Writer’s Desk: Frame Your Story

Many episodes of Mike Birbiglia’s Working It Out podcast explore the craft of comedy in very specific ways that may or may not have relevance to writers working in other fields. However, creativity is creativity and a comic who cannot write is a comic who with a very short career arc.

On episode 50, where Birbiglia talks with his Don’t Think Twice costar Kate Micucci (also a comic, musician, and screenwriter) about different ways to approach their work, they delve into how to bring different disciplines into the mix. Micucci talks about how her training in music helps her view her writing in a particular way. Birbiglia uses the example of his Georgetown writing professor John Glavin, who advised him to take a drawing class:

It doesn’t matter if you’re good at drawing. It’s about understanding the concept of framing…

Taking yourself away from the words can sometimes help you see more clearly what the words are meant to convey.

Glavin, by the way, is a particularly beloved screenwriting teacher who taught his students that every script requires what he calls a “tear,” a moment after which (as former student Brit Marling describes) “the protagonist cannot return to the status quo.”

Step back from your piece. Plot the parameters. Identify the tear. Then, onward.

Screening Room: ‘Stillwater’

The new movie from Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) takes some inspiration from the Amanda Knox case but goes in different directions, some interesting, others less so.

Stillwater is playing in wide theaters-only release now. My review is at PopMatters:

Oil field roughneck Bill (Matt Damon) relocates from the hardscrabble flatlands of Oklahoma to the graffiti-splattered urban puzzle of Marseilles to help free his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) from prison. It’s not an easy quest, given that Bill does not know anybody and barely communicates in English, much less French…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Deceive Yourself

When novelist Bernard Malamud (The Natural) was asked what advice he could give to young writers, this was his reply:

Write your heart out.

Solid advice. Giving less than all you have is rarely going to end up well for you or the reader.

Asked if he had anything else to add, Malamud said:

Watch out for self-deceit in fiction. Write truthfully but with cunning.

Readers can spot something that is not true to the story or character. Generally. So give them the truth. But not all of it. Be smart.

Screening Room: ‘Mosul’

My review of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s movie Mosul is at Eyes Wide Open:

One of the most important movies of 2020 is on Netflix right now, but you probably don’t know it. Most people did not notice when the service dropped Mosul onto the service in late November. That was not unusual. A lot of movies were getting lost in the deluge of digital sound and vision being pumped into our devices. But even during more ordinary times, this is a movie that would have had a difficult time getting traction. After all, it’s an Iraq War without Americans…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Add Your Favorite Book

James Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die is one of those books that some readers eye with interest but trepidation. On the one hand, is there anything better really than poring over a compilation about the greatest books ever written? On the other hand, doesn’t this just end up adding to the already untenable pile of unread books in the corner?

It’s a challenge.

Either way, it’s worth going over to Mustich’s website. In addition to letting readers categorize the 1,000 books into three groups (Agree / Life’s Too Short / Want to Read), it also has the “Add a Book” function. Don’t see your favorite book? Suggest that he add it. (For instance: He has William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition but not Neuromancer and nothing by Roddy Doyle or Junot Diaz; however, he does have some welcome but less-expected choices like the first Nancy Drew mystery The Secret of the Old Clock and Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis.)

And by doing so you can add to somebody else’s untenable pile of the unread.

Nota Bene: Country Music’s Status Quo

Grand Ole Opry Billboard.jpg

Why is country music having a moment during the pandemic? And how does it relate to the COVID-19 prevention backlash? Spencer Kornhaber has a theory:

While pop tends to envision one big night where you transcend your boring condition, and hip-hop often touts material success turning an ordinary life into an extraordinary one, country fetishizes the day-after-day realities of homes, highways, and beer halls. There are exceptions, but typically it’s a genre in which work and family and place all are held up as things that must be defended…

The Atlantic

Screening Room: ‘The Truth’

Poster image for The Truth

In the latest family drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche play a battling mother and daughter whose versions of the past are dramatically different.

The Truth is streaming now here.

My review is at PopMatters:

For Koreeda’s first non-Japanese movie, The Truth is not the sort of film that will likely introduce him to a broad new audience, even in a world where movie theaters were still open. Funny, thoughtful, and occasionally wicked, it feels closer to his more genial entertainments like Our Little Sister (2015) than his sharper and more barbed pieces like Shoplifters or Like Father, Like Son …

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’

In 1973, director Peter Medak (The Ruling Class) and Peter Sellers set off to Cyprus to shoot the rollicking pirate comedy Ghost in the Noonday Sun. Everything fell apart and the movie only limped onto home video over a decade later to widespread derision.

Decades later, Medak returns to the scene of the crime to describe what happened. The Ghost of Peter Sellers is opening next week for online screening.

