Writer’s Desk: Meet a Stranger for Coffee

Like many performers, Maria Bamford is often stricken with insecurities about her own work. That can make it difficult to write, much less perform.

But unlike most writers, Bamford has a unique process for working out her material:

In 2018, she began issuing periodic invitations, on Twitter, for fans who live in cities where she is appearing to meet her for coffee and listen to her run through her set before she performs. 

Is it scary to have a total stranger critique your writing before anybody else in the world sees it? Absolutely.

Is it more scary than having somebody you know critique it? Absolutely not.

If they are willing, talk to strangers about your work. Generally, they’re nice about it.

Screening Room: ‘Belushi’

For a few years in the 1970s, John Belushi was one of if not the biggest name in American comedy. Then he blew it all up.

The new Showtime documentary Belushi tells the story in dramatic, well-rounded fashion. My review is at The Playlist:

“Belushi” can be seen as something of a riposte to Bob Woodward’s 1984 biography “Wired.” The book is seen by people in Belushi’s circle as a cold, scathing, and exploitative take on their friend’s drug-related death in 1982 that ignores his talent and warmth. Cutler’s version is definitely sympathetic and somewhat of a family affair; resembling at times nothing so much as an Irish wake…

Writer’s Desk: Say It Clean

In his landmark work From Dawn to Decadence, historian Jacques Barzun has this to say about how the readability of written English can be under threat:

…the resulting obstacles to good prose were: a vocabulary full of technical terms and their jargon imitations, an excess of voguish metaphors, and the preference for long abstract words denoting general ideas, in place of short concrete ones pointing to acts and objects.

When it doubt, say it plain. Simplicity above all.

(h/t: Tablet)

Screening Room: ‘A Rainy Day in New York’

So there’s a new Woody Allen movie out. That’s it.

My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

Originally set for release in 2019, the movie is now getting a somewhat grudging release in a handful of American theaters, which seems about right. The story feels like a faded Xerox of an idea somebody once scribbled down on a napkin for an Allen-like comedy, only featuring little of the filmmaker’s wit or romanticism…

Dept. of Self-Promotion: ‘What Would Keanu Do?’

Yep, it’s that time of year. Getting close to Christmas shopping season (well, for stores at least it is, actually shoppers won’t be paying attention for another couple months). What, oh what, to get that Keanu Reeves fan in or tangentially connected to your life?

May I suggest my latest book What Would Keanu Do? Personal Philosophy and Awe-Inspiring Advice from the Patron Saint of Whoa?

It was conjured up by the good people at MediaLab Books, who then very kindly asked me to produce some verbiage about the life lessons that one can take from the cinematic oeuvre of one Keanu Reeves. This entailed looking very very closely at everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Dangerous Liaisons and Toy Story 4 to derive the deeper wisdom of our most curiously Zen movie performer.

Many gems were uncovered. I was given license to re-explore the greatness of A Scanner Darkly, for instance. On the other hand, I also underwent the unspeakable experience of rewatching the second and third Matrix movies.

What Would Keanu Do? goes on sale today. Check it out.

Screening Room: ‘Charm City Kings’

Back in 2013, the documentary 12 O’Clock Boys looked at Baltimore’s subculture of daredevil dirt-bike riders. It was surprising, unpredictable, and utterly fresh. Now comes Charm City Kings, a nice-looking but somewhat muddled dramatic interpretation of the same landscape.

It hits HBO this Thursday. My review ran at Slant:

One segment where the bikers and onlookers crowd together for an impromptu street party and display of tricks draws on a long lineage stretching from Rebel Without a Cause to The Fast and the Furious (and if wheelie-popping dirt bikes are not incorporated into the Fast & Furious series at some point, then its producers are failing at their job)…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Get Out There and Live

When Walt Whitman first published his genre-redefining verse collection Leaves of Grass, he was not going after small game, acknowledging in the preface:

The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes…

Not everybody can match Whitman’s cranked-up barbaric yawp approach to writing. But nevertheless, it is worth taking a page or two from his tactic:

Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost. This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants … read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul…

Embrace the world. Get out there. Come home. Write about it.

Screening Room: ‘Kingdom of Silence’

In Rick Rowley’s documentary Kingdom of Silence, a bevy of diplomats, security experts, and fellow writers come forward to tell the story of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered by the Saud royal family after his critical columns in the Washington Post.

My review of Kingdom of Silence, which starts on Showtime tonight, ran at The Playlist:

While Khashoggi’s presence brings an unusually impactful human touch—particularly the aching style of his writing, read in soulful beats during a few more mournful segments that seem to carry in them all the tragedy and thwarted promise of the modern Middle East—where “Kingdom of Silence” is most effective is using his story as a personal mirror to the geopolitical dramas that crash all through this movie…

Here’s the trailer:

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.