How watching movies has helped my writing

So a friend turned me on to Moviepass, which allows you to watch one movie a day for a flat fee of $9.99 a month. Yeah, it’s an unsustainable business model, and it’s probably not going to last. But it’s proven TERRIBLE for me, because I’ve gotten absolutely addicted to watching movies, and when the company goes bankrupt I’ll probably end up spending way more on movies than I do now.

Anyways, I’ve watched six movies in the last ten days. At this point I’ve seen most of the Oscar contenders aside from The Darkest Hour and The Post. I have to say, I think this is a good year for movies. None of the Oscar nominees is an embarrassment (the way Hacksaw Ridge was last year) and none are nearly as dull as last year’s Arrival or Manchester by the Sea. The one that comes closest to not being worth your time is, in my opinion, Dunkirk, simply because there’s not a lot in the movie to hold onto. But even in that film there’s a very good strand of the story (about two soldiers doing their best to escape from the beach and get onto the rescue ships) that serves to undercut and fill out the traditional war story.

Of this year’s Best Picture movies, I’d say The Shape of WaterCall Me By Your Name, and Phantom Thread are superlative, and Lady Bird, Get Out, and Three Billboards are extremely good. If any of those films won Best Picture I’d say, “That makes sense to me” (well, maybe not Three Billboards…)

I just saw Call Me By Your Name about five hours ago, which might shape this opinion, but I loved it. I’ve definitely seen friends call it beautiful, but empty, which is a fair criticism. But to me the movie seemed to have one purpose, which was to capture the heart of longing, and it did that better than almost any film I’ve ever seen. In fact, if there’s any movie that comes close to what I want to do with my own work, it’s Call Me By Your Name. I just loved how the camera lingered on the actor’s bodies. Love how it accentuated their long eyebrows. Loved the contrast between Timothee Chalamet’s underdeveloped pale body and Armie Hammer’s very developed golden physique. Loved the hints of intellect that were never taken too far. I don’t think the movie was empty. I think it examined the nature and shape of desire: the ways that you’re attracted not just to a person’s personality or to their character, but also to their body, and that the physical often comes before the personal.

Admittedly it was a very microscopic story. Yes, it was set in 1983, and yes there was no homophobia and no awareness of AIDS or HIV. But whatevs! You know, somewhere in America there are two undocumented people falling in love, and they’re not worrying about getting deported right now, because they’re FALLING IN LOVE. In some ways these character’s self-absorption feels, to me, very real.

But I recognize that this movie is hitting me right in the place where I, right now, am sitting. I do think it’s about thirty minutes too long, and it didn’t seem nearly as in command of its material as The Shape of Water did (say what you want about it, but TSoW is structurally perfect. I mean basically every element of it is perfect.)

Watching all of these movies has been good for my writing. I’ve started to ‘see’ a little bit more with my mind’s eye as I write. Now when I’m writing I’m able to zoom out and think, “Okay, what would this look like? What would the audience actually see?” I think there’s a tendency, when writing prose, to write from a place that’s too deep inside the character and not well enough connected to the events they’re actually experiencing. Ever since I’ve watching all these films I’ve been able to focus on the action itself, and I think that’s resulted in stronger scenes and better set-pieces.

Oh, and also in more variety of scenes! Because in a movie every scene can’t just be people sitting around and talking. You need movement. Variety. Changes in pacing.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about lately (this isn’t entirely related to the movie stuff) is that when I’m writing a book, I try to understand, “What is sustaining the audience’s interest” and “What is sustaining my own interest.”

The interesting thing, to me, is that the thing which sustains the audience’s interest is usually really simple. It’s just suspense. Will they or won’t they? Who did it? Will they defeat the bad guy?

It’s easy, I think, for the writer to forget about suspense, because to the writer, that stuff really doesn’t matter. After all, we mostly know everything that’s going to happen. And for us the thing that’s holding our attention is usually, well, it can be anything, actually. I try to write characters that are larger-than-life–ones which do or say things that the ordinary person wouldn’t–and there’s a certain amusement in letting those people play. I also like to create friends: people I’d like to know; people composed of the best and most interesting parts of people I know in real life. And I like to create startling juxtapositions–putting together people who in real life maybe would never know each other.

