Sunday, April 22, 2007

Disappointed With Galactica

So I watched the first episode of Season 3 and I was hooked. I started at the miniseries and watched the whole show. I skipped episodes after a while, there was definitely variance in the level of quality, but I was really digging it. And then I got to the cliffhanger season-ender that immediately preceded the beginning of Season 3.

I was so disappointed! The new planet was full of doom and foreboding from the get-go. There was nothing about people being excited to start a new life, nobody with any credibility believing in it for a second. What a weak choice! They could have done a whole season about the dream of New Caprica, about how difficult it would be to start a new life on a new planet - it would have been the American dream writ large. And the return of the Cylons would have been so intense if both audience and cast had been deeply committed to this new possibility. Instead it was just like watching an idiot walk into a trap. They looked like suckers for even being there in the first place.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Uh Oh

I had a funny idea for a scene. I have a scene partner in an acting class who's black, Muslim, maybe a little bit of a drama nerd, and in some ways a very typical sweet-tempered Texan. I like rap music, and I was just listening to Redman, and I had this mental image of her coming to the door. If you don't know rap music well, just take it as given that Redman is not the typical music of sweet-tempered, well-mannered, religious Texan drama nerds, and if a given individual of that description happened to be black, that would probably not be enough in and of itself to sway her to becoming a Redman fan.

Redman is rowdy.

Anyway, having gotten this funny image, I thought of a way to amp it even further. There's a New Orleans rap classic whose chorus goes, "I'm the nigger nigger nigger." I know a white guy who loves this song. He used to be a music journalist, it's one of those songs that was huge in New Orleans and I never heard it. Actually this guy's half Indian, half Dutch, but when I translate him into this scene in my mind, I make him an average white guy who happens to be a former music journalist, because it's funnier that way. This is what I picture: I'm rocking out to that song, instead of the Redman one, and my scene partner comes to the door. I'm suddenly embarassed, but it gets a thousand times worse when you hear my roommate, this white guy, in another room, saying the words along to the song. He comes into the room still parrotting the song, suddenly notices the INCREDIBLE faux pas, and goes oh shit.

It would have to be an incredibly compassionate and fair script for a scene like that to work -- but the truth is, everybody knows white guys who listen to rap and are absolutely comfortable with saying the N-word, if they're parrotting a rap song, yet totally uncomfortable with it if they're hearing it said to somebody it might actually describe. That kind of tension, that kind of irony, that's comedy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Britney Spears Never Went Crazy

She was crazy to begin with.



I've been saying it for years. Every so often she does something I like musically, but let's face it, not very often. "Toxic" and the one she did with the Neptunes, maybe something else. But if you turn the sound off and view Britney as a movie star in the genre of fashion and dance video - which is what any pop star really is - then the number of things I like her in skyrockets. Her music is frequently terrible, but her videos are awesome.



Her insanity, for me, has always been part of her appeal. When she was at her apex, she was working out six hours a day, every day. Can anyone doubt that this is insanity? I have professional training in hypnosis, extensive training, and the most I can manage to do at the gym is an hour and a half a day. That's with a ton of deliberate brainwashing. That's with professional training in brainwashing and deliberate effort to wash my own brain. She was doing four times that much without the benefit of any hypnosis that I'm aware of. She was going on pure unadulterated madness.

And it worked.



For me the moral of the story with Britney Spears has always been that sometimes insanity works. She hit her apex of fame around the same time as I hit the worst starving artist phase of my life, where I just couldn't even bring myself to do anything but creative work I believed in, and yet I couldn't get anybody to take the slightest commercial interest in anything I did. For various complicated reasons I was living in the middle of nowhere with no access to pop culture except MTV. It was a time of immense frustration, and here was this chick who was totally hot, appeared to have all the money in the world, made this terrible music with these awesome videos, and appeared to have absolutely no idea that her music was awful. Britney became totally fascinating to me. Was she a fortunate fool? Was she a crafty shark? How did Britney Spears happen?



One thing I learned was that she was touring shopping malls, playing shows for free, when she was fourteen years old. She tried to get paying concert venues but failed. She tried to get free concert venues, but failed. Eventually she (and her mother) got a series of shopping malls in an area of I think two or three states to host her free singing tour. Can there be any doubt that this is madness too? A free tour of shopping malls? Can you imagine how hard you'd have laughed at any of your friends if they tried to do that when you were fourteen?

I can imagine how hard my mom would have laughed at me if I had tried to get her to book me a singing tour of shopping malls when I was fourteen.

Pretty hard!

If through some implausible freak occurence Britney Spears is reading this blog, here's what I have to say to you: go crazier. Quit the drugs, but keep the shaved head. Better yet, turn it into a mohawk. Who cares? It's your prerogative.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Moronic Innocence

So recently I finished a screenplay, and I tried to show it to a bunch of friends, associates, co-workers, clients, and miscellaneous humans who I like for one reason or another. The lukewarm-ness of the reception I got kind of boggled my mind. I've always known that a huge number of scripts circulate the city of Los Angeles (and its gigantic metropolitan area) but it didn't occur to me that people would regard the fact that I, the great Giles Bowkett, had written a script, with the same indifference they would give the news that some random mere mortal had written a script.

Just goes to show how wrong you can be. Of all the people I've asked to read it, I've gotten only one of them to actually do it. One person! Nobody else is even curious to find out if it's any good at all. And these are people who generally seem to have pretty good regard for me.

What this means is that writing a good screenplay is either a lot harder than I ever guessed or a lot easier. Maybe writing a good script is so hard that everybody expects screenplays to suck; maybe writing a good script is so easy that the only hard part is selling it. I really don't know. All I can tell is that nobody seems to even have any idle curiousity about my script one way or the other.

But I think the answer is probably that writing a script is hard. Here's why. This is a screenwriter's advice to other screenwriters, about how to get an agent:

First, write a great script. Now, be very careful to have only one copy of it. Immediately upon writing FADE OUT, THE END, take that single copy and place it in a small, sturdy safe. Close and lock the safe. Take the safe directly to your basement, dig a hole seven feet deep, and place the safe in the hole. Refill the hole. Lock the basement door securely, and then go to bed.

The next day, get up and go to the basement. The place will be lousy with agents, several of them already involved in a bidding war over your script.


That's from a screenwriting site, a post by one of the writers of Shrek.

He also mentions that he told this to a huge classroom full of screenwriting students at UCLA and they were all ready to lynch him, because the implication, of course, is that the script you love oh so much, the one your entire heart and soul have been invested in, the masterwork never equalled before or since, is in fact almost certainly a steaming pile of crap.

Uh-oh.

Fortunately, even though the probability of my sucking as a screenwriter is apparently quite high, I'm definitely a good programmer. Possibly a very good programmer. So that's something, at least.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

This Is The Future

Clay Shirky has written some brilliant things about the effect of the Internet on the culture industries. The one industry he identifies as being least affected by the Internet? Movies. Because although technology makes many things more efficient, the major challenges in filmmaking are logistical, interpersonal, and artistic, and technology can really only help with logistics, and with making special effects cheaper. Long story short, making movies is hard, and will stay hard.

Distributing movies, however, that's another story.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Effort

Had an acting class tonight. First class. I didn't perform, just watched other students doing their pieces. A mixed bag, including some obviously talented people, but there was one girl there who just utterly pwned the entire room.



She was very smart, I think, but it wasn't anything to do with her intelligence. She was sexy, but that wasn't it either. She was just working her ass off from the moment she started to the moment she ended. Or more accurately, from moments before she started until moments after she ended -- and when she was done, and the teacher gave his critique, she was working her ass off through every second of that as well. Instead of bowing to the teacher's authority or striving to be independent, or just sitting it out and not even listening, all of which are tempting responses to a teacher's critique, she was working intensely to get every last ounce of useful information out of every single word. There was no high school power dynamic running through her head; it was all about working.

If there's one thing programming and acting have in common, it's that talent isn't what makes success. Talent is a necessary prerequisite for success, but hard work is what actually makes it happen. In schools, when I was a kid, they got everything backwards. Good grades meant you were smart, bad grades meant you were stupid, and the consolation prize was a star for effort. Research has shown, however, that praising kids' intelligence is actively counterproductive, while praising their work ethic encourages them to develop it. The prize you get for effort shouldn't be the consolation prize. It should be the only prize.

Because that's pretty much how it is in real life.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Wrote A Screenplay

I finally finished a screenplay. I started it in January or possibly December. Unless you count previous attempts at writing the same screenplay. I've written it several times. This is really the first good version. I know that one of the main scenes, I was working on it in 1999 or 1998, because I remember a conversation about it with my roommate and my girlfriend at the time. So I've been working on it off and on for at least 8 years. Possibly more.

It's weird. There's a sense of triumph to this, on that level it's very satisfying, but there's also a sense like you get when school's out for the summer, and you've gotten used to the freedom, but you've gotten bored of going to the movies with your friends or getting stoned, and you're wondering what to do with all the time on your hands.

I suppose I can get back to learning Cantonese. Or obtain a social life. I had one of those, once. It was nice.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Drinking Yeats

My family's Irish on my mother's side, and not Irish as in Chicago Irish, or Irish as in Boston Irish -- Irish as in born and raised in County Waterford in Ireland.

This is being Irish. My great-aunt Greta read tarot cards for people in her village. One time my mother and my aunt, young girls at the time, watched her read the cards for someone, and asked her afterwards why she had read them incorrectly. Greta replied that such terrible things were going to happen that she could not bring herself to say them. Soon they all happened. Another time a woman from the village came by to get holy water which Greta had promised her, claiming it would cure her warts. Greta had forgotten all about it, so she ran upstairs, emptied a bottle of aspirin, filled it with tap water, and said it was the holy water she had promised to provide. A week and a half later, the woman's warts were gone.

St. Patrick's Day is a very nice thing, but there's a lot more to being Irish than alcoholism and red hair. I really don't drink at all, and my hair is brown, but when I'm telling a great story and I fill it with lies because I know they'll make the story better, I'm being Irish. When I'll fight someone to the death over something that doesn't even matter, I'm being Irish. Irishness is a passionate and moody thing.

DREAM OF A BLESSED SPIRIT

by: W.B. Yeats

All the heavy days are over;
Leave the body's coloured pride
Underneath the grass and clover,
With the feet laid side by side.

One with her are mirth and duty;
Bear the gold-embroidered dress,
For she needs not her sad beauty,
To the scented oaken press.

Hers the kiss of Mother Mary,
The long hair is on her face;
Still she goes with footsteps wary
Full of earth's old timid grace.

With white feet of angels seven
Her white feet go glimmering;
And above the deep of heaven,
Flame on flame, and wing on wing.

It's true that the Irish drink, and it's true that we'll take any excuse to party, but that means something so different in America. So different as to be virtually meaningless. To drink like an Irishman is not to be able to hold your liquor; it's to go where Yeats goes. Yeats can get there with words, while the average Irishman has to travel by lager, but it's the same destination. It's a painful place and a beautiful place. When I hear Americans say they can drink like Irishmen, I honestly don't know whether to envy their ignorance or pity it.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Why Stealing Is Absolutely OK



I just saw Lost In Translation the other day, and immediately watched it again last night. I'll probably watch it a third time this weekend. I went and downloaded Roxy Music "More Than This" after I saw the movie, but the irony is, I can't really listen to the song all the way through, because it totally brings back the emotions of the movie, and that movie was very powerful.

So anyway. I always liked that song, the Roxy Music song -- "More Than This" -- before I saw this movie, but I never really respected it. I always thought the melody on the verse stole really blatantly from the Moody Blues song "Your Wildest Dreams." But after seeing Lost In Translation, my attitude is totally altered, because where "Your Wildest Dreams" wraps its romanticism in an escapist wistfulness that makes it safe and harmless, "More Than This" gives you the same romanticism without any shelter from its consequences. There is no escapist wistfulness to it; there is simply love, or, alternatively, death. This ties in with the movie, of course, but that's the point. Roxy Music totally stole from the Moody Blues, in terms of the melody, but the relationship between "More Than This" and Lost In Translation is what makes it impossible for me to listen to the song without a strong emotional reaction. The emotional reaction is a reaction to the song, but it's really an emotional reaction to the movie. Or is it? I'm not sure. Maybe it's really an emotional reaction to the movie; maybe it's that the movie made me realize what the song was about in the first place. I'd never actually listened to the lyrics before; Bryan Ferry's voice was never really clear enough that I could tell what the words were. Was it simply the transference of the emotions from the movie, or simply taking it seriously enough to listen to the words for the first time? Either way, I have a new appreciation for it.

This is why stealing, in anything creative, is totally OK. Talent borrows; genius steals. If Lost In Translation made "More Than This" into its song, "More Than This" is a richer work for having been stolen.

I guess this is obvious, but if you're ever doing any kind of creative work, and holding back on an idea you have because it's a variation on something that originally came from somebody else, screw that. Go ahead and do it anyway. That's the meaning of "talent borrows, genius steals." If Lost In Translation had been less of a movie, it would have borrowed the distant echoes of Roxy Music's thunder, instead of stealing its lightning.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Truth Still Stranger Than Fiction

Had a lot of time on my hands yesterday; found a screenwriting blog explaining how Anna Nicole Smith's real-life story couldn't be made into a movie, because it would fail every plausability test there is.

Friday, January 26, 2007

R2D2 Dream

There's a conspiracy theory which says R2D2 is actually the mastermind of the entire Rebel Alliance. I read this yesterday, and last night dreamt a whole little movie about it.

It starts off with a great Rebel leader, who is damn near killed. The other Rebels put his brain in a droid to keep it alive. Before they even install a vocalization unit, their base is attacked by stormtroopers, who kill everybody. Only the "droid" survives.

That isn't really a whole movie, I guess, just the beginning of one, but the funny thing is, it was a really intense dream, and it was actually the only good Star Wars movie I'd seen since Empire Strikes Back.

Ayn Rand

I love Ayn Rand, but this is beatifully dead-on:

Her books are simultaneously so laughably awful and so batshit insane that you just want to lock them in a room with the Left Behind series and let them fight it out.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Charlize Theron's Oscar

I think I just figured something out.

Charlize Theron's life is an interesting story. When she was 15, her mother shot and killed her father in an act of self-defense. No charges were ever filled.

In 2004, she won an Academy Award for her starring role in Monster, where she played a serial killer -- a roadside hooker who shot and killed one of her clients in self-defense, and then made a habit of shooting and killing her clients and justifying it as self-defense.

According to an article on Theron's web site, she studied acting with Ivana Chubbuck. Ivana Chubbuck embraces the theories of acting which emphasize drawing on personal traumas, theories which are sometimes derided as "acting as therapy."

Monster is an amazing film, and Theron's performance in it is an amazing performance. But you have to wonder, did Charlize Theron get an Oscar for playing her mother? An acting teacher who emphasizes drawing on personal traumas, an actress whose mother killed her father in self-defense, and a script whose pivotal moment comes when a woman kills a man in self-defense?

Really the only other movie I've seen Charlize Theron in is The Italian Job -- in which she plays a woman who wants revenge for the murder of her father.

I'm a computer programmer, and my other blog -- my programming blog -- has about five times as many entries as this one. But I've studied acting, and I've observed that it's hard. One acting teacher I had said it's all about integrity. You have to really experience the emotions involved to make your performance real. Michael Caine says in his book that it's even harder on screen than on stage, because a camera can catch the slightest twitch of your eyes, and a projector can make that tiny motion eight feet tall. I think what's going on with this actress is, she's picking her roles by asking herself, "what do I need therapy for?" -- and as crazy as that may sound, it's actually very courageous. You need authenticity in front of a camera in that line of work, and if you get it by reference to experiences and emotions that intense, that's remarkably brave.

Monster is a movie with a sad ending, about a messed-up person doing messed-up shit. But there's something inspiring about it anyway. I think it's probably some kind of subconscious awareness -- perhaps subconsciously the viewer can recognize Charlize Theron's courage in what she's doing? I'm not sure.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Awesomest Cupcakes EVAR

Moral Ambiguity Means Good Action

Noticed something interesting. The most spine-tingling moment of Terminator 2 is the moment where Sarah Connor's escaping the insane asylum, and John Connor arrives to rescue her with the Terminator. The core conflict in The Fugitive isn't the conflict between the good guy and the bad guy; it's the conflict between the good guy who escapes from jail and the other good guy who's chasing him. This is almost exactly the same dramatic structure as the escape and chase scenes in The Rock, which have to be among the best such scenes in the history of the movies.

There's a stereotype that action movies are all about moral black and whites, and therefore they don't have any intellectual stimulation to match their frenetic pace, and that to some extent the frenetic action is there to cover for the lack of ideas. There are certainly action movies for which this is entirely true, but the best action movies include subtler conflicts as well, and the irony is, these subtler conflicts are actually more exciting to watch.

Awesome Dream

I've been using hypnosis and doing meditation for a very long time, in various forms. For the past few months I've been using a very structured approach based mainly on hypnosis MP3s, visualization exercises, and NLP. One very interesting side effect is that my dreams have become both more vivid and more useful.

I've been wanting for a while to come up with a way to do Macbeth as a sci-fi/fantasy screenplay. Last night, it came to me in a dream. Best of all, it incorporates something really smart I got from somebody else.

When I was about 20 or 21, I lived in a building which was organized as a sort of refuge for artists. One of my neighbors was an actor. He was only a couple years older than me, but he was starring in a production of Macbeth as Macbeth. I was like, wait, and he was like, I know what you're thinking: I'm young for Macbeth. And then he explained his theory that Macbeth actually makes more sense when you see it as the story of a young man than an old one. What's Macbeth's tragic flaw? Ambition; ruthlessness; impatience. These are all things you can find in young men in real life every day.

The story's far from written, but I thought this was worth blogging anyway, because of my friend's perspective, and because of the dream factor.

Fascism Is Stupid And Insane

Jesus fucking Christ.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Italian Jobs

If you watch both the original, British heist movie The Italian Job from the 60s, and the 2003 American remake, there's some interesting things there. The American version has a much better narrative, with characters you can connect to more easily, while the British version comes from a much more fun view of the world. The stunts in the American version are actually less daring, and the lead character's sex life is much, much better in the 60s British version. He gets out of jail and his girlfriend waits for him in a hotel room with at least eight other women.

It's an interesting contrast.

John Woo Made A Boring Movie

I watched a really just utterly fucking awful movie the other night because it was directed by John Woo. I had heard it was a return to form for him, but it wasn't. It sucked. And the reason had nothing to do with the directing -- John Woo's an incredible director. It was the script.

I love John Woo's early movies from Hong Kong. I really can't watch anything he's done since he got to America. And the interesting thing is, in Hong Kong, John Woo wrote the scripts for all his movies. In America, he hasn't done that once.

I used to think Woo had accepted this creatively emasculated new life in Hollywood because of the money you can make in Hollywood. But in the past few years, the landscape of Chinese film has changed tremendously, and now I think he saw it coming. I think he left Hong Kong because Hong Kong was changing.

The change coincides with the Beijing takeover after the British left. Hong Kong was once autonomous of the Chinese government; today it's subservient to it.

Where we once got amazing action flicks like The Killer and Hard-Boiled, along with mind-boggling acrobatic kung fu from the likes of Yuen Wu Ping, we now get a buttload of boring bullshit along the lines of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (I actually fell asleep in the theater).

Awe-inspiring classics like Iron Monkey are in Cantonese. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is in Mandarin. Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong, and Mandarin is the language of Beijing. (Disclaimer: I'm generalizing, I'm not Chinese, but it's a pretty decent approximation.)

What's going on in Hong Kong is that the Communist Party has taken over the film industry, and turned it into a kung fu ballet factory whose sole purpose is to make Chinese culture look grand and important. Of course they're failing -- they're really making Chinese culture look grandoise and self-important -- but the real tragedy here is that John Woo, once the greatest movie-maker in the world, is reduced to filming pathetically weak Ben Affleck vehicles.

Let's talk about the weak Ben Affleck vehicle in question. It's called Paycheck and it's based on a Philip K. Dick short story. The movie fails, and the reason it fails is the script. The script isn't structured around people. It revolves around some random objects in an envelope, and I suspect the short story was structured that way too.

The thing is, in a short story, that's OK. Written fiction has many, many more options in terms of its structure than a movie does. Written fiction involves the reader's mind and imagination, and it can use practically anything for its structure. The fantasy author Steven Brust sometimes structures parts of his novels around geography, and more than that, imaginary geography. I can't even imagine what James Joyce and Jack Kerouac were structuring their fiction around, if anything, but it works. Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club is structured around a passionate rant against consumerism.

By contrast, if you read about screenwriting, one of the cardinal rules is that the story must be character-driven. It can only ever be structured around people. For a very long time I thought this was meaningless Hollywood nonsense. I thought that the whole point of this "character-driven" idea was that movie stars wanted to feel important. I thought it was just vanity. But watching Paycheck, a movie which is absolutely not character-driven, I realized why these screenwriting books say this stuff. It isn't vanity at all. It's mechanics.

When people decide what movies to watch, the actor who's starring often plays a huge role in their decision. Actors bring people into the theater. But all an actor can actually do once the audience is there is portray human drama. Paycheck fails because it's a movie about the process and experience of analytical thinking, and also the nature of Einsteinian time-space. In other words, it fails because it's a movie where the actors don't have anything to do.

Analytical thinking happens inside somebody's head. All actors can do is portray human drama. If the only drama in a situation is that something is happening inside somebody's head, all the actor can do is stand there and go "Hmmm."

This doesn't mean you couldn't make a good movie about the nature of Einsteinian time-space. It just means that the only way to do it is to uncover some human drama therein.

Again, I always thought that this was because movie stars get all the attention, and cursed it as a kind of vanity on the movie stars' part, or a shallowness on the part of the audience. But what I learned watching Paycheck is that the problem is purely mechanical. You need human drama because you're watching, and when you're watching, the most important information is facial expressions. That information is the information you process most quickly and most efficiently. There are actually distinct parts of the brain which cannot process any other kind of information except for facial expressions. Your brain is hard-wired to always consider facial expressions more significant than any other information in the vicinity. This means that facial expressions are, on a subconscious level, the primary source of information about what's happening in a movie. And facial expressions are powered by emotion. So the only way to convey information to an audience is to give the actors emotions to convey that information with.

In Terminator 2 you know why Sarah Connor wants to stop the engineer, Miles, from building a computer which will destroy the world. You can see it on her face.

There's nothing that obvious in Paycheck, though. It's full of people who follow the main characters around and explain why the main characters are doing things. It's the only way the audience can figure out what's happening. There's no emotion on the stars' faces, because there's nothing in the script they they can put emotion on their faces with.

Miles from Terminator 2 is a great example, actually, because the same actor's also in Paycheck. He was great in Terminator 2, because he had an amazing role. He's nothing in Paycheck, and it isn't due to lack of talent. He's very talented, but the script doesn't give him anything to do except follow Ben Affleck around and tell other people why Ben Affleck is doing stuff.

Writing a script which has no compelling human drama means writing a script which has no dialogue -- only narration.

A Real Fair Use Paradox

I've been a fan of fair use since the days of Negativland; I had an original copy of the U2 single. These days I find some of the Creative Commons stuff very illuminating, and I find some of it moronically ideological. Cory Doctorow is usually way too ideological for my tastes, but this is a really great, succinct analysis of the pretzel of contradiction a Los Angeles museum recently twisted itself into with an exhibit on fair use.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Weeds

So I recently downloaded and watched the entire first season of Weeds.

First of all, don't do what I did. Buy it on DVD. There are problems with distorted audio on the download version, only in a couple episodes, but it's still pretty appalling. Apple's famous for its quality control in other areas, not so much so here.

Second, I love and hate this show. I love the performances and the satire on suburbia. I love when they portray Nancy as very together, and basically the smartest person around -- like in the first episode -- and I hate it when they make her a stereotypical clueless irresponsible hippie numbskull, out of her depth and incapable of handling things like money and to-do lists. I have very mixed feelings about the way minorities are handled in the show, it's generally this weird mix of compassion and appalling stereotypes. In fact to some extent that describes the entire show.

The weirdest part is the Jewish stuff. Both Mary Louise-Parker and Elizabeth Perkins play suburban women who aren't Jewish themselves, but whose husbands are. That parallel is so direct, and that situation so specific, that really I think it was just a mistake, the kind of mistake that comes from writers not really being sure what issues they want to write about, so they end up writing about the same issue twice from different perspectives without even meaning to.

It's a great show, though, I've watched the whole season and I'll probably do it again. I'll buy it on DVD for my brother and his wife, too, which is funny, because he isn't Jewish and she is. Actually the coincidence there makes me suspicious. Maybe that's a more essential element of the show than I realize. Certainly, the way the black characters are written, they don't really remind me of actual black people. They remind me of Jewish people who are exaggeratedly outspoken and violent, even to the point of being cartoonish.

I'm not sure why that is, exactly, and again, that's one of the things about the show that makes me very uncomfortable, but there are moments of absolute hilarity there too. The scene where the deaf girl spraypaints the arrogant teenage boy's crotch is worth the price of the entire season. The cast is excellent, too, and the satire on suburbia is absolutely dead-on, and a lot funnier than satire usually is.

John Edwards FTW

The Democratic candidates include people who would be the first (partly) black President, the first woman President, and the first Latino President. Also included is a handsome, charismatic white guy from the South. Obviously if you're the first X President, it means X has never won before. Charismatic white guys from the South have won before.

Does anyone really need to even discuss this? How self-indulgent can the Democrats be to even consider running all these minority candidates? Yes, Bush is very, very widely hated, but he lost in both 2000 and in 2004, and he got in anyway. If you control the vote-counters and the Supreme Court -- there are only two out of nine Supreme Court justices whose families don't receive money from the Bush family in some way -- you don't need to be popular. The Republicans have an incredibly powerful and effective nationwide election-stealing machine at their disposal. United Nations witnesses aren't even allowed in US elections any more, and everybody knows the vote-counting machines are rigged.

In a situation like this, you need a candidate who everybody can get behind, not these ridiculous token "first this" and "first that" candidates. It's always the Republicans who score the "first this" and the "first that" anyway. Republicans use token "first whatevers" to give support to policies that are bad for whichever demographic the first whatever happens to be the first member of. So fine, let them have their little trick. Because whenever the Democrats try that, they try to put in a "first X" who supports policies that are actually good for X. That never works.

The Democrats are way too interested in being precious and groundbreaking. They need to quit all this prancing about and get some shit done. It isn't about drawing attention to yourself and being special. It's about doing what works. George Bush out of the White House isn't victory. When the rapist takes his dick out, that doesn't mean you won, it just means the worst is over. It won't be victory until George Bush is in jail where he belongs, and all the terrible damage he's done has been reversed.

And that means victory might actually be impossible. Ask a kid whose mom or dad died in Iraq if it's possible to undo the damage Bush did.

But let's not think about the children. Our grandchildren are going to be paying for the Iraq war. It's not going to take decades to fix all the damage Bush did; it's going to take generations. It's great that the Democrats got control of Congress, but that's not the real victory. The real victory comes when the soldiers come home, we get some sane economic policies, and we rebuild New Orleans. Whoever takes the reins next is going to have a lot of work to do.

In politics, work requires the ability to get people behind you. Hillary will never have that. She's a polarizing figure, and the nation is already way too divided. Even if she gets in, she'll never have the clout John Edwards would have. There's no point electing a President who'll turn lame duck the minute the Democratic Congressional majority falters even a tiny bit.

It's like, you've got tons of Republicans who are thinking of casting the first vote for a Democratic President that they've ever made in their lives, and you want to give them the only candidate that would make them change their minds?

How stupid can you be?

For Hillary to be running at all is disrespectful to the country. Same with Barack Obama and, if he runs, Governor Richardson from New Mexico. These people only stand a chance of getting in office at all because there's so much outrage against Bush. But you only have to look at the way they act to realize that they don't actually share that outrage. They're much more motivated by their own ambition than by any concern for what the country needs.

The work doesn't stop when the election is over. That's when the work begins, and the nature of the work is building support so you can build policy. These people aren't thinking about building support after the election, and the reason why is they aren't really interested in building policy. They don't really care about the country. All they want to do is go down in history as the first XYZ.

The Democrats need to quit being such a bunch of fucking wankers and get some work done.

I realize all this stuff -- minority candidates shouldn't run because it jeopardizes the party's success -- sounds a lot more like Republican thinking than Democratic thinking, but Republicans seem to do better in elections nine times out of ten. I don't want to be right, at this point; I just want to win. You could put Hitler in the White House and probably be in a better position than we're in now.

But there's a more important thing here as well. Democrats traditionally disdain things like the fact that they really only ever win with Southern male candidates. They don't like admitting to this sort of thing, and they act as if all they have to do is ignore this simple fact of history, and maybe it'll disappear. The thing is, if you really want to get the support of a large number of people, you have to stop fearing their prejudices. Prejudice is a kind of fear, and the only way to deal with fear is with compassion. If they want things like universal health care and an end to the war in Iraq, but they need the comfort blanket of a traditional authority figure who looks the way they expect an authority figure to look, where's the harm in that? Change is scary. Give them their fucking comfort blanket and make shit happen already.

Friday, January 19, 2007

iTunes / Copyfight

I can understand why the Boing Boing crew is so anti-DRM and into the copyfight. But realistically, I can get a movie on iTunes for the same price as one ticket in the theater. If they think of iTunes as replacing DVD sales, then yeah, being able to only view downloaded material on particular machines is a total ripoff. But I'm looking at The Italian Job on iTunes. It's ten bucks. Renting it would be what, five? With the rate of inflation these prices are nearly identical. And instead of renting it for a weekend, I get it as long as I keep my computer and the 5 machines I can copy it to. That's a rental period of years.

I think free content will ultimately replace paid content, but in the meantime, this is a good deal.

23

Just days after the death of Robert Anton Wilson, I discover a movie about his greatest work which doesn't even acknowledge his existence.

That's just not right.

UK Government Discovers The Obvious

In Iraq, printouts from Google Earth were found not only detailing British military bases, but also pinpointing exact locations of tents and parked Land Rovers.

I can understand this is an upsetting thing, but honestly, anybody who hasn't seen it coming for years is a fucking monkey. What could be more obvious?

Also, sorry, I'm a bit grumpy at the moment, this article also sets off a pet peeve:

"This is evidence as far as we are concerned for planning terrorist attacks," said an intelligence officer with the Royal Green Jackets battle group. "Who would otherwise have Google Earth imagery of one of our bases?"

Technically these are not terrorist attacks; these are guerilla warfare attacks. Terrorism is just guerilla warfare turned against civillians. If you're in the military, and you're attacked, that's not terrorism. That's guerilla warfare. The whole idea of terrorism is the surprise attack, and if you're in the military occupying a foreign country, attack can't really be such a big surprise. You might not know when it's going to happen, but if it surprises you completely, you haven't been paying attention.

The real problem with the overuse of the word "terrorism" is that the minute the distinction between terrorism and guerilla warfare disappears, the word "terrorism" comes to mean simply any attack from somebody not in uniform. Guerilla warfare is a completely different thing. Guerilla warfare means Iraqis shooting back at the people who invaded them. Terrorism means innocent civillians dying violently without any warning. That's a very, very important difference.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Charlize Theron's Teacher

OK, so I saw Monster, and I thought, holy shit, that's amazing. So I went and did some googling, and it actually took quite a bit of time, but I found out where Charlize Theron studied acting.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Seinfeld as the new commedia

Here's my pet theory about why Seinfeld worked so well.

Every sitcom that devolves into something awful over the course of its lifespan usually comes to rest on one of several predictable structures:

  1. Some idiot always tells lies
  2. Some crazy person always acts wacky
  3. Some unfulfilled sexual tension persists indefinitely

It's remarkable, in fact, because it happens so consistently, usually after several seasons, when the series no longer has any momentum at all, but its previous seasons have given it such a large audience that the network is desperate to keep it alive. This is usually the shark-jumping season, where every episode features somebody getting married, having a baby, or hugging for some reason. Of course one of the rules Seinfeld laid down for his show was "no hugging." Good rule.

What happens in Seinfeld is, rather than one of these three possibilities being the inevitable devolution, all three constitute the cast. George is the liar, Kramer's the crazy person, and the persistent unfulfilled sexual tension comes from Jerry and Elaine. The last one is least obvious, but I think it's accurate, because imagine if you were dating either one of them and you met the other. It's very possible you'd rationally conclude the relationship had no chance, because look how much time this person spends with their ex. Kramer even blows up at them in an episode, saying, "Can't you tell you're in love with each other?"

In medieval Italy, there was this concept of the commedia, a consistent set of characters performing a variety of dramas. The characters of the commedia were the archetypes of medieval theater. There was the fool, the lecher, the hero, etc. I think what really happened with Seinfeld is that the show established an equivalent to that system, where they had a set of archetypes of the modern sitcom, and were able to run them through any dramas they wanted, because their roles were so predictable -- and because these predictable roles are the roles that keep sitcoms alive.

It's the second point that really matters. Seinfeld's casting short-circuited the inevitable devolution any successful series experiences by making that devolution the starting point. You could say they got lucky; you could say they sensed it intuitively. You could even argue that these statements are essentially identical. It doesn't matter. What's worth keeping in mind is that this show was hugely popular when it went off the air, and it may be that it avoided jumping the shark by consolidating all the features that are characteristic of a sharkjumper in its cast.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

My New Screenwriting Theory

My first screenwriting theory came from David Siegel. Remember him? If you remember David Siegel, you were involved with the Web in the early-to-mid 90s. He was best known for his Casbah, the transparent-pixel trick he either invented or popularized, and an inspired rant about typography and design on the Web.

Buried inside what was, for the time, a huge, complex, and unparalleled personal web site, David Siegel described his Nine-Act Structure theory. I was probably 20, or 20-ish, and I had written at least one truly unreadable nightmare of a screenplay by that point. I thought, what the hell, I'll try it and see if it works. And it was a massive improvement, but it wasn't enough.

Years later I developed a second theory, a much simpler theory, which was this: show, don't tell. Anything you want the audience to think, believe, or observe, demonstrate it. There was a corollary to all this, which was that every scene should consist entirely of action, and scenes on telephones or in restaurants were strictly forbidden. This came from a book on screenwriting, but I've forgotten which one. I may have aggregated it from a couple books.

Anyway, this theory improved my screenwriting also, to the point where, in June of 2003, I had a script I had started on in the late 90s, and which was effective on a scene-by-scene basis. But everything I wrote broke down after about 30 to 50 pages. Since a script is supposed to be around 90 to 120 pages, this was a bad thing. Also, my characters were utterly soulless.

In 2005 I took a couple great acting classes at a great school. My new theory is based on that. Or, I guess, my new rule of thumb. I still use the 9-act structure, and I still use the "show, don't tell" rules, but my new rule is that I am not just telling a story; I am also building a role-playing game for the actors, and every scene must be an interesting game for the actors to play.

What led to this idea was an insight I had while driving. I realized that in a sense all acting is improv. The script will give you words to say; it will not tell you anything else. How you move, how you breathe, the way you stand, the tone of voice you use, the movement of your eyes -- all these things that make a character have to come both from yourself and from the other actors. That is 100% improv, and it is the main reason why movies never buried the stage; why even today, when you can have an incredible theater in your living room, people go to the theater. If you play the same scene 100 different times, you will play it 100 different ways.

If this is the case, then the job of the screenwriter isn't really to tell a story, because it won't be the screenplay which defines the story. The actors will define the story. The actors are playing a storytelling game, and when that game is complete, then the story will have been told. But because it's a game, it will have a different outcome every time. So your job as a screenwriter isn't to tell the story. It's to set up the rules of the game.

With this in mind, it's a lot easier to write a scene with real soul to it. All you have to do is consider the actors with compassion, and ask yourself, how can I make this game both genuinely challenging and genuinely rewarding? And it turns out that a good answer to that question will always, by its very nature, incorporate some fascinating drama. Make the one actor confront his fears and overcome them; let the other confess her love and change somebody's mind. In each case, there's a challenge, and a reward, and in building the challenge and the reward, you've created a context from which drama will naturally and inevitably arise. Rewards and challenges can be either personal or interpersonal; interpersonal is almost always better. You don't want one actor having his important personal moment while the other just kind of stands around waiting.

And the other thing -- smaller rewards are better. You want to match challenge to reward, but the reward should really just be a token. In fact the reward should almost always be just a little less than the challenge was worth. This comes from a story in the great book Influence.

The story goes like this: American POWs in Chinese camps, during the Korean War, were given essay contests to keep them busy. The essay contests frequently involved politics, but not always, and of course the Chinese captors were more likely to give the prize to an essay which praised communism, but every so often they'd give the prize to an essay which praised capitalism instead. So it became very normal for the Americans to make small concessions to communism in their essays, partly to win the prize, but mostly just to return the favor, even though they didn't realize it or think of it that way -- and after returning to the US, they were more likely to continue believing that communism had its merits. The reason was two things: first, they were only really required to make minor concessions; but more importantly, they were only ever given minor prizes. Like they wouldn't even get a pack of cigarettes; they'd get three individual cigarettes. If they had been given huge prizes, they would have decided afterwards that they did it for the prize. With the prizes so minor, so token, the actions taken to obtain them seemed more real.

Obviously, this is a subtle psychological trick, but I think most actors would forgive a screenwriter who used subtle psychological tricks to make his characters seem more real to the actors playing them.

Anyway, that's my new theory, and I think it has some merit.