Weekend Reading: September 30, 2016


Screening Room: ‘Deepwater Horizon’


On April 20, 2010, an explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 crewmembers and sent 210 million gallons of oil flooding into the Gulf, devastating the coastal ecosystem and economy. Peter Berg’s action-oriented take on the disaster only deals with half the story.

Deepwater Horizon opens wide Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

Movies about titanic events have a built-in problem. They have to pluck out the individual stories while still keeping a deep focus on the larger issue. That’s true whether you’re talking about a squad of GIs amidst the carnage of the Second World War or The Rock trying to save his family while CGI earthquakes shred the California scenery. Somehow, this basic premise was forgotten in the making of Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: It’s Going to Take Some Time


Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explains Things to Me, has a few tips at LitHub for the aspiring, or just plain struggling, writer. Her advice is less aspirational and more hard-working than most. In short, don’t pretend it’s going to be easy:

It takes time. This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest (people with trust funds and other cushions: I’m not talking to you, though money makes many, many things easy, and often, vocation and passion harder). You probably have to do something else for a living at the outset or all along, but don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies. I knew a waitress once who thought fate was keeping her from her painting but taste was: if she’d given up always being the person who turned going out for a burrito into ordering the expensive wine at the bistro she would’ve had one more free day a week for art.

Remember the rule that Malcolm Gladwell popularized about needing 10,000 hours to master something? That’s what you’ll need to do for writing, at the very least.

Weekend Reading: September 23, 2016


Writer’s Desk: Cleese Says Steal It


And now for something completely different…

John Cleese was one of the hardest working members of Monty Python. Outside the troupe, he had a brisk sideline in other writing gigs, not to mention advertisements, and his side business in business training films (weird, but true). Eric Idle said that Cleese used to say that he’d do anything for money, so Idle offered him a pound to stop talking. Cleese took it.

Given Cleese’s work ethic, it’s fair to assume he’s a good fellow to listen to about writing. Even when his advice is counter-intuitive:

I tell [young comedy writers] to steal, because comedy is extraordinarily difficult. It’s much, much harder than drama. You only have to think of the number of great dramatic films and then compare that with the number of great comic films … and realize that there’s very, very few great comedies and there are lots and lots of very great tragedies, or dramas. That tells you, really, which is the hard one to do. So at the very beginning, to try to master the whole thing is too difficult, so pinch other people’s ideas and then try to write them yourself, and that’ll get you started…

In other words, comedy is hard. Learn from those who went before you.

Reader’s Corner: Eric Idle’s Rules

If you’re ever stuck for something to read, somebody else’s reading lists can be a help. Eric Idle posts a continually updated one that’s pretty smashing on his website here.

An inveterate bookworm of the highest caliber, Idle has also compiled a few rules for reading:

  • Rule 1:     Never be without a book.
  • Rule 2:     Skip all Prefaces, Forewords and Introductions.
  • Rule 3:     If you’re bored with a book, chuck it. There are millions of books you will never get to read, so if one doesn’t grab you, put it down.
  • Rule 4:     You don’t have to finish a book. You can always come back to it.
  • Rule 6:     You may read several books at once.
  • Rule 7:     You may skip and skim. This is not a class, this is life.
  • Rule 8:     Try and buy from your local bookshop while you still have one.
  • Rule 9:     There is no rule 9.
  • Rule 10:   Enjoy!

Weekend Reading: September 16, 2016


Screening Room: ‘Command and Control’


Getting a brief theatrical run before its PBS debut, one assumes to qualify for the Oscars, Robert Kenner’s adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s book Command and Control is a bracing documentary about a nearly forgotten threat: America’s sprawling nuclear arsenal.

Command and Control is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The post-9/11 adage about how security services have to be right all the time while terrorists only have to be right once could easily be adapted to Robert Kenner’s vivid new documentary: People who work with nuclear weapons only have to make one mistake for everything to go to hell…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Get Started

dontthinktwiceWhile touring the country promoting his film Don’t Think Twice, comic Mike Birbiglia was asked variations on the same question at pretty much every stop:  “If I want to be a comedian [or actor or writer or improviser or film director], how do I get started?”

Birbiglia boiled his advice down to “6 Tips for Making It Small in Hollywood. Or Anywhere.” The first tip, though, is the most helpful for people who ask that question:

1. Don’t Wait — Write. Make a short film. Go to an open mike. Take an improv class. There’s no substitute for actually doing something. Don’t talk about it anymore. Maybe don’t even finish reading this essay.

The sooner you get started, the sooner you can start failing all the dozens or thousands of times you will need to fail in order to get somewhere, creatively.

Weekend Reading: September 9, 2016


Screening Room: ‘Defying the Nazis’


On the brink of World War II, a Unitarian minister and his wife were ordered by their community to travel from Massachusetts to Europe with a crucial mission: Help as many refugees escape as you can.

Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, which was co-directed by Ken Burns, is opening this week in limited release. It will be broadcast on PBS September 20. My review is at Film Journal International:

Ringing with a vivid moral clarity, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War is a tightly focused documentary that raises an unusually sprawling number of challenging questions for its audience. Unlike many stories of this kind, the film doesn’t pretend that the choices made by its undeniably brave subjects were easy ones or that a cost wasn’t required for their decision to go willingly into the horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe to save whoever they could…

Here is the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Make Writing Your Life

EPL10thAnniversary_CoverWhen giving advice on writing, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, LoveBig Magic) takes the approach that this vocation is a calling, not just a job:

…if you are serious about a life of writing, or indeed about any creative form of expression – that you should take on this work like a holy calling. I became a writer the way other people become monks or nuns. I made a vow to writing, very young. I became Bride-of-Writing. I was writing’s most devotional handmaiden. I built my entire life around writing. I didn’t know how else to do this. I didn’t know anyone who had ever become a writer. I had no, as they say, connections. I had no clues. I just began…

Some writers may not need that level of devotion. Some.

But it’s fair to assume that you won’t have a shot of becoming a great writer without devoting your entire life to the craft.

Reader’s Corner: The State of American Reading

The latest Pew Research Center poll on the state of American reading is out, and there are few surprises: Print is holding up strong against ebooks, and slightly fewer people are reading overall (yet again).

Some key findings:

  • The percentage of Americans who read any book in the past twelve months (73%) is down from 2011 (79%)
  • Women read more than men overall and were more likely to read for pleasure
  • City-dwellers read more than people in rural communities
  • Youngsters (aged 18–29) read more than oldsters (65+)
  • The median American reads 4 books a year

Weekend Reading: September 2, 2016