Screening Room: ‘The Program’

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In the new bicycling melodrama (a category that yes, does sound oxymoronic) The Program, director Stephen Frears tells the story of the rise and fall (and fall) of Lance Armstrong, played by Ben Foster.

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

There is almost no other modern athletic hero beside Lance Armstrong who was more lionized in his success and more scorned in his downfall. His rise to fame was the kind of story that sports journalists live for: A previously good but unremarkable biker doesn’t just beat a cancer diagnosis, he follows it up by winning one Tour de France after another in unprecedented fashion. His ignominious fall from grace was a story that any journalist would want…

Here’s the trailer:

Quote of the Day: The Easter Rising

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On this day in 1916, Irish rebels rose up around the country. The short-lived Easter Rising to establish a free Irish Republic was put down by British forces on April 29.

From W.B. Yeats’s commemorative epic poem, “Easter 1916“:

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Writer’s Desk: Writing a (Sex) Scene

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Every now and then when you’re writing fiction it’s time to figure out the scene(s) where a couple of your characters well, you know, ahem…

With some handy advice for how to handle such delicate moments, here’s Marc Almond, who after a dozen steps for things to keep in mind, comes up with this bit of inspiration:

Bonus Step! Step 13: Read the Song of Songs.
The Song of Songs, for those of you who haven’t read the Bible in a while, is a long erotic poem that somehow got smuggled into the Old Testament. It is the single most instructive document you can read if you want to learn how to write effectively about the nature of physical love.

By the way, if you’re following that bit, make sure to go with the King James translation. The language is just that much richer.

Weekend Reading: March 25, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘Midnight Special’

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Midnight Special, the new film from Jeff Nichols (Mud, the upcoming Loving), opened this past weekend. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

There’s nothing more American than a chase scene. That’s one of the reasons that, looking back on Jeff Nichols’s somber science-fiction thriller Midnight Special, it’s the moments of movement and noise that come to mind. The dark Texas and Louisiana highways, an old Detroit beater with its deeply thrumming engine, the hushed sentinel lines of trees on either side, the man at the wheel driving with the lights off and night-vision goggles on, the special cargo in the back seat wearing protective goggles and reading comic books by flashlight. All the great and terrifying forces of post-millennial America are gathering in the night and searching for them: an alphabet soup of government agencies, breaking-news television with its Amber alerts, and an end-times sect convinced that they have found their messiah…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Updike on Scheduling

updike1One of the hardest things to deal with as a writer can be figuring out how much you have to do. Is it pages or hours of writing in a day that mark achievement? John Updike, who wrote a few books in his time, had a good answer:

Since I’ve gone to some trouble not to teach, and not to have any other employment, I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch. So, I work three or four hours in the morning, and it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases. You begin by answering a letter or two. There’s a lot of junk in your life as a writer and most people have junk in their lives. But, I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along. There’s a danger if you don’t move it along steadily that you’re going to forget what it’s about, so you must keep in touch with it I figure. So once embarked, yes, I do try to stick to a schedule.

“Most people have junk in their lives.” That seems like almost the best part of what he says. Don’t pretend that you can perfectly shut the world out and be in your little writing cocoon. Deal with the noise, bring it in, and move past it to get on with your work. That seems key.

(h/t: Open Culture)

Weekend Reading: March 18, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘The Brainwashing of My Dad’

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It’s the kind of thing too many people are familiar with. Once middle-of-the-road parents suddenly, after immersing themselves in Fox News and talk radio, turn into angry ditto-heads, sending email forwards filled with birther conspiracy theories and ALL CAPS freakout. That’s what happened to filmmaker Jen Senko, who chronicled the experience in a new documentary.

The Brainwashing of My Dad opens this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Presenting itself as a Chomsky-esque takedown of a well-oiled propaganda machine, Jen Senko’s The Brainwashing of My Dad defines itself as “a story about a media phenomenon that changed a father and divided a nation.” The phenomenon Senko’s referring to is the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Hillary Clinton identified back in 1998, after years of unhinged assaults on her and Bill by a well-funded network of conservative magazines, columnists, TV personalities and talk-radio hosts. It’s a conspiracy that Senko knows quite well, having watched her father turn from a “nonpolitical Kennedy Democrat,” the kind who would give a homeless black man money while calling him “Sir,” into the sort of splenetic crank who rants about “feminazis” and how the liberals are destroying America…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Tips from F. Scott Fitzgerald

This_Side_of_Paradise_dust_jacketA few tips from the great F. Scott Fitzgerald, compiled from the handy collection F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing:

1: Start by taking notes.
2: Make a detailed outline of your story.
3: Don’t describe your work-in-progress to anyone.
4: Create people, not types.
5: Use familiar words.
6: Use verbs, not adjectives, to keep your sentences moving.
7: Be ruthless.

If you can follow even three of those closely enough, you’ll be well on your way.

Weekend Reading: March 11, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘Creative Control’

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What happens when disaffected, sociopathic hipsters become even more detached from reality? See Benjamin Dickinson’s sci-fi satire Creative Control to find out.

Creative Control opens this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The meeting convened at the beginning of Benjamin Dickinson’s tech-frazzled Creative Control contains a nearly perfect example of what a dead soul sounds like. A passive-aggressive free-fire zone of territorial scrapping, greed and ambition disguised as creativity, and lines like “philosophy is so on-trend” that will probably have been uttered in some Manhattan office by the time you finish reading this, the meeting is ostensibly about the launching of a new brand of virtual-reality glasses called Augmenta. But the story that follows is less a statement about the dangerous implications of this technology than a nettlesome black comedy about the virtual, transactional nature of modern relationships…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Knight of Cups’

In the newest Terrence Malick indie, Christian Bale is a screenwriter undergoing a romantically attractive existential crisis amidst the Hollywood demimonde.

knight-of-cups-posterKnight of Cups is playing now. My review is at PopMatters:

Like the deck of tarot cards that provides its narrative spine, Knight of Cups is shuffled up and dealt out with a witchy randomness. Making a mockery of Syd Field’s rules of screenwriting (where’s the inciting incident?), the film offers stories of sprawling entropy. Whether that’s enough to sustain an entire movie will be decided by the viewer’s appetite for moony maundering in gorgeous settings…

The trailer is here:

Screening Room: ‘Boom Bust Boom’

Terry Jones: What are we missing?
Terry Jones: What are we missing?

Ever wonder why every time there’s a bubble in the economy, nearly all market-watchers and economists seem to say, “Don’t worry about it, because This Time It’s Different”? Monty Python’s Terry Jones’s nifty new comedic documentary Boom Bust Boom tries to find out why.

My review of Boom Bust Boom, opening this week in quite limited release, is at Film Journal International:

Wearing the dashingly ironic grin of a BBC host who just can’t wait to let you in on a real cracker of a story, Terry Jones starts off his musical-theatre economics lecture by pointing to what he calls “the Achilles’ heel of the economy.” What he’s referring to is the fact that most economies are irregularly plagued by seemingly random and unpredictable crises. This is despite the fact that universities pump out a steady stream of newly minted economists who one would imagine would be able to focus their well-trained brains on preventing the next such crisis…

Here’s the trailer:

Quote of the Day: Explaining Things to Nazis

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From a party scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, where Allen plays a writer named Isaac who, like many of us these days, seems confused that some matters are believed to still be up for discussion:

Isaac: Has anybody read that Nazis are going to march in New Jersey, you know? We should go there, get some guys together, you know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them.

Man: There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times. It is devastating.

Isaac: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.

Woman: Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.

Isaac: No, physical force is always better with Nazis. It’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.

Rewind: ‘Winter Soldier’

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In early 1971, a group of Vietnam veterans (future senator and Secretary of State John Kerry among them) gave several days of public testimony about the atrocities they had witnessed or, in some cases, participated in during the war. The results were filmed by a collective that included future Oscar winner Barbara Kopple and released as the stunning, grueling documentary Winter Soldier.

My essay on Winter Soldier is at Eyes Wide Open:

… the film is essentially a parade of grainy, black-and-white footage of morose, shaggy-headed vets talking in confession-booth tones about laying waste to villages and butchering civilians; this is not a fun night out at the movies (but, then, neither is Shoah). In general, we as a country have preferred to have our Vietnam horror stories served up to us as part of thrilling wartime adventure tales, like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, or used as nihilistic punch lines in the morbidly inhumane Full Metal Jacket. And yet it remains well-nigh unconscionable that Winter Soldier, a burningly crucial missive delivered straight from the frontline, never become one of the standard texts on the Vietnam War and didn’t receive its first proper theatrical release until 2005.

Here’s the trailer: