Seconds

I’ve never been one to bang the drum for remakes of classic movies.  My feeling is that you can’t improve on perfection so why try?  Most of the time, all you do is harm.  I understand the motivation.  It’s hard to watch one of your favorite movies get actively ignored by new viewers because the clothes are out of date or the hairstyles are funny or the writing is too mired in its time period. 

No movie exists outside of the context in which it was made.  That context includes all sorts of intangibles like the year it was made or the zeitgeist of the time.  So when you remake a classic like Rollerball or Death Race 2000  or Total Recall the political mindset of the times is the first thing to go and since that was all that made those movies relevant when they came out you’ve just gutted the picture.  What’s left to do?  Backfill it with special effects and over the top stunts.

But what about a movie that was made at the wrong time in the first place?  Or one whose themes would be even more relevant today than they were back then.  Seconds (1966) is just such a film.  This is, believe it or not, a Rock Hudson film that digs so deep into questions of identity that it smacks of something that should have escaped from Philip K. Dick’s fevered brain. 

Rock plays a conflicted man of middle age who has reached that point that all men of middle age eventually reach where he questions everything about his life.  Unfortunately for him, right in the middle of this ritual navel gazing, he gets a call from an old friend who, over the course of a strange conversation, informs him that there is a service that, for a fee, will fake your death, take your mind out of your old worn out body and put it into one that, in this case, looks like a young Rock Hudson. 

What follows is a story that could only have been made in the 1960s.   The second act doesn’t make a lot of sense but the third act kicks you right in the nuts.  It’s a flawed film, deeply flawed in fact, but the ideas in it are powerful and even more poignant today than they were in the willy-nilly 60s.  A remake by a talented director working from a more coherent script would be a mighty thing indeed.

One note of warning: This is not a good movie.  Don’t Netflix it, watch it, and then send me a pipe bomb.  The whole point of a movie that needs to be remade is that it wasn’t made right the first time.  But you should watch it simply because it needs to be seen.  Plus, you can lord it over your friends later. Oh, it’s called Seconds.  You probably haven’t heard of it.

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The Vent

I don’t normally use this space for persona grievances but I have to make an exception because I need someone to vent to and my wife is tired of hearing me go on about this subject.  So bear with me as I rail incoherently against the idea of continuous user interface redesign.

Back when IBM controlled the digital world, they set strict rules governing the lifecycle of their technology.  These rules meant that even if they had an improvement to their CPU or memory access, it would not make into a new model computer until three years had passed for the old technology.  This gave customers a sense of dependability, that they weren’t spending millions of dollars on something that would turn to be obsolete in six months.  It also provided a solid narrative that carried users through the upgrade path.

They tried this in the PC world and we all know how that turned out: Micro-(I know we have 14,000 known defects just ship it anyway)-soft kicked their asses out of the market.  And once the scourge of teenage coders was loosed upon the world we quickly went from “build it because it’s better” to “build it because you can.”

Here is a rule programmers should live by but don’t: Never make a change to a well-known interface element unless it will significantly improve the experience.  Take the classic word processor Word Star which I started using back in the CPM days.  When the programmers created what had to be one of the first context based menus, they hadn’t heard of mnemonics quite yet so instead of copy and paste being ^C ^P it was something random like ^M ^Q.  I don’t remember the exact commands but, trust me, they were random. 

Random but well-known.  They had been around for a long time and a lot of people, me included, knew those menus like the backs of our hands. However, when the concept of mnemonics came around, it would have been perfectly understandable to offer the option of changing the commands to something that made more sense.  Why?  Because even though it was a disruptive change, it would have made the user experience better.

Now let’s talk about the ribbons in Microsoft Office.  They’ve been around for quite some time now and I have yet to figure out how they improved the experience.  They certainly confused it, but I can’t see how they improved it.  But in this case I can at least see a reason for the change.  They may have been horribly wrong but someone at least thought ribbons would be superior to toolbars and menus.

The same cannot be said for Windows 8.  The logic behind slapping this horrible Frankenstein of an operating system on PCs must have gone something like this:

VP: Hey, we make a ton of revenue off of forcing people to upgrade their operating systems and Windows 7 has been out there for a while.  What have we got coming down the pike?

Techie: Nothing.  All we have is the new OS for tablets and phones.

VP: Can’t we use that on PCs too?

Techie: It wouldn’t make any sense.  The apps all run full screen.  The start screen is meant to be used with a touch device…

VP: But dollars.

Techie: Dollars?

VP: Call it Windows 8 and ship it.

Boom. Done.

I had my first experience with Windows 8 yesterday when I went to set up a new machine for my mother.  I had seen pictures of it, of course, but I couldn’t believe it was as bad as it looked.  It is.  It’s worse.  It is as far from intuitive as you can get and not include an input device that requires six fingers.

So what was it about these features that made it imperative for Microsoft to force the world’s PC vendors to install it on all their new machines?  You got me.  It sort of makes sense when you see it on a phone but for a PC, it’s ridiculous.  And it throws out everything we have learned to expect from a Windows operating system over the last two decades. 

That’s bad but it’s Microsoft so it’s understandable.  For them unnecessary UI “innovation” is about making money.  So at least there’s a motive there that any pure blood American capitalist can understand.

The worst offender of continuous user interface design, though, has to be the iTunes team.  I don’t know if they fear they’ll lose their jobs if they don’t overhaul the UI ever three weeks or what but they need to stop.  Actually, they need to stop and roll back one revision.

For as long as I’ve had iTunes installed, which has been since 1.0, it has been the app that just works.  I never had to read the help.  I never had to Google how to do something.  It made sense.  It was intuitive.  And, yes, they changed the interface on a regular basis but never substantially – until this most recent release which changed everything.  Notice I didn’t say it improved everything.  None of the changes are improvements, they’re just changes.  Changes that make everything more difficult.  For instance, you can no longer drag and drop.  This from the company that popularized drag and drop. 

As a matter of fact, I would say that this version of iTunes is entirely reminiscent of a Windows 2.0 app.

There’s enough programming that needs to be done out there, children, go do that good work and stop fiddling for the sake of fiddling.

There. I vented. 

The Never Dead

Let’s talk about independent filmmaking now and then.  I just watched Phantasm (1979) with my daughter and found myself having to explain why anyone would find this movie terrifying.  But we did find it terrifying and Don Coscarelli subsequently had a fine career as a master of horror (and even directed one of the best Masters of Horror episodes, Incident On And Off A Mountain Road). 

When you look at independent films of the 1970s, you have to understand they didn’t have $3,000 HD Canons with in-camera digital effects.  They didn’t edit their movies on their MacBooks while sipping java at the local Starbucks.  They had to rent bulky, out-of-date 35mm cameras and physically cut film into strips and tape it back together.   It’s a wonder indies got made at all.

But back to what was frightening about Phantasm when it first came out.  The Tall Man.  The malignant dwarves.  The murderous graveyard harpy.  The flying silver orbs of grisly death.  These were the things we were talking about in 1979.  “Have you seen Phantasm?” We’d ask anyone mooning over The Amityville Horror (a movie I hated then and still hate now).

So why wasn’t it scary when we watched it last night?  That’s easy.  You must watch a horror film in a movie theater.  Being in a dark room surrounded by strangers heightens the anxiety and intensifies the experience.  We were watching it at home in a well lit room while making jokes about the bell bottoms and crazy haircuts.  And that’s the second thing: It is easy to get distracted by the outdated clothing and hilarious 70s dialog.  “I don’t get off on funerals, man, they give me the creeps,” being just one example.

Finally, what Stephen King refers to as our “set of reality” has moved on to include seamless digital graphics and that makes the old practical effects seem hokey at times, although I’m still wondering how they got some of the shots of the flying orbs. 

So if you do decide to watch Phantasm on DVD just make sure to invite a bunch of strangers into your living room, dress everyone in puka shells and bell bottoms, and turn all the lights out before you put it up on that big screen TV.  You’ll thank me.

More Weirdness

I woke this morning with some new sticky notes on my computer: “The age of men who shake hands” and “The horrible lives of angels.” 

I remember getting up to write them and the sources whence they came to me but not why I felt they were so important that I had to flee my bed in the middle of the night to write them down. 

The first one comes from a scene in the movie Larry Crowne when Tom Hanks as the title character is perusing course titles in the lobby of the community college and the dean of student services, played by the always wonderful Holmes Osborne (You’ve seen him in a thousand movies and TV shows, you just don’t recognize his name), approaches to introduce himself.  He does this in the way of men of a certain age: with his hand outstretched. 

A handshake doesn’t carry the same weight it used to.  When I was growing up, it was very important to get the handshake down because that was how you were judged.  Too limp and you were a pushover.  Too vigorous and you were an overbearing loudmouth, probably an athlete who peaked in high school.  Too sweaty and you couldn’t be trusted.  These days it’s all about fist bumps and bro hugs.  It’s empty ritual.  But it occurred to me that man from a certain era still shake hands with great seriousness the way Larry Crowne and the Dean of Students services did.  Watch that scene and you’ll know what I’m getting at.

The second one came from a combination of places: The movie Groundhog Day and the novel 11-22-63.  In both stories, the main character has to travel though the same time period more than once – repeatedly in the case of Groundhog Day and three times in 11-22-63 – and each time through they have to save the same people.  It just got me thinking that the angels who take care of us must get weary of our foolish, self-destructive ways.  Maybe that’s why they eventually abandon us.

Neither of these notes is going to help with the writing of the fantasy novel but that doesn’t make them unimportant.  Everything you do and see and hear and say come together to form the context in which you write.  The story you tell is a product of that context.

So I’ll probably be up again in the wee hours when Artemis is abinding her sandals.  That’ll be me bent over my desk, sleepily scrawling something barely legible on a yellow sticky note.  I can’t wait to see what it is tomorrow morning.

 

The Difference

I don’t care for the phrase, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” not only because it’s fundamentally unsound logic – ask anyone who’s had a heart attack how much stronger he feels afterward – but also because it tends to denigrate and even discount the joy we find in our travails.  I would say that our pain goes far further to define us than our joy does.  Suffering forges stronger friendships just as being wronged builds passion into our fiber.

Ever wonder why your old man still talks long distance to that drafty old fart he knew in the Navy?  How about that college buddy who still can’t keep from dropping the F-bomb even into his sixties?  Ever noticed the gleam in your parents’ eyes when they talk about that first apartment they had when they were newlyweds?  The one where you couldn’t run the sink and flush the toilet at the same time?

These things aren’t impossibly impoverished obstacles.  They’re the joyful speed bumps of youth.  You define yourself when you leave the nest by the choices you make.  You differentiate yourself from your family by making different choices.  These choices can lead to some travails.  Some people slide right into their parents’ life without a hitch while others put their elbows out and go in swinging, not for any particular reason but just because they need something different. 

My life has always been a life of travail – both joyous and damning.  I am now and have always been one of those people who just don’t fit.  I’ve gone through periods where I craved normalcy and others when I violently rejected it, but neither mattered because normalcy was not a thing that was meant for me.  I’m different.  I have a story to explain exactly why I’m that way in all the ways that I am that way, but here’s a terrible secret about life: if you need a story to explain your behavior you’re never going to be one of the guys.

Don’t get me wrong, people like me.  If anything, my super power is that I’m extremely likable.  I can converse with a stranger for forty-five minutes on any topic.  I’m a wiz at job interviews.  I’m a great date.  Trust me, you want to watch movies with me.  But that doesn’t make me similar to everyone else.  It just makes my differentness acceptable.  Without that one gift, I’m just that guy on the corner who keeps talking to himself about how Herbert Hoover wants to steal his underwear.

Being different means you spend your life swimming upstream.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Going with the flow can sometimes leave you without questions and the life unquestioned is the life unlived.  It’s like a beautiful suit that never gets taken out of the bag. Theoretically it looks good, but you’ll never know for sure until you wear it.

I’m also lucky that the travails in my life have been almost entirely of my own making.  It’s not like I had to endure the racism of the sixties or the gay bashing of the seventies.  I’m a white, heterosexual male, what John Scalzi calls the easiest setting on the game of life, but I am different.  And when you’re different you travel a path uncommon to all the other people of your ilk, your race, and your class. 

I left college after my sophomore year to travel the country and write my first novel.  It was called Sending Down the Fare and eventually it got me my first editor, the wonderful Bill Thompson.  But in the process of writing that novel I wandered North America with nothing more than my 1974 Toyota Corolla, my Smith-Corona electric typewriter and what possessions I could carry.  When I landed in New Orleans, I rented a carriage house behind an uptown mansion.  It was little more than an un-air-conditioned shack, but it was in a neighborhood drenched in history, a place that spoke to me and made my fingers move over the keyboard.  I wrote in Los Angeles and in New Mexico and in Austin but I never wrote like I did when I was in New Orleans.  There was something about the oppressive heat, the shirt-drenching humidity, the daily thunderstorm, and the giant carnivorous cockroaches that drove my inner machine.

When you try to regale someone with a story like that, it comes off sounding a lot like the old, “uphill both ways through the snow,” yarns we’ve all heard way too much of.  But that’s the problem!  I don’t look back on my apartment in North Hollywood with its regular compliment of hookers coming home at dawn or the ratty carriage house in New Orleans or the hotel in New Mexico where I had to sleep with the door (and one eye) open as the rigors of my youth.  These aren’t hidebound stories.  They’re exultations of a great time.  A time I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been different, if I hadn’t taken a different path.

There were times I would have killed to be normal but I suspect that those normal guys who slipped seamlessly into their parents lives are the ones who ended up thrice divorced and angry at the world.  I’ve been married over thirty years and my kids still like and respect me.  And, you know what?  They’re different.  Both in their own way, they’re different.  They’re just lucky enough to live in a world that celebrates the difference people can bring instead of trying to bully them back into shape.

So if you’re out there and feeling weird because you’re different, I’d like to quote an old SF story to you.  I don’t remember who wrote it or even the exact story but its message is important enough that I think I should wing it. 

A boy grows up in a society where everyone is slotted into a particular career during their school years.  This is an old story so all the professions are based on which machine you would be best suited to operate.  The boy takes test after test but never gets assigned to a class of machines.  Finally, as high school comes to an end and all his friends are heading off to different factories to man their respective machines, he runs away.  Eventually he’s caught and taken to the place where those unqualified for any machine end up.  Once there, he meets a powerful engineer who asks him why he ran away.

     “I didn’t qualify for any of the machines,” the boy says.

     “I see,” the engineer says, “and where do you think the designs for the new machines come from?”

     It is true that the different suffer for their differences but it is also true that we create the future.  On this day, of all days, I have one thing to say to my brothers and sisters of the slightly askew: Endeavor to persevere for the future is yours.

 

 

The Weird Zone

First off, to answer a question: The reason there isn’t a post on this blog every day is that isn’t my target. My target is to put up a post every three days – you know, so you won’t get tired of me. Of course, that begs the question: Why isn’t there a post every three days? Well, because they don’t always turn out so hot. I write them, I rewrite them, and they still suck and you guys get stiffed for a few days. But it’s better than putting something crappy out there.

Okay, but back to the actual post: I’m in the weirdness zone right now. This is the phase of a project where you don’t do any actual writing, you just think about stuff. It’s that point in time when you’re standing in the kitchen, making a sandwich and you suddenly say, “Oh…a short order cook. Of course, they can go anywhere. They can live off the grid. A short order cook. That’s perfect.”

Then you look over and your wife is giving you the stink eye. And you say, “Nothing,” and go back to making your sandwich. Later that night, around two in the morning, you sit up in bed and realize you forgot to make a note about the short order cook so you get out of bed and traipse into your office wearing nothing but your underwear.

In the morning, your wife finds a note like this on a yellow sticky attached to your monitor: “Shrt Ord cook. Anywhere. Off grid. Second act intro in diner.”

Now that she’s convinced you’re a burgeoning serial killer, you cement that idea by taking an extra hour for lunch because you were driving around a strange neighborhood taking pictures of houses that have “yards where you could really bury a body.” These pictures go in a folder called, “Locations” which is right next to a folder full of faces called, “People.” Both of these folders are under a main folder which is named for the novel you’re working on, something like, “How To Murder Your Wife.”

You’re going to need a second napkin at dinner. One to wipe your mouth with and the other to jot surreptitious notes on when you think your wife’s not looking. You would just use a notepad but she’s banned those from the table.

Give her credit, she tries to make conversation. She says, “I’m still waiting on the bid for the repairs to family room.”

You pick up your fork and make a stabbing motion with it. “No,” you say. “How long do you think it would take to smother someone with a pillow? Is that even really possible? It’s got to be easier than cutting someone’s throat. That’s got to take a lot more effort than it looks like in the movies.”

“Is there someone you want to get rid of, honey?”

“Hmm? Yeah, the baker.”

“You’ve got something against Mr. Alcott?”

“Well, he is a witness.”

At some point, the folders will be completely filled with character and location pictures and the notepads will be filled and piled next to your computer. That’s when the hard work starts. But for now it’s fun and a little crazy and, to be honest, the thing that drew you to writing in the first place.

Enjoy it.