Oscar countdown continues: Finding Vivian Meier

Gold TrophyA few weeks ago, I pledged to see all Oscar-nominated movies (at least in the categories that I cared about) before February 22, when the winners will be announced. Since that promise, I’ve seen American Sniper, Two Days and One Night, and The Judge. And today in bed with a cold, I watched Finding Vivian Meier.

I had heard about the mysterious photographer a few years ago when I saw a short film about her as part of a rare visual performance by my favorite radio show, This American Life.

But Finding Vivian Meier is a full-length documentary that delves into the life of an artist and just goes to show that people are not always who they seem to be. Filmmaker John Maloof had to do some serious detective work and go through mountains of documents in order to put together a timeline for this reclusive woman. And by documents, I mean boxes and suitcases full of receipts, newspaper clippings, negatives, and undeveloped film. A hoarder, she also kept all manner of doodads that she picked up in pawn stores and dumpsters.

VM self portrait
One of Vivian Meier’s many self portraits

The padlock she kept on the door to her room hid away not only evidence of a life spent taking photographs but also stacks of newspapers that she always meant to read. It appears she never threw anything out. After her death in 2006, the contents of her storage locker were auctioned off in pieces, which is how John Maloof discovered that first box of negatives. After he saw what he had, he tracked down as much as he could of the rest of Vivian’s belongings. By this point, he not only wanted to print her photos and get them into public view, he was also curious what kind of person could take over 100,000 photos without sharing them with the world.

Vivian made her living primarily as a nanny, and the film features interviews with many of her now-grown charges as well as some of her employers. And although everyone agreed that she was an extremely private person who took photographs all the time, they had different perspectives based on what little Vivian revealed to each of them.

VM woman
One of Meier’s street photographs

For instance, some people were sure she was French, and one man thought she was either Austrian or from Alsace, but in reality, she was born in New York.

One woman claimed to be her friend but knew very little of her circumstances. Some of her charges had positive memories, but some of the stories they told about her as a nanny portrayed her as cruel. One woman illustrated for the camera her singular walking style, stomping loudly in what she called “army boots” and swinging her arms. Meier was called “eccentric,” “crazy,” “mean,” “very opinionated,” and “a nice lady.”

Perhaps depending on which persona she wanted to project, she alternately used variations of her name that included the more casual Viv to the formal Miss Meier, but when forced to leave a name at a shop where she wanted them to hold something for her, she left only the name V. Smith.

Recollections from a few who spent time with her point to a past of abuse, most likely at the hands of a man (or men), judging by her reactions to males and her warnings to little girls to stay clear of men because they only wanted them for sex.

But even with Maloof’s exhaustive research, we will never know exactly what shaped the secretive and enigmatic Miss Meier. She never married, had children, or sustained any lasting relationships, as far as anyone knew. Her only remaining living relative is a distant cousin who never met her.

VM contact sheet
one of her contact sheets

But her legacy is her body of work, which has prompted many in the art world to declare Meier one of the greatest street photographers of the twentieth century. Hers is a fascinating story told artfully in this documentary.

Serendipity & The Writer’s Almanac

writers almanac

Another reason to listen to public radio is the Writer’s Almanac, which airs at 9:01 Monday through Friday on KALW. It starts my day with such tidbits as this:

It was on this day in 1754 that the word “serendipity” was first coined. It’s defined by Merriam-Webster as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” It was recently listed by a U.K. translation company as one of the English language’s 10 most difficult words to translate. Other words to make their list include plenipotentiary, gobbledegook, poppycock, whimsy, spam, and kitsch.

If you go to the website, you also get to see great writers’ quotes. (This includes quotes from great writers as well as great quotes from writers of all kinds.) Today’s is this gem:

Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.

–Paul Rudnick

kalwFor the rest of today’s almanac, see Writer’s Almanac

Two Days, One Night, and ten movies to go…*



Sandra on phone
Marion Cotillard as Sandra

Marion Cotillard is the heart of the quiet Belgian film, Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night), which refers to the amount of time her character Sandra has to convince her coworkers to forgo their bonuses in order to let her keep her job. Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne wrote and directed this film that was Belgium’s official entry for Oscar’s best foreign film. (It didn’t make the cut, but French-born Cotillard got a nomination for best actress.)

Cotillard does an excellent job of portraying Sandra, who, in addition to having to fight for her job, is also battling depression. Though her situation is certainly difficult, she has the loving support of Manu, her husband and her rock (played by Fabrizio Rongione), who pushes her gently but firmly in the right direction.

I would hope that the premise of this film—that employees must choose between their bonuses or allowing a colleague to return to work after medical leave—would never happen in real life. But it makes for an interesting dilemma.