I think I’ve gotten very good at telling when my own attention is engaged and when I’m just doing what I feel like I’m supposed to. The interesting thing about following your own attention is noting the places where you get bored. Sometimes I know, even before writing a scene, that it’s going to bore me. Which makes me wonder if it’s even necessary. For instance, right now I’m writing a character who, although still in his thirties, lives with his parents. The story seems to demand a scene where he interacts with them, but the idea sort of bores me. And it’s making me think, well, maybe they’re not necessary. He lives with them, but he’s come to a sort of detenté with them, and they’re not actually that important to the story I’m telling.

This is the thing, I think, that often causes writer’s block. There’s a story you know how to tell, but it’s not the story you need to tell. And that means that writing is, necessarily, going to be torture until you re-learn the trick of listening to yourself.

Have seen a run of good movies lately

sing.jpgEither I’m mellowing out, or I’m having really good luck, or movies are getting better. Normally I hate both the big blockbuster films and the films that’re being positioned for awards. I hate them all!

But lately I’ve seen La La Land, Fantastic Beasts, Rogue One, and an animated film, Sing, and I enjoyed them all!!!

Rogue One was a relief, because my expectations were so low. The last four Star Wars films (I do not except The Force Awakens) have been so bad. I really only want three things from an action film. I want to understand what the characters want. I want to understand why they want those things. And I want to experience some sense of tension or suspense. The Force Awakens failed on all of these counts. It was nothing more than a collection of fights that were stitched together by happenstance (kidnappings and bad luck, mostly) and neither the objective nor the motivations were ever clear.

Rogue One, in contrast, made much more sense. I knew exactly what they wanted to find at each moment. I had some sense of why they wanted to find those things. And I genuinely wondered whether and how they would succeed. It was such a relief to see a Star Wars movie that was actually watchable.

And because the movie was watchable, I saw, for the first time in decades, some of the things I like about Star Wars: the visuals, for one thing. Star Wars is such a janky, run-down future. Nothing looks like it’s well-maintained. Nothing is in good shape. Everybody dresses like they’re in the Wild West. It’s a sad, fallen place, with a few touches of grandeur. And I liked that!

I also thought they did an amazing job of resurrecting Grand Moff Tarkin. I read online a few reviewers who complained he looked fake and all CGI-ey, but that is bullshit. Going into the movie, I didn’t know the actor was already dead. All through the film I just thought, wow, that guy hasn’t aged at all in the last thirty years! Only as we were walking out did my dad tell me they’d actually digitally recreated him. You could not tell the difference! It’s amazing! This shit is the future!

Let’s see what else. On the other end of the spectrum was Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. This is the new Harry Potter film. It’s a total mess. So many plot threads get introduced in this movie. I mean they’re still being introduced well into the halfway point. The main character does not have a strong reason for being involved in the action, he just sort of bumbles into it.

And yet…I understood what they were doing. They wanted to create a world that had as much richness as Hogwarts. They wanted to make something that could support a five-movie franchise. And I think they succeeded. I was not only charmed, I am positively eager to see what happens next. I loved Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander: the naturalist who’s both bold and shy, and who’s completely unable to get along with people. And I loved the slow burn of the romance. He and the female lead don’t even kiss! They don’t even acknowledge that they like each other! It was was utterly fantastic. I can’t wait to see what happens to them in the next book.

The plot was the usual ham-handed Harry Potter allegory, but the set-pieces had a lot of charm. And I liked the characters. And I thought some nice conflicts were built in w/r/t to how the Wizarding World sees all the (incredibly annoying and dangerous) creatures that Newt is trying to save.

Umm, what else, what else, what else. Loved La La Land. The ending at first made me incredibly angry, but I think they actually managed to pull it off. I did feel the story was a bit misaligned. The obstacle that came between them in the end seemed like it came out of nowhere. I mean, it was a problem that wasn’t even present at all in the beginning of the movie.

I thought Gosling and Stone had plenty of charm and chemistry, and I liked what it had to say about art and the artistic life. These are two people who’re more in love with the idea of being artists than they are with creation itself. They’re both obsessed with the mystique of old Hollywood, and, to them, capturing a piece of that glamor is the main reason for doing what they do. Which to me felt very honest. I think most artists, truth be told, care mostly about bottling and reproducing the way other art made them feel.

The singing and dancing were very mediocre. Not a memorable song in the bunch, too, which annoyed me. But I did like it a lot. Wouldn’t be too unhappy if it won an Oscar, particularly one for Best Original Screenplay.

Oh, and what was the last one? Sing. It’s an animated movie about talking animals that get into a singing competition. I have to say, it’s a pleasure to watch a film that’s well-structured. I swear to God, they literally create these animated movies in a laboratory, and it shows. This movie had a perfect structure. You had the show’s promoter, who’s sort of a huckster, and you had the five idealistic wannabes who he ropes into this competition. And each and every single one has a core conflict, and almost every scene is about increasing their stakes. For instance, the whole idea starts because the promoter needs to save his theater. So he has an incentive for the show to be a success. But then he accidentally prints that there’s a $100,000 prize (money he doesn’t have). So now if he’s gonna pay the prize, he REALLY needs the show to be a success. And then we learn that his dad spent all of his life savings so the hero could buy this place, and if he loses it he’ll be letting down his dad.

And it’s the same with each of the singers. They all have their personal stakes (why they need, on an emotional level, to win), and they often public stakes (why they need the money). And everything’s then layered over with another level of conflict because of course not everybody can win!

It was just such a pleasure, on a storytelling level, to watch. I mean this is basic storytelling, but it’s actually really hard to make everything fit, and oftentimes movies don’t even try! So I was very very very pleased with the way this one did. And also the climax of the monkey (Johnny) storyline literally made me cry.


Lauren Bacall is the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in my entire life

Lauren-Bacalls-style-The-Big-Sleep-3-e1396883367646Watched THE BIG SLEEP today. Normally I find myself not as attracted to the stars of movies in the 40s and 50s, simply because beauty standards have changed somewhat, but in this case I was surprised to discover that the star, Lauren Bacall, is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life.

Bogey, on the other hand, mystified me. He was fantastic in the role and not unattractive, but the way every woman in the movie winked at him and was like, “Oh, Bogey, you can do anything you want to me” made me wonder if a 1946 audience would’ve viewed him differently–to my eyes, he wasn’t even the hottest guy in that movie.

The film itself was pretty good. Extremely confusing. The Lauren Bacall character kind of stole the show–she was so much more vivid than she was in the book. On the other hand, it was weird to have so much emphasis on Marlowe. In the books, he fades into the background and feels more like a lens into this bleak, lonely version of Los Angeles, but in the movie it’s impossible to ignore him. I was left wondering what’s his angle? Why does he care? What makes Marlowe tick? You never really find out.

Oh, finally, the General was so good! I kept waiting for him to come back! He was fantastic. Half-dead and dissatisfied with life, but still kicking.

Was really, really, really, really entranced by that Steve Jobs movie. I have so much to say about it.

the-intense-first-trailer-for-aaron-sorkins-steve-jobs-movie-paints-a-picture-of-an-egotistical-and-difficult-manThis new Steve Jobs movie, the one directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, is fantastic. I have rarely been so electrified by a movie. It’s swift and beautiful and every one of the characters has such a distinct visual and personality. It’s lovingly crafted in the way that Jobs’ products were lovingly crafted. I particularly liked how the characters’ looks changed through the years, as styles changed and they grew older (in fact, the only one that didn’t work was Jobs himself. The alteration in his look between the 1988 and 1999 was utterly jarring. He went from being suited and perfectly buttoned up to looking like a bum.)

I’m way more familiar with Aaron Sorkin’s work than I am with Danny Boyle’s, so I’m going to commit the fallacy of referring to this as Sorkin’s movie. To be fair, it was FULL of Sorkin trademarks, right down to the extended walk-and-talk sequences (each act was a forty-minute walk and talk that was usually very tightly centered around Michael Fassbender’s Jobs character, with maybe one or two cut-aways to Kate Winslet’s character–she plays Jobs’ VP of Marketing, Joanna Hoffmann, or to whichever actress is playing Jobs’ daughter in this time period).

I loved the movie the way I’ve loved the best of Aaron Sorkin’s stuff. The dialogue is so fast and so smart, it’s just pleasurable to see and feel human minds move at such an intense speed. In the worst of his work, this strength can turn into pain, as the characters say such godawfully smarmy and annoying stuff. But in this movie that was ameliorated. Jobs was incredibly smarmy, but the movie understood that, and delighted on calling him out on it. (My favorite line was when his daughter points to the iMac and is like, “You can talk all you want about Picasso and design thinking and the opera and all of that, but nothing is going to change the fact that this looks like Judy Jetson’s Easy-Bake oven).

You know what the movie is like. This Steve Jobs is a monster. Right from the beginning, he’s unredeemably bad. Not only is he a dishonest businessman, but he is quite cruel to his daughter. In the first fifteen minutes of the movie he sits down and carefully explains to her that his computer, the LISA, is not named after her: the similarity in names is just a coincidence. He is worse in this movie than he ever could’ve been in life. He alienates everyone, and he does it for no reason. Even at the very end of the movie, I’m a little mystified as to why he was so awful to his daughter. He tries to sum it up by saying, “I’m badly made,” but that’s not an explanation–it’s an non-explanation. The movie spends two hours talking about him. Everyone in the film is obsessed with trying to explain him, but in the end he’s still such a cypher. As far as I understand it, the movie implies that his central problem is a need for control. At one point he berates an assistant because he asked for a complete blackout in the auditorium, but the exit lights are still on. Even that tiny amount of light is too much for him.

Okay, so he needs control. But there’s nothing more there. Why does he need control? What does it do for him? At the end of the movie, I still have no idea. He was adopted? So what. I don’t disbelieve that being adopted could cause this kind of pathology, but it’s not clear that Jobs believes that about himself. What’s really missing here is the interior life of Steve Jobs. What does he tell himself about his own actions? Why does he believe that he acts this way? How does he justify mistreating his daughter and his oldest friend? In the movie portrait of him, he talks and he talks, but we’re never given access to his interior life.

I think that’s the reason for the prime flaw of the movie–the way it constantly needs to contextualize him. Everyone is always telling stories about Jobs or analyzing him. They’ll have a big conflict with him, maybe about his refusal to give credit to anyone else, and then somebody will say, “Why are you like that? Are you really so petty that you refuse to acknowledge the worth of a project just because you weren’t involved in it?”

And that’s bad writing. It’s too much explanation. And in some ways, a bait-and-switch is being pulled here. The explanation is offered because his behavior needs an explanation. But it’s not at all clear that the explanation is accurate. Is that why he refuses to give the other team any credit? Because of his ego? Because he can’t imagine that anyone else could be right? I don’t know. The movie hasn’t demonstrated that. It hasn’t made that case to me. The portrait of Jobs is incomplete. And in many ways it’s a huge artistic failure, because this is NOT the real Jobs. Lies have been told here. Conversations–entire relationships–have been invented. And the only justification for doing that is if you’re going to end up telling a coherent story, and in this case he doesn’t do that.

But you know what? The movie is still excellent. Jobs is spellbinding. You can’t help but watch him and wonder about him. And I’m not one of those hacks who’ll throw up their hands and be like, “That ambiguity is exactly why the movie is good.” No, that’s bullshit. The movie goes beyond ambiguity. It abdicates on its responsibility to tell a coherent story, and I don’t think that’s right. But the thing it does is so rare. It creates a group of people who feel so fully alive. In that, in those moments, they feel present. It’s almost an idealistic vision–people who’ve come together to do a very hard thing–to launch a product–and are so focused on doing it. I don’t know. That’s the best way I can explain the movie’s appeal. The aliveness.

