So here they are, in alphabetical order: my personal favorites that always inspire me to pick up the pen (the laptop) and get cracking again. It’s a subjective list, yes, so don’t be shy. Add your own picks to the comments, or just throw in your two cents on why this list is so complete and awesome. I tried to include videos of my favorite scenes from these films as opposed to just embedding the trailers, but often I was thwarted in this effort by the seemingly thousands of fan tributes made to certain films that almost always have scenes from the movies edited with overlapping songs by the likes of Nickelback and Lifehouse (I’m looking at you, Shakespeare In Love). Don’t be alarmed, I spared you that aggression, so don’t be afraid to watch the vids.
This film is, for me, a perfect representation of how difficult it is to try to make it (and fake it) in the writing industry. Celebrated screenwriter Charlie Kaufman took his plight—writing a screenplay adaptation of best-selling New Yorker columnist Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief—and turned it into something all his own. In the process, he created not just a moving ‘adaptation’ of Orlean’s book, but also a moving tribute to the process of writing itself, complete with sell-out, pander-to-the-masses ending. I love this part of the film, where he decides that the only possible way to tackle the subject matter is to literally start at the beginning of time.
I really relate to this film, in that it is a biopic of sorts, focused on the higher aspirations of a seemingly run-of-the-mill ‘Joe Sixpack’ file clerk. By the time we meet Harvey Pekar, he has already found the fortune and fame he aspired to at the beginning of his unlikely comics writing career. That we know this in the beginning makes it easy to root for him as he is confronted with one setback after another. And this film made Letterman look douchey long before he announced to the world that he was an employee fucker. For whatever that’s worth.
Not to sound elitist or snobby, but I love *forcing* people to watch this film and see if they last past the first 20 minutes. Of all the great Coen Bros. movies, this stands out as the least accessible. And why not? It’s all about the process of writing to a market and trying to make your talents as a writer fit into a very limited, very specific mold. Who writing these days for any sort of significant scratch hasn’t felt these pressures? You are, after all, only as good as your last success. (See that old dude from Frazier portraying an F. Scott Fitzgerald clone to get the full effect of what ‘selling out’ truly entails).
Even completely disregarding the genius that is Philip Seymour Hoffmann in his portrayal of the lispy, lilty Truman Capote, one must acknowledge the powerful message this film delivers. Capote was one of the most celebrated writers of his time, and his novelization of the murder of a typical (read: Norman Rockwell depiction of) heartland American family catapulted him to literary stardom and single-handedly created a new genre of literature—narrative non-fiction. But the toll of inserting himself into the broken lives of the murdered family and that family’s death-sentenced murderers literally tore Capote apart. He never published another novel.
Dead Poets Society
This film is quite possibly the most influential movie I was exposed to in my young life (I was 15 when it was released in 1989). Yes, long before my self-imposed Robin Williams backlash (mine began long BEFORE the Good Will Hunting, so fuck you, you trendy fucks, lol), I wanted nothing more than to have a teacher of John Keating’s caliber. Not because I was enamored of poetry, necessarily, but because Williams’ portrayal of Keating was a picture of an adult who cared not just about the specific subject he was teaching, but also about the lives and families and career trajectories of his students. In short, this film took the tiny grain of sand that had been implanted in me when I was first assigned to read Whitman’s Song of Myself, and brought that little bastard into full bloom; after witnessing this movie, poetry and writing were, to me, nothing short of an immediate ticket out of the reality that had for so long held complete control over every aspect of my existence. This movie gave me a key to the lock, a free pass to a life that awaited me if only I took the initiative to make it happen.
My old friend Brandon first exposed me to this quintessentially ‘Hal Hartley’ Hal Hartley film. “You have to watch this, dude. You’re Simon!” he said, handing me a video tape. This was what, 2004? Anyway, we popped the thing into his VCR (yes, this form of viewing entertainment was considered “old school” and not just “backwards” in those days), and after watching a fast-forwarded preview of some piece-of-shit David Schwimmer movie (who the fuck decides how to market this garbage???), the movie immediately struck a chord with me. Like Simon in the film, I too had found internet success that led to some form of literary acceptance. Unlike me, Simon was universally heralded by Pulitzer and Nobel committees, as well as the general reading public (again, there was still such a thing as a ‘general reading public’ way back in ’97, when this film was made) and was able to afford a swanky uptown Manhattan apartment that effectively shielded him from the rest of the ‘chattering masses’, but there was enough of a correlation there for me to really get where Hartley was coming from with this picture. Basically it is about substance over style… and how the best of us maybe don’t find universal recognition and eventually have to commit accidental—yet justifiable—murder in order to fulfill our destinies. Or something.
I’m putting this movie on the list mainly because I have a pretty amusing story to tell about it: when I was first trying to find authors to blurb my novel back in late 2007, I figured out a way to contact Jerry Stahl, who is one of my lit heroes, and the author of what I consider the best memoir ever written regarding drug addiction, Permanent Midnight. Stahl had been a writer for shows such as ALF and Moonlighting back in the mid-late 80s, so the book is also about how he struggled with drug addiction while writing hit TV scripts (his story about withdrawing from smack and coke while on the ALF set is hair-raising). Anyway, I contacted Jerry Stahl and he read my book and gave me an awesome blurb (which ended up making it onto the front cover of futureproof). He also gave me his phone number and told me to call him. So I did. And I fucked up the conversation almost immediately. I told Jerry that I loved Permanent Midnight but that I thought Ben Stiller just wasn’t gritty enough or something to pull off the proper Jerry Stahl impersonation, “I mean, I like Stiller, don’t get me wrong,” I said to Jerry, “but he sucked in that movie.” This is, after all, an incredibly dark book, with some very funny shit in it, granted, but it was chosen for whatever reason to be one of the first vehicles to star Stiller and Owen Wilson. Just doesn’t do the book justice. Anyway, there was a pause on the line and Jerry Stahl sort of laughed and then said, “Yeah, Frank, well—he’s a friend of mine.” Sigh. I guess I find the story amusing, the one about me sticking my foot in my mouth the very first time—the very first minute—I meet my lit hero. Yeah. It’s pretty f-ing funny. SIGH.
Shakespeare in Love
I don’t know, every time I think about this movie, I wonder if it still holds up since its release and subsequent Best Picture Academy Award back in 1998. I can’t say if it would hold up or not, though, because I haven’t seen it since then. When I remember it, though, I think of it as being a great fictionalized story of a young Will Shakespeare falling in love with Gwyneth Paltrow when she was at the very pinnacle of her hotness (yes, even when she was dressed like a man) and hadn’t yet been ruined by Chris Martin of Coldplay. I also remember it being a great depiction of love and inspiration, and how something as powerful as love can really make some amazing things happen, writing-wise. Made me really miss the days when being smeared in quill ink was sexy.
I love this movie. It is, ostensibly, about wine appreciation and snobbishness, but there is so much more to it than that. If anything, it does have some great wine-snob smackdowns in it, but also relishes in alcoholism and the destruction of the soul at the hands of love, and of course the rebirth of the soul under better circumstances. It is about failure and acceptance and brilliant metaphors between wine aging and the way people get to a certain point in their lives before it all goes downhill from there. Also the second movie on this list to, perhaps coincidentally, star Paul Giamatti. Favorite quotes from the movie:
Miles: Well, the world doesnt give a shit what I have to
say. Im not necessary. I’m so insignificant I cant even kill
Jack: Miles, what the hell is that supposed to mean?
Miles: Come on, man. You know. Hemingway, Sexton, Plath,
Woolf. You cant kill yourself before youre even published.
Jack: What about the guy who wrote Confederacy of Dunces? He killed himself before he was published. Look how famous he is.
Stranger Than Fiction
For a Will Ferrell movie (his entry into the “top-dog comedian trying to stretch his acting chops by playing a ‘serious role’” genre), this movie sure has a lot of beautiful sentiments to it. Well—more serious than “I love lamp” anyway. The plot is fairly boilerplate: middle-aged guy is frittering away his life when he meets a beautiful rebel girl who changes the way he sees everything. The twist here though is that it turns out it’s too late for Ferrell’s IRS auditor to turn his life around and really try to suck the marrow out of it. He begins hearing his every action and thought narrated by a British woman’s voice, and during the course of this disconcerting narration he discovers he is going to die: “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.” Also, it has Queen Latifah playing a publishing house stooge sent to keep the author working on her book so that she will make her submission deadline…which will also keep Ferrell on track to ….DIIIIIIIE!!!!!!!!!!!!
The Whole Wide World
Incidentally, the name of the song that Will Ferrell plays to Maggie Gyllenhall in the scene embedded above is by Wreckless Eric and is called…(wait for it…) “Whole Wide World”!!! How’s that for synchronicity??? Anyway, regardless, I cannot believe that one of my favorite films about writing is actually a movie starring Renee Zellweger because, as I have made pretty clear to anyone who has kept track, I cannot stand Renee Zellweger, especially after that whole Bridget Jones thing, when all the talking heads were all a-twitter (and this was pre-Twitter!) about how she had fatted up for the role, had actually weighed like 140!!!! I was just like, Jesus Christ, that’s the only time Renee Zellweger has even looked remotely attractive, with those giant teeth and half-closed eyes??? I mean, her teeth aren’t as big as Hillary Swank’s, granted, but they’re still….nevermind. Anyway, the guy from Full Metal Jacket who the drill Sergeant torments all the time, who then eventually kills the drill Sergeant before killing himself, portrays the creator of Conan the Barbarian back in the 1930s, Robert E. Howard. An overbearing mother and mental illness (possibly caused by the overbearing mother) pretty much chase the guy into a fantasy world where people like Arnold Schwarzennegger run the joint and people like Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket get to lose themselves in lusting, beautiful half-naked women. It’s a very touching story. I hope I don’t come across as making light of it. Renee Zellweger, despite having a smile that is about as fake-looking as the Jack Nicholson-era Joker, is actually really good in this movie. And when Pyle doesn’t stick with her in the end, instead opting to stay with his ailing mother, you start to wonder how many other genre-changing works of art have been created at the cost of their authors losing something significant and irreplaceable in their lives. Like love.