Writer’s Desk: RBG and Professor Nabakov

Since Supreme Court justices communicate primarily through words on a page, not surprisingly writing is almost as important to them as making legal arguments.

The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was frequently cited for the clarity and strength of her writing. She often credited her teachers for instilling in her the proper discipline. In an interview collected in The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, she pointed to her professor of European literature at Cornell:

His name was Vladimir Nabokov. He was a man in love with the sound of words. He taught me the importance of choosing the right word and presenting it in the right word order. He changed the way I read, the way I write.

She also said about Nabokov:

Words could paint pictures, I learned from him. Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.

Ginsburg and Nabokov knew that this in some way, this is what writing is all about: convincing the reader. On some level, art is argument. That is true whether it is in the pages of a novel or proclaimed from the Supreme Court.

Screening Room: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Getting a limited theatrical opening (whatever that means in pandemic times) before coming to Netflix in October, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 dramatizes the story of the biggest, oddest political show trial of modern American history. Also: Sacha Baron Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman.

My review is at Slant:

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 pulses with relevancy in a time when high-stakes debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America. Sorkin uses an ensemble approach to tell the story of the anti-war activists charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot after the street fighting that ripped through Chicago in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. While necessary, given the number of key characters involved, the approach also allows Sorkin to establish different factions among the defendants who are debating the merits of their wildly varying methods to the same cause even as they’re fighting to stay out of federal prison…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Take Your Time

In 1991, comedic legend and sometime albatross vendor John Cleese gave a lecture on creativity, a topic he’s been somewhat obsessed with over the years (and in fact just published a short book about it). In that lecture, he gave examples of how to create what he called the “open mood” that allows ideas to come.

One example came from Alfred Hitchcock:

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s regular co-writers has described working with him on screenplays. He says, “When we came up against a block and our discussions became very heated and intense, Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the work at hand. At first, I was almost outraged, and then I discovered that he did this intentionally. He mistrusted working under pressure. He would say ‘We’re pressing, we’re pressing, we’re working too hard. Relax, it will come.’ And, says the writer, of course it finally always did.”

It’s a difficult balance. On the one hand, you have to keep to your writing schedule. Otherwise nothing gets done. On the other hand, pressing against a closed door rarely works.

When nothing is coming to you, sit back, take a breath, go for a walk, and think about something else. The muse is still there, you may just have to wait for her to circle back around to you.

Screening Room: Toronto International Film Festival

Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures)

Pandemic or no, awards season must go on. So it was that this year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival launched another clutch of buzzy movies, only this time via streaming and some outdoor screenings (much like how the New York Film Festival is incorporating drive-ins to their pandemic screening efforts). Even though nobody is really going to movie theaters right now, if we were, there would be some really impressive flicks to check out, come December. Here’s a few that I was able to see.

Nomadland — Frances McDormand stars in Chloe Zhao’s story about a woman drifting through a rootless America of van-dwellers and odd-jobbers. Already getting hyped for best director/picture/actress. Review at Slant.

The Way I See It — Feel-good documentary about former White House photographer Pete Souza and his attempts to satirize Donald Trump’s presidency simply by posting old pics of Barack Obama to remind people what a true president acts like. Review at Slant.

MLK/FBI — Gripping and potentially controversial documentary about the FBI’s campaign against Martin Luther King, Jr. which actually delves into some of the more disturbing accusations. Lot of interest in this, deservedly so, though may not hit theaters until January 2021. Review at Slant.

76 Days — Heart-wrenching documentary that covers the 76-day COVID lockdown in Wuhan through up-close coverage inside a hospital being pushed to the edge. May get overlooked but worth finding. Review at The Playlist.

One Night in Miami — Regina King’s imperfect but still highly impressive story of four men (Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke) hanging out and hashing over the politics and crises of the day in 1964 could be a late favorite in the awards race.

City Hall — The latest Frederick Wiseman is another lengthy (4 1/2 hours) documentary about an American institution. This time he showcases the ins and outs of Boston’s municipal government, tracking all the bickering, horse-trading, complaining, and down-right idealism that goes into the urban mix. Demands your attention but rewards it.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Give Up

From novelist Yu Hua (To Live, Brothers), one of the great chroniclers of modern China, some advice about perseverance:

I’ve never considered giving up. Before becoming a writer, I was a dentist, spending all my days staring into people’s open mouths. Unhealthy mouths, too – healthy mouths wouldn’t come to the dentist. Maybe there’s a better job than being a writer, but I wouldn’t know. All I know is being a writer is better than being a dentist…

Take it from him. Don’t be a dentist. Write.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Limit Yourself

Best known for his titanic five-novels-in-one omnibus 2666, Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño was prolific enough that even after his death in 2003, his bibliography continues to grow.

In “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories,” he suggested one reason for that prodigious output. Never stick to just one piece at a time:

Never approach short stories one at a time. If one approaches short stories one at a time, one can quite honestly be writing the same short story until the day one dies.

Of course, Bolaño also warns to be careful:

The temptation to write short stories two at a time is just as dangerous as attempting to write them one at a time.

But it seems clear which approach he followed.

Poster of the Day: New York Film Festival

Courtesy of the inimitable John Waters, here is the poster for the upcoming New York Film Festival:

The fest starts on September 17. Here’s the full schedule.

Of course, with virtual screenings and some drive-in shows, it is not precisely a “festival.” But hey, better than adding another series to your Hulu queue that you will never, ever watch.

Writer’s Desk: Get Away from Yourself

Twilight by Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith’s plays are often discussed in light of their signature method of presentation: No matter how many characters are in the piece, and regardless of their gender or race, they are all played by the same actor. Usually Smith.

Smith builds that shapeshifting of perspective and personality on a foundation constructed from hundreds of hours of transcripts. She interviews people herself and then puts their words on stage.

Why does she do it this way, traveling around the world to meet with people and listen to them for hours? Not just for verisimilitude, though that is part of it:

I’m very aware of travelling and being with the people and being in the place, away from my home, chasing that which is not me.

The further away you get away from yourself, the more clearly you can see everybody else. Go and find that which is not you.

Screening Room: ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Dev Patel and Morfydd Clark in The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

The Personal History of David Copperfield opens today. My review is at PopMatters:

Bright, sleek, and shiny, Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield revisits Charles Dickens at a time when the Victorian novelist’s work should have new relevance. While the book’s themes of betrayal, identity, class, and survival-of-the-fittest economics are fairly perennial, they align all too neatly with the current moment. But while David Copperfield’s drive to escape the “shame” of his poverty-stricken past and refashion himself as a gentleman of means has a glint of society-climbing desperation to it, Iannucci’s version emphasizes the author’s entertaining side almost to a fault…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Epicentro’

In Hubert Sauper’s new documentary Epicentro, he explores the in-between world of Cuba, where utopian dreams meet cinematic propaganda amidst rotting infrastructure and tourist fantasia. It makes for a fascinating mix, even if the result is more essay than movie.

My review is at Slant:

Epicentro explores some of the filmmaker’s favorite topics, particularly colonialism, apocalypse, and the law of unintended consequences. But while some of his previous films, most notably Darwin’s Nightmare, showed a developing world careering toward catastrophe, this one illustrates something closer to a feedback loop. Although the Cuba he shows here is actively embracing a tourist economy that seems antithetical to the ideals of the 26th of July Movement, that pivot appears to signal less a capitalist future than a return to the island nation’s colonized past…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Make a Schedule

Annihilation by jeff vandermeer.jpg

The great and highly prolific sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer (best known for his eco-apocalyptic Southern Reach trilogy) gave an interview to the Chicago Review of Books a couple years back which was just packed with fantastically clear, actionable writing tips.

One of my favorites had to do with timing and productivity, two of the great obstacles for writers who have to juggle schedules:

People sometimes misunderstand the nature of writing, in that writing and revision are ongoing processes that are intertwined and don’t necessarily happen in two distinct consecutive phases. That said, inasmuch as you do work solely on a rough draft, do that work when you are fresh and energized. This may seem like commonsense, but I’ve known many writers who never really examined their processes, just kept on with the same habits they started out with…

The point is to organize your writing days or weeks around what you know about yourself—and about diminishing returns.

Screening Room: ‘Coup 53’

The crackerjack documentary Coup 53 opens this week, with a revealing new angle on the infamous Anglo-American overthrow of Iran’s democratic government in 1953.

My review is at Slant:

When something is an open secret, does confirmation matter? Coup 53, director Taghi Amirani’s crackling, if somewhat hyperbolic, documentary about the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh during a 1953 coup d’état, argues loudly in the affirmative. Amirani spends too much of the film recounting his dogged years-long pursuit of this or that document in trying to affirm British involvement in what was usually described as a C.I.A.-led operation. But once he finds the goods, the filmmaker engineers a highly dramatic coup of his own that snaps everything into focus: a long-buried interview in which MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire details with petulant pride how His Majesty’s Government demolished a functioning democracy that wouldn’t play ball…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Pay Attention

If writing were just stringing words together, literally anybody could do it. Because there is more to it, would-be writers spend many thousands of hours pondering how to do it better, and even read books and take classes to learn how to do something that seemingly anyone can do once they’re in elementary school.

In his superb guide First You Write a Sentence, English professor Joe Moran did his best to illuminate all the “intangible” ways that a sentence becomes more than the sum of its parts, and how he imparted that understanding to his students. His insight is simple but profound:

What I have learned is that trainee writers do not need to be able to parse every sentence into its parts. They just have to learn to care. Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo, wrote that ‘what is done in love is well done.’ The purest form of love is just caring…. The purest form of praise is to pay attention. This is how we offer up the simplest of blessings to the world around us and to the lives of others. ‘Attention,’ wrote the French thinker Simone Weil, ‘is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ Give your sentences that courtesy and they will repay you.

Put another way, you have rarely written a sentence that would not be improved by another pass. Pay attention.

Screening Room: ‘Apocalypse ’45’

In the new documentary Apocalypse ’45, director Erik Nelson mixes gloriously restored color footage from the Pacific Theater during World War II to illustrate the memories of veterans who witnessed some of that harrowing conflict. It makes for a beautiful and shivery experience.

My review is at PopMatters:

Nelson is paying homage to a vanishing generation of soldiers and includes their yearning for a time when it seemed the US could still unify around a cause. Still, this is not a burnished Veterans Day nostalgia reel. “Golden Gate in ’48, bread line in ’49” is how one Marine remembers their attitudes about how long it would take for the war to end and what would become of them immediately afterward. “Greatest generation,” humphs another when asked about the label, “Goddamn propaganda”…

Here’s the trailer: