About Chad J Shonk

Chad J. Shonk is the award-winning writer of the increasingly popular indie film Dakota Skye. A product of the great states of Ohio, Georgia and California, he currently resides in San Francisco.

Chad’s Favorite Fifteen of 2016

I’m ashamed that my list isn’t very esoteric. Every film on here was a fairly mainstream release and all of them have received some level of praise and success. But I didn’t find any hidden gems this year. I’m sure there were some. If you found them, let me know. But here’s my list of my favorite films of 2016, as usual broken into 3 tiers: I. Masterpieces, II. Great Films, and III. Very Good Films.

I.

ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve)

Sicario was my favorite film of 2015 and now here’s Villeneuve’s latest, at the top of my list once again. Needless to say he’s becoming one of the world’s premier filmmakers. I normally wouldn’t be too excited about new Bladerunner and Dune films, but with Denis at the helm, I’m now actively looking forward to them. I’m not talking about the actual film too much. I don’t want to give any of it away. Yes, it is a film about a couple scientists trying to communicate with alien visitors. But that is just one layer of this beautiful gut-punch of an onion, and I’d rather you peel it for yourself and cry your eyes out. Lois Lane, Hawkeye, and Saw Gerrera are all great but it’s Eric Heisserer’s screenplay and Villeneuve’s confidence and grace behind the camera that make this one of the best science fiction experiences ever put to film.

THE HANDMAIDEN (Park Chan-Wook)

Park’s best film since Old Boy, The Handmaiden is not at all what it seems. The poster and title and production design and costuming would leave you to believe that you’re about to watch a “serious” period drama, a Korean “Downton Abbey” or something. But The Handmaiden, while having those trappings, is a crazy-as-fuck double-and-triple-cross forbidden-lesiban-love-story con movie. It is fun and hysterical and sexy and entertaining and, shot through Park’s unique eye, a visual treat that I can’t wait to revisit. It’s not a film for everyone, I guess, but it’s definitely a film for me. Villeneuve and Park. Two of cinemas boldest voices. Right here at the top of my list. Who’d have thought?

OJ: MADE IN AMERICA (Ezra Edelman)

The flat-out most compelling thing that I watched all year. There was some debate over whether or not Made in America was a feature film or not, but, despite its 7 hour plus run time, and the fact that most people saw it on TV, it has been nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars and that makes it a movie. And what a movie. I was a young man as the O.J. saga unfolded, and, like most of America, I was fascinated by it, but Edelman’s documentary is so much more than just a recounting of the “Trial of the Century”. The first part alone, which covers the historical relationship between the police and Los Angeles’ South Central black communities, is an Oscar-worthy piece that seems even more relevant today. Don’t know anything about O.J. Simpson or his trial? Watch this. Don’t know anything about the history of police brutality by the LAPD? Watch this. Still angry that O.J. went free, don’t understand how an obviously guilty man was found not guilty in front of the entire world? Watch this. You will understand. Filled with a dozen stunning “what-the-fuck-did-he-just-say?” moments, each episode will propel you into the next and you won’t be sated until it’s all over. This is not some exploitative true-crime documentary. This is a work of art, a film about so many things, and one of the best films of 2016.

II.

MOONLIGHT(Barry Jenkins)

Nothing I can say about Moonlight that hasn’t been said by its reviews and its run through awards season. Achingly delicate film, anchored by 3 strong actors all playing the same character, with a big assist from this year’s breakout star, Mahershala Ali, in a film that may win him an Oscar, Jenkins delivers a film that will stick with you for a long time.

LION (Garth Davis)

I knew nothing about Lion when I saw it, and I’m glad. A true story about a young Indian boy who is separated from his family and adopted by an Australian couple, this is the year’s best “uplifting” film, and if you can get through the end without crying, I welcome you as my new robot overlord.

SILENCE (Martin Scorsese)

I am admittedly a Scorsese fanboy, him being our greatest living director and all, and I think Silence is a masterpiece, the third and most likely final of his overtly religious works (Marty tends to revisit certain topics three or four times, then give them a rest), Silence is a deeply meditative, slow, quiet, and even-handed film that should appeal to believers and nonbelievers alike. I think over the years, this film my creep farther up my list. Like most of Scorsese’s films, I will watch it many more times over the course of my life.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (Tom Ford)

Fashion designer Tom Ford released A Single Man in 2009 and I loved the shit out of that movie. Nocturnal Animals isn’t as strong, or as emotionally resonant, but it is a work of somber fiction that matches my sensibilities well. IMDB summarizes the plot as “A wealthy art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a symbolic revenge tale.” I guess that’s true. Come for the story, stay for the Adams, the Gyllenhaal, the Shannon, and the Ford.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Kenneth Lonergan)

Speaking of somber fiction, Manchester is driven by a challenging screenplay by Lonergan but will remembered because of the power of Casey Affleck’s soon-to-be Oscar winning performance. It’s an incredible bit of screen acting. And don’t overlook the often-overlooked Michelle Williams. She’s only in a few scenes but she fucking kills it. Not a date movie. Not a movie to watch if you want to get anything else done that day. But a movie you should see nonetheless. Although I’m not sure you’ll want to see it twice.

III.

HELL OR HIGH WATER (David Mackenzie)
Great modern western featuring great modern actors. Nice to see Chris Pine playing a character and not just relying on his Kirk charm to get him through (coughchrisprattcough).

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME (Richard Linklater)
Not a sequel to Dazed & Confused like people wanted, but this film is classic Linklater: there is very little story, it feels like nothing happens, it meanders, and I love it all the more for it.

MOANA (Ron Clements & John Musker)
Moana Will forever have a special place in my heart (it was my oldest daughter’s first movie theater experience) but it is also the best Disney animated film in years (including Pixar). And with songs by Hamilton’s Lin Miranda, I can’t even complain when my daughter wants to listen to the soundtrack over and over.

ROAD TO BUSAN (Sang-ho Yeon)
Snowpiercer with zombies. What else do you need? Go rent it now.

FENCES (Denzel Washington)
Two of the world’s best actors yelling and crying at each other for two and a half hours? Count me in. Washington does very little to “open up” this August Wilson play, but he and Viola are such pure fire you won’t care.

ROUGE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (Gareth Edwards)
It feels good to have a Star Wars film on here. And it deserves it. It was so much more Star Wars literate than The Force Awakens and I felt so much at home.

HIDDEN FIGURES (Theodore Melfi)
A film about three truly inspiring women told in a fairly uninspired way, it’s impossible to deny the importance and power of Melfi’s film, even if I wish he had found a more compelling way to tell it. But these women, though, and these actresses. Man. Worth it just for them.

Just for fun, here’s my list of the BEST TV OF 2016. No particular order, no details. Just a quick list. We all know TV is better than movies these days. Pretty soon these lists will merge as the walls between media crumble.

 

 

 

 

 

LUKE CAGE, ATLANTA, BETTER CALL SAUL, STAR WARS: REBELS, GAME OF THRONES, SILICON VALLEY, BATES MOTEL, WESTWORLD, LAST WEEK WITH JOHN OLIVER, and, yes, STRANGER THINGS, although I didn’t love it as much as everybody else did.

My Favorite Films of 2015 (two days too late)

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I don’t live in Los Angeles anymore. I’m reminded of this all the time, of course. Whenever I board this city’s competent mass transit. Whenever I eat Bay Area “Mexican” food. Whenever I look off in the distance and see a big red bridge that for some reason is called “golden”.

I miss Southern California for lots of reasons and I could list a hundred of them, but that’s not what this is about. But one thing I miss very dearly, that is relevant here, is film culture. Not “The Business.” Not the Hollywood Community. Film Culture.

Los Angeles is a town that makes movies but is also a town that loves movies. Especially the movies that not everyone loves. The ones not in English. The ones with small budgets and big ideas. The ones that are not deemed marketable enough to open in thousands of theaters but still need to be seen. A lot of these films make it to other cities, but they ALL play in L.A. And not just the new ones. Several theaters, including the legendary and place-I-miss-most New Beverly Cinema, specialize solely in playing older films. Golden age masterpieces. 70s grindhouse. Silents. Cult classics.

One of the things I miss most about living in Los Angeles is that fact that there was always a movie to go see. Not on TV. Not on Netflix. Not at home. But a movie to go out and see.

I’m typing this while watching the Academy Awards (Chris Rock took an angle on the #OscarsSoWhite thing that I did not see coming) and I usually like to put out my Best of the Year list before the Oscars air. Not that anyone cares, but that’s just usually my deadline. But this year it was harder to see all the films I thought I needed to see. It’s just not as easy up in here in the land of Giants, Warriors, and 49ers. I’ve still missed a few things that I think might have had an impact on the list, but I’ll catch them when I catch them. So, after some pointless rambling, here’s my list of the best films of 2015.

(Oh, note: Star Wars. I liked it. I did not love it. I have too many problems with it to name it one of the best films of the year, despite its success, despite people’s love for it. It’s the film from 2015 that I will probably see a hundred times before I die, but it was never close to making this list. So consider this an honorable mention for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (J.J. Abrahms), I guess.)

I: THE GREAT

sicarioSICARIO (written by Taylor Sheridan, directed by Denis Villeneuve)

My first instinct when beginning to write about Villeneuve’s Sicario was to just rattle of a list of adjectives, but they were all just synonyms for one word: bleak. This is a dark, dark movie. You will not walk out of it with a jaunty spring in your step. You won’t call your mom to tell her “you NEED to see Sicario!” You can watch it on a date, but don’t expect it to put anybody in an amorous mood. Sicario is (and I say this as a man with a degree in film therefore know the terminology better than anyone) a fucking bummer, man.

It’s also extraordinary.

Chilling.

Beautiful.

Sobering.

Knuckle-whiteningly tense.

Okay. I found some more adjectives. And made up an adverb.

Sicario is a film you think is one thing then you find out it’s another and then “whoops!” it’s a completely other thing and it’s frustrating and confusing and you can’t stop watching it. On the surface, it is about the futility of the drug war. Benicio Del Toro is not officially reprising his Oscar-winning role in Soderberg’s Traffic, but it’s not hard to imagine a sequence of horrible events that would change 2000’s beleaguered Tijuana cop into 2015’s mysterious government operative.

He’s equally great in this film as he was in Traffic. Blunt is fantastic. Brolin is amazing. It looks great. It sounds great. It will have you scratching your head and gnawing your nails. I know I’m being vague but I really think the best way to see this film is in the complete dark.

And some people will come out into the light hating it. It is a polarizing film, mostly due to its stunning last act. I come down on the “pro” side; I think the whole point of the movie is the last act. But the last minutes of the film leave you feeling pointless, impotent, and oh so small. That makes it hard for some people to enjoy. And I totally get it. This movie so absolutely fucking frustrating.

But I absolutely fucking loved it.

creed

CREED (written by Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington, directed by Ryan Coogler)

Here’s the thing about Creed. There are a million ways to do this movie wrong. A million understandable decisions that could have produced a piece of shit movie. But Ryan Coogler found all of the ways to make this picture absolutely right. It is reminiscent of Rocky without being a complete rehash. It jumpstarts the franchise (I hate to use the word but it’s the world we live in) while honoring what came before it. It rewards you if you’re a Rocky fan but doesn’t punish you if you aren’t. It’s nostalgic without being fan service. It’s young and fresh and fun without being cloying or alienating to older fans.

(Actually, as I write this, I’m realizing that the makers of Creed and The Force Awakens had nearly identical missions laid out before them: and Creed, I really do feel, was more successful.)

But what really makes Creed work is that, despite its new protagonist and indie feel, is a straight-up, no bullshit, Rocky movie. And probably the best one this side of the 1976 original.

Oh, and Stallone is great here. (note from the future: he didn’t win the Oscar. The guy who did is a phenomenal actor but I really wanted to see Sly win this one). And Michael B. Jordan is a big giant motherfucking movie star. I would say it made everyone forget the travesty that was Fantastic Four, but that would be implying that people actually saw that garbage. Mr. Jordan is going to be just fine.

I love, love, love this movie. Thank you, Ryan Coogler. My favorite moment in any movie in all of 2015 is in Creed. If you’ve seen it you know it: the last round, the bell rings… and the music comes.

For that moment and many more, I can’t help but put Creed in my Top Three. It’s the most crowd-pleasing movie I’ve seen in years. If you didn’t see it in a packed theater, you missed out.

machinaEX MACHINA (written and directed by Alex Garland)

This past December, millions of people around the world understandably fell in love with a dashing X-Wing pilot named Poe Dameron and the handsome actor who portrayed him. But more savvy film goers have been a fan of Oscar Isaac for some time now. I first noticed him as Prince John in Ridley Scott’s lackluster Robin Hood, but it was the quirky 2013 Coen Brothers gem Inside LLewn Davis that made me fall in love. The following year he starred opposite powerhouse Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year, a movie I really wish people had given a chance. And earlier in 2015, before Isaac became the new Han Solo, he appeared in Ex Machina, the directorial debut of acclaimed screenwriter Alex Garland.

Ex Machina is smart, minimilist science fiction that treats its audience like adults. I’m noticing that several films on this list heavily feature smart people doing smart things. The Martain. Spotlight. Bridge of Spies. Steve Jobs. As well as my favorite film of 2014, The Imitation Game. In a world that sometimes feels like it’s on the express train to Idiocracy, there’s comfort to be found in stories that romanticize knowledge and intelligence.

I really don’t want to say any more about this film. Just watch it if you haven’t. If you already have, you know. You don’t need me telling you.

* * * * *

II: THE EXCELLENT

aANOMALISA (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)

Praise be to Jebus. The most unique voice in American cinema has finally returned to the screen. Seven years after his heartbreaking directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, Academy-Award winner Charlie Kaufman returns with an animated film that can only be described as, well, Kaufman-esque. As much as I loved this movie, in a real, deep down way, I know that I’m going to like it even more the next time. Because no one rewards repeat viewings better than Charlie Kaufman.

victoria (1)VICTORIA (Sebastian Schipper)

Turn the lights down. Silence your phone. Close the laptop. And just watch Victoria. Don’t have it on in the background. Don’t second-screen it. WATCH IT. This film wants to take you on a little trip. Take it up on its incredibly generous offer.

'Room' is a journey out of darkness, director saysROOM (Lenny Abrahamson)

If you’ve managed to not know ANYTHING about Room, keep it that way until you see the film.  When I sat down  I had no idea what it was about (with a small part of me hoping it had something to do with Tommy Wiseau) and was better off for it. I suggest you do the same if you can.

deadpool_107447DEADPOOL (Tim Miller)  NO! WE’RE TALKING ABOUT LAST YEAR. GET OUTTA HERE!

insideINSIDE OUT (Pete Docter)

Whenever we want to count Pixar out, they come up with a masterwork like this. Their most mature film. I’m not even sure how much it appeals to children. But as the father of a nearly three-year-old girl, this movie, on multiple occasions, conjured up a weird moist substance that leaked from my eyes. I should probably see a doctor about that. Inside Out is so smart. Clever. But it’s also honest in a way that “family entertainment” rarely is. Painfully honest. I wish the movie was longer; kind of wish there was more to the story. But it’s a wonderful film and a tough yet beautiful sit for any parent.

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-Guitar-Player-Doof-WarriorMAD MAX: FURY ROAD (George Miller)

Do you know how good Mad Max: Fury Road is? I like it less than almost everyone I know, and I love it. I think it’s overrated and amazing. I’m on the low end of people who liked this movie and I can’t wait to watch it again and again. That’s how good this movie is.

* * * * *

III: THE VERY GOOD

spotlightSPOTLIGHT (Tom McCarthy)

martianTHE MARTIAN (Ridley Scott)

carolCAROL (Todd Haynes)

deadpool-emma-insert-6DEADPOOL (Tim Miller) NO. I TOLD YOU, WRONG YEAR!

tim-roth-walton-goggins-hateful-eight-xlargeTHE HATEFUL EIGHT (Quentin Tarantino)

artisans-thumbnail-the-revenant_cleanTHE REVENANT (Alejandro González Iñárritu)

ST. JAMES PLACE

BRIDGE OF SPIES (Steven Spielberg)

socSTRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (F. Gary Gray)

deadpool-trailer-2-56-163948DEADPOOL (Tim Mil  STOP THAT!!!

* * * * *

Also worth checking out: DEADPOOL, STEVE JOBS, THE BIG SHORT, MI: ROGUE NATION, TRUFFAUT/HITCHCOCK, FURIOUS 7, DEADPOOL, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, TRUMBO, ANT-MAN, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, AND DEADPOOL.

Apologies to: THE DANISH GIRL, JOY, CONCUSSION, BEASTS OF NO NATION, DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE, AMY, SPY, CRIMSON PEAK, 99 HOMES, 45 YEARS, BROOKLYN

Oh and the best Television Show of 2015 was Season Two of “Deadpool”:

Deadpool-Reading-Screenshot-Movie-2016-Wallpaper

I mean “Fargo”:

fargo

Now that I’m done, I’m going to tear up the fucking dance floor, dude. Check it out.

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Star Wars : My Thoughts Before We Wake

featuring art by the late great Ralph McQuarrie

Star-Wars-Concept-Art-New-Hope3

I’m writing this from the past.

All the way back on Tuesday, December 15, 2015.

Because today, Friday, December 18, is a big day. For me. For a lot of us. I wanted to write this post ahead of time. Before today. Before it happens. Before we see it. Before the Awakening. Before the results of all this hype and hope and speculation and excitement are known. Will we be disappointed today? Will we be thrilled? Will our prayers be answered? I don’t know and for the purposes of this post, I don’t want to know.

So I’m writing this from the past. star_wars_r2d2_c-3po_ralph_mcquarrie_desktop_1920x1080_hd-wallpaper-1054461

Last night (for me, here in the past), The Force Awakens had its premiere at the Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Which means that people have seen it. A large group of people, a lot of them famous, a lot of them on Twitter. And, while I trust that none of them are going to run and tweet “Oh my God! Han Solo is just Dexter Jettster wearing a Mission Impossible Mask!”, I have deleted Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and any other social media app off my phone; deleted the bookmarks in Google Chrome. From Monday until Saturday, I am in as much of a media blackout as is possible in this day and age.

Because I don’t want to know.

I’m not a spoiler-phobe. I actually find that trend more than a little annoying, as I wrote about a while ago HERE. Do I want to know the story? The surprises? The ending? Fuck no. But mostly, I don’t want to know what people think about the movie. I don’t want to read Kevin Smith tweeting “HOLY SHIT STAR WARS IS SO GOOD!” or Patton Oswalt saying “Bad news guys…”. I don’t want to know what the critics have to say. Not a single fucking one. Not because I don’t like critics, but because I have no interest in what other people think about the movie.

I only care about what I think about it.

Two reasons for this:

1. There are at most a dozen people in this world whose opinions on film I actually respect. Who I can talk movies with in a way that satisfies me. Whose praise or condemnation of a film can actually sway my desire to see it. Does this make me a snob? Fuck yes. I embrace being a snob. I don’t care what most people think because I think I know better. It’s an ugly truth about me but a truth all the same. I feel that way about all movies; with Star Wars I feel it tenfold.

2. Knowing the general consensus on a film’s quality undoubtedly taints your experience in watching it for the first time. If the praise is effusive, often times you are disappointed by what you see because it was merely “good”, not “amazing” as every keeps saying. For me, I call this the Something About Mary effect. Conversely, if the word on the film is bad, if people are ripping it, if the cursed Rotten Tomatoes (boy do I hate Rotten Tomatoes) rating is low, you go into it expecting bad and you look for the bad. All you can see is the bad. And you don’t want to feel like an idiot for liking something that everyone else hates. Or you can go the other way. You’ve heard the film is bad, you go see it, enjoy it, and think “That was much better than everyone is saying. I don’t get it.” That happened with me on The Dark Knight Rises. The word wasn’t great on it but when I saw it I enjoyed it. Looking back, I realize those low expectations inflated my opinion of the film. I bought it on blu-ray the day it came out and haven’t been able to watch it all the way through even once. I find it mediocre and disappointing.

star-wars-mcquarrie3I don’t want to walk into the theater today with that baggage.

I’m bringing in enough with me as it is.

Because, well…

I love Star Wars more than you.

Since I don’t know who you are, dear reader, it’s understandable if you find that statement laughable.

But I love Star Wars more than you because Star Wars is my thing.

And it has been since 1980.

When I was four years old, my parents let me stay up to watch the network television debut of Star Wars. It was hosted by Billy Dee Williams (which is how I know it was around 1980), from a badly mocked-up version of what I would later learn was the Mos Eisley cantina. (Did you know it was owned by a Wookiee named Chalmun? Of course you didn’t. No reason you should. But I do. Because Star Wars is my thing.)

Like so many people, the first time seeing George Lucas’s Star Wars changed my life. I was never the same after that. I had, at the age of four, fallen truly, madly, and deeply in love.

I obviously don’t remember every detail of that night, but I remember enough. I remember the opening shot of the Blockade Runner (the Tantive IV) and the Star Destroyer (the Devastator) coming over the top of the screen and thinking the child’s equivalent of “holy shit!”. Being terrified of Darth Vader. I remember the cantina, obviously. Ben cutting off Ponda Baba’s arm. Meeting Han Solo. Seeing the Falcon for the first time. I have very strong memories of the trash compactor and, after that, the image that probably stuck most in my mind: Luke and Leia swinging across the chasm in the Death Star. Of course, the getaway fight with the TIE Fighters was amazing (“Don’t get cocky!”).

But what left an indelible impression on me was the final assault on the Death Star, later known as the Battle of Yavin. It enraptured me in a way I had never experienced. Starting with the scene in the briefing room where they break down the plan (I have this thing. Don’t know what it is, but my favorite scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark is when Indy uses the chalkboard to explain to the guys, one of them the actor that played Jek Porkins in A New Hope, how the Staff of Ra worked. Don’t know why that is.) and then of course the visuals, the action. It was so damn exciting and tense. I had no idea what was going to happen next. I had seen very few movies, so it never occurred to me that of course the hero was going to save the day. I was four. I didn’t know that it was an automatic thing in movies like this. I was terrified for Luke every step of the way. He’s just a kid from a farm! This is so dangerous! How is he going to make it out alive?

mcquarrie-xwing-concept

Ships crash. People die. Darth Vader starts mowing down Y-Wings in his funky looking fighter (TIE Advanced x1). It was all too much.

Then Luke switched off his targeting computer.

I stopped breathing.

Then, it happened. The moment that brings me chills every time I think about it, let alone see it. Seriously. Right now, seeing it in my head, I’m getting that feeling.

Just when it looked like Vader was going to shoot Luke down. Just when the Rebellion was about to be blown to oblivion, a miracle happened.

“Yahoo!”

The Falcon came down out of the sun and saved the day.

yahoo

They came back! Han and Chewie came back! If you were an adult, you probably knew it would happen. Because that’s how movies work. The cynical loner always grows a heart and comes back to help. But as a child? I had no idea it was coming.

And when it did, I felt it for the first time.

The jolt. The shiver. The surge.

For all I knew, at that moment, 35 years ago, it was The Force Itself.

That feeling, you know? The potent injection of emotion that seems to shoot up your spine when you see, hear, read something that just hits you in a place you never knew you had. It’s the white soldiers cheering “give ‘em Hell!” to the 54th Massachusetts as they leave to die attacking Fort Wagner. It’s a brave vampire slayer leaping to her death to save both her sister and the world (“She saved the world. A lot.”). It’s the “Ode to Joy”, when that damn chorus comes in and the bliss crackles like electricity under your skin.

I was paralyzed with… I don’t know what that feeling is. It’s a cocktail of emotions, universally known but undefined. Just that… rush. That feeling.

It was the first time I had felt it.

It was riding my first roller coaster.

It was losing my virginity.

Drinking my first beer.

I have George Lucas to thank for that. And I thank him, as all fans should, for giving us this gift.

I also wanted more.

star_wars_movies_atat_ralph_mcquarrie_fan_art_1280x800_wallpaper_wallpaper_2560x1600_www-wallpaperswa-comThe first Star Wars trilogy was an enormous hit. Millions and millions of people are fans of the films. Made Lucas a brand of his own, the most successful independent filmmaker in history. The original trilogy is beloved the whole world over. Especially The Empire Strikes Back, nearly universally considered the best of the films.

But my love affair didn’t stop in 1983 when Return of the Jedi was released. I didn’t think “Well, that cool thing is over. On to the next thing.”

I was in love. I still wanted more.

And to get more, I had to dive deeper. And there wasn’t a whole lot there.

I’ve seen the two pretty-awful Ewoks TV movies more than a dozen times each. Why? Because they were Star Wars. Same with the “Droids” and “Ewoks” cartoons. I read the seven available Star Wars spin-off novels, including the very enjoyable Han Solo and Lando Calrissian series. I read the lackluster Marvel comics.

But between 1983 and 1991, it was slim pickings for a kid who wanted more of his favorite thing.

But in ’91, a novel was published. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. It took place 5 years after Episode VI and heir-to-the-empire-coverstarred all of the original characters, and introduced a few new ones, including one of the great Star Wars villains (hell, characters) of all time. Soon after, in the world of comic books, Dark Horse got the Star Wars license and released “Dark Empire”, which took place a year after Heir to the Empire. It was a bleak story about Emperor Palpatine rising from the dead to take one last stab at conquering the galaxy.

With those two pieces of fiction, the entity that would eventually be called the Expanded Universe was born. It would live and grow for almost a quarter of a century.

And I experienced all of it. Every novel. Every comic book. Every video game. Every role-playing game. Every encyclopedia. Star Wars became much more than three movies for me.

Even through the Special Editions and the Prequels, the Expanded Universe thrived. The novels and comics kept coming. Some were great. Some sucked. Most were in the middle somewhere. But the Star Wars galaxy continued to grow outside of the movies. In the case of the prequels, it often times eclipsed it in terms of quality. When 2005 was over, and Revenge of the Sith had come and gone, Star Wars wasn’t over for me like it was for so many others. I hadn’t abandoned it because of the quality of the prequels. Because to me it was so much more than six films. The movies were the most important aspect, sure, but I enjoyed the prequel era. While Lucas’s movies were bad (at times horrible), with several great moments, they spawned so many interesting stories between the cracks. In comics. And fiction. And in the spectacular “Clone Wars” television show.

I can imagine losing faith in Star Wars if all you know is the films. I don’t begrudge anyone for being done with the franchise after the prequels. Nor do I blame people for hopping back on in hopes that The Force Awakens is awesome. Please, come back to Star Wars. But also understand that some of us never left. Not out of blind loyalty, but because we’re fans. Not fans of the Star Wars movies; fans of Star Wars as a whole, the entire multi-media giant it has grown into.

MCQ-dagobah

Now George Lucas is out. Disney, Kathleen Kennedy, Lawrence Kasdan, and J.J. Abrams are in. The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi.Everyone is excited to see what things are like, what’s happened, what’s going, three decades after the death of the Emperor and Darth Vader. So am I. Except, I’ve already seen it. The novels hit “30 years later” a long time ago. In the (now defunct) Expanded Universe, a lot happened in those years. Weddings. Births. Deaths. New villains. New heroes. Wars. Adventures. Tragedies. Triumphs. A fully fleshed-out timeline that has been built upon that first wonderful Timothy Zahn novel.

None of this has any bearing on The Force Awakens. This is a new timeline. A new vision. One that only includes the films and animated TV shows as “canon”. And I’ve come to terms with that. It’s fine. It’s all make-believe bullshit anyway. But it will be impossible for me to not bring all that (fictional) history with me. That knowledge is in my DNA. It’s part of what makes me me.

J.J. Abrams is without a doubt a Star Wars fan. But, if I had to guess, not the same type of Star Wars fan as I am. He loves Star Wars and I think he is going to make a film that represents it well. Except, his Star Wars is not my Star Wars. My Star Wars galaxy is so much bigger than most people’s. The question is really going to be, for me, is “is what J.J. loves about Star Wars the same thing I love about Star Wars?”. Maybe, but maybe not.

RMQ-CarkoonSkiff

What do I want this new movie to be?

I want it to be a good story.

I want it to feel like Star Wars.

I want the Kurosawa screen wipes between scenes instead of dissolves and cuts.

I want Harrison, Mark, and Carrie to be Han, Luke, and Leia.

I want Rey and Finn and Poe to be great characters that I will enjoy watching carry on the saga.

I want it to feel old and new.

I want someone to say “I have a bad feeling about this.”

I want John Williams to make me bawl like a baby.

I want it to pay homage to George but not be an homage to George. There’s a difference. Ask Bryan Singer.

I want Kylo Ren to be badass.

I want Captain Phasma to be badass-er.

I want it to be its own movie but also earn the title “Episode VII” and feel like part of the greater saga.

I want it to be good.

I want it to be great.

I want to love it.

ralph-mcquarrie-star-wars-original-artwork-concept-lucas-films-9

What do I not want?

I do not want Luke Skywalker to be evil.

That is the one thing that could turn me off of Star Wars for a very long time. Make me lose faith in the new regime. I think it would betray the original films, the films that everyone behind The Force Awakens say they are trying to do right by.

“Where’s Luke?” has been the refrain as the hero of episodes IV through VI has been absent from the poster, the trailers, the TV spots, and the toys. “Where is Luke?!?”

There could be many reasons why they haven’t shown Luke Skywalker in any of the promo material. Maybe he’s not in it that much. Maybe he’s only in scenes that are later in the film and they don’t want to spoil anything. Maybe his entrance into the movie is so motherfucking Orson-Welles-in-The-Third-Man-awesome that they want to hold onto it. Make us wait for it. Because when I see Mark Hamill playing Luke Skywalker, 32 years after he did it last, I’m going to cry. The quality of his reveal will determine whether I just get misty-eyed or curl up into a sobbing ball on the floor of the theater. I want his entrance to floor me. I want to feel like a kid again.

He could also be a bad guy. That would be a legitimate reason not to reveal him until we see the film, as some have speculated. I really hope that’s not true.

Because I don’t know what I’d do. They would have to do it REALLY well to keep me watching.

They could have Jar-Jar and Wickett talk about midichlorians for two hours and I’d still be there for Episode VIII. But making Luke the bad guy…?

Let’s hope not. MCQ-emperor

As this posts, 1:20 pm, EST, I am sitting down with my father and brother at the Regal Cinemas Atlantic Station theater in downtown Atlanta to watch The Force Awakens in IMAX 3D. The last time I saw a Star Wars film in the theater with these two people that I love: 1983. So that, in itself, will be special.

If you are reading this within two and a half hours of me posting it, I am currently sitting in a darkened theater with an appropriately StarWarsian mix of hope and fear. I don’t need this movie to be good. If it’s not, I’ll still be a Star Wars fan tomorrow. I’ll be sad Star Wars fan, sure, for a while, but I’m not walking away. When my baseball team has a bad game, a bad season, even a bad decade, I don’t stop wearing their caps. I don’t stop rooting for them, watching their games, going to see them when they come to town. And even if the last year was horrible, I still start the next season with hope that they’ll get it right this time.

I feel the same way about Star Wars. In all of pop culture, there is nothing that is nearer to my heart. That’s why I wanted to write this before seeing the film. To express my undying love. No matter what I am experiencing at this very moment, I will be a Star Wars fan tomorrow.

As for my opinions on The Force Awakens, I will express them. On Saturday I will be recording another episode of the NEEDLESS THINGS podcast where we will have a round table discussion about the film. The episode will be available online soon after the film comes out, if you really want to hear me talk about it. I’m sure I’ll have one or two or five hundred things to say.

I may even let the other panelists talk. If I’m feeling generous.

Thank you, George.

Good luck, J.J.

It’s time. You psyched? I’m psyched.

Let’s do it. Here we go.

Punch it, Chewie.

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May the Force Be with You,

Chad J. Shonk
December 15, 2015

Second Star to the Right and Straight on ’til Compton

StraightOuttaSomewhere (3)I think every young filmmaker has a handful of dream projects in their back pocket. Not only dozens of original ideas but also ones based on preexisting content: an adaptation of a novel or comic book, someone’s life story, a sequel to a beloved franchise, a tale from history, a (gasp) remake of a classic film. Projects filed away under the “When I make it big, I’ll use that clout to get one of these things made” category. Some of these projects you are sure will rock the box office; others, that you don’t really think will make any money but, if all goes well, will net you some critical acclaim.

The two big dream projects for me could not have been more different in tone and subject matter:

I wanted to do a live-action, semi-serious, sticking-to-the-book version of JM Barrie’s Peter and Wendy

…and a biopic about Eazy-E and the creation and dissolution of legendary hip-hop group N.W.A.

And they both got made.

But not by me.

It’s weird seeing these films come to fruition; it’s even weirder watching them. You can’t help but think about what you would have done differently, what they did better than you, what they fucked up entirely. It’s not a crushing feeling; I never got close to making either one a reality. But it’s… strange.

peter-pan-wendy-03What attracted me to JM Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy was that it was a version of Peter Pan I had never seen, knowing only the Disney interpretation. The book was darker than the animated film. More violent. More powerful. With a bittersweet message about childhood, both celebrating it and recognizing our need to shed it. Peter himself was full of contradictions: he was charming, fun-loving, sometimes feminist (“Wendy, one girl is more use than twenty boys.”) optimistic and brave, but also selfish, mean, forgetful, and super-duper violent.

Which all made sense to me. Little boys are terrors. When I was a child, I may have used a stick or wooden sword to fight pirates (or Darth Vader. Let’s be honest here.) but I was imagining a real blade. I wasn’t knocking people over. I was running them through. Cutting off their heads. Killing bad guys. In Barrie’s novel, that’s what Peter does. He kills bad guys. It’s not the bloodless, G-rated action of the Disney film.

The novel has several other dark tropes that few Peter Pan adaptations have yet to explore. Peter’s role as an Angel of Death, tasked with holding children’s hands on their way to heaven. His hatred of adults, parents especially, and how he genuinely wanted them dead. The slaughter of the Indians, an aspect of the story that I admit feels racist here in the 21st Century. And the famous Peter Pan quote, when stranded on an island left to die, a line that has forever stuck with me as probably the most positive outlook on death I’ve ever heard:

to-die-would-be-an-awfully-big-adventureAnd then there’s the end. I’m not going to get into it, but the last chapter of Peter and Wendy is sad and beautiful and a real reminder that Pan is a boy who will NEVER grow up. Which is the main reason why I hate Spielberg’s Hook. I know it’s beloved by the generation after me, and that’s fine, but it’s a bad film, hands down, my Peter Pan purist proclivities aside. But more than anything: Pan doesn’t grow up. He isn’t a child. He’s a demigod, an angel, an imp, maybe even a devil. He will live forever, as the final lines of the novel tell us:

“When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”

Gay and innocent and heartless. That is Peter Pan to me. I have yet to see him on screen.

30521196_1300x1733I’m not going to offer a full review of PJ Hogan’s 2003 adaptation, Peter Pan. I have only seen it once and did not care for it. It got a lot right, especially in the first half hour or so. But then it fell apart for me. And, while it did incorporate a little bit of the adult edge I was looking for, it didn’t go far enough. But when that film came out, I knew my chances of making a film out of Peter and Wendy had just been cut drastically. And then when it failed at the box office, it showed that maybe a big-budget Peter Pan movie wasn’t commercially viable.

We’ll see if Joe Wright’s film, simply called Pan, will be different when it comes out this year. It’s apparently a prequel or something which we know ALWAYS bodes well, right? (see: Prometheus, The Thing, Star Wars, Hannibal Rising). But I doubt it’s the film I would have made.

And, man, the film I would have made is so good. It’s still there, in my head, scene by scene. I could still write it, legally. In 2007 the rights to the novel basically became public domain, leading to a series of disparate book series’ that I have not read. And maybe one day I will. Or maybe one day I’ll come up with a different take on one of my favorite stories, a new way to bring it to life.

Straight_Outta_Compton

“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”

In the late 80’s, when I was 13 years old, I got hold of a cassette tape I shouldn’t have. It was called Straight Outta Compton, by a band called N.W.A., which I soon learned stood for “Niggaz wit’ Attitude”. It scandalized me, excited me, educated me, and, quite frankly, scared the shit out of me. Especially the song “Fuck tha Police” and the shit storm that came with it.

The group’s frank and often gratuitous depictions of life on the street in a city I had never heard of called Compton, a place so far removed from suburban Atlanta that I couldn’t imagine ever going there, was eye-opening, sure, but it was also dirty. The non-stop assault of profanity, violence, and sex was exceptionally titillating to my white, sheltered, adolescent mind.

Just the use of the word “nigger” (or “nigga” or “niggaz”, technically), which my parents had raised me to strike from my vocabulary forever (“Forever. Forever? Forever ever. Forever ever?”), was scandalous. And, I admit, intriguing. This was a bad word used to describe black people. Why would these guys talk about themselves that way? I sort of understood it, but not really. Not for a long time. But I knew it was controversial and adult and, in the back of my brain, powerful. I just couldn’t tell you why.

18280-n-w-a-1680x1050-music-wallpaperO’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson. Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson. Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. Antoine “Yella” Carraby. Andre “Dr. Dre” Young. These are guys whose faces and voices I’ve known since puberty. I can recite all of Straight Outta Compton (the album, not the movie. I guess we have to differentiate now) as well is its companion piece, Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It, word for word. Still, to this day.

"See you at the crossroads."

“See you at the crossroads.”

When (SPOILER) Eric Wright died of AIDS in 1995, it shook me. I was mostly listening to heavy metal and grunge, but I had never forgotten N.W.A. and their 5’ 5” superstar (“Niggaz [his] height don’t fight.”) . I knew the group had broken up and there had been bad blood. If you were alive in the early 90s and remember Dr. Dre’s The Chronic coming out, it was impossible not to know. But Eazy was a part of my adolescence and he was gone.

I wanted to make a movie about Eazy-E and the formation of N.W.A. I did some reading and found that there was a lot of drama to be mined. The music would be center stage, of course, but there were also political, financial, racial, sexual, and societal themes to be explored. Were these men artists pretending to be gangstas or gangstas who stumbled into being artists? I wanted to explore that question.

And, morbidly, films about actual people are more satisfying if they have a definite ending. And by that I mean death. It’s fucked up, I know, but it’s true. And the more tragic that ending, the more drama you can conjure. And (SPOILER) Eazy’s death was tragic, to be sure. He was destroyed by his own reckless behavior, sure, but dying of AIDS made Wright an icon of the 1980s. He not only helped birth a style of music that rules the airwaves over 25 years later, but he was struck down by the 20th Century’s Black Death, just at the point where we were starting to understand it. As Eazy said, from his hospital bed, after being told he had AIDS: “But I ain’t no fag.” That was the attitude then. For a lot of people.

I tried to pitch this movie to anyone who would listen. Every one of my L.A. friends knew about it. But I was never able to get through any doors of consequence. People I did get to talk to weren’t interested. Plus, there was the matter of clearing the music, an incredibly expensive process that meant the film could never be made independently. I still held out hope for 15 years. Just like with Peter and Wendy, I had the whole movie in my head and “damn, that shit was dope!”

maxresdefaultRight now, for the second straight week, F. Gary Gray’s film, Straight Outta Compton, is on top of the box office charts. I was both excited and nervous to go see it. I mean, the subject matter is obviously attractive to me, but, motherfucker, I wanted to make this movie. And I was weary that the film was produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. That meant that rough corners were going to be sanded down. Certain less-than-flattering things would be omitted. I was especially worried about how the film would depict Eazy, who would have been my protagonist.

I really liked the movie.

It’s odd. It’s not at all the movie I would have made but it’s also exactly the movie I would have made. It doesn’t look like the movie in my head. Doesn’t feel or sound or flow like it. But it covers the exact story beats I would have. Its Point A is my Point A and its point Z is my Point Z. It told the story I wanted to tell, just not in the style I wanted to tell it in.

And that’s fine. Because I liked it. And a lot of people seem to feel the same way.

(Especially after the mind-blowing clusterfuck that was the Biggie Smalls “movie”.)

I do wish it had explored a little more of the dark side of things, especially the famous incident involving Dr. Dre and Dee Barnes, an omission that is getting a lot of press over the last week. It should be in the movie. It really should. The first step to atonement is to acknowledge what you’ve done. Dre has done that in the press this week, releasing statements that seem genuine. But it would have been much more powerful to explore these themes in the film. Let it all hang out. Show your ugly side. The movie has to stand on its own and Dre’s history of domestic violence isn’t something that should be discussed in a press release.

osheajacksonjr_withicecubeBut the performances are great, especially by O’Shea Jackson Jr, who not only looks like his father but does a spot-on impression. The music is of course awesome. The cinematography interesting. The script could be better and sometimes the “bio-pic-ness” of the thing hurts it, with its need to make sure you understand who all these people coming in and out of the story are. Hey guys? I’m at a movie about N.W.A. I know that guy is playing Tupac. I am aware of his music. No need to point him out to me.

Surprisingly Eazy, the drug-dealer turned hip-hop mogul and star, comes across as the one of the biggest heart. He’s actually the soul of the movie. This makes me happy. Because that was going to be my way in, too. Through him. And when (SPOILER) Eazy dies, I was shaken, teary, even though I knew it was coming.

The only thing that pisses me off about the success of Straight Outta Compton (the movie) is… its success. It’s making BANK. All those years I was told no one wanted this movie. That it would be too expensive to get the music rights. That who cares about some gangster who died of AIDS? And now it’s ruling the Summer box office. Beating the crap out of more traditional Summer movies. I TOLD YOU, YOU MOTHERFUCKERS.

the-devil-in-the-white-city-by-erik-larson-book-cover-960x1459Do I have more dream projects in my head? Of course. Novels I want to adapt (not telling you which ones). Life stories I want to tell. Historical incidents I’m dying to recreate. And I will hold onto them, along with the countless original ideas I have in my head, until the next one gets knocked down by someone who got to it before me.

One of my favorite books, well, ever, is Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City. I would love to make it into a movie. Recently, it has been announced that Leonardo DiCaprio will be starring in the adaptation, with our greatest living filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, behind the lens. I will defer and gladly give up that dream. Because while I think one day I could match the talents of PJ Hogan or F. Gary Gray (both accomplished, not taking anything away from them), I will never-ever come close to Mr. Scorsese. So make that movie Marty. I can’t wait to see it.

 

I don’t know how interesting this has been. I just had this gut reaction to seeing Straight Outta Compton (the movie) that made me sit down and write my first blog post in forever. Sitting there, watching a movie I have dreamed about a thousand times, not looking at all like the film I would have made but enjoying it all the same.

Now that I think about it, that’s probably how I’m going to feel about The Force Awakens, too, because I know I have at least 3,263,827 Star Wars movies in me.

And I’m not giving up entirely on Peter and Wendy. Some dreams die harder than others.

Art I Like, Episode I: Michelangelo’s “David”

have you seen chad

“Have you seen this writer?”

I haven’t written a blog post on here in a LONG time. I can rattle off a litany of excuses: my schedule, my personal life, my daughter, my writing priorities. But the simple fact is I’m not a blogger. I don’t have 2000 words about my life to share every week. I don’t want to keep making lists, giving writing advice, things like that. My brain just doesn’t work that way.

But I still want to contribute. I still want to honor my commitment to my Téssera partners who have done an amazing job of keep this site going. So here’s what I’m going to do. This spot, my Tuesday blog post, is going to become a very simple and short thing called “Art I Like”.

Whenever I can, I’m going to write a short piece about something that inspires / entertains / moves me. Books, comics, TV, movies, video games, poems, and, in the case of this post, actual “art”. These won’t be long posts and I won’t be doing many movies (I talk about movies too much in my day-to-day, plus I may have another outlet for that coming up and don’t want to double-dip) but I will try to keep up. Make some contribution to this venture I have undertaken with three very old friends.

So, without further ado…

ART I LIKE, EPISODE I:

michelangelo-david-statue-006MICHELANGELO’S “DAVID”

Real brave choice, Chad. Starting off with one of the most famous pieces of art in the whole history of art history.

Yeah, well, shut up, Me.

We all know the image. A naked man carved of marble. A sling over his shoulder, looking defiantly at the biblical villain Goliath, ready for battle. It’s a widely replicated, referenced, and lampooned images in art. And what’s the big deal? It’s just a statue of a naked dude.

Itchy_&_Scratchy_&_Marge_96At least that’s what I thought.

Until I found myself in Florence standing in front of the real thing.

Sculpted between 1501 and 1504 by a 26 year-old who would centuries later become the namesake of a talking amphibian party dude wielding nunchaku, “David” is the most recognizable piece of Renaissance art this side of the “Mona Lisa” (which I’ve seen as well and is…well, just like everyone else says… dreadfully underwhelming).

I’m no art historian (not even close) but you can read about its fascinating history here.  All I can really talk about is how it made me feel:

It moved me to tears.

Four years ago my wife and I were doing the Italian tourist’s trifecta: Rome, Florence, Venice. Midway through the trip we hit the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, known solely for being the modern-day house of “David”.

Upon drawing close to the statue, which is at the end of a hallway lined with other aborted and half-formed Michelangelo sculptures…

David_by_Michelangelo_in_The_Gallery_of_the_Accademia_di_Belle_Arti…the 17-foot figure loomed closer and closer and when I finally stood in its shadow, only one thought came to my head:

“Do you know how fucking hard that was?”

The sheer level of skill stunned me. To take a block of marble –a shapeless, lifeless hunk of metamorphic rock- and sculpt it into the marvel standing in front of me, it was breathtaking. This was something created over 500 years ago and I don’t think any human living today could replicate it.

So, first and foremost, before observing the beauty of the piece, what hit me hardest was the skill and talent involved in bringing it to life. Not that “David” isn’t beautiful. It truly is. The art world (especially the art of current pop culture) has long been obsessed with capturing the perfect female form (or, in comic books or Barbie dolls or Pamela Anderson, the impossible female form), to see the male body depicted in such meticulous detail and care is refreshing. I know museums are filled with depictions of naked men, but “David”, in all his glory, so to speak, is above and beyond.

The other thing that strikes you about “David” (other than the talent needed to create it) is the emotional complexity Michelangelo brings to the legendary Biblical hero. When looking at the sculpture head-on, the traditional view (yes, the one with his manhood right in front of us), he looks ever the hero, what with all his muscle and his sling, standing up to the monster Goliath. You know the image. It’s on that awful apron that your least-favorite aunt bought you on that Mediterranean cruise she took:

david-apronBut a real perk of seeing the work in person is that you can walk around it. See it from all angles. And if you wander around to the right of the display (to David’s left) and look at his face, he looks frightened. I don’t know how to explain it, but he does. That, while he is willing to stand up to the Philistine giant, he does so with not only defiance and bravery, but with fear and reluctance as well. It is masterful work, being able to depict that kind of nuance in unmoving, unchanging, stone is beyond my comprehension.

I had expected to look at “David” for maybe fifteen minutes but had to be dragged from the building after nearly an hour of just gazing upon its perfection. Never in my life has a piece of art (talking fine art, not movies or books) moved me like that. I’m unsure if it will ever happen again.

Realizing that there was once a man (who was neither turtle nor ninja, but, being Italian, probably did like pizza) capable of bringing such a perfect and complex figure into existence from a chunk of dead minerals using only simple hand tools and his immeasurable talent, was a humbling, inspiring, and awesome (in the proper use of the word) experience, one I will never forget.

michelangelo-sculptures-13I have not done this great work justice. Who could? I only have the clunky English language with which to express myself. It’s like trying to explain the power of La Traviata or the Fifth Symphony or Kubrick’s 2001 with stupid boring words. Can’t be done, even for a (begin sarcasm) world class wordsmith like myself (end sarcasm).

If you ever find yourself in Italy (and I highly recommend that you do at some point), please, between the eating and shopping and eating and sight-seeing and eating, please take the time to visit the Galleria dell’Accademia (make sure to reserve tickets in advance) and gaze upon this masterpiece with your own eyes. I know you think you’ve seen “David”, but you really haven’t. I promise.

Next time I do this (whenever the hell that is; I’m trying folks, I really am) I’ll talk about something more accessible that won’t require a plane ticket and passport to experience. A book, a video game, an album, something. I don’t know what. I’m making this up as I go along.

But it might be a about my favorite poem of all time, written by a little-known alcoholic named Edgar.

It F***ing Sucks Bein’ Green

The-Avengers-Climax-Hulk-the-avengers-34726224-1920-1080

signal_ver2_xlgIt was announced last week that David Bruckner, a long-time acquaintance, friend of a dear friend, and fellow Atlanta-ite, is going to direct the next Friday the 13th movie. Dave directed one third of the Atlanta-based horror film The Signal as well as the first (and in a lot of people’s opinions, the best) segment of the anthology V/H/S. It will be his debut feature as a solo director.

I congratulate David and wish him nothing but the best. I’m very excited for what he’s going to do.

Oh, and also, fuck him.

My friend Jake Goldberger‘s second film, Life of a King is available on DVD now.

His first film, Don McKay, was an off-beat dark comedy that was so off-beat that most people didn’t get how funny it was. It starred two Oscar nominees and a future Oscar winner. It wasn’t treated very well by critics and not very many people saw it. I liked it, but I also read the script about a decade before and was elated to see it make its way to the screen.

life-of-a-king-posterLife of a King is a much more high-profile film. Starring another Academy Award winner, Cuba Gooding Jr, it is a moving tale about an ex-con that teaches a group of inner-city kids the value and beauty of the game of chess. It’s kind of Stand and Deliver with a Karate Kid finale (with a Rocky twist). It may not sound like your type of film. It’s honestly not mine. But I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. More than anything, I was impressed by the performance by Gooding and by how much Jake has grown as a director. He told me the other day that it was shot in just 15 days, which astounded me for how good it looks. Dakota Skye had more time to shoot and it felt like we had no time at all.

I have known Jake for over a decade. I’m proud of him and congratulate him on his success and hope his next film is even bigger and better and I can’t wait to see it.

Oh, and also, fuck him.

Lake-Effect-Brochure-Small-728x1024I don’t know Tara Miele very well. But I do know her husband, Dakota Skye cinematographer Brett Juskalian. Right after Dakota Skye Tara made a lovely little film called The Lake Effect and has since then made a couple other films (I’ve lost track) for the Lifetime Channel.

Tara is a talented writer and I’m happy her career as a filmmaker is taking off.

Oh, and also, fuck her.

 

An old collaborator of mine, Charlie Ebersol, with whom I worked on many projects that never quite got off the ground (see my tale about pitching a show at the Sci-Fi Channel), has been hired to write a sequel to Space Jam. Charlie is more of a producer than writer, and it’s not a project I would necessarily kill to be a part of, but still. It’s a big opportunity.

I wish him and his brother all the luck with the film.

And, yes, fuck him.

One of the first friends I made upon moving to Los Angeles was a funny kid from Tulsa named Bill Hader. I don’t need to explain to you who he is. If you don’t know, just Google him. I’ve heard Mel Brooks praise him. Mel. Brooks.

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He also does a pretty good impression of me.

Fuck him.

Even within this very guild, on this site, my friends are bugging the shit out of me. J. Edward Neill, having released Down the Dark Path last year, has just finished the follow-up. This would be less impressive if his books weren’t approximately seven million pages long. Likewise, John McGuire just put his first book, The Dark That Follows (we like the word “dark” in our titles, don’t we?) up on Amazon but I also happen to know that he’s currently revising his second novel, having already finished the first draft. Plus, John has some comic books out in the world, with more to come, and that’s awesome.

Fuck both of them.

I, of course, don’t mean any of the profanity I have hurled at my friends and peers above. Good people, all of them. Some of them amongst my favorite people.

Wait. No. I do mean it.

Fuck all of them.

Envy is a hell of a thing.

I’m not a religious dude but if Morgan Freeman has taught me anything (other than how hard it is to be a penguin, how to smuggle a rock hammer into the slammer, how to be the quartermaster for a vigilante, how love is worth dying for, how not to storm a Civil War fort, and how to embrace my inner Master Builder), it’s that Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Brad-Pitt-and-Morgan-Freeman-in-Seven

You remember those. I think they go: Being Fat, Being a Child Molester, Being a Lawyer, Being Pretty, Being a Hooker, Envy, and shooting Keyser Söze.

Envy. That big green monster that sometimes beats me senseless worse than…

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“Puny Self-Worth”

I like my life. This is not about that. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone not named Clooney or Timberlake and only then if I can take a few people with me.

This is professional envy. Comparing where you are at in your career to that of your peers. I know better than to give into it, but I’m a human being and not a very good one at that.

Of course, envy leads to doubt.

At 25, I hadn’t done X. At 30, I wasn’t even close to accomplishing Y. At 35, I had pretty much given up on Z.

40 is coming on really fast and I’m out of fucking letters.

And what do people tell you when you’re feeling green? Not with seasickness. Not with lovable singing felt frog-ness. But with the feeling of wanting what someone else has…

They say “Keep your head down and do your work.”

And I say—

I’ve been swearing a lot this post, huh? Well, you fill in the blank.

giphyI have gotten so much better over the years in dealing with this. A while back I wrote a piece on here about Livin’ Small, based on the mentally of my friend Jonah Matranga. It’s about being happy with what you have and embracing what you have accomplished, not what you haven’t. It’s a perspective I cherish. And try to hold to.

But I can’t always. Sometimes it stings. Badly. Sometimes it sears a hole in my heart.

Sometimes in makes me hate my friends.

Because they’re not as smart as me. Not as talented. I’ve read his stuff and I’m such a better writer than him. I could absolutely do a better job behind the camera. What’s so special about her? What’s so important about him?

WHY DOESN’T ANYONE REALIZE THAT I’M THE BEST PERSON IN THE WORLD AT WHAT I DO?!?!?!?!?!?

That is what envy can do to. Take all my insecurities and turn my brain into a hornets’ nest. The awful thoughts I keep just beneath the surface, born of doubt and fear and narcissism and frustration, they seep out of my pores and turn me into something I don’t like very much.

That’s my secret, Cap…

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…I’m always an asshole.

It’s not an original tale, a writer struggling with egotism and doubt. Hell, they’re job requirements. They can fuel you. Only someone with an enormous ego thinks their thoughts are worth people paying money for; only someone full of doubt needs the love of millions of strangers to validate them as people.

Like I said, though, this has gotten a lot better over the years. I can actually now feel genuine joy at my friends’ successes. Sure, it’s joy laced with a little vitriol, but it’s joy all the same. I want everyone I know and love to do well at whatever they do. But it is hard when what they do is also what I do. Because I can’t help but measure myself up to them. And, rightly or wrongly, every step they take forward feels like a step back for me.

I also know that there are people that envy me. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a produced feature film in the world, no matter how small and indie. Not everyone has the time, endurance, or will to write a novel. Some people are better writers than me, but many are not.

What has been the point of this? I don’t know. Do I get off on exposing this jealous and angry part of myself? Maybe. Am I using this as an outlet to vent my frustrations? Certainly. If you take anything from this, other than a deep dislike of me, I hope you check out the work of my friends that I listed above. They’re all talented and hard-working people. And they’re good people.

Boy, I’m in a bad fucking mood.

I promise next week I’ll be a better person. Because, luckily, this feeling will fade and I’ll go back to this:

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No, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go keep my head down and do my work.

The Deep, Dark Hills of Eastern Kentucky

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(note: This post lists many, many television shows. I am usually a stickler for punctuation and ideally each title would have quotation marks around it. But that would drive me insane and I’m not going to do it this time. I’m sure it will bother me way more than it bothers you. -chad)

The Sopranos started a revolution.

The Wire transcended television and became high literature.

Breaking Bad was an incomparable example of quality, integrity, and sharp, bold storytelling.

Sherlock brought us both the Cumber and the Batch.

Game of Thrones leaves people who would never pick up a fantasy novel salivating every week for more sex, swords, and devastating character deaths.

True Detective was (is)… so mind-bendingly good I’m still not sure if it really happened or if it was a dream.

Mad Men. Six Feet Under. Dexter. The Walking Dead. Rome. Entourage. True Blood. Curb Your Enthusiasm. Band of Brothers. Sons of Anarchy. Girls. Treme. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Lost. Louie. Community. Bates Motel. Hannibal.

We all know it. Several have said it. It’s not the point of this post, but it’s important to say:

Over the last decade plus, television has surpassed film in both cultural relevance and quality.

Most of these shows air or aired on cable, basic and premium, but not all. We are, if you can look past the pile of shit that is reality TV, past the umpteen-million Star Search clones that clog the networks every year, in a Golden Age of TV. An age that could never have been foreseen by Philo Farnsworth and his brother-in-law Cliff (that’s for the Sports Night fans out there – “I can make glass tubes.”)

Tonight, one of my all-time favorite shows is having its fifth season finale. Next season will be its last. It doesn’t get a lot of press or awards (it has won a few) and its final episode won’t generate anything close to the hype surrounding the last stand of Walter White.

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But Justified is my favorite show on television.

I admit it’s not the best show, but it’s definitely my favorite.

Because Justified is the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of cable TV.

And I love me some peanut butter cups.

In order to explain that (the metaphor, not my love for the candy), I have to briefly mention two amazing shows that I purposely left off the above list.

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Deadwood. This HBO show had a lot of things that made it difficult to find an audience: it was a western, it deliberately paced, sometimes complicated, and written by David Chase with an almost Shakespearean style of dialogue that was at times impenetrable. I fucking loved it.

It was great to have a full-on, serious Western on TV. A dirty, violent, sometimes sexy, somewhat-based in history, western in which the great Ian McShane claimed the word “cocksucker” as his and his alone for all time.

In ran for three season and ended in a less-than-satisfying way, because they were not 100% aware they were making a series finale when making the season 3 season finale. When it ended, we were promised a TV movie or two to wrap things but, but they never materialized.

Deadwood was so good, but I have never revisited it. Because I know it doesn’t pay off. I know I won’t get any more satisfaction getting to the end than I did the last time. It’s a real shame.

Deadwood went off the air in 2006.

One of the stars of Deadwood was an actor I had already been a fan of for years, ever since his turn as the “good” drug dealer in Doug Liman’s Go. The character he played was real-life Deadwood lawman Seth Bullock.

The actor’s name is Timothy Olyphant.

We’ll call him “chocolate”.

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The Shield. Due to the well-deserved supremacy of The Wire and The Sopranos, the other great crime/cop show of the last decade has been largely forgotten. But The Shield was grade-A amazing damn television. Michael Chiklis’s Vic Mackey was Walter White before Walter White. As a crooked cop who always ended up doing the wrong thing even when trying to do the right thing, he didn’t break bad: he broke worse. And worse. And worse.

It was a boundary pushing show. Taking a cue, I think, from NYPD Blue, it tested the limits of what you could say or do on (cable) television. Watching the pilot, I couldn’t believe the language they were using, even so far as talking about a guy’s “cock”. (And yet, they still never said “fuck”. Censors are weird.) The violence, the all-around moral bankruptcy, it was astounding.

The Shield also aired the most single harrowing scene I have ever watched on television. If you haven’t seen the show I won’t give it away, but, near the end of its run, it does something that is so heartbreaking, so unexpected, and so utterly painful to watch that it kept me up at night. Fuck the Red Wedding. Fuck Buffy’s mom dying. This moment… oh man I wish I could get into it but it would take so much setup… just thinking about it hurts me deep.

The Shield was a hit, especially for FX, and lasted 7 seasons. The finale was quite good.

The last episode aired in 2008.

One of the stars of that show was an actor I had never seen before. He played Shane, a cop that teeters over the edge and becomes a monster that even his mentor, Vic, a monster himself, can’t control. He is the center piece, actually, of that harrowing scene I mentioned above. You may have seen him in the last few years in films like Lincoln, Cowboys & Aliens, and Django Unchained.

His name is Walton Goggins.

We’ll call him “peanut butter.”

Two years after the end of The Shield, Justified debuted on FX. Centered around two Elmore Leonard characters -Raylan Givens, a deputy US Marshall forced to go home to Kentucky where he grew up, and Boyd Crowder, a white supremacist, arsonist, criminal hillbilly scumbag- it is a crime show with a western feel to it.

Who play these two men?

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Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins.

Chocolate and Peanut Butter.

Two great tastes that taste great together.

An actor from one of television’s best westerns and an actor from one of television’s best crime shows starring in a show that is both a western and a crime show.

I was hooked before the pilot even aired.

Dickie_Bennett_infobox_3I could go on and on about the great qualities of Justified but if you haven’t seen it, I want you to experience it yourself. The dialogue is razor-sharp, very much in the vein of Elmore Leonard’s style. In fact, before he passed he said it was his favorite adaptation of his work. The story lines, while not groundbreaking, entertaining as hell and always pay off in satisfying ways. The show runner, Graham Yost, also has an unbelievable eye for guest stars, for bringing in faces you recognize but never feel like they’re stunt casting. Margo Martindale (who won an Emmy for her role). Jeremy Davies. Jere Burns. Mykelti Williamson. Neal McDonough. Patton Oswalt. And, this season, Alicia Witt, Amy Smart, and Michael Rapaport, turning in his best performance since Dick Richie.

But, really, the number one reason to watch Justified is that it’s fucking cool.

Olyphant as Raylan is just fucking cool.

Goggins as Boyd is just fucking cool (in a scary way sometimes but still).

The rest of the supporting cast is fucking cool (especially the great Nick Searcy as Raylan’s put-upon boss).

But they’re more than just cool. The dynamic between Raylan and Boyd is a lot like Alan Moore’s vision of the Joker/Batman relationship (nerd alert!). Or, okay. Both their fathers were criminals. Let’s say, instead, that they were alcoholics. Now. Most children of alcoholics (and other addicts) that I have known go one of two ways. They either eschew the fire water entirely, doing whatever they can to not turn out like their parent, or they fall the same way, losing to the genes that carried down the terrible disease.

Raylan is a man determined to not be like his father. Boyd, on the other hand, has chosen to continue the family legacy. But neither are that far from the other. They both walk a very delicate line and that balancing act is the heart of the show. A good man who sometimes finds himself doing bad things and a bad man who I think sees himself as righteous, even though deep down he knows he’s damned.

Have I mentioned I love this show?

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When they announced Justified would be ending after season 6, I was at first sad because I don’t want to see it go, but then was grateful. Because I still enjoy tuning in every week. It’s the first thing in my Tuesday DVR recordings that I go to. And if it can go out providing the same amount of entertainment, without collapsing like The Office or Six Feet Under or, let’s face it, most shows, then I’m all for it ending.

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So I guess this has just been a plea for folks to watch my favorite show. I’m sure I haven’t done a great job selling it, but trying to sum up 5 years of a show without spoiling stuff and trying to keep my word count down is nearly impossible. I would rather the uninitiated see for themselves.

I know Game of Thrones just got back. I’m stoked too. And Silicon Valley looks very promising. Veep is great. And Hannibal? Hannibal is about to get real damn interesting. But, after sweeps, after the season is over, if you haven’t watched or caught up on Justified, I cannot recommend it enough. There’s plenty of time to get through the first five seasons before the final one airs next year.

Enjoy this Golden Age. A time when television has never been better. When television is, and I’m speaking as a film nut, a more satisfying experience than nearly any film that hits cinemas. It may not last forever. Hollywood has a habit of fucking up good things (see the indie film boom of the early 90s).

Like I seem to be doing lately, I leave you with a song. “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” is not the theme song to the show, but it is its soul and they often use it to end their seasons. It’s been recorded by many, but here is Brad Paisley’s version, the version I heard first. Not normally my kind of music, but it sums up the spirit of the show more than any words I can conjure.

Summer is coming. Baseball is here.

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You know Easter and Vesak and Samhain and Diwalli,
MLK, Purim and Christmas with holly.
But I would trade them all,
For my most favorite holiday of all…

Today is Opening Day.

The first day of the Major League Baseball season.

It is a day of tradition, ritual, excitement, and anxiety.

And, above all else, it is a day of hope.

Every team starts with a blank slate, no wins, no losses, with the World Series open to anyone other than the Mets or the Astros. It is the first day you get to see your team in its entirety, with your best pitcher on the mound and the strongest (healthy) position players in the field. It is the day your faith in your team is renewed, convinced that this is THE year. Every year is THE year.

Until it’s not.

Today is Game #1 of a 162 game season. The marathon begins.

I’m not here to espouse the merits of baseball. Some people don’t love it. That’s okay. I mean, they’re dirty communist ignorant shit-pigs, but it’s still okay. Most baseball fans, at least those of the hardcore variety, feel a deep-seeded love of the game that they themselves struggle to explain. I won’t go so far as to call it a religion, although others have. It certainly feels like it at times. And, if it is, then today is its High Holy Day.

How to I celebrate this most hallowed of days?

Well…

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You see, I have a team. I’m not a believer in rooting for multiple clubs. My family and friends are mostly Atlanta Braves fans and, while I find myself pulling for them for their sakes, I am definitely not a fan. At best I can be called a “Braves sympathizer”.

f893e41452d64ac28729de52e8d79ee0-d5d18510fcf146699a33ce7700ef561b-2My team has been so as long as I can remember. I grew up in eastern Ohio, on the opposite side of the state from the Queen City, but my father and maternal grandfather passed down to me (baseball team loyalty is usually either hereditary or geographical in its cause) an allegiance to the Cincinnati Reds that I will take with me to the grave.

Anyone who knows me in real life knows this. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows this. During the season, it is the single biggest thing on my mind outside of work and family, although sometimes it does surpass those. It certainly does today.

Because today is Opening Day. I do not work on Opening Day. I do not venture outside of the house. I only leave the couch to get food or go to the bathroom. I don’t answer phone calls. I make no attempt to be productive. I am all-consumed by the return of my favorite sport.

Holy shit. It’s Opening Day.

GABP-117I’m am not what you would call a superstitious man. That implies believing in supernatural forces and I really don’t do that. But baseball players and fans are very superstitious and I am more than happy to play along. Therefore, I do have Opening Day traditions that I follow every year. Like hiding dyed eggs or lighting the menorah, my holiday isn’t complete without the following:

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GEAR. Before the beginning of every season I buy a new Reds hat. I wear it for the first time on Opening Day. I usually go for a throwback cap, something from the Cooperstown Collection, a replica based on what teams wore in the past. I’ve worn caps originating anywhere from the 1860’s to the 1970’s. This year, though, I’ve gone with a 2014 On-Field Road Cap (size 7 3/8). It’s the same hat the players will be wearing when they travel. Some of my friends have their “lucky cap” that they wear every year, no matter what disgusting state it is in, but to me each year brings with it a new team and deserves a new cap. Until, of course, the Reds when the World Series, then that year’s cap will become my lucky cap for life. I try to ride out each hat for the full season but have been known to switch at the All-Star Break if I don’t like the way my team played the first half.

Also on Opening Day, I string up my best pair of Chucks with bright red laces from Journeys. I only wear them during the season, returning to boring old white after the Reds are no longer in contention.

The shirt above is not new; I got it last year. But it is of my all-time favorite Red, the great Eric Davis, who, if it weren’t for multiple injuries that sidetracked his career, would almost certainly be in the Hall of Fame. I love this shirt. And I refuse to think it brings bad luck.

Not pictured: my socks and boxer briefs. You can probably guess what color they are, too.

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FOOD. I don’t really like hot dogs. They’re pretty gross. Deformed little imitators of their much grander cousin, the sausage. I avoid them at all costs, except for 5-6 days a year: The Fourth of July, the 3-4 Reds games I get to see live every season living out here on the West Coast, and Opening Day. Last night I went to Safeway and got a pack of hot dogs, a pack of buns, a white onion, a jar of relish, and made sure I was stocked up on ketchup and plain yellow mustard. Throughout the day, I will throw hotdogs on the Foreman, dress them up, and devour them. They will be my breakfast, lunch, and probably dinner. At the end of the day I will feel gross and bloated. But the smell of them in the air, the combination of mustard and onions and bread and relish and nitrates in my mouth, it all makes me feel very baseball-y.

Crackerjacks, despite being sung about during every Seventh Inning Stretch, aren’t as easy to find as you’d think. Which is okay because I’m not sure I like them either. If I can get hold of a box, I do. If not, I’m more than satisfied to rely on a big bag of whole peanuts to snack on between dogs.

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TOTEMS. Think of this as my nativity scene. I bring out my figures of Reds greats Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench as well as current-Red superstar Joey Votto, alongside a few other useless trinkets. My printed-autograph ball from the mid-eighties team. A Votto bobblehead. Pez dispenser. Mr. Potato Red. And a jar of home plate dirt from last year’s season opener that my cousin Phil sent me. I lay these things out on my entertainment center, my coffee table. Just for the day. Then they go back to where they belong, displayed in my office.

I also buy baseball cards. I’m not a collector of them, at least not anymore, but before and throughout the season I buy a pack here and there, hoping to find a Red or two in them. This year so far I’ve gotten really lucky with my haul: seven Reds before the season has even started. I’ll still grab a few more packs, though, before the year is done. I use the non-Reds cards as bookmarks and other sundry things, unless they are members of the St. Louis Cardinals. In that case, they must be destroyed.

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Did you think I was kidding?

(If anyone has a Topps 2014 Aroldis Chapman, Brandon Phillips, or Mat Latos, I’ll gladly take them off your hands.)

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INPUT. (JOHNNY-5 VOICE:) IN-PUUUUUT. This is not really an Opening Day thing but a Whole Season Thing. The ways I prefer to experience baseball are ranked as followed: 1) At the Ballpark 2) On the Radio 3) On TV 4) Digital Play-by-Play. The MLB At Bat app for iOS and Android is my best friend during the season. Twenty bucks for the whole season, both regular and post, it’s a one-stop location for everything MLB. News, scores, standing, stats, schedules, video highlights, a graphical pitch-by-pitch tracker that takes you through every play of the game in real-time. But far and away my favorite function of At Bat is the ability to listen to the radio broadcast of every game, every day, using either the home or away broadcasts.

This is huge for me. I live over 2000 miles away from my team’s home ballpark. I only get to see them in person when they come to California (I’ve seen them at San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco). I rarely get them on television and I obviously don’t get the local radio broadcasts. But with At Bat, I do. I can hear Cincinnati broadcasters Marty Brennaman and Jeff Brantley call all 162 games of the year; I listen to 120 of them at least. It makes me feel like I’m there. Part of the fan base. And, like I said above, I’d rather listen to a baseball game than watch it on TV. I’m not sure why that is but it just is. Maybe it’s the purist in me. Faux nostalgia for a time in which I never lived. I don’t know. But it really is the best.

Not to say I don’t want to see video. The MLB app provides video highlights as the game is being played and I do watch the Reds on the rare occasion they’re on national TV (although I usually mute the game and listen to Cincinnati radio instead). And then there’s the MLB Network. There are three channels in my cable package that I consciously pay more money to have: HBO, Showtime, and the MLB Network. I generally dislike sports media these days, “The Dan Patrick Show” excluded, and sometimes the MLB Network flirts dangerously close to the ‘men yelling at each other about useless shit’ model that has made ESPN unwatchable. But during “MLB Tonight”, their biggest show that runs in prime time nearly every evening, it’s pure baseball bliss. A combination of journalists and former ballplayers talk you through the day’s slate of games. Not entirely in retrospective highlights, but with live look-ins to all of the games currently being played. I may only have one team that I cheer for, but I am interested in all of them. I don’t just love Reds baseball; I love all baseball. I’m addicted to it. And “MLB Tonight” mainlines it into my veins every night to feed the monkey.

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I don’t think any of these things -the clothes, the food, the totems- actually help the Reds win games. Again, I’m only pretending to be superstitious. But it’s fun to pretend and imagine that I actually have a spiritual hand in the fate of my team. Either way, like the traditions and rituals of most holidays, I find comfort and peace in the familiarity. Buying a new cap means BASEBALL IS COMING. Downloading the MLB app onto my phone means BASEBALL IS COMING. Biting into a gross but full-loaded hotdog means BASEBALL IS BACK.

If you don’t share my love of baseball, I’m sure this all seems utterly ridiculous.

But I know a few friends of mine will understand completely.

bruceSo at the very moment this is posting, Monday March 31st, at 1:10 pm, PST, the first pitch of the Reds’ season is being thrown in their home, Great American Ballpark, against the evil, foul, disgusting, dirty baby-eaters known as the St. Louis Cardinals. Will the Redlegs make it to the Series this year? Just like with every team, the odds are against it. Will they run away with their division or will they be out of it by the All Star Break? Or are we in for a crazy last couple weeks where every game, every out, every pitch is a factor in their survival? Who will break out as a star? Whose skills will start to decline? Will the pitching staff stay healthy? Does our new manager have what it takes?

Outside of the Reds, what other drama will the season bring?  Will the Sox return strong after their World Series win? Will the Yankees rise to the challenge and send their Captain off with one last ring? Will teams like Washington, Anaheim and, yes, Cincinnati, bounce back after disappointing years and play like the contenders that so many think they should be? How many no-hitters will we see? Will there be a perfect game?

I have no damn idea.

Some things are about the journey. Some things are about the destination.

For me, the epic marathon that is the Major League Baseball season is equally both.

And I can’t believe it’s finally here.

Now. Let’s play some fucking ball.

Chad’s Top Six Video Games of All Time

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Fine. If Jeremy and Amanda want to list their favorite video games of all time, I guess I’ll get in on it too. Like a lot of people my age, my first gaming system was an Atari 2600. After that, we actually got an Atari 5200, then a Nintendo Entertainment System. After that, I stopped with console gaming for a long time. Not that I stopped playing games; I just played them on my PC.

It wasn’t until I was in the market for a blu-ray player that I broke down and bought another console, the PS3, which got me back into gaming on a fairly regular basis, for better and worse.

I have mixed feelings about games. They are surely one of this era’s greatest entertainments, and the sales numbers surely show that. They’re not ‘just for kids’ anymore and have reached heights that me as a kid playing “Lode Runner” on my dad’s Apple II could have never imagined. But I’m also not sure about the validity of them as an art form. To me, art expresses a vision by its creator(s) and games are by nature interactive, meaning that everyone’s experience is different. Also, and this is the big one, games are tremendous time suck. You want to experience time travel? Pop in Skyrim or Tetris or even a Lego game and BAM! before you know it you’re in the future. They are not good for productivity and I have to watch myself when it comes to buying and playing games. I often use them as a reward for finishing a chapter or something. Because I could spend all day every day playing them. They’re like Vegas except you can play in your underwear or less.

Note: I in general don’t like shooters (especially online – ugh), fighting games, racers, platformers, or puzzle games. There are exceptions to all of these, of course, but my tastes lean towards RPGs, Strategy World-Builders, and the newer narrative-driven games. That said, here are six of my favorites. Not in any kind of order. Just games that mean the most to me, the ones I had the most fun playing, the ones that stick with me.

STAR WARS: TIE FIGHTER (LucasArts, 1994)

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Being a giant Star Wars nerd, there are inevitably two Star Wars games on my list. Don’t get my wrong. There have been tons of horrible games made from the franchise, but there have also been a handful of brilliant ones. The first on my list is TIE Fighter. I can’t even explain how exciting the release of 1993’s X-Wing was for me. I think the last Star Wars game I had played was The Empire Strikes Back on my Atari. By then I had played Flight Simulator and arcade-y flying games like Afterburner, but X-Wing put me in the cockpit of one of the series’ most iconic ships, sent me on missions for the good of the Rebel Alliance, and let me blow the Empire to hell what felt like (at the time) a very realistic simulation. It couldn’t get any better, but then it did. TIE Fighter took the same mechanics of X-Wing, improved upon them, and let you be… the bad guy! And not Darth Vader or the Emperor or anything like that. Just a simple TIE Fighter pilot, doing this job fighting against what he thinks are the violent rebels trying to take down his government. The gameplay was better than X-Wing and the combination of twitch-based combat and resource management (deciding whether to put your power in your engines, guns, or shields, if you were lucky enough to be in an advanced model that had shields) made and exciting experience that felt decidedly Star Wars. There would be a couple more games in the series, and they were good, but the premise wasn’t visited again until the Jump to Lightspeed expansion for the Star Wars: Galaxies MMO, which was a good space combat game that got overlooked due to its parent game’s major problems. I hope EA (who I think has Star Wars now) revisits something like the X-Wing/TIE Fighter series again, because I would love to get behind the stick of a TIE Interceptor once more, this time in full 1080p with 7.1 Surround. Or, even better, with the Oculus Rift!

THE CIVILIZATION SERIES (Various Publishers, 1991-2013)

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I love world-building, resource managing, so-called “God” games. From Populus to the first SimCity to Simpsons Tapped Out on my iPad, I just can’t get enough. The pinnacle of this genre has always been Sid Meier’s Civilization series. Starting off with a single city, the goal is to explore a giant map peopled with other nations, expand your borders through conquest or other means, evolve technologically, feed your citizens, fight wars, and build monuments. With multiple ways to win, every game is different and so fun and addicting. Being able to play as (now with Civ V) dozens upon dozens of historical figures, with each civilization having different strengths and weaknesses, is just the ticket for a history nerd like me who prefers turn-based gameplay to twitch, both because I enjoy having time to think out my strategy and because I my hand-eye sucks. Civilization V, the latest version, with its two amazing expansion packs, is the most-played game in my Steam catalog. I don’t play it every day, but, when I do play it, it ends up being for days. Warning: this game will cause you to ignore your loved ones and you will suffer from the curse of “just…one…more…turn…”.

STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC (LucasArts, 2003)

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The other Star Wars game on this list is hardly a controversial call. Widely regarded as one of the best games ever, I can’t disagree. Made by Bioware, the folks that would later bring us the amazing Mass Effect series, KOTOR (as it is commonly called) manages to be a perfect RPG and a great Star Wars game at the same time. By setting it in the way-way-way distant past, thousands of years before the movies, the game developers were able to create a world and story completely unique, one where they didn’t have to worry about stepping on mainstream Star Wars continuity, while still keeping a very Star Wars feel. This game also gave you the ability to make choices, to decide whether you were going to end up as a Jedi or a Sith based on your actions. It felt revolutionary at the time and Bioware would later perfect this with Mass Effect, where your choices not only affected your character but the entire game world. (Thinking about it, I should just mark this spot “Bioware” because I love their games so much.) A must-play game that I think you can still get on Steam. It may seem a little dated now, like all games do after a while, but it is an exciting and deep game that presents you a galaxy far far away that is both familiar and refreshingly new.

MVP BASEBALL 2005 (EA Sports, 2005)

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My favorite sports are: 1) Baseball. 2) Baseball. 3) Baseball. 4) Football. 5) Baseball. MVP 05 from EA Sports was the last MLB game they ever put out for the PC. This was important to me because, at the time, I only gamed on my computer. When they announced they wouldn’t be making any more, I was devastated, but soon I was introduced to the world of PC modding. Modding is where people out in the world create new content for existing PC games. This can only be done on PC games because consoles are very insular creatures and their creators don’t want you messing with their insides. But with MVP 05, a great game with a deep franchise mode (I played 20 seasons with my Cincinnati Reds), the modding community allowed you to update the rosters every year, even if EA did not. They improved the graphics as time went on, to try to keep up with more modern games. In fact, nearly a decade after its release, there is still a very healthy modding community for MVP 05. Right now, you can download rosters for the upcoming season, as well as updated uniform designs and stadiums. The MLB: The Show games are great baseball sims, with amazing graphics and animations, but they still aren’t MVP to me. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it is and will always be my favorite sports game. I haven’t played it in a while, but I still have my save file in case I want to pick it back up and play season #21. One day I will.

ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011)

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Not much to be said about Skyrim. Dragon Warrior. Baldur’s Gate. Fallout. Grand Theft Auto. Final Fantasy. Half-Life. They were all leading up to this, perfecting the pieces that Bethesda would combine into the ultimate (so far) open-world RPG. I have gone out of my way to NOT count how many hours I have pumped into Skyrim because I’m afraid it would make me sad. It’s just… you feel like you can do ANYTHING in this game. You can play for a hundred hours and not see everything. I like the main story, I like the side quests, but mostly I just like walking around, seeing what trouble I can get into. There’s nothing like walking through the woods and coming upon some bandits fighting a bear, knowing that this is not a scripted event but something that just happened, and sitting back until one falls so you can swoop in and take out the other. It’s this “real world” aspect of Skyrim that appeals to so many people. The countless books you can find and read. The deep, deep history and mythology. The detail. It’s not perfect but I think it shows where RPGs can go (can’t wait for The Witcher III, which, for the first time, is going to be completely open-world) and I for one can’t wait for them to get there. I may even play the Elder Scrolls MMO, although I’m not sure. Not really my scene. But if that’s going to be my only chance to return to that wonderful fantasy world, then I might not have a choice.

THE LAST OF US (Naughty Dog / Sony, 2013)

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I know this game is super-super new but it can’t be denied. Just can’t. Naughty Dog has been making great games for a while now, with their previous peak being the amazing Uncharted 2, but with The Last of Us they’ve charted (pun intended I guess) whole new ground. I’m not going to talk too much about this game because it is still out there, and viable, and DLC is still coming out, but I will say this: it’s the first game that ever made me cry. The story of grizzled Joel and his surrogate daughter Ellie is a moving and harrowing adventure that you will never forget. Yes, it’s a violent game, sometimes to its detriment, but the characters and the story are so well drawn against a bleak as hell backdrop. And, unlike the also wonderful Bioshock: Infinite, I feel the action in the game, all the killing Joel must do, feels… necessary. I buy it. One knock against Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series is that he is our “hero”, yet the actions pieces deem it necessary for him to kill hundreds of men along his adventure. Same with the new (and surprisingly good) Tomb Raider game. But in The Last of Us, I never felt like I was shooting just for shooting’s sake. These two characters were struggling to survive and every shot fired, every shiv shoved into the neck of a monster, felt necessary to me. I don’t want to get to much into it, like I said. Just play it. It’s the greatest narrative game every made, a perfect send-off for this last generation of gaming consoles. But, be warned, when you see the giraffes, have some tissue ready. You’re going to need it.

******

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Coming up fast on this list is TellTale Games’ Walking Dead series of adventure games. The use of choice in those simple point-and-click episodes is highly effective and instantly engaging. The only reason it’s not on this list is because it is still going on (I’m about to start episode 2 of Season 2). Also, TellTale is working on a Game of Thrones game in the same mold and, if it’s up to snuff with The Walking Dead, it may be the greatest thing of all things and all time.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Tetris, Uncharted 2, TMNT: The Arcade Game, Assassin’s Creed 2/Brotherhood/4 , The Legend of Zelda, Yar’s Revenge, Tempest, Metroid, Metroid Prime, Red Dead Redemption, GTA 3, Vice City & 5, Goldeneye, Final Fantasy, Limbo, Shadow of the Colossus, Age of Empires, Star Wars: Battlefront II, Star Wars: Dark Forces, Dragon Warrior, The Mass Effect Trilogy, Bioshock, Bioshock: Infinite, The X-Com series, Mike Tyson’s PunchOut, AfterBurner (Arcade Version), Baldur’s Gate II, The Witcher 1 & 2, and Ducktales.

How to Improve the Oscars (for me)

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I used to love the Oscars. Some of my favorite memories of my life in Los Angeles involves getting together with my friends, anywhere from six to ten to fifteen of them, grabbing junk food and booze, firing up the TiVo, ordering a pizza, filling out our ballots to gamble on the winners and losers, and watching the show designed to celebrate everyone in the room’s favorite art form. We’d have a good time bullshitting, laughing at the good jokes, tearing apart the bad ones, arguing over who deserved to win what, getting real competitive over the stupid pool, and getting hammered enough that by the next morning we had already forgotten who won Best Picture.

That group of friends, though, is now scattered to the winds. Those get-togethers, at least at that scale, are a thing of the past. And every year I have enjoyed the ceremony and the show less and less. This has little to do with which films are honored. There have only been a few times when a particular film winning has elated me and a few more times when a particular film winning enraged me. In general, they pick fine films that are not always my favorites of that year, but are quality nonetheless. (With some exceptions, of course. <cough> Crash <cough> .)

My lack of enthusiasm about the Academy Awards has been created by, over the last 20 years of caring about film and chasing my Hollywood dreams, witnessing the cycle of sameness and lameness from which they seem incapable of escaping. It’s wearing thin. They do the same thing every year, make the same mistakes, and, on the rare occasion when they do something edgy, usually involving a “hip” host, a few people complain the next day and they immediately respond by at least three consecutive years of safe, uninspired hosts that offend absolutely no one because they are incapable of doing it if they tried.

Some of my friends still enjoy watching the Oscars and that’s great. I, less so. So, being a selfish, selfish, man, here is a quick list of the things I would change about them to make me like them better. Just me: a film lover, film expert, and filmmaker. Some of these things may only satisfy me, but I know some would be welcome by others as well. But I don’t care about them. This is all about me. What I’d change. For starters, I’d…

1. Dump the outdated and time-consuming “Best Song” category. This award is a remnant from the days when musicals were a viable genre and for some reason we’ve kept it going. There are two major problems with this category. Firstly, it is not about film. It is about music. And it’s often times not even about music in a film. So many of the nominated songs don’t even appear in their respective movies until the end credits. Most of the rock songs are ones not good enough to put on the respective band’s album. If they could find five songs a year that are actually used IN the movie, in a meaningful and artful way, then maybe I could see keeping it, but they never do. It’s usually two songs like that and three by famous musicians that you probably only heard if you’re one of those people who stays for the whole credits, like me.

Problem number two, of course, is that this category is a horrible time suck. Because the producers feel the need, every year, to have the nominated songs performed during the ceremony. With five songs, plus the actual giving of the award, you’re looking at maybe 20 minutes that could be cut from a 3 ½ hour show. Now, I don’t really care about the length of the show, but I’m a movie geek and I live on the West Coast. But for those in EST, that half hour is a big deal, especially since the awards are always on a school/work night.

Also, this makes “Best Song” the most important award of the night, proportionately. “Best Director” takes up maybe four minutes total, but “Best Song”? It’s 10% of the show! Seems like a lot of time wasted on something that really has nothing to do with making movies.

2. Speaking of wasting time, let’s cut the short film categories. I know this sounds harsh and rather un-filmmakery of me, but let’s be honest. No one cares about these awards except for the nominees and their loved ones. But this show is an entertainment, meant to celebrate the glamour and art of Hollywood, and, to use last night as an example, STEVE MARTIN received an honorary Oscar off-screen in a previous, untelevised ceremony while the winners of “Best Short Documentary” got to speak on TV. I know, I know. Let these folks have their moment. I get that and I understand. But, again, this show is supposed to be entertaining and I know very few people that don’t use those awards as an excuse to use the bathroom. We don’t have to cut them entirely, just lump them in with the technical awards, the ones they do earlier on that celebrate the stuff that they don’t want to bore you with on TV. That’s where they belong. Sorry.

3. Restrict the host to just… hosting. I like Ellen DeGeneres. I thought she did a pleasantly bland good job Sunday night, with a fairly decent ratio of hits to misses. Thought her opening monologue was good and safe, which is fine, and several of her interjections here and there were good for a laugh. My problem is with the sketches. Especially when we get into hours two and three. The costume changes. Going into the audience to get Meryl Streep to take a selfie or make Martin Scorsese eat pizza. It makes the show too much about the host and not about the films. And I just don’t find them funny. The pizza bit last night just made me feel uncomfortable and awkward. That far into the ceremony, sketches like that just make the whole thing seem unnecessarily longer. I want my host to have a monologue to greet us, then spend the rest of the night introducing presenters, throwing in jokes here and there to make us smile. But that’s it. I don’t give a flying fuck if they “broke Twitter” with their group photo.

4. Diversify. Apparently Oscar voters are 94% white, 76% men, with an average age of 63. And boy does it show. Both nominee Julie Delpy and my friend Bob Ray pointed this out in the last few days. Are those numbers representative of Hollywood in general? Yes, and it’s one of its great shames. And it’s nowhere more apparent than in an Oscar broadcast. It explains the same people being nominated year after year. I mean, Meryl Streep is a great actress but not every film she makes is worthy of recognition. They refuse to acknowledge the work of Andy Serkis in Lord of the Rings and Scarlet Johansson in Her as “acting”. They have one category reserved for “quirky” films, “Best Original Screenplay”. Nearly every year it is given to the year’s “weirdest” or “edgiest” film as a consolation prize, because there’s no way we’ll ever give Pulp Fiction or Lost in Translation or Her or Django Unchained or Eternal Sunshine “Best Picture.”

Two words sum up to me why the Academy needs a demographic overhaul:

Bette Midler.

I mean, what the fuck?

“Wind Beneath My Wings”?

Are you shitting me?

I’m sure some people loved it but it just showed me how out of touch these people are. You choose to honor the dead (including Phil Hoffman, who was not mentioned by anyone except for the In Memorium montage) by having her come out and sing a song that was corny as hell five minutes after it came out three hundred years ago?
Felt so lame to me. But just to me. Again, this list is all about me.

5. Drop the “Themes”. The last several years, each Oscar broadcast has chosen a theme. Last night’s theme was “Heroes”. Never mind the fact that 90% of Hollywood Films are about some sort of hero, therefore making the theme of the night “movies”, it is the reason we got three uninspired montage-tribute things that were just a bunch of shots of “heroes”. They had no narrative to them, no energy. They served no purpose other than for people to go “hey, I’ve seen that!”. I just thought they were horrible. I haven’t seen any of these “themes” really work, but this year’s was so boring and vague. Again, wasting time.

6. I know I mentioned this before but it bears repeating: Seven songs were performed and three short films were given awards, but the Lifetime Achievement awards, given to real Hollywood legends, have been pushed off the broadcast into the same purgatory as the tech awards. Wouldn’t you have rather heard Steve Martin talk than listen to Pink sing “Over the Rainbow”?

7. Have them earlier in the year. This may not be possible, but one of the bummers about the Oscars these days is that all of the major categories are decided well before the ceremony. Sunday night it felt like all four actors had already won and were just showing up to collect their trophies. There was absolutely no suspense last night until “Best Picture” and even that was only between two films. With the Globes and the Spirit awards and the countless critics’ awards, it has started to feel like the Academy awards are simply reactive. That the members vote based on what has already won other things. I think the inevitability of the awards this year was the key factor in me not being excited. They have to do something to bring in some suspense. Because there wasn’t one minute last night that I found to be compelling or surprising.

8. My last point is probably untenable and stupid but I couldn’t help thinking about it last night. I think the Oscar broadcast would be a whole lot better if it went…

Live to tape.

“Live to tape” is what shows like the “Tonight Show” and “Daily Show” do, which is record a show like it’s live, with commercial breaks and everything, but then air it later. Very little TV that look live is actually airing live.

What this does, in addition to not making the creators of these shows live like vampires, is give them the chance to make little tweaks. Ever notice on “The Daily Show” when there’s a weird cut in an interview? You notice it, it’s weird, but it means the conversation went long and they had to trim it down to get to their network mandated runtime.

But it gives them the chance to have the interview and, if it goes over, cut it down to the parts they think are most interesting.

In the age of Twitter and the internet, I don’t think this is a possibility, but I would love the Oscars to do the same. Go live to tape the afternoon of.

Think about it. Record the whole thing, including letting the damn winners give full speeches and not playing the less famous ones off in 30 seconds. Then, once it’s on tape, the producers can make decisions. “Okay. Spike Jonez’s speech went long so let’s cut the pizza bit. Oh, that montage didn’t go over to well. Let’s cut it.”

They could deliver a fat-free entertaining broadcast if they could have five hours to make some cuts. And they could get it down to 3 hours, easy.

Problem is, of course, that the winners would get out into the interwebs before the show ever aired and no one wants that. But, to be fair, for years the West Coast (where the Oscars are held) got the whole show on a tape delay every year so that it fell in primetime. It’s a recent development that it airs here live at 5:30. And we dealt with it. If you really, really care, there are ways to avoid knowing what happens.

I just think it would make a better show.

But it will never happen.

So those are some things that would make the Oscars more enjoyable for me. As much as I bitch, I still do love the Oscars. I will watch them next year and the year after that. But I am consistently disappointed by their resistance to change. One can mark it up as “tradition”, I suppose, but to me it’s just stale.

Signing off,

your resident grumpy old man,

chad

Who We Gonna Call Now?

 

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Shockingly I was having a hard time finding a subject for my post this week but then yesterday the Universe handed me something that immediately sent me to my keyboard.

And for that, I say to the Universe:

Screw you. Screw you right in your black matter, you cold, meaningless, eternally-expanding son of a bitch.

Screw. You. I hate you so much right now.

It’s been a rough couple of months for film fans. Yesterday, February 24th, 2014, was an especially hard day for those of us whose formative years fell during the Reagan administration. A comedy giant has left us and he will never be forgotten. I truly believe that the world is a better place because of his time upon it.

Because laughter is beautiful. Laughter is important. Whenever my baby daughter laughs I think “How is this happening? Why? How does she know what’s funny? What is the biological imperative that provides her with this reaction?” Why is this noise, with its infinite variations, from bubbly giggling to overpowering, annoying har-dee-har guffaws, the universal, species-wide indicator of joy? It is a reflex, like pulling your hand away from a hot stove or that thing with the hammer in your knee that I’m not sure a doctor has ever actually done to me.

Why do we laugh? At what evolutionary step did it become part of us?

(I’m sure there are answers to some of this. I’m just pondering out loud. I’m not going to read any scientific papers about this.)

Laughter is a vital part of human survival.

Harold Ramis made me laugh a lot. He probably did the same for you.

So all sort of owe the man our lives.

This won’t be an obit or eulogy. I don’t do that. You know what the man did, who he was. I just want to offer up comments on two of his movies and share two brief personal anecdotes.

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters.

Not much to say there, right? A perfect film comedy from start to finish. A top-five “movies you can’t turn off when you stumble upon it on TV” type of film. Words can’t do it justice. Superlatives are inadequate. It’s simply… Ghostbusters.

What is notable about Harold Ramis and Ghosbusters is his presence in front of and behind the camera. He co-wrote the screenplay (a nearly flawless one I may add) and, of course, played the role of Egon Spengler, the Alpha of movie nerds. It is Egon that will forever keep Harold in our hearts. Most people don’t really care about writers and directors; movie are the people on screen. The image of him in that jumpsuit, proton pack strapped to his back, particle wand in hand, is what will first come to mind when we hear his name in the future. For a man who was more a writer and director than an actor, to have such an iconic character that will last for eternity, well, only a few lucky ones get that.

What’s hitting people hard right now is that Egon is dead. Not the director of Caddyshack. Not the writer of Animal House.

Egon. Egon, who thought print was dead. Egon, who collected spores, molds, and fungus. Egon, who taught us to never cross the streams.

Egon, who explained the movie’s silly science to us in a way we’d understand…

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That’s really the loss we’re feeling right now. The heartache. The wonderful piece of pop culture that has been ripped from us.

They’ve been trying to make a Ghostbusters 3 for years now. People have been both clamoring for it and dreading it. Now, it can’t happen. There is no Ghostbusters without Dr. Spengler. There can’t be.

There just can’t.

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Groundhog Day

I have nothing new to add to the chorus of praise this film receives. Yes, it is one of American’s great all-time comedies. All-time great films period. Yes, it is filled with so many quotable lines it’s ridiculous. Yes, it’s the only film that used Andie Macdowell’s innate blankness to its advantage.

Ramis directed this classic comedy, but he didn’t write it. What’s amazing about his work in it is that it is a film about things repeating over and over and over and over again and yet it never gets boring. Never gets stale. He handles the odd and (for a comedy) heady script with a light and confident touch. It’s remarkable and infinitely re-watchable.

It is also a massively effective religious film. It manages to do this without being Kirk Cameron preachy treacle or Mel Gibson torture porn. It is simply an elegant presentation of the core tenants of Buddhism. Not that you have to know that to enjoy the film. I certainly didn’t when I was younger. But now when Phil escapes his personal samsara that is February 2nd, I find myself moved and uplifted.

That movie is going to be remembered forever.

And so is its director.

—–

Two personal notes about Harold Ramis (and if you follow me on Twitter or are a Facebook friend I apologize for regurgitating these):

1) I worked with Harold Ramis on Jake Kasdan’s forgettable film Orange County years ago and he was super nice but I was young and too scared to tell him what his work meant to me. I regret that.

2) Years later John Humber was working with Harold and asked him for filmmaking advice. He said “Go home and make a movie.” He did, brought some friends with him, and we went to Phoenix and made Dakota Skye. That’s why he’s thanked in the end credits.

Celebrity deaths are a weird thing. Society often overreacts to them. Okay, always does. I know I do. People mourn actors and musicians like they’re family members. Which is understandable. Paul Newman was in our lives for a long time, even though we didn’t know him. Kurt Cobain lit a fire under the ass of rock music and he meant something to us. It happens. It’s okay.

But when you work in film and television, it’s a little different. Because you meet a lot of celebrities. In the decade plus that I worked in, on, and around movies, I met a lot of famous people. One funny thing that happens is that you realize that they’re just flesh and blood human beings. I know everyone knows that, intellectually, but until you’ve shared a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with Luke Wilson, it doesn’t quite sink in.

Inevitably, some of these people die, just like everyone else. And if you’ve met them, talked to them, worked with them, you feel it a little more. Not because they were your best friends. Not because they were a true part of your lives. But because you’ve seen them in the flesh. Shaken their hands. Confirmed that they are real people and not just 2 dimensional illusions on celluloid.

Heath Ledger. David Carradine. Roger Ebert. Sally Menke. Robert Altman. Just a handful of folks I’ve had brief encounters with over the years whose deaths struck me a little more than they should have. Now add Harold Ramis to that list.

I say again: Screw You, Universe!

I don’t have any more to say. I’m just bummed. Plus you shouldn’t be sitting here reading this anyway. You should be watching Ghostbusters or Caddyshack or Animal House or Vacation or Stripes or Groundhog Day.

Go watch those movies and laugh. It’s good for you. I still don’t know why, but it is.

(I would like to mention that a very dear friend of mine suffered a devastating familial loss on the same day we lost Mr. Ramis. In my world, my real world, this is, of course, far more important. But that’s not what this place, this blog, this internet is for. But I just wanted her to know I was thinking about her when I wrote this.)

-c

No Ethanol Required

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Look. I’m going to be square with you. I’m nobody. I talk and write like I am, but I’m not. And that’s okay. I wrote about that a couple weeks ago. And there’s really no reason to listen to any writing advice I have to give. Some of it may be right, some may be wrong. But there are far more accomplished writers out there worth heeding. Read Stephen King’s On Writing. Follow Brian Michael Bendis’s Tumblr. Men whose high levels of success give weight to their advice, methods, and opinions.

That said, I have been asked in my life for advice by young writers. Occasionally online, sometimes during the brief moments (film festivals, panel discussions) where I am draped in the illusion of being someone worth listening to.

On this blog I have, between telling Hollywood stories and bashing America’s Game, occasionally doled out a thought or two that I have on the writing process. No, not process. I don’t like to talk or read about process. I’m not sure replicating anyone’s process will get you anywhere; it’s something you need to find on your own. But I have talked about some of my theories when it comes to writing like my 10% rule and the principal of Aiming to Fall Short. But those are just theories, talking points that I’ve cooked up when I should be actually writing instead of thinking about it.

With this post, though, I’m going to share the one piece of writing advice that I believe to be an absolute truth. A nugget that I wish someone had told me when I was 23 or 17 or 12. Something that you must learn and embrace in order to have any chance of writing for a living. Advice that anyone who reads this should take to heart, even if it’s coming from a nobody like me.

But I am still me, which means I’ll take a little bit of a roundabout way to get there.

It starts with booze.

I used to write at night. I used to write at night with a bottle of Captain Morgan. I used to write at night with a bottle of Captain Morgan and a pack of Camel Lights. I used to write at night with a bottle of Captain Morgan and a pack of Camel Lights and a young man’s myopic passion. I used to write at night with a bottle of Captain Morgan and a pack of Camel Lights and a young man’s myopic passion and not stop until I collapsed.

Used to.

Over time alcohol became something I no longer enjoyed. In fact, it began to really make me feel sick. Over time I realized how dumb it was to smoke cigarettes and even if it made me look “cool”, no one could see me being cool at 3:00 in the morning in my apartment. Over time I realized that my mind was sharper when I wasn’t exhausted, that writing is both mentally and physically draining and requires more energy than someone looking at it from the outside may think.

Over time I became a sober day-writer.

I have been lucky enough for a great number of years to be able to focus on writing as my primary profession and activity, even during the times when I wasn’t making any money (which is most of the time). I know not everyone has that leisure. When you’re working a day job, when you have a family, a social life, other obligations, I understand that sometimes the only chance you get to write is after everyone else has gone to bed.

But to me that’s a hobby, not a job. Now, I appreciate the fact that most people, including friends of mine, who do this are hoping to turn that hobby into a job. I again restate that I know how fortunate I have been to be able to concentrate on writing full-time for a long time.

One of the most famous quotes about writing comes from the great (and I know I mention him a lot) Ernest Hemmingway:

“Write drunk; edit sober.”

And I used to agree with that. Part of me still does. It makes perfect sense.

A writer is always their own worst critic. If they’re not, they will never get any better. A writer wants every sentence to shine, ever paragraph to flow like water, every line of dialogue to feel genuine and sharp and clever but not too clever. Ideally, every word you put down on the page or screen should be the best it can be.

That quest, that search for the perfect turn of phrase, that expertly constructed paragraph, that never-before-seen action sequence, is the #1 enemy of a writer’s productivity. It is so easy to get caught in its trap. How often have you (if you have ever tried to write something) stared at the sentence you just wrote for five, ten, sixty minutes trying to figure out how to make it better? Can I find a better synonym for that word? Can I make that sharper, leaner?

The problem is, this isn’t perfectionism. It’s procrastination.

My inner critic is so strong, the part of me that wants what I’m writing to be great is so powerful, that I could literally write once sentence and ponder it for hours. I used to do that. I wasted a lot of time doing that. My brain, my critical brain, the brain that picks apart poorly scripted films and will put down a novel (even an acclaimed one) after 30 pages if I think the prose is boring or sloppy, will easily get caught up on what I just wrote and not understand that the most important thing to do in that moment is to write the next thing and leave the suspect sentence in the dust.

That’s where booze comes in.

Alcohol melts away your inhibitions. That’s what we like about it, right? How many people would do karaoke, dance in clubs, make moves on a potential mate, jump off a roof into a swimming pool (do NOT do that one), without being drunk? It loosens you up, makes you less aware of your surroundings, and lets you give into parts of yourself, both good and bad, that your conscious, critical, responsible self rightly inhibits when not under the influence.

Alcohol does two things for artists. The first is the quelling of inner demons, but that’s a conversation for another day. The second is that it shuts up your inner critic. When you write with a buzz (if you get all the way drunk, I think it’s a disaster. I always tried to keep myself on a consistent level of tipsy) you immediately forget about the sentence you just wrote and move onto the next. You just write and write and write and write. You don’t care about grammar; you don’t care about structure. You just let the ideas pour out of your head. They may not all be good ideas; in the cold light of morning you may be embarrassed by some of the things that you thought were brilliant the night before. But you’ve got stuff down on paper. Things you can work with.

And, as any writer knows, a large majority of the fight (and it is a fight) is just getting stuff down, taking a square piece of granite and chipping away enough so that it starts to look like something, slaying the demon that is the empty page.

Booze is a valuable weapon in that epic battle. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but what happens when the pen itself is your enemy?

You drown it.

“Write drunk.”

Once you have chipped away at that stone and made it look somewhat like something, then, with all of our faculties intact, you bring out your chisel and do the fine tuning. Start molding what your unchecked mind spilled onto the page into something worth reading. Bring those critical skills, the ones Mr. Daniels or Mr. Smirnoff helped you suppress, to bear to create a polished, readable work you can be proud of.

“Edit sober.”

This process absolutely works. It is a tried and true method that has been handed down through the generations. Mr. Hemmingway didn’t come up with it. He just, as he was apt to do, found the best and simplest way to express it.

Does that mean people who don’t drink can’t be good writers? Some probably think so. What about other substances? I’m sure if you’re going for sheer volume, cocaine could be a big help, although anyone I know who has written anything on cocaine has written unreadable unredeemable garbage… but they did write a lot of it. Marijuana will just make you frustrated when all the writing gets in the way of your Taco Bell runs.

Oh? What’s that? Superbad is on? Maybe I’ll watch it for a—I could go for some toast right now. Do I have any bread– I’ll take a quick nap, I think. A nap, and then I’ll get back to writing I swear.

I don’t think you have to get messed up to write. Or make music. Or paint. I mean, yes, it worked for Hemmingway and Hendrix, but it didn’t turn out so well in the rest of their lives, did it?

If you enjoy drinking and writing, or just drinking in general, more power to you. I have no opinion either way, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. But, for those of us who don’t partake for whatever reason, be it a religious belief or a lifestyle choice or a problem with abuse and addiction, there is a very simple work around for Mr. Hemmingway’s “Write drunk; edit sober” credo. Simple, but hard to swallow.

Here it is, my best piece of writing advice:

Understand that you suck.

You. Suck.

This is antithetical to the mindset of most artists. Think about the ego we must have. The ego I have. I believe, actually believe, that the bullshit rolling around in my head is not only worth your time, it’s also worth your money. That my thoughts, my stories, my philosophies, even this damn blog post, hold value. More value than those of others. It’s egomaniacal and absolutely necessary to be a professional artist.

It can kindly be called confidence. I am not feeling kind.

So that’s why this bit of advice can be hard to take. I simply stunned a teenaged boy at the Phoenix Film Festival when I told him this. But I truly wish someone had told me the same when I was his age.

Here’s the skinny. No matter who you are, your first draft is going to be a piece of shit.

I’m going to repeat that a few times.

Your first draft is going to be a piece of shit.

Your first draft is going to be a piece of shit.

“But Chad, I worked really—“

YOUR FIRST DRAFT IS GOING TO BE A PIECE OF SHIT.

It just is. Novel, screenplay, copy for the Sears catalog (do they still have a Sears catalog?), it’s going to suck.

Hear this. Accept this. Embrace this.

And let it free you.

“No, I get it. Of course in later drafts I’ll make it better. That’s the point of—“

No, no. Stop right there.

A. Piece. Of. Shit.

If you can embrace that, internalize it, then you will actually get things done. It will silence your inner critic better than the finest Scotch. It will allow you to lay down word after word, scene after scene, chapter after chapter without a care in the world. Why? Because you know it sucks. There’s no sense fretting if you know it’s not any good. Just write a sentence and then write the next one. Write whatever comes to mind, even if you think it’s dumb. Why? Because it’s all dumb. Overwrite. Repeat yourself. Beat that clay into whatever lopsided shape you want like an angry third grader would.

And don’t look back.

One thing I’ve done since I started writing novels is make sure to contain each chapter in its own document file. When the first draft of that chapter is done, I put it in a folder marked ‘completed chapters’ and I don’t look at it again until I’m done with the whole draft.

If I come up with something in a later chapter that I want to implement into an already-written one, I don’t go back and dive into the original Word file. I make a note of it, something to do when I do my pass between my rough and “first” drafts. But I don’t look back. If I did, if I’m in Chapter 12 and just casually look at Chapter 8, I’ll see a million things I want to change. I’ll want to tinker. I’ll think “This is bad. I need to fix it.” But tinkering doesn’t move you forward. Tinkering doesn’t get that all-important first draft done.

Tinkering is stalling. It gets you no closer to your goal.

Just accept that what you’re writing is bad and trust that you will make it better when you edit and revise.

I know this sounds simple and rudimentary and maybe pessimistic but I’m telling you the sooner you embrace it the better. I didn’t understand this for a long time. I spent days on two-page scenes. I took ten minutes to write a sentence. I wanted every single thing to be perfect and it took forever to get anything done.

And the things I got done were still lousy. Because they were still the first draft. And first drafts are lousy. And I wasted so much time writing them.

I truly do believe this. The first step in being at all productive as a writer is embracing the fact that you’re not going to get it right the first time so there’s no reason to try.

This is what “Write drunk; edit sober” means. Some people are fundamentalist about this and think the only way to greatness is through the bottle. But there is a less literal way to  interpret this that requires ingesting absolutely no ethanol:

Your first draft is going to suck.

There is nothing you can do about this, so don’t let it bother you.

Just. Get. It. Down.

And fix it later.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go. This shitty chapter I’m working on isn’t going to write itself.

Romantic Movies That Won’t Rot Your Teeth

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Are you one of those dicks who hates Valentine’s Day? Do you recoil in horror the moment Walgreens’ seasonal aisle explodes in an inescapable barrage of red and pink? Do you scoff and say “You should express your love 365 days a year!”? Do you refuse to be a slave to the greeting card-candy-flowers industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about? Do you think it’s a dumb celebration made up by the evil empire known as Hallmark?

Yeah, me too.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t like romance and I most definitely love a good romantic film. And, since V-Day falls on a Friday this year (this Friday in fact. what fortuitous timing!) I figure that between dinner and gifts and romantic walks and… you know… that some folks may also want to snuggle under the covers this year and watch a movie, especially if you’re trapped in one of the forty million snowstorms that are blanketing the US right now.

So I’m going to recommend some modern romantic films that should appeal to both the cynic and the romantic in your relationship. They are not “everything is shiny and cute and funny” romantic comedies, nor are they “sap disguising itself as sentimental sincerity” dramas. None of them are based on Nicholas Sparks novels. Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Gosling, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts: nowhere to be seen.

I find the films listed below much more in touch with the idea of love and relationships than the fantasies created by so many “romantic” films. But they are also not “fuck love” films. No Blue Valentines or Revolutionary Roads here. If I had to settle on a single word to tie them all together, I think that word would be “bittersweet”. Which is not only a type of chocolate but also the adjective that best describes many of the most romantic storylines in my life.

If you’ve seen these movies, then cool. If not, check them out. Hell, at the very least, maybe it will keep you from having to watch The Notebook, Notting Hill, The Empire Strikes Back (very romantic to some), Titanic, or the 85 hour Colin-Firth-porn-disguised-as-miniseries version of Pride & Prejudice.

(And, since I am recommending these films for you to watch, I will do my best not to spoil anything. But be warned: setting up the premise, mentioning something that takes place in the first 15 minutes of a film, is not a spoiler. It’s simply a description.)

Let’s start off with an easy one:

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ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Eternal Sunshine is already regarded as a classic. And rightly so. Charlie Kaufman, the most original screenwriting voice of perhaps all time, coupled with Michel Gondry, visually gifted French auteur. Jim Carrey in his greatest performance. Kate Winslet in one of hers (but honestly she has so many it’s impossible to rank them). A great supporting cast. It call comes together in what is the first of three films on this list that I consider true “21st Century” romances.

The IMDB logline: “A couple undergo a procedure to erase each other from their memories when their relationship turns sour, but it is only through the process of loss that they discover what they had to begin with.”

This beautiful piece is, like the last film on this list, a work of science-fiction, but that element is only used as a device that Kaufman uses to navigate through the story he wants to tell. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a heartbreaking masterpiece about love, loss, memory, sex, relationships, and fate, all wrapped up in a story and mood and style uniquely its own.

I’d probably be wasting words dishing out praise here. You’ve most likely already seen Eternal Sunshine. But if you haven’t, do. If you have, watch it again. I just gets more and more rewarding.

Now, on to something you maybe haven’t seen:

—–

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IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)

Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-Wai is my favorite living director. I toyed with recommending 1994’s Chungking Express, but I think In the Mood for Love, which many consider his best film (a point hard to argue), better fits the theme of this list.

The IMDB logline: “A man and a woman move in to neighboring Hong Kong apartments and form a bond when they both suspect their spouses of extramarital activities.”

An accurate description, yes, but there are words missing: sumptuous, gorgeous, moody, atmospheric, mesmerizing, elegant, transcendent. A million more. This period piece, set in 1960’s Hong Kong, is a buffet of unbelievable costumes (especially the cheongsam dresses that will make Maggie Cheung haunt your dreams, no matter which sex you fancy), pitch-perfect production design, and masterful cinematorgraphy by Christopher Doyle.

At the center of it, though, are the performances by two actors who are as talented as they are easy on the eyes, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung, as the wronged spouses, whose unique ways of dealing with their common problem will break your heart. After watching this film, you will want to find more work by these actors. And you should. They are phenomenal and have made a lot of great movies. But they are never better, as beautiful, or as perfect as they are here.

If you like In the Mood for Love, check out the film’s predecessor, Days of Being Wild, and its sequel, 2046. I would also recommend David Lean’s Brief Encounter, a film I believe was an inspiration for Kar-Wai’s.

—–

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THE “BEFORE” SERIES (Richard Linklater, 1995, 2004, 2013… 2022, 2029, 2038, 2047?)

We first met Jesse and Celine in 1995′s Before Sunrise and have now checked in on them twice since, with Before Sunset in 2004 and again in this year with Before Midnight. I love these films so much. I have grown up with these two characters and, while they are smidge older than me, every time I feel like what they’re going through (Jesse in particular) reflects what’s going on in my life.

Hawke and Delpy bring their own lives with them when they shoot these films, and it shows. In the first film they were young and brash (no woman in their thirties would get off a train with a stranger like that; no man in his thirties would ask), so full of bullshit “deep” ideas and naïve passion. When we catch up to them in the second, they are wiser, less idealistic, and we see how their lives have been affected by their first meeting. It also features one of the best endings of a film I’ve ever seen. In part three we check in with them after another nine years. They have known each other for nearly two decades now. They are a touch more weary, more resigned, disappointed, but on the brink, perhaps, of coming to terms with life the way it really is.

These films are short and could easily be consumed in one night. But be warned, they are each just 90 minutes of people talking while walking around European cities. And talking. And talking.

But for me, I hope they keep talking forever. I love Jesse and Celine. I can’t wait to see where they are in another nine years.

—–

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LOST IN TRANSLATION (Sophia Coppola, 2003)

The second film on here I consider a pure 21st Century Romance.

The IMDB logline: “A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo.”

Sophia Coppola’s first film, The Virgin Diaries, was a gem that not a whole lot of people saw. But that changed with her second, the Academy Award winning Lost in Translation. Coppola is the poet laureate of bored girls and women. Every one of her films to date feature a protagonist who is bored (some would say “spoiled”) with her (or in the case of Somewhere, his) current situation, whether it’s being queen of France or trapped under the thumb of oppressive parents or stuck in a hotel in Tokyo. And each chooses to alleviate that boredom in different ways: robbing the homes of the rich and famous, throwing parties so elaborate that they foment revolution, or striking up a flirtatious relationship with an aging movie star.

What really makes this film is the mood, the music, and the chemistry between the two leads. This is the first of two times Scarlet Johansson will be mentioned here, but the only time for Bill Murray. Damn is he great in this film. Torn between being this beautiful and fascinating young woman’s friend, father, or lover, he is just so… sad. But touching and real as well. It’s my favorite non-Ghostbusters version of Bill Murray.

Anyway. Watch this movie. I guarantee the end will give you chills.

—–

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WAKING THE DEAD (Keith Gordon, 2000)

The least-known film on this list is also one of my most cherished.

The IMDB logline: “A congressional candidate questions his sanity after seeing the love of his life, presumed dead, suddenly emerge.”

The description makes it sound like a ghost story, but it’s not. Except that it is. A small film that nobody but me saw when it briefly hit theaters, it’s one that I pushed on people for years. Told with a fractured narrative, this tragic story of love, grief, politics, and hope, is a movingly flawed film by director Keith Gordon, who I wish would make more movies.

Not wanting to give away much of the story, I will discuss the real reason to see this film: the actors. At the time this film was made, Billy Crudup was unknown and Almost Famous had yet to come out. From the first shot of Waking the Dead, I was a fan. I was so sure watching this that he would become a major movie star and a world-class actor, but that never really happened. I have some inklings why, and they have nothing to do with what he can do on screen. Either way, his performance as Sterling in this movie moves me to tears every time.

This was also the film where Jennifer Connelly, the, let’s face it, most beautiful woman who ever lived, showed me she could act. This was a few years before she won the Academy Award for A Beautiful Mind and everyone else realized the same. I love her in this movie. So, so much. It’s a complicated character, one that I wasn’t sure the girl from Career Opportunities was up for playing, but boy was I wrong. Simply stunning.

Warning: this may be the film on this list most likely to make you weep.

—–

HER

HER (Spike Jonez, 2013)

The last film I’ll mention is also the most recent. In fact, it’s still in theaters and would make a great date this coming Friday. It is also the last of my so-called “21st Century” romances.

The IMDB logline: “A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.”

Her was my favorite film of 2013. For the purpose of laziness, I will copy/paste what I wrote on my “Best of the Year” post:

“Not only does Her rank as one of the very best films of the year, it is also the 2013 film I most wish I had made. Every year there’s one: a film I would be most proud of to have on my resume, something that aligns with my sensibilities, says what I want to say, is made the way I would want to make it. The film I love the most and am also the most jealous of. This year, it’s Spike Jonez’s amazing 21st Century romance.

Yes, it’s a film about a guy who falls in love with his computer. But it’s actually not a film about a guy who falls in love with his computer. It’s so much more than that. It’s a great romance. It’s great science-fiction. It’s a great allegory for love and relationships today, about how technology has altered that landscape forever. I mean, really, in a world of text messages and online dating and everything, is it even necessary to have a body in order to love? People are forming relationships all the time based on words on a screen; Her just takes that a step further. It is a gorgeous, sexy, smart, and thought-provoking treatise on love and loneliness and humanity that I can’t recommend enough. It is the best film of Jonez’s career, and I’ve loved all of his films.

Oh, and I’m one of those people who thought Andy Serkis should have been nominated for an Oscar for The Two Towers, and I am even more so convinced that Scarlett Johansson deserves to be as well, despite never appearing on screen. It’s not going to happen, but it should.”

Addendum: Scarlett was NOT nominated for an Oscar. Neither was Phoenix. Those are both miscarriages of fake, meaningless justice. But still.

—–

LINUS, SNOOPY, CHARLIE BROWN

Anyway. That’s my list of films for those who plan on watching something this coming Valentine’s Day but who don’t want to sit through something unbearable like the actual film Valentine’s Day.

And if you don’t watch any of these Friday, watch them some other time. A good romance film is good 365 days a year, not just on that commercially motivated fake-ass exploitative sexist ridiculous so-called holiday that we call–

Shit. Doing it again. Sorry.

later

chad

PS. I would be remiss to not also recommend, especially to folks between, say, 16 and 25, the wonderful indie romance Dakota Skye. It features great performances, awesome music, and a screenplay that feels like it was penned by God. Buy the DVD on Amazon here.*

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*PPS: I feel dirty now. Forgive me.

Hasa Diga Eebowai

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Ugh.

Ugh. Not you again.

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I don’t feel like writing. Not this, not anything. Sometimes it happens. There isn’t one part of me that wants to be in front of this keyboard. My eyes hurt; I’m tired. I just got my daughter down for a nap: we’ll see how long that lasts. I’m just not feeling it right now and the monitor of my laptop is staring at me like an asshole I want to punch in its stupid face.

I am writing to fulfill my obligation to my friends/guildmates and nothing more.

As I type this sentence I have no idea what the next one is going to be. I started working on a post about the time I worked for Quentin Tarantino and about his recent controversy but it’s not done and it’s not going to be done today. I’ll do it next week. Man, I don’t want to be writing right now at the moment.

(I didn’t like the internal ‘write’/’right’ rhyme.)

So, because I don’t want to write, I will write.

Come on. Words words words. Mary had a little lamb. Little lamb. The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. Soylent Green is people. Darkness. Imprisoning me. All that I see. Absolute horror. I cannot live. I cannot die. Trapped in myself. Body my holding cell. Yeah-uh!

(Editor’s Note from the future: There does end up being a point to this. So bear with me.)

Let’s see. Come on…

Peyton ManningThat Super Bowl sucked, didn’t it? I was about 50-50 on who was going to win and despite my hatred of the Broncos (any fellow Browns fan will understand) I sort of wanted Peyton Manning to get another ring. Apparently, he didn’t want to. Holy cow. Any sporting event is boring if one of the teams doesn’t bother to show up. I bet even some Seahawks fans were somewhat disappointed. That was plain awful.

The game being yesterday did stir up some frustration for me. Geeks have spent their whole life defending what they love, protesting that they shouldn’t be looked down up on and shit on for loving comic books or video games or science-fiction. And we’ve pretty much won that war. If the geeks have not inherited the Earth, we sure as hell, for better or worse, inherited popular entertainment.

But there’s a trend amongst geekdom that is such hypocritical nonsense. It’s okay to dislike sports. It’s okay to not watch sports. It’s okay to say “I don’t watch sports” when someone brings it up. But there are so many who cannot WAIT to tell you how much they hate sports and how stupid the people who like them are. They cannot WAIT to tell you what they’re doing instead of watching the Super Bowl. They cannot WAIT to make sure you know they are only watching it for the commercials. They cannot WAIT to Tweet about the fucking Puppy Bowl. They cannot WAIT to make their “Go Sports! Kick that ball through the hoop for a goal!” jokes that are hacky and lame.

So a group whose entire plight (and I use that term relatively. this is largely a group of privledged white boys and girls) was being derided for liking the things they like are now using any occasion to deride the things other people like. Part of me gets it. I was picked on by jocks in high school, too. But guess what? That jock who beat me up? I’m damn sure he went and saw The Avengers. Your teenage years are a fucked up time and I’m way too old to worry about how people acted towards me when we were kids. I was a dick as a kid. So were you. Ask the other three members of this site if I was a perfect person, a beacon of kindness and friendship and caring, when I was sixteen. They would laugh in your face. We were all fuckwads in high school. We were just all different types of fuckwads.

Like sports. Don’t like sports. Fine. But you are a damn hypocrite when the first thing you do on Super Bowl Sunday is run to your Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and tell EVERYONE how dumb they are for liking sports. Bite me. You are traitors to the principles of geek culture, nerdy little Fidel Castros, overthrowing a dictator only to become dictators yourselves. (Okay that’s real dumb and hyperbolic but hypocrisy is something that infuriates me. Especially in myself. It’s part of me like it’s part of everybody.)

Inclusion works both ways. Other people can enjoy what they want to enjoy and it doesn’t affect you one iota. Let it be. Don’t watch the game, but don’t make fun of people who do. You are no longer geeks. You are hipsters. That’s what hipsters do. Do you really want to be a hipster? While you’re at it, stop watching shows you know you hate just so you can hate on them more accurately. I stopped watching “Heroes” midway through the second season and never looked back, not even ironically. Don’t like “Game of Thrones”? Just dandy. Don’t tune in every week just so you can tell me what you hate about it. That makes you a giant dick.

(The funny thing is so many of them absolutely love MMA and UFC and fill up my Twitter stream every Saturday with accounts of thugs beating the shit out of each other for their enjoyment. And then turn around and complain that everyone is talking about football on Sundays. MMA’s a sport, idiots. YOU LIKE SPORTS.)

I’ll end this dumb rant with a Tweet I sent out a few days ago that is my final word:

“I enjoy both the Super Bowl and the Oscars, but am neither a date rapist nor a homosexual.”

We’ve taken a rejection of ‘us and them’ and turned it into ‘them and us’.

I’m this close to turning in my geek card. Traitors.

What else?

So, speaking of Oscars, Phil Hoffman died. Fucking tragedy. Really. I was devastated. Had to leave the house and walk around the block to dry my tears (although it was raining and it didn’t do much good). He was easily one of the two or three best actors working in film today. He wasn’t even 50. Just a shame.

Quick note: several people yesterday claimed the opinion of  “He was using heroin. Fuck him. He should know better. I mean, he has kids!”. Chemical dependency is not a choice, not something people can be reasoned out of. I am lucky enough to have never gone through it, except for maybe caffeine, but have been touched by friends who have and I tell you it’s not something you can chalk up to a “bad life decision”. Addiction never leaves you and can come back to destroy you at any moment. It is a constant battle.

You never beat addiction; the best case scenario is that you play it to a draw.

Philip-SeymourMy favorite Phil Hoffman performance, and I think every one is worth watching, is as Phil the Nurse in Magnolia. In a film chock full of crazy, conflicted, selfish, distraught, sad characters, Phil is a beacon of good and love. He radiates caring in a way I’ve never seen on screen. His quest to find a dying man’s estranged son is pure selflessness and the way Hoffman portrays it is heartbreakingly genuine and beautiful. I know Tom Cruise got all the attention (and nominations) for that film but the true masterstroke in P.T. Anderson’s epic of anxiety and helplessness is Hoffman’s nurse, who Anderson named “Phil” because he knew exactly who he would be casting in the role.

If I were to hold a Phillip Seymour Hoffman memorial film festival, I would watch the following:

Magnolia
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Wilson’s War
Capote
and Almost Famous, where he plays the legendary Lester Bangs and steals every moment he is on screen.

And nearly every other film that he made. Although I thought that DeNiro one was pretty bad. And Savages was garbage.

Rest in Peace, Phil. A peace it seems you had a hard time finding in life. I didn’t know you, so I can’t mourn like your family and friends. I can only mourn the passing of a legend and bemoan the fact that there won’t be any more Phillip Seymour Hoffman performances (after the last Hunger Games comes out). A damn, damn shame.

So I didn’t want to write anything and here I am coming up on 1500 words.

Hey! Maybe I found a point.

A writer should write every day. If it’s ten words or three thousand, you should put something down. If it’s nonsense or if it’s gold. If it’s a useless blog post or the final touches on your masterpiece. I truly did not want to sit down and do this. I had nothing to say. I still don’t, really. But I did it anyway. I typed and typed and typed and typed.

I forced my brain to expel letters, form words, construct sentences, build paragraphs, express thoughts. It didn’t matter about what: I rambled about the Super Bowl and a dead movie star. But I got it down, got through it. Broke through that wall.

And you know what?

I think now I’m going to be able to get some work done on Chapter 6 of my book.

I wouldn’t have said that an hour ago. All I wanted to do today was sit my fat ass in front of the TV and see if that new “Black Sails” show is any good, catch up on “Brooklyn Nine Nine”, and maybe dive into the new Blu-ray of my favorite silent film, FW Murnau’s Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans.

But now my fingers are limber. My brain is a little more awake. I realize I am capable of forming thoughts today. Maybe not great ones, but one doesn’t need greatness to work on a first draft. You only need the will and the time.

So I guess this post will go down under the category of ‘writing advice’, although in sort of a meta way. This has been a document of me writing myself out of my not-wanting-to-write mood. When the last thing you want to do in the world is write, get writing.

I promise I’ll be back next week with an actual post. Most likely that piece about Quentin Tarantino: the man, the filmmaker, and the lightning rod.

Now, onto Chapter Six.

Shit. The baby’s waking up.

Chapter Six will have to wait until the afternoon nap.

-chad

PS – If you don’t understand the title of this post, look it up. It was the first thought I had when I learned about the passing of Mr. Hoffman.

Livin’ Small

Above is a song by my friend and role model Jonah Matranga. Listen to it. I’ll wait.

Okay. More on him in a bit

As child I had the usual dreams about what I wanted to do when I grew up. Police officer. Fighter Pilot. Archeologist.

Then I learned the police academy wasn’t nearly as much fun as the movies that bore its name, that my nearsightedness meant I could never be Maverick, and that real archeologists don’t carry whips and fight Nazis.

In the third grade, my teacher told me I was going to be a writer. That ended up being the one that stuck. That piece of advice given to an 8 or 9 year old boy set the course for the next 30 years of his life. For a decade I wanted to be a novelist; after that, a screenwriter and filmmaker. I never considered studying anything else but writing and movies. I never had a fall back. I didn’t go get a safety degree that I could use to pay the bills while I tried get my writing career off the ground. I, naively and some would say foolishly, went all in on this dream. Sometimes I wonder if I should have taken the route some of my friends took: getting an advanced degree that assured them a job and attempt to launch a writing career in concert with their 9 to 5 obligations.

I admire them for doing that. But that’s not me. I have no other skills. Even if I had gotten into Georgia Tech like so many of my friends, which I did not, I don’t have any feel for things like engineering and science. John McGuire builds roads and plans cities. Another friend makes robots; one has risen through the ranks of one of the world’s biggest and most important companies. They have real jobs, like real men, and while I respect and sometimes envy them, I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I married a brilliant woman who is a bio-organic chemist. She loves chemistry and is very good at her job, but still, even after going through enough school to acquire a PHD, her profession is not what defines her. When she gets home she does her best to leave her work at work. It took me years to understand that. I am a writer 24/7. It’s who I am. It is my profession and my hobby and my identity.

I had big dreams. Still have them. I still want to write and direct major motion pictures. A few best-selling novels. I want to be admired and accepted by others. I want to be known: not famous, but known. I want kids, 22 year old writers or film geeks, running up to me like I once ran up to Wes Anderson and Steven Soderbergh. I want to run my own TV show. I want to win an Oscar, a Hugo, an Emmy, and eventually a lifetime achievement award from the Academy.

I want to be great.

None of that has happened yet, but I haven’t given up. But a recent piece of news (which I will not get into) has made me doubt. Made me think about giving up, walking away. Part of me knows I’m never going to reach the heights I dream about. Part of me knows I’m not going to be Martin Scorsese or George R.R. Martin. I look at things happening today, to people in my age group, and think I missed my chance. Drew Goddard is writing a Daredevil series for Netflix: that should have been me. JJ Abrahms shouldn’t be doing the new Star Wars, I should. They’re making a movie about hip-hop legends N.W.A.; I’ve had that idea for years, just ask any of my friends. Joe Wright is making yet another live-action Peter Pan movie, which was for a long time my dream project. Bill Hader, who was the first friend I made upon moving to Los Angeles 15 years ago, is now a TV and movie star. I used to get drunk with him and watch Evil Dead movies all night and now he’s in movies with Tom Cruise and Larry David.

Sometimes thinking about this stuff really gets to me. Fucks with my head. Makes me feel like a loser, a failure.

And then something like this happens:

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Or this:

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Or this:

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And it buoys me. Takes my head out my ass. Because all I really want to do is reach people, talk to them, move them. And here are these young people (this is just a small sample) proving that I have done that with the one tiny movie I wrote. It is not a large group of people, although it feels like it to me, given the fact that Dakota Skye never had a theatrical release, never got any press, and has had to rely simply on word-of-mouth to get anyone to watch it. But to the people (mostly young women, to be completely honest) who have found it and embraced it, it is very important. It is a big deal. They see Ian and Eileen as movie stars. They seek out the music. And they do things like this, which brings me back to Jonah Matranga and the idea of Living Small:

Jonah MatrangaJonah Matranga is a rock star. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, even him. Especially him. He was (and sometimes still is) the lead singer and songwriter of the band Far. Far is one of my favorite bands to ever put music to tape. When they were around, I never missed a chance to see them live and they never disappointed. Their two major albums, Tin Cans with Strings to You and Water & Solutions are legendary pieces of Sacramento emo or screamo or whatever-o rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t define them. They’re just Far. They are two of my most beloved records, those go-to-anytime pieces of music that never cease to entertain, stir, rock, and inspire me.

But Far never reached full-blown mainstream success. I don’t know if they really came even close. But for those of us who knew them, loved them, followed them, Jonah, Shaun, John, and Chris may as well have been John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

After Far broke up, Jonah began recording solo work under the name Onelinedrawing, had two brief stints with the bands New End Original and Gratitude, and then went back to solo work, this time recording under his name. It was at a Onelinedrawing show that the story for Dakota Skye came to me. The whole thing. In a rush. Three songs in particular are responsible for me writing the screenplay:

1) Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away) – my favorite song by my favorite band, Deftones, who are friends of Jonah and Far. Early in the show Jonah played a stripped down cover of it and it send my mind aflutter. The song doesn’t really have a traditional chorus, but it ends with the repeated line “Drive. I don’t care where. Just far away.” If you go back and watch the movie, look for those exact words. I totally stole them. “Be Quiet and Drive” is the unofficial theme song of Dakota Skye and would have been in the film if we could have afforded it.

2) Crush on Everyone – A Onelinedrawing song that is one of the most beautiful, simple expressions of infatuation I have ever heard.

3) My List – A song written by punk legend Kevin Seconds (who was also on the bill that night) that Jonah turned into a beautiful ballad (as opposed to the awesome two-minute original punk version), with backing vocals by Kevin’s wife Allyson.

It’s hard to explain, but I was both fully immersed in the concert AND writing a movie in my head at the same time. So many things from that night ended up informing the film: the character names of Kevin and Jonah (fictional Jonah’s last name, Moreno, is taken from Chino Moreno, lead singer of Deftones and my #1 man crush), the feeling I had that night, the fact that the original title of the film was Far, and, obviously, the music. It thrills me to no end that two of the three songs listed above ended up in the final film. I always hoped they would be, but never thought we could make it happen.

The thing I admire most about Jonah Matranga is his attitude about making things. He has run the gamut in music, from releasing albums on a major label to recording songs alone in his house on his computer, from playing big(ish) rock shows to playing quiet, intimate shows in fans’ homes. His post-Far DIY spirit has been a wonder to me. I’m sure he gets frustrated at times. I’m sure he gets angry. I know he does. I’m sure sometimes he wishes he was Mick Jagger or Bono. He loves making music and loves playing music for people and why wouldn’t he want as many people as possible to hear him? But he seems to understand something that has taken me a long time to come to:

If your art touches just one person, it was worth it. Maybe not financially, maybe not by society’s benchmarks for success, but because it did what you wanted it to. If you get into art to make money, you made the wrong choice. It’s very very hard to get anyone to pay you to write or paint or play music. If those things come, great. You’re one of the lucky ones. And while I still strive for and need to make money creating things, that is not where the joy or motivation comes from. It comes from touching that one person.

Every time I’ve spoken to Jonah, he’s been nothing but kind to me. Early on as a sweaty fanboy after a Far show. Later, as some guy coming and asking to use some of his music in a little movie…for no money. And more recently as a peer, if not a friend, who now lives only about fifteen minutes from me. He is a good man. Sometimes I feel a little conflict in him, but show me a man who isn’t conflicted about something and I’ll show you a dullard without curiosity or passion.

Chances are, unless your name is John or Egg or had something to do with Dakota Skye, you’ve never heard of Far or Jonah Matranga. But believe me when I say he’s touched a lot of people with his music and spirit and will continue to do so. And to me, he will always be one of the biggest rock stars that ever lived.

If this sounds like a love letter, then I guess it is.

“But Chad,” you’re thinking, “When are you going to turn this back into something about you, because that’s what you do, you egomaniac?”

Very true. Sorry. I almost forgot.

Wil Wheaton recently put up a blog post on this subject that I connected with in a major way. I urge you to check it out HERE.

I’m writing novels now, but haven’t given up on movies. I still want to be on the Dead Guy montage on the Academy Awards. I still want to direct Daniel Day-Lewis. I still think I’d write a better Star Wars film than JJ. I still want to make a good living doing what I love. I want to reach as many people as I can.

I still want all those things. But I may never have them. And that’s okay. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way, but it really is. All I can do is do my work and create things I want to create and hope people find and connect with them. On whatever scale. Ten or ten million people. One person. I mean, I moved a person to do this:

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I’m not saying I endorse it, but someone thought enough of words that I wrote to have them permanently inked onto their body. That has to count for something. That may be the only Dakota Skye tattoo in the world, but that’s more than a lot of people get. I have to remind myself that. And every day on Twitter and Tumblr I have people reaching out to me about how much the film meant to them.

And I know I’m talking a lot about Dakota, even though it came out five years ago. It’s just at this point the only thing I have out in the world that I’ve gotten a reaction to. Proxy is just an infant and I don’t think my fiction is going to get any attention until I have a few more books on the (virtual) shelves. So the film is the only example I have. At the moment. But I am confident there will be more. I have so many more stories to tell; so many more characters to introduce you to; so many more ideas rolling around in this chaotic shitstorm I call a brain.

But success? I’ve chosen to redefine success for myself. I think for the time being, and maybe forever, I’ll try to be happy livin’ small. Anyway, at this moment in my life, this is what success looks like to me:

(I don’t post these to brag. I post these because they are people being touched by our little movie. They are currency to me. Worth more than any paycheck.)

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Please check out jonahmatranga.com and listen to and buy some music.

I’ll leave you with another song, one from Jonah’s short-lived band New End Original, that is the best song for getting me out of bed when my brain and body refuse to do so. I listen to it once a week at least. I don’t always live up to it, but I try. I’ll keep trying.

A Half-Assed and Mostly Sarcastic Plea to Congress

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If one more person utters the phrase “SPOILER ALERT”, be it in person or in text or on a podcast (“How Did This Get Made” excluded), be it used earnestly or dripping with irony, I’m going to pop a motivator like a beat-up red astromech droid. (see above) I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know what blogger or TV writer or forum nerd coined it, but I want it to die. I don’t want someone to splatter it on my Facebook page when I make an off-hand comment about something that happened on TV three weeks ago, nor do I want it “hilariously” screamed when someone mentions the end of Old Yeller or something.

The dog gets rabies. The kid who people say looks like me has to shoot him. We all cry. The End.

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The reason I rail against this phrase and, more accurately, the thought and philosophy behind it, is simple. I love talking about movies and TV and comics and video games and books and stuff. I love waxing poetic, gushing like a fanboy, spitting vitriol, arguing, feeling smug because I know I’m right, acting smug because I know I’m wrong, changing someone’s mind on something, having mine changed, cracking jokes, tearing something down, hurling rampant hyperbole.

It’s one of the great joys of art: the shared experience. When you see a great film, you want others to see it, too. Why? Because you want them to experience it, to enjoy or not enjoy it, and then get back to you and talk about it. Did you like it? Great! Let’s talk about how great it is. Did you hate it? Great! Let’s talk about what a fucking moron you are and how I misjudged you as a person of worth!

After the final moments of “Breaking Bad” aired, I immediately called my brother so we could talk about it for hours. I always want to know who’s seen what, so we can start a discourse about it, even if it’s just a few text messages. If I were a more annoying person (not to say that I’m not already), the only thing I would say to anybody right now is “Have you seen Her yet?”. To my mom, the mailman, the guy asking me for change outside of Walgreens. “Have you seen Her yet?”. If I bumped into President Obama on the street: “Have you seen Her yet?”.

Because I loved that movie so much and want to talk about it.

We used to call this Water Cooler Entertainment. The stuff you saw the night or weekend before that you couldn’t wait to stand around with the people you worked with and yak about. Whether it was last night’s Johnny Carson or the Falcons game or the “M*A*S*H” finale or whoever got kicked off “American Idol” last night. “Lost” was the perfect water cooler show. Almost every week it delivered something, be it surprising, infuriating, terrifying, stupid, cool, or unnecessarily opaque. But it was meaty. Two or more “Lost” fans could chatter on for hours, spinning themselves in circles trying to figure out what they had just seen and unsuccessfully predicting what they would see next.

And that was the other thing about this type of entertainment: the wait. Especially with TV. What is going to happen next week? What did that cliffhanger mean? Are they ever going to pay off the Walt storyline? (The answer to that one is ‘no’.) “Who shot Mr. Burns?”. I love the wait.

But a nefarious and seductive force has come along and destroyed water cooler entertainment.

It is collectively known as On-Demand.

On-Demand includes DVRs, Netflix, DVDs, the internet, and, yes, your cable company’s ON-Demand service. Anything that allows you to watch what you want, when you want, completely independent of theatrical releases and television scheduling. It is what gave birth to the concept of binge watching; why wait seven days between episodes when I can just spend a whole weekend shoving them down my throat like Joey Chestnut? Never mind that stops it from being TV and turns it into a 10 to 20 hour movie, the practice destroys what makes TV great. It’s a long game. Binge watching makes the bulwark of suspense, the cliffhanger, irrelevant as a storytelling device. And can one really absorb the greatness or badness of a show with no time to digest in between doses?

I love my DVR. I love my Netflix. I have binge-watched many, many times. I am not arguing against On-Demand. I take advantage of it daily. But because of it, we have become a culture of spoiler-phobes. Before, if you missed a show, you missed it. When this happened…

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…you either saw it or you didn’t. If you didn’t, you found out about it the next day. That simple. Appointment TV. As soon as something aired, as soon as a movie opened, it became part of the culture. But not anymore. We don’t have to watch things at a certain time, on a certain night, in a certain year. We can watch them whenever. Which is great. Except when it’s not.

I was on a plane once coming home to San Francisco when a passenger requested the pilot not make any announcements about the Giants game because he was DVRing it. I’ve genuinely upset people by referencing the ends of films like Psycho and Glory. One time I let slip something that happened in book four or five of Song of Ice and Fire and made a “Game of Thrones” TV fan look like I had just shot her rabid yellow lab.

What it really comes down to is this: “BUT I HAVEN’T WATCHED IT YET!”

I realize that there are pressing concerns in the world. We need to find a solution in Palestine, do something about climate change, and fix the voting process for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but first I think we need to tackle this:

I am calling on the US Congress, or maybe even the U.N., to decide on an official world-wide spoiler statute of limitations.

Urban Dictionary defines a spoiler thusly:

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Urban Dictionary? That’s not real. Okay. Here’s what Miriam-Webster has to say.

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I would like to add a time limit to these definitions. Now, we would all agree the moments depicted below are no longer “spoilers”:

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Even if you haven’t seen the works in question, the images and words from them have so become part of our cultural heritage that they are incapable of surprising you. Anyone today even half-aware of movies would never be shocked by the end of Psycho like audiences in 1960 were. And you may never watch that old black and white movie about that everyone says is the greatest film of all time but when pressed you probably know the name of his damn sled. These things are just…known.

But what about things a little later? Am I allowed to Tweet a reference to what’s really going between these two?

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Or what happens after this?

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Or this big secret? Are we still not supposed to bring it up in mixed company?

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The most recent of those films is 15 years old. But if you haven’t seen it, and I told you the end, it would be a spoiler, would it not? But so many people know it, when does it stop being taboo?

“BUT I HAVEN’T WATCHED IT YET!”

And when it comes to recent stuff, it’s dangerous waters.

At what point can we openly talk about this?

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Or how this ended?

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The biggest minefield in TV right now is “The Walking Dead”. Because of the nature of the show, every episode is a possible big episode. Someone can die at any moment, not just on season-finale night. Seems like the only person allowed to talk about “The Walking Dead” after it airs is Chris Hardwick.

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I get it. You DVR a show and don’t get to it the night it airs but still want to enjoy it. Fine. I’m with you. The week after “Breaking Bad” ended, it was only proper manners not to talk about the ending to anyone who wanted to see it who hadn’t yet. But if someone is just starting to watch it now, from the beginning, do you have to dance around them? I know Song of Ice and Fire readers feel a responsibility to not ruin anything for the viewers of the show. Because the show is great and we’re enjoying it, too, and don’t want to be a dick and tell you how it ends (not that it will ever end. Write, George, write!).

But when can we start talking about The R** W****** without first checking in on everyone in earshot? A week after it airs? A month? A year? Or do we have to wait for it to come out on home video, seeing as some people wait on HBO shows and binge-watch them?

All I’m asking for is a reasonable expiration date. Because I love talking/posting/blogging about movies and TV. Because critics have become so fearful of giving away something that they don’t really tell you anything at all about what they’re reviewing. Because I’m so sick and tired of hearing someone yell “SPOILERS!” any time you bring up something they themselves haven’t seen.

I once was waiting in line for a movie. I made a joke about Patrick Swayze dying in Ghost and the person behind me in line went, not joking, “Ugh. Spoilers. I’ve never seen that movie.” Now, never mind that the movie is called “Ghost” and that his death happens quite early in the film. The movie is nearly 25 years old. You don’t get to “spoiler” me on a film older than you.

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“BUT I HAVEN’T WATCHED IT YET!”

So, I ask Congress and the President to get on this. Do the right thing. End this nightmare. If you create a federally sanctioned definition of “spoiler”, one that has hard-and fast rules as to when that status no longer applies to a work of art, I will abide by it. But until then:

Jack freezes to death. The cripple is Keyser Söze. He was dead the whole time. Rocky loses. Rocky wins. Rocky wins again. And yet again, this time in Russia. The 54th gets slaughtered. Lincoln dies. Malcolm X dies. Gandhi dies. She’s her daughter AND her sister! They named the dog Indiana. Colonel Blake’s chopper was shot down over the Sea of Japan; there were no survivors. The maniacs, they blew it up! Damn them! God damn them all to hell! Finkle is Einhorn. Maggie shot Mr. Burns. Will has to go and see about a girl. Rick puts Ilsa and Victor on the plane and walks away. All she had to do is click her damn heels together three times. And Soylent Green is people.

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My Twenty Favorite Films of 2013

 Her

Film is my favorite art form. Always will be. I see lots and lots of movies every year, and every year for over a decade I’ve put out a list. So here’s my list for 2013.

The format I use is one I stole from the 1994 “Best of the Year” issue of Film Comment magazine. It’s a 3-tiered list. Tier I consists of 3 films, the ones I consider above and beyond my favorite of the year. The second tier has 5 films that I think are absolutely great. The last section has 13 films that I think are very, very good or at the very least were hella enjoyable. Within each tier, though, there is no order of preference. There is no “number one” film on this list. There are three.

These are not necessarily the “best” films of 2013, despite my impeccable good taste. I haven’t seen every film that was released last year, so I can’t definitely declare any film the objective best. I’m sure I missed some good ones. But here are my favorite films of 2013, of the ones I saw, along with some thoughts to go along with some of them:

I.

her_xlg(written and directed by Spike Jonez)

Not only does Her rank as one of the very best films of the year, it is also the 2013 film I most wish I had made. Every year there’s one: a film I would be most proud of to have on my resume, something that aligns with my sensibilities, says what I want to say, is made the way I would want to make it. The film I love the most and am also the most jealous of. This year, it’s Spike Jonez’s amazing 21st Century romance.

Yes, it’s a film about a guy who falls in love with his computer. But it’s actually not a film about a guy who falls in love with his computer. It’s so much more than that. It’s a great romance. It’s great science-fiction. It’s a great allegory for love and relationships today, about how technology has altered that landscape forever. I mean, really, in a world of text messages and online dating and everything, is it even necessary to have a body in order to love? People are forming relationships all the time based on words on a screen; Her just takes that a step further. It is a gorgeous, sexy, smart, and thought-provoking treatise on love and loneliness and humanity that I can’t recommend enough. It is the best film of Jonez’s career, and I’ve loved all of his films.

Oh, and I’m one of those people who thought Andy Serkis should have been nominated for an Oscar for The Two Towers, and I am even more so convinced that Scarlett Johansson deserves to be as well, despite never appearing on screen. It’s not going to happen, but it should.

InsideLlewynDavisFirstTeaserposter1(written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coen Brothers have one of the best batting averages in American film history. I can only think of one of their movies that I actively dislike and maybe two or three that I think aren’t great but I like anyway. And, after nearly 30 years of filmmaking, Joel and Ethan, unlike so many artists of all stripes, don’t appear to be running out of steam or ideas. It’s remarkable.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a Coen film in the vein of Barton Fink or A Serious Man. A put-up, not very likable protagonist, who over the course of a short amount of time has a whole lot of bad shit happen to him. Does he deserve it? Is it some past sin biting him in the ass? Is God out to get him? (A Serious Man can be read as a Job story) Or is our hero the only sane man in a world of random insanity? This film offers no answers of course. Llewyn Davis is just a folk singer trying to make his way in 1960s New York. Oscar Isaac delivers a star-making turn as the titular character, bringing just the right amount of talent, desperation, and over all asshole-ishness to the part. With strong supporting performances by Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver, Justin Timberlake, and Coen-stalwart John Goodman, I just loved the hell out of this movie. I don’t want to spoil too much, but be ready for a sad, beautiful, funny, and sometimes surreal experience.

There is also a small plot element of the film involving Llweyn’s former partner that connected very strongly to something in my personal life. It’s not overly played in the film, but it’s always there in the background and it helped me relate to a very non-relatable character.

WolfofWallStreetNewposterNovrlsfull1(directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Terence Winter)

With the one-two punch in 1999 of losing both Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese assumed the mantle of the world’s greatest living filmmaker. And since then he has proven to not be a false king. A few missteps aside (Bringing out the Dead), he has made impressive film after impressive film, with budgets he could have only dreamed of for the first 30 years of his career. He has found a new muse in Leonardo DiCaprio and is making films with the energy of a 25 year old man.

Wolf of Wall Street has been controversial but I can’t for the life of me figure out why. This film is simply the third (fourth if you count Mean Streets) in Scorsese’s series of films about organized crime. Wolf of Wall Street falls directly in line with Goodfellas and Casino, both stylistically and thematically. I mean, sure, gangsters are bad, but they’re nothing compared to the predatory stock brokers depicted in this movie. From the use of voice-over, to the frenetic camerawork and the wall-to-wall pop music soundtrack, Wolf is very clearly a successor to Goodfellas and Casino. The Departed  was a fine film (I like the original, Infernal Affairs, way better though), but it wasn’t a gangster movie. Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, is. Another tour-de-force from the world’s filmmaker laureate.

By the way. If you think this film glamorizes its subject’s behavior, you need to look at yourself. DiCaprio, playing a character less sympathetic than his slave-owning, mandingo-fighting, plantation owner in last year’s Django Unchained, is awful (the character, not the brilliant performance) in this film. Just because Scorsese presents all of his behavior in a comedic light, it doesn’t mean he is endorsing or glorifying it. In the film, the characters participate in dwarf tossing, a ridiculous amount of drug abuse, objectifying and exploiting women, infidelity, insider trading, and, oh yeah, knowingly conning thousands of people out of their life savings for their own benefit. If at any point you were watching the film, no matter what the tone (it’s called point-of-view people), and thought to yourself “Man. That looks like fun. I want to be that guy!” then you’re the problem, not the movie.

II.

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12 YEARS A SLAVE (directed by Steve McQueen; written by John Ridley)
The story of Solomon Northup is so terrifying, incredible, sad, and amazingly moving that any more-than-competent Hollywood filmmaker would have made a really good movie out of it and found him- or herself busy come awards season. But in the hands of art house director Steve McQueen, whose previous two films are loved by cinephiles but unknown to many others, 12 Years a Slave became much, much more than the Oscar-bait pic it could have been. It is a difficult film. It dares you to look at it. It is bold and unique. I will never forget one shot (it’s the shot of the year): a very long take involving a tree. If you’ve seen the film you know what I’m talking about. Only a confident but aggressively challenging filmmaker would even dare such a moment. That is what McQueen brought to the film that a journeyman filmmaker would not have. A stunning film, one that will be valued for ages.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT (directed by Richard Linklater; written by Linklater, Hawke, & Delpy)
We first met Jesse and Celine in 1995’s Before Sunrise and have now checked in on them twice since: in 2004 and again in this year. I love these films so much. I have grown up with these two characters and, while they are smidge older than me, every time I feel like what they’re going through (Jesse in particular) reflects what’s going on in my life. This installment never quite matched the perfect ending that Before Sunset had, but it made up for it with maturity and a little bit of sadness and disappointment. I love Jesse and Celine. I can’t wait to see where they are in another nine years.

LA GRANDE BELLEZZA (directed by Paulo Sorrentino; written by Sorrentino & Contarello)
I say it ad naseum but Rome is my favorite city in the world. But Sorrentio’s sad, beautiful, and surreal film showed me a side of the Eternal City I had never seen: one of nightclubs, avant garde performance art, and seedy strip clubs. Maybe this Rome exists; maybe it doesn’t. Only a Roman could tell you for sure. It’s a hard task to summarize this story of a 65-year old night-clubbing member of Rome’s high society and the crisis of age and existence he goes through. If that sentence didn’t make sense, I apologize. The Great Beauty is a hard film to put into words. It simply must be experienced. With great performances, stunning photography that shows off both the better and lesser known sights of Rome, and a surrealism that sometimes reminds me oddly enough of Fellini’s Satyricon, this film has already won a Golden Globe and will probably be the favorite for Best Foreign Language film come Oscar time. And it’s definitely a film I will have to see more than once to full appreciate it, but the first time around I absolutely adored it.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (written and directed by Joss Whedon)
As a long time Joss Whedon acolyte, when I heard that he had made an adaption of my favorite Shakespeare comedy BETWEEN shooting The Avengers and editing The Avengers, well, I was stoked. And even more so after seeing the results. True to the original but shot in a Cassavetes-like black and white, the film is funny and alive. The cast is peopled with Whedon alum, most importantly Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, whose doomed romance on “Angel” gets a sweet redemption, much to the joy of Whedon fans everywhere.

LA VIE D’ADÈLE (directed by Abdellatif Kechiche; written by Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix)
If you went to see a boxing movie and there was an 8-minute boxing scene, would you bat an eye? How about 8 minutes of cars chasing each other at high speeds in a film that has either the words “fast” or “furious” in the title? Or a hilarious 8 minute set piece in the middle of a comedy? No, probably not. Then, tell me, what is the big fucking deal about, in the middle of this beautiful story of a French girl falling in love while discovering both her sexuality and her homosexuality, an 8 minute scene of two women making love? Is said scene graphic? Sure. But so are the dozens of beheadings in the PG-13 Hobbit films that are supposedly for families. Is it exploitative? Only if you download the clip on its own for masturbatory purposes instead of watching it in the context of the film. Forget all of the nonsense. “Is it pornography?” Rubbish. A film about sex is allowed to have sex in it. Get the fuck over it. Blue is the Warmest Color well deserved its success at Cannes and I can’t wait to watch it again on Criterion Blu-Ray later this year, three hour runtime be damned. And Léa Seydoux, who I’ve seen in a few other things, is probably my pick for Best Actress… not that she’ll even get nominated.

III.

SHORT TERM 12 (written and directed by Destin Cretton)
A great little indie film you may not have heard of but should seek out immediately. Brie Larsen gives a wonderful performances as a woman running a center for troubled teens.

BLUE JASMINE (written and directed by Woody Allen)
2013 seemed to be the year of unlikable protagonists, and not just the guys. Cate Blanchett’s Jasimine is tough to love, or like, or root for, but by the end of yet another Woody Allen masterpiece, I did find myself caring about her. Pretty sure Blanchett will bring home Oscar #2 for this one. Because that’s what Woody Allen does. He writes parts that win women Academy Awards.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (directed by Paul Greengrass; written by Billy Ray)
I’m a Paul Greengrass fan and this is another great addition to his filmography. And there is no mistaking who made it; nobody does shaky-cam verisimilitude better. But what I will remember about this fine film more than anything is the last two minutes, in which Tom Hanks delivers the most human and heartbreaking piece of acting I have seen in years. Remember when Forrest Gump, upon meeting his son, immediately gets choked up, terrified, and asks Jenny if the child was smart or like him? No matter what you thought about the movie, it was powerful stuff. Well, in the closing minutes of Captain Phillips, I think Hanks eclipses that moment and creates what might be my favorite piece of acting he has ever brought to the screen.

GRAVITY (directed by Alfonso Cuarón; written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuarón)
If you didn’t see Gravity in the theater, in 3D, in IMAX, I’m not sure you should bother seeing it at all. I liked it quite a bit, but I will never revisit it. Not unless it gets another run on the big screen. Maybe it will get picked up by aquariums and planetariums that have IMAX screens, because no matter how big your TV at home, it just won’t be the same.

THE CONJURING (directed by James Wan; written by Chad & Carey Hayes)
The scariest movie I’ve seen in a decade. Well done, Mr. Wan.

THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; written by Craig Borton & Melisa Wallack)
Two of the best performances of the year anchor this moving and fascinating true-life tale, told simply and effectively. I still would rather see Ejiofor win Best Actor (Okay, really I would rather see Phoenix win Best Actor, but he’s moronically not nominated) than McConaughey, but I’ll be completely in agreement when Jared Leto walks away with gold.

THE WORLD’S END (directed by Edgar Wright; written by Wright & Simon Pegg)
Wright, Pegg, and Frost finish out their Cornetto Trilogy in style. Fun and funny all the way through, what really carries it is the performance of Simon Pegg, the best of his career. At least so far.

AMERICAN HUSTLE (directed by David O. Russell; written by Russell & Eric Singer)
This film stars Batman, Hawkeye, Lois Lane, Rocket Raccoon, and Mystique. But it is not the greatest superhero movie of all time, it is an entertaining period con piece that is a good time loaded with great performances. And did David O. Russell know he was making a Scorsese knock-off or was it subconscious?

FRUITVILLE STATION (written & directed by Ryan Coogler)
A film that could not have been released at a more relevant time.

BLACKFISH (directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite; written by Cowperthwaite & Eli B. Despres)
Horrifying. I’m going to have some tough decisions to make re: Sea World, aquariums, and zoos as my daughter gets older.

THE SPECTACULAR NOW (directed by James Ponsoldt; written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber)
My favorite youth romance of the year, largely because, in addition to fantastic lead performances, there is more going on than just puppy love. Kind of a serious version of She’s All That if you will. Beautiful little movie.

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Just a quick note about FAST & FURIOUS 6. I love the FF films. Love love love. While part 6 didn’t quite live up to the previous installment, I still enjoyed the hell out of it. Honestly, it should be on this list, but I think the 20 titles above are better movies. But Furious 6 (as director Justin Lin wanted to call it), was a blast and a film I will return to many times. Like so many, I was saddened deeply by the death of Paul Walker. He was by all counts a good and generous man. I am unsure about the future of the franchise without him (and without Lin, honestly) but I’ll be there opening day for number 7.

Rest in peace, Mr. Walker.

Paul-Walker-fast-and-furious-6

Aim to Fall Short

 

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Before I get onto the subject at hand (the bravest and boldest thing I’ve ever done: praising the most-praised thing of the last decade), three quick bits:

1) I missed my last two posts due to the holidays, traveling, lack of wi-fi, and a harsh but luckily short head cold. Won’t happen again.

2) More importantly, I want to say congratulations to John McGuire for releasing his first novel, The Dark That Follows. I was one of the few that got to read the first draft, and I can’t wait to see what he’d done to it since. Pick it up and support the next square in this artistic quilt called Tessera we’re trying to sew.

3) Belated Happy Holidays.

Now that that’s over with, I move on to the point of this post:

I FINALLY GOT TO SEE THE BOOK OF MORMON THIS WEEKEND.

WARNING: We at Tessera have a No Religion / No Politics rule (which I endorse – I say enough biased and antagonizing shit in my own life), but, due to the nature of The Book of Mormon, the topic of religion will come up, but only in passing. However, if I say anything that I think anyone can at vaguely-kinda-at-all interpret as being maybe offensive to someone anywhere, I will write it in bold. Hopefully I won’t have to use that, but I figure it’s good to have it as a fail safe. Okay? Cool. Onto talking about the play…

So I don’t believe in God.

Wow. That came in useful right-quick, huh?

I state the above not to provoke, but because I think it’s pertinent when I talk about how much I love The Book of Mormon. Because, contrary to the opinions of a few, it is not an anti-religious work. Far from it, actually. It actually endorses having some sort of belief system, and a community based around it, to help you get through life. It’s primary thesis seems to be that while, yes, most religions look super-silly from an objective view, that doesn’t make them any less real to their practitioners, and it doesn’t mean they’re not an important part of the human condition. It is actually a plea for religious tolerance; the most Unitarian, “whatever gets you there gets you there” piece of popular art I have ever seen.

What The Book of Mormon is, though, is a searing screed against fundamentalism. It, not religion, is the true target of its derision and cutting humor (as well as a number of other topics).

But see, I’m just not non-religious. I am also largely anti-religious.

And again, I say that only to express that I should hate The Book of Mormon just based on its general conceit.

But it is impossible to do so. To hate The Book of Mormon. And not just because it is hilarious and smart, with curtain-to-curtain memorable songs and characters, and manages to be shockingly funny and genuinely moving…sometimes at the same time, but because it makes its case so well it almost wins me over to it. It makes me see the value of faith and religion. More than anything ever has, really. At the end of the play, for a few brief moments, I felt like a person of faith, moved by the words and sounds and ideas presented on stage.  I shrugged it off quickly, but still, for a man like me, that’s quite an accomplishment.

To those unfamiliar, The Book of Mormon is the multiple-Tony Award winning musical created by Trey Parker & Matt Stone (“South Park”) and Robert Lopez ( Avenue Q ). It opened on Broadway in 2011 to some of the best reviews in the history of theater and became an instant sensation. Tickets were both nearly impossible and impossibly expensive to get. The production I saw, at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco, was part of its second U.S. tour. And it was still sold out, three years later, and the balcony seat I had was not cheap. This is a production that will be going on for a very long time.

bookofmormon-29e2b4c3aa2823816edf3d11925282cf13c08171-s6-c30The play is the story of two young Mormon boys about to go out on their first mission. Elder Price is a superstar and is destined to change the world with the power of his faith, destined, he believes, to do “something incredible.” Elder Price is awesome. Just ask him.

Elder Cunningham, who Price is paired up with on their mission, is not awesome. Well, he is, really, but he’s not an awesome Mormon. In fact, he hasn’t even read the book. And he’s also a compulsive liar, prone to making things up and telling stories, most of them cribbing characters from things like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. He is not a model Mormon; he is not a model anything.

The two men are sent to a village in Uganda to convert the Africans there to Mormonism. The place they arrive is in desolate shape: poor, hungry, ravaged by AIDS, and under the boot of a vicious local warlord obsessed with female circumcision. Elder Price, despite his iron clad faith and God-given ability, has a very hard time seeing how he can baptize these folks into the Church of Latter Day Saints. Drama, doubt, and disappointment ensue.

And also lots of singing and dancing and jokes and profanity and a hundred other things that will make you smile ear to ear.

That’s all I’m going to talk about the story. I knew most of it going in. Not from doing research, but from downloading the soundtrack from iTunes several years ago and listening to it constantly. I know every word of the soundtrack. Just the songs alone, without the benefit of the play, are still amazingly funny and tell a story. So, to be honest, I was already a fan of The Book of Mormon before I ever saw The Book of Mormon.

Obviously, this late into the show’s run, most of the original Broadway cast have moved on. The cast I saw was not the cast that originated the parts. But the players in the San Francisco production acquitted themselves fabulously (sorry. musical review. must use “fabulously” at least once). The Saturday night audience ate it up and I loved every second of it. One of the best musicals I have ever witnessed, maybe the best, my other favorite being Spring Awakening.

So, in other words, “thumbs up”. I’m SURE the folks from the play will be relieved to get my endorsement. It may be the thing they need to put them over the top.

But what I really want to talk about isn’t The Book of Mormon (“Could have fooled me, asshole!”) but how Book of Mormon made me feel afterwards. On the train back from the theater, I fell deeply into a state of joyful melancholy that I call the “Genius Hangover.”

It’s a feeling I have encountered many times.

Experiencing something so brilliant – a play, a movie, an art exhibit, a TV show, a video game, a concert, a public speech, anything – always leaves me with conflicting feelings. Firstly, I am elevated, inspired, and, well, fucking jazzed. I walk out punching the air, ready to go. Determined to run home and write. Juices flowing. Basking in the glory of art and what it can do and the limitless heights it can reach. You can’t wipe the smile off my face. I probably skip down the street. It is quite a high.

I mean, a HUMAN BEING made that. A human being like me–

But not like me. Uh-oh. This is where the second wave of emotions comes in to ruin the party, creeping up through the cracks in my joy and strangling it like weeds:

Jealousy and despair.

Because I will never make anything that good. Oh man. I just won’t. I mean, that is world-class. That is classic. It will be remembered for all time. It’s not that I just won’t make something like that, it’s that I can’t . The person or persons who made that are more talented than me. And that’s a hard pill of an egomaniacal narcissist (read: artist) like me. I know I’m talented. I think I’m very talented.

hemingway-for-whom-the-bell-tollsBut I’m not For Whom the Bell Tolls talented. Not Seven Samurai talented. Not “West Wing” talented.

I’m not The Book of Mormon talented.

So the high I get from seeing something amazing and the depression I get from seeing something amazing come together to create the slurry of a mood I call Genius Hangover. It usually sticks with me for a day or two. A combination of an overwhelming desire to create something great and a sadness that I’ll never create something as great as whatever inspired me.

Weird, I know. But it happens every time. I’m used to it. I just embrace it, let it happen, and it passes and I move on.

It also lead me to another one of my philosophies of writing, which I think makes the second one I’m going to bore you with, the first being my Theory of 10%.

This philosophy can best be summed up thusly: Aim to Fall Short.

I know it doesn’t seem very motivating; it will never be featured on a kitten poster in your office.

Here’s the thing. I will never be my artistic heroes. That’s okay. Because my heroes are bad-ass and legendary. Nobody is them but them. I’m sure most days they weren’t even them. I’ll take two examples from my list above: For Whom the Bell Tolls and “West Wing”.

I will never be Ernest Hemmingway. I will never be Aaron Sorkin.

But every word I ever write is and will be a futile attempt to be.

I believe that you should strive to be as good as your idols. Look at them (artistically) as what you want to be and go for it. You will fail. Oh, you will fail. I’m never going to write like Ernest Hemmingway. Do you know how I know that? HE’S FUCKING ERNEST HEMMINGWAY. It’s as simple as that.

But what I think is this: of course you will fall short of your heroes. And when you do fall short, when you’ve maximized your talent and done your best, that is where you find your voice. You will discover the parts of your work that are innately you, the things that come out no matter how hard you’re trying to be someone else. You’ll learn your strengths and weaknesses and how to capitalize on both.

Every sentence I write, I want it to be a good as my favorite passage in all of literature:

“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”

Not one of them ever has been. Again, HE’S FUCKING ERNEST HEMMINGWAY.

But in that failure, in those cracks, I find myself.

This concept may not work for everyone, but it works for me.

Anyway. Aim to fall short. That’s a piece of writing advice you didn’t ask for and probably shouldn’t heed.

So, to wrap it up: Sorry I missed some posts, Book of Mormon kicks ass, and I’ll never be Ernest Hemmingway.

Book of Mormon

Over the next weeks I’ll be delivering my annual Best Films of the year list, as well as something on 21st Century Romance films (spurred by seeing Spike Jonez’s Her – talk about Genius Hangover), and maybe something about having fans or the closing of Blockbuster or what I made for dinner. I don’t know. Making this up as I go along.

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Chad’s (Insignificant) Hollywood Tales : Deutschland, Deutschland!

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As this post goes up, I am in the air, flying from San Francisco to Atlanta for the holidays. I will also be flying with an infant in my arms, so, if you never hear from me again, it won’t be because of anything tragic other than a complete and utter mental breakdown.

So this week’s post has to be fast. I’m going to tell a quick story about the weirdest 90 minutes of my life.

Is this Christmas related in any way? Sort of, only because it involves air travel and that this story really started at Christmastime 5 years ago.

In 2008, Dakota Skye won Best Picture at the Charlotte Film Festival. They tell you this ahead of time, these smaller festivals, to entice the production to send a representative. There were two other festivals going on at the same time, all of which we were invited to, so we had to split up. Director John Humber and actress Eileen Boylan went to Canada. Producer Shaun O’Banion and actor Ian Nelson went to Michigan. Me, having grown up in the South, volunteered for / was assigned to North Carolina on my lonesome.

I really wanted to go to Charlotte mostly because my friends and family in Atlanta, if they wanted to, could easily make the drive to see the film with an audience. This was especially important for my parents and brother. They had all seen in on DVD, but I wanted them to experience a screening, along with my Q&A after. I spent a few days with my family in the ATL then, with my brother in tow as my “assistant” drive up to Charlotte.

Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

The festival was fun. Small, but fun. Saw a really great documentary called Immokalee, USA that you should check out if you can find it. After the first of two Dakota Skye screenings, which went well, I was approached by two German men. They informed me that they worked for the Filmkunstfest Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a film festival in Schwerin, Germany, which is a quaint city of 100,000 or so, north of Berlin, close to the Baltic and on the way to Denmark. It wasn’t quite the Berlin film festival, but very few fests are.

These two men explained to me that their filmkunstfest was a sister festival with Charlotte and that they had a best-picture exchange program. That whatever won best picture at Charlotte played in Schwerin the next year, and vice-versa. Dakota Skye, as that winner, was invited to play in Germany.

I thought little of it. Just because it seemed unlikely to happen. So I took their info and passed on the director’s, for he was the one that handled that stuff.

That Christmas, I was home in Atlanta when John called me. We’d been invited to Germany. It wasn’t a 100% free ride, but they were willing to pay enough of it to make it worth considering. He was definitely going, and I was also invited. The question is, did I want to?

You see, for the first 30+ years of my life, I was a scaredy-cat flyer. My brain knew it was safe, but it had a hard time communicating that to my gut. And I had never been to Europe. The only time I had spent outside of the country was a half-day trip down to Rosarito I took once with my friends Colleen and Matt. I really wanted to go, but the flight a flight from Los Angeles to Berlin scared the ever-loving shit out of me.

But when these types of opportunities pop up, you can’t say no. You just can’t. So I agreed to fly to Germany to show our movie.

Cool enough, right? But this is where it starts to get weird.

tumblr_mumheh8g0D1rd1x99o1_500For those of you unfamiliar with Dakota Skye, all you need to know in the moment is that the film is full of subtitles. Not subtitles in another language, but in English. They are burned into the film. They are an integral part of the story. Which pretty much makes Dakota Skye un-subtitle-able for foreign audiences. Because at any given time there could be three sets of titles on screen: one interpreting the spoken English, one English-language story-based one, and then another to translate the English-language subtitle itself. Just imagine all that text on the screen. Untenable. Unwatchable.

So the only way for Dakota Skye to play in another language is to dub it. That at least gets rid of one set of subtitles. But being a tiny, tiny film, we had no ability to put together a German-language version of the film. But the festival organizers told us that they would take care of that. All we had to do was show up.

Okee-dokee.

So in early 2009 John and I flew to Germany. And I did pretty well for my first trans-Atlantic flight. In fact, ever since then, my fear of flying had reduced greatly. What’s a four hour trip to the East Coast when you’ve sat through 14 hours to get to Europe?

4526_80751054924_3806585_nWe landed in Berlin, got our passports stamped, and I was officially a world traveler. After spending the night in a hotel by the airport, we were met next day by one of the two men I had met in Charlotte. He would be driving us up to Schwerin (maybe a two hour drive). He was late in meeting us, which I told him destroyed my perceptions of German punctuality, but he explained to me that he was actually Bavarian, and, from what I could gather, Bavarians are to Germans as West Virginians are to Ohioans.

On the drive up to the festival, the weirdness began. The festival rep, riding shotgun while another man drove us, broke out a document. It was the English to German translation of Dakota Skye. Being the writer of the film, I was intrigued. He started asking me questions to make sure he had things right. Certain cultural references, even things as simple as bowling lingo, wouldn’t translate, he said, so he needed my help finding alternative ways to say things.

Wait a minute, I thought. The first screening is tomorrow. In fact, we discovered, we were the OPENING NIGHT FILM. And the dubbing hadn’t been done yet? They were still tinkering with the script. Then we found out the bizarre and terrifying truth:

They would be doing a live dub.

A live dub involves a person standing in the projection booth with a microphone who then talks over the film’s natural audio (which is also audible), reading from a German script. One person doing every voice, just reciting the translation in a monotone. It’s like what you see in movies about the United Nations, except in this case it’s for a dramatic (and more dangerously, comedic) piece with several distinct character voices, both male and female.

And the man who would be doing it was like 40 years old.

A man.

Dakota Skye stars a 19 year old woman playing a SEVENTEEN YEAR OLD GIRL. So you’re telling me, Mr. Bavarian, that my teenage female protagonist is going to be dubbed by a full-grown man?

“Trust us. We do this all the time.”

3349_1163286039552_6122236_nSo we were swept into the film festival as American celebrities. We did a press conference, in which we said maybe two sentences between both me and John, went to the reception, saw an art show, and were interviewed by two German teens for the festival newsletter. They were good kids who two days later we found ourselves drunk with, another bit of culture shock. They were full of questions about how Americans see Germans. I’ll never forget when one of them said to me, “World War I started because someone killed an Austrian; World War II started because someone didn’t.”

Very true.

 

 

So, opening night of the festival. The theater is filled with donors and older folks and people and suits and here we were about to present our little American romantic comedy filled with masturbation and marijuana jokes. I mean, this was our crowd:

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You can understand why we were nervous.

But nothing could prepare us for what came next:

The weirdest 90 minutes of my life.

I very rarely sat through a Dakota Skye screening. Add my natural anxiety to my filmmakers’ anxiety to the fact that I’ve seen the damn movie a thousand million times, but there was no way John and I were going to miss what we were sure was going to be a train wreck. We sunk down into our seats before it even started.

And then it started.

Whoa boy.

During Dakota’s festival run, we had screenings that were good, great, and mediocre. But there were certain moments, and definitely certain laughs, that always landed.

Not so much in Germany that night.

So the movie starts and the moment our heroine begins to speak, this deep, male German voice comes over the speakers, talking over everything in an attempt to German it up. And wow was it awkward. The laughs definitely did not come when they were supposed to and did when they weren’t. Sometimes the scene would move too fast for the translator, and he would just give up on it. I didn’t know what he was saying, but I definitely heard him stumble and stutter a dozen times. A handful of people walked out. We weren’t sure what everybody else was thinking, but from our point of view it was a disaster.

And it was the most fun I had at a Dakota Skye screening.

Because there was no pressure. Because it wasn’t our fault. The audience understood what was happening. They were seeing the movie, which is great looking for a 100k film, but is still a 100k film, but they weren’t hearing it, and it’s a fairly wordy piece. They had no idea what was going on. At moments, neither did I.

It was kind of hilarious.

It was without a doubt the longest, strangest, most surreal, blissfully uncomfortable hour and a half I have ever experienced.

So after the polite applause, John and I were brought up, with a translator, to answer questions. The first question I was asked, by the moderator, was “How was it seeing your film in German?”

“That was the weirdest 90 minutes of my life,” I said. And, before the translator got out a word…

THE WHOLE FUCKING THEATER FUCKING LAUGHED.

At my joke.

IN ENGLISH.

Son of a bitch…

Turns out a lot of folks in Germany speak English; you’d think the Germans running the festival would have known that.

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The next day we had a screening of the film in a much smaller theater and without the dubbing, just in the original English. And it played very well. Got laughs. Got good questions after. It was a typical, fun Dakota Skye screening. Go figure.

3349_1163285399536_6501020_nA lot of awesome things came of that trip. I got over my fear of flying long distances, paving the way for subsequent trips to Italy, France, Italy, England, and Italy. Got the first stamp in my passport. I spent a day in the gorgeous city of Berlin, going to the Pergamon Museum and the Brandenburg Gate and a near-secret bar that didn’t open until after 11:00. John and I met legendary cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who shot many films for Martin Scorsese, including Goodfellas, one of the greatest films ever made. Discovering currywurst. Finding a section in the record store called ‘Black Music’. Legally getting drunk with 19 year-olds. Seeing London, kind of, while landing and taking off from Heathrow while making connections. It was all-in-all fantastic.

But the highlight to me, which would be the lowlight to some I guess, was watching my movie, hearing my words, badly dubbed in German in a room full of people. Watching romantic scenes between Dakota and Jonah with the same man playing both parts. The utter silence during the film’s biggest laughs. Looking at John with complete and utter amazement at what was happening. Disappointing the sold-out opening night crowd. Experiencing something so crazy and wrong and embarrassing and so out of our control that all we could do was laugh and take some video to show people later. I wish I had that video now; I’d totally post it here.

It was glorious.

To me, at least.

Anyway. That’s today’s sort-of-Hollywood tale. I won’t be posting Christmas Eve, which is my next turn, so Happy Holidays and stuff.

Chad

My Favorite Scene in Movie History

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When you’re a filmmaker / movie nerd, you often get asked “So. What’s your favorite movie?” They either genuinely want to know or want to roll their eyes at your pretentiousness at naming a movie they’ve never heard of. Having seen thousands of films, it’s a very hard question to answer, so I always give my top three: Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954), Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994), and Miller’s Crossing (Joel Coen, 1990). One classic, one foreign, one (relatively) contemporary. A good list, I think, but it is still normally met with blank stares. Not that I give a shit. If I thought your taste was better than my taste, it would be my taste.

Those tastes do change as you get older, though, and three films have slowly and steadily moved up my charts due to a combination of repeat viewings and my ever-climbing age (If anyone has figured out a way to slow that down, let me know. I’ll send you an autographed copy of my book or a million dollars or my third born (I’m too attached to my first born, sorry) or something). These films, none of which are new discoveries to me, reveal new things every time I watch them and enrich me as an artist, a film-lover, and a man.

Those three films are Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965), In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000), and Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975).

A week ago, the Criterion Collection (my favorite company in the whole world) finally released a Blu-ray edition of Nashville, what I consider the greatest film on the 1970s, the greatest decade in American film history, a decade that includes Godfather I & II, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, Annie Hall, Star Wars, Jaws, Days of Heaven, and dozens of other unbelievable films.

Why I think this movie, made by perhaps the most consistently singular voice in American film history, is better than all of those films, well, that’s a whole essay, a whole book, unto itself.

(HALF-HEARTED SPOILER WARNING: Nashville came out 38 years ago. That is well beyond the ‘spoilers’ period. But, if you haven’t seen this cinematic landmark, you have three choices: 1) Stop reading and go watch it and come back. 2) Read on and hope it makes you want to watch it. 3) Stop reading because you have better things to do. All three options are valid.)

But what I’m going to do, in celebration of at last getting my hands on a restored high-definition version of one of my most treasured films, is talk about what is probably its most famous scene, which also happens to be my favorite scene in movie history:

1. THE TEXT

Nashville is not a musical, but it is about people who make music. As a consequence, there are a lot of songs. Director Robert Altman had his actors write and perform their own songs, with a few exceptions. It’s one of the things that initially kept the film from being embraced by the city that shares its name. These aren’t “real” country songs. They are the actors’ versions of country songs. Some of them are great; some of them are lacking. It doesn’t take away from the film, in my opinion, but it is a choice the film makes that alienates some.

The first way you have to look at this scene (the text) is as a musical scene in a film about music. “I’m Easy” is a good song. Maybe even a great one. Keith Carradine (playing the character of Tom) is a real-life singer, songwriter, and musician. It was the only song from the film to become a hit; it won an Academy Award. Most consider it the musical highlight of the movie, followed distantly by the ridiculously jingoistic “200 Years” that opens the film and the heartbreaking rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me” that ends it.

Carradine’s Tom Frank is a superstar on the verge of leaving his partners and starting a solo career. He’s the Bob Dylan of the film, the John Lennon. The man who not only is a country star, but who could easily be a crossover sensation. The fact that “I’m Easy” is so much better than the rest of the music in the film makes total sense. He is the guy. The other performers are capable and talented entertainers. But Tom is a star. His music should tower above the rest.

So, first but not foremost, this is a scene of a handsome, charismatic, talented singer-songwriter treating us and a club full of people to a new, touching love song. That is the text of the scene. It’s nice. If that was all it was, it would at least work on a pure entertainment level and would still stand out. But that’s not all it is. Not even close.

2. THE SUBTEXT

If you haven’t seen the entire film, this is all you need to know about this scene:

Every woman who gets a close-up thinks Tom is singing about them.

And only one of them is right.

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Tom is a member of a Peter, Paul, & Mary-type group called Bill, Mary, & Tom. Mary (Cristina Raines) is married to Bill (Allan Nicholls) but has been having an affair with Tom for who knows how long and is in love with him. It would probably be a stretch, at least in the narrative of the film, to call Tom and Bill “friends” but this is still a gross betrayal on the part of he and Mary. If the affair was to be discovered, it would truly lead to the dissolution of their band, but, with Tom’s solo aspirations, he may be hoping for that to happen.

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Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) is a reporter for the BBC. Or, at least, she says she is. But at one point she refers to it as the “British Broadcasting Company”, not “Corporation”, revealing her to be a fraud and perhaps a crazy person pretending to be a journalist. She falls into Tom’s bed 48 minutes into the film. It’s not presented as anything more than casual sex, at least to Tom, but Opal is drawn to Tom’s charisma and talent. Who wouldn’t be?

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L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall) is a groupie who is supposed to be in town to visit her dying aunt but is actually doing everything she can to avoid seeing her. She is shallow, careless, self-obsessed. She wears a ridiculous wig and has renamed herself “L.A. Joan”, a swipe at the myth of Los Angeles reinvention. It’s not clear whether or not she has slept with Tom, but she is at his side at the beginning of the scene and at the very least expects to end up in bed with him by the end of the night. Because, well, that’s what groupies do.

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Linnea (Lily Tomlin in the performance of her career) is a gospel singer and housewife. She has a decent but inattentive husband and two deaf children. Two months before the film, she had met Tom at a recording studio on his last visit to Nashville. It is unclear whether or not anything happened between them then, but he certainly has not forgotten about her. Earlier in the movie, he calls her home and asks to see her. She intentionally throws up the verbal red flags of “children” and “husband” but Tom is undeterred. She is the only woman in the film that he pursues; the rest all come to him. (More on that in section 3)

“I’m going to dedicate this to someone kind of special who just may be here tonight.”

“I’m going to dedicate this to someone kind of special who just may be here tonight.”

As Tom starts singing “I’m Easy”, a song that presents its storyteller as a man turned vulnerable by love, Altman delivers a series of shots that are the culmination of Tom’s philandering that we’ve been watching throughout the first half of the film. Mary, Opal, and Joan all start with the assumption that the song was written for them and that it is being sung to them. Although, of the three, only Mary has any right to think so. But Opal is deluded enough and Joan is self-absorbed enough to be completely wrong. But Mary… Mary thinks she’s special to him. Wants to be. She loves him.

The women watch him in various states of arousal, curiosity, embarrassment, pride.

Except for Linnea. Linnea’s expression, as she sits in the back of the club, as far away from Tom as she can, is blank. It is an unbelievably subtle performance by Tomlin. I’ve watched the scene a hundred times and upon every viewing I convince myself that she’s feeling something different. Is she is sexually aroused to the point of paralysis? Or is she terrified of what she knows she is about to do, which is cheat on her husband? Is she transfixed by the song, allowing the sentiment to get to her? Is she angry? Sad? Hopelessly in love? I don’t know. I worked with Lily Tomlin once, and I wanted to ask her, but decided not to. I’d rather guess.

But as the scene progresses, Tom’s eye line betrays him. Mary is the first to notice that he is isn’t looking at her, and she looks around to see who may be his intended, settling on the plain and quiet woman sitting in the back. She turns away, back to her husband, her face starting to redden.  We’re not sure if nutty Opal gets the hint, but L.A. Joan does, following Carradine’s gaze to Lily Tomlin.

At that moment, in that shot, a slow push-in past Duvall and onto Tomlin, the scene becomes about two people staring at each other. This is Tom’s attempt to either seduce Linnea or to express his love for her, depending on how you want to look at it, but she is the “someone kind of special” that the song is for. The look on Tomlin’s face is something I will never shake; it earned her an Academy Award nomination but criminally not a win. Even after the song ends, she holds that look; she can’t even bring herself to applaud.

The scene begins with a mystery and solves it using only images. It is almost an anomaly for an Altman film. He usually allows the viewer to see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, feel how they want to feel. But this scene is specific in its intent and content and is carefully constructed to deliver them. And its placement in the middle of the much more Altman-esque canvas that comprises the rest of Nashville makes it seem that much more important in contrast.

This is as pure an expression of cinema as you will find.

(WARNING: This last section is about MY thoughts about the scene, what it makes ME feel. I have no way of knowing if any of this was in the filmmakers’ minds, which isn’t the point. Art only means what it means to you.)

3. THE CHADTEXT

In addition to everything I have written above, the “I’m Easy” scene conjures thoughts in me that I’m sure are personal and unique.

To me, this scene is about the fraudulent nature of art.

This is something I think about a lot, so maybe I’m projecting, but this scene reminds me of the scene in Almost Famous where young Cameron Crowe…err…William Miller asks Russell:

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“Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is a song better when it really happened to you?”

Billy Crudup doesn’t answer the question, but I will:

Nope.

It’s a nice fantasy to think that artists always speak from the heart. That every work they create comes with a piece of their soul planted deep inside. That all songs, movies, and books, are a pure expression of their creators’ thoughts, emotions, and beliefs.

But it’s not true.

Fact is, talent and craft and empathy can easily replicate truth. I know you think you can tell the difference, but you really can’t. Not if it’s done well enough. The Beatles wrote I-don’t-know-how-many love songs and I don’t believe for one second that every one of them was written for a particular person, or even in a state of love. All it really takes is a melody and a sweet sentiment and then it gets turned into something special by the immense talents of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr. There are musicians who sing torch songs treat but women like meat when out on tour. Novelists who write about the glory of war who would run to Canada before they’d enlist. Directors who make films about injustice who never look at the homeless people they step over on their way to dinner at Spago’s.

The greatest pop song of all time is the 1969 Jackson 5 record “I Want You Back” (with “God Only Knows” being 1A). It was written by the Motown songwriting collective known as The Corporation, and I can’t testify as to what was in their minds when they put it together, but can anything written by four men really be an expression of pure emotion? Either way, what makes that song great is a vocal performance by an 11 year old boy. That boy brought power and life to that song, especially in the chorus:

Oh baby, give me one more chance (to show you that I love you)
Won’t you please let me back in your heart
Oh darlin’, I was blind to let you go (let you go, baby)
But now since I see you in his arms
I want you back

Written by grown men who I’m sure had experienced heartbreak and longing in their lives, but delivered with feeling by a child who probably had no idea what he was singing about.

But, as we know, that 11 year old was Michael Jackson, a being of immeasurable talent.

Listen to the song. I dare you to not believe him.

I mean, did you know Dr. Seuss didn’t really like kids?

The history of art is full of hypocrites and sons of bitches with so much talent that we’ll never know if they ever meant what they said. And it really doesn’t matter.

1GUA100ZBringing it around to Nashville, Tom Frank (like another one of my favorite fictional Toms, Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing) is a son of a bitch. Through the first half of the film we have seen him do nothing but use women, escorting them in and out of his revolving hotel room door. He is fucking his friend’s wife. He sleeps with a woman he doesn’t know and at the very least flirts with another, one who is very close to being a teenager. He is a flat-out womanizer.

But talent, craft, and empathy allow him to write “I’m Easy”, a song about love, vulnerability, and insecurity.

And it might be bullshit.

But what about Linnea? The song is for her, right? Didn’t you say that’s the whole point of the scene?
Well…maybe.

Earlier, I mentioned that it is unclear whether or not Tom had slept with Linnea the first time they met. I lean towards ‘no’. And if that’s the case, then the song could just be a ploy to catch what got away last time. Women don’t say “no” to Tom Frank; did Linnea? Does he realize the only way he’s going to get her into bed is to present himself as something he’s not?

I don’t know. Tom could really love her, or at least think so, but he could just as easily not. For some, it’s obvious. For me, it’s up in the air.

But, after their tryst, after Linnea has taught Tom how to say “I Love You” in sign language, he gets a call from his girlfriend back home. His girlfriend. She gets dressed; searches the sheets for her underwear and kisses him good-bye while he is still on the phone. She is a grown woman who knows what she has done. She had come to the club determined to sleep with him. “I’m Easy” wasn’t even necessary. The song could have been written for this girlfriend back home. Every sexual encounter he has had in the film has been an infidelity. In Linnea’s case, it goes both ways.

Altman tricks us into thinking Tom may really love Linnea. And Tom tricks us, and maybe her, as well, using his talent and craft. But really he’s just a womanizing son of a bitch who wrote a beautiful love song.

That’s what the scene means to me.

And only me, probably. But isn’t that what’s amazing about art? My Nashville is different from your Nashville, even though we’re watching the same movie.

*****

Now. Watch the scene again. I’ll wait.

So that’s my favorite scene in film history. There are no guns, explosions, or tits. Hell, there’s barely any dialogue. It speaks to me on multiple levels and teaches me more about filmmaking than I learned in film school (although we did watch Nashville in film school, so…).

If you’ve never seen Nashville, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s not for everyone, but I only believe that because Robert Altman’s style, the way he made movies, was so singular that no one has ever come close to copying it and watching his films now can seem as alien to modern audiences as it was to those in 1975. He was one of America’s great filmmakers, and certainly its most unique. Unique in his own work, yes, but even more so in the fact that “the Altman Touch”, to steal a phrase usually reserved for a certain magical German director, has never been replicated. He influenced many, but no one “does” Altman. It’s just not doable.

I’m sure I haven’t done this remarkable scene and even more remarkable film justice. It is a true American classic and words are incapable of truly describing cinema. And “I’m Easy”, both the song and the scene, will forever define cinema for me.

And I’ll never forget this face:

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It’s just a show; I should really just relax.

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This past weekend a large chunk of geekdom as well as a the whole of the UK celebrated the 50th anniversary of one of television’s most enduring icons, the more-popular-than-ever ‘Doctor Who’. I am a big fan of modern ‘Who’ (please check out my post over at Needless Things about my relationship with The Doctor), although I stayed away from the weekend’s festivities due to having a ticket to see ‘Day of the Doctor’ in the theater last night, which was a whole lot of fun.

As great and deserving as all that hoopla was, there was another television milestone celebrated this weekend that meant far more to me than the Whoniversary:

25 years and 2 days ago, the first episode of ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ aired on the Minneapolis-St. Paul based television channel KTMA.

(I’m going to assume you know at least a little bit about ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ as I write this. I have no desire to whip up a history of the show for you. If you want to know the whole story, check the Wiki.)

I lived in Ohio then, and in Georgia starting the next year, so I never saw MST3K (which is how it is most commonly referred to now) during its original cable-access roots. But soon it moved to The Comedy Channel (quickly renamed Comedy Central) and at some point, I stumbled upon the show, in the middle of an episode. It was probably in the second or third season. I don’t remember what movie it was. I was probably 14 or 15 years old. But I do remember stumbling over it with my brother Adam and we had no damn clue what was going on.

There was a movie on TV, a shitty movie, it seemed, but there were three shadowy figures blocking part of the screen like they were sitting in the front row of a movie theater. Only one of them seemed to be human; what the others were, we hadn’t the foggiest. My brother was only ten, so I’m not sure how much he comprehended, because it sure as hell took me a good 15 minutes to figure the damn thing out.

Those guys in the front were making fun of the movie they were watching.

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We found out, in the show’s interstitials, that the human’s name was Joel and that his two companions were robots, one named Crow and the other a gumball machine named Tom Servo. They lived in a satellite of some sort and were apparently there against their will. But it was very odd and we still didn’t have a grasp.

Until, right after, they played another episode and we heard, for the first time, the theme song that I will know word for word until the day I die, one of the most perfect theme songs in history simply for its straight forward statement of the show’s conceit; it told you everything you needed to know:

It was brilliant. The entire premise of this stupid show, in 83 silly seconds.

This wasn’t an anomaly. This wasn’t some strange occurrence on a fledgling cable channel. This was a show. And there were more.

And I was going to watch it. A lot.

It was usually on late at night, which meant setting our ancient and clunky VCR to burn the magic onto six-hour long-play VHS tapes. I would wake up the next day unable to contain myself that I had a new MST3K waiting for me to watch when I got home from school. I couldn’t wait to see Joel (and later Mike) and the bots tear into another 50s or 60s piece of shit masquerading as a film. I had heard of none of them, with the exception maybe of Gamera and similar man-in-rubber-suit movies.

Most of them were science fiction because, well, the supply of extra shitty sci-fi films from the middle of last century is endless. Which was fine by me. I loved science fiction, but I also knew, even then, that most work in the genre was low-budget ridiculous pap. Not all of them had badly acted aliens and Ed Wood quality flying saucers, though. There were horror films, crime films, adventures films, and whatever the fuck Manos the Hands of Fate was.

10_joelmikeI’ll admit I cared less about the host segments than I did the in-theater riffing. I loved Joel and Mike and Crow and Tom and Frank and Doctor Forrester but the public access level humor was usually more miss than hit for me. There were of course some very funny moments in this connective tissue, but that really is all they were to me: a break in the action to sit through before we got back to the main attraction. I know a lot of MST3K fans feel differently, but for me it was all about the movies.

‘Mystery Science Theater’ started as a cable access show and it never shook that aesthetic and attitude, even in 1996’s theatrical feature. It felt DIY because it was DIY. And it was this aspect of it, this feeling that even in its eighth season it was still being shot in someone’s basement, that made MST most special to me. Because it made it feel like my secret. It was this little, grungy, weird show and it was mine. Even if I knew other people who watched it, it still felt like it was made for me. Nobody else could understand it. Appreciate it.

It was my secret.

And it kind of was. Because not a whole lot of people knew about the show, let alone watched it. As the years have passed, it seems like everyone has at least heard of MST3K. There are probably folks who can sing the theme song even though they’ve never seen an episode. But it wasn’t like that in the early 90s. Before the internet. Before Netflix. ‘Mystery Science Theater’ was a show I watched on my own (sometimes with my brother) and I liked the solitude of it. It was like when I discovered ‘SCTV’ as a child; no other kid at school was watching it. And that was fine by me.

Over the years, the show evolved. The host changed. Behind-the-scenes folks came and went, many of whom were also on-camera talent, so we lost them, too. The voices of the robots changed. After being canceled on Comedy Central, the show went to the Sci-Fi Channel. I’ll admit I didn’t keep up with it the entire time. I know I haven’t seen all of the Sci-Fi era episodes. But I never lost my affection for the cast and crew of the Satellite of Love (and didn’t get the Lou Reed reference for many, many years).

And I’ll never forget the names behind this magic: Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, Jim Mallon, Bill Corbett, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl…

And this show, this bizarre cable access show about a dude and some puppets watching the worst cinema imaginable, got 11 seasons and a movie.

(Take that, ‘Community’.)

A world that allows that to happen can’t be that bad of a place, can it?

In case you haven’t seen a lot of MST, here are three of my personal favorite episodes:

CAVE DWELLERS (Season 4, Episode 1)

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This unwatchable ‘adventure’ film about cavemen features an abysmal opening credit sequence presented in the classic ‘shoebox format’, a prehistoric hang glider, and my favorite exchange in MST3K history:

Upon seeing the acting credit for a certain once and always Tarzan:

Joel: How much Keefe is in this movie, anyway?

Tom Servo: Miles O’Keefe.

Classic.

EEGAH (Season 7, Episode 6)

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Famous for starring two-time James Bond villain Richard ‘Jaws’ Kiel as a giant caveman trapped out of time (I guess I like movies about cavemen), this film is most notable to me because it is directed by Arch Hall Sr., an auteur of junk who I believe was a worse filmmaker than Ed Wood. I know this because my friend Bill was obsessed with him and made us watch several of his films. All of them starred his son, Arch Hall Jr., who is quite possibly the worst actor of all time. And yes, I’m including Sophia Coppola and the other guy from Weird Science.

SPACE MUTINY (Season 9, Episode 20)

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Whoa boy. Space Mutiny is a South African film that is basically a science-fiction retelling of Mutiny on the Bounty. It is a Star Wars / Star Trek / BattleStar Galactica rip-off from 1988 that would have felt right at home in 1956. It is maybe the worst film I have ever seen, largely because of how ambitious it is. The effects, the acting, the writing… the most talented artists in the world could not simulate its horribleness. Which of course makes it perfect fodder for Mike and the Bots. I mean… you just have to watch it. It’s on YouTube.

Do yourself a favor. Click HERE. I’ll wait.

Other great episodes that are a must-see are: Manos the Hands of Fate, Gamera, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, The Puma Man, SoulTaker, Laserblast, the Joe Don Baker masterpiece Mitchell, Teenagers from Outer Space, Touch of Satan, Jack Frost, and Alien from L.A., starring a young and dubbed Kathy Ireland. Although to be honest, nearly every episode is worth watching at least once.

Oh, and the movie they made is great, too, making fun of ‘legitimate’ science-fiction classic This Island Earth:

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Unlike ‘Doctor Who’, MST3K isn’t on the air anymore. But it’s not gone. It lives on. In Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic, featuring members of the original show. In podcasts like Earwolf’s How Did This Get Made? In live shows, like The Doug Benson Movie Interruption.

And in my parents’ living room, every Christmas, when my brother and I flip through the channels looking for cheesy movies, the worst we can find. My favorite year involved a fabulous triple-bill of awful: Click, Little Man, and Baby Geniuses. Oh boy. Although we didn’t exactly riff on Baby Geniuses; it’s hard to crack wise when your jaw is permanently on the floor.

MST3K was and is very important to me. It helped sculpt my sense of humor. It got me through lonely and tough times as an awkward and nerdy kid. It gave me something that was mine, even if there were lots of other people watching it.

So this Thanksgiving week, I give thanks to Joel Hodgson for using those special parts to make his, and my, robot friends.

Happy 50th, ‘Doctor Who’.

Happy 25th, ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go ram my ovipositor down your throat, and lay my eggs in your chest.*

– Chad

* (But, I assure you, I am not an alien.)

Chad’s Theory of 10%

a good muffin

I apologize in advance for the brevity of this post. Sometimes the words flow out of you, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you can’t stop writing; sometimes you can’t start. In this case, sometimes you have too much to write and your weekly blog post gets shuffled to the bottom of the pile.

I am currently adapting two works into other mediums: a novel called Proxy into a treatment for a motion picture screenplay and a motion picture screenplay called Dakota Skye into the first of a series of novels.

I wrote both of those things. So that means I’m adapting myself.

And it ain’t easy.

Partially because I’ve told both of these stories before and it’s hard to get up to tell them again.

But mostly because I’m struggling to find the magic 10%. What the hell does that mean? you ask. I’ll explain.

Novels have been adapted into films since the beginning of cinema. Modern readers are often disappointed with the adaptations of their favorite books: “why did they cut that?” “she wouldn’t say that!” “where is Tom Bombadil?” “that’s not how it ends!” “what are you Hollywood morons doing to my favorite thing?!?”.

Understandable thoughts, I think. I’ve had those reactions myself. Understandable, but quite unreasonable.

You see, the major narrative mediums: fiction, drama, television, film, web series, operas, comics, and, to an extent, video games, are 90% the same. The tenants of storytelling apply across the board. Structure, pacing, conflict, character, tone. Storytelling hasn’t changed much since the days of bards and minstrels.

So, if all these mediums are so similar, if storytelling is so uniform, then what makes them different? It’s that missing 10%. That 10% (obviously just an arbitrary symbolic ratio) to me is what makes each art form its own. Every single one of those storytelling vehicles I listed above have something that the others can’t do. A great book, movie, or play takes advantage of what it does better than its peers.

I believe that you should create your work with only one medium in mind. You shouldn’t write your novel thinking about how it would make a good movie. Don’t make your comic book with visions of a video game in your head. Because that thinking limits you to that 90% and keeps you from realizing the full potential of what you’re writing. To me, that’s where you get boring books, paint-by-numbers films, and mediocre television.

I had an incident two years ago that illustrates this. I had an idea for a web series. A friend of mine has a character, an alter ego you would say, that he has created, and we were always looking for something to do with it/him. So I hit on an idea that I thought would work as a web show. I took into consideration the limitations of the form (and our wallets), but also what I thought could make it unique and interesting and funny by working within those confines. By making something that only made sense as a web series, that catered to the viewing habits of internet watchers, that made it unique.

We both loved the idea, but we thought maybe we needed to bring in a few other people to help, because we probably would need a little money. We met with an couple guys that were looking to get into producing web series. We started talking about the show; they had read the pitch already. We all thought it was a good, funny idea.

But then things went south. They started to talk about ‘opening it up’. Taking the character ‘out into the world’. Varying up the types of episodes. Making it less specific, trying to reach a broader audience. It dawned on me what they really wanted to make:

They wanted to make a mini-sitcom.

Which is a terrible fucking idea.

But what they were looking at this web series as was a means to a bigger end and to me, it was the end. They wanted to make something that could then be picked up as a regular television show if successful. So they wanted to apply many of the (outdated) rules of TV to it.

But this idea of mine, it would have been an awful, unsustainable television show.

But a great web series.

I ended up scrapping the whole thing because these guys didn’t understand new media. Had no idea. I would mention very successful web series like ‘The Guild’ and get blank stares. They had never seen a web series. They wanted to make short-form TV pilots.

They wanted to make a show that covered the 90% and ignored the 10% that would make it special. And in my experience, if you write something in one medium with another medium being your goal, you are going to create something that falls short of both.

The same thing happened when I was working on a comic book with a creator/artist who could not shut up about how much money he could make with the toys and movie rights. I kind of wish he had spent less time dreaming about being Todd MacFarlane and more time actually making the fucking comic because it’s been several years since my departure from it and the book has yet to see the light of day.

When I wrote the screenplay for Dakota Skye, I only ever thought of it as a film. Even though it’s talky, I still tried to think visually, using the language of cinema to tell the story. Film stories are flimsy things; there is not a lot of depth to them based on the limitations of running time. You have to do things, like create a love story, in brief and broad strokes. Luckily, a single image can convey what a novelist would need 5000 words to evoke. The image is at least 75% of film’s 10%.

(Getting tired of the arbitrary percentages yet? Sorry. There will be more.)

So now I’m sitting down to turn this screenplay into a novel and whoa boy. I learned on Proxy that a book requires many more words than a screenplay (a script page is mostly blank space). A lot more writing. Adapting Dakota Skye is reinforcing that bit of knowledge with a vengeance. I sat down to write the first chapter, based on the first couple scenes of the script, and just wrote what was in the script. Didn’t add any dialogue, just included very simple descriptions of what was happening and didn’t go too far into the characters’ thoughts. I did a very faithful version of the scenes that people know from the movie and script.

When I was done I had about a page and a half.

So what I’m doing now while I’m writing the book is searching for that 10%. I’ve taken away the things that make the movie a movie: the ability to convey information with imagery alone, characters coming to life through the use of actors, the ability to augment pace and emotion with things like editing and music. So, what do I replace those things with to make Dakota Skye: The Novel into an actual novel in the way Dakota Skye: The Movie was a movie?

It hasn’t been easy, but it mostly involves adding a fuck-ton more words.

At the same time, a few producers have expressed interest in considering thinking about the idea of my novel Proxy as a film. Before they can even see that, though, they need a treatment (a short prose description of the film, usually written before the screenplay) and eventually a script. So I’ve been working on that at the same time as the new novel and am facing the same challenge: the 10%.

In the case of going from the novel to the screen, the specialness you’re losing is the depth. The ability to dive into a character’s mind, to go off of tangents that may or may not enhance the narrative, to take characters on long, complex journeys step-by-step without having to use shorthand, to build robust worlds for your characters to inhabit.

The main thing you lose is the characters’ internal lives, especially with a first-person novel like Proxy. In a film, you can’t describe what a character is thinking: you need to show it. You can’t meander in and out of the world you’ve created: there’s no time. A characters thoughts, emotions, beliefs, motives, they all have to be on the screen. Sure, you can use voice-over (I did in Dakota Skye) but that’s very easy to do wrong and even when it’s done right (like in Dakota Skye) you have to use it sparingly.

No, film truly is ‘show don’t tell’.

So now I have to take this book I wrote, this book that was the center of my world for over a year, strip it down, simplify it, find ways to convey complex information in broad strokes, get rid of the asides and deviations, and mostly ignore the world I’ve built, and in addition serve certain non-diegetic concerns such as commercial viability, budget, and casting.

What do I get in return for these sacrifices? I get the things I’m having to lose from Dakota Skye. The image. The edit. The visceral experience that a book cannot provide. Do you know what will be better in a film version of Proxy than in the book? Fights. Chases. Sex. Things that you can do fine on paper but that movies excel at. Finding the ways you can take what you’ve done and make them visual filmic is difficult and rewarding. Sometimes you add things; sometimes things have to go.

So remember that the next time you see some stupid filmmaker fuck up your favorite book. A book is not a movie; a movie is not a book. That 10% is 100% the difference.

Taking a book and making a word-for-word film version would not just make a thirty-hour movie, it would be impossible.

Taking a screenplay and making a word-for-word novel version would not just leave you with a 45-page book, it would be impossible.

So, anyway. that’s where I am now. This crisscross of adaptation. I’m not going to lie and say it isn’t difficult, but I am determined to find each project’s special 10% that will help it make the transition properly.

This was going to be a blog post about how I didn’t have time to write a blog post. I ended up writing one anyway. I’m a big fat liar like that. There’s at least a 62% chance that I’ll have something substantial next week as opposed to this unorganized rant about how busy I am and my 10% philosophy, one of my many annoying and I’m sure incorrect ideas about writing and art (I’m sure I’ll inflict more of those on you at another point).

Anyway. Gotta go. My other projects are calling me.

Now, should I work on the adaptation…

or the adaptation?

My Curious Case of Fiction Fatigue

writing

I don’t think I’m writing enough about…well…writing on here so here’s a writing post.

Creating fiction is new to me. Well, it’s old, if you count high school and college, but as a serious career path, I just decided to try my hand at it last year. I’d spent a dozen years writing screenplays, which couldn’t be farther in process and structure than a novel. Writing Proxy was a difficult task, one that took longer than it would have a more seasoned writer of prose. I learned a lot, including the fact that my skills were rusty as hell. That you have to get into another mindset; screenwriting is all about showing, not telling, but writing prose, you have to do a lot of telling. Plus, man, there are so many more words in a book than there are in a screenplay.

All of these things I expected, but there has been one side effect from my foray into writing novels that I did not anticipate:

I haven’t finished reading a book in over a year.

I love reading. Not a surprise for a writer, I guess, but I do know several writers, especially screenwriters, who don’t read books. I love movies, television, comics, music, and pretty much every other artistic medium. What makes reading different for me is the quiet. The peace. The zen-like trance a good book can put you into, where all that exists is you and the words.

Few things thrill me more than an expertly crafted sentence. As much as I respect story, what I truly read fiction for is the prose. I love words and love seeing them used in sharp, innovative, and insightful ways. The way Ernest Hemmingway strung words together turns me on more than you want to imagine.

Hardback, paperback, Kindle, doesn’t matter. I don’t care about the delivery system; I care about the words.

I also have a particular reading cycle. First I start with:

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1) A work of ‘literature’. Either a classic novel or a modern piece of serious fiction. I like novels that are challenging, like Faulkner, or epic, like Victor Hugo, or funny, like Vonnegut, or something new and awe-inspiring, like the work of the late Roberto Bolaño. I don’t mind heavy or difficult (although I admit I haven’t been able to crack Proust yet). I want something that is either going to fill in a gap in my literary knowledge or something that will enhance me as a person and an artist. A tall order, I guess.

Then, I move on to…

download (1)2) A history, biography, or other type of non-fiction book. I am a big history nut and find reading about it both enjoyable and relaxing. I usually read a lot about a particular subject in a spree; right now I’m reading mostly stuff about ancient Rome and Greece (which I do believe is a required phase for white men of a certain age). I also enjoy biographies, especially about presidents, but I’m getting ready to start Peter Guralnick’s two volume study of Elvis Presley. The best book I’ve read in the last decade, other than some literary classics, has been Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, which I guess is in the category of narrative non-fiction. His books, as well as those of Jon Krakauer, are great reads for people who find regular history too dry. I love reading about real people, real events, the past. Because how else do we learn but by looking back?

After feeding my brain with culture and then knowledge, I quickly pick up something…

 

172621733) Genre. Most would call this category “guilty pleasures” but I don’t believe in that. But this is the slot I use to cleanse my palate and read something of no consequence. Pure enjoyment. When I say I’m a Star Wars fan, I don’t mean I like the first three movies and have a couple toys. I mean that I’ve read every novel, comic, role-playing book, encyclopedia that there is in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I have Wookieepedia bookmarked in Chrome. I know more about the in-world history of Star Wars than most people know about their own country’s.

So, usually this spot is reserved for whatever the latest Star Wars novel is. And, I’ll be honest, most of them aren’t good. But I read them. And enjoy them. Because it’s a place I like to visit, this galaxy far away, and this step in my reading cycle is for sheer escapism and entertainment.

When there’s not a new Star Wars novel sitting on my Kindle, I read other genre things. Some good, some bad. High fantasy. Science fiction. Old hard-boiled mysteries. Robert E. Howard. Jim Thompson. Edgar Burroughs. Brandon Sanderson. Dan Simmons. Raymond Chandler. All the men I listed above are good to great writers, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also pick up the occasional ‘Forgotten Realms’ novel, or a book based on a video game. Things where I’m not judging the writing as much as I am just enjoying the story and characters, even if those story and characters aren’t very good.

Then, feeling refreshed, I…

4) Go back to #1.

That’s my reading habit. I don’t always stick to it. I go out of order. Sometimes there are two history books I must read back-to-back; sometimes I’m in the mood for a Star Wars bender. But those are the three types of books that are always in my rotation.

Or, were in my rotation. All this has gone out the window because I went ahead and wrote a book myself.

People often say that in order to learn how to write, you read. In order to learn how to make movies, you watch them. In order to learn how to paint, you study the masters.

And all of that is true, for a while. But I think that at a certain point in your development, you need to embrace who you are and write in your own voice and stop trying to learn from those who came before you. Doesn’t mean you don’t learn. I learn every day. Doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate and enjoy the works of others.

But I no longer watch movies to learn how to make them. I no longer read books to learn how to write them.

Hell, I no longer read books.

I haven’t been able to finish a book in a very long time. I hate it. I don’t want to not read. Like I said, I love to read. It’s one of my favorite things. But I’m just finding it very difficult every since I started my first novel, Proxy, and still, as I write my next one, Dakota Skye. I’ve started dozens, but I never get more than a few chapters into any of them.

Why? I have a few ideas. Firstly, I don’t want to accidently subconsciously swipe something from another author. I would never do it on purpose, but phrases, ideas, even lines of dialogue, stick with you and I find that sometimes you write something very similar without even realizing where it came from. I want my work to be mine, untainted by what others have done, and just don’t want to risk any of their ideas seeping into my brain and coming back out as something I think is original.

ernesthemingwaywritingdeskAlso, I don’t want to compare myself. This happens most often during Phase #3, when I am reading genre books while writing my own. I couldn’t stand to read science fiction while I was writing Proxy. Because I knew I would judge myself against what I was reading, against my “competition”. This doesn’t happen so much in Phase #1, because if you go into a Hemmingway or Faulkner novel trying to see how your writing measures up, you will never write another word. Those guys are so good, those masters, that if you judge your skill by comparing it to theirs, you will probably want to kill yourself. Which would be, by the way, the closest you would get to actually being like Hemmingway.

But when reading other genre stuff, the stuff where maybe the writing isn’t legendary, like the Star Wars books, or even with some very popular stuff like Song of Ice and Fire, I can’t help but ask “am I ask good as this guy?” “If this is publishable, is my book?” Because if I think they are better than me, I will be discouraged, and if I think I am better than them, my ego will inflate and I start believing I am a genius or something and will not work as hard to hone what I’m doing.

I think it’s best to write in a vacuum. To not give a shit about what others in your given medium or genre are doing and just write your story, your book, your script, your way, in your voice.

The last reason why I think I’m not a whole lot anymore can best be described by using a crude and clichéd analogy:

It’s like being a gynecologist.

I stare at words all damn day while I’m working to the point of eye-strain and headaches.

Then I’m supposed to look at more of them for fun in my time off?

Honestly, after a long day of channeling thousands of words from my mind through my fingers to the keys to the computer screen, I sometimes get sick of them. Of words.

And I love words so much.

I’ve almost made my way through Tom Holland’s Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. History is easier to read right now because I’m not writing history. Next up is a book about Star City, the center of the Soviet space program in the 60s. Then the Elvis books. Non-fiction is the only thing I can even consider reading right now.

You know what I should be reading? I should be finishing books by my fellow Tesserans (?): J. Edward Neill’s Down the Dark Path and the rough draft of John McGuire’s next book, which I am supposed to be giving notes on. And I’m enjoying both, but they’re fiction, and, while technically different genres from what I’m doing, they’re close enough that they are victims of my word fatigue. I will read them, I promise guys. It’s just taking me longer than I thought it would.

You want to know how bad it is? I have, for many years, read every single Star Wars book as soon as it came out, usually finishing them within a week or less. Today, this is what my Star Wars folder on my Kindle looks like, all of them unread:

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I just can’t do it. I want to. But I can’t.

This probably isn’t very interesting. It’s more of a plea for help. Do any other writers out there have this problem? Any other artists find themselves incapable of processing others’ work while they’re in the midst of making their own? I’d really like to know that I’m not the only sufferer of this malady.

Tonight I’m going to curl up with my Kindle, cue up Star Wars: Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells, read maybe two pages, get frustrated, flip over to read a chapter of Rubicon, then fall asleep.

I miss reading, but not as much as I love writing. I hope this trade-off is temporary, but if it’s not, I will definitely choose to create instead of consume.

There is a bright spot to this. I know that sometime in the future, there is a cure coming down the pipe for me. Something that will make me read, no matter what I’m working on, read voraciously, like I used to:

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Help me, George R.R. Martin. You’re my only hope.

Chad’s (Insignificant) Hollywood Tales : “Too Sci-Fi”

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There used to be this thing called the Sci-Fi Channel. It had great potential, but it never really applied itself. It had a few brilliant moments, one in particular, where it showed itself to be the entity it should have been. But mostly it just ran away from its destiny, tried desperately to get people to like it, and struggled with its identity to the point of changing its name, forsaking its heritage. As it stands now, it is a joke to most people, only known for its most outlandish and ridiculous of efforts.

This is a quick story about my brush with the Sci-Fi Channel.

Several years ago I had a colleague (and friend) whose father was a very, very powerful man in the history of television, a near-god in the NBC-Universal family. This friend was an aspiring producer who I worked with on several projects that never got off the ground, unfortunately, although he did option a screenplay of mine once, for real money, and that was something I’ll never forget. We talked about doing this, about doing that. He almost hired me to write a script for him, but it fell apart. We were going to do a series of shorts for FunnyOrDie, but they never materialized.

One day he calls me and asks “Do you have ideas for shows we can pitch at the Sci-Fi channel?”

Hells yes, I do, let’s fucking do this, I want to do this so damn bad, it’s about time we got into something like this, woo-hoo! I thought. “I’ll jot down a few things,” I said.

So over the next couple weeks I worked on several ideas in which I thought the Sci-Fi channel might show interest and presented my list to the producer. After talking a bit, he fell in love with one idea in particular, which also happened to be my favorite of the bunch.

“That’s the one,” he said. “Let’s get cracking on fleshing it out and I’ll set up the meeting.”

I’m not going to say what the concept was because I still think it’s a very viable idea and have plans to resurrect it. So I can’t give it away for free. But I will say… it’s pretty great.

So while I was putting together my pitch -figuring out the pilot, plotting out the first season arcs, creating the cast of characters, coming up with a half-dozen sample episodes, putting down a rough idea of what future seasons would bring- I learned that we would not be meeting with some low-level exec over at Sci-Fi. Oh no. We would be meeting with the VP in charge of original programming.

In charge. Of original programming.

Meaning, if he liked the show, he could probably green light it himself.

That upped the stakes, so I upped my game.

We went into the meeting with what I think was a solid, entertaining pitch. We also had a back-up project, something that I had tried to get off the ground in several mediums (film, comics) but had never followed through on. It was a back pocket pitch, only to be used in case we got the dreaded “what else do you got?” question after the exec was unmoved by our marquee concept.

I was nervous as hell. It wasn’t my first pitch meeting but it was, at that time, my biggest. And I knew that the only reason I was going to be pitching to someone that high up was because of the man walking in the door next to me, and mostly because of his last name. Because Sci-Fi is an NBC-Universal channel and the name that he carries can probably get him through any door that falls under that massive umbrella of media.

I got to the meeting early and hung out outside the massive skyscraper in Century City. I met my producer in the courtyard, and we went over some things. The way pitches usually work for me is simple: I need a straight man. Someone to keep the conversation, the presentation, on track. Then, when we need to inject energy, ideas, and just the creative thrust of the thing, it’s my turn to talk. If you know me and are reading this, you know I talk too much. And I ramble, repeat myself. Especially if the subject excites me. So I always need a baseline yin to my erratic yang.

So my producer would yin while I yanged. No problem.

bsg-number-sixNow, at the time, the Sci-Fi channel’s sole artistic triumph was nearing its end. ‘Battlestar Galactica’ had its problems, especially towards the end, but it’s impossible to deny that it was a good show and, at the very least, considering what had come before, a great science-fiction show. It was the type of program we had all hoped the Sci-Fi channel would be bringing us since the beginning. And, with its critical (but not ratings, that’s important) success, I think a lot of us were excited for a new era where this channel, that claimed to specialize in a genre we loved, was about to break through in an HBO/AMC/FX sort of way.

But BSG was expensive. And not enough people watched it.

So it was going away. To the channel’s credit, most people would have pulled the plug after the first two seasons (and by ‘people’ I mean ‘networks’) but they stuck with it. But it never found enough of a mainstream audience to justify the amount of money they were spending.

And, at the same time, Sci-Fi had a new show, a very different show, that was doing much better in the ratings. More on that in a bit.

So we go into the very nice office of this very powerful man and I’m sure my voice shook for the first ten minutes or so. He was very nice, this exec, as was his assistant, who also sat in on the meeting.

After a few platitudes, I went about pitching my television show.

And it went really well.

I talked for a while, describing the premise, the characters, the show. What drew me to the material. What passions of mine were wrapped up in its conceit. While I was doing this, my producer was chiming in on logistical things, comparing it to other successful shows and films, trying to stress why letting this babbling (although in that case, effectively babbling) guy that had no right being in that room create a show would not be a terrible business decision.

One of the ways you can tell a pitch is going well is if it gets interactive. A rule of these types of meetings is to never bring in any of your ideas on paper. I wrote up tons of stuff for this idea, did research, plotted out stories, but brought none of it with me. Because when you’re in the room, what you want in the exec to get engaged. To start chiming in with his own ideas. You also want to be able to read what’s working and what’s not and cater your pitch, improv if you will, to appeal to the pitch-ee. The goal is to have, at the end of the meeting, sold the producer a show that he or she wants, not a show you want.

So you never leave behind a document that lays out what you came in there with, because most likely you have had to change some things to appease your audience and the last thing you want them to do afterwards is read a synopsis or treatment that is not exactly the show you just pitched them.

It is a hard and fast rule for pitching: never leave behind a document. If they want one, go home, revise what you’ve got, then send it in. But never leave it in the room.

Anyway. I got what I wanted out of this guy. He was engaged. After responding very favorably to the main conceit, he started asking questions and it turned out he and I had a lot of similar interests. He started adding things, suggesting episode ideas, tweaks to the story, different angles on things. The show had a large ‘alternate history’ element, which is a very hardcore sci-fi subgenre, but the real history I was riffing off of ending up behind something this exec was a huge fan of. Actually, he knew more about it than me and I had to work hard to keep up with him.

At the end, we had laid out what I think would have been a fantastic science fiction television show, a worthy successor to Battlestar Galactica.

“Chad,” the exec said, “I love it. Love the concept. I think it’s original, smart, and if done right, could be really great.”

Yes yes yes!

“And if that show was on TV, I would watch it every week.”

Oh no oh no oh no…

“But it’s just too sci-fi for us.”

It’s too what now?

Looking back, it feels like I stared at him dumbstruck for at least a minute, although it was probably only ten seconds. I do know, though, that I looked up to the big Sci-Fi channel logo up on his wall and then back to him, and that he noticed that. I tried to play cool.

Too sci-fi?”

He went on to explain that they were looking for things with broader appeal and that my idea was a little too hardcore for general audiences. That they needed shows that were more user-friendly, that my mom or someone would want to watch.

eureka-tv“Like what?” I asked, seething inside.

“Well, we’re looking for more shows like ‘Eureka’.”

I did not watch ‘Eureka’ so I don’t have an opinion on it either way. I know several people that watched it and one of the writers, Eric Wallace, is a friend of a friend of a friend who I also once sat on a writing panel with. But I do know the concept of ‘Eureka’ and I know what kind of show it was. And I have nothing against it. But…

“You already have a ‘Eureka’,” I said.

But they wanted another. Why? Because it was doing well. Because their numbers showed that people who normally didn’t stop on their channel were tuning in for it and only it. It was the crossover hit they’d been looking for.

“I would love to make your show, Chad. I would. But I just can’t.”

The rest of the meeting was cordial. We pitched our backup idea, which they responded to and we promised we’d send pages but we were never able to break that concept. I’ve pretty much scratched it. It sounds good on paper but I’ve never figured out a way to make it work.

At the end of the meeting, I think I asked if they still planned on making any more ‘silly monster movies’, because I played D&D and I could lock myself up for a month with my Monsters Manual and write them like four of those.

He said they were trying to move away from those.

Guess no one else got the memo:

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I walked away feeling good about the meeting and shitty about the outcome.

“Too sci-fi”?

“TOO SCI-FI”?