We watch Sandra spend a weekend tracking down her peers so that she can ask them outright to vote for her. This would never be a pleasant proposition for anyone but is especially grueling to a woman as fragile as Sandra, who doubts herself enough already without being in the position of fighting for a low-level factory job that is crucial to support her family.

Deux Jours...Because she essentially presents the same case to each of the other 16 workers, the audience hears her spiel multiple times. Had this movie been presented in Hollywood, I imagine film executives would have summarily refused to back it due to the script’s inherent repetition. American audiences probably aren’t as patient in general as European movie-goers (if our high-energy, smash-’em-up summer  blockbusters are any indication).

But with each plea, we are experiencing with Sandra the weariness, the frustration, the misplaced hostility, and the surprising moments of kindness. Each person’s response is different, and we realize that of course each of them has a life away from work that requires them to consider more than just Sandra’s job. So we have to be there for every door she knocks on to understand what she’s going through. It may not be a psychopathic serial killer on the loose, but I felt real tension every time Sandra pleaded her case right up until Monday morning’s vote.

Realistic, thoughtful drama takes time, and I felt my 95 minutes were well spent watching Two Days, One Night.

*Two movies down, and ten still to see by February 22.



American Sniper isn’t bad, but Oscar-worthy?

Amer SniperBecause I am on a mission to see as many Oscar-nominated movies as possible before February 22, last night I saw American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood. The two-hour film featured a solid performance by Bradley Cooper, who portrayed sharpshooter SEAL Chris Kyle. It also did a good job of showing how impossible it is to see your target in a sandstorm. And it made clear that veterans return from war with all kinds of scars, and not all of them are visible.

But I didn’t really get why his story was made into a feature film. It was based on a book written by the title character, who was killed before the movie was made. The story begins with a young boy in Texas who grows up being told that he needs to protect his own, so it’s no surprise when we see him enlist after 9/11.

He is, of course, changed by war, and he predictably has difficulty at home when he’s between tours because his wife feels she’s lost the man she married. But he returns not once but three times; and his fourth tour becomes a vendetta to set things right by killing the notorious sniper called “the Butcher,” who has killed his SEAL buddies.

Gold TrophyBut once he’s home for good, a doctor takes him for a walk and introduces him to disabled veterans, which seems to fix him right up. No PTSD here.

Then in the last shot of the movie, we see our hero leave with the person who is going to kill him, and one sentence appears abruptly onscreen that essentially says that Chris Kyle was killed by a veteran, a man he was trying to help.

So what’s the message here? No good deed goes unpunished? He who lives by the sword dies by the sword? That it’s more dangerous to be on home soil than fighting terrorists thousands of miles away? It’s not that I think all art must have a clearly defined message, but I saw little else of value in this movie, so I assumed there was a take-home message.

Otherwise it’s just the tale of a highly skilled sniper who suffers losses, becomes somewhat dehumanized, but then bounces back just to be shot and killed at age 39.

I was more curious about the relationship between him and his younger brother, which was only touched on and then abandoned. And the story behind his death, were more of it known, would have been a fascinating exploration of mental illness among vets. Or the tragic situation he left behind—a widow with two young children—that’s a movie that could hold my interest.


Gettin’ ready for Oscars, baby

Gold TrophyI am so behind in my movie watching that I actually may not see all of the nominated films by February 22, which is Oscar night. I don’t mean just the ones for best picture; I mean any film that is nominated for any acting, directing, or writing, plus foreign films, documentaries, and shorts. If I were to see every movie on my list, I’d be cramming 18 viewings into the next month (if you count all animated shorts as just one and all live shorts as just one).

So I may have to prioritize.

The ones up for best pic are American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash. I’ve seen all but the first and the last on the list.

Of course I have to see Foxcatcher so I can judge for myself if Steve Carell or Mark Ruffalo deserve to win. And speaking of judges, I want to see The Judge for Robert Duvall’s performance. And in order to see the best actress nominees, I need to see Still Alice (Julianne Moore) and Two Days, One Night (Marion Cotillard). I’m going to skip Into the Woods, though. I already know Meryl Streep is an amazing actress, and it isn’t worth it to me to sit through a Sondheim musical. (Sorry, I’m just not a fan.)

And because writing is important to me, I don’t want to miss any nominees for best screenplay, either adapted or original; so I really need to see Nightcrawler.

It’s possible that not all of the ones I want to see will be available for viewing, but I’m going to aim to see at least 12 before Oscar night. That’s a little more than one every three days. (And I already have 13 events on my calendar between now and then!) Wish me luck! I’ll chart my progress as I go.

