Saturday, June 28, 2008

Director Commentaries.

In the beginning of the decade I used to actually listen to the director's comments on DVDs. I've always had an interest in the creative process of filmmaking and so I thought they had something to offer me, something that would give the film I was watching a new dimension. So, I listened to John Carpenter discussing what he did in the making of "Halloween", I nodded with respect as Ridley Scott explained what he had intended in making "Blade Runner".

However, while director's comments were a novelty with the early release of DVD's they are now expected, and worse, the entire cast sometimes sounds off on the experience of the film. While I understand the value of listening to Carpenter discuss "Halloween" or Guillermo del Toro explaining what he was working on through "The Devil's Backbone" or "Pan's Labyrinth" , do I really need to understand the subtleties of "The Transformers", "Naked Gun" or "Bad Santa"? Really? Do I want to hear cast members sitting in a studio, drinking and recalling the pranks they pulled on one another or the childhood memories that made them the B Actors they are? Really?

Could you imagine writers doing the same? Think about reading a text annotated by the author himself. Annotation: "Yeah, I remember writing this paragraph. I'd just broken up with my girl and I was feeling a little self-destructive. I wrote the first two sentences in about a minute, but the remainder? A week of agonizing reappraisal.

With the advent of Blu-Ray and its increased capacity for data, once again the "extras" are coming into play. More "making of" features, more commentaries, and more of everything...except what people really want in most cases: compelling stories, riveting characters, and a satisfying emotional experience.

I'm done pontificating. I'm off to listen to the commentary on my copy of "Titanic". I'm feeling a little self-destructive.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Read A Movie, See a Book

I've just read Charlotte's Web by E.B. White and viewed the two films based on his charming work. The first was a Hanna Barbera cartoon (1973) and the second a live action piece with heavy CGI (2006). As I watched these two films I started considering what happens when a story is taken from a written work and adapted and interpreted for a visual cinema.

Unfortunately, in most cases the adaptation is controlled by a studio with the profit margin a primary consideration. However, sometimes, the person doing the adaptation has such control over the process, or slips under the radar, and a remarkable work of art occurs that does justice to the original creation or even surpasses it.

Look at "Lord of the Rings". Now, I know that there are those out there who will roll their eyes and consider me a heretic for suggesting that Peter Jackson gave us something equal to Tolkein's magnum opus, but stop and ask yourself if he gave you something magical and epic, something that matches Tolkein in scope and wonder. No one could ever expect Jackson to transfer the book sentence by sentence. It would bore you to tears. The written word is experienced differently than the visual image. But did he capture the essence of Tolkein and at the same time imbue it with his own vision? I think the answer is yes.

What about some other classic texts that have been made into successful films? "To Kill A Mockingbird"? Poetic, beautiful in both print and on screen. "Something Wicked This Way Comes"? Bradbury took a mesmerizing tale about innocence and living in the present and turned it into something mundane. "Brokeback Mountain"? The text is a short story with potential, but the film is a riveting and tragic love story. "Silence of the Lambs"? Demme and Hopkins made that film. I won't fault Harris, but his work wasn't profound or especially well-written. Entertaining? Yes. But it doesn't rise to the heights suggested by the brilliant performance by Hopkins.

Friday, June 20, 2008

When Did You Know?

Someone asked me when I knew I wanted to write. Sigh. To answer, back in the fifth grade. My first story should have been a tip off. I don't remember much about it other than it ended with the protagonist being cut in half with a buzz saw. I also seem to remember something about "a fine mist of red filled the air". I also remember my brother reading it, putting down the looseleaf paper, and giving me an odd look.

Today that kind of writing would have had me ending up in some counselor's office. I probably would have been kicked out of school. Especially since I would occasionally write something about my Algebra teacher:

"'Where am I?' she asked, waking. I grinned and responded: 'Oh, someplace where you can scream and scream and no one will be able to hear you.'"

Simpler times.

In fifth grade, one's writing isn't quite polished and the stories tend to be a bit unoriginal. Often they include characters from favorite comic books and television shows. Occasionally, they also might have included an illustration or two.

I also seem to remember thinking how easy it would be to become a writer back then. Why shouldn't I? The stories I were reading often had writers as protagonists. Science fiction and horror for some reason has a good deal of wish fulfillment and narcissistic elements. In how many Stephen King stories is the main character a writer? In science fiction, the writer was always going off into space with the hot babe.

So...when did you want to be a writer? And I don't mean when did you start writing poetry? I mean real writing?

Sunday, June 15, 2008


In our society we spend a good deal of time focusing on appearances. Yet, appearances are not a reflection of the person within. We need to delve deeper, to try and reach the inner soul and to ----oh hell, who am I kidding. I'm a shallow sunovabitch and I'm proud of my one dimensionality. So to celebrate my lack of depth, allow me to post some of the most unflattering pictures I could find. Notice, that none of them are of me. By definition, any photo of myself must be flattering. Except for the one with me wearing a stormtrooper uniform. Don't know how that happened. Also, please note no political comment is intended.

Undergoing MyBlogLog Verification

Friday, June 13, 2008


From time to time I am given work to critique. I usually pause, my hand on the manuscript, and ask: "Do you want a hard read or a light critique". They always answer "hard". I proceed to take it apart then with a hammer and a crowbar. I often think to myself, "they should have gone with the 'light'."

However, I am now rethinking this approach. If a student gave me a paper to correct, I wouldn't pounce. Instead, I focus on one aspect. I might critique for paragraph unity. Maybe I'll look for run-on sentences.

I think when someone hands me a manuscript that I might stop offering the "hard" or "light" choices and instead just focus on one or two things. The problem I have with that is twofold: First, there is the danger of that person handing the manuscript back to me after corrections have been made. I don't have time to reread it, and in most cases, I don't want to reread it. The second problem with the above approach is that people might assume that the elements I've found to be flawed are the only problems in the manuscript.

Then there's a third option...stop critiquing. I won't do this, of course, I am too much a teacher.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


Is there a gene that pushes us to extreme points of view? In the 1900's psychology went through periods where genetics were considered the main determinant of behavior. Then behaviorism reared its head and people argued for the nurture side of nature v. nurture. Now, thankfully there is a paradigm that states the two sides are mutually important depending on context.

What does this has to do with anything? Consider behavior and rigidly held views. Look at the idea that there are two political parties and that the government is often gridlocked by partisan wrangling that squelches ideas that could be beneficial to both sides. Most recently, this was demonstrated by the those Clinton supporters who were so invested and locked into their point of view that they would rather vote for McCain than for Obama. Not making a political statement, just using it as an illustration.

Dichotomies seem to be a human foible. "You're for us, or you're against us." "feminine v. masculine", "left v. right".

The truth though is often somewhere in the middle and the solutions are an acknowledgment of both. Maybe we seek black and white answers because they are the easiest to deal with. Set rules, right or wrong, mean there is a compass and in certainty people find security.

As a person who is often extreme and unreasonable, as someone who too often inserts himself into public arguments without listening and understanding the other side, these ideas feel right to me, but practice of them is not often easy. We're hardwired. But that doesn't mean the hardwiring is restrictive. I think it can be overcome---with practice.

Maybe not by me, but then I'm a hypocrite.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Ever heard of a writer named Thomas Kyd? How about John Fletcher or Francis Beaumont? Philip Massinger? All were contemporaries of William Shakespeare.

Okay, that was a cheap stunt. Let's be more reasonable. Surely you'll recognize some of these titles from the New York Times Best Sellers list: "Forever Amber", "The Black Rose", "Earth and High Heaven", "Immortal Wife", "The Robe". Perhaps not? They were the hot sellers in 1945.

Go into a used bookstore and scan the titles. Really scan them. You'll recognize some of the names there, but probably not the majority. Go the library. Run a finger along the spines. Be honest. Many if not most are strangers to the average person.

What's the point? Immortality is a bitch. Culture like time is transient. Importance is impermanent. Now turn off the tv and go play.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Nothing Up My Sleeve

Do you remember an old television show with Bill Bixby called "The Magician"? He played a crime fighting entertainer who used illusion to unmask the criminal or in self defense. Not a great show. However, each episode had the disclaimer: "All illusions performed here are done without special effects or deceptive camera work".

Our technology has become so sophisticated that it has reached the point where at times it can threaten our ability to suspend disbelief. Consider this: if you saw a video of a flying saucer, one where it looked amazingly real, wouldn't you just assume you were watching something put together by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic (the special effects company that worked on Star Wars?)? If you gave me photographic evidence that Jon Zech was in fact Stewart Sternberg, wouldn't you just assume it was the work of someone talented with Photoshop? I mean, if you didn't know me better, you would think that the picture of me at the "last supper" was doctored.

In an age where anything and everything is possible, where long dead actors can be convincingly dropped into new video digitally, where skillful manipulation of audio can effectively put sentences into someone's mouth, where genetic manipulation of material can call into question DNA evidence.....who can believe anything they see, hear, touch, or smell?

For writers of science fiction and fantasy, such paranoia is a rich treasure trove in which to dip our literary hands. For readers, the connection between storyteller and audience retains its integrity. At a time when no one can be believed, the one who offers up fiction is perhaps the only one to be trusted.