Alan Scherstuhl’s do’s and don’ts of film writing

Film writer Alan Scherstuhl has published his writing advice for film reviewers. I don’t necessarily advocate for every single thing here, but it’s all valuable and it’s all worth considering. With Alan’s permission, I’ve reproduced his entire list below. My favorite bit:

Do not forget that some 14 year-old version of you might happen into reading your piece, and that that 14 year-old wants to be invited into the world of culture and ideas, not shamed away from it for not knowing who Jafar Panahi is, so when you mention Jafar Panahi provide some enthusiastic context that might make that 14 year old look Panahi up rather than think “Fuck off, you snob.”

Always good to remember where you came from and how you got started.

Alan is one of the smartest, most astute film writers I know. Follow him on Twitter and check out his wrap up of 2018 in movies. And one last thing that Alan wanted me to share: a good writer can break any of these rules at any time. 

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My advice on reviews is simple. First, the don’ts:

Do not open with plot summary

Do not write a paragraph of plot summary

Do not ever write this sentence: “CHARACTER’s NAME (ACTOR’S NAME) is an L.A. architect suffering from ennui in the years since her professional chef husband CHARACTER’S NAME (ACTOR’S NAME) had to close his dream restaurant and bury their child CHARACTER’S NAME (ACTOR’S NAME, adorable in sad flashbacks to a happier time)”

Do not forget that it is your job to highlight what is important and memorable and unique, whether good or bad, and to dash the rest to the rocks

Do not only characterize performances in parentheses

Do not laundry list, meaning don’t give us a paragraph of intro, one on the story, one on the actors, one on the direction, and then one of opinion

Do not just rely on adjectives to characterize a performance or a scene or a feeling. Instead, draw upon every bit of descriptive power within you to capture exactly you are attempting to capture. Summon up the moment itself rather than just how you feel about the moment.

Do not despair that the above is hard.

Do not put scare quotes around “wacky” or “zany” or other words. That asks the reader to guess what you think the word usually means and then what you intend it to mean this time and whether you’re putting it in someone else’s mouth.

Do not presume that your understanding of/tolerance for wackiness or zaniness or pretension is the universal standard. These words mean little on their own and demand you clearly characterize whatever strikes you as wacky/zany/pretentious rather than trust that tossing the word in there is enough.

Do not be all, “I don’t know, there were some decent action scenes.”

Do not rely on adverbs that merely add emphasis: “very” or “really” or “wonderfully” in front of an adjective characterize that adjective only in degree, not in character, and more than anything else they suggest that the adjective you’ve chosen is inexact and needs some help. “Stunningly” is just “very” with its eyes bugged out; “profoundly” is just “really” with a beard and its voice lowered an octave.

Do not use “titular” or “myriad” or “gleefully” or “iconic” or any of those godawful Variety terms like “actioner” or “laugher.”

Do not write sentences where the reader could start skimming halfway through and still know what you were going to say.

Do not ignore the real world and the film’s social/political context

Even if you’re exercised about that context, do not ignore the formal choices the filmmakers have made
— how is this film shot and edited, and why? Is it effective? If someone reading your review had never heard of the movie, would it be clear from the review that this was, in fact, a movie and not a play or a TV show?

Do not tut down at regular folks who might not ever see the challenging movie you’re savoring.

Do not write, “In a perfect world, [INSERT MOVIE YOU LOVE HERE] would be a huge hit.” You’re not the Commissariat of Enlightened Taste. Argue for what you love — don’t whine that it’s not as loved as you’d like it to be.

Do not assume that people who do not love what you are championing – or who love what you’re panning – are doing so in bad faith.

Do not forget that some 14 year-old version of you might happen into reading your piece, and that that 14 year-old wants to be invited into the world of culture and ideas, not shamed away from it for not knowing who Jafar Panahi is, so when you mention Jafar Panahi provide some engaging context that might make that 14 year old look Panahi up.

Do not think of your review as just one of the many reviews this film will get, as just a datapoint for the Tomatometer, as just some piece of consumer advice only likely to interest people already engaged with whatever you’re reviewing. Instead, think of your review as an event itself, as something that needs to win people over and get them to care.

Do not think that reviewing simply means setting down your subjective opinion. Key to it is to marshal as much objective evidence and memorable detail as you can to a) make your case, b) give readers a feeling of the experience of actually watching this movie, c) participate in the art yourself, as recording what you witnessed is immortalizing the work in another medium, and d) prevent you from spinning your wheels with dull-ass plot summary.

Again: DON’T WRITE PLOT SUMMARIES ANY LONGER THAN A LINE OR TWO. If you would skim it in other people’s reviews, they’re sure as hell gonna skim it in yours.

Do not worry much of what other critics have said except in the rare revisionist piece where you are proving everybody else wrong a month or so later.

Do not forget that Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael panned 2001. Their reviews of it are persuasive.

And here’s a do:

Engage with the art, open yourself to the art, process the art, and respond to the art. If you ever sit down to watch something and think “Jesus, I don’t want to do this” the same way so many of those sad bastards we all see in the screening rooms seem to, ask me to re-assign because, seriously, there’s someone else who *does* want to do it.

And a Word on Profiles and Interviews:
I prefer our pieces be about how we “get” someone — as in offer rare context and insight — rather than how we “got” someone, as in put some famous person in the paper.

And here’s words I will always cut from reviews so don’t try to sneak them in:
titular, palpable, triptych, myriad, “pokes fun at”, groan- or chuckle-worthy, astonishing, stunning, iconic, painterly, veritable, fever dream, gleefully, plethora, laugher, actioner, most uses of “very,” and the very idea of the setting as a character which it just isn’t, ever. (Note the acceptable use of “very” in the preceding line, rather than the usual “very pretty” or “very funny,” where “very” is less a descriptor
than it is an admission that the adjective it’s paired with is insufficient.)

Aaron Mahnke’s advice for starting a podcast

Lots of great advice in this Twitter thread by Aaron Mahnke about how to start and maintain a popular podcast. I was particularly encouraged by this piece:

STICK WITH IT. Don’t give up after six episodes. Growing a podcast from zero to success isn’t an overnight thing. It takes patience and courage. You need to hold on and work hard. There are a TON of other podcasts out there, and it’s going to take a lot of time and hard work to float toward to top. Refine, improve, and get better. You don’t have to be 100% perfect in the very first episode.

Aaron Mahnke’s Lore podcast is one of the few that’s even spawned an Amazon Prime Original series. (Note: Amazon is my employer)

See also: Brian Koppelman’s advice about not giving up.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch review – The choice is a lie

[The following contains SPOILERS for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch]

About two decades ago, a much younger version of me saw an ad in the newspaper for a movie called Mr. Payback. The ad bragged that it was the first interactive movie ever devised. I asked my older cousin to take me to see it and shortly thereafter, we went to a Showcase Cinemas to check it out.

The plot of Mr. Payback (such as it was) centered around a cyborg named Mr. Payback who would use his special powers to get back at people for their sins. Every seat in the theater was outfitted with a controller and at key moments in the film, a set of three choices was presented to viewers. Whichever choice received more votes would be the one that the character on screen made, so button mashing was a must in order to get the outcome you were interested in.

At the time, I was dazzled by the technology, even though each “playthrough” of the film only lasted 20 minutes (and for a full price ticket, no less). I didn’t necessarily think that this would be the future of cinema (I wasn’t thinking in those terms back then), but I really appreciated the novelty of seeing movies and videogames collide in a big way.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Mr. Payback was a terrible film with awful characters. The acting and writing were subpar and meanspirited (despite Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale being involved in the film’s creation). Its method of storytelling never caught on for a variety of reasons, but one truth remained clear: It’s hard enough to do a good job of telling a single narrative with only one ending.

In the intervening years, interactive storytelling has thrived, but mostly not in movie theaters. PC games with FMV (full-motion video) on CD Rom and the Sega CD gave way to incredibly ambitious stories like Red Dead Redemption 2, Mass Effect, and the games of David Cage. The most successful of these limited the total number of potential outcomes. Sure, there might be minor differences in dialogue, or in which characters survived, but most great games stuck with only a few endings (As a recent example, see the hugely successful Red Dead Redemption 2, where your “honor” level dictates how some of the later sequences play out, but limits the outcome to 3-4 distinct endings with minor variations).

There’s a limit to how satisfying an ending can be if you can get to it by dumb luck. The laws of physics (and production schedules) dictate that the more endings there are, the less time and energy can be invested in each one.

Which brings us to this week. Netflix released the latest entry in the Black Mirror franchise, an interactive film called Bandersnatch. The story is about a game developer played by Fionn Whitehead who desperately struggles to ship a game he’s working on, Bandersnatch, before a holiday deadline. Admittedly, the tech behind how Netflix made and executed this is impressive (although bafflingly, newer devices like Apple TV and Chromecast are unable to “play” Bandersnatch). But is the story any good?

Mirroring its branching structure, Bandersnatch is hugely ambitious, with threads splintering off the main storyline and increasingly widening its scope. Depending on which choices you make, there are philosophical ruminations about the nature of choice and free will, a stark depiction of burnout in the video game production process, a direct connection drawn between mental illness and creativity, and a protagonist who struggles with daddy issues and (dead) mommy issues. It’s all very Black Mirror-esque, but without any of the focus that make the commentary and satire land effectively in a regular episode of the show.

I found the experience of watching/playing Bandersnatch to be enormously frustrating. The film frequently presents you with two options without any sense of what outcome you’re even supposed to be interested in and which choice might lead you there. Am I supposed to want to drive the protagonist to the point of insanity, or am I supposed to want him to take a more healthy path? Should I nurture his relationship with his father or should I stoke the flames of familial discontent?

All of this would be fine if the endings were comparably interesting. However, not only do some choices lead to the film abruptly ending in an unsatisfying fashion, but Bandersnatch’s creators have already stated that there are certain endings that are “definitive,” with conventional credits to accompany them. By implication, many decisions lead you to “dead ends.” One of the endings even comments on how unsatisfying the outcome is (Note to filmmakers: Commenting on how bad an ending/joke/line of dialogue is doesn’t make it better). Thus, watching Bandersnatch is equivalent to being placed in a maze without an inkling of where the exit is, or if the exit is even a desirable destination.

I can already hear some readers responding, saying, “Why are you complaining? That’s the whole point!” Indeed, one of the main themes of Bandersnatch is the idea of free will. We believe we are driving the decisions of the protagonist but, in fact, it’s the filmmaker that dictates the outcome. We can decline to get high, but our drink will be drugged. We can try to avoid talking about the memories of our mother, only to be forced into it later. The filmmakers want us to consider the possibility that free will is an illusion, and that the forces driving us may not be ones that we know, understand, or can control.

If indeed this is one of the purposes of Bandersnatch, then I can say that it makes its point, but not in a way that I found to be particularly entertaining or enjoyable. “I’m going to make this decisionmaking process enormously frustrating and constraining for you, so that you may understand the pointlessness of all your actual real-life decisions!” is not a pitch that excites me for something to consume. In fact, it’s actively off-putting (Side bar: For an example of this type of commentary done well, see The Stanley Parable).

That said, Bandersnatch is not without merit. Previous Black Mirror director David Slade does a great job nailing the period look and surreal feel of the story, and Whitehead’s performance is a chilling depiction of a descent into madness. Bandersnatch also wants the viewer to consider the concept of technological enslavement. If there’s one theme to take away from the previous season of Black Mirror, it’s that we should consider if/when the technology we use might ever “suffer” in a way that we might understand that term.

In one of the more effective and mind-bending storylines, the viewer is able to inform the protagonist that they are controlling him via Netflix, and attempt to explain what all that means to a character who only has knowledge of 1980s technology. It’s a great meta moment that makes you as the viewer reconsider your relationship to the entertainment you consume. After all, everything you watch is ostensibly there to serve your viewing needs.

My first playthrough of Bandersnatch was only 30-40 minutes long, as I quickly made a choice that led to the Bandersnatch game being released in a poor state. Conveniently, the game allows you to rewind to previous decisions and, in an interesting twist, previous playthroughs can often impact the outcome and nature of future ones. I ended up spending around 1.5-2 hours with Bandersnatch before I realized that I had seen most of what it had to offer, and exploring further would necessitate wasting time re-watching a lot of content I’d already seen. The stories and their outcomes just weren’t interesting enough for me to further engage.

Bandersnatch is a mile wide and an inch deep. How you choose to get to the bottom of it is pretty much immaterial.

Disclosure: I currently work for Amazon Prime Video. The opinions expressed here are solely mine and do not represent those of my organization or company.

I’m tired

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The end of 2018 is upon us. The government is on the verge of shutdown. The stock market is collapsing. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, one of the last “adults in the room,” has resigned, an ominous sign for the days ahead. It’s all just par for the course in a year that has felt, for many of us, totally exhausting.

2018 has taught me many things about myself, but one of them is that it is totally acceptable to set limits on your own intake of media and (bad) news. Sometimes, self-care means stepping away, disconnecting, and recognizing that keeping up with every minor political development, every outrage, every hot topic, every meme can actually be exhausting and damaging.

There is often no nobility to be found in subjecting yourself to things that will only serve to deaden you inside and tire you out for the battles you need to fight. It’s important to optimize your intake so that you strike a balance that works best for you. But above all: think about what you put into your mind, and what that in turn causes you to put out into the world.

On that note, this year has also taught me that there’s virtue in silence. I built much of my online persona on expressing my opinions loudly and strongly, but frequently this year we’ve seen that there are other voices that need to be heard who’ve often been drowned out by louder voices around them.

There’ve been many moments when I’ve seen folks celebrating the breakthrough of bold new talent, or a song/film/show that has resonated with them deeply. A much earlier version of me might’ve thought to share my disagreement, but there is no inherent virtue in simply sharing an opinion. Sometimes it’s best to just hear what others have to say. There’s nothing wrong in letting people have a moment over something. If you don’t agree, there’s a million other things to pay attention to.

As we enter the new year, I hope you’ll consider what is necessary for self care, and when to amplify the voices of those who might not have one as big as yours.


Some other interesting things from the week:

The bomb of the pirate era

UPDATE: Well, that didn’t last long. Evidently, significant parts of this video were faked. Original post follows.

When they write the internet history books, this will go down as one of the greatest videos of all time.

It’s wildly successful because it taps into that feeling of helplessness we all have when our packages get stolen. It’s a rude, inconsiderate, and frankly bizarre action (why would you take boxes that contain things you know other people want/need, when you don’t even know what they are??) but there is basically no way to fight back. Thousands of people just get away with it every day. This video asks the question: What if they didn’t? What if they were just a little bit inconvenienced for their theft and violation of our societal agreements? The results are immensely satisfying.

One other thing to note is that there appears to be no pattern in terms of the type of people who steal the packages. Most of them don’t appear to be homeless. Some of them appear to be normal suburban folk. Porch pirates aren’t confined to a specific demographic.

 

The stories we tell ourselves

I’m always a fan of a good Heather Havrilesky advice column:

Shame creates imaginary worlds inside your head. This haunted house you’re creating is forged from your shame. No one else can see it, so you keep trying to describe it to them. You find ways to say, “You don’t want any part of this mess. I’m mediocre, aging rapidly, and poor. Do yourself a favor and leave me behind.” You want to be left behind, though. That way, no one bears witness to what you’ve become.

It’s time to come out of hiding. It’s time to step into the light and be seen, shame and wrinkles and failures and fears and all.

I found this column to be very powerful because of its emphasis on the narratives we tell ourselves about our own lives. Anything can be viewed differently in hindsight. In fact, it often should be.

When Charles Barkley is your friend

Love this story by Shirley Wang about her dad’s unlikely friendship with Charles Barkley:

When Charles Barkley’s mother, Charcey Glenn, passed away in June 2015, Barkley’s hometown of Leeds, Alabama, came to the funeral to pay respects. But there was also an unexpected guest.

Barkley’s friends couldn’t quite place him. He wasn’t a basketball player, he wasn’t a sports figure, and he wasn’t from Barkley’s hometown. Here’s what I can tell you about him: He wore striped, red polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts and got really excited about two-for-one deals. He was a commuter. He worked as a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa. In short, he was everyone’s suburban dad. More specifically, he was my dad.

I was deeply moved, as it reminded all the unlikely relationships we can form and how special they can be, especially as immigrants.

Be sure to listen to the audio version.

The glory of ‘Roma’

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“None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”

Those words were spoken by Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the role of Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York. I found Synecdoche to be maddening and inaccessible but I also felt it contained insights that were worth trying to get to (I tried to do this awhile back in this video essay with Amy Nicholson).

Despite my confusion, these lines stood out as a fundamental message of the film. We experience our lives in a much different way than those around us experience them. Everyone is the main character in the story of their lives. And it can be difficult to let other people in — to acknowledge that their lives have fullness and arcs of their own. It’s difficult not because their lives are dull, but because we barely have the capacity to process our own stories. How can we be expected to understand what others are going through?

This thought came to mind while watching Alfonso Cuarón’s newest film Roma, out on Netflix today. Roma is a semiautobiographical story of Cuarón’s childhood and of his family’s live-in housekeeper, Cleo. Throughout the film, we witness Cleo’s experiences, from the mundanity of her daily tasks to her loving care of the household’s children. At the periphery, we see snippets of external events — the family she’s employed by begins to fall apart, and political unrest spills into the streets — but as with real life, these events are just tangential to the story. They aren’t the story itself.

Roma is a technical masterwork. The camera work is masterful and intricate. Its seeming passivity as it glides and pans its way through each scene seems to be the film’s way of saying “This is real. This happened. You’re just lucky to get a glimpse at it through this tiny window. ”

The movie invites us to take a look at this person who would be a side character in another film and to experience her life in all its fullness. The result is a wonderful celebration of how we shape the lives of those around us, and how they shape us too.


A few more thoughts for the week: