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 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

The Manic Pixie Pout-Pout

Posted on by Alex in children, children's books, pop culture, reviews, storytelling, writing, zooey deschanel | 1 Comment

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 about the New York Times bestseller (it says so right there on the cover) The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, and especially what it’s like to read this book to a daughter.

 

Pout Pout 1

 

So, here’s our hero, featured on the cover: the Pout-Pout fish. The plot, such as it is, has various sea creatures essentially telling the pathologically depressed Pout-Pout Fish to cheer the hell up, to which he repeatedly replies:

Pout Pout 2

 

I admire a fish who sticks to his…fins, I guess.

Anyway, with no warning, a female fish shows up.  She says nothing, but simply swims up to our hero and plants a smooch on him.

 

Pout Pout 3

 

This kiss totally turns him around.  One kiss from a total stranger, without reason or explanation, causes him to exclaim:

Pout Pout 4

 

The last page shows him kissing the nameless girl-fish again, but it’s unclear if it’s real, a fantasy, or simply a memory of the first kiss. But that wasn’t what bugged me. It was the idea that somewhere I’d seen this plot before…

Oh, yeah!

Garden State…

Elizabethtown…

Sweet November…

And Autumn in New York, and (500) Days of Summer, and Almost Famous*, and The Girl Next Door, and…

This other fish–unnamed, unidentified, with no function other than to cheer up the protagonist–is…

A Manic Pixie Dream Fish!

(NOTE: if you’re unfamiliar with the term, “manic pixie dream girl,” check here.)

Okay, on the one hand, I’m sort of kidding. This is a kid’s board book after all, not the place to look for psychological depth or meaningful social interaction. It has funny animals and it rhymes, and I’m certain author Deborah Diesen had no ulterior motives.

Except on the other hand, I’m not kidding at all. The female fish exists for no other reason than to kiss the main character. She’s not identified as his mother, or his sister, or his girlfriend, or any other sort of character who might legitimately have a reason to kiss him. And while some of the other characters who complain to the Pout-Pout fish about his attitude are female, she’s the only one who takes any sort of action in the story, and the only one who gets to dominate a two-page spread. Is this, then, icthy-objectification?  And further, if the genders were reversed–if a strange male fish swam up and kissed the female main character–would we accept it as the wonderful thing this book presents? Isn’t it a kind of harassment?

I’ll keep reading the book to my daughter, because at her age, it’s a) essentially harmless, and b) counteracted by the things she sees around her, such as her dynamic and empowered mother. But when she’s older, I plan to show it to her again, and ask her what she thinks. If she’s the girl I think she is, she’ll be as amused/appalled then as I am right now.

High Hopes: is talent finite?

Posted on by Alex in Bruce Springsteen, creativity, fans, Horror Films, John Carpenter, music, old people, pop culture, release date, tennessee | 11 Comments

high-hopes-album-bruce-springsteen-1389043820

This weekend, I finally listened to High Hopes, the most recent Bruce Springsteen album. Yes, it came out on January 14, and I bought it then, but I hadn’t listened to it. There  were many times when I listened to a new Springsteen album multiple times on its release day, and almost exclusively for days after that.

But something’s happened to Bruce. Or to me.

I should say that I’ve been a Springsteen fan since I first heard “Rosalita” as a twelve-year-old back in Tennessee. I was in college when Born in the USA made him a superstar, and I’ve seen him in concert multiple times, with the E Street Band, the ’92 “alternate” band, the Sessions Band, and as a solo performer. I own all his legitimate releases, and a fair stack of bootlegs.

And yet…

His last album, 2012′s Wrecking Ball, was the first time I felt like he was singing at me instead of to me, or for me. The new Celtic and overt gospel influences couldn’t disguise that these songs just lacked…something. And the re-recording of “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” released in a definitive version on the Live in New York City album in 2000, was simply unnecessary, as if he needed something to fill out the album (I’m not saying this was the case, just that, to me as a listener, it felt that way).

And now we get High Hopes.

Even the title track has been released before, back in 1995 as part of the Blood Brothers documentary package. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was part of the same Live in New York City album mentioned above, and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was the title track of his Grammy-winning 1995 album. So right off the bat, there are three songs that we’ve heard before in landmark original versions. Yes, these are new versions, livened up by Tom (Rage in the Machine) Morello’s guitar solos, and certainly there’s no lack of commitment to the performances. But it’s also the equivalent of hearing stories we already know instead of new ones.

Which leads to the question: what’s the point of the album?

My friend Melissa Olson, author of Dead Spots and Trail of Dead, once said that she thought some artists might just have a finite amount of art in them. This was apropos of director John Carpenter, whose work has certainly showed a decline, although I remain a fan (yes, even of his most recent film The Ward). I would never have thought this of Bruce, but perhaps it’s the case. Maybe the Boss has reached artistic retirement age. Certainly his last couple of concert tours have been more about preaching to the choir than converting new followers, a celebration of past glory days (heh) more than a forging of new ones. And maybe, at 64, that’s to be expected. But I’d hoped to follow him into the twilight with the same fervor I felt when he led me into adulthood.

JohnCarpenter2010

Filmmaker John Carpenter. Does he have any mojo left?

And, since I’m not exactly young myself (nor old, I should add), I wonder with each new book if the same thing might happen to me. I don’t want to keep going past my sell-by date, artistically speaking. But will I know when I reach it?

So what do you think? Is there a finite amount of creativity and art in every artist?

Don’t Get Rock Blocked

Posted on by Alex in music, pop culture | 1 Comment

“On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” –Hunter S. Thompson

DSCF5063

When I was a teenager–and I suspect this is true for most people reading this–music was incredibly important to me.  I didn’t play an instrument, but I had strong opinions and preferences, and I would listen to records (yep, I’m that old) with the kind of attentiveness that would probably be diagnosed as ADD today. I absorbed the trivia found in Rolling Stone magazine, kept up with the charts and eagerly awaited the next release by the artists I followed.

I also insisted upon the sanctity of the music experience. By that I mean that if I was listening to something, whether it was the Bee Gees or Lynyrd Skynyrd, I would get irate–sometimes vehemently so–when interrupted. My parents (neither of whom I recall as having a favorite song, unless it was a hymn) never understood that. But music was crucial to me; it certainly gave me hope and meaning when nothing else did.

Now, the Bible says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”  Or, more appropriately, in “Two Hearts,” Bruce Springsteen says:

Once I spent my time playing tough guy scenes
But I was living in a world of childish dreams
Someday these childish dreams must end

To become a man and grow up to dream again

So the question becomes: is making the act of listening a priority one of those “childish ways,” a “childish dream?”

I say, no.  Hell, no.

DSCF5061

I am on this soapbox (made of old record crates from Peaches Music and Video) to insist on the importance of listening to music. We live in a crass, obvious, entirely profit-driven world, and the only way that’s going to change is for people to pay attention, really pay attention, to things that aren’t crass, obvious and entirely profit-driven. Sure, there’s lots of crass, obvious, entirely profit-driven music out there; but there’s also good stuff, real stuff, that deserves our attention. Music can help us escape, but it can also be a way to confront the very real problems we encounter. The right song at the right moment can change the course of your life.

Someone coined the term “rock blocked” for when your listening is interrupted by something tedious and mundane, usually at the point where you’re in the middle of that air guitar solo or lip-synching to the most emotional part of the lyrics. It happens to everyone, and it certainly happens more when you’re an adult, because most other adults assume that, unless you’re in the music business, listening can’t be that important. But that’s wrong.

So stand up for your right to listen. Carve out that space for music, because you never know when it could be one of those songs, one of those moments that changes your life. Don’t let yourself get rock-blocked!

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.

New Anthology: FLYING HIGHER

Posted on by Alex in anthology, heroes, poetry, pop culture, writers, writing | Leave a comment

I’m not a poet. I feel I should say that at the outset.

But I have written a poem, “O Captain! America’s Captain.” It’s now part of this anthology:

01541a0c2a5a266441f05e5691de7f44dae4588e

It’s a labor of love, as they say. Editors Michael Damien Thomas and Shira Lipkin loved the idea, and they approached me and the other authors, asking us to channel our love for superheroes into poetry. Some, like mine, are less than serious; some are quite touching.

But all of them are FREE.

That’s right, the whole collection is available for just about every ebook platform, FREE.

Visit this link to download your copy.  And if you like a particular poem, please let the author know.

Interview: filmmaker Lisa Stock

Posted on by Alex in creativity, faeries, filmmaking, interview, Lisa Stock, movies, pop culture, SyFy, Titania film, writers, writing, writing advice | 3 Comments

When it was announced a few years ago that Joss Whedon would be doing the new Wonder Woman movie, I was of the unpopular opinion that he was dead wrong for it. My main reason was that, in all the shows he’s produced and scripts he’s written, he has yet to show he can write about anything other than boys and girls. Wonder Woman, as her name implies, is a woman: an adult. Whedon’s female characters, from Buffy to River to anyone you care to name, are girls. In my opinion.

Whedon’s take on Wonder Woman didn’t pan out. But ever since, when I’ve watched movies (especially genre ones), I’ve tried to notice if their female characters are actually adults, or stuck in wish-fulfillment girlhood (often those doing the “wishing” are male, but that’s another topic).

Recently my friend artist/filmmaker Lisa Stock (she did the epic trailer to my vampire novel Blood Groove) commented this topic. About her upcoming project Titania, she wrote, “The heroine in Hollywood movies often becomes a warrior, while still maintaining her purity and innocence. It’s unrealistic of course, but a hard balance when movies want their females characters to go all ‘Buffy’ during the big battle at the end of the story. I’m avoiding this in Titania for a number of reasons – first and foremost my heroine is a Woman and not a Girl.”

Filmmaker Lisa Stock

Filmmaker Lisa Stock

Me: So what, in your view, is the difference between a woman and a girl, character-wise? And why is this important?

Lisa: A woman doesn’t need to prove anything.  She’s not figuring things out for the first time, she’s probably tackling them for the 20th time, so not as much surprises her, and she comes to the game with more knowledge of who she is. That doesn’t mean she has nothing to learn, but perhaps she draws more from past lessons and applies them with more focus and confidence.

In genre film and TV, there are few female characters who truly seem like adult women. In fact, only two come quickly to mind: Ripley from Aliens and Alison from Eureka. Who would you hold up as an example of a truly adult (in terms other than chronologically) female genre character?

On TV – I just started watching Continuum on SyFy.  I like Kira.  She’s a woman, seasoned in her career, and not impressed by the young punks. She’s smart, thinks things through and has patience. In film – I think that Vianne (Juliet Binoche) in Chocolat is my favorite character.  She remains true to herself despite being shunned by the townsfolk, and blamed for catering to all their sins. Ultimately, she wins people over by her honesty – a good trait to have.  Though that is more magic realism than high fantasy – my work tends to be more magic realism.  Michelle Pfieffer has created some memorable fantasy characters, Isabeau from Ladyhawke comes to mind – a true lesson in patience and endurance.  And she’s still my favorite Catwoman.  ;)  I love anything Angelica Houston touches, including Vivianne in The Mists of Avalon - which is a very women-centric story. Morgaine (Julianna Marguiles) is also a true woman to me, not so bothered by the small things, but tackling her larger journey.  Particularly, in the end, when she holds on to and recognizes her own beliefs in the “new religion.”  It’s their ability to adapt and at the same time stay true to themselves – rather than force change or boast of victory – that defines these characters as women for me.

How will Titania’s adulthood manifest in your film?

She’s already an adult.  Like some of the characters I’ve mentioned above, she has a journey to complete.  It’s not necessarily going to change who she is, but she’ll call upon all her resources from past experiences and mistakes to overcome her wounds – both physically and emotionally.  She’s more in control of her emotions, she’s more introspective, she also has a good laugh at her own expense occasionally.  Much like Vianne, she’s a fish out of water, and never sees a situation in which she needs to compromise her own beliefs or be swayed by someone else’s.  Not that all girl characters do this – but I find more often than not, that girl’s are up against someone else.  In Titania, she’s pretty much up against herself.  Perhaps that’s the ultimate obstacle we all face, ourselves.  If you figured that out before you were 40, you’re way ahead of me!  LOL! 

What advice do you have for creators, in all forms, about being aware of the difference between a woman and a girl?

Who is your character, not what age demographic is she?  How would you speak to her if you were to meet on the street and start talking? Don’t generalize about either a woman or a girl. The best characters are the ones who are unpredictable and (even in fantasy) facing challenges we can relate to or want to see them succeed in.  That has to come internally even if action is involved. Make them honest and they’ll live forever.

Thanks to Lisa for taking the time to answer my questions. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and check out her website at InByTheEye.

Response to the NYT: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

Posted on by Alex in criticism, fantasy literature, fiction, Hamlet, pop culture, tennessee, Teresa Frohock, Tufa, writers, writing | 7 Comments

Recently in the New York Times, writer and editor Paul Elie bemoaned the lack of depictions of Christian faith in modern fiction. He trotted out numerous examples of past masters (Flannery O’Connor, Anthony Burgess, etc.) and then mentions how current literary novelists simply don’t, apparently, have faith in Christianity. They don’t depict it because they don’t believe it.

In part, he said:

Now I am writing a novel with matters of belief at its core. Now I have skin in the game. Now I am trying to answer the question: Where has the novel of belief gone?

Well, to be blunt, it’s gone to those genres you look down upon. You know, the books people actually read: fantasy, science fiction, horror and romance.

Elie adds, The most emphatically Christian character in contemporary American fiction is the Rev. John Ames, who in Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead” [published in 2004, and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize--AB] writes, in old age, to his young son as he prepares for death in 1957.

Illustration from Paul Elie’s NYT essay.

Really? I mean, I can instantly think of two other examples of Christian faith depicted, rather emphatically, in recent fantasy novels that meet all Elie’s vague criteria. One is by me: in The Hum and the Shiver, from 2011, I have Craig Chess, a young Methodist minister new to his post and faced with the task of reaching out to a group of people who don’t believe in the same things he does (they have beliefs, but that’s another topic). Craig’s Christianity is genuine and heartfelt; further, he uses it as the touchstone for all his actions. He is content to let his Christianity show by example, not by proselytizing or haranguing. And this gets results: the novel’s protagonist, a young woman known for her past sexual exploits, is willing to honor his beliefs in their courtship. He neither demands nor expects her to change, and because of that, she both loves and respects him (and importantly, doesn’t change just to please him).

The other example is Miserere: An Autumn Tale, by Teresa Frohock. In this novel, she creates a cosmology that incorporates all the world’s religions, and more, shows them working together. The only place they don’t get along, in fact, is on Earth. In this universe, prayer functions as a real power that gets real results, and the strength of a prayer is measurable and crucial. Hell is a real place, and so is Heaven; and free will, the ultimate gift from God, has consequences. But there’s also redemption, God’s other ultimate gift, available to those who want it bad enough to truly change themselves and embrace the standards they have sworn to uphold.

I asked Teresa her thoughts on her approach to religion. She said, in part:

“I had to abandon the group-think mentality in order to write Miserere. I also want to be very clear: when I see or use the phrase “Christian belief,” I think of the teachings of the Christ and I automatically eliminate from my mind the trappings of doctrine and dogma, which were essentially organized and formulated long after the Christ’s death. Christian belief—as in love being the one rule of the law, protect the weak and those who stand outside the mainstream—those were the essential teachings of the Christ, and those beliefs heavily influenced Miserere.”

So, Mr. Elie, perhaps you should not bemoan quite so loudly. “Emphatically Christian” characters are all around you, just not in your myopic view of literature. Or, to paraphrase: there are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Elie,* than are dreamed of in your limited literary philosophy.

*I was unable to find any website or contact information for Mr. Elie. I would love to include his response, if any.

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.

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?

Witchcraft Through the Ages (of TV and Movies, that is)

Posted on by Alex in Alice Hoffman, Catholic Church, filmmaking, Firefly Witch, movies, Pagan, pop culture, Seventies, short stories, tv, witchcraft | 1 Comment

Elizabeth Montgomery in an early episode of “Bewitched.”

Witchcraft has an iffy history in film and television. When I first started doing my Firefly Witch stories, one thing I reacted against was the standard image of the pop-culture witch. Leaving aside the blatant “wicked witch” portrayals, it’s still hard to find anything remotely accurate, let alone sympathetic. It’s not impossible, though.

One of the earliest films about witchcraft, which unfortunately took the devil-worship position, is the unique Swedish/Danish film Haxan. Retitled Witchcraft Through the Agesin English, this one-of-a-kind 1922 silent film depicts witchcraft the way history describes it, then explains how witches were tortured by the Inquisition. It’s impossible not to be horrified by the treatment of the unfortunate women, and to feel sympathy for them. It’s not really a narrative film, yet it’s not a documentary, either. An indication of its strangeness is that the best-known version in English was narrated by William S. Burroughs.

In 1942, Veronica Lake played the witch Jennifer in the romantic comedy I Married a Witch. In the 1958 movie Bell, Book and Candle, Kim Novack plays Gillian, desperately in love with James Stewart. On TV in the 60s, Samantha Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery) dominated Bewitched(okay, Agnes Moorehead dominated it, but still…). All these characters, though, labored under the kind of strictures common at the time: Gillian and Jennifer lost their magical powers when they fell in love, and Samantha had promised not to use hers to help her husband’s career.* At the time, witches had to be de-powered to allow the “natural order” to assert itself.

Kim Novak in “Bell, Book and Candle”

These comedies also embraced the common trope that one is “born” a witch; that somehow, the special powers are inherited rather than learned or earned. It’s even possible to read it as saying witches are not actually human, but a different species. But the idea of “innate powers” is a thread that runs through most witchcraft movies, with a couple of notable exception.

In the 70s, one of the most accurate depictions of genuine witchcraft appeared in the seldom-seen George Romero film, “Jack’s Wife (1972). Also released under the more exploitative titles Season of the Witch and Hungry Wives, it’s about a woman who’s drawn into witchcraft as a remedy for the ennui of her suburban life. It’s a blatantly feminist film, and treats the main character’s involvement with magic as empowering. It’s also very much of its time, which means it gets a little arty-for-art’s sake at times.

Jan White in “Jack’s Wife,” enmeshed in the symbolism.

The other notable exception, the character of Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, brought the idea that witchcraft was a learned skill into the popular imagination. Unfortunately, it’s also depicted as something addictive, and an entire story arc was devoted to its detrimental effects on Willow.

The rise of feminism and the idea that women were, I don’t know, actual people capable of doing something other than supporting men changed depictions of witchcraft. The Witches of Eastwick (1987), a pretty dire film from a critical standpoint, did at least show that women supporting each other could defeat even the Devil Himself. The Craft(1997) starts with the idea that outcasts working together can be strong, but then degenerates into standard horror.

My favorite positive depiction of witchcraft is 1998′s Practical Magic. Based (extremely loosely) on Alice Hoffman’s novel, it shows two sets of sisters, younger (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) and older (Dianne Weist and Stockard Channing), using their powers to protect their family.  I confess that I have a total crush on Sandra Bullock’s character (not, I hasten to add, on Ms. Bullock herself).

Sandra Bullock in “Practical Magic.”

Together, these movies and TV shows present a very distorted view of witchcraft filtered through society’s concerns. That’s fine as far as it goes–witchcraft can be used as a metaphor, just as anything else can be–but to me, it never captured the true (okay, wait for it…) magic of Wicca/Paganism/the Craft. It was never shown as joyous, rarely as empowering, and certainly never as the religion it truly is. When I began writing my Firefly Witch stories, I wanted to put as much of that back as I could and still tell interesting, dramatic horror/fantasy stories.

If you’d like to check them out and decide for yourself how well I did it, go here. And if I’ve missed an important example, please tell me in the comments.

*I reference this show in my short story “The Darren Stevens Club,” in the first Firefly Witch collection.