Why So Good?

On Facebook I saw a user post the question; What Made Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan so good? Rather than answer in the comments I decided to take that up as an essay.

There are many reasons why The Wrath of Khan is such a good film, and most of them can be found in the script.

The characters acted as they should have from the series. It’s known that the dry, colorless script for Star Trek: The Motion Picture flattened the life out of their characters, shattering their relationships, and setting them in pursuit of opposing goals. Spock using Kirk and emergency to seek his own enlightenment? That’s hardly the Spock we knew. While lots of good drama can be crafted from close characters in opposition, breaking the fundamental friendship of these characters does little to endear fans. Khan returned us to the characters and relationships we knew and missed.

The story flowed logically from the actions of the characters. Once Reliant stumbled across the survivors of the Botany Bay the rest of the events flowed naturally from those characters and their viewpoints. Pull out a character and the story falls apart. What I am saying is that there was indeed a real story and not simply a plot.

The limited budget meant that the filmmakers were forced to think about story over spectacle. It can be a curse to have unlimited or nearly unlimited special effects budgets. Instead of thinking about character beats and moments, it is easy to get seduced into bigger and more elaborate stunts and special effects.

The film never lost the people in the plot. A few years ago at a Science-Fiction convention I had the chance to confirm with the director Nicholas Meyer, what I think is one of Khan’s most brilliant bits of editing. Watch that film closely, every single time a weapon, phaser or photon torpedo, strikes a vessel the very next shot is people getting hurt and killed. Every single time. This pummels you with the inescapable knowledge that this grand battle between starships is always about the people aboard and the costs that they pay.

This film has no bloat. It hits the ground running and does not let up. And yet in that fast action/adventure pace it always finds time to breathe and reveal character.

Truly this is a masterwork of filmmaking.

Share

Sunday Night Movie: The Towering Inferno

Yeah, this has been an entry in the Sunday Night Movie feature before but it is one of my favorite disaster movies.

It is not a secret that I am a fan of the disaster movie genre that blossomed in the 1970s and in many ways The Towering Inferno is the pinnacle of that style of movie. It has a massive budget, being the first film that required two studios, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers, for its production The movie boasts an impressive slate of stars, another hallmark of the disaster movies, and this one included two of the biggest at the time Paul Newman and Steve McQueen along with a host of fine stars and actors in support. Special effects and spectacle are also presented in abundance throughout the feature. It is important to remember that was before the era of digital images and motion control photography, three years before the ground-shattering event that is Star Wars. Every flame in the frame is real, every full-body burn is a live stunt performer, and the tower itself is an impressive bit of model photography.

The plot of The Towering Inferno is quite simple and straightforward. It is the dedication night of the newest world’s tallest building. Situated in San Francisco the building dominates the skyline as it reaches for the stars. Due to cut corners one of the buildings contractors has substituted inferior wiring in place of those specified by the architect, leading to a short, numerous system failures, and of course a fire that quickly gets out of control. There is a massive party being held at the towers top and now more than 300 people are in danger of burning alive in the world tallest building.

What surprises me each time I re-watch this movie is how devoid of cynicism it is, particularly for a mid 70s film. There are two political characters, the mayor of San Francisco and a Senator. Both of these characters act in noble and heroic fashions, presenting none of self-centered cowardice we would expect in a current screenplay. They are not the exception, firemen and chiefs, security guards and corporate executives, architects and con-men all act as heroes, putting themselves in danger for the sake of their fellow human beings. The only exception to this is the contract who cut corners, Played by Richard Chamberlin this character displays absolutely no redeeming qualities. It is an utter mystery how his wife, daughter of the builder, ever fell in love with such a low character. He is nothing more than a walking cliché, one that would today pass as wisdom.

This film is long, two hours and forty-four minutes, and mind you this is before the end credits bloated. For The Towering Inferno end credits run just over 4 minutes. It took me two nights to watch the entire film and I don’t regret a single moment.

Share

Not The Most Productive Day

Today was spent in civic duty. Rising earlier than normal I drove to the local trolley station and journeyed downtown for Jury Duty.

It seems like every two years I get that summons but I have never had the privilege of sitting on an empaneled jury. Don’t get me wrong, I have no mad desire to wield power over my fellow citizens, and I quake at the thought of the responsibility, but I do feel that it is my duty as a citizen to participate in the justice system. I also have a selfish desire to experience it firsthand and expand my horizons as a writer.

Today I got called for a jury pool in the second set of potentials. (That’s makes us sound like Slayers-in-Waiting.) We got to the court and after getting random numbers, mine was 43 out of about 50, we started the selection questioning.

With such a high number I knew there was very little chance that I would end up empaneled. We worked until lunch and then through the afternoon, not getting the final selection in place until 4:30. (They reached the high 30’s, so this year I turned out to be safely beyond fates fortune this time. Perhaps next time.)

One bright spot to the wasted day was the judge, David Ruben. He had a relaxed style and a smooth dry wit. In voice and in mannerisms he was thoroughly a character to be portrayed by Stanley Tucci.

Share

Message Movies and Movies with a Message

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the changing nature of film criticism. The crux of the article was that once upon a time films that presented a clearly denoted social or political message were ‘lesser’ films and often savaged as such by the professional critics while now films devoid of such intent are the ones savaged as empty, pointless fare.

The message movie has been with us for more than one hundred years with the massive in scope and its repulsive message mother of these being ‘Birth of a Nation.‘ (quickly followed by the message-movie as apology ‘Tolerance.’)

I would stipulate that there is a profound difference between a ‘message movie’ and a movie with a message. A message movie is one where the lecture overpowers the story and swamps any entertainment value it may offer. The platonic ideal of this sort of filmmaking is the ‘after-school special.’ Message movies are inherently moralistic, take themselves overly seriously, and stand upon soapboxes to waggle their metaphorical fingers in the audiences’ faces. Is it any wonder that they are often money losers and have gotten a bad critical rep?

A Movie with A Message is a different animal. It is a film where the story comes first and the message comes second. 1954’s Godzilla (Gojira) is a wonderful example of this. Godzilla is first and foremost a monster movie, one that was so wildly entertaining its budget and technological limitations became such strengths that it spawned a new genre of movie. But under that excitement of a giant monster wading ashore in post-war Japan there is a powerful message about the threat and dangers of nuclear power. A short time later America would release Them! with a similar message buried under a mystery of giant ants that stretched from the Arizona deserts to the maze of sewers under Los Angeles.

One of the best rejections I have received came from a short story that was a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The editor commented that in addition to the action and the horror the story was about something. This pleased because I think that all stories are strengthened by themes, as long as the theme does not transform into an ‘After School Special.’

Science-Fiction when it is done well it a fertile field for this sort of subversive story telling. It’s much easier to hide you commentary among the purple skinned aliens than among contemporary characters.

That said there is also a place for the blatantly pointed story with a message. The recent, an terribly terrific, horror film ‘Get Out,‘ is not subtle in its message, but never does it sacrifice story and experience for a lecture. As an artists of any kind, never be afraid to putting down what you believe. You should embrace such impulses, for your voice, your viewpoint is the only thing that truly sets you apart for the other practitioners of your craft. For story tellers, remember story comes first, but meaning is not an accessory it is a feature.

Share

Of Girls, Bulls, and Artistic Intent

March of last year the sculpture “Fearless Girl” was installed on the streets of New York City standing defiantly before the now famous sculpture ‘Charging Bull.’ Greg Fallis at his blog has done a pretty goof job going over the histories of the two statues and how those histories interplay with the meaning intended for the pieces so that’s not going to be focus of my post.

Though when you get to the slipper subject of ‘meaning’ it is important to remember that the artist may intend one thing but the people who experience the art take away something utterly different or even diametrically opposed to the original intent. A case in point on that is the singer/songwriter Sting, his piece ‘Every Breath You Take’ and the scores upon scores of couple who have used it as their wedding songs.

Charging Bull‘s creator Arturo Di Modica has recently complained about the installation of Fearless Girl and expressed his desire that the statue be removed from it place before his own. Many of the fans of ‘Fearless Girl‘ have rejected his position and a common defense I have heard is that Art is often in conversation with previous pieces. This is true and since my background, and I suspect yours, is Science-Fiction let me use a well know example from that field as an example.

Robert A. Heinlein wrote the novel ‘Starship Troopers‘ and with that works explored the relationship between the common solider and his society. The book provoked a fiery conversation that continues to rage until this day. Sometime later author Joe Haldeman wrote ‘The Forever War,‘ a novel also exploring the relationship between the common solider and his society. ‘The Forever War‘ makes radically different arguments and comes of very different conclusions. Both books are considered classics and both are terribly good reads. It is considered an accepted fact that Haldeman wrote ‘The Forever War‘ in direct response to ‘Starship Troopers‘ a perfect example of art in communication with art. I would strongly urge people to read both books.

But you do not need to read both to see the value in either novel. Either can be read alone without the other and the experience is full and complete. This is not true of ‘Fearless Girl.’

Fearless Girl”s artistic expression is reliant on ‘Charging Bull‘, without the Bull she is not fearless for there is nothing to inspire fear. Further more The two are seen together changing the impression once is likely to form upon seeing ‘Charging Bull.‘ Returning to the example of ‘Starship Troopers‘ and ‘The Forever War,‘ it is as if instead of writing a new novel that could be read alone Haldeman has written six new end chapters to Heinlein’s novel and sent them out attached to the previous book. There’s nothing wrong and in fact much to respect in Haldeman’s response to Heinlein’s book but meaning is not the point. The point is there is a difference between answering an artwork with your own and changing another artist’s work. Placing Fearless Girl directly before the Charging Bull sculpture, and being utterly dependent on that earlier sculpture for context also changes the context of Charging Bull.

Di Modica has called for the removal of ‘Fearless Girl‘ feeling that in damages the artistic intent of his ‘Charging Bull.’ He is not without a point. In my opinion it is not relevant that ‘Fearless Girl‘ started life as advertising for a corporate product, intent and interpretation are different things and the powerful interpretation many hold for ‘Fearless Girl‘ is one that strikes many people to their very identity.

This is a problem with no easy solution. Leaving ‘Fearless Girl‘ clearly changes in common interpretation of ‘Charging Bull,’ but removing it creates its own host of negative impressions.

Personally I am torn without resolution, as an artist I am sympathetic to Di Modica’s point of view but the two statues together have an emotional punch that neither could achieve on their own.

Share

About That Bomb

Wow.

It’s interesting watching my social media feed explode over an big explosion. I imagine if there had been the some social media during the Clinton administration I would have watched a similar explosion from the other side of the spectrum when he sent cruise missiles into the same region of the world in a failed attempt to kill Osama Bin Laden I do remember conservative friends announcing with absolute certainty that the attacks had been nothing but ‘wag the dog’ distractions from his scandals just as some liberals friends are equally certain that the MOAB was used to distract from which ever Trump scandal holds their attention. (He has so many that it’s really a buffet of concerns.)

However it also not only possible but likely that the use of this particular weapons system has nothing to do with the current president and everything with conditions on the ground and the judgment of local commanders.

First Off, the phrase ‘largest non-nuclear’ is a pretty much useless comparing things of vastly different scales. An atomic bomb like the ones used to end WWII has a yield of about 12-15 kilotons. That is the explosion is equal to 12 to 15 THOUSAND tons of TNT, the MOAB is purely conventional. It has 22,000 lbs of explosives or 11 tons, so while it may be the largest non-nuclear bomb in our inventory it is still less that one thousandth the yield. It’s kind of like comparing a penny to a ten dollar bill. That sensational headline got your attention but it did not inform you.

Second: The president does not need congress’ approval to dispatch military force. He orders the military congress declares war, but there’s this nasty confusing grey area where the military gets used but no war has been declared. After Vietnam there was the War Powers act but it has never been fully vetted by the Supreme Court.

Three: Even if the President needed to have congressional approval you do know he was granted that in 2001 don’t you? That Authorization of Military Force that Bush got after 9/11, it’s still in effect. I hate the very concept of a Trump Presidency but he’s got the authority, though it should have never been given to him, to do exactly this.

Four: This bomb has a very limited utility. It is far too large to be dropped from any bomber. To get the monster to the target they military has to use a cargo plane, and that means you can’t use it in a place where the enemy has the capacity to shoot down your bombers. It doesn’t have great penetration so it’s best used against soft targets, it has a very large area of effect and so you can’t use it where the target are mingled with non-targets.

Now, all that said we should wait for verified reports about the why of the attack. Good judgment follows from facts not fancy.

Share

I suck at Proofing

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I think that I excel at constructing plots and stories. There are rarely holes in the plot, though they may be from time to time holes in how well I explain my plots. And when a beta reader finds a hole I can’t simply paper over it, I have to root it out and fix it so the plot is again whole and relatively seemly.

Now, I cannot speak to what is my greatest weakness when it comes to the actual prose. I am too close to the issue and someone else will have to supply that information, but I do not outside of the words in a row aspect of writing where I need to work the hardest for improvement.

Patience.

It is no surprise to those who know me that I am impatient. There has rarely been any great sting from a rejection slip. Usually the rejected piece is back off to another market within a day and not a tear has been shed. Rejection is part of the business and it never ever goes away.

However, waiting for six, eight, twelve months or more for an answer tends to drive me batty. Now those are very long wait times, but they are also beyond my control so my annoyance in those situations would count as a minor flaw at best. The sad truth is I get terribly impatient with things I control as well, and that’s a far greater flaw.

It is not at all unusual for me to clock a thousand words of prose in an hour. When a story is cooking to flows from my heated brain down and out my fingers and into the keyboard with speed and ease. The truth of the matter is that I couldn’t slow down that aspect of the process. It is what it is.

Where speeds works devilishly against me is the proofreading pass.

You cannot do a good lob of proofing and doing it at warp speeds. I rush the process and too many error survive. (As anyone who reads my blog is well aware of.) It is also one of the reasons why I know the self-pub route is not for me, I’d go to hit that ‘publish’ way too early.

I am trying to find a system that will help me in the proofing process. Right now I am proofing a manuscript, novel length, I wrote last year. I think the process I am going to have to use it page by page having my Mac read out the text. That forces me to go slow and listen to each word, making the mistakes pop out.

Share

Movie Review: Don’t Breathe

So, Friday night I offered a friend of my a choice in which movie I’d load up into the blu-ray player; 2016’s Ghostbusters or a thriller/Horror Film Don’t Breathe. he selected the thriller

We regretted it.

The set-up is simple and right from it’s premise Don’t Breathe is a deeply flawed project. Three cardboard cut-put teenage characters engage in burglary for their chase. Money is he punk-kid character, without any redeeming qualities, Rocky is the girl trapped in a bad life searching for a way out, and Alex is the ‘decent’ kid doing this because he has a deep crush on Rocky. Alex uses his access to his father information at a security service to locate their targets. Nothing about these characters is unique or compelling, and more importantly nothing about them is engaging enough to overcome the fact they break into people’s house and rob them. They are thieves. If your characters are going to be thieves, they had better be interesting.

Things get going when they up their game from burglary to home invasion. The trio are tipped about an old blind man who scored a big settlement after a young woman killed his daughter in an auto accident. For reasons never explained – because they don’t exist – our trio knows that the blind old man keeps his big settlement in cash in his home and not in a bank or T-notes, or anything else that would actually make sense. Luckily for them the old man also is a subscriber to the right home security service so Alex isn’t utterly useless.

The three go and break in, displaying a level of smarts and idiocy that can only be plot driven, and get trapped in the house. The Old Man is blind but not helpless and it becomes a fight for their lives. In an effort to make the three more sympathetic the Old Man is revealed to have some pretty nasty secrets but that just transforms the plot into bad people doing bad things to other bad people.

Nothing about this movie is original or interesting. The plot details pile upon each other, breaking all sense of believability.

Truly we would have been better off with Ghostbusters 2016.

Share

Frank Herbert Was Wrong

Fear is not the mind killer. Fear can sharpen our wits, heighten our perceptions, and induce much needed caution into a dangerous environment. Fear is a tool sharpened by billions of years of evolution, one that should not be lightly tossed aside. Panic, handmaiden to fear, is useless and counter-productive, but this essay is not about panic but the true mind killer.

Despair is the mind killer.

Where despair takes root initiative dies. The thoughts grow sluggish and foresight sees nothing but doom when the mind is wrapped in despair. Unlike fear that make you hyper-aware of the things and consequences, Despair robs you of perception and tell lies of the future. Despair will have you lay down your arms and surrender when the battle has not yet been joined. Taken with cynicism masquerading as wisdom despair is defeat preordained.

Reject despair, even when odds of hopeless and you see no path out, fight on, you can not know the future and life is full of strange and unpredictable twists.

Share

The Rules of Story Telling

During the Season One Episode ‘Fiasco‘ of the internet show ‘TableTop’ John Rogers, screenwriter and show runner for the television program ‘Leverage,‘ laid out what he thought of as the three rules for story tell. To those three I am going to add one more that I think is critical.

Rule One: What do they want?

For you story to have a plot it must have a character who wants something. In a very simple plot driven story this can be a purely external goal without emotional weight for the character. Most James Bond adventures fall into this mold, he’s emotional need to stop someone from cornering the gold market is not the real driver of that need. It is his job and it is important but not in an individualistic manner. However he does want it, and that is the key thing here. Characters have to have goals, they have to have something that they need to achieve or we’re just spinning pointlessly wheels

Rule Two: Why can’t they have it?

If the character can simply achieves their goal without serious effort of resistance that is a fairly poor story. There must be forces that oppose the character and thwart their aims. This is why a character of unlimited power and abilities, such as Superman, so often comes off as dull and uninteresting, creating a force that can thwart him is nigh impossible forcing the writer to violate this rule. The greater the force that prevents the character from securing their goal then, in general, the greater the dramatic tension of the tale. However an opposing force that is so great that only the intervention of dues ex machina can resolve the plot in the character’s favor renders a story frustrating and unsatisfying. In a lot of works by novice writers there is a tendency to forget this rule and they often have their characters skipping from success to success. Make sure that the character has to fight and that there is a credible chance of losing to have tension and drama.

Rule Three: Why should I care?

This is usually expressed in a character being ‘likeable’ but more precisely it is a character being engaging. I would argue that Walter Neff in Double Indemnity is not a particularly likable character but he is very engaging. The issue of ‘why should we care’ is a critical one because if your are not engaged with that character you are not going to continue reading or watching. I think to be engaging a character needs to be relatable and understandable. They can very flawed, look at any Cohen brothers script, but if we can relate to their problems, their concerns, then we can care about this fate and if they get what they need.

To John’s three rules I would add one more that is vital to strong story telling;

Bob’s Rule Four: How far will they go to fulfill their need?

If they care so little that they expend little effort or take only small risks then we aren’t going to invest very much emotional energy in their plight. The further the character is will to go the more compelling the story can be. This also opens the door to greater transformation for the character. I tend to think the best stories are about characters that change in such a fundamental way that by the end of the tal they are capable of taking actions unthinkable by their earlier selves. Handled poorly this degrades into an ‘Afterschool Special’ story, ham-fisted and overly moralistic, done properly these are the most moving of stories.

Share