Thursday, March 28, 2013

When I'm Supposed To Be Writing 2

I'm addicted to watching movies. I'm not even going to try to pretend like I watch culturally relevant stuff or that I'm trying to keep up with the latest blah blah blah. Most of what I watch is crap because only in crap does one see the kind of big-budget explosions and flashing lights and pretty noises that will appease my addiction. There are some movies that lack explosions but are still downright watchable, and today I'm going to write about some of these: namely, movies about writers.

Here's my caveat: nobody gives a rat's ass about writers or writing. A clear sign of a hack/novice writer is one who includes a writer as a character (especially the main character) in a story/movie/etc. This is because writing is BORING. Writing involves going off in a room by yourself and typing. There's no way around how boring that is to watch. It's worse than tennis. And so, the best movies about writing are those which realize that they'd better get pretty damned far away from the act of writing on screen pretty damned fast to be successful. So here are some of my favorites in no particular order.

Wonder Boys. We've all seen this and if you haven't, well, okay then. It's from a novel by the somewhat over-rated but decent Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys is the best of his novels I've read, including the one he won a Pulizter for and whatever the fuck that yiddish policeman's union book was). The reason this film is successful is that it isn't really about writing at all. It's about taking the next step in life, whether it be graduating college or moving on from a failed relationship. The acting is great (Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, even Katie Holmes...well, she doesn't get much screentime so it's okay). The big drawback to the film is, of course, that it follows almost exclusively a collection of priveleged, middle class white people, so it lacks a certain amount of depth, but it is funny. Here's a clip about murder.

Henry Fool, by Hal Hartley. Hartley came up in that wave of indie directors in the 90s, and he definately has his own style, which is most apparent in the acting. I think the easiest way to describe it is that his actors look like they're in stage plays. Also, they're all great. Henry Fool is about a writer who thinks he's a genius, but everyone who reads his work is so offended by it that they react quite  violently until he meets a garbage man who seems to "get it." The garbage man  begins writing his own work which isn't quite as far out as Henry's and, of course, begins to be successful. It's a great little character study from one of my favorite directors. There's a sequel which focuses on Parker Posey's character (she plays Fool's wife/the garbageman's sister) but it's really not on the level of the first one.

Adaptation. Charlie Kaufman. I know this is the hip mention, but I genuinly enjoyed the film mostly because of its ironic tone and, of course, the structure.

Barton Fink, by the Wachowski brothers. Haha, just kidding. It's by the Coen brothers. This is a stylized take on Faulkner's time in Hollywood in a noir style with John Goodman reminding us just how damned good he can be. Again, the "Faulkner" character is fairly ancillary, and the movie focuses on Turturro and Goodman's crazy. Everything about this movie is perfect. So go watch it.

Barfly. This is an autobiographical film about Bukowski's life, written by Bukowski. Bukowski complained that Mickey Rourke didn't look haggard enough to play the lead in this. Well, he certainly does now. Again, what works about this is it doesn't take itself too seriously. Here's the whole thing on youtube.

The Shining. Kubrick's version, obviously. Stephen King complained about one of the most iconic movies ever made because Kubrick edited King's source material down into a tight thriller. So he got on board a remake starring that guy from Wings. That's all I'll say about that. Likewise, Misery is a good one. King continues to write about writers, and he often pulls it off. So good for him, but he's certainly the exception.

Honorable mentions: Annie Hall. Yeah, okay, he fucked his step-kid. Hard to get past that, so it didn't make the list. Bullets Over Broadway is another good one with the same problem.

Throw Mama from the Train. Billy Crystal and Danny Devito. So bad it's good.

I'll also namecheck the BBC show Sherlock, which is technically about a writer and is excellent.

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

25 Things To Do Instead of Writing

25 Things To Do Instead of Writing

1. Start an acoustic cover band of GG Allin.

2. Hit “Random Article” on Wikipedia until I find something interesting. Tell yourself this is “research.”

3. Google people I used to know to see if they’ve been arrested for anything interesting.

4. Search for clips of turtles having sex with shoes on Youtube.

5. Go for a walk, come back to my car, and then drive to Popeye’s and order all the chicken.

6. Watch things on Netflix I’d have never watched under any other circumstances.

7. Instead of writing what I’m supposed to, write something else.

8. Snack.

9. Come up with interesting and unusual ways to make money, for example: shaving advertisements into dog or cats.

10. Make a list of things I should do and then get bored and watch TV.

11. Find the list stuck down in a sofa cushion three weeks later and do some of them.

12. Read over things I wrote a long time ago and marvel at how good/bad they are.

13. Google myself to see if anyone’s said anything about me.

14. Read the entire series of XKCD.

15. Dabble at becoming a cartoonist even though I can’t draw.

16. Wander around, annoying people.

17. Go on Facebook and desperately look for someone to interact with.

18. Go back on Facebook to see if anyone’s posted anything interesting in the last two minutes.

19. Read unusual news stories for “research.”

20. Google the strangest combinations of words you can find to see if they’re actually slang terms for weird sex acts. Become delighted when you find some.

21. Read work by other writers you’re jealous of and target journals that have published them and send your best work. When it’s rejected, eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting. Spend the next several minutes in the bathroom because you don’t do well with dairy.

22. Redecorate!

23. Decide that enough is enough: it’s time for a new wardrobe. Shop for new clothes online. Add hundreds of dollars worth to your shopping cart but then change your mind and X out before buying anything.

24. Translate your name into binary.

25. Nap.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

This AWP is Sooooooooo Good!

James Franco ruffled some feathers in the writing community by announcing he’d attend AWP this year. I didn’t read Franco’s short story collection and I probably won’t read his poetry collection unless someone asks me to review it. That doesn’t mean anything; there are a lot of books I don’t read, especially highly publicized ones. I’m also not a fan of his acting; I don’t believe he’s been in a single film I actually liked, or enjoyed (though I haven’t seen Milk or Oz). I say this to clarify that I’m not a Franco apologist. To be very clear, I don’t really have an opinion about him or his career one way or the other.

I don't really care what Franco does with his time, and I'm sure most other writers don't either. I'm hearing a lot of folks say that Franco is trying to legitimize himself by attending a convention of “real” writers. But the hard truth, folks, is that Franco has had and will have more commercial, and probably more critical success than most, if not all, of the other attendees at AWP. He’s been panned in publications that won’t even open the mail from the rest of us. And some of them didn’t pan him. The truth is, if anything, Franco is legitimizing AWP by putting it on the map for non-academics. He doesn’t need AWP. He's already got major book deals. He already teaches writing and has had more success as a teacher of writing than many of the AWP attendees.

This is a hard thing for some writers to realize because they tend not to see beyond their clique out to the real world that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about non-famous writers. (Remember how some Republicans were so surprised when Obama won a second term because they hadn't realized that the nature of America had changed? That’s the kind of self-absorption I’m talking about, but these folks know how to read.) Franco is lending his fame to AWP, whether that’s his intention or not. Some folks might say his books aren’t very good. They probably aren't. I could say the same thing about a lot of writers out there, especially "name" ones. Sorry. Some folks say he gets published because of his “name.” Again, I could say the same about some of the big fish in the little waters of AWP. But, of course, Franco is a big fish in big waters. So maybe that’s the real source of the vitriol I’ve seen directed at him. Or maybe people just don’t like his face.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Some Thoughts on Jason Donnelly's Forthcoming Novel Gripped

Gripped, early draft of a novel by Jason Donnelly. Forthcoming, Perfect Edge Books.

Is there a genre for masturbation stories? I’m not sure. I think of a handful of novels with masturbation scenes – Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, in which the prison narrator likes to think of a certain character whose name sounds like derriere (which is perhaps more masturbatory than masturbation) or the famous scene in Joyce’s Ulysses. There are others (I feel like Naked Lunch must have some bizarre murder/masturbation scene, but maybe I’m projecting). I have to admit, I once started a story with a masturbation scene but edited it out at the advice of others (but then put it back in when it was collected in Naming the Animals, my first fiction collection.) But even though Donnelly’s novel begins with the main character masturbating, the novel isn’t nearly as dark or, strangely enough, dirty as one might think. Okay, maybe it’s that dark, but in not so obvious a way. (He also follows it with a hilarious pop culture joke I won’t spoil, but it made me laugh out loud, which I rarely do when reading.) Donnelly is lampooning American consumerist culture, a culture that is, in itself, a kind of masturbation, so it makes sense that the main character, Marky McCarren, is a masturbation addict. He’s also a slacker, and fairly soon into the novel, unemployed. A mysterious infomercial addresses him personally, and soon he’s enmeshed in a strange new program that promises to change his life for the better by pretty much completely disassembling it. Which doesn’t seem like it would be such a loss.

Here’s how the program works: he receives a bunch of Blueray discs (delivered by a man in a suit in the middle of the night…). He’s to watch one each week and do everything it says. If he fails or shirks the assignments or talks about the program to anyone, he’s out. And the implications are that being “out” might be more ominous that it sounds. The assignments become increasingly difficult and specific. The first week’s assignment is to read the newspaper and talk to people about it, among other things, for example. As he works the program, he meets a girl, makes friends, gets a new job, loses weight, and generally seems to be moving towards a much better life. But there is some weirdness. His girlfriend seems to be keeping secrets from him about her comings and goings. Some people seem to have dropped out of the program and met with some pretty bad ends. And the people in the program seem to be frighteningly powerful, since they catch Mark every time he slips, even when he wasn’t necessarily aware he was slipping. They also suggest all sorts of products he should use (such as which papers to subscribe to in the beginning) and then, when he goes to, say, subscribe to the paper, they’ve already started his subscription, have his credit card number, etc.

But Mark isn’t really that concerned, because he spent much of his time, previously, masturbating. And now he’s got a great job as a DJ (so what if he has to spend much of his time advertising products on air) a beautiful girlfriend (who may be a spy for the program) and he’s happier than he’s ever been (and also kind of afraid the program people might kill him). He’s also addicted to sleeping pills and is pretty sure his cat is talking to him. Gradually, the story shifts into something like horror as Mark becomes consumed with the program – his every thought of it, reminiscent of the ever-present nature of advertising in Delillo’s White Noise, or the gradual break from reality in Ellis’ American Psycho.

Donnelly is certainly displaying some chops as a writer. Donnelly’s prose is spare and clear. He avoids heavy-handedness with his message by lacing the novel with humor and verve. But his message is certainly clear. And did I mention that he made me laugh on the first page? How often does that happen? Even though I read an early draft (honestly, I couldn't tell) this is clearly going to be a damned fine book.

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-CL Bledsoe