- A Ballerina's Tale (Netflix)—The first African American woman to become a principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater, Misty Copeland broke down barriers to get where she is today. Now she's reshaping the ballet's notoriously narrow definition of the "ideal ballerina" for the next generation. Covering Copeland's tumultuous childhood and the injuries that almost ended her career, this documentary is as much about grit as it is about ballet (that being said, I still lived for the performance scenes).
- Amy (Amazon)—From her natural blues voice to her gift for writing poetry, Amy Winehouse was a born jazz singer. And that's how she thought of herself. It was never about the fame, which strained her relationships and frequently put her under a spotlight she never wanted. Watching this documentary, I learned a lot about addiction and the dark side of fame. And, of course, my heart broke for Amy Winehouse all over again.
- Chef's Table (Netflix)—With its artistic cinematography, including shots of food that look almost too beautiful to be food, Chef's Table transcends the concept of food TV. Instead, it's really a series about artists at the top of their game and the universal impulse to create. Each episode focuses on one of the world's celebrated culinary stars, tracking how they became chefs, formed unique perspectives on food and life, and became the best in their field.
- Cooked (Netflix)—Michael Pollen turned his latest book, Cooked, into this four-part narrative about the history of human cooking. It's not only a nostalgic celebration of the impulse to nourish ourselves through cooking, but also a look into why much of that primal instinct has been usurped by the processed food industry. I'll read or watch anything by Michael Pollen, but I thought this was a particularly inspiring, non-condescending argument for why we should all use our kitchen a little more.
- Deli Man (Amazon)—An ode to the disappearing culture of the Jewish deli and the individuals dedicated to preserving it, this documentary follows one deli owner on his quest to preserve the recipes of his grandparent's original restaurant—the first Jewish deli to open in New York City in 1920. After watching Deli Man, I wanted to not only go out for a bagel, but also learn how to make one just in case these precious establishments keep vanishing.
- Everything Is Copy (HBO)—In this documentary, Nora Ephron's son, Jacob Bernstein, remembers his mother's scathing honesty, fierce ambition, feminist voice, and confessional style of humor. Through her old TV appearances, interviews with family, and testimonials from ex-husbands and famous friends, he explores what made her the beloved writer and public figure she was. I loved getting such an intimate look into the life and career of Nora Ephron, who is one of my personal heroes.
- Finding Vivian Maeir (Netflix)—Vivian Maeir, considered one of the 20th century's great street photographers, took over 100,000 images during her lifetime—and never showed anyone. Her work has only recently become public, thanks to an amateur historian who purchased it in an auction. This documentary's exploration of Vivian Maeir's mysterious life and what compelled her to create the work she did without ever wanting recognition completely fascinated me.
- Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (HBO)—Sparking a national debate about what qualifies as fine art, Robert Mapplethorpe's depictions of fetishism and sexuality ultimately broke down social barriers and opened an important door for photography as an art form. This documentary provides a compelling look into the people and cultural climate that inspired Mapplethorpe's career through personal interviews (many with ex-lovers) and archival recordings of the artist himself.
- Marley (Netflix)—Of course Bob Marley's message of peace has always resonated with me. But I really knew nothing about his life, his struggle for success as a musician, the origins of reggae, and the Rastafari movement before I watched this documentary. Now I have a much clearer picture of what his music meant to people during the Civil Rights movement and why he was so dedicated to spreading the message of Rastafari.
- Parts Unknown (Netflix)—In all his years in television, Anthony Bourdain has yet to make a generic travel show. Instead, he approaches other countries with the openness and curiosity of a journalist, seeking out the real story behind all the touristy stuff. In contrast to No Reservations, he spends less time on food and more time on the political and cultural climates of the countries he visits. But the signature blend of humor, edge, and snarky commentary, which made Bourdain's other work so appealing, endures.
Here’s one of the most enjoyable things about reading Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing—everyone else seems to have read it too. I often read in public spaces (coffee shops, airports, airport coffee shops…) with relatively few interruptions. This book, however, works like a universal ice breaker for amateur writers out in the wild. I couldn’t crack it open without someone exclaiming, “Oh I loved that!” And there was something cathartic about discussing the normally private process of writing, its struggles and victories, with others who can relate.
Stephen King, as it turns out, can also relate to the challenges of everyday writers like myself. I know this because On Writing reads more like a deeply personal, almost confessional, memoir about King’s relationship to writing. It begins with his upbringing in a financially unstable, single-parent household and follows the trajectory of experiences that shaped him into the writer he is today. He talks about rejection, perseverance, poverty, day jobs, overcoming addiction, raising a family, and writing through it all.
King tells his story in a witty, candid tone that's both engaging and refreshingly self aware. The next section, which covers the mechanics and process of fiction writing, feels like an unwelcome interruption to King's life story. In this down-to-business guide, he goes over the ground-level essentials of a good writing practice: know the basics of grammar, write honestly, write what you know, avoid clichés, “the adverb is not your friend (124).” Among other advice, he also gives a handy formula for editing: “2nd Draft = 1st Draft — 10%. Good luck (222).” This section gave me some helpful reminders from my Writing 101 days, but that’s about it—nothing groundbreaking.
King's advice becomes more valuable in the third section, where he shares anecdotes from his own writing process. He talks about his personal challenges with writing, including overcoming rejection, fear of inadequacy, and writer’s block. He describes what it felt like to panic and loose his sense of direction while working on one of his novels and the epiphany that allowed him to move forward again, the “…sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects.” For those of us who assume that successful writers must have a stone-cold, laser-focused approach to their craft, it’s good to know that Stephen King, like the rest of us, experiences writer’s block.
King also talks a lot about consistency. For instance, he quashes the misconception that writers, or creators of any kind, should wait for inspiration to strike before sitting down to work. “Don’t wait for the muse… Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic (157).” It’s practical advice for writers who understand the mechanics fairly well but haven’t quite developed the discipline to sit down and write with any kind of frequency (a.k.a. me).
Like those passing exchanges I had with other writers, On Writing is valuable because it proved that King’s relationship to writing isn’t so different from my own. It’s reassuring to know that he experiences writer’s block, struggled to make a career of writing, and threw away manuscripts because he thought they weren’t good enough. And it’s reassuring to know that, through all of this, King kept writing for the pure joy of putting words to paper. He makes this clear in his romantic description of the craft: “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible (163-164).”
Whenever I start a new project, be it writing or photography, I always have this painful procrastination period during which I convince myself that I’m simply not inspired enough to begin. I start to mourn the loss of all the creative ideas I had before solidifying my project idea… that somehow no longer exist. Let me be clear; I HATE this about my creative process. Alright, it’s bad to use the word, “hate,” right? Let’s just say this is a habit I’d like to disown.
That’s why I’m starting to gather inspiration from my favorite photographers— to lose this prima donna attitude I take on whenever I begin something new, and just get right to the real work. And as an amateur trying to build a portfolio, I am also trying to understand the types of concepts, techniques, and subject matter that might be satisfying for me to capture.
This first inspiration post (hopefully the first of many) covers still life images from some of the modernist photographers I love— Penn, Cunningham, Weston, etc. These greats really knew how to use minimalism, contrast, and a variety of printing techniques to elevate ordinary objects. Here are some of my favorites:
Irving Penn //Texture, saturation, lighting, movement, contrast, cropping
Robert Mappelthorpe //Light & shadow, perspective, texture, minimalism
Imogen Cunningham //Light & shadow, crisp lines, contrast, sharpness, cropping
Irving Penn //Texture, saturation, lighting, movement, contrast, cropping
Edward Weston //Contrast, luminosity, texture, lines (curves), placement, cropping/placement
Edward Weston //Sensuality, contrast (light & shadow), cropping/placement
"I've been watching a few great things on Netflix lately." I said this to a friend over Skype the other day. Thinking out loud about everything I'd watched recently, I realized I didn't just have a few recommendations... I had eleven. But who makes a list of eleven things?! So I did some research, poured myself a glass of wine, and watched one more.
I love Netflix specifically for its documentary selection. Maybe it's just me, but I always had a difficult time finding documentaries unless my local indie theater happened to be showing one. While Netflix has totally improved my access, I now have a new problem: indecisiveness. The options are overwhelming, no? Does anyone else feel this way? (#firstworldproblems, I know.)
Anyway, that's why I wanted to share my recommendations. If you know me at all, it makes sense that my choices are all art (dance, jazz, photography, painting, etc.) or food related. If those subjects aren't your thing, this might not be the list for you. Otherwise, read on.
Basquiat— Okay, not a documentary. But it paints a picture of the visionary but tormented person that was Basquiat and his role in the neo-expressionist movement. The cast is also fairly stacked for a film I’d never even heard of (hello, young Benicio del Toro).
Bill Cunningham New York— Do you read/watch Bill Cunningham’s weekly style column in the New York Times? He basically observes unique interpretations of street style and highlights interesting trends. Bill never seeks out the “it girls” or the glamour of Vogue parties. In fact, it seems like he barely gets paid anything. That’s what makes him so interesting, though—it’s the purest love for fashion you’ll ever see.
Chef’s Table— A documentary series that covers the lives and genius of six celebrated culinary stars. I love understanding what makes creative people tick and how they view success. Some of the chefs are true radicals, operating on a completely different plain than the rest of us. (Fair warning: you’ll feel hungry the whole time.)
Exit Through the Gift Shop—I really liked this one, but it’s a riskier recommendation. You have to like art, and furthermore, be interested in street art to get through this one. It starts as a documentary about Banksy and other street artists, but it ends up posing some important questions about art. What is it? What makes it “good”? Who can be an artist? etc. etc.
First Position—A documentary about the ballet world? Of course I’m watching this one. It looks at the demands on young, aspiring ballet dancers who have to face criticism and make sacrifices for their future careers at such young ages. Specifically, the film follows two aspiring dancers through their training and the process of getting accepted into a company.
The Green Prince—This one is about the son of Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef, Mosab Hassan Yousef, who became an informant for the Israeli Intelligence agency, Shin Bet, for ten years. He wrote a book about his experience, what drove him to leave, and the background behind his decisions in between. Something I learned: I’ve never made a hard choice before.
Happy—Self explanatory. This one is about happiness, but it’s a refreshing departure from your typical “enlightened,” self-help type guides. It looks at what happiness means to different types of people across the world and questions the status quo narrative about what happiness is and how people find it.
Iris—A colorful, kaleidoscopic look into the world of Iris Apfel. Even though she’s a style icon, this isn’t a fashion film. It’s more of a narrative about creativity and enthusiasm for living. Iris draws inspiration from art, interiors, clothing, and other people. Her vibrancy challenges the idea of what it means to age and shows that self expression can be a transformative force.
Mind of a Chef—An idea similar to Chef’s Table, but executed very differently. Shorter episodes, more concentrated on how each chef views the world and channels inspiration into their food. Of course, I’m watching anything Anthony Bourdain is involved with (he produced and narrated the series).
Salinger—This covers the life of J.D. Salinger, whom I didn’t realize was so reclusive. It talks about his life, relationships, experiences at war, and how he came to write the cultural phenomenon that is/was Catcher in the Rye.
What Happened, Miss Simone?—I love Nina Simone’s music, so I was naturally curious about her life. Wow. I guess it’s because I’m in a different generation, but I didn’t know the extent of her involvement in the civil rights movement and the affect of her tumultuous personal life on her career (and vice versa).
Woody Allen: A Documentary—This is all about the inspiration and creative process behind Woody Allen’s work. I think his strategy must be an outlier in Hollywood. He consistently makes one film per year, even if he doesn't think it has great potential for success. I've never heard quantity over quality as a philosophy, but this is what works for him and has allowed him to create amazing work like Annie Hall and Manhattan. It's a super interesting take on how one artist gets the most from his creativity.