Writer’s Desk: It Beats Working, or Does It?

The late David Carr (Night of the Gun) was the kind of writer who reminded writers why they loved their jobs. He suffered for the job, but also thought it was a blast, and tore poseurs to pieces.

Here’s Carr being interviewed by a magazine at Boston University, where he taught a class:

The dirty secret: journalism has always been horrible to get in; you always have to eat so much crap to find a place to stand. I waited tables for seven years, did writing on the side. If you’re gonna get a job that’s a little bit of a caper, that isn’t really a job, that under ideal circumstances you get to at least leave the building and leave your desktop, go out, find people more interesting than you, learn about something, come back and tell other people about it—that should be hard to get into. That should be hard to do. No wonder everybody’s lined up, trying to get into it. It beats working.

Screening Room: ‘T-Rex’

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As if growing up poor in Flint, Michigan wasn’t difficult enough, Claressa “T-Rex” Shields decided to set herself a lofty goal: Becoming the first woman to win a gold medal in boxing at the Olympics.

Shields’s awesomely gripping story is the subject of T-Rex, which is playing now in limited release and should show up on PBS in the next year. My review is at Film Journal International:

Outgoing but tough and pragmatic, Shields is blunt about how she got started at the gym she’s been boxing at since age eleven: “I was just down here, beating guys… It was something I liked to do”…

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: June 24, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘Free State of Jones’

Mahershala Ali and Matthew McConaughey in 'Free State of Jones'
Mahershala Ali and Matthew McConaughey in ‘Free State of Jones’

In 1862, a Mississippi farmer named Newton Knight got sick of fighting for the Southern cause. He gathered a band of like-minded rebels against the Rebels and fought a guerrilla war that (briefly) established a free (of slaves, too) corner of the Confederacy.

Free State of Jones, written and directed by Seabiscuit‘s Gary Ross, stars Matthew McConaughey as Knight. It opens this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

As the saying goes, history is just one thing after another. That’s not true of most historical films. Usually they use a traditional narrative of a hero’s triumph over adversity or tragic end with posthumous glory and dot flecks of history into it only as needed. The history is foregrounded in Gary Ross’  Free State of Jones, an ambitious effort that ropes a cross-racial love triangle and civil-rights saga into a no-holds-barred war film. It isn’t often that you see archival photography or onscreen credits about the Battle of Vicksburg in a Matthew McConaughey film with an eight-figure budget. That occasionally starchy approach leaves the human element lacking at times. But at least it’s all for a good cause: further undermining the myth of the heroic Confederacy…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Bukowski

bukowski-onwriting1Some authors become victims of their own caricatures, regardless of talent. So Hemingway is made the symbol of virile and manly artistry, Proust a languid dabbler, and so on.

Charles Bukowski was no different; and in some ways it was his fault. He is most remembered today as a kind of artful stewbum, churning out novels and poems even while drinking his way to the bottom of every bottle that came his way. His writing was well marinated in the last-call remnants of his alcoholic escapades.

Nevertheless, the man could knock out a killer line. And he wasn’t some natural, banging away at the keys like he was transmitting a message from the beyond. Like the best writers, Bukowski was fluid but aware. He knew he could write. And he could tell you how.

In the collection On Writing, Bukowski provides a glimpse of the method behind the madness, particularly as it relates to the rules (of grammar and other) that he never found much need for:

I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to grammar, and when I write it is for the love of the word, the color, like tossing paint on a canvas, and using a lot of ear and having read a bit here and there, I generally come out ok, but technically I don’t know what’s happening, nor do I care.

… the very feeling of a good poem carries its own reason for being… Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.

The sanctuary of the rule means nothing to the pure creator …

(h/t: Brain Pickings)

Screening Room: ‘Finding Dory’

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By the time you’ve read this, Finding Dory, the probably inevitable sequel to Finding Nemo, will have raked in millions. And for once, a preordained blockbuster sort of, kind of deserves to be one.

My review of Finding Dory is at PopMatters:

Finding Dory at least exceeds expectations, if not the original. As with any children’s sequel, particularly in the corporate-synergistic era when every popular animated property can’t just sit there like an exhibit on a shelf. Those characters need to earn their keep by delivering to the firm’s bottom line. It’s a relief to be able to report that they do so with much the same spirit of wonderment, easy humor, and teary-eyed sentiment that characterized the films that made Pixar the heir to the Disney mantle before it was acquired in 2006…

Weekend Reading: June 17, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’

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MirbeauChambermaidDiaryIn Octave Mirbeau’s scandalous 1900 novel, Diary of a Chambermaid, he uses the exploits of a canny maid unencumbered by bourgeois morality to satirize the hypocrisies and power games of French society. It’s been filmed a couple times, most famously by Luis Bunuel with Jeanne Moreau in the title role.