And not all of Sorkin’s work has that quality. Much of it feels the opposite. The Newsroom, for instance, felt dead. In that work, people were tools. They existed purely in order to make points. Here it’s the opposite. It’s like they’ve escaped from Sorkin’s control. Everyone knows that he has contempt for technology and for the people who worship it. And yet he also has a tremendous amount of talent. And somehow that contempt has stripped away alot of the preachiness, so that we’re left with people simply existing in the moment.

The movie did make me a little angry at Sorkin. He is such an amazing writer–better than I’ll ever be, probably–but he seems utterly unable to overcome his tics. For instance, every one of his stories features the same woman character. It’s Emily Mortimer in the Newsroom, Amanda Peet in Studio 60, Donna Moss in The West Wing, and Felicity Huffman in Sports Night (as well as Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War). Only Moneyball lacks this character–perhaps because that movie had NO women). You know who I’m talking about. It’s the strong, talented woman who follows an arrogant, flawed man around and points out his faults but is also devoted to him and does what he says. It’s so fucking annoying. In this movie it’s Kate Winslet. She’s amazing! Even her voice, with its half-Polish accent, is brilliant. But she isn’t given any kind of story! Why can’t he rise above this! You just want to slap him! Reverse the sexes! That’s all it’d take to create something so fresh and surprising. But he can’t do it. I don’t know why. I think it might be because he simply can’t imagine a woman in a truly powerful position–in his shows even when women are nominally in charge, as in Studio 60 or The News Room, they end up in supporting roles, enabling and comforting the men who truly carry the story forward).

It’s such a goddamn waste.

See the movie, though! It’s fantastic! Write back to me and tell me if you bought any of its (many) explanations for why its version of Steve Jobs was such a monster.

(P.S. Seth Rogen is fantastic in this. He’s playing the typical Seth Rogen schmo, but very stripped down. And he’s so completely lovable! I mean I just wanted to hug him.)

Finally saw GONE GIRL. It was alright.

exclusive-gone-girl-teaser-poster.1_FIN_1I mean, it was good. Pretty good. I’d forgotten that Ben Affleck is a tolerably good actor. And he was perfect for this too, with his big-and-slightly-bloated face.

The one major difference between the book and the film was that I feel like Nick (Affleck’s character) came off as way more sympathetic in the film. In the book, I always felt like he was terrible and sort of deserved what he got. But in the film, I was always rooting for him.

Part of this was, I think, because of the cat. In the movie, he’s always picking up this adorable cat and stroking it and feeding it and cuddling with it. And you’re all like, “Well if he loves his cat, then he can’t be all bad!”

The other part was his sister. His sister is a really down-to-earth, sympathetic presence. And the easy rapport that the two characters have really makes him seem pretty human. I mean, if he’s capable of forming a connection to another person, then he can’t be all bad, right?

These are just inherent differences between the two media. In film, we’re able to see the cat. We’re able to see the grace with which he and his sister inhabit the same space. What we’re not able to see are his thoughts. In the book, we got to see his thoughts. And many of those thoughts are pretty ugly.

Anyways, solid film.

It’s a bit annoying how whenever the gay teen comes out in a movie, the parent is like, “I already knew!”

The comparison to Clueless is not unmerited
The comparison to Clueless is not unmerited

I watched a really good teen movie the other night: it’s about three high school teen queens who complete to become best friends with the school’s only out gay boy.  And it had some really wonderful and subtle characterization in it. Particularly loved the Mormon couple, since they were well-observed and true to life people who weren’t typical teen movie stereotypes.

However, the movie did do one thing that I didn’t like: it had two gay teenagers in it and two separate comings-out, and in both cases, the parents were like, “No worries, we already knew you were gay.”

This always happens in movies and tv shows. The teen gets their gumption together and unwraps the biggest secret of their life, and it fizzles. And, you know, I get the impulse here, but it has implications that are slightly insulting and it’s also just not true to life.

