Film Review: Fifty Shades of Grey | Moronic Masochism (co-written with Lauren Wark)


Note: For this movie review, we here at Quail Bell Magazine are going to be trying something different. This time, we had two Quail Bell writers, Alex Carrigan and Lauren Wark, look at the same movie and review it, in hopes of adding to the discussion of the film. This is their review of the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Alex Carrigan: Fifty Shades of Grey is something that defies our notions of what becomes popular. When you think about how the book and film came into existence, it can be somewhat hard to believe that such a product could happen. The book, written by E.L. James, was based off Twilight fanfiction she wrote and later edited to make an original story. The series has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, thus leading to the inevitable highly anticipated film version. It’s quite astounding that a successful franchise could emerge like this, and it does lead to questions about where we’re going to find popular new media as well as the impact from this kind of novel. Could we finally get a film adaptation of My Immortal?

Fifty Shades of Grey follows Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson), a soon-to-be college grad as she meets 27 year old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for an interview. After their initial meet cute and other encounters, Christian reveals that he has a specific set of demands if he and Ana are going to have a relationship. By signing a contract, Ana will allow Christian to control aspects of her life and allow herself to be the submissive in a BDSM relationship. What follows is a tale about compromise, where Ana allows Christian to do various things to her in exchange for the material pleasures that come from dating a billionaire.

I haven’t read the series itself. Most of my education from the series came from reading responses people had to the franchise. I saw critiques of passages from the book from this Tumblr, which gave me an idea of the writing style and the subject material. I then saw all the parody versions of the story, mostly from celebrities or people with funny voices reading some of the dirtier passages in complete seriousness (Charles Dance’s version is my favorite of these). One of my parents read the whole series, and is probably the closest person to me who admitted to reading the books. Because of this, my initial thoughts on the series were based entirely on how other people were reacting to the series, which could skew how I approached the film.

How about you, Lauren? How did you become aware of the franchise?

Lauren Wark: I have had family and friends read the novel. I knew the series had to be huge when my cousins in rural Rapides Parish in Louisiana had read it. Overwhelmed by all the hype loitering my social media accounts, I began to read articles on the movie and the book series. I watched interviews with the stars, Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, as well as E.L. James. Then I completely buckled under my own curiosity and read the entire series from some online source on my iPhone in maybe five days.

Alex, what were your thoughts entering into the theater? How did your predictions meet your observations?

AC: Well, I was smart enough to see a daytime show for cheaper tickets and in a large theater where I could go to the back and know no one else would sit in the same row as me. From what little crowd I did see, it was pretty much the audience I was expecting for viewers seeing a Valentine’s Day weekend movie. It consisted almost entirely of middle aged women in groups of three or more and couples on an afternoon date.

Going into the movie, I was worried I was going to be biased against it. When I told people I was going to see this movie, their reactions ranged from “why would you support this movie?” to “it’s not worth it. No movie review is worth seeing Fifty Shades of Grey.” I don’t really think anyone was happy about me seeing the movie, with the majority of people being dissenters of the franchise who didn’t want to see anyone support it. The fans of the series were concerned I wasn’t going to be fair to the book, assuming that my reactions to the fan base and what I had read would cloud my judgement.

However, I believe in judging things fairly, so I knew I’d have to judge this movie based on its credentials. I could take in what I had researched from before, but still look at how the movie presented the controversial aspects of the series. This meant looking up BDSM practitioners’ responses to the series to reading interviews from the stars to reading behind-the-scenes details, such as E.L. James’ constant fighting with director Sam Taylor-Johnson. I even had to go in and see if Johnson and Dornan really lacked the chemistry that their Glamour interview suggested. I could take in all the discussions surrounding the movie, but at the end of the day, what mattered was what the movie presented.

How about you? Were you at all concerned that you’d be unable to review this movie fairly?

LW: I observed the same demographics. A “sexy” movie is an obvious Valentine’s Day choice. The only notable odd sighting was a mother with her teen daughters. I am not sure I would take my teenage daughters to see this film.

Going into the theater, I had major concerns. I worried about the fledgling director and just how much artistry she would bring to the film. I wondered how they would interpret E.L. James’ poor dialogue into the screenplay. I, like every other individual who invested the time in reading the series, entered hesitantly, knowing I would walk away perturbed by all dismissed details. I, like you, was also apprehensive of how chemistry between the actors would or wouldn’t show. I read an interview just before seeing the movie detailing Dornan and Johnson’s own reservations about the violence. I think their reactions as the role players of the film’s role play are very telling of the domestic violence arguments. As for the BDSM, I agree with the critics, the series is not a decent depiction. It actually has very little to do with BDSM.

Alex, let’s delve into the mechanics of the film before ripping into the carnage. How did you feel about the directing, the editing?

AC: Oh god, seeing an erotic movie with family is the worst, most awkward thing imaginable. Why would anyone willingly do that?

Anyways, this is a word I’m probably going to throw out a lot in this review when describing the movie, but it’s how I feel about a lot of the film’s creative choices. You ask me to describe the direction, editing, and so forth, and I say it’s this: competent. “Competent” is fine when you’re a somewhat green director adapting a book that has very little in the way of action or specific design. The problem with “competent” is that it does mean one other terrible thing: “boring.”

The movie wasn’t shot terribly, but there were a lot of static, safe choices made when they shot each scene. Most of the film is composed of medium shots of the two leads, which isn’t challenging, but also not very inspired or memorable. The city shots of Seattle look like any movie that shoots in Seattle that rents a helicopter and flies around for an afternoon. Even scenes when the characters are in a helicopter or airplane look fairly banal and could really be in any other movie.

I think what really got me was all the times when they tried to do creative shots and it failed in some way. I did notice some weird attempts to make the image on screen “mean something,” such as a low shot of Ana riding an elevator up to Christian’s office to discuss their sex contract. Generally, low shots are used to make the person on screen look more powerful, which is kind of weird when we’re about to see a woman sign away her autonomy to some guy she barely knows.

I also noticed this weird attempt at Freudian imagery, or an attempt to focus on body parts to mean something. When Ana first goes to Christian’s office, there’s a shot of her looking up at the large, phallic skyscraper, making her look minuscule by comparison. This is followed by numerous moments where she takes a “Grey” stamped pencil and puts it up to her mouth. There’s also numerous shots of hands, which I recently saw eviscerated in this article, that’s probably there to show who is in control and who is surrendering control (For example: Ana’s hands are tied with cuffs, while Christian’s hold a paddle).

Really, I didn’t think there was anything that special about the directing or editing in this film. If anything, the film looked so average that there were times I felt I could be more privy to weird lines of dialogue or images. Did you feel that way too? Was there anything that really made you feel uncomfortable?

LW: Your assessment of the cinematography is as good as mine! it was unoriginal and unimaginative with random, hideous attempts at being artful.

The phallic imagery was totally contrived. No girl nervously puts a pencil to her lip! We are all very aware of phallic imagery and what putting that long, cylindrical form next to our mouths says to a male, just refer to Cher’s explanation of that in Clueless.

One of the first editing atrocities, I noted was the music! The score was melodramatic and misapplied, diminishing its integrity. The songs  made for the movie by popular artists were haphazardly thrown in, fading in and out and sliced with the skill of a noob. I, a person with absolutely no education in sound editing for film, noticed the soundtrack. Therein lies the problem. If you notice something, the artist has failed to consume you by the narrative portrayed.

As for outright uncomfortable scenes, I was crawling with laughter during the “‘de-virginization’ of Ana” scene. The above mirror shot was both awkward and awful, as it was stagnant and extraneous. Pair that with the close up of the Caspian Sea painting out of context, and the audience communes in one fit of uncomfortable laughter.

The dialogue was the artless creation of an amateur author. I have to give it to Dornan and Johnson though. They gave it their all!

Alex, you mentioned the phallic imagery. Bouncing off of that point, I noticed two problematic motifs, which were hypersexualized fantasies of deflowering the virgin and saving the tortured soul. What are your feelings on these motifs as they relate to reality?

AC:  I did notice the music too. I did groan when I realized they were opening with a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” I also do really like the Ellie Goulding song that’s on the soundtrack (because Ellie Goulding is a fairy goddess and you can’t convince me to not like her), even though I found the placement of it kind of weird. Nothing supports a romantic song called “Love Me Like You Do” than showing a guy taking a woman to his sex room via helicopter. Even the remix of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” was placed strangely in the first time Christian and Ana go wild in the red room. I feel like whoever had to put the songs in thought “these sound romantic, I think it will work here,” based solely on what the song titles were.

I’ll admit, the sex scenes were painful to watch. For one, there was always something that took me out of the scenes, so I couldn’t take them seriously. I found myself distracted by odd details, like why would a billionaire obsessed with image have such uneven body hair? Why doesn’t he wax his treasure trail? There was a moment where Ana was stripping to her underwear and I realized she had a wedgie. Also, on top of everything this guy is capable of, he knows how to french braid a woman’s hair, which made me laugh. Did this guy learn to french braid hair just for when he brings women into his red room? What was that like? Did he research it on Google? Did he practice on someone? How long did it take for him to master it? It’s elements like this that make it hard for me to let myself go in the scene.

I do think there was a problematic message in how the movie handled the intimacy between Ana and Christian. First, it didn’t make sense in character. Christian keeps shoving this contract in Ana’s face, one that can’t actually be legally enforced, and she never signs it. He also claims he doesn’t make love but “fucks. Hard.” Five minutes later, he makes love with Ana because she’s a virgin. The staging made it look pretty romantic, despite his weird insistence that he doesn’t do romance and the fact that her confession to being a virgin was treated as if she admitted to committing war crimes.

I think character motivation is why these sex scenes lost me. Christian is constantly making decisions as the “dom” to Ana’s “submissive,” constantly insisting that he can’t do things like go out to dinner with her or having simple, missionary position sex. Even if he does have a warped view of sex due to his background, it seems like needless drama. Ana wants him to be this guy, but he isn’t willing to compromise simply because he doesn’t want to. “I don’t do…” became such an empty statement and didn’t seem like it asserted any real authority on his part. I lost it later in the film when he insisted Ana was changing him because I saw absolutely no evidence of that. He was still the same controlling, emotionally distant guy he was before he started dating her. We don’t know a lot about how this guy acted before dating her, so however Ana changed him (which I’m still trying to figure out because I thought Ana, while a nice woman, wasn’t really that interesting a person) wasn’t readily apparent.

This I think ties into the larger issues people have with this story and how it portrays sexuality. The relationship depicted is bureaucratic and standard, as if this was a relationship from medieval times. Christian offers goods (a laptop, a car, excursions in aircraft, fine meals, etc.), and Ana accepts, giving him her body and autonomy in the process. Considering the entire deal was done with contracts and boardroom discussions (the boardroom meeting where they discuss amendments to the contract was lit to look like they were in Hell), there was a sort of lifeless quality to the proceedings. I didn’t feel like I was watching two people in love or watching a relationship naturally form, I thought I was watching a farmer negotiating the price of  a cow to a butcher.

It disturbs me because people are treating this like some great romance. There’s people who want to date a Christian Grey or want to become an Anastasia Steele. There’s report of an increase in people buying rope to try BDSM because of the book and film. This suggests that more women are hoping to be dominated in the bedroom and are willing to let their men control them and abuse them under the guise of kink. Now, BDSM can be something healthy and enjoyable, but Fifty Shades takes all the fun and excitement out of it and makes it into something rigid and grim. You can’t really lose yourself in these scenes because you have to remind yourself that Christian had to basically buy Ana’s body for these scenes to happen. Of course, there’s a chance people will ignore that and think that a relationship is all about giving and taking (and not just that kind of giving and taking) with no sense of humanity or warmth.

This brings me to my next real concern. Lauren, did you think there was any reason to want to see this relationship continue? Did you care at all for the story being depicted?

LW: First, I would like to acknowledge the issues in storytelling. All of your questions are answered in the book. The omissions, caught by anyone who has read the book, exaggerates the relationship so that it becomes and unbelievable caricature of the relationship portrayed in the novel. Honestly, the movie version of the characters and their relationship is so different from the book that I struggle to compromise the two and understand why the director would choose to accentuate the violence. I am not sure if the result was intentional or accidental by way of editing and the need to keep the film short. The film successfully simplifies very complicated concepts that I shudder to consider E.L. James handled with more care. There were so many conversations left out of the narrative that proved vital to the escalation of their relationship, however strange.

The relationship serves the ultimate patriarchal fantasy. Ana is to be completely submissive and endlessly accepting of Christian’s emotional incompetencies. She is to be possessed and controlled by Christian at all times and somehow it is for her pleasure? These are the makings of domestic violence. There is a delusional fantasy devoid of its practical reality that ultimately serves the man and his will for dominance. This film advertises itself as a romance and feeds an impressionable audience with a feudal revival.

As for the BDSM, I have my questions. My reading from the book and articles tells me that “sadism” is no longer an accepted psychology term. I do understand that there is a fine line between pain and pleasure, but there are parts of this fetish that go too far for me. I do not believe gagging and caning can be pleasurable. I, like Ana, would balk at trusting a man who wanted to inflict pain on me for arousal.

Alex, my greatest contention with the issues within Fifty Shades of Grey highlighted by the media is that there is no discussion on survivors of child abuse! The film alludes to Christian Grey’s fetish as being result of child abuse. How accurate is the portrayal of Christian as a survivor and what should we expect from him? He is 27 and at a crucial climax in his life. He has had the time to cope with his past and his future now beckons him.

AC: This is where I bring back the word “competent.” The film isn’t edgy or daring in what it’s doing, no matter how the commercials frame it. It think it’s being edgy and daring by being a mainstream film about BDSM, controlling relationships, the effects of child abuse, and so on, but it fails. Why? Because it’s simply trying to pass as an adaptation.

The film does remove a few of the problematic elements of the book (the tampon scene will not be missed), but the real issue is that it’s never trying to go beyond the source material. It’s taking a “shocking” source material and making a safe adaptation out of it. No one looked at this story and thought “hey, what if we did this instead?” or “what if we added something new?” Everyone was content to leave the story as-is, and that only highlights how it fails as a work of drama and a work of erotica.

Yes, Christian is a victim of child abuse, and there is the implication that the abuse shaped who is he to where he has a perverse idea of relationships and sex, making it difficult for him to connect emotionally with Ana. No, they do not attempt to make this a morality tale or even try to make a grander statement about child abuse. There’s an attempt to suggest Christian has some repressed issues, such as his mother being a crack addict and the constant jokes about the woman who took his virginity being “Mrs. Robinson,” but it’s never used to make a moral. The marketing of the film is all about how hot and steamy this relationship is, but never suggests that it’s problematic at its core. They want you to think these elements shaped Christian into who he is, but it barely makes an effort to treat this as a romantic tragedy. Christian can’t be the man Ana wants him to be, and Ana can’t be fulfilled by such an emotionally stunted man. That’s such an interesting angle to go at, but as the sequels demonstrate, that’s not the story they wanted to tell.

This is where the film’s competency works against it: you don’t actually have to see this movie. Yes, it’s part of a larger cultural phenomenon and is one of the most talked about books in this day and age. But there’s nothing unique or interesting about the story. Ana and Christian are boring, flat characters. There’s no drama or stakes in anything that happens. There isn’t even an attempt to make it deconstructive of erotic storytelling or stories about power struggles.

When I was watching this movie, all I could think about were films that handled this material better. There’s plenty of erotic movies with dark undertones and subtext that do a much better job at engaging and entertaining than this one. If you want a movie about how a purely sexual relationship fails, watch Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses or Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs. If you want a movie about characters turning abuse into a sexual thrill, watch Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter or Pedro Almodóvar’s Pepi, Luci, Bom. If you want to watch a movie all about power struggles in a relationship and conflicts of ideology, watch Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire or Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. If you want to see a movie all about a couple falling apart despite their attempts to keep things going, you could easily watch Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine or Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color.  In all of these movies, sex is more than just for titillation, but something that is used to make grander statements about humanity, love, relationships, power, and so on.

The point is that there’s no need to see this movie. If you’re a fan of the book, you’re going to get a boring, lifeless adaptation with no real passion or energy. If you’re someone hoping to find something to mock, you’re going to find a film that’s not even the fun kind of bad like Troll 2 orThe Room. Fifty Shades of Grey is a limp movie, but it’s got 100 million fans that are ensuring two more movies are made and that it will probably break box office records this weekend. I honestly feel that if this didn’t have such a following, it would be pushed aside and forgotten really easily.

How about you, Lauren? Any final thoughts, and do you think there are any movies people could watch instead that are similar to this one?

LW: I agree with you that this movie never set to do anything with the story, that it is just another example or playing with each material for the sake of pushing the envelope without saying anything socially. Nevertheless, the romanticization of child abuse leaves a bad taste in my mouth. That is just one other difficult issue tossed around the movie idly. Child abuse is not a tool to make your character more interesting; it is a grave injustice that demands care.

The fandom behind this novel astonishes me as it has no merit, but is there much merit in anything popular today? We bask in all things superficial, from The Kardashians to Snapchat. We want instant, empty gratification. The global inability to acquire an attention span contributes perhaps the most ironic, incidental joke told by Fifty Shades, even the main character, Ana, to whom each viewer willfully donates two hours of their time would never read the series or watch the movies herself! Fifty Shades of Grey is a far cry Classic English Literature. However, it does land somewhere close to the debasement in any song by the Weeknd and sexy selfies with feigned artistry on Instagram.

For me, this movie could have possibly set out to do  much more with the narrative framework built by EL James, but instead it becomes a suitable successor to the Twilight series.. The hopeful swoon sought after by romantics and the sex starved never arrives as it is deterred by ill treated editing, kicking viewers right of the fantasy. The cynics seeking to laugh at how wretched the film is will be defeated by clusterfuck of inelegance eliciting more squirming and silent dialogue than gutted guffawing. The critic is left with a movie where those behind the film didn’t even succeed in spinning up a light porn film with a slightly more developed story line. No social issues thrust the story into transcending its Twilight fandom beginnings. Instead, viewers are handed the same tired, simple, chauvinist, supposedly romantic narrative of the dominant male corrupting the virgin.

AC: I once heard that if you take an element out of a character and the character can’t function without that element, it’s not a fully really realized character. Take away Christian’s child abuse, and we still are left with a character we know nothing about and have no reason to want to know more about. Take away the BDSM element from the story, and you have a generic, lifeless romance. That’s the real issue with this movie and franchise: there’s nothing that really makes it great, and because it fails in its attempts at being deep, it’s only contributing to a poor understanding of difficult subject matter like child abuse and fetish. This will probably make it hard to keep the series on anyone’s mind years from now.

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Film Review: Birdman | What We Talk About When We Talk About Superheroes


In many ways, being an actor and being a superhero are the same thing. There’s a public demand for your service, you have to completely assume a role different from who you are, you are judged on your ability to perform, you are forced to keep your public and private life separate, and there’s always a chance that you will fail greatly and people can suffer because of that. The giant robot can destroy the city, or your poor box-office returns will cost people their jobs. Either way, it’s a path that can lead to greatness or failure, and the burden is placed on the hero in question.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is about a movie in which the superhero is an actor, but this time, what’s at stake is not just his livelihood and the livelihood of those around him, but also his own sanity and his own sense of importance. It’s about Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor who is starring in a Broadway play he directed and adapted from the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan was most known for playing the titular superhero in the first three Birdman movies in the 90’s, and now that he’s pushing 60, the play is his chance to reclaim his glory and prove what he is capable of.

This is not an easy task. The film follows the days leading up to the play’s grand premiere, with several preview shows suggesting that the play can be a wild success or an unmitigated disaster. A crazy method actor (Edward Norton) is brought in to fill a part, and in his attempts to be truly in character he gets drunk on stage and nearly rapes his co-star (Naomi Watts). Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), acts as his assistant, trying to bounce back after a stint in rehab. She comes to represent the mistakes and choices Riggan made in life, and his failure as a father is shown in how she tries to function as an adult.

As you can tell, Birdman is a very meta film. It’s clear that Riggan Thomson is supposed to be a thinly-veiled stand-in for Michael Keaton, what with the career that peaked in the early 90’s and the desperate attempt to reclaim his career now that he’s past his prime. Heck, even Norton is playing someone who is very similar to the persona he has built on the sets of films. There’s a moment in the film where a character talks directly to the camera about the kind of movie you have been watching and what kind of movie you really want to watch (Hilariously, even though I was trying so hard to not be the viewer they wanted me to be in that moment, the film made it difficult for me to not enjoy explosions and CGI insanity). However, what Birdman does really well is not get too concerned with making connections, but using Riggan as an example we see often in stories about actors.

