Screening Room: What’s Wrong with the Oscars?

I wrote a piece in Eyes Wide Open about how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is ensuring that it will continue to lose relevance, with a suggestion for how they can avoid the annual hand-wringing.

You can read the article here:

There has been an increasing divergence between what Academy voters consider the best movies of the year and what people are actually seeing. It is easy to view this as simply Hollywood snobbery. In fact, an entire subgenre of criticism, often but not always from right-wing sources, can reliably be counted on to make that argument every year when the Oscars come around. It was not always this way…

Writer’s Desk: Go Easy On Yourself

The lure of the writer’s life can be hard to resist. Tabitha Blankenbiller writes movingly in Catapult about its attraction and the difficulties of giving up the dream. Here she describes the recognizable zeal that overtook her in her MFA program:

I devoured the foundational texts: Bird by Bird, The Liars’ Club, The Elements of Style. They’re what pushed me to write page after page each night no matter how hard my day job tried to wring the soul out of me. Each paragraph, each new essay draft, each exchange with my advisor was microscopically better than the one that had come before it. And the act of doing this work as ritual, as necessity, saved me. There was no longer a question of what I would do with my life…

She became a writer. She placed pieces in a wide array of respected publications (The Rumpus, Tin House) and eventually published a book. Which is more than most of us can say. But eventually things caught up with her. The never-ending hustle to get notice, to get an agent, to climb the ladder of literary notice, it all takes a toll, especially when you add the grind of everyday life to it.

Then she learned how to take a break.

I did not write for days, weeks, months at a time. The further I drifted from the epicenter of that world, the less it defined me. I sat with questions I wouldn’t have admitted before for fear of cursing myself: What if I never write another book? What if I only create what I want, when I feel compelled, for no other reason than I have something I have to say?…

And the world did not end.

Screening Room: ‘Windfall’

The new semi-comedic and would-be Hitchcockian thriller keeps its premise limited, which is welcome in a time of over-busy movies, but still misses the mark.

Windfall is playing now on Netflix. My review is at Slant:

As cinematic criminals go, the one who starts the action rolling in Charlie McDowell’s tragicomic hostage drama Windfall takes an unusually lackadaisical approach to his work. Credited as Nobody (Jason Segel), he’s first spotted wandering around a luxurious, orange grove-shaded villa that clearly doesn’t belong to him. He soaks in the dusky California sun and imagines what it would be like to own the place. Suddenly, almost as though coming out of a dream, he snaps into action, taking what little cash is in the house and heading for the door. Then the owners show up. A few minutes later, Nobody has CEO (Jesse Plemons) and Wife (Lily Collins) at gunpoint. None of the three seem to know what to do next…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘We Don’t Know Ourselves’

Born in Dublin in 1958, journalist Fintan O’Toole grew up in Ireland just as the country was shaking off (or, more often, not) the bonds of pre-modern theocracy that kept them in the past. His “personal history” We Don’t Know Ourselves tells how a country tried to enter the modern world without losing its soul. It’s fantastic.

My review is at PopMatters:

Protectionism—moral, cultural, and economic—kept new ideas and products out. In what O’Toole calls a “bitter paradox”, Ireland was then “an agrarian economy that was actually not much good at producing food.” Education was primarily limited to the well-off, keeping business and farming relatively primitive. In a comical but illustrative moment, Irish bishops refused an American offer through the Marshall Plan to create a National Institute of Agriculture to modernize farming because “it would not have a proper basis in religious doctrine.” Ireland’s stagnation produced despair, waves of emigration that threatened to empty the island completely, and one very good joke that made the rounds: “The wolf was at the door, howling to get out”…

Screening Room: ‘The Outfit’

In Graham Moore’s new Hitchcockian thriller The Outfit, a shy-seeming tailor is wrapped up in a tense game of wits with a passel of paranoid gangsters.

The Outfit opens in limited release this Friday. My review is at Slant:

On the surface, the film’s story couldn’t be more different than that of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, for which Moore won an Oscar for his script, though both films share a love of nattily attired Englishmen puzzling out problems in life-or-death situations. The Englishman in this case is the suit store’s owner, Savile Row-trained tailor Leonard (Mark Rylance). He makes his living not just by crafting bespoke suits but looking the other way when members of the Boyle crime family show up to use the message drop box in the backroom. Leonard drinks his tea, cuts his cloth, and avoids thinking about the elephant in the room…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Master’

Regina Hall stars in Master, a new horror film from Mariama Diallo that adds topical layers to its frights and scares.

Master will be released this Friday on Amazon Prime. My review is at PopMatters:

Diallos’ film, which bolts together race-conscious academic satire and haunted-house narrative, is set at the fictional Ancaster College. A Northeast school “nearly as old as the country”, it is a picture-perfect expanse of brick and ivy complete with hallowed traditions, an Ivy League-adjacent reputation, vanishingly few students or faculty of color, and centuries of ugly undercurrents that never seem to go away. New student Jasmine (Zoe Renee) has barely arrived on campus when she discovers that her dorm room is the one the other students whisper about: Decades earlier, the school’s first black student had killed herself there…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘America, We Have a Batman Problem’

How many Batman movies is too many? It seems like we are finding out.

My article, ‘America, We Have a Batman Problem’ is at Eyes Wide Open:

Batman’s appeal to artists and audiences is understandable. His immense wealth, traumatized childhood, and schizophrenic relationship with the villains he hunts provides a buffet of dramatic possibilities. Batman’s need (trauma) and ability (wealth) to act is as bottomless as his inability to avoid questioning his actions. Still, isn’t it time to give the man a rest?

Writer’s Desk: Make Things Up to Get By

Writers go through hard times like anybody else. For some, their writing can then become a slog. When things are bad, many of us like to escape from ourselves. And when you are sitting alone, hour after hour, plumbing your thoughts for new insights and plot points and similes (“The fresh-risen sun painted the sky like a…”), it feels like you cannot get away from yourself.

In her new book Never Say You Can’t Survive, author Charlie Jane Anders (who wrote the fantastic sci-fi novel The City in the Middle of the Night) has some suggestions about what to do when things are miserable, starting with how she coped with what she calls her “hell-year” of 2020:

… dreaming up imaginary worlds and larger-than-life people who never lived.

Just as reading can transport people, writing can take us out of ourselves. Anders goes on:

You never stop learning how to do better at writing—even if you’ve published a bunch of books and “arrived” as an author, you’re still on a steep learning curve, for as long as you’re stringing words together. This is excellent, because it means there will always be new discoveries and insights. Put another way, if writing was a house, you would never run out of rooms to explore…

Exploring beats wallowing.

Screening Room: ‘After Yang’

In After Yang, the new film from Kogonada (Columbus), a couple living in the near future has to confront a host of unexpected issues ranging from grief to questioning what it means to be human when their android Yang, purchased as a companion for their daughter, malfunctions.

My review of After Yang is at PopMatters:

Kogonada’s latest is a stately tea ceremony of a film that imagines an artfully designed future many would love to inhabit and others would find enervating. After Yang uses a dreamy and empathetic strain of science fiction to explore the idea that its extremely human-seeming android has a greater appreciation for the life it has been given than its owners and creators do of their own. This is not an especially original insight but it is at least thoughtfully and beautifully rendered…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Characters Need to Change

When Dan Harmon was first attracting notice as the creator of the cult sitcom Community, he also frequently expounded on his ideas about story creation. In large part, the narrative framework he crafted drew in self-acknowledged fashion from Joseph Campbell, but dealt more with writerly needs (establishing audience interest, etc.).

The gist of his story structure is here:

  1. You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
  2. Need (but they want something)
  3. Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
  4. Search (adapt to it)
  5. Find (find what they wanted)
  6. Take (pay its price)
  7. Return (and go back to where they started)
  8. Change (now capable of change)

It is really worth digging into Harmon’s explanations of each step. But the most interesting aspect comes at the end, when your protagonist does something they never would have done at the start of the story. This is because of something they learned along the way:

Remember that zippo the bum gave him? It blocked the bullet! It’s hack, but it’s hack because it’s worked a thousand times. Grab it, deconstruct it, create your own version…

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Give Up

You are writing a story. Things are coming together. You can see the ending. Not only that, you can feel the ending. And it’s going to be great.

