Screening Room: ‘Mustang’

The sisters of 'Mustang' (Cohen Media Group)
The sisters of ‘Mustang’ (Cohen Media Group)

In Mustang, France’s official entry for this year’s Academy Awards, five sisters living in a remote Turkish village strain against the prison-like limits put on them by a local male culture terrified of allowing them even the slightest hint of freedom.

Wild, exuberant, and altogether masterful, Mustang is playing now in limited release; make sure to seek it out. My review is at PopMatters:

The view from the family home of five sisters living in a remote Turkish village on the Black Sea is the kind of vista for which wealthy travelers pay dearly. Nearby mountains are covered in lush forests and the ocean slaps musically into sandy beaches below.

This panorama is also a taunt, because the sisters will never be allowed anywhere near it unless a male guardian accompanies them. Even then, they won’t be allowed to play and run and laugh, but instead will be expected to follow like docile sheep in shapeless dresses…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Know Your Audience

battleborn1Claire Vaye Watkins has a truly astounding piece in Tin House, where she writes with gimlet-eyed precision on not just the infinite ways female and minority writers are put in a box by a white male literary establishment, but on how to write for a particular audience.

She wasn’t shocked that an older gentlemen came up to her at a signing and said how surprised he was that he liked her stuff. That was her intention:

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander.

Watkins writes that she had never looked up to women writers, because that’s not what she had been taught to do:

I watched the boys, watched to learn. I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like, something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.

We like to think of art as being outside the ugliness of the power structure and society’s coarsening anti-intellectualism. It is nice to imagine that writing can be (as millennials would put it) a safe space. But that’s not always the case:

I was under the impression that artmaking was apart from all the rottenness of our culture, when in fact it’s not apart from it. It is made of it.

Know your audience but don’t let them minimize you. Don’t allow your writing to be limited by anything except your own hard-fought talent. Do the work, don’t be afraid, and never take no for an answer.

Reader’s Corner: Stealing Books

In Islamabad, readers know that when they’re looking for a book, it’s best to check out the Saeed Book Bank. One of the world’s largest bookstores, it’s a three-story institution with nearly a hundred employees that stocks just about everything—and in English, too. According to this profile of the store and its owner Ahmad Saaed in the New York Times, they once operated in Peshawar, but:

… the rise of terrorism and fundamentalist Islam made Peshawar, capital of the wild frontier lands of Pakistan, a dangerous place for a bookseller — especially one who insisted on carrying magazines like Cosmopolitan and Heavy Metal, books by Karen Armstrong on Islam, and even the scientist Richard Dawkins’s atheist treatise, “The God Delusion.” (“You just wouldn’t believe how that sells,” Mr. Saeed said. “We buy a thousand copies from Random House every year, year after year.”)

Saeed, inherited the store from his father, Saeed Jan Qureshi, who was such a book lover that he took a gentle approach to book thieves. After Ahmad took over, an apologetic academic appeared, explaining that he had once shoplifted an Archie comic from the store:

“He came to say that when he was a child, 6 years old or so, he stole an Archie comic book and my father saw him,” Mr. Saeed said. “He said he was afraid he was going to get slapped, but my father said, ‘This is good that you like books. So every day you can take a book but keep it in mint condition and return it when you’re done so I can still sell it.’”

Weekend Reading: Thanksgiving Edition


Screening Room: ‘Carol’

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett exchange Christmas cheer in 'Carol' (Weinstein)
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett exchange Christmas cheer in ‘Carol’ (Weinstein)

priceofsalt1In 1952, Patricia Highsmith — riding high after the success of Strangers on a Train but before she started her Ripley series — published her semi-autobiographical novel about a love affair between two women, The Price of Salt, under a pseudonym. It went on to sell over a million copies.

Now, Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) has adapted it for the big screen as a lush period romance, with Rooney Mara as the inexperienced shopgirl and Cate Blanchett as the older married woman who falls for her.

Carol is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

Todd Haynes’ Carol offers two views of the holiday season. In 1952’s New York City, we first see family gatherings, snowy sidewalks, and shopping trips. Just below that surface, two women engage in illicit romance, at every turn reminded of everything they are not allowed to have. Their world doesn’t allow for same-sex attraction, much less the idea that two women could share a life together. As everyone else around them is making merry, their secret turns sharp enough to cut glass…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: ‘A Moveable Feast’

hemingwayFans of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast love it for its aching and ephemeral beauty. For writers, it’s also a celebration of the craft and (almost more importantly, to some) the lifestyle as it should be enjoyed. For instance:

…we ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.

Now, the book has taken on an extra significance in the City of Lights:

Copies have been laid among the flowers and tributes at the sites of the massacres, and people are reading the book in bars and cafes…

Weekend Reading: November 20, 2015


Screening Room: ‘Secret in Their Eyes’

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman in 'Secret in Their Eyes' (STX Entertainment)
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman in ‘Secret in Their Eyes’ (STX Entertainment)

Based on the Oscar-winning 2009 Argentinian film of the same name, Billy Ray’s Secret in Their Eyes follows what happens when a police woman’s daughter is murdered and neither she nor her fellow cops can quite let go of it.

Secret in Their Eyes opens this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

After making Shattered Glass, one of the modern era’s greatest journalism films, one would have hoped that writer-director Billy Ray would have absorbed the cardinal rule: Don’t bury the lead. Yet that is exactly what he keeps doing all throughout Secret in Their Eyes, his strained and surprisingly star-heavy remake of Juan JoséCampanella’s morally complicated potboiler that was also the 2010 Foreign-Language Oscar winner. Initially a procedural about a retired FBI agent who can’t let go of a cold case, Ray’s version sidles into a buried romance and a commentary on post-9/11 security-state excesses without ever quite getting a bead on any of the many elements it’s juggling…

Here’s the trailer:

Quote of the Day: ‘Between the World and Me’

In his acceptance speech at last night’s National Book Awards—where his Between the World and Me won the nonfiction prize—Ta-Nehisi Coates dedicated the award to his friend Prince Jones, who was pursued and killed by a police officer who mistook him for a criminal.

coatescover1Coates went on to say this about the book, which is structured as a letter to his son:

I’m a black man in America. I can’t punish that officer; Between the World and Me comes out of that place. I can’t secure the safety of my son. I just don’t have that power. But what I do have the power to do is say, ‘You won’t enroll me in this lie. You won’t make me part of it.’

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

And his first story about the killing of Jones is here.

Screening Room: ‘Legend’

Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy in 'Legend' (Universal Pictures)
Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy in ‘Legend’ (Universal Pictures)

Back in the 1960s, the Kray twins were a couple of the flashiest, most press-hungry gangsters that London’s East End had ever seen. In Brian Helgeland’s take on their story—based on John Pearson’s book The Profession of Violence—Tom Hardy plays both Krays because, well, he’s Tom Hardy and there’s no good reason to think he can’t.

Legend is opening this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

By the time Legend starts, its real-life East End gangster twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray(Tom Hardy, each time) are already the toast of Swinging 1960s London. BrianHelgeland’s crime epic dispenses with any rise to power, presenting us with these men already hitting peak power. They swagger though town as though they were ten feet tall, mocking the hapless cops detailed to follow them, knowing that fear and the East End’s tribal loyalties will keep anybody from informing. There is nowhere for them and the film to go, in other words, but down…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Write Anything Down

notebook1There are a couple salient moments in this interview with Stephen King. The first is when he gives some counter-intuitive advice about ideas for stories:

I don’t write anything down, any ideas ever, because that’s a good way to immortalize really bad ideas. The bad ideas fall out. It’s a natural Darwinian process. They go away somehow. It’s like throwing a bunch of crackers in a sieve. Some of those ideas shake out because the crumbs get too small, but the big ones stay…

It could make for an interesting experiment. Let the ideas come and if they’re still there by the time you’re ready to put them to page, then those are the keepers. How many of us have gone back to a notebook, looked at a scrawl that seemed amazing at the time, and wondered what the hell we were thinking?

The second memorable quote comes in his response to the interviewer’s question about what is driving King’s current prolific phase: “I’m not as a prolific as I used to be.”

Screening Room: ‘By the Sea’

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in 'By the Sea' (Universal Pictures)
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in ‘By the Sea’ (Universal Pictures)

Set in the 1970s, By the Sea stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as a couple traveling through France as their relationship nears collapse.

bythesea-posterWritten and directed by Jolie, By the Sea opened this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

A divertingly gorgeous mediocrity, By the Sea arrives onscreen pushing a trainload of expectations ahead of itself. After Angelina Jolie Pitt’s little-seen In the Land of Blood and Honey and last year’s Unbroken, this stands as her first broad test of her abilities as a writer-director. Unlike those war dramas, this chamber piece has no historical resonance or book-club fans to fall back on. There’s just a hotel room, some pretty scenery, and a couple whose marriage is disintegrating. Add to that a stealthy ad campaign, a vague trailer hinting at 1970s Bertolucci-like decadence, and the first pairing of Jolie and her now-husband Brad Pitt since they played another warring couple in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and you have a movie almost guaranteed to attract all the wrong kinds of attention…

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: November 13, 2015


Screening Room: ‘In Jackson Heights’

Manhattan is just a half-hour away. (Zipporah Films)
Manhattan is just a half-hour away. (Zipporah Films)

The latest nonfiction opus from Frederick Wiseman is a portrait of the mind-bogglingly diverse Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens (167 languages at last count). It’s a rich and endlessly fascinating study of what multicultural America really looks like.

In Jackson Heights is playing now in limited release and should make its way to PBS within the next year or so. My review is at PopMatters:

Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights doesn’t just celebrate a neighborhood; it immerses you in it. A working-class neighborhood in Queens, about a half-hour’s subway ride from Manhattan, Jackson Heights features a patchwork of ethnicities and an ever-transitioning gateway for immigrants looking to get a toehold in America. Home to so many thousands of the documented and undocumented immigrants living alongside a stewpot of native-borns, Jackson Heights is a living civics laboratory for the ever-evolving American experiment…

Here’s the trailer: