Self Inflicted Wounds

Last Friday, a friend and I were feeling a little masochistic and so decided to watch a double-feature of Oblivion and Last Stand.  I’m not going to say much about Last Stand because it’s just a really unremarkable film.  It’s so full chock full of 80s action film clichés that it should have been billed as a Shane Black tribute film rather than Arnold’s comeback movie, but other than that, it was as uninteresting to watch as a vice-presidential debate.

But Oblivion, on the other hand, should have been called The Idiot’s Guide To How Not To Make An Action Film.   Everything that is wrong with the modern big budget blockbuster summer tent pole movie was lackadaisically stuffed into this stupid waste of pixels.  Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel both suffered from the same sickness that killed Oblivion while The Avengers was only saved from the same fate by Joss Whedon’s wit and sense of humor. 

This is something that someone needs to whisper into the ears of powerful people in Hollywood:

The human brain is a pattern matching machine.

For God’s sake, throw out every copy of Save the Cat and start putting some unexpected beats in your stories.  When even non-film buffs can predict what’s going to happen in the next scene, you’ve created a pattern in the global moviegoer consciousness.  And don’t give me that crap about fulfilling expectations.  Recognizing a pattern is the least rewarding experience a person can have in a movie theater.  People delight in having their expectations jostled.  The Shyamalam twist?  Worked the first time.  After that, people started watching the movie specifically to spot the twist ending.  If Hollywood can’t break free of their Mad-Libs storytelling based on the creative infection that is Save the Cat, then studios are doomed to continue losing big money on big flops.

If you haven’t heard of it: Save the Cat is a book on how to write screenplays that puts page numbers to actual beats.  It has become the lingua franca of moviemaking in Hollywood which goes a long way toward explaining why every damn movie looks the same now.

Spielberg and the other guy, what’s his name, Lucas, came out recently and predicted a box office implosion was coming.  Their assertion was that with too many studios making big budget movies, the audience would get tired of them and stay away in droves.  I don’t think that’s the problem.  Had Into Darkness and Man of Steel and RIPD and Lone Ranger been good movies or, more specifically, if they had differed from one another in story rather than just set design, I would have happily paid to see all of them.

People don’t stay home and stream it on Netflix because it’s cheaper.  This is AMERICA.  We will pay any amount of money to be entertained.  We stay home because we don’t think the movie is worth the risk.  And lately, that has never been more true. 

I’ve seen one good blockbuster this summer, came out of the theater with a smile one time, and that was Pacific Rim.  Even though that movie is a Cat based film like all the others, it fulfilled a dream of mine that formed when I saw the trailer for Mothra at the drive-in as a child: to see giant robots fight giant monsters and not know that it was just guys in rubber suits.  Clearly, not everyone felt that way – although, predictably, they’re digging it pretty hard in Asia.

Here’s the thing about special effects: They can only enhance storytelling, not replace it.  And if someone doesn’t find that cat and put a bullet in its head very soon, we are going to see a tsunami of red ink gush out of Hollywood in the very near future.

And, lastly, what happened to Tom Cruise?  When did he lose his ability to summon drama and just start reciting lines?  In Oblivion, he looked tired to the point of weariness and acted like someone doing an impression of Tom Cruise running lines.  I don’t generally watch his movies so I’m not sure if this has been going on for a long time or if he just had the flu while shooting Oblivion, but he might want to check in with a mental health… oh, that’s right.

The Gibson Conundrum

I am haunted by William Gibson.  Which is interesting because, as much as I love his work, I find it rather difficult to read.  Most modern writing, especially science fiction writing, tends toward the less-is-more school of bare bones sentence structure, but Gibson is completely different.  Reading Gibson, with his dense and complicated paragraphs and stream of consciousness metaphors layered one on top of the other by dint of a massive vocabulary and a tendency to make up new words where the old ones fail, feels more like reading a late 19th century author. 

He’s one of the few writers I respect but whom I don’t want to emulate.  In fact, when I sometimes spot a Gibsonesque paragraph in my own stuff, I grab my whittling knife and start cutting.  It’s not that his writing isn’t good, it’s very good, it’s that that type of writing coming out of me isn’t natural.  It’s not the way my mind works and if you write in a way that is not organic to your brain structure, you are telling lies. 

I’ve always been curious what makes him so different from everyone else I read and I think I finally have an answer.  I picked up a DVD called No Maps for These Territories which turns out to be an interview with Gibson made while being driven around in the back of a limo.  There are few questions from the unseen narrator.  It’s mostly just Gibson free associating about his life, the world today (circa the late 90s when this DVD was made), and the future. 

It’s absolutely fascinating, not just for the insights into a great mind, but because you come to understand something about Gibson over the duration of the interview.  He is not like the rest of us.  His mind does not work the way most minds work.  His perception of the world is as beautifully twisted as Philip K. Dick’s was but in a completely different way.

I don’t mean that in a bad way.  That difference of perception is what makes him great.  Let me explain by way of an experience I had in my twenties.  I was living in New Orleans with some friends and one day we were walking down St. Charles Avenue and came upon a streetcar that was stopped and surrounded by mechanics, service personnel, and EMS.  When my eyes finally focused on what they were all working on, I saw a man had been run over by the streetcar and was trapped under it.

I had been taking those streetcars to work every day and was highly enamored of them, but when I saw this man trapped under there, it changed my perception.  I said to my friend, “I used to think of these streetcars like big, friendly anachronisms.  Like pet bears.  But now they seem more like relentless predators that feed on unwary pedestrians.”

My friend turned and regarded me for a moment before saying, “Your brain does not work like other brains.”

Now, in my case, that was a minor difference in perception, much like anthropomorphizing an animal that other people just see as an animal. But in Gibson’s case, he sees the entire world as a completely other thing.  He says in the interview that he came up with the concept of cyberspace after seeing kids with the first Sony Walkmans, the first truly personal entertainment device that isolated its user from the rest of the world, and kids playing the old arcade video games.  He said when he saw them working the controllers of those games it was like they were trying to get through the cabinet into a shared space behind the screen.  That is a patently amazing leap of intuition if you ask me and could only have come from a mind as different and special as his.

Listening to him wax about the world as I watched the DVD for fifth or sixth time, I began to get what it is about his writing that is so different.  I wasn’t looking at the video at that point, I was just listening to the audio while doing something else, and Bono came on and started reading a passage from Neuromancer.  It put me in mind of when I got the audio book of On The Road, the one read by Will Patton.  I had tried to read OTR several times but just couldn’t get into it, but listening to Patton narrate the story, I started to get the jazz phrasing that made it so special.  And once I got that Beat rhythm, I loved that book.  I finally got it.

Listening to Bono read from Neuromancer, I realized why Gibson’s writing so intimidates and awes me.  William Gibson isn’t a novelist.  He’s a goddamn poet.

Blah Blah Words And Stuff

I am tired.  I have to say this out loud (or write it on my blog, I guess) but I am exhausted.  I don’t know how the old school pulp fiction writers banged out twenty stories and three novels a year.  Whiskey?  Maybe?  I don’t know, but my brain feels like tofu.  Okay, I don’t know what that means.  Let me try again: my brain is so tired I can’t come up with a valid simile.

I did finish the first volume of the trilogy a few weeks ago and I’m now taking a break from the second volume to do a polish draft on the first.  And it’s good.  I’m pleased with what I’m seeing.  But when I reach into my toolkit for something creative to fill a plot hole or put together a better sentence, all I get is a handful of sopping wet brain.  Again, that’s a terrible metaphor but it’s all I can come up with at the moment.

I suspect that this has as much to do with being high summer as with having written so much.  I tend to be energetic in the fall and spring but being trapped indoors so much in winter and summer, my energy tends to ebb and I feel tired all of the time. This is when writing time goes minimalistic.  A couple hours a day at most and even on my walks, my mind doesn’t wander to story, it’s just blankly hoping the walk will be over soon.  At this point, I’m really just walking the dog.

Okay, since I started the last three paragraphs with “I,” I am now starting this paragraph with “Okay.”  This need to revert to minimal exertion twice a year is why I keep multiple projects in the works at all times.  It’s much easier and much less of a strain on the creative muscle to do a polish draft than it is to write on a blank page.

But what I really wanted to talk about today is how we can slip into writing a very narrow band of human interaction.  Plot driven stories tend to have people who make a lot of rational decisions.  Since their actions are rational and expected, you don’t get a lot of tension or drama and, therefore, the story requires plot elements to drive the story in new directions.

     “Drop the gun, Rocko.  We got you surrounded.”

     “Okay.” Drops gun.

     “You’re coming with us.  If you try to run, we’ll plug ya full of holes.”

     “Okay.” Raises hands.

See?  There’s not a lot going on in that scene.  Rocko is doing everything right.  He’s being rational.  So, to get the story moving, we need a plot point to kick it in the keester.

     BOOM!  A UFO crashes into the abandoned warehouse and kills all the coppers before speeding off again.  Now Rocko is on the lam as a cop killer.

There.  That’s better.  The story is now propelled forward without Rocko having to make an irrational decision.

The reason this comes to mind is that Alex Rodriguez was suspended from Major League Baseball for 211 games today and the MLB Network has been running old interviews all day in which he straight up lies about everything to everyone.  In 2009, he tacitly admitted to “experimenting” with a banned substance, apologized, and asked America to judge him from that day forward.  Because, obviously, lesson learned.  Unfortunately, that lesson was “don’t get caught.” 

Now they have hard evidence that he’s been juicing the whole time, MLB has suspended him for 211 games.  AND HE APPEALED.  Not because he’s innocent, but because he feels that his punishment isn’t fair.  Can you imagine the gall?  If I did this, or if you did this, we would slink off to the middle of nowhere and never show our lousy faces again.  This would be the kind of humiliation that could literally kill a normal person.  But not A-Rod.  He appealed.  He pushed back.

That’s the kind of character decision that drives the plot instead of vice-versa.  You don’t need a UFO to crash into MLB headquarters and take out the Commissioner.  A-Rod just turned the plot on a dime by doing something that most of us would find literally unthinkable.

Think about Ryan Braun.  Arguably, he is as big a piece of tissue paper stuck to the dress shoes of the world as A-Rod (after all, he’s a millionaire who got a hard working, minimum wage worker fired to cover up his own guilt) but knowing that his sins would be detailed in public if he appealed his sentence, he accepted the suspension and slipped away to hide until no one wants to cover him in kerosene and play, “Who’s got a light?”

The problem with coming up with these kinds of character choices is that they really are literally unthinkable to people with a functioning soul.  If you really want to turn your consciousness inside out, read about how Charles Ng, the notorious murderer and torturer, gamed the legal system to keep from paying for his crimes. 

And here’s the last thing I’m going to say on this (because, did I mention my brain is tired?): A decision like that has to be organic to the character.  You can’t take someone honorable like Hank Aaron and have him suddenly do something douchey because you need to move the plot along.  If you’re going to have a character act this way, you have to set him up from the very beginning to be a narcissistic sociopath.  You know, like A-Rod.