Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Movie Reviews for Writers: Cold Ones

This backwoods indie drama was also released as Lake of the Woods and Dead Letters, and it features notable talents as C. Thomas Howell, Duane Whitaker, and Geoffrey Lewis. There's also a beautiful minimalist soundtrack that features both strings at some points and evocative acoustic guitar melodies for most of the film. 

K.C. is a writer with a single novel from ten years ago under his belt, but not much else. And even that was "pretty good" and not good enough to bank a career on. On top of that, his girlfriend has left him and is sleeping with his agent, Rob. So, he does the only thing he can think of -- rent a cabin in the mountains to get away from everything and pound out a new novel.

K.C.: "I'm dry, but I can get it back. I can do it again. I mean, if you put me in the right environment, seriously with no distractions, I could get it back. I could."
Rob: "Are you talking about your writing?"
K.C.: "Yes, what else am I talking about? You know what? I'm gonna do that. I'm gonna get that cabin you were telling me about, up in the mountains, remember? Last time Becky and I split up... My instincts are telling me that now's the time for another book. The old-fashioned way. No things. No distractions. Just, just grass and trees and mountains. Fresh air to breathe."
Rob: "So what's this book gonna be about?"
K.C.: "I haven't the slightest idea."

And therein lies K.C.'s problem. I've heard them called one-hit-wonders, just like the bands and performers who strike the charts once and never again. We're led to believe K.C. is a one-hit-wonder as a novelist simply because he hasn't put the effort into it and expects inspiration to find him, not the other way around.

Regardless, when he gets to the tiny town in the mountains, word gets around that a published author is renting a place as fans he didn't expect at all suddenly know who he is and one, Buddy, behaves like the so-called "your biggest fan" at a convention.

After Buddy tells him how he liked the book and how never met a famous write before, K.C. quickly corrects him. "You still haven't. It was just the one novel." Still gaga, Buddy responds, "I know. I read it."

Of course, as a number one fan, Buddy is a writer himself. "I do a bit of writing myself. Mostly poetry," he confesses.  

After a few days, Buddy has a plan to capitalize on K.C. connections:

Buddy: "So what I was thinking, I'd feed you a couple of stories a day, and you know, you like my stories. Youd said as much. And then when you figure there's like a book's worth of them you, you sit down and write a book."
K.C.: "Well, Buddy, I don't generally work like that. That's not how I wrote my book."
Buddy: "Well now, hey, I would insist that your name come first on the dust jacket. And I figure like a straight down the middle 50/50 split would be the fairest way to go. Movie sales, the whole deal. Or maybe 55/45, you know, since your the more establish writer and everything."

After Buddy leaves, K.C. mutters under his breath: "Yeah, just write 'em up and we'll get rich."

Sometimes talking to non-writers about what we do is difficult. There are so many misunderstandings about the writing life. 

When K.C. meets and eventually sleeps with his neighbor, the carefree and sexy Juliet (who was named Candy at birth but has changed it unofficially), rather than just attacking him, Juliet's boyfriend, Mack instead decides to play a similar game as Buddy. But where Buddy is simply mistaken about the way the writing business works, Mack is more sinisterly so and threatens to take a share of the money on K.C.'s new book since he's getting his inspiration from them. 

Even on the wrong end of Mack's threat, K.C. still tries to explain that isn't how the writing world works:

"What the hell is it this you people around here, huh? I mean I'm just gonna spell it out for you one time really clear, okay? Because I got no guarantees. None! That A, I can actually even write a story up here and B, I could get somebody to read it if I do in fact get written and C, even see one red cent if I even got it published, man. No guarantees."

But it's not just a movie about people trying to horn in on a published writer to help themselves. For an under-the-radar indie flick, it has a lot to say about myths people think about writing. 

First, that books are a secondary art form in a world of moving and talking media. While drinking at the only bar in town, Hud, the local mechanic, tells K.C. that: 

"I'd like to lay on him what the fuck I think about English. 'Cause the way I see it, we don't really need it no more. A man can get him a DVD player. You slide in a Star Wars, a Charlie Bronson, a Debbies Does Fucking Dallas, and you ain't gotta work through all them fancy words and no page. So it seems to me if you come all the fucking way up here to write a book, I think you're wasting your time, Mr. Famous Writer."

Of course, as a writer, K.C. has a different viewpoint. "Literature saved my life," he says. "Many a dark day where a couple of perfect pages and a great story just, I don't know, made it all worthwhile."

Second, writing isn't real work. Perhaps you've experienced this from friends and family members. Sadly, a lot of folks in a writer's circle just don't understand the brain-draining work of writing a story because it doesn't put callouses on their hands, a point driven home when one of the local rednecks checks K.C.'s hands and calls him a "pussy" because they're smooth. 

This idea is driven home by Felton, the man renting the cabin to the writer. While dropping by with a delivery, he is interrupted by Buddy, who has pages for K.C to read. 

Buddy: "It's a work day here, you know. My buddy here look at these poems I wrote."
Felton: "Yeah, work day. You don't know what work is. Work is work. I got to say this about... You guys are lazy. You're ne'er do wells."

Third, building off the previous point, if it isn't real work, then it's perfectly okay to interrupt a writer while writing. 

Everyone in town cuts into K.C.'s writing time. Buddy wants to use him to get his own stories and poems published. Mack wants to keep him away from Juliet. And Juliet wants to spend more time with him. As such she consistently interrupts him to take him on a hike or to encourage him to take a risk and spend more time with her in spite of Mack's anger and violence. 

Last, writers always actively write themselves into their work. For example, after Julie reads his draft pages, she immediately connects: 

Juliet: "But a bit familiar. I really like Mandy. She kind of sounds like, you know..."
K.C.: "Candy, no."
Juliet: "So if she's me, then Warren must be you?"
K.C.: "Come on. Please. Okay?"
Juliet: "So we uh... had sex, did we?"
K.C.: "That is fiction."
Juliet: "It must be, because Juliet or Candy would not allow herself to be seduced in such a manner." 

In this case, though, she's right on target. She has become K.C.'s muse and his fantasies about her have influenced his work. It happens, but not every main character is an author's Mary (or Marty) Sue. More often, what happens is that character traits a writer is familiar with but not conscious of work their way into the work, and that's where astute readers who may know the author will tend to see the writer as a character. 

Ultimately, we get the picture that the real reason K.C. has failed as a boyfriend and as a writer is that he is, in his own word, a "chicken shit."

The movie drives this point home now only with his fear of being discovered by Mack but also a fear of the wildlife on the mountain, in particular a cougar he encounters while hoping to write out in the wild one day. It's only by overcoming this "chicken shit" way of life that he can become not only a better writer -- but a better human being as well. 


  1. How many times can I type "THIS!"? Great review, although I think a lot of writers are going to feel targeted, considering all the "time vampires" that lurk outside our doors.

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