Screening Room: ‘Dune’

Denis Villeneuve’s gorgeous adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic Dune has been pushed back from theatrical release almost as frequently as the last Bond. Chances are, it will have a little more staying power, even if Timothée Chalamet’s take on Paul Atreides is not the most memorable acting you will see this year.

Dune opens this week. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

Herbert’s Paul is one of science fiction’s original Chosen One characters. Like later iterations from Luke to Neo who the character inspired, Paul is a quasi-Christ figure who combines unmatched warrior skill with a certain mystifying Zen insight that sets him apart from and ultimately above the humans who surround him…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Harness Your Creativity

What does a writer do about their spark, their inspiration, their creativity? Sometimes it comes (often when you are not at your desk, can’t find a pen and paper, and unable to thumb text into your phone’s notetaking app fast enough) and sometimes it doesn’t (generally when you are on deadline and running on fumes).

Freud just plain gave up trying to figure out that wily spirit. In “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” he wrote that “Before the problem of the creative artist,” (interesting to see the artist as a “problem”) “analysis must, alas, lay down its arms.”

That elusiveness is a key aspect to how many see creativity: A tricky and flighty thing who will take off at the slightest rustling in the bushes. Immaturity plays a role as well, with some seeing creativity as a thing treated without too much seriousness. In his writing guide Wonderbook, Jeff VanderMeer says “the most important thing is allowing the subconscious mind to engage in the kind of play that leads to making the connections necessary to create narrative.”

Julia “The Artist’s Way” Cameron just lets rip every morning, writing a few pages of whatever comes to mind and not letting her internal censor say anything. She calls him Nigel, by the way:

That’s the name she’s given to her internal censor, whom she imagines as a dapper gay Englishman. “Oh, Nigel,” she’ll say to herself when she hears his tut-tutting voice. “You leave me alone!”

It feels like the right move. Whether you ignore it or nurture it or let it play, keeping your creativity away from Nigel makes a good deal of sense.

Screening Room: ‘Bergman Island’

In Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, a filmmaker couple plans a vacation to the island of Faro, writing their next movies in Ingmar Bergman’s old house. His shadow looms large while their imaginations start to overtake their quiet domestic squabbles.

Bergman Island opens this Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

The island’s serene vistas of breeze-ruffled trees and the rippling waters of the Baltic Sea suggest a relaxing hideout from the world. But the ghost of its most famous resident, the four-times-married Ingmar Bergman, looms large. As the housekeeper at Bergman’s estate (which has a private cinema stocked with 35mm prints of his work) half-jokes about showing them 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage, the film that “made millions of people divorce” …

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Last Duel’

Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Erik Jager’s nonfiction book The Last Duel is, well, far more than another medieval jousting movie.

The Last Duel opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

…a film that’s not only set during the Hundred Years’ War and turns on an abstruse question of jurisprudence, but also features multiple Rashomon-esque takes on an inciting event and a blond Ben Affleck chewing scenery with Klaus Kinski-like gusto, might sound doomed to failure. But against all odds, it turns out to be a smartly acted and insightfully written look at how the intersection of power, greed, superstition, and vanity can warp and obscure even the most brutally obvious crime…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: How to Get Published

So, how do you get published? A lot of writers have thoughts about that. But it tends to derive from when they were first coming up, which is often decades ago and relevant to an entirely different industry.

In this piece from Locus magazine, science fiction author Cory Doctorow (Little Brother) talks about what he used to know about breaking in:

Thanks to online forums and writers’ groups, I could name every single major SF publication, their editors, word rates, and response times. I could tell you whether their contracts were negotiable, and, if so, which clauses could be struck out. I could name every major agent who was open to new clients and every book editor who was willing to read unsolicited novels…

But now, he acknowledges, he knows none of that. Instead, he proffers what he calls broader meta-advice:

1) Note where works that are comparable to your own were published recently;

2) Research the editorial guidelines and word rates for those markets;

3) In descending order of pay-scale, submit your stories to those markets, according to the submission guidelines for each;

4) Keep writing.

Learn the industry. Get to know people. Hope for a break. Keep trying if you don’t get one.

These principles apply regardless of the year.

Screening Room: ‘Ascension’

Everybody’s hustling in Ascension, an eerie and hard-to-look-away-from documentary about the new China and its headlong rush into a particularly rapacious form of capitalism.

My review is at Slant:

The majority of Ascension is taken up with fly-on-the-wall footage of people at work. Often they’re assembling vast quantities of disposable material, including plastic water bottles and jeans, just a couple steps removed from the landfill. Many of the scenes have a mesmeric quality, helped along by Dan Deacon’s quietly vibrating score. Some, too, suggest that Kingdon could have taken refuge in easy symbolism, a la Godfrey Reggio’s The Qatsi Trilogy, as in the shots of Chinese workers producing Keep America Great patches and creepy sex dolls…

Writer’s Desk: Figure it Out Later

In a famous 18th century parable, Rabbi Jacob ben Wolf Kranz (better known as the “Dubno Maggid”) relates a fantastic story about the creative process:

Once upon a time, I was walking in the forest and I saw all these trees in a row with a target drawn on them, and an arrow right in the center. At the end of the row I saw a little boy with a bow in his hand I had to ask him, “Are you the one who shot all those arrows?!” “Of course!” he replied. “How did you hit all the targets right in the center?” I asked. “Simple”, said the boy, “first I shoot the arrow, and then I draw the target”.

This may sound vaguely familiar because singer-songwriter Caroline Polachek used it as the inspiration for her album Drawing the Target Around the Arrow. Polacheck’s phrasing gets it just right: Fire off your idea first and then figure out what you were aiming for later.

Also important: insisting that that was your plan all along.

Screening Room: ‘The Power of the Dog’

The newest film from Jane Campion is a somewhat tortured and brooding but still surprising drama set on the high plains where Benedict Cumberbatch makes a surprisingly believable rancher.

The Power of the Dog is playing on the festival circuit right now in what looks like a pretty certain play for the Oscars before being released on Netflix in December. My review is at Slant:

Nobody is where they should be in The Power of the Dog, and everybody seems to be searching for something, somebody, or somewhere else. Set in 1925 Montana, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 book tracks the obsessions, miseries, and passions of a group of people who inhabit a cavernous house in the middle of a vast ranchland and make each other miserable until blood is finally shed. The film looks at times like a stiff-jawed period piece, but it ripples underneath with a prickly modern sensibility…

The trailer is here:

Screening Room: ‘Encounter’

The new thriller Encounter is perhaps not the most original genre movie you are going to see this or any year. But as seems to keep happening, it is more than worth your time for the lead performance from the ever-underestimated Riz Ahmed.

Encounter is slated for release on Amazon in early December. My review from the Toronto International Film Festival ran at Slant:

As alien invasions go, the one that opens Michael Pearce’s Encounter is fairly low-key. Bright meteor-like flashes cut across the night sky. Close-up shots of squirming insects and human bloodstreams infected with clouds of swarming parasites suggest a quietly multiplying bug menace. But what Pearce doesn’t show is made up for in the fervid imagination of his raggedy, impassioned protagonist, Malik (Riz Ahmed), who’s frantically planning to go off the grid to get away from whatever the meteors have delivered to Earth…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: There is Always a Mystery

There are three kinds of readers: those who have no idea who Jim Thompson is or have never read him (that’s most people), those who think he’s just about the best crime writer America ever produced, and (this last being a group that overlaps with the second) writers who wish they could do what he did.

A master of mood, detail, tension, and stories that wore the characters down to their often quite nasty and perverse essentials, Thompson was an artist working in a very specific medium who nevertheless had forgotten more about the basics of writing than most of us ever get the hang of. To wit:

There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot: Things are not as they seem.

This applies no matter what you are writing: mystery, steampunk romance, multi-generational historical saga, or even nonfiction. Things are not as they seem will get your narrative moving like almost nothing else.

Writer’s Desk: Travel, Travel, and Travel More

Consider this as advice for a post-pandemic time, whenever that day finally dawns. Some writers may never need to leave their garret in order to have all that they need to generate worlds. Others work better from life. Here’s what some authors had to say about getting out and exploring the world:

  • “I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it behind … Life is very short and the world is there to see and one should know as much about it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not to just one part of it.” (Paul Bowles)
  • “[We] need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.” (George Santayana)
  • “Partly from passionate curiosity and partly to make a living, I kept travelling. The risky trips I took in my thirties and forties, launching myself into the unknown, astonish me now. One winter I was in Siberia. I went overland to Patagonia. I took every clanking train in China and drove a car to Tibet … All these trips, 10 of them, became books.” (Paul Theroux)

Screening Room: ‘The Duke’

In 1961, a semi-retired cabbie from the north of England got sick of retirees and war veterans having to pay a tax to watch the BBC. Then he was charged with stealing a Goya portrait from the National Gallery. The Duke is the charming if somewhat thin story about what happened next.

My review ran at Slant:

The Duke starts with Kempton on trail at the Old Bailey and then spools back six months to lay out the fumbling crime and lackadaisical cover-up that led him to court. The planning of the theft itself, involving a ladder and an unlatched bathroom window, is almost incidental to the story and played more for comedy than thrills (in a too-good-to-be-true moment, a shot of the Goya painting being nipped reveals that the inestimably more valuable The Scream was hanging right near it). The screenplay, by Young Marx playwrights Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, is more attentive to the particulars of Kempton’s against-the-grain populism…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Afghanistan Papers’

My review of the blockbuster new book from Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock ran in PopMatters:

When the last American troops bugged out of Hamid Karzai International Airport at the end of August 2021, the Beltway spin cycle churned furiously. Charges and counter-charges flew over the partisan wire. Instapundits snapped to attention at the think tanks barnacled around America’s ever-expanding foreign-policy security-state apparatus unaffectionately known as “The Blob”. Sundry hangers-on Zoom’ed in to cable news shows or flung op-eds at the last remaining newspapers and websites of note. Everyone had opinions about how the longest war in American history had been lost and who lost it…

You can read some of the revelatory leaks that Whitlock covered for the Post here.

Writer’s Desk: Let Your Characters Tell the Story

In 1987, psychedelic pied piper and one of America’s great novelists Ken Kesey taught a graduate writing class at the University of Oregon in which he and the students were to collaboratively write and publish a novel. His methods were unsurprisingly eclectic but his purpose was direct: “If we finish it and it gets published, everybody gets an A. If we don’t, you get an F.”

Much of what ultimately happened in that class, led as it was by a high-octane preacher-writer with a flair for the magical, would be difficult to reproduce in the field. However, as related in this Rolling Stone article, Kesey also had some decent wisdom to transmit:

Plot comes out of character, he explained, not the other way around. ”The trick is for us to build character in our characters,” Kesey said, ”to breathe life into them, to get them to stand up, stretch and start doing stuff. We’re not interested in pulling strings, in being puppeteers. We want these people to rise up off the page. Then we sit back and follow them through the novel.”

If you can create characters who seem interesting enough to follow around for a couple hundred pages, then what they actually do in that time may be more incidental than anything else. Person first, then plot seems like a good way to get started.