Outside The Box, Star Wars Style

The last couple of posts I wrote started somewhere different from where they ended.  Each time, I sat down with an idea in mind, an idea I wanted to explore and develop.
When I finally pushed the “Post” button, however, what went up onto the bar was nothing like what I was originally thinking.

2B5622B9-F15C-48DF-A149-B94B8C1AEA59There’s nothing new in that, by the way.  I’ve talked before about the fact that this blog is mostly just random impulse and stream-of-consciousness.  A lot of these posts are, in fact, conversations that you and I could very well have sitting side-by-side at a local bar…

I sat down today to once again try to explore that idea I’ve had lurking in the back of my mind for the last few weeks.  Unfortunately, I’m a bad person.  In addition to my many other bad qualities, I also happen have the focus of an adolescent squirrel.  A drunk adolescent squirrel.729318B1-DF21-420C-898E-4CF312DBE7E5

So, instead of that post I’ve been meaning to write, you get…

The box.

You know, THE box — that damned box everyone always talks about getting out of.

Now, look…I’m the guy who gave up a successful, rewarding career to (a) write full-time and (b) live in Yellowstone.  I’m pretty much the last person in the world you should listen to when I talk about “getting outside of the box”, but…well…you’re already here, and that’s what I feel like writing about, so…

Let’s start where this whole train of thought derailed, shall we?

Star Wars.

Yep, you read that right, Star-freaking-Wars.  That ultimate in-the-box, unoriginal, derivative arc of stories with which pretty much every single person in the United States grew up.  It doesn’t matter to which “generation” you belong, there’s a Star Wars for you.  Gen-Xer?  You have the original trilogy.  Gen-Y and (kinda) Millenials?  You have the (**censored**) prequel trilogy.  Kids today?  You have…ahem…Kylo Ren.  Sorry about that, kids.

I grew up on Star Wars.  I remember arguing with my friends, after we’d all seen The Empire Strikes Back, about whether or not Vader was lying about being Luke’s father.

I remember thinking Han Solo was the coolest person in the Universe.*

*Erm…I still do.

I remember arguing about who was stronger in the Force, Luke or Vader.

When I put aside my fan-boy hat, however…

When I (try to) think about the entire run of stories/films from a non-fan perspective…

When I approach the whole thing as a writer…

Yeah, that’s when shit changes.

Based on myth and legend as those stories are, there are just far too many irritating elements that “have” to be in there.  Worst of all, from a writing perspective, is the “requirement” for a happy ending.  For the heroes to save the world, for the dreaded “happily ever after.”

Yeah, yeah…I know that all of that is fundamental to much, if not most, of mythology.  I know also that it was an established and accepted way for the singers and storytellers of the past to teach about the “right thing to do,” and about the rewards that would come with “doing right.”  I know all of that, but my understanding of those dynamics still can’t remove the stench of the inherently saccharine nature of such “rules”.

Star Wars ended with the destruction of the Death Star, and medals for Luke and Han…

Empire — the darkest of the originals — ended with Luke healing, and Leia flying off to rescue Han…

Jedi ended with — ahem — the destruction of the (other) Death Star, and an Ewok party…

Don’t even get me started on how the prequel movies ended — they were even more sugar-coated!  No one suffered, no one (important) died.  There was no sacrifice, no cost.  There was, in the words of my current protagonist, no price to pay.

And that’s perfectly acceptable…for kids.  But what about adults?  What about folks who understand that there is more to life than black and white?  What about people who know that good and evil are a spectrum, not a binary choice?

For us, you have to go to the one Star Wars film that actually manages to get outside the box: Rogue One.

Rogue One is the redheaded stepchild of the Star Wars universe precisely because it gets outside the box.  It is also, to my mind, the best of the stories…for the same reason.

D6BED24B-FF25-40D5-B21F-273007DA34B1Watch that film and think first about the simplest method of communicating mood, tone and theme in the directorial tooldbox: color scheme.  Rogue One is all about shades of gray, all about colors that shift and blend with each other.  There are few scenes with primary colors in the film, few patches of bright contrast, other than in the nostalgic look back at the heroine’s childhood, and in the final battle.

Take that color scheme, then — the film equivalent of word-choice and connotation for us print writers — and use it to give perspective to the film as a whole.  Although the struggle between Rebel Alliance and Empire is the backdrop for the whole thing — as are our memories and knowledge of the black & white universe of the other films — there are no clear cut “good guys” in Rogue One.  The protagonists are all flawed and broken…just like the rest of us.

Even the “bad guys” have elements of gray to them, when you get right down to it.  Okay, yeah, the Oppenheimer-inspired character is pretty blatant and heavyhanded, but his boss (the main antagonist) has his own reality and morality, if you’re capable of looking beneath the shallowest layer.  And don’t get me started on Vader…*

C58EAAAF-BE58-456F-8E6E-BB9BC9EA5947*Okay, do get me started on Vader.  Mostly because, when James Earl Jones spoke his few lines, I got the freaking chills.  I’m pretty sure there is nothing more iconic than that dark suit and incredible voice to anyone from — or even near — my generation.  I love Jones as an actor, but more than anything else, he will always be “that voice” to me.

What really gets Rogue One outside the box, however, is the vision and conception of the story.  I would say “the end,” but that is far too trite and easy.  No, the writers and director did a much better job of getting outside the box than merely making a statement with the movie’s climax; they ran threads of meaning throughout the entire story.

Which is what we’re supposed to do as writers, you know.

Oh, those thematic elements?  What are they?  That’s easy: there is always a cost, there’s always a price to pay.

1DAEB7B6-3419-4176-A2B0-F504E5D7050EThey took a minor, relatively undeveloped character from the adult-ish Star Wars cartoons (Clone Wars and Rebels) and turned him into a fucking statement.  Saw Gerrera is one hell of a vision of the tired, battered warrior who is neither good nor evil, but rather a blend of both.  I could write an entire post just on that one character, and everything they packed into him…but that’s for another time.

Hell, Cassian Andor — the second protagonist, played absolutely brilliantly by Diego Luna — has a great bit of that to him as well…which is why he is the only Star Wars character who comes anywhere near Han Solo in my personal pantheon of hero-ness.

Oh yeah…about that cost, about that price that always has to be paid…

In the rest of the Star Wars universe, everyone important lives.  If someone actually dies, you don’t know their name, and you certainly don’t care about them.  Even Annakin, Obi Wan, Qui Gon Jin and Yoda didn’t actually die, they just did their holy-ghost-thing and hung around for residuals on future movies…

*ahem*

So, that’s the box — everyone lives, and the happily ever after fades away with a triumphal march…

But what happens when you finally get outside that box?

0CF1D634-F6B4-4D45-956D-3062D1309980Then you can take the characters you spent two hours making the audience fall in love with…and you kill them.

Outside the box there is a cost to struggle and war.  Outside the box, sacrifice is not discomfort and difficulty, it is death.  Outside the box is not mythology, it is life.

I had other examples, by the way, that I was going to use for this post.  Other bits and stories I was going to dive into.  I was going to talk about Amazon’s brilliant The Boys, and its subversive take on superheroes.   I was also going to get into Disney/Marvel’s own redheaded stepchild of Deadpool.  I was going to get into them, but I’m not sure a 10,000-word post is a particularly good idea at this point…

The takeaway from all this?  That’s easy.  The takeaway is a question that all writers have to ask themselves: do you want to write mythology, or life?

Mythology is a comic book.  It is primary colors and simple answers.  It is medals and honors and happily-every-after.

88569948-8124-4019-9691-B1A94B8C4431Life is…dirtier.  Life is suffering and pain.  Life is neither good nor evil, but a blend of the two.  Life is sacrifice and, yes, death.  But if life is all of that, it is that in context.  It is all of that as the price that must be paid for heroism, and for victory, and for doing right…

Gee, can you guess where I come down on that question of what you write?

Who Do You Hate?

So, pretty much anyone who has read this blog for more than a couple of posts  knows that I tend to stay far, far away from “current events”.  While I’m a political addict, it is historical politics that I love.  The current state of US politics…well…just reminds me, historically speaking, of where exactly we’re heading…

It’s a rare thing, then, when I take up a current news story and turn it into a post.  A rare thing, but not one that I’m going to shy away from when something in the news pisses me the hell off.

There was a story over the last couple of days that did just that…piss me off, I mean.  Okay, more than piss me off, it completely incensed me.

Like any good story, however, there needs to be some backstory and scene-setting before I get into the action itself…

I’m adopted, as are all of my siblings.  I am, quite literally, the embodiment of a line I once wrote for Connor about the families you choose.  I have some pretty strong opinions and thoughts on the whole area of “unwanted” children, but I’m going to do my best to dodge that whole morass of argument and counter-argument for this post.

Suffice it to say, I would not be here to write these words were it not for the choice of my parents to adopt me.

We argue, we fight, we disagree…

We question each other, we struggle with each other…

Hell, I know with every fiber of my being that they have wondered — like pretty much every other parent in history — just where they went wrong with me…

But…

But…

But, that doesn’t change a freaking thing.  They are my parents, and I love them.  They chose me.  They chose to give me a home.  They chose to love me.  Even with everything I’ve screwed up in my life, they chose me

There’s your background for the rest of this post.

The post doesn’t start there, however.  The post starts with a story I read in the news.

It was a piece about some holier-than-thou, judgmental piece of crap telling an 11-year-old kid that he shouldn’t thankful for being adopted — for finding parents who loved him — because those parents happen to be gay.

I can’t even begin to express how angry I am.  Nor can I express just how much I despise and detest those who would make it their life’s mission to condemn and destroy any who do not conform to their own ideas of the “perfect” life.

This boy had suffered through the foster care system for years…

This boy had had two failed adoptions before…

This boy had finally found a couple who chose to love and support him…

And then some ass-wagon of a substitute teacher did her best to destroy whatever tiny bit of stability the boy had finally been granted in life.  She wanted to destroy it not because his proposed parents were serial-killers, or Nazis, or violent revolutionaries, but because…they were gay.  There was no worse sin, to this woman, than two men making a family…and who gives a fuck about a young child’s happiness, anyway, when “religious principles” are at stake?

Damn your religion, you intolerant asswagon.

Let the kid have a family…let him have the care and protection of the family that chose him.  Take your hate and intolerance and holier-than-thou bullshit and follow it into the trash bin of history where it belongs.

To the boy from this story, and to his new family, all I have to say is this:

Congratulations!

A Long Time

Small town life…I has it.

It’s been a while for me, I have to admit, since I lived in a truly small town.  It’s been a long while, but the old memories — and the old skills — they’re still there.

I grew up in what, at the time, I considered a small town.  A small town, yeah right.  65,000 people (at the time), smack-dab in the middle of the LA-metroplex.*

*A relatively small geographic area, I might remind you, that holds better than 10% of the entire US population.

That was not small town life.  Hell, my high school graduating class alone had more folks in it than the entire town I live in now!

My life back east, however…

Back east, I went to college in a town with one stoplight…and that’s pretty much it.  There honestly wasn’t much of anything else.  We didn’t even have a freaking McDonalds, for fuck’s sake!  Hell, “going to the city” meant driving half-an-hour to a town less than half the size of the suburb in which I grew up.

Of course, I’ve lately been spending a big chunk of my life inside Yellowstone, but…

But…

…but, in the 6 months of the tourist-season inside the park, it most definitely is no “small town.”  Better than 4 million people a year visit Yellowstone in those six months.  Even if only a couple thousand of us actually live (and work) inside the park, the daily crowds of visitors make the place feel anything but empty and quiet.

But that’s the summer…

Then you get to the off-season.  The off-season in Gardiner, Montana.  At this time of year, there are 3 (dive-ish) restaurants, 2 stores, and a coffee shop…and that’s it.  The sidewalks are officially rolled up, the tourist-shops closed, the town shut-down, deserted and empty…

I went out for lunch today.  It’s my day-off, and cooking didn’t sound all that fun, so I went to one of the dive-ish bars for a burger and a beer.  Now, the Two Bit is most definitely not an LA kind of place.  Nosirree, not in Gardiner, not in winter.  The Two Bit is the kind of place where your feet stick to the floor; the kind of place where you can taste the cigarette smoke in your food.  It’s the kind of place where 50-cents-a-game pool is a way of life, and teeth are optional.  It’s the kind of place, when you get right down to it, that I used to love to frequent in my old “back east days.”

It was right about 50 degrees (Fahrenheit) today, so I sat outside.  I sat outside and chatted with the staff when they came out for their smoke breaks.  Crap, I was a bartender in my “back east days,” so I know full-well the dynamics of this stuff.  I know, but it’s been a long time since I lived it.

It’s been a long time since the jokes about bar fights and STDs and the stupid shit that late night drunks get up to.  A long time since your own — my own — stories of parties starting at 3:00am, of greeting the rising sun with a world-class drunk on.  A long time since needing the boss to give you a loan because rent and utilities took your whole check.  A long time since the sharing of pain meds, of “borrowing” Vicodin and Oxycodone and Percocet and all the other “wonders” of modern pharmacology from whoever happened to have a current prescription.

It’s been a long time…

A big part of me enjoyed my brief re-immersion in the reality of small town life, enjoyed my dip back inside the lives and world of the locals that the tourists and visitors cannot even begin to imagine.  A little part, however…

A little part was screaming in terror at the memories of my own experiences.

I like small town life, I really do, but holy shit do I not want to dive that far back in.  As a writer, I love the characters you get in a place like this.  I love the dynamics that can inspire you, the reality that can be a basis for so much pure story, but as a person…as a person I want — I need — to keep all that at arm’s length.

A couple of drinks, a game of pool or two — with my feet sticking to the floor — and that’s about it.  That’s all I can take.  As for the rest?  For the rest, the Two Bit can keep the drugs and the STDs and all the bitter regrets…

One of the topics of conversation — a joke more than a topic, really — was a song.  A song that is at least as bad — and as enduring! — as most of the STDs lying in wait on that floor.  Take a listen to that song and let it roll around in your head for the next…oh, weeks, probably…

Welcome to my personal hell.

We Had It All…

What soundtrack do you listen to when you’re writing about the end of the world?

Err…check that.  The end of the world is easy — you listen to this.

But what about when the world shakes?  When it seems like everything is changing in the blink of an eye?

I don’t remember the moon landings.  I don’t remember Kennedy’s assassination.  I don’t remember the beginning — or the end — of WW2.  Hell, I don’t really even remember the end of Vietnam.  But what I do remember…

I remember the explosion of the Challenger.

I remember 9-11.

I remember the beginnings, and the ends, of both Gulf Wars.

90I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hoo boy, do I remember the fall of the Wall.  It was my first real adult memory, in fact.  The first world-shaking event that was real to me — which is saying something, given that I was a college kid at the time, bent mostly on mostly on drinking beer and meeting girls (not necessarily — but usually — in that order).

I watched the wall fall on TV.  I watched what I thought at the time — what we all thought — was a changing of the world, the emergence of a new future.  Hell, being a kid, I thought it was the end of the older generation, the end of our parents’ generation, and the emergence of ours as the true power…

We would be different, I thought.

We would change everything.

We wouldn’t fuck things up.  Not again.

And now, thirty years later, what do I think?

What a naive little shit was I.

articleLargeI have friends who stood in Wenceslaus Square, alongside so many thousands of other, and shook their keys at the Soviet-backed government to tell them it was time to go…

I know a man, even, who was one of the last to sneak over the border between Czech and Austria.  One of the last to flee home and family to seek for more, to find a better way to live…

I have to talked to them all, over the years, about those fateful days three decades ago.  Over beers and over coffee; in peaceful chats and in heated arguments; in words pensive and wistful, and in words callous and cold; in every conceivable way we have talked about those days.  It matters, I think, that we were all roughly the same age when the wall fell.  Oh, we all lived vastly different lives — both before that point, and after — but we all had the energy and optimism that only really comes in those particular years of life.

With all our differences — with the vast gulf in experiences that exist between an optimistic child of 1980’s America and the bitter cynics who grew up under the Soviets — it turns out that we all felt the same: everything was going to change.  It was all going to be better.  

We were all naive little shits.

As a part of my twin emphases on languages and history in college, I studied my share of foreign relations.  I studied, mostly, how the US related with Central and Eastern Europe.  I studied Eisenhower and Kennedy, Stalin and Kruschev.  I studied Acheson and Kennan.  I studied Kissinger and Brzezinski.  I didn’t just study, I lived Reagan and Gorbachev…

None of that study, none of that knowledge, prepared me for the “end.”  None of it prepared me for the change, and for the hope of what could be.

Sadly, it did prepare me for what actually came next.

Next verse, same as the old verse.

If you dropped one of those guys I studied in college into the modern world, just how different do you think they would find it?  Oh the technology is different…the fringes of society are different…the culture is different…but the realpolitik?  George Kennan could step into the US State Department and feel right at home when he looked at the world situation.

*sigh*

I’ve said it before: humanity can — and presumably will — fuck anything up.

To a young college kid — to my whole generation, really — thirty years ago, we had it all right there in our hands.  We had optimism and hope, we had the future.

And look what we’ve done with it.

So, back to the question of the soundtrack…

I thought about a number of songs; about a number of ways to capture that feeling of three decades ago.  I thought about this, and even this.  I thought about a whole host of songs, in fact, both old and new.  I thought about them, but in the end there was only one choice, only one song that (to me) defined that time and those events even as they were happening: