Screening Room: ‘Lucky’

In Lucky, Harry Dean Stanton plays an aged loner coming to terms with mortality in a small desert town. He smokes, wanders, sings in a beautifully ragged way, and dispenses whacked-out Zen koans about life. In other words, a not-so-out-there version of Stanton himself. Also, David Lynch plays a man in a white suit who is upset over losing his best friend, a tortoise.

All in all, it’s a fitting sendoff for the great actor, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 91.

Lucky is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

…there is something in [Stanton’s] wide, seeking eyes, hollow cheeks and storyteller’s presence that made him seem like some wasteland troubadour long before Wim Wenders had him amble out of the sandy flats at the start of Paris, Texas. It’s fitting, then, that he spends most of John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut, Lucky, walking the streets of a small desert town and communicating as little as is absolutely necessary. Sure, Stanton might be from Kentucky originally, but he wears a cowboy’s hat, jeans and boots as though he were born in them…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Battles of the Sexes’

Battles of the Sexes, the serio-comic new movie about that time Billie Jean King played a washed-up ex-tennis champion for $100,000 and the chance to show up the male gender, is playing in limited release.

My review is at PopMatters:

When Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is at the salon and finds herself falling deep into the eyes of her hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), it’s not as though the married tennis star is free to fling open the closet door. Billie might not be able to shake the electric sensation of that meeting, but there’s a tour to go on, not to mention sponsors and a public who wouldn’t approve…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Money Helps

JP Donleavy died earlier this month at the age of 91. About a half-century ago he wrote The Ginger Man, another of those great racketing novels from the British Isles about charismatic and sodden rakes. It had the unusual distinction of being highly praised in print by both Dorothy Parker and Hunter S. Thompson, who knew a few things about booze and wit.

In any case, Donleavy proffered some sound advice about those pursing his craft to a magazine in the late 1970s:

Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money.

Better definitions have yet to be located.

Quote of the Day: Margaret Atwood on Police States

Earlier this week, as marchers gathered in St. Louis for another night of protests following the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley on murder charges, Margaret Atwood was in town accepting a literary award. The author of The Handmaid’s Tale and many other works of dystopian fiction said the following:

Countries do not become police states overnight. They get there by steps. One step after another is tolerated and accepted, and soon the bridge between police state and democracy will be crossed, and then that bridge will be burned, and then you can’t go back without an uprising or a war and even that may not work.

So, America, please don’t go there. Please honor your own pledge to the flag — liberty and justice for all. All means all. Justice doesn’t mean merely the administration of laws. The Nuremberg laws were laws. The fugitive slave act was a set of laws. But just and fair laws administered without discrimination. Please don’t settle for less. Live up to your own propaganda.

Writer’s Desk: Listen to Your Editor

In the current publishing environment, one thing remains the same as in years past: Nearly all writers with a publishing contract have an editor. However, not all editors and not all publishers are made the same. Often, whether due to intent or time or budget (often all of the above), all that an editor can do is fix errors, make some suggestions, and generally guide the manuscript through the pipeline.

For those writers and editors who are lucky enough to be given the time and support to really work on a book together, though, the results can be revelatory. Take this essay by Thomas Ricks, in which he describes in some detail the lengthy, painful, and ultimately rewarding journey he went on with the editor on his (incredible) book Churchill and Orwell:

I asked Scott why he had been so rough on me the previous winter. ‘Sometimes my job is to be an asshole,’ he explained with equanimity. I wasn’t startled at this. At one point on an earlier book, when I told him how stressed I was feeling, he had replied, a bit airily, I thought, ‘Oh, every good book has at least one nervous breakdown in it.’

Near the end of our lunch, Scott offered one more wise observation about the writing process: ‘The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the editor. The last draft is for the reader.’

Negative feedback, especially from a trusted editor and/or friend, can be crushing.

But it can also save your book.

Screening Room: ‘Strong Island’

One night in April 1992, Yancy Ford’s brother William was shot dead. William was unarmed and black, the man believed to have shot him was white. Charges were never filed. In the documentary Strong Island, Ford excavates the layers of memory, guilt, and anger that covered this family-shattering crime for so many years.

Strong Island premieres on Netflix and in some theaters this Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

There’s an immediacy to Yance Ford’s chilling investigation Strong Island that runs the spectrum from bracing to uncomfortable. Even though Ford comes at the subject sideways, not immediately clueing you into what story is being told, there is nothing remote about how things begin…

Here’s the trailer:

In Memorium: Grant Hart (1961-2017)

From Bob Mould’s Facebook page today, on the sad passing of Grant Hart, the brilliant drummer and co-lyricist for Hüsker Dü and ringleader of the great but underrated Nova Mob:

It was the Fall of 1978. I was attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. One block from my dormitory was a tiny store called Cheapo Records. There was a PA system set up near the front door blaring punk rock. I went inside and ended up hanging out with the only person in the shop. His name was Grant Hart.

And now, probably Grant’s greatest song (make sure to play on repeat):

Writer’s Desk: The Costanza Rule

Occasionally, sitcoms can help. So you have all seen the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite”? (If somehow not, go here for the gist.) In short, that’s the episode where the perennially selfish, short-sighted, and self-sabotaging George Costanza realizes that his best change for success is ignoring all of his instincts and doing exactly the opposite.

In honor of Costanza’s insight, it would behoove many writers to check out the Twitter account The Worst Muse. Its “advice” is solid gold:

It’s still not too late to add a vampire.

If a character is in New York, she’s got to be either a model or a writer, right?

If your alien culture isn’t a thinly veiled allegory for contemporary politics, what’s the point?

Follow the Costanza rule with every one of these tweets and you’ll be set.

Writer’s Desk: Do What Edgar Rice Burroughs Did

Edgar Rice Burroughs, born September 1 in 1875, is arguably one of the most important writers of the 20th century, for better or worse.

As with many bestselling writers who almost seem to fall into success, Burroughs had a varied employment record ranging from ranch hand to teacher and ad man before turning to fiction in his 30s. Once he started with the first Tarzan of the Apes stories in 1911, he never stopped.

By the time of his death in 1950, Burroughs had published nearly 70 adventure novels ranging from the Tarzan series to John Carter of Mars and other fictional universes involving dinosaurs, civilizations under the surface of the earth, and so on. His books were translated into dozens of languages and spawned innumerable movies, comic books, and TV and radio series, not to mention creating the DNA of the century’s pulp fiction aesthetic.

In 1939, when Burroughs was as big in the cultural imagination (if not bigger) than James Patterson or Stephen King today, Alva Johnson published “How to Become a Great Writer” in The Saturday Evening Post. Using Burroughs as a template, Johnson included a list of what helps make a great writer:

  1. Be a disappointed man.
  2. Achieve no success at anything you touch.
  3. Lead an unbearably drab and uninteresting life.
  4. Hate civilization.
  5. Learn no grammar.
  6. Read little.
  7. Write nothing.
  8. Have an ordinary mind and commonplace tastes, approximating those of the great reading public.
  9. Avoid subjects that you know about.

Johnson’s tongue is planted in cheek here, but only somewhat

In other words, ignore the history and habits of bestselling writers at your own peril.