Tag Archives: The King’s Speech

Getting back on the horse

horse

So you’ve gathered it’s been quiet around here lately.  Perhaps the most ubiquitous topic for bloggers, aside from the Buzzfeed-esque “18 Reasons Why Something In Particular Rocks And/Or Sucks,” is the struggle with writing, in its many forms, whether it be the challenges in completing a manuscript and subsequently editing it to near-perfection and getting someone to pay to read it, or simply maintaining the often herculean effort of grinding something out with consistency of quality and schedule.  The problem is the easiest thing in the world to do is not write, and there are innumerable distractions standing between us, the keyboard and the time required to produce.  External factors such as the kid wants me to put together Lego with him, we have nineteen different errands to run, the laundry needs to be folded and put away, so-and-so is coming over, there’s a new episode of The Blacklist.  Internal factors like I had a long day at work, I’m tired.  I don’t feel like it today.  I have nothing to say.  I’m intimidated in living up to what’s come before, or the work of my peers (a frequent fallback for those of us who continue to be convinced despite copious evidence to the contrary that we’re  Just.  Not.  That.  Good.)

My writing teacher Lynda used to tell a story about the Muse.  She reminded us that those who sit and wait for the Muse to arrive are more likely to have Godot show up first.  You have to be willing to force your fingers to strike the keys in even the most random and nonsensical of motions to drag her goldbricking ass off her seashell and plop her down next to your page.  Basically, the best way to get over not being able to write is to write.  Even if what comes out in those initial phases is more suitable for flushing than publishing.  There’s a terrific reason why “getting back on the horse” is such a lasting metaphor for the dogged resumption of effort, as standing next to said mount and staring at it expecting forward movement is the very picture of futility (as expressed in my never-painted Impressionist work, Silly Man Staring At Horse And Scratching His Head At Its Total Lack of Motion).  I used to do show jumping when I was much younger, and as intimidating as some of those jumps might be, they weren’t going to get any less scary by circling them in perpetuity.  You just had to shake the reins, give your horse a kick and go full tilt.  And man, did it ever feel good to clear them, even if on occasion the horse’s rear leg caught the bar and tipped it over.  The occasional fault doesn’t diminish the nobility of the pursuit, nor does the fact that there are other more skilled jumpers out there who clear every obstacle without a single flaw.  It is easy to let oneself be cowed into stasis by the seeming facility others have with their words, the depth of their respective vocabularies and their capacity for assembling the most breathtaking imagery from limitless reserves.  Show me a writer who isn’t insecure to some degree – even Franzen-sized inflated egos have many strategic holes leaking helium.  But the choice is either succumb to that self-imposed pressure and never create anything again, or persist with stubbornness and get better by doing more and trying new things.  Write poetry, song lyrics, short stories, reviews, lengthy op-eds on whatever issue-of-the-day made you stop and think about it for a minute or two.  Eventually you find your wheelhouse, and once you do there’s no stopping.

In The King’s Speech, a movie I absolutely adore, King George V (Michael Gambon) rues the rise of the importance of radio communications in monarchical affairs, claiming that “in the past all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse.”   In the modern era, the opportunity to pull a Salinger, to create one lasting work and fade from the collective pages yet retain relevance, is a distant memory.  Our information-driven age is a ravenous monster consuming and digesting information as fast as, and in some cases faster, than it can be produced.  To vanish voluntarily from the zeitgeist for even a few days at a time is to invite the chorus of “I can’t wait for his next” to change its refrain to “Whatever happened to?” and eventually “Who was that again?”  Laurels are not rested upon easily, nor should they be.  Whatever the circumstance, you have to stay on the horse.

So as I climb into the saddle, I look ahead.  What can faithful readers expect?  Well, I’m going to see some pretty big-ticket performers over the next month so there will be reviews.  The recent political tribulations both at home and down south have provided plenty of fodder for some (ill-?) informed opinions.  We may look back at some classics and cast our spotlight on up-and-comers we find worthy of attention.  We may talk about being a dad, approaching 40, dreams of the future and regrets of the past.  The usual staples of dissecting Aaron Sorkin and dissing spam.  Laughter and tears and occasionally pretentious meandering.  But above all, there will be heart.  Always heart.  Because what is the written word really other than the beats of a human heart transformed into elegant strokes of ink?

Hi-yo, Silver.  Away.

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Failing the Bechdel Test

HBO
HBO

The Bechdel Test, while not, admittedly, without its detractors, should be in the back of mind of any men who write female characters.  I first became aware of it about a year or so ago and it is quite amazing how many fictional works don’t live up to its very simple requirements.  The cartoonist Alison Bechdel who created it in 1985 describes it as follows:  the creative enterprise (film, play, novel, what-have-you) has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Watching this week’s The Newsroom last night I found myself thinking of the Bechdel Test and how the episode (“The Genoa Tip”) failed it.  There were at least four scenes involving two women speaking to one another, but on each occasion the subject was a man or men in general – even dropped into conversations that ostensibly had nothing to do with dudes.  Sloan and Maggie, Maggie and Lisa, Maggie and Mac – men hovered invisibly between them as both sub- and super-text.  You couldn’t help but shrug, especially since the show keeps replaying the clip of Maggie teeing off on Sex and the City (in the form of an embarrassing YouTube video) for its depiction of women who have nothing better to do than talk about men.

It’s important to remember that the Bechdel Test is not an absolute for judging whether something is worthy of your time.  For example, The King’s Speech fails the Bechdel Test because the plot focuses on the bond between two men and the only conversation between two female characters in the movie is also about them.  Perfectly serviceable material nonetheless, and the theme of the story transcends gender.  But it’s disappointing when a television series in particular that features ostensibly strong, professional female characters can’t get them talking about anything other than guys they’re dating/want to date/love from afar/can’t stand the sight of.  Most women I know define themselves and the scope of their lives far beyond the parameters of their romantic relationships, or lack thereof as the case may be.  They are people of greater substance than the boy-crazy constructs our screens and e-readers tend to be littered with.  The problem is that success, as defined by (largely male-driven, let’s be honest) popular culture, means very different things for the sexes.  The man wins the big game, scores the important account, kicks the villain off the precipice to his doom.  The woman gets Prince Charming and the happily ever after.

The key to starting off any story is figuring out what the character wants.  What’s interesting is that for most male characters, “getting the girl” is almost always the secondary goal.  In any James Bond movie that consideration comes only after the cat-stroking baddie’s plan to blow up the world has been thwarted.  By contrast, “getting the guy” is usually the primary goal for a female protagonist, and her professional goals (if there are any) are depicted as less important in the face of the possibility of true love.  (In stories where getting the girl is the man’s primary goal, said “getting” often means “getting between the sheets with” and an apple pie’s honor gets besmirched in the process.)  It therefore follows, given this premise, that conversations between characters, whether the same gender or not, would be oriented exclusively towards the pursuit of the primary goal.  In the case of two women speaking to one another, this means the subject will be a man and/or men, and thus, bzzzzt!  Bechdel Test fail.

No one is suggesting that we should stop writing love stories, or, more to the point, stories where love is all you – man or woman – need, or want.  Love is so indelibly part of the human experience that to expect otherwise is unrealistic.  It behooves us though, particularly male authors, to consider the Bechdel Test as we craft the interactions of our characters.  It’s a premise as simple as the old advice about avoiding clichés.  Instead of writing lazily that something is “as black as night” or comparing the blackness of said object to coal or ravens, force yourself away from those hoary old examples toward something new.  Likewise, if you’re writing a conversation between two women, say to yourself from the outset that the subject of men is verboten and see where the words take you instead, once you manhandle them (pun intended) onto a different path.  Yes, a large portion of “The Genoa Tip” was devoted to the aftermath of Maggie’s breakup with Don, the implosion of her friendship with her roommate over her now-very-public feelings for Jim and so on, but did a perfectly reasonable and professional discussion between Maggie and Mac over whether or not Maggie could go to Uganda on assignment have to be spoiled by Mac’s unnecessary comment about Will’s doucheyness?  I may be picking nits a little, but when the episode (and indeed, much of the series to date) had already ventured so deeply into Bechdel-fail territory it was just one tiptoe too far.

Ultimately, the lesson of the Bechdel Test, and why I consider it useful in approaching fiction (and even non-fiction opinion pieces such as this one) is this:  there is far more to a woman, and to women, than the men they fall in or out of love with, and our stories about them should reflect that.

Yes, I would like Fry with that

fry
Credit: SamFry Limited, Creative Commons License. http://www.stephenfry.com

I come to you today with a confession, though not one unfamiliar to anyone who’s peeked at my Twitter biography.  I am an Anglophile.   Although perhaps it’s more precise to say I have Anglophile leanings, or, curiosities, as it were.  I haven’t taken the full plunge yet into declaring an allegiance to a U.K. football franchise, or learned what the hell is going on in a cricket match.  Downton Abbey remains unviewed to this day and I’ve never been able to glom onto Doctor Who (those cheaply made space monsters with the creepy accents scared the piss out of me when I was little.)  I do, however, have an enormous infatuation with certain cornerstones of British popular culture – James Bond, the Beatles, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, Eddie Izzard, the original Whose Line is it Anyway, David Attenborough nature documentaries, The King’s Speech.  My taste in music is almost exclusively British bands and performers.  My conversations are peppered with British idioms, and when required, British profanity (nobody swears better in English than the ones who invented the language, you bollocks-arsed wankers).  My sense of humor has always leaned British in its dryness and self-deprecation.  And in this spirit of confession I am forced to admit a massive man-crush on that pillar of all that is magnificent about being British, Stephen Fry.  In fact, one of my little goals for my Twitter experience is to somehow convince Stephen Fry to find reason to follow me – without going the usual route of “hey plz follow meeee back!!!!”  (He follows about 50,000 people while over 5 million follow him – so I figure I’ve got a 1 in 100 chance, hardly impossible odds.)  I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this post is part of that strategy, but what the hell, Stephen Fry rocks, so even if he never sees this, it’s still worth writing.

The name might not be immediately familiar, but the face and voice are – the tall, imposing if sad-eyed figure with the bent nose, the deep, plummy voice you’ve heard narrating the Harry Potter audiobooks.  Stephen Fry has led a remarkably rich if not always charmed life, which you can read about in copious detail on his Wikipedia page.  From humble beginnings (naturally) he has become something of a world-renowned adventurer, not of the climb-the-mountain-while-battling-wild-zebras type, but of the mind, pursuing ventures literary, theatrical, televised, cinematic and everything in between, fueled by a love of language and a curiosity about everything.  As he says on his website, he finds it uncomfortable recounting his achievements, but he has nothing left to prove with a CV so varied.  One of the most interesting facets of Fry, particularly in his film roles, is that his screen time is usually limited, giving you a mere taste – as a result, he is this inscrutable larger-than-life character who never lingers long enough for you to figure him out and thus lose your interest.  You’re always left curious for more.  Indeed, there never seems to be enough Stephen Fry, and he seems to like it that way.  (Twitter in particular is tailored perfectly for people like that – I’m sure I come across as far more interesting in periodic bursts of 140 characters than I do in real life.)

The first time I saw Stephen Fry was in catching up on reruns of Whose Line.  In one episode he took part in a sketch where Josie Lawrence read every other line of a play while Fry was a flustered customer trying to purchase an airline ticket from her.  You can watch it for yourselves here.

His command of language is obvious; clearly a brilliant mind at work, confronting and embracing the absurdity of the premise and diving in with the bone-dry, semi-flustered and entirely elegant phrasing that marks the best of the British sense of humor.  Later, as I discovered and devoured his genius sketch comedy collaboration with Hugh Laurie, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, I could see the man at the height of his creative endeavors.  One of the biggest reasons why English humor often doesn’t translate is that much of it is built on the class system, one social stratum poking fun at the foibles of another.  Fry has the education of an upper class “to the manor born” man but he resents that caste’s appropriation of high culture, and slays mercilessly, on their own terms, those who attempt to use their Etonian upbringing to peer down snootfully past upturned noses.  Check out this brilliant sketch where Fry displays his unbridled love of the English language while mocking the personae of highbrow elocution-happy would-be intellectuals.

So much of popular comedy, particularly on this side of the pond, is based in being crude, breaking taboos for the sake of “oh no he didn’t” shock value, mocking those who can’t punch back, spewing endless profanity at high volume.  What I’ve always appreciated most about Stephen Fry is that he proves by example that you can be smart about being funny.  That in English, we have an enormous, infinitely quirky tool at our disposal that can be bent, twisted, turned inside out, dropped on its head, sent through the post, dusted off, sprinkled with garlic and spread about liberally to uncover some wonderful and unique ways of expressing ourselves in a manner that will always evoke a smile.  Fry loves puns; he loves surprising us with linguistic connections we’ve failed to realize.  Behold, my favorite Fry and Lauriein which this trick was never more hilariously illustrated.

When I’m working on my novel and I write the phrase “He was crestfallen; in fact, his crest had completely fallen off,” that’s me doing my best Stephen Fry impression.  For me, English words have come more alive since discovering the collected works of Mr. Fry – I’m looking for those connections now and holding them up proudly while jumping about like something of a crazed jackrabbit when I find them.  Stephen Fry has also shown us, in his very public struggles with his manic depression, that a flawed man can still achieve great things – in fact, his greatness is emphasized by his ability to manage his weaknesses.  Not defeat them, necessarily, but acknowledge them as an inexorable part of the whole.  In The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Fry talked about wanting to keep his mania phases, even if it meant having to suffer the extreme craters of the other side – a bold choice, to be certain, even if some might justifiably disagree.  Contradictions and all, Stephen Fry remains someone to admire, a man who has been described as one of Britain’s national treasures – one can imagine the bemused smirk on his face at hearing that.  But as an Anglophile, or Anglophile-curious, I can think of few Brits who deserve it more.  So thank you, Stephen Fry, for being you, for the influence you’ve had on this one Canadian whom you might humbly consider lending a Twitter follow to at some point, some day.  Soupy twist!

A dialogue on dialogue

From the new Bravo series, "Graham on Graham."
From the new Bravo series, “Graham on Graham.”

Graham (G1):  Good morning Graham, how are you?

Graham (G2):  Meh, pretty tired.  The cat decided to wake us up at three in the morning again.

G1:  That sucks.  Frickin’ felines.

G2:  Yeah.

G1:  So I saw on Twitter last night you said you thought you might write a post about dialogue today.

G2:  You must have been up late.

G1:  I was.

G2:  Couldn’t sleep either?

G1:  What “either”?  You and I are the same person.

G2:  True enough.

G1:  I’m just choosing not to be snippy and cranky about it this morning.

G2:  “Snippy” and “cranky”?  What are you, channeling our grandmother now?

G1:  Do you think we could get on with this, Mr. Snarkypants?

G2:  Fine.  Where do you want to start?

G1:  Well, it occurred to me that there is a lot of contradictory advice about dialogue floating around out there.

G2:  I’ve noticed that too.  Some people think too much dialogue is a bad thing.

G1:  I don’t get that.  I mean, obviously a novel is not a play and you need to create a balance of description and dialogue, but come on.  I think that’s an excuse invented by people who can’t write dialogue well.

G2:  And you accused me of being snarky.

G1:  Well, if I didn’t think I was a good writer of dialogue, I would pare it back as much as I could.  But do you remember when we were watching There Will Be Blood, how pretentious it seemed that there was no dialogue at all in the first half hour?  Characters were going out of their way to not talk.  It was forced and artificial.  Real people are insatiable chatterboxes.

G2:  Our son would certainly agree with you there.

G1:  He’s kind of the singular example.

G2:  Yeah.  But you wouldn’t write a character like him, would you?

