Screening Room: ‘On Broadway’

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In Oren Jacoby’s new documentary On Broadway, a host of theater stars and other artists explain just what makes the Great White Way so wonderful. It’s a treat.

On Broadway is making the rounds at film festivals now. My review is at PopMatters:

On Broadway is generally at its best when delivering nuggets of theatrical lore, particularly those involving surprise discoveries. Some are fairly well known, such as how Lin-Manuel Miranda premiered his first number from Hamilton at a White House event before it was even a play. It’s a story worth retelling if only for the curious immediacy of the footage and the laughter that greets Miranda when he informs the audience that he has been working on a rap about … Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton…

Writer’s Desk: Be the Bird

A lot of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, involves research. Crime novelists go out on ride-alongs with cops and interview morticians to figure out the tricks of the trade to embed in their books so that the made-up feels more authentic. Most nonfiction writers, even if they have a specialty, have to write about things they are not expert in, and so have to draw on others’ work.

Then there’s Malcolm Gladwell, the journeyman journalist who writes about everything from sports to music to the problem of elite education and solving homelessness. How does he cover it all? A few years back, here is what he told students at Yale:

I’m not doing the original work … There’s that bird on the back of the elephant that picks off the ticks — I am the bird.

Following that approach still involves being able to tell a good story. Narrative excitement and creating a sense of discovery and thrill is the duty of every writer. But in order to have a story to tell, writers need raw material.

Read widely. Absorb as much as you can. Find a better to tell a story, with connections nobody else thought of. Spread your wings and write.

Writer’s Desk: Stop Selling

Tavi Gevinson, the onetime teen fashion maven and editor of Rookie and current New York ingenue, came to grips recently with all the time and energy she had been putting into crafting likable versions of herself for social media. It’s a common phenomenon in our era, the neurotic time-suckage of Instagram:

There are plenty of well-documented reasons to distrust Instagram — the platform where one is never not branding, never not making Facebook money, never not giving Facebook one’s data — but most unnerving are the ways in which it has led me to distrust myself. After countless adventures through the black hole, my propensity to share, perform, and entertain has melded with a desire far more cynical: to be liked, quantifiably, for an idealized version of myself, at a rate not possible even ten years ago…

But where it became even more problematic for Gevinson, who was trying as so many of us do to discover what the limits of possibility were as a bright young creative trying to make it in the city:

I think I am a writer and an actor and an artist. But I haven’t believed the purity of my own intentions ever since I became my own salesperson, too.

Anybody who has seen an author out there on the press tour knows that selling is part of the job. You publish a book and (if you’re lucky) the house puts you out there for a grind of interviews (answering questions like “Where do you get your ideas?” fifteen times a day in hotel rooms) which will hopefully lead to TV or radio or print or online segments that will then help sell more books. Hopefully.

But at some point the selling can become the thing. That’s especially true in our disintermediated time when all creatives are expected to be out there constantly pushing and shilling and crafting an image.

But there is a reason that “sales” has always had a somewhat disreputable ring. It’s fundamentally dishonest, as all the best salespeople can tell you. Whereas writing, at its best, uncovers the truth, whether something about the world or humanity or yourself or all three together.

Sell if you have to. Gotta move those books somehow. But only if and only when you absolutely have to. Otherwise write. And live.

Reader’s Corner: Going Back to Updike

Rabbit Redux

In the London Review of Books, Patricia Lockwood does that thing some of us dread: Going back to the author we once loved—and everyone else told us to love—years later to see how they stand up. Reconsidering someone like John Updike, so of-the-moment in postwar American letters, she assumes will be a fraught matter:

I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said when first approached, because I knew I would try to read everything, and fail, and spend days trying to write an adequate description of his nostrils, and all I would be left with after months of standing tiptoe on the balance beam of objectivity and fair assessment would be a letter to the editor from some guy named Norbert accusing me of cutting off a great man’s dong in print. But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are…

The piece that follows is not a hatchet job. Though yes, blood is fulsomely spilled. Lockwood looks at Updike with new eyes and finds much (so much) to be grimaced at, to the point of wondering, Did anyone actually read this?

There are also some grace notes: “When he is in flight you are glad to be alive.”

But also: “When he comes down wrong – which is often – you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea.”

Nota Bene: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Japan

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Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964, proving that an nontraditional musical about an Eastern European shtetl family being wrenched apart by the struggle over tradition and fears of the next pogrom could play to massive audiences. It still does today.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of its first production in Japan. Since then it has become that country’s most popular American musical.

Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for Fiddler—stitching together the musical’s characters and themes from the work of Sholem Aleichem—remembered bringing the show to Japan in 1967. He had this incredible exchange about the universality of some works of art:

Japan was the first non-English production and I was very nervous about how it would be received in a completely foreign environment. I got there just during the rehearsal period and the Japanese producer asked me, “Do they understand this show in America?” And I said, “Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?” And he said, “Because it’s so Japanese”…

Screening Room: ‘Bacurau’

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‘Bacurau’ (Kino Lorber)

In the haunting new movie from the director of Aquarius and Neighboring Sounds, a remote Brazilian village fights off mysterious invaders.

Bacurau had its U.S. premiere this week at the New York Film Festival. My review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Write Like the Ukraine Whistleblower

Washington, D.C. A government clerk's room, showing a desk with books, telephone and directory, and a desk lamp on it

Jane Rosenzweig, director of the Writing Center at Harvard, has some surprising advice for where to find good writing: Follow the example of the government whistleblower who filed a complaint about how the *President has been degrading the office (most recently). According to Rosenzweig, this might be a government report, but it does what all good writing must:

  • Right to the point!

He wastes no time on background or pleasantries before stating that he is writing to report “an ‘urgent’ concern.” And then he immediately states it.

  • Subheadings!

The whistle-blower’s subheadings do what the best subheadings do: They structure the complaint and provide a clear outline of what the document contains.

  • Great topic sentences!

Strong persuasive or expository writing features topic sentences that tell the reader what to focus on.

  • Active verbs!

Passive constructions leave us hanging about who did what, which can be useful if you’re trying to deflect responsibility for something. But if you want to keep your reader focused on who is accountable for what, tell them by making sure your sentences feature real people performing actions.

The whistle-blower could turn out to be a writer in their free time. They could also just be a person who understands that it’s not enough to tell somebody something, you have to tell them well.

So pay attention to your writing. You never know when the fate of democracy could depend on it.