Screening Room: ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’

That’s Leonard DiCaprio playing a has-been 1950s Western actor in Quentin Tarantino’s latest, broadest, and potentially strangest genre mash-up.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is playing pretty much everywhere now. My review is at PopMatters:

You might have thought Quentin Tarantino would be the last filmmaker to indulge in the lamentable trend of digitally inserting actors into scenes they were not there for…. Nevertheless, here Tarantino is in his ninth movie, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, slipping Leonardo DiCaprio into a scene from John Sturges’s 1963 film, The Great Escape. Once that line has been crossed for Tarantino, who had previously restricted himself to homage, what’s next? Uma Thurman slotted into Enter the Dragon? Maybe Bradley Cooper into Where Eagles Dare?…

Here’s the trailer (sure you’ve already seen it 10 times, check it out again, that Mamas and the Papas song is fantastic):

Writer’s Desk: Get It Down

File:Rod Serling photo portrait 1959.JPG

A veteran of some pretty horrendous fighting in the Pacific Theater during World War II, Rod Serling suffered from nightmares much of the rest of his life. He also had a deeply-ingrained sense of justice.

Both came together in the somewhat maniacal writing schedule he maintained as one of early television’s most acclaimed live teleplay authors and then the showrunner and primary writer for The Twilight Zone.

The only way he could keep the pace going? According to Nicholas Parisi’s biography, he told a writing class at Ithaca College this:

The instinct of creativity must be followed by the act—the physical act of putting it down for a sense of permanence. Once you have that prod, that emotional jar that “I witnessed something” or “I felt something” … Write it down…. Don’t let it die aborning in your head.

Never wait. Keep a notebook around. Type it into your phone if you have to. But once you have that idea or that worthy experience, do not assume you will remember it a day or an hour hence.

Write it down.

Reader’s Corner: Indies Support Authors

  The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead is touring around now to read from his latest novel, The Nickel Boys. While he’ll be going to some chains, he’s a big supporter of indie bookstores. Why? He told Shelf Awareness:

My first book was about elevator inspectors, and who is going to support a debut novel by some weird black guy about elevator inspectors? And the answer is independent bookstores. They’ve always been supportive of my books no matter how oddball they sounded…

Screening Room: ‘The Great Hack’

The Great Hack is a new documentary about how Cambridge Analytica worked with private user data happily served up by Facebook in order to minutely target propaganda that helped win the 2016 election for Donald Trump.

Not available on Netflix until this Wednesday, it is already stirring up legal issues in the UK.

My review is at The Playlist:

It’s a sign of how quickly it feels like the world is being torn apart around us that even a ripped-from-the-headlines documentary, such as Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s “The Great Hack,” can feel almost dated…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Be Prepared

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Nick Cave in ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ (Drafthouse Films)

Nick Cave, onetime prince of the gothic rock dark arts via his time with the Birthday Party and that killer Wings of Desire cameo, might still be releasing albums and touring with his band but he now fashions himself more writer than rock star.

His process seems positively disciplined these days. As he says in the beautiful documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, “I wake, I write, I eat, I write, I watch TV.” And when he writes, he doesn’t just sit down and wait for inspiration. He gets ready:

Well, as anyone who actually writes knows, if you sit down and are prepared, then the ideas come. There’s a lot of different ways people explain that, but, you know, I find that if I sit down and I prepare myself, generally things get done…

And if nothing comes, then have a sandwich. Watch a little TV. But get back to work.

Reader’s Corner: Living in the Worst Place in America

ifyoulivedhere-bookcover

One of the year’s more interesting books is Christopher Ingraham’s If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now. A data reporter for the Washington Post, Ingraham became the  focus of some viral blowback after publishing a story in 2015 about how federal government-compiled data showed that Red Lake County in Minnesota was supposedly the worst place in America to live.

The residents were not happy. He went to visit, ended up moving his family there, and wrote a book about the experience.

My interview with Ingraham ran in Publishers Weekly.

Writer’s Desk: Be Humble, Yet Great

Back in 2010, Wild author and backpacker extraordinaire Cheryl Strayed was still writing the “Dear Sugar” advice column for The Rumpus. She received a lengthy and pained missive from a self-described “high-functioning headcase” who was depressed over not being able to write a book.

Strayed’s response is beautiful, funny, dirty, dead-solid-right-on, and worth reading in its entirety. But here’s the gist of her explanation about how she finally got over her issues and wrote her first book, what my journalism-school profs would call the “nut graf”:

I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing—so talented! so young! I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do…

It’s great advice. Know you’re awesome. But remember that you’re never going to be the most awesome. Be okay with failing, sharpen your pencil, and march into that arena.

Nota Bene: Skip Prime Day?

Next Monday and Tuesday, Amazon is having its annual Prime Day sale (shouldn’t that be Prime Days?).

