Tuesday, August 14, 2012

block party! - writer's block on film: a post by dan braun

Pen and a fresh sheet on a notepad. A suggestive cursor, blinking in equal parts tease, allure and longing, on a tablet or laptop screen.

Everyone who's ever presented a word – hundreds, thousands, millions of them, gradually over a lifetime – in physical form has confronted writer’s block, our efforts to battle it with our elongated tool of choice (writing implement, fingertips dangling above or nudging their corresponding home keys) obstructed for indeterminate and random amounts of time, upon each unsought visitation. Student, journalist, novelist, poet, screenwriter, playwright, regular or guest blogger: it's a beast of equal literary opportunity thwarting. Once it's been slain, however, the rewards are many – a rush of inspiration and ideas, a collective ‘Eureka!’ moment unlike any other.

Films about writer’s block have become a mini-genre unto themselves – The Shining, as my co-guest blogger Karen G. has expertly covered, perhaps being the best-known. Among some of the most notable others:

The Lost Weekend (1945) – “Don't wipe it away, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning.” Billy Wilder’s stark adaptation of Charles R. Jackson’s chronicle of alcohol addiction and its iniquitous clench, focusing upon the life of haunted writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland), during a four-day bender, stumbling through a despair-driven cycle of bar-to-bottle dependency along the streets of Manhattan.

Barton Fink (1991) – Penned during the struggles they experienced while writing the screenplay for Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers’ darkly humored  tale of the title NYC playwright (John Turturro) who, having accepted an offer to scribe a B-movie Wallace Beery wrestling picture, holes up within the surreal confines of the Hotel Earle in L.A., and finds himself cornered by a lack of creative inspiration,  an increasingly bizarre set of neighbors and hotel employees (John Goodman, Steve Buscemi), and a series of unusual circumstances.

Deconstructing Harry (1997) – Woody Allen’s scabrously hilarious story of a thrice-married, pill-popping novelist Harry Block (Allen), on the verge of receiving an honorary degree from the college which expelled him decades prior, who is confronted by the people – family members, ex-friends, one-night stands – he has crossed at one point or another and who have served as unwilling inspirations for his mordacious literary works.

Wonder Boys (1999) – Director Curtis Hanson’s shamefully under-seen adaptation of Michael Chabon’s beguiling, Pittsburgh-set novel. Shaggy English professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is at multiple crossroads: separated from his wife, carrying on an affair with the university Chancellor (Frances McDormand), who also happens to be the wife of his department chairman, and stuck on the increasingly dog-eared manuscript of his second novel, with his editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) about to arrive in town.

Adaptation. (2002) – The best performances of Nicholas Cage’s career, as screenwriting brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman (directed by Spike Jonze, and based on Charlie Kaufman’s real-life experiences in attempting to adapt Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief). While Donald – charming, slick, confident – becomes the toast of the studios, Charlie, painfully shy and borderline reclusive, finds himself increasingly mired within his task at hand, seeking advice from brusque script guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox) and Orlean herself (Meryl Streep).

Ruby Sparks (2012) – Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine. At the age of 19, Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) was the celebrated sensation of the literary world. Ten years later and struggling to regain his past glory, he creates a female character in Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan, the film’s screenwriter) who becomes both his literary muse and a very real person – as much a reflection of Calvin’s desired idealism as she is of his imperfections.


  1. We've certainly all been here! The one vacation destination no writer wants to end up in "Writers Block Island". Thanks so much for the mention and cheers to a really innovative look at the toils of being a writer. I really enjoyed this one! Bravo!

  2. Very interesting post. Writer's block is a nightmare. I've only seen Wonder Boys, one of my favorites, but Deconstructing Harry and Ruby Sparks look interesting - Woody Allen and Paul Dano are great incentives.

    1. Wonder Boys is one of my favorites also, Sofia. It really captured the spirit of the world of academia and also life as a writer. Another film I would have included, if the bent of my post had been inclined towards writing in general, would have been The Paper. There was a great interview last month on Grantland with Michael Keaton in which he discussed, among other topics, the revival of interest in that film over the years, especially with the ongoing shifts in print journalism. The life of a writer is always a challenging one, but it's also one of the most conciliating.

  3. BTW my friend, I've nominated you and your blogging for a Liebster Award. If you're up for it, great! Otherwise, no worries. Thanks