The impulse is to avoid any sense of heteronormativity, because if the parent evinced any kind of surprise, then maybe the movie would need to confront the idea that, while the parent might be okay with homosexuality, in an ideal world they might still prefer for their kid to be straight. And if the parent acted at all surprised, then the movie would need to consider what it means to be queer, and to accept, in some sense, that being queer is out of the ordinary. And since the movie is deeply uncomfortable with that, it just elides the whole thing altogether.

What makes this insulting is that, as a result, the kids come off as if they’re being silly and stupid. Like, why did they bother to stay closeted for so long when there were no consequences to coming out? And how could they think that they were keeping a secret, when it was really sooo obvious? The implication here is sexual identity is something that’s imposed on you: the teen isn’t gay because of their own subjective feelings of sexual attraction to members of the same sex (feelings that really are not accessible or perceivable to anyone else), but rather because those around them have decided that they’re gay.

Secondly, and more importantly, this is a false narrative. I mean, I know everyone is bored of the coming-out story where you get thrown out of the house or shipped off to re-education camp. Nowadays we do live in a world where many parents think of the possibility that their kids are queer. And there are many more parents who are, after a brief moment of surprise, willing to accept their kids whole-heartedly. But we do not live in a world where every single parent knows, without fail, that their kid is gay and is just waiting for their kid to bring it up to them. And it does a disservice to parents to make them feel like: a) they ought to be able to intuit their kid’s gayness; and b) if they can’t intuit it, then it’s not coming.

So yeah, I mean, we can have our happy/fluffy “I’ve known since you were seven years old” comings-out, but we should also continue to have some, “Uhh…wow…well…how long have you known?” comings-out, too.

There’s something a little bit endearing about right-wing extremism

happy-go-lucky-posterPeriodically, my Facebook feed gets riled up when some ultra-rightwinger decries multiculturalism or eulogizes the antebellum South or says that Obama is going to put us all in concentration camps or engages in some other tacky political display. And then everybody will jump in there and be like, “Grr, those people are ruining America.”

Which is totally okay. I don’t support those beliefs, and those people certainly are harming America, and everyone tends to view these things through the filter of their own experience: if I’d had more negative interactions with ultra-rightwingers or with their policies, then perhaps I too would be extremely enthused about bashing them.

But I was recently watching a British movie, Happy Go Lucky (directed by Mike Leigh) that crystallized some of my mixed feelings about right-wing fanatics. In this movie, there’s an abrasive driving instructor who slowly develops a romantic attraction for his pupil, a kindergarten teacher. And this teacher also becomes somewhat fascinating with the driving instructor. She wonders what made him so uptight and abrasive and tries to probe him and figure out whether he was bullied in school.

And then he goes off on this tirade about how school is all about shoving you into a box and making you regurgitate the status quo and how if you do that then you end up successful and happy, but if you insist on thinking for yourself then you end up shunted out and miserable. And I am totally onboard with that…right up until the tirade turns into a racist rant.

I really liked the driving instructor. I admire anyone who really cares about what he does. One of the most charming parts of the movie is where he explains his teaching philosophy to the kindergarten teacher after she laughs at one of the silly mnemonics that he’s trying to make her memorize. He takes his job really seriously, and he honestly believes his instruction will save his pupils’ lives someday. This is a guy who’s schlubby and lonely, but he’s not pathetic. He’s found a way to live, and, to me, there’s something gloriously countercultural about that.

Oh, and he’s also a crazy racist who believes that the government is forcing nonwhite people to immigrate to Britain and shoving multiculturalism down peoples’ throats in order to deprive the noble British people of their heritage. And he also believes in some crazy connection between the American Government and Satanism. The Illuminati might be in there somewhere, too.

Now…are his beliefs deplorable? Yes.

But is he ruining the world?

I don’t know.

To me, it almost feels like he’s part of the solution and not part of the problem. This is a guy who’s obviously very switched on. He thinks for himself. He forges his own path in life. And he’s figured out a way to live in accordance with his own values. And, to me, that’s much more important than what you believe about immigration.

