Posts Tagged ‘Reviews’

A Writer’s Review of: Through a Glass Darkly

Through a Glass Darkly poster

 

 

Release Date: October 16, 1961 (Sweden)

MPAA Rating: NR

Starring: Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Max von Sydow, Lars Passgård

Written by: Ingmar Bergman

Directed by: Ingmar Bergman

Spoiler Level: Medium.

 

Greetings hacks and scribblers. It’s Summer here in Northern California, as it most likely is in other parts of the world. And it’s hot. Like, peel your skin off HOT.

 

hot enough

 

Heat or no heat, I have been writing—if not quite like a house afire, at least I’ve managed a few tendrils of smoke. Short pieces have been submitted and accepted (yay me), and Rosebud Hill, Volume 1: Searching for Willoughby is now available in paperback and for Kindle. Click on the pic below and buy it, if you are so inclined. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Rosebud Kindle

 

Now that we have that out of the way, a quick word on the direction of Scribblers on Celluloid. When I first began this series, I fully intended to only include movies that had a lot to say about writing (specifically) and writers (in general), or vice versa. For the most part I feel I’ve held to that. But Through a Glass Darkly gave me pause. Because, in many ways, it is really not about writing, although one of the main characters is a novelist. But it is a terrific film. So what, my inner voice said, there are lots of great films out there. Are you going to review them all? Well, no. I’m not. Then why this one? Because, darn it, it actually does have something to say to writers, even if we have to dig to find it.

So then, the new rule for SoC is this: If a movie has a writer as a main character—and that character’s writer-ness has at least some bearing on the story—then we have a contender for inclusion in SoC.

Read on…I give you Through a Glass Darkly.

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

Recently released from a mental hospital; Karin rejoins her emotionally disconnected family on their island home, only to slip from reality as she begins to believe she is being visited by God.

 

The Slightly More Informative (if somewhat misleading) Synopsis:

In this drama, set on a remote island, a schizophrenic woman is discharged from a mental hospital and recovers during a family holiday with her husband, brother, and father. Her father, who happens to be a prominent psychologist, coldly observes her and takes notes of her behavior without her knowledge.

 

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

Okay, here’s the deal. As noted above, this movie is not about writing, or writers. But, in another sense, every movie that deals with life has something to say to writers. Not enough? Well, Through a Glass Darkly does have a writer as one of the main characters, and in a movie with only four characters, that’s 25% of the cast. My first viewing of this film left me wondering if I could include it, no matter how much I liked it. But the more I thought about it, the more I was haunted by the obsession of the writer in the film. This movie is a work of art, but without the writer’s fixations (more on this below), the story would not have affected me so deeply. It made the cut.

 

Entertainment Quotient:

Rotten Tomatoes rated this movie as Certified Fresh with an astounding 100% approval rating. I’ve already stated that this movie is a work of art. Ingmar Bergman seems to have a habit of this kind of thing. Through a Glass Darkly is the kind of movie I hoped to stumble on when I started Scribblers on Celluloid, which is to say not your usual Hollywood fare. This is a Swedish film, which means subtitles, filmed in almost claustrophobic black-and-white. There is virtually no soundtrack in this movie, save for the intermittent use of the J. S. Bach’s haunting, solo cello piece “Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor.” This is a depressing little nugget of a movie, and I loved every minute of it.

The cast consists of schizophrenic Karin (Harriet Andersson); Karin’s writer father David (Gunnar Björnstrand); Karin’s husband Martin (Max von Sydow); and Karin’s sexually frustrated brother Minus (Lars Passgård). I’ll just say here that I think Harriet Andersson may be one of the most gorgeous actresses I’ve ever seen, and she knocks this role out of the park. It’s virtually impossible to take your eyes off her.

Bergman does a wonderful job of sucking us into the easy, seaside farm life of the family as they welcome the return of the traveling father, dining outdoors at a rustic table, toasting, laughing. But beneath this false charm looms Karin’s illness. Everyone knows Karin is schizophrenic, as does Karin herself. She has good days and bad days. There is slim hope for recovery. But she seems early on to be the most stable of them all, save for Martin (who is the doctor referenced incorrectly in the synopsis above as her father). Twenty minutes into the film, as Martin and Karin are getting ready for bed, we begin to see past the easy facade to Karin’s own fears: fears of her illness, fears of losing her way and being unable to come back to reality. Karin’s soft reflection makes this exchange all the more terrifying:

Martin: “Are you sad, Karin?”

Karin: “Not really.”

Martin: “What are you thinking about?”

Karin: “Sometimes we’re so defenseless. Like children cast out into the wilderness at night. The owls fly past, watching you with their yellow eyes. You hear the pitter-patter and rustling, the soughing and sighing, all the damp noses sniffing at you. The wolves bare their teeth.”

A little later, Karin says this: “Am I so little, or has the illness made a child of me? Do I seem strange to you?”

What must it be like to be fully aware of your illness and be unable to stop its progression? This is a fear I have long held, that I would somehow cross some line, that I would know it had been crossed, and that I could only watch from some inner place as my mind unraveled. Maybe this is why this movie spoke to me so strongly. If we have any doubt as to the extent of Karin’s illness, we have this scene later that same night:

Karin wakes in the middle of the night to the sounds of a loon, a fog horn, and we get the sense that she may be hearing more than we are. She crawls out of bed and tiptoes upstairs to an empty attic room. We know immediately that she’s been here before. She leans against the tattered wallpaper as if listening…through a tear in the paper, we hear what she hears: whispers, unintelligible but terrifying. She backs away, still listening, and stands in the middle of the room, responding physically to something we can’t see. This scene is almost unbearably sensual as we watch her writhe in the throes of some odd ecstasy.

Later, to add insult to her obvious mental injuries, she stumbles on her father’s diary. The content of this diary is made infinitely more tragic as we hear her father’s words read aloud from her own mouth: “Her illness is incurable…with periods of temporary improvement. I have long suspected it, but the certainty is nevertheless almost unbearable. I’m horrified by my curiosity, by my urge to record its course…to make an accurate description of her gradual disintegration…to use her.” There’s much more to dissect in this film, not least is the odd sexual tension between Karin and Minus, a disturbing plot element that factors in later in the film. But this column is about writers, and we must get to it.

Let’s leave this section with Karin’s words as she confides in Minus about “the others.” She takes him to the empty attic and tells him about the voices, about her midnight trips to the room, how she falls through the wall as through foliage. She tells him all of it, and this exchange—while ostensibly a facet of Karin’s illness—seems to speak to writers and their sometimes obsessive creation of worlds:

Minus: “Is all this for real?”

Karin: “I don’t know. But these are not dreams. They must be real. Now I’m in one world, now in another. I can’t stop it.”

 

The Writerly Element:

It seems fitting that, in a film about schizophrenia, the writerly element would be less than pleasant. Many writers suffer from one kind of mental illness or another, some much worse than others. I’ve recently (the past few years) been battling with anxiety and depression. Lots of people deal with these things, but writers seem more inclined to flirt with depression. At the very least, the serious writer will bump up against an unhealthy obsession somewhere along the line; it’s pretty much de rigueur that a writer be at least a little nuts. It’s probably not accurate to say that Karin’s father, David, is mentally ill, but his behavior (from such a sophisticated, erudite gentleman) is unnerving. He has been taking detailed notes of his daughter’s mental decline and seems unable to control himself. Again from his diary: “I’m horrified by my curiosity…my urge to record its course…to make an accurate description of her gradual disintegration…to use her.” He knows what he’s doing is reprehensible, but he can’t stop. Folks, that is obsession, and there are times when I think obsession may be the writer’s sharpest tool.

But let’s back up a few frames to earlier in the film, after that first lighthearted dinner. Minus (clearly striving to gain his father’s attention, if not affection) has written a play, which he, Karin, and Martin perform on a small, ramshackle stage erected in the yard. This rustic outdoor theatrical production is of a story called The Artistic Haunting, in which Minus plays a puffed up artist in love with a dead princess played by Karin.

There is a whimsical feel to the play, but also a thread of discomfort as David watches his son and daughter reciting lines that essentially make fun of his own profession as a writer.

Minus: “I am a ruler of my own kingdom. I am an artist. An artist of the purest kind. A poet without poems. A painter without paintings. A musician without notes. I scorn ready-made art; the banal result of vulgar effort. My life is my work, and it is dedicated to my love for you.”

To prove his love, the princess tells him, the artist must join her in death.

He replies: “An easy sacrifice. For what is life to a true artist?”

Karin: “You thus perfect your work of art and crown your love. You ennoble your life and show the skeptics what a true artist can do.”

Then doubt creeps in, and Minus says: “What am I about to do? Sacrifice my life? For what? For eternity? For the perfect work of art? For love? Have I gone mad? Who shall see my sacrifice? Death. Who shall gauge the depth of my love? A ghost. And who shall thank me? Eternity. (This is noteworthy because ultimately we writers want recognition, no matter how noble we may think we are locked up in our own dark attic rooms, listening to voices).

Minus’s artist waits too long and the princess departs into eternity without him. His response: “Well…such is life. I could, of course, write a poem about meeting with the princess. Or paint a picture, or compose and opera, although it would need a more heroic ending.”

This seems to be all about the noble idea of sacrifice, and it does seem pointed at their father; David is constantly on the run, from his family, from his daughter’s illness. He seems to be sacrificing for his art (with all that travel), but what he’s really doing is avoiding the truth, hiding from reality. And this makes his obsession with recording his daughter’s demise all the more twisted—he sees it, is fascinated by it, obsessed with it…and yet, everything he does is designed to keep him at a remove.

And isn’t this what we do in our writing? Particularly those of us who dabble in dark fiction? We create dark and muddy worlds where horrible things happen, all in an unconscious effort to avoid the very horrors we create. That’s a kind of mental illness, and where would we be without it? A lot of this is obviously reading between the lines and making writerly connections where they may or may not have been intended, but we have this exchange later that points directly at the writer’s inner demons. While out on a boat together, Martin confronts David and tells him that Karin read his diary. Martin asks what he wrote and David tells him.

Martin: “Your callousness is perverse. You’re always on the hunt for subjects. Your daughter’s insanity. What a great idea! Write your book. Maybe it will give you your heart’s desire. Your big breakthrough as a writer. Then you won’t have sacrificed your daughter in vain…”

Later, Martin tells David that, while his writing is good, his convictions are not believable: “Why not do something respectable instead?” (ouch)

Martin: “Have you written one word of truth in your life as an author?”

Papa: “I don’t know.”

Martin: “See? Your half-lies are so refined that they look like truth. You’re empty, but clever. Now you’re trying to fill your void with Karin’s extinction.”

All this begs the question: How far is too far? How much of life (and others’ misery) is allowable as grist for our mill? Are we writers horrible to look with interest on others’ suffering? Rhetorical questions, one and all, and I leave you to ponder them.

 

Why Bother:

Because, to quote the Cheshire Cat, “We’re all mad here.” We could do worse than to keep that in mind—not to be afraid of our latent madness, but to be aware of it, to learn from it. Maybe, instead of documenting someone else’s illness, we can look hard at our own. Maybe, in the end, that’s really what Karin’s father was doing. He ran away from his daughter’s illness and into his novel, which was a hiding place for all his fears and losses.

Karin (asking her father about his latest novel near the end of the film): “Is it any good?”

David: “One draws a magic circle around oneself to keep everything out that doesn’t fit one’s secret games. Each time life breaks through the circle, the games become puny and ridiculous. So one draws a new circle and builds new defenses.”

Karin: “Poor little Papa.”

David: “Yes, poor little Papa, forced to live in reality.”

 

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 Quills

 

Final Thoughts:

In one of her many dark moments, Karin says: “It’s so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it.” Horrible, yes. Maybe even terrifying. But for the writer…perhaps it’s the only path through to a new kind of sanity.

 

Martin Logo

It so happens I do enjoy long walks on the beach. Probably not with you, but then I don’t really know you, do I? You could be a perv, or a serial killer, or a Trump supporter. I’m sure you’re nice, but I just can’t take the chance. You could be…

Wait, where was I? Oh, right, I hadn’t actually started yet. Well, here’s the thing: this post is not about walks on the beach, long, short, or otherwise. It’s about interviews. Or, more to the point, an interview with me. The folks over at Serious Reading were kind enough to post the interview and if you click on my serious face below you can read it.

 

mott author

 

I considered doing an interview with Frivolous Reading, but that would require you to click on my silly face below. But don’t do it. Do NOT click on silly face. Ironically, I’m serious about this. Don’t click on it.

 

Mott silly

 

Told you.

Anyway, an interview is an interview is an interview, and the best part about this one is those Serious folks also posted a review of my novel A Fractured Conjuring, which you can read by clicking on the image of the book below. Go ahead, it’s safe.

 

A Fractured Conjuring - Concept 2 Variant - Large

 

That’s all I have for you at the moment.

Oh, and in case you got frivolously caught up in all the seriousness and forgot to click Serious Me, here’s another opportunity. Click away.

 

mott author

 

And if you are so inclined, you can find the rest of my books over at those madcap guys and gals called Amazon. Click on my logo below and check it out. Then you might want to go soak that clicking finger–it’s had a tough day.

 

Martin Logo

A few days ago, this happened: a rave review of my novel Relative Karma.

This is a big deal. To me. All reviews are important, and I greet each one–whether good or bad–with gratitude.

But this latest one knocked me back a step. Because the review was done by Anthony Servante. And if that wasn’t enough, my book was given to Servante by one of my literary heroes, Trent Zelazny.

And, though Relative Karma was published second, it is actually my first novel. A novel based loosely on real-world events. My world. A world I hope never to revisit. Somehow, inexplicably, this book continues to connect with readers. I don’t understand that, and I don’t have to. I just have to be grateful.

And I am. Because reviews like this make me keep going. It’s possible that someday I will be able to carve out a living doing what I love: writing books and stories. For now it is enough to know I am doing it, and doing it in a way that seems to be working.

Mr. Servante’s review is below. When you are done, read everything else he has done and be glad you made his cyber acquaintance.

And read Trent Zelazny‘s work. All of it.

Click on the picture to read the review:

 

Karma Cover Website New

 

 

And if you are interested in more from me, click on the image below.

 

Martin Logo

A Writer’s Review of: A Murder of Crows

a-murder-of-crows-movie-poster

Release Date: July 6, 1999

MPAA Rating: R

Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Tom Berenger, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Eric Stoltz

Written by: Rowdy Herrington

Directed by: Rowdy Herrington

Spoiler Level: Medium.

 

 

Greetings, hacks and scribblers! How’s every little thing? Have your April showers done their job and showered you with flowers? My clogged head and itchy eyes are testament to April’s handiwork. Stupid April.

 

funny-Spring-allergy-tree-nature-cartoon

 

What have I been up to, you ask? I spent the month of April spitting out haikus for the A to Z Challenge, wherein those stupid—errr, brave enough to take the challenge were charged with producing 26 posts during the month of April, one for every letter of the alphabet. If you find this of interest, hop over HERE and check it out.

 

I’ve also been writing—my latest book, Searching for Willoughby: Rosebud Hill, Volume 1, should be out somewhere near the end of May, early June. I expect you all to go out and buy it, and you may rest assured I will holler a bit more loudly when it hits the cyber stands.

 

Rosebud Kindle

 

Anyhoo, I’m back, and if this installment of SoC doesn’t prove my dedication to bringing you reviews of movies about writers, then I don’t what else does. This one was hard to watch once, and I watched it twice. My martyrdom is established.

 

martyr

 

 

So then, onto #7. I give you A Murder of Crows.

 

 

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

A disbarred lawyer takes credit for a late friend’s book, which becomes a smash hit, but the tables turn on him sooner than he suspected.

 

The Slightly More Informative Although Slightly Inaccurate and Laced with Spoilers Synopsis:

In this suspenseful drama, a disbarred lawyer forgoes the writing of his own book in favor of taking credit for that of a writer who is murdered shortly after giving the attorney his unpublished manuscript to read. A murder-mystery, the book becomes a best-seller and once again the former lawyer finds himself at the top—until the circumstances of the real writer’s death and a series of other deaths lead police to accuse him of being a serial killer.

 

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

I debated for weeks as to whether A Murder of Crows should make the cut. The film has some issues. Well, a lot of issues, in my opinion. But, cliché-filled or not, there’s something here.

 

Entertainment Quotient:

Rotten Tomatoes (with a whopping 5 reviews) rated this movie as Rotten, while IMDb shows an overall rating of 6.40 stars out of 10. I’d say RT is pretty dead on, and IMDb may be a bit too generous.

At the risk of ripping the film apart before getting to the reason were all here, allow me to share some thoughts. I’ll spend a bit more time on this section than usual because, quite honestly, I can’t think of much to offer for writers in the other sections.

We open with a nighttime prison yard scene. All that razor wire, blue-gray tones, pouring rain. The camera slow-pans all this as Steve Porcaro’s (of Toto fame) bluesy score lets us know we are in store for some late-80s noir.

 

 

It’s sort of reminiscent of Clapton’s score on Lethal Weapon 2…oh, wait. That was 1989. A Murder of Crows came out in 1999. Unless this is deliberately set in an earlier time, or offered as homage, we could be in trouble.

I have to believe the noir-esque feel is intentional. If not, it’s kind of silly. Well, this film is silly much of the time, but again that’s my opinion.

This is a flashback movie. The movie begins near the end, with Lawson Russell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in prison, telling his story through voiceover. We are launched back to Mardi Gras where Lawson is lighting a cigarette while struggling with his conscience. The scene shifts between Lawson and a caped figure in a devil mask, making his stealthy way down narrow alleyways, picking the lock on a wrought iron gate, then into Lawson’s residence. He peers in from behind glass doors as Lawson picks up the phone. The devil has a gun and it is clear he means to use it. We see the other side of Lawson’s phone call where he attempts to remove himself from the case he’s about to try, defending a filthy-rich, Southern white-bread douchebag, Thurman Parker III, played to smarmy perfection by Eric Stoltz. When Lawson hangs up the phone, the devil-man is gone. “I didn’t know it at the time,” the voiceover informs us, “but that sudden act of conscience had saved my life.” Lawson Russell intentionally grenades his own case in front of the judge and jury; he is ultimately disbarred and so the plot is initiated.

Lawson tells a friend: “I’m gonna head down to Key West. Hell, I might even write a novel. I’m as smart as John Grisham.”

If only.

The overall tone (for me) would have been improved by eliminating the flashback element and simply telling the story from the opening scene in New Orleans. The continuous voiceover makes it seem like they are trying too hard to make it sound like a first-person detective novel.

The first scenes in Key West look to be 1970s stock footage. The colors are so muted it almost has the look of a well-filmed home movie. There’s no mention that I found indicating the story took place in the 70s or 80s, so I can only assume writer/director Rowdy Herrington wanted it to look dated. The 70s-sounding porn score doesn’t help. Interestingly, the dated, grainy look works well for the New Orleans scenes. It would’ve been nice to see some colorful contrast with the Key West scenes; as they stand, they actually make that beach haven look depressing.

While in Key West, Lawson takes up the role of small-boat fishing captain, where he meets Christopher Marlow, a character with one of the worst old-man makeup jobs I’ve ever seen. Turns out there is a reason for this, which I can’t divulge without spoiling a later development. Then again, that development isn’t all that much of a surprise. But that makeup was almost a deal-killer for me. At that point of the story, we’re supposed to believe that Marlow is what he claims to be, and we can only wonder why Lawson is not freaked out by the obvious fakery. Although he does say this through voiceover: “There was something very odd about Mr. Marlow. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I had no idea it was fate come calling.” I found myself wanting Lawson Russell to literally “put his finger on it” by reaching out and poking the rubbery old-man skin.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship, sharing drinks at the local bar. Lawson tells Marlow that he is working on a novel. And so the real story begins.

 

The Writerly Element:

If A Murder of Crows speaks to anything in the writer’s life, it is to greed. Or if not greed, then desire for recognition. We see it happen as Lawson sits staring at his computer (oh, the charm of that ancient Compaq), ubiquitous tumbler of whisky in his fist, struggling with writer’s block. Mr. Marlow shows up at Lawson’s door, and brings Lawson his own first novel. He tells Lawson that he (Marlow) is such a coward, he hasn’t told a soul he wrote it. He asks Lawson if he’ll give it a read. Then he leaves and the next day he’s dead, with no next of kin.

And of course the book, A Murder of Crows, is brilliant. We see Lawson back home at his computer. He types A Murder of Crows into a blank document, pauses with a nearly Snidely Whiplash twist of the lips, then types his own name in the byline.

Later (like in the next scene), Lawson Russell is in New York to meet the publisher where A Murder of Crows has been accepted for publication. And this is where all our writer wet dreams squirt onto the screen…so to speak.

We watch as Lawson shakes hands with the owner of the publishing company (yes, the owner, not some minimum-wage lackey) in the waiting room (she’s hot, of course); then she leads him through double doors where the entire editorial staff is waiting for him.

They are applauding.

There’s champagne, balloons, silver plates with yummy-looking food.

The entire room has been decorated for his book, with paper crows in trees, a wall-sized rendition of the book’s cover.

And everyone is happy and smiling.

Ya know something? I really don’t care how inaccurate this scene is. I don’t even care how bad this movie is. For those few seconds, all I wanted to do was be Lawson Russell, manuscript theft and all. Because that’s the dream, folks. Someone read our work and loved it. Loved it? Hell, they celebrated it. Bring on the dancing girls.

 

Why Bother:

You may not want to. I don’t think you’ll gain any real insight into the writing condition, but you may well enjoy the mystery. It’s a fairly interesting plot—if a bit convoluted—it just doesn’t come off well. Then again, it may work fine for you. Watch it for Mark Pellegrino’s performance as Professor Arthur Corvus, if for nothing else.

 

 

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5 Quills

 

 

Final Thoughts:

From Lawson Russell’s voiceover, just before Christopher Marlow shows up with the tempting morsel of his finished manuscript: “I’d been working on this book for over a year. Writing, my friends, is hard.”

I suppose that’s the resounding note for us hacks and scribblers. Writing is hard. Is it hard enough to steal another’s work? I hope it never becomes so. If it does—and you find yourself tempted to commit a little larceny—learn from Lawson Russell’s mistakes: check the purloined story’s facts and make darn sure it’s not written in blood.

 

If you’d like to catch up on earlier installments of Scribblers on Celluloid, click on the links below:

SoC: Introduction

SoC: The List

SoC #1

SoC #2

SoC #3

SoC #4

SoC #5

SoC #6

Oh, and go buy my books.

Keep up with what I’m doing here:

Website

Amazon

Goodreads

Facebook

A Writer’s Review of: Wonder Boys

 

wonder-boys poster

 

Release Date: February 25, 2000

MPAA Rating: R

Starring: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes

Written by: Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon

Directed by: Curtis Hanson

Spoiler Level: Low.

 

 

Greetings, hacks and scribblers! How’s every little thing? I trust the Universe continues to smile kindly on your every endeavor.

smiling universe

 

 

Today’s SoC entry is the eminently re-watchable film, Wonder Boys!

 

 

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

An English Professor tries to deal with his wife leaving him, the arrival of his editor who has been waiting for his book for seven years, and the various problems that his friends and associates involve him in.

 

The Slightly More Informative (and less boring) Synopsis:

Grady Tripp is a creative writing professor/writer living in Pittsburgh who is struggling with writer’s block. Whilst doing this, he also manages to get the chancellor pregnant. In the meantime, he and a college student, James Leer are trying to find a rare jacket once owned by Marilyn Monroe, and a college girl, Hannah Green boarding with Grady has a bit of a crush on him.

 

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

Not too hard with this one. As far as movies about writers go, Wonder Boys is very much a round peg in a round hole. A once-popular writer struggling with his follow-up book, while poorly mentoring one of his students, a young, depressed writer who just might be brilliant.

 

Entertainment Quotient:

Rotten Tomatoes rated this film as Certified Fresh, with a positive score of 81%.

Wonder Boys is one of those few movies that stand up to repeated viewings; no matter how many times you see it, the bits and gimmicks work. The movie sparkles from the get-go, and what a wonderfully dull sparkle it is. Wonder Boys is reminiscent of the best gritty, unpredictable films like Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican. Anything can and does happen, and most of what happens is surprising, ironically because the events and foibles seem true—they aren’t predictable, but you find yourself saying (after recovering from a spit take), “Sure, that’s exactly what would have happened in that situation.” Hollywood likes to fabricate consequences, and more often than not we see it coming. Not so with Wonder Boys.

Outside any writerly element, what makes this movie near-perfect is its cast.

Michael Douglas plays Professor Grady Tripp, a perpetually unshaven, pot-smoking, soon-to-be-has-been writer, limping throughout the film in a tattered pink robe due to a dog bite he receives early on in the movie (and that dog bite scene is a “holy crap” moment if ever there was one). There’s something pleasantly bohemian about Grady’s huge, dark and rambling house. It’s not uncommon to encounter some hungover person stumbling into a tight hall from one of the house’s many rooms. This is a place where we’d feel comfortable crashing, nodding to the other bleary-eyed souls wandering the stairs.

Tobey Maguire plays one of Grady Tripp’s students, James Leer, a hollow-eyed, depressed, possibly genius boy writer. Maguire does a lot of things well, but I think he plays this kind of borderline-creepy role best—he’s so convincing as James Leer, you wonder if this might actually be what he is like in real life, although you hope not. In many ways, this character is what we mean when we label someone in fiction as an unreliable narrator. Because James cannot be trusted. He is writing every moment he is speaking. Like the best of writers, he’s a compulsive liar; everything out of his mouth is fabrication. Perfect, complete, total fabrication.

Katie Holmes as Hannah Green is as adorable as ever. Perfect crooked smile cuteness as she fawns over Professor Tripp’s work-in-progress, clearly infatuated with the man and his work.

Rip Torn as Quentin “Q” Morewood, a pompous literary icon (who somehow manages to still be affable), plays his role to perfection. “I am a writer,” he intones at the beginning of his WordFest speech, his voice resonating throughout the lecture hall. And that is all you need to know about him, and it is important, and we believe it is important.

The rest of the cast are equally well-played. Robert Downey Jr. is bang-on as Grady’s almost lecherous, but oh so likable gay editor, Terry Crabtree. Frances McDormand as Grady’s love interest, Chancellor Sara Gaskell; Richard Thomas as Gaskell’s husband, Walter Gaskell; and the weirdly engaging performance of Richard Knox as Vernon Hardapple. Not an off-note in the chorus.

Based on the novel by Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys is very much a novel on screen. As soon as I finish this post I am going to buy the book.

 

The Writerly Element:

Wonder Boys has roughly a gazillion quotable moments for the writer. I will try hard to spare you most of these, because context is everything and–as much as I’d like to–I absolutely refuse to copy and paste the entire script for you here.

But (ah yes, the famous Mott’s Ruminations ‘but’) …let’s start with Q’s speech at WordFest, immediately following his sonorous declaration that he is A Writer:

“What is the bridge from the water’s edge of inspiration to the far shores of accomplishment? Faith that your story is worth telling. Faith that you have the wherewithal to tell it. And faith that the carefully woven structure you created won’t collapse beneath you. And faith that when you get to the other side there will be someone waiting who gives a damn about the tale you have to tell.”

Whoa…am I right? I ran that back and watched it several times. He nailed it, I thought. That’s the truth of writing right there. But this line actually plays better on the page than on the screen. On the screen, there’s a bit of blow-hardness to the delivery. But man, that’s some sweet sentiment, ain’t it? I so wanted to get more of these nuggets, more meme-worthy chestnuts to chew on.

Alas, no. If you’re looking to be uplifted as a writer, this probably isn’t the movie for you.

So what exactly does Wonder Boys communicate to the writer? What fruit hangs on this particular tree that will nourish the budding (or fully bloomed) writer? How about this:

  1. Never, EVER, compare yourself to other writers.
  2. Don’t smoke pot while writing.
  3. Don’t take past success seriously or for granted.
  4. Be mindful of the blind dog in the hall.
  5. Always, always, always use a condom.

 

Q is that writer we all dream of being. From Grady Tripp’s voice-over narration when Q is first introduced:

He was rich and famous; he completed a novel every eighteen months. I hated him.

Grady is more like the rest of us. Whether we’ve had much success or not, we know what it looks and smells like, and we can’t help but harbor a little honest loathing for those writers who make it look easy.

In many ways, Wonder Boys is a cautionary tale warning us against the dangers of writing, the pitfalls of being too much of a writer too much of the time. It almost seems to be more about the psychoses of the writer, as opposed to the actual writing life itself. Depression, alcoholism, drug use, unprotected and ill-advised sex. Or, for those of the Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Thompson persuasion, perhaps those are some of writing’s perks.

Ah well.

But there’s plenty more here than Q’s almost painfully true speech; plenty to ponder, to argue, to ingest and digest and learn.

When past success only reminds you how currently unsuccessful you are:

Hannah Green (to Grady as they dance platonically at a dark bar): “I’ve been rereading The Arsonist’s Daughter. It’s so beautiful, Grady. So natural. It’s like all of your sentences always existed, just waiting up there in style heaven for you to fetch them down.”

How does a writer respond to something like that? Sure, it’s phrased nicely, and who wouldn’t want to hear that their prose has celestial origin? But here’s the thing, boys and girls: We know it’s not true. And while we might be proud of something we wrote (and more than a little chuffed that someone truly liked it), all it does is remind us how wooden our current work is; how flat and one-dimensional and wholly uninspired. It doesn’t matter that it’s also not necessarily true that our current work sucks, but it’s how we feel a lot of the time, and reminding us of our past successes is not always what we want to hear.

If we need proof beyond his shambling, grizzled, pot-smoking, pink-robed visage that Grady is spiraling downward, we only need laugh at the efforts on his new book. But it’s a painful laughter, because while the scene is funny it’s also tragic.

Grady’s voice-over: It started out as a small book. Probably 250 – 300 pages. It had gotten a little larger in scope and the ending kept getting further away. But the ending was there. I knew it. I could almost see it.

“A little larger,” he says. The voice-over leads into a shot of Grady rolling a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter. He types 261 at the top. There’s a brief pause and then he adds another 1 to the page number, making it 2,611.

It had gotten a little larger in scope…

2,611 single-spaced pages.

And we groan. Why do we groan?

  1. Because a manuscript that large is horrifying.
  2. Because a manuscript that long can’t possibly be good.
  3. Because we secretly wish we had the delicious gall to write something that huge.

 

Later, when James Leer sees the, uh, scope of Grady’s work-in-progress:

James (speaking of the other creative writing students): “Some of the kids thought you were blocked.”

Grady: “I don’t believe in writer’s block.”

James: “No kidding.”

The image of this 2,611 whopper of an unfinished book goes beyond funny to a marker of Grady’s borderline insanity, because the truth we see elsewhere in the film is that Grady has basically given up on writing, on being a writer and what it may or may not have meant to him at one time. We have this exchange, when James bemoans that all the kids in the creative writing class hate him:

Grady: “All the kids in the workshop hate you because right now you’re ten times the writer anyone of them will ever be.”

James: “My stuff stinks. You said so yourself last night to your friend Crabtree.”

Grady: “I didn’t mean it like that. And what does it matter what I think? I mean, what does it matter what anybody thinks? Most people don’t think, James. If they do, it’s not about writing. Books. They don’t mean anything. Not to anybody. Not anymore.”

This from the man who later has this to say after his 2,000-plus pages of manuscript go swirling out into the river:

Oola: “What was it about, your book? What was the story?”

Grady: “I don’t know.”

Crabtree: “What he means is, it’s difficult to distill the essence of a book sometimes, because it lives in the mind.”

Vernon: “But you gotta know what it was about, right? If you didn’t know what it was about, why were you writing it?”

Grady: “I couldn’t stop.”

Now we’ve crossed the border from the land of passion into the dark territory of addiction.

Books don’t mean anything to anyone anymore.

Why are you writing?

Because I can’t stop.

Later, when rescuing James from his parents’ basement (yeah, there’s a story there), Grady and Crabtree stumble on a sheet of paper rolled into James’s typewriter, a piece he was working on when they came for him; a piece where he is clearly writing about his literary hero, Professor Grady Tripp:

It was then the boy understood that his hero’s true injuries lay in a darker place. His heart, once capable of inspiring others so completely, could no longer inspire so much as itself. It beat now only out of habit. It beat now only because it could.

(Why are you writing?)

(Because I can’t stop.)

Excuse me while I blot a bit of cold sweat off my forehead.

 

There’s much more to learn from Wonder Boys, but again, context is everything.

On the writer’s relationship with his or her editor: “I sweat blood for five years and he corrects my spelling.”

On James’s dark brilliance as a writer: “He respects us enough to forget us. And that takes courage.”

On the power of words to seduce: “She was a junkie for the printed word. Lucky for me, I manufactured her drug of choice.”

Watch the movie and see for yourself. Then watch it again. Then I dare you not to watch it one more time.

 

Why Bother:

There’s a dark side to writing; maybe we need to remember that. More importantly, maybe we need to allow that darkness to inform us now and then. I’m not suggesting we all don our pink robes, stop shaving, and roll a joint or two (although, to each his/her own).

Maybe I’m simply saying: keep writing. Let that manuscript bloat up to a thousand or so pages, maybe two thousand, then don’t be afraid to let it go the way of migrating geese. It might come back, in bits and pieces—hopefully just the good pieces—and maybe what you’re left with is nothing more than gratitude that you didn’t stop writing. Maybe, when all is said and done, that stack of pages is the only thing anchoring you to this planet. That, if nothing else, is reason enough.

Why do we write?

Because we can’t stop.

 

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 Quills

 

Final Thoughts:

James: They treat me like a freak!

Grady: Well, you are a freak, James. All right? Welcome to the club.

 

 

A Writer’s Review of Iris

 

Iris Poster

 

Release Date: December 14, 2001

MPAA Rating: R

Starring: Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville

Written by: Richard Eyre and Charles Wood, based on Elegy for Iris, and Iris: A Memoir, by John Bayley

Directed by: Richard Eyre

Spoiler Level: Low to High (fear not…read on).

 

Greeting, hacks and scribblers. It’s been nigh onto a year since my last entry in Scribblers on Celluloid. 2015 was a strange, hard, bastard of a year. I may well document the monumental changes that occurred, but that’s for later. For now, let us return to SoC with a film that positively wrecked me, personally, emotionally, intellectually.

 

I give you Iris

 

 

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

True story of the lifelong romance between novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley, from their student days through her battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

 

The Slightly More Informative Synopsis:

Based on a pair of memoirs by her husband John Bayley, this biographical portrait of writer Iris Murdoch stars both Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as the philosophical author at different stages of her life. When the young Iris (Winslet) meets fellow student Bayley (Hugh Bonneville) at Oxford, he’s a naïve virgin easily flummoxed by her libertine spirit, arch personality, and obvious artistic talent. Decades later, little has changed as the couple (now played by Dench and Jim Broadbent) keeps house, with John doting on his more famous wife. When Iris begins experiencing forgetfulness and dementia, however, the ever-doltish but devoted John struggles with hopelessness and frustration to become her caretaker, as his wife’s mind deteriorates from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

 

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

Iris opens with an underwater scene…Kate Winslet swimming nude. I knew then I was going to watch this movie all the way through, and the writerly element could go hang. A few minutes later we flash forward to Iris Murdoch as an old woman (played brilliantly by Dame Judi Dench) as she speaks to a group about the importance of education, thusly:

“Education doesn’t make you happy, nor does freedom. We don’t become happy just because we’re free, if we are, or because we’ve been educated, if we have, but because education may be the means by which we realize we are happy. It opens our eyes, our ears…tells us where delights are lurking…convinces us that there is only one freedom of any importance whatsoever… that of the mind…and gives us the assurance, the confidence, to walk the path our mind—our educated mind—offers.”

I found myself leaning forward, eager to hear more of what Iris Murdoch had to say on matters of life and love and the power of the mind.

 

Entertainment Quotient:

Every instinct makes me simply want to tell you to go watch the movie. Right now. Nothing I can say will do it justice; no amount of rumination can give the barest hint of the film’s power. Watch it, absorb it, then wash the tears from your face and watch it again.

But, you’re all here, and it seems I have the floor. So then…

Rotten Tomatoes rated Iris as Certified Fresh, with a positive score of 79%. That’s a pretty good rating for RT, but I couldn’t help but wonder: what in Heaven’s name were the other 21% thinking? Did they catch that opening skinny dip sequence and think they were watching porn, only to have their hopes dashed by repeated insight into the human condition? I suspect those who rated the movie poorly are those not in touch (or afraid of) their feelings. Because make no mistake: Iris is one hell of a tear-jerker. See up above where I note the spoiler level as Low to High? It’s because I am going to tell you how it ends (High) but it’s no surprise to anyone (Low).

Iris dies, folks. But this is no more surprise than telling you that Titanic ends with a sinking ship. Both Titanic and Iris are based on true events (and both share Kate Winslet’s boobs with the world…but those, errr that, need not detain us).

Ahem. Iris Murdoch’s story is a matter of record. And we know in the first twenty minutes of the film that Alzheimer’s—the writer’s greatest fear—has found Iris. It’s important to know and accept this going in, because the power of the film is in its flashbacks and flash-forwards. We know what’s coming, the knowledge clogs our throats and hearts with its inevitability, so we treasure every leap back to the Iris that lived so fully in the moment.

This is a beautiful film in every respect; if there was an off note anywhere I missed it. Both Kate Winslet and Judi Dench are as pitch-perfect as everyone knows them to be. But Jim Broadbent’s performance as Iris’s husband, John Bayley, left me stunned. He won the Oscar for his performance, and to say it was well-deserved is an understatement. And the performance of Hugh Bonneville as the younger John Bayley was equally stand-out (I swear, I felt like they had actually somehow filmed Broadbent thirty years prior—he was that convincing).

Iris succeeds on every level I can think of. But for writers—for those of us who struggle on even our better days to put the words down in the best possible order—Iris is a horror story.

 

The Writerly Element:

Iris is based on John Bayley’s memoirs of his wife, famed Irish novelist and philosopher Dame Jean Iris Murdoch. The writerly element in the film is a given because we are treated to an inside peek (however brief) of this amazing writer’s mind.

A quote from Iris (the person not the film):

“Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck.”

Dame Iris seemed to perpetually leak nuggets like this. There is a moment early on where a young Iris is having fun at John’s expense after he has choked on a sip of wine. Iris is making a point that we don’t have to try to swallow the right way, it just happens. But what she says is noteworthy for anyone attempting to put words to paper:

“The best thing to do is just hang on and trust the body.”

Later we see a clip of an interview from Iris’s younger years, in which she shares this glorious insight into the writing condition:

“Everybody has thoughts they want to conceal. People have obsessions and fears and passions, which they won’t admit to. I think any character is interesting and has extremes. It’s a novelist’s privilege to see how odd everyone is.”

Isn’t that gorgeous? The novelist’s privilege. Yes.

There is also much to be gleaned from close inspection of the relationship between John and Iris, especially in their younger years. Iris was wild and untamed, a perfect contrast to John’s bumbling nerdiness. But John was enamored with her brilliance, more than well aware of the power of her writer’s mind:

Young John: “Iris has got more than one world going on inside that head. A secret world. I’m the only friend that knows of her secret world. It’s like living in a fairy story. I’m the young man in love with a beautiful maiden who disappears into an unknown and mysterious world every now and again.”

Contrast that moment with a heart-wrenching scene when the elderly John is reading Pride and Prejudice to Iris as she sits in a fogged-out stupor. But then her eyes clear ever so slightly, her lips begin to move and she says: “I…wrote.” John brightens and says, “Yes, my darling, my clever cat, you wrote books!” And Iris stutters out, “Books…I…wrote.” John tells her she wrote novels, wonderful novels. Tears brimming in her eyes, Iris repeats, “I…wrote.” And John, with a pitiful hope that she might be rebounding, says, “Such things you wrote. Special things. Secret things. Do you know many secrets now, Iris?”

I could go on. The writerly element is everywhere in this film because it chronicles the life of a writer. You won’t have to look far, but I would suggest doing so anyway—because this movie is trying to tell us something, something big. For now, go with this bit of prophetic exchange between a young John and Iris:

John: “You love words, don’t you?”

Iris: “If one doesn’t have words, how does one think?”

 

Why Bother:

Because we need to face our fears. We all die. Somewhere at the end of this long and complex game—maybe from accident or sudden illness, maybe it’s simply our time—we will cash in our chips. We all know it’s coming.

But that’s not the fear, at least not for me. The real terror, the keep-me-awake-at-night, oozing-shambling-gibbering-horror-in-the-closet, is dementia. It terrifies me. I’ve written about crossing over that threshold into madness many times, before I even had conscious knowledge of my own personal fear of it.

For the writer—for the one who truly cares about the language and beauty and music of writing—is there a greater dread than losing our ability to think and remember and make connections? Imagine you are writing—a letter, a story, whatever—and then imagine the feeling of panic at being unable to remember the spelling of even the most common word. Your mind betrays you. We see this happen as Iris is writing in longhand, and she says, “We all worry about going mad, don’t we? How would we know…those of us who live in our minds, anyway? Other people will tell us. Would they, John?”

“How will we know…?” “Those of us who live in our minds…”

Would others see us slipping away? Would they tell us? Would we be able to process the knowledge?

How hard and fast would we write our stories if we knew that tomorrow we would be robbed of cognitive thought?

It sends a chill up the spine.

In the midst of Iris’s decline, she manages to finish her last novel. And she has this to say in a tragic moment of clarity:

“Just keep working, keep talking, keep the words coming. I shall come off like a deprived animal if I can’t write…be like a starved dog.”

Every writer knows this feeling all too well. Writing is hard; not writing is harder. To have the ability stripped away through a failure of our mind to cooperate…that is hell.

 

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 Quills

 

Final Thoughts:

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what this movie is saying, or what it’s about, because it will likely hit everyone differently, scraping at old wounds we had almost forgotten. Since it is based on Bayley’s memoirs of his true love, it seems to be an effort to finally capture her. From their early days on into the latter years, John Bayley was always trying to catch Iris. Whether she was leading him a merry chase as they pedaled their bicycles down country roads, or disappearing into the unknown and unknowable landscape of dementia (Iris: “I feel as if I am sailing into darkness.”), she was always just beyond his grasp.

John: “Iris, w-wait for me!”

Iris: “Just keep tight hold of me, and it’ll be all right!”

John: “You won’t keep still!”

Iris: “I can’t keep still!”

John: “I can’t catch up with you!”

Or maybe it is simply a statement on the frailty and impermanence of life in contrast to Art itself. James the Apostle called human life nothing more than a vapor, a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Maybe, when all is said and done, we are only what we leave behind. Some spark ignites our creative selves into animation, we flare up into flame, some longer and brighter than others, then the flame sputters into nothing. Our lasting hope is that if we have burned bright—if we have set others ablaze with our words and craft—our Art will live on.

 

 

“As I hear the sweet lark sing in the clear air of the day,

Dear thoughts are in my mind, and my soul soars, enchanted,

As I hear the sweet lark sing in the clear air of the day,

For a tender beaming smile to my hope has been granted,

And tomorrow he shall hear all my fond heart can say…”

 

A Writer’s Review of Twixt

twixt

Release Date: April 11, 2012 (Belgium)

MPAA Rating: R

Starring: Val Kilmer, Elle Fanning, Bruce Dern, Ben Chaplin.
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Spoiler Level: Who Cares?

Greetings, hacks and scribblers, ya bunch of whacky folks. I’m back, once again endeavoring to find meaning in my dreary scribbler’s life through the medium of film. Well…I didn’t find it in this one.

It’s pure coincidence that the next movie up is a Francis Ford Coppola flick, and it is instructive to see how one person’s art can differ from one project to another.

For your consideration: Twixt!

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

A writer with a declining career arrives in a small town as part of his book tour and gets caught up in a murder mystery involving a young girl. That night in a dream, he is approached by a mysterious young ghost named V. He’s unsure of her connection to the murder in the town, but is grateful for the story being handed to him. Ultimately he is led to the truth of the story, surprised to find that the ending has more to do with his own life than he could ever have anticipated.

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

Twixt very nearly didn’t make the cut. But heck, I burned up 88 minutes of my life watching the silly thing, y’all can darn well read my review.

Ahem.

Val Kilmer stars alongside Bruce Dern and Elle Fanning—what could be possibly go wrong? What indeed.

In truth, the synopsis is probably why this movie made the cut. I read the synopsis now and it almost makes me want to watch the movie again. Almost.

Entertainment Quotient:

Rotten Tomatoes rated this film as “Rotten”, with an average score of 29% positive. I’d say that’s pretty close to the mark.

May I tell you something right up front? We’re friends, yes? Okay, here it is: This is an awful movie. There, I feel better now.

Somehow, though, it’s the kind of awful that’s sort of fun to watch. Especially as a writer (more on that below). But be warned: there are tons of “wait…what?” moments in this movie.

Less than two minutes in I knew we were in trouble; the gravel-voiced narrator is taking us through the town and past the church, and I quote: “The most astonishing thing about the town was an old belfry that had a clock tower with seven faces. You could see the time from anywhere in the town of Swann Valley. But the faces persistently told different times. No question; something evil was abiding there.” At which point I wanted to shout: “Excuse me, I have a question!” Apparently clocks that tell different times are…evil? Ummm-kay.

And watch for the whiskey-of-many-colors. Is it pink, is it amber? And my favorite gaffe of all is the really oooold bag of take-out. It has to be old, because we are in what seems to be an east coast backwater town and a kid brings in a bag from the Western States’ favorite burger joint In-N-Out (you cannot find this chain any further east than Utah). Oops.

This is a clearly well-made, low-budget movie. Lots of cinematographic bells and whistles. But whereas Coppola worked his vision with a deft hand in Tetro (see SoC #3), it seems here like someone doing Coppola.

Twixt is one of those movies that has you wondering if you just aren’t getting what the director was trying to do. Maybe y’all are a lot smarter than I and will have a grand time with the thematic brilliance. Or, maybe you’ll take my advice and put your brain on the shelf for the duration. Probably enjoy it more that way.

One notable performance (far, far too short in my opinion) is by the slick motorcycle-maybe-vampire character Flamingo, played by Alden Ehrenreich who starred as Bobbie in Tetro. That kid’s got style.

And while we’re talking performances, if you are a child of the ‘70s, you will feel as though you are welcoming an old friend when Don Novello makes an appearance—his voice will catch your attention, you’ll think, “ Where do I know him from?” And then it will hit you. Yep, that right there is Father Guido Sarducci.

The Writerly Element:

A few elements of writerly note…I guess.

We have repeated dream sequences where our hero, Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), has enigmatic conversations with Edgar Allan Poe (played well be Ben Chaplin). That’s a win.

Early on you can feel Baltimore’s pain when he arrives in the Podunk town for his book signing and finds the town does not even have a bookstore—they have him set up in a hardware store (note to self: fire agent).

Later (and I won’t even try to tell you what’s happening because I couldn’t if I wanted to), Baltimore gets excited about this hot new IDEA and sets up his portable writing table, with laptop, beef jerky, spare pens, and the unlikely pink—no wait it’s amber—Irish whiskey. The pure precision with which he lays everything out on his writing table is such a perfect representation of the writer’s mind. Everything has to be just so to let the muse speak. The writer in us recognizes all this as a stalling technique—I have a great idea and I don’t dare write anything down for fear of screwing it up.

Later, his soon-to-be-fired agent (or maybe he’s an editor) tells Baltimore, “No fog on the lake!”, which is apparently Baltimore’s favorite cliché. Baltimore’s efforts at crafting an opening sentence without exactly referencing fog on the lake is reminiscent of Throw Momma from the Train (which, come to think of it, needs to be on my list). These efforts are borderline laugh out loud hilarious.

Why Bother:

Because of the occasional transcendent moment like this, during yet another nonsensical dream sequence. Edgar Allan Poe is leading Hall Baltimore along a “Dark and Scary” cliff (I really don’t know why). As they walked along the cliff edge and I was scratching my head wondering, WTF?, this bit of dialogue happened:

Poe: Do you dare go further?

Baltimore: What are you talking about? Tell me the ending.

Poe: If you don’t stop now, every word that flows from your pen will be your own tale. You. You are the ending you seek.

That’s good stuff right there.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5 Quills

Final Thoughts:

I…nope, I got nuthin.

A Writer’s Review of Tetro

tetro_movie-poster-02

Release Date: June 26, 2009

MPAA Rating: R

Starring: Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdú

Written by: Mauricio Kartun (verse “Fausta”), Francis Ford Coppola

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Spoiler Level: Low.

Greetings, hacks and scribblers. I bet you thought you’d never hear from me again, now did you? As they say (or, as Robert Burns actually did say):

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,

Loosely translated: Shit happens. In this case, lots of schemes are ganging aft agley all over the place. Several writing projects, including the blog countdown to the release of Relative Karma on audio. I plan to revisit my commitment to this particular series of writerly movies later, and will likely amend the list of movies somewhat. For now, I am quite happy with the increased activity in my writing world. All good things!

all good things

So, on to the movie at hand. I give you: Tetro!

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

Bennie travels to Buenos Aires to find his long-missing older brother, a once-promising writer who is now a remnant of his former self. Bennie’s discovery of his brother’s near-finished play might hold the answer to understanding their shared past and renewing their bond.

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

Two minutes into Tetro I knew I wanted this movie to make the cut. Ten minutes in and all doubts were gone. We have a tortured writer in Buenos Aries battling his inner demons. And it’s presented in gritty, black-and-white video. Yep, you bet it made the cut.

Entertainment Quotient:

Rotten Tomatoes averaged Tetro at 71% positive, labeling the movie as “Fresh.” On the whole, I’d say that’s a little lean.

Tetro is one of those films for which they like to use the term Work of Art. In this case I think they’re right. Coppola knows what he’s doing, and what he’s doing in this film is showing us why we all know his name…in a good way.

Beautifully filmed in black-and-white, which makes the Buenos Aires locale that much more real, you believe within minutes that you are there, climbing the soiled steps with young Bennie to Angelo Tetrocini’s apartment.

The video quality is noir-esque from the get-go, and lends a surreal vibe to the film as a whole. (There’s a bit of nudity here, as well, and just why is it that black-and-white nudity is so much sexier than color?).

Speaking of color, there are a good deal of flashbacks in the film and they are all rendered in color, with the aspect ratio shrinking to a slightly smaller inset screen, almost like watching a movie within a movie, which somehow serves to make the flashbacks less “real” than the current-day black-and-white.

It is artsy, yes, but effectively so. With the exception of the method of filming, there are few bells or whistles here—this is slow, measured story-telling. This film is, at times, very nearly reminiscent of Greek tragedy. In flashback we see the tortured (and torturous) relationship between Tetro and his father. We begin to sniff out the ugly plot twist in the film. We get uncomfortable until the story sweeps us away again. Then we find ourselves at the end and we remember the twist…we were right and we were wrong.

Beautifully handled story-telling.

The Writerly Element:

There is so much here to offer, from virtually every corner of the writing life. In no particular order, here are a few things to watch for…

During a performance of “Fausta,” (a delightfully weird retelling of Faust from a female perspective), a sun-glassed, fur-wearing critic walks in and sends the small crowd into an awed hush—the critic’s name is Alone (make of that what you will).

Another scene I watched several times because of the painful resonance was this slice of Ouch between Bennie and Tetro.

Bennie: “Will you get back to your writing?”

Tetro: “I walked away from that.”

Bennie: “How do you walk away from your work? Doesn’t it follow you?”

It does, brothers and sisters. If you are a writer—if it’s what you are wired to do—forget trying to get away. It will follow you.

Later, in another poignant moment, Tetro says: “Am I not okay the way I am? Not famous enough?” Ouch again.

As younger brother Bennie continues to be rejected by Tetro, he begins piecing together and transcribing Tetro’s abandoned writings. We see these as ragged pen-and-ink scribblings, written in code, written backwards.

Bennie: “They’re great stories, they just don’t have an ending.”

Tetro: “They don’t need an ending. You know why? Because my stories will never be published.”

In a scene that could easily stand for Tetro’s entire motivation throughout the movie, we see Tetro’s famous composer father in a flashback, speaking to his son just before Tetro leaves to go on a writing sabbatical:

“To make a living as a writer…you’d have to be a genius. And we already have a genius in the family.”

Why Bother:

There are maybe a hundred reasons why I think Tetro is an important movie for writers. The section above barely scratches the surface. In the end, though, I was left thinking not just about writers, but the poor souls damned to spend their lives at our sides.

Tetro touches deeply on the Crazy in writers, and paints a vivid picture of the people who live with them; how hard it must be to put up with a bipolar personality who fears his own words, and the interior horror that inspired them.

With all our latent (and not so latent) insanity…these saints love us anyway.

Living with a writer, and all that entails, can be something of a punchline, but there’s a point to be made. Writers (and artists in general) do seem to run a greater risk of drug and alcohol dependence, not to mention courting madness on one level or another. Depression is common. Suicide often beckons as a final way to still the voices.

Speaking personally, I am grateful with everything I have for my partner—she understands my giddy highs and festering lows. She stands by me, props me up. She is, simply and always, there.

Maribel Verdú does a wonderful job of portraying Tetro’s partner, Miranda, who originally met Tetro during his self-committed stay at the local looney bin. At one point, when Tetro is spiraling out of control, she says:

“I’ll be at the other insane asylum. I need a break to clear my head.”

And later, in a moment of such authenticity I found it hard to breathe:

“I’m the only one who’s always in your corner, always supporting you, the only person in this fucking life who loves you.”

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 Quills.

Final Thoughts:

There is one moment in this film I hope I never forget, and I’ll leave you with this: Toward the end of the film, when the skeletons had been dragged screaming from their closets and into the limelight, the critic (Alone) finally takes notice. Tetro looks at her and says:

“Your opinion doesn’t matter to me anymore.”

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(Going forward, I will likely detour liberally from the original list. There are far too many movies, and far too little time to view them all and present them here. I will continue in the original order, but will skip over movies that I feel aren’t spot-on to the discussion at hand. I beg your forgiveness.)

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Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what say you click on the image below and head over to the countdown? There be prizes, Precious, aye, prizes there be indeed.

Relative Karma - ACX FINAL

A Writer’s Review of Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut Poster

Release Date: August 11, 1945

MPAA Rating: N/A

Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, and Sydney Greenstreet.
Written by: Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini, based on a story by Aileen Hamilton.

Directed by: Peter Godfrey

Spoiler Level: Low.

Greetings, hacks and scribblers. I trust you are all done with your Christmas shopping? Got those Hanukkah gifts lined up? All geared up for a week of Kwanzaa? How’s about you Pagans and Wiccans? Only a handful of shopping days left ‘til Solstice!

Ahem. So here we are again, ready to dissect (gently, oh so gently) another movie about writers. I have once again gone off-list because, well, I was feeling festive. Christmas in Connecticut may be a bit of a stretch for this series but, seeing as it also involves a food writer, it dovetailed nicely with “Scribblers on Celluloid #1.” We’ll start the real deal after the 1st of the year, what do you say?

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

A food writer who has lied about being a perfect housewife and master chef must try to cover her deception when her boss and a returning war hero invite themselves to her home for a traditional family Christmas. Hilarity ensues.

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

As noted above, I’m stretching things a bit with Christmas in Connecticut. It was on my original Master List, but had been relegated to a secondary when-I-get-to-it list, because it was just too…peripheral to the central theme. Then I looked around and saw lights going up on houses. I looked further and noticed my bank account crumbling under a deluge of early Holiday shopping. It occurred to me that once again Christmas had come rushing at me, seemingly from out of nowhere. Well, Christmas is a busy time of year, is it not? I didn’t want to think too hard on the next SoC entry and figured I’d cheat a little on this one. So there. And, wonder of wonders, the movie actually did have some things to say to the writer. As the movie unfolded in all its lighthearted Christmasy-ness, I found myself impressed by how much it had to say not so much about the writing process as the power of Story. More on that later.

Entertainment Quotient:

This is a hot cocoa and jammies kind of movie if ever there was one. Pure rainy-day fun. Of course, I feel that way about nearly all lighthearted black-and-white films.

Rotten Tomatoes rated Christmas in Connecticut as “Certified Fresh”, with an 88% positive rating. Pretty good for a piece of fluff.

Barbara Stanwyck is one of those Silver Screen actresses for whom they coined the phrase: “They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” The woman just flat out glistens. And she can act, too. She nails the single working-city-girl part of Elizabeth Lane and is quite entertaining when faced with trying to actually cook the meals she writes about and having to take care of a baby that is supposed to be hers (it only gets better when they switch babies on her).

Dennis Morgan as war hero Jefferson Jones is almost too nice, contrasting well with Lane’s brash city-ness. His naiveté early on can be a little off-putting (aw, shucks, ma’am), but it manages to add a bit of charm to his character. This is likely a solid nod to the writing and directing—he’s a bit of a cardboard character, but we like him anyway.

The rotund Sydney Greenstreet as newspaper mogul Alexander Yardley is oddly charming—his little giggle and exclamation at the end of the film (“What a Christmas!”) is just plain goofy but I love it, and find myself looking forward to it every time.

If this movie is ever in danger of losing our attention it is saved by the wonderfully quirky restauranteur Felix Bassenak, played by S. Z. Sakall. It is his recipes that are featured in Lane’s columns (spuriously as her own creations) and she enlists him to play her uncle when they head off to a borrowed farmhouse in the country to perform their charade for the war hero.

Christmas in Connecticut does well what so many comedies of that era did, which is to pile complications on complications, making us wonder how someone can’t see what’s going on. The feel is that of a whacky stage play, the sprawling farmhouse a beautiful setup for the multiple angles, entrances and exits, and misdirection. If you go into this film planning to have a good time you won’t be disappointed.

The Writerly Element:

As noted above, I think where this film shines (from a writing perspective) is its portrayal of just how powerful Story can be. While the movie as a whole is something of a lark, there is a solid representation of what writing is, what it can do, and how effective it can be.

The scene introducing Elizabeth Lane shows her sitting in her New York apartment, typing away, describing country nirvana for her readers as she looks out on the urban scene: the clothesline stretching across the alley becomes the interior of the rustic old farmhouse, its art and charm; the sizzling radiator-style heater is the crackling fire in the fireplace. No big deal, but invention is taking place here. In fact, everything Lane writes is pure invention—the recipes are real (although they are not hers, she can’t cook to save her life)—but the rest is all lies, which is of course the fictioneer’s greatest tool and delight.

Lane is writing a food/cooking column, but we start to see that the food is maybe the least interesting element of her work. Okay, so the war hero Jefferson Jones dreams about the food in her article (incidentally, these dreams go a long way to keeping him alive—how’s that for a reason to write?), but what he ultimately wants is to experience a quaint country Christmas at the fictional farmhouse Lane has so enticingly described. Jones has bought hook, line and sinker into the lie. He doesn’t only believe it’s all true, he actually knows the details of this country life better than Lane herself.

There’s a recurring joke in the film where the readers of Lane’s column persist in sending her antique rocking chairs, all because of an article in which she described her desire to find an old rocking chair like her granny used to have. All made up of course, but the readers believe; they want to believe; they believe so hard they spend the dough to buy these antiques and have them shipped to Lane’s New York office. When Jones shows up at the farmhouse…yep, he’s carrying a rocking chair.

What we see is the result not of a stale food column, but the response to what equates to a serial novel in progress. The readers want to know what happens next on the farm; they know the name of Lane’s fictional cow; they know her likes and dislikes better than she does. This is a kind of voyeurism, and what is getting absorbed into a good story if not the thrill of the Peeping Tom or Tammy? They’re reading someone’s diary for crying out loud and loving every minute of it.

In the scene where Elizabeth Lane steps into the surrogate farmhouse, there was a surreal moment for me when it occurred that this was essentially a writer stepping into her own fictional landscape. What would that be like? You write about some imagined place for years, and one day…you walk through the door. Everything is where you said it was; somehow, in this alternate universe, it has all become real. That, hacks and scribblers, would be cool.

Why Bother:

Is there truly a writerly element in this film, or am I trying too hard to make it fit? There is something here, my friends. Without the column—not the recipes, but all that made up stuff about Lane’s farm living—there is no movie. Fiction writing is at the heart of the film’s plot.

