Screening Room: ‘Best of Enemies’

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal think of new insults for each other. (Magnolia)
William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal think of new insults for each other. (Magnolia)
In 1968, the third-place network ABC wasn’t sure how to make a splash with its presidential convention coverage. Since they didn’t have much money, they went for a gimmick. Over the course of ten nights, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley would debate the issues of the conventions. Or just throw insults at each other.

Best of Enemies is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

Best of Enemies is a fascinating film about brilliant people behaving stupidly. It would be reassuring in a way to think that in the distant past, there was a time when American intellectuals could duke it out on the public stage before a mass audience held rapt by the sight and sound of ideas being wrestled into coherent form. We know such things don’t happen anymore. How many Americans can even name two intellectuals to have such a debate?…

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: July 31, 2015

British Museum Reading Room (Diliff)
British Museum Reading Room (Diliff)

Writer’s Desk: Getting Boys to Read

boyreading-LOC

It’s one of those not-so-secret secrets in education and the publishing world that when it comes to making books for kids, it is much much easier to do so for girls. Why? Compared to their feminine counterparts, boys just don’t read, and when they do, their reading comprehension lags. According to the Brookings Institute:

Reading scores for girls exceed those for boys on eight recent assessments of U.S. reading achievement.  The gender gap is larger for middle and high school students than for students in elementary school.

What to do? Since it’s education, there is advice aplenty. But perhaps the best idea proposed so far has come from Nick Hornby (High FidelityAbout a Boy):

I have boys, and boys are particularly resistant to reading books. I had some success recently with Sherman Alexie’s great young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian – I told my son it was highly inappropriate for him, and one of the most banned books in America. That got his attention, and he raced through it.

Now, take that advice out of its parental and educational context and think about how you would apply it to your writing. Channel your rebellious inner middle-school kid who doesn’t want to be told what book they can read.

Weekend Reading: July 24, 2015

British Museum Reading Room (Diliff)
British Museum Reading Room (Diliff)

Reader’s Corner: ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Go Set a Watchman-reviewSince there is apparently no classic work of literature or cinema that can’t be sequelized or reimagined, over a half-century after Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and the hearts of millions, now comes Go Set a Watchman, a sequel of sorts that almost nobody knew existed until very recently.

Go Set a Watchman is on sale now everywhere. My review is at PopMatters:

In Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch, no longer going by her tomboy nickname “Scout,” takes the train from New York to her hometown of Maycomb. She’s twenty-six and except for an affinity for coffee, not much different from the effervescent tomboy we first met in To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that stands in even grander relief against this unfinished-feeling first draft now pressed into unnecessary service as a semi-sequel…

You can read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman here.

Writer’s Desk: Vonnegut’s Rules

You might think of Kurt Vonnegut, he of the dimension-shifting narrative and the fourth-wall-breaking narrators, as one of those writers who just threw everything onto the page to see what worked.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1972 (WNET)
Kurt Vonnegut, 1972 (WNET)

But the last century’s greatest sci-fi humorist next to Philip K. Dick had his own rules for the art of writing. He laid them out in the introduction tho his 1999 odds-and-ends volume Bagombo Snuff-Box:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

  4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.

  5. Start as close to the end as possible.

  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

If you assiduously follow even two of these rules throughout your piece; you’re set.

(h/t: boing boing)

Screening Room: ‘Trainwreck’

Amy Schumer and Bill Hader in 'Trainwreck' (Universal).
Amy Schumer and Bill Hader in ‘Trainwreck’ (Universal).

After midwifing Lena Dunham’s Girls onto HBO, Judd Apatow is directing the off-key work of another comic of the moment. In Trainwreck, Amy Schumer plays basically the girl of her standup: a self-obsessed disaster. But will she find true love?

Trainwreck opens wide tomorrow. My review is at PopMatters:

… the film focuses on Amy (played by Schumer), another variation on the stock character from her TV show. Narcissistic and cutting, she’s racked up several lifetimes’ worth of one-night stands, terrified of commitment, and inclined to over-share. While the character tends toward dirty humor, she’s not so much intentionally shocking, a la Sarah Silverman, but rather, so self-involved that she’s unconcerned with how anyone else might take her revelations, as when she compares sleeping with her pseudo-boyfriend Steven (John Cena) to “having sex with an ice sculpture”…

Writer’s Desk: Writing in Plain Sight

Most writers prefer practicing their craft alone. There are the occasional ones who can get good word count on the bus or in cafes. But in the main, it’s the sort of thing best done in solitary, by guttering candlelight if you can manage the stagecraft.

DangerousVisions1Then there’s Harlan Ellison. Over the years he’s written everything from gangland fiction to dystopian comedy to TV and film criticism. And he’s done it not just from the comfort of his study, but sometimes in plain sight of the public.

From time to time, Ellison accepts the challenge to write, as a sort of literary improv, a story or a number of stories, in the window of a bookstore. Usually it’s for charity or just to help promote the store.

From a 1981 TV interview with Ellison:

I do it because I think particularly in this country people are so distanced from literature, the way it’s taught in schools, that they think that people who write are magicians on a mountaintop somewhere. And I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much illiteracy in this country. So by doing it in public, I show people it’s a job of work like being a plumber or and electrician…

The best part about this quote is that when Ellison compares being a writer to a plumber or electrician, he means it as a good thing.

(h/t Mental Floss)

Weekend Reading: July 10, 2015

British Museum Reading Room (Diliff)
British Museum Reading Room (Diliff)

TV Room: ‘House of Cards: Season 3’

“That damned, smiling villain…” Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in ‘House of Cards’ (Netflix)
The third season of House of Cards is out now on DVD for those of you out there not streaming. My review is at PopMatters:

When last we left Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the frenetic second season of House of Cards, he had bested all challenges and ensconced himself in the Oval Office. It was a thunderclap of a climax, his school ring rapping on the desk like a gunshot, the echo calling to mind the long line of rivals he had run over on the way there like human speedbumps. You almost expected the story to end there. But as every striver for the throne from Macbeth back to the Roman emperors discovered, staying in power is as much or more of a struggle than getting there in the first place…

Here’s a trailer, to catch you up:

Writers’ Desk: Future Library

Trees into books ... eventually.
Trees into books … eventually.

Because there is apparently no end to the inventive riches of Scandinavian literary culture, we now have the Future Library Project.

They are planting a forest of 1,000 pine trees in Norway north of Oslo that will be harvested a century in the future and used to print an anthology of writing. In the manner of a literary time capsule, the pieces for the anthology are being written now at the rate of one per year and held in secret until publication in 2114.

Margaret Atwood, who knows a few things about future writing, is the first contributor, with a piece about which only the title is known: Scribbler Moon. According to Atwood:

There’s something magical about it … It’s like Sleeping Beauty. The texts are going to slumber for 100 years and then they’ll wake up, come to life again. It’s a fairytale length of time. She slept for 100 years.

Fellow quasi-futurist David Mitchell (Cloud AtlasBone Clocks) is next up.

It’s a fascinating thing to contemplate, writing something that won’t be read until well after one is dead. The advantage? No worries about reviews. The downside? No adulation.

Still, it’s worth thinking about the next time you sit down to your next writing assignment. Pick up a book from the 1910s and see how much the language and underlying societal assumptions have changed since then. Then, taking that into consideration, start writing with an eye for timelessness. Who knows? Somebody may pick it up in 2114, on a screen or yellowed paper, and you want to make sure that they will know what you are talking about.

Screening Room: ‘Magic Mike XXL’

No need for shirts in 'Magic Mike XXL'  (Warner Bros.)
No need for shirts in ‘Magic Mike XXL’ (Warner Bros.)

For Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh took an effortlessly charming Channing Tatum, an impeccably entertaining Matthew McConaughey, threw them together with some classic rock hits, male stripper dance moves, and a backdrop of economic insecurity, and made it into one of the most unlikely successes of 2012. Now there’s a sequel, and quite incredibly it beats out the original in every way.

Magic Mike XXL is playing pretty much everywhere now. My review is at PopMatters:

It’s no criticism to say that Magic Mike XXL doesn’t have a lot at stake. Following Magic Mike‘s model, it’s got a low budget and simple concept, and will likely clean up on its July 4 opening weekend. But this just-tongue-in-cheek-enough sequel, unlike the frantic and insecure Jurassic World, carries a devil-may-care casual confidence that wins you over precisely because it’s not trying to go bigger and bolder. Instead, it brings the further adventures of a merry band of male entertainers who love what they do, know they can’t keep doing it forever, and want to go out on a high note…

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: Independence Day Edition

July4

Screening Room: ‘Amy’

Amy1
One face of ‘Amy’ (A24)

Amy-posterIt’s too early to start really talking Oscars, but if we were, then Asif Kapadia’s moving and unromantic Amy would be a strong contender.

Amy opens in theaters tomorrow; seek it out. You can read my review at Film Racket:

Before becoming a punch line for tabloid-huffing, talkshow-loving misery vampires, Amy Winehouse wasn’t just a star talent, she was a constellation unto herself. Bursting into the moribund pop music scene of the early 2000s with verve and danger, she came on like some savvier Billie Holiday in a field of Auto-Tune tarts. There’s a heavy dose of that briefly blazing performer in Asif Kapadia’s potent, powerful documentary Amy

Here’s the trailer: