Sunday, September 25, 2011

Black Swan: Is It Me, or Was This Just Fight Club for Girls?

So I finally got around to watching the movie "Black Swan."  (Better late than never, right?)  Months after the Oscar hype and Body-Double Gate, all I really knew about this movie was that Natalie Portman was supposed to be really good in it, the Rodarte ballet costumes were beautiful, there was a lesbian love scene, and people generally thought this movie was well done.

I'm left scratching my head at this one.

Natalie Portman?  Great actress?  Check.  She pretty much always brings it, and I have nothing bad to say about her.  Even with less-than-stellar scripts (The Other Boleyn Girl), she does memorable things that transcend the material she's given.

Costumes?  Yeah, they were there.  They were nice.  That's pretty much all I can say about them.

Lesbian love scene?  Sure.  Whatever.

A well done-movie?  I'm not so sure.  The movie felt stale to me, like it could have been something awesome, but it never really cohered.  The strange visions Portman's character had were creepy in a kid-on-a-tricycle-in-The-Shining kind of way, but they started to annoy me about an hour and fifteen minutes in because...nothing else happened.  The tension didn't advance or heighten.  The same weird shit kept happening, yet I'm supposed to sympathize with a character who doesn't take any action when she sees mirror reflections that don't move the way she does or bloody appendanges randomly appearing when she's in the bath?  I mean, come on...she doesn't consult a doctor or shrink or go buy some illegal meds from a guy on the street to see if maybe, just maybe, they make her feel able to concentrate on what's supposed to be her dream?  I'm supposed to believe she just lets all this crap happen?  And if so, I'm supposed to sympathize with someone who lets her world go to pieces without doing anything about it--strictly on the merits of Portman's performance?  No.  The writers must do better than this.

Okay, maybe there's some psychological element here, like her mind fractured under the pressure and she had to become someone else in her mind to deal with it all.  Tyler Durden much?  Been there, done that.

At the end, when we think she's killed Mila Kunis's character, I was finally thinking, okay, this movie is going somewhere.  This poor, pathetic character finally *did* something to help herself.  (Plus, Mila Kunis's character was kind of annoying, so I was happy to see her go.  I'm a fan of Kunis in general, but there wasn't much to this character.)  Then, we find out that not only did Nina *not* off the competition, she offed herself.  Dude.  Again, this is Fight Club, and we've seen this before.  I hated Fight Club, and I'm not inclined to like this version better because it has feathers and tulle.

If the writers wanted to create a movie about a young woman's psychological stressors in the world of ballet and psychotic break those stressors caused, I get the sense it could have been riveting--especially if they made the character a more active participant in her own life.  Poor Nina just had things happen to her.  In a creative writing class, we'd be told this is a bad idea.  Basically, the movie is static.  The weird visions begin to overtake her.  They continue while she does nothing to help herself.  Because of those weird visions, she kills herself, and then thinks she was "perfect" because....why?  Her dark nature fully emerged?  And allowed her to harm herself?  Aren't dark natures usually about getting people to harm others, not themselves?

The whole thing gave me a headache and lingering sense of disappointment.  Just like Fight Club.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Keep on Truckin'

So, it's pretty obvious that grad school resuming has greatly impacted my ability to blog on any sort of regular basis.  But there's another reason I've been keeping a low profile lately.

August was pretty much filled with nothing but rejection, and it started getting to me.  I started getting down on writing and on myself in particular.  Why can't I do this? I asked myself.  Why isn't anything I write good enough anymore?

But that was so the wrong question to ask.  Rejection happens to everyone.  It has nothing to do with how good a writer you are--it just has to do with that moment.  Is that story right for that editor and that journal and that issue in that moment?  If not, it absolutely does not mean you're not a good writer.  It just means the time isn't right.

I started trying to think of it like this.  When you buy a lotto ticket and don't win, do you get down on yourself for not winning?  Of course not.  It's out of your control.  There's a certain element of micro-physics going on here--when it's your time to win, you'll win.  If it's not your time, there's nothing you and your lucky numbers can do to make it happen.  Not winning the lotto doesn't mean you're not an awesome person.  It just means your numbers weren't picked today.  That's it.

I'm still slowly making my way through "The Best American Short Stories 2009."  I got to one story, "Sagittarius," by Greg Hrbek.  (I didn't like the story, incidentally, but its journey to publication has an interesting lesson to teach.)  Hrbek teaches fiction writing at a college in New York, and went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In other words, he's a highly qualified individual when it comes to writing.  In the notes at the back of the book, Hrbek says that the first version of this short story was rejected by "about fifteen magazines and journals."  Fifteen!  (My best story has been rejected by five or six, so far.)  The rejections prompted him to revise the story, after which it was accepted by Black Warrior Review and then anthologized in the "Best American" collection.  Not bad, huh?

This cheered me up.  If a professor can get rejected fifteen times, I can't possibly be upset about being rejected, either.  It just happens.  To everyone.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

My 10 Rules for Writers

I've officially begun my third semester of grad school!  Classes are mostly fun, reading lists are long, and I'm generally having a better time than I thought I would.  While the said reading list doesn't bode well for my free time (or ability to blog), I'm going to keep trying to find the time to write, submit stories, and keep you guys updated.  To that end, here's something interesting that I was asked to do for my memoir writing class.  Our assignment for the week was to write 10 rules for writing.  I had a pretty easy time with this, since I've thought long and hard about this type of question before.

All you writers out there, chime in!  What are your rules for writing?  Here are mine:

Jenni's 10 Rules for Writing

1. Tell a story because you have a question you want or need to answer, not because you want to provide a moral, teach a lesson, or make a point.  Plots, settings, and characters can’t breathe if they’re suffocated by a pre-determined message; things that can’t breathe usually die as a result. 

2. Avoid having your characters answer each other directly or say exactly what’s on their minds.  Characters should almost always hide something, misdirect other characters’ attention, tell half-truths, or flat-out lie.  Clear, precise answers are for police interrogations, not creative writing. 

3. Never tell your reader what you, the narrator, or any of your characters are feeling. Avoid naming feelings altogether.  Describe emotion or reveal it through action.  You lose too much mystery by naming it. 

4. Be archaeological in your descriptions.  Excavate people, places, and things to find out what’s beneath—then describe those things.  Instead of describing skin, for example, think of what’s beneath the skin—blood, bones, atoms, marrow.  Instead of describing the sky, think of atoms refracting, particles shining, ether, matter, etc.  Don’t settle for describing the surface.  Think about what’s happening on the inside of things, not just the outside.

5. Visualize everything as you write it.  You have to be aware of every movement your characters make in a room, what they’re wearing, what they’re carrying, which car they’re getting out of, etc.  Everything, from cars to clothing to positioning in a room, has to obey the rules of physics and logic.  If you describe a character carrying six grocery bags and a cup of coffee, for example, he better have a really hard time ringing the doorbell or digging out his keys. 

6. Describe what’s unique, not what’s ordinary.  If you want to describe a dorm room, for example, modular furniture, dirty clothes, and textbooks are probably a given.  If there’s nothing unusual or important about them, don’t describe them.  Instead, tell us about the things we wouldn’t ordinarily see or the things that we need to know, like the laminated cardboard jewelry box with corners that have been reinforced with three different kinds of tape.

7. Don’t wrap up your ending too neatly.  People rarely exit life-altering moments with complete satisfaction, complete despair, or a complete sense of their place in the universe.  Characters who vow to be different from that point forward, or narrators who learn the true meaning of really big concepts like love, hope, or faith are probably deluding themselves—and you.   

8.  Avoid tricks or cliché endings.  These include the “it was all a dream” ending, the “it could have happened that way, but didn’t” ending, and the “Tyler Durdon is only a personality inside my head” trick.  If a reader invests in your story, these endings can obliterate that investment and make the reader feel cheated.

9. Grammar or proofreading mistakes are never allowed unless they are purposeful, to characterize a narrator or character. 

10.  Revise to eliminate redundancies.  Ask yourself whether multiple adjectives are really necessary—or does naming the object itself already express these characteristics?  (i.e., “soft, fluffy, kitten,” “hot summer afternoon,” “Italian Ferrari,” “obnoxious telemarketer,” etc.).  Ask yourself whether the verb itself already conveys the adverb (i.e., “ran swiftly,” “whispered softly,” “screamed loudly,” etc.).