Screening Room: ‘Hold Your Fire’

Prior to 1973, there was not a lot of nuance in how the police handled hostage situations. At some point they would lose patience and storm in. As Attica and other tragedies showed, hostages frequently did not survive. The new documentary Hold Your Fire describes a little-remembered siege in Brooklyn from 1973 where the art of hostage negotiation might have been invented.

Hold Your Fire opens in limited release this Friday. My review is at Slant:

With little preamble, Hold Your Fire drops us into the heat of the robbery, then flicks through the resulting drama. Talking-head interviews with Schlossberg, police officers, and some of the robbers and their hostages are interspersed with archival images and video footage captured by news outlets. The footage—of the rattling volleys of gunfire, the rumbling arrival of a police armored personnel carrier, and crowds pressing against barricades and cheering for the robbers—lends a wartime aesthetic of sorts to an urban crime narrative. Through it all, Jonathan Sanford’s squealing jazz-inflected score underlines the chaos of the situation…

Here is the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Choose the Right Words

In 1988, Nobel Prize-winning poet and onetime Soviet dissident Joseph Brodsky gave the commencement speech to the University of Michigan. In the wide-ranging address, he dispensed an array of life’s wisdom, including be nice to your parents and avoid putting too much trust in politicians.

More to the point, he reminded his audience to choose their words well:

Treat your vocabulary the way you would your checking account.

Writer’s Desk: Channel Your Emotions

The prolific and beloved poet May Sarton was an emotive, careful writer who seemingly never published a line that had not been weighed, judged, fully understood, and buffed to a high sheen.

Given her attention to both raw inspiration and careful editing, she had a lot to say about the art of poetry that can apply to almost any kind of writing.

In Writings on Writing, she references Valery and what he said about the inspiration or “the intense feeling” that generates a piece of work. She throws a little cold water on the idea of some great rush of emotion driving the creation of art:

A true poem does not begin with a feeling, however compelling, and of course we feel a great many things that never become poems.

Instead, she argues, the writing comes from that collision of a feeling with something else:

A poem emerges when a tension that has been something experienced, felt, seen, suddenly releases a kind of anxious stirring about of words and images … the energy that was absorbed in experience itself, now becomes an energy of an entirely different kind, and all that matters is to solve the sort of puzzle, the sort of maze in which certain phrases, and a certain rhythm lie around like counters in a game of Scrabble.

Without emotional inspiration, there would be little writing, or at least not much worthwhile writing. But that inspiration needs channeling and puzzling out before it can be fully formed and live on the page.

Writer’s Desk: Learn from the Pros

I covered three new books about writing (how to do it, why do it) for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. You can read the whole piece here.

Generally it’s not a great idea for writers to spend too much time reading about how to do their work. Better to just dive in and do it.

But sometimes, especially when you are stuck, it helps to see how some other writers break through that wall. Matt Bell’s Refuse to Be Done is a great handbook for this kind of thing. He is inspiring but also a realist, overflowing with numerous tips for hitting your deadlines and producing solid work.

The real recommendation here, though, is the anthology How to Write a Mystery. It is obviously very specific to its genre. But the book is truly a treasure trove of incredible and practical advice that can not just help any writer work through problems in their story but feel excited about doing it.

Hard not to love a book from an organization whose motto is, “Crime doesn’t pay. Enough.”

Screening Room: ‘THX 1138’

If you are not familiar with George Lucas’ first feature movie, THX 1138, then now is the time to seek it out.

My article about THX 1138 ran at Eyes Wide Open:

George Lucas’s most grown-up piece of work is, oddly enough, his first feature. He premiered his instant classic of dystopic angst, THX 1138, in 1971. It set off a downbeat decade in science fiction, crafting a template of futurism that saw technology as more threat than promise. But Lucas did not follow up on the movie’s promise with increasingly complex and innovative storytelling. Instead, six years later the first Star Wars began his steady decline of artistic maturity into increasingly cartoonish sequels. Though, to be fair, maybe that is where he wanted to end up all along…

Here is the trailer for the 2004 director’s cut:

Writer’s Desk: Write Badly

Making art of any kind generally involves granting yourself permission. This can take many forms. Allowing yourself to fail, to be criticized, to bare your soul.

According to Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible), novel writing is not that complicated. She provided some tips to Publishers Weekly:

To begin, give yourself permission to write a bad book. Writer’s block is another name for writer’s dread—the paralyzing fear that our work won’t measure up. It doesn’t matter how many books I’ve published, starting the next one always feels as daunting as the first. A day comes when I just have to make a deal with myself: write something anyway, even if it’s awful. Nobody has to know. Maybe it never leaves this room! Just go. Bang out a draft…

Of course, “bang out a draft” is harder than it sounds. But breaking it down like that can get some people over their anxiety. Put the words on page. They don’t have to be good. Just get something down. Bad pages can be improved.

