Review: Burn Motherfucker, Burn! (2017)

I reviewed the documentary premiering on Showtime, Burn Motherfucker, Burn! for

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Ebertfest: Day 1

It’s wonderful to be here in Champaign-Urbana. This is my 4th year coming to Ebertfest. My mother and one of my sisters both flew in for Ebertfest and for the screening of my film July and Half of August, which is so exciting, because when do we ever go on a vacation (sort of), just us?

Here’s the page in the program for the film I wrote. It’s 12 minutes long. Ebertfest is held in the Virginia Theatre, a movie palace that seats 1,500 or something like that. The screen is built for … Gone With the Wind or something, so it’ll be overwhelming to see my small 12-minute short, with the beautiful actors – Annika Marks and Robert Baker – with two-story tall faces.

Happy and grateful. And proud too.

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On Elia Kazan’s East of Eden: for Library of America

Recently, I wrote a small piece which could be given a High School English class title: What James Dean and East of Eden meant to me. When I wrote it, I was deep in research for a huge piece which finally went live. It’s for the new film site, part of The Library of America, The Moviegoer. It’s been up for a year and already has an impressive archive, written by an illustrious roster of writers. I can’t tell you how proud I am to be included in such company. (Also, the Library of America! I mean, look at this bookshelf of mine.) The idea is: writers write about film adaptations of books in the Library of America catalog. When the editor, Michael Sragow, reached out to me, he asked for a bunch of pitches, books I was interested in covering. I went through the catalog, and picked out a bunch of possibilities. He immediately asked me to write about East of Eden. The thought of my personal history with that film made his choice so exciting, so daunting to me. Bonus was that, unbelievably, I had never written about the film before in any in-depth way. Probably BECAUSE the history is so personal. Now, finally, I got the chance.

Here’s the essay:

Unforgettable lonely boy James Dean carries East of Eden on his narrow shoulders

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For the NY Times: ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ Episode 7 Recap: Feminism 101

My re-cap of the 7th episode of Feud: Bette and Joan is now up at the New York Times. One more episode to go!

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Four Things About Thornton Wilder

It’s his birthday today.

Peter Hunt (once Executive and Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival) relates a story about Thornton Wilder and Nikos Psacharopoulos (founder of Williamstown).

Peter Hunt: Directing is sometimes doing nothing, sometimes dowin more than you ever thought you could do, every case is different. But what you just said about there being a way of doing Chekhov at Williamstown — that struck me, because I am Nikos’ offspring. I mean he was my teacher at Yale, my mentor at Williamstown, it all rubbed off. Now obviously I do certain things my own way, but still I’m an extension of that. So, what is that? Part of it is caring and having a commitment to all the elements of the theatre — a lot of directors don’t know how to incorporate a set, how to run a tech rehearsal, don’t have a visual sense. At the same time caring about the rehearsal environment so that there is an emotional sense in the room that’s correct for the play you’re doing. I mean, are you having fun doing a comedy? When do you break tension with a joke, when do you allow it to become very serious? He knew how to play all that. Those are lessons I learned just watching him work. Also honesty. When you hit your head on a wall, back up and go another direction. Don’t be afraid to say you’re wrong.

My favorite example of that is the Our Town story. Thornton Wilder, as I said, was playing the Stage Manager. For some reason he and I struck up a friendship, and one day we were standing and talking … and Nikos burst out of the rehearsal room and came up to Thornton and said, “The scene isn’t working.” And Thornton said: “What? The scene isn’t working?” Nikos said, “Yeah, George and Emily, they’re on the ladder, doing the homework scene.” And Thornton said, “What’s wrong with it?” And Nikos said, “It doesn’t work.” And Thornton said, “What are you talking about, it’s a Pulitzer-Prize winning play, it works!” And Nikos said, “It’s not working. They’re up there, I’m playing all the values, they’re in love, he’s in love with her, they want to get married — but it’s not working.” Thornton’s jaw drops to the floor and he says, “My lord, what are you doing? It’s very simple! He’s stupid and she’s smart, and if he doesn’t get the algebra questions for tomorrow’s homework, he’s going to flunk. THAT’S IT!” And Nikos said, “But Thornton, it’s a love scene!” And Thornton said, “That’s for the audience to decide.” And Nikos said, “Got it!” And he rips open the door to the rehearsal room and yells, “Everything we worked on is off! You’re dumb, you’re smart! Play it!” And people were grabbing their handkerchiefs and sobbing during the scene. But the beauty of this story was just — Nikos’ willingness to completely drop it. There was no ego. I mean, this was a man who had a considerable ego, but an ego strong enough to put the work and not himself first.

“But Thornton, it’s a love scene!”
“That’s for the audience to decide.”

A humorous anecdote from Tennessee Williams about the New Haven opening of Streetcar:

“Streetcar” opened in New Haven in early November of 1947, and nobody seemed to know what the notices were or to be greatly concerned. After the New Haven opening night we were invited to the quarters of Mr. Thornton Wilder, who was in residence there. It was like having a papal audience. We all sat about this academic gentleman while he put the play down as if delivering a papal bull. He said that it was based upon a fatally mistaken premise. No female who had ever been a lady (he was referring to Stella) could possibly marry a vulgarian such as Stanley.

We sat there and listened to him politely. I thought, privately, This character has never had a good lay.

Thornton Wilder’s annotations in his copy of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.


And finally:

For the Library of America’s fantastic Moviegoer site (you should definitely be reading if you aren’t already), Armond White wrote a gorgeous defense of the much-maligned Hello, Dolly!, the movie. It’s a must-read, especially for those of us – like my entire group of friends – who can recite the movie start to finish: Hello, Dolly! is still looking swell on the big screen

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Happy Birthday, Charlie Chaplin

Some years ago, I wrote an essay about Charlie Chaplin and what it means to “be funny,” and what it means when it operates on such a genius level as Chaplin. It’s in the details. Details can’t be taught. For instance, in the famous dinner-roll dance scene above: the way he looks all the way to the right. He commits to that move. And then, what makes it funnier, is the small eyebrow-raise as he looks down, like, “Yup. Check me out. I know I’m an awesome dancer. Yup.” Put it all together: Genius.

It’s like perfect pitch. Either you have it or you don’t.

Here’s my essay:

Why actors still talk about Charlie Chaplin, and what he teaches them about not acting funny

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Ebertfest 2017 Preview

So proud and honored that our short film July and Half of August is part of the impressive 2017 Ebertfest lineup. The video of me there is from the Albuquerque festival. I had just arrived at the hotel, and had just found out about Prince’s death. Like, half an hour earlier. I had no idea I would be interviewed. I had been crying. Anyway: thank you Chaz Ebert for that beautiful piece, and thank you Chaz and Nate Kohn for having our film play at the festival. It’s a huge honor.

Something separate, but connected
I do just want to mention one small personal thing. Those of you who read me regularly are familiar with “Michael.” A friend of mine. We go way WAY back. (I just wrote about one of our more ridiculous experiences together. But this is really the main piece I wrote about us. It’s extremely intense and at one point sexually explicit and I probably wouldn’t write it that way now. But it captures exactly what he meant to me and what he continued to mean. Michael’s read it, of course.) Something profound existed between us – and it was there instantly – and I suppose it is still there. I never see him. But we are connected and – as we were back then – supportive of one another’s pursuits. (Michael and I were obsessed with Mickey Rourke during our time together, and with the news of The Wrestler, we both lost our minds. And we couldn’t talk about it to anyone else but each other. Nobody else was as insane about Rourke in our circles of friends as we were. I eventually wrote this gigantic piece: Gone Away, Come Back: Mickey Rourke – which was the first piece of film writing I did that “traveled”. It was linked on the IMDB homepage, for example. Anyway, Michael and I were so whipped up into a frenzy about Rourke’s resurgence that it bled onto the site – always with Michael’s permission. Witness: Post, Post, Post, Post, Post.) But anyway, as most of you know, Michael’s film Kwik Stop played at the 2002 Ebertfest (when it was known as the Overlooked Film Festival). I wrote about Roger’s review of it here.

The point of all of this is:

Michael and I dated when we were – basically – kids. But our connection was real. We were aware of it at the time. Our relationship is a very special memory for the both of us.

So … what are the odds … what are the freakin’ odds … that these two rumpled happy Gen-X kids …

… would both have films play at Ebertfest? So many years apart? One having nothing to do with the other?

Considering how our relationship was, and how it has developed since, and how important we are to one another – in a way not easily definable – it seems so beautiful, so right, in an eerily symmetrical way … that we would both go through this exact same thing, decades apart.

When Roger emailed me to ask me to write for him, Michael was one of the first people I told. Because Roger had reached a hand out to Michael, too. Had recognized his talent, had championed him, had done his best to push Michael into the spotlight where he belonged. And here was I, doing something totally different – film writing – and there Roger was, reaching his hand out to me.

I try not to “believe” in coincidences. That way nothing good lies.

I guess it’s the symmetry I like so much. And the sense of right-ness that accompanies certain kinds of symmetry: That of course it would go down this way. Of course. I mean, look at those two grunge-balls by the creek. Of COURSE they would be connected forever in this weird … not completely explainable … way. And of course they would end up having identical extremely specific experiences, both having to do with Roger Ebert. Still, though: What?? It’s rather incredible, in the most literal sense of the word.

I like it, that’s all. Michael does too. In life, which is such a constant welter of chaos, sometimes it helps to think that sometimes, just sometimes, the world makes a kind of beautiful sense.

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“There fell upon the ear the most terrible noise that human beings ever listened to – the cries of hundreds of people struggling in the icy cold water, crying for help with a cry we knew could not be answered.” – Ruth, Titanic survivor

On the night of April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic of the White Star Line hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank, killing 1,517 people, due to not enough lifeboats for all the passengers (and numerous other perfect-storm conditions).

For me, it is not so much the sinking of the ship that is the horrifying thing to contemplate (although that is definitely awful). It is the aftermath (described so vividly in the title of this post by “Ruth”): 1,500 people thrashing about in freezing ocean, miles and miles from anywhere, with lifeboats full (or half-full) of people bobbing nearby, listening to the sounds of the death throes.

Thomas Hardy wrote a poem about Titanic called “The Convergence of the Twain”. The title alone brings a chill of dread.

The Convergence of the Twain
by Thomas Hardy

In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”…

Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

Prepared a sinister mate
For her – so gaily great –
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

Or sign that they were bent
by paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

And The Self-Styled Siren outdoes herself with a post on The Titanic, in three movies.

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Review: Heal the Living (2017): God, I loved this

Ignore the bad poster. This is a really special movie and it has stuck with me. It’s not what it’s about that matter, it’s HOW the story is told that is so special. Katell Quillévéré is an extremely talented director. This is her third feature (her other films, Suzanne and Love Like Poison are also very good. But this feels like a giant leap forward.)

My review of Heal the Living is now up at

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“All his passwords were Hitler.”

This is incredibly charming and moving. Bob Saget, John Stamos and Jimmy Kimmel reminisce about Don Rickles.

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