Screening Room: ‘Oklahoma City’


In 1995, the biggest domestic terrorist attack in American history to that point took place in Oklahoma City. It wasn’t an isolated incident. Barak Goodman’s documentary shows what lead up to the bombing and along the way provides a thumbnail history of the American white supremacist underground.

Oklahoma City is opening this week in limited release and will be broadcast as part of PBS’s American Experience series on February 7. My review is at Film Journal International:

For all the news ink and televisual garble that was expended on the roiling subculture of American right-wing extremists during the 1980s and ’90s, surprisingly little of that time was spent on their roots in blatantly racist white supremacy. Because the militias’ anti-government and pro-gun rhetoric was louder than its white-separatist ideology, that was the half-story which much of the media led with once the militias’ fantasies of all-out conflict began to spark actual bloodshed. Barak Goodman’s thorough, dramatic documentary about the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist attack doesn’t make that same mistake…

Here’s the trailer.

Writer’s Desk: Carrie Fisher Said Stay Scared

Carrie Fisher at the 2013 Venice Film Festival (Riccardo Ghilardi)
Carrie Fisher at the 2013 Venice Film Festival (Riccardo Ghilardi)

Carrie Fisher was one of the vanishingly few actors to ever come out of the gate as a massive star at an early age and then later transition to a writing career that would have been respected all on its own. As someone who struggled with mental and addiction issues throughout her life in a business that is basically engineered to maximize a writer’s insecurity, she knew what it was like to doubt every one of your own creative instincts.

This is what Fisher had to say about people with mental illness who were afraid to pursue their dreams. But it applies equally to just about anybody who has ever been nervous about putting their work out there into the world.

Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.

Reader’s Corner: Orwell and Trump


My article “Forget Orwell: No Book Will Prepare You for the Trump Years” was published earlier this week at Medium:

After Donald Trump’s human smokescreen Kellyanne Conway announced that the president was simply presenting the world with “alternative facts,” the connection was quickly made to George Orwell’s 1984. There is good reason for this. (And while one should be happy for any resulting increase in sales of the book, we shouldn’t presume that it will be any guide to the remaining years of the Trump presidency. More on that below.)…

Weekend Reading: January 27, 2017


Screening Room: ‘I Am Michael’

James Franco and Zachary Quinto in 'I Am Michael'
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’

Based on a true story, I Am Michael stars James Franco as a gay activist who turns to Christianity and rejects everything about his past. It’s playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

When we first see Michael Glatze (James Franco), trying to counsel a fellow young Christian terrified of his same-sex attractions, he initially seems supportive and gentle. The kind of preacher who reaches out, rather than condemns. Even when he says that “gay doesn’t exist,” it scans as nonjudgmental. But when he gets to the leading question, “You want to go to heaven, right?” it’s obvious that Glatze is not going to be that kind of Christian…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’

manwhofelltoearth-dvdIn 1976, David Bowie was a rock star, but pretty much still just that. Then Nicolas Roeg cast the singer/songwriter with the alien alter ego(s) as an alien wandering around Earth and having an existential crisis. The film was remembered less for itself

My review of The Man Who Fell to Earth, now out in a deluxe new Blu-ray/DVD release with fab new digital transfer, is at PopMatters:

The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of those curious sci-fi projects that are occasionally indulged in by filmmakers who didn’t have any particular interest in the genre per se, but found it a useful springboard for their ideas. David Bowie plays an alien who’s come to Earth looking for a water supply for his drought-ravaged planet. Calling himself Thomas Jerome Newton and looking like some kind of spectral hipster in his sunglasses and anorak, he’s first spotted wandering through a small New Mexico town, pawning a ring and drinking stagnant water as though it were the nectar of the gods…

Here’s the trailer.

Writer’s Desk: Own the Fear

Plenty of writers out there are anxious about what kind of physical and spiritual damage is going to be wrought on America and the world by the short-fingered vulgarian currently inhabiting the White House (or not).

Many (like Stephen King, Salman Rushdie, and Junot Diaz) are agitating and speaking their minds, and some are protesting. They know that civil rights, basic freedoms, and great swathes of the social safety net are already in jeopardy.

But the arts are threatened as well—what with plans already afoot to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and completely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (so apply now for those Creative Writing Fellowships, just in case).

With all that going on, the temptation is certainly there to just play ostrich and pretend the next four years isn’t going to happen. There’s plenty that one could write which doesn’t engage with the current crisis at all. In the Village Voice, Aleksandar Hemon argues for something different:

What I call for is a literature that craves the conflict and owns the destruction … Never should we assume the sun will rise tomorrow, that America cannot be a fascist state, or that the nice-guy neighbor will not be a murderer because he gives out candy at Halloween.

So recognize that ignoring what’s coming might briefly make you happier but it probably won’t make you a better writer. As Hermon says, to write about America, we must be ready “to fight in the streets and in our sentences.”

If your writing truly engages with that fear and uncertainty, it’ll be grueling and possibly frightening. But it’ll make for a hell of a story.

Reader’s Corner: Obama’s Books

Something unlikely to be seen in the next four years: the President out buying books (Pete Souza)
Something unlikely to be seen in the next four years: the President out buying books (Pete Souza)

No matter what was going on in the world, President Obama always found time to read, preferably for at least an hour a night, according to Michiko Kakutani. This wasn’t just a habit that relaxed him, it also provided grist for the mill:

In today’s polarized environment, where the internet has let people increasingly retreat to their own silos (talking only to like-minded folks, who amplify their certainties and biases), the president sees novels and other art (like the musical Hamilton) as providing a kind of bridge that might span usual divides and ‘a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day.’

