Tag Archives: Inception

Why I Write

Tag!  I’m it!  So there is something called a “blog hop” going on amidst my little community of fellow Internet scribes in which each of us is tasked in turn to devote a few paragraphs to what drives us to arrange letters into words and sentences and fling them out for the world’s amusement.  I was nominated by the awesome Siofra Alexander, whose online collection of her poetry, dream journals and other assorted thoughts is one of the most imaginative and unpredictable places I’ve encountered, and boasts the most unique titles you’re likely to see.  Check it out for yourself, and see if you don’t agree that if Christopher Nolan had tapped her to design the dreamscapes in Inception, it would have been a much wilder ride.

On to the meat of the question, then.  Why do I write?  It seems tantamount to asking someone why he breathes.  But everyone’s answer is going to be different, as there is no perfect mold in which we can all be squeezed.  I have wondered, though, over the last couple of years as I’ve really entrenched myself in the blogging world and been exposed to the craft of so many others who seem so much better at it, and far more dedicated.  I don’t really seem to fit the model – can really call myself a writer in that vein.  I was ruing yesterday, as I hit publish on my Blade Runner entry, that I have only posted three entries in the last two months (and after Siofra lauded me for accomplishing the 30-day blog challenge back in April, too!)  Some writers can scarcely contain the bajillions of ideas for novels, short stories, poetry and so on percolating in their minds at any given time, and their sites are accordingly bursting with fresh content published daily, while they work on their eighth novel and read a dozen new books a week.  I can only wish that was me, though I’m at an utter loss as to how they fit it all in with (presumably) jobs, relationships and families to consider as well.

There is a purpose and clear path I see in others that feels muddied in myself.  When I started this blog back in 2011 I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, and I kind of flailed around for a few months (am I a political blogger?  Am I a movie reviewer?  Music critic?  Comedian?  Feminist?  Travel expert?  Dispenser of dubious advice on how to write?  What are these blasted widget things anyway, and why haven’t I been Freshly Pressed yet?)  Eventually I established something of a template, and a style, and contented myself with writing just whatever the hell I felt like writing about that day, without worrying overmuch about the generally accepted notion that you should confine yourself to one subject if you want to build your audience to Bloggess-esque levels.  It’s the same reason why I don’t aspire to become more like the folks I noted in the paragraph above – the journey has been about realizing that it’s okay to just be who I am without struggling to ape somebody else.  And that particular me cannot be pigeonholed as one distinct archetype; rather there are many facets and shades and contradictions to explore.  From an external point of view, this blog may read like an attempt to make sense of the world, but from this side of the keyboard, it’s about figuring meself out, and establishing something of a record of who I was and what I believed.

It’s perhaps the height of ego and arrogance to assume that anyone else gives a tinker’s cuss, but at the same time, it’s obvious that I want you to, otherwise these 299 essays would remain locked away, for my eyes only.  Self-effacement to the contrary, nobody writes to be ignored, and the endorphins that fire upon the receipt of the alert that someone has liked, commented or shared something we penned cannot be replicated by any chemical substance out there.  The validation we feel when someone tells us they enjoyed something we wrote is magical, as much as it may be bad form to admit that.  The reverse, when a post goes ignored, or a rejection email arrives with the dreaded “not quite right for me,” is gutting.  Though it is farcical to tie one’s self-esteem to the appreciation of, or indifference to, the creative work we produce, we do it anyway, against our better judgment.  We write to be loved.  We write to make ourselves worthy of love.  When my wife tells me something I wrote brought tears to her eyes, I feel lifted.  And I feel like I earned it, and no matter what else happens, that moment can’t be taken away.

I’m not sure when I started writing.  It’s amusing to note how many successful writers will relate stories of how they got terrible marks in English.  Mine were always pretty good (except first year university, which was something of an eye-opener), and on creative assignments, it wasn’t rare to score 100%.  I will never forget a Grade 12 assignment to do an updated version of Catcher in the Rye, essentially speculating on what Holden Caulfield would think of the modern (eg. early 90’s) world.  I asked whether profanity was permitted, and was told yes, no problem.  So at one point in the narrative I had Holden encounter a couple of roughs listening to the most vile, misogynist, pornographic song lyrics I could come up with (to provide some context, this was back when 2 Live Crew was in the business of offending Tipper Gore, so it was topical material.)  My friends were all convinced I was going to get suspended for submitting it, but, hands shaking and stomach churning, I did anyway, and got back a perfect grade with about a page’s worth of handwritten, single-spaced comments as my teacher went back and forth on whether or not I should have included those lyrics – calling them disgusting, dirty and inappropriate, but ultimately recognizing what I was trying to do (that it was fiction, not an endorsement or reflection of my actual attitude) and that ultimately I was writing at a level far beyond that of my peers.  I know that’s not how the story is supposed to end – it’s supposed to end with me failing the course, being told I’m an embarrassment to the written word and only much later blossoming into a revered, bestselling genius, right?  But that’s not my story.