My review is at PopMatters:

The Ghost of Peter Sellers is a highly personal and somewhat airless account from Medak about an event that happened over 40 years ago whose painful memory he still seems unable to process. Walking through London and the shooting locations in Cyprus with a rotating cast of friends and former colleagues, Medak acts the part of self-investigator. He’s like a self-flagellating version of John Cusack’s Rob Gordon in High Fidelity

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: It’s Not That Serious

In “James Taylor Marked for Death” the great rock critic Lester Bangs had this to say about art, creativity, and their appreciation:

Number one, everybody should realize that all this “art” and “bop” and “rock-’n’-roll” and whatever is all just a joke and a mistake, just a hunka foolishness so stop treating it with any seriousness or respect at all and just recognize the fact that it’s nothing but a Wham-O toy to bash around as you please in the nursery … The first mistake of Art is to assume that it’s serious.

Remember the same is true about writing. Unless it is time to take it seriously.

If you can tell the difference between the two, you have a shot at making it.

Reader’s Corner: American Science Fiction in the ’60s

If you’re looking for a good book or eight to spend your shelter-in-place weeks with, the Library of America is a good place to start.

My review of their big and gutsy boxed set American Science Fiction of the 1960s — including everything from groundbreaking Samuel R. Delany space opera to proto-feminist work from Joanna Russ and even Flowers for Algernon — is available in the spring 2020 print edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books:

The driving impulse behind this anthology is not, nor should it be seen as, a greatest hits compilation. Rather, editor Gary K. Wolfe appears to be approaching it in the same sidelong manner that he used for his previous anthology of nine “classic” science fiction works from the 1950s: He is mixing in the familiar with the lesser-known, using many of the latter to stand in for whole swaths of the genre. This professorial survey-course approach necessitates plowing through some lesser material—which one might have skipped in their original paperback binding—but provides fascinating glimpses of whole styles of writing little seen now…

Writer’s Desk: Terrence McNally

The recently late Terrence McNally wrote many many plays. Some were great (Love! Valor! Compassion!) and some others were good but less than great (Ragtime, The Visit).

In any event, McNally — who passed away this past week from coronavirus-related complications — did what vanishingly few writers have ever done: Make a living on Broadway.

And he did it without making much of a fuss about the writing itself. A few years back, he provided some tips for the writing life:

What time of day do you get your best work done?
No particular time. I just turn on the computer and do the work.

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to write?
I don’t have any rituals. I just put my fingers on the keys. It’s like second nature. I don’t think about brushing my teeth or shaving—it’s just something I do.

What’s the secret to being so prolific?
I live in a fascinating city at a fascinating time in history. When people say they have writer’s block, I say, “Go take a walk around the block! Read the paper! Open your window!” How can you have a block when there’s so much going on? I love what I do, so I don’t think of it as a job that you finish. It’s like breathing.

When you can say that you write like you breathe — and be telling the truth — it is safe to say that you are the envy of the great majority of writers who have ever drawn breath.

Screening Room: ‘Resistance’

Did you ever think you would see a movie in which General Patton introduces his battle-wearied soldiers to a performance by Marcel Marceau? Or that the world-famous mime spent much of World War II spiriting Jewish orphans out of France to safety? You get all that and more in the far-from-perfect but still satisfying new biopic Resistance, starring Jesse Eisenberg as Marceau, which will be available this Friday.

My review is at Slant Magazine:

Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France whose most potentially intriguing angle becomes its least satisfying dimension. While featuring many familiar elements, including a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes, it’s centered on a character who one doesn’t often see in World War II movies: a Nazi-fighting mime…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer's Desk: Start with a Cold Shower

The Atlantic‘s James Parker wrote recently about how most of his writing days used to start:

I’d wake up, smoldering and sighing, reel out of bed and into the kitchen, and put the kettle on. Then I’d think: Well, now what? Time would go granular, like in a Jack Reacher novel, but less exciting. Five minutes at least until the kettle boils. Make a decision. Crack the laptop, read the news. Or stare murkily out the window. Unload the dishwasher? Oh dear. Is this life, this sour weight, this baggage of consciousness? What’s that smell? It’s futility, rising in fumes around me. And all this before 7 a.m…

His new approach to kicking off a day’s writing appears to be more fruitful:

I wake up, smoldering and sighing, reel out of bed and into the kitchen, and put the kettle on. And then I have a cold shower … Then you get out, and you’re different. Things have happened to your neurotransmitters that may be associated, say the scientists, with elevated mood and increased alertnessYou’re wide awake, at any rate.

This usefulness of this approach to the writing lifestyle has not been fully tested as of yet.

Screening Room: The Oscars and ‘Joker’

Really? (Warner Bros.)

In response to yesterday’s fairly uninspiring Oscar nominations, here is a piece I wrote for Eyes Wide Open about why every single other best picture nominee deserves to win more than Joker:

Yes, that includes JoJo Rabbit. Even the cringey and self-congratulatory Nazi slapstick of Taika Waititi’s quasi-Wes Anderson anachronism-riddled World War II satire — which might have worked nicely if compressed into a 5-minute short — ultimately had something to offer, even if it was simply the not-quite-groundbreaking message that Nazis are bad. Not so Joker