Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I don't have the words...

So, there is a movement afoot to get Piers Morgan exiled from the United States of America because he had the temerity to express views contrary to the deeply felt (and not always, but occasionally, well-informed) views who think that the gun is a part of American culture.
     What the fuck are these people thinking?
     Sure, Morgan is a smug prick most of the time (at least on television, and I'm going to count that as he clearly has a choice on how to present himself and most of the viewing populace is never going to deal with him face to face).  And he has no problem shouting down those with whom he disagrees without using facts to support his argument while making the argument (for the record, telling someone to 'shut up' or calling him or her a liar is not a formulated argument).  Most of all, it is ridiculous to have a discussion panel about gun violence in the USA and have those arguing in favor of eliminating (or severely restricting) gun ownership all be from other countries (The United Kingdom of Great Britain and India, with one raised in Iran).  I know that it is a simple argument, but perhaps people who live inside their own culture should have a say in their own culture.
     Just a thought.
     But I would rather let Morgan blather on in an attempt to drive CNN from any semblance of relevance than muster up some kind of 21st Century internet-driven Love It or Leave It fervor to drive a non-existent enemy from America.  There are plenty of people who are anti-gun and citizens, and if hardcore gun ownership supporters don't view them as real citizens, then that is where the problem lies.
     Me?  I was raised with guns in the house.  We used to shoot .22s in the backyard (right next to a rather busy street) and the village encourage people to bring their own guns to the annual Turkey Shoot.  I got to shoot an AR-15 and a fully automatic Thompson submachine gun when I was 10; it was awesome.  Never shot at anyone.  Can't say I was never tempted, but cooler heads prevailed and it took all of about a day to realize that I never wanted to shoot anything other than a target.  I would say there is much to be said for the support network that keeps adolescents from doing extremely stupid things, and a reason why I would put my concern on person left all alone with guns.  Especially troubled people who have no one to turn to.
      Is Morgan the answer?  Only if he is talking down the people who want to kill someone on an irrational impulse.  But getting rid of him isn't the answer, either.  If the Illinois Nazis could march through Skokie, we can all survive Piers Morgan.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Hmmm....I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with this much Star Wars

     For some reason...and I'm not blaming (or crediting) this for the enduring neglect the blog is suffering...I have been reading more than a proportionately responsible amount of Star Wars fiction this year. 
     There were the graphic novels (Dark Empire I & II) I read in late March and early April.  Those reminded me of how Star Wars had a tendency to want to keep revisiting the same story with the same characters because killing any of them off – God forbid Boba Fett stays dead in the Sarlac pit – would apparently anger the fans more than middling stories.  But I also have read the Star Wars meets zombies Star Wars: Red Harvest, Star Wars: The Wrath of Darth Maul, and Star Wars: Iron Fist as part of this year's Reading Project.  Still have Star Wars: Solo Command to go to finally finish off the Wraith Squadron books.  I'm not sure if I'll ever read Stackpole's X-Wing books; it would be damning not to, since I did read his novelization of the recent Conan the Barbarian (2011) movie.
     Anyway, as I find myself struggling with my own satisfaction of the fantasy and horror short stories I'm trying to write (and why can't I ever consider something finished?), I must note that it is odd that I am plinking away at the huge Star Wars catalog of books.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Safe House (2012)

     It is conceivable that, somewhere, a world exists where Ryan Reynolds may be considered to have a "medium build" (which is how his character Matt Weston is repeatedly described).  In that world, I'd be too short to be a member of the Lollipop Guild.  Okay, that is an extreme exaggeration, but it does serve to highlight one of the problems I had with Safe House (2012) – there was an obvious gap between the character envisioned on the page and the actor hired to play the roll of Weston.
     Reynolds has the ability to play smaller than his size, and his muscle is the lean type, meaning that the right camera angles (and keeping him clothed) can give the appearance of a regular guy.  This tends to work better in the comedies he does where showing off his buff body would throw a serious wrench in the works of his being a goofy, boy-ish Everyman.  In an action film, it is nearly inconceivable.  Maybe it is his ability to play younger – Weston is likely six to eight years younger than Reynolds, not coming to the CIA in his early thirties – the made him the best available fit for the role.  It certainly seems to have had a younger Jeremy Renner in mind.
     The other issues I had follow.  Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is a bad ass because of attitude more than ability.  I don't want to discount the attitude factor, but I really prefer when Washington is given characters with more definition.  Vera Farmiga (Linklater) just takes up space, half mumbles her lines, and does not seem to be interested enough in her role to even make eye contact with her fellow actors.  It would seem her days of being able to be the pretty face are well over, but not giving consistently strong performances is not a way to ensure more work as she drifts into the age range that Hollywood avoids.  I also get baffled every time I see Sam Shepard (Whitford) show up in a very conventional role. This is the guy who wrote The Tooth of Crime (1972) and La Tourista (1967).  I get that he is much older now, but having him stand in as part of establishment – to represent establishment through his own skill at bringing weight to a role – has never felt like a good fit to me.  That trend continues here.
     Other than those minor things, I found Safe House to be a decent, workman-like film.  Like Echelon Conspiracy (2009), I suspect that production was helped by incentives to make a movie in a non-traditional location.  Strangely, the lighting (and color correction) did more to make South Africa seem different than any effort to establish the setting.  Still, the action is steady without giving way to gore or over-the-top excesses.  The characters inhabit something resembling the real world (save Weston being of medium build), where the real enemy is entrenched corruption.  I'm not sure why it was so successful, but it is better than average.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Best Ten-Minute Plays 2008 for Three or More Actors (2008)

     There are a number of things I learned from reading the two collections of Ten-Minute (or less in most cases).  The most obvious one was that I am an unreasonably harsh critic.  These are plays that have been, for the most part, produced and performed in front of live people, likely ones who paid for the show, and I found myself comparing them – and not in a particularly favorable light – to the plays written by fellow students from my high school and college days.  Why aren't they great if they are the best from a particular year (or from a limited range of years)?  But, if I can step back and acknowledge that I look at some acclaimed masterpieces and find a multitude of faults and failings in them, then I need to adjust my expectations.
     I think a major problem I have is that I have an intense desire for playwrights to not rely on the conventions of the art, but I also get agitated when playwrights break away from them completely.  Somewhere, undoubtedly, there is a happy medium, but it is likely too small for most authors to locate.  I need to find it within myself to be more accepting of the works that the more knowledgeable – at least in terms of selecting material – and simply find a way to address what did and did not work for me rather than judging whether the plays are any good at all.
     Another important lesson learned is that it is nearly impossible to tell a complete story in a ten-minute play.  While there was a statement that these plays would be more than scenes, that is how many felt; some seemed to be little more than sketches with larger aspirations.  Worse, because there isn't a sense of totality, many of them leave no lasting impression.  Still, there is a similarity between the short story and the (extremely) short play – one cannot read a lot of them at once without feeling burned out.  In that case, it doesn't matter if they are good or bad.  And it is here that it makes me marvel at the stamina of the teachers who have to wade through the much worse writing of students with great frequency.
    At any rate, I finished The Best Ten-Minute Plays 2008 for Three of More Actors first because it just had to be back at the library shortly after check out.  For some reason, the effort to renew it gained a single day of leeway.  Even more interesting, more than two weeks after it had been returned, a fine appeared for returning it late.  Except that it wasn't returned late.  And if it were, that fine would have shown up immediately.  My take away from this is that it is a cursed book (or at least the local copy is); check it out at your own risk.
     The book opens up with Kathleen Warnock's The Adventures of..., and despite it having the hints of coming from an honest place it tried to hard to have a clever ending to break up the obvious progression along the way.  George Freek's Antarctica actually bothered me because it was neither funny nor clever, and I was quite positive that both were intended.  Ian August's How to Survive in Corporate America (A Manual in Eight Steps) was entertaining, but it read like one of the fantasy sequence instructional films from That '70s Show (1998-2006) – and given that I have seen less than ¼ of the episodes, I'm somewhat amazed that this is the association I made while reading it.
     Things get a little better with In the Trap by Carl L. Williams.  While embracing quite a few of the conventions of a modern comedic play (it could be argued that it is an overgrown sketch that cared enough to give the characters some definition), it tries to have a point without insisting that it is making a point.  There is something refreshing about the self-defeating protagonist who makes good only in minor steps, and those are motivated by the petty concerns that we often try to dress up as noble – and he makes no effort to do as much.
     Then things bottom out with Moon Man by Jami Brandli.  It is ponderous.  It is pretentious without having any possible foundation for being so.  Worst of all, it refuses to have anything to say other than that people can be lonely.  This play may appeal to some, but I found it to be a waste of time.  More to the point, I think it provides no roles that an actor should be excited about performing.
     Mark Larmbeck's October People is not quite a whole play (though it is the one depicted on the cover of the book).  Instead, it feels like a scene whittled down from a larger story with a character deposited in to keep the characters from reaching any kind of quick, reasonable resolution to their relationship.  It is rather well written, but it feels like an insiders look at the world in which actors (and people who rely on the entertainment industry) live.  That is a convention that I think doesn't translates well outside of (the North American) hubs like Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, or Toronto. 
     The Other Shoe by Lisa Soland wasn't poorly written, but it seemed too desperate to make its point.  I would argue that if one is writing a short play, it shouldn't be overly concerned with addressing the author's agenda.  Instead, it should be primarily concerned with making sure that a complete story is told in the limited time afforded it.  This is something that Paola Soto Hornbuckle got right in The Perfect Red.  It feels like a complete story – and is the the only play in the collection to have multiple scenes.  It is also surprisingly dark, yet at the same time it manages to be accessible to a general audience.  I would not imagine that many people would stage it because it does require better than modest production values but does not run long enough to justify it being the only play running on the stage.  But there is something to it.
     Gina Gionfriddo's Squalor was more than a little weird, but it still works as a brief play.  It was extremely contemporary in its references, but while that is impressive if it is produced immediately, it also serves to date it.  It did have some rather good lines that showcase Gionfriddo's ability to bring wit and levity to a play without defusing the progression of the story.  My favorites are:
          Marnie: "Quit?  You think this is hamburgers and hair appointments? 
          You can't quit a war."
          Mike: "I'm thirsty and I have a dick." (Trust me, it has real meaning
          in context.)
     Don Nigro's Three Turkeys Waiting for Corncobs is one of those plays that really relies on the conventions, especially the off-beat ones, of the modern play.  It is actively trying to be quirky, and that is something that I am not sure that I know how to comes to terms with.  I guess it is kind of funny, but in a way that doesn't seem to offer anything new while simultaneously not being something that has been done with any frequency.  No, when it comes to something that has been done before one doesn't need to go further than To Darfur by Erik Christian Hanson.  Equating small-mindedness with being a Southerner and/or a Republican – which while not a being an argument without merit, it is not really a fact – is old hat.  And there is nothing much more going on for To Darfur, even in terms of being entertaining.
     Nora Chau's Whatever Happened to Finger Painting, Animal Crackers, and Afternoon Naps? has a slight absurdist edge to it and has some fun with WASP-y conflicts, but it is both too short and too in love with itself to really be considered a full piece.  At least it is better than The Answer, which felt like a writing exercise that tried to use play conventions to mask the lack of original story.  
     Larry Hamm impressed me with Do-Overs, but more because it felt like a cross between something I co-authored (Call Me Temujin) and Richard A. Knaak's Dutchman (1996).  It is the story of two souls that keep finding each other over many incarnations, while a third soul – one that has not had a single life under its belt – tries to gauge expectations of life and love from their revelations.  It is clever, and perhaps even slightly sappy, but it also feels like it manages to get a full story told in its brief time.  It is immediately followed by Gloom, Doom, and Soul-Crushing Misery by Robin Rice Lichtig, a play where the single distinguishing feature is having the Travelocity gnome shoved up someone's ass.  It is the opposite of clever and smart, so I assume that it must look much better when performed than it reads.  At least it didn't read like a piece of mediocre high school writing, which is how Chris Shaw Swanson's The Growth came off.  Even in trying to be more positive in my evaluations of these pieces, there is nothing about The Growth that speaks towards professional level writing or the concept of subtlety.  
     Patrick Gabridge's Measuring Matthew is another effort to put a character with Asperger's Syndrome into a story.  This has become quite common in the last ten years, or at least very noticeable.  From Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory (2007–present) to Abed Nadir on Community (2009–present) to Max Braverman on Parenthood (2010–present) to Wally Stevens (as played by Mark Linn Baker in 2003) on Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-2011), there is an unhealthy fascination with the fascination characters with Asperger's have with seemingly trivial, non-standard subjects.  I find it tiresome, in part because there is seldom an examination of what the condition actually is.  Also, because there is almost always an indulgence of the behaviors of the characters so as to not challenge the established order.
     Night Terrors manages to undue most of its solid writing and existential examination simply by having the third role be largely inaccessible.  It is leaps and bounds better then Zachary Zwillinger Eats People, which combines poor grammar (and not in a purposeful manner to establish character) and never stops being preachy.  The best advice I have seen on the subject is that if an author wants to be preachy, write either an essay or a sermon.
     The collection gets better with a pair plays where the single point may just be that cynicism can win out.  The Baby War by Laura Cotton tells the story of the fight over the future of an illegitimate child between the well-to-do and the merely middle class.  It also manages some sly criticism of consumerism reinforced through reality television.  It also has the following exchange (where Carolyn is April’s mother and Patricia is the mother of the boy who got April pregnant):
          Patricia: You see, I’ve decided that I can’t allow April to have 
          an abortion.  
          April: I wasn’t planning on having an abortion.  
          Patricia: Of course you were.   
          April: No, I wasn’t.  
          Carolyn: Are you sure, honey?  You could have just a tiny one.   
          April: A tiny abortion?  What, are you out of your mind?
It is far better than most of the dialogue present in the book.  Thankfully, it is followed by the just-as-cynical but darker Sexual Perversity in Connecticut by Mike Folie.  Finding some proper balance between honoring and sending-up Mamet and exaggerating WASP-y catfighting, it manages to be wry without ever tripping over into the ridiculous.  And it serves as a good reminder to keep an eye out for the babysitters who become whores.
     Sister Snell isn't bad, but it tries to be witty at all times and feels far too short for the scope of story that could have been told.  It isn't bad, but I feel that it would have been better served to be developed into a longer piece.  As it stands, it resembles more of a well-written sketch.
     Much different is Vanessa David's Current Season.  It resembles the play about turkeys in that it calls for a trio of actors to play at being animals, in this case light-up reindeer decorations.  Still, it has a quirky charm, as one of the most inappropriate lines (at least out of context) I've seen in a long while.  
          Prancer: "If being in homosexual positions brings holiday cheer to
          the people, then I'm all for it.  Bring on the kids."
     Intervention is a play revolving around a one-note joke, one that is obvious by page two, doesn't get said until page six, and then is hammered home for another whole page.  It is an example of something obvious being mistaken for something clever, an insight the common person has never made.  The end result is a tedious reading experience that I guess could only be worse when seen in person.
     Jerome Parisse's Guys, Only Guys! manages to get the one-joke story structure right.  While probably better served as being a tighter comedy sketch, it is a funny brief play that successfully establishes characters and a story.  While the twist of an ending may be obvious, it doesn't feel like it has been coming since the characters show up; personally, I think it strikes the right balance of being novel and not so 'out there' as to alienate an audience.  Strangely, Parisse's The Birthday Knife reads as an extremely creepy experience.  It feels like there is a very real threat to the main character, and because of this any humor otherwise in the story is drained away.  It is definitely the weaker of his two efforts here.
     When I wrote about some of the plays requiring as much production work as a full-length play, I may have been most specifically thinking of Mark Harvey Levine's Cabfare for the Common Man.  This is made more lamentable because Cabfare is full of labored metaphors and imagery.  The only point is has to make is that one doesn't really go through life alone, with the addendum that the right person can be found.  In what universe is that profound?  Or even true?  Where is the story for the truly miserable, how life is an unbearable series of lonely experiences where the people who leave you are the ones who are not destined to go through life alone?  (I am going to come right out and admit I would probably have criticized that story, too, if it were as sloppily conceived as Levine's.)  He has a much better piece with A Case of Anxiety.  With an Inspector that begs the performer to overact as much as possible and repetitions that propel the story forward, it is the darker story he was afraid to tell with Cabfare.  It is still a little too sunny, but has quite possibly the best instructions for how to introduce a gorilla into a play:
          (Robert opens the door to let the Inspector out and is 
          immediately attacked by a giant gorilla who bursts into 
          the apartment. [If you can’t find a gorilla with an Equity 
          card, someone in a gorilla suit, a particularly large and 
          hairy actor will do the trick.] The gorilla picks up Robert 
          and tosses him around.)]
     The collection closes with Lisa Loomer's Fear of Spheres.  I didn't get it.  Not even a little.  It appears to be a play that would be fun to perform, but if it doesn't mean anything then what's the point? 
     All in all, I think there were enough well written pieces to make the book worth reading, but I will question what makes these plays the best of those available for consideration.  I would also wager that thirty is too large a sample for those who actually want to read through the plays.  Sure, it is better for those who are looking for material to produce, but that is well beyond my scope or interest.

          The Adventures of... by Kathleen Warnock (2006)
          Antarctica by George Freek (2008)
          How to Survive in Corporate America (A Manual in Eight Steps) by Ian August (2008)
          In the Trap by Carl L. Williams (2007)
          Moon Man by Jami Brandli (2007)
          October People by Mark Larmbeck (2007)
          The Other Show by Lisa Soland (2008)
          The Perfect Red by Paola Soto Hornbuckle (2007)
          Squalor by Gina Gionfriddo (2007)
          Three Turkeys Waiting for Corncobs by Don Nigro (2008)
          To Darfur by Erik Christian Hanson (007)
          Whatever Happened to Finger Painting, Animal Crackers, and Afternoon Naps? By Nora Chau (2007)
          The Answer by Vanessa David (2008)
          Do-Overs by Larry Hamm (2007)
          Gloom, Doom, and Soul-Crushing Misery by Robin Rice Lichtig (2007)
          The Growth by Chris Shaw Swanson (2007)
          Measuring Matthew by Patrick Gabridge (2004)
          Night Terrors by Wendy MacLeod (2007)
          Zachary Zwillinger Eats People by Lauren D. Yee (2007)
          The Baby War by Laura Cotton (2007)
          Sexual Perversity in Connecticut by Mike Folie (2007)
          Sister Snell by Mark Troy (2002)
          Current Season by Vanessa David (2007)
          The Title Fight by Ian August (2006)
          Intervention by Mark Lambeck (2007)
          Guys, Only Guys! by Jerome Parisse (2008)
          The Birthday Knife by Jerome Parisse (2007)
          Cabfare for the Common Man by Mark Harvey Levine (2005)
          A Case of Anxiety by Mark Harvey Levine (2006) 
          Fear of Spheres by Lisa Loomer (2008)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Red Tails (2012)

    If ever there was a movie that simultaneously showcased the trademark Lucasian tone-deaf dialogue delivered in a monotone with the kind of direction that makes Flyboys (2006) look like Memphis Belle (1990), and Memphis Belle look like Twelve O'Clock High (1949) in comparison, then that movie would be Red Tails (2012).  Feeling the need to abandon any of the compelling real-life stories from the heroic Tuskegee Airmen, John Ridley and Aaron McGruder instead throw as many stereotypes at the audience as possible, never bothering to form any kind of coherent bond between scenes of characters.  This is problematic in a film where the filler material – everything that is not thrilling aerial combat – dominates the screen time.
     Most troubling to me was the choice to soft peddle the American racism towards the titular Red Tails, and black soldiers in general.  Brian Cranston has a few scenes to respectfully express his dim view of the colored in uniform, but there is no feel of institutional weight behind his prejudice.  Worse, it never seems that Cranston's Colonel Mortamus believes his lines.  He is the worst incarnation of the paper villain, one that is in place for Terrence Howard's Colonel Bullard to give a mild repudiation.  If this is Lucas' vision of addressing the racism of the era, then he never should have been allowed to contribute more to the film than money.
     There are plenty of other failings, and some that may or may not be failings.  In the latter category fall the following – the "brand new 109s" in 1945, presumably Bf-109s (arguably the best looking single engine fighter plane in the war) that would have been supplanted by a variety of other fighters; the P-40s that look less like the planes that the Flying Tigers made famous and more like modified P-35s; the timing of when the first escorted daylight bombing runs of Berlin occurred.  The obvious failings had more to do with character development, but there were a surprising number of technical issues as well.  The air combat was surprisingly dull and lifeless.  It managed to be somehow too crisp to pass for authentic and too slow to serve as exciting segments.  Add to that the inclusion of a recurring enemy pilot (who speaks Duetsch so slowly that even I didn't need a translation) who serves as a very old-school kind of villain is the only sense that the Nazis are the ones who the Americans are really fighting, and you have a movie that just doesn't have any conception of the setting it adopted as its own.
     I feel somewhat bad for the actors involves in this project, who likely signed on thinking that there was going to be a serious attempt to depict the heroism of the real life aviators.  Sure, most of them couldn't figure out how to give a reading and move at the same time (I am quite serious in that criticism; most of the actors had to stand perfectly still to give anything more than a wooden recitation of their lines).  David Oyelowo manages to bring some life to his character (Joe "Lightning" Little) away from the action, and that may have been a better movie than what was put together.  This has all the marks of a project that went into shooting without a finished script.  Instead, it seems that the decision was made to make a movie with some WWII air combat and there wasn't much consideration given to the audience's eventual concern for a compelling story within the movie.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Miscellaneous Crumbs of Dialogue: The Good and the Crummy

Miscellaneous Crumbs of Dialogue: The Good and the Crummy
 by Silence Do_nothing

1: You know what's good?
2: Water.
1: Nope.
2: Someone's properly hydrated.
1: Am I supposed to feel guilty about that?
2: I simply mean that you can only appreciate water when you're thirsty.
1: That's with everything.  I'd still rather have something than have appreciation for it.  Because I appreciate it so much.
2: Are you thirsty now?
1: No.
2: Then you can't properly value water.
1: Maybe if I convert to Shinto and pray to a river god or something.
2: That wouldn't help.
1: Shintophobe.
2 [rolls eyes]: I'm sure countless souls have found serenity and a sense of purpose and meaning in Shinto.  They've been a vibrant and vital segment of the community for generations.  I would not hesitate for one second to vote a Shinto practitioner into the White House if he were the best qualified candidate.
1 [puffs out chest]: That’s right.
2: But even hypothetical President Shinto would require a parched throat to truly understand water's precious essence. 
1: You're not looking to hit me up for a charity run for a group that drills water wells in Africa, are you?
2: No, why?  Are you against that?
1: Not the charitable work itself.
2: Just stingy?
1: I don't like how those things are setup.
2: Hmmm.  Like what?
1: That the runners' part is supposed to put them above people who "only" donate money.  I know they do good and all, but-
2: When's the last time you donated money?
1: That's not the point.
2 [rolls eyes]: ...
1: There's the general idea out there that volunteering is superior to giving cash.
2: I'm sure they're very grateful for both.
1: I made my money myself, so when I donate-
2: If you donate.
1: Oh, I will.  Just so you can't hold this over me.
2: My chops busting serves the greater good.
1: It's not about "just writing a check."  I have to work to cover the checks.  I'm donating time like a volunteer, but it's less direct.
2: Yeah, but it's not as though you're mining coal.
1: So.  I still have to put up with a boss.
2: Volunteers have supervisors.
1: It's not the same.
2: And the last time you volunteered was?
1: I don't need to to know that a charity's supervisor can't afford to be nearly as big of a dick as a boss in a business.  A charity isn't going to bitch at a volunteer for being two minutes late.
2: Well then set your alarm five minutes earlier, big baby.
1: I'm not-
2: And don't come in looking all hung over when you're late, too.
1: I'm not disputing that I deserve it.  When you screw up, you get chewed out. I get that.  And when you're getting chewed out, and if you happen to be bad at hiding the feelings that are betrayed by your facial expression -something that goes back to when you were a kid and you kept getting in trouble  for "that look on your face", even though your muscles were making that look without your knowledge or control- if you still haven't developed good enough control to mask the emotions that force their way in when someone is belittling you, then you get to take more flak for your attitude problem.  Hey, fine then.  And when you can't produce as well as the others, even if it burns you up that you can't and even if you hustle like someone who really cares, but because you don't have a knack for it, you come up short.  Too bad.  This isn't a nursery.  You're paid to produce results.  I accept that.  And yes, I know that someone working in a sweatshop would love to be in my shoes, and I would have no right complain to one of them,  but since you aren't one of them, I feel plenty of right to bitch about it to you.
2: I know it sucks, but it has to be that way or everything would fall to pieces.  People are fundamentally lazy.
1: I don't doubt that.  It's just that volunteering doesn't come with that kind of crap so I don't get how it is supposed to show more dedication or a truer act of charity than "only writing a check."
2: I would imagine it's directed towards donors who come from wealth and that for them, writing a check really is the easier way out.
1: Maybe.
2: I never knew you hated the job so much.
1: Nah, it's not so bad.  I mean, it's a job.
2: I guess.
1: Although, I will say -and this isn't just for this job in particular, but for any one.  In my dream lottery scenario, if I won, I wouldn't quit-
2: Oh right.
1: No, not because I'm Mr. Workaholic or I would feel unfulfilled just lounging around all day.  But I would love working I job I didn't need.
2: "Take this job and shove it!"
1: No, I wouldn't even do that.  That lets them know they're getting to you.  I wouldn't be a jerk to people or goof off.  I would take my duties seriously.  I wouldn't try to get fired.  I just wouldn't respond to the threat of it.  The boss could go ballistic and I would calmly shrug it off because I wouldn't really need him.  I don't care about sports cars, or fancy jewelry or home theaters.  Indifference to the boss's wrath would be the one luxury I'd look forward to.
2: Are we including liquor?
1: It would be crazy to stop just when I could start to afford the good stuff.
2: I figured as much.
1: I know that breaks your heart when I could be going bananas on just like pallets and pallets of Perrier.
2: Actually, I'll grant you that liquor is a more reasonable purchase than bottled water.
1: Victory!
2: Tap water quenches just as well.  Alcohol production does require craftsmanship.  Water's water.
1: How could you turn your back on the sacred waters?.
2: I never said that.
1: You acted like it.
2: The bone of contention was more to do with the inability to judge it when fully refreshed.  I wouldn't have argued with your opinion, even if it still contradicted mine, if you gave it after forgoing water for ten hours.  Or after eating half a slice of pizza.
1: How do I know you're fit to judge?
2: I had pizza for lunch so I'm going to have Sahara thirst for the next twenty-four hours no matter how many gallons of water I down.
1: Then don't eat pizza, you baby.
2: Oh no.  It's worth it.  A good restaurant pizza.
1: Sure, who doesn't like pizza?  If that had been your answer you would have gotten no argument from me.
2: That's why booze is such a waste.
1: For a tea-totaler like you, but not for normal people.
2: I know pizza can be pricey, but not compared to alcohol.  Think how much delicious restaurant pizza you could get for what you waste on liquor.
1: I spend it.  I don't waste it.
2: Do you regret spending it?
1: I'm going to spend more.
2: But do you regret it?
1: It's hard for me to say I regret something I do over and over and that I know I'm going to keep doing over and over.
2: When you were hung-over on Saturday, did you regret it then?
1 [smiles]:...
2: See.  How much did you blow on shots?
1: I happily paid eighty bucks for them.
2: Happily?
1: Well, willingly.
2: So you paid eighty dollars to make yourself sick.
1: No. I paid eighty dollars plus a hangover to feel really good.
2: You could have gotten four large pizzas for that!  Or three pizza and several bags of peanut butter cups.  Can't forget desert.
1: What about the water wells for Africa?
2: You brought that into the conversation, but I won't discourage charity as an alternative to your liquor money.  That's what I assume you were referring to when you asked me what was good.
1: No.
2: Oh really.
1: I'll admit that was looping through my head as background noise, like usual.
2: You're such a whino.
1: I was actually going to say that crumbs were good.
2: How are you going to argue against water when that's your answer?
1: People already know water's important.  Crumbs get a bad rap.
2: Then what you should've asked was "What's underrated?"
1: Maybe the question could have been worded more precisely.
2 [rolls eyes]:  Expound on the goodness of crumbs.
1: The crumbs on the bottom of Frosted Flakes and Doritos are always the most flavorful part of the whole.
2: That's it?
1: Both of us were influenced by our choice of lunch.  I brought some Frosted Flakes and Doritos to snack on for lunch.  Not all of can afford pizza.  Some of us have liquor habits to support.
2: Are you saying cookie crumbs are good?
1: No.
2: Or potato chips?
1: No.
2: Any crumbs besides Frosted Flakes and Doritos?
1: None that I can think of at the moment.
2: So good crumbs are actually a rarity.
1: Yes, but still a reality than must be acknowledged.  They're not all bad.
2: But they usually are.
1: Yeah, usually.
2: I'm not even sure if we can speak to crumbs being rated one way or the other.  Unless there's some study about various cultures' attitudes towards crumbs that I'm unaware of.
1: No.
2: It's a weird topic of conversation that's seldom if ever touched on.  I don't know how you gauge it.
1: I was going with the negative connotation "crummy" has.
2: Have you researched the etymology of the word?
1: No.
2 [shrugs]: I mean it might have to do with food crumbs.  But I'm thinking it's just as likely to refer to crumbling architecture.
1: Oh, really?
2: I'm guessing the word is old enough to go back to when most people couldn't afford to scoff at crumbs of food.  Back when you were grateful to have a moldy cockroach for supper.
1: Well that is locally sourced.
2: Yeah, I'm not a believer in your crumb barometer.
1: Whatever it started from originally, I still think people today associate it with food, so I need to introduce a more positive meaning as part of the rehabilitation of crumbs.
2: So you want to change it to its opposite?
1: People did it with the word "literally".
2: It seems like a waste of time.  Nobody uses "crummy" nowadays anyways.  Unless you're Leave it To Beaver cosplayers, maybe.
1: Even then, I couldn't ask them to introduce an anachronism by insisting on my definition.  You have to respect the integrity of the characters.
2: I suppose crumb fandom is innocuous next to alcohol.
1: It's not an either-or proposition for me.
2: You're going to call off on Saturday again, aren't you?
1: You know it!
2: Which means that I must condemn your crummy, in the conventional sense, work ethic, but applaud your crummy, in your reformed sense, candor.
1: Then screw you and thank you.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Beneath the Darkness (2011)

     I guess I am a bit of a fan of Dennis Quaid.  If I were to look at it objectively, I would realize that there is no reason to be.  Sure, there are films like Breaking Away (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), D.O.A. (1988), and Smart People (2008) that are in the decent to great range where Quaid's performance matters.  But there are many more awful – albeit some in a very enjoyable way – movies featuring Quaid.  The brief list is Jaws 3D (1983), Enemy Mine (1985; I respect what they were going for, but Enemy Mine drags for its entire running time), Innerspace (1987), Flesh and Bone (1993), DragonHeart (1996; now, if you didn't go in expecting the action movie the trailers promised, you are likely to view DragonHeart as a fun fantasy action-comedy with heart), Switchback (1997), Traffic (2000; I know Traffic was widely praised, but I found it to be a disaster that was simultaneously too obvious and lacking in having a substantive point addressed by the material), Cold Creek Manor (2003), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Flight of the Phoenix (2004), the remake of Yours, Mine, and Ours (2005), Vantage Point (2005; I don't want to fault Quaid for the overall quality of the film – the plot is just rife with holes), Legion (2009), and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009; see Vantage Point for fitting criticism).  But there is something likeable about Quaid, a rough charisma that works when he is the man forced into the 'heroic' role.  As a villain, he has a tendency to overact to the point of ridiculousness.
     Put Beneath the Darkness (2011) in that category.  Quaid plays Ely Vaughn, who runs the local funeral parlor in a Texas small town.  It being in Texas is kind of thrown in as an aside, as no one has much of a Texan accent (from any part of the state) and the people certainly don't seem as devoted to high school football as they are suggested to be by TV, movies, and real life.  The sheriff does where a cowboy hat, but a lot of lower budget movies struggle to find distinctive headwear for small town sheriffs.  Anyway, Ely is mildly creepy guy who recently lost his wife.  Well, she is dead but decidedly not lost.  Movie wouldn't work if she were dead and lost.
      Ely is also a kind of obsessive whose tendencies are restricted to one particular province of his life.  While I'm sure somebody thought this was a good idea – because many obsessives can lead functional lives – it plays as both false and as being an obvious plot device.  What kind of guy would Ely be if he didn't keep his dead wife's body around for company?  What movie would there be?
     Chances are, a much better one.  Much of the time given to the Ely character is utterly wasted, especially given how Quaid has no consistent physicality for the character.  Is he the guy who can shrink into himself, blend in to a crowd, and appear to be the mild-mannered minder of the dead, or the brute who can lift a high school athlete off his feet by grabbing him – one-handed – about the neck?  Similarly, the teen protagonists/potential victims are given a fair amount of screen time only to be developed in clichéd broad strokes.  Even the circumstances that should make Travis (Tony Oller) unique come across like they were borrowed from The X-Files (1993-2002) and number of supernatural themed low-budget horror movie.
     For some reason, it isn't supposed to matter that Travis steals the star QB/kind-of-friend's girlfriend.  Now, if I am going to be honest in my recollection, my friends in high school didn't mind going after girls other guys (even friends) were dating.  How much more miserable would I be today if I had followed that route?  But seldom is this kind of behavior endorsed as being appropriate for teen heroes in a (soft) horror film.  The girlfriend in question is Abby, played by Aimee Teegarden.  Teegarden comes across as the kind of actress forced upon audiences, the kind that is serviceable but not quite ready for a good deal of screen time.  Moreover, she comes across as though she were playing an updated Topanga Lawrence from Boy Meets World (1993-2000).
     The are holes in the story that could have been covered with better dialogue and maybe two days of reshoots.  Instead, they stand as a testament that Beneath the Darkness was operating well beneath the desired budget.  The action, what little there is, is lifeless; the suspense nonexistent.  There are worse movies, certainly, but few that seem to be fighting every chance to elevate themselves from sub-mediocrity every step of the way.  I'm not sure Beneath the Darkness has enough of its various elements to satisfy any crowd.  It is too soft for horror fans, too lacking in suspense for thriller junkies, and too stingy with the emotions of the teens to satisfy younger viewers. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Writing Popular Fiction (1974)

     A lot has changed since the mid-1970s, especially if one is writing about that period while still cognizant of the lingering impact of the late-1960s.  It would be wrong to think that the market for fiction is anywhere near the same.  While the shift is likely less jarring than the pre- to post-Hemingway era of American literature, genre fiction – the subject of Dean R. Koontz's Writing Popular Fiction (1974) – one must consider how different the world is the more recent now.
     Koontz was writing about a world where Peter Benchley's Jaws was just released as a book and had not become the first modern blockbuster.  George Lucas had made two films at that point, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973); there was no such thing as Star Wars (1977).  Star Trek (1966-69) was a show that had a decent run on network television and had not yet emerged as a presence in syndication.  The use of vampires in successful fiction wouldn't emerge until Stephen King penned 'Salem's Lot in 1975, and it would not be until Anne Rice brought the sexy vampire back with Interview with a Vampire (1976) that the undead got to be in something more than a sub-category of the horror genre.  Cable television had been around for 25 years but was still something more common in remote rural areas than the sameness of suburbia.  Satellite television existed; it had its first single purpose satellite launched in '74.  The personal computer was effectively unknown.  The VCR existed, but was extremely expensive.  It wouldn't be until 1975 that Betamax came on the scene and allowed for the average person to record broadcast television or watch movies at home at one's leisure.  Hell, print magazines were still a major and viable outlet for a writer to submit fiction.
     Koontz lists seven categories of genre fiction: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Suspense, Mysteries, Gothic-Romance, Westerns, and Erotica.  I would argue that Sci-Fi (wildly expanded over what it was by the mid-1970s, for better or worse), Fantasy, Suspense (still very strong), Mystery (Koontz writes about the more traditional, Agatha Christie style mystery, which has been superseded by a more active plot structure since the early 1990s at least), Gothic-Romance (this is a chaste kind of romance, part Brontë sisters' young girl sent off to live in a strange house and long for the unobtainable man, part supernatural mystery; my understanding is that this market died before the 1970s were over), Westerns (another genre that has widely gone by the wayside; it takes a very well-written book to garner any attention beyond people who go purposely looking for a Western; however, the more modern Western follows a much different plot structure where a man can be a man instead of a slave to the modern world), and Erotica (Koontz divides this category into the Big Sexy Novel and the Rough Sexy Novel; the former category includes everything from the bodice-ripper romance novels of the 1980s and 1990s to the sex-filled stories of Jacquelin Suzanne or Harold Robbins, and even more, while Rough Sexy is effectively porn).  To his credit, I think that Koontz did a fantastic job of delineating the categories and his understanding of them.  I could not think of a kind of genre fiction that would not fit in these groups (though as noted, I believe the Gothic Romance is dead).  More to the point, Koontz, who was not yet 30 when he wrote Writing Popular Fiction, clearly understood all of the genres and the necessary elements to make one acceptable to a publisher.
     Koontz is a little too eager to go to numbered lists (this is more of a personal complaint, because if one is keeping the book handy as a resource then this tactic is fine, but it gets cumbersome if one is just reading through the book as a book).  Then, when doing so would make the most sense, he avoids the tactic and just lists the information with paragraph breaks.  It feels a little odd, but once I understood that he was going to change it up whenever he felt like it, I became much less concerned about it.
     One of the better parts of any book on writing is how many forgotten (or at least unknown to me if they have remained popular) books the author mentions as good examples of the genres.  For the most part, Koontz rattles off well-known and renowned titles and authors, though in some instances he seems to be well ahead of his time.  He praises Lucas' THX 1138 as being one of the two worthwhile (meaning not derivative) science fiction movies, which is impressive mostly because nobody saw THX 1138 when it was released.  Still, it became quite clear that not only was Koontz very well read, he also had no problem throwing other writers under the bus when it came to their abilities and works.  This stood in odd contrast to his straight-out advice that a writer is better served by writing sub-standard, by the numbers genre fiction to earn a paycheck than in taking a 9 to 5 job and neglecting writing for even a few short months.
     Koontz also gives great insight into why the authors of the era were so eager to use pen names.  This always confused me, but apparently there was a prevailing belief that an author could compete with himself (or herself) instead of a loyal following buying more books by the same author.  Likewise, there were genres (this may still be the case) where the audience was thought to only endorse on gender of author – Westerns needed to be written by men, Gothic Romances only by women – and an author often took a name for each genre in which he or she worked.  It still seems crazy to me, but Koontz does an excellent job of explaining that when the publisher tells you to use a different name if you want the advance check, do it.
     According to Koontz, a good story needs:
❶ A Strong Plot
❷ A Hero or Heroine
❸ Clear, Believable Motivation
❹ A Great Deal of Action
❺ A Colorful Background
     That all seems super-obvious, doesn't it?  Yet there are several stories I'd love to develop that I have have yet to figure out how to move the plot to the forefront of the tale.  I have been known to try to force weak or unlikeable characters into the main role.  I cannot remember I time I did not try to hide the characters motivations.  I love restricting action (for no reason).  And I am weak at describing the alien (Science Fiction or Fantasy) settings, or in bringing out the particulars of an environment and making the story come alive because of them.  It is all simple advice, but sometimes I need to be clobbered over the head with it.
     My overall reaction to this book is positive.  I think I would enjoy a conversation with Koontz more than his books (and non-fiction to his fiction), but he clearly has mastered the craft of getting the readable, serviceable story in print quickly.  Dated, sure, but worthwhile.

Here are some of the fun bits I marked:

Koontz wondering about the future for a science fiction novel: Will marijuana be legal? p. 18

History lesson on American politics: In a short novel, appropriately enough titled If This Goes On..., Robert Heinlein writes of a future in which the church's tax-exempt status and the gullibility of the masses propel a backwoods evangelist into national politics and, eventually, a religious dictatorship that covers North America.  Heinlein's argument that the church should not be given an inch of influence in government, lst it take a mile, is given plausibility by the manner in which churches, in recent years, have pyramided their moral influence over government into a multi-million-dollar-a-year pro-church lobby in Washington. p. 21

Just kind of funny: For example, if you were primarily concerned with writing about the total failure of law and order in the city streets after dark by the year 1990... p. 22  (I had forgotten how focused on urban decay 1970s Sci-Fi was.)

Avoid cliched plots: Do not, for example, propose "secret organizations" who are out to overthrown some government and destroy the world.  Only governments themselves have the power to destroy the world.  And organizations out to overthrow governments are usually not secret, though their machinations may be. ...Never propose a villain who, single-handedly, sets out to destroy the world, no matter how wealthy or resourceful he may be. p. 78  (People still violate this all the time, and it is sad that it has endured.)

On p. 83, Koontz misunderstands the duties of the Secret Service while criticizing authors who misunderstand the duties of the Secret Service (he states they only protect the President and candidates).

The unlikable narrator: There is no hard and fast rule for this, in any genre; every story demands its own voice.  However, a good rule of thumb is to use third person for a story whose hero is hard-bitten and extremely competent.  A first person narrative by such a hero, in which he must regularly comment on his own prowess and cunning, may seem ludicrous to the reader.  He may dislike the hero and, therefore, the entire novel.  (This is how I felt about Patient Zero.)

Best title for a book some should be ashamed to be seen reading: Thirteen and Ready! p. 148

Koontz on Women Readers: Many women who read the Big Sexy Novel are terrified of divorce and, rather than seeing it as an answer to the problem, might find it a frightening and depressing non-conclusion.  This might change, too, in coming years, as more and more women realize their value, as people, outside of the institution of marriage. p. 144

Keep it simple: The vocabulary of the BigSN should always be simple.  The fewer multi-syllabic words you use, the better.  This does not mean that the BigSN reader has a more limited vocabulary than other genre readers; however, most BigSN want a book that can be read at the beach, over several evenings, between household chores–in short, a book that is interesting but not so demanding that it must be read carefully and in as few sittings as possible. p. 146

Respect the rules: Writers break rules and still get published all the time.  But these are writers who have published, for the most part, numerous other books: people who have learned all the rules, have proved they can use them successfully time and again, and have therefore earned the right to break a tradition or two. p. 151

Don't write in a particular dated style: Finally, avoid using the observer frame for your story, in which the first person narrator prefaces and ends the story with statements that this was the way he saw it all happen.  This technique, made popular by Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories, renders the plot all past even, one long flashback, and it robs the story of its immediacy. p. 166

Style: ...[I]f you are trying to write beautiful prose full of catchy similes and metaphors and other figures of speech, you have reached a point where you should stop and reconsider what you are doing.  Whether or not you recognize it, you have your own voice already, one the reader will identify as yours, and you have only to let it grown of its own accord. p. 166

Style: There is one rule of style that every writer can benefit from: say it a simply, as clearly , and as shortly as possible. p. 167

Style: Economy of language is the most important stylistic goal. p. 170

Monday, June 25, 2012

Vote Fascist

     Fascism gets a bad rap.  It should.  It is a rather oppressive form of government, one that favors militarization and has inherent in its existence a sense of racial/national superiority (given that there doesn't seem to be any objective reason to support racial/national superiority, the latter component is just irrational).  The only benefit Fascism has as a government type in Civ III is that it allows for endless war without losing the support of the people.  War sure seems like fun when it is other people's lives, fake people.  People who exist only in terms of numbers, or solely on film or in print.  A war that goes on forever should be looked upon as something that, if not bad, is likely far from good.
     I made up a batch of "Vote Fascist" buttons back in 2003 or 2004.  I had borrowed a button maker from a co-worker (who in turn borrowed it from his soon-to-be fiancée) to make silly little buttons and button shaped magnets for things vaguely related to Living Arcanis.  I still have a few of those, sadly.  The idea of the Fascist Party encouraging active voting seemed to me – at the time – the height of irony.  It isn't, of course, but I do think there is some commentary to be grafted onto something so simple as a button that reads "Vote Fascist". 
     Around Chicago, the "Vote Fascist" button got a few raised eyebrows, but mostly sly nods as though whoever read it was in on the same joke.  People on the far Right saw it as a message critiquing the Left, and the far Left saw it as a simple explanation of where the far (Christian) Right wanted to go.  It isn't as though either major party candidate in '04 could have been proud to think that a supporter was getting the message out by saying that 'We, the American people, should vote our rights away and install a militaristic regime that will take control of our lives in ways we never dared imagine a generation earlier.'  Of course now I think the moderates on both sides try to make that argument about the opposition. 
     Down in Florida, fifty nine years after World War II came to an end – and with a sizable contingent of folks who actually fought against Fascists living there – the button was seen as the ultimate slap in the face of  men whose service and sacrifice (it was entirely men who had a savage reaction to it) ended Mussolini's and Hitler's respective reigns.  The Greatest Generation didn't earn that monicker for a deep and abiding love of irony.  Things were (and I suppose are, to those still living) supposed to be straight forward and as honest as circumstances politely allowed.  I don't think that is better, since that generation also had some pretty strong support for racial segregation, not exposing child molestation, and holding a worldview where there is something inherent in the American character that makes he or she better than any other kind of person.  A soft bigotry, sure, but bigotry nonetheless.
    Anyway, I am getting a little upset that I haven't posting anything in a short while.  I have a couple of movies that just didn't sit right with me (one felt rushed, the other was just...what is the right way to describe something that is a failure on every level except for lighting?) and some books that I haven't addressed.  But mostly I have been spending too much time mucking around with a game that is only supposed to be enjoyed on brief spurts (and when all other work is done). 
     Real posts are coming.  I promise.
The last surviving "Vote Fascist" button.  Might move it to one of the hats so I can sport it around town this summer.  Wonder what kind of reaction it would get almost ten years later.