My story isn’t Hollywood or even novel-esque, but it could not have gone any other way.  I’m not going to be the bespectacled book blogger who crashes Goodreads with tomes of reviews and lands a six-figure deal for a debut novel.  I won’t be the literary thought leader with thousands of Twitter disciples hanging on the next 140 characters of brilliance to come tumbling from my thumbs.  I won’t be the guy who was always annoying his friends by yammering on about the stories he wanted to write and one day wound up executive producing a hit television show.  I’m just going to be me, whoever and whatever that is and turns out to be.  So one has to set that aside and get back to the bare essence of what it’s all about – arranging letters into words and sentences in a manner that will hopefully find its way to someone else’s eyes, mind and heart.  Taking the victories where they come and shrugging off the slights.  Keep on keeping on, because I honestly don’t know what else I’d do with myself.

And that, ladies and germs, is why I write.

In the spirit of the blog hop, I hereby nominate Raishimi and Nillu Stelter, both stellar smiths of words whose passion and raw talent has managed to dislocate my jaw for the sheer number of times it’s dropped when reading their stuff.  Looking forward to your take on what drives you to pursue this crazy craft.

I Suck at Description

The sky was blue.  The sand was not.
The sky was blue. The sand was not.

That’s my mea culpa for the day.  If I had to rank my perceived strengths as a writer in descending order, description would linger odiously in the basement with the lawn furniture and the dresser my wife keeps reminding me we need to sell.  I’m good at dialogue, at proposing ideas and batting them around, at the exploration of questions of human nature and our place in the universe, but, ask me to put any of these items in a setting that leaps off the page and I will curl up in the corner of that setting sobbing like an infant afraid of having his wooby taken away.  Every time I go back through my novel for revisions and start to think, “hey, this isn’t so bad,” I encounter someone else’s work that blows me back through the wall and turns my confidence to lime Jell-O.  I just can’t seem to crack that important element and it drives me bonkers.

I’ve devoted a lot of self-examination to trying to figure out why this aspect is so difficult for me.  Some writers seem to be able to do it flawlessly.  Within a few short, concise phrases you know exactly where you are – your imagination is triggered and the setting shimmers into existence around you as though you had stepped into the holodeck and announced “Run Program.”  Writing, as someone famous whose name escapes me for the moment has observed (I think it was Joyce Carol Oates), is about creating atmosphere.  My focus, however, has always been on character, though, and how the characters interrelate, and that usually means dialogue, and lots of it.  (And of course, you run into plenty of writing advice that suggests too much dialogue is a bad thing.  Can’t win, can’t even quit the game.)  In a perfect world, this is how I would describe almost every scene, so I could get on with crafting conversations (from Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett):

 A country road.  A tree.  Evening.

A few more words about Estragon trying to pull off his boot and we’re off to the races.  Okay then, you’re asking, why don’t you just write plays then?  I’ve written exactly one play, it was called Brushstrokes, a three-act examination of hidden love and the inability of men to admit their feelings tied together with a tenuous nail polish metaphor, and well, the less said about it the better.  That’s not to say I’ll never try another one, but in writing it I missed the ability to digress into stretches of narrative, to get into the heads of the characters and figure out what they were thinking.  It is not to suggest that novels don’t have to have structure, or limits for that matter, but they tend to be a freer place to play.  You can linger on a particular thought, explore its depths and its reaches, without worrying too much about a foot-tapping, finger-drumming audience waiting in exasperation for the next line.  It can be rather like the van that took forever to fall off the bridge in Inception without seeming to drag down the pace – again, depending on how you write it.  So it helps if you’re really good at that.

Many great writers are poets and can bring that sensibility to details as slight as a flake of ash falling from a burning cigarette, or the single flap of a hummingbird’s wing.  My description, by contrast, tends to be simple and straightforward.  What you need to know and no more.  Here’s an example from my novel:

Splinters of wood and crumbling brick from ramshackle buildings line the pockmarked street.  Lampposts bent by storms and vandals stand eerie sentry.  The rattle of broken window shutters is this rotting borough’s only tenant.

And another:

Dotted by whitecaps, the river is an icy gray.  Brine and rotting algae poisons the air.  The north side of the city lurks, cloaked, beneath frigid fog.  At the end of the jetty, a flat barge with a water wheel at its stern strains against the grip of the ropes anchoring it in place.  Creaking twin planks on its starboard side wobble under the boots of passengers laden with sacks and baskets who are shuffling aboard to claim a precious portion of the hard benches in the center of the craft.

One more:

A paved drive marked by a trail of brass lanterns on iron posts conducts us through spacious, garden-rich grounds, past a stone-rimmed lily pond watched by a gazebo, once-trim shrubs and dwarf trees grown wild with neglect.  The secluded manse that presides is half-hidden by branches yet still exudes wealth and pretense, as if trying to compete with its neighbors.  Long thin windows with black shutters adorn the exterior, while a portico supported by white columns protrudes over the front entrance.  A terraced second floor is set back on the high roof of the first.  A pointless relief of vine-entwined roses on the portico adds to the sense of superfluous money that permeates this place.

There is nothing technically wrong with any of these passages, but poetry they sure as hell ain’t.  Even looking at them sitting here out of context I want to rewrite them from word one.  One’s spirit crumples into crushed tinfoil at the possibility of being considered a candidate for a Bulwer-Lytton award, or as the latest Eye of Argon.  But you do what you can with what you have and keep trying to do better.  And though sometimes you gnash your teeth at the raw talent on display in some other people’s mere first drafts, you can’t let that stop you from moving forward.

The mistake that I tend to make and that many others probably do as well is in not having the description of the scene push the story forward in any way.  Think of it in terms of the last time you related a funny anecdote to your best friend.  You didn’t say, “So, I was at the grocery store.  It was a massive, soulless building painted in black and brown and the floor tiles bore the smudges of the soles of a thousand tired mothers dragging screaming children who were unable to comprehend the simple nutritional logic of why it wasn’t a good idea to eat chocolate at every meal.”  Your friend is sitting there saying “I don’t care!  What happened at the store?!”  You want to stage the scene and sprinkle in some color, but putting in that kind of description is like hitting the pause button.  It breaks the momentum and adds nothing.

Those who know what they’re doing, even writers who are incredibly journalistic and fetishistic about detail, like the late Ian Fleming, use that information to push the narrative – to tell you about the character they’re trying to sketch in your mind.  The sometimes excruciating manner in which Fleming waxes on about James Bond’s breakfast preferences still manages to tell you something important, that this is a man who defines himself very much by his tastes, and he is as much a social competitor with the villains he squares off against as he is a knight trying to slay the fearsome dragon.  It works, though, because everyone knows how Bond likes his martini, and “shaken, not stirred” has become entrenched in the zeitgeist (even if Aaron Sorkin insists it’s wrong).

Also, as human beings, we tend to notice individual details rather than the big picture.  This is crucial when you are writing first-person perspective as well because you can’t use that detached, “I SEE AND HEAR ALL” narrative voice.  When you spot an attractive person coming towards you, there’s probably one specific trait that strikes you first; their eyes, their smile, what have you.  And that characteristic will define them in your mind from then on.  That girl with the long dark hair, the guy with the shark tattoo on his right forearm.  (It does not have to be a visual characteristic either:  the girl who sings like a parrot with laryngitis, or the guy who smells like apple cinnamon soap.)  The same goes with scenery.  The tall building with the broken window on the top floor.  The car with the coughing exhaust pipe.  If your character has a particular perspective on the world, what they notice will flow organically out of that perspective as well.  Mine is accustomed to the peace of a silent forest, so the things she takes note of are what stands out to her as unusual – noise and artifice.  If I’ve done my job correctly, that should tell you something about her and how she views the world.  If not, then it’s back to the rewrite shed for another round of head-splitting angst and wondering why, despite people telling me contrary and often, I continue, in my own mind, to suck.

Anyone else struggling with this stuff?  Let me know.  Let’s help each other out.

Skyfall Countdown Day 18: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

“Come to think of it, this job isn’t so bad.”

With Sean Connery saying “sayonara,” and the horrendous knockoff Casino Royale a fading memory, it was time for Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to turn their attention to giving their golden goose a reboot (how’s that for a mixed metaphor!)  After an exhaustive casting search, the mantle was bestowed upon 29-year-old Australian model George Lazenby.  Famously, what is said to have clinched the role for him was a test fight scene where the inexperienced Lazenby, not knowing anything about stage fighting, went full tilt and broke the nose of the stuntman he was sparring with.  It was a big gamble to trust an unknown in his first leading role with the most emotionally complex Bond screenplay to date.  Ultimately the movie did not live up to the box office of Bonds past, and Lazenby’s first outing would be his last.  But it has developed a significant following and deep, retroactive appreciation as years have passed, particularly among filmmakers themselves.

After the complete departure that was You Only Live Twice, Majesty’s returns largely to the text of the Ian Fleming book.  Wisely, the filmmakers avoid any clumsy explanations for the change in Bond’s appearance and dive right in as if nothing has happened – apart from winking at it with Lazenby’s famous line, “This never happened to the other fellow.”  While searching high and low for his archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (absent his scar and weird accent, now played by Telly Savalas), Bond crosses paths with the beguiling yet troubled Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), daughter of crime lord Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Their attraction grows as Bond follows Blofeld’s trail to a mountaintop hideaway in Switzerland, filled with a harem of beautiful girls, where it turns out SPECTRE’s number one ailurophile is developing bacteria he intends to unleash on the world’s food supply.  Stymied by red tape from his own side, Bond enlists Draco’s private army to lead an assault on Blofeld’s lair and prevent worldwide starvation.  And in the Bond series’ most tragic finale, Bond and Tracy tie the knot only to have her shot and killed as they drive away from the wedding ceremony.  Bond is left weeping that they have “all the time in the world.”

From a technical standpoint the movie is excellent.  After a slowish start, which includes a cheesy “falling in love” montage more suitable to a Barbra Streisand movie and rescued only by the beautiful Louis Armstrong song “We Have All the Time in the World,” the pace cranks up and does not relent.  Director Christopher Nolan has said On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of his favourite films, and acknowledged that he modeled the snowy mountaintop finale of Inception after the extensive winter sequences masterminded by Bond editor-turned-director Peter Hunt with a combination of aerial photography, backwards-skiing cameramen, fast-paced editing and fearless stunt work.  Several Bond movies since have featured ski chases but none have come close to the freshness and raw energy on display here, fuelled by John Barry’s propulsive chase theme with its alpine horns and synthesizer cues (which has spoiled me because I cannot go skiing now without that music playing in my head).  The screenplay by Richard Maibaum, with script doctoring by Simon Raven, is quite a bit more literate than previous Bond films, daring to quote poetry and speculate on the nature of the human heart rather than simply reeling off double entendres and reminding us how long it will be until the bomb blows.

Diana Rigg’s Tracy is a character with a surprising amount of depth and Rigg bestows her with “to the manor born” dignity, even if the suggestion that all a troubled woman like her needs is a man to dominate her would make modern audiences cringe.  Savalas is a far more active Blofeld, going out on pursuits with his men rather than sitting back and pushing buttons, even though his American style doesn’t quite mesh with how Blofeld has been portrayed up to this point (he is also saddled, unfortunately, with the movie’s worst line:  “We’ll head him off at the precipice!”)  The script chooses, for the sake of plot, to ignore Bond and Blofeld’s meeting in the previous movie, enabling 007 to infiltrate the villain’s hideout in the guise of a genealogist wearing not much more to conceal himself than a pair of glasses (also known as the “Clark Kent Theory”).

