Do I Dare Watch “Regular” TV?

I just scared the shit out of myself.

No, really — absolutely terrified myself.

Did I suddenly evince a passion for cannibalism?  Find evidence of some vile Lovecraftian entity possessing me?  Feel an urge to do something evil?  Stroke a white cat while laughing maniacally?

Nope…none of the above.  It’s worse than that: I figured out I’m kinda looking forward to the coming reboot of Roseanne.

It scares me because, well, I don’t actually watch “regular” TV…I just stream (and binge-watch) shows and movies that interest me at any given time.  Even worse, I didn’t particularly like the previous incarnation of the show in the first place.

Well, that’s not quite accurate — the show itself was both clever and effective in its humorous insights into life for “everyone else,” I just couldn’t deal with Roseanne herself…or, more accurately, her over-the-top antics and behavior off the show.

0404_nuclear_homer_250x220_2I was also young(ish) at the time, and far more given to Married…With Children and The Simpsons. Al Bundy and Homer Simpson are still my heroes, as a matter of fact…alandpegbundyquotes_large

So why am I intrigued this time around?  A few reasons…

If the show can continue its tradition of cleverness, and honest insights into the real world, it will be a very welcome change from what passes for funny and intelligent on most nights right now.  Aside from the weird-as-hell ending, even my younger-self knew Roseanne had some seriously good writing* going on behind the scenes.  Nowadays, my older, writer-self is excited to (hopefully) see that same level of talent.

*If you don’t know, the list of contributors includes some impressive (and surprising) names…including Carrie Fisher and Joss Whedon.

The new show is also apparently continuing to do something the original did: tackle subjects that are “challenging” and “controversial” to those who live behind ivory-tower visions of the world, but are the honest reality of friends and families and loved-ones for the rest of us.

Now for the elephant in the room: the politics of it.  I don’t give a shit.  Honestly, I’m not one of those people who thinks someone’s views — let alone who they voted for — defines them as a person, let alone as an artist.*

*Well…mostly.  You support or vote for the truly despicable and evil — for a David Duke or a Roy Moore or a Louis Farrakhan — and it DOES say something about you…

At this point, Roseanne Barr (as well as her character on the show) is a Trump supporter.  That alone has a good chunk of Hollywood twisted into knots, especially given her roots as a Clinton friend and supporter.  And I don’t care.  Just as I wouldn’t care if she had been an open and avid Hillary supporter.  To each their own.

The writer in me says the Conner’s midwest, blue collar household — if the show wants to be honest — would have to have a Trump voter, anyway.  Just as the show itself has to represent the tension that politics can (and does) bring within families that have differing views.

If the writing does continue to be top-notch, however, tension and conflict about politics can be a wonderful vehicle to highlight the strengths and weaknesses all families share…as well as being a great way to shine an occasionally-uncomfortable light onto aspects of our society itself.

Just like the original did.

roseanne-605x405Look, back then — 20-30 years ago, lest you forget! — the original Roseanne had gay and lesbian characters, TV’s first (I think) gay wedding, insights into drinking and drugs that had far more to do with people and reality than with Reefer Madness

The new iteration has characters that highlight the political extremes (Roseanne and her sister), a gender-fluid kid, and the same blue collar family, still struggling to survive, and still needing each other.  Well, all of that, and a writing/producing team that gives me hope they can make it all work.ames-mcnamara-sara-gilbert-laurie-metcalf-emma-kenney-jayden-rey-roseanne-barr-michael-fishman-john-goodman-lecy-goranson-sarah-chalke-645281710b24a9da

By the way, what got me to thinking about this enough to write this post at this particular time?  An honest, positive review of the new Roseanne by the last person you’d think: read it here.

From The Seats

Storytelling is an art. No, wait…that’s wrong — storytelling is THE art, as far I’m concerned. And stories can — and should! — be told in a variety of ways. Hell, the oldest stories we have are songs to be sung around the fire at night. It’s not just books, or poems, or songs: movies are nothing more, nor less, than storytelling in visual form. Just as is a photography exposition, or a good painting, or a decent manga. Honestly, don’t get me started on just how many powerful ways we humans have to tell stories…

On the movie front, we could talk all day about the directors I admire. Start with my love of, and respect for, the Russian directors, then move into Malle and Kurosawa and a thousand indie directors who still have no “name”…

Never mind, we don’t have the time, and I don’t have enough words in this post.

One name, however, enters every single discussion of directors. One name, that of a man on just about every list of must-sees: Steven Spielberg.

Look, I write. More than that, I write sci-fi and fantasy, which is about as “mass market” as you can get. Because of that, in part, I respect the hell out of folks who can create something popular and relatively simple — something “popcorn” in movie terms — and make it not just fun, but also intelligent.

Spielberg does that.

More, he also makes “serious” movies…movies that most definitely have something to say. Most folks will point to the obvious, to Schindler’s List or The Color Purple, as those works of his that rise to the top of the “serious movie” category. Those are fine, don’t get me wrong, but do you know what did it for me? Empire of the Sun.

christian-bale-in-empire-of-the-sun-1987I’ve mentioned that movie before…for good reason. It is a storytelling masterpiece on the sad meeting of childhood and war, and a commentary on the price we make our children pay for, well, pretty much everything we do. A very young Christian Bale, by the way, is another reason to watch — he was absolutely brilliant as Jim.

I read an article the other day, one that got me to thinking about directors in general…and about Spielberg in particular. The title of the piece was semi-click-bait, but it was effective click-bait: “Can Steven Spielberg Remember How to Have Fun?”

He mentions, in the interview at the heart of the article, that the best of his “popcorn” movies were written and filmed “from the theater seats.” In other words, they were made by someone who loves movies, by someone who loved to sit in those same seats and watch.

Now, the interview is fairly long (read the whole thing here), and it gets into more serious movies as well, but it was the concept of “fun” that got me to thinking: what happens when you lose that sense of fun?

Not just as a director, but as a painter, or a singer…or a writer.

I don’t know about you, but I find it fairly easy to “lose” myself in my stories, and especially in my characters. That’s good for immersion, and for caring about what I write, but does it cost a certain sense of the fun? Does it put at risk the story’s connection with the reader?

It’s hard, I should add, to go through my own stuff as a reader, to go through it with that sense of fun. I have so much invested in what I’ve created, so much energy and time and emotion, that it really is like a parent looking at their kid. And what parent can be truly honest about their own child? There is too much there for complete honesty: too much knowledge, too much intimacy, and far too much history.

On the other hand, that is the point of the whole question, as far as I’m concerned: can I — can any creative storyteller — remember the fun of our creation? Can we, in the end, stop taking ourselves quite so seriously, and write/film/create from the seats?

The Movie Marathon

I started thinking about movies…both the good and the bad.  More importantly, I started thinking about the greats that stand the test of time, and their contrast with, well, the rest of the shit.

Okay, okay…so I’m grumpy and ranting at the moment, but have you really looked at the formulaic crap the current studios and directors and actors are trying to pawn off on us?  If they think I’m going to waste my Netflix subscription — let alone the $567,834 a trip to a movie theater costs — on “Boss Baby” or a remake of “Jumanji” or **shudder** “I, Tonya”…

Oh, for God’s sake, just how low can we sink?

Where the hell are the real writers and directors?*

*Before you ask, I know essentially nothing about writing screenplays.  I’m a prose guy — my only interactions with scripts came in various high school and college acting classes.

I mean, c’mon…when even STAR WARS fails, when even those “remakes” are so bad as to make the damned prequels look like outstanding cinema, we’ve reached peak-stupid.

This all got started when I watched an Andrei Tarkovsky movie the other day (Ivan’s Childhood).  Shit howdy, what a difference.  Maybe it’s because I’m writing “dark” in the current stories, but I have a real thing for Russian writers and directors at the moment…

The thing is, that movie got me going.  It started a movie jag — a GOOD movie jag: Casablanca, The Shining, Unforgiven, The Godfather (I & II), Fargo, Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Strangelove, Empire of the Sun…and the gut-punch at the end of the (multi-day) marathon, one of my all-time favorites, Au Revoir Les Enfants.

Shit…how do you go watch The Commuter after that?!

I’ve said it before, but I want to stress again this point: stories are stories, no matter the medium.  You can — and should — learn from all forms of storytelling.  And movies — good movies — have a great deal to teach about storytelling.  Go watch the movies I list above, and pay attention to how they develop the themes, and the characters…pay attention to how they communicate, and how they elicit emotion and thought.

And don’t stop there.  Go watch a bunch of Kurosawa films, then change things up with some Mel Brooks.  Watch the classics (African Queen is another great Bogart movie), then dive in to some foreign stuff.  Watch the indies and the low-budget, then change things up with some anime (Akira still stands the test of time).

Watch to enjoy, yes, but also watch to learn.  How Spielberg tells Jim’s story in Empire of the Sun is a freaking masterclass, and when you follow that up with Eastwood’s handling of Unforgiven…well…if you can’t learn something from those, I don’t know what to tell you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I can hear Terry Gilliam’s Brazil calling my name…

Nonverbal Communication In Writing…?

Note — this was supposed to go up yesterday, but…err…well…I screwed up.  I load and schedule these posts in advance (usually).  When I loaded this one I…ahem…selected the wrong date.  D’oh.

I’m a music guy.  I love music, and I don’t mean just one or two styles — I love, and can appreciate, the talent and appeal of all kinds of music.  I don’t think there is a style I won’t listen to, if the artist has talent and commitment.

Music, in fact, plays a huge role in my writing.  I’ve mentioned before that I have to have the right “soundtrack” playing in order to really get the most out of a scene.  Not just the message of the music, but also the beat, the tone, the character…they all help create the environment I need to write effectively.

Well, when it comes to the actual stories we write, those things matter, too.  We don’t talk about them enough, in fact.  Oh, folks love to talk about the tone and “color” of a scene.  “Pacing” generally gets in there, too.  But we talk about those things like they are discreet and separate.

They aren’t.

I mentioned music to open this because the rhythm and beat of a song underlies everything, is the structure on which the whole song is built.  Think back to some of your favorite music.  Better yet, think back to those songs that moved you emotionally, either to joy or to tears.  Think about the rhythms and beats they used, as much as the notes and words, and how those changed and adjusted to shape the message.

That applies to writing, as well.  The beat and rhythm of a story is important, as important as the words themselves.  Unfortunately, we far too often mistake “pacing” for that necessary rhythm.  Now, don’t get me wrong: all stories need the right pacing for their contents.  But that pacing is a “big picture” concept, is the flow of the story as a whole.

The rhythm of the story?  That’s different.  That’s granular, and intimate, and needs to change and adjust to reflect what is happening at any particular point.  It is needed, also, to build and reinforce the emotions and feelings you want your reader to feel.

Scenes long and languid, full of description and character development…

Scenes short and staccato, with just a few words to paint each picture and action…

Scenes with the slow, smoldering intensity of emotion (whether love or hate)…

I could go on, but I think the point is made.  A good story needs all of these…all of these, and more.  If you want to be more visual, you can come it from the perspective of movies (another passion of mine):

The slow panning of an establishing shot: peasants in the fields.  Verdant green against the deep blue sky.  A gentle breeze bending the young grain.  Slow and stately…a mood is created.

Then erratic, staccato jump-cuts as black-clad raiders thunder through on horseback.  The flash of a sword.  A bit of red to mar the green.  Fire.  Screams.  Hints of faces, of horror and savagery.  But never does the camera linger long enough to truly focus on any one thing.  The horror, and the emotion, comes from those flickering flashes of disturbing images.

The raiders leave, sated…and the rhythm changes again, communicates something different: a long, lingering shot that lets you see the bodies.  Men who died badly.  Women sobbing.  A young boy, the sword in his hand nearly as big as he, lying in his own blood.  A slow, painful zoom onto another child, clutching in horrified, wide-eyed silence at one of those bodies…

The scene is easy enough to imagine, and to write…but it is the changes in rhythm of the movie’s editing — and the changes in the soundtrack from slow and pastoral to brassy and loud, and finally to the minor key of mourning and death — that creates the emotion of the whole thing.

Short, choppy sentences.  Dynamic, strong words.  One detail on which to focus…one detail to carry the message of the whole scene.

Or sentences of depth and complexity.  Sentences that tell the reader he or she is safe, can linger a bit over the words and concepts.  Words that carry emotion and description.  Words and sentences that are gentle, even, and convey all the detail of your characters and your world.

Too many stories use one structure, and one rhythm, throughout.  Too many stories worry about the pacing of the plot, without thinking a bit about the rhythm and pacing of the scenes, or the actual words.  I well-and-truly love me my Tolkien and my Asimov (to provide just two examples), but have you gone back and really read them recently?

They are, to put it gently, dry and monotone.  Tolkien’s battle scenes read like the narration of a history professor centuries removed from the conflict…and Asimov?  His (small) handful of battles read like they are in the stories because they are required, not because they actually belong.

And both use one rhythm, and one limited emotional range.

This is, by the way, why I listen to music of such variety…and why I watch — and try to learn from — so many movies: to find other rhythms, to find other ways to communicate emotion and meaning.  The ultimate writing challenge, for me, is to study and learn, and to find ways to communicate in words the nonverbal emotions that have so much meaning in those two far-different mediums.*

*One of the coolest lessons from my linguistics days involved nonverbal communication: we watched a horror movie with the soundtrack and effects removed.  There was just dialogue to carry and convey all of the information and emotion. It didn’t work…at all.  That lesson stuck with me…