Screening Room: The Oscars and ‘Joker’

Really? (Warner Bros.)

In response to yesterday’s fairly uninspiring Oscar nominations, here is a piece I wrote for Eyes Wide Open about why every single other best picture nominee deserves to win more than Joker:

Yes, that includes JoJo Rabbit. Even the cringey and self-congratulatory Nazi slapstick of Taika Waititi’s quasi-Wes Anderson anachronism-riddled World War II satire — which might have worked nicely if compressed into a 5-minute short — ultimately had something to offer, even if it was simply the not-quite-groundbreaking message that Nazis are bad. Not so Joker

 

Writer’s Desk: Know When to Stop

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Woman Reading by Henri Matisse (1895)

In John Guare’s heart-stopping 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation, one of its alternately delusional and searching protagonists is a painter-turned-art dealer named Flan. At one point Flan, who is both criminally mercenary and honestly enraptured by the paintings he flogs, soliloquizes about his past life:

I thought… dreamt… remembered… how easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He paints and paints, works on a canvas for months, and then, one day, he loses it. Loses the structure, loses the sense of it. You lose the painting.

There is not a writer around who does not know the feeling. Going along just fine, everything hitting its mark, all the pieces of your structure falling into place like toppling dominoes, and then … nothing. Sometimes you get the piece back. Sometimes it is gone forever. Flan continues:

I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher: ‘Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?’ And this is what she said. ‘I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.’

Most of us are not lucky enough to have a second-grade teacher looking over our shoulder. Sometimes a piece needs hours, days, months of work to get it chiseled into shape. Other times, it just needs to be left as is.

If you feel yourself losing the thread, pull back, look again, and know when to let it go.

Screening Room: ‘Just Mercy’

Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in ‘Just Mercy’ (Warner Bros.)

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book about his crusade against the death penalty, the new movie Just Mercy stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as one of the poor defendants railroaded for a murder he didn’t commit (ironically, in the town that inspired Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird).

Just Mercy is playing now. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

You might not have noticed it, but one of the best-acted recent major-studio dramas was just released into theaters. That is because, despite the presence of bankable stars like Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Captain Marvel herself, and a riveting true-life story about a bona fide champion of justice, Warner Bros. has shown about as much confidence in the commercial prospects of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy as Sony did in the bungled blink-and-you-missed-it release of Charlie’s Angels

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Les Miserables’

lesmiserables1
(Amazon Studios)

French director Ladj Ly’s scorching new movie, Les Misérables, is set in the same poverty-stricken outer neighborhood of Paris as Victor Hugo’s novel and involves many of the same themes of systemic oppression, but the story is Ly’s own.

Les Misérables is opening this week and will be available later on Amazon Prime. My review is at Slant Magazine:

The giddy joy and strong sense of unity that pulsates throughout the opening montage of Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is as stirring as it is fleeting. A black kid dashes with his friends onto the Paris Metro, flying over turnstiles like a superhero as they rush to a crowded bar to watch France compete in the World Cup. They roar along as their team wins and pours out into the streets to join the crowds in front of the Arc de Triomphe. One of the boys wears a tricolor flag like a cape, joining what looks like a unifying wave of national pride. Several minutes later, Ly makes it clear that this sense of comity is little more than a bad joke…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Philip Pullman

Maybe you are spending January catching up on HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Maybe you are actually taking the long cold winter to get some writing done. If the latter, here are some tips from Pullman himself, courtesy of Radio 4:

Ignore the market and write what you want—Write what you want to write, be the next big thing and not another iteration of a phase that will pass…

Stay at the desk—Resist wandering off, checking social media or making yet another cup of tea. You wouldn’t to miss a brilliant idea because you weren’t there to receive it…

Find the way of writing that works for you—Don’t be tied to how you think you should write if it doesn’t produce anything…

Let the protagonist propel events—It’s useful emotional shorthand for getting your readers invested with your lead…

Explore different formats and genres—Ideas might not necessarily fit into what you’re currently working on. If you know something is a good idea, but just isn’t working, don’t necessarily throw it out…

Writer’s Desk: Rebel Against Yourself

While all writers have to get out into the world to study it, feel it, live it, and understand something beyond what lies inside their own cranium in order to make an impact, they should not overlook the value that can come from determining what would shock themselves.

Per the great provocateur J.G. Ballard (Crash), circa 2005:

As for the special problems facing the middle-class artist — it looks as if alienation is going to be imposed on him whether he likes it or nor. Most artists and writers in the past have been middle-class, the surrealists to a man, with backgrounds similar to those of the Baader-Meinhof gang. However, the middle-class world against which they rebelled was vast and self-confident. Who today would bother to rebel against the Guardian or Observer-reading, sushi-nibbling, liberal, tolerant middle-class? I think the main target the young writer/artist should rebel against is himself or herself. Treat oneself as the enemy who needs to be provoked and subverted…

How can one shock the world if one can’t shock oneself?

Reader’s Desk: Best Books of 2019

assorted books on shelf
Photo by Ivo Rainha (Pexels.com)

If you are looking for something to get for yourself when you are at the bookstore grabbing a last-minute gift for somebody, there were a lot of amazing books that came out this year. I contributed to a couple best-of lists with a lot to choose from, see here: