Screening Room: ‘Harriet’

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Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr. in ‘Harriet’ (Focus Features)

Although far from perfect, the new Harriet Tubman biopic is well worth seeing even just for Cynthia Erivo’s transcendent turn as the legendary “slave stealer” and Union spy.

Harriet opens this week. My review is at PopMatters:

It is hard to imagine a more perfect candidate for a heroic, against-all-odds biopic. But given the culture’s habitual blindness to heroism not in white male form, it still took over a century after Tubman’s death in 1913 for a project like Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet to come to theaters…

Here is the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Remember to Tell a Story

Wilmington, Delaware. Tower Hill School, noted country day school for pupils from three to eighteen years of age. A young pupil writing in a notebook at her desk

Since the Great Recession, more college students have been shifting their majors from English toward more supposedly employment-friendly study in the STEM fields like engineering, math, and computer science.

But one advantage held by people who study literature and write (though they may not be so hot at calculating a tip on the fly) is knowing how to make an argument and tell a story in a clear and engaging manner. Who thinks that? Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller:

Shiller, who is famous for predicting the dot-com crash and coming up with the Case-Shiller Home Price Index, is spending a lot of time looking at old newspaper clippings to understand what stories and terms went viral and how they influenced people to buy things — or stop buying things.

When asked if he’s essentially arguing for more English and history majors, Shiller said, “I think so,” adding: “Compartmentalization of intellectual life is bad.”

The world needs storytellers. Regardless of your field.

Screening Room: ‘The Current War’

After a tumultuous production history that involved a fight with Harvey Weinstein, a badly mangled cut premiering at Toronto two years ago, and the director wresting his work back from Weinstein and releasing the version that he wanted, The Current War hits theaters today. It’s a curiously stylized drama about the electricity innovation battle between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison.

My review is at The Playlist:

The figures behind the AC/DC war of the 1880s and ‘90s were certainly larger than life, and so that is where screenwriter Michael Mitnick and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon put most of their energies. But there is just no getting around the fact that this is a drama about men in top hats arguing over the best electrical current to use…

Screening Room: ‘The Lighthouse’

The new movie from Robert Eggers (The Witch) strands two men (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) on a remote island and watches them unravel in a flurry of fantastical madhouse imagery.

My review of The Lighthouse is at PopMatters:

It feels fitting that Robert Eggers’ claustrophobic and sea-sprayed gothic masterpiece about two men losing their minds on a remote, storm-wracked island in the North Atlantic is hitting theaters now. This year has felt like the year when the species has finally begun to understand that we have changed the world beyond our ability to save ourselves, and that a certain vengeance is coming…

Here is the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Write Like a Scientist

For the last couple decades, Cormac McCarthy has been something of a fiction writer in residence at the Santa Fe Institute, a scientific  center whose attendees are more likely to be doing postdoc physics research than crafting lucid prose.

Since clarity and concision matter as much as research in getting a point across, McCarthy has also been helping the scientists with editing their work. Here are a few of his tips:

Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.

Limit each paragraph to a single message. A single sentence can be a paragraph.

Minimize clauses, compound sentences and transition words — such as ‘however’ or ‘thus’ — so that the reader can focus on the main message.

With regard to grammar, spoken language and common sense are generally better guides for a first draft than rule books. It’s more important to be understood than it is to form a grammatically perfect sentence.

Screening Room: ‘On Broadway’

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In Oren Jacoby’s new documentary On Broadway, a host of theater stars and other artists explain just what makes the Great White Way so wonderful. It’s a treat.

On Broadway is making the rounds at film festivals now. My review is at PopMatters:

On Broadway is generally at its best when delivering nuggets of theatrical lore, particularly those involving surprise discoveries. Some are fairly well known, such as how Lin-Manuel Miranda premiered his first number from Hamilton at a White House event before it was even a play. It’s a story worth retelling if only for the curious immediacy of the footage and the laughter that greets Miranda when he informs the audience that he has been working on a rap about … Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton…

Writer’s Desk: Be the Bird

A lot of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, involves research. Crime novelists go out on ride-alongs with cops and interview morticians to figure out the tricks of the trade to embed in their books so that the made-up feels more authentic. Most nonfiction writers, even if they have a specialty, have to write about things they are not expert in, and so have to draw on others’ work.

Then there’s Malcolm Gladwell, the journeyman journalist who writes about everything from sports to music to the problem of elite education and solving homelessness. How does he cover it all? A few years back, here is what he told students at Yale:

I’m not doing the original work … There’s that bird on the back of the elephant that picks off the ticks — I am the bird.

Following that approach still involves being able to tell a good story. Narrative excitement and creating a sense of discovery and thrill is the duty of every writer. But in order to have a story to tell, writers need raw material.

Read widely. Absorb as much as you can. Find a better to tell a story, with connections nobody else thought of. Spread your wings and write.