Monday, 2 March 2015

RIP Leonard Nimoy

Like everyone, I saw the news on Friday that Leonard Nimoy had passed away at the age of 83. I have loved Star Trek since I was about 4, watching reruns of the original series, and Spock was impressive even then - alien, with the distinctive ears and eyebrows and haircut that would influence later actors who played Vulcans. To say nothing of the performance - calm, collected and only occasionally letting emotion seep through.

Years later, when I discovered Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was excited to see he'd made it into that show as well, and into the Simpsons too - a lot of the reactions on Twitter and other internet message boards to his death was to quote the lines from his appearances in the monorail and alien sighting episodes ("Hey Spock, whaddaya want on your hot dog?" "Surprise me!"). Even more recently, I was happy to see him pop up on Fringe, both in person and lending his voice to several episodes even after he'd officially retired from acting.

I'm vaguely aware of the negatives of his most famous role, of course - his book entitled I Am Not Spock, and the way he was effectively typecast following the performance. William Shatner seems to have succeeded in, if not breaking out of the confines of his Star Trek role, at least turning it to his advantage in subsequent shows like TJ Hooker and The Practice - I'm unaware of Leonard Nimoy having had a similar career trajectory (other than the paranormal show, In Search Of). But he eventually made peace with it, leading to the appearances mentioned above, and in a quiet way, indulged his interests in photography and poetry as well. That said, I haven't quite brought myself to listen to his Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.

My most vivid memory of him, however, is of being in the back of the car one weekend as we were driving through North Beach on our weekly trip to San Francisco, and having my dad tell me to look out the window. When I did, there were Spock and Kirk, surrounded by production people, getting ready to film one of the scenes of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. What I remember most about that sight was seeing Leonard Nimoy tying the white headband around his head, to conceal the Vulcan ears.

That was, unfortunately, the closest I ever came to meeting him for real - or any of the other Star Trek actors, for that matter. But he's left behind him one of the most iconic roles of our culture, parodied and imitated for close to five decades. He tried to escape it, he returned to embrace it, and became a legend. As so many have noted already, he truly did live long and prosper.

Goodbye, Spock, and thanks for the memories.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Lego Movie: Not Everything Is Awesome

So I'm going for that "Social Pariah" achievement today: I don't really like the Lego Movie much.

It feels good to get that out, frankly. I floated the idea today on Facebook, and was emboldened by the emphatic reaction (one like and one comment agreeing with me), so decided to phone in base this week's blog around it.

What brought this on, you ask? I happened to catch it on TV at my mom's place this afternoon, and decided to give it another shot (I once tried to watch it on a plane but I turned it off shortly after - possibly for Jack Reacher). I made it quite a bit further in than the last time, too - but that extra 20 minutes wasn't much to my liking either.

In fact, if I were being provocative (moi?), I might even go so far as to borrow some writers' reactions to Interstellar and call it an ideological monstrosity.

OK, that's kind of a strong statement, so I'm gonna backpedal a bit here. Interstellar was an ideological monstrosity because there's a pretty shocking lack of non-white characters (apart from one supporting character) and because, as my sister puts it, it implies that famine and starvation are only the end of the world when they're happening to the West.

The Lego Movie, in that light, maybe doesn't quite fit into that mold, but I find it pretty insidious in its own way. The bad guy, to begin with, is named "Business", and his whole deal is that, like business in real life, he hates spontaneity. He only wants people to follow the instructions that come with each Lego kit, and he doesn't like intermixing, ie using bricks from multiple types of kits to create wondrous new things limited only by YOUR imagination. He hates that stuff SO MUCH, that he's going to use Krazy Glue to immobilize everybody, everywhere.

If you've read my blog before, you may know that I lean slightly leftward, on the political spectrum, and that I am somewhat mistrustful of large corporations. If I could get away with it, corporations would be the bad guys in all my stories (slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean). So, uh, why is Lord/President Business such a problem?

Well, it's all so on-the-nose that it kind of deflates the magic and inhibits suspension of disbelief. And once that's gone, you start to see things about the movie: the fact that it's pretty much the exact same plot as the Matrix, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings; the fact that despite all this "anti-business" and "anti-imagination" stuff, you're still watching a movie using dozens of major licensed properties, which was released by a big studio and came with a catchy song.

And as far as the plot, I think it illustrates what I was saying recently about the dangers of following a beat sheet too closely. If you can see exactly where Blake Snyder would have put his beats, then the movie's not doing its job and drawing you in (much like if you're noticing how clever the author is, the novel's broken).

There are some cute parts of the movie, of course. Having Will Arnett play Batman, for instance, and play him as the dickhead boyfriend of the main guy's love interest, is inspired. Morgan Freeman turns in a nice performance as the mentor, and Liam Neeson does a good job as the (conflicted) evil henchman. And bringing together all of the big properties - DC Comics, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc - into one movie implies that it should be fun. But let's be honest: Wreckit Ralph did a much better job of setting up the main character, his world and his dramatic need, while pulling together characters from a bunch of classic videogames. And it had Sarah Silverman. Need I say more?

So yeah, not a big fan of the Lego Movie. I know a lot of people on my Twitter feed (comedians and the like) loved it, and many were disappointed it wasn't nominated for best animated film or some crap. I'm not. The supreme irony of the movie is that in telling kids how important it is to let your imagination run free, the filmmakers have had to rein Lego in and cram its ethos into the straitjacket of the modern Hollywood screenplay. Good job, Business.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

DC went back to basics with Cartoon Network's Justice League

Like everyone, I have a bunch of shows in rotation on Netflix, and also like everyone, I'm transfixed by one in particular at any given point. For much of last year, that series was How I Met Your Mother (and I regret nothing!), but at the moment the "it" show is Cartoon Network's Justice League.

It ran in the early 00s, and was a follow-on to the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series and its companion Superman: The Animated Series. It shares the art style of the two previous shows, as well as a few of the same voice actors, notably Kevin Conroy as Batman, who's widely held to be the best actor to play the role, at least of the last 20 years (sorry, Christian Bale).

The immediate impetus for starting up with the show was the Nerdist Podcast's wonderful interview with acclaimed voice director Andrea Romano, who was responsible for casting the voices that helped Warner Animation become a powerhouse in the 90s - she did Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Batman, as well as Justice League (which I started because, frankly, it was the only show in that sequence available on streaming). She and Chris Hardwick talked so much about that era of cartoons, which I remember so fondly, that I was moved to revisit it.

Now, I didn't see Justice League when it was on, but based on what I have seen so far (I'm about 20 episodes into Season 1, out of two seasons in total), it really does hold up. It succeeds in capturing the feel of the early Justice League of America comics from the 60s, while maintaining a modern sensibility reminiscent of what Grant Morrison was doing with JLA at the time. That's probably because, like Morrison's run, it's focused on the big names - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman - along with the Flash and Green Lantern. Hawkgirl adds another (sorely needed) female to the cast, while comics mainstay Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onnz rounds out the lineup.

There are a lot of cute nods to the comics, as well. In the first sequence of three episodes (every story was a two- or three-episode arc), the team splits up into pairs to fight the invading alien hordes in different parts of the world (Metropolis, Paris, Malaysia), just as they did in the very earliest comics. Later on in the season, there's also a reference to the classic JLA/JSA teamups of that era, when several members of the League encounter a 40s-style team called the Justice Guild, with stand-ins for the Golden Age Green Lantern, Flash, Wildcat, Black Canary and the Atom.

With that episode in particular, I was also pleased to see that the new show retained Batman: TAS's ability to tell a moving story. When the parallel world on which they encountered the Guild is revealed to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the illusory heroes - who were an inspiration in particular to Green Lantern - give up their own lives so that the few genuine survivors can finally start to rebuild. "We gave up our lives once, after all," says one of the Guild members.

Another reason I'm so enjoying the show is that, continuing on from my post a couple months ago about DC losing the plot a bit, it tells Justice League stories in an uncomplicated and, most importantly, fun way. I haven't picked up a Justice League comic in years, but perusals of Wikipedia show me that I'm not missing much. That might be partly because the characters (and creators, for that matter) keep getting dicked about every year or two for yet another company-wide crossover and retcon. This means that characters die and get resurrected and die again, team rosters chop and change according to the writer's whim, and everything's just a bit stupid and confusing.

That's a function of trying to tell stories about the same characters for decades - in the case of Superman and Batman, we're coming up on 80 years. But at the same time, it's nice to have the TV show, which by necessity can't lean too heavily on all that continuity, to present the stories in a simple and still engaging manner.

The TV show's other big advantage is that it knows exactly who it's aimed at. The comics seem to have this weird split personality, where sometimes they want to get kids reading, and at other times they fall over themselves to show how "grown-up" they are by amping up the gruesome. Or to put it another way, the only way DC found to follow up Heath Ledger as the Joker, with his self-inflicted scars, was to have the comics version cut off his own face (eh?) and then continue wearing it. Which, let's be honest, all sounds like he went to a lot of unnecessary trouble.

I don't believe the stories should be simplistic, or even exclusively aimed at kids; I've had a look at the more recent Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon, which is more kid-friendly and leaves me slightly cold. But the Justice League TV show's limited run and strict rules about, for instance, no blood, at least let the creators find better ways to tell a story that could appeal to all four quadrants (bit of movie-biz talk, since I've been reading all those screenwriting books).

This is, incidentally, why I continue to enjoy the Flash and Arrow TV shows. There's a lot of fan service (in the form of little nods and references to some pretty obscure DC stuff, e.g. Felicity Smoak), but it all becomes a way for the creators to tell stories that make sense to today's viewers, instead of being bogged down by a million issues of continuity.

Anyway, I'm coming to the end of Season 1, and expect to power through Season 2 pretty quickly too. And after that I can look forward to even more references, as the follow-up series, Justice League Unlimited, took a look at the even more obscure characters that made up the League during its long history.

Frankly, I'm just happy we've already had an appearance from Kanjar Ro, one of the weirdest characters to come out of the early JLA comics. It's just a shame they couldn't work his Gamma Gong into the story.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Thoughts on Screenplay Structure and Blake Snyder's Save the Cat

I just finished reading Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, on the recommendation of my friend Tom (with whom I'm writing a screenplay), and because an author I knew back in London said he used it to check that his novels were hitting all their beats correctly. I'm also told that Save the Cat has become the de rigueur template for screenwriters, and JJ Abrams in particular swears by it (which might account for the opening of Star Trek Into Darkness - a sequence that stands out in that awful movie for being even more awful).

With this pedigree, I pretty much had to read it for myself. I did, however, stop off to read Screenplay by Syd Field first, since even the introduction of Save the Cat says to do that. So those two, plus Robert McKee's Story and Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, make four books I've now read about screenwriting.

I have to admit, despite that august company, there really is something to Save the Cat's methodology. A Hollywood screenplay is expected to be around 110 pages, divided into three acts and hitting some very specific beats. Save the Cat walks you through all of those, one by one, almost like painting by numbers - you have things like the opening image and the theme stated in Act One, fun & games and bad guys close in showing up in Act 2, and the final image closing off Act 3 and the rest of the movie.

The way Snyder (who died in 2009, aged 51) presents it, these are iron laws that studio executives are looking for in every script that crosses their desks, even if they don't use the exact same terminology he does. If they don't flip to page 75 and find the bad guys closing in, whatever that means in the context of your film, then it's back to the drawing board for you.

I think what appeals to me most about Save the Cat's structure is that there actually is a lot of room for interpretation within those guidelines. I'm convinced that the greatest creativity comes from limits being imposed on the artist, and seeing what the artist can do within those limits. This doesn't necessarily work in every context - superhero comics and rock music have each effectively been doing the exact same thing, within the same structures, for the better part of a century now - but it's also true that having no constraints at all can lead to some bad art. Just listen to some particularly indulgent freeform jazz or psychedelic jam sessions from 1960s hippie collectives for examples.

As an aside, you can see something similar in technology, where each advance is, ideally, a solution to an existing problem. The internal combustion engine, the solid fuel rocket and the atom bomb are all attempts to do something specific within the then-current constraints on technology - I once read something where a piece of technology was referred to as "a work-around, not technology", which made me want to scream back, "All technology is a work-around!"

Where Save the Cat runs into trouble - and the fault is not necessarily Snyder's - is when the structure becomes more prized than what you do within it. On the official Save the Cat website, there are a number of beat sheets in which contributors have put recent movies in the context of the book's structure.

I was eager to read the one for Guardians of the Galaxy. This is because I thought the movie was gibberish from start to finish, but I felt like I was missing something because everybody else liked it. The introduction to the Guardians beat sheet said the movie was well-structured, so I thought that seeing it broken down might make me appreciate it more.

Which turned out to be a big fat sack of wrong.

Seeing it divided up into Snyder's beats just made me appreciate more keenly how nonsensical each part of the film truly was. And yet the contributor was praising how well it fit into Save the Cat. Clearly there's something wrong there. The difference between a good screenplay and deceptively good one, then, is the difference between using the beat sheet as a guideline, and shoehorning your story into it.

I liked the book, though, and probably would recommend it, because it is useful to check your story against its beats to ensure that your second act doesn't drag, or that your first act adequately explains everything that's still to come.

My only other qualm, and I mention it here more for how amusing I found it, is the way Snyder takes issue with certain films, most notably Memento, which he calls a "low-performing arthouse gem". He evidently had issues with the way Memento was structured, and that there wasn't a likeable hero to be found (no scenes of cat-saving, you could say), although he never comes out and says what exactly bothers him.

It's just funny to me that the guy who wrote pillars of the Western cinematic canon like Blank Check and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot (his two produced movies) should take the time in his book to snipe so savagely at an early film by the director of Batman Begins, the Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar... More to the point, while Memento may have pulled in negligible box office, it probably got much better critical buzz than either of Snyder's movies - which is what's allowed Christopher Nolan to have the amazing career he's built for himself.

On the other hand, Snyder does a much better job of explaining exactly why Signs, by M Night Shyamalan, was so terrible, to the point that it's made me like that movie even less than I already did. So he clearly knew what he was talking about, if not batting 1.000 in his opinions. Which goes to show that everyone's fallible - even the guy who teamed up Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty.

Go figure.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Books vs Video Games: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

One of my discoveries this week is that the Guardian now seems to have a dedicated science fiction column, written by Damien Walter. This is a nice development, as I do think it's nice to have someone talking about SFF literature in a forum that's widely distributed. Hell, I'm happy to have any medium talking about books to a wide audience - this is one of my favorite things about the Daily Show, for instance.

Back in November, Walter wrote a piece talking about how SF writers must battle video games to capture eyeballs. It was kind of interesting, noting that games like Halo are winning pretty easily because they can present the fantastic visually, whereas books have to make do with exposition, description - essentially large blocks of words.

I generally disagree with the thesis, however. Sure, everybody has a finite amount of time to entertain themselves, and there are a lot more options now than there were a century ago. Books, frankly, have no chance - but then, neither do movies or TV or radio. And when the next entertainment medium comes along, video games will find their popularity dropping too.

What I really disagree with is the idea that competition for readers' attention translates to less work for writers. The games I've been playing lately (mainly Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, as well as Dragon Age: Inquisition, Skyrim and Mass Effect 2) are pretty story-heavy, although this means different things in each case.

Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect and Dragon Age are pretty linear and plot-bound, while Skyrim offers a deeper world to explore and interact with. But each of these games relies very heavily on world-building, whether in the form of codex entries (for Mass Effect and Dragon Age), books (for Skyrim) or simply inserting the occult and the paranormal into historical settings (for Assassin's Creed). Walking around the meticulously recreated Renaissance cities of Florence, Venice and Rome, I've been impressed with how much research Ubisoft must have done to get so many details right that my dad can recognize the landmarks I'm climbing.

At the same time, I remember hearing on a podcast recently (I think it was the Indoor Kids) how the developers of Skyrim or Dragon Age basically had a staff of writers who were sitting there writing the history of the world you're meant to play through. And those writers have churned out millions of words on the history of the setting, far in excess even of what George RR Martin or Robert Jordan have managed. It kind of makes me feel bad to skim through the interminable books I keep finding in Skyrim.

My point is, the conflict between videogames and books is more a case of "if you can't beat them, join them" - the two art forms are very similar, as both require active participation by the consumer, much more than movies or music. The difference is that video games are much more collaborative than books - but the point is both are simply trying to immerse consumers into their stories.

While I didn't go through the entire comment section (nobody sane does that on Guardian comment sections), I thought it interesting that nobody, including Walter himself, brought up the idea of writers working on video games. A couple of games recently have tapped writers to help them with the plot (Richard K Morgan is the main one I'm thinking of), and I think that a number of writers would jump at the chance to do the same. It may be a function of age, although from his website Walter doesn't seem too much older than I am.

Still, I'm not too worried about the conflicts between various media - books will always be able to do things that video games can't, and vice versa. Switching between them should let writers tell their stories as completely as possible.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Hoping 2015 Will Be the Year

Quick one today, as I've been flat on my back most of the weekend (and large parts of last week) with my traditional post-CES illness, with the added fun of something I picked up off a fellow party-goer on New Year's Eve (and not the fun way, either).

But in all that rack time I've been accruing, my thoughts have ranged across the insanely ambitious array of writing projects I've set for myself this year. Folks, it's gonna be a tough one:

1. Revise/rewrite last year's 4 screenplay treatments
2. Write 3 new screenplay treatments
3. Write a 4-6 issue comic based on one of last year's treatments
4. Write a 90k-word novel I've had gestating for a while now, and do it in 3 months
5. Submit short stories 20 times (which is turning out to include revising and rewriting certain stories, because my current pool of submittable stories is two)

And that doesn't include my reading goals, or blogging, or getting out to SF/F author events. It also doesn't include my goals in other areas of my life, like dating and fitness and travel.

Now, I'm not mentioning this to boast about how busy I am, but rather to note that I'm really hoping all the reading I've been doing on story structure, and all my practical work outlining my movie ideas, will translate to the comic and the novel. Comics are a new (ish) medium for me, and although I've written novels, I've never attempted to plot so much out before I write the damn thing. It might work, or it might be an epic disaster.

In essence, I'm hoping to put to use all the stuff I've been reading about the last couple of years now - Robert McKee's Story and Syd Field's Screenplay and talk of plot points, inciting incidents and act transitions. Lack of three-act story structure may not have been the crucial factor in why those early novels didn't work, but it can't hurt to know how it works now, right?

And the real goal, which I left out because it's hard to articulate in a non-vague form, is for this to be the year that I finally start down the road to writing for a living, rather than as a hobby. To be honest, it's been my goal every year since I started writing long-form fiction back in 2001. But, although I haven't quite achieved it yet - I'm still makin' money for the man in my 9 to 5 - I hope I'm making progress.

Frankly, that's all I can hope for - writing is a subjective enough thing that one can be really good but really unlucky. I may or may not be good, but as long as I stick to the old Robert Heinlein rule (read a lot, write a lot, send out what you write), I should be able to make my own luck.

Fingers crossed!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Some Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Like so many people, I spent this week following the developing story around the massacre at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent manhunt for the perpetrators, which ended yesterday when they were killed during a hostage standoff, and one of their accomplices was also killed while holding hostages at a Jewish grocery in Paris. I've also read so many words of commentary on "what this means" that I thought it would be worthwhile adding my own two cents.

Generally, I feel that this incident has become yet another instance for commentators (like myself, I suppose) to air their own deeply held and often misinformed opinions. It's also turned into one of those moments where people who don't respond the exact same way as everyone else gets categorized as "aiding the enemy".

For instance, there's this story, which started with USC professor Marc Cooper calling New York Times editor Dean Baquet a coward for not publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and ended with Baquet calling Cooper an asshole. While I've previously suggested that sometimes the NYT and other US news outlets twist themselves unnecessarily into knots to avoid using swear words, I feel in this case Cooper was being self-righteous - a lot of the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published really were offensive, and some to the point that they ceased to be funny but just mean-spirited. You may say that's the point of satire, but the point of living in a free democracy is that you can also choose not to speak (a choice I wish a lot more people would make).

The best reaction I've seen came from Will Self, speaking to Vice:
"Well, when the issue came up of the Danish cartoons [of Muhammad] I observed that the test I apply to something to see whether it truly is satire derives from H. L. Mencken's definition of good journalism: It should 'afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.' The trouble with a lot of so-called 'satire' directed against religiously motivated extremists is that it's not clear who it's afflicting, or who it's comforting. This is in no way to condone the shooting of the journalists, which is evil, pure and simple, but our society makes a fetish of 'the right to free speech' without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right." 
In his response Self hints at the most vexing aspect of Charlie Hebdo's output, which is that in insulting Muslims this paper run by white, middle-class French people was going after France's immigrant underclass. If some paper here regularly ran cartoons insulting blacks or Hispanics, most Americans would justifiably be disgusted - but here we're blinded by our own principle of integrating people, so we're unaware of just how alienating European cultures are to their own immigrants. People who say immigrants should "just integrate" miss the point that the wider societies in places like France, Britain, Germany or wherever aren't willing to do their own part to integrate newcomers.

My former J-school classmate, Ed Krayewski, writing in Reason, seems to miss this point when he suggests that the original cartoons were fine because Middle Eastern satirists publish the same kind of thing. There is a question of context here, as Middle Eastern satire targeting ISIS or Islamic fundamentalism is aimed upward, at the power structure, rather than downward, at those crushed by it. The examples Ed cites are also from countries bordering but not currently ruled by ISIS, and make fun specifically of the terror group, rather than of the Prophet Muhammad or of Islam itself. Or in other words, it's on the same level as this:

The other piece I saw that showcased Western ignorance and bias was this one from, which starts with the phrase "If you thought the Arab world celebrated the attack on Charlie Hebdo as a blow against blasphemers, some Arab-language newspapers tell a different story."

It's stupid because it assumes, as seemingly a lot of Western (and particularly American) people do, that the Arab world is a single entity that agrees on everything and has exactly the same viewpoint, stretching from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Any Arab will tell you that this is flatly not the case. The piece gets better, as it depicts a number of cartoons in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and criticizing the idea of killing over cartoons, but I can't get over the premise (and what's worse is that in the original piece's lede the word "celebrate" links to Fox News on September 12, 2001, reporting on how Palestinians celebrated the attack on the World Trade Center).

To close, I also want to discuss the perpetrators for a moment, as it's so easy to dismiss them as thugs with no sense of humor (which they became, of course). But I can't help feeling a sense of lost potential there, as I saw an NBC report showing Cherif Kouachi's early life before he turned to terrorism and murder. In some home-made music videos (he wanted to be a rapper), Kouachi's smiling and clowning, arm around his friend as he raps.

Whether he'd have made it in the music business or not is irrelevant, but it's a shame that so many youths are being twisted and perverted to the side of fundamentalism. If we really want to stop more of these attacks from happening, the answer is not to silence Charlie Hebdo, or to spy on every young man at risk of becoming radicalized, but to find avenues for these guys to express themselves beyond violence.