One of the exercises I assign to many of my writing classes goes like this:
Imagine a popular film was actually a story or novel submitted to this workshop. Write a critique, using the guidelines I’ve set out for workshopping. This is your chance to say: “Dear Joss, I’ve had a chance to review your story ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and…”
It’s a fun exercise, and spawns lots of conversations about films and about critiquing.
Now I’m trying to generate a few examples to go with the exercise. I asked my social media followship to help me choose a film that would work well. I got great answers, but ended up deciding there wasn’t a single one-movie-fits-all answer that met all my teaching needs. Now I’m breaking the task into sections.
Critique in a lot of workshops, mine include, starts with the portion of the process where you say what is working with a particular piece. Here’s my handy sample for that:
…for example, if I wanted to write a critique of a novel called Die Hard, by a couple of guys named Steve and Jed, I might say:
-There’s no doubt that this is John McClane’s story–he’s the guy with both an internal conflict and a goal. The former is his struggle to accept his wife’s independence, and the fact that she has struck out on her own. The external struggle, of course, is the one which occupies most of the story–his fight with the thieves in Nakatomi Plaza.
-The tone you set in this piece is nicely balanced. The action moves along and we’re never bored. The bad guys seem genuinely dangerous, especially Hans Gruber, and yet the humorous moments play well.
-John’s very much a guy of the Eighties and his uneasy and incomplete concessions to feminism reflect that attitude. Held to the standards of the present day, he doesn’t seem that enlightened; it may be that this story doesn’t score perfectly on that front either. But we are looking at something that’s set about thirty years ago. And I think it’s praiseworthy that Holly Gennaro isn’t there merely to motivate John in his fight against Gruber and company. She stands up to Gruber, and works hard to keep a lid on a terrifying situation, thereby protecting the other hostages while hiding her true identity from the thieves.
-Your use of Holly’s last name as a plot device is especially brilliant. It’s a bone of contention between John and Holly. Because they’re fighting about it, it’s already on our radar as Gruber tries to figure out who is causing him such problems and whether he might have any leverage on John. This is a classic example of a story element that works on more than one level.
What you should all notice about this is that I’m not just saying what I like–I’m going into as much detail as I can about why it works.
I’ll be doing this for other elements of critique, including things that don’t work in some other movie.
Over a quarter century ago, I had the fortune to be in a relationship with someone who would, every Friday, remove the TV Guide from the newspaper, go through it with a blue highlighter, and mark very neatly all the things he might wish to see in the coming seven days.
This represented an excellent division of resources from my point of view, as he had the paper, the guide, the highlighter, the TV, a cable package and time set aside for a meticulous clerical task on Friday nights, whereas what I was bringing to the table was a desire to watch Dr. Who and Star Trek: TNG.
After I married Kelly, it turned out the VCR could perform much the same function, though only for 8 shows at a time, and only reliably if you left it a five minute margin of error on either side of the hour. The technology improved as we wore out and replaced gadgets. Then for awhile there was a DVR and it recorded everything, happily, only to fill up with unwatched hours of content when we hit that sad couple of years when the best things on were, like, Bones and The Mentalist. And why were we bothering with cable again? So then we weren’t.
Nowadays what I want seems to be the thing that tells me when the things I like are airing new episodes… And happy day, there is an app for that! It’s name is TV Forecast, and all it does is provide the info I want:
It doesn’t ask me if I watched the stuff, or if I liked it. It just gives dates, or says TBA, or admits the thing is cancelled.
I am sharing all of this with you in case you also just need an app that tells you when your favorite shows are returning. And also in case you know if there’s one of these for bands. If I could have a list like this saying exactly when my fave bands’ next albums were being released, no muss, no fuss, but here’s the day… let’s just say that certain media empires might make dozens more Canadian dollars per year.
Are there any apps in your life, small or large, famous or unknown, that make your life better?
