Rejecting Labels

There are a lot of ways to label people classifying them and placing them in prescribed boxes. Some are verb based, describing people by the actions that they perform such as actor, writer, athlete and so on. Other methods of classification are trickier, relying upon what someone believes, working off their philosophical and political principles. It is this second set of labels that I do not apply to myself.

The trouble with these labels is that the moment you self identify with any one of them it does more that act a short hand for what you may believe it also acts are a boundary for what you are not allowed to believe.

If you self identify as ‘conservative’ then you are expected to not believe in universal healthcare, or social safety nets.

If you identify as ‘liberal’ then you are expected to stand against the death penalty.

The list and possible boundaries are nearly endless. As a public artist I am not going to place such labels on myself. That is not to say that I do not have strong political philosophical positions, clearly anyone who reads this blog knows that I do. But I do not want to be compared and found wanting against an arbitrary definition. Others, speaking of them or me, can use whatever classification works for them. I will continue to argue and put forth the ideas and concepts that I think are right and that work. Call me ally or not, call me an opponent or not, I will stand for what I believe in look to those principles rather than easy labels.

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John McCain A Lifetime of Service

This week it was announced that John McCain the senior senator from Arizona has been diagnosis with a brain cancer, and worse yet one of the more aggressive varieties of that terrible disease. The 5-year survival rate for patients over 55 is truly bad; the statistics I have read place the number around 2 to 5 percent. Senator McCain has beaten long odds before and I hope he triumphs one more time.

That’s not to say that I am a supporter of the senator. As a politician he has too often been on the wrong side of an issue, he has too often played the team player instead of living up to his image as a maverick, but he is by far not the worst politician in our current political environment.

It should also be remembered that this man has spent a lifetime in service to his country. As naval pilot he has survived the loss of multiple aircraft, survived the heart of the terrible fire aboard the USS Forrestal, and endured years of captivity and torture. When his North Vietnamese offered him a chance to go home early, outside of the proscribed rotation for returning Prisoners of War, an opportunity he knew would give them tremendous propaganda value because he was the son of an Admiral, he refused, insisting he be released in the same order as al the other POWs.

There are many reasons why I do not think John McCain has been a particularly good politician, many way in which I think he has not served the public good, many errors that have made use less safe and less free, but he has always been an opponent and never an enemy. Too often in our politics we take those terms as synonyms.

I wish him a full and speedy recovery.

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The Productivity, Practicality, and Camaraderie of Writers Groups

Monday night was the most recent meeting of the Mysterious Galaxy Writers Group. It is a support group that I have been a member of since its inception and one that credit for a substantial amount of growth as a writer.

Writers groups are not for everyone but I think that when they work they are tremendous tools for many writers. Ours runs on a fairly informal basis and focuses on live readings and immediate critiques. At each meeting anywhere from three to five of our members will read about 1200-1500 words of their material and then in round-robin everyone else will give their feedback. It’s roughly the Milford Method in that the author says nothing, except answering direct questions from the others, and there is very limited ‘open discussion’ among the others. Each person gives their feedback, usually taking just two or so minutes and then on to the next.

The benefits of such a groups really come down to three main areas.

Learning to give and take critiques. It’s an old saying but a very true one that the value of critiques is not the ones you get back but the ones you give out. Of course getting feedback on a piece can be powerfully useful. We all have blind spots about our material and those alternate viewpoints help. But learning to see what doesn’t work in other stories makes it easier to spot those same flaws in your own.

Being a member of a writers group can help make you more productive. In addition to the positive feedback when people like your work there is also the expectation game. If others are expecting more of a story then you are more likely to work your way though the rough patches instead of giving up and getting distracted by the next shiny idea. Truly I feel the most important skill any writer needs to master is the ability to get to the end of the tale.

And not least important is the friendship. Writing can be a lonely craft and one that is not easily understood by those who do not feel the call of the muse. Spending time with others who suffer the same troubles, doubts, and joys can be invigorating. Never underestimate the importance of morale, to an army and to a person, especially your own. The friendships I have forged through my group are powerful and I hope I have been as big as help to them as they have been to me.

If you form a writers group here are a few bits of advise I think you may find helpful.

Be collaborative, with the work and how the group functions.

Be Supportive, and if there are members who enjoy tearing down others’ work, do not suffer them. These things work much better if the member is there to help each other and not satisfy their own ego.

Find something praise in every critique. It’s hard hearing the bad stuff, make it easier with compliments on what did work.

Avoid saying that ‘this is wrong.’ and ‘that’s a mistake.’ Rather phrase things what did and did not work for you. This is art not physics.

And most of all, have fun, enjoy the process.

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Two in One Day

Sunday witnessed the passing of two cinema icons; George A. Romero and Martin Landau.

George Romero is perhaps best known as the creator of the modern zombie with the legendary movie Night of the Living Dead. It is amusing that while credited as creating the zombie as we know it today Romero never used that word to describe the monstrous revenants of his film. Due to a last minute title change and clumsy editing of the film’s credit sequences, Romero lost the copyright to his movie and it passed instantly into the public domain. Romero went on to make a number of film most either horror or horror-adjacent but it was the zombies and those movies that brought him legions of undead fans. While Night was the first of the zombie movies, and made for what you might expect to spend on a single episode of a television series, in my opinion it was not the best of his zombie movies. That honor goes to 1979’s Dawn of the Dead. Benefiting from his growth as a filmmaker, writer, and with more resources and stronger themes, Dawn is a cinema classic that is as relevant and powerful today as when it was first released.

Martin Landau had a long and lauded career as an actor and as an acting coach. Depending on your age you may best know him for his roles in Mission: Impossible the original television series, Space:1999, or from his Oscar award winning performance as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s charming biopic Ed Wood. I have read that he was originally offered the role of Spock in Star Trek but turn it down, but I suspect that may be a bit of Hollywood urban legend. It was reported that he turned down the role because he was uninterested in playing a character without emotions but Spock in the original pilot had emotions, it the cold, logical character was the female second in command, Number One.

With or without the Star Trek connection there is no doubt that Landau left his mark on the industry and on the culture.

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Is The Doctor still The Doctor?

Toady the new lead actor for the BBC’s long running fantasy series Doctor Who was announced and for the first time a woman will be playing the eccentric Time Lord; Jodie Whittaker will be replacing Peter Capaldi. I have very little impression of Ms. Whittaker and so I will be approaching her performance free of expectations. (I was a Capaldi fan before he became The Doctor and knew he was going to give it a terribly good twist. He will be missed.) Given that every time The Doctor ‘regenerates’ into their new form it carries with it a new personality for the Time Lord, and that we have seen Time Lords flip sexes before, I have no issue with this coming incarnation. I am more excited by the change in show-runners. Moffitt has also been hot and cold for me and I am hoping that the new series will be more consistent in what I want from the show.

This new casting has brought to mind an age-old question about writing. Are men and women so distinctly different as to be two utterly separate types of people?

I know people, smart talented people, who insist that no man can adequately writing a woman’s character. The underlying premise in that view is that men and women are distinctly different, existing as unique categories. That is not my opinion but it is one held by a great many people and as a matter of opinion it is not subject to proof and objective truth.

However, if you believe that women and men are so different that they might as well be alien to one another and that their characteristics do not overlap, then when a Time Lord flips sexes they must cease to be the person that they were before. This is not a minor alteration in the matrix of their personality. Not a matter of being a little more silly, a little more jaded, a little more deceitful, a little more noble or any of that, but a change of a foundational nature as to make them alien to their previous self.

So, Is the Doctor still the Doctor or do we have a person with The Doctor’s talents, memories, and skills calling themselves by that title but is in fact an impersonation?

I think women can write men and men can write women and as such while the person may change somewhat, this is still the Doctor, but I wonder how someone with that other world-view reconciles the new Doctor against the Old.

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Vintage Movie Review Out of the Past

Last weekend I watched the final DVD from my recently purchased 5 classic film noir collection; Out of the Past.

Robert Mitchum stars as a private eye, Jeff, who has abandoned his former life and name, taking up residence in small town where he runs a gas station. His life there is quiet, simple, and happy, this being a noir that does not last.

An associate from his past arrives and before long he is dragged back into his former life, associating with thugs and a crime boss played by Kirk Douglas.

Like most good noirs this story is murky, people are not what they seem, and dangerous secrets litter the landscape. Out of the Past is a movie that has been added to the National Film Register as a film that represents important or cultural aspects of our shared cinema history and it is the principal reason I purchased this collection. I had never seen the movie and it was unavailable via my streaming services.

I do not regret the purchase. This film alone would have been worth the money, but adding in Gun Crazy, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Set-up and this collection has hours a great, dark noir.

You may noticed that I listed only four movies from this five film set. The fifth movie in the collection is Murder, My Sweet. This movie stars Dick Powell as Phillip[ Marlow, who, along with the character Sam Spade, practically invented the hard-drinking, fast talking private eye cliché. Murder, My Sweet features extensive use of voice, a technique utilized in both superb film noir such as Double Indemnity and Out of the Past but also is associated with the bad written pot boiler version of the genre. Murder, My Sweet is not superb.

Dick Powell makes a terribly Marlow. When he cracks wise it comes off as smart ass that you don’t like, unlit the loveable rogue when he’s played by someone like Boggart. Also the ending of Murder, My Sweet is simply too pat and too happy for very noir-ish for my tastes.

Overall the collect is well worth the money, even with one miss among the titles.

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Fiction and Reality

A number of decades ago I first conceived my nationalized space setting. In this fiction future history the United States takes a wrong turn during the 21st century and begin its slid from being a world power to being a third rate power. In part this was inspired by the decline of previous empires, because eventually that is the fate of all great empires and nations, and it was also inspired by a hope that we might avoid such a turn of events.

Two years ago a publisher passed the first Seth Jackson novel set in this future history. That’s fine, as I have said in other essays, Rejection is part of the game, don’t play if you can’t handle getting the rejections and the dislikes. My agent has moved it on and another publishers is now giving the material a look. It’s strange to be consider more books in the series as I watch the current events around me.

The fiction was not about our current president. Hell, all throughout the election last year I was as certain as anyone else we would not end up where we have in fact landed. (And it a slim reed of hope to note that it was the greatest election misfire in history to produced this outcome.) As I continue to work in my fictional future I avoid making reference to current events, even though I do believe that the misfortune of today’s political climate will reverberate for a very long time. I think it is best to not date the material with too many current references and being too specific, particularly in SF, can be a self-inflicted wound, but it has me thinking about this nation’s future.

Is this what it is like to live through an empire decline?

I fear the answer may be yes. As a people we seem to be coming apart at the seems and as a nation we seem to be turning away from the exterior focusing on our selves to exclusions of the world. The ridiculous ‘border wall’ is such a symptom. It’s not about actually solving a problem. It’s about literally walling ourselves off and proclaiming that which is beyond the wall is unimportant. That didn’t work for Hadrian and it will not work for us. Our loss of ‘soft power,’ influence, and respect are attributes that cannot be rebuilt with a change of administrations. Nations are working around this presidency and discovery that perhaps the United States no longer is indispensible.

China is rising and perhaps the future of the world is the Yuan as the Reserve Currency.

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Universal Healthcare is not Slavery

So from the left side of the political spectrum that has been an assertion that ‘healthcare is a right.’ For the moment let’s set aside if they are in fact correct with that position. (And no the preamble to the constitution doesn’t establish it, that section has no force of law. It’s what gamers call ‘color text.’) In response to this position some on the right, generally from the libertarian wing, have counter-claimed that asserting that healthcare is a right means making an illegitimate claim on another’s person’s labor and that is de factor slavery.

Slavery? That is an absurd proposition beyond the boundaries of the asinine.

First off, the healthcare professions, doctors, nurse and the like would still be compensated for their labor. t would not be stolen without compensation or consent, so it in now way resembles slavery. It is the height of offensiveness to even suggest such a thing.

Second, all right require the labor of others. You want a right to a trail? That means that there must be judges, District Attorneys, clerks, bailiffs, and a whole host of support personal. You want a right to vote? There has to be registers, clerks, and again a vast support network. A right which is not protected and not enforced is no right at all and that protections and enforcement requires people and their labor.

Where the questions of labor that is compelled is the taxation. Taxes represents the labor of people that has been confiscated to support the public good. There is a great and vigorous debate over what constitutes a public good and therefore what sort of things are so valuable, so essential, that collective we must take some from most in order to support the goal.

There are strong arguments on both side about healthcare and if it is a public good or an individual responsibility, but comparisons to slavery are only for the dim and the deluded.

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Vintage Film Review: Blacula

As many of you are already aware I have a deep love of cinema. Sadly, one aspect of the cinema that my knowledge has been lacking in is the sub-genre of Blaxploitation. Traditionally defined this was a short period, primarily in the 70’s, when there was a sudden influx of movie that were black produced, black starred, for black audiences. Often dealing directly with issues of racial and social injustice these films addressed things from a more street-level rough around the edges style of production.

Last year as the start of my education in this cinema I watched Black Caesar, basically a modern retelling of Little Caesar but for a (then) contemporary black audience. Today, while I was home sick with a viral head cold, I watched Blacula. An urban vampire story from this particular sub-genre

The story of Blacula is the story of an African Prince, Mamuwalde (portrayed by the ever talented William Marshall whom geek audiences will remember as the creator of the M-5 computer in the original Star Trek.) and his mission to Europe to try and end the slave trade. Sadly his mission has taken him to Count Dracula who takes a fancy to Luva, the Prince’s wife and is offended at the idea of giving up slavery. When Mumawalde’s resistance offends the count Dracula turns him to a vampire and the entombs Mumawalde and his wife, who has not been turned so that the prince will hear his wife slowly die and then spend eternity trapped and suffering a thirst for blood that can never be fed. I have to admit, that’s a pretty nasty curse. Fast forward a lot of year and Mumawalde is freed and loose in 1970s Los Angeles.

I enjoyed this movie, despite the production being hampered by a quite limited budget. The vampire make-up effects are far from ideal, but I like the story, and I liked the characters; that is what really matters. If you have not seen it you should at least one. Be aware of the very limited budget and non-existence of modern special effects going in and you may enjoy the way I did.

 

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Movie Review: Spider-Man Homecoming

With his appearance in Captain American: Civil War, Spider-Man became part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Now home at the creative company that birthed him, the character appears in his first dedicated MCU film Spider-Man: Homecoming.

I wish I could say that this movie is great, but I can’t. I am happy to say that movie is not bad, nor is it terrible like the last few outing of the character when guided by the corporate meddlers at Sony. No, Spider-Man Homecoming is just, okay.

The film does a nice job of recapping some of the major events of the MCO, including Spider-Man’s own participation in Captain America: Civil War without simply falling back on either rethreaded footage or bad voice-over narration. The film also wisely centers on Parker’s civilian life, his troubles in high-school, and the confusion as he transits from teenager- towards adult in a world populated by heroes and his own feelings of inadequacy. There is a lot here, but unfortunately it is never handled in anything other than a workman-like manner. Parker, anxious to become an Avenger and to be seen as a hero in his own standing, chaffs at what he perceives as neglect from Tony Stark/Iron man while as Spider-man Parker hunts for good to do and adventure to be lived. Stumbling across a band of low-rent criminals equipped decidedly high-rent tools provides Parker with an opportunity to prove himself. During the course of his investigations he contends with crushes, best friends, and protective adults as he follows this story of growth.

The problem with the film isn’t that this arc is uninteresting but rather it is handled in a route predictable manner. The characters are engaging, the actors talented and well cast, but the story simply moves from plot point to plot point without much in the way of any new to say. Compounding the troubles is the inclusion of Tony Stark/Iron Man in the film. Stark is a larger than life, all-encompassing character and he tends to crowd out other characters. Placed inside of another hero’s story he tends to bend the arc around himself, like a black hole of story. An additional element of flabbiness to the movie is that there is a set action piece that has nothing to do with the plot. It doesn’t advance the story, it doesn’t illuminate character, it doesn’t present growth, it is simply a bit of razzle dazzle action. Cut it out and the story doesn’t change. This is not a bit in a montage, but a stand alone major set piece that service no purpose other than action for action’s sake.

I would also have to say that this film post-credit button is the most disappointing and the filmmakers seem to be aware of it. Nothing demonstrates the lack of original thought more than this added bit.

Over all the film is watchable but it will join The Incredible Hulk as an MCU film not in my library.

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