Sunday, 18 December 2016

2016 Recap: Gosh, what an awful year

The theme of how bad 2016 has been has made its way all across my social network/filter bubble, particularly in the past couple of months, so I'm not going to recap all of the ways in which it was bad (I've touched on it in my blogs about various celebrity deaths, and in talking about Brexit). But it's interesting to me how for once I feel in lockstep with the prevailing view of how bad the year's been.

Other "bad years", I haven't necessarily felt the same way, possibly because things were going better for me personally, or because I wasn't in the US and so I couldn't relate to the feeling on the ground (at least in places like the Bay Area or New York; presumably in Arkansas or the Rust Belt people are happy about how this year's gone, who knows?). Even 2001 doesn't stand out for me as a year that was shit from start to finish - without sounding callous, the attacks on the World Trade Center were awful but I didn't have that visceral reaction to them that a lot of people seem to have had, even those who weren't in New York at the time and didn't know anyone directly affected.

But this year was just a bad'un, from start to finish - the fact that David Bowie essentially dropped dead, and that a load of other celebrities followed (some had been ill, some were old, some were apparently finished off by the macro-currents of politics), seems to have really set the tone. The one thing that seemed universally positive this year was Leicester City winning the Premier League, but I can't shake the feeling that such a long shot coming through led to Brexit...

(FYI, no, I don't actually believe that, I have a general understanding of what happened behind both of those events. But allow me the artistic license, okay?)

Apart from one or two things, it wasn't that awesome a year for me at a personal level either, which I think is why the stuff happening worldwide (including what's going on in Syria right now) seems to be affecting me so much. It's hard to say it was a particularly bad year, personally, but there's a sense of not moving forward the way I was in 2013, just as I prepared to move back to the US from London.

At a writing level, I did move forward with a couple of things, which I'm pleased about. I finished (and revised) a full movie script, for instance, a thing I've never managed before. And I finished revising a novel, and started sending it to agents, which is more than I've done for most of the novels I've written thus far.

Most notably, one of my short stories, which I've actually been shopping around for quite a long time, got accepted to an anthology (which is on sale now!), so that feels like a positive development, and one that hopefully I can build on. If nothing else, that shows the importance of actually sending stuff out - I managed a few more story submissions than last year, which clearly helped for getting this one placed. The hopeful thing is that I'm starting to get ideas for new short stories, which means more stuff to send out - and considering that I haven't written a short story since 2013, having more in the pipeline is actually a great development.

On the fitness front, there's been a severe lack of progress, though. I wonder how much is down to the fact that I didn't manage to sign up for a race this year, even though I've logged as many miles as in 2015. I'll be the first to admit that my diet hasn't always been as great as it could have been, but it's hard to draw any conclusions based on my food diaries from last year. Still, in the last couple of months I've done a better job of policing certain things (like my sugar intake), so hopefully there's a foundation to build on there.

Dating was an area that seemed to show some promise, but then fizzled out again. I did meet someone cute (through an app), and went out with her a number of times (previously I hadn't gone on more than two dates with anyone since moving back to the US), but then on the eve of our fifth date she cancelled, saying she was going to see someone else exclusively. So I end 2016 pretty much as I started it - at square one. My idea is to try and meet more people organically, but I'm not sure how successful it'll be, as my friend circle is pretty comprehensively married off and short on single females. And most frustratingly, here as in other areas where I'm not satisfied, it's hard to find silver linings or lessons to be drawn going forward - which is what really makes 2016 a bad year, in my opinion. But I have to be positive, because what's the alternative...?

Money-wise, I've actually managed to accomplish all of my goals, for once, and am hoping to achieve something a little more ambitious. But I've been plagued by two realizations: first, that I simply don't make enough money to live in the Bay Area, unless I'm being subsidized by one or more parents; and second, in September I learned the scale of how badly I'm being paid, in comparison to a new starter who's very junior to me and has fewer qualifications. The answer to both problems is to find a new job, but that's easier said than done, and I'm concerned about how much I'd be giving up by leaving my current job - five weeks of vacation, for example, and the free time to work on my own interests outside of work. But we'll see, I guess.

For other types of goals, it's also been a pretty good year - I got out to New York, and to Argentina, as well as my yearly trip to the UK and Italy. I'm hoping for another visit to Asia or Australia this year, and would love to get out to other parts of the US, or even just other parts of California. And I've taken advantage of a lot of the cultural stuff on offer here in the Bay Area (which reminds me, I need to sign up for Sketchfest). So the plan is to make more aggressive goals for 2017.

The question, of course, is how any of this will be affected by what's happened in the rest of the world. I'm not planning any trips to the Middle East, but frankly I expect the rest of the world to become a lot more dangerous during a Trump presidency, especially for Americans. At the very least a lot of right-thinking people in the rest of the world are going to have that automatic suspicion of me because of my passport and accent, which is a shame. And I'm not hopeful about my own country turning safer or saner over the next four years - in fact, I expect it'll become a libertarian/objectivist nightmare. It remains to be seen how that'll affect individual people, but expect that it will.

But I think John Oliver summed it up best in the final episode for this year of Last Week Tonight. Here's hoping 2017 is better (because it really can get worse, you know):

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Why Third Parties Aren't an Awesome Idea

The 2016 election cycle is mercifully arriving at its climax, which is good, because for the first time ever I'm pretty much sick of it all - politics, horse-trading, handicapping, etc. It occurred to me a few days ago that obsessively checking Nate Silver's 538 and worrying about what those numbers mean is bad for my sanity - I've voted, and my ability to affect the result ends there.

So what have I been thinking about? Well, for one thing, that it would have been nice to have a Democratic candidate untainted by the cozy relationship the party's had with big business since her husband was president. And that, even though I'm not particularly a follower of Bernie Sanders, it would have been nice to have a president who pays lip service to my brand of left-wingery.

(Also, please no comments on how far left Hillary Clinton's voting record is - that's as may be, but she did still vote for the Iraq War, so...)

I've thought long and hard about the Green Party, too, but I've just been really unimpressed with them. I'm satisfied that Jill Stein isn't an anti-vaxxer, but I'm not satisfied that she hasn't addressed that more forcefully - y'know, being a fucking medical doctor and all - and I'm furious that her first reaction to Brexit was to say what a good thing it was that it happened that way.

Add to that the fact that the Greens resolutely haven't made any inroads into state or local politics (apart from the odd mayor or council member here or there), and I can legitimately ask why I should waste my vote on them.

But there's another problem with the Greens, that I don't know if anybody's really thought of: if they were to become a major national party, perhaps winning a state here or there, that would essentially hand the field to the Republicans. All of the left-wing Democrats would move there, leaving the centrists to either shift right to the Republican party, or become a regional irrelevancy.

This is essentially my problem with the oft-quoted idea among some Americans that we need more than two parties. I look at the situation in Europe, where multiple parties are quite common, and am not convinced it's the right answer for America.

Take Britain, for example. Labour and the Conservatives are the two main parties, and the Liberal Democrats are generally on the outside, looking in. In the years since the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats merged, the Lib Dems have been close to power only once, when they joined David Cameron's Tories in a coalition, after the results between Labour and the Tories were too close for either to form a government. The Lib Dems effectively made themselves irrelevant, failing to honor any of their promises or enact any of their key policies, and were punished for it at the last general election, leaving only two credible parties to contest power in Westminster.

(Now, that said, they seem to be the only voice of reason in the midst of Brexit, so there may be hope for a resurgence, but for the time being they've done themselves in)

Italy is another example of the multi-party system not working - there are so many parties, that each general election requires them to form coalitions, which become more and more precarious as the number of parties involved increases. You end up either with a group of unruly junior partners who can leave at a moment's notice and cause your government to fall, or you find yourself having to join a coalition with unsavory or ideologically incompatible parties (such as the xenophobic Lega Nord).

There have been two results for Italian politics: one is that this constant jostling means that the government is relatively unstable, and since World War II there's been an average of a new government each year. The other is that the parties effectively coalesce into unions of left and right - leaving us back where we started. And this trend is present all over Europe, not just Italy and the UK.

So to liberals or progressives (I prefer to term myself a liberal, because I find "progressive" to be wishy-washy) who are thinking of joining the Green Party after this election, my suggestion is to stay within the Democratic Party, and actually work to turn it into a sensible, non-ideological but clearly left-wing party. When I say non-ideological, I mean tuned to the concerns of its base without imposing ideas on them that they clearly don't want - in practice, this means reducing the power of corporations and simply leveling the playing field for everybody, regardless of color, social class or other factors.

I'm not saying working within the Democratic Party is the only way to build a credible left-wing party in the US - but I think that strengthening the Green Party (or other left-wing parties) will mean years of being in the wilderness for the left-wing, liberal agenda. And America can't afford that right now.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Some quick thoughts on Brexit

I just got back last night from my yearly trip to Europe, to see friends in London and family in Turin. I'd been looking forward to it for quite a while - not as long as last year, when I booked the September/October trip in about May or so, but long enough - though the referendum result and the subsequent uncertainty over what kind of place Britain will be after it leaves the EU had made me a little apprehensive.

Free movement of EU citizens allowed me to move to Britain not once but twice, after college and after journalism school, so I'm naturally biased in favor of the UK staying in the EU. I also felt that the options for the country after leaving were both dishonest and disappointing - taking on a model like those of Norway or Switzerland would have meant even less sovereignty, but the hard Brexit that appears to be on the cards seems like a license for the Tory government to completely roll back any progressive initiatives. In other words, if the working classes were furious at Europe for not giving them any opportunities, wait until they see what Theresa May and her government have in store for them.

But London's the epicenter of open, cosmopolitan and multicultural Britain, so what could I expect there? On the street, though I felt a little self-conscious (especially on the night that I went out to dinner in the West End with my cousin and his wife, speaking Italian the whole time), I didn't actually experience any hassle. In fact, I used to get hassled more often for being an American when I lived there...

That said, a lot of people I talked to who aren't EU citizens were concerned about the direction that things are taking. A Mexican friend whose wife is Spanish seems safe for the time being, thanks to his job, but an American colleague said he and his wife didn't want their new baby growing up in that atmosphere. And I don't blame them - movements eat themselves, and when you start by compelling firms to list why they've hired foreign workers, eventually things are going to get unpleasant for all migrants, not just the poor ones that are the undeserving focus of all this rage by certain parts of the population.

All of which confirms for me that I made the right decision leaving Britain three years ago. I like being in London, and traveling in the rest of the UK, but even the supposed Remain voters were pretty xenophobic and jingoistic back then, to the point that if I insisted back in 2002 that my paying taxes made me British, the following decade or so disabused me of any notion that it was a welcoming society.

I am a little sad that the option of moving to Britain whenever I feel like it is going to disappear. One friend insists that I'm the type of migrant that post-Brexit Britain will want, but I think he's being naive - even if Britain rolls out the red carpet for middle-class professionals coming from rich countries come 2019, I'll still be benefiting from the xenophobia that blocks anyone with a Polish or Romanian name from doing the jobs that no Briton wants, and that doesn't sit well with me.

Like I've been telling everyone since last year, I miss being in Britain, but I don't miss living there. The events of the last couple of months have shown me I'm well shot of the place - from the divisive, ugly and ultimately violent (RIP Jo Cox) Leave campaign to the increase in xenophobic hate crime and the complete lack of understanding (or interest) on the part of Leave campaigners of how such a divorce would work in practicality or how it would affect the people whose voices they claim to be upholding. I just feel bad for my friends who voted to stay in the EU, but now have to stay in Britain - it's going to be a rough few years ahead.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Watch What You Write

Because one of the projects I've been working on this year, and indeed, for the past few weeks, is a superhero screenplay, I've been watching a lot of those, either on Netflix or rented from Amazon (er, when I'm not renting the Fast & Furious saga, that is).

This is, as I mentioned in a previous post, why I rented The Amazing Spiderman, the version with Andrew Garfield - I was following the suggestions of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, or Syd Field's Screenplay, to watch movies similar to what you're writing.

It's pretty childishly obvious, as far as advice goes. For instance, my interest in fantasy novels stems from my early attempts to write a fantasy novel of my own. I'd read Tolkien before then, but apart from the more YA-oriented fare, like CS Lewis or Lloyd Alexander, I was unfamiliar with how the genre worked.

Now, you would think that having grown up on comics, I'd know how the superhero genre works, but it happens not to be so. Comics are one way of telling stories - a language, if you like - and movies turn out to be a similar but not entirely equivalent language, and this is one of the things I've been discovering as I watched more of them.

The main takeaway, in fact, has been that Act One of a superhero film needs to be almost exclusively about the hero. Those first 30 or 40 pages are meant to establish where the hero starts, what they need to learn, and how they get their powers - the first act ends when they've put on the mask and gone looking for bad guys to beat up.

Interestingly, though, the thing that established this iron law for me was one step nerdier than just watching the films - I discovered it through reading the shooting scripts (or what purported to be shooting scripts) of Batman Begins and the 2002 version of Spiderman, the one with Tobey Maguire.

This is a suggestion from Robert Ben Garant and Tom Lennon's Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, incidentally - they note that shooting scripts are as close to what's on-screen as it gets, which means you aren't reading an initial draft that was used to gin up interest in a film. Although those can be pretty interesting to read too - look for the script for Die Hard, the opening of which is subtly different from how the movie was shot.

In any case, I remember the "eureka" moment pretty clearly - I'd just gone through Act One of Spiderman, and made the connection, so I'd then gone looking for Batman Begins, to see if it held true. It felt like I was on to something, so I checked the notes I'd made for Amazing Spiderman (yes, I took copious notes while I was watching Amazing Spiderman - two and a half pages on a yellow legal pad, in fact). And eureka indeed - my first page of notes corresponded roughly to the first act, and to the point in the 2002 Spiderman movie where Tobey Maguire dons his own mask.

So the suggestion, then, is to both watch movies in your genre (taking notes), and then look for the shooting scripts online. Reading the script is helpful because you get less distracted by the fun on-screen, which is also important. And the best is if you can watch or read films/scripts from different movies that tell effectively the same story - remakes or reboots or reimaginings seem to be close to justifying their existence purely for budding filmmakers.

Now, that said, Act One and the transition to Act Two is about as far as I got in my research so far. I haven't entirely figured out how Acts Two and Three work yet, but when I do I'll be sure to post what I've found. But in the meantime, I'll be working my through the Fast and the Furious again - with notes...

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Wanting to Write, vs Wanting to Be a Writer

I always have a hard time when people ask me what I want to do with my life.

That's not because I don't know, of course. The difficulty comes in expressing it - long ago I decided to stop saying I wanted to be a writer, because it implied wanting the lifestyle of being a writer without the work of actually writing books. So instead I started saying I wanted to write, which is accurate, but also implies that I'm not doing it. I had, in fact, a conversation once that went pretty much along those exact lines. When I said I wanted to write books, the person I was talking to said, "So write."

How to explain that at the time I had already written two novels, and was working on a third? Or that I'd written a bunch of short stories, and sent them out to publishers and magazines, dating back to high school? It was a long, convoluted conversation, in which I eventually got my point across, I hope, but it showed me the futility of answering the question the way I do. Although I'm sure she'd have said the same thing if I'd answered that I wanted to be a writer.

That said, I do think it's a useful distinction to make, even though most people don't understand writing (or other forms of creativity) to begin with. To me, saying you want to "be a writer", like wanting to "be" anything else, implies that you're interested mainly in the optics of it. Being a writer sounds fun - you get to go to book parties, see your films optioned (and sometimes turned into good movies), and all that. Paradoxically, it doesn't seem to include the actual sitting at your desk night after night, trying to finish a thing.

On the other hand, saying you want to write suggests that you do understand the actual mechanics of what makes one a writer, though it also implies that you aren't doing any writing at the moment. And, as illustrated above, leaves you open to well-meaning but not-always-helpful suggestions like that from my friend.

"So write" sticks with me after all this time, as well, because it's one of those pieces of advice that are logically correct (if you want to write, do so), but don't take in the full import of writing as a hobby or vocation or whatever. It implies some lack of seriousness, at least to my ears, as the advice isn't to "just write, research markets or agents, and submit to them".

But saying that I want to be a writer also isn't very satisfying because it implies I'm not there yet. I'm not saying that having taken second place in's January 2013 contest, and earning £50 as a result, makes me a writer, on par with George RR Martin, but if I have put in the work for as long as I have, even without more than that to show for it, doesn't that mean I can say I'm a writer?

I appreciate this is all a bunch of weird, semantic tail-chasing. Weird semantic tail-chasing is one of the things I live on. And it might be coming because at some level I wonder if the effort is worth it - it's not like I'm so good that publishers or whoever can't ignore me. On the other hand, as I tell myself every time I consider quitting, it's not like I have another vocation lined up. Sitting at home and watching TV every night until I die doesn't sound very appealing.

While I'm generally a positive person, I also understand that hard work is only one part of being successful. The most important part, certainly, but there are a lot of people who work hard at whatever they love without ever striking it big. There's also luck, which is predicated in part on how hard or how smart you work. I can't escape the (almost romantic) image of being the unrecognized genius, which is slightly satisfying on a sub-conscious level, but not as much as the idea of seeing a bookshelf filled with my own novels, or of seeing my name in the credits of a movie.

To bring it all back around, whether I tell people I want to be a writer or that I want to write, most won't get it. But what's important is probably that I understand what I'm setting myself up for - and that I understand what I mean when I tell people what I want to do with my life.

So do I realize the full import of wanting to write, and to be a writer? Sure - I just spent Saturday night finishing up an outline for a horror movie, after all, rather than going to a bar to meet girls. But while I hope for the payoff, I should probably remember to give myself a break about not having hit it yet. And think about new ways to do it.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Batman Vs Superman: Just as Bad as I'd Feared

Not beating around the bush here with that title. I was bored last night, and looking for a movie to rent on Amazon, so I went looking for superhero movies I'd missed when they were in theaters. My first two choices, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, weren't out yet, and Deadpool felt a little expensive for something I'd seen on the plane, so I swallowed hard and went for Batman Vs Superman.

I'm not even going to bother putting up the spoiler guy for this. It's a bad movie. It's badly acted, badly scripted, badly directed and has lackluster CGI. Someone comes back from the future, completely out of the blue, to warn Batman not to let Lois Lane die, and then it turns out to be a dream. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor as if the character's a merger between Mark Zuckerberg and the Joker.

Compared to this, Suicide Squad was a work of art.

What's frustrating is that, in theory at least, I like David Goyer (who script doctored BvS). He wrote Batman Begins, which while not my favorite Batman story, at least got the character back on an even keel after Batman & Robin. He also has some good insights into the character - my favorite is how Goyer once pointed out that there are three facets to Batman/Bruce Wayne's personality: there's the public face of Bruce Wayne, the public (sorta) face of Batman, and the private Bruce Wayne, who's actually a badass.

In fairness to Goyer, the fact he rewrote the script means we were probably saved from something really brain-damaging... or it could have been to shoehorn more prep for the upcoming Justice League movie. Whatever.

The problem is that it could have been really good, if they'd just stuck with what's so good about the characters (including Wonder Woman), or even just added some horsepower to the action scenes. It seems odd to say about a movie that cost something like $200 million and features the destruction of two cities, but the action scenes are so boring - I know I can't seem to shut about the Fast & Furious movies, but at least they're exciting. The one car chase here looks like it was filmed underwater.

Funnily enough, though everybody was freaking out about him in the role, Ben Affleck as Batman wasn't the worst thing about the movie. In fact, I'll go so far as to say he was fine - he didn't have the unctuous playboy act down as well as Christian Bale in his prime, but I found him believable as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. And they solved the Bat-voice problem which had plagued the Nolan films.

Of course, it's still one of the top 50 highest-grossing movies of all time, despite losing 81% of revenues in its second weekend and a further 50% in the third. There's always been the impression that nerds are so starved for movies that cater to them that they'll lap up any old crap, and it's hard not to get the impression that this is why BvS has done so well (it didn't hit its projected $1 billion but it certainly recouped its budget). I also remember seeing some friends on Facebook taking issue with the blog posts (including ones I shared) saying that they didn't actually have to go see it - it's almost as bad as the fans of Suicide Squad who (Donald Trump-style) tried to ignore Rotten Tomatoes for giving their beloved movie a low score.

I read once that blockbusters are badly written because there's no compelling reason (whether in terms of cost or profit) for them to be written well. But I can still hope that someday someone decides to put out a superhero movie that doesn't suck quite this blatantly.

Or, screw it, just let me re-watch all the Fast & Furious movies while I wait for number 8 to come out. At least I'll enjoy myself.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Coming around to the Fast and the Furious saga

Like many bien-pensant movie fans, I've spent the last fifteen years laughing derisively whenever the subject of The Fast and The Furious came up. They featured some not particularly excellent actors, and seemed with each installment to add yet another action star, Expendables-style, to the roster, and another dumb variation on the original name (2Fast 2Furious! Fast 5! Furious 7!).

Graphs like this didn't help, frankly

And yet...

I recently broke down, since I saw that Netflix had the first three movies on streaming. I'd actually seen parts of the original movie on TV a few years ago, and part of the seventh on the plane last year, so I was curious about a number of things, like how they'd gone from that original film to the set-pieces and exotic locales of the latest. And I was curious how they would see of Paul Walker's character, following the actor's death in 2013 while Furious 7 was in production.

I can also blame my youngest sister, who revealed to me when Furious 7 came out that she'd seen and loved all of the movies. Since she has a master's degree in English from Oxford, how can I argue with an endorsement like that?

So yeah, not only did I mainline (heh) the first three movies, I then rented the fourth through sixth movies on Amazon and caught the seventh on HBO Go. This all took me about ten days, with my lunch breaks devoted to watching a bit at a time, and then catching a bit more while watching dinner after work.

It was kind of tough going at times, I'll admit. 2Fast 2Furious, to me, is easily the worst of the bunch, badly acted and poorly scripted, with holes in logic large enough to drive a fleet of Skylines through. There were similar problems with the third installment, Tokyo Drift, but I actually liked that one a lot.

The problem with criticizing those aspects, though, is that the movies are just so damn fun. The first one starts with a truck-jacking run by three souped-up Civics, and the filmmakers double down on the car-related capers in each film, to the point that by Fast & Furious, the confusingly named fourth installment (and the start of FF's imperial phase), you can't help but laugh with joy at what they're doing. It could be Walker and Diesel dragging a safe through the streets of Rio, or it could be Dwayne Johnson knocking out a military chopper with nothing but a gatling gun ripped from a downed predator drone, but it makes you happy.

Yes, this is The Rock firing a gatling gun at a helicopter. What's your point?

Another thing that sets these movies apart from other recent action movies is the relationships between all the characters. The first traces Paul Walker's undercover cop being drawn in by Vin Diesel's "family", composed of siblings, lovers, neighbors - all folks united by their love of ten-second cars. By the end Walker and other actors collected over the course of the saga (like Ludacris and Dwayne Johnson) are also part of the family, joking around with each other in ways you rarely see in ensemble flicks - the Avengers movies are dour and dysfunctional in comparison with this crew.

Related is the fact that each movie does a good job of showing its characters' joy. Weak as it is, Tokyo Drift is the first film where I put my finger on this aspect - there's a scene late in the second act, where Lucas Black is driving with his love interest along a mountain road at night. They're relaxed, talking about their childhoods, while the wide shots have a convoy of sports cars drifting left and right along the road's hairpin turns, in such perfect unison that they look like a single organism.

But even as early as the first movie you can see this joyfulness. Paul Walker's just lost his first race against Vin Diesel, and badly, but he's in the mob of fans congratulating Diesel on his win, and despite losing his car Walker's got this broad, goofy grin on his face - I once heard Walker referred to as "possibly the worst actor of his generation", but it's hard to see it in that single scene. And it carries on through the seventh movie, where you have the entire crew joking and teasing as they prepare to parachute their cars out the back of a plane over a remote mountain pass in Azerbaijan (of all places).

It was also nice that they gave Paul Walker's character a decent send-off at the end of Furious 7, almost breaking the fourth wall for us to share in celebrating what the actor meant to them as characters and us as viewers. I'm curious what they plan to do with the character, if anything, in the forthcoming eighth installment; the best would be leaving him out of further adventures, rather than using the character's death as an inciting incident to set Vin Diesel and the others on their latest quest, but we'll see.

I will, anyway - in the theaters. Probably not on opening day, but hopefully with my sister in tow, a new set of silly films for us to bond over.