How is Lazenby in the title role?  Well, being a non-actor, his is a largely constructed performance.  It is notable how many of his lines are delivered while he is off-camera or has his back turned, suggesting a lot of post-production manipulation.  In a questionable artistic choice, he is completely dubbed in the scenes in which he is impersonating the genealogist Sir Hilary Bray.  But he handles fight scenes and stunts capably and his acting is solid enough for what is required.  Admittedly, anyone following Sean Connery would have impossibly large shoes to fill and Lazenby smartly chooses to go another way.  Some critics have suggested that Majesty’s would have been the perfect 007 movie had Connery remained in the role, but I’ve always maintained that the vulnerability shown by Bond here would simply not be believable coming from Sir Sean.  His Bond was too aloof, too cool, too much of an unstoppable force of masculinity to pull off the tender scene set in a barn when Bond finally drops his guard and asks Tracy to marry him.  I don’t think audiences would have bought that coming from Connery’s mouth – they certainly would not have bought him breaking down over Tracy’s bullet-ridden corpse.  With Lazenby it was a much easier sell.  In the end, he acquits himself very well and probably would have settled comfortably into the role had he fulfilled his original contract for six more films.

As 1969 drew to a close, so too did the attempt to invest Bond movies with emotional complexity and strong character development, the focus turning instead to camp and ever wilder stunts and exotic locations.  Connery would return once more to the official James Bond fold, for what was then a record-setting salary, and help to chart Bond’s controversial course through the 70’s and into the 80’s.  Yet some purists would look back on George Lazenby’s solo effort as the one time the producers really got it right, and continue to long for a return to the tone it established.  It would be a while before they got their wish.

Tomorrow:  Diamonds are Forever, but Sean Connery is not.

Beyond this place, there be dragons

Inception is one of the coolest movies I’ve seen in a long time.  Dreams can be a dodgy subject for Hollywood to tackle; directors tend to immediately reach for “the weirder the better” when conjuring the dream state on film – for reference, see any of the works (or better yet, don’t) of the late Ken Russell.  You expect now that any movie depicting dreams will be incomprehensible at best, or worst, a tawdry realization of fantasies that were best left in the director’s bedroom.  On the other hand, Inception was the first movie, at least in my memory, to construct dreams as straightforward narrative.  I know a minority critics saw that as indicative of a lack of imagination – I think those few naysayers were hoping for the impenetrable, pretentious ravings of David Lynch a la Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway.  The discussion is more or less beside the point, as all movies are essentially dreams.  Inception was refreshing enough to acknowledge this off the top rather than wrapping its imagery in a veneer of perplexing metaphors, decipherable only by the hipster with the shrine to Truffaut in his basement.

That we dream is a wonderful gift.  Every step of our progress as humanity has begun in our dreams.  Are they random flare-ups of neural energy, the brain dumping superfluous data, or are they a form of precognition?  The German chemist August Kekule claimed to have discovered the ring structure of the benzene molecule, after years of studying carbon bonds, in a dream about a snake swallowing its own tail.  He certainly wasn’t the first to derive specific inspiration from his dreams.  For a writer, the unpredictability of dreams is an invaluable resource.  A block over a story point, agonized over days in the waking state, can resolve itself in the simplest manner within sleep.  It’s almost like those Chinese finger-traps, where the solution is not to pull harder but to relax your grip.  The freedom of the unconscious can untangle the most Gordian of story knots.  And on occasion, it can conjure a brand new idea, seemingly out of nowhere.  Such a dream came to me the other night.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of what the exact idea was, as I would like more time to develop it (and may wish, someday, to transform it into something that people would have to pay me for).  Like the dreams in Inception, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a place with no concept of how I’d gotten there.  Tom Hardy, one of the actors from Inception, was present, as were Charlize Theron and Tom Hanks.  I was pitching them a movie idea.  Hardy and Theron were already attached to star and we were trying to persuade Hanks to sign on for a supporting role, which he did after hearing the concept of the movie boiled down to one line.  Cameron Diaz was also involved but would only be producing.  Following Hanks’ commitment the dream swirled into random scenes from the movie itself involving Hardy and Theron.  And I remember smiling as I watched, thinking this could grow into something tremendous.  I ensured that after I woke I spent some time recording the details so they wouldn’t be lost in the fog of the morning commute.  As for its origin, I can definitely see traces of different things that had been on my mind, even some of the stuff I’ve blogged about this week.  My brain took the various pieces and rolled them into a clean concept worthy of further exploration.  So thank you, almighty Hypnos, or whomever or whatever else, for cultivating those seeds, and for the bountiful crop that sprang forth.  Dreams continue to be the reliable reserve tank when waking imagination runs dry.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to go check and see if a top is still spinning.