Riggan’s trying to prove something. He’s trying to prove he can adapt Raymond Carver, that he can be respected if he’s not in latex, and that there is a meaning to his life. It’s clear from the beginning that Riggan has little to make up for his life. He lives in his dressing room, and he often fantasizes that he has telekinesis and levitation powers to make himself special. When he moves something with his mind, it’s his attempt to say that he is different than everyone. Like a superhero, he has a gift that can be used for the benefit of the masses, but it also means that he himself has to balance his gift with his own identity.

Iñárritu is a director I haven’t seen a whole lot of, but after seeing this movie, I think I should see more. I saw Amores Perros in college and found that to be a really good film. With films likeBabel and Biutiful under his belt, and with the added prestige Birdman is giving him, he’s a director who will hopefully find more work outside of Mexico. He’s got such a great imagination and style, and it’s all crazy enough to work. When you hear the idea of this film, you don’t expect it all to look like it was all done in one take, but it was, and it looked incredible.

It’s fair to say that Birdman is one of the best films of this year’s Oscar pool. It’s very well acted, has a great story, and is such a technical marvel. When I think about this year’s crop of movies and how they’ll last in the years to come, I think Birdman is one that will probably have the greatest staying power. It’s a superhero movie that’s light on action, but makes up for it with heart and humor. It’s a drama, but it’s also got a bit of an epic feel to it. We’re watching a different kind of hero’s journey, and while it never goes the way you expect it to, you’ll still be gripped to see what happens.

And after all, isn’t that a great feat in of itself?

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Film Review: Selma | Bridges to Cross


After sitting through the dreck that was American Sniper, I really needed a movie like Selma. Both films are very similar, and being released at the same time makes the comparison of the two films even greater. Both films are about a figure in American history, one historic and one contemporary, both detail the politics and social situation of the time they were set, and both attempted to leave an impression on their audience. While American Sniper was all about chaos and using a morally questionable figure, Selma was all about using a figure who is commonly depicted as messianic and making him human.

Selma follows one chapter of the Civil Rights Movement, following the trials of the 1965 marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama. The film follows Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and his fellow activists as they plan and orchestrate the marches. This faces opposition from the racist police and politicians of Alabama, as well as the challenges from getting national support from President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

I can’t remember the last time I went to a movie and liked it so much it made me mad. I think it was good that I left this movie upset about what was shown in the film because it meant that the film worked for me. Artistically, the film was flawless. People were really upset that director Ava DuVernay was snubbed at the Academy Awards, and I am now one of those people. The style of the film was incredible, with some really good shots and mise-en-scene. Several scenes of King and his supporters were bathed in a mix of shadow and yellow light, showing the troubling places they reside but also the warmth, love, and support that could be found as well.

There were also some expertly staged moments as well. One particular shot I loved was one with King and Johnson having an argument in the Oval Office with a portrait of George Washington between the two men. It’s a sign of how one president crusaded for liberty and how another is being called to do the same. There’s also a moment where King and company are in jail and the source of light is behind King. King’s face is almost entirely in shadow, but we’re able to make out enough of his features, suggesting that he’s still a present figure even though the bigoted law enforcement of Selma has put him away.

 It was also in DuVernay’s incredible direction that came the scenes and the moments that were very raw and difficult to watch. The film opens with King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, then cuts to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four young girls. It’s a really harsh moment, especially since the two conversations in the scenes are about ties and hair. You don’t see it coming, but when it happens, it makes you realize the real terror of racist southerners during the Civil Rights movement.

The film is full of many similar sequences as the one above, which are all the more depressing due to how relevant they are today. We see a woman played by Oprah beaten by cops for trying to defend an old man they were assaulting. We see an unarmed black man gunned down by cops in a restaurant after he and his family fled a march disrupted by the cops. Then comes the first march. To me, that first march is one of the best sequences on film from last year.

It works because DuVernay, the actors, and everyone involved in the production do not want to play it safe. They are not going to say “you know, maybe that cop felt it was right to use that bat covered in barbed wire against the people peacefully marching across that bridge.” No, they’re making it clear that this is all inherently wrong, and they want you to understand how terrible such a thing happening is. You see men and women knocked down by cops on horses, you see them beaten with batons and sprayed with tear gas, and you see them struggling to get away. It’s all played for the terror that it is, and the viewer will empathize with it more because events like that are happening in places like Ferguson, Missouri.

Of course, with such a serious film, it’s not without its share of controversy. Many people objected to how the film portrayed Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson is portrayed as unwilling to help, wanting to focus on other issues first and then get around to the Voting Act. Historically, he was on board the whole time, so people had issues with this portrayal. Personally, I think it’s not a big deal.

First, DuVernay admitted she was more concerned with telling a story than being completely accurate. Johnson’s portrayal was the only real change and everything else was portrayed close to real life. Second, the end result was the same, so even if it was a bit of cinematic embellishment, it’s still within the confines of history. Third, who cares? Historical films change the facts all the time, some for story telling purposes, others due to the limitations of film making. Most viewers didn’t care that Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer’s Club was a raging homophobe in the movie when the real one was rumored to be bisexual, nor did they care whenBraveheart was reported to be wildly inaccurate.

Why is this the movie where people are suddenly flipping out over how they portrayed one person? It’s not like they portrayed Johnson as a racist or an old miser who needed to learn about love and compassion. They portrayed Johnson as a man who is acting as U.S. president at a time where there’s a war in Vietnam, conflict with the Soviet Union, widespread poverty in the U.S., and a Civil Rights movement. It’s clear he wants to help, but he has a lot to balance and doesn’t think the Voting Act is as necessary. Sure, that might not be what happened, but this is a realistic change that I can accept it and accept the fact that the same result happened regardless of how much the film changed.

What the film did change that most movies about Dr. King don’t often show is that it made Coretta Scott King just as important a character. Played by Carmen Ejogo, Coretta exists to humanize Dr. King and show the dangers of what this movement means. She reminds him that his family and life are at risk, she tells him that there are certain compromises he might have to make (in this case, working with Malcolm X), and she is also there to keep him grounded. This works for the better because it shows Dr. King as a man and not so much as a messianic figure that most writers, filmmakers, and pundits try to make him out to be (how many times have you heard “If Dr. King were alive today, I think…”?) but rather a man of faith who got involved in a movement he believed in and wanted to inspire real change with.

Selma’s a really good movie, and I wish it would get a little more attention. Everything is executed so well in this movie, from the writing to the acting to the direction. It’s something that’s going to kick start many careers and increase visibility for most of them. I’m sure DuVernay and Oyelowo will receive more opportunities, and I hope they do. Everything is done so well, and for this film to have most of its achievements ignored feels like such a shame. However, I believe this is one of the more accessible films to the public. It’s PG-13, meaning it can be shown in classrooms, and it’s also got a lot of recognizable people in the film to make viewers come see it. Selma will have its audience and its relevancy, and I know it’s probably going to work out in the film’s favor after this is all done.

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Film Review: America Sniper | Look Closely, and Be Careful

French film director Francois Truffaut once said there was no such thing as an anti-war movie. His main criticism was that most of these films failed to make it clear that war was not something to glamorize. You could watch Apocalypse Now to see the story of a man driven so mad by war that he himself gives himself over to the darkness of human nature, but you’ll probably remember the visual of airplanes bombing the jungle while “Ride of the Valkyries” plays. This does tie into a lot about how we portray certain atrocities and dark subject matters on film, and whether or not the time we make these sorts of films will play into how the viewer ultimately reads into the story.

American Sniper is the latest of these controversial war films to come out. It’s already boasting an impressive $90 million box office weekend and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Bradley Cooper and Best Picture. The film is about Chris Kyle, a U.S. Navy Seal and the most decorated sniper in U.S. military history. The film follows him over four tours in Iraq, as he racks up over 160 confirmed kills, and also follows him at home, as the effects of the war start to leave a toll on his mind (I’ll come back to this point later). The Clint Eastwood directed (well, with eight assistant directors) illustrates what it takes to become such a figure in the U.S. military and how the way people reacted to the turmoil that arose in the Middle East following 9/11.

Oh, wait. No he didn’t. He didn’t do any of that with this movie.

Eastwood did not do any of what I described in the above paragraph. He didn’t show the personal struggle that comes from military training. He didn’t show how Kyle’s upbringing would lead to a certain path and how that would continue to affect him in the years to come. He didn’t show how the changes in the military during the Iraq War created tons of mental, physical, and emotional distress for the men and women dying in war-torn streets. He created a movie that glorified one man’s war-approved serial killing under the guise of patriotism and an honorable sense of duty. 

American Sniper is a complete mess of a film. Of all the films to come out about the Iraq War in the last ten years or so, this is probably one of the worst ones. It’s been over a month since I’ve seen the film, and it still makes me mad to think about this movie. It completely fails to come off as complex, as artistic, or as a cautionary tale for those willing to lay their lives down for the country. Now, you might say “maybe that’s not what they were trying to do with this movie. Maybe they were just trying to tell the story of one man?” Well, yeah, but they did a pretty terrible job about that.

Here’s the ultimate problem with American Sniper: Chris Kyle is not a complex figure. I don’t have a grand idea of who he was in real life beyond what certain news reports said (such asassaulting Jesse Ventura,  lying about sniping Hurricane Katrina looters, and a double homicide ruled as armed self-defense based solely on his word as a war hero. Oh, wait a minute, he made those up!), and I’m sure he was a good husband and father and was loved by many. But from what I’m supposed to take away from this movie, he was a complete sociopath. Here’s the thing: when you make a movie about a person taking a task like enlisting in the military, you have a lot of questions to ask about who this person is and why they do the things they do. Not all of these questions do get answered, but we should see enough that there’s room to interpret. Here are the main questions to come from this film:

Why did Kyle join the military? He saw a video of some embassy bombing, and thus the thirty-year old cowboy fumes with rage and then immediately enlists the next day. Apparently, his love of America was just that great. Oh, and apparently that embassy bombing wasn’t really why Kyle enlisted, so his reckless enlisting following his victory at a rodeo and catching his girlfriend cheating on him was considered a lot more interesting and cinematic than his real motives for joining the SEALS.

Was there something in his youth that shaped who he was? We get one speech from his dad that we never see after that one speech. We see him defend his brother from bullies, even though the brother appears once after Kyle enlists and the never again. Ultimately, his early home life proves to mean very little since it clearly wasn’t important enough to include. It’s just adding to the myth they’re wanting to create around Kyle.

What did he think of the war itself? He seemed completely okay with it. He continually refers to Middle Eastern people as “savages,” and not once does a single character call him out for that or react in a way to suggest that he’s an outlier. Clearly, the film wants you to agree with his point of view, especially since he always makes the right decisions in the scenes of conflict.

Did being a soldier impact his marriage? Vaguely. We see scenes of his wife (Sienna Miller) asking if he has to go on another tour of duty, but she ultimately does little in the story other than cry and express fears that Kyle never seems to take into consideration. She’s no Penelope, and he’s certainly no Odysseus. 

Does it affect how he raises his children? No. He hardly spends time with his kids in the film, and he’s always a smiling and supportive dad whenever we do see him with them.

Do his actions impact him later in life? Not a bit. He straight up admits he doesn’t feel any regret over who he killed because it was done in the line of duty and to help his fellow troops. Because of real life circumstances, Kyle could forever be immortalized as a hero, regardless of nearly two hundred kills and a complete lack of remorse or humanity about the proceedings. I’m pretty sure most of the people on the other side could justify their actions as “doing their duty,” and not once does the film consider that. It’s weird because this is a movie by the guy who madeLetters from Iwo Jima, one of two films he made about Iwo Jima and one specifically about the Japanese soldiers in the battle. Why would he humanize the other side in one film then staunchly refuse to do that in this one?

It really bothers me because the film is never framed in a way to make Kyle look bad about any of this. If the film was more about how one person could easily discard his humanity to become a cold, calculated killer with the government okay with what he does as long as he doesn’t kill any U.S. soldiers, then that would be fascinating. That would be something different and add unique commentary to how the government has handled the various affairs in the Middle East. It wouldn’t even be bad to use Kyle for that since he was shown to be remorseless and unstable about the whole thing. They never even show him doing some of the things he lied about in his book, which could be used to illustrate his growing PTSD.

But no, we’re supposed to read Kyle’s actions as “heroic” and “just.” We’re supposed to see him as a person who saw what he perceived as injustice and dedicated himself to lending his support to the cause.  You can argue about whether it was all justified or not, but the issue here is how the movie portrayed the actions. In the movie, Kyle is completely justified in everything he does. There’s no room for moral ambiguity, there isn’t an accident, and there are no innocent victims in his action. Every person he shot deserved to die, and that included men, women, and children. He doesn’t debate whether any of these people were simply indoctrinated or even forced to act because of the political climate, nor does he ever consider how the cruel nature of war might be similar to how he came to be a soldier. Nope. As far as the film’s concerned, they’re wrong, and he’s right.

It really bothers me because we have had films about the Iraq conflict that have handled this much better than American Sniper. I don’t think The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty are perfect films (Zero Dark Thirty is definitely weaker), but they at least knew how to tell a story and to cover multiple perspectives. The Hurt Locker was focused on three major characters who each approached the war differently. They were shown to be flawed, and the fact that their main antagonists were inanimate land mines, it removed that “otherness” that comes from portraying the opposing side in combat. They even properly showed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder through Jeremy Renner’s character and portray him as a tragic figure. He’s a dedicated soldier, but it’s because he is empty without this task.

Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, has very little in the way of combat and soldiers. This film is focused more on an office worker played by Jessica Chastain. This time, they’re telling a story about someone who gets to avoid war but still plays a part in it. Chastain’s character is the core of the story, and it makes the film a character study. What kind of person do you have to be to spend nearly a decade hunting one man down? What do you sacrifice? The film does have some questionable moments, but it does make it clear that the hunt for Osama bin Laden was not just about finding one terrorist, but also about how the U.S. responded to this attack and how, through the experience of one woman, it could come to represent a great deal of how global issues were handled in the early 21st century.

I’m mad because American Sniper had nothing like that. It didn’t present any complexity in the situation, and it didn’t make the character or person known as Chris Kyle any interesting or human. It made him a killing machine, and what’s worse is that it’s presented in a way to make him a hero. There’s already been plenty of people who saw the film and took to Twitter to say what they really think about Middle Eastern people. The movie failed at everything it did, and worse it’s making people think they are justified in their bigoted behavior. It’s pure propaganda, and it’s $400 million and counting box office return is just an excuse to keep making movies like it.

Okay, there are some things to praise in the movie. I hate the character he played, but Bradley Cooper did okay in the role. He’s a better actor than some give him credit for, and he did fine with the material given. I will admit there are some challenges in shooting war scenes, so I thought they were fine. I would praise them more, but there were horrible aesthetic choices made in this film. There’s a moment late in the film where they bring slow motion and Matrixstyle bullet time, when it never before occurred in the film, and the result was comical. It might have been because the shot was an important one, but it was still really dumb to watch because the film never took that kind of style again and the one time they used it looked really clumsy and odd.

Even though the film got a nomination for editing, the editing is actually pretty terrible. The film starts in medias res for a scene that is resolved in the first thirty minutes. There’s also a scene which, due to the lack of time stamps, had trouble showing if the scene was happening on one particular day or was actually multiple scenes over multiple days. This wasn’t helped that it was framed around scenes taking place over years, so certain sequences got confusing to follow at times. Also, I don’t care how cool the idea of a battle taking place in a sandstorm sounds, but if it becomes really hard to tell where anyone is in the scene (especially if the people in the scene are almost entirely white men in military uniforms), then maybe you shouldn’t do it. I had to assume the Americans weren’t shooting their allies in the scene because I couldn’t see what they were shooting at.

I generally feel every Academy Awards, there’s one film nominated for Best Picture that will really get me mad. Last year, it was Dallas Buyer’s Club for its terrible portrayal of transgender people, ridiculous revisionist history, and poor mise-en-scene. This year, it’s American Sniper. I’m also certain I’m not going to dislike any of the other films nominated for Best Picture. I saw seven of the Best Picture nods before the ceremony, and not a single one mad me as mad asAmerican Sniper did. I didn’t get to see The Theory of Everything, but even I’m sure that movie wouldn’t offend me and my principles.

American Sniper offended me. It was a bad movie, and worse, it’s only going to make bad things happen because of it. People will watch that movie and think Chris Kyle was some courageous American hero who really was just a hired gun and not some patriotic savior. They’ll be inspired to go to war, and they’ll probably ignore the questions of morality involved with their job. People will see the film’s black and white morality (because there’s no way anything is gray in this film) and think it’s exactly how the world works and want a film like this to exist so they can continue to believe the world operates on this system. Some will look at the film, see the lack of humanity given to the Middle Eastern characters, and think that their xenophobia is justified. People will think killing people is great as long as you only do it in the context of wartime combat, idolizing Chris Kyle and forgetting about atrocities like Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. They’re going to see the conviction of Kyle’s killer and see him as a monster who killed a “hero,” ignoring the fact that the man was mentally ill following a stint in war. Aside from some good acting and some competent cinematography there’s nothing to idolize in this film. It’s pro-war propaganda and is marketing itself as something powerful and inspirational. It’s an ugly story and an unpleasant film, and it is not worth your time.

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CWW Interview with David Shields, Essayist, Paris Instructor, & Author of I Think You’re Totally Wrong (2015)

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.

This year, the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop’s Summer in Paris Writing Retreat will take place from July 22-30, 2015. At the event, we’ll be hosting a wide variety of craft of writing seminars, creative writing workshops, and special readings from our Paris 2015 faculty, which includes David Shields, Kathleen Spivack, Rita Banerjee, Diana Norma Szokolyai, Jessica Reidy, and Elissa Lewis. One of our featured faculty members, David Shields, an essayist and fiction writer, recently co-authored a new book with Caleb Powelltitled I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. The Cambridge Writers’ Workshop’s Alex Carrigan sat down to speak with David for an interview. Read below to see the interview, and be sure to register for our Summer in Paris Writing Retreat t by May 5, 2015!

AC: Your writing style is said to be very much like a “collage,” in that you blur genre, autobiography, fiction, and essay. How did you develop the form of the literary collage?

DS: I wrote three novels that were relatively traditional, although increasingly left. I wrote a book called Heroes, a very traditional novel, a growing-up novel called Dead Languages and then a book of stories called Handbook for Drowning.I was trying to write my fourth novel, a book called Remote, and I found all the traditional gestures of the novel just really were not conveying what I wanted to convey.

I was watching a lot of self-reflective documentary films, especially films by Ross McElwee who is from Cambridge. I was reading a lot of anthropological autobiographies by people like Renata Adler and George W.S. Trow and listening and watching a lot of performance art and stand-up comedy.

What was going to be my fourth novel became my first work of literary collage called Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, published in 1996. Ever since then, I’ve been continuing to explore boundary jumping work, the limits of autobiography, and the limits of genre-jamming. By no means am I the progenitor of literary collage. Collage is an ancient form going back to Heraclides’Fragment 3,000 years ago and coming up to all the way to, say, Maggie Nelson’sBluets. It’s a beautiful form that lets me do what I want to do on the page.


AC: How did the idea of I Think You’re Totally Wrong develop?

DS: A lot of what I do on the page is to question myself. I write what I call “self-deconstructive non-fiction.” It’s a term someone applied to my work. I’m interested in exploring myself but also in demolishing myself as a way to get at large cultural and human questions. The canvas in my work is myself, only as an avenue to approach broader questions. I’m not interesting in anything like conventional autobiography or conventional memoir.

In a way, I was tired of debating myself in my work, in books from Remote to How Literature Saved My Life. I wanted to have somebody embody the opposition. I have always been a fan of books of dialogue from Plato and Socrates in Plato’sDialogues all the way up through The Magliozzi Brothers in Car Talk. I just love the form of two guys arguing.

I sought out a former student of mine (Caleb Powell) who tends to have a different point of view from me. Three years ago, we went off to a cabin and argued for four days. Then we radically edited the transcript into a book, then we took the book and made it into a film with my former student, James Franco, directing the film.

AC: The book references My Dinner with Andre’ and The Trip as influences for the novel. What aspects of those works do you feel I Think You’re Totally Wrong best encapsulates? Do you feel the book does something those works didn’t?


DS: It seems sort of foolish to not acknowledge the predecessors from Boswell and Johnson, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laurel and Hardy, Car Talk,Sideways, and The Trip. A wonderful book I really love is David Lipsky’s book on David Foster Wallace in which the two of them argue for three or four hundred pages.

It’s not up to me to say what the book does better or worse, or what the film does better and worse than previous ones. The challenge I placed before myself and Caleb was to make it… I think what our book and film do well is being more naked, more raw, or more vulnerable. A few of these other projects, they might have more talented performers or whatever.

There’s a wonderful quote on the back of the book by Peter Brooks, my former teacher. He says “Confession makes sense only when it costs something, when it’s courting disaster; I found that risk-taking in this book, and it’s bracing.” That’s a very generous quote, and it goes to what we were trying to do. In a way, we wanted to court disaster, where something like The Trip is never seriously courting disaster. Even My Dinner with Andre’ is an incredibly polished performance.

I’m very fond of this quote by Walter Benjamin: “A work of literature should either invent a genre or dissolve one.” Our attempt was… to dissolve a genre or extend it, by making the quarrel between two people be just unusually naked and raw and vulnerable and discomforting. That’s our attempt at contribution.

AC: In the book, you and Powell briefly criticize the notion of “show, don’t tell.” Was that something that played into how you presented I Think You’re Totally Wrong since the book presents almost entire transcripts of your conversations?

I think it’s because I’m very invested in the essay and the contemplation, the meditation. In our book, it’s beside the point to do long description of what the woods look like. It’s essentially a play or screenplay.

It’s mainly “show, don’t tell,” because it’s two guys arguing. Any time Caleb goes to too great length on a story, I always imagine asking him “Okay, but what’s the point?” I think the book embodies “tell, don’t show” not because we don’t give scene descriptions, but because we don’t waste time doing a lot of dialogue. We’re trying to cut to what actually matters and to contemplate existence directly.

AC: Do you ever see yourself going on a trip similar to the one in I Think You’re Totally Wrong ever again, even if it’s not to write a book?

DS: No. Everything I do is related to books, and I guess that’s part of the comedy of this project. I’m really busy; I teach, I write, and a lot of the book is about how I really like to write. I might go off with my wife and daughter to hang out. To me, words are very precious, and I don’t give them to people for the hell of it. If I’m trying to use words well, I want to make it part of a book. I’m not going to spend five days thinking about existence and not try to make it part of a literary project.


AC: How did the film version of the book come to be?

DS: James [Franco] was my student at Warren Wilson College (Masters of Fine Arts: Low Residency program). James is an actor, a writer, and a director. We were getting to know each other better, and we both share an interest in self exposure, nakedness, recollection, awkwardness, and in breaking the fourth wall. We have a shared aesthetic, so that we’re working not only on this film (which is completed) but also with two other books of mine that we’re making into film. We have a kind of shared ethos in self-deconstructive non-fiction. That’s not all I’m interested or all James is interested in, but it’s a shared interest.

James wanted to do a film of one of my books. I showed him I Think You’re Totally Wrong, and he said, “this is a movie, let’s do it.” Caleb and I wrote a screenplay, a scene sheet, a beat sheet, and a treatment. The irony of it, which I sort of love, was that on the first day of shooting, we wound up throwing away the script because a real life, real time argument broke out on the first day which was all about what can and what can’t be used in the film. It was a perfect embodiment about the whole life/art debate, which was what the book and film are actually about. We stumbled quite serendipitously into an actual argument and we filmed the actual argument.

AC: In the film, you and Powell play yourselves. Was there anything challenging about becoming “actors” and reliving the weekend?

DS: In many ways, it wasn’t reliving. It wasn’t like we act out our scenes from the book, which is what we thought we’d do. We created an entirely new work, which has a relationship to the book, but we basically started arguing on camera.  Franco and I started yelling at Caleb; Franco and Caleb started yelling at me. Ot was a real argument about a real thing.

I was just being myself and wanted to win the argument. You have to be aware there is a camera and that you are trying to make a good movie. Just like I do on the page, I took who I naturally am and was aware of projecting, amplifying, and exaggerating that for drama, which I think is what any personal essayist does.


AC: Was there anything that had to greatly changed in the adaptation of the book, such as certain scenes that had to be cut or reworked?

DS: It’s an entirely different narrative that has a whole different strategy and purpose. It’s about an argument that develops when James and I urge Caleb to incorporate certain material into the movie. He refuses, I feel awful about badgering and bullying Caleb, then I apologize to Caleb, then James accuses me of being a theoretician and not a practitioner of riffs, then I accuse James of the same, then Caleb has a meltdown as he recounts this war movie he is telling us about, then we all worry that we don’t have an ending, and then out of nowhere we find an ending by, in a way, rediscovering what the whole film was about.

I think it’s a lovely little film and I’m quite proud of it. We were writing the film hour by hour over the four days that we shot it. Any time that we weren’t shooting I was madly scribbling notes about what we should do next. On one hand, I was trying to respond to the actual argument and on the other, I was trying to make a film. It was a completely different experience, much different from the book in my view.

AC: Do you have any upcoming works you’d like to talk about?

I have four books coming out in the next year. I Think You’re Totally Wrong just came out and the film will be out this spring. In April, I have a book coming out with Hawthorne Books called Life is Short- Art is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity. I’m the co-author of that book with Elizabeth Cooperman. In June, I have a book coming out with McSweeney’s Books called That Thing You Do With Your Mouth: The Sexual Autobiography of Samantha Matthews As Told to David Shields. It was kind of an amazing project.


In next September, I have a book with Powerhouse Books which is a photography and art publisher called War Is Beautiful: A Pictorial Guide to the Glamor of Armed Conflict. It’s a book about war photography. Then in January of 2016, I have a book coming out with Knopf again called Other People: A Remix.I’ve taken about 60 essays of mine that I’ve written over the last 30 year and rewritten them all to make an entirely new book with a contemplation on a particular theme.

Those are all keeping me busy for the next year, just ushering these new books to print.

AC: Since you’re going to be coming on our Paris retreat later this year, what are you looking forward to and what are you planning to teach?

DS: I’m looking forward to meeting my French publisher. I’m looking forward to meeting some friends I know in Paris. I’m looking forward to giving a reading at Shakespeare and Co. Those are the side things.

The core of the experience is the Cambridge conference. I look forward to talking about brevity; I’ll be using my brevity book as the core of that seminar. I’m going to talk about collage, and I’m going to talk about collaboration. Three of the things I’m most passionate about (collage, brevity, and collaboration) will form the basis for three workshops. I’m still working out exactly what, but I teach out of my passion, and those are three of my literary passions.

AC: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

The best thing I can think of comes from a wonderful line of William Butler Yeats who said “Out of the quarrel with others we make politics; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” That’s sort of the essence of what I’m interest in: to harvest the arguments with yourself, and out of that to create what you hope is memorable.

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.David Shields graduated from Brown University in 1978 and holds an M.F.A in Fiction from University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since 1984, he has published sixteen books on fiction and nonfiction. He is also a Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at University of Washington and a member of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers faculty. He was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Black Planet in 2000 and has had essays and stories published in Harper’s, Esquire, Village Voice, and Salon, among others. His work has also been translated into twenty languages.  He currently lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.

I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, can be purchased on Amazon. The book was named one of Amazon’s Ten Best Nonfiction Books for January, 2015 and one of Powell’s Books Favorites for January, 2015. The film version will be premiering at Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival in April, 2015.

This interview was originally published with the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop.

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CWW Intern Alex Carrigan’s Work Published in Quail Bell Magazine and Strike!


The Cambridge Writers’ Workshop is proud to announce that CWW Intern Alex Carrigan has managed to get some of his poetry published recently.  His work is featured in Strike!, a zine of radical flash fiction and poetry created by Amendment Literary Journal at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alex had three short poems published in the zine, covering the assigned topics of cat calling, “my privilege,” and reproductive rights. All the pieces were written under a time limit at a flash fiction event hosted last spring at VCU.  Alex’s poem  “When I First Saw Her,” is also featured in Quail Bell Magazine. The poem is based off a workshop from our Pre-Thanksgiving Yoga and Writing Retreat. Following a prompt from Jessica Reidy’s “The Art of Withholding in Creative Writing,” Alex wrote a poem based on how to tell someone about the first time you met your spouse, albeit with most of the details removed. Based on that prompt, he played around and created the following poem:

When I First Saw Her
by Alex Carrigan

When I first saw her,
it wasn’t anything like in the movies.
Time didn’t slow down to a crawl,
the music didn’t go silent,
and there wasn’t a change in lighting.

My heart didn’t freeze,
nor did it pick up in rhythm.
I could breathe easily looking at her,
my throat clear and open.

I know that tales of meeting your wife
are supposed to be more exciting.
But I didn’t feel that shock when I met mine.
It was a simple meeting, free of spectacle.

my eyebrows did raise in surprise,
so I took that as a good sign.


This article was originally published on the Cambridge Writers’  Workshop homepage.

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Film Review: Inherent Vice | “The Dude Goes to Chinatown”


I promised it, and now I’m delivering. I saw Inherent Vice right before the Golden Globes, and boy did I need a movie like that on my mind before going into that awards show. I’m not saying that I needed to feel high in order to watch that ceremony, but I needed something like it to get me through the four hour special. I needed to remind myself that there are good movies out there, and that they might not necessarily get recognized at a mainstream award show. It’s a shame, but it means I get the chance to evaluate a film and think about what is worth recognizing it even if the Hollywood Foreign Press Association doesn’t.

Inherent Vice is adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello, a private eye living in the fictional Gordita Beach of Los Angeles in 1970.  His ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), comes to him with a case. She suspects her lover is going to be committed to a mental asylum by his wife and her lover, and she wants Doc to do something. However, Doc ends up getting tangled in a much larger conspiracy and runs into various characters across L.A, including a cop who hates hippies (Josh Brolin), a man on the run (Owen Wilson), and a drug addicted dentist (Martin Short).

The film is a stoner’s version of film noir. It’s a detective story, set in the dark underbelly of Los Angeles, except it’s far past the era noir is usually set in and everyone is on drugs. Yeah, there’s a lot of drug humor in this film. Weirdly, it’s not used for really cheap jokes and is played pretty realistically. The majority of characters in the film smoke (or in one case, eat) marijuana, and a few characters snort cocaine or shoot heroin. This is often used to show how addictive these people are and gives an idea that some of them might really be more hedonistic than they would admit.

It’s easy to see why these people would be so hedonistic. The film is set right at the start of the 1970s, and the era of peace, love, and understanding was over. The Manson murders are referenced quite a bit, so it’s clear that the hippie movement is losing steam. A lot of the hippie characters come off as really lost and confused. They turn to narcotics and other pleasurable activities, but there’s really no reason to. They’re not making a stand or challenging society, they’re just smoking pot because they want to smoke pot.

The straight society isn’t any better. Most of the characters who come from the “respectable” side of L.A. are shown to be just as hedonistic and lost as the hippies. Even though they use the word “hippie” like a racial slur, they are just as prone to reckless activity in search of a rush. We see a wealthy man’s home where it’s clear he and his wife both have lovers on the side. A dentist sleeps with his secretary and teenagers after they all snort tons of cocaine. The law enforcement is also shown to be pretty incompetent and corrupt. Doc gets attacked by cops randomly, often just because he’s walking past them. Brolin’s character is constantly angry, but we also see him drinking Johnnie Walker and eating sweet foods like frozen bananas and pancakes with fury. These characters are in just as much a desire to have some pleasure and excitement in their lives, with their only cover from being on the same league as people like Doc and Shasta being their money and positions.

It’s also fitting that most of the characters were turning to other ideological movements in this time. A Jewish character runs around with neo-Nazis because he thinks that they embody a strength and power that he wants to emulate with his real estate business. There’s several characters who ascribe to Buddhism and other Eastern religions and philosophies. This is particularly evident at the mental asylum that bears the motto “Straight is Hip” above its entrance, where everyone walks around in white robes chanting and meditating.

The film is very similar to other films by director Paul Thomas Anderson. A lot of his films, particularly Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and The Master, deal with Americans who are attempting to find community and meaning in their lives. I feel Inherent Vice fits this because like the above films, it deals with people having to scramble when certain eras end, whether it be the height of the porn industry or the post WWII environment. Do I think Inherent Vice is as successful as those films? Yes and no.

I do think there are some real hazy moments in Inherent Vice, particularly towards the end of the film. There comes a point where the film has to resolve all the issues and try to have some sort of conclusion. There’s an ending to the major mystery, but it gets muddled in some fairly slow scenes. The film also relies a little heavily on its voice over by Joanna Newsom to explain the plot, something that does help deliver information and further the story, but also means that there’s a lot the viewer has to take in, causing it to be difficult to follow at times.

Regardless, I still think it’s a good movie. Phoenix and Brolin are particularly hilarious in this film, and they have some really good chemistry in their scenes together. It’s got some really funny moments and some really good period details that make it nice to look at, particularly with how they shot some colors. I don’t think it’s the best movie to come out last year, or the funniest, but it’s still a really good movie for P.T. Anderson’s filmography and probably one of the better Joaquin Phoenix performances. And who knows, maybe it’s really fun to smoke pot and watch it? I wouldn’t know, but feel free to try and let me know how it goes.

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