In the days that followed I had one of those “man I wish I would have said this” moments where a speech popped into my head that if I would have actually said in the room, I would have blown the meeting entirely:

“WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU MEAN ‘TOO SCI-FI’?!? This is the Sci-Fi Channel. Let me break this down for you. My mom is NEVER going to stop on your channel while surfing. NEVER. I don’t watch hockey and have never once flipped to the NHL channel. You don’t see them trying to crossover to more popular sports: “Tonight on the NHL Network…the 1998 Home Run Derby!”. No. They are niche. What they do is in their name. NHL. That’s it. You are the fucking SCI-FI channel. Stop being ashamed of the genre that you are named after. Because there are millions and millions of TV viewers that aren’t going to check you out simply because of that phrase: sci-fi. Deal. With. It. Embrace it. Because you know what? Science-fiction fans are LOYAL. Geeks are LOYAL. If you give them good genre shows, they will flock to you. BSG should be your model. Was it too expensive? Okay. Fine. You can do something cheaper. Is ‘Eureka’ sci-fi? Absolutely. Keep it. But you have the corner on this: you are the only Sci-Fi Network. We WANT you to succeed. We WANT you to be viable. We also want you to live up to the promise you made when you chose that name. ‘TOO SCI-FI?’ FUCK YOU!”

Saying that would have been dumb beyond belief, but that’s how I felt.

So, a few years after my meeting at Sci-Fi, they did indeed address this problem. Did they unveil a slate of awesome-looking genre shows? Um. No.

They changed their name to SyFy.

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Which, of course, means nothing. But at least it’s not promising science-fiction anymore.

So stupid and cowardly. And meaningless.

Because my mom still doesn’t tune in.

Looking today at SyFy’s programming for today I see: 11 hours of ‘Face Off (a reality show), a shitty horror movie for Halloween (The Ninth Gate…ugh), and an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (can’t fault them on that).

And I’m sure this weekend they’ll treat us to the tale of some sort of aquatic predator crossed with some sort of dinosaur chasing and eating people during some sort of natural disaster, starring has-been TV actors and other Hollywood cast-offs.

Man, that’s some good SyFy.

This post isn’t about bitterness. It’s a lament. Not for my own career, but for a cable channel that I really wanted to succeed. But it’s now a joke, only known now for its stupid, stupid new name and its even stupider schlocky monster movies. A junk channel, traitor to its conceit like Discovery and History. What a waste.

For all its faults, failures, and foibles, the one thing you can never accuse SyFy of is being…

Too Sci-Fi.

Dear _ _ _ ,

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Dear _ _ _ ,

I hate writing you this letter. A decade ago, five years ago, it would have been unthinkable. I would have never thought I’d be writing these words. But the last few years have been hard for me, and I can no longer deny it:

I’m not in love with you anymore.

It happens. To everyone at some point. You fall in love. Hard. The object of your affection becomes the only thing you can think about. You can’t sleep. You can’t eat. You want to know absolutely everything about your love, inside and out. The time you spend together, well, it’s electrifying. Comforting. Glorious. You invest your emotions so wholly that if anything goes wrong, you feel it for a week.

Because for every cheer there is a rolling tear; for every pleasure, there is lingering pain.

But without the droughts, the showers wouldn’t be nearly as sweet.

You and I have been in this relationship for a very long time. To be honest, it’s been hard on me. You have not been kind. Sometimes you’ve been flat-out mean. There have of course been some amazing times, but more than anything you have been a cruel tease: every time I felt as if magic was going to happen, you yanked it away from me.

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But it’s not the pain that brings me to write this letter. As a wise and dashing dread pirate once told us: “Life is pain…anyone who says differently is selling something.”

No, the reason this long-overdue letter is being written now is simple.

We’ve changed.

It’s not you.

It’s not me.

It’s us.

I’m a guy that likes to arrange my thoughts in bullet points. I know that seems rather formal and cold given the delicate nature of this communication, but it’s the best way to explain how I feel. So the following is an itemized list of why we cannot be an…item…anymore.

1) You are both too violent and not violent enough.

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You are by your very nature a brute. A rampaging, violent freak that smells of blood and sweat. You thrive on carnage,  and whether it’s broken bones or crushing blows to the head, you know how to throw down. And every year you get stronger and you get faster and you get more intense and every time I watch you I’m afraid someone is going to get killed.

That shit used to turn me on.

But you’re starting to change your behavior. And I appreciate that. You’re doing things to curb this facet of your personality. You will never be a pacifist, but at least you are trying to be safe. More responsbile. You don’t want anyone to get seriously hurt.

It’s happened before. Remember Joe? You hurt him bad. Sterling, too. Poor Mike from Detroit was never the same. And what about Bo? Everybody knows about Bo. Especially Bo.

You are going to hurt people; that is unavoidable. But you are making great strides in stemming that tide. There’s only one problem…

It makes me less attracted to you.

I never thought I was into bad boys, but I guess I am. The less dangerous you get, the less interesting. Less fun. That edge was such a thrill and now you’re doing everything you can to blunt it.

And I hate myself for thinking that. You’re not doing anything wrong. You are being responsible. My brain knows that. But my heart…

My heart wants what it wants.

And, to my shame, it wants blood.

This one’s on me.

2) You’re kind of a thug.

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I’m no saint but I’ve never been arrested. A few traffic tickets but the only time I’ve ever been detained was in elementary school for talking in class.

But you, you’re trouble. Way badder of a boy even for the likes of me.

Theft. Drunk driving. Drugs. Domestic assault. Rape. Murder.

Remember that time you put a gun in your sweatpants and went to a club and accidently shot yourself? So, so, stupid. Who wears sweatpants to a club?

And the dogs? Really, man? Those poor dogs.

It’s hard to keep making excuses for you. To defend you to my friends. I have to accept it.

You’re a fucking thug. And I don’t think that’s going to change.

3) The Man upstairs.

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This may not seem fair, but your religious views bother me. Not the fact that you have them, but that you display them so ostentatiously. How you thank the Lord for everything that goes right but never curse His name when things go wrong.

If there is a God, do you really think He’s your personal good luck charm, your magic genie you can rub for wishes? Do you think He gives a He-damn about these trivial things you pray about?

You probably do. Humility has never been one of your strong suits.

4) You’re kind of a racist.

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5) You’re such a cheat I can’t believe Miranda Lambert hasn’t killed you in a song yet.

Posted by Mike Florio on May 1, 2013, 7:02 AM EDT

The NFL bans HGH use.  The NFL still has no test in place to determine whether players are complying with this rule.  Not surprisingly, players still ignore the rule.

Dan Patrick mentions from time to time that a starting NFL quarterback privately told Patrick within the past two or three years that 60 percent of the league uses HGH.  Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that HGH use is “rampant.”

 

Everybody knows it but no one wants to talk about it. We all look the other way, myself included.

Sure, other guys cheat. Barry, Alex, that dude Lance. But while we’ve condemned them, no one ever accuses you, even though, by all accounts, you’re the worst of the bunch.

You’ll do anything to get what you want. The law, honor, and your health be damned.

It’s become obvious that you can’t even function without cheating. And no one seems to care. It’s disgusting and I can’t just sit idly by and perpetuate the illusion.

As someone who loves you, it has hurt so much to learn about how chronic your cheating has been. I feel betrayed. It’s almost enough for me to take a Louisville Slugger to both of your headlights.

 

 

 

6) You’re stuck in a fantasy world.

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I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school. I have logged over a 100 hours on my copy of Skyrim and have started over so I can log another 100. I know what an owlbear is.

I know fantasy.

But your entire life has been taken over by fantasy, like a guy who just discovered Game of Thrones and now runs around draped in furs calling himself ‘King of the North’ (I do kind of wish I had named my Siberian Husky ‘Ghost’). You’ve built this alternate self that may resemble you, but it’s not you. It’s a twisted, Bizzaro version where it doesn’t matter what you do but how you do it. In this world, the means are king and the ends don’t mean a thing.

I used to visit this fantasy universe with you and I have to admit I enjoyed it for a while. But it really started affecting the actual time we spent together. I couldn’t tell which one of you I was with at any given time and you became a lot less enjoyable to be around. When I was playing in this fantasy, I did things, said things, thought things, cheered for things that I never would have in real life. It changed me. And I didn’t like it.

Some people only like the fantasy you. Don’t you get that? They don’t care who you really are, not in your heart. They only care about your measurements, reducing you to a set of sexy numbers. Do you really like being objectified like that?

I guess you do, because you have so embraced it as part of your personality that every year the line between fantasy and reality blurs a little more. Who cares why they love you? You’ll take any attention you can get. It doesn’t matter to you how you get it, does it?

Whore.

7) You drive people crazy.

 Junior-Seau-2012-Cover-of-Sports-IllustratedDave Duerson

And I don’t mean in a Fine Young Cannibals sort of way.

I mean in a life-destroying, brain-swelling, personality-changing, driving people to suicide sort of way.

I don’t have any jokes about this.

You know what you’ve done.

8) THIS.

21st Century Fox, Inc And FOX Sports 1 Rings The NASDAQ Stock Market Opening Bell

I mean, what the fuck?

9) There’s someone else.

 votto-reds-swing-2012-horiz-apjpg-f6fa32e27d58bc67phillips-barehand-grab-tribe-2012-apjpg-6720abb402b918c5

I have a confession. This whole time I’ve been with you, I’ve also been in love with someone else. A friend of yours, actually. Well, more of a rival. And while my love for you has waned over the years, my passion for the other has grown and grown to the point of eclipsing you entirely.

Look, me and this other guy, we’re just a better fit. He’s more laid back. Takes his time. He brings me the same ups and downs as you, but, while every bad day with you seems like a catastrophe, with him you just brush it off and try to be better the next day. He is a marathon and not a sprint and you know, deep down, I’m not a sprinter.

I just love him more than you. When he’s around, I don’t pay one lick of attention to you.

I know that must hurt to hear, but it’s the truth.

I’m sorry. It’s not me. It’s not you.

It’s us.

————

reggie-bush-sad

Don’t be so sad. Look, we can still be friends. We can still hang out on Sundays, but I can’t promise you the whole day. Our Monday night date will stand, but I probably won’t wake up looking forward to it. I don’t want you out of my life. I’ll still come to your party in February, but I won’t be on your arm. I just don’t feel that way about you anymore.

And don’t worry. There are literally tens of millions of people out there who will love you more than I ever could or did. You will never be alone.

This is not good-bye, but I am sorry.

I just don’t love you anymore.

Best wishes,

Chad

P.S. If you’re worried I’m going to hook up with your little brother, don’t worry. He’s more screwed up than you. At least all of your bullshit is above-board. Who knows what’s going on with him behind closed doors? Well, we all know. We just don’t talk about it.

More ‘Man’, Less ‘Child’

 

batman-hoodie

Here are some things that I like lots: comic books, Star Wars, the Muppets, Chuck Taylors, video games, porn, Star Wars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, pop culture T-shirts, sports, technology, angsty music, white tube socks and Star Wars.

Here are some things that I actively dislike: neckties, hiking, auto repair, guns, mornings, cheap scotch, fine scotch, neckties, most sitcoms, plumbing, meetings, sushi, yard work, trying to understand my health insurance, keeping track of my finances, and neckties.

I am rapidly coming up on 40 years old.

I state these things up front so that if anything I say after this comes across as hostile, recriminating, or insulting, you know that I’m one of the injured parties. I am of two minds about all of this. So that when I say something like…

My generation needs to grow the fuck up…

…That I’m talking to myself.

There’s nothing shameful about being an adult (I can no longer dodge that title) who likes any of those things that I like. Except maybe the porn. And the last decade of popular entertainment has provided me with plenty of content to satisfy said list: a seemingly endless barrage of superhero films, a good many of them quality, featuring A-List talent, a new Muppet movie made by someone with genuine affection for those little felt pieces of happiness, games like Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us that take video games into realms I never would have dreamed while playing Yar’s Revenge and Tempest as a kid, the MLB Network, dark chocolate peanut butter cups, white chocolate peanut butter cups, Big Cup peanut butter cups, mini peanut butter cups, and, the asshole of them all, the Reester Bunny, a sword-and-sorcery adult fantasy television show with mainstream appeal that doesn’t betray its genre roots, and a man winning an Oscar for playing the Joker.

When I was younger, the things I like came in these forms:

usedtobe

And now, they look like this:

now

It’s been great to be a ‘geek’.

But this recent slate of Summer films as culture in general have got me questioning whether all of this is a good thing. As I write this I’m still angry at Man of Steel, a film that feels like it’s made by a bunch of teenagers trying to be ‘dark’ and ‘edgy’ and ‘adult’. But that’s a rant for another day, another time, another blog post.

I am most familiar with film; it is my first love and the medium in which I am most well versed. So I will use it most heavily to illustrate my point.

Oh, and I’m just talking American film here. To travel to foreign soil would make this already too-long piece way too-fucking-long.

In the 1960’s, the Hollywood studio system collapsed. The result was, in the 1970’s, the greatest decade of film so far in the history of the medium. Not knowing what to do, they threw their doors open and let the first batch of film school graduates and their peers, the ‘film brats’, take over Hollywood. It is commonly said that in the 70’s, they let the lunatics (and they were indeed lunatics. Brilliant, ballsy, genius, visionary lunatics) take over the asylum. This time is known as The Hollywood Renaissance.

The lunatics in question? Scorsese, Coppola, Ashby, Altman, Kubrick, Allen, Malick, Friedkin, Frankenheimer, Lumet, Spielberg, Lucas, Bogdonavich, Cinimo, Pollack, Polanski, De Palma, Penn. Not to mention the numerous producers, cinematographers, and writers behind the scenes. The actors of that generation are among film’s finest: DeNiro, Pacino, Hackman, Keaton, Gould, Hopper, Hoffman, Keitel, Nicholson, Streep, Foster, Burstyn, Sheen, Walken, Duvall, Rowlands, Spacek, and two personal favorites and underappreciated icons: John Cazale and Warren Oates.

taxi-driver-taxi-driver-06-1976-08-02-1976-8-gThese folks found inspiration in every film made before them, from the silents to John Ford westerns to John Cassavetes to, most prominently in some cases, the amazing work being done in France, Italy, and Japan in the post WWII era, and they created a New Hollywood that transcended the starry-eyed golden age of movies and turned the form into a true art. They (for the most part) made serious films about serious things. Uncompromising looks at life the way it really was, not how they wanted it to be. They were the perfect people to come along and create film for the Vietnam generation.

And the fact that they appeared together makes the me the most impressive collection of American revolutionaries since America’s actual revolutionaries.

Their reign lasted 13 years.

pulp_fiction_uma_thurman_jack_rabbit_slimsIn the 1990’s we got a new wave of fascinating moviemakers, inspired by the work of the New Hollywood movement. It seemed a new Renassiance was upon us. Tarantino, Smith, two men named Anderson, Fincher, Linklater, Payne, Rodriquez, Jackson (okay, not American but English language), Russell, Soderbergh, Egoyan (yeah, also not American). The Coen Brothers came into their own. A lot of these men were associated with the independent boom of the 90’s. I would call them the Miramax Generation. They breathed new life into film, pushing past the entertaining but someone stale cinema of the 80’s. They wore their influences on their sleeves. They pushed limits when it came to violence, language, and just what constituted a ‘film’. Some of them reveled in the profane and immature, but they had something to say, most of them, and made great films that stand the test of time. Several are still making great, relevant films, twenty years later. This is the generation that inspired me to become a filmmaker.

Their reign lasted, by my estimation, about 8 years.

Who are the hot-shot, super-star filmmakers of today? The ones that get the most attention, the ones the studio hands the biggest budgets, the most coveted properties?

Zach Snyder. Chris Nolan. Guillermo Del Toro. Marc Webb. Rian Johnson. Duncan Jones. Joss Whedon. Edgar Wright. Peter Berg. Jon Favreau. James Gunn.

Many talented men in there. (Yes, men. I lament that there is only one major American female film director right now. I do. But it is a fact. One I’d love to see altered. But you want to see a boys’ club? Look no further than Hollywood.) I am a fan of many of them in one way or another. Some, like Whedon and Wright and Jones, I adore.

But this is a filmmaking generation of man-children.

I’m not a person who laments the current state of film often, but looking at the Summer we just came out of, I am forced to. I’m not going to go film by film but I will use one particular film to make my point:

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Pacific Rim.

I like Guillermo Del Toro. As a person. He’s ‘one of us’. A real geek. As a filmmaker, for me, he’s hit and miss. I think the less money he has, the better. His projects with considerable budgets, namely the two Hellboy films, have been lifeless, poorly told stories with good effects, even if the Hellboy II creatures seemed to be cast-offs from the overrated Pan’s Labyrinth. He is one of those filmmakers, like Tim Burton before him, who is much better at the visual and the concept than the story and the characters. Which would be fine, if he wasn’t making narrative films. But he is. He is telling stories. And if he isn’t bad at it, he is at the very least lazy.

Pacific Rim is no exception.

I know I’m supposed to love Pacific Rim. I love Gorjira and Robotech, why shouldn’t I love this? Like my beloved peanut butter cups. Two great tastes that blah blah blah.

But I didn’t. Because it felt like it was made by a twelve year old. Watching it all I could think of was a little fat kid in Mexico, sitting in his sandbox, bashing his Godzilla toy into his Optimus Prime toy and imagining the epic battles they would have.

Every generation of filmmakers is influenced by (read: steals from) the generations before, but his is different. These guys aren’t ingesting what came before, gestating it in their minds, then making something completely new and original. They’re regurgitating. Pacific Rim, if you ignore the monsters and robots (a conceit, while cool on the surface, doesn’t hold up to one moment of critical thinking; more later), is just one tired ass action movie trope after another tired ass action movie trope that, when strung together, Del Toro thinks constitutes a story.

It is Top Gun. It is Independence Day. It is Gojira. It is “Voltron” and Gundam. Thrown into a blender and called a Summer blockbuster.

It is not a work by a man with any original thoughts or anything to say.

Sorry.

(I also know why it failed. Geeks may have had super-duper hard-ons for it, but I asked a few guys, guys who go to the movies on a regular basis, who had seen Iron Man 3 and Star Trek and Fast 6, about Pacific Rim and they said “it looks dumb and loud”. That is why it didn’t connect with the mainstream audience. It looked dumb and loud.)

I walked out of Pacific Rim slightly entertained but unsatisfied, then, two days later, after the smidge of enjoyment it gave me wore off, I realized that it’s a bad movie. Just another case of something that has plagued not only film of the last decade, but art in general.

The 70’s were the New Hollywood Generation. The 90’s, the Miramax Generation.

This is the Karaoke Generation.

karaoke girls

Some people mistake Tarantino for a mimic, but I disagree wholeheartedly. Pulp Fiction is, behind the surface, about three killers who find themselves saving a life. It is about redemption: that’s what’s in the briefcase for me.

That may not be super deep, but what is Looper about? Other than Johnson showing us a bunch of shit that he likes. 12 Monkeys. The Omen. Back to the Future. Blade Runner. I have no problem with wearing your influences on your sleeve, but, for God’s sake, try to come up with something of your own. Stop singing the words scrolling by on the monitor and write your own song.

Two of the bigger films of the year made two mind-boggling choices that I am still trying to figure out.

JJ Abrams’s first Star Trek was, for me, great. Fresh, entertaining. It told its own story and, while respecting the decades of Trek behind it, started its own timeline. That encouraged me. Opened up the idea of brand new Trek stories not beholden to all that canon. So, what did they do for their next tale, Into Darkness?

tumblr_lxclsysdu01qixaveo1_1280Cumberbatch-Star-Trek

They brought back Khan.

Man of Steel was a disaster in almost every aspect, but again. Starting over. Fresh slate. Retelling the origin. Redefining the relationships. Trying to paint a new Clark (one who is a borderline sociopath, but whatever). New look. New feel. New everything. And who was the villain in this re-imagining of one of America’s most enduring fictional characters?

terence-stamp-general-zod-supermanjpg-68906cfa3ba7dee8michael-shannon-brand-new-zod

They brought back Zod.

In both cases the filmmakers, in acts of inane laziness, pilfered the most famous and effective parts of previous films and “reimagined” them into their own. This is especially egregious in Star Trek, which not only recycled Khan, but the entire last act of the film. With, you know, a “twist”.

All the money in the world they can spend. Any writer in Hollywood they can employ. With effects the way they are now, anything you want to show, you can show. Any world you want to build, creature you want to birth. The possibilities are literally endless.

Nope. Khan and Zod. Cool, right?

HPIM5002No. Not cool. Nostalgia isn’t storytelling. Just sit down, have a beer, and wait for the MC to call you up so you can emote your way through “Don’t Stop Believin'” one more time.

Children, playing with the toys of their youth, with no original ideas of their own.

Like I said above, I love science fiction and comic books and nearly all things geek. Hell, I finally crossed over my final nerd threshold, the thing I said I would never do, which was Doctor Who, and it turns out I love it. But come on, guys. Isn’t it time to grow up, just a little?

That may be why I liked The World’s End so much. Despite its robot/alien subplot (which was really the least interesting part of the film), there was an adult story there. About addiction, about the disappointments of life, about the bonds of friendship, and, yes, about growing the fuck up.

Maybe I’m just an old man, but I do miss the filmmaking of the 90’s. Much like “The Love Boat”, it felt exciting and new (which, oddly, was a show that never felt exciting or new). But now, the only films I get excited for are the ones made by people from previous generations: Scorsese, the Andersons, Fincher, The Coens, Ridley Scott, Tarantino, Payne, Russell.

They are the only ones making films for adults. I think we have embraced the man-child, but have done no service to the ‘man’ half of that hyphenate.

G.I. Joe. Transformers. Batman. Superman. Spiderman. The A-Team. The always-rumored Thundercats and He-Man films. New Star Wars films directed by a Star Wars geek. The Muppets. There is no mistaking the age range of today’s most popular filmmakers. They’re my age. But, unlike them it seems, I didn’t stop watching film and television after I turned twelve.

battleship-movie-image-02I mean, come on. Battleship? FUCKING BATTLESHIP?!? Bad enough to make a movie based on a children’s board game (again with the nostalgia), but to make it a Transformers rip-off in the process? This is what studios think people want. FUCKING BATTLESHIP.

What I’m trying to say here is, while the ‘geek revolution’ has pleased me greatly, I’m starting to turn on it. I’m tired of films made by grown men who think they’re teenage boys. And I’m one of those men. But I have another side to me, the side that has accepted the fact that I am also an adult that yearns for mature entertainment and art. These guys live in a perpetual state of adolescence and get paid millions of dollars to do so.

This doesn’t just apply to film. The only books anyone seems to read nowadays are Young Adult fiction. Potter. Twilight. Hunger Games. Mortal Instruments. These are adults reading these books. I have read a few myself (Potter and Hunger Games) but that is all some people read. Do you know more people that have read Harry Potter or The Sound and the Fury? Twilight or The Count of Monte Cristo? Hunger Games or Naked Lunch?

Don’t get me started on music. Have you heard that new Katy Perry song, ‘Roar’? The most asinine and hacky lyrics I have heard in a long time, no matter how catchy the track may be. Plus, she rips off Survivor of all things. You can’t drop an ‘eye of the tiger’ into a song. That phrase is taken, lady. It is only acceptable during a corny 80’s training montage. Lady Gaga literally karaoke’d Madonna’s “Express Yourself” for her “Born this Way.” (Or maybe she Weird Al’ed it).

I’m just tired. Tired of being disappointed by artists who I think should know better. Tired of seeing the same things over and over and over again. Much of the hype about Pacific Rim was that it was a ‘new property’ (that’s what we call our films now: properties), but when I saw it, was just a bunch of things I’d seen before strung together with some big, loud, CG things hitting each other.

voltron-775596(About that: why do they hit each other? they have missiles and plasma cannons. there is no reason not to start a fight with those things instead of charging headfirst into a fistfight. any military strategist will tell you: ranged attacks first. has been that way since the bow and arrow. and the sword? we get 75% of the way through the movie and we reveal that the things have swords that can cleave the monsters in half with one slash? either Del Toro watched too much or too little “Voltron” to understand how little sense this makes. form the blazing sword right away, you morons. it works every time. sigh.)

I worry about the state of film going forward, and film is something I hold very dear. It is a great art form that is still in its infancy. We have yet to see a Beethoven or Van Gogh come along. I don’t know what those guys, their films, will look like, but I hope to see them in my life. But as of the moment, the art of filmmaking is in a state of arrested development.

Much like the men making them.

Did I say ‘men’?

I meant ‘boys’.

Oh, and just to show that I’m not just making fun of the guy up top in the Batman hoodie, here is me in my Boba Fett hoodie. I’m part of this, too.

photo (1)

Because I Had To

Ernest-Hemmingway-quote1

For our first posts, we’re supposed to introduce ourselves. So here goes nothing.

My name is Chad and I write stuff. As of this very moment in time, I have written one (produced) feature film and one (self-) published novel. That would qualify me as a writer, for sure, but, at my age, not an especially successful or prolific one. (Although, to be fair, I only decided to try writing novels last year.)

Do I wish I had more movies under my belt? I believe that I will, even if it takes a while longer. And I know there will be more novels coming, because that’s 100% up to me, not producers and executives and financiers.

So has everything gone the way I’ve wanted in my writing career? Not even close. So many rejections, disappointments. So much time wasted on my part, waiting for something to happen as opposed to making it happen, hoping my talent could take care of things while ignoring the hard work it really takes. A ton of close calls. Films that almost had the money, then didn’t. Pitch meetings at major cable networks that went well, but not well enough. A movie that went to several film festivals, but not the right film festivals to get any kind of traction.

I’ve beat my head against the wall. I’ve cried. I’ve distracted myself with things like video games and politics and alcohol. I’ve fallen into several all-encompassing, crippling depressions, each of which threatened to cost me everything.

I’ve also quit. Flat-out quit. “Fuck this. I’m done. Kaput. Blowing this popsicle stand. This is a fool’s errand and I am not a fool.”

And then I would get up the next morning and continue on my errand.

Writing_Quote_20Like a fool.

Why?

Because I had to.

Third grade. (MUMBLE) years ago.

I missed a day of school. Sick. The first time I remember that happening. Don’t know what it was. Sore throat. 24 hour bug. Whatever. I missed a day of school.

I remember the odd feeling of coming back the next day and realizing the harsh truth that my teacher and classmates had had the nerve, the nerve, to go about the school day while I was gone. I know, right? They had gone to recess, done math problems, eaten sloppy joes, ALL WITHOUT ME!!!

Everyone has this feeling, right? This bizarre moment where you realize that life goes on without you? Just like before you were born. Just like after you die. Doesn’t matter who you are or what you do or how much money you make or how many children you sire, wars you wage, diseases you cure, or eternally beloved works of art you create, people will still play kickball when you’re gone.

Everyone, right? Or was this just an early warning sign of my adult onset egomania?

Anyway.

One thing that I should have been glad to miss while home sick was homework. But not that day. Because one of the assignments, I found out, was this:

Write a story about a monster coming to the classroom.

“But don’t worry about it, Chad,” my teacher, Mrs. Harrison, said. “It was just for fun. No one’s being graded on it. You can just sit and listen as I read all of the other kids’ stories.”

Mrs. Harrison then proceeded to read through my fellow students’ tales. I cannot testify as to the quality of their prose (although I’m sure it was lacking) because it was (MUMBLE) years ago, yes, but also because I wasn’t listening.

I was too busy furiously scribbling my own story, trying to get it done before the teacher finished reading the others.

Why?

Because I had to.

faulknerWhen Mrs. Harrison put down the last (I’m assuming) terrible attempt at fiction, I raised my hand, nearly pulling it out of the socket, two pieces of wide-ruled paper in my hand.

Instead of being angry at me for not listening to the other stories, she took mine and read it.

I won’t claim to recall the details of it. But I do know it involved some sort of bipedal beast that breathed fire and that he burned a hole in the ceiling of our classroom, through which fell the desk and body of the fifth grade teacher right above us, a woman who would, in two years, become my mortal enemy. That’s all I remember. Hole in ceiling. Teacher crashing down. I’m sure there was other stuff in there, too.

All I know is that it killed.

It got laughs. Genuine laughs. I had used names of other kids in the class. Killed my teacher, the teacher above, and the principal, I think, who came in to save us. It went over so well that my teacher had the fifth grade class above us, the one I had partially destroyed in my story, come down to our room so she could read the story to them.

And, that day, at an age far too young to decide on a career path, I did just that. I had never written for fun before but now I knew I would be doing it for the rest of my life.

Because I had to.

Throughout school, I kept writing. Proxy isn’t actually my first book. In elementary school, on another ‘writing for fun’ assignment, I got out my mom’s typewriter and wrote ten chapters (one page per chapter…barely), drew a cover (poorly), stapled it all together, and handed it to my teacher to read. It was about an alien invasion, I think.

But it is lost to the ages, like Sulla’s memoirs, Love’s Labour’s Won, Hemmingway’s suitcase, and Orson Welles’s cut of The Magnificent Ambersons.

I think it was called “Zap!”.

Through high school I wrote fantasy short stories, bad poetry (including a Gilgamesh by way of Poe epic), and even some Star Wars fan fiction before I knew there was such a thing as fan fiction. Some of that I still have and no one will ever read it.

In college I decided I wanted to write movies. So my attention shifted away from prose to screenwriting, although I did take some creative writing classes. But mostly I was trying to master (like anyone actually does that) the art of writing for the movies.

Then I moved to L.A.

I did all of this, never looking back, never getting a ‘fall-back’ degree, never considering failure to be an option, because, well…

Because I had to.

And why do I ‘have to’?

tumblr_mi884kaOEf1s07stbo1_400Because my mind is a chaotic slurry of words and ideas and philosophies and characters and voices and chemical imbalances and insecurities and useful knowledge and even more useless knowledge and writing is the only way to keep it at all under control. The only way to keep me sane. I can’t sleep at night if I don’t feel like I expelled enough words that day. The depressions I mentioned before? Guess what I wasn’t doing when those happened. Sometimes I’m not super-pleasant to be around when I’m writing, like most writers, but you should see me when I’m not. When I’m not writing I don’t feel whole and my brain, the loud, non-stop, schizophrenic motherfucker that he is, takes over. And that’s never pretty.

I write because I want to tell stories. To communicate with others. To say things. To make people laugh. To make them cry. And think. To reach for some sort of renown and success. To try to live forever.

Mostly, though, I have to write so that I can sleep at night.

So here I am, introducing myself to you on this new website, this new project I have embarked upon with some friends I have known for over 20 years, some of the only people who have read those high school stories that shall remain locked in the vault that is my hard drive. And every week I’ll be writing a blog post. Some will be short, some long. Some will be interesting, some maybe not so much. Some will be about writing. Some will be about sports, cinema, or television. I have many Hollywood stories, some of which I may share. I’ll be recommending double-bills of films that you may not have heard of, or at least have never seen the connection between. And a whole bunch of other stuff, I’m sure.

I will not be writing about politics or religion. I may do that on my own blog, at some point, or on Twitter, but we’ve decided to avoid that here at Téssera. Which is a good call.

Next week I’ll talk about something, although I’m not sure what. Quite possibly an old man’s rant about the state of Hollywood. I’ll also hopefully be putting up some short stories, screenplays, and other goodies in the weeks and months and years to come.

Writing_Quote_298My relationship with writing has evolved over the years. Vince Gilligan, genius creator of the dearly departed “Breaking Bad”, has often said, when asked if he enjoys writing, “No, but I enjoy having written.” I get that. I really do. Most of the time writing feels like work, because it is. But there are moments in it, when magic strikes, when you hit a zone and hours have passed and thousands of words have been belched out and you don’t even remember typing half of them, when it is still a lot of fun.

I still love it. I just love it in a different way these days. And I’m okay with that.

So in between raising my daughter, taking care of my dogs, maintaining my relationships with my friends and family, tearing my hair out over the Cincinnati Reds, trying to stay healthy, buying records, watching movies, reading history, and everything else that makes up my life, I will also be writing. Novels. Screenplays. Stories. Comics. Blog posts.

Writing. One way or another. For the rest of my life.

Because I–

Well, you know.

Chad J. Shonk
October 2013

PS – I’m also a stubborn, opinionated, and sometimes pretentious prick when it comes to film and writing and art in general. That will be apparent with next week’s blog post. I would apologize in advance, but I stand by every word, so… No apologies.