

As much as that joke is premised on the paintings’ kitsch, it also has to do with their eventually revealed truth, which is that Walter never painted them…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Corner: Kerouac’s 30

Jack Kerouac, c. 1956 (Tom Palumbo)
Jack Kerouac, c. 1956 (Tom Palumbo)

Jack Kerouac was a writer’s writer. Not that he was always a master of scintillating prose or effortlessly produced one masterpiece after the other. His writing was too wild-eyed and full-speed-ahead for that. But whatever one’s opinion of his work, particularly On the Road and The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s double-barreled approach to the life of writing as an ecstatic gleap (yes, that’s a word) of wonder and pain and fireworks makes him in some ways the best damn American writer who ever lived.

Kerouac wasn’t one for debating the mechanics of the craft. But he did have some principles to live and write by. In fact, he slapped down a list of “Belief[s] and Technique[s] for Modern Prose.” 30 of ’em. Here’s a few:

  • Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  • Submissive to everything, open, listening
  • Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  • Be in love with yr life
  • Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  • Accept loss forever
  • You’re a Genius all the time

The transferability and efficacy of some of these are debatable. Clearly. But it’s probably worth taking them out for a spin and seeing what happens.

New on DVD: ‘Batman: The Complete Series’

Batman-DVD setFrom 1966 to 1968, ABC showed one of the greatest series ever to grace the American TV screen. The original Batman TV show was different from pretty much everything that came before. Full of bright Pop Art colors and tongue-in-cheek satire, it both celebrated and mocked the superhero genre in a way that kids could take straight and adults could enjoy as comedy.

Finally, after years of legal wrangling, all 120 episodes are finally available for your viewing pleasure on DVD and Blu-ray. My review of Batman: The Complete Series is at PopMatters.

Also, here’s The Jam performing the unassailably cool theme to Batman:

Department of Weekend Reading: December 19, 2014

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New in Theaters: ‘Mr. Turner’

Timothy Spall in 'Mr. Turner' (Sony Pictures Classics)
Timothy Spall in ‘Mr. Turner’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

Mike Leigh tends to be the director one goes to for deft character studies (Secrets and Lies, Another Year, and such), not gorgeous period pieces. Nevertheless, Leigh took on the life story of one of Britian’s greatest painters, J.M.W. Turner, with all the costumery and flattering lighting one could ask for.

Mr. Turner opens this week in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

Anybody looking for a cozy holiday costume drama about a famous painter should steer clear of Mike Leigh’s uncompromising, sometimes brutal film. J.M.W. Turner is best known these days as the man who painted all those landscapes hanging in London’s National Gallery where boats on and buildings along the Thames nearly disappear into a rainbow-hued swirl of sun-dazzled shimmer. These are pre-Impressionistic, even quiet works. But in Mr. Turner, the man who heaved and hurled those paintings into life appears as a great snuffling boar of a man with coarse manners; the farthest thing from a nineteenth-century aesthete one could find…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Song of the Sea’

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Song of the Sea is the newest dream-woven piece of Irish animation from Tomm Moore, director of the uncommonly beautiful Book of Kells. It opens in limited release this Friday.

sonofthesea-posterI reviewed it for Film Journal International:

The film begins as morose as a funeral lament, albeit a gripping one etched in splendidly dark tones. That tone ratchets further down once the children’s stern old hunchbacked Granny comes to stay. But after she convinces Conor to have Ben and Saorise live with her in Dublin, Moore limbers the story up like a traditional Irish storyteller pulling in a lungful of air to give the folks what they asked for. After a brief interlude in Granny’s deathly dull and rules-bound house, Song of the Sea becomes a picaresque odyssey through an Ireland where the fairies and other wee folk hide out in traffic roundabouts behind manhole covers that read: “Feic off. No humans”…

Here’s the gorgeous trailer:

Writer’s Corner: Your Life is Always Good Material

(Steve Lyon)
(photo by Steve Lyon)

When I was teaching — I taught for a while — my students would write as if they were raised by wolves. Or raised on the streets. They were middle-class kids and they were ashamed of their background. They felt like unless they grew up in poverty, they had nothing to write about. Which was interesting because I had always thought that poor people were the ones who were ashamed. But it’s not. It’s middle-class people who are ashamed of their lives. And it doesn’t really matter what your life was like, you can write about anything. It’s just the writing of it that is the challenge. I felt sorry for these kids, that they thought that their whole past was absolutely worthless because it was less than remarkable.

David Sedaris, January Magazine, June 2000

Remember, there’s a lot of stories out there, yours included. Ultimately, it’s the telling that matters.