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.

Nota Bene: Afrofuturism in Chicago

There’s an exhibition right now at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago called “In Their Own Form.” According to the museum, it explores “the myriad ways blackness might hope to exist without the imposition of oppression, racism and stereotypes ever-present in Western cultures, mediated through Afrofuturist themes including time-travel and escapism.”

The Guardian had a simpler take, titling its piece “Before Black Panther“:

The goal of the show, says curator Sheridan Tucker, is to show a wide range of the Afro-diasporic experience through photography and video. “I wanted to show escapism, nostalgia and time travel, recurring themes in afrofuturism,” said Tucker. “I’m excited people can tap into what I’ve been talking about for a long time.”

Screening Room: ‘Human Flow’

Ai Weiwei’s new documentary expands from his earlier efforts—provocative artmaking in China under political persecution—to take in the massive subject of refugees, more of whom are now coursing over borders than at any time since the end of World War II.

Human Flow opens in limited release tomorrow. My review is at Film Journal International:

Human Flow is possibly the most visually resplendent piece of nonfiction cinema you will see this year. With this movie, multidisciplinary artist and occasional political enfant terrible Ai Weiwei has made a crucially important visual and philosophical document of the modern refugee crisis…

Here’s the trailer:


Start at

Writer’s Desk: Look Around, Write That

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Nina Simone, c. 1982 (photo by Roland Godefroy)

Nina Simone famously said this:

An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times … We will shape and mold this country, or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore … How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?

There are writers whose hackles will bristle at the mere suggestion that they have a “duty” of any kind. That idea has been abused, of course. Some would make writers produce only government-glorifying propaganda. Others would snark that any writing which falls outside strict revenue-producing genre parameters is navel-gazing artsy nonsense.

But listen to Miss Simone. When she talks about an artist’s duty, that could be taken as reflecting an activist’s sensibility. Which is obviously not everybody’s cup of tea—though it would be difficult to argue that our society needs more escapist entertainment.

What she’s saying here is keep your damn eyes open. It matters. Look around. Listen. Feel. Use that when you write, not just what’s in your head.

Because if your writing doesn’t reflect the world around us in some small way, then truly what is the point? As Capote sniped at Kerouac, that’s not writing, that’s typing.

(h/t: Jenna Wortham)

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Last Days of New Paris’

LastDaysNewParis

In the latest novel from China Miéville, the year is 1950 and World War II is still dragging on. Paris is in Stalingrad-like ruins from years of battle. Oh, and a crack in the fabric of reality has resulted in major works of Surrealist art coming to life and joining in the fight themselves.

My review of The Last Days of New Paris is at PopMatters:

Time is a slippery thing in China Miéville’s writing. Reality, too. Whether he’s cracking open the concept of language (Embassytown) or layering dimensions and urban histories on top of and through each other like so many strands of literary string theory (The City & The City), Miéville plays with the nature of consciousness in a way that few other writers of the fantastic manage these days…

Writer’s Corner: Finding Beauty

Cunningham_facades_coverBill Cunningham, the legendarily sharp-eyed and self-effacing fashion photographer for Details and later the New York Times, died a couple weeks ago at the age of 87. His was an extraordinary life and worth checking up on (particularly this fantastic documentary), even if fashion and photography aren’t your thing.

He had a lot of things to say about art, creativity, and finding your way in the world as somebody who cares passionately about those things and wants to pursue them with dignity.

Take, for instance, this:

It is as true today as it ever was. He who seeks beauty shall find it.

Think of that the next time you’re writing, regardless of whether you’re trying to create something beautiful, raw, ugly, or simply honest. Go looking for what you want to say and you will figure out how to say it.

Writer’s Desk: Good for Nothing

artweek1There’s an old joke about how in Irish families, the boy who can’t throw a ball, well, he’s the priest.

A similar weeding-out procedure is suggested by this line from Rachel Kushner’s brilliant 2013 novel The Flamethrowers:

That’s what artists are, his father said, those who are useless for anything else. That might seem like an insult, he said, but it wasn’t.

So, in other words, run with it.

New in Theaters: ‘The Salt of the Earth’

One of Sebastio Salgado's iconic photographs in 'The Salt of the Earth' (Sony Pictures Classics)
One of Sebastio Salgado’s iconic photographs in ‘The Salt of the Earth’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

Given a brief Academy Awards run late last year, Wim Wenders’ magisterial documentary about photographer Sebastio Salgado is finally getting a proper theatrical release this week.

My review is at Film Journal International:

“A photographer,” Wim Wenders intones at the start of his elegantly respectful documentary on Sebastião Salgado, “is literally somebody painting with light.” This definition sounds grand, to be sure. But the act of creation that Wenders captures here doesn’t quite seem to resemble painting. Salgado’s work is in some ways the definition of high-concept photography. His rich, lusciously layered, black-and-white shots of teeming gold mine workers, refugees streaming across a desert, or a line of penguins flinging themselves off a glacier are so elegantly composed as to almost defy reality…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Big Eyes’

Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams fight over 'Big Eyes' (Weinstein)
Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams fight over ‘Big Eyes’ (Weinstein)

Big Eyes-posterPerhaps stung by the negative reception to his big-budget blowout take on the old campy gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, Tim Burton went smaller for his latest film, a more modest and quirky true story about an artist who never quite got her due.

