Monday, December 6, 2010

Screenplay Breakthrough at Last!

I was planning on writing a post entitled "The Crime Against Robot Jox", about how the script for the film Robot Jox is actually pretty good once you remove the influence of director Stuart Gordon. However, I find that I am actually unable to do my research and unwilling to write. For once, my urge to write my screenplay is overpowering!

I have finished the beat-by-beat outline and I am in the extremely fun stage of actually writing in screenplay format. I am satisfied with the story and all that remains is to fill in the details that I've been longing to write. It is very freeing to be able to just write by my own guideline and know that everything is going to be okay, all the big story problems are already solved and nothing is going to confound me until I finish.

It's set in my Necromantic States of America universe in the year 1992, about a necromancer's sheltered daughter who is kidnapped by rebels and begins to learn the truth about her world. I'm looking forward to seeing what exactly it looks like when I'm finished this stage.

Gotta go. Writing now.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Visionary and the Administrator

It's been a couple weeks since I wrote here. I've been busy: I went to Vancouver and, when I returned, hosted a house concert for Suzie Vinnick. The concert was awesome but only four people showed and I felt like a heel.

I've done some thinking about the "everything is getting worse" mentality from which I sometimes suffer. It's a mindset that is very destructive to day-to-day morale, motivation, and even self-esteem. I inhabited this place for a long time in my life, particularly in the years immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. If one looks, one can see the world he knows crumbling, enemies lurking everywhere and apathy.

I've done much to banish "everything is getting worse" by not watching television. I get my news from a little Google sidebar and avoid the stuff I don't want to see. I have also stopped reading activist websites, which honestly just make me angry at the world and then make me feel powerless. As a result of study of The Principia Discordia, I've been able to see the world not as crumbling, but as changing, and make my peace with change.

However, I've done some serious thinking about "everything is getting worse" lately. Not because I'm thinking of subscribing to its ideals again, but to see if it has any truth at all. After some deep thought, I've created this grandiose statement:

"It is the nature of our society for products to get worse."

If you would, I would like you to think of a brand-name food item that has been around for several decades (assuming you're old enough). It can come off a grocery shelf or be served in a restaurant. Close your eyes, visualize it. Think about how it looks, how it tastes, it smells, how it is packaged. Now think about how it used to be. Visualize it in the same way. Compare. Was the older version of this food product bigger? Did the package contain less air? Did it taste better? Did it cost less? Chances are that you can answer yes to at least one of these questions, probably more. Think of another food item and repeat the process.

Sure, currency inflation explains why it costs more, but from the perspective of the average consumer, what else is inflation but the manifestation of everything getting worse? There is some bias, of course, in the question of "did it taste better?", because when you were younger you had more taste buds and everything tasted better. But in the question of taste, consider how the major soft-drink manufacturers switched from cane sugar to corn syrup as a sweetener in the 80s. Putting questions of obesity aside, how did that affect the flavour of our pop?

Don't try to deny it. In our society, once a product or idea is marketed, the forces of capitalism begin their work. Those who make their living from it seek to make it cheaper to produce, smaller and tagged with a higher retail price. It is a slow process, usually imperceptible with the passing of years. The McDonald's cheeseburger of today is a very different food item than the ten-cent burger of 1937. Specifically, it's smaller, more expensive, and made with less-wholesome but cheaper products.

It's not just food items, either. It's all products and services. It's in entertainment: the sequel is always worse than the original. In workplaces all over the world, people are getting laid-off while the workload stays the same, the remaining employees tacitly asked to work overtime without pay and openly asked to "do more with less". It's not just free-market services either. The quality of service from the Canadian government, for instance, from the NFB to the CBC to Medicare to the Canada Pension Plan to the Canada Council, it's all worse.

Every good product and innovative service has two metaphorical figures locked in loving embrace and struggle: the Visionary and the Administrator.

The Visionary is a creator of ideas. She has creativity to see problems from new angles, courage to challenge established order and luck. The Visionary's desire is to change the world in her image. At her best, the Visionary dreams of new ideas that make our life better. At her worst, the Visionary is a reckless wastrel that destroys resources on bad ideas.

The Administrator is a facilitator. He has common sense, a grasp of reality and the ability to think critically about what is important. The Administrator's desire is to draw black ink. At his best, the Administrator helps Visionaries and employees realize their maximum potential, gathers and manages resources wisely and makes life easier. At his worst, he destroys creativity, fears change, overworks employees and makes policy that benefits Administrators.

It is a never-ending cycle. It starts with an idea, dreamed by a Visionary. An idea is just an idea and doesn't become reality until the Visionary seeks help from an Administrator. The Administrator helps the Visionary see what is realistic for the idea, provides creative limitation, finds funding and manages the workforce. The idea expands and grows to its full potential.

Then something happens. At some point, control of the product shifts from the Visionary to the Administrator. Either the Visionary moves to a new product, or dies or becomes complacent. The retail price goes up as the brand is established. The budget shrinks. The product changes in tiny ways. The workforce used to create and support it vapourizes with layoffs. The Administrator is rewarded by bigger payoff, but the product suffers. The only way to return the product to its former glory is the actions of another Visionary, but at this point, Administrators fear jeopardizing their holdings and resist any new changes. When the product suffers, so does the public.

It's just how it goes. The only things that will motivate Administrators to reverse the effects of their product-destroying policies are the actions of hostile Visionaries that threaten their holdings. It explains why dynamic industries, like those related to techology breakthroughs, are always in healthy competition and have good products: today's computers are decidedly better than those I grew up with. However, beef technology has not improved and my Whopper Jr. is worse than the one I ate fifteen years ago.

As we drift through life, it is very easy to see how great ideas are ruined every day and fixate on it. Some guy died waiting for publicly-funded cancer treatment. The Star Wars prequels sucked. My Pepsi doesn't taste like it did when I plucked it from my Grandad's bar fridge when I was a kid. I can't buy O'Ryan's Sour Cream and Onion chips anymore. Canada's international reputation is besmirched, diminished from the days when Lester B. Pearson blah blah blah everything is getting worse blah blah blah.

To thoroughly enjoy yourself in this society, you must have an appreciation for the new and marvel and must not cling to that which is dying and changing for the worse. Enjoy them while they're still good. Get lost in a video game sometime and marvel at the graphics before another game trumps them. If Burger King fails to offer you a good Whopper Jr., seek the burger that some Visionary somewhere else is offering and do not shed a tear for the decline of your favourite meal. Vote out the government of tired old men. Hail Eris.

Above all, you must not be afraid.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Review of American Graffiti

American Graffiti is a coming-of-age flick set in Modesto, California in 1962. It put director George Lucas in the Hollywood spotlight, made him a millionaire, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It inspired the creation of Happy Days. It is also number 62 on AFI's list, hence my watching.

Despite the praise this film has garnered, I found it to be lame. I recognized it instantly as the inspiration for another film I found lame, Dazed and Confused. Both of these films are slice-of-life, nostalgic, plotless, limp and self-indulgent. They both expect that if they feature some vehicles, showcase some stereotypical characters and make you listen to period music, you'll feel so overcome with nostalgia that you'll forget that there's no story. Some nice kid loses his innocence and his world changes forever. Next.

What is interesting about this film is that it is bad in a way much different than George Lucas' later bad work, before he got obsessed with the Hero's Journey, images moving so fast the viewer can barely see what's going on, and computer animation replacing actors. American Graffiti is very personal, not detached like his later work. There is no absurd urge to entertain the shit out of the audience so much that it's grating. Yet American Graffiti is still lame. It's boring in a very un-Lucas-like way.

Here's a question for you all. We are all aware that if a character expresses concern for the well-being of his car in a movie, something bad is going to happen to it before the end of the picture, usually several bad things. Did American Graffiti start this cliche, or was it well-known even by the time of filming?

Part of the problem is that I wasn't alive in 1962. This movie would be much more interesting to somebody who was. This review sounds like I really hated American Graffiti. That's not the case. This movie isn't terrible, it's just meh with a touch of banal. For me, movies are enjoyable if they're so terrible that they're funny. Being meh, banal and wimpy is just completely uninteresting.
2 attempts to pull booze out of 5

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Watchmen: The Graphic Novel, the Movie and Adaptation

When Watchmen was released in 1986 it changed comic books forever. At the time, comics were viewed as a children's medium. Watchmen is for adults. Written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, it is introspective and intelligent. It made the industry and audiences take notice. Post-Watchmen, the terms “graphic novel” and “sequential art” came into common use.

For many years DC comics had been searching for the right director, the right screenplay and the right concept to make Watchmen into a movie. As the 20-oughts came to a close they found their director: Zack Snyder, who had previously directed an adaptation of another graphic novel, 300. In 300, Snyder framed and filmed shots to recreate still images from the comic, so great was is zeal for faithfulness.

When Watchmen was released in 2009, similar attention to detail and love was paid to each frame. It can rightly be called a faithful adaptation. Yet it is still different. Certain elements of Watchmen the comic book were impossible to translate to the screen and others were ignored. New ideas and images were added.

With this post I will examine the differences between the two Watchmen media as far as plot, structure and backstory are concerned. Cosmetic differences will be ignored. Screenwriters and storytellers, pay attention! This post is specifically for you! With these insights, perhaps we can gain some understanding of how a graphic novel ought or ought not to be adapted to the screen.

Author's note: This post is not for people who have seen neither the movie nor read the graphic novel as it is rife with ***SPOILERS*** The insights listed here are only based on outsider's observations and may not represent the actual views of the creators. In other words, it could all be total bullshit. I guess you'll just have to take that chance. Read on.

The Tales of the Black Freighter sequences which punctuate the graphic novel are absent. In the comic, a young black kid reads Tales of the Black Freighter comics while a nearby white news vendor chatters about world events and his views thereon. Their two worlds are disjointed: the kid reads his dark pirate comic, the narration balloons and panels of which are interspersed with events in real life. He seems to pay no heed to the babbling news vendor.

The Black Freighter comic itself is a reflection of the views of many of the Watchmen's characters: that the world is a dark, unhappy joke. A sailor travels through a hellish ocean with corpses as his raft to save his family from the pirate ship that slaughtered his crew, only to beat his wife and commit murder in his resulting madness. “How had I reached this appalling position, with love, only love, as my guide?” laments the narrator.

Finally, as the kid's comic ends in tragedy, the news vendor himself laments upon how unconnected are his fellow humans and asks the kid what he's doing there. The kid says he has no place better to be. When Ozymandias' disaster descends upon New York, the news vendor and the kid clutch each other in terror, their last fearful embrace becoming the connection they lacked in life.

The mood, if not the message of the Black Freighter infects Watchmen, but was neglected for the film. The reasons why are obvious. The sequences, as important as they are, do not advance the main plot, nor do they serve as backstory. Most adaptation requires cutting and editing in pre-and-post production, and it makes sense that The Black Freighter had to go. The comic reader and the news vendor are there at the end, getting blown-up, but that is as much homage to the Black Freighter as could be spared. Zack Snyder must have found this omission painful because he lent his talents to the production of The Black Freighter as a separate entity from his Watchmen movie. A link can be found to the animated short here:

Next, Watchmen contains several sections which were originally included at the end of issues which are newspaper clippings, Rorschach's psych profile, and quotes from “Under the Hood”, a book by the original Nite Owl, amongst others. These sections serve as valuable backstory in the comic book, exposing the events and intentions of the costumed heroes of days past.

Film is a visual medium, but it ain't that kinda visual. Showing too many words onscreen would be death by boredom and showing all that backstory would make for a nine-hour movie. Instead, the Watchmen movie attempts to convey to the audience as much meaning and backstory as possible through imagery, particularly in the opening credits. It is a poor substitute for the sheer amount of information in the graphic novel, but it is the best that film can do without boring the audience.

Also serving little plot in the graphic novel are the sequences that take place in the New Frontiersman's newsroom. Once again, while serving as flavour for the universe of Watchmen, little happens there. The only event of note to the main plot is the discovery of Rorschach's journal in the crank file at the end. This event, and this New Frontiersman event only, is shown in the film.

What was changed in the film? And what was new material? Watchmen the movie was a labour of love for its crew. They could not resist adding their own touches to the final canvas.

The Watchmen film includes many more aspects of life in this alternate 80's than the comic. For one thing, there is far more President Richard Nixon. Where Nixon has two scenes in the comic, he and his distracting false nose have at least four in the movie.

The film also contains more 80's nostalgia. At the beginning, the Comedian watches the McLaughlin Group on television, for instance. Interestingly, 80's nostalgia wins over the comic's backstory in some cases, such as the automobiles. In the comic, Dr. Manhattan has allowed for the mass production of electric cars and airships by his ability to create lithium in vast amounts. In the movie, while airships are seen flying about, the automobiles appear to be standard gas-powered models available in the 80s.

One of the most noticeable additions is the amount of violence. It has been over twenty years since the publication of Watchmen. At the time, comic books were criticized for the amount of violence therein. However, since then, the action-loving public has developed a bloodlust that is difficult to slake. The bloody 90's have made their mark on film. As a result, Watchmen the film is filled with gore and fighting, not that the comic lacks, but just more of it.

Examples? The Comedian's death is protracted and involves the flinging of knives and a smashed hand. Instead of being escorted off government property, the Silk Spectre II instead attacks a government agent, slams his head into a sink and escapes. The assassination attempt on Adrian Veidt in the comic results in the shooting in the chest of Veidt's secretary. In the film, while she doesn't die, she does get shot through the leg and loses two fingers, while an old plutocrat is shot in the chest and head. When Roschach is framed for the murder of Moloch and jumps out a second-story window to escape, instead of landing painfully on some garbage cans and being quickly subdued by police, he rolls and keeps fighting, landing eleven ninja-like blows before he is pacified.

Another way in which the movie is “amped-up” is that time is truncated. While the motif of a ticking clock is powerful in the graphic novel, the clock is ticking faster in the movie. The novel contains a scene where Richard Nixon discusses the escalating nuclear threat with his advisors. The scene ends with Nixon saying, “I think we'll give it a week, gentlemen, before bringing out our big guns. After that, humanity is in the hands of a higher authority than mine. Let's just hope he's on our side.” In the film, Nixon delivers the same speech, but says, “Dr. Manhattan has two days. After that, humanity is in the hands of a higher authority than mine. Let's just hope he's on our side.” In theory, the film's creators hoped to add more tension to the story by making time even shorter.

I leave the biggest change for last: the nature of Ozymandias' plot to prevent nuclear catastrophe. The novel's story has him kidnapping intellectuals and genetically engineering a monstrosity. This monstrosity is huge and has the cloned brain of a powerful psychic. Using teleportation technology imperfectly crafted from Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias transports the creature into the middle of New York, where the teleportation process kills it. In its death throes, it lashes out psychically, killing millions. Amongst the images it telegraphs into people's brains are hints of an alternate dimension. Believing that the world is under inter-dimensional attack, the forces of earth unite to stop a common foe.

Ozymandias' plot differs in the film. There, he uses Dr. Manhattan's power to create what the world believes is a limitless energy source. Instead, he uses its power to launch terrorist attacks in metropoli around the world. The attacks bear Dr. Manhattan's energy signature, and the world, believing he is responsible, unites against him.

What could possibly be the reason for changing the nature of Ozymandias's plot? I have two theories, both of which could be true. The first is that the film's plot is simpler. The comic's plot requires a lot of explanation and, frankly, it would confuse a lot of moviegoers. Film once again earns its reputation for dumbing-down the plot.

But, secondly, the film's plot is slightly more compelling than the comic's. When Dr. Manhattan realizes that Ozymandias has killed millions to save billions, he must not only accept the greater good, but he also must overlook the fact that he is being demonized by a deluded world. The fact that he doesn't care about being the world's boogeyman is very revealing of his character. This revelation about his character, while it is based on events which don't happen in the original story, is true to the novel.

O ye screenwriters and storytellers who have stayed with me to the end of this post, what have we learned about adaptation? If you know anything about writing Hollywood movies, probably nothing you didn't already learn elsewhere. When you go to adapt a novel, graphic or otherwise, for the big screen, keep these guidelines in mind:

1. Eliminate plot threads that don't influence your main characters.
2. Don't bore your audience with too much exposition.
3. If you are writing something historical from the living past, play on nostalgia.
4. Add more violence.
5. Add a ticking clock. If there already is a ticking clock, set it forward.
6. Make it simpler.
7. You can always make your characters more involved in the plot.

Does that sound formulaic? Maybe cynical? Maybe like it's capable of destroying great works of literature by turning them into screen-trash? There's some merit in those criticisms.

I believe in good writing, not necessarily Hollywood writing. The Watchmen graphic novel is sublime. It's film adaptation is one of the more faithful that I've seen, and it's very entertaining. But it didn't move me. I am truly at a loss to describe why. I don't think it's because it became more Hollywood-ized, either. As often happens with adaptations, something was lost in the medium transfer.

However, if you do your job as a writer well, changing the medium of a story from page to screen can make a masterpiece. It was watching The Fellowship of the Ring that inspired me to become a writer. The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 version), Master and Commander and Rosemary's Baby are among my favourite screen productions. Some productions, like the Sharpe series, are actually better on screen than the page. When I read anything I am always adapting it for screen in my mind and considering what scenes will work and which won't. Adaptation can be very rewarding for audiences and lead them to reading the original source material. That's a good thing. If some dude decides to read Watchmen because he saw some lady's fingers getting blown off, I'd say the movie has achieved a noble goal.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review of "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash is a novel by Neal Stephenson. The story follows two characters, Hiro Protagonist, a down-and-out computer hacker working as a pizza deliverator, and Y.T., a teenage girl who works as a courier. They join forces to battle the creators of an intellectual virus in a capitalist dystopia. Published in 1992, it predicted many computer-based phenomena and coined several terms.

It surprises me that it took me this long to pick it up. Snow Crash is highly regarded in the geek community and I have received several recommendations. I recall that Pyramid Magazine, normally strictly a gaming magazine, was so enamoured of this book in the 90's that they dedicated several pages to reprint a selection. I had very high expectations when I opened it. No, it is not the godlike masterpiece that I had expected, but it was still quite good.

Stephenson's strength is his prose. There is a memorable, clever metaphor or simile on practically every page. The first chapter, in particular, is perfect. It is perfectly exciting. It is a perfect introduction to Stephenson's dystopia. It is perfectly clever. The first chapter is a godlike masterpiece and it's a shame that the rest of the book is merely very good. But the book can hardly be faulted for not being able to measure up to itself. Can it?

The universe itself is fascinating. It is a computerized version of Reaganomics, down to the fact that the insanely-inflated bills have pictures of his cabinet members on them. The US government has essentially vanished, leaving North America in the grip of powerful corporations and the Mafia. Beneath this chaotic capitalist free-for-all is a virtual reality universe called the Metaverse. The Metaverse is kind of like what might happen if Second Life took over the entire internet: a place where each person who logs on has an "avatar" (a term invented by Stephenson, I believe), can access programs and own virtual real estate. It is fascinating to watch the characters navigate through this mess of a universe, which is ripe for adventure.

I mentioned that this book is good but not godlike. The exposition drags it down. Entire chapters of this book are devoted to Hiro talking to a computer-librarian about ancient Sumer, Enki and Asherah. How many chapters? A conservative guess is four. These chapters are a flagrant violation of "show, don't tell" and really do go on and on. Snow Crash experiences a disappointing lull about half-way through in which Hiro and the Librarian blab at each other. Frankly, during this lull I began to think about reading other books and wondering if I should bother finishing Snow Crash. It's not that these chapters aren't interesting and fascinating in their own right, but they are too much of a good thing.

Thankfully, Hiro eventually pulls himself out of the virtual library and starts doing things again. From there the story returns to its former quality. The ending is quite satisfying.

Snow Crash is prophetic in the number of technologies and terms it coined or anticipated, and is a great read besides. Don't be like me and put off reading it for years.
4 bimbo boxes out of 5

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review of Cabaret

Next on the list of AFI's movies is Cabaret, #63. It is a loose adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, set in the last days of the Weimar Republic in Germany. Liza Minnelli is Sally Bowles, a performer at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin, who gets entangled in a confused relationship with a visiting English teacher, Brian Roberts (Michael York). The two try to live their decadent lives under the growing shadow cast by the Nazis.

This movie, despite what you may think of it, has actually aged well. Unlike many movies made in the 70's on this list, historical pics included, there are no distracting hallmarks that date it: mainly, the weird hairstyles and sappy/raunchy 70's music. Regardless of the dating and lack thereof, I quite enjoyed it. It has a style all its own. It is a musical where the characters do not spontaneously burst into song. When a character's inner emotions need to be expressed, the scene usually cuts to a relevant musical number at the Kit Kat Klub.

One of the things I like best about this movie is the character of Brian. While Sally Bowles is a familiar character, the artsy, flakey, over-emotional performer who wants to be a real actress, Brian's reactions to her are original. Sally abuses their relationship in the way we would expect, but instead of being driven to violence, the standard Hollywood response, Brian responds with either understanding or his own abuses. He is never a victim and that's refreshing. I won't go into many details for fear of spoilers. Well okay, ***here's a vague SPOILER***: it's very rare that all points of fictional love triangles connect. ***end spoiler alert***

Cabaret contains a scene that is famous in movie history, the powerful "Tommorow Belongs to Me" scene, and I don't feel bad about describing it because it appears in many books on cinema and film school classes. Brian and Maximilian are chatting at an outdoor cafe when a young man stands and begins singing in a beautiful tenor. The cafe-goers are enchanted by the loveliness and earnestness of the song, and perhaps so is the film's viewer. That is until the camera pans downward and we see the young man is dressed in a Nazi uniform. As the cafe's attendees rise in rousing song and Brian and Max skedaddle, I felt the hairs on my back prickling in terror. This scene perfectly encapsulates the madness that led the Nazis to power and the world to war in 1939.

As a side note, this scene once again just goes to show that interpretation of art is all in the eyes of the audience. While the reaction I experienced to this scene was the one, I believe, that the filmmakers intended, it is not so with all audiences. "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" has been embraced as an anthem by White Pride groups. Some people, I tell you.

Cabaret is complicated and heartbreaking (for a musical). Once again, not for all tastes, but it certainly was for mine.
Beedle-dee dee dee dee! 4 1/2 Ladies out of 5, and I'm the only man

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Moral Responsibilities of Storytelling

I once had a fascinating discussion with a friend. We were talking about the effect of movies and television upon society. His point was that modern entertainment has an evil effect. People see evil things acted out upon their screens and imitate them. He believed there was a case for the viewpoint that the images we see in our entertainment need to be controlled for the good of society. I asked him if he was playing devil's advocate and he insisted he wasn't. It was a conversation that haunted me for years afterward.

This idea returned while I was reading An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England. In it, a judge considers the idea of good stories and morality. He asks, if a story compels somebody to do something terrible, can it be said to be a "good" story? Is it to be tolerated or legislated? Entertainment as societal evil is an idea rampant in our society. The effect of entertainment, especially the young, has been under media scrutiny at least since the 80's, when parents of suicidal teens claimed that heavy metal music was responsible for their children's deaths. It returned with renewed force ten years ago when violent video games like Doom were proclaimed to be partially responsible for the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold when they murdered twelve students and each other at Columbine High School in 1999.

But the question is older than the 1980s, older than television and radio. It is present wherever stories are told. Consider the case of Swift Runner, a plains cree who succumbed to Wendigo psychosis in the winter of 1878. He butchered his family, hung their corpses from trees and ate them. Before he was executed, he claimed he was a Witiko. The legend of Witiko (Wendigo or Windigo), the evil spirit who possesses humans and makes them cannibals, was a part of his upbringing. If he had never heard the stories of Witiko, surely Swift Runner would never have killed and eaten his family.

Arguments are always strengthened by science, of course. What does science have to say? Much of the data are contradictory, but many studies, such as this one indicate that seeing fictional depictions of suicides on screen results in a significant jump in real-world suicides through imitation. There are many other scientific examples and many other evils.

This is what disturbed me about the conversation I had with my friend. Here I was, pursuing a career as a storyteller, whether on screen or the written page, and suddenly I was burdened with a new responsibility. Something that I lovingly craft for the enjoyment of others could result in violence, a murder or suicide. If something I wrote inspired even one murder anywhere in the world, how could I live with that? I tried to justify my career by merely ignoring the problem and denying what I had heard, but it didn't work. It made me sick and not want to write anymore. Either that or commit myself to writing stories about pixies leaping from toadstool to toadstool, drinking snapdragon nectar and being friends with each other.

If you too are a storyteller, take heart. Here's how I felt better about myself. As I pondered the morality of storytelling, I remembered that the interpretation of art is done by its audience. If a story has unforseen negative societal consequences, surely it must have unforseen positive consequences as well. For every teen who commits suicide because he imitated a fictional depiction, how many people who saw the same depiction were pushed from the brink of suicide by what they saw or were inspired to commit some act of kindness that saved somebody's life? For every evil your story inflicts upon the world, it is surely balanced by strengthening of spirits and kindly acts that the media rarely report upon.

Is this merely fanciful rationalization to make me feel better about myself? At its emotional core, yes. But check out this study, which shows the effect of fictional suicides on non-suicidal people. It shows a short-term increase in depression and tension, followed by a lasting increase in self-esteem and happiness. The rate of suicide also drops. Good enough for me.

Further, I believe the people who imitate the violence in stories are troubled individuals before they are inspired. They are primed explosives and any event or story may inspire them to violence. I believe that if Eric Harris, Dylan Kelbold and Swift Runner only had stories of merry pixies hopping about on toadstools to entertain them, they would probably have murdered people by drowning them in snapdragon nectar.

But this is not to say that I, as a storyteller, do not have a moral responsibility to society. While I cannot be held responsible for the ways in which my art is interpreted by individuals, there is still the matter of my intent. Every story or object d'arte should have a message or a moral. When I create, I always have a message in mind. I hide the moral so as not to be preachy, but it's there. It is my responsibily to live with the consequences of THOSE morals. If I craft a story that I feel advocates teen suicide when confronted with parental control, I must be prepared to deal with suicides that result. In this case, I'm not prepared, so I would never write that story.

And, as an artist, it is never too late to disavow an interpretation or even the moral of your own story if you change your mind. For instance, Radiohead reportedly became alarmed when they performed their song "Prove Yourself" and heard their teenage audience singing the lyric, "I'm better off dead". It was removed from their concert playlist.

What about artists who advocate evil stuff? If a storyteller purposefully embeds a violent message within a tale which inspires acts of brutality, should the storyteller be held legally responsible? Is it even possible?

It would be disastrous. There are few ways for the legal system to discern harmful intent from an unintended interpretation. It would require mind-reading and thought-policing. It's a recipe for witch-hunts and the punishment of innocent artists. It's best for the legal system to make the perpetrators of evil acts responsible for their actions and leave their artistic inspirations out of the equation. For now artists who advocate violence, rape and suicide are safe from the legal system. But that doesn't mean they're safe from their own consciences. If they have no consciences, that still leaves them vulnerable to societal criticism and WalMart and Blockbuster pulling their products off the shelves. I'm okay with that.

Lastly, there is a final aspect of the morality of storytelling to consider. I have often heard a criticism of modern entertainment which equates it with tranquilizer. It is usually levelled at television, film and video games. It goes something like this: modern entertainment keeps people at home, glued to their sets, forgetting about problems in the world, instead involving them in fictional conflicts. People forget about real problems facing the world, which allows the military-industrial complex, which controls the entertainment industry, to continue carrying out their corrupt political outrages worldwide.

Should this be a moral concern for storytellers? Bah, I say. Do people who argue this idea believe that if every single monitor, television and movie screen on earth vanished, the population would morph into brooding revolutionaries and democracy would be restored? If television disappeared, we would soon be hearing about how books are keeping people in the home, tranquilized. The vanishing of books would not work either: we would soon be hearing about sell-out corporate storytellers seducing us by the campfire.

Storytelling is escapism. But it is not forced upon us by fatcats. As humans we seek stories because we love them. Maybe we need them. They are a part of human evolution and have been with us before the written word, shaping our worldview for tens of thousands of years. Yes, it sometimes inspires madmen to murder and the depressed to kill themselves. But it also has spread knowledge, morals and happiness throughout the world. It has inspired countless selfless and kindly acts. It is one of humanity's most complicated and wonderful creations.

So follow your passion without moral hesitation, you creators. To entertain is truly noble.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Saskatoon's Irish Music Community

For centuries, the Isle of Erin has been exporting the Irish. They left because of persecution by the English, potato blight, service in foreign armies, and hope in the new world. Every city across the globe has an Irish community. Quietly and without fanfare, every week, they gather in pubs to sing and play instruments: the Irish Music Session.

Ten years ago, I knew nothing of this. The circumstances that led me to Saskatoon's Irish Music community are part of a well-rehearsed tale. It's a story that's all too-familiar to those close to me, but I must recount it again.

In 2000 I was in my mid-twenties and lost. In the 90's, I had wanted to be a classical musician and composer. I pursued a Bachelor of Music degree with a Theory and Composition major when I left high school. However, I soon fell out with my University's chief composition professor, he being a strict modernist who studied with John Cage, I being a headstrong tonalist. After a few years of frustration and resulting low self esteem, I changed my degree to escape him. I briefly played viola with the Saskatoon Symphony, but was let go. After I finished my degree, I put my viola aside and did not touch it for two years. I truly thought that music was over for me. I felt angry and betrayed.

I cannot tell you how painful this separation was. Music, for me, is the closest thing I have to church. My first truly religious experience where my skin tingled and my consciousness soared occurred when I was playing viola in the last movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Music has since been my proof, however vague, of a higher power. My instrument has been my altar and melody and harmony my prayers.

Soon after the decade turned, I met Eileen Laverty, who told me of the existence of the Irish Music Sessions at Lydia's pub, hosted by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann. The following Saturday, viola in-hand, frightened and not sure what to expect, I stepped into Saskatoon's Irish Music Community.

All around me was the thump of bodhrans, the strum of guitar and bouzouki, the ringing of fiddles and lively voices singing beloved songs. Jigs and reels whirled in my brain. There again was that divine exhaltation I had lost, lifting my consciousness into ecstasy. After three glorious hours had passed, I was dizzy and elated.

It has been ten years since that day and Irish folk music has never left me. The people I met there welcomed me. Through them I discovered that I could sing, fiddle and play the banjo. I founded the wandering evening session that started at The Publican, but found a home at McGettigan's, the Brass Monkey, The Park Town and finally the Mendel Art Gallery. I've spent wonderful hours with the South-Central Ceili Band and the Residuals.

Last month, I stood up at the Lydia's session and told all present how grateful I felt. But that's not enough to thank all those musicians I have met over the years. If I had enough money, I would have expressed those thanks in beer that day. I'll write it here again: Thank you all, my friends. Even that is not enough. The gift that Saskatoon's Irish Community has given me, my renewed love of music, is greater than any alcohol or words could commend.

A special props goes out to my peeps in The Residuals. Ted Leighton, Rick Kroener, Rob McInnis, Meaghan Haughian, Bettina Grassman, Mike Podiluk, Gareth Bond, Erin Gaucher, Chris Meek and all those who have ever been a Residual, you're the best. Thank you for the music and the memories.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review of Network

Number 64 on AFI's movie list is Network, directed by Sidney Lumet. It is the story of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) a TV news reporter who has a psychotic break with reality and finally begins to broadcast the truth about the world. Meanwhile, the struggling network who controls his contract battles to harness his madness for their own benefit. It is a satire of television in the 1970s, which then becomes a satire of capitalism, spouting truths that are still relevant today. If you have never heard of Network before, you have surely heard the movie's most famous quote, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" and its many derivatives.

This is certainly a complicated movie. It is more of an intellectual exercise in satire than a traditional story. The characters are icons rather than real people. Yes, they have depth, but it is character depth piled upon symbols. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), for instance, bears this comparison: "You are television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality." Max Schumacher (William Holden), who delivers this line, represents Journalism in the traditional sense. Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) is capitalism incarnate.

Did I like it? I suppose I did. I wasn't that crazy about the second of the story's two plots, in which Diana and Max conduct an illicit and age-mismatched affair. However, this story is essential to understanding the satire. I don't want to say more for fear of spoilers.

I should also say that this is not the ha-ha sort of satire. It is a black sort of satire that you know can't end well. Not once through this picture did I get a rosy-feeling.

Network is prescient. As with most things prophetic, the prophecy took longer to realize than the prophet predicted. But twenty-five years after Network satirized television, reality TV finally sank to the depths predicted by the movie (shudder). It also predicted FOX news pundits: rabid, delusional madmen ranting about Arabs and capitalism.

Network is, without a doubt, an important film. Enjoyable? Well, maybe. It depends on your interests. I liked it well enough.
$3 1/2 billion dollars out of $5 billion.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review of The African Queen

After taking a break for spring and summer because of moving and getting settled into our new lifestyle, the AFI movie project continues unabashed for past sins. Number 65 is The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, directed by John Huston. It was originally a novel by C.S. Forster.

This is another one of those movies that is important because of its production rather than its entertainment value to modern audiences, I suspect. Its history is steeped in the McCarthy era, when suspected commies were being persecuted by the government of the United States. The African Queen got several prominent lefties out of the country to avoid McCarthey, simultaneously producing a patriotic pic they hoped would repair their reputations. At this time, going on location with bulky technicolor cameras was rare. Going to Africa to shoot on location in the Congo was unheard-of. The shoot was long and hard, with cast and crew falling ill and exposed to tropical dangers of all sorts. The film's release was triumphant, with Bogart winning an Oscar for best actor.

But its entertainment value? Sadly, it has not aged that well. The romance between the two main characters has a charming and silly quality which modern cinema lacks outside of comedies. But as for thrills and spills, modern cinema has learned much better ways to make us bite our nails. The special effects, which were cutting-edge in 1951, are outclassed: models and superimposed studio images. In a story more compelling, I could have suspended disbelief enough to enjoy it. But the story is not that compelling.

I did find it very interesting to observe the accents in this film. Back in the day, it was apparently not such a big deal to perform without mastering an accent. Katherine Hepburn's character, Rose, is from Northern England, but she performs it with her standard, clearly-enunciated half-Boston, half-English, half-Hollywood stagey lilting that was popular for starring females at the time. Humourously, Humphrey Bogart's part had to be rewritten because it had him speaking in a thick Cockney and he just couldn't do it. He was rewritten as a Canadian, but he plays it standard Bogey-style: "Nyah, I'm Canadian, see? Maa!" And yet he won an Oscar.

The African Queen is yet another selection from this list that was ground-breaking and important for its time, but sadly dated. One can appreciate it for its historical value, but the story, when the special effects which were mind-blowing in their day are stripped away, left me a little cold.
2 1/2 increasingly treacherous sets of rapids out of 5

Monday, September 20, 2010

Thinking Free

Fatherhood looms. As I contemplate in this lull before a storm of chaos in my life, I have been considering what makes a good dad. One thing that troubles me is what I will expect from my little daughter as she grows into adulthood.

I've seen enough real-world examples of what having high expectations of children does. Parents grow disappointed when their children don't measure up. Children get low-self esteem because they feel aren't good enough. Relationships are strained and nobody benefits.

Yet I have to be honest with myself: no matter what I do to curb my expectations, they will still be present. Perhaps that's not such a bad thing. After all, it was the expectations of our parents that made us all into the people we are, whether we learned from them or fought against them. I suppose the problem is how hard I will fight for my expectations and how quickly I will relinquish them if I see they are hurting my little girl.

And what are these expectations? I can encapsulate them. Please, please, please, o ye powers of the heavens, let my little girl be a free-thinker. Let her always have curiosity about the world and never stop learning. Let her horizons be fluid and ever-expanding.

That's it. I don't care if she becomes the Prime Minister or prefers to live quietly. I don't care if she becomes the first Catholic female priest or if she becomes a pornstar. I don't care if she makes a hostile takeover of Microsoft or if she joins a hippie commune. Just let her become those things because she wants to do it and makes an informed decision. When fate points her in a different direction, let her see the proverbial compass and follow a path to her own happiness.

Free thinking has nothing to do with inborn intelligence. It is not the result of high IQ. Rather, free thinking raises IQ. All that is required of a free thinker is that she never closes her mind.

What is a closed minded-person? Based on what I've seen, this person believes that after their official education ends, so does learning. At some point this person decides that they have learned enough to survive. After that, they put responsibility for their decisions in somebody else's hands, whether it be a church, a political party, the television or a family member. Or they continue making decisions based on their limited worldview without doubting themselves. Either way, self-analysis is rare.

I firmly believe that free thinking is something that anybody can do. It is an awakening. Yet awakened minds can be put to sleep. That is truly what I fear for my child. I am sure that with an upbringing in my household, she will learn to think for herself. But I am terrified that others she meets in her life may teach her to shut off her brain.

What puts minds to sleep? Dogma. To be properly effective, dogma must be backed with emotion. Some dogma is enforced by communities who use guilt, anger or disappointment to control their members. Others create their own dogma through life experience and fear of losing control keeps them from examining it.

All of this makes me very wary of the role religion will play in the life of my child. Martin Luther said it best: "Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ... know nothing but the word of God." Refreshingly honest, isn't it? This attitude is present in all religions to some degree or another and in some cases it is a point of pride. It is incompatible with free thinking. It also scares the fuck out of me.

My instinct, which I must fight, is to try to shelter her from religion. It's not that I don't want her to have religion. I just want her to come by religion because it was her own decision, not because of somebody else's tradition or negative emotions. If she converts, I want her to convert in such a way that we can discuss religion without her getting upset because she hates to look inward.

Such a small and earnest wish: let her be a free thinker. Yet also so potentially devisive and destructive. It scares me. I must never stop loving her, no matter who she becomes. But I also must never stop challenging her. From the moment her little fingers wrap around my thumb and her muscles flex against it, to the childish moment she asks me about God, to the teenager-moment she says she hates me and my heart breaks, to the moment I she visits me with her own children, to our last moment when we say goodbye forever, I will never stop loving her and challenging her. As blog is my witness, her old man will never stop nudging her toward enlightenment, nor holding her when she needs it, as long as he has elbows.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review of "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: A Novel" by Brock Clarke

Sam Pulsifer is a self-described bumbler. His bumbling led him to prison when he was a teenager when he accidentally burnt down the Emily Dickenson house, killing two people. When he is released from prison, he discovers that he has received fan mail from people who want him to burn down other writer's homes. After Sam has successfully put his past behind him, these letters and his accidental arson return to destroy his life.

An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England: A Novel is written by Brock Clarke and starts off wonderfully. The first chapter is filled with chuckles and promise. Then it lost me.

It is said that you have to like any book that you've read cover to cover. You've spent so much time reading it that even if you didn't like it you invent justifications as to why you wasted your life. I now know that's not true. This book managed to keep me vaguely interested with the promise of solving a mystery until the very last page. However, the journey was not very enjoyable and the mystery resolved in an unsatisfying manner.

I will admit that my non-enjoyment of the book is partially my fault. As the story unfolds and all the characters who know about Sam's arson unanimously agree that he burned the Emily Dickenson House on purpose, I began to believe that Sam Pulsifer is an unreliable narrator. As in, I believed that he did burn down the Emily Dickenson House on purpose and is in deep denial. As a result I read between the lines, found meanings that weren't there and laughed at Sam's foolish attempts to justify and hide his pyromania. Then, about three quarters of the way through the book, after much frustration and confusion about what was really going on in the story, I discovered that his past crime was indeed an accident and he is not a pyromaniac. It was disappointing and I felt pretty dumb. After that, the story seemed to be shallow. Once again, it was totally my fault for making connections that weren't there, but the disappointment lingers. That's a warning to you if you ever pick up this book: don't make the same bumble I did.

Then there's the other issue, one related to the interplay between humour and drama. I like my comedies a certain way. If a story is comic, I do not want to have too many moments of seriousness. The story of An Arsonist's Guide is ridiculous and that's good. Many of the characters are ridiculous and that's good, too. However, Sam Pulsifer's reactions to the silliness around him are realistic and understandable, even if they are cringe-worthy. The results of the uncomfortable situations into which he is thrust are usually not funny, but painful. When Sam interacts with other realistic characters, there is no comedy: only sadness and loneliness. The book is promoted as a black comedy but I really don't see it. A comedy ought to lift my spirits because I've had several good laughs, even if those laughs are ignoble and mean-spirited. This book left me feeling depressed and sorry for its bumbling protagonist.

Is this my fault again for not having a well-developed sense of humour? Maybe, but I doubt it and in this case I don't care. My book review, my opinion. Fuck off.

Final impressions: this book strikes me as the sort of comedy that a person who likes "literature" would enjoy. One of the hallmarks of modern literature is bleakness and depression. Please pardon the expression, but An Arsonist's Guide seems like a silly story with funny characters that was left out in the literary sun and spoiled. You can look at it and pick out bits that you like but it's sour and leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.
1 1/2 smoking ruins out of 5

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Zoey wants to explore ruins. Sort of. My twelve-year-old niece mentioned it in passing as something we could do while she's visiting us in Harris. She thinks it would be creepy, and therefore fun. I'm not entirely sure that she was serious when we discussed it, but I was. I know that a ghost town called Valley Centre is located on Highway 768, so on the sunny Saturday before she is scheduled to leave Harris, Zoey dons proper exploring shoes and an embarassing shirt of mine that we don't mind getting dirty. We leash the dog, board the Mazda and drive the gravel highway looking for someplace "creepy".

The old Hillview schoolhouse is locked and, despite Zoey's urging, I am unwilling to force the door. We peer inside basement windows at a plastic Christmas tree and octopus boiler, then decide to move on. Set against the golden hills in the distance is a brown grain elevator. I am reasonably certain from my memory of Google Maps that Valley Centre is located on 768, but the distant elevator is north of the highway. Then again, Google Maps also thinks there is an Indian Reserve to the east of Harris and the Stonebridge neighborhood in Saskatoon is called "Stonerideg". We decide to check it out.

It is not Valley Centre. According to the faded paint on the elevator, it is Bents. I stop the car on the hill to prevent the undercarriage getting scraped by weeds on the disused track into town. To our right is an abandoned house with smashed windows and flaking white and red paint, beyond that is a cluster of wooden buildings greying with age. To our left is the elevator.

"Oh my god," says Zoey. I feel the same way. I had expected to explore some toppling farmhouse with outbuildings filled with old paint. This find is scarcely believable. Such places exist.

We decide to avoid the nearest house because it looks the most recently-occupied and for some reason I find this unnerving. We follow the track to what was obviously once the general store. We tell the dog to sit and stay outside the door. I enter first, partly because I have no idea how stable the structure is, partly because Zoey is skittish.

For an abandoned ruin, this store is surprisingly sound. It is dark inside but light leaks through broken panes. Where on tracks more beaten an old building like this would be thoroughly ransacked and looted by boozing teenagers and people like myself and Zoey, the Bents general store is surprisingly intact. Stock still sits on the shelves, including a display of women's shoes. Old appliances and cabinets lie open everywhere. In places the floor is plastered with ancient paper and piles of swallow shit.

A counter with a porthole in the wall separates the general store from what looks like a post office in a rear room. Tiny cubby holes are labelled "McNaughton", "Wylie" and other local family names. Here the layer of paper on the floor is thicker. Zoey discovers a pamphlet promoting John Diefenbaker's Conservative government from 1962. I smile to myself as we sift the papers and discover personal documents from the late fifties and early sixties. Confidentiality was apparently not a huge issue when this office was abandoned.

The dog is now whining and circling the building. Before we leave, Zoey searches the women's shoes to find a pair that match as a trophy. By now, any fear she felt in exploring this place has vanished. So has her search for identity: the need to prove herself as a good person, a bad person, or a pretty girl. In this desolate yet beautiful place, I am also seeing Zoey for the first time. She is adventurous and free-thinking and I am secretly pleased.

We stash a load of loot at the car and then head toward the first house we saw. Hundreds of swallows wheel around the old TV antenna. Inside are drooping light fixtures, swallow nests, wood panelling, a used bar of soap and signs for an auction sale.

Judging from the No-Name shopping bags lying on the bathroom floor, this house was abandoned in the late eighties or early nineties. The whole town of Bents must have been auctioned off in this way. The last resident of Bents, probably an octogenarian, lived in this house on the edge of this rotting town, watching it collapse. At last concerned family members or death pried them from this home and their life was auctioned for a pittance. If ghosts exist, one surely stares from the windows of this home, watching the remains of Bents slowly vanish beneath the grass.

The next house we explore is in worse shape. In the living room a rusty pram is sinking into the floor. Zoey and I have found the creepiest thing we will see today. As we are leaving, we discuss why it was so creepy. I tell her, "Icons of youth in the midst of death are always creepier than just death." She agrees.

Zoey can't help posing every time she sees me readying the camera. I try to secretly photograph her without much success as we search the grain elevator. The elevator shelters an enormous scale, old machinery for scooping wheat and rotting bowls full of screws and nails.

A sturdy-looking ladder leads to an upper floor. Zoey wants to climb it. I forbid her to do so. When she asks why, I tell her it's because I don't know anything about architecture and I wouldn't want to be the one to tell her dad that she was crushed when a grain elevator collapsed on her. She says, "So, if I was your kid you wouldn't have a problem with it?" I confirm.

Outside the elevator is a graveyard for farm machinery. As Zoey and the dog clamber around in it she speculates on the function of various contraptions. She believes that the tractor she is sitting on might still run. "Alright," I say, not wanting to shatter any fantasies. Zoey's mind is open and imagining possibilities in this place and I don't want to spoil it. Just by being here she's discovering volumes about the lives of long-dead Saskatchewan and I don't even have to say anything. I am proud of her again and keep my thoughts to myself.

As evening approaches the sky turns radiant and high clouds paint strange patterns in the eerie blue. It occurs to me that this moment is of such shocking reality and beauty that it is to be treasured forever. In my adulthood, I can recognize these moments as they happen, but when I was a child I had no idea. Now I have only scattered memories and regrets that I didn't pay more attention. I hope that Zoey will remember this moment as I will.

On our way back to the car, Zoey wants to get a picture of herself riding on a rusty swing set. It's awkward but she manages to take a seat and pose. The symbol is painful. There she is, a girl poised on the edge of maturity, the toys of childhood becoming uncomfortable, her youth vanishing as surely as Bents is vanishing. In twenty years she will be a freethinking woman and Bents will be but piles of windblown, grassy timber and iron.

All things must change and have their beauty. But for now my niece, this town and the prairie that surrounds us are perfect. I thank God that I remembered to bring the camera to capture them as they were in this moment.