I mean, you just need to look at the medium and the message. The things that the guy says are repulsive. But the way he lives is admirable. During the five minutes per day that he talks about politics, he might be making the world a worse place, but during the whole rest of the day, he serves as an example to all the other sad, lonely, and trapped people who are searching for some way—any way—to live with integrity.

These Marvel films tend to be pretty uninteresting on a visual level

_1395260042When it comes to movies, I do I enjoy watching big-budget visual effects spectacle. If all I wanted was a compelling story and interesting characters, then I could get that from many forms of media. But there’s no place besides a movie theater where I can watch a massive ship break apart and slowly drag its passengers down into the freezing deep.

However, there’s a devil’s bargain at work here. Because visual spectacle costs a lot of money, then the only movies which contain visual spectacle are going to be those are going to be big-budget studio films. And nobody makes a film like that unless they feel pretty confident that they’re going to recoup their investment. And the way that they make themselves feel confident is by futzing around with it until every possible objection to the movie is removed.

But that’s not enough. I don’t care how much money it costs to render a massive airship, all I care about is whether it looks cool. And the special effects in so many big-budget action movies simply don’t look cool. The biggest culprit here is, I think, all these Marvel superhero movies. I just came back from seeing Captain America: Winter’s Soldier, and I found it to be a very bland experience. The movie had no soul. Everything looked exactly like what I’d expect it to: sleek curves, shiny surfaces, silver / grey / brown color palette, lots of whirring motors. The fights were the same uninspired punch, punch, kick, jump over something, slide under something else, shoot somebody (repeated ad nauseum). It was incredibly expensive to create, but it was all just rather boring.

In order for an artistic work to be good, there’s got to be some kind of inspiration at work somewhere. At some point, someone needs to take a chance and do something new. It doesn’t have to be too big of a chance. I don’t expect a lot from these movies. I mean, the characters were pretty thin, and some of the coincidences were absurd (the Captain’s jogging buddy turns out to be a guy who can operate a super-suit), but that was okay. Where you lose me is when you make a movie that doesn’t do the one thing it’s supposed to do, which is look good.

Take, for instance, the main villain in the movie: The Winter Soldier.

This guy was so boring-looking. He was basically dressed like Snake from the Metal Gear Solid games, which is to say that he looked like every sneaky covert ops ninja you’ve ever seen in a tv show or game or movie or book. His big piece of flare was that his arm was metal.


No, the movie literally left me yawning. By the time it was half over, I was trying to see if I could fall asleep (I’ve had some very restful sleep in movie theaters. I still remember the great nap that I took during Ocean’s Twelve.)

The First and Last Novels That Made Me Cry

So, I was recently recommended John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, which is a YA novel about a sixteen year old girl with terminal cancer (its main schtick is that the girl herself is somewhat aware of cancer-novel tropes, which the novel sometimes subverts and sometimes gleefully obeys). Anyway, I was basically promised that the novel would make me cry. I was ready to cry. I was primed to cry. And although I loved the novel, I did not cry.

I was disappointed. I have cried while reading novels before, but it is not common, and I am always startled and happy when it does happen. So much of novelistic pleasure is, for me, somewhat abstract cerebral, that it feels really strange to be reminded that some part of my mind actually believes that this crazy written-down shit is happening to real people in some real place.

Anyways, I wish that I had, once upon a time, made a list of novels that made me cry. But, alas, I made no such list, and now I cannot remember whether Grapes of Wrath or The Jungle caused any moisture. What I can remember, though, is the first and last books that made me cry.

The first was, I think, near the end of Mercedes Lackey’s By The Sword, where the mercenary captain Kerowyn is coming to the rescue of the beleagured nation of Valdemar, but shit looks totally helpless, and everyone looks like they’re going to die, but people are waiting to die heroically…well, I teared up (I was about eleven). And I remember thinking, “Wow, this is the first time that a book has ever made me cry.” Man, I’ve reread that book so many times, and I still love it.

