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:

TV Room: ‘Lovecraft Country’

HBO’s latest entry into politically relevant genre adventure is Lovecraft Country, an ambitious and messy 10-part series that bites off far more than it can chew but deserves some applause for trying.

Lovecraft Country starts this Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

Based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel, it keeps one foot planted firmly in the real (Black characters trying to make their way in segregated 1950s Chicago) and another dipping into various pools of the unreal (sorcerers, Lovecraftian beasts, haunted houses). The combination makes sense more than it should, at least at first. That’s largely because while head writer Misha Green (Underground) is exquisitely aware of the ways race factors into nearly every aspect of its characters’ lives, she doesn’t allow that to define them entirely…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: What Hamill Said

When Pete Hamill died last Wednesday, we lost one of the greats. Once called “a two-fingered typist with miraculous powers,” he knocked out poetic tabloid prose for pretty much all the newspapers worth working for in New York, even editing a couple of them. He wrote novels, a killer memoir, and was old enough to have attended the funeral of Diego Rivera (who he wrote about) and to remember early Sinatra (you know, before the really good stuff).

A complicated Irish guy from Brooklyn who tilted toward but didn’t abandon himself to either of those cliches, he embodied that old city progressive spirit but still knew when to draw out his stiletto. Read his 1969 piece, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class,” for everything you need to know about the country’s “ethnics” and their curdled embrace of conservatism over the past half-century.

In the end, though, Hamill’s rule for writing was short and sweet. A couple years back, at an NYU event with James McBride, he said you needed to do the following:

Imitate, emulate, equal, surpass…

Do as the man says. Go forth.

Screening Room: ‘The Con’

In the five-part miniseries The Con, the filmmakers lay out a convincing case that the causes behind the Great Recession were far simpler, easily avoidable, further reaching, and more likely to repeat themselves than most stories of the crisis have previously said.

The Con is available for streaming now.

My review is at The Playlist:

The series provides a grand unified theory of the cause of the Great Recession that begins and ends with government—deregulating banks in the 1980s and ‘90s, refusing to imprison or even charge the heads of investment banks once the market imploded even after seemingly clear illegality, and bailing the institutions out to do it all over again—and fueled all along by a gusher of greed and criminality that makes it seem like there is not a single honest mortgage broker in the entire United States…

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Write Your Pandemic Book … Yet

Writers are already a solitary lot. Even when there is not a pandemic. Those of us who pay the bills through teaching or other gigs that require contact with people have been even more isolated than usual. We also tend to respond to what is around us. So it’s more than likely than many of us have that COVID-related project that we have been tinkering around with.

However, Bill Morris warned in The Millions that we should maybe think about holding off. Not just because the market is about to be flooded with similar books, but because it’s probably better to let it sit for a while:

Daniel Defoe took his time before writing about his era’s horrific calamity, publishing A Journal of the Plague Year almost 50 years after the bubonic plague ravaged London in 1665. The book purports to be a first-person account of that grim year, and its rich detail and plausibility led many readers to regard it as a work of nonfiction rather than what it was—a deeply researched work of imaginative historical fiction. (Defoe was five years old during the plague.) The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has spent the past four years researching and writing an historical novel called Nights of Plague about an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed millions in Asia in 1901, more than a century ago. Before putting pen to paper, Defoe and Pamuk had the good sense to let time do its work of giving traumas context and perspective…

There is no rush. Let it sit. Get it right.

Screening Room: ‘She Dies Tomorrow’

My review of the new atmospheric viral paranoia thriller She Dies Tomorrow ran at PopMatters:

It is possible that ten years from now, when COVID-19 cases have hopefully gone the way of the bubonic plague, people will say that films like Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow are emblematic of a certain strain of late-stage Trump Pandemic-era anxiety…

You can see the movie on VOD now. Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Caste’ and the Other American Exceptionalism

In the newest book from Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns), she brings a sweeping narrative scope and pointillist detail to her argument that three societies in modern human history have established strict caste systems: Nazi Germany, India, and the United States. It’s a bracing stance and one that is likely to cause some heated debate.

Caste will be published next week. My review is at PopMatters:

…as Wilkerson writes, race is not only important to understanding the American class system, it is crucial. Talking about America’s “shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid”, she says there are essentially only two notable corollaries in human history: Nazi Germany and “the lingering, millennia-long caste system of India.” For Wilkerson, each system relied on stigmatizing people deemed inferior “to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement.”

The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt here.

Nota Bene: Patricia Highsmith and Stan Lee

During World War II, Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee was working as an in-house writer for the U.S. Army (training movies about organizing your footlocker or field-stripping your rifle). He was still moonlighting for Marvel (then called Timely Comics), where the editor who replaced him, Vince Fago, was intrigued by another of their writers: Patricia Highsmith.

According to Highsmith’s biographer Joan Schenkar:

Vince Fago took Lee up to Pat’s apartment “near Sutton Place,” hoping to make a “match” between Pat and Stan Lee. But the future creator of the talented Mr. Ripley was not fated to go out on a date with the future facilitator of Spider-Man. “Stan Lee,” said Vince Fago, “was only interested in Stan Lee,” and Pat wasn’t exactly admitting where her real sexual interests lay…

Which raises the question: Who would win in a showdown: Captain America or Tom Ripley? Discuss.