The Manic Pixie Pout-Pout

Since I now have another two-year-old, I'm back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I'm here to talk Read more

The Omai Gods: the story behind the story

One of my favorite and oft-quoted bits of writerly advice comes from novelist/filmmaker Nicholas Meyer: "Art thrives on restriction." Meaning that if you don't have enough of something--usually money and/or time--you're forced to compensate by being creative. Here's a story that shows how that works, at least for me. I've never written steampunk. I honestly don't even know if it's a Read more

Guest post: Charlie Holmberg on Aqua Notes

Homegrown in Salt Lake City, Charlie Holmberg was raised a Trekkie with three sisters who also have boy names. She writes fantasy novels and does freelance editing on the side. She's a proud BYU alumna, plays the ukelele, and owns too many pairs of glasses. Her first novel, The Paper Magician, is now available. Follow her on Twitter for Read more

Talk like a pirate, win a book

So this Friday, September 19th, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Now that's something I can really get behind. I love pirates. From The Black Swan to The Sea Hawk, from Raphael Sabatini to William Goldman, from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp, I dig them all. And not just the fictional ones: I've seen Blackbeard's cannon and Black Sam Read more

A Tale of Two Curls

Sometimes a song inspires a book. Sometimes a book inspires a song. And sometimes--okay, this is the only time I'm aware of this happening--a song inspires a book which inspires a song. There are two wonderful songs out there that share a title with my upcoming novel. Don't ask me to pick a favorite, because I can't. But I can tell Read more

Evie Let Your Hair Hang Down*

Posted on by Alex in creativity, gender roles, love, movies, originality, pop culture, Underworld, Van Helsing | 1 Comment

(Warning: SPOILERS!)

220px-The_Mummy_Returns_poster

First, let’s get the criticism out of the way.  The Mummy Returns is not as good as The Mummy.  It’s repetitive, contains far too much CGI (something that would later overwhelm and derail writer-director Stephen Sommers’ career in Van Helsing), and the plot hinges on absurdities that not even genre films can easily accommodate (even I wince when the little boy is referred to as, “The Chosen One”).

But even with all that, it does something extraordinary with its female lead, Evie O’Connell. And few people seem to have noticed.

The Mummy introduced Evie as a bookish, clumsy Brit working in Egypt. She was almost a cliche: the beautiful woman who doesn’t become beautiful to the hero until she later takes off her glasses (and puts on a lot of eye liner). In her first scene, she trashes the entire Cairo Museum library. Later she makes several bad decisions, such as reading aloud from the Book of the Dead, that move the plot forward. But despite all that, she’s a resourceful woman who isn’t interested only in being the hero’s girlfriend: she also wants to be taken seriously as a scholar

rachel-weisz-mummy

A lot of her appeal, of course, comes from the actress playing her, Rachel Weisz. This future Oscar winner projects an innate intelligence and humor that fills in the gaps of the character as written, making her fully rounded (no pun intended) and compelling. To see how crucial this casting was, just check out the third film, where Evie was played by Maria Bello to no great effect.

At the end of The Mummy, Evie has fallen in love with adventurer Rick O’Connell, inadvertently acquired a fortune in treasure, and established (to her own satisfaction, at least) that she’s as good an Egyptologist as any man. It’s a suitable ending for the character as presented, and even though there’s a final clinch between her and Rick, it’s difficult to imagine a future in which the proper English lady and the shady American ne’er-do-well live happily ever after.

Except that’s just what they do, because of the kind of character development that you seldom see in the movies.

The Mummy Returns, although released only two years later, sees the O’Connells eight years after the events of the first film. They’re now married, and have an eight-year-old son, Alex. When the story opens, they’re on an archaeological dig in Egypt.

Already the film’s interpersonal dynamics are completely skewed. Rick, the dashing hero of the first adventure, a man who joined the French Foreign Legion and went off to find a lost city of gold, has apparently been domesticated. Clearly Evie is in charge, and more importantly, Rick is perfectly fine with that. They have a somewhat Nick-and-Nora air to their exchanges, implying that marriage (and subsequent parenthood) has not rendered their relationship stale. (As screenwriter and novelist Melissa Olson put it, “They ignore their kid to make out several times. Including when he dicks around with a supernatural device, leading to his kidnapping.”) Imagine any other hero of this sort of franchise–Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, even Captain Kirk or James Bond–happily turning over the keys to his life.

The-Mummy-Returns-rachel-weisz-13445889-1000-562

And throughout the film, Rick is never the one with the ideas. He does plenty of fighting, but he’s never the clever one. That falls partly to their son Alex (who is depicted as a pretty good combination of his parents’ demonstrated traits), but mostly to Evie. She is the scholar, the one gifted with psychic visions, and the one who saves Rick at the climax instead of the other way around.

When Evie is killed, a helpless Rick begs his dying wife to tell him what to do. Our hero, the tough guy who carries the guns, is completely at a loss without his wife to guide him. Again, this is an abdication of the hero’s power you might find in an indie or foreign film, but in a big-budget, big-studio action movie? (And Rick is not the one who brings her back to life; Alex, their son, does that.)

"Tell me what to do!"

“Tell me what to do!”

But even our first look at Evie in the second film shows how things have changed. Gone is the demure, bespectacled librarian; in her place is a confident woman who doesn’t hide her attractiveness. And think about that for a moment. When’s the last time you saw a movie, or read a book even, in which marriage and motherhood made the female protagonist sexier?

The-Mummy-Returns_final

You rightfully hear a lot of complaints about the way mainstream Hollywood depicts women. That’s why something like The Mummy Returns is so surprising. Whether it was there in Sommers’ original script, brought up due to behind-the-scenes machinations (Rachel Weisz’s career was certainly on the rise, and she may have insisted on a stronger character), or simply inadvertent, the fact remains that in this movie it’s the woman who makes the decisions, outsmarts the bad guys and saves the hero.

(For a similarly unexpected hero/heroine inversion, see my earlier blog post on Underworld.)

*This blog post’s title comes from this.

Rant: the high cost of low quality

Posted on by Alex in creativity, fiction, James T. Kirk, movies, originality, pop culture, self publish, Star Trek, writers, writing | 2 Comments

Last night, the wife and I saw Skyfall. I’ve seen every James Bond movie in a real movie theater since Live and Let Die, so my streak continues. I thought Skyfall was an adequate spy thriller and action film, but not much of a James Bond movie. Perhaps, given how this one ends, the next one will be more of a return to the Bonds that had an element of distinctiveness. You’d never mistake a Bond for a Bourne back in the day, the way you can now.

But we also saw previews for Jack Reacher, Django Unchained, and A Good Day to Die Hard, none of which did their job and convinced me I needed to see them. In fact, both Jack Reacher and Django Unchained reinforced my prior decision not to see them. And that, along with the trailer for the new Star Trek Into Darkness (which might as well be called Star Trek Jumping on the Nolan Bandwagon) hitting the internet, got me thinking seriously about something.

Why are we, as fans and consumers, satisfied with this?

JJ Abrams’ Star Trek was loud, noisy, and funny. It also had plot holes big enough for the Enterprise itself, and reduced one of SFs great heroes (James T. Kirk) to the status of a punk with a chip on his shoulder. I go into more detail here, but it’s the kind of movie that diminishes in retrospect, or with repeated viewings. Now there’s a new one, with a villain Abrams is playing coy about, only letting slip that it’s a “canon” figure. Khan? Gary Mitchell? Harry Mudd? Who knows? And more importantly, why should we care? Those stories have already been told, and told well. Yet here we are, as a demographic, getting excited about this movie when we should be ignoring it until someone comes along with some real, genuine new ideas.

The original “Django”

Similarly, Django Unchained, by virtue of being a Quentin Tarantino film, is practically guaranteed to be made up of parts of other movies, most obviously the spaghetti western Django series. More so than any other filmmaker working today, Tarantino has been praised for what is essentially sampling: taking bits and pieces of original creations and recombining them. He has yet to really create anything on his own, and it seems likely that this one will also have knowledgeable film buffs nudging each other and going, “You know where that’s from?”

The new “Django,” “unchained” from originality.

I understand completely the corporate mentality behind this: they’re known quantities, they’re existing properties, and most of the heavy lifting of creating them has already been done. What I really don’t get is why fans are excited about it. Another Star Trek movie that retreads vast swaths of the existing canon instead of “boldy going,” as its own damn catchphrase says? Bruce Willis, looking really old, in another Die Hard movie?

Then again, maybe I do get it, and just wish I didn’t. We’ve devalued our artists to the point that they can only make a living cranking new versions of old things. As a popular internet meme says, we’re willing to pay more for coffee at Starbuck’s than we are for music and literature. We justify piracy as entitlement. Girl of the moment Lena Dunham gets $3.7 million for this, while many formerly published authors are having to self-publish their own ebooks now.

And it seems we, as the consumers and fans, are satisfied with this.

I don’t have an answer. I wish I did.

The Dickens, I Say

Posted on by Alex in authors, eBook sale, family, fantasy literature, Memphis, movies, novel, originality, tv, writers, writing | Leave a comment

The most famous Christmas story, besides the Biblical one, is without a doubt A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens distilled the holiday spirit down to its essence with his tale of the miserly Scrooge who reforms his ways just in time for Christmas dinner. I love reading the actual story at Christmas, and watching my favorite* film version:

Yet take a step back from the many versions of this story, as well as the gargantuan list of other media (TV, radio, movies) that use it as a template and look at it from a fresh perspective, and Dickens’ accomplishment becomes that much more amazing.

The first edition of Dickens’ masterpiece

I mean, think about it: it’s a horror story, with genuinely scary ghosts (I defy anyone to not get a shudder from the Ghost of Christmas Future), a protagonist who advocates imprisoning children for debt, and its most sympathetic character (Tiny Tim) dies for lack of health insurance (okay, maybe not exactly that, but I stand by the analogy). Who puts all this in a Christmas tale?

A genius, that’s who.

Whatever his inspiration (and I’ve never researched it to find out), Dickens understood something basic about storytelling: the importance of balance. If his ultimate aim was to tell a heartwarming story for the holidays, he knew he had to even that out by adding dark, sometimes twisted elements that would balance the sweetness.

(You know who else understands this? David Lynch. In his best work–Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, even Twin Peaks–he balances the genuine affection the characters feel for one another with horrific violence and bleakness. But if there was only one element without the other, his films would be just like everyone else’s.)

How important is balance in a holiday story? Watch any Lifetime or Hallmark Christmas movie and see how insipid it is when it’s all sweetness and warmth. Without the darkness, there’s nothing to make the light stand out.

Nothing says Christmas like…AHHHHHHH!

When I set out to write “A Ghost and a Chance,” one of the stories in my holiday collection Time of the Season, I had a simple conceit: I wanted to drop my own Victorian/Edwardian Spiritualist character, Sir Francis Colby, into Dickens’ tale. Since I wrote about Colby in a faux Victorian voice, I thought it would be fun to use actual text from Dickens, and see if I could hide the seams between that and my own stuff. And it was fun. But it also made me recognize just what a gigantic accomplishment Dickens had managed. He gave us both a classic Christmas tale, and a legitimate horror story. He combined two genres that shouldn’t work together at all, and made them both complement and enlarge each other.

And it takes a genius to do something like that.

Want to see if you can spot the Dickens in my story? You can find it, along with two other holiday tales, here for only $2.99!

*Not saying it’s the best, just that it’s my favorite. I grew up watching it on WREG-TV out of Memphis.

Five Great Movies About Writers

Posted on by Alex in authors, criticism, fiction, John Carpenter, movies, novel, originality, pop culture, storytelling, trivia, writers, writing | 7 Comments

Anders Danielsen Lie (l) and Espen Klouman-Høiner in Reprise.

Writers aren’t that exciting to be around when we’re working. What we do–staring into space, muttering to ourselves, typing then backspacing and typing some more–isn’t exactly dynamic. It might be why there are so few good movies about writers actually writing. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of good movies with writer characters in them; that’s fairly common. But the movies that show accurately what the writing life is like, and how it affects the writer and people around him, those are rare indeed. Here are five of my favorites (notice I didn’t say, “best”).

In the Mouth of Madness

Writers figure in a lot of horror films, most of them courtesy of Stephen King (Misery, The Shining, Secret Window).  This isn’t a Stephen King adaptation, or a Lovecraft one, but its story of writer Sutter Kane (Jurgen Prochnow), who writes like Lovecraft and has a fan base like (and the same initials as) King, carries the idea of the “best seller” to a demented extreme. With Sam Neill as an insurance investigator and director John Carpenter’s sure hand, it takes us into a world where people are willing to give up their own dreams for the common nightmares of someone else. I can only wonder, if it was remade today (which I’m sure it will be), will King be the model of success, or will it be Stephanie Meyer or EL James?

Paris When It Sizzles

Williams Holden is on deadline to produce a script, and Audrey Hepburn is the secretary who both challenges him and keeps him on task. Holden, like a lot of us, knows when his story’s gone off the rails, so the stopping and starting over becomes part of the fun. Add to this scenes from the work-in-progress acted out by those two, plus a slew of dead-on cameos, and it becomes the kind of creative process we all like to think we have in our heads.

Reprise

A masterpiece–there, I said it–from Norway about two friends who submit their first novels on the same day. One gets rejected, one becomes a best seller, but their friendship doesn’t suffer in the ways you might think.  An amazing cast, down to the smallest parts, and a perfectly-judged emotional pitch make this one way too close to comfort in some ways. But a brilliant film nonetheless. And bonus cool points for using Joy Division under the titles.

His Girl Friday

“Writing” can include reporting, and in fact, it used to: some of our best writers, and even me, started out as journalists back when that word meant something. Here it means Rosalind Russell as the ace reporter and Cary Grant as her fast-talking editor, who’s also her ex-husband determined to get her back. It’s a romantic comedy, to be sure, but director Howard Hawks also includes scenes of Russell doing her job, including an expert interview with a mousy convicted killer. And when the other cynical reporters take a look at what she’s written, their respect and silence–in a movie overloaded with the fastest dialogue you’ll ever hear–tells you all you need to know about her skill.

Chinese Coffee

You probably haven’t heard of this one. It started as a vanity project by Al Pacino, who wanted a filmed record of a play he loved appearing in. Pacino and Jerry Orbach star in this essentially two-person film, adapted from Ira Lewis’s play, about a writer (Pacino) and his friend (Orbach), who feels the writer has stolen from him: not plagiarism, exactly, but more from his real life and personality. It’s good because the actors are so good, and Pacino’s direction is unfussy and solid. Plus it’s an issue every fiction writer will encounter at some point.

Any other suggestions?

George Lucas and Elvis: Echoes from 1977

Posted on by Alex in corruption, creativity, criticism, Elvis Presley, fantasy literature, filmmaking, home, movies, music, originality, pop culture, science fiction | 1 Comment

Thirty-five years ago, two things that fundamental changed my life happened in the same summer.

In May, Star Wars was released.

In August, Elvis Presley died.

The arrival of Star Wars turned the thing that everyone in my small town mocked, that had gotten me teased and beaten up, into the hippest thing in the world. Spaceships, aliens and robots were suddenly cool. Everyone went to see the movie, and multiple times, too. I learned a great deal of the dialogue by heart, something my kids have made me promise not to demonstrate when their friends are over. I collected everything I could find about the movie, desperate to understand what made it so awesome. Even then, I knew I wanted to be a creator, not just a consumer. My friends all wanted to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker, but I wanted to be the next George Lucas.

On the other hand, Elvis was something that was practically in the water. We lived an hour north of Memphis, and so I’d heard Elvis all my life. The album I recall listening to the most (and we’re talking vinyl album here) was 1970′s Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada. It included live and rather self-mocking versions of his greatest hits, along with covers of the Bee Gees hit, “Words.” Yes, Elvis covered the Bee Gees. He was a fact of life for me, and when he was gone, it created a vacuum that, to this day, occasionally strikes me anew with its poignancy. It’s not that I don’t understand what happened–believe me, I’ve read enough books about him to grasp the tragedy that his life became–it’s that his fall was so immense, and so thorough, and happened so young (he was only 42 when he died) that its full scale takes a long time to be fully appreciated.

As I sit here listening to Elvis (specifically, to the awesome collection Greatest Jukebox Hits, the CD I’d recommend to anyone looking for a one-disc sampler of what made the King so great), I suddenly wondered what George Lucas thought of Elvis’s death back then. Did he glimpse his own future in it? Because except for the drug abuse and dying young, he’s pretty much done the same thing.

Consider:

Like Elvis, George is financially successful, even now. Elvis packed arenas until the day he died.

Like Elvis, George’s later work is derivative and shallow compared with his earlier breakthrough creations.

Like Elvis, George’s original fans consider themselves betrayed by what he’s become*.

Like Elvis, George refuses to listen to critics. Elvis had manager Tom Parker always preaching the easiest, least challenging path. George was his own Colonel Tom.

Like Elvis, George is willingly insulated from the outside world by his wealth and position of power.

And, the most obvious,

Like Elvis, George has become physically fat and morally complacent.

Both men are legends. Both men changed the world.  But if he’s not careful, George will become as big a punchline, as big a joke, as Elvis (consider the recent Gotye parody).

And both men, ultimately, brought their sad status on themselves.

*This didn’t really happen during his life, true. But once he died, and we began to really assess what he’d given us in those last years, the backlash was, and is, enormous. That’s why fat, Vegas-era Elvis is such an easy punchline. 

Io9, Battlestar Galactica, and the American Idol culture

Posted on by Alex in Battlestar Galactica, creativity, io9, originality | 6 Comments

“Born Originals, how comes it to pass that we die Copies?”–”Conjectures on Original Composition” by Edward Young, 1759

***

I’ll tell you up front, this is a rant. I try not to do them often, and usually delete them after I write them. If you’re reading this one, it means I’m still fuming even after an acceptable cooling-off period.

Io9, the go-to website for SF news, recently ran this article by site managing editor Charlie Jane Anders about Ron Moore’s “bible” for the series Battlestar Galactica. In these notes for series writers, Moore claims he’s after “nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series.”

That’s all well and good, except for one thing: it was a remake. All the heavy lifting of creating the concepts, the basic spaceship designs, the names of characters and their home planets, even the all-purpose curse word “frak,” was done by Glen A. Larson back in the seventies. Whatever you may think of the original show (and you won’t hear me sing its praises, believe me), you have to acknowledge that Moore is, in effect, putting a new coat of paint on the house Larson built. Painting a house is hard, but it’s not nearly as hard as building one from scratch. Or even more harshly, you could say that Moore is pissing off of Larson’s shoulders, and judging from the article’s final line–”And it’s definitely a reminder how fresh and exciting the show was when it launched.”–there’s quite a few people standing below with their mouths open.

That’s a crude judgment of creators and fans, I realize. People are entitled to make what they want, and like what they want. But goddamn, people. In her review of the movie Burlesque for Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum nails it: “[In] these American Idol times…we agree to pretend that mediocre mimicry of better artists is good enough to keep us entertained.” I make no case for the original Battlestar, but its remake is certainly not unique or different enough to count as “the reinvention of the science fiction television series”; it may not be mediocre mimicry, but it’s still mimicry.


(Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar…)


(…and Ron Moore’s “totally reinvented” Battlestar)

If Ron Moore really wanted to reinvent the science fiction television series, he could’ve taken the original Battlestar as an inspiration and come up with his own ideas for setting, backstory, names, etc. In other words, he could’ve MADE UP HIS OWN SHOW. It’s okay to ‘fess up to being influenced; everyone has influences. To claim originality while doing a remake is both inane and arrogant. But really, what frustrates me most is that he’s being celebrated by an audience that apparently doesn’t know or care what originality is. Anders barely acknowledges the new show’s status as a remake; the article in question is even headlined, “The original Battlestar Galactica series bible…” To paraphrase Douglas Adams, this must be a definition of “original” with which I was previously unfamiliar.

In a New York Times article on rethinking “open source” culture, Jaron Lanier may have pegged the origin and continuing source of this level of cannibalism. “It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.”

The next logical step–praising salvagers as creators–has apparently begun as well. For a generation now coming of age, they literally have no concept of what constitutes “creation.” Mash-ups, remakes and “re-imaginings” are all they get. And, if Moore can be praised for essentially claiming he built a house that he only repainted, they may never know the joy of encountering something truly original.

Well, except for Pixar.

Since I ranted here, feel free to rant back at me in the comments.