Big Eyes opens on Christmas Day. My review is at PopMatters:

There was a time in the early ‘60s when Walter Keane was making more money than any other living artist in the Western world. He was a master of sales, making himself the subject of fawning interviews and Life magazine spreads, sidling up to celebrities for photo ops whenever he could. Originals and, especially, reproductions of his “big eye” paintings were snatched up an adoring public, who didn’t care one bit about the critics who called his work sentimental garbage. His success led to admiration and dissent: Woody Allen’s Sleeperposits a future where the paintings, like Xavier Cugat’s music, are viewed as masterpieces.

As much as that joke is premised on the paintings’ kitsch, it also has to do with their eventually revealed truth, which is that Walter never painted them…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘National Gallery’

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A Q-tip can fix the grandest painting in ‘National Gallery’ (Zipporah Films)

Every year or so, Frederick Wiseman produces another documentary, normally of unusual length, that sneaks behind the scenes of institutions ranging from the University of California-Berkeley to a boxing gym. His newest spends three hours wandering like a fascinated ghost around London’s National Gallery. It’s not his best, but still a fascinating piece of work.

National Gallery is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

National Gallery follows the Wiseman style, its sprawling and octopus-like nature weaving the everyday with the sublime. The film starts and ends with a flutter of stills showing highlights from the Gallery’s 2400-odd paintings; heavy on the Masters, with a spray of Impressionism, lots of Turner. It’s a feast in and of itself. Wiseman then moves into the business of day-to-day work at the Gallery, which occupies a grand position on the north side of Trafalgar Square. That includes everything from the workers waxing the floors and dusting to the administrators quietly arguing in conference rooms to the tour guides explaining the holdings to some of the five-plus million visitors who come through the doors every year…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘The Monuments Men’

Matt Damon and George Clooney in 'The Monuments Men'
Matt Damon and George Clooney in ‘The Monuments Men’

monumentsmenposter1During the latter part of World War II, as the Allies were advancing across Western Europe, special detachments of experts known as the Monuments Men fanned out with lists and a mandate to keep their own soldiers from demolishing cultural artifacts and finding those works that the Nazis had tried to keep for themselves. George Clooney’s attempt at turning that sliver of history into a cool, guys-on-a-mission film sadly falls apart almost before the opening credits begin.

The Monuments Men is playing now. My review is at Short Ends & Leader:

The film assembles a dream assemble and then abandons them without a story to work from. Clooney’s lack of control over his material is evident from the beginning. Playing team leader Frank Stokes, Clooney gets his presidential assignment (a bungled, laughable scene with one of the more comical FDR impressions seen on film since Annie) and starts getting the band together. Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), art restorer James Granger (Matt Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and the just generally artsy Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). (Later on, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin join the gang for some Continental color.) This should be basic stuff, a few character-establishing moments and team-building quips, plus the easy comedy of watching the academics struggle through basic training before their mission. But Clooney muffs almost everything from the start…

A couple of the actual Monuments Men with a stolen Rembrandt found in a German salt mine.
A couple of the actual Monuments Men with a stolen Rembrandt found in a German salt mine.

The trailer is here:

Reader’s Corner: Van Gogh and ‘The Jewish Bride’

Legend has it that after Vincent Van Gogh saw Rembrandt’s painting The Jewish Bride in Amsterdam—where it still hangs today in the renovated Rijksmuseum—he said this:

I should be happy to give 10 years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.

The math there might be a little on the extreme side (Van Gogh wasn’t one for half-measures, after all), but still, who wouldn’t say something like that about some work of art? The novel that you read at twelve years old which opened your eyes to the world, the painting that made you think “So that’s why people come to museums,” the song that you cry upon hearing whether it’s the first or the hundredth time? How much would you sacrifice to be allowed more time with your favorite book?

Department of Holiday Poetry: ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’

nightmarebeforexmas1Back in 1982, when Tim Burton was an animator at Disney and directing a movie with Pee-Wee Herman was still years away, he wrote a little poem called The Nightmare Before Christmas. Years later, long after the stop-motion animated film version became an alt-parental favorite for pre-goth kids everywhere, this video was made of Christopher Lee (i.e., embodiment of stern-voiced evil as Saruman, Count Dooku, and many iterations of Fu Manchu) reading the poem itself.

The holidays are nearly upon us; enjoy:

Sight & Sound: Remembering the Lost

For years now, the nearly perfect organization StoryCorps has been traveling the country and giving people the opportunity to just sit down and tell a story about themselves, a friend, family member, or just life. The recordings (which run the gamut from the quotidian to the heartbreaking) are then stored at the Library of Congress, some 40,000 interviews since 2003. It’s an incomparable trove of oral history that will leave future researchers bowing in gratitude.

Their newest project involves putting some of their stories to animation. The result has a This American Life bounciness to them (mostly due to the music), but with a gutsy level of emotion that’s difficult to explain. John and Joe, about one father’s horrendous loss on 9/11 (StoryCorps aims to record at least one interview for each person killed that day), is one of the more memorable short films not just from this program, but from anywhere in recent memory.

You can watch John and Joe here:

One of the other incredibly heartwrenching shorts from StoryCorps’ 9/11 project is Always a Family, watch it here: