Screening Room: ‘Greed’

Steve Coogan in ‘Greed’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

In Michael Winterbottom’s new satire, Steve Coogan plays a morality-challenged fast-fashion billionaire whose sixtieth birthday bash becomes a Felliniesque disaster.

Greed is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Slant:

Steve Coogan plays the discount billionaire villain as a more malevolent variation on the smarmy selfish bastard he’s polished to a sheen in Winterbottom’s The Trip films. Sir Richard McCreadie, nicknamed “Greedy” by the tabloids, is one of those modern wizards of financial shell games who spin fortunes out of thin air, promise, hubris, and a particularly amoral strain of bastardry. He made his billions as the “king of the high street,” peddling cheap, celebrity-touted clothing through H&M and Zara-like chain stores. Now somewhat disreputable, having been hauled before a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the bankruptcy of one of his chains, the tangerine-tanned McCreadie is stewing in semi-exile on Mykonos…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Be Organized

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Gustave Flaubert

We all know the stereotype of the absent-minded artist. Brilliant at illuminating the furthest reaches of the human soul but can’t remember where she put her glasses. It is a stereotype but a true one, nonetheless. Some think that artists have to be absent-minded because they have to keep space in their mind and their soul open for their art.

But at the same time, one must remember your Flaubert:

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Get your act together in real life. Pour out the chaos onto new pages.

Writer’s Desk: Find a Safe Space

BlackBeautyCoverFirstEd1877.jpegThe life of a writer is usually a precarious one, for those of us who make their living solely on their wits and their pen. The lucky ones do not have to hustle all day and night from one assignment and check to the next, but are actually employed to write as part of their job. Whether or not that writing is what they want to do (and if not, there’s always the weekend and mornings to work on the novel), it’s always a relief to be employed to do what one loves.

The great journalist A. J. Liebling—who found his base of operations at the New Yorker—once compared his fellow ink-stained wretches to a certain famous fictitious horse:

The pattern of a newspaperman’s life is like the plot of Black Beauty. Sometimes he finds a kind master who gives him a dry stall and an occasional bran mash in the form of a Christmas bonus, sometimes he falls into the hands of a mean owner who drives him in spite of spavins and expects him to live on potato peelings…

Sometimes this can mean swallowing one’s pride. But if the stall is nice, frequently mucked out, and comes replete with fresh hay and the occasional apple, that comfort can leave more time for doing what you are meant to do: Write.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Just Write Your Story, Live Your Story

Index
(New York Public Library)

Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans, once said that to her writing and reading can be acts of generosity:

One of the main reasons I read—and definitely why I write—is to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. To try to imagine what life is like for someone who’s different from myself … I’m forced into having empathy for everyone—even someone who I’d normally be upset with, or feel wronged by…

As a result, she views writing as a fully immersive experience:

The moment a character becomes real to me, and their experience becomes real to me, the writing itself almost feels like method acting. When I’m writing a story, which takes me a year or more, I can feel my character living with me—they’re responding to whatever funny, familial, or social situation I’m in, and I think about their responses constantly. This feeling of living alongside a character is one of the most gratifying things about writing, and definitely one of the reasons I do it…

Don’t just imagine your characters. Live them.

Screening Room: ‘Birds of Prey’

Birds of Prey
(Warner Bros.)

My review of the new DC Comics movie Birds of Prey, which is playing now everywhere, was published at Slant Magazine:

The self-consciously ornate subtitle for Birds of PreyAnd the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn—lays out the reason for this film’s existence far better than the first 45 minutes or so of jumbled exposition that follow. In theory, the self-consciously goofy story of a “badass broad” who breaks free from being pole-dancing eye candy for her villain boyfriend to carve out a life for herself would be a welcome addition to a canon of films still in thrall to hyper-buff and hyper-serious dudes. And surrounding her with a squad of equally fierce and sarcastic female ass-kickers has the potential for a vibrant, pop-punk comedic franchise: Think Guardians of the Galaxy by way of Barb Wire. But since the film can never figure out how seriously to take its heroine, or how to gin up a halfway engaging caper what could have been an emancipation ends up feeling more like a trap for the character…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Ballot Box’

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Call it karma. The day after the pundit class wrapped itself in feverish discussion of Iowa’s Democratic primary and a malfunctioning vote-tabulating app (the hanging chad of the new decade), my new book was published.

The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History has one of those self-explanatory titles. You get the gist.

It’s available now from Barnes & Noble (exclusive hardcover or ebook) and Amazon (ebook).

I published a related piece on Medium: “Writing About Elections in the Age of Trump.”

Writer’s Desk: Have No Fear

Christopher_Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens (Fri Tanke, 2008)

In the speech that he gave accepting the Christopher Hitchens award, George Packer noted how he and Hitch didn’t always get along and actually disagreed quite violently on the Iraq War. Hitch thought it was a noble cause, while Packer (as covered in his incredible book The Assassin’s Gate) knew from on-the-ground reporting that it was a disaster. Nevertheless, their friendship persisted:

We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher…

Packer went on to talk about Hitch’s bravery and freedom from fear:

Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind, because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind. A writer can still write while hiding from the thought police. But a writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Could it get me ratioed on Twitter?—that writer’s words will soon become lifeless. A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade…

Telling how things appear to you, and in the way that feels most right for you and your voice, is the only way to write.

A scared writer is a terrible writer.