Writer’s Desk: Who Cares What They Say

The ineffably brilliant John Berryman was never a popular poet. But those who know his work tend to be, shall we say, highly committed to singing his praises. His style was raw and jangled, symphonic and bluesy, the sort of thing that hits you in the heart and makes you imagine everything terrible and beautiful in the world.

Of course, that also makes him not everybody’s cup of tea. His advice to young writers who are trying to make a go of it, and facing some resistance?

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

The Paris Review

Screening Room: ‘The Vast of Night’

The Vast of Night is playing now in some drive-in theaters, and streams on Amazon this Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

A head-snapper of a debut from Andrew Patterson, “The Vast of Night” is one of those eerie indies that uses the trappings of genre (alien invasion in this case) as a launchpad into its own brand of American weird. Located somewhere to the left of a lost “X-Files” episode set in the UFO-haunted 1950s, it unspools over the course of one night in a flyspeck New Mexico border town. Mysterious events are afoot and nobody seems aware of it at first except for two meddling teenagers…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Start a Fight

Perhaps not literally. But writing is perception. And one way to test your perception is to try out multiple takes on the same thing and see the result.

Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club) has an approach she uses in her memoir-writing class:

…these are young, very smart people who are very confident about their memories and mostly should be. But I stage a fight, either with a colleague or with a student. And then I ask them to write what happened.

The result is often humbling, as the students write their accounts and then discover just how much they get wrong.

Maybe instead of a fight, you can try going to a place at a particular time of day, spend a quarter-hour there, leave and write about your memory of it. Then return a week later at the same time of day and see how close you were.

Reader’s Corner: Nothing is Forever

Toronto’s venerable Bakka-Phoenix Science Fiction & Fantasy Bookstore is apparently staying closed for now even as the city allows some retailers to reopen. Assistant manager Rebecca Lovatt explained why to a local newspaper:

Science fiction and fantasy readers – and readers in general – are pretty astute and they’ve seen what can happen in the worst case scenarios…

For further explanation, the store posted this quote in their window:

Science fiction is important because it fights the natural notion that there’s something permanent about things the way they are right now.

Isaac Asimov

So not only does reading science fiction give you perspective, it also prepares you for change.

It’s not escapism, it’s survival training.

Screening Room: ‘The Painter and the Thief’

A shapeshifter of a documentary, The Painter and the Thief follows the surprising aftermath of a gallery break-in. After losing two of her paintings in the theft, the artist connects with one of the men who stole them and begins painting him.

The Painter and the Thief opens Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

“The Painter and the Thief” is best not watched by more than one person at the time. After all, it is opening during the pandemic as a ‘Virtual Cinema’ release. This means that if it is watched by multiple individuals, they will most likely be in close and extended confinement. That confinement could become uncomfortable very fast after seeing the movie, which will elicit responses ranging from “That’s incredible” to “What was she thinking?” Director Benjamin Ree (‘Magnus’) has trained his camera on a colorfully chimeric story that will shift in meaning depending on the viewer…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Trip to Greece’

A decade after The Trip introduced the concept of a couple comics japing around as they touristed and ate delicate foods, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have returned for the fourth and last entry in this surprisingly durable series.

The Trip to Greece opens this Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

There are many viewers who, upon hearing that “The Trip to Greece” is very much like the three previous entries in Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s comic culinary road trip flicks, will be not disappointed but absolutely delighted. Given the current state of uncertainty and the likelihood that social-distancing will dramatically impact the ability of studios to produce new movies, new incarnations of the familiar and beloved are treasured. Many would be delighted to hear that the pair had scampered off to tour France, Israel, Japan, and maybe even Iceland before the shelter-in-place orders came down…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Build Your Space

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright is one of our greatest living nonfiction writers. One of the reasons for this is that he spends the time doing the work. By work, he means doing an incredible amount of background investigation. Even his recent novel The End of October (about a pandemic, curiously enough), is mined from a ridiculous amount of research.

To be productive, though, it also helps to have a good writing space. Wright made his own, to spec:

I have a wonderful office that I’ve built in my house. David Remnick came to dinner one night and he called it “Writer Porn.” It’s something I’ve made especially for writing, and a desk I designed especially for writing. I have a white board, where I sketch outlines of projects. The most distinctive thing is my writer’s desk, which I had built about 30 years ago. It’s a bit Star Trek-y. It has wings curved around so I can have my manuscripts left and right, facing me. It’s a wonderful design for a writer and I’ve never seen it replicated. 

We can’t all make our own desks. But a comfortable, productive place helps us relax, focus, filter out the noise, and focus on the work.

Screening Room: ‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’

In 1973, director Peter Medak (The Ruling Class) and Peter Sellers set off to Cyprus to shoot the rollicking pirate comedy Ghost in the Noonday Sun. Everything fell apart and the movie only limped onto home video over a decade later to widespread derision.

Decades later, Medak returns to the scene of the crime to describe what happened. The Ghost of Peter Sellers is opening next week for online screening.

My review is at PopMatters:

The Ghost of Peter Sellers is a highly personal and somewhat airless account from Medak about an event that happened over 40 years ago whose painful memory he still seems unable to process. Walking through London and the shooting locations in Cyprus with a rotating cast of friends and former colleagues, Medak acts the part of self-investigator. He’s like a self-flagellating version of John Cusack’s Rob Gordon in High Fidelity

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Create a Manifesto

When you are in doubt about your next steps — whether as an artist or just as a person — it cannot hurt to lay out your goals.

Witness Lorraine Hansberry. After moving to New York from Chicago and before storming Broadway with A Raisin in the Sun, she was writing poetry and journalism, finding her way. She was determined to get somewhere, though. Imani Perry’s biography Looking for Lorraine, quotes from a letter Hansberry sent to her boyfriend:

1. I am a writer. I am going to write.
2. I am going to become a writer.
3. Any real contribution I can make to the movement can only be the result of a disciplined life. I am going to institute discipline in my life.
4. I can paint. I am going to paint.
The END

Manifestos can clarify your intentions. They also keep you accountable later. Write your own. Pin it up by your desk. Look at it every day. Except maybe Sunday. That day can be for reading.

Quote of the Day: Going Full Banana Republic

On Michael Flynn’s surprise (or maybe not so surprising) exoneration by the Justice Department:

It is exceptionally rare for the U.S. Department of Justice to move in court to dismiss a case in which a defendant has—ably assisted by first-class lawyers—entered into a plea agreement to spare himself prosecution on more serious felony charges. It is rarer still for the government to do so without acknowledging that it violated any law or that the defendant’s rights were somehow infringed. And it is still rarer yet for the government to take such a move without a single career prosecutor being willing to sign onto the brief seeking dismissal.

Yet this is what the government did today, May 7, in the case of Michael Flynn, the man who ever-so-briefly served as national security adviser for President Trump at the beginning of his administration.

Lawfare

Screening Room: ‘How to Build a Girl’

Caitlin Moran’s popular YA novel How to Build a Girl was about a geeky girl from the Midlands who takes a sharp left-turn into hipsterdom when she reinvents herself as a snarky music journalist in the 1990s. (You know, when Happy Mondays were a thing.)

The movie adaptation of How to Build a Girl, starring Booksmart‘s irrepressible Beanie Feldstein, opens this week. My review is at The Playlist:

At first, the gig is all champagne and caviar, despite the eye-rolling putdowns delivered by her editors, a posh band of professional haters who have a hard time taking a girl from the Midlands seriously. After giving herself a makeover (a sequence unimaginatively set to Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl”), Johanna charges into nightclubs sporting fire-engine-red hair, a top hat, and the nom de plume Dolly Wilde, wielding her pen and notebook with more moxie than Lester Bangs…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Spaceship Earth’

Spaceship Earth Doc

The new documentary Spaceship Earth opens digitally (like everything else has to now) tomorrow. My review is at The Playlist:

Matching jumpsuits. Soaring white geodesic Fuller domes. Desert setting. Beaming smiles from people who appear not unfamiliar with things like EST seminars and primal scream therapy. Grainy film footage. The sense of embarking on a mission that is technically Earth-bound but holds within it the potential for cosmic transcendence. In other words, the story that lies at the core of Matt Wolf’s documentary “Spaceship Earth” bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dharma Initiative in “Lost”…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: It’s Not That Serious

In “James Taylor Marked for Death” the great rock critic Lester Bangs had this to say about art, creativity, and their appreciation:

Number one, everybody should realize that all this “art” and “bop” and “rock-’n’-roll” and whatever is all just a joke and a mistake, just a hunka foolishness so stop treating it with any seriousness or respect at all and just recognize the fact that it’s nothing but a Wham-O toy to bash around as you please in the nursery … The first mistake of Art is to assume that it’s serious.

Remember the same is true about writing. Unless it is time to take it seriously.

If you can tell the difference between the two, you have a shot at making it.

Screening Room: ‘Empire of the Sun’

My article on Steven Spielberg’s 1987 epic adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun was published at Eyes Wide Open:

Spielberg chose a story with few chases, a rouge’s gallery of foul characters, no uplift, and a healthy dash of surrealism. British speculative fiction novelist J.G. Ballard’s grim autobiographical novel detailed in stark terms the childhood years he spent in a Japanese prison camp in China during World War II. As adapted by cerebral playwright Tom Stoppard, the story is a chilly one, particularly for a filmmaker who had so shamelessly (and skillfully) plucked heartstrings in the likes of E.T...