For many, this provides an opportunity to load up on all the consumer goods they want and don’t need (100″ TV, voice-operated device that records everything you say and sends it back to Amazon’s server farms for future use by…?). For others it’s an understandably good time to save a few well-needed dollars buying essentials they actually need (diapers, clothes for the kids, food).

But of course, it’s not so simple as a great deal. John Oliver recently broke down what it’s like to work at an Amazon warehouse, where things get particularly Dickensian during the run-up to Prime Day(s):

And now some workers at Amazon’s facility in Shakopee, Minnesota are planning a strike to protest working conditions.

Over at Moby Lives, Ryan Harrington—who noted that some white-collar Amazon workers are flying to Shakopee to join the strike—used the situation to make a helpful suggestion for what to do come Prime Day: Maybe shop somewhere else that day(s).

That applies particularly to books. The American Booksellers Association noted a number of things that your local indie store provides that Amazon, whatever your feelings about them, simply cannot (union labor, drag queen storytime, a cute place to get engaged).

One thing not on their list that absolutely should be: Bookstore cats.

Reader’s Corner: Summer Graphic Novels

I reviewed three new graphic novels—well, a graphic memoir of self-discovery and heartache by Ulli Lust, one immersive graphic biography about Stephen Hawking, and George Takei’s internment-camp memoir, to be precise—in a summer roundup for this weekend’s book section of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

They’re all smart, absorbing reads and well worth your time.

Check out the reviews here.

Screening Room: ‘Sword of Trust’

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(IFC Films)

In the new comedy from Lynn Shelton (Humpday), podcaster, comic, and Glow star Marc Maron plays a disgruntled pawn shop owner who gets sucked into a screwball plot about Civil War truthers when he comes across a rare sword.

Sword of Trust opens this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Sword of Trust is in many ways a quintessentially Southern movie. But that sensibility is primarily expressed in the laconic humor and slippery slides from bonhomie to violence. Shelton expends little effort on a cinematic sense of place, aside from some melancholic insets of faded storefronts around the Birmingham, Alabama pawn shop where the action takes place. That is, except for the obsession with the Civil War, or as some characters might characterize it, “Thuh Wah of Nawthun Aggression”…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Sea of Shadows’

The new documentary Sea of Shadows uses the incredible story of how environmental activists and the Mexican military are fighting cartels to save an endangered whale to highlight what the extinction of one species means for the future.

Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Richard Ladkani (The Ivory Game), Sea of Shadows opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

The whale in question is the vaquita, a dolphin-like creature endemic to the Gulf of California. At the time of this film’s making, there were most likely less than 15 left alive. Not a target of hunting themselves, the vaquitas had the bad luck of swimming in the same waters as the heavily fished totoaba and dying in the nets meant to catch their more valuable neighbors. The vaquitas are ultimately collateral damage in an illegal fishing scheme driven by greed, economic insecurity, failing security apparatuses, interstate organized crime, and more…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Walk to Run

In his autobiography Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen explains that when it came time to write that album, he knew it was a make-or-break moment for his career. It couldn’t just succeed, it had to break through. So, he took his time. Per Justin Cox at The Writing Cooperative:

It took Springsteen six months to get Born to Run on paper. Six months for 344 words. The words had to stew. They had to develop. Then they had to be finessed and rearranged until they properly told the story that Springsteen envisioned.

Not every story needs to take half a year, but there is something to be said for not rushing. Spend time with the stories you’re working on. Pause them. Come back to them. Don’t hit the publish button until the story matches the vision in your mind.

It’s all about finding the right balance. Procrastination is one thing. You cannot just mull a piece over forever. Get things down on paper. Do the work. But if it doesn’t feel right, keep working the piece until it does.

You’ll know.

Writer’s Desk: Buy Some Cards

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When in a bind, creative people do a number of things. Stare at the wall. Fidget. Groan. Panic. Eye the whiskey bottle. Open the whiskey bottle. It’s all stalling mechanisms in the hope that in the midst of all that prevaricating, lightning will strike.

Some artists have tried to break those logjams in a more proactive fashion. Philip K. Dick, John Cage, and others have used the Chinese divination book I Ching in the hope that kernels of wisdom from the ancients (though the hectoring tone of some, like “all day long the superior man is creatively active,” might prove to cause more delays in the long run).

Inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s Distant Early Warning card deck (mostly random quotes from other thinkers), Brian Eno and his artist friend Peter Schmidt came up with the idea for the Oblique Strategies card deck in 1975.

According to Salon, each card had:

… a specific, utilitarian purpose. The quirky cards were designed to help artists and musicians get out of creative ruts and loosen up in the studio. Each Oblique Strategy had a different aphorism: “Accept advice,” read one. “Imagine the music as a series of disconnected events,” read another. “Humanize something free of error.”

Get yourself a deck. Or maybe just play solitaire or flip through Bartlett’s Quotations.

See what happens.