G1:  No.  Because a lot of what he says is just random stuff that pops into his head – half-remembered lines from TV shows, updates on the video game he’s playing, stuff he did at school that day.  It doesn’t have a lot of coherence to it, or readability if you were to type it out word for word.

G2:  Naturally.  He’s twelve, and he’s a real person, not a character in a novel.  We’re not expecting erudition and fully formed sentences with multiple clauses.

G1:  No, no one would believe that, even in a novel.  Unless you were portraying him as the most preternatural, linguistically-gifted twelve-year-old in the history of the human race.

G2:  We love him very much, but no, that’s not who he is.

G1:  Nope.  So there’s a balance between the accurate portrayal of a twelve-year-old’s mentality and the need to establish a readable character, one who serves the narrative.  People just don’t talk how writers need to write them.  We yammer on about everything but what’s actually on our mind – we tell silly jokes, we blather about the weather.  In a story you have to get to the point.

G2:  That’s what you mean about serving the narrative.

G1:  Yeah.  Every conversation needs to push some aspect of the story, if only the slightest of nudges.  The relationships between the characters need to develop, or the characters have to get closer to their goal.  If your guys are going to stop for a five minute exegesis on hamburgers, there had better be some payoff to it.

G2:  Hamburgers… you’re thinking Pulp Fiction again.

G1:  You know me so well.  That’s a really good example.  That whole conversation between Jules and Vincent has nothing to do with the plot, but it helps establish their relationship, and shows us that these guys are interesting, endearing people we’re going to dig spending time with.  Even though they are on their way to commit a series of murders.  Would we have liked them if they’d devoted the conversation to the methodology of how they were going to kill the guys once they got to the apartment, or worse, said nothing at all?

G2:  That would have been the insufferable arthouse version.

G1:  So, I come back to this idea of balance.  You can go too far the other way, where characters become plot explainers.  I’ve seen this in fantasy a lot, where two people who have no real reason to talk to each other do an information dump about where they are in their quest, what happened over the last couple of days, and what has to happen next.  There’s no nuance to the conversation – the characters just agree with each other for pages on end as they lay out the story so far.  It’s the “As you know, Bob” problem.  Or Basil Exposition, depending on your preferences.  If the sole purpose of your dialogue is to tell your audience things they could learn another way, You’re Doing It Wrong.

G2:  My eyelids sag at the mere thought.  Of course, you and I are basically just agreeing with each other here.  What did you mean by nuance?

G1:  Characters should never talk about what they’re actually talking about.  Concepts and pellets of information should be implied, not blatant.

G2:  Oh, so we would talk about mochacinos in the guise of discussing dialogue?

G1:  I like to approach conversations from oblique angles.  Like yeah, maybe I would compose a scene of two writers (or two halves of the same mind, as it were) discussing dialogue and set it in line at a Starbucks while they wait for their lattés.

G2:  Yeah, because you’d never find a writer at a Starbucks.  Real original.

G1:  You get my point, though?

G2:  Not really.  Please explain it to me with statistics and visual aids.

G1:  You cribbed that line.  You really need to get more sleep.

G2:  I really need a lot of things and sleep gets in the way of them.

G1:  Suit yourself.  Picture it this way.  When you’re building dialogue, you have a couple of elements to consider.  You have the setting.  You have the goal – the piece of information that you need to convey.  Maybe it’s a simple fact, maybe it’s a clue to the mystery, maybe it’s the next step in a relationship.  That’s where you’re heading, but you don’t start with it.  You start in the wilderness and build towards it.  Imagine a scene of a couple eating in a restaurant.  The husband has to tell the wife that he’s lost his job, but he doesn’t know how to break the news.  His first line, then, is not going to be “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I lost my job.”  Is it?

G2:  I guess it could be, but that seems a waste of a lot of potential dramatic tension.

G1:  Exactly.  Instead, you might start with them talking about the food they’re eating, other restaurants they’ve been in, you know, casual, everyday, innocent stuff.  They might recall fond memories of when they were first dating.  The husband will realize that losing his job means they won’t be able to have nights like this anymore.  That will start to creep into what he’s saying to his wife.  She’ll notice something’s wrong and she’ll ask him about it.  He’ll deny it.  She’ll ask again.  He’ll deny it again, until he breaks down and confesses – or maybe doesn’t at all.  You see how 95% of the conversation won’t be about the main piece of information that comes at the very end, right?  Instead, you find your way in from the edges.  Organically.  The characters will lead you there on their own.

G2:  Like the scene in our novel where the two leads talk about their respective parents.  It begins with the heroine humming a stupid old folk song, and the guy noting that he recognizes it.

G1:  Or the scene later on where a conversation about the role of women in the world begins with a chat about sandwiches.

G2:  Pick the oddest thing and work your way back from it.

G1:  You are learning, young padawan.  The other thing to keep in mind too is that unless you’re writing a 1920’s silent movie, characters don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves.  Nor do most people.  Subtlety and understatement are the way to go.  A solemn declaration of undying love shouldn’t sound like it was scripted for daytime TV.  In fact, avoid solemn declarations of undying love altogether.

G2:  Something just occurred to me.  We’re unpublished – where do we get off flinging rules around like so much confetti?

G1:  There are no rules, only our interpretation of our own truth.  There is every possibility that this exercise has been one in utter nonsense.  We can only pass along what works for us in the hope that someone else might find it useful.  And this is a rich topic that could go on for thousands upon thousands of words, but eventually, folks will want to tell us to shut up.

