Screening Room: Tribeca Film Festival 2018

The Feeling of Being Watched

The 2018 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival just wrapped up over the weekend. I covered some of the fest’s varied documentary offerings for The Playlist, reviews here:

Writer’s Desk: Philip Glass Drove a Cab

If you’re like most writers, you know that it almost never pays the bills. (The other writers know this, too, they just haven’t admitted it yet.) That means you need to keep working while writing. How do you do both? As usual, it’s whatever works for you. But flexibility is key.

Take composer Philip Glass. He had a couple day jobs that kept the lights on until he was in his 40s. He did some contracting work like plumbing and also building kitchens and putting in heating in SoHo lofts.

An even better fit, though, seemed to be his time as a cabbie. This is what he told Lolade Fadulu:

I would pick up a car, usually around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and I would drive till one or two in the morning, and I would get up early in the morning, actually to take my kids to school, because I had kids growing up in New York at the time. And sometimes I would stay up all through the night, write music, then take the kids to school. Then I would go to sleep around 8 or 9 o’clock and I would wake up around 4 o’clock and go back to the garage or wherever I was going. So I could combine a workday and a regular writing schedule at the same time.

It seems like there should be a good minimalist opera in him about driving the city at night. Or plumbing. Time will tell.

Reader’s Corner: Investigating Your Father

In All the Answers, Michael Kupperman tells the story of the strange childhood of his father, a brilliant professor who in his youth starred on a hugely popular wartime radio show called Quiz Kids. It’s an engrossing and emotional personal history in which Kupperman discovers more about his reticent father on the Internet than through living with him.

My interview with Kupperman is in the current Publisher’s Weekly.

Screening Room: ‘Let the Sunshine In’

Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In (Sundance Selects)

In the latest from Claire Denis (White Material), Juliette Binoche plays an artist who is unlucky in love but doesn’t let that stop her from trying again, and again, and…

Let the Sunshine In is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Not long after the awkward lovemaking scene that opens the movie, Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) gets an unasked-for reality check from her occasional boyfriend, Vincent (the superbly seedy Xavier Beauvois): “You’re charming, but my wife is extraordinary.” If he had reached over and slapped her, the look on her face would have been about the same. She doesn’t keep mooning around after Vincent much longer. But while they don’t berate the staff or provide lectures on her inadequacies, the next men she ends up crying over aren’t much better…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Russian Roulette’

Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s new book Russian Roulette is, well, timely. My review is at PopMatters:

The intent here was not to write an all-inclusive study of the history of the Washington-Moscow power dynamic, the full legacy of Trump’s law-skirting business dealings, or the noxious way those two elements have meshed together. Something like that wouldn’t be a book. That would require a multi-volume Robert Caro-type of effort which some future generation—assuming deep-dive narrative nonfiction survives Peak TV and Instagram—can take up to figure out what the hell happened. In the meantime, we’ll resort to Russian Roulette

Writer’s Desk: Leave Out More Than You Put Down

One of the greatest writers of our time, John McPhee, had a lot to say about the writing process. A lot of it boils down to hard work, research, and edit, edit, edit.

Here’s a few tips:

Writing is selection. When you are making notes you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.

If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.

I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use.

And don’t forget:

Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.

Nota Bene: The St. Louis Accent

In Edward McCleland’s book How to Speak Midwestern, there’s a lot to learn about the intricacies and subdivisions of the American Midwestern accent. Take this article, which McCleland adapted from the book, on the history of how the folks in St. Louis speak:

In 1904, the year it hosted the World’s Fair and the Olympics, St. Louis was the nation’s fourth-largest city, behind New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. It was a center of brewing, milling, and meat packing, and a magnet for Irish and Italian immigrants. That gave St. Louis, and its dialect, a more urban character than most other Midland cities. For example, older St. Louisans still say “youse” and substitute ‘d’ for ‘th.’

That urban characteristic affects not just the vocals of (older, at least) St. Louisans, but everyone’s attitudes:

St. Louis feels more connected to Chicago than it does to the rest of Missouri, which it regards as a hillbilly backwater. A St. Louisan is far more likely to visit Chicago than Kansas City—or Branson, for Pete’s sake.

Reader’s Corner: Kanye’s Writing a Book. On Philosophy

Here’s another book Kanye kind of wrote.

Kanye West says he’s writing a book of philosophy called Break the Simulation. Because that’s where we’re at right now. (Any bets it will claim reality is just a Matrix-like computer simulation?)

Per Entertainment Weekly:

I’ve got this philosophy — or let’s say it’s just a concept because sometimes philosophy sounds too heavy-handed … It takes you out of the now and transports you into the past or transports you into the future … It can be used to document, but a lot of times it overtakes [people]. People dwell too much in the memories. People always wanna hear the history of something, which is important, but I think it [sic] there’s too much of an importance put on history.

Lot to unpack here, starting with the concept that “there’s too much of an importance put on history,” but we can let the reality of all human endeavors serve as a definitive rejection of that idea.

There’s also the issue that even though his mother was a university English professor, Kanye has called himself “a proud non-reader of books.”

Still, we should welcome Kanye to the authors’club. Even if he never reads his own book.

Writer’s Desk: Read It Again

What looks like your best work ever at two in the morning can seem like dehydrated swill the next morning. It can be a letdown, but that second look is crucial, as is the third, and the fourth, and the…

In this discussion about his writing process on “The Stormthe article that became The Perfect Storm—Sebastian Junger talked about looking at your work with different eyes:

I try to edit my work in different states of mind. So I’ll go running on a really hot day and then read the 2,000 words I just wrote. Or if I’m upset, or really sleepy, or if I’m drunk, I’ll read this stuff. If you’re sleepy and you find yourself skipping over a paragraph because you’re bored by it and just want to get to the interesting part, it comes out. Those different states of mind are a really interesting filter.

Nota Bene: Afrofuturism in Chicago

There’s an exhibition right now at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago called “In Their Own Form.” According to the museum, it explores “the myriad ways blackness might hope to exist without the imposition of oppression, racism and stereotypes ever-present in Western cultures, mediated through Afrofuturist themes including time-travel and escapism.”

The Guardian had a simpler take, titling its piece “Before Black Panther“:

The goal of the show, says curator Sheridan Tucker, is to show a wide range of the Afro-diasporic experience through photography and video. “I wanted to show escapism, nostalgia and time travel, recurring themes in afrofuturism,” said Tucker. “I’m excited people can tap into what I’ve been talking about for a long time.”

Reader’s Corner: Bookstores Versus Nazis

Berlin “Night of Shame” book-burning memorial, with empty bookshelves

In 2016, neo-Nazis marched through a Berlin neighborhood near the Tucholsky Bookstore. Then they marched again. The bookstore started organizing. From the New York Times:

By last summer, when a third march through this neighborhood was announced, the group was ready: They had teamed up with “Berlin Against Nazis,” a city-funded organization that targets racism and anti-Semitism. A friend of Mr. Braunsdorf’s designed colorful posters and fliers and together they set up three protest stations along the marchers’ route. Between 200 and 300 neighbors showed up with soup spoons, banging on pots and pans, to protest the march.

According to Johanna Hahn, director of the German Association of Booksellers in Berlin and Brandenburg, bookstores by definition are at the forefront of such resistance:

The book industry has always reacted with great sensitivity to the political climate,” she said, “and bookstores are always a place where social change occurs … In every book there’s a new perspective, so bookstores automatically fall on the side of openness and diversity.”

(h/t: Shelf Awareness)

Writer’s Desk: Discover Something

In February 1963, Esquire published “Ten Thousand Words a Minute” by Norman Mailer. Ostensibly a piece about the Sonny Liston–Floyd Patterson heavyweight fight in Chicago, Mailer as usual flailed all over the place, subject-wise, from the Mafia to America and back again.

Along the way, he delivered this:

Writing is of use to the psyche only if the writer discovers something he did not know he knew in the act itself of writing. That is why a few men will go through hell in order to keep writing—Joyce and Proust, for example. Being a writer can save one from insanity or cancer; being a bad writer can drive one smack into the center of the plague.

Mailer’s medical advice does not seem entirely sound. However, his declaration that writing is only worthwhile to the writer if it results in them learning something new is absolutely correct.

Why else bother?

Nota Bene: Can Books Teach Empathy?

From Jessa Crispin in The Baffler:

Reading Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, I wondered, what the hell is it going to take? For decades we have had these types of critiques … And yet still we have critics like Jonathan Franzen speculating on whether Edith Wharton’s physical beauty (or lack of it, as is his assessment of her face and body) affected her writing, we have a literary culture that is still dominated by one small segment of the population, we have a sense that every significant contribution to the world of letters was made by the heterosexual white man…

Crispin then jumps right past celebrating the continued necessity of Russ’s work:

I am worried we’re all subdividing into tiny, highly specific demographics, and that I’m only going to be encouraged to read the works of other white, middle class, heterosexual, spinster, Cancer sun and Taurus rising women who came from the rural Midwest but now live in an urban area, because only they can truly understand and speak directly to me. It’s a cliché that literature builds empathy. It can help you along in that process, but only if you aggressively work against the impulse to treat literature like a mirror. The first step is to notice that you are doing that…

Screening Room: ‘The China Hustle’

My review of  the new documentary The China Hustle, playing now in limited release, is at Film Journal International:

Threaded with booming music, slashing scare-cuts, and talking heads throwing around phrases like “financial tsunami,” Jed Rothstein’s documentary The China Hustle is stylistically easy to dismiss as just another scare story for nonfiction junkies always on the lookout for the next catastrophe. It may read at times like an overcaffeinated Alex Gibney attack piece—and Gibney is in fact one of the executive producers here. But by the time Rothstein is done, many viewers will be yanking any money they might have in Chinese stocks out as fast as they can get to their phones…

Here’s the trailer: