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“If You Have A Message…

22/04/2015

…send it Western Union.”

That saying by movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn appears semi-literate and anti-intellectual at first glance, but it’s actually pretty sage advice.

Goldwyn’s point, made in his inimitable Neanderthal style, was that trying to tell a story about A Very Important Matter almost always did a disservice to both the story and said Very Important Matter.

Ya gotta sneak up on these things, and if a writer wants to say something about A Very Important Matter, well, to quote Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

A story is never really about what it seems to be about.  Rio Bravo, one of the all time classic Westerns, is not about seeing a bad guy gets justice; it’s about the necessity of building a community.[1]  El Dorado, a remake of Rio Bravo using the same story and stock characters, with the same star & writer & director, again is not about seeking justice but about surviving scars, both physical and psychic.[2]

Write a story and it will have a subtext / theme / moral / point all its own.  You can’t keep it out.  The very words you choose, the order in which you arrange your scenes, all these things will convey your true meaning, even if you’re trying to hide it from yourself.

Bernard Malamud once said, “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times — once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.”

I’ve seen a variant on that which runs along the lines of:  “Use the first draft to tell yourself the story, the second draft to figure out what the story is really about, and the final draft to figure out how to tell the story.”

Theodore Sturgeon once told me a story about how he had suffered a particularly bad case of writer’s block during the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings.

Suffering a writer’s block would have been bad enough in and of itself, but he had already accepted (and spent!) a sizeable advance from editor H.L.Gold of Galaxy magazine for a novella he was now incapable of delivering.

He called Gold up and confessed his problem, telling him “I want to say something about the hearings, but I just can’t figure out how to say it.”

Gold listened sympathetically then said, “Do this:  Start writing a story that begins with a man at a bus station waiting for his wife to return from a trip.  When the bus pulls in, she gets off but doesn’t see her husband at first.  There’s a man behind her on the bus and he’s carrying her suitcase.  That man hands her the suitcase, then she sees her husband, walks over, and kisses him.

“Start your story that way, and by the end of it I guarantee everybody in America will know exactly how Theodore Sturgeon feels about Senator Joe McCarthy.”

(Sturgeon took Gold’s advice and, with slight modifications, turned it into one of his best known works:  “Mr. Costello, Hero”  You can hear a radio dramatization of it here.)

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Poster - Rio Bravo_01Given a choice between Bernard Malamud
looking all pensive and intellectual and
John Wayne blastin’ the @#%& outta sumbuddy,
hoodya think I’d choose to illustrate this post?

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[1]  In this case figuratively and not literally; the town of Rio Bravo is already well established at the start of the movie, the community that forms is the small band of people who come together to defend one another against fearful odds.

[2]  Wayne, Hawks, and Brackett went to the same well a third time with Rio Lobo, of which we shall not speak.  brrr…

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“Thou Art The Man”

21/04/2015

We’re going to examine a Bible story but — surprise! surprise! — not for its theological content.

Rather, we’re going to look at the way all stories convey deeper, hidden truths; and how the best stories pull us in to get us to identify & empathize with the core theme.

The story in question is actually a story within a story, so we’ll start with the broader context:

King David, from his palace, spies a woman bathing on her rooftop. He asks his servants who she is; they tell him she’s Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah.

Instead of saying “Whoops! Married lady — no can touch!” King David invites her up to the palace to, y’know, chat & whatnot.

The whatnot results in her getting pregnant.

No biggie, thinks King David. He calls Uriah back from the front, purportedly to have him report on the situation, but in reality hoping he’ll spend his off duty hours boffing his wife Bathsheba so David’s genetic contribution will be overlooked.

Only Uriah is a real straight arrow and refuses to go home, saying he can’t betray his fellow soldiers by enjoying his marital bed while they’re slogging it out in the field.

So King David sends a secret message back with Uriah to his general, telling him to launch an attack but leave Uriah in an exposed position.

The general does so, Uriah gets killed, and David moves Bathsheba into the palace to “comfort” her.

He thinks nobody will know about his shenanigans, but if you want to keep a secret from your political enemies, don’t employ a palace full of servants. The word spreads, and discontent rises in the kingdom. Murmurings of civil war start circulating, and people outraged by David’s behavior go to Nathan, the prophet on duty, and ask him to do something about it.

What Nathan does is to tell King David a story:

“There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

“And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.”

And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

And Nathan said to David,
“Thou art the man.”

thou-art-the-man_peter_rothermel_david_nathan_bYowza! Were there ever four words with a more chilling impact than that? And again, we’re putting theological implications aside; what Nathan did was to present a fiction that David identified so closely with from his humble beginnings as a lowly shepherd boy that his heart instantly leapt in outrage and a cry for justice –

– and then Nathan lowered the boom on him and made him realize he was judging himself for his own crime.

That is what fiction is meant to do.

Not specifically convict us of our own sins & shortcomings, but to make us identify with another point of view so that we are then drawn to an inescapable application to our own lives.

If Nathan had approached David with a straight on attack as to why betraying a trusted subordinate by schtuping his wife and then having him killed to cover it up was A Very Bad Idea, David would have produced a battalion of priests / philosophers / poets who would have explained that oh no not in this case; in this specific case it was not only justifiable for David to boff Bathsheba and kill Uriah but it was actually a good thing — a very good thing! — and that Nathan was a party pooper for even daring to bring the matter up.

Don’t believe me?

Spend five minutes scanning political headlines;
see how many people justify behaviors
they decried as crimes the day before.

All great stories do that. Call it the moral of the story, the theme, the subtext, the point; whatever it is, it’s the underlying unspoken truth that lays unseen below the surface, but like great rocks in a flowing river shape the current of the story.

Recently there have been calls by some to stop promoting stories that openly tackle certain topics and themes.

It’s one thing to criticize a story for being so ineptly written that the theme jarringly intrudes on the narrative — though truth be told, you can do anything you want in a story as long as you do it entertainingly.

It’s another thing to say the only stories worth reading or viewing are those that strip away all moral & ethical content and are just paper thin mono-dimensional characters engaged in a series of spectacular but ultimately pointless conflicts with other paper thin mono-dimensional characters.

I got in trouble a lot when I was writing Saturday morning cartoon shows lo these many years decades in the last century moons ago, and vey often it was because I would rather insistently demand to know why our characters were doing what they were doing.

“What difference does it make to Batman and Robin if the Joker steals the Eiffel tower? Are they going to miss a meal if he does so? Is anybody going to suffer because of it? I’ll grant you’re the Joker is crazy and does crazy stuff, but why would that involve Batman and Robin?”

The suits would look at me and say “they’re superheroes” and I’d say “yeah, so? What motivates them personally to get involved?”

Because that’s where the theme, the moral, the subtext comes in. It’s all a pointless chase unless the characters’ actions reflect some deeper symbol of truth. [1]

You cannot escape subtext; it will be there no matter how hard you try to drive it out. The human mind craves meaning, and even a random arrangement of images will spark some linkage in our brain, some sequence that conveys some sort of deeper meaning than the mere arbitrary arrangement of pictures.

Indeed, the more you try to drive it out, the more you will reveal what causes you to fear subtext.[2]

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art by Peter Rothermel 

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[1] Too often the shows we did were crap because we’d try to shoehorn a motivation in after the fact; we’d come up with a great gimmick and then try to find a way of justifying it. You see that in overly clever murder mysteries and sloppily plotted superhero stories; characters who go to insane lengths to commit not-very-profitable crimes when applying the same effort to a non-criminal endeavor would enrich them greatly.

[2] Back in the 1970s/80s there was a concept among fans of psychotronic films called Bad Truth. Bad Truth was what occurred when there was no censorship between the brain and what ended up on the screen. And by censorship I’m not referring to the morality police, but rather the inhibitors of taste brought about by adequate time and money. Most Bad Truth films were ultra-low budget / no budget affairs hastily thrown together with no time to polish the extreme rough edges; as a result they tended to be pretty naked reflections of their film makers’ ids. Bad Truth can be found at the far other end of the economic spectrum as well; big budget productions helmed by a film maker with enough clout not to be answerable to the studio funding them.

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W. Somerset Maugham On Writing Novels

17/04/2015

maugham smoking

“There are three rules for writing novels.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

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Sound Advice For All Writers

12/04/2015

always choose the right word

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“Seven Stanzas at Easter” by John Updike

1/04/2015

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

(found at Centre For Public Christianity)

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Thomas Mann Spills The Beans

20/03/2015

Thomas Mann on writing

“A writer is someone for
whom writing is more difficult
than it is for other people.”
– Thomas Mann

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Tom Waits On The Evils Of Bad Writing

11/03/2015

tom waits on writing

“The world is a hellish place,
and bad writing is destroying
the quality of our suffering.”
– Tom Waits

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American Cinematheque TRANSFORMERS / G.I. JOE Panels

9/03/2015

GI_Joe_The_Movie

This is my first chance to comment at length on last night’s great showing of Transformers: The Movie and G.I. Joe: The Movie at the Egyptian in Hollywood for the American Cinematheque.

First off, I want to say what an honor and a thrill it was to be invited to participate. It was great seeing so many of the old crew again, including Don Jurwich, Larry F. Houston, Neil Ross, Hank Garrett (wish you had time to tell that hilarious story from your pro wrestler days about the “wild man” you had to face once), Michael Bell, Bill Ratner, Wally Burr, and my old friend (and one of the few I’ve got left) Flint Dille.

And it was especially great to finally see G.I. Joe: The Movie the way it was intended to be shown, and in as great and as historic a venue as the Egyptian (my personal fave of the old classic Hollywood theaters).  Soon-ok will tell you it was both a proud and a humbling moment for me.

And another proud and humbling aspect were all the fans who showed up and expressed great enthusiasm for what we had done 30 some years when we were toiling away at Sunbow. Truth be told, at the time we wondered how well we would be remembered for our efforts, and I’m happy to see that we made a big impression with a lot of people that continues to this day.

My thanx to Duvien Ho, Michael Floyd, and all the other folks at both American Cinematheque and Dammaged Goods for putting this show together, and a special thanx to fans and friends like Ralph Miley, Geoff Strout, Holly Knevelbaard, Josh Burns, Diana Davis, and so many others who came out and made it so wonderful.

Here is video & audio of the panels:

pre-show panel video

intermission panel video

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Anais Nin On Writing

4/03/2015

Anaia Nin on writing

“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then do not write; our culture has no use for it.” — Anaias Nin

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TRANSFORMERS & G.I. JOE At American Cinematheque!

21/02/2015

GI_Joe_The_Movie

For those Joe and Transformer fans out there, the American Cinematheque is hosting a double feature at the Hollywood Egyptian on March 7, 2015.  Both films will be shown and sandwiched in between ‘em will be writer/story editor Flint Dille, voice actor Neil Ross, director Don Jurwich, story board director Larry Houston, writer Don Glut, and yrs trly to talk about the films and the other series produced by Sunbow in the mid-80s.

Anything we can’t remember, we’ll make up…

The fun starts at 7:30, tickets are $11 (but only $7 if you’re an American Cinematheque member, so why doncha join?), and the Egyptian (my personal favorite of the classic Hollywood movie palaces) is located at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, between Las Palmas and McCadden, just east of Highland Avenue in Hollywood.

Don’t make us come looking for you!

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