Reeling: I lost it at the movies

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I've lost my muse.

There are days when, like a lightning bolt, she comes out of the sky, possesses my brain and makes her way through me, commanding my hands to slam away at the keys until I have nothing left.

Then there are weeks, like this one, when even the caffeine psychosis can't save me, when I'm pacing around, tossing loose papers everywhere. I find myself struggling to remain upright, let alone to think of a column topic. These nights, I catch up on my flossing.

Maybe if I spiked that coffee with some ketamine, the pale ghost of William Blake would come to me in a billowing nightgown and tell me what to do. Maybe if I could see a burning bush. Or maybe, I could write myself into the story.

Is that cheap? Absolutely. But some of my favorite people in movies have done it, and if I'm going to get inspired to write a column about the movies, I have to look to them.

When I get cold-cocked by the writer's block, I think of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in "Adaptation," who wrote himself into the movie - and twice, by making a twin. It's a fat, repugnant version of himself, played by Nicolas Cage, but grotesque caricature makes such a gesture of the ego a little more self-effacing.

In narrative cinema, there's always a script. Before it's anything else, film is a text-based medium, and I think people forget that sometimes. You can never divorce film from text, just like I can't divorce myself from my own self-loathing when I've sunken to the low low of writing a column about writing my column.

More abstractly, Charlie Kaufman wrote himself into another film, "Synecdoche, New York." Caden Cotard is a playwright in a slump: He's balding, fat, getting old, getting divorced, has grey poop, is a womanizer, has no new ideas. I don't share this man's afflictions (except the ideas bit) but I understand his plight, when grand ambition leaves you feeling so small.

The solipsistic Caden spends half his life working on a play that never gets finished. "The idea is to do a massive theater piece. You know, uncompromising, honest," he says. The play-within-a-play, fomenting the film's metastasizing meta-ness, is the "uncompromising" story of Caden's life and the women who cycle in and out like people on a merry-go-round. "I know how to do the play now," he tells the members of his harem, over and over. These are his last words before he dies.

Fellini's "8 " wallows in that same kind of paralysis. Guido, modeled after Fellini himself, is making a mediocre film amid marital and existential crises and finicky critics. To cope with his own creative dearth, Fellini wrote and directed this meta-film, and it's a masterpiece (duh). Guido's creative impotence mirrored his own.

But these movies, they didn't tell me what to do. They offered no answers and no hope that my writer's block, more like a guillotine, would let up anytime soon. So I had to get snuggle-y with it.

Cinema offers no easy answers for the writer's block. You have to take it and sculpt something out of it. Jack Torrance killed people in "The Shining," and he got many, many pages out of it. I just need 600 measly words.

But I did learn something this week: Ideas comes from nowhere, sometimes in the form of nothing, and it's perfectly acceptable if you need to exploit that lack. At least until you think of something better.

As Caden would say, I know how to do the column now.


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