The last time I cried while reading a novel was about three months ago, on Christmas Day. It was somewhere during the closing chapters of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks Of Being A Wallflower: a YA novel about a slightly disturbed high school freshman who makes friends with some totally awesome high school seniors who are like the coolest thing ever, jeez, my eyes are stinging just thinking about it.

Oh, I also just remembered that the first time I cried during a video game was during Phantasy Star IV (for the Sega Genesis), when Alys died. Man, that was so sad. It was such a good death, too. It wasn’t a girlfriend getting refrigerated; it was a powerful female mentor sacrificing her life (Obi-Wan style) to save her naive male mentee.

And the first time I cried during a movie was in Braveheart, when that motherfucking Robert the Bruce betrayed Mel Gibson and lost him the Battle of Falkirk.

Both of these prior two crying incidents were around when I was eleven. I know this because right after I cried while reading By The Sword, I remember stopping and thinking, “Hmm, I wonder what other stuff I’ve cried during. Oh yeah, there was that time during Braveheart….”

I think the lesson here is that the best media-related crying comes either: A) when you’re a kid; or B) while consuming media meant for kids. What times have you cried while consuming cultural product?

Midnight in Paris was fun but trite

I just finished watching Midnight In Paris. Of course, I loved it. How could any lover of A Moveable Feast or The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas or the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald fail to love this movie? Watching a witty, diffident young man from the modern day pal around with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and Dali and Picasso makes me as happy as a musician biopic must make a music fan, or a based-on-a-real-story sports film must make a sports fan.

However, there was also something kind of trite about the film. In the movie, a thirtysomething screenwriter (a self-described “Hollywood hack”) is visiting Paris with his fiancé. He fights with her during the day (she does not share his ardor for Paris and evinces no interest in his novel-in-progress), and he spends his nights travelling back in time and experiencing 1920s Paris with his literary idols (mostly an incredibly pretentious Hemingway).

The story is basically about how the protagonist, Gil Prender, doesn’t really believe in himself. He’s not sure whether his writing is good. He’s not sure he has what it takes to be a novelist. He came to Paris in his twenties in order to write, but he didn’t trust himself enough to stay. He left, he sold out, and he’s regretted it ever since. I don’t think it can be much of a spoiler to say that at the end of the movie, he rediscovers his confidence in himself.

Now, I won’t say that it’s not important to believe in oneself. Few artists are able to work without a tremendous amount of audacity. But…that audacity is about continuing to work, despite everything and everyone telling you that you should quit. It’s hardly a triumph of audacity when a magical taxi takes you back into the past, and all of your literary heroes befriend you and give you peptalks on what it means to be an artist, and Gertrude Stein and Hemingway read your novel and tell you that you’re awesome.

You’d have to be a huge fool to not stay in Paris and take a serious shot at novel-writing after the universe reorders the fabric of space and time just so you can receive a boost to your literary pretensions.

That’s why this movie is trite. It’s not a real story, it’s a daydream. Oh, of course, Gil comes away from it with some weird lesson about nostalgia and how people should look forward and live in the present and not always be idealizing the past. But that’s dumb. That’s not what the movie is about. The movie is about a man who’s settling for a career he doesn’t want, just because it pays well. It’s about a man who’s settling for a wife he doesn’t love, just because she’s beautiful. And the movie’s answer to these conundrums is for the universe to provide Gil with pretty substantial evidence that he can get any woman he wants and that his writing is spell-binding.

To me, that’s not an interesting story. I’d prefer to watch the opposite of this, a story that has all the fun caricatures of 1920s lions, but none of the bits where those lions repeatedly assure the Woody Allen stand-in that he’s definitely one of them. I’d like to watch a movie about a man who goes back and finds that his (in real life, astonishingly cruel) literary idols think he’s a bore and a fool. I’d like to watch a story about a man who hands his novel to Gertrude Stein and gets told that he has no talent. What does that man do? Does he switch careers? Does he dump his beautiful fiancé?