Benoît Jacquot’s new version stars Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) and is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The loathsomeness of humanity is so thickly painted in this latest adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s satirical novel that by the time anti-Semitism and murder rear their head, they almost can’t bring the film’s opinion of its characters any lower. That isn’t to say that director BenoîtJacquot doesn’t relish watching his players scheme and plot their way around hard work or simple decency. In this world, fin de siècle French society is a rigged game. Those not born to its few crucial advantages of money or place have to do what they can to survive. Of course, many don’t put as much into that struggle as his manipulative heroine Célestine (Léa Seydoux), who hasn’t met a corner she didn’t cut or an angle she didn’t play…

Here’s the trailer:

Quote of the Day: Virginia Woolf and New Media Distraction

roomofonesownVirginia Woolf reviewed books for years. It was a decent job, and necessary for survival; incredibly one could make a living, albeit a poor one, doing that back then.

But occasionally the whole business of opinionating got to her. In a 1939 essay, she suggested replacing book reviews with a simple stamp of approval or disapproval. In her mind this was better than what she called:

…the present discordant and distracted twitter.

Feel free to draw your own comparisons between her time and now.

Screening Room: ‘Do Not Resist’

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Following the Ferguson riots of 2014, there was a brief moment where the county noticed that all of a sudden, its police departments—stuffed with billions of dollars worth of military surplus and bristling with body armor, assault rifles, and make-my-day attitude—were looking more like a domestic military.

Craig Atkinson’s sober, occasionally terrifying Do Not Resist keeps the spotlight on the militarization of American police forces. It’s screening tomorrow night at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York and should be showing up around the country in more festival dates.

My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

The film starts in the tear gas-fogged streets of Ferguson, Missouri during the riots of August 2014 that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer. As the St. Louis County police department tries to clear the streets of protestors, their body armor and gas masks, plus their hulking dark-green armored transports, turn the scene into something out of a war zone, not a Midwestern suburb…

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Listen to What They Say

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Ben Hecht (Culver Pictures)

Ben Hecht, one of history’s great newspapermen and playwrights (The Front Page) before he became that drollest and most cynical of Hollywood scripters (Scarface), never read like somebody who cared a whit about what somebody thought of his writing.

To wit, Hecht’s advice to writers:

Criticism can never instruct or benefit you. Its chief effect is that of a telegram with dubious news. Praise leaves no glow behind, for it is a writer’s habit to remember nothing good of himself. I have usually forgotten those who have admired my work, and seldom anyone who disliked it. Obviously, this is because praise is never enough and censure always too much.

So, in short, ignore it all and get back to work. Unless the praise/critique comes from your editor, in which case sometimes you may have to listen.

Weekend Reading: June 10, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘De Palma’

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Brian De Palma isn’t the kind of director who usually gets his own appreciative documentary. For one, he’s still alive and making films. For another, those films are usually twisted psychodramas just barely this side of exploitation thrillers.

Directed by filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, De Palma opens this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

Baumbach and Paltrow’s approach is simple: Put a camera on De Palma as he walks us through his oeuvre, inserting strategic clips from his work or cinematic references as needed. There’s a brief dash through his autobiographical particulars before getting to the heart of the matter. Afterward the structure is chronological, bracketed by his little-seen college work from the 1960s (Wotan’s Wake) to the smaller independently financed films made since his self-imposed exile in Paris (Redacted, Femme Fatale). In between is one of cinema’s most unique and unlikely careers, swerving from psychological thrillers to horror, camp, gangster and war epics, and back again to psychological thrillers. It’s more than enough for De Palma to discuss…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Hooligan Sparrow’

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This year’s Human Rights Watch Festival opens with a strong indictment of the institutional and moral corruption of modern-day China, as laid bare by a tiny insurgent band of determined women activists.

My review of Hooligan Sparrow, whose footage had to be smuggled out of China and which opens the festival this Friday in New York, is at Little While Lies.

Here’s the trailer: