Tag Archives: movies

The Final Word

Obit

My wife and I caught a pre-screening of the documentary “Obit” last night. It introduces the general public to the people and the process of crafting the obituaries of both famous and significant people who have died.

Now from that lede, you’re probably thinking this must be a yawner of a movie. In fact, it’s not only one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in years, it’s also an illuminating commentary on writing. In the picture above, New York Times reporter Margalit Fox fields questions from the audience. She’s the “baby” of the obituary staff, and gets much face time in the documentary.

She shared a few insider jokes that reveal much about writing. One involved a talented newcomer to the news business. He was not only a gifted writer, but took pride in thorough research. Despite his heroic efforts, he kept getting angry calls from readers about inaccurate statements in his stories. When he sought the advice of an old-timer, the pro sat back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and said, “Kid, it’s real simple. Quit putting in too many facts.”

Margalit offered a useful example of what the old pro meant. In one of her first obits, she identified the deceased’s father as a “Democratic congressman from Illinois.” An irritated relative informed Margalit that her uncle had in fact been a Republican. “I assumed he was a Democrat because he was from Illinois,” confessed Margalit. “But my obit would’ve been just as good if I’d only described the deceased’s father as ‘a congressman from Illinois.'” Lesson learned: Less is better.

Another joke was about an experienced reporter whose editor told him to write a short report on a breaking story. “I can give you a 5,000-word story,” said the reporter. “I don’t have enough time to write a short report.” He had a point — short works are hard to do.

Bottom line, don’t miss this documentary. The characters (starting with the madcap manager of the New York Times’s morgue), the tension created by meeting deadlines while treating the bereaved family with respect and sympathy, and the fundamental difficulty of “getting the words right” make “Obit” a must see. Highly recommended.

John Milius, Hollywood Wildman

John Milius

John Milius was once a force of nature in Hollywood. He co-wrote the first two Dirty Harry films, received an Academy Award nomination as screenwriter of Apocalypse Now, and wrote and directed The Wind and the Lion, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn.

Here’s an interesting anecdote about Milius, from the Castalia House blog:

My all-time favorite Milius story concerns his frequent battles with producers and other movie executives.

One day, Milius was describing the concept of a movie he was writing to a woman who was high up on the studio chain. It was a macabre tale of a soldier betraying his king, filled with murder, sex, and madness.

At the end, the female movie executive gets up and exclaims; “Mr. Milius, what you have told me is absolutely disgusting and awful! We have no interest in making any film like that, and hope you will work hard to come up with something better!” She walks off.

Milius then looks at a man who witnessed all this, shrugs his shoulders, and says “Some people just don’t dig Shakespeare.” He had described Macbeth to her.

Good thing he didn’t pitch Coriolanus.

Why kids can learn more from tales of fantasy than realism

Fantasy learning

Deena Weisberg is a senior fellow in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her specialty is “imaginative cognition,” which studies how imagination boosts one’s ability to learn. Her research demonstrates that children absorb new material taught in the context of a fanciful scenario better than they do when it’s presented in more realistic terms. In a recent edition of Aeon, she challenges herself with a question she’s grappled with before: Why do fantastical stories stimulate learning?

What can be going on? Perhaps children are more engaged and attentive when they see events that challenge their understanding of how reality works. After all, the events in these fantastical stories aren’t things that children can see every day. So they might pay more attention, leading them to learn more.

A different, and richer, possibility is that there’s something about fantastical contexts that is particularly helpful for learning. From this perspective, fantastical fiction might do something more than hold children’s interest better than realistic fiction. Rather, immersion in a scenario where they need to think about impossible events might engage children’s deeper processing, precisely because they can’t treat these scenarios as they would every other scenario that they encounter in reality.

They must consider every event with fresh eyes, asking whether it fits with the world of the story and whether it could fit within the laws of reality. This constant need to evaluate a story might make these situations particularly ripe for learning.

Writers of every genre know that a fresh metaphor adds to a reader’s interest and enjoyment. But Weisberg is arguing that there’s more to fantasy stories than just another metaphor. It appears that the act of forming impossible scenarios in one’s mind focuses more of our mental resources and forces us to pay greater attention than ordinary, representational stories of the day-to-day.

In a world where the day-to-day assaults and surrounds us on television, on our phones, and on our computers, the allure of the fantastical is compelling. Maybe even necessary. It would explain why the speculative inspires so many hit movies, TV series, and books these days.

This is hardly revolutionary. We’ve long realized that children learn better when learning is mixed with play — and children are teaching themselves about the world when they invent their own styles of play. Songs, skits, and stories are entertaining and effective learning media.

And hey, if it’s good for the kids …

Carrie Fisher Dies at 60

carrie-fisher

Sad news from Los Angeles – Carrie Fisher has died:

Family spokesman Simon Halls released a statement to PEOPLE on behalf of Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd:

“It is with a very deep sadness that Billie Lourd confirms that her beloved mother Carrie Fisher passed away at 8:55 this morning,” reads the statement.

“She was loved by the world and she will be missed profoundly,” says Lourd, 24. “Our entire family thanks you for your thoughts and prayers.”

Rest in peace, Princess Leia.

4 Lessons from Star Wars

Star Wars

Alice Osborn writes: “Star Wars is more than shoot ‘em bad guys with laser guns and escaping in fast spacecraft—it’s about 4 fundamental life lessons.” Alice discusses those lessons in her latest blog post, which I highly recommend.

Almost 40 years after it blasted its way into movie theaters and popular culture, Star Wars still commands our attention. There’s good reason for that. In crafting Luke Skywalker’s grand adventure, George Lucas took Joseph Campbell’s heroic myth, added memorable characters and innovative special effects, and produced a cinematic classic that tells a timeless tale. Lucas managed to “Make it New!”

Ezra Pound’s battle cry not only inspired the Modernists who explored radical techniques to convey their ideas, but also describes the maddening challenge all artists wrestle with, to take what already exists, whether paint, bronze, or words, and shape those elements into something both meaningful and worthwhile of our attention.

Part of that challenge is to work within a living tradition and keeping “it” alive by adapting it to present-day needs and concerns. The artist’s goal is to select and rearrange timeless insights and conventions and make them into something a new generation wants to enjoy and claim as its own. Timeless messages, such as Campbell’s heroic myth, have endured over generations because they speak to the human condition, something that does not change even as the conditions in which it exists does change, sometimes dramatically. It takes artistic vision to perceive those enduring patterns and make them interesting. It also takes hard work. But when it all comes together, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. No wonder we keep going back to classics such as Star Wars.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

For my birthday, my wife took me out for a night on the town that included a screening of Sunset Boulevard at the ImaginOn playhouse. It was part of a series entitled “Hollywood Shoots Itself: 11 Movies About Movies.” I saw Sunset Boulevard decades ago while working as a projectionist at a small television station, and was amazed at what I could remember — AND at what I’d forgotten.

Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, is an ambitious writer in 1949 Hollywood, but hasn’t sold a script in months. In typical writerly fashion, he wonders if just maybe his scripts are “too original” for Hollywood. (Hey, I’ve been guilty of that. How about you?) Anyway, Gillis finally snags an appointment with a producer, and makes his best elevator speech about a script for a movie with the working title Bases Loaded:

SHELDRAKE
All right, Gillis. You’ve got
five minutes. What’s your story
about?

GILLIS
It’s about a ball player, a rookie
shortstop that’s batting 347. The
poor kid was once mixed up in a hold-
up. But he’s trying to go straight —
except there’s a bunch of gamblers
who won’t let him.

SHELDRAKE
So they tell the kid to throw the
World Series, or else, huh?

GILLIS
More or less. Only for the end
I’ve got a gimmick that’s real good.

Lesson for Writers Number 1: Your story has to stand out. Not only must the stakes be high, but you have to have a concept that’ll intrigue and entertain. It’s too easy to resort to stale formulas and hope YOUR version of a plot that’s been done to death will be different because YOU are the writer. News flash: It’ll take more than good writing or, worse, some kind of gimmick to get readers’ attention. Writers have to offer both a theme that readers will identify with as well as an interesting new twist on that theme. Gillis just doesn’t get it.

But he runs into someone who does when Sheldrake summons Betty, one of his readers, played by a businesslike but adorable Nancy Olson:

BETTY
Hello, Mr. Sheldrake. On that Bases
Loaded. I covered it with a 2-page
synopsis.
(She holds it out)
But I wouldn’t bother.

SHELDRAKE
What’s wrong with it?

BETTY
Just a rehash of something that
wasn’t very good to begin with.

Ouch. But Betty’s right about Gillis’ script. In fact, everyone can see it’s a stale muffin except Gillis. Betty and Gillis gradually forget their awkward first meeting and couple up, but guess what? Even after Betty falls in love with Gillis, she still thinks Bases Loaded is a turkey.

That brings us to Lesson for Writers Number 2: Don’t take criticism personally. When you hear your wip doesn’t have what it takes, it doesn’t mean your readers don’t like you. Consider that the problems come from your manuscript rather than the debased natures of the philistines who don’t swoon over your work.

If you haven’t seen Sunset Boulevard, or haven’t seen it in a while, check it out. It’s a treasure chest of hilarious, sad, embarrassing, and educational scenes for all writers.

On Superheroes

Cuhullin
Cuhullin Riding His Chariot into Battle

Brian Kaller looks at the similarities and differences between the competing blockbusters Captain America: Civil War and Superman vs. Batman, and why Marvel movies are better than DC movies. Along the way, he reveals just what it is about superheroes that continues to fascinate us:

As long as humans have existed, we have told legends of people with super-human abilities, and delighted in stories of how they faced danger and out-fought or out-witted enemies. Gilgamesh for the Sumerians, Odysseus and Jason for the Greeks, Samson for the Hebrews, Beowulf for the Saxons – ancient scriptures, barbarian sagas and oral traditions swell with superheroes. In a more modern era the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Paul Bunyan, the Lone Ranger, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes are all basically super-heroes, doing things real people can’t do. Every culture has stories like this; our forebears told them around campfires or mead-halls, 20th-century kids read them in comic books.

When societies abandon that heroic ideal, when they acquire the “philosophic indifference” of Gibbon’s latter-day Romans, the culture is in deep trouble. As our country slipped away from the post-war glow into an era of escalating hedonism, it abandoned superheroes save as pablum for children.

Yet Generation X-ers and Millennials, children of the counterculture, embraced them even into adulthood, perhaps desperate for the heroes their culture no longer provided. In this century, as the nation grows ever more troubled, we are turning back to stories that give us heroes to believe in – a sign that there is hope for us.

Yes, we can dismiss superhero movies as unrealistic, childish, and silly. And in a world of hip cynicism, self-serving politicians, and sleazy celebrities, why read or write about stubbornly courageous characters who risk life and reputation for friends or family? In a world where mouthing the easy lies of our time ensures success, why would anyone in his right mind cheer a character who questions, or, heaven forbid, rebels against accepted thought?

Because we must.

“If you’re a writer, declare yourself the best writer!”

Here’s an inspirational scene from one of my favorite movies, Midnight in Paris. Gil Pender, a young writer on vacation in Paris, climbs into a cab at the stroke of midnight, and when he gets out, he finds himself in 1920s Paris, where he encounters many literary and artistic legends. In the following clip, Gil gets to discuss writing with Ernest Hemingway. Gil can’t resist asking for a small favor:

Gil: Would you read it?

Ernest Hemingway: Your novel?

Gil: Yeah, it’s about 400 pages long, and I’m just looking for an opinion.

Ernest Hemingway: My opinion is I hate it.

Gil: Well you haven’t even read it yet.

Ernest Hemingway: If it’s bad, I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing, and if it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate it all the more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.

Gil: You know what it is? I’m having a hard time getting somebody to evaluate it.

Ernest Hemingway: You’re too self-effacing; it’s not manly. If you’re a writer [slams table with his fist], declare yourself the best writer.

Ha! Yeah, that sounds like Ernie. And he’s right: It takes more than a little self-confidence to put your heart into a story and hit that “Send” key. You don’t know what the person judging your work is going to think. That’s scary — definitely not for the weak of heart.

Jami Gold recently addressed this in a great blog post titled “What Helps You BE a Writer?”:

Outside of any writing skill that we may or may not have, we also bring other aspects of ourselves to the writing-journey table. We might have personality traits that help us want to be a writer, such as a love of storytelling or a desire to entertain, educate, or inspire others.

Or we might have personality traits that help us stick with writing, even during the bad times. As Delilah mentioned in her post, stubbornness (tenacity, perseverance, determination, etc.) ranks high in many of the replies.

We might have enough of an ego that we think others are interested in what we have to say. Or we might have a desire to prove ourselves worthy of being listened to.

Jami and Ernie are on to something: If you’re going to write, go big. Go brazen. And keep going.