A New Nickname is Required

Since 1888 the Republican Party has carried the nickname ‘Grand Old Party’ often reduced down to simply GOP. I think that this affirming nickname no longer adequately describes the party as it lives and breathes today.

This week we witnessed the election of Judge Roy Moore as the GOP candidate for Senator from the state of Alabama. Moore explicitly stands for Christianism over all; he believes that in application of governance his interpretation of Christian faith supersedes constitutional law. This is not a matter of my opinion; twice he has defied federal court orders that that he felt violated ‘God’s law.’ And he has been removed from the bench for those actions and yet the majority of Republicans in Alabama have chosen him as the standard for their party. There were plenty of conservative Republicans to choose from and they were passed over for this theocrat.

Is it clear that there is nothing ‘Grand’ left in this old party but luckily we can still retain the initials GOP, as it is clear that the new nickname needs to be ‘God’s Own Party.


Real vs. Hypothetical People

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

That quote is often attributed to Soviet dictator and mass murderer Stalin, though it should be noted that the concept vastly predates him and there is scarce documentation that he ever actually said it. Setting aside the question of attribution there is an undeniable truth to the sentiment and it has important relevance to those who craft fiction.

I would argue that the reason the one death is a tragedy and the million are emotionally neutral is not because the numbers involved make it impossible to grasp but because one person we can know, one person can be real to us while a million will always occupy that void space as hypothetical people. People we meet are more real than one we only her about second hand and crowds are less real as people than individuals. So how does this apply to fiction?

You may have a character or characters that you would like the reader or audience to have sympathy for, even if they have done utterly reprehensible things. If they have murdered or abused people you can preserve that ability for the reader to still have sympathy and empathy but keeping their victims in a hypothetical state.

Consider Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Many readers find Gollum’s condition tragic and the character himself quite pitiable even after watching him murder his own cousin for the One Ring, they still can find a great well of sympathy for the twisted, tortured character. However when Gandalf is recounting Gollum’s story to Frodo one detail he mentions slides past many a person, refusing to stick in their memory. Gollum stole infants from cribs and ate them. All is his meals exist as hypothetical babies. We never see him raid the cribs, we never see him bash out their brains as he does with his fish, and we never actually see him feeding. I think if we had there would be very few who could muster sympathy for the evil beast.

Consider also the fugitive replicants in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner. Their plight is one that is engineered to create sympathy. They are genetically created slaves, labor, combat, and sexual slavery being their only reason for existence and to make that life ever more tragic it is short, just four years and then death. Of course we want to feel for them when they make a break for freedom and confront the man who forced this terrible life up on in hopes of winning at least a few more years, but again we are comforted by the fact that their escape takes place off-screen and their victims are also safely hypothetical. In the briefing Deckard receives from Bryant we are told that the six ‘jumped a shuttled and killed twenty-three people.’ No more details than that but think about that, six people killed twenty-three. They will not pull that off if the 23 are armed and combatant, but they can if they are civilians on a shuttle flight. Imagine watching the scene as the six replicating slaughter the civilians, perhaps shoving some out the airlock to die of exposure to vacuum. After watching such an emotionally traumatizing scene how much harder would it have been to have sympathy for the replicants?

Let me close this out with a counter example.

For many people it was impossible to get past Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book of the Stephen R. Donaldson’s fantasy trilogy about Thomas Covenant. In the series Covenant is a man suffering leprosy who is magically transported to a fantasy setting know as The Land, and while there is disease is gone, as if he never contracted it. Overpowered by the return of his sexual ability he rapes a woman who had befriended him. (Let’s set aside the whole notion of violent rape as an act driven by sexual desire, that’s another kettle of fish.) Many readers, quite understandably, stopped reading and never returned. Why? The woman was a real character, she was someone we had met, had known, had seen her inherit goodness, and then we rode along in the head of her rapist as she was attacked. In fictional terms she was not hypothetical at all. Had the same events occurred off-screen -not possible with the single POV Donaldson employed – then I think fewer readers would have been turned away. (There are always some who will see past the ‘telling and not showing’ and be repulsed by the recounted events. I have never finished the first book in that series and never viewed Gollum as sympathetic.)

Real versus hypothetical people I think is a very important thing to consider when crafting your narrative.


Sunday Night Movie: A Cure for Wellness

Kicking off the Halloween season with my home video habits over two nights I watched the horror film A Cure for Wellness. (Sunday night proved to be so exhausting that even though I was thoroughly into the film I simply could not muster the endurance to complete it in a single night.)

Directed by Gore Verbinski, who also brought us The Ring (US version), Wellness is about a young ambitious and morality challenged young man, Lockhart (Dane DeHann) who has been dispatched to a mysterious sanatorium in the Swiss Alps to retrieve an financial; executive because someone in the company has to take the fall and it is either the executive of Lockhart. The sanatorium is run my the smoothly menacing Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) and caters to a rich clientele that never seems to have any desire to leave this place, its amazing waters, and of course ‘The Cure.’ Lockhart becomes a prisoner/patient of the sanatorium and falls into a world of hallucinations, mystery, and body horror.

A Cure for Wellness has Verbinski’s distinctive sense of style. Unlike many who have worked in the horror genre, Verbinski understands that the most effective horror is powered by mood not by gore or a sudden jump scare. As Lockhart’s world crumbles and the mystery deepens the horror grows, bubbling up organically from strange and unsettling characters, the disturbing visual, and just the right amount of body horror. Like many a good horror story, curehas a mystery at its heart and the unwinding of those threads form the core of the plot. This is not a film build around ‘kills’ but around the omni-present threat and the terror of not understanding what is happing to you or what it all means.

Sadly, this film is flawed and flawed enough that the style and the visual ultimately are not enough to carry it across as satisfactory finish line. The story has structure problems, Lockhart escaping twice from the sanatorium is one escape too many, giving the movie a repeated beat that weakens the raising stakes. The third act’s mystery is a good one but in order to have Lockhart resolve it requires the character to have a strength of self that is not well established. The climatic fight between Lockhart and the films ultimate threat breaks what had been up until that point a very well established sense of physical realism, but during the combat falls that would break bones and leave a person unit for further resistance become mere set-backs undercutting a film that had been working.

I am glad I watched A Cure for Wellness but it will not be added to my collection and when I need horror from Verbinski I will turn to The Ring.


The More Frightening Cosmology

Last month at the terrific Horrible Imaginings Film Festival at least one film dealt with the familiar subject of a the bad person suffering in limbo or hell but unaware that this was indeed their fate. This is a well known plot done in prose, poem and on the both the big and small screen. For me this presentation prompted a thought about how utterly this is a comforting concept.

If there is a hell or some analog for those who do wanton harm to their fellow humans then there is a moral order to the universe. The existence of such a place means that there is no escape for those who would do evils upon the rest of us. Justice is not a lie we tell ourselves to make life bearable.

However the concept brings with it terrifying prospects. For there to be justice there must also be judgment and that implies not only a judge but also a code to be judged against. Many religions assert that they have unlocked the mystery of the code and the judge but by their very natures the answer must be taken on faith. There can be no proof of their claims, and it is possible no matter how pious your life that your actions violate the code and then hell is not just for those who are clearly evil but those for are mere violators of an unknown code.

So given that which is the more frightening cosmology; one with an alien judge and unknown moral code that may punish people for ceremonial infractions or one in which none of that exists leaving us in a universe without morality or meaning?

I am seriously thinking of tackling these questions in a serious of fantasy/horror stories.


Were Roger and Peter Gay?

Saturday night I attended a screening of 1979’s Dawn of the Dead. (Apologies to a friend who didn’t make the screening. Had I known you would have trouble finding the theater I would have changed my mind on the logistics.) This is only the second time I have seen

Image copyright MKR productions
Peter(L) & Roger

this film in a proper movie theater environment and it still works and moves at a good brisk pace without losing theme or character. What happened last night though is that I started think about the relationship between Roger and Peter. Spoilers will follow.

Brief recap: Fran and her boyfriend Stephen, television news people, have stolen the station helicopter in order to flee the zombie apocalypse. They have invited their friend Roger, a swat team officer to flee along with them. After a harrowing incident in a large public housing building, Roger has invited Peter to also join them. It is clear that Roger and Peter only met for the first time during that night’s action and Peter is a total unknown to either Fran or Stephen. They fly in the helicopter for more than day and end up in a mall that has been overrun by the dead. Here it becomes a story of the survival and dynamics of the band of four characters.

Stories like this one are not new and many of the issues raised have been tackled in other setting, most often with a nuclear attack providing the collapse of society and the isolation of the characters. It has also been common to have the dynamic been that there is one couple and another man or two without a romantic or sexual partner. When this happens a very common complication is the frustrated sexual desire created by the only woman in the area being bonded to another man.

This never happens in Dawn on the Dead (1979.) Stephen and Fran have issue with their relationship but no hint of desire or attraction is ever apparent in either Roger or Peter. Rather Roger and Peter express a powerful bond for each other. They hatch plots together, trust each other implicitly in times of great danger, and when Roger is bitten, sealing his fate to die and rise as an undead, it provokes the strongest emotional expression from Peter. Nothing else in the story’s events comes breaking Peter’s locked-down facade of control like Roger decline, death, and re-animation. Even after Roger passes from the plot, Peter displays no interest in Fran, instead retreating away to giver her and Stephen room romance as he spends the time at Roger’s grave. At the climax of the film, after battling a marauding outlaw gang, and Stephen’s death, when Peter and Fran escape together, there is no sexual or romantic undertone. The chemistry simply isn’t there.

Perhaps the close bond Peter and Roger shared is the brotherly bond of fellow soldier, men who face terrible times together and who must trust each if they are to survive. However, they have no history together in the field. They have only just met, and there’s the case of no interest in Fran. Apparently Stephen, a character with a markedly fragile ego, had no issues or concerns in inviting another man to flee with he and his girl. Is that perhaps because he knows Roger well enough to know Roger does not care for women and thus he presents no threat? Could it be that Roger’s impulsive offer to Peter a man he had just met was prompted by fully functioning gay-dar?

In the text there is no conclusive proof of this hypothesis but neither can the film falsify it. It is a question that each viewer will have to answer for themselves.


Cinematic Time Capsules

All art reflects the times that its creation. This is true of poems, paintings, sculptures, prose, and movies. As a fan of film it is always interesting to me how many decades have a distinct tone and feel to them reflecting to social mood and issues of their periods.

Recently my sweetie-wife and I watched three films from a few decades ago and the time capsule effect struck me fairly strong. The movies in questions were The Italian Job, Get Carter, and The Heroin Busters. All three captured a distinct mood from their societies and culture, and though all were produced and filmed outside of the United States they reflected the changing tastes and expectations of the American audience for whom that had been intended.

The Italian Job is a comedy/heist movie. Produced during the rule of the Production Code it is a foregone conclusion that film’s protagonists cannot get away with the money. Hailing from the mid 60s the movie reflects both a traditional and non-traditional viewpoint. Our heroes are thieves and criminals, their lifestyle are not presented as self-destructive this is most non-traditional when compared to the noir of the 40s and 50s or the gangster films of the 30s. Yet the target of the heist ends up being Red China making their illegal actions a part of the larger Capitalism vs Communism struggle, and you can hardly get more mainstream than that.

Get Carter produced during the early 70s, just a few short years later, is a completely different animal. Jack Carter, a London hoodlum, has returned to his detested home in the north of England to find out who killed his brother and why. Carter is often called a bastard and it’s very hard to argues with that label. he is ruthless and cruel. Every person associated with the murder of his brother he kills, often in a cold blooded fashion that further his hunt for the next target. Like many films of the 70s, Get Carter, presents a flawed main character whose victory is pyric and hollow.

The Heroin Busters is an Italian exploitation movie about undercover police infiltrating and destroying a heroin smuggling ring. Cynical and violent the movie reflects that the low budget cinema had moved to a tone and style meant to reflect a ‘street’ sensibility. With violence and nudity more gratuitous that Game of Thrones, this movie captures the low entertainment of the grindhouses, a venue and style of films not found only in history and nostalgia.


Wow, This has all Sorts of Stupid

I have been seeing links to this (Your Refusal to Date Conservatives is One Reason we have Donald Trump.) piece bouncing around the internet for a few the last week but today was my first chance to read it first hand. Truly this is awful stuff.

Apparently what set the writer off was a dating site that is allowing people to self-identify as support Planned Parenthood. The impression I get is that Laber seems to feel that supporters of Planner Parenthood are rigid and unyielding. (And of course we know that the Right is so compromising when it comes to Planned Parenthood.)

Then he dives from Planned Parenthood and assertive dating into tribalism and the fact that we are boiling our electorate down into extreme bases. That’s true, but it is hardly the ‘plague on both house’ both sides are guilty sort of affair.

Of course he tries to support his position with a spot of evidence.

First up: Pew pole from 2014 Republicans holding ‘very unfavorable views’ of Democrats 43%, Democrats holding the same for Republicans 38%. Seems clear to me who is more extreme, particularly since that started out 20 years earlier only 1 point apart on that same issue. (Note how in the article itself he uses numerals for one and words for the other, hiding the sausage with a bit of typographic trickery.)

So then he transitions into how this drives primaries and election more extreme candidates. Hey, that is also true and look he pops up with more evidence.

Second up: 2010 Delaware Republican Primary, Tea party Purists Christine ‘I’m not a witch’ O’Donnell wins the primary and costs the GOP a seat. Looks to me that once again his evidence does nothing to show ‘both sides’ or that hot women rebuffing Conservative Men are at fault but rather the hard, ‘compromise is a dirty word’ Republican base is the more extreme faction. (It’s also interesting how his evidence keeps going back further and further into the past yet continues to show the Conservatives as the hard liners refusing the bend. Seems to me there’s a clue there about where this started.)

His third point, that Trump’s appeal was to ‘economically anxious’ voters and that they were really ‘culturally anxious’ he presents without supporting evidence. Frankly that fight is still being fought but you can hardly ignore the fact that from the very first moments of his campaign, Trump ran on racial issues. Laber thinks that Trump would not have done as well had we been less polarized.

Yeah, that I think is true, but it also ignores the years and years of lies, distortions, and hyperbole coming from the Right on this issue. Death Panels, Born in Kenya, Secret Muslim, this poison in our politics is deadly and it did not come equally from both sides and it has nothing to do with women preferring to date men who aren’t enemies of their constitutional rights.


Retro Review: Real Genius

Over the last two nights as I sat unwinding from editing my latest Work In Progress I re-watched Real Genius. Hailing from 1985 the movie is about abnormally bright people and the University that they attended. (A very thinly disguised cinematic version of CalTech.) Real Genius is the second movie to introduce me to Val Kilmer. This first is Top Secret! the box office failure that is a favorite of mine and Weird Al Yankovic. Unlike the better known Revenge of the Nerds Real Genius has a genuine affection for its smart and somewhat socially outcast intelligent characters.

The plot is direct and straight-forward, Mitch Taylor a genius at 15 has been discovered and selected by professor Hathaway for early admission into the school. Hathaway has an secret motive in recruiting Mitch. Hathaway, played by 80’s light villain William Atherton, is late in delivering a laser capable of assassinating a person from orbit and he wants Mitch’s brilliance to help his team deliver the weapon no one knows that they are working on. On Hathaway’s team is Chris Knight, (Val Kilmer) the leading smart man but also someone who lives life to the fullest and is a cut-up. This is a coming of age story for young Mitch, learning hard lessons about being lied to and find love with the quirky, manic, but certainly not a ‘pixie girl’ Jordan. (Played wonderfully by Michelle Meyrink who, but the end of the 80s, retired from acting for personal fulfillment via Zen Buddism.) Truly, I remember 30 years ago sitting in the theater just captivated by Michelle’s Jordon. Who could not love that character?

This is a farce, the characters are overdrawn, the science is not possible but nor is it simply magic, and the being an 80s movie there are several musical montages, but this film works and it is worth your time.


It’s Horror Film Season in D.C.

In most low grade horror films, particularly of the slasher variety, there’s a point where the hero, using the ‘Last girl’ thinks the killer is dead, only to have the bad guy rise and start attacking again. Like those poorly thought out monstrous plots the GOP is taken their ACA repeal and shown to the world that it is not dead.

Cassidy-Graham, the latest, and truly most likely to be final, attempt to repeal the ACA is shambling its way toward a vote on the Senate floor. This is likely the final push as the Senate Parliamentarian has ruled that the Budget Reconciliation bill must pass by Sep 30th.

There have been, of course, no debates (apparently only 90 seconds of debate remains on the clock.) No committee hearings or mark-ups, no public hearings, and there will be no CBO score letting us know the final cost and the number of people who will lose their insurance, but the GOP is plunging ahead despite all that.

This is an example of perverse incentives. Millions of people, perhaps tens of millions if the earlier bills are any guide, getting tossed off their insurance is something that would normally make an elected official very hesitant, but there’s something more terrifying to the sitting GOP members, a primary challenge.

For a number of years, approaching a decade now, the GOP has through a mixture of lies and hyperbole, painted the ACA (Obamacare) as the greatest evil, failure, and theft of liberty to have ever risen against the nation. (Death Panels anyone? Worse than Slavery?) They have convince their dedicated base that the law must be repealed and election cycle after election cycle they have promised just that, while lying their asses off about ‘replace.’ This cycle of lies and over promising fertilized the ground Trump’s candidacy. (gee, thanks.) If they don’t pass something, then a loud mouth with bigger lies and bigger promises will challenge them from the right in the primary. For senators that’s a serious threat and for House members it very nearly electoral death because safe districts make such challenges stronger than competitive ones.

Because of the calendar deadline if the Senate passes this bill the House will be faced with the choice of passing it as is or killing it. I would not bet on its death.

I have friends for whom this bill will be a terrible thing. There is no doubt that if it passes and is signed, millions and millions of people will be enraged and the Democratic party will be emboldened to go even bigger, having had their faces shoved in the fact the GOP will never compromise for market based solutions.

I keep hearing Jamie Lannister saying “How do you think this ends?”


Movie Review: IT

Saturday night a friend, myself, and several member of the San Diego chapter of the HWA went to a screening of IT. I have not seen the 1990 adaptation nor have I read the book so my review is based solely upon the screenings I attended.

IT is based on the mid-1980s horror novel by Steven King and the story had been previously adapted in 1990 into a two part miniseries. The story concerns a group of just barely pre-teen adolescents of outcasts and misfits that call themselves ‘The Losers Club.’ When they discover that the rash of child disseverances currently plaguing the town of Derry Maine is the works on dark supernatural forces, they take active control of their lives and battle the demonic force. The’ big bad’ takes the form of Pennywise, The Dancing Clown making this a particularly difficult film for those that find clowns inherently creepy or frightening. The original story dealt with two plot line the Loser Club as children dealing with Pennywise and a 27 years later as adult when they discover that Pennywise has returned. The film wisely adapts only the children’s story then attempt too much in a single film.

The movie works well enough. It has plenty of suspenseful scenes that work, it has a number of jump scares that are well timed and effective and utilizing an ‘R’ rating it does not shy away from the more graphic elements of horror. . While all of the on screen talent is good and credible in their performances it is Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise that dominates the film. That said for me the film’s ending didn’t quite find its target. I do not think that this is an artifact of the split storyline. Plenty of questions are raised about the town of Derry and Pennywise but very few are any are truly answered. From what I know of the novel the adult storyline barely answer these questions either. Perhaps the sequel will tie this up, and after a 117 million dollar opening weekend there will be a sequel, but I can only judge this film on its own merits. The movie works, I enjoyed seeing it, but the lack of a strong ending weakens the presentation and it is not going to be joining the other horror films in my library.