Saturday, October 31, 2009

Writing Survival List

This is my entry in the November Blog Chain for Absolute Write Water Cooler. In this case the subject matter will be a Writing Survival List, i.e. what I need as a writer. For me, this will focus on what I need to write fiction (as opposed to, for example, this blog).

Oh, do I write fiction, you ask? Well, yes. Plays, screenplays, fanfiction, and now I've got two full-length novels in the works -- one a reworking of the 1840s "penny dreadful" Varney The Vampyre. But details on that for a later time...

Writing, for me has four parts (and each of those innumerable other parts but this is a blog post not a book-length exploration of writing). Each has their own needs.

First is Inspiration, which can take hundred different forms. I may contemplate an actor or actress who always plays a certain role and imagine them in a vastly different one. Or I may read or see a story with a perfectly good premise, IMHO botched during execution. More likely, some little detail with attach itself to the stuff that has fascinated me for years and years. Either way, to get that inspiration what I need most is plenty of exposure to the world--to history, to news, to a variety of people, to different places as well as a lot of fiction itself, of whatever media.

What follows, once a trail is found, is the exploration of said trail. I call this (with a singular lack of imagination) Research. It can easily take up years. Truth to tell, often what interests me most are things at which I don't have that much first-hand experience. Well, have you lived in Regency England? Or know that much about about lighthouses? All that is part of understanding the "floor" upon which I'm getting ready to dance. It is an uneven thing, that floor, and dancing there without knowing it very well risks a broken ankle. Or neck. Some might disagree but to me research includes fashioning background details that exist only for the sake of the story. There isn't really any large island off the coast of San Francisco named Cuervo Vista, but that doesn't mean I don't need to know that island very well. Interestingly (at least to moi) much of the plot gets worked out in this phase, arising from details discovered or invented (although they all feel discovered, to be honest).

Third (in process but not necessarily chronologically) is Percolation. I also call this Simmering. Which reveals my penchant for cooking. What has been learned needs time to jell, to brew into something the conscious mind wouldn't do on its own. Connections fuse together never considered before. Points of view shift. Some preconceptions evaporate while new imperatives make themselves felt and heard and seen. Since, alas, a relatively small portion of my life is spent actually writing, this is my way of using the rest of that time productively (in ways other than earning money to pay rent, washing clothes, etc.).

Fourth is Composition, no less complex (i.e. ofttimes weird) than the other three. Putting the words together into sentences, paragraphs, descriptions, outlines, conversations, chapters, and the like. Physically, this does require a writing medium (the word processor is the one I'm used to--in another age the quill would have done) as well as time with a minimum of distractions. Sometimes music helps set the mood, or words of art in and around my workspace. Caffeine in the form of chocolate and coffee blended together with plenty of dairy.

Such is what I need. These are my keys to survival as a writer, in other words to write. I look forward to reading what others in the chain have to say...

1. DavidZahir -
2. shethinkstoomuch -
3. Lost Wanderer -
4. aimeelaine -
5. Ravencorinncarluk -
6. Bsolah -
7. Charlotte49ers -
8. Angyl78 -
9. truelyana -
10. Claire Crossdale -

Monday, October 26, 2009

My Friend Richard (the Third)

I don't quite recall when England's King Richard III entered my life. There was more than one movie, including The Tower of London with Basil Rathbone as the usurper. And a book about English history called The Last Plantagenets by Thomas Costain. Certainly by the time I saw The Goodbye Girl with Richard Dreyfus' hilarious "gay" take on Shakespeare's master tyrant my awareness of both man and role was enough to appreciate the joke.

Of all famous monarchs, I suspect Richard III the most debatable. Living at a cusp of time between the Middle Ages and Renaissance, few enough records have come down about him. For most of his days (which weren't many--he was killed in his early thirties) he seems eclipsed by two charismatic, handsome brothers. Insights to his personality have been the ardent search of many an historian. What usually results reveals more about the viewer than the king, however. His personal "Book of Hours" survived, dedicated to St. Julian the Hospitaller--a man who (according to then-popular legend) killed his parents and won forgiveness from heaven by selfless kindness towards a leper. What to make of that? Did Richard himself feel great guilt for something? Was it justified? For what? Or was this a favorite story from childhood? Maybe he purchased this particular book because he liked the illustrations. We don't know.

Another mystery. Richard wed his first cousin, Anne Neville, heiress to one of the greatest fortunes in Europe at the time. They grew up together in her father's home. But what was their relationship like? No one knows, largely because no letter or real hint of Anne's character shines through. Did they love one another, as so many Romance novels insist? Was she (as one film daringly portrayed) the evil co-conspirator with her scheming husband? Shakespeare immortalized this mysterious lady in a scene considered a favorite for actors--the "wooing scene" wherein Richard claims all his murders were done for her sake, and that for her sake he is sorry.

Kenneth Branagh tells in his autobiography of doing that scene for the first time when attending acting school. After completing his first long speech in it, the actress playing Anne simply said "Are you always doing to do it like a Dalek?"

But I digress...

Shakespeare of course is a major reason both for the interest and the confusion.

In Elizabethan England, Richard III was the equivalent of Adolf Hitler to us--a monster from the past, very nearly an Antichrist figure. Ian McKlellan (clever man) used exactly this motif in his film version of the play. Rather than the 15th century, he firmly placed the story in the 1930s, with Richard as an increasingly obvious fascist dictator. As theatre, it worked (Note: I've often longed to direct a Richard III set in the Southern Confederacy for similar reasons--plus the effect southern accents have on iambic pentameter). To be sure, the Tudors lied a lot about the monarch they deposed. No contemporary account anywhere mentions a hunched back, a club foot or a withered arm.

