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60 writers, 60 places, one film

February 24, 2010 |  7:15 am

Maybe it takes an author to see readings in a new way. Michael Kimball and Luca DiPierro, both writers and filmmakers, have turned author readings inside out in their independent film "60 Writers/60 Places," which was shown last night in Austin, Texas.

Generally readings -- for fiction, at least -- consist of a single author reading from their work, taking 20 minutes or more. There are, as you'd expect, 60 writers in Kimball and DiPierro's film. So each reads only a bit -- a sentence, maybe a paragraph -- and is on camera for a very short time.

The snippets are so short that they're more like snapshots than excerpts. There isn't really enough material there to understand the context. Who's the narrator? What are they talking about?

It would be impossible to tell if it weren't for the locations. Each author is positioned in a unique landscape -- a lighthouse, a parlor, a laundromat -- that informs the writing. In some cases the place, like Josh Weil's backdrop of a lushly overgrown river, seems to mirror the story's setting. In others, it doesn't. Rick Moody reads a passage from "Purple America" about a sick woman and a bathtub, but he's standing, cheerfully, on a baseball field.

The idea is so beautiful -- place informs writing in ways that draw us in, gives us shortcuts and ineffable complexities -- that its technical shortcomings are forgivable. But they are, alas, mentionable. In the DVD I saw, the background noise, which changes a lot between scenes, was distracting. Some of the authors have written academic works on culture and history, which wind up being overly literal (one writes about the history of women's dressing rooms and reads in a woman's dressing room). And a few too many authors seem comfortable in their own homes.

The film is at its best when there is an element of serendipity, where the place is unusual and the reason for its selection not entirely clear. Why is Blake Butler shouting on a subway car? It makes me curious to read his book -- maybe there's a subway in it. Or maybe not.

While some authors will be familiar, many of the authors in the film may may not -- Jamie Gaughran-Perez, Leni Zumas -- but this seems like something that, five years from now, will serve as a fascinating time capsule. And in the meantime, I'd see "60 Writers/60 Places" again -- and the next 60, and the next.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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