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


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.


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.