Screening Room: ‘The Northman’

The Northman opens next Friday. It has Vikings, Bjork, and a story sort of derived from Hamlet. My review is at PopMatters:

A revenge thriller with an elevated horror heart and an anthropologist’s eye for detail and ritual, The Northman is a witchy and weird piece of work. But despite the layered imagination that went into recreating this ancient world, it is still the most conventional work yet from Eggers, director of old-time Americana oddities The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019). The Northman features operatic scope and magical imagery that will be burned into your retinas for quite some time…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Ask, But Don’t Answer

At a recent panel for the American Booksellers Association, several novelists discussed “Storytelling in the Cultural Moment.”

Several themes were played with, including the idea of how to play with a “rupture” in your story. But one particularly salient point came from Jennifer Egan on the topic of curiosity:

Fiction for me is about asking questions and not answering them…

It’s a harder rule to follow than you might think.

Writer’s Desk: Find Perfection in the Little Things

The polymathically prodigious Samuel R. Delany (who turned 80 this week) published several novels by the time many people have yet to graduate from college, re-orienting the entire field of science fiction just as it was entering its great period of 1960s experimentation. He kept that going for decades, knocking out everything from space opera to dystopia to memoir.

In a recent piece for The Yale Review, Delany tried to answer the question of why he writes. He had several takes, ranging from wanting to read the books he could not find, to because it was fun, to enjoying the erotic imagination, and dealing with the certainty of death.

But one of his most salient points comes in this anecdote about Michelangelo agreeing to take an art-besotted baron to a tavern where all the artists hung out:

After three evenings, the lord said, “But all I hear among these men is talk of stone and chisels and files, gesso and tempera and pigments. I expected to hear talk about beauty, the truths that we learn when we gaze up at their works, the perfection that they create for us. Why do they waste their time talking about these trifles?”

Michelangelo answered, “But perfection is the sum of trifles, and perfection, my lord, is no trifle!”

Nearly everything writers do, from researching conversational patterns in nineteenth-century Turkey to deleting commas, is in a way trivial.

But that’s the only way to get close to perfection.

TV Room: ‘The Invisible Pilot’

The new HBO documentary miniseries The Invisible Pilot starts on Monday.

My review ran at The Playlist:

Some jobs do not prepare you for much of anything else. Work as a barista and you will know how to make a great latte, perhaps with that cute little leaf in the foam, but that is it. Other jobs provide more marketable skills. The buzzy new three-episode HBO documentary series “The Invisible Pilot,” for example, reveals that being a crop duster was excellent training for anybody looking to set up shop as a drug smuggler. The skill sets are roughly the same—flying heavy loads, often in bad weather, low to the ground, and landing on rough ground—only, when the cargo is illegal drugs, the pay is quite a bit better…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Donbass’

My review of the new Ukraine-set black comedy Donbass, which opens next week, is at The Playlist:

Winner of the 2018 Un Certain Regard award for Best Director at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival but only getting released in the United States now, “Donbass” makes for eerie viewing coming just weeks after the Russo-Ukrainian war entered a new phase following the Russian invasion of late February 2022. Set at some unspecified time after Russian-backed separatists carved off the Donbass region of southeast Ukraine in early 2014, the film provides a glimpse of what life is like in (as the on-screen titles term it) “Occupied Territory in Eastern Ukraine.” From what we see here, day-to-day life appears to be some combination of Cossack ”Mad Max” cosplay, throwback Soviet-era corruption, smashmouth nationalism, and gangster’s paradise…

Here is the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Slow Horses’

The new Apple TV series Slow Horses is an adaptation of the first entry in Mick Herron’s superbly semicomic spy novels. It stars Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas and premieres this Friday.

My review is at Slant:

The six-episode series at times recalls The Americans, with which it shares an executive producer, Graham Yost, and an appreciation for the workaday realities of spies’ tradecraft, as well as a tendency to resort to sudden bloodletting. Slow Horses similarly breathes life into a somewhat moribund genre due to its grumpy antihero, Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), and the nontraditional gaggle of spies whom he has to rely on to save the day…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Maybe Change the World?

Comics legend Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) has a writing tutorial now on BBC Maestro, which looks absolutely fantastic. Moore is an expert at weaving together numerous characters and overlapping dramatic arcs inside complex and frequently historical settings while still maintaining clarity and momentum. Not an easy feat.

On top of that, he wants to focus not just on mechanics, but the larger picture. Namely: What can writing accomplish?

You should remember that a writer can change the world. Think of the books that have completely changed human history. See yourself in that light. Because if you are a writer, then you are having an effect upon human history…

Aim big.

Screening Room: What’s Wrong with the Oscars?

I wrote a piece in Eyes Wide Open about how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is ensuring that it will continue to lose relevance, with a suggestion for how they can avoid the annual hand-wringing.

You can read the article here:

There has been an increasing divergence between what Academy voters consider the best movies of the year and what people are actually seeing. It is easy to view this as simply Hollywood snobbery. In fact, an entire subgenre of criticism, often but not always from right-wing sources, can reliably be counted on to make that argument every year when the Oscars come around. It was not always this way…