I’m not going to try and convince you of the value of Christmas in Connecticut to the quality and/or output of your writing. What I will say is that this turned out to be important to me because it reminded me of how powerful and enticing a made-up world can be; how truly wonderful it is to get sucked into a fictional landscape.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 Quills.

Final Thoughts:

How wonderful it is to be members of the eternal order of Hacks and Scribblers, that ragtag bunch of folks who find value in making crap up. I salute you, my brothers and sisters. Go lie your butts off. Because someone, somewhere, wants to believe it.

A Writer’s Review of Julie & Julia

Julie_and_julia poster

Release Date: August 7, 2009

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, and Chris Messina.

Written by: Nora Ephron. Based on a work(s) by Julie Powell, Julia Child, and Alex Prud’homme.

Directed by: Nora Ephron

(Spoiler Level: Low.)

Greeting, hacks and scribblers. At long last (and with no valid reason to procrastinate further) here’s the first in what promises to be a very long-running series of my reviews on movies about writers. Before we dive in, perhaps you would like to take a peek at the Introduction to this series by clicking HERE. If you’ve already read the intro feel free to hang here with me while the newcomers travel back in time to see what this is all about. And while we wait we’ll sip some tea and talk about other things. That’s a lovely sweater jacket—J.C. Penney?

sweater jacket

Ah, I see everyone is now back and more or less accounted for (although it’s safe to say there’s little or no accounting for some of you).

Ahem.

Reviewing movies about writers. The idea was prompted, sort of, by Julie & Julia, the film version of what happened when Julie Powell decided to document her attempt to cook every one of the 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child in one year. She damn well does it and the blog went viral. Nora Ephron (screenwriter and director) clearly knew a good stew when she smelled it.

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

A culinary legend provides a frustrated office worker with a new recipe for life in Julie & Julia, the true stories of how Julia Child’s (Meryl Streep) life and cookbook inspired fledgling writer Julie Powell (Amy Adams) to whip up 524 recipes in 365 days and introduce a new generation to the magic of French cooking. Stanley Tucci co-stars in director Nora Ephron’s delicious comedy about joy, obsession and butter. Bon appétit!

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

Julie & Julia practically screamed to be the first entry in SoC (“Scribblers on Celluloid,” duh). The primary audience for Mott’s Ruminations (all three of you) is likely made up of fictioneers; scribblers and hacks who would not read a memoir if their lives depended on it. But in the end, J & J may well turn out to be the movie with more to say about writing than any of the gazillion flicks to follow.

The movie is based on two books, Child’s My Life in France, and Powell’s blog-turned-book Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. There is of course another book that may be considered the third star of the movie: Julia Child’s first book, the essential cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. So we have a film based not on one book, but three. That of course does not supply the requisite ingredients for a SoC entry. But the movie chronicles the actual writing of two of the three books. (My Life in France came later and is the basis for what we actually see Julia Child doing in the film, part of which is the writing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.)

Entertainment Quotient:

It would be easy to simply say that I friggin’ loved this movie. Because I did. There is much to love here and little to disdain (even for the most jaded critic). Even the notoriously tough critics at Rotten Tomatoes averaged this film at 70% positive, labeling the movie as “Fresh” (as opposed to “Certified Fresh”, which requires a positive rating of 75% or better. Thought I should clear that up).

It’s been said often but I’ll go ahead and say it again: Meryl Streep is brilliant. She can do anything. Period. I won’t belabor this, but any film she stars in almost demands two viewings: one to sit in awe of how completely she owns whatever character she is playing; a second to actually follow the story line once you’ve stopped shaking your head at how the hottie who sang and danced in Mamma Mia!, then played Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, could so mesmerize us as the embodiment of the galumphing, high-spirited Julia Child. Just…wow, okay?

Stanley Tucci as husband Paul Child is as charming as charming gets. The chemistry between Tucci and Streep makes the onscreen couple a pure delight to watch. We want to be them. We want a Julia, we want a Paul, we want what they have.

And Amy Adams? This generation’s Meg Ryan, plain and simple. I love her. She’s on my list (if you’re a fan of the show Friends you know all about The List). Nuff said.

The movie jumps artfully back and forth through time, showing us Julia Child’s search for “something to do” in 1950s Paris through her neophytic attempts at cooking, then hopping forward to the early 2000s where Julie Powell is also in search of something to do that will define her in a way her call center job does not. And whether it’s Child’s Paris or Powell’s Queens, we want to be there. Nora Ephron knows her stuff and knows how to enchant the viewer with even the most common of locales (I could so live in Powell’s dingy and cramped apartment). Add to this a rare lighthearted and lilting score by Alexandre Desplat (one of my favorite composers incidentally) who typically elicits a darker sort of melancholy, and there’s really nothing to despise.

I’m an easy touch for this type of movie (I don’t believe there’s such a thing as chick-flicks, only insecure males) and this film touched me in all the right places. Delightful.

The Writerly Element:

There is much here to glean for the writer. At its heart, this movie is about both Julie and Julia trying to find themselves through creating something.

Julia Child fell in love with French cooking, the decadence and buttery artistry of it all. She was smitten and when it came time to ask herself, “Who am I? What can I do that is truly mine?” she looked to her passion: Food. She wouldn’t take no for an answer when the dominatrix headmistress of Le Cordon Bleu told her she had no talent as a cook. Rejection after rejection. We’ve all tasted it and, if we are any shakes at creating anything at all, we shrug it off. It is the only answer to rejection: Screw you, I’m going to do it anyway. Child did not give up, and before long her passion for cooking morphed into a passion for helping other American housewives accomplish the same. Kismet being what it is, she gets involved with a couple collaborators already working on a cook book. For me this is not so much chance as it is the natural culmination of pursuing your goal. To wit: do the thing you love, do it with great gusto, and the Universe will place people and circumstances into your path (or you into theirs) to help realize your goal.

The crushing self-doubt we writers face is evident here as well. The film bounces back and forth between Child (“I’m not a real cook”) and Powell (“I’m not a real writer”). Both are challenged by well- or ill-meaning friends and family with the question: “Why are you doing this?” Powell struggles at the onset with the soul-destroying cry of all beginning writers: “You’re not a writer unless someone publishes you.” (This happens to be untrue, by the by, but it is engrained in our DNA to believe we are only writers if someone buys our work.) We learn that Powell has written half a novel before giving up (haven’t we all?). But even this does not stop Powell, because she knows in her heart that what she really wants to do is communicate, which is what writing is. She tells her husband, “That’s what’s great about blogs, you don’t have to be published, you just go online press enter and there it is.” There is a delicious moment of recognition for me when Powell expresses her joy (and not a little amazement) that her blog has begun receiving comments from people she doesn’t know. I remember clearly the first time a book of mine received a glowing (hell, it was gushing) review by someone I did not know and from whom I had not solicited the review. I wept the first time I read that review, because I knew I had connected with someone in a powerful way.

We’ve all had dreams of winning the lottery (whatever that might mean for you) and exactly how we would feel and react when we saw our numbers come up. That moment is depicted with aching clarity when Julie Powell comes home to a glut of voice mails from editors, agents, and sundry publishing types wanting to represent/publish/interview her. For a struggling writer (Hi, I’m Mott and I’m a struggling writer) this is the kind of scene you rewind and watch over and over again. Because we see it as truth—sure, it’s a shiny, brass-ring kind of truth, but something in us believes it, and we want to applaud for her even while a deeper part of us kind of hates her for it. A similar thing happens when Julia Child’s mammoth cook book is repeatedly struck down (I just love it when Tucci’s character says, “Fuck them.” Now that’s support.) before she finally opens the mail and finds…The Letter. That mythical letter promising money in exchange for our written words. I dare you not to smile along with Child in that moment. And I defy any struggling writer to not rejoice out loud when Julia receives her hardbound copy of the book in the mail and practically explodes with excitement.

In the end, this movie is about passion, and following that passion; finding the thing you love and doing it no matter what. At one point, Julie Powell says, “Julia saved me.” As metaphor for the muse (or that unnameable passion that drives us to write in the hopes that someone somewhere will want to read our words), it doesn’t get any plainer than that.

Why Bother:

Call this section the takeaway section. Why, in a nutshell, I think this is an important movie for writers—better yet, why it was important to me. Why bother to watch Julie & Julia? Because I tend to question myself, damning myself for a hack and wondering if it’s worth the effort. Both Julie Powell and Julia Child helped me see the folly in that. It’s clear from the beginning of this film that Julia Child is all about fearlessness. Speaking to her television audience as she cooks, she says, “Never apologize. No excuses, no explanations.” I may just print that out and frame it above my desk.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 Quills.

Final Thoughts:

I will let Julia Child’s character take the mic on this one, because in the end, this is the heart of the writer in all its childlike glory:

“I just want to savor this moment, the moment when anything is possible…you can just imagine they’re going to love everything you did and it’s going to sell a million copies…and it will change the world.”