Theater Review: Macbeth

1-macbeth-webI am not a fan of all of the Bard’s works. There are many that simply do not translate for me and I have a difficult time emotionally investing myself in the story. Macbeth is not one of these. It is my favorite play of his. While I have seen a number of film versions, films inspired by the tale, such as Throne of Blood, and a few taped stage productions, until last night I never experienced the play live and in person.

Every summer The Old Globe theater in San Diego hosts a Shakespeare Festival. Three years ago I attended a production of The Tempest and it thrilled me, last night production of Macbeth took things to a higher level.

Director Brian Kulick staged the setting as sort of a WWI analog, but not as directly one-for-one as the recent PBS Great Performances production with Patrick Stewart as Macbeth. Kulick’s staging is more atmospheric than literal. I am not going to go through the production scene by scene, but I want to touch on a few that I think illustrate the tremendous power in Kulick’s vision and the artistry of the actors.

The opening setting is hospital ward with six patients in varying degrees of bandages. The witches’ opening lines are passed from patient to patient, muttered or shouted from the lips of those traumatized by wars horrors. Three of the six are the witches played superbly by Makha Mthembu, Amy Blackman, and Suzelle Palacios. When they reach Macbeth’s name all six rise and shout the name in unison. A literal chill shot down my spine and theater potential for horror was realized. Many horror films have failed to achieve the effect I felt last night from Act one scene one. Time and again the production return to horrific themes and there failed to be a single appearance of the witches that did not produce dread and unease.

Macbeth and Banquo are played admirably by Jonathan Cake and Timothy Stickney. I was particularly impressed with the performance Sticknety gave as a living Banquo and as his ghost. Without line too often the ghost sits there and any horror must come from empathy with Macbeth. Stickney, moving with a slow and menacing pace while smiling an expression that filled me with dread, truly captured the horror of a walking spirit.

There are portions of the text that I have always found problematic. The Porter is rarely funny, and the murder of MacDuff’s son can in lesser hands be accidently funny. Neither was true last night. Both the staging and performance in these scenes, subtly changed from the concept of the text, enhanced each scene in it humor and its horror.

The entire cast was wonderful and not a single note of their performance struck me as sour. I am so happy I did not see a matinee showing. I doubt the horrific aspect work quite as well under the bright California sunshine as they do during a dark and chilled night.

If you are in the area, go see it. It is well worth an evening of your time.


The Power and Dangers of Narratives

Humans are pattern finding engines. Look up into the sky and you’ll find patterns int he clouds, watch the seasons and you’ll see the patterns in birth, life, and death. Finding these patterns are essential to our survival and success. Among the most powerful patterns that we are sensitive to are narratives.

Narratives are how we transmit culture to each other, how we teach morality, how we explain the mystery of life purpose, and explain to ourselves how the world works. Narrative is often the heart of understanding. We live under layers of narrative but usually there is a foundational structure that speaks to our interpretation on a basic level about the workings of life. Are you a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian? Odds are the reason is due to that fundamental narrative. Pessimist, optimist, realist? The answers the same, it’s that underlying substructure that explains to you how and why the world is what it is.

These supporting narratives are powerful tools in helping us navigate a life that is far larger and far more complex than anything we can fully understand. These analogs for reality break it down into comprehensible bits that we can manipulate and understand but they have a danger to blind us.

Just as that cloud that looks like a dragon is not a dragon, it is nothing more than a multi-ton collection of water vapor, the world is not a narrative. The world is the world, the narrative is a model in your mind representing the world but a model is never what it symbolizes.The danger of forgetting that is what happens when you encounter something at odds with the model.

The danger of forgetting that is what happens when you encounter something at odds with the model. What do we do when we run into something that contradicts our narrative? We tell ourselves we that we are rational creatures but often narratives are more powerful than our reason. If we lazily approach an event the narrative is in control and facts that contradict it are often distorted or ignored. Like sculptors, we break off and discard that which is not part of our mental statue.It is hard not being lazy. I joke at my day job that I work hard so no one knows how lazy I am, but it is only partially jest.

It is hard not being lazy. I joke at my day job that I work hard so no one knows how lazy I am, but it is only partially jest. It’s even harder to change a well-accepted narrative in yourself. It’s far easier to dismiss others, to ignore evidence, and retreat what is safe and familiar. It is easier, but it only drives you further from reality.

Take the hard path. Work at seeing where you are wrong and not where you are right. Write new narratives.


A few thoughts on the Atrocity

I am not going to get into the politics of the atrocity. Not because this is not the time, but because there are many many others acting as excellent advocates for their positions and my voice is unneeded.

These thoughts of mine are of no particular importance but they are mine.

First, I dislike the use of the word ‘tragedy.’ Tragedy often suggests something passive, earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes, and diseases are tragic. This vile evil event was an atrocity. Atrocities are always active, there is an agency to them happen. A cowardly, evil man made this happen.

The details of the cowards life are still coming to light and often early details are erroneous, but the picture painted is a complex one. Yes, he was Islamic, though apparently not very devout. He claimed allegiance to ISIS during the event, but also a number of people reports he had been to the club often and was often rejected. He was born in the US and raised here, but at least his father seems much more of the old country.

There is enough here for nearly everyone to shove him and his actions into a predefined bucket. One that will no doubt fit a preconceived narrative and not challenge that person’s already held notions. The truth as it seems to me is far more complex and simple answers are likely to be wrong.

I think here in the United States we are experiencing a cultural pathology and I have no idea how to cure it.


Movie Review X-Men Apocalypse

Okay this has not been a particularly fun week for me. My arthritis has been flaring making my toes and finger joints very painful. My knees – damaged more than 20 years ago by poor martial arts instruction – were also hurting. Just top it off though Bryan Singer’s latest X-Men film disappointed.

1-xmenWhere X-Men: First Class was set in the 60’s, and X-Men: Days of Future Past was a 70’s period piece, X-Men Apocalypse is set in a parallel early 80’s. The first Mutant – Apocalypse – (It’s really stupid to call him ‘The First’ as mutation is a constant and evolution.) has risen from his slumber since his last heyday during the time of Ancient Egypt (and since Ancient Egypt covers a span of time more than 10 times longer than US history, it sorts of begs the question *which* ancient Egypt?) and is out take over a world far more complex than one of stone and bronze. Of course it is up to our plucky hero mutants to band together and stop him.

After my sweetie-wife and I walked out of the screening I called the film so-so. As the days have passed my judgement has turned harsher. Truly this film is spectacle over story. There is not real character story being driven here. There are hints of some, but never fleshed out and made real. There is a twenty minute diversion into an action plot that serves only to give Wolverine his screen-time but advances the plot not one millimeter. Cut it out and the film isn’t changed at all. It screamed that the studio demanded a Wolverine scene and this was how they shoe horned it into the script. (One credited writer, but six credited with ‘story.’)

This film also take a turn into what Man of Steel pioneered – Disaster Porn. Great destruction is visited upon cities around the world. Huge building laid waste, entire area devastated in fantastically rendered CGI scenes. And none of it mattered. There was not one character moment within that destruction and without characters there is no emotional connection. Look to 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Every single time a starship is hit the very next shot is people being killed, wounded, and paying the price for the battle. This is no accident, it is a master director keeping the human POV present and because of that keeping the audience emotionally engaged in what is really just special effects.

While this film was not the insult to intelligence that WB foisted upon us with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, it was merely fight, fight, and more fight without character, story, theme, or purpose.

I cannot recommend.


The most important skill to a writer

Here is a quick post about what you need to focus on as a writer. There are plenty of important skills to master good fiction writing. Crafting complex interesting plot, creating compelling characters, dazzling prose, strong important themes, having a distinct point of view or voice, all of these are important.


I think we can all recall novels and short stories where one of these elements was less than stellar. Books that are massively successful despite some poorly drawn characters, tired cliched plots, or that they brought nothing new to light. (Mind you I don’t think aside from self-published material – and only some of them not all by any measure – do you find all these faults in one work. But many works survived with one or two of them.)

There is a skill that every published author has mastered no matter the material.

They finished.

The story didn;t end up in a forgotten drawer, on in an uncompleted file on their hard drive. The author stuck with it, did not give up and chase a new shiny idea, but did the work and wrote to the end.

This is the most important skill, learning to finish. Because if you can’t, none of the other things will matter.


Why I Write What I Write

No one has asked for this post, but then again no one asks for any post and that has never stopped me.

Writing short stories and novels is a curious thing, particularly when you do it without a contract in hand. There’s no assurance that it will be published or that anyone other than the author will see it, so why take that risk? Why write?

I write for many reasons, other authors may share some of these reasons, some may value them differently. That’s neither right nor wrong, as with cars, your mileage may vary. These are my objectives when I start putting words in a row.

  1. Entertainment. I write the sort of stories that if I read them would entertain me. Be they dark or light, happy endings or death and gloom, all the stories have elements that thrill and engage me.
  2. Show me a world I don’t know. That can be cultures that are new to me, viewpoints that illuminate others’ lives, or a whole new way of thinking about things. I love a good novel that take me into the a headspace unlike my own.
  3. Moral Thought Experiments. I am far less interested in plots than I am stories about difficult choices. If the only issue is stopping the bad guy from doing a bad thing, that itself is of limited appeal to me. It can be exciting to read or watch but upon reflection it proves empty. I like it much more when a character is torn between what they want and what they think is right or just.

Those are the biggies for me, but the list is representative not exclusive.


Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War

In2008 with Iron Man Marvel studios took what many considered to be their second string heroes and started an ambitious project; a shared cinematic universe of superhero films. (Some call it a first, the shared universe film set, but Universal did the same, though not by initial design, with their classic horror films.) The successes of the project have remade the movie-going business and continue to this day with the release of MCU movie # 13, Captain 1-iron-man-and-captain-america-civil-war-4k-wallpaperAmerica: Civil War.

It is amazing that this film, so deeply indebted to the storytelling that proceeded it, is so truly marvelous. Carrying on with the character of Steve Rodgers AKA Captain America after Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron, CA;CW though studded with massive battle set pieces, is ultimately a story about the small character beats, choices, and conflicts that drive people and teams apart.

The world is reacting to the presence of enhanced individuals and the enhanced threats to safety and security that they represent. While on the surface those appear to be the issues dividing the Avengers, what is really driving them are their own psychological needs and problems. This is a far better way of telling a story that simply a big bad with a big bad plan. Make no mistake. there is a villain in this piece, but unlike Loki, Ultron, the Red Skull, or Hydra, the threat is not about global destruction but about the personal costs and choices in such a universe.

There is a third act reveal that I should have seen coming but I was so suckered into the characters and their lives that the filmmakers managed a blindside that made me actually gasp out loud. No really, in full on cliché mode my hand went to my lips and I gasped. It was so obvious, so perfect, and so devastating.

Another area where this could have failed spectacularly is the sheer number of characters. With a cast of speaking roles so large it would have been far too easy for most of the characters to lose their sense of individuality and become nothing more than plot points and exposition. That did not happen, the writers, the directors, and the actor all utilized their briefs amounts of screen time to imply and inform the audience as to who these people are. It is amazing.

The new additions to the MCU, Spider-Man and The Black Panther, are handled well and with slowing or stopping the film to explain them Everything feels natural and organic. I even approve of the reinterpretation of Aunt May.

I think, but I can not be sure, that a person coming in cold to the film, having seen none of the other, would still enjoy and understand it, but I also wonder how long can that be maintained. At what point does the weight of cinematic history make any one movie incomprehensible to a novice viewer to the MCU?

Only time will tell, but it isn’t here.

This film is good. Go see it. In theaters.


Trump is the Face of the GOP

Well, it’s all over but the crying. The opponents have dropped out and the last man standing for the GOP nomination for President of the United States of American is Donald Trump. This fall we’ll see a contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton, though my past predictions – like everyone else’s – have been disastrously wrong I think this will lead to a massive defeat for the GOP. So be it, they brought the storm down upon themselves.

Make no mistake, Trump won because he bested every faction of the GOP. He bested the establishment solids, he bested the patrician blue-bloods, he bested the up and coming hopefuls, he bested the experienced and sitting governors, he bested the RINOs and the tea party favorites and the unshakable social conservatives. he beat them in open and closed primaries. he beat them with pluralities and majority votes. The GOP voters put choose him as the nominee, He was not foisted upon them by the monies interests, He was not selected by the party big wigs. He was not given a free ride by the media. The GOP primary voters pulled those levers, punched that chad, and marked that box for this man and everything he has been spewing for ten months.

When the ruin falls in November- and I truly hope it does because the thought that he would win a majority of the general population terrifies me – a wise GOP would look at its base and seriously consider how did it cultivate such a voter pool. They created an environment where such a demagogue would thrive and they must clean the swamp to prevent a repeat. I fear that such an honest appraisal is beyond the party as it is currently constituted. I fear that like a spousal abuser they will shift they blame, most likely to the current president, and cry ‘look what you made me do.’

It is a sad time we live in. I’m going to go watch Marvel’s The Avengers.


Movie Review: Rubber(2011)

Okay this is a very odd film; before I launch into my thoughts it will probably be best to watch the trailer if you are unfamiliar with this movie.

Okay, are you ready?

Yes, this film is about a psychokinetic tire that rolls around a small town killing animals and people. A pretty out-there concept for a film. But this movie is also about movies, what it means to make them, what it means to watch them, and the fusion that occurs between the people who make the movies and the people who watch the movies.

To give you an impression of what this film is like I am going to reference two other filmmakers; David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky. If you put Lynch’s Mulholland Drive at one end of the a spectrum of art house films and Jordorowsky’s The Holy Mountain at the other, Rubber is closer to The Holy Mountain than it is Mullholland Drive. The writer/director of Rubber, Quintin Dupieux, sets up this movie from the opening scene. We watch a sheriff climb out of the trunk of a car and approach a group spectators. he explains that all great films have an element of ‘no reason.’ Where things happen or take a certain form for no reason at all. He then charges the people to remember that as they watch this film. The spectators sort of act as a chorus, commenting on the action, but unlike a chorus they influence the story and they themselves are changed by it.

I am not convinced that Quintin knew exactly what he was doing or trying to say, but this film is about something and I am glad I gave it a spin. Your mileage, however, may vary depending on your tastes for European styled art house projects.


The Duality of Writing and Writers

Recently it struck me that on a number of front writers have a real sharp edged duality about them, of composed of what seems like mutually exclusive natures. In no particular order here are some of those ideas.

Writers seem to be both optimists and utterly practical. Consider that when you send off a manuscript you are competing with hundreds and more likely thousands of manuscript for that publication slot or agent’s representation. The keep sending them out as the mountain of rejections grows is an act of utter optimism. One day it will change, one day that lightning will strike. At the same time when you review and edit your material, there is no place for wishful thinking, no room here for sentimentality. that which does not work must be fixed and excised from the text. It is the basis of the adage ‘kill your darlings.’

Writers seem to exist in a strange state of self-doubt and criticism while also possessing a belief that what they have to say is not only worthy but worthy of the attention of thousands. They must be critical enough to see the flaws, as above, but certain in their views, their plots, their characters, that they know the world needs to see it.

We can also dive into philosophical duality. Character we create exist in some sort of Heisenberg uncertainty region between free-will and determinism. Consider a character like say Will Riker from Star trek The Next Generation. If a show opened with him storming onto the bridge, mouthing off to Picard, slapping Troi around and making the moves on Wesley, the viewers would demand a reason for these actions.  He would never do such things. They are beyond any scope of his freely chosen set of actions, something must be making him act that way. Characters have defined natures that if they venture beyond they break beliefe and become ‘out of character.’ And yet we have to believe that characters make choices and that often in a character’s arc he, or she, chooses something at the end of the story that would have been out of character at the start.

It is a strange thing I pursue.