A year after his death, the people of York rioted in his name, attacking one of the Lords who betrayed him at the Battle of Bosworth Field (then called Redclay Field). Sir George Buck, the first "Ricardian" (i.e. those who reject the image of Richard-as-tyrant) to write a biography of the Last Plantagenet King pointed out that some of the accusations make little sense. If, for example, he'd wanted to wed his niece Elizabeth of York (later mother of Henry VIII) there was no one to stop him. He also claimed to have found a letter in the Duke of Norfolk's archives showing the attraction was actually the other way round--a teen girl with an intense crush on her uncle. Parenthetically, I will say that would make for a great story as well, whether true or not.

"Whether true or not," there's the rub. William Shakespeare was a dramatist, not an historian. No matter what genuinely happened, the popular beliefs about Richard lent themselves to the creation of a memorable character--a man, "not shaped" for love who is "resolved to prove myself a villain, and hate the idle the pleasures of these days." He cheats and lies and murders his way to the throne, sharing all his plans with the audience as if they were in on it with him. Yet, and here lies the trap that makes production of the play so tricky, once the crown in on his head he's back where he started--with nothing to do. He has no plans, no philosophy, no ambition what to do with his power once it is his. All he can do drink, mope, and try to hang on. Al Pacino capture that brilliantly in his own film Looking For Richard, about the process of putting on the play (with an awesome cast--Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, etc.). There's a magnificent scene at the end, when Richard wakes from a nightmare, haunted by all his victims and we're again reminded this is a human being, no matter what his shape. He did not choose or desire this life, but made of it the best perhaps he could--or the best he believed he could (remember in the play even his own mother disdains him, and the only source of genuine love--his father--is long since dead):

What, do I fear myself? there's none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No;--yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why,--
Lest I revenge. What,--myself upon myself!
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well:--fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree;
Murder, stern murder, in the dir'st degree;
All several sins, all us'd in each degree,

Throng to the bar, crying all "Guilty! guilty!"

I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;

And if I die no soul will pity me:

And wherefore should they,--since that I myself

Find in myself no pity to myself?

Great stuff, all of it. But not history.

But realizing that doesn't really help. Look at the only known portrait of Richard. What do you see? A plain man (Richard resembled his father, just as his brothers looked like their mother, a famous beauty) in dark but very rich clothes, fiddling with jeweled rings. He looks to the side, his lips pressed into a single line. Is this a sadist, a ruthless killer? Or a puritanical nobleman, angry at the corruption around him? People have seen both looking at that face. What that says to me is that here is a face that conceals. Whatever else Richard may have been, he was private.

So what can we say for sure about him? We know he favored the North. One biographer called him England's only Northern King, if only by adoption. He had at least two illegitimate children, about whose mother or mothers we know nothing. He arranged good marriages for both offspring. When his wife, Anne, fell ill (poison say some, others tuberculosis) he obeyed the doctors and left her bed, and upon her death claimed to have loved her every day of his life. He certainly usurped the throne, but there was at least some quasi-legal justification for that (as well as a compelling political one, not least to avoid another war). Did he kill Edward, Prince of Wales? At the time, everyone said he died in battle. What about Henry VI? Well, if he didn't he was certainly part of the regime that did. Plot an incestuous marriage with his niece? Frankly, there's nothing to back that up--although such was a rumor at the time, to which he responded by sending young Elizabeth away from court. He pardoned a lot of nobles which in hindsight he really shouldn't have--like Lord Stanley, stepfather to the future Henry VII. But when he acted against others, he was swift and violent. Lord Hastings, the Queen's brothers, the Duke of Buckingham--apart from anything else Richard was also a warlord. If he decided people had to die, they died. Yet he certainly let people live who later betrayed him, even after he gave them considerable honor.

Did he kill the "Princes in the Tower"? No way to know at this late date. He did try not to kill people, but after a certain point they just vanish. Skeletons in a chest were found many years later but never positively identified. But even if those weren't the Princes, does that mean he didn't have them murdered? For that matter, weren't they doomed once he took the throne? I've sometimes wondered if the Duke of Buckingham didn't have the Princes slain, anticipating his friend's needs but not reckoning on the man's emotions. Such would certainly explain what happened to their friendship. But then, it also works if we assume Richard ordered Buckingham to do it then blamed him. Such is well within the range of human behavior. Or if Richard ordered it and Buckingham disapproved (although from what we know of the Duke's personality, that seems a less likely scenario).

So we're left with a mystery. And understandably we feel some kind of relief when an answer is offered--even if it is little more than a guess, or a self-serving bit of political propaganda, or a reaction against such propaganda. But look at the scenario painted above. Is that not hint of my own feelings about Richard, that I sought a way to absolve him? We want answers, but the kind of answers we find comfortable are windows into ourselves.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dracula The Undead (Review)

Ahead there be spoilers...

Heralded as the "official" sequel to Dracula by Bram Stoker, the novel Dracula the Undead is supposed to be a labor of love by the author's great-great nephew Dacre Stoker and screenwriter Ion Holt. Methinks that part is more-or-less true. Clearly an enormous amount of effort went into this book, including meticulous research. Also, the authors are clearly fans of the genre and include many tiny tribute to Dracula films and productions past and present. Characters named Lee and Langella are the least of it. Lucy Westenra is described throughout as having red hair--a detail solely found in the Francis Ford Coppola film. Many (ultimately unused) names from Stoker's original notes make an appearance, as do historical figures and events ranging from Jack the Ripper to R.M.S. Titanic.

All well and good, but such details in this case are akin to the garnish in a fine meal. What really counts is the quality of the entree, not the cleverness of the table setting.

So how does that stack up?

First of all, from the very start the novel gives mixed signals--at least in terms of the knowledgeable Dracula reader. Beginning as it does with a letter, one naturally expects another epistolary book like the original. That is soon shown to not the case. More, the letter flatly contradicts the lore established by Stoker by promoting as "fact" stuff invented by show business and totally without basis in vampire legend. Let us be fair--Stoker did the same. Bats were not at all associated with the undead prior to his novel. But it jars when the "official sequel" starts by contradicting the first book on almost the first page--claiming vampires burst into flame when touched by sunlight. I wanted an explanation for this. Again, to be fair, one eventually was given--Stoker was told about events and altered details to suit himself. This almost feels right. But if so, one would expect Stoker (a far from unintelligent man) to have changed peoples' names and not otherwise been rather slavishly faithful to all kinds of tiny details. Hence this attempt at explanation (for no better reason, according to an afterword, than adhering to public sentiment) actually leads to a much greater contradiction.

Which in turn is mostly what is wrong with the book as a whole.

Is it a fun read? Yes. Purporting to be the tale of Quincey Harker (son of Jonathan and Mina) twenty-five years after the events of the original, it tells of the young man finally learning the truth about his family's darkest secrets. Along the way we learn what happened to Dr. Seward (a morphine addict, bereft of wife and child and career), Lord Holmwood (a remarkably stuffy recluse with a death wish), Jonathan Harker (no longer successful and seeking refuge from his jealousy in a bottle), Mina Harker (unaging still, in an unhappy marriage), Professor Van Helsing (still hunting vampires, convinced Dracula is somehow still alive). Some of these ideas are intriguing enough. Along the way, we discover a vicious lesbian vampire is on the loose and eager to wage a war against God--none other than Countess Ezebet Bathori.

Again, this is where history gets muddled. The authors go to great lengths to make sure timetables are correct, but repeat a lot of now-discredited rumors about the so-called "Blood Countess." Likewise, they explicitly link Dracula of the novel with Vlad the Impaler, another notion they know doesn't fit the facts (they say as much in the afterword).

So the book is neither one thing nor the other, at least in terms of accuracy (if using that term regarding fiction makes sense).

Another issue I had--answering questions. Even a little bit of serious thought will reveal the novel Dracula is filled with unanswered questions. Some regard relatively mundane matters--how did Lucy and Mina meet, how did Lucy's three suitors come to be such good friends, etc. Others are more genuinely mysterious--what was the connection between Dracula and Renfield, what happened aboard the Demeter, did Lucy die of blood loss or from a botched blood transfusion (actually, I suspect Lucy had AB negative blood--which explains how she rallied after transfusions from four different donors, and gives some real hint of how much of a geek I really am), etc.

This book tries to answer all of them. And more. For that very reason it feels less like an engrossing story and more like the literary equivalent of a paint-by-the-numbers landscape.

Much more damning--many of the key characters remain unreal. Quincey Harker, the semi-hero of the novel, comes across as a stereotypical spoiled brat. He is supposed to feel great passion which motivates much of his actions. Not once did I feel myself in his shoes. Likewise Dracula himself (yes, like in all those movies, he came back) never once feels "alive" no matter how much explanation is given for his actions. Of the original band of hunters, Van Helsing in particular seems without reality (although to be fair at least Seward, Holmwood and the Harkers fare much better). And the villain--Countess Bathori--is such a stereotypical lesbian man-hater one feels that if she'd been black she'd eat fried chicken and watermelon, then chase white women while tap-dancing. I am not so doctrinaire vis-a-vis gay rights that I object to a lesbian villain. What offends me is how she not only embodies every fundamentalist's sapphic nightmare but also how she never once comes alive as a person. She's a formula, not a woman--a character description rather than a character.

More, the novel takes itself too seriously yet at the same time not seriously enough. Were it nothing but a roller-coaster of thrills and chills, then judging it as a poor exploration of its own ideas would be silly. But since it does attempt to portray drama, does seem to want to address issues of guilt and redemption, of identity and personal commitment, then it needs to live up to its potential a bit more than this one comes near doing.

All of the above may seem harsh. Honestly, the novel has some very fun and interesting ideas such as Mina's agelessness, a long-overdue police investigation into the events surrounding Lucy Westenra's death, Lord Holmwood's emotional life over time as he contemplated his actions, etc. Methinks it has the potential to turn into a fun motion picture (rather more akin to Van Helsing that Bram Stoker's Dracula). But frankly there are much better Dracula "sequels" out there. And much better books in general. I cannot recommend people spend money on the thing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Friend Edgar

"From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone."

January two centuries ago saw the birth of probably America's most famous poet. "It was night in the lonesome October" a mere four decades later he died. No one knows the cause of Edgar Allan Poe's death, where he was for hours prior to his discovery "in distress" on the streets of Baltimore, wearing clothes not his own and (according to some) calling out to someone named "Reynolds." Strangely, it seem as appropriate, the timing. Born in winter, died in autumn, and if this fierce genius ever knew spring, his was very short. Summer never part of his life. It becomes hard to imagine him on sunny days, amid flowers and lush trees below a blue sky. Ridiculous, for he lived through forty summers. Yet that isn't how we imagine him, even when happy. If in our mind's eye he stands beside a healthy tree with a plenty of green leaves, the scene demands that tree be part of a cemetary. Better yet, the vision feels more accurate with clouds above, and the leaves slowly dying.

By all accounts Poe was anything but a nice man, although to be sure he wasn't nearly as bad as the hatchet job one of his rivals portrayed him soon after his passing. He suffered fools not at all gladly, and in his eyes nearly everyone was a fool. A racist and (in his youth) a gambler, he fell in love with and married a thirteen-year-old girl ("She was a child, and I was a child") who was also his first cousin. He had a drinking problem, evidently not so much alcoholism as a severe inability to handle any spirits. Upon becoming a widower, he seems to have gone somewhat mad. Yet he seems to have flirted/had emotional affairs with a least two women writers in front of his young bride (she evidently approved of one, but not the other). For such a difficult man, he had loyal friends. His class at West Point took up a collection to publish one of his first books.

My own first memory of Poe was of a certain knight "gaily bedight in sunshine and in shadow, traveled long singing a song in search of El Dorado." How disturbing that there was no hint the knight ever found that fabled city! Likewise how compelling that bizarre night "in the bleak December" (my own birth month--a fellow winter baby) when a raven took up residence! Or the tale of revenge involving a certain cask of amontillado, the madness of a man who kills his benefactor out of hatred for the old man's eye, the mystery of a certain purloined letter. When young all those marvelously cheesy Vincent Price movies based on Poe came out, even if it was years and years before I got to see them. Earlier this month I finally got my t.v. converter and the first movie I watched was The Masque of the Red Death. Last year, at one of the dance showcases my troupe did, they let me begin with a reading of "The Raven." Quite indulgent of them, really.

At first, while enjoying Poe, I didn't really understand him. Sometimes his tales and lines stirred me but made precious little sense. But I'm now older than he ever managed. I've lived, as he did, in borderline poverty and--again, like him--lost my beloved lady. Truthfully, my life is luckier. Not orphaned until adulthood, able to hold my wine pretty easily, living in an age of anti-depressants. Still, autumn suits me as well. Mine is also a melancholy mood. When studying theatre, I memorized a stanza of his about a theatre performance in (presumably) Heaven. That I did so perhaps shows the meagre thread of similarity between this great, tragic man and myself. And why as the clouds gather amid orange replacing green, I think of Edgar...

Out, out are the lights! Out all!
And over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm!

While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm

That the play is the tragedy "Man"

This makes my entry in the Absolute Write October Blog Roll. The others are:
1. Lost Wanderer -
2. Claire Crossdale -
3. Angela 785 -
4. Ravencorinncarluk -
5. Angyl78 -
6. shethinkstoomuch -
7. trulyana -
8. Bsolah -
9. freshhell -
10. Ralph Pines -
11. aimeelaine -
12. HigherEdUnderground -
13. Cath -
14. DavidZahir -

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Manhood and Science Fiction

I only recently became aware of this debate going on, pretty much captured in The War on Science Fiction and Marvin Minsky, a blog entry that also writes glowingly of Dirk Benedict's essay Lt. Starbuck...Lost in Castration. Essentially, both are complaining (and using the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica as a prime example) that science fiction is becoming less masculine and more female-oriented. Interestingly, this is regarded as a "bad thing".

Frankly, I have trouble taking Mr. Benedict very seriously when it comes to understanding what makes a good story. In the 1980s he performed the lead in Hamlet in NYC, and I had the...experience...of seeing that show as well as reading his disparaging comments about other productions. His costume rather resembled that of Flash Gordon, and his delivery indicated no hint of what people like Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Kenneth Branaugh and Kevin Kline (my personal favorite) saw in the role or the script. The sword fight was great, though. And (not coincidentally, I think) the Ghost was done as a special effect, with lights shining around the theatre and a voice booming from the sound system.

But I digress. Both writers make what seems like a very curious set of arguments -- about gender roles, about science fiction and about story-telling in general. Please feel free to read them via the above links, but in a nutshell here seem to be their main points:
  • To be truly masculine in a desirable way, men must be macho. What this apparently entails is stereotypical stuff like womanizing, unbending emotional self-control (save maybe in the case of righteous rage), and a taste for violence.
  • It is for some reason bad or undesirable for women to be in positions of authority, most especially if they are giving orders to men.
  • Homosexuality really shouldn't be a subject matter in science fiction, nor should the blurring of sexual roles.
  • All of the above is indicative of an anti-male bias (Question--is the opposite an anti-female bias?) to be judged harshly as such.
  • Science fiction, by becoming in some sense "feminized" has also turned against hope and all things positive in favor of a voyeuristic delight in negativity.
No one should be too surprised to read I question pretty much all of the above premises. A lot.

One level it is really too easy to tear apart these ideas. For example, any viewer of the new BSG would be hard-pressed to call Commander Adama anything but a very strong man in pretty much every single way. But I'm more concerned with two specific ideas that run like currents in both the above posts.

Let us deal with the more hidden idea. My own experience and study has led me to believe most people who give any thoughts to art tend to see its purpose in one of two ways. J.R.R.Tolkien spoke of such when he wrote of preferring "history" to "allegory", a remark many have used with which to compare Lord of the Rings with the works of his friend C.S.Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia. My own preference is to compare Shakespeare with his contemporary Johnson on this matter. For lack of better terms, I call one the Givers of Answers and the other the Askers of Questions. Another way (perhaps more accurate) is to note one approach is to view art as propaganda, the other seeing it as an experience. One poses questions only to feed you the answer. The other poses questions but gives responsibility for finding the answer in your own hands.

Good fiction needn't belong to only one of these two schools. The storyteller can even be a little heavy-handed and achieve considerable quality. Case in point (and returning to science fiction), Blade Runner. The story posits a terrible injustice (not coincidentally, at least IMHO, one similar to the very heart of the new Galactica), namely that mankind has created synthetic people -- with feelings, thoughts, free will -- and made of them slaves. Ultimately, there is little ambiguity here. The Replicants (as they're called) are victims of an insidious evil. Even if you consider every violent act they commit totally unjustified, it takes someone strangely dense not to see them as wronged (the only person I've ever met who didn't "get" that was an engineer -- make of that what you will). Decker, the title character, is a murderer many times over. What makes the story so compelling (apart from fine acting, a dizzying production design, etc.) is that we see him learn better. It is the story of a leopard who changes his spots, not in a remotely saccharine manner (he doesn't let a bunch of dangerous and violent Replicants simply get away) but by falling in love with one. The Director's Cut underscores this even more.

Now, examine the same idea but without taking it seriously. In Star Wars two of the most popular characters are R2D2 and his golden companion C3PO. Yet how much is made of the fact that both of them are exactly as much slaves as the Replicants? Both film trilogies are supposed to be epic struggles to defend/restore freedom to the galaxy -- yet not for droids. Machines don't count, no matter how kind or intelligent or even loved. It doesn't even occur to anyone in any of the six films that mechanical life should perhaps have a choice -- not even to the machines themselves.

Those who want to see simple morals in their stories too often end up demanding simplistic ones. In efforts to find ethical answers, they cheat on the test. One can go at great length (and many have) about the weird moral implications given by George Lucas -- and such is justified due to his explicit efforts to present a fable. It comprises a major, oft-repeated criticism of the films. I've read published books on the subject. Critics of Blade Runner, on the other hand, often complain about some of the very things which defined the re-imagined Galactica. It is too dark. The hero doesn't have clean hands. It it depressing. The end doesn't see what is wrong with the world corrected.

Here is my take. Those complaints are about the real world. Life is breathtaking in its beauty, and mind-bogglingly horrible in its ugliness. Not one or the other. Both. Individual people contain wisdom and stupidity, compassion and cruelty, bravery and cowardice. Want a story that involves us on many levels? Capture that dichotomy. Take an idea, and explore it seriously. Yeah, make it a ripping yarn but remember every video store in the world is full of formulaic action films that couldn't sell tickets.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf is a simple, easy-to-comprehend tale with an important lesson. Aesop remains a classic precisely because he knew how to tell a fable well. But no one equates Aesop with Sophocles. It isn't somehow manly to act like the world is a video game. It is only boyish -- embarassing to see in a grown man. Boys think everything can be fixed with right gizmo, that girls are yucky, that an explosion equals excitement and that tears are something of which to be ashamed. Men have grown beyond all that -- and as a result, do far more good and experience far more joys than boys ever can.

Boys also whine when they don't get what they want. Let us be fair -- so do girls. Men and women learn better.

Revisiting childhood can be loads of fun. The journey and vacation can be therapeutic. Living there full-time is a tragedy. Even for Flash Gordon or Luke Skywalker.

Or Lieutenant Starbuck.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Are Werewolves Sexy?

I have a friend who, like me, really enjoys vampire stories. She likes her vampires erotic and dangerous--interestingly, she feels werewolves have gotten short-changed in that department. Methinks she has a point. Lon Chaney was certainly never the icon of attractiveness that Bela Lugosi managed to be. There've been plenty of vampire t.v. series with a more-or-less constant romantic element--from Forever Knight to Kindred: The Embraced and Blood Ties to Moonlight to Angel and so on.

Werewolves? Well, there was the short-lived series Werewolf, but that had more in common with The Incredible Hulk or The Fugitive. And She-Wolf of London, which frankly is better left forgotten. Quentin Collins on Dark Shadows, Oz on Buffy, etc. Not too bad a line up.

Let us also turn to recent portrayals. The upcoming motion picture New Moon not only features a bevy of very attractive young men who sprout fur, fangs and claws but the advertising campaign is clearly intended to make the most of this fact. Indeed, the "lead" werewolf in the movie had to buff up to retain his part. The biggest problem with these lycanthropes is that they don't really retain much of the danger that seems proper for the whole idea. Whereas vampires in Stephanie Myer's books are too dangerous for words (even if the Cullens themselves are relatively pacifistic), her werewolves retain their full minds. Barring accidents, they really aren't that dangerous at all. Not so with the upcoming remake of the The Wolf Man with Benecio del Toro and Emily Blount. The trailer clearly captures the idea of the female lead in love with a man who has become a ravening monster hunting her. While not exactly a prototype for totally functional relationship, this is interesting and exciting and (let me honest) at least to some extent sexy.

A similar flirtation exists in an independent trilogy of werewolf films about a pair of sisters, titled Ginger Snaps, Ginger Snaps Again, and Ginger Snaps Back (this last is a prequel taking place circa 1750). All three have a sensual air about them, with the idea of sex simmering under the surface. Most obviously this is true in the first film, when a changing Ginger begins to practically put boys into heat by walking down the hall, and again in the second when Ginger's sister is desperately trying to ward off her own transformation while avoiding a male of the species who wants to mate with her.

Nor should we forget the under-rated Wolf, in which three of the finest actors on screen end up in what could be described as a werewolf triangle of sorts. This, like other sexual depictions of the werewolf, goes with the idea that there's something primal these creatures stir up in others. Not necessarily evil, but untamed and so uninhibited. Amid all the sterility of good manners, rigid protocols, rules against telling the truth and a clinical approach to marriage as well as coupling, the werewolf can be an avatar of pure, unfettered LIFE.

Technically, it remains a bit tricky to have too many portrayals of werewolves for two reasons: (1) The special effects are expensive. For a vampire all you need is pale makeup and some fangs. Werewolves are a much more elaborate proposition for someone looking at a budget. (2) The usual "trappings" of werewolf stories tend towards formula--woe is me, I'm a monster, can somebody stop me from hurting others, etc. Not a bad idea, really, and full of potential, but less obviously so than the vampire.

I should also point out that a little bit of research turned up some steamy romance novels that use werewolves as a background. Rebecca York has written a whole series centered around a werewolf detective. I found a whole list of romance novels involving shape-shifters, including those of the lupine variety. There's also Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause, Racing the Moon by Michele Hauf and Lauren Dane’s Cascadia Wolves.

And I frankly find encouraging that Jack and Diane, a film about lesbian teen lovers one of whom happens to be werewolf, is now in pre-production.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Fave TV Characters (Fantasy)

Always a good standby in the blogging game...a list of favorites (or not). In this case, here are five favorite characters from fantasy television series. For my purposes (and frankly, for most other peoples') fantasy shall be defined as having to do with the props and tropes of magic. This is opposed to the same for science, even if said science is total garbage (yes, I'm talking about you Lost in Space and Space:1999).

Tara McClay from Buffy the Vampire Slayer may be my single favorite witch character ever. Not least because she was so totally herself rather than any stereotype. I did not in fact see her first appearance (in the brilliant "Hush") when it first aired, so my initial exposure to her was this pretty, shy girl telling Willow that she was "yours." My thought at the time--Does Willow realize this girl is totally in love with her? So began what I still think of as one of the best love stories on television. It ended tragically, for which many fans never forgave Joss Whedon. Some of them in a message board I then frequented declared me persona non grata because I viewed the killing of a fictional character as rather less of a crime than the Bush Administration's policies regarding AIDS. Yet I continue to hold Tara in my heart--a lonely, bright, passionate girl who found love and friends and strength. Having once bet Amber Benson, who played her, I can tell you the actress is no less a lovely person.

Of all the many vampires that have been on t.v. shows, in the end my favorite remains Urs from Forever Knight. She only appeared in the third (and sadly, last) season of that program, seen maybe three times in total. But what a fascinating person! At first she seemed like nothing but a waif/go-go dancer who happened to be a vampire. Interesting enough right there, but then we learned her past. Upon a river boat in the XIXth century, she was a professional gambler's 'girl' until she met Javier. They were drawn together, and she recognized him as one of the undead. She asked him to "do it" and he brought her across (as the lingo of that show went). But what she'd been asking for was to die, not to live forever. In her eyes one could see a startling amount of wisdom, an understanding of pain and desperation far more than even the two or three lifetimes she had already walked. She didn't still long for death, and in the end forgave Javier. She even liked him. But frankly, I was longing for more and more stories about her when the series ended.

Willie Loomis from Dark Shadows was clearly based (at least in terms of the Barnabas Collins storyline) on Dracula's Renfied. But he was much more over the course of the series, not only in terms of the original show but its 1991 incarnation. Loomis in both cases is a Grade F Loser, someone clever but crude and not a little bit dishonest. Enslaved by a vampire, he became the epitome of irony as that abject status made him a better person. He became a loyal friend, one with more than a bit of wisdom to impart as time went on. Eventually, it became clear that he and Barnabas even became friends of a kind. At any rate, I cannot think of another character like him on another t.v. show--this wretched low-life with just a hint of something more, becoming that more and far better than he had been through his servitude to a blood-drinking monster. In a way, he is rather what Hakken is trying to be in Let The Right One In.

Ezekiel Stone on Brimstone was a detective. He murdered the man who raped his wife, then a few months later died. Naturally, he went to Hell. But years later, there's a jailbreak from the Inferno. Satan has little or no power on Earth so he sends Ezekiel back to retrieve his lost ones. In return, he'll get a "second chance at life on earth" whatever that means. A great premise, but totally dependent upon the central character--in this case a man with no inclination to self-contemplation forced by circumstances to doing precisely that. Much of the show consisted of Ezekiel and the Devil sparring over the former's soul, about the question of whether he is truly evil. At the same time, really disturbing questions kept popping up. For example, one of the souls to be returned was a Dutch collaborator during WWII. He sent dozens of children to concentration camps, not out of malice but cowardice. Now, immortal, he uses his abilities to help others. In fact, he's something of a superhero. Yet Ezekiel has to send him back--a conflict brought fantastically to life by Peter Horton.

Jessica is my favorite character on the cable series True Blood. In case you've just returned from Anarctica, that is the hugely popular show set in a world where vampires have "come out of the closet" and people are trying to adjust to that fact. Jessica is a rebellious teen raised in a super-strict Louisiana household, changed into a vampire against her will as an act of penance when the lead (Bill) killed a vampire to save his human lover (Sookie). At first she just seemed like the most hilariously obnoxious brat, but then as I got to know her she grew on me. A rebel with barely a clue, she was actually a virgin when turned and all-too-obviously still barely aware of her own identity. On top of that, she fell in love with a nice young man who loved her smile and didn't care that she was technically dead. The road of their romance is not without bumbs, curves and if I'm reading events right more than one toll bridge. But I'm rooting for them, and for her. She's trying. Half the time, she's funny. The other half the time, she's heart-breaking. And in both instances she can be frightening.

Five seems enough for now.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Review: "Blood Ties"

Blood Ties was a Canadian t.v. series broadcast on Lifetime. And I miss it terribly. Fortunately it is now available on DVD, and more people can appreciate this sadly-defunct show -- not only for what was magnificently right with it, but (let us be honest) what didn't work.

Based on the novels by Tanya Huff, Blood Ties (not be confused with a pilot of some years past involving "Carpathians") is a variation on the "Vampire Detective" trope. Other examples of the genre clearly include Forever Knight, Angel and Moonlight. A vampire seeks to redeem himself by protecting others and fighting evil. All well and good, with plenty of potential still there to mine. One hopes that the success of other vampire-related stuff will herald in another entry into the genre soon.

This series didn't do things the same old way, though. For one thing, the lead detective is not the vampire but a former police detective named Vicky Nelson (Christina Cox). She had to quit because a degenerative eye condition coupled with her refusal to work at a desk. This, plus the fact she had an affair with her partner Mike Celluci (Dylan Neal), gives a pretty clear indication of her character -- headstrong, courageous, not too concerned with rules, etc. The two are no longer lovers but still care, their lives intertwining in all sorts of ways.

Enter Henry Fitzroy (Kyle Schmid) in the middle of a strange case involving a murder that looks like it might be the work of a vampire. It isn't, and Henry should know -- he is one and takes the real source of danger very seriously, a powerful demon seeking entry into this world. Along the way, Vicky is the involuntary recipient of tattoos on her wrists. Turns out these things act like occult magnets. The weird, the paranormal, the otherworldly are now drawn to her as if by karma. Henry, quite taken with her, offers to help out. Mike, jealous and suspicious of her newest friend, hovers.

If from the above precis, you're thinking sexual tension and emotional triangle, then kudos. Such began and remained very much at the heart of the series. All three leads did superb jobs at this relationship web, with its twists and (ongoing) turns. Between Vicky and Henry, for example, was the kind of unresolved passion Dave and Maddie on Moonlighting only aspired to. In a playful way, it harkened to Jane and Rochester, or perhaps Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. They liked each other, helped each other, got into arguments, and most importantly demonstrated increased loyalty to one another. Likewise the startlingly blond Mike Celluci (I figured he looked like his mom, or was adopted) never became what this character could so easily have been -- a stereotype. Instead, he continually let the conflicts of how he felt shine through in every word, each gesture, practically every single look.

The lore here sometimes proved fascinating. Vampires, for example, have to exert their will not to attack and kill each other when they get too close -- their territoriality is a major reason they are so few. "New" vampires don't instill this reaction, at least not with their creator, not until the first year or so. So a love affair between a human and vampire cannot be forever, no matter what.

In the course of the series, some episodes gave fascinating takes on the supernatural in the world of Blood Ties. There are shapeshifters, for example, and they seek to avoid the rest of us. A secret order exists to hide away Pandora's Box, which if opened would destroy the world. An Inquisitor has managed to keep himself alive for centuries, stealing the blood of vampires whom he tortures. This is all good stuff, as was the essentially harmless Incubus who trims the lawns of various bored housewives in suburbia. Less good was when the show veered into the same sort of paranormal as Charmed. Herein lay the single biggest weakness in the show, namely an inconsistent tone.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the character of Coreen (Gina Holden), who appears in the pilot to hire Vicky following the murder of her boyfriend (she believed a vampire responsible) and than talks her way into becoming the receptionist at Nelson Investigations. There's nothing inherently wrong with a charmingly kooky sidekick. Such has been done right many a time. Likewise making her an expert on the occult was a nice touch. But Coreen was never a well-written character. Too cute, even when supposed to be in mourning for her love, too eager to accept the supernatural without seeming to feel any worry about it. More importantly, these details never translated into a whole person. Someone once called the genius of Shakespeare's Hamlet was his "consistent inconsistency" and that is precisely the knack that was missing here. I never believed in Coreen -- just as I never once accepted the faux goth scene where she hung out as being even slightly real. Having known and hung around with goths in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, I can attest these were nothing but a very WASP-y person's stereotype of goths, nothing like the real thing.

Methinks this showed up time and again in the series. As a general rule, the more cartoonish the weekly threat, the weaker the series became. Instead of hints of darkness a la The X-Files we got stuff rather more akin to Bewitched. Mind you, the show could have survived that save that such darkness was a major source of the show's conflict!

Consider the other Vampire Detective shows mentioned earlier. Part of the inherent drama of those included the Vampire's guilt and the temptation of darkness within. But Henry is nothing like that. He's a womanizer, but hardly a rapist. He may have done some bad things in his long life (over four centuries) but nothing as far as we can tell like an atrocity. Compare that to the hundreds Nick slaughtered, or Angellus' murder of his entire family! His darkness is only slightly related to his being a vampire at all -- rather, it is the world to which he belongs. Mike is terrified for Vicky because he thinks she may be getting in over her head -- consorting with monsters, making herself known to demons, etc. Interestingly, Henry has precisely the same concerns. Nor are they without some merit, since Vicky does tend to be reckless.

But with that dynamic, the supernatural daren't seem silly. Ever. Coreen seems silly, sans any pathos or depth. Too many times the villains or situations in the show come across as banal -- like an insect woman assassin or even Medusa (a strangely un-atmospheric story given the subject matter).

Which serves as a lesson about how delicately the elements of a story need to be handled. My own suspicion is that if the show had not been quite so out-of-balance, more audience members might have found themselves riveted. The show might still be in production. And I for one (along with many fans) would be happier.

Friday, October 2, 2009

My Friend Cyrano

I'm pretty sure it all started with Mr. Magoo.

For those who don't know, Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Baucus, Mr. Thurston Howell III himself) did many an animated version of various classics. One of these was Cyrano de Bergerac, arguably the most famous play by Edmond Rostand (although one of his other works became the basis of the long-running musical The Fantastiks). Watching that show introduced me to the swordsman of big nose, bigger brain, and even bigger soul. Or it might have been Illustrated Classics. These many years later, who can say? Does it matter?

Not too long after a brilliant production of the play was televised on PBS. Peter Donat and Marsha Mason (yes, Neil Simon's later wife) played the title character and his lady love, Roxanne, in this showing from the Acting Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco (my home town, not altogether incidentally). You can find that one on DVD without too much trouble. I can still recall so many wonderful details of that production. The way Cyrano tilted his head to kiss a flower girl's hand (later, I learned it is in fact very rude to allow your nose to touch a lady's hand while kissing it). The expression on Roxanne's face as her cousin reads the last letter from Christian. And the sword fight in Act One, of course. Rostand knew how to start a play with a Bang!

Years and years later, Donat appeared in a revival production at the ACT, and I paid to see it. It was sad. He was well into his sixties at least by then. The sword fight was almost in slow motion, and he still missed the blade of his opponent once.

By then I had a degree in Theatre Arts from the University of West Florida. No longer a child, a teenager, or even a callow youth in his twenties, there was much more I understood about the play and about the central character. Maybe you did not realize Hercule de Cyrano de Bergerac was a real person? He was. Many details in the play are accurate. The duel while writing a ballad. His battle against a hundred men, on behalf of a drunken poet friend. His cousin Roxanne did indeed marry Baron Christian de Neuviette, who died in battle during the Siege of Arras where Cyrano himself was wounded. She retired to a convent, visited by her cousin and his friend LeBret who entered the religious life. His death was not unlike what is in the play. While his nose was big, it was not quite so large as described.

The most famous version of the play in terms of film is almost certainly the one with Jose Ferrer, who won an Academy Award for the part. It hasn't been the last. For my money, one of the best was the 1973 musical with Chritopher Plummer. Cannot tell you how many times I listened to that album back at my university, then on vinyl and long before CDs were dreamt on. The heart break of that last song...

"I never loved you/I must not lie/And say 'I loved you'/Not I. I never loved you/Those words must fly/And fade like smoke in the sky... Be grateful for all the love that lives on/ But sometimes let fall just one gentle tear upon/ The memory of this truth/Or this lie... I never loved you/My Dear Love! Not I."
Regular readers will know I am a softie in my way. Surely this is proof enough? But then, to be honest, Cyrano's love life felt all-too-familiar to me for most of my youth. It wasn't that I didn't look with love upon a pretty girl now and then. I did, or at least what seemed like love to me at the time. But not until well into my twenties did any member of the female sex see me and feel anything but friendship. Or pity. At best. Like Cyrano, I was convinced of my own ugliness. And to be honest, a part of me believes that to this day. My voice is a fine one, my posture excellent, my wit is sometimes keen and I am an excellent listener to other peoples' woes. Compensation, really. For the ugly man in my mirror, trying to get through life without being too lonely.

Methinks I'm hardly alone in that. Is that why Cyrano has remained so popular? How many plays were first put on in 1897? How many of them are still being produced? Cyrano embodies that terrible sense we all have of never knowing appreciation, much less love. Oh, he has his applause, but he pays for it dearly. All are impressed with his skill with a rapier, but think what it must have cost for him to achieve it. How many bullies and cruel hit their mark before he finally reached the level to make them fear speaking a word? Who wants to live like that? Needing to be dangerous enough to silence others, for something as trivial and unimportant as a big nose!

Haven't we all felt that? What does it matter that I'm not tall? Or if my features aren't like those of a model? Does forty or fifty extra pounds of extra weight really cancel out my mind, my character, my personality? And God Help Me if I show any pain--nothing more guaranteed to make people avoid you than to admit to soul-crushing loneliness. Ironic. Or maybe some part of them fears it is catching. More likely, they're afraid their own masks will slip.

And another thing, we all wish we could respond to life's travails with half as much courage, much less style. Cyrano has every reason you might imagine to be bitter, but he's not. Sarcastic, yes. Judgmental, oh my yes. But he is the character who brought "Panache" into the English language. In French, the word means "white plume" as in the plume atop one's hat. As Cyrano dies, he calls it "One thing unstain'd, by death by doom unfinger'd; See it there? A white plume above the battle!" He ends his life, dignity and integrity intact. He knew pain, loss, failure and regret -- but he never once gave up. "A man fights for far more than the mere chance of winning" he says, "Better by far to know the battle is hopeless!" He ends in pride, with a smile on his lips, looking into the eyes of the woman he loves.

Don't we all wish to do as well?

There's a lot about his life's philosophy that doesn't work too well if you take it too literally. Discretion in the real world is a fine thing, as long as it doesn't turn into deceit. We don't (hopefully) need to wield deadly force to shut people up. But then, aren't those really just details? What in the end grabs me about Cyrano is his courage, his style, the generosity of spirit that never let him be jealous (and wouldn't you be jealous, in his situation?).

His panache.

A few other things to consider. We know the real Cyrano's birthdate, and the date when Rostand's play opens. It is right there on the page. So when you look at Cyrano's life in that work, consider this -- as the story begins, he is eighteen years old.