For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn't find anything. Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus. No, I can't explain the title, either. Yes, it's an exorcism movie, Read more

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.  --Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93 I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night Read more

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 blog: Dale Short on his film Recovering Racist

Posted on by Alex in biography, filmmaking, fundraiser, guest blog, interview, movies, politics, video trailer | 1 Comment

I was honored to be the first contributor to this documentary Kickstarter project, and rather than attempt to convince you myself, I asked acclaimed author Dale Short, one of the people behind the film, to explain where the idea came from and how important it is.  And please check out the video trailer at the end of his article and consider making a contribution.

*****

Dale Short

Dale Short

We like to think of ourselves as rational people, in control of our destiny by judiciously making the decisions our daily lives consist of—each choice as clearly conspicuous as the pair of branching roads in the famous Robert Frost poem.

We can maintain this illusion pretty well until we start thinking back on how many of those significant branchings-off have struck us completely out of the blue, the results of pure chance that we never saw coming.

My own most recent example is a workshop I was asked to teach for an organization of professional writers/bloggers in the Birmingham, Ala. area. The topic was “Interviewing for Story,” and the group’s program chairman had a great idea: Why not invite a guinea pig…uh, guest…the members could interview afterward, to test our newfound skills?

Our guest was the pastor of a local church: a distinguished-looking white-haired gentleman in a business suit. His tone was friendly and approachable, and I settled in to hear whatever was par for the course, from someone of his profession and background.

That’s not what we got.

Rev. Lawton Higgs told us, in a matter-of-fact style, about a day in 1984 when a routine event changed his life: as new pastor of a large metropolitan church, he was always mindful of recruiting new members. One special focus of church growth was seeking out members of the community whose lives were “in transition”…a new neighborhood, a new job.

So when he saw a moving van at an apartment building near his church, he headed over to greet the newcomers. But mid-crosswalk he saw that the new family was black. His church was white. He stood there, emotionally torn.

Higgs “came face-to-face,” he recalls, “with my history, and my experience, and my struggles with all this ‘racial inclusiveness’ stuff, and my encounter with Martin King in seminary, and I was paralyzed there in the road.”

He says he realized that if he didn’t invite the new residents to church, “then God had no use for me and my ministry in Birmingham. I discovered that my beliefs were incompatible with God’s call to love one another.”

That was the day that the pastor became, as he puts it, “a recovering racist.” He’s since worked to found a multi-racial, multi-cultural church in a city still haunted by its civil rights past. He ministers to the homeless, and works daily as an advocate for the poor.

When our group of professional communicators had heard Higgs’ story, the auditorium was silent for a while. The old phrases “You could have heard a pin drop” and “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house” are sometimes overused nowadays, but in that instant they were unavoidable.

Before the day was out, another member of the writers’ group and I started formulating a plan to bring his story to a wider audience by writing and producing a documentary video about his experiences. With that in mind, we’ve just unveiled a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to bring the project to fruition.

Though Higgs’ life-change as a “recovering racist” is decades old, we’ve found that the story is very much a contemporary one as well. In “walking the walk” of his beliefs, he’s at times a lightning rod for opponents in the community whose views on race and politics are more in keeping with the region’s Jim Crow era.

At a juncture in America’s history when a bitter election campaign has brought to the forefront the deep veins of religious intolerance and racism in our culture, we’re confident that the story of “A Recovering Racist” will be instructive, inspirational, and challenging to everyone who cares about social justice and a spirit of reconciliation.

I invite you to watch our three-minute trailer, share it freely with friends, and consider becoming a supporter of our documentary video.

And if anybody asks how you came to find out about the project, tell them that pure chance sent you.

The Blurring of Lines

Posted on by Alex in anthology, biography, children, family, gender roles, Parenting, politics, writers, writing | 1 Comment

Recently, while reading the Janet Sternburg-edited collection The Writer on Her Work, I had an unexpected epiphany (I know, epiphanies are always unexpected, but work with me). It was the realization that my life in 2012 is almost exactly Anne Tyler’s in 1980.

 

Tyler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Breathing Lessons and The Accidental Tourist, contributed the book’s first essay, “Still Just Writing.” It begins with a list of all the real-world mundane events and responsibilities that keep her from writing when she wants to.  The parallels with my own life right now–I’m the stay-at-home parent (or is the term “primary caregiver”? I can never remember) for two small children, and I write between events such as school, martial arts practice, acting class, various playdates and so forth–are pretty strong.* And I’m not the only one of my male writer friends in this situation.

The C-in-C back when we were full-time co-workers.

In all the essays in the book, the role of women in society forms a strong undercurrent. Comments from famous male authors explaining why women can’t be great writers (imagine hearing that in a college classroom now) are related, and examples from the past (Honor Moore’s tale of her grandmother who gave up painting because it was “too intense” is really fascinating) show how creative women struggled against both society and their own sense of isolation. In 1980 these struggles continued, but all the writers in the book have reached a point where they understand their desire to write is both irresistible and entirely acceptable, society be damned.

Now, the big difference with the life Tyler describes is crucial: thirty years ago, her life was the norm. It was what society expected women to do. It’s neither normal now, nor unheard-of, for the man to be the primary caregiver while the woman works out of the home.  It is, in fact, a time when all the old roles described in Sternburg’s book are starting to twist and mutate.  And sadly but perhaps inevitably, it’s being driven by economics, not social justice.

In fact, particularly within the so-called “creative community” of contemporary (and internet-linked) writers, artists and musicians, the traditional roles that Sternburg’s book discusses have certainly lost their edges, if not broken down entirely. Men can no longer find jobs lucrative enough to support their families; two incomes are the standard. In my case, my last full-time non-writing job did not pay enough to cover putting my youngest son in day care when he was a newborn. So I gratefully took the chance to become a full-time stay-at-home father, as well as a full-time writer. Both, for me at least, have paid off more than ever anticipated.

But are these changes permanent? Unless there’s a total collapse, eventually the economic system will recover, and jobs will become both better and easier to get. What happens to all these nontraditional families then? When the soldiers came back from World War II, women didn’t necessarily want to leave the work force to give the men back their jobs. And from that, eventually (it’s a hugely simplified explanation, I know) came the first modern feminist movement. So when jobs are again available, will men want to give up raising their kids to return to the traditional workplace?

I don’t know. We’ll see. But in the meantime, The Writer on Her Work has me looking at myself and my family with a whole new appreciation.

*Of course I don’t have her talent. That’s not what I’m saying at all.

For Halloween, a tribute to real witches

Posted on by Alex in Catholic Church, cats, Firefly Witch, Halloween, Pagan, politics, pop culture, short stories, witchcraft | 5 Comments

In October, people think about witches.

Sure, some people think about witches all year round. But in October, the folks who don’t the rest of the year suddenly do. They see pointy hats, pointy noses, pointy chins everywhere. Cauldrons and black cats and flying broomsticks abound.

Standard-issue, Church-sanctioned witches. From an Australian production of “Macbeth.”

Except, those aren’t really witches.

Those are bits of folklore, handed down from a time when anyone who disagreed with the status quo (i.e., the Catholic Church’s view of the world) was labeled evil. That applied especially to women who disagreed with their roles in society. Whether they’re burned at the stake or shot in the head (like the brave Pakistani girl in the news), women have suffered at the hands of repressive religion and rigid society for (if you’ll forgive the pun) a hell of a long time.

Real witches doing what they do.

Witches are individualists: there’s no central text, like the Bible or the Koran, that lays out the religion for its believers. Each witch decides what he or she* believes, and how best to express that belief. There are common denominators, of course: a belief in a god and goddess, a reverence for nature, a sense of personal responsibility and an open attitude toward sexuality. You can imagine how even these simple things send fundamentalists into apoplexy.  And it’s these beliefs that, to me, make a modern witch such an interesting and courageous character, and why I write my Firefly Witch stories.

Most importantly, from a common-perception perspective, witches do not worship the Christian devil. Since both God and the Devil are Christian beliefs, you have to be a Christian first to do that. When Christians say that witches worship the devil, it’s a bit like calling a football penalty in a baseball game: it’s applying a standard that just doesn’t work in context.

So when you see a witch depicted with a pointy hat, a wart on her nose, a black cat underfoot and a bubbling cauldron before her, keep in mind: this is propaganda. It’s no different than any group demonized by the majority.  A real witch can be found planting a garden, reading a book, supporting women’s rights or buying groceries. You might know a witch already, and not be aware of it. Because that’s the most powerful thing about them, and the one thing the fundamentalists drive themselves into a frenzy trying to obscure: witches are just like everyone else.

Want to know more about real witches?  Try here.  And here.  And here.

Shameless self-promotion: want to read fiction about a real witch?  Try here.

*The term is gender neutral. Warlock is not a male witch, it’s something else entirely.

Found movies: Posse (the one from 1975)

Posted on by Alex in Kirk Douglas, politics, Posse, western | Leave a comment


The 1975 western Posse poses a fascinating set of ethical and moral dilemmas. Released just after President Nixon’s resignation, it speaks in the standard western vocabulary: tough marshal (Kirk Douglas), wily outlaw (Bruce Dern), a posse on the criminal’s trail, shoot outs and train chases. But its purpose is to show the stained truth behind these pure symbols, both within the story and for the audiences of its time. Thirty-five years later, those truths are, if anything, more vivid.

Marshal Howard Nightingale (Douglas) wants to be a US Senator. He has the railroad’s money backing him, and plans to use the capture of train robber Jack Strawhorn (Dern) as the stepping stone he needs. Nightingale has a highly trained posse, and eventually does capture Strawhorn after a mountain gunfight. He returns to a small Texas town for a public celebration of his bravery, prior to taking Strawhorn to the state capital for trial. But Strawhorn is more clever (and perceptive) than Nightingale realizes.

Throughout the scenes of Strawhorn’s pursuit and capture the film is essentially standard fare for a western of its time. Even with its widescreen cinematography, it has the same high-key lighting used on Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley and so forth. I could find nothing to corroborate this, but in retrospect it feels like a deliberate ploy to lull the audience into a sense of complacency.

And in a sense it does. Plot isn’t the issue here, nor action, nor a showdown on main street. Rather it’s the dissection of motivations that makes Posse so extraordinary.

Nightingale’s elite posse is fully aware they’ll be out of work when he goes to Washington. Further, the posse use their uniforms and notoriety to take advantage of the locals, particularly the women. The newspaper editor is played by James Stacy, an actor who lost his left arm and leg in a motorcycle accident; with those injuries now attributed to the Civil War under the command of a similarly ambitious general, he sees through Nightingale’s speeches and posturing. When he asks Nightingale flat out, “How will you vote if the interests of the railroad are different than those of the people?” Nightingale avoids giving a straight answer just like all politicians from Julius Caesar to Barack Obama.

Douglas, who also directed the film, hits just the right note as Nightingale. When he makes a speech, he sounds simultaneously sincere and somehow false, so that the reactions of both the hero-worshipping townsfolk and the skeptical newsman seem valid. But the real protagonist is Strawhorn, who proves himself the most perceptive and resourceful character in the film. Not only does he outsmart Nightingale, he proves his cynical world view to be the right one. I won’t give away the ending, but it’s brilliant in its minimal, absolutely right sarcasm.

As another reviewer pointed out, Posse has fallen through the critical cracks, which is a shame. Like classic revisionist westerns such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven, it uses the mythology of history to make a point about its own time. The sad fact that the films’ “railroads” have become the “special interests” of today with no appreciable change in their self-interested influence (thanks, Supreme Court) means that Posse’s central point is in no danger of losing its relevance.

What movies have surprised you with their contemporary relevance?

(Those with Netflix can watch a streaming version of the Posse.)

Heaven’s Gate: a parable finds its time

Posted on by Alex in economy, Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino, politics | 1 Comment


I recently rewatched Michael Cimino’s 1980 film Heaven’s Gate. Yep, the notorious disaster that destroyed a studio and the career of its director. For background, check out the late Steven Bach’s book Final Cut.

A quick synopsis: Harvard graduate Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) goes west and becomes marshal of Johnson County, Wyoming, a place settled mostly by Eastern European immigrants. When these immigrants start killing cattle to feed their starving families, the cattle barons, with the approval of the governor and president, hire an army of killers to eliminate them. The immigrants, though, fight back. And just as they’re about to overcome the assassins, the cavalry rides to the rescue–to save the bad guys.

In a coda we see an older Averill back east, having returned to his world of wealth and privilege but still wrestling with his conscience.

I was struck by the pessimism and cynicism at the heart of the story, and its parallels–emotionally more than narratively–with the America of today. Like the immigrants in the movie, most of us feel powerless to resist the economic and political forces arrayed against us. We know that rare good men like Jim Averill can’t protect us from the sheer epic badness of the world’s powerful people. Like the bankers, lawmakers and lawyers behind our current economic disaster, the film’s immigrants face the rich cattle barons, Wyoming’s governor and even the president (Benjamin Harrison, a Republican). These forces are untouchable, protected by wealth and distance and entitlement. “It’s not me doing this to you,” the Army captain tells Averill as the villains are saved, “it’s the rules.” Homeowners being evicted might get the same speech.

And like those immigrants in the story, our fear and frustration often come out in violence directed at the people we feel are responsible for our misery. In our case, this often turns tragically to former bosses, co-workers and family, because those truly responsible are too well protected (witness the private security employed by AIG executives to greet protesters at their palatial homes).

Averill starts with high ideals that are subsequently destroyed; the end of the film finds him on a yacht off the coast of Rhode Island, clearly wracked with guilt and regret but also as clearly not leaving this safe socioeconomic cocoon. It’s the nineteenth century version of the golden parachute.

None of this excuses the excesses of Heaven’s Gate, both financially and artistically. But it does reinforce the idea that sometimes things made with sincerity (and no one questions that Cimino really was trying to, and thought he had, wrought a meaningful film) can resonate far beyond their time. And truthfully I’d rather watch Heaven’s Gate than an empty, entirely pointless “success” like Transformers any day.

Note: the documentary Final Cut, narrated by Willem Dafoe, can be found on YouTube here.