But. There’s that one section that just is not working out. It feels awkward. Forced. Fake. You start to worry the whole endeavor is doomed.

Not so fast, writes George Saunders in LitHub:

A rough patch in a story is not an error or a defect or evidence of our lack of talent or proof that we are imposters, missing some essential frequency being broadcast from Story Central. It’s an indicator that our heroic, brilliant subconscious is working out a problem as it stumbles towards beauty, and is asking for our help, and what it needs for us to do, just now, is have faith. And wait. And, while we’re waiting (as an active form of waiting), keep revising (revising that bit and everything around it). Be O.K., for now, with its apparent imperfection (which is actually just a momentary lagging behind). Keep coming back to that place, with affection and hope, until it relents and pops into clarity…

A bad stretch of writing is not necessarily bad, just unformed.

Chisel away.

Writer’s Desk: Teach What You Practice

W.H. Auden might be lionized today, but like most writers he never made a great living. Verse tends not to pay the bills.

But teaching about verse can. Or giving talks. Even writing about writing.

This Auden knew:

It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.

Sad fact or not, there are worse ways to pay the bills.

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Nineties’

Is it everything you ever wanted to remember about Pavement, O.J., or Saved by the Bell? Not quite, but that is okay. Chuck Klosterman is after larger game.

My review of The Nineties ran in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Klosterman tries to look past the “grunge cartoon” take on the decade. This is welcome, given how often cultural chroniclers reduce periods to worn cliches. He knows that just muddling together Kurt Cobain, the O.J. Simpson trial, Biosphere 2, Boris Yeltsin, Bush v. Gore, Timothy McVeigh, “Friends,” and the “Clear Craze” (Crystal Pepsi, Zima) produces no greater understanding. This is partially due to Klosterman’s somewhat self-satirizing Gen-X suspicion of certainties. He is most discerning when parsing the tortured relationship his generation had in the Nineties to authenticity and popularity: Alanis Morissette “was successful because of her honesty, but anyone that successful had to be lying”…

You can read an excerpt here.

And for some appropriate musical accompaniment, Ben Folds:

Writer’s Desk: Skip the Complexity Trap

Some of the best writing tips are the easy ones.

Derek Thompson, who hosts the podcast Plain English, has a few simple rules drawn from practicing journalism on a regular basis:

  • Simple is smart: “Smart people respect simple language not because simple words are easy, but because expressing interesting ideas in small words takes a lot of work.”
  • Be interesting: “If you have nothing new to add to a topic in reporting or sources or interpretation or framing, move on.”
  • Write musically: “…think about repetition and variety. Crescendos and rests. Pace and punctuation. Read your work out loud, and feel the rhythm of the words in your voice.”
  • Avoid skin that is too thick or thin: “…stay away from the extremes of hypersensitivity-to-feedback and obliviousness-to-feedback. Seek out wise criticism. Reserve time in your week for the regret that comes with getting things wrong.”

Again, many of these thoughts may be self-evident. But repetition helps.

Reader’s Corner: ‘How Civil Wars Start’

In political scientist Barbara F. Walter’s new book How Civil Wars Start, she builds on her decades spent researching such conflicts around the world to show how many of the same instigating factors are now present in the United States.

My review is at PopMatters:

From Syria to Ukraine, Afghanistan to Yemen, today’s rebels usually exist as a hodgepodge of ad-hoc elements using guerrilla and terror tactics to destabilize, sow chaos, and undermine the central authority. If there is a Second American Civil War (and Walter is careful to say “if”), it will probably look less like Antietam or Gettysburg and more like the Oklahoma City bombing and the bloody sectarian flareups that ripped through Belfast and Baghdad for so many years…

You can read an excerpt here.