Maya Lin

Thinking about documentaries this week, I watched Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. Was it really twenty years ago that this film came out?

Who doesn’t love a story about a student who wins a contest that all the leaders in her field have entered? Of course it dwells on the controversy about the design of her Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which, thirty-some years later, obviously resulted from memorializing a controversial war after so few years. And there’s 21-year-old Maya Lin seeing this in the present tense, and articulating it like no one else around her could. I wasn’t surprised to see that her parents were both professors, her father the dean of Ohio University’s College of Fine Arts.

One detail, I found especially inspiring. You’d think that the sculptor-architect-memorialist thinks exclusively about space and sightlines. She says  that in making a memorial she writes in detailed prose what she is trying to achieve with the piece, before she even visits the site. The objective – the problem – first, then the abstraction, then the implementation. Writer-director Freida Lee Mock also went on to make Wrestling with Angels, the 2006 doc about Tony Kushner.

Last Woody Allen Post Ever

One week I’m singing the praises of the “lesser works” of great songwriters, the next I am complaining about the lesser works of great screenwriters. Woody Allen, if you follow last week’s logic, would be one of those exceptional artists whose oeuvre is so rewarding, you still want to go and see his failures. That worked for about a decade, but as the 90’s became the 00’s everyone was excused any time they wanted to tune him out. Now it’s 2014.

No single post on this blog inspired so many private messages of “Hold on now” as one I posted about Woody back in February. His fans, and the fans of due process, are correct to point out that he still deserves the presumption of innocence regarding his family life. Andrew O’Hehir at Salon correctly points out that his movies are another story.

If this were a soviet republic, and I were the Commissar of Cinema, I would force Comrade Allen to make half as many films, and to take notes and do script revisions like everyone else does. He’s well into his Mermaid Avenue years, if he were that other Woody, but still living on the Upper East Side, which I suppose is a testament to our lack of imagination. As long as he lines up a few names in his films, we’ll keep seeing them, just enough of us at a time.


Believe all the hype about Boyhood. It’s a monument. While it’s perfectly consistent with the rest of Richard Linklater’s work, it’s like no other film I know. Watching it last night was like watching both The Last Picture Show and The Squid and the Whale all in one. It’s full of Texana, but also portrays the American family with such clarity for the first time. At two hours and forty minutes – and I am a downright crank about films taking too long – I was sorry to see it end.

Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater in Richard Linklater's "Boyhood."

Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”

Shot over 11 years with the same cast, it’s a testament to the principle of the “forward momentum” device that this film works as well as it does, since all it really has to go on is the artificial momentum of the looming milestones in its hero Mason’s life. In most scripts, when the suspense that results from some clash of characters is coming up too light, writers are advised to add some “forward momentum” in the form of an occasion: a road trip, a pregnancy, or ticking time bomb, or a birthday party that all the characters have to attend, or anything that characters can anticipate.

Linklater deftly saves most of these for the last twenty minutes of Boyhood, but it never feels like a gimmick. Minutes before it ends, Mason asks his father, played by Ethan Hawke, what it (growing up) is all about, and his father says something like, How the hell should I know? They’re talking about life but they could be talking about the film. Linklater’s few missteps seem like the result of a filmmaker who lost his nerve and needed to graft some more narrative over his wounded story, most notably in the form of an immigrant laborer who reappears years later to thank Mason’s mother for her parental advice. The exchange telegraphs what was already a clear narrative thread, that family and strangers alike dispense advice to the young, but the young have a knack for sifting through the good  from the bullshit. Like Slacker, but much more subtly, since you’re watching the haircuts and not listening to the rambling, Boyhood is about the good and bad advice a kid grows up with, and the fits and starts of learning to value a father’s advice in particular.

If Richard Linklater doesn’t get at least a Best Director nomination, then I will never utter the phrase “Academy Award” again in my life.


The Soundtrack to Getting It Done

“Those who can, do, and those who can’t, blog.”

Not exactly true, but words that give me comfort when I’ve let time pass without recording my observations about writing so faithfully. Trust me, readers, it only means I have been meeting my deadlines for once. I’m rewriting a thriller set in upstate New York, fulfilling a long-term ambition of setting a story in a vacation destination in the slight off season.

I love to spin music while writing – literally spin it on LPs, since the act of getting up and walking to the turntable is a convenient way to count time. If you flip the record and you’re still on the same page, then you know you’re going slow. Say, for example, I put on Court and Spark. Writing is enjoyable, but “Free Man in Paris” means Side One is already half done, and if I’m diddling with the same paragraph, then it’s time to make some quick decisions. “Other People’s Parties” means it’s almost over, and I’d better have moved on.

If, like Jonathan Franzen has written about, you struggle to focus while the internet is just a click away on your screen, then LPs make a good means to discipline yourself, Musical Chairs style: As long as the music’s playing, no Safari for you!

And then there’s the music itself. Some albums lend themselves to a getting-it-done atmosphere more than others. Eric Hobsbawm, writing about the 1930s, says it was the decade when many shops and homes starting playing the radio all day long, and music became the “aural wallpaper of twentieth century life” (which is a delicate and well-played metaphor for a historian). At your desk, your music becomes the soundtrack, and you the dramatic hero, in the thrilling story of the page that got written using nothing but a keyboard.

Get Happy!!

The more I cultivate a regular writing practice, the more I get off on the music of songwriters with a big body of work. One day this week, for example, I put on Time Out of Mind. It has the atmosphere I’m trying to create on the page, but I ask myself, “Are any of these sad, plodding songs even in the top 50 Dylan songs?” Possibly not, but knowing that it’s not only Dylan, but Dylan at age 56, embarking on his late life journey as guy with a cheeky sense of humor about himself just going and going, still writing good music, it’s inspirational. Verse chorus, verse chorus, sometimes a bridge, verse chorus: This is all he does all day, like Giacometti remaking the same figure again and again.

Alas, my “copy” of Time Out of Mind is off the Internet, just line items on my iTunes, or I’d have listened to it all week. So instead I turned to Get Happy!!, which, according to Elvis Costello’s biography Complicated Shadows, he recorded in a small town in Holland in 1979 with the Attractions, a big stack of soul records, and a steady supply of cocaine. His manager visited from London once, when he saw how high their booze bill was and needed to see what the hell was going on.

It was an easy Elvis album to take a pass on while I was in college. It lacks obvious favorites. But God damn, song after two-minute song, one solid pop track after another, a walking AM radio station. Side One finally takes a few breaths with “Clown Time Is Over” and “New Amsterdam,” the eighth and ninth out of ten songs, and you know it’s time to wind down the task at hand, before “High Fidelity” puts you back on the adrenaline train. Cocaine and Motown. Get it done.

(Ahh, music videos were better then.) I guess being a screenwriter means forgoing any hope of being known for a body of work the way a great songwriter is. You get something like two chances to make an impression, and even if you are successful, you still won’t have the luxury of an audience that contextualizes any individual script by seeing it as part of your overall work. There are a few writer-directors so noteworthy that even their less-than-stellar films are rewarding to watch closely, but screenwriters? Except for Paul Schrader, I can’t think of any.

Elaine Stritch: “Every Breath Is a Victory.”

God bless Elaine Stritch.  I read minutes ago that she passed away. I know there will be lots of tributes this week, and talk about her many roles, but I will always picture her in her walk-on part in John Turturro’s masterpiece Romance and Cigarettes. This scene features two of the best-known TV gangsters, and she chews them up:

She had a real show biz voice and delivery. Her odd ways of phrasing lines suggests someone struggling to remember them, but each time she instantly recovers by channeling people who spoke half-forgotten idioms. Who would have guessed that she would outlive James Gandolfini?