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.

Screening Room: ‘Bird Box’

Bird Box

The latest movie from Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) is a postapocalyptic horror story starring Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich.

Bird Box is playing now on Netflix.

My review is at Slant Magazine:

Needing to avoid psychotic zombies isn’t the only danger faced by the harried survivors of an unspecified pandemic at the start of director Susanne Bier’s adaptation of Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box. The hard-as-nails Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and her two five-year-old wards must also manage navigating a postapocalyptic wilderness while wearing blindfolds. Oh, and they’re in a boat on a fast-running mountain river with rapids approaching. Also, they’re threatened by invisible monsters who can only be spotted when nearby birds start chirping and who cause instant suicidal tendencies in those who look their way. Things aren’t looking good for the trio…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Roma’

Alfonso Cuaron’s latest movie, Roma, is playing now in limited release and on Netflix. If at all possible, see it on the big screen.

My review is at PopMatters:

You could argue that Alfonso Cuarón’s gorgeously imagined and intimate epic Roma invokes politics when convenient for dramatic impact but ignores their context in order to move forward with the family melodrama at its core. Why, for instance, does nobody talk about why the students are protesting in the massive street demonstration that some of the characters are shocked to be caught up in?…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Love Your Characters and Other Rules

Etgar Keret, brilliant creator of collections like The Nimrod Flipout, is one of the greatest living practitioners of the dry, droll, and surreal black comic story.

Interestingly, when he gave Rookie his 10 rules for writing, though, they were quite joyful and optimistic:

  1. Make sure you enjoy writing.
  2. Love your characters.
  3. When you’re writing, you don’t owe anything to anyone.
  4. Always start from the middle.
  5. Try not to know how it ends.
  6. Don’t use anything just because “that’s how it always is.”
  7. Write like yourself.
  8. Make sure you’re all alone in the room when you write.
  9. Let people who like what you write encourage you.
  10. Hear what everyone has to say but don’t listen to anyone (except me).

Screening Room: ‘The American Meme’

Paris Hilton and Josh Ostrovsky (aka @thefatjewish) in ‘The American Meme’ (© Bert Marcus Productions)

The new documentary The American Meme isn’t really about memes, it’s about people who either make their living on social media or just spend far too much time there (Paris Hilton, DJ Khaled, etc.). It’s available on Netflix this Friday.

My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

[Marcus] mixes big sprays of social media content, from jabbing comedy videos to jealousy-inducing lifestyle-porn stills, with influencer interviews. The results cover the gamut from self-congratulatory spin (the social media-drenched DJ Khaled, who seems hell-bent on turning his existence into a bling-encrusted Truman Show) to self-immolating destructive toxicity (onetime photographer turned misogynistic party-dude troll Kirill Bichutsky, aka @slutwhisperer). It’s a glitzed-up ugly slew of fetishized consumerism and champagne-splashed Girls Gone Wildness, all captured in the hope that somebody out there will drop their thumb over the Like button before wandering deeper into the wilds of the Internet…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Start with a Severed Toe

The Coen brothers’ ‘The Big Lebowski’

The filmmakers and brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are productive as hell, but make a good game out of seeming lazy. In this interview from the book on the making of their 1998 faux-noir classic The Big Lebowski, they toss out a few notes about their collective writing process:

Trish and Fran [Ethan’s and Joel’s spouses, respectively], they’re both always saying, ‘I know you guys just go to the office and take naps.” Joel’s laughter implodes asthmatically. ‘It’s true – it’s actually really true. We deny it, but it’s true.’ His laughter fades. ‘But I wouldn’t want that in the book.’

Later on, they talk about how they work through the screenplays themselves. Mostly they go in order. Start at the beginning. But sometimes they have an idea or image they want to include and aren’t sure what to do with it. Like the severed toe that makes a fairly important appearance in The Big Lebowski:

‘You just come up with a bizarre image.’

‘Right. We want to goose it with a toe. And then you’re left with the problem of whose toe it is.’

‘You’re sort of deliberately setting up hurdles for yourself. Is that part of it, do you think?’ I say.

‘Well, yeah… I mean, that’s a way to work, painting yourself into a corner and then having to perform whatever contortions to get yourself out,’ Ethan says.

Painting yourself into a corner like that can be a challenge. But it’s one that can pay off.