Tag Archives: movie recs

On Such a Timeless Flight

As far as forms of storytelling go, I’m pretty one-note. I’m a novelist. Honestly, I’ve never really tried my hand at anything else. Sure, in college I had to write short stories for workshops, but I mostly cheated and used pieces of longer ideas that I had. Some forms don’t really personally interest me; others have been placed in the “maybe at some point” file; still others fascinate me but seem particularly difficult. I mean, novels are hard and all, but have you ever tried to write a genuinely good picture book? (Not that I’m exactly taking it easy on myself over here. My current project has multiple in-world first-person POVs, plus a couple of other “primary sources” including POETRY, which I don’t even write, with one character compiling and annotating this document. Because I’m a masochist, apparently.)

One form towards which I’ve generally had the attitude of “won’t catch me attempting that” is the biopic. I don’t just think that biopics are difficult; I think they’re inherently impossible. Try as you might, you can’t actually shoehorn a life into two hours, nor can you make it conform to a three-act structure. To quote the inimitable Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “life doesn’t make narrative sense.” Trying to force it to do so requires lots of cutting and altering, while still trying to maintain an air of realism and historical accuracy. That isn’t even meant as disparaging, because the filmmakers have to cut and alter; otherwise, the movie would be an unwatchable mess. But viewers know that life doesn’t make narrative sense, so the formula of biopics too often seems thin and dishonest. Often you’ll be left with the frustrating thought of I know there was more to it than that, and it was probably more interesting. 

All of that to say, I really liked Rocketman.

I saw it with my mom and sister the other day, and all of us had high opinions of it. My mom mentioned that one of her friends hadn’t realized going in that it’s actually a jukebox musical instead of just a straight biopic. Apparently, her friend hadn’t liked the fantastical and surreal musical numbers, prompting me to ask, “Does she not enjoy FUN?” Which is not to say that all of the songs are fun; some are, while others are heartbreaking. All of them, however, were emotionally overwhelming, totally immersing the viewer in the inner world of Elton John.

As far as I’m concerned, all would-be biopic filmmakers and screenwriters should go and take notes. Rocketman did not try to maintain an air of realism and historical accuracy. Songs were used wherever they’d be most emotionally relevant, with no regard for the actual chronology of Elton John’s catalog. This is obvious from the beginning, as his child self sings The Bitch is Back while his orange-devil-suited older self looks on. There’s no point in asking “is this how it really happened,” because the answer is obviously no. “This is a constructed narrative!” the movie brazenly shouts from the opening frames. That allows the typical anxiously maintained facade of based-on-a-true-story to fall away (indeed, the tagline of the movie is literally “based on a true fantasy”), leaving the screenwriter and director (Lee Hall and Dexter Fletcher, respectively) to focus on emotional as opposed to historical accuracy.

I am all for this style of storytelling about real people. After all, we all construct our lives in various ways. We have our favored anecdotes and the influences we decided in hindsight were formative. We streamline our memories and allow most quieter moments to dissipate, if only because we don’t have room to hold them all. But every person knows their own inner complexity, the desire and passion and ambition and love and disappointment and fear and sheer cussed stubbornness that define us to ourselves. I’m only 30 and have had a far less interesting life than Elton John, and I’d still have a hell of a time putting my whole emotional universe into two hours and deciding which life events were “major” enough to include in the right order and trying to trick an audience into believing that that’s exactly how it all unfolded. Rocketman is still technically a biopic, so it has to do a bit of the picking and choosing, but in dispensing entirely with the pretense of realism, it can focus the vast majority of its energy on Feelings. It wears its bruised heart on its sparkly sleeve. It still can’t put Elton John’s whole universe into two hours, but it can give us an awfully moving glimpse.

In general, I am more and more interested in stories that are unabashedly about Feelings over everything else. For example, after a good long run as a fan of the MCU, I think I’m officially superhero-ed out. Too much Action, too many Twists, not nearly enough time spent on Emotions beyond what the valiant actors managed to wear on their faces. And, I mean, I’m literally a fantasy author, so I can’t exactly dispense with plot — nor would I want to — but I want every detail to be in service of this is how it feels to be human. Biopics, when they creatively bypass the restrictions of its form, can show us this is how it feels to be this human. And though I’m still quite certain that I’d never try to write a biopic myself, I’d certainly go to see more if they can pull this off as gorgeously as Rocketman does.

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Glory

Almost all the snow in my backyard has melted. We might get more on Monday, but I’m pretending that we won’t. I’m sitting in a quiet yellow room, waiting for life to start blooming again.

I finally managed to see A Wrinkle in Time, and I predictably loved it. It wore its heart right on its fancy, shiny, sparkly sleeve, and it didn’t feel self-conscious about it at all. I respect and admire that about any type of art. I can’t really speak to it as an adaptation, because I don’t quite remember the book well enough to do so, but as a movie for children and people who are not afraid of Big Feelings, I found it very successful.

Blooming is, I think, a good word for A Wrinkle in Time. Colors open up and spill out across the screen, music crescendos, hope turns its face towards the sun. Or, you know, towards Oprah. Though my dear Claire wondered if she would feel, as she perfectly and delightfully put it, Oprah-whelmed by Mrs. Which, we both agreed that all of the gloriously decked out celestial guides were perfect for both Meg and the viewers. Mrs. Which especially isso gentle in her power. Gentleness is an awfully underrated quality. It provides rich soil for seeds of hope to hide in when they’re not quite ready to grow.

Meg herself is not quite ready to grow for much of the movie. This movie is not remotely subtle, but Storm Reid’s acting is. Even though a lot of emotions wind up baldly (and I’ll admit occasionally jarringly) stated in the dialogue, Ms. Reid conveys a whole host of unsaid things, as well. She conveys Meg’s sense of isolation, of smallness, within the tension in her shoulders and the slight frown on her face. Meg, of course, is not small, but fear is a diminishing state, and Meg has existed in that state for a long time. She fears that she is unworthy and unlovable, and so she doesn’t look up or out, in case she finds evidence that she is right.

But her story makes her look up and look out and look within. In all directions, she sees the universe, and that universe, the movie insists, is glorious. The universe doesn’t care if you think it’s too sentimental or showy in its beauty. The splendor of existence won’t mind if you think it’s a try-hard. It will be as vast and spectacular as it naturally is, and it will make room for even the smallest, most frightened girl to be vast and spectacular, too. Because she is. Because she always was.

It’s spring, and there may be more snow coming, but it’s time to bloom anyway — gentle and powerful, hopeful and huge.

What in me is dark illumine

Alas, I missed my self-imposed monthly blogging deadline again! In my slight defense, I currently work from home and have completely lost track of the date? Also, it is December, a time for abandoning last year’s New Year’s resolutions and wallowing in seasonal blah. At least for me, anyway. I’m always at my lowest ebb of energy and creativity at this time of the year, which never fails to be frustrating. But instead of despondently flailing around about it (I’ve done enough of that already), I’m going to devote this belated blog post to ten things I found inspiring in 2017. I may not be happy with the quality or volume of work I’m currently producing, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be once the days start getting longer again and my brain remembers that it is not, in fact, a hibernating frog. In the meantime, I’ll use this list to help fuel the little flame I’ve still got burning against the dark.

The Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo: I’m going in relative chronological order of things I experienced this year, and I received the first one of these last Christmas. Not only were they fast-paced and fun (heists! schemes!), they were also a master class in multiple POVs and un-self-aware characters, which are highly relevant to my interests. I love characters who get in their own way, especially when they do so without even realizing it. That’s not always the easiest thing to write, though! In order for the reader to understand more about the character than the actual character does, you have to walk a very fine tightrope (which, incidentally, one of the characters in these books can literally do) of revealing and withholding emotional information. Leigh Bardugo does so beautifully, and I’ll definitely be returning to those books when I need my own characters to be complete human disasters (so, like, 90% of the time).

The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts: I attended this conference for the first time in March. There, I made the decision to apply to PhD programs. Though I won’t find out the results of that decision for a few months yet, I clearly can’t deny that the conference itself falls under the heading of “inspiring”! I loved being surrounded by enthusiastic scholarly types so much that I finally realized that I always want to be surrounded by enthusiastic scholarly types. I only spent, like, 35% of the time as a complete nervous wreck (as opposed to my usual conference rate of around 85%), because everyone I met was so encouraging and friendly. I’m super excited to be going back again in March, particularly because the theme is Frankenstein Bicentennial and I’m going to be presenting a paper about Orphan Black. Speaking of which . . .

Orphan Black, created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett: This series ended earlier this year, and I literally wept tears of joy during the finale. I don’t think I’ve actually ever done that because of a piece of fiction? I’ve certainly cried because of fiction many, many times, but usually because a character just died or something, not because I was just so damn overwhelmed by the love shared by everyone. I don’t know about any of you, but in 2017, I really needed a triumphant conclusion to the story of a bunch of difficult, fumbling, wronged, brilliant women who love each other and therefore themselves, and Orphan Black thankfully delivered. Also, at this point it surely goes without saying, but if you enjoy the art of acting even a tiny bit, you will love Tatiana Maslany and despair.

Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar: This inspiration was scattered throughout the year due to this show’s nonsense schedule, but my god am I blown away every time Cartoon Network deigns to drop another Steven bomb. This show inspires me not only as a writer but also as a person. I want to approach grief, loneliness, and fear with as much grace, compassion, and gentle good humor as Rebecca Sugar’s extraordinary story does, both in my art and in my life.

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner: This book (and the Queen’s Thief series in general) is such a ridiculous technical achievement in point of view, world building, and never wasting a single solitary word. How?? How does she do this?? Well, part of the answer to that question is that she takes a really long time, because I waited seven years for this book, but it was so worth it. When I’m revising, I honestly should just line these books up in front of me, but then I might feel too Judged, because they really are almost supernaturally well crafted. Also, I have never been quite as personally called out by a book as I was when the narrator sheepishly admits how much he dislikes being “unappreciated” for his intellectual interests and talents. I MEAN. Seriously, Megan Whalen Turner, what did I ever do to you to warrant this attack?

My students: I taught so many great kids this year, and I am so grateful for the privilege. Highlights included sharing good-natured jokes about the absurdities of grammar with a student who struggled with the material but tried extremely hard, reading 1400 words (!) about hyenas from an 8-year-old, reading two genuinely excellent ghost stories from students of the same age, and listening to an earnest high school student yearn for tickets to Book Con for her birthday. Developing my love of teaching over the past year has made the pieces of my life feel like they are finally fitting together.

Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore: This is another book that blew my mind with the intricacy of its plotting. Each part of this book was so richly detailed, and I don’t know a whole lot of authors who can play with like five genres at once. Also, I was delighted to recognize a setting stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, which was next door to the grad school that the author and I both attended. (I wrote a large portion of my Master’s thesis in that museum!) This book just felt like such a labor of love, and it reminded me of a time when I was engaged in a bunch of labors of love, so it was just an all-around wonderful reading experience.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna: This show is so smart and funny and genuinely ground-breaking. I currently have one of its songs stuck in my head. It can be difficult to allow characters to make huge mistakes and hurt people while still keeping the audience understanding and rooting for them, but this show manages to do so by maintaining such a deep well of compassion for its characters (particularly its protagonist) even (or especially) at their lowest moments. Meanwhile, it also has club songs about going to the zoo, Fosse-esque stripteases with embedded Harry Potter references about being morally unscrupulous, and big Broadway “I Want” songs about mental health diagnoses. If I ever find myself wondering “is this too weird too pull off” in a story, I’ll definitely turn to this show for inspiration to just go for it.

The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor: I saw this last week and loved it desperately. Monster love stories are the best/only love stories. Aside from just deriving inspiration from all monsters all the time, I also felt very trusted as an audience member when watching this movie. It knew I would follow where it was going, and it didn’t need to drag me there. I kind of love a story that just says, “Listen, you’re either all in or not, it’s up to you.” There’s no need to convince people to love your monsters; they either will or won’t, and if they won’t, who needs ’em? 

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Manhattan: I visited this church for the first time last week, and I fell completely in love. It was an explicitly American cathedral (and as such, it had chapels dedicated to immigrant groups and a sign outside welcoming all regardless of documentation), and I completely connected with the intermingled artistic styles, old and new, built right into the rising, arching bones of the sprawling building. There were small things there, too: someone had left the tiniest pink flowers on many of the chapel altars, and they were as beautiful to me as the stained glass. My visit reminded me that so many of the people who share my country are striving to live out grand and sweeping ideals in a million quiet little ways. The people who want to create beauty may not always be as powerful as the ones who only want to create their own wealth or wars, but we’ll always outnumber them.