Department of Lists: 2018 Edition

(image by KangZeLiu)

Since it’s the end of the year, and there’s only so much champagne one can drink while watching Andy Cohen/Anderson Cooper and hoping that 2019 will show 2018 how things should have gone, it’s time to look back at some of the best that the year that was had to offer.

To that end, I contributed some pieces to a few different publications who make a point of cataloging this sort of thing:

Now you’ll have something to do this January besides catch up on new TV shows and ignore your dieting pledges.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Work

In his novel Hollywood, a not-so-thinly-veiled account of working on the movie Barfly, Charles Bukowski wrote this:

Writing was never work for me. It had been the same for as long as I could remember: turn on the radio to a classical music station, light a cigarette or cigar, open the bottle. The typer did the rest…

Open the bottle, turn on the radio, have a smoke. Or find your own routine. Do what you need to do to let the words flow.

As they say, if you love your work, you never have to work a day in your life.

Screening Room: Best Movies of 2018

‘The Death of Stalin’ (IFC Films)

Now that we’re almost to January, it’s time to take a look back at the year that was, movie-wise. My accounting of the best movies to hit screens, big and small, in 2018, was published at Eyes Wide Open:

The more things changed at the movies in 2018, the more they stayed the same. The year’s biggest box office hit was Marvel’s Black Panther, which finally smashed the old rule that white actors were required to head up superhero stories. Crazy Rich Asians proved that perfectly mediocre romantic comedies (which should not be taken as a criticism, it’s been a moribund genre for a while) didn’t require white casts for relatability; glossy shopping montages and feisty showdowns between a bride-to-be and her fearsome future mother-in-law translate across all cultures…

Writer’s Desk: Pay Attention, Be Free

The best writers make it look easy. Not just that, they make it seem as though the words just flowed out of them. We know that that is not, can not, be true. Even the fastest writers are masters of control. Their speed is in part the result of careful planning and diligent editing as they go.

In her classic The Writing Life, the great Annie Dillard put it thus:

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself…

Most people focus on her command, “You may not let rip.” For good reason. Letting rip often just means a loss of control. It may feel good in the moment, but your readers will notice.

Follow Dillard. When writing, freedom means giving vent to your inner voice. It also paying close attention to everything you put down on a page. That way, your voice will have a voice.

Screening Room: ‘Vice’

(Annapurna Pictures)

Yes, that’s Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in the latest dark comic take on modern American history from Adam McKay, who previously dissected the 2008 crash in The Big Short.

Vice opens on Christmas Day. My review is at PopMatters:

The Cheney presented in Vice is pretty close to the one we saw in those terrifying years after 9/11. The one going on Meet the Press to talk with barely repressed glee about going to “the dark side” to fight this wrong war against the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. (Bale takes the sideways silent snarl seen in that chilling appearance and runs with it.) The one who popped up with creepy regularity in the behind-the-scenes books, pulling strings behind a clueless George W. Bush and not-so-secretly operating the machinery of a government, having long yearned to break free of the chains of democracy…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

(Walt Disney Studios)

Going back to the well many decades later, Disney delivers a brand-new musical adaptation of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books that’s not close to the original but better than it has any right to be.

Mary Poppins Returns opens wide today. My review is at PopMatters:

As the law of diminishing returns for any sequel is one of the immutable laws of the cinematic universe—and all the more so for movie musicals (no matter what those fiendishly wrong fans of Grease 2 might claim)—there was even less chance that Mary Poppins Returns could pull the same rabbit out of one of Poppins’ very fetching hats. Nevertheless, this sequel manages a somewhat impressive feat for the often groan-inducing Disney remake factory: it captures the essence of the original while adding just enough spark to set it apart…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Bother Competing

By any definition of the term, Rachel Kushner is a successful writer. Each of her three books—Telex from Cuba, The Flamethrowers, and The Mars Room—have been praised to the skies. At least one of them (The Flamethrowers) is arguably one of the great American novels of the last twenty years.

Nevertheless, she doesn’t believe that she’s in competition with anybody else in the current literary landscape. At least that’s what she told the Times Literary Supplement, when they asked what was the best writing advice she ever received:

To consider myself a destiny. Nietzsche told me it. And from the guy I live with: “Compete with dead authors, not living ones”. (i.e., let history do the sifting work.)

Assume that you’ll succeed in the present. Hope that at some point others agree. Write accordingly.