Tree touched my soul

Tree_180Last night I was moved by theater in a way that I rarely am. Don’t get me wrong—I often appreciate and enjoy plays that I see, but my experience at S.F. Playhouse hit me right in the heart.

Playwright Julie Hébert said about Tree, “I set out to write a play about race and ended up writing a play about family.”

Directed by Jon Tracy, Tree opens with Didi Marcantel, a white Southern woman played by Susi Damilano, reading letters written by her recently deceased father, revealing a man she never knew. Her quest to find out who her dad was before he became her dad is the event that sparks the action of the play. When she pays the Price household a visit, she has no idea what is in store or what she is stirring up. Lost love, family ties, and race relations all play a part in this emotional drama that also has its share of humor.

The excellent cast included Carl Lumbly, who was one of my daughter’s favorite characters on the show “Alias,” when it was on many years ago (and who also frequents my local Peet’s coffee shop).

Jess Price
Cathleen Riddley plays Jessalyn Price in S.F. Playhouse’s production of Tree.

But as good as the other three players were, it was Cathleen Riddley who stole the show as Jessalyn Price, a woman whose family doesn’t know her complicated past. Riddly smoothly and believably transitions from the sweet grandmother to her foul-mouthed abusive alter ego and back again—a risky and difficult part to pull off. In less experienced hands, the character of Jess, who constantly slips in and out of dementia, could not have carried the dramatic center of the play.

The stage is strewn with paper to represent the letters between Jess and Ray, and cardboard boxes tied up in string not only fill the house but also hang from the ceiling and surround the house as well—boxes hiding objects that are tightly wrapped in foil and paper and plastic wrap. Much becomes unwrapped and unraveled during the play, but out of that, new ties are established.

I don’t know if it was because I saw Tree on its first preview night or if it was supposed to be that way, but the lighting seemed off. (I was actually worried that one of the actors might slip on one of the many pages because it was so dark.) And the soundtrack that accompanied it was only partially successful. But these are details that did not at all diminish the production as a whole.

It was a masterful piece of theater. I highly recommend it.

Writers With Drinks is a winning combo

Drinking w writers1
Charlie Jane Anders


It was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned—Dave asked me if I wanted to go to a monthly literary event dubbed “Writers with Drinks.” Two of my favorite things together? I wouldn’t miss it. So that’s how I ended up at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco last weekend, where for the last 14 years, Charlie Jane Anders has emceed this unique gathering that on any evening might include erotica, literature, stand-up comedy, science fiction, poetry, or essays. With her pink hair and sparkly party dress, she was clearly having fun introducing guests with wacky made-up bios.

Drinks w writers3
Octavio Solis




A diverse audience of Bay Area book lovers drank beer, cocktails, and wine as they cheered on January’s eclectic lineup that included stand-up comic Stefani Silverman, writer and storyteller S. Bear Bergman (founder of children’s press Flamingo Rampant), playwright and director Octavio Solis, poet Sandra Lim, novelist Tim Johnston, and Joshua Davis, who wrote about his incredible experience teaching a robotics class in Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream. (His reading from it intrigued us, so we bought a copy of his book, which he signed.)

Drinks w writers S. Bear
S. Bear Bergman

I had a great time and got to see performers I would probably never would have come across otherwise. Good job, Charlie Jane! This could become a habit…

Poets & Writers event– Part III: Why We Write

Why We Write panel
from left: Melissa Faliveno (assoc. ed. of P&W magazine), Wendy Lesser, Yiyun Li, Alejandro Murguia, D.A. Powell, Michelle Tea

The final panel of the day was titled “Why We Write,” which featured Wendy Lesser (author and founding editor of the Threepenny Review), novelist and MacArthur Fellow Yiyun Li, author and professor Alejandro Murguia, award-winning poet D.A. Powell, and novelist and memoirist Michelle Tea, who is also the founding editor of Mutha magazine.

Wendy Lesser, who had gone to college intending to be a city planner, gave this advice: “It’s easier to cut out the stupidity after your first draft than to write it all perfectly the first time.” She also stressed that structure is really important to start with while writing, but you have to be willing to change if necessary.

Yiyun Li was a scientist when she emigrated to Iowa City, where everyone she met was writing a novel. Once she discovered writing fiction, she loved it. She said, “I feel like I’m a boring person and my characters are interesting, so I can’t wait to be with them.”

Alejandro Murguia, who is the Poet Laureate of San Francisco, commented, “Structure is important, but so is discovery. My favorite writing surprises me.” He also offered this gem: “Reading to your lover is one of the sexiest things you can do.”

D.A. Powell finds writing “a suitable place to be irresponsible” and notes that it is “a place where you get to say what you wish you’d said in the moment.”

Michelle Tea considers writing a compulsion, although she admitted that as the mother of a two-month old baby, she worries that she may never write again. She believes in Anne Lamott’s idea of the “shitty first draft” and recommends that writers “barf a bunch out and clean it up later.”

I thought the most interesting comparison made was by Wendy Lesser, who said that writing was “like a serial killer: “the pressure builds and builds until you have to do it, and then you feel great.”

Poets & Writers event–Part II: I Think You’re Totally Wrong



David Shields, a professor and the author of 15 books and several magazine articles, wanted to explore “self-deconstructive nonfiction” with a worthy adversary who held contrasting opinions. Caleb Powell, a writer raising three daughters, was once Shield’s student and apparently made a thorny impression on him. The two of them have written a book together: I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel.

And that book has been turned into a movie by director James Franco, who was also once a student of Shields. At the Poets & Writers live event, I got to watch the first 20 minutes, and I look forward to the film’s release so I can see the rest of it.

Shields & Powell
left to right: Caleb Powell and David Shields

Sitting comfortably in big chairs on stage, they chatted a bit about each other and their unusual relationship. Powell read aloud from some of their e-mail correspondence to allow the audience a glimpse of what he referred to as “passive aggressive behavior” by Shields, who remained perfectly calm and never got defensive. Shields admitted that just before launching the project, he thought there was a slight chance that Powell might just murder him during their four-day stay in a cabin together, and added that the experience would either be “really exciting or traumatizing.”I think you're totally wrong

Theirs was a unique presentation that I’m unlikely to forget any time soon. I may just have to buy the book as well.

Poets & Writers event inspires and educates (Part I)




The theme of the day was “Inspiration.” Poets & Writers publisher Elliot Figman started the event in San Francisco’s Brava Theater by describing it as “a living, breathing version” of what they offer in their magazine. The live event was similar to a writers’ conference, but it was not limited to writers, it didn’t have the breakout sessions common to such conferences, and was a bit more theatrical in nature. Because it was an all-day event consisting of eight separate sessions, I will not try to cover every moment, and certainly not all in one posting. But there was much of value to share.

Kay RyanFormer U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize–winner Kay Ryan gave a brief but memorable keynote speech that included a few of her poems. With a wry sense of humor, she admitted that as a “non-joiner,” she rarely attended gatherings such as the one she was opening on that January Saturday morning. Furthermore, she declared that inspiration was a subject of much “bloviation” and joked that “much literature is a result of complaints and self pity.” But she supports the idea that writers need community, even if it’s just knowing that “other writers are out there.”

The first panel of the day focused on local writers’ resources, and there are many—far too many to list here. Representatives from City Lights Books, Small Press Distribution, Poetry Flash, SF Writers Grotto, and Kearny Street Workshop informed the eager audience of several writing-related programs available to Bay Area residents. I was intrigued by two. The first is the Basement Series, sponsored by SF Writers Grotto, which gives emerging writers the opportunity to read in public with published authors. The other is Lit Camp’s Writing and Drinking Club, which is basically writing quietly in a room for two hours followed by an hour of socializing ( i.e., drinking). During the Q&A session, a CWC member made sure that everyone also knew about the California Writers Club.

As part of a panel that focused on self publishing, editor Debra Englander and publicist Amy Packard Ferro discussed ways that writers could promote their work, including social media options. But in responding to the idea that one can simply request attention on these platforms, agent Ted Weinstein cautioned, “The saddest line in the twenty-first century is ‘Follow me back.'” He added that the best way to stand out is to “put something out in the world that is interesting.”

perfect pitch panelAttendees who had signed up early for the event were encouraged to submit query letters for judges to critique on stage. Three brave writers were chosen to read their letters aloud, which was followed by suggestions from the Perfect Pitch Panel, which consisted of McSweeney’s editor Jordan Bass, Graywolf Press’s Ethan Nosowsky, agent Danielle Svetcov, and publicist Megan Fishmann from Counterpoint Press.

I admit that this session was more helpful than I’d imagined. I previously thought that debut authors didn’t stand a chance of getting published if they submitted manuscripts of 100,000 words or more and, furthermore, that word counts were absolutely necessary to include. Yet one of the writers was pitching a novel of 248,000 words, and the panelists insisted that the length did not deter them from considering it. Svetcov even told the audience, “I don’t think most editors care how many words it is. So leave off the word count.” Nosowsky added, “The length is not as important as the writing.”

Other helpful tidbits from this session:

  • Don’t say that a character is quirky. Show it.
  • Pull an evocative quote from your book to show off your writing.
  • Start with something “arresting.” Be explicit and brief.
  • Put most charismatic elements of the book first.

Watch for Part II: Art v. Life and Why We Write