Meanwhile I’ve been previewing – having a look at what might be in the theaters during the holiday season, trying to figure out if there are any upcoming film releases that won’t give Kelly and me hives and a bad case of cineloathing (that special feeling of self-hatred you get after sitting through a terrible movie, especially if you kinda suspected it’d be bad). To that end I’ve watched previews for A Most Violent Year and Unbroken. Both looked tedious, unpleasant and predictable. Into the Woods might be a possibility if someone we trust tells us it’s not too bad. I’m interested in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, so Selma‘s a possibility for me. Big Eyes sounds interesting, but Tim Burton has made soooooooo many disappointing films.
Mr. Turner looks great, though, and I may see Rosewater with my sister. Maybe Two Days, One Night?
What have you seen lately that was worth the time?
Force Majeure (or Turist), from Sweden, 2014 (natch) directed by Ruben Östlund –
Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren
Kelly and I have been in foreign film withdrawal since the festival, and so when the Lightbox got this movie, we checked out the preview, and then beetled down John Street with all haste to see it.
I’ll start with the downside: this thing moves slowly. If you’re even slightly in the mood for action, this is not going to be the film for you. They come, they ski, they argue. There’s an avalanche, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat more than once, but it’s no thrill-ride.
What it captures is a nuclear family in the middle of an unlooked-for, necessary, and unattractive power struggle, wrapped in a version of that oft-told real life situation where a vacation that everyone expects to be be perfect–that they need to be perfect–goes irretrievably wrong.
Finally, I’ll note that could be argued that the overall message doesn’t offer any great compliment to men. (Which reminds me – we should talk about Scott and Bailey sometime.)
So, you might ask, what is cool about it? First, it is intricately scripted, in that way that allows one’s writerbrains to endlessly pick apart its pieces. Second, the husband and wife are interesting characters: flawed, believable, and in a situation you’ll absolutely buy. The avalanche invites you to ask: would I rise to the occasion? The film also examines traditional gender roles within marriages with kids. It drags to light a pretence parents in conflict sometimes maintain, for their own sanity–to wit, that their children aren’t aware of and aren’t affected by the fighting.
There’s humor, too. You won’t have a three-minute side-splitting belly laugh watching this one, but you’ll guffaw, more than once.
The avalanche scene and its after-math are filmed in a way that is singularly mind-blowing.
Ultimately, this is a movie about how honesty is hard. The main character has been building up a little pile of (mostly) unimportant lies around himself for years. Then he tries to get away with something bigger, because he’s desperate to cling to a little self-esteem. It doesn’t work, and he tries to brazen it out when it’s obviously not working. As he does, he sledgehammers the foundations of his marriage.
In a U.S. movie, this weaselly alpha-male would be played by Greg Kinnear.
The ski footage and the scenery at the ski hill, in the French Alps, is amazing and there’s lots of attention lavished on how the slopes are groomed–on how the entire ‘natural’ experience is artificially constructed. (The avalanche itself is a controlled fake, triggered by one of the mountains’ safety devices.) This is set against the family’s nightly grooming rituals: brush teeth, wash face, visit toilet. I’m not entirely clear on whether the director was saying that the basic human hygiene is also a construct, and essentially fake. But I am grateful to everyone who practices it, all the same.
I am in the process of adjusting to new glasses, a shiny new prescription that was probably six months to a year overdue, and just enough of a change that I have to pay close attention whenever I’m in motion. Each time I’ve gotten new lenses, there has been a clumsy moment, and a fall. Since I’ve been working very hard to rehabilitate a sprained foot, I’m extremely keen to not damnwell fall.
(There should be a picture now, I know, but the week has been so packed that neither K or I has had a chance to shoot one. Soon!)
Other true things: I am in the midst of a mountain of marking for one of my UCLA classes, which is why I haven’t been around much on social media. I busted out the heavy winter coats this week, since it has been five below and a little snowy. So far I’m finding the cool weather invigorating. (We’ll see how I feel when it’s like this in March!) I’m wrestling with a horror story that is meant to be subtle, and I suspect it would much rather not be.
My current fannish obsession is the TV show Gotham. I think it’s incredibly well cast, and decently (though not brilliantly) written, and I am very taken with Sean Pertwee’s Alfred.
Tell me about your fannish obsessions! Tell me if there’s anything you’d like to see a blog post about. Tell me things, things about you!