G2:  Are there some resources we could point people towards?

G1:  I think you just have to read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies written by great writers, listen to a lot of different kinds of people talking and process it all in the mind’s blender.  And then try and fail a few times on your own before you figure it out.

G2:  You were going to mention Aaron Sorkin, weren’t you.

G1:  We both know he’s a big influence on us, it goes without saying.  Look at him, look at people like David Mamet, Richard Curtis, and David Seidler, who wrote The King’s Speech, to name but a very few.  Listen to their rhythms, listen to how someone like Mamet deconstructs patterns of speech to convey character.  Glengarry Glen Ross is a terrific example of this.  The scene between Moss and Aaronow “talking about” versus “speaking about” is fantastic.

G2:  You haven’t mentioned any actual novelists.

G1:  Well, funny you should bring that up, because we’re reading a book right now, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which has an interesting approach to dialogue.  It’s a western, set in 1851 California, but everyone speaks in very elegant, grammatically precise phrases that are probably not an accurate reflection of how people in 1851 California really spoke.  Not the artistic choice I was expecting, but refreshing after plodding through Ian Fleming’s clumsy attempts at American slang which felt as artificial as nobody talking in the first act of There Will Be Blood did.

G2:  Way to bring it full circle, dude.

G1:  I know what you like.  Anyway, how to portray dialect, how to vary word choices to denote different speakers, the value of repetition, talking it out to make sure it sounds right – like I said, a rich palette and worth discussing further at a later time.

G2:  If you can persuade me to do this again.  I feel like I didn’t get to say very much.  You were doing all the talking.

G1:  You’re tired.  The cat, remember?  Just looking out for you.

G2:  Oh, yeah.  Thanks.  Cheers, mate.

G1:  You too.

Sorry, but blogging is actually pretty cool (and literary too)

William Blake.

There’s an old saying that the cream rises to the top, but so does the scum.  (Just look at Congress.)  The same applies to writing.  For every successful masterpiece, there is an equally profitable pile of crap.  I read with bemusement this screed from one of my fellow Huffington Post contributors this morning in which, with a nod to Sideshow Bob, he engages in the ironic device of blogging to decry blogs.  Now, he is in high school and has a lot of living to do, so one can understand and forgive the sweeping judgement pronounced therein.  I don’t know him at all; we ranks of HuffPosters are vast and we don’t regularly (or ever) get together to knock back single malts.  He may be a rather smashing bloke in spite of the mildly condescending tone with which his post is composed.  But I can’t agree with his thesis that “uncontrolled publishing,” i.e. blogging, is destroying literature.  I’d say it’s forcing those of us who take writing seriously – which I’d suggest given my experience is a majority of bloggers, not the reverse – to up our game .  If one hopes to be noticed amidst the cacophony of background noise and Bieber fandom, one must aspire to be magnificent.  We might not achieve greatness every time, but the fact that we’re trying means something in itself.  And the blog gives us that opportunity to try.

My unmet cyber-colleague uses an allegory of William Blake physically carving poetry into the roof of a favourite drinking haunt to criticize the supposed ease with which words can be assembled and flung out into the world in the 21st Century; the argument being, seemingly, that without limitations to overcome with sheer force, writing can’t possibly be any good.  Blake, he says, had to craft his verse methodically and with care, paying attention to the shape of each syllable, every minute detail of meter and imagery.  I fail to understand how that level of dedication cannot still be achieved with the use of a keyboard instead of a chisel.  If anything, I’d argue that the delete key and the ability to revise easily has lowered our collective tolerance for sloppy mistakes, for ill-advised turns of phrase and general unprofessionalism (leading to the birth of that most pesky of trolls, the Grammar Nazi.)  If fixing a mistake is simple, then there’s less excuse for letting them slip through.  And ultimately, the most wonderful aspect of Internet browsing is that beautiful little red X in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.  If you don’t like what you’re reading, close the window and move on to something else.  Uncontrolled publishing may allow a flood of mediocre writing into the ether, but it has no effect on freedom of choice.  To read, or not to read, remains our question.

Publishing is now, if it has ever been the reverse, less about quality and more about what will sell.  This is not a criticism; publishing is a business, staffed by people like you and I, working to feed their families.  If a barely coherent rant about shopping and shoes by a D-list reality television star moves X number of copies more than a brilliantly crafted treatise on deconstructionism of modernist attitudes in 1920’s France by an unknown doctoral candidate, well, Snooki gets the rack space.  It sucks, but forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.  That’s a problem originating with the audience, not the existence of blogs.  Until the world at large turns away from its fascination with the banal, publishers are obliged, in order to keep their business going, to cater to demand.  Basic economics unfortunately, and literature gets a solar plexus to the gut in the process.

Where blogs can turn the tide, though, is in their openness and accessibility.  You do not need to be famous or have an “in” with an agent or a major publishing house to invent a domain name and start writing and publishing.  I am reminded so often of The King’s Speech and the fundamental reason why that movie struck such a chord with people – not because of the performances or the direction or any one particular element of its filmic construction, but because of its theme, the universal desire to have a voice.  To be able to speak, even if no one, for the time being, is listening.  There are over 150 million blogs in the world, covering probably far more than 150 million different subjects.  Some are brilliant, and some are execrable wastes of time.  But they all began for the same reason – because someone wanted to use their voice.  If many of these voices produce sounds that are unpleasant to our ears, whether in what they are saying or how they are saying it, we have two choices:  we can either call them on it, or we can tune them out.  We don’t have to stew in our angst and complain that their mere existence is diminishing the written word.

That Snooki is a (shudder) published author doesn’t depreciate Shakespeare or William Blake or even Aaron Sorkin for that matter.  These and other Muses remain figures to whom we can look up, and whose quality we can aspire to achieve, even if we will usually fall short.  Blogs give us the wonderful privilege of chance, instead of restricting even the opportunity to a select few.  Many will just suck and most bloggers will toil forever in utter obscurity, but there will be the gems.  You might come across someone’s memoir of a departed friend that moves you to tears in a way that Blake himself never has or never will.  You might read a mommy blogger’s tale of her daughter’s adventures in daycare and unlock the secret of the world.  The late Christopher Hitchens said famously, “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”  Note he didn’t say “all cases.”  Even for the notoriously prickly Hitchens, the possibility of greatness remained.  Literature, or writing in general, must belong to the masses, for what is a masterpiece if it remains unread, or simply unwritten?  I don’t know much about William Blake, but I have a feeling that if he were alive today, he’d be a blogger.  I’m certainly proud to be one, and I’m not going to stop anytime soon.

As a new day dawns

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Just to follow up quickly on yesterday’s news:  while yesterday was all about me, today is about you.  Specifically, everyone who drops by to read what I have to say; friends, family, accidental visitors looking for porn.  Writing is really only ever entering one half of an equation, and it’s the reader who supplies the missing element to make it into something truly special.  When I started this journey a little less than a year ago I had no idea what to expect.  I know I did not expect what it’s become, and that is something that has exceeded my hopes at every turn.  With our words we are sending a single beam of light out into the darkness, reaching, hoping to connect.  In The King’s Speech, when he is exposed as having no credentials, Lionel Logue talks about how with speech therapy it’s more important for the patient to know that a friend is listening.  I think of blogging in much the same way.  That you are taking precious time out of your busy lives to listen to what I have to say makes you a friend of mine.  And I’m forever grateful.

On that note I want to say a special thank you to everyone on WordPress, in particular those of you who are following me and always providing encouraging comments, folks like East Bay Writer, Tele and Samir – people I’ve never met or spoken to in real life but who have become friends in every way that matters.  I love reading what you have to say on your own blogs and I’m delighted every time I see a like or a comment from you.  I look forward to keeping our dialogue going as we all move forward in our writing ambitions to the bright futures I am convinced lie ahead.

Okay, enough of the mushy stuff.  There’s writing to be done.

Why I’m sick – literally – of shaky cameras

We went to see The Hunger Games yesterday.  I haven’t subscribed to the phenomenon of this newest teen read-turned-franchise (the premise of kids forced to kill each other for food strikes me as a tad dark for the age group it’s appealing to) but it’s good to see the emergence of a strong, brave and loyal heroine who isn’t whiny, unrealistically pretty or overly unfeminine, or dependent on the obsessive love of an emo vampire for her self-worth.  With that in mind, bravo to Suzanne Collins’ Katniss Everdeen and the actress who plays her, Jennifer Lawrence.  Bravo too to writer-director Gary Ross, who doesn’t make movies very often but never fails to craft a thought provoking tale when he does (Dave, Pleasantville).  And indeed, healthy kudos to all involved in putting together an entertaining if surprisingly low-key adventure.  My only major complaint is, did the camera have to be so damn shaky throughout the whole thing?

Th-th-the H-h-hun-ge-ge-ger G-g-ga-me-me-es.

Hand-held camera work has been popular among filmmakers for some time.  I first became truly aware of it when NYPD Blue premiered in the early 90’s – couldn’t figure out why the camera work was so sloppy!  From a critical standpoint, taking the camera off its mount and letting it bounce around invokes the realism of documentaries, placing the audience member right in the middle of gritty, cheap life and death and not in the safe, million-dollar air-conditioned artifice of a soundstage.  “Shakycam” in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan helped to convey the rawness and bloodiness of the D-Day invasion the way the bolted-to-the-floor approach of the 60’s John Wayne war epics didn’t.  And low-budget horror movies like The Blair Witch Project use shakycam to build tension so that those of us watching feel as unsettled as the characters wondering if the axe murderer is lurking beyond the doorway.

But there is a major difference between being creeped out by a movie and contracting motion sickness from it.  I’m not sure if the shakycam work is becoming more intense these days or I’m just getting old, but the first hour of The Hunger Games had me longing for a barf bag – a reaction I’m certain wasn’t the intention of Gary Ross or his director of photography.  (Luckily once Katniss and Peeta reach the Capitol the camera settles down a bit.)  As much as I loved The Grey, I had the same problem with it.  I could not watch at least half of The Bourne Ultimatum in the theatre; I remember sitting there staring at the back of the seat in front of me hoping my stomach would calm down.  And Blair Witch made me so ill I had to walk out of the theatre twice – and I was 13 years younger then.  As the sensory experience of movies intensifies, with surround sound, digital projection and 3-D, the more shakycam messes with our inner ears, and the more difficult it is to sit through a movie without tossing the candies you just scarfed down.  My question is – the moviegoing experience has become miserable enough with smartphones going off and other audience members yakking at each other and at the screen, do we have to keep adding nausea to the reasons to stay home?