He points out, for instance, that the fiction of Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri speak ‘to a very particular contemporary immigration experience,’ but at the same time tell stories about ‘longing for this better place but also feeling displaced’ — a theme central to much of American literature, and not unlike books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow that are ‘steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up.’

You can get a sense of the breadth of his recent reading in his last couple of summer reading lists compiled by the White House:

  • “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan
  • “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
  • “H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald
  • “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins
  • “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson
  • “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
  • “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow

It’s a superb mix of literary and popular fiction, along with of-the-comment commentary and even science fiction (who’d have thought the president, any president, would be reading Neal Stephenson?), the kind of list that a particularly good bookseller would have put in your hands if you told them: “What’s good now?”

So, if Obama’s looking for something to do, maybe there’s a bookstore hiring.

Quote of the Day: Inauguration Edition


In 1935, journalist Dorothy Thompson reflected on the rise of dictators:

No people ever recognize their dictator in advance … He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument [of] the Incorporated National Will.

She also noted how the same thing would happen in the United States:

When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American.

(h/t Smithsonian)

Weekend Reading: January 20, 2016


Screening Room: ‘The Founder’


Even though Ray Kroc referred to himself as the founder of McDonald’s, he didn’t exactly invent the idea. That would be the McDonald brothers, who ran a popular burger stand in Southern California in the 1950s, when Kroc came across it. What happened next is described in The Founder, featuring Michael Keaton in a showy turn as Kroc.

hancock-founder-p350The Founder played briefly last year and is opening wider this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Sometimes a hamburger isn’t just a hamburger. Consider how many Americans still hold primal memories of wolfing down a Big Mac with fries as a child, or the fact that the Soviet Union only seemed truly dead and gone after a McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990. A phenomenon in many ways, McDonald’s has inspired backlashes against its cookie-cutter business model. It has also served “billions”. As the visionary Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) puts it in The Founder, “McDonald’s can be the new American church”…

You can see the trailer here.

Screening Room: ‘His Girl Friday’


Criterion’s two-disc edition of Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday hit stores last week and it’s a real pip. Packaged with all the usual supplemental features and interviews, you’ve also got the full edition of Lewis Milestone’s first film adaptation of the play The Front Page from 1931. But all you really need is the film itself, a sparkling new 4K restoration that makes every gag from this whirlwind-speed screwball comedy ring clear.

his-girl-friday-dvdMy review of His Girl Friday is at PopMatters:

Unlike his lionized peers Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, Hawks didn’t stick to one genre. He made some crime and war dramas like Scarface and The Road to Glory, but was better known for romances and screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and Twentieth Century. His defining characteristic, though, served him in good stead for his newest project: speed…

Check out the trailer here.

Quote of the Day: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Edition

march-johnlewisThis is what Evan McMullin (yes, a Republican) had to say about the president-elect’s attacks on Rep. John Lewis:

On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, let it be clear that John Lewis is an American patriot. Trump’s attacks on him further confirm it.

Now, go and buy yourself the March trilogy of graphic historical novels that Lewis co-wrote.

If you can find a copy, that is.

Writer’s Desk: Stay Excited

Roughly ten years ago, novelist Michael Cunningham (The Hours) received one of those calls very few of us civilians ever receive: “This is David Bowie. I hope I’m not calling at an inconvenient time.”

davisbowiealaddinsaneThe collaboration that followed was for a never-realized musical about an alien marooned on Earth. Cunningham was to write the book and Bowie the songs. Given that Cunningham was a somewhat obsessed fan and Bowie a little sketchy on the details of what he wanted to do, things started off a little slowly, but their relationship grew.

For Cunningham, as he describes in this piece for GQ, to work with Bowie, he needed to humanize him. That became very simple for him after something great happened:

How starstruck, after all, can anybody feel after the object of one’s veneration says, early on, without a trace of irony, that he was excited to start a new project because: “Now I get to do one of my favorite things. Go to a stationery store and get Sharpies and Post-its!” Yes, the Space Oddity, the Thin White Duke, was excited about picking up a few things at Staples.

If you’re a writer these days, there isn’t much in the way of office supplies one needs to start a new article, story, essay, or book.

But, there is still that tingle one gets one first embarking on something new, the thrill of exploring new territory and knowing you could find great success or utter failure but wouldn’t know which until it was far too late to turn back.

If you don’t feel that sense of excitement the next time you’re sitting at the keyboard, maybe try Staples. Get a new notebook and some nice pens (the good ones that have some heft, nothing that says Bic). Open it up. Look at that expanse of empty pages. Get started.

Reader’s Corner: The Book Bus

Eau Claire, Wisconsin just had a pretty cool idea:

As early as late spring, all 22 city buses could be outfitted with special racks filled with books that people can read on the ride or bring home if they want to – free of charge. Consider it a road-bound riff on the Little Free Library movement that began in Hudson a few years ago and spread throughout Wisconsin and the world, with literally thousands of book-filled boxes springing up at homes, businesses, and schools. In this case, the free books will be close at hand for people who rely on city buses for their transportation.

Everybody’s city should be so lucky.

(h/t: Melville House)