Tag: writing

What I write about when I write about movies

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I can’t have been the first person to use that title, right? Originality is not something I concern myself with, a truth which you will see in just a moment as I attack the question of how to write about movies a full week after everybody else has had their say. Deal with it! Anyways, last week Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a blog post at rogerebert.com imploring film critics, especially those on the internet for some reason, to write about the formal aspects of filmmaking in their reviews. The whole article is interesting but if you’ve already read it or don’t want to, allow me to remind you or inform you about the two most relevant quotes.

[I]n criticism of every kind there is appallingly little careful consideration of form. I see a lot of writing that describes what a piece of art is about, not so much about how it is about it.

Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms. They are not just about plot, characterization and theme. Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece.

Otherwise it’s all just book reports or political op-eds that happen to be about film and TV. It’s literary criticism about visual media. It’s only achieving half of its potential, if that. And it’s doing nothing to help a viewer understand how a work evokes particular feelings in them as they watch it.

Aha. Interesting stuff there. A few misconceptions about how literary criticism works (or, how it should work), but some insightful critiques about modern film writing. Except, of course, that it’s kind of baloney.

While I agree with MZS’s premise that movie writing could have more technical discussion overall, I don’t think that everybody necessarily needs to write about shots or whatever. A favorite blogger of mine, Jessica over at The Velvet Café, doesn’t often write about shot length or editing techniques, but she almost always captures the way the plot and characters interact and become living people in the two or so hours of a film. That’s what film can do and she captures it in her writing. I’ve never regretted taking time to read her reviews, even if it’s not a film I’m interested in.

Another blogger I enjoy, Martin Teller, has a different reason to read his reviews. He does often talk about structure and form in his pieces, but he also brings a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of film history (especially in film noir) to bear in most of his reviews. I’ll often end up adding more than just the film he’s writing about to my ever expanding list of movies to watch. In fact, he was the reason I finally got around to Fanny and Alexander, which turned out nicely for me. And his site collects all the reviews he’s written over the many years he’s been writing about movies, so it’s a fantastic resource for reading up about a movie which will delve into both thematic and formal considerations.

And yet another blogger has yet another approach to film writing. Melissa at A Journal of Film writes these giant reviews that pull in literary analysis and references (her day job is as a college writing and literature teacher), formal observations, and a superb writing style the rides the lines between blogging and academic writing (see her amazing review of We Need to Talk About Kevin for an example). She’ll explain how a shot or use of color or sound is used to further the theme of the film and that’s exactly what Matt Zoller Seitz was imploring us to do.

And now to turn these ramblings inwards. What do I write like, what do I want to write like? Well, let’s start with what I used to write like. Here’s my first written review, as far as I can find.

I just watched The Chronicles of Narnia: TLTWATW. I liked it a lot, but I also liked the book a lot, so I might be biased. There were a few pluses and minuses though. The bad: I didn’t much like the child actors. I’m sorry to be mean, but whoever played Lucy really got on my nerves. Also, I didn’t like that they started with (to me) the second story. The order my set was in started with The Magician’s Nephew. While I agree that Wardrobe is probably the better introduction to the series for non-readers, I prefer it the way I read it. Now on to the good: I really liked the way that the filmmakers captured the feeling and look of Narnia. This is exactly how I pictured it as a kid. It was awesome seeing Aslan being the big boss lion. I liked the choice of Liam Neeson as Aslan, I think his voice suited the role perfectly. Ditto with Tilda Swinton as the evil White Witch. I knew from the moment I saw her that she was the perfect embodiment of evil in Narnia. And finally, the battle scene. While it was a different kind of battle than the ones in LOTR, I liked it just as much, and possibly better. This was the kind of thing that you can’t quite get from a book. It was the kind of battle that I always wanted to see, with all the animals and creatures fighting each other. It was awesome. That’s about it for my review. I give it an A-.

Hmm, not exactly high art there – in the film or my writing. That was from the end of 2006 and I like to think I’ve gotten at least a little better since then. 7+ years will do that to you. So will a demanding teacher. I went to the University of Connecticut (go Huskies!) and had a fantastic film professor there. Bob Smith liked to give us these giant scene analysis assignments where we would have to describe a scene from a film we watched in class shot by shot. It was an exhausting exercise but it did give us the tools to describe what was happening on screen in simple and straightforward terms. It would also train us to see repeated setups or times when the director would change his shot. We learned to spot composition and framing and shot length and important props and all that jazz. And that was only half the paper. The other half, which had to be at least as long as the first part, would be an explanation of why the scene was made that way. Since the assignment required us to watch the scene over and over again, we got to know it quite intimately and after the tedium of the description, the freedom of the interpretation meant that the words often flowed out of me and onto the page. It was obvious why John Ford shot each of the sons standing up in the How Green Was My Valley dinner scene from below. Not only was he calling attention to the fact that they were standing, he was painting them in a heroic context. They were defying their father who had, until recently, lorded over them like a sometimes-benevolent dictator. Their refusal of him broke the family so John Ford broke the normal compositions he was using until those instances. It all made so much sense. Bob Smith was teaching us how to watch movies and how to write about them intelligently.

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I hope you’ll notice an improvement from that horrible first review to my most recent two, those of Noah and Mistaken for Strangers. I don’t put all of my reviews here, any movie about which I don’t have much to say will stay over at my Letterboxd page where they belong. But if I think I can find something really interesting to write about it’ll come here. I named this site Benefits of a Classical Education for reasons beyond just using a fun Die Hard quote (surely you knew it was a Die Hard quote), it’s because I feel like I genuinely benefited from my near-classical education. I like thinking about thinking, and I like writing about the things that I see or read or listen to. I am intensely interested in the way movies are constructed, so I’ll often write about a shot or sequence which caught my eye, like the creation montage in Noah. In that I think I am fulfilling Matt Zoller Seitz’s demands for more formal discussion in film reviews. Of course, that sequence served a thematic purpose in the film, furthering its half-biblical half-humanist vision of the Noah story, so it wasn’t just pretty pictures. I hope I captured that. I didn’t do much formal discussion in my review of Mistaken for Strangers because it’s pretty much a standard documentary for the majority of its running time. The relationship between the two brothers at the center of what started as a typical rock doc, though, was really really interesting to me. And I guess I did write about “the most euphoric credit card I’ve ever seen,” so that’s something formal. I guess what it boils down it is that when I feel compelled to write about a movie here it’s because I’ve found something in it that speaks to me in some kind of way, and it doesn’t have to be formal or thematic or character based, but it can be any of those and an combination of them. All those bloggers I talked about earlier do the same, I believe. That’s why they’re all so interesting despite (because of?) their different approaches. I still have a long way to go. I think I talk too much about plot and I am super self conscious about my propensity for lengthy sentences split up, seemingly at random, by commas. But that’s miles better than where I was and that’s good. I’ve dedicated myself to a career in the classical education system, so I might as well embrace it here and now. I hope you get something out of it.

25 Christmas Things: Day 9 – A Child’s Christmas in Wales

I don’t know how I’ve gone this far in my life without reading or hearing anything by Dylan Thomas. It’s a weird cultural blindspot for me, especially given how popular this particular work is and my affinity for Christmas related things.  But when a user on reddit posted this recording of Thomas reading his prose recollection of Christmases past I knew I had to dedicate the 20 minutes necessary to hearing his reminiscences. They’re lovely, filled with nostalgia and humor and adult sadness at wonder lost. It’s this last part that always gets me about Christmas. Try as hard as we can, nothing stops the inevitable tide of boringness that takes over even the hap-happiest season of all. As a kid we can focus on throwing snowballs at cats or wandering the streets with friends on a late winter night, but as adults we have to get up for work the next morning and snow just means more clean up. So take some time to get lost in that childhood mode again, if only for a little while.

25 Christmas Things: Day 3 – James Joyce’s “The Dead”

Anjelica Huston as Gretta in the excellent film adaptation of “The Dead”

For the majority of its length, the title of the last short story in James Joyce’s Dubliners makes little sense. The first 75% of the story is just a nice Christmas party thrown by old people for old friends. There are a few younger guests but even they adopt a kind of old sentimentality about them as the night wears on and songs are sung, drinks consumed, and speeches given. It’s not exactly an exciting dinner party, but it does create a certain atmosphere of quiet celebration. Reading this story as a young English major at college, I had little experience with this kind of party but what I read at once enticed and frightened me. Is this the kind of person I would grow up to be? Did I really want to grow up if that was the case? Would I drink too much at an advanced age and make a fool of myself, or develop a reputation for doing so? No, that’s not what I wanted at all. But did I want to have people who would invite me to such a party, even knowing that I might become an idiot? Certainly. These are strange friendships that take a long time to develop and even longer to entrench so that dumb actions wouldn’t be cause for a missing invite the next year. I don’t think I had any friendly relationships at that point and it made me sad. The party was nice to read about but underneath there was a melancholic streak that tinged the celebration.

Maybe, though, the fault was not solely in myself. Like I said earlier, the title only seems odd for the beginning and middle chunks of the story. By the end, “The Dead” is the only possible title the story could have. In the last piece of the story the two younger guests at the party go home together, husband (Gabriel) and wife (Gretta), and have a conversation about Gretta’s  lost young romance, Michael Furey. Furey died from some kind of illness while they were both young. This seems to be the first time Gretta has ever shared this information with her husband and he goes from trying to use it against her to accepting the fact that she’s had something he’s never had: a true, deep love of another person. She cries a bit as she relays the story to Gabriel and then goes to bed, but the force of her story and the emotional reaction she had to telling it deeply upsets Gabriel and he stays awake long enough to consider his lack of romance and have the snow start falling. The last paragraph of this story is the best thing I’ve ever read, as it gets the mood of the early morning world and the melancholy yearning Gabriel has just right.

I’ve gone back to read this story about once a year and knowing the ending enlightens the rest of the piece. It makes that undertone I felt concrete and heartbreaking. Holidays, especially Christmas, are times for celebration and getting together on long, cold nights. We use each other to warm ourselves against the chill of the weather and the sorrow we have for those that are no longer there to celebrate. Last year my family lost one of our brightest candles against that night as one of my cousins succumbed to cancer. She was a Michael Furey type, one who would stand out in the rain to say a final goodbye or cause an old friend to remember her after years and years of her being gone. On the day of her funeral the first snowfall of the season happened and I could not stop thinking of the last lines of this story. So this day of Christmas goes to you, Amy, and everybody whose lives you made better through your incandescence.

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Story Corner: Growing

Here’s a little story I wrote a while ago. It is kind of a creation story, kind of a fable. Very much inspired by A.S. Byatt’s short story collection The Little Black Book of Stories and her take on Norse mythology Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. She describes nature really well in a very real yet heightened way. That’s kind of what I was going for here. All photography also by me. Any and all feedback is welcome.

The forest did not begin life as a forest. Nothing ever begins as it ends. The forest, like everything else, began as nothing. Then, after some period, everything was. It still wasn’t a forest yet but it was on its way. It was a bunch of tiny molecules flying through nothing until they ran into some other molecules and stuck together. Those molecules ran into others and others and others and then they formed a sphere because that is what molecules do. The forest was now a mass of swirling, broiling lava. Other molecules formed stars and gas giants and nebulae and everything else. Once some more molecules hit the mass of swirling, broiling lava they became an atmosphere and weather began. The weather was angry at that time, being a newly born child and acting like it, crying and carrying on. Air gave way to clouds which gave way to rain which cooled the lava into hard rock, at least on the outside. Inside it was still swirling and broiling because that’s what planets do.

The forest still wasn’t a forest yet. It was a place on this barren mass of rock; a location which held some promise. The weather continued to grow up but it was a particularly sad child. The only other thing it could play with was the lava, which was as angry as it had been, but the weather’s own actions had hidden the lava away and replaced it with boring rock. The weather cried and cried to see its friend go away and all of that crying covered the planet with salty water. Some of the water seeped down through small holes in the rock and sought out its old friend and some of it found the lava and they shared a brief yet explosive love until the water boiled away. Other parts of the water didn’t reach the lava but found a nice cozy place within the rock to hide and just exist.

The forest still wasn’t a forest yet. It was impossible to be a forest at this point since there was no land. There was only weather and air and water and rock and lava and a few stray molecules that hadn’t yet decided what they were going to be when they grew up. Their time will come in this story, just wait. Now is the time to throw in some action. Parts of the rock didn’t like other parts of the rock. They didn’t agree very much despite being fundamentally identical. One could theorize that being the only separation between the water and its old friend lava didn’t make for a healthy relationship with either element and whenever they could find cracks within the rocks being they would push and pull and tear at them until it broke apart into pieces. Rock is a strong thing and it didn’t break easily nor did it break into small chunks. No, the rock split magnificently and into massive plates. There was much turmoil as some of the newly separate pieces tried to return to each other while other pieces tried to get as far away as possible from its enemy neighbors. Being so big and so conflicted and still so near each other led to a lot of grinding and smashing and erupting. Sometimes the lava would sneak through a fissure created by this turmoil and rejoin the water and remember the good days. This, of course, didn’t last very long and in the end it just created more rock to move and shift and smash and crash. Some of the rock was pushed so hard against the other rock that they had nowhere to go but up, rising out of the water and meeting the air for the first time in a long time. After a while there was a good deal of rock above the water and the rock that made the journey just couldn’t hold itself together with the joy of meeting the air again. It fell apart and became dirt and there was a slightly new element to deal with.

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The forest still wasn’t a forest yet. Its place hadn’t moved and it was lucky enough to be located in one of the spots that had risen above the water and become dirt. That was fortuitous for it. Another lucky break was the decision those other molecules made, the slow developers. They joined together and decided to be life. It started in some of the water that got trapped in the rock and dirt of the newly formed land. The molecules tried to be alive and move and they did. They formed cells which grew and formed into things with many cells. These creatures, if we can call them that, did not and could not have strong motivations. They lost that when they decided to be life. That final choice robbed them of will for centuries. In that time they only tried to be alive. It’s hard to do, and even moreso when there’s so little else around you that shares your predicament. What did they have to eat but each other? So they did, and they changed as they multiplied and they diversified. Some grew big and slow and strong while others grew to be quick but relatively weak and others just learned to stay out of the way and plant roots into the dirt around the edges of the pond. The dirt was full of nutrients from all of the turmoil which caused its creation and there was plenty of energy from it and the sun, which also caused all of this. Sometimes those growers would get eaten by other organisms but they were clever and knew that there was strength in numbers and continued to grow and grow and grow and spread and spread and spread. Soon the realized that they could exist off the water which fell from the sky and could venture beyond the pool of water in which they began. The tall, thin, green things spread and became fields. It was the first color on the world that wasn’t angry red or stoic brown or calm blue but vibrant green, a green so green you could tell it had to be alive. The other organisms in the pool continued to grow and diversify as well and some learned that there was food that grew out on the dirt that was the same as the food that grew in the pool and they went up to look at it. It was hard at first to breathe air and walk instead of swim but they did learn and they went wherever the grass went. The followed the green as far as it could go, which turned out to be very far indeed. It went all the way back to the big water which was everywhere that land wasn’t. Some of the walkers decided that they liked swimming better and returned to the sea, though that’s a bit of romanticizing since they had never been in this particular water before. In such a large place they too could spread out and become all different sorts of things. There were fish and sharks and little things that lived on the bottom of the ocean nearest the heat of the lava and little things that floated around the water just being alive. Life was changing on the land as well. Some of the walkers gained legs and others lost them and some changed their legs into hands and others changed their legs into wings. Some of the green stuff changed, too. Some grew shorter and attached themselves to the rocks strewn about the land while others grew taller and taller and reached high up into the air and weather and, since they had so much space, spread out up there. Now the forest was a forest.

It wasn’t done yet, though. There were a few trees and a few smaller shrubs but they couldn’t really be called a forest yet. It had to wait for hundreds of years until there were enough trees in a group to be considered a forest. There were oaks and maples and sycamores and birches and palms and yuccas and ashes and sycamores and hickories and willows and elms and beeches and trees that bore delicious fruits like apples and pears and dates to lure the animals to come and eat them so that they would spread the seeds even further. Soon the forest wasn’t just a forest but an entire wood. It was everything and everywhere and provided shelter to all the animals from rain and wind and anything else the weather could throw at them. It was strong and unmoving. The forest did not – could not – pick up and go elsewhere nor did it lean one way or another. It simply grew up and out and reached into the sky towards the stars. It saw that there was something else above it and, like the squirrels and birds that made their nests in the highest tops of the trees, the forest itself wanted to be up in that higher realm. It could do nothing but grow and grow it did, always yearning to be taller but never getting above a certain level. It was stuck. Even if it did reach up above the air towards the stars it would die. It couldn’t exist out of its own niche, as big a niche as it was. It was sad about this until it looked within itself and saw the things living inside it. There were other plants and small creatures that literally lived inside some of the trees. There were birds and bigger animals that lived on the branches of the trees and other animals that used some dead trees to make their own shelters. All of this life was possible because of the forest and that gave it a sense of completeness. Not full completeness, of course, since it still had things to do.

The forest was, now, but it wasn’t all it was going to be. The forest remained still and unmoving while everything else grew and changed. Some parts of the forest lived for hundreds of years while the animals living within it went through many generations and grew into terrible lizards and little mammals and blood sucking insects. They lived and ate each other and died. Then some of those molecules that had gone off to be something else at the beginning of time returned to the world and met it violently. They did not get along, and it caused great disruption as the seas boiled and the air turned to dust and all the large animals died – and most of the small ones, too. The forest burned and burned and it hurt but there was nothing that it could do. After the burning the world became cold. The forest had done its job, cleaning the air and trying to return the world to its former glory but it wasn’t just one forest anymore. It had split apart, the land relocated all over the world with great seas separating the forest from itself. Everywhere was covered with snow, and mammals adapted to live in it. They grew large and shaggy and some of them had learned to walk on two legs and live in caves. This was the first separation from the forest and it was sad to see them go. It felt every loss deeply. It dreamed that they would return some day to live among the trees again. They didn’t. After the caves they learned how to make fire for themselves and create tools made of stone and wood. The forest was glad to give a piece of itself to the upright animals. It could still feel connected to them and if they were putting it to good use it was happy. Soon the uprights learned to speak with each other and forgot their connection to the forest. They moved farther and farther away from it so that they could build farms and cities and towns. The forest was a place to visit for a picnic or a quick walk or even a weekend stay but even then they would bring pieces of their world into the forest and didn’t even try to reconnect. They had used the forest for building houses at first and the forest was more than happy to help them live in safety as it had when they were walking on four legs. The humans had learned how to make metal, though, and began to use that for its superior strength and cost. Now the wood from the forest was used for end tables and sides of station wagons and paper. The people took more of the forest than they should have and it was hard for it to replenish itself. It was still cleaning the air for the animals and people but it couldn’t keep up with the grime and gunk put in the air by the people trying to live in cities. The forest was overwhelmed and dying.

The people learned how to travel away from their own world. The forest watched in awe as they rocketed towards the stars it wanted so badly to be amongst. The people had left the forest and ruined the world and were now in the process of leaving it behind. They explored nearby worlds at first but quickly learned how to travel farther than they had ever hoped to go. They could visit distant planets and they discovered that they were not alone in the universe. Of course they weren’t, all those other molecules from the beginning had to go somewhere and be something. The people befriended the other beings and shared their triumphs and mistakes. They were invited to live among all sorts of other creatures on innumerable alien planets. By this time they had almost completely abandoned the forest and the world they had grown up in. It was hard for the forest to see the people go away, much harder than when they lived in the cities because they couldn’t even visit anymore. The forest could only look up at the stars and imagine how its old friends were faring on their journey to other planets. Days and months and years and decades and centuries passed and the world returned to its former vitality. Without the humans around to pollute the air and water and ground every remaining life could work together to restore the planet’s glory. The forest was content but at night it still dreamed of growing up to the stars.

One day the humans returned. They marveled at the state of their former home. The forest had reclaimed most of the land and the cities were suggestions of their former selves. Green was everywhere. The people walked around the forest and remembered what they used to be. They had been happy to explore the stars but they, too, always felt like something was missing. They didn’t feel connected to their past and they soon became as melancholy as the forest was in their absence. When they reunited they all wept with joy. The forest shook with excitement as the people climbed in its trees and played with the other animals that had never abandoned the woods. The humans decided to never leave the forest behind again and everybody was happy. Everybody but the forest. It heard the tales of the people’s travels and it was sad that it could never follow them and visit other planets. The people, too, grew less happy. They had tasted absolute freedom and they wanted to return to the stars. This time, though, they would take the forest with them so that they would never be apart again. They transported sections of the forest and all of the things living within it into huge domes and flew them into space to finally join the stars. There were some woods left on the Earth to care for the animals left behind but even they were not sad because they knew that the rest of the forest was up among the stars where it had always longed to be. The forest visited alien forests that grew in strange ways and alien creatures would visit the Earth forests and understand why the humans had to return to Earth and bring the forests with them. The forest continued to travel the universe and live among the stars and everything was as it was until it wasn’t anymore.

The Wood of Many Doors: a test

Here’s the deal. I’ve been writing this short story for about a month now. Well, I’ve had the idea for a month and I started writing it then but I only finished it today. Well, I only finished the first draft today. But I think that draft is pretty good. Maybe. I don’t know. So in lieu of posting the full, unedited piece here for you to read I’m only going to post the first three paragraphs, unedited. Any feedback would be wonderful. You can leave them in a comment for me. I promise I won’t cry if you hate it. Or at least I won’t cry for long. If you have something to say about the style or the writing or whatever, please let me know. We’re only here to get better, right?

The boy was just like you or me. He grew up in a house where his parents loved him and he hated them. He went to school and learned some things and forgot others. He hung out with friends and liked to spend time alone. He had a few girlfriends but none of them would be his wife. He had a dog that, like all dogs, lived only to make the boy’s life better. And he did a good job of it. The boy went to college and moved out of his parents’ house, as you do. He stayed up for hours on end to discuss religion and movies and girls. He had a few more girlfriends and some one night stands but, again, none of them would be his wife. He graduated and found an office job shortly afterwards. He performed admirably but would never set the business world ablaze. He dated a few more girls and finally began to see one for a longer time. The girl, too, was just like you or me.

The boy and the girl had been dating for a long time. They went to plays and read the same books. They hung out with friends and liked to spend time alone together. They had a dog who lived only to make their lives better. And he did a good job of it. They had moved in with each other, as you do. They went to bed at the same time and were content. They would get married soon and start a family. They grew older and grew together and became the man and the woman.

One day, the man took the dog for a walk. The woman liked to walk around the neighborhood and the man liked to walk in the woods behind their small house. The man and his dog walked these woods often and they both felt like they knew all of its secrets. The rabbit warrens, the little streams that bubble into other streams that flow into others, the best places to stop and be still for a minute. It was a place they could both go to and think and explore and be with each other, separate from everybody else. This day, though, there was something new in the woods. A few minutes into their journey the dog sniffed at a bit of thread mostly hidden under some leaves. The man noticed the dog’s new interest and crouched down beside it to investigate with his friend. The bit of thread was red and frayed at one end. The other end disappeared among the leaves and seemed to go on for quite a ways. The man pulled on the rope and found a bit of give before it pulled taut and began to disturb the leaves that hid the rest of its length. He decided to follow it.