Shakycam has become so ubiquitous that it pops up in movies where it’s completely inappropriate.  One of the worst recent offenders was Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s story of the pursuit of John Dillinger starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.  Mann made the questionable artistic choice of shooting a 1930’s period piece on digital video with plenty of 2000’s shakycam, which pulled me out of the story.  I never believed I was in the 1930’s – the camera work made me feel I was watching a reality show with a bunch of celebrities playing cops and gangsters.  I can’t imagine actors are very fond of it either, particularly if they’re trying to convey nuanced emotional moments while the camera is zipping around their face like a drunken mosquito.  One of the most beautiful elements of The King’s Speech was that the camera work was almost invisible, letting you focus on the words and actions and reactions of the characters.  The anchor of a fixed camera immerses you in that world because you forget the camera is there.  If the aim of a movie is to give the audience an escape, then directors should not erect barriers to losing oneself.  Shakycam does exactly that, even if it doesn’t make you physically sick, by reminding you of the camera present in the room with these characters, and that whoever is operating it probably should have eaten more protein with his breakfast.

My friends and I made a no-budget, feature-length action comedy in our last year of high school, using my family’s video camera.  Fortunately one of my pals was able to procure a tripod, which we considered a godsend, because the last thing we wanted for our little epic was the unprofessional look of an unsteady camera.  Even in Hollywood, an unsteady camera used to be lambasted as the shoddy workmanship of a bad director; now, those same studio hacks jerk the camera around to up their artistic credibility and are summarily praised for their realistic approach.  Personally, I’m tired of just hoping I’m going to make it to the end of the movie without my stomach leaping out through my mouth.  I think it’s time we thanked the shakycam and packed it off to the realm of the intertitle and other cinematic techniques long since abandoned.  Either that or start selling Gravol at the snack counter along with the Skittles.

My kingdom for a good m-m-movie

Few can disagree that 2011 was a forgettable year for movies.  One is reminded of the 1994 baseball season, which, owing to a crippling strike, was the first without a World Series.  You almost wish that the Academy Awards could skip a year themselves.  A rule change a few years ago expanded the field of Best Picture nominees from five to ten, and this past year, the Academy couldn’t even gather ten films worthy of the top honour – settling instead for nine.  And none truly captured imaginations and inspired the affections of millions, or infected the zeitgeist like famous films gone by; the closest contender is The Artist, whose primary selling point is that it’s a silent movie done in the style of the 1920’s – an exercise in Hollywood nostalgia (or navel-gazing if one wants to be cynical about it), and appealing most to old show business insiders heartsick for the halcyon days of Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer.  As a prime example of how low 2011 set the bar, the highlights of one of the performances nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids) is the character defecating into a sink.  The Simpsons has a great word to express the apex of being unimpressed:  for lack of a term more in the mode of the Queen’s English, 2011 in film was simply meh. 

But this isn’t the place to whinge about how Hollywood never makes anything good anymore, because I don’t believe that’s necessarily true.  They just seemed like they were having an off year – maybe they were depressed after the triumph of the Tea Party in the mid-term elections.  2010 offered some fantastic entries, including two personal favourites – The Social Network and The King’s Speech.  Both were masterfully written, impeccably acted and crisply directed, and both were essentially about a shy and retiring person finding his voice (metaphorically in the former, literally in the latter) and forcing the world to hear it.  It remained an open question up until Oscar night which of the two would emerge on top – ultimately the Academy opted for the movie with the more endearing protagonist, and The King’s Speech was thus crowned (interesting trivia note, it was the second movie in a row to win Best Picture featuring a performance by Australian actor Guy Pearce, after The Hurt Locker in 2009, even though in that one he gets killed in the first five minutes).

Visually, The King’s Speech is not as interesting as The Social Network, with its digital trickery in the portrayal of the Winklevoss twins by a single actor and the use of tilt-shift photography in a regatta sequence.  Many of the shots in The King’s Speech are quite simple – medium and close-ups of the characters, slightly off-centre to indicate their lack of comfort in their surroundings and with others.  But you cannot take your eyes away from the screen, because the performances and the writing hold you like a vise.  As much praise as Colin Firth deserves for his role as King George VI, with his commendable choice not to overact the King’s infamous stammer and thus render it cartoonish, for me the real joy in the movie is Geoffrey Rush as speech therapist Lionel Logue.  I have decided that Rush is one of those actors I can watch in anything.  As much as everyone raved about Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Rush was the unsung star of that film, creating a complex character despite a thin script with just the right smattering of Robert Newton thrown in.  Rush can even elevate dreck like Mystery Men with his presence.  Indeed, without Rush, The King’s Speech never would have been made – in a breach of protocol, the script was dropped off at his home without going through his agent first, but Rush loved what he read enough to get things moving.

As mentioned previously, The King’s Speech and The Social Network are both masterpieces of screenwriting (indeed, they both won Oscars for their writers), but for very different reasons.  The Social Network is Aaron Sorkin through and through; the cadences and references used by each character belong to that unique universe of his creation.  David Seidler’s dialogue in The King’s Speech is equally remarkable, but for a different reason – how understated it is.  Although regular readers know I admire Sorkin greatly, sometimes it’s difficult to imagine any real person speaking the way he writes them – people aren’t that quick, witty, off-the-cuff or as complex in the iterations of their arguments.  By contrast, there is wit and sharpness in the words of The King’s Speech, but amazing economy as well – the script is a mere 90 pages and very little was excised in the final cut.  The wit and personality of the players seems more natural; there is less sense of the screenwriter typing the lines.  Seidler is letting the characters speak, he is not forcing his words into their mouths.  For a movie about finding one’s voice, this choice is not only appropriate but adds to the realism of the story and deepens its emotional resonance.  They say as much as, and only, what is needed.  And the richness of what they do say makes you want to go back and watch the movie again and again.  If it happens to be airing on any given day, I am compelled to sit and watch the whole thing – and I still smile when dear Bertie pulls it off in the end.

So far, 2012 does look to hold more cinematic promise – we have The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit and Skyfall all due to hit screens before the year is out.  Perhaps we can consider 2012 to be 2011’s mulligan, its do-over.  I’m hopeful as always, every time I sit back in the theatre and the lights go down, that I’m about to see the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.  Sometimes, like with The King’s Speech, I come pretty darned close to thinking just that.

Fun with words: Embiggened English

Last year, when that cunning polyglot Sarah Palin was castigated for her invented word “refudiate,” she invoked Shakespeare and the perpetual evolution of the English language.  While the Bard might execute the expected cemetery gymnastics in being compared to a person who never met a present-tense verb she couldn’t wrest of its “g,” the Barracuda was, to her credit, quite savvy in her assessment of our mother tongue.  Admittedly my opinion is biased given that apart from some passable conversational French, it’s the only language with which I’m intimately familiar, but I find the almost infinite permutations of “the Queen’s” fascinating.  Dialects, accents, patois, cant, slang, rhyming slang, textspeak (editor’s note:  vomit), jargon, technobabble, profanity, and the notion that a person from back-street Glasgow and one from Texas would never be able to understand one another despite using all the same words.  Particularly the profanity.  The great Stephen Fry recently tweeted what has become my new favourite:  “Bollocks arse wank and tittypoo.”  Try it sometime when you’ve just bashed your thumb with a hammer.  To quote The King’s Speech, it flows trippingly from the tongue.

It doesn’t have to be countries developing their own variations on English.  New lexicons spring up amongst even individuals.  As a relationship develops, partners formulate their own code and refine terms that are of use only to them.  Married friends of mine say “Icarus” to alert each other when their child is verging on a tantrum – justified props for the classical reference to the guy who flew too close to the sun on wax wings.  My own better half and I have conjured a host of phrases that are nonsensical to outsiders but capture with craftsman-like precision the very substance of the entity being described, in a relaxed, familiar manner that lets us know just what the other is thinking and feeling at that moment.  I present for your entertainment then, a sampling of our forays into etymology, and trust that you will not come away thinking us insane.  Pronunciation guide added where appropriate.

  • Bluhcky: BLUH-kee (adjective):  Descriptive for inclement weather, particularly that which is a combination of cold, damp/raining, fog or gray.  “It’s a really bluhcky day out today.”
  • Boogloo (noun):  Our cat’s covered bed, which resembles a small igloo, and thus a portmanteau of that and boo-boo-kitty“The cat is asleep in her boogloo.”  An additional note here is that boo- can be used as a prefix for any number of objects that relate to the cat:  Boo-bits (her food), boo-box (where her food goes when she’s done with it), boo-barf (the occasional unfortunate hairball).
  • Burnippy:  BRR-nippy (adjective):  Descriptive of a state of extreme cold.  “It’s supposed to be really burnippy tomorrow.”
  • Dirters (noun):  Portmanteau of dirty and unders, i.e. underwear, used to refer to any form of laundry that needs attention.  “Don’t leave your dirters on the bedroom floor.”
  • Frabjabbits (noun):  Exclamation to be used in situations deemed unfortunate, similar to “goshdarnit.”  “That local sports team lost again.  Oh, frabjabbits.”
  • Poobulasquaooh: POO-buh-lah-squah-ooh (???):  Placeholder for any song lyric that defies comprehension.  This is my father’s interpretation of a hastily delivered, slightly obscure line from Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” which actually goes “The woman is wild, ooh.”
  • Shmorgee-borgee (noun):  A meal consisting of a random assemblage of whatever food happens to be available, usually leftovers.  “We have lots of chicken and veggies and stuff so let’s just have a shmorgee-borgee tonight.”  An obvious if Swedish Chef-ized variation on “smorgasbord.”
  • Showeriffic (adjective):  Descriptive for how one feels after a warm, cleansing and satisfying shower, especially if one was particularly dirty and/or sweaty going in.  “That shower with the sixteen jets is just showeriffic.”
  • Snorfly (adjective)/The Snorfles (noun):  The state of feeling congested due to a cold or persistent allergies.  “Cleaning up that cat hair gave me the snorfles” or “I feel all snorfly after being out in the rain.”

What can I say, they require less spitting and hacking than Klingon.  Seriously though, just try slipping a few of these into your next conversation and let me know about the blank stares you get back.  But don’t tell me you don’t have your own mini-dictionary of words and phrases just for you and yours.  It’s how we personalize a flexible, slightly weathered old horse we’ve all been sharing since Beowulf – how to make a little piece of English, a very common good, our very own.  Sounds pretty cromulent to me.