Promise and Flavor in Storytelling

SF Author Nancy Kress, on of my favorites, in her book on the craft of writing speaks about the promise an author makes to the reader when starting a story. Her argument is that the opening promises is a very critical thing and ties in closely to how the author should end the tale.

For examples – and this is my own and not an example I believe that she has used – the movie Star Wars clearly telegraphs its fairy tale and mythic roots even before the opening scrawl has begun. Fairy tale are stories of moral instruction with clearly defined good and evil and conclude with evil defeat. Given that opening promise if the story had ended with the defeat of the rebellion and the turning of Luke to the dark side of the force audience would have felt betrayed, even though such an ending would have been culturally consistent with other films and television of the era. Just a few years earlier Francis Ford Coppola shot to directorial stardom with the Godfather. The promise of the opening is a story about family &loyalty, and the corruption that they can bring. Michael’s fall from a moral man – ‘That’s my father Kay, not me.” – to a crime lord is a payoff on that promise as expected as Luke’s destruction of the Death Star.

That is not to say the ending are predictable but rather that are consistent with the promise and do not violate it.

Flavor is a different concept but one that is related to the promise. To me flavor is the overall philosophical tone of the piece. It can be nihilistic such as Soylent Green, optimistic such as Star Wars or even cynical such as any really good noir. Making sure your tone complements your promise is a critical design issue in storytelling.

I have recently criticized a number of movies for their cynical nature, but it is because I do not think that the flavor they used complemented the promises.

Sunday night I streamed the movie Night Crawler on Netflix. It is a deeply cynical nihilistic film about a sociopath and how society encourages the expression of his sociopathic actions for our entertainment. It is truly one of the darkest and deeply cynical film I have watched, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Promise and Flavor are wedded in this film and though it is by far not for everyone it’s a terrific example of how to do dark right.

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On Being a Good Citizen

Democracy requires good citizen, but what does it mean to be a good citizen? Certainly not that a citizen should shut up and do as they are told. That’s not citizenship that servitude.

A good citizen is one who is informed and engaged in the civic life of their democracy. Now not all citizen have equal talents, time, or resources and so therefore the criteria for informed and engaged is a highly variable one. For some it means making sure you know the issues and candidates when you vote, I would say that is the bare minimum, but with greater ability and resources come more challenging standards.

Volunteering, for work both charitable and political in another means by which someone can contribute to the civic body and be a good citizen. Public service is also a means of active participation, both in local and national matters civilian or military.

Advocacy for cause and issues is another route to participation. In the era of social media it is one that is becoming easier and easier for people to participate in. Those with platforms that amplify their voices, extend their reach have a greater obligation to advocate issues and concerns to the greater body politic.

That brings me to what is going on today.

There are a number of voices out there shouting at public persons that those persons should ‘shut up and sing.’ As though choosing a life of the arts has someone removed their rights and duties as citizens. I reject such a notion categorically. Anyone who has read my blog knows I have a passion for the arts and for politics. I am never going to shut up about either.

To be clear I am not saying that speech should be or can ever be free of consequences. I make a statement advocating the concept that Trump is likely to be a terrible president and perhaps someone decides then and there that they will never buy my stuff.

I won’t lose any sleep. That is the sort of thing that discussing politics will invoke and I would never tell that person that they are wrong, because they are not. The hypothetical person has their principals, their deeply held convictions and if that means they shun my writing, that’s their call.

I do call out those who insist that artists and celebrities should stay silent. It is not anyone’s place to silence a citizen. Criticize what they say, call on others to voice their opinions, even boycotts, are all fair game, and if they happen to you or me, that is the price for advocacy, but never call for silence. Never for someone to ‘shut up and sing.’

We are citizens, not servants.

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SHERLOCK’s Evolution

2010 the BBC release into the wild an adaptation of Conan Doyle’s classic detective the television show; SHERLOCK. My wife, who loves all things British, and I caught the series from the start and were immediately entranced. By coincidence just a few weeks earlier I had decided to read A Study in Scarlet, the first adventure of Sherlock Holmes and his trusted aid and friend Doctor John Watson. The premier episode of Sherlock was titled A Study in Pink and it was a direct adaptation of that first novel.

Having the original novel fresh in my mind deepened my application of what the show endeavored to achieve; an adaptation of the original stories but in a contemporary setting. They navigated the tricky channels of this news course. Many of the things that made Holmes so far ahead of his time in 1887 are now simply standard police procedure, finding a way to bring in the character’s brilliance and unorthodox views was a challenge that I think the writers, producers, directors, and cast achieved.

Last night my wife and I went to our local movie theater for the series four finale of Sherlock. I had a thoroughly good time but it has occurred to me that an evolution has transpired over the course of four season and seen years. Sherlock has transitioned from one genre to another.

A Study in Pink, while populated by extreme characters such as Sherlock and Mycroft, sits firmly within the genre Detective Fiction. Last night’s episode, The Final Problem with it fantastic devices, super-human abilities, and a villain toying with the heroes by means of death traps, seems to me as something that belong in the genre of Superhero Fiction.

The Final Problem is not the transition, that occurred some time ago but it did not happen all at once. Gradually, as the stakes rose, as the antagonists grew and heroes swelled to outpace them, the stories slipped further and further from being about a man who can deduce to about the struggles between people with abilities beyond that of normal humans.

Mind you I am not complaining. I enjoyed my excursion last night and regret none of the time I have spent watching the series, but I do think that this change in tone is something worth commenting upon.

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Doing Research

So I am about to dive back into my Nationalized Space fictional setting and write another Seth Jackson novel. These usually involve research into governments types and functions, space movement and combat and things of that nature but I find I needed to take an additional step this time: I had to re-read by my earlier novel.

This has been a different experience. It has been nearly two years since I last read these pages and I have grown as a writer in the intervening span. That said, and while there are sentences here and there I now want to revise, I am overall happy with the book. It’s the sort of novel I want to read and if I may be allowed a moment of egotism, one I am having a lot of fun re-reading.

Other aspects of my are also going fairly well. Three weeks ago my doctor’s office called me to warn me that my cholesterol number were rising and the time had come for action. I could either start taking medications or I could try diet and exercise. To me the medications are a last resort and it is better to address the causes rather than the effects.

Since the doctor’s warning I have not had red meat. I plan to on rare occasions, say every two months or so, allow my self some red meat but fish and fowl have become my mainstay. I have also jettisoned snacks that are not fruits or nuts. On February 4th I have another blood draw and we’ll see if there has been any effect. Then on February 5th I’ll take a sol trip to Universal Studios Hollywood and let my brain recharge for a spell.

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Rules for Working with Trump

This advice, as silly as it seems to write it; I have no connection to anyone in power and they have no inclination to listen to me, is for the movers and shakers of Washington in the era of Trump.

It is a mistake to think that Trump is motivated by the same concerns and desires as the politicians you have battled before. Fight him like a traditional political opponent and he’ll win and the GOP will have his back. You can win, you can prevent disaster but first learn the rules.

Rule One: This rule supersedes all other considerations when dealing with or planning to deal with Donald J. Trump. Trump is a narcissist. Anything or any promise that does not flatter and inflate his ego is doomed to be, at best, a short duration success. Every proposal and every action must reflect this basic reality.

Rule Two: Trump will never admit fault or error, all arguments to sway his opinion must not only obey Rule One they must never require an admission of past error. Past errors are best unspoken and consigned to their status as unhistory.

Rule Three: Aside from family, loyalty for Trump runs only in the direct of himself. He is incapable of loyalty to anything that does not carry his blood or name.

Rule Four: All unsecured cash flows towards Trump. Secure your cash at every turn and never rely upon any agreement concerning payments from Trump in any direction other than towards himself and his family..

Rule Five: In Trump’s world there are enemies to be crushed and lackeys. Once he thinks he has crushed an enemy he’ll expend no more thought and anything said in the crushing is immaterial. Play the lackey and you may be able to steer him using the rules above.

 

Notice that none of these rules have anything to do with political ideology. Political thought is irrelevant when dealing with Trump. There are few things on which he can be counted on to be consistent. Count on tax breaks, see Rule Four. He will be favorable to Russian and autocrats. Some of these issues you simply have to let slide for the next two years, the united front of Trump and the GOP will do what it does. On some fronts, such as Russia, it will be possible to sow division between Trump and the GOP, but the most gains are possible in area where the GOP are ideologically locked but Trump is not.

By using the Rules and playing the man not the politics it is possible to expand healthcare and a number of other issues. If Trump feels something will grow his popularity, it will feed his ego and make him want these things. Best case outcome is he frightens the GOP members enough that some of it can be passed, worst case is he and GOP fall into infighting and thereby they limit their damage.

The game is poker and Trump doesn’t realize that at this table he is the Chump.

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A Song for Dark Times

The day got away from me, so here is a track from the Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. It’s oddly suitable to current events. – The Spirit of Man.

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It’s not the Close-ups, it’s the Script

A failed film that I still enjoy and own on blu-ray home video is the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. (I also own a copy of the original which I had seen some years earlier at a local art house theater.) Th film is fun, the actors are talented, and the music endearing, but the film is seriously flawed and the theatrical release version is substantially different from the original cut. The blu-ray hosts both version the original release a director’s cut restoring the ending. In the following discussion there will of course be spoilers for the film and one for the television series Breaking Bad. (Trust me it will make sense to link the two properties.)

Still with me? Good.

The original ending of the film, just as with the stage play, our hero, Seymour Krelborn feeds his dead girlfriend to the carnivorous, intelligent, and evil plant Audrey II (Named after the girlfriend) and then later himself in a bizarre suicide. The film continues for more than seven minutes of the plant and its offspring conquering the world until it burst from the screen to threaten the audience directly.

The ending played horribly with test audience and reshoots quickly changed the ending. Now Audrey I, the girlfriend, survived her wounds, Seymour battles Audrey II and saves the world with only a hint that the danger has not been fully bested.

Even with the happy ending the film never found a wide audience and continues on as a minor cult favorite. In interviews and audio commentaries Director Frank Oz as stated that he had not understood the power of ‘close-up’ and how they transform an audience’s relationship to the characters and thinks this is why the test audiences rejected a movie where the hero dies at the end. The close-up had erased the distance and now the audience possessed too much empathy for such an ending to work.

I think his analysis is wholly wrong.

In the story Seymour, poverty stricken and almost certainly doomed to a life on skid row discovers that through the alien plant he can have fame, wealth, and love of the girl he adores, Audrey. The wrinkle is that the plant feeds on blood, human blood and quickly its appetite grows beyond what he can safely provide from pricked fingers. Audrey II manipulated Seymour’s infatuation with Audrey I to convince Seymour to murder her boyfriend, a cruel and sadistic dentist, so that the corpse can be fed to the plant.

When Seymour goes armed with a pistol to kill the dentist a serous of comedic accidents lead to the situation where the dentist is suffocating on laughing gas and Seymour stands by and does nothing as he dies.

In articles published before the movie was released Oz confessed to shooting the story in such a way as the preserve Seymour’s innocence and not make him a blatant murderer. He failed.

In Breaking Bad the protagonist Walter White goes on a five season decent into evil until he transforms into a thoroughly rotten man. At one point, rather than loose an associate to a new girlfriend, Walter stands by and watched as the girlfriend, passed out from a heroin binge, chokes to death on her own vomit.

In both case the characters were presented with the ability to prevent a death and took a knowing and willful act to do nothing, both are murderers.

An altered song from the soundtrack stressed how the play understood this dynamic but that Frank Oz did not. There is a song, and it’s quite good, call The Meek Shall Inherit. The song plays out with a chorus as Seymour is presented with numerous contracts and deals to solidify his fame, fortune and change of luck. Seymour almost rejects the offers, knowing that means more blood, more bodies, more murder, but he fear of losing Audrey is too powerful and knowing all this he signs. The song ends with chorus sings that ‘the Meek will get what’s coming to them.’ In the film, both versions, the entire second half of the song with Seymour’s knowing decision has been edited out. The set-up for the ending has just been removed.

These two elements are the largest factors why that ending didn’t play, the story was altered so that it promised one thing and delivered another. Few stories can survive that. You have to set-up and payoff the right ending for the right story.

Two other elements, not as critical, also play into the film’s failure.

First, this was 1986 and dark film about doomed heroes were on the outs. The cinematic landscape demanded relentless upbeat movies and clear heroic victories, big mainstream movies no longer engaged in ending that were better suited to the 1970s.

Second, seven minutes of the monsters taking over the world? In a movie that ran a total of 103 minutes, not even two hours? It’s dull to watch that much film roll bye without a single character that is known the audience. Al the named characters are dead or gone, it’s spectacle for the point of doomed and dark ending that won’t play in that decade.

No, Mr. Oz, it was not the close-up of Rick Moranis or Ellen Green that doomed your movie, it was botched story telling.

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The C.O. is Always Responsible

Imagine a military ship sailing in the early hours of darkness near a shore. The Captain is asleep all is quite when the vessel suddenly grounds on a sand bar and tug is dispatched at dawn to free the ship. Who pays the price for the foul up? Whose career is threatened? The Captain. It goes with the power of the position, the captain is responsible for everything that happens on his or her command, period.

So, who is responsible for the Democratic loss at the last presidential elections?

Hillary Clinton. It was her ship, her command, and her responsibility.

Yes, the Russian sowed chaos to assist Trump.

Yes, Republicans used their position in the House of Representative to publicly hound fairly minor scandals.

Yes, the news media chased every leak with the Pavlovian response of a kitten chasing a laser spot.

All this is true and all this was known at the time. It is the C.O. jobs to deal with, and to deal with it effectively. I would further argue that these factors are relatively minor factors considering that Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the popular contest by nearly three million votes but the election is not determined by the popular will but by the state by state arcana of the Electoral College.

The Democrats relied on a ‘blue wall’ through the rust belt to hold Trump away from the White House and that wall turned out to have been eaten away. The weakness in these states was no surprise. Upset by Sanders gave clear warnings that things were not standard this election cycle. Alarm bells and calls for urgent assistance from local politicians and campaign workers went unheeded. Why? Why was such a critical front left undefended?

When I read the book Game Change that recounted the 2008 election I was truck by how much the Clintons, both of them, valued loyalty over competence. It’s my opinion that justly or unjustly the Clintons live in perpetually psychological state of siege. They seem to act as though that they must expect any and all attacks from all quarters and as such their inner circle are chosen as people that the trust and trust if the quality that value the most.

Because they distrustful of anyone not in their tight inner circle they horde power, micromanaging situations and shutting out those who are suspect, and anyone who is not part of the inner circle is automatically suspect.

When during he primary Sanders surprised them they didn’t open up their command to new voices and refused to learn that their predictive models were seriously flawed. When local pols in the rust belt screamed for help and warned that the candidate was in danger of losing votes due to people staying home, the alarms were rebuffed as they did not come from the trusted circle. It is astonishing that during the campaign Hillary Clinton never visited the union halls of Michigan, a state that if simply two more people per precinct has gone to the polls and voted for her she would have carried.

We can never know if Sanders, as is supporters insist, would have won the campaign. What we do know is that the Democratic candidate outpolled the Republican by millions of votes but bungled the tactical battlefield and lost the war

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Revisiting: Aliens

Last night I pulled down by big blu-ray boxed set for the Alien films and selected 1986’s Aliens as my Sunday Night Movie. At the start the disc presented me with a choice; 1986 theatrical release or the 1992 Special Edition? I selected the Special Editions and settled in with my bowl of popcorn.

The film is as fast and as exciting as ever and I have seen the special edition before but on this viewing my connection to the film seemed somewhat different. I approved of the many scenes restored to the film that deepen and expand the Ellen Ripley. A character that lacked even a given name in the original classic film. However when it comes to the scenes depicting life in the doomed colony Hadley’s Hope before the parasite destroys them I found I had come to a different opinion that the one I had held for a number of years.

Films, just as with prose stories, have character points of view and Aliens is a story told from Ripley’s POV. If you look at the first film, Alien, it is told with several points of view a technique used by the screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusette to disguise which of the characters was the protagonist and thus they kept the audience off-balance as to who would liver and die. (A technique George R.R. Martin has been quoted as copying for his epic A Song of Fire and Ice.)

Aliens wisely doesn’t attempt to recreate this ambiguity. We have ridden with Ripley through the first horror and our identification with her is strong. Looking at it from that perspective the extended scenes that take place on Hadley’s Hope violate this film’s POV. Ripley is not there and there is no one to relay those scenes to her. It is information she will never know and as such it is information we should not know.

There are plenty of moments in the special edition that still work with Ripley’s POV, scenes she either directly participates in or where her relationship with characters in the scenes would allow her to reasonably be aware of the events and those I would advocate retaining, but I think all the Hadley’s Hope scenes should be excised.

Of course it’s not my film and so that’s not going to happen, but it is a peak into my thoughts on story structure.

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Movie Review: Train to Busan

Oh the movies and their zombies. From way back in the pre-code era with Bela Lugosi starring in White Zombie and transformed forever by George A Romero with Night of the Living Dead, the zombie has been a favorite for films. In more recent decades the sub-genre has exploded internationally and now available for rent and purchase via iTunes and other portals from South Korea comes Train to Buson.

I was quite lucky and in that I did not watch this on my home television but rather I got to see it in the 46 seat micro-theater Digital Gym here in San Diego and if you get the chance to see this properly in a theater you should leap at it. (If you are in San Diego it plays through Thursday January 13th.)

The story is about a father, Soek Woo (Played by Yoo Gong) and estranged ten year old daughter Su-an. (I am guessing at her age as I don’t remember if that specified it in the film even though it opens on her birthday.) He is the typical hard working corporate ladder climbing parent who has let the career displace family and Su-an desperately want nothing more for her birthday than to take the train to Busan and see her mother, who is also estranged the father. The zombie outbreak erupts and their journey becomes one of survival.

For long time zombie fans, these are more akin to 28 Days Later, fast moving and fast transformation that Romero’s slow implacable marchers.

This film is no low budget knock-off affair. The actors, from the leads down to the smallest supports, were selected with care and fit perfectly into their parts. The director makes excellent use of the tight and closed confines of the setting to created a situation of terror, dread, and claustrophobia. The writers manages the often difficult task of upping the stake continually without either becoming predictable or shattering disbelief by racing too far too quickly. The film is bright and full of colors but retains an essential darkness born of the dread and danger while never slipping into cynicism.

Aside from a few fairly minor editorial quibbles, like submarine films I think this would have greatly benefited from no shots outside the train and never allowing the viewers a moment of relief from the claustrophobia, this movie works beautifully. It was horrific, exciting, engaging, and by the end deeply touching, go see it if you can, rent if you must.

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