For the past ten years, it seems at least one movie gets nominated for Best Picture that’s all about Hollywood’s past grandness. How classy and chic and vogue it all used to be (as long as you’re into constant cigar smoke, copious alcoholism, and three-piece wool suits (plus hat) that stunk of sweat because no air conditioning). Where you could get rich on talent alone (as long as you were an adult white male. If you were Black, you were a janitor. If you were a woman, a sexually harassed pair of tits with no volition. And if you were a kid, pumped full of drugs and treated like a working animal.)
It’s like a Great GatsbyRenaissance Faire, where they filter out the plague, the poverty, the cow dung everywhere, and remolded it into an idealized version. Removing not just what was real, adding things that only existed in stories, like minstrels and kilts and turkey drumsticks. Like Mario Kart and other Mario sports games–delete all the dull or negative parts, keep only what’s fun.
Almost every Oscars in the past decade has one Best Picture nominee that was a “tribute” to old movies. The Artist and Hugo in 2011, Argo in 2012, Birdman in 2014, Trumbo in 2015, La La Land in 2016, A Star is Born in 2018, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2019, and this year had Mank.
I watched Mank. It was about the guy who wrote Citizen Kane. There’s no plot, just an asshole writer doing asshole things.
And that’s another thing, and maybe the bigger thing that gets my goat. The way they portray writers is absolute horseshit. Mank bangs out Citizen Kane in two weeks, isolated in a cabin with a broken leg and a bunch of pure-grain alcohol. Telling us that one of the greatest stories ever told was penned in two weeks by a drunk, written one page after the other with no pre-planning or script meetings, doesn’t that… cheapen it?
I don’t know why someone thought this would be a good movie. Most of the content is seeing how he’s inspired from various political rallies and fancy Hollywood parties. And the central conflict is whether William Randolph Hearst is going to bust balls for a movie that paints him unflatteringly.
But the movie itself is trying to reflect Citizen Kane, being just as dense and non-linear. Thing is, that works for Citizen Kane, not for the story of the guy who wrote it. No one wants to see how the sausage is made. Plus it’s in black-and-white, and you know that’s a clear flag for “Give Us an Oscar!”
In Trumbo, the titular character goes from Johnny Got His Gun to chunking out bad Westerns and monster movies, then back to Roman Holiday and Spartacus. And he does this by writing in the bathtub, drinking, and chain-smoking. Page after page, just out of his head.
I hate these movies because they make writing look like this glorious process where writers can create magic in an instant. Movies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Capote and Secret Window and even Misery make writing look like it’s the dominion of tortured souls. Like writers are misunderstood artists who need drugs or alcohol or eccentricities to create genius works.
I don’t think even the pantsers, like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King and George R.R. Martin, work like this. Real writing is boring to watch. I know because I do it. It all takes place in the mind. Rearranging scenes or sections to make sure pacing feels right. Trimming sentences down. Doctoring characters’ lines so that Sharon becomes Eliza, Eliza becomes Jenny, and Jenny is eliminated entirely.
Stop pining away for a world where creatives are misunderstood geniuses with tragic backstories, you drama club rejects. No one liked it when Hemingway did it, no one likes it when authors today do it (e.g. Thomas Pynchon, Michael Chabon, Jeanine Cummins, Bret Easton Ellis, etc.) Stop reaching back for a time when there were no women or Blacks because they were used as tools of the entertainment industry.
I watched John Carter for the first time (on Disney+) and had some thoughts.
Film buffs like to talk about John Carter. The movie was supposed to be a big new franchise for Disney, but it became a famous bomb.
I don’t think it was poor marketing. Good word of mouth can outdo mediocre advertising and reach. That’s what happened with War Horse and The Greatest Showman and The Blind Side and the new Jumanji and especially Iron Man — no one expected much out of superhero movies after the Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four duds.
I don’t think it was a lack of star power. I don’t go to see movies to see actors. In fact, I’m more likely to avoid a movie because it stars an actor I hate (e.g. Brad Pitt, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Cera, Shia LaBoeuf). I prefer no-name actors because that makes it easier to lose myself in the story. Little harder when Tom Cruise is playing Tom Cruise and not the character he’s supposed to. Well-known crew names might pique my interest, but more often than not, it’s a stamp of unoriginality. A James Cameron film’s gonna James Cameron.
I don’t think it was that the budget got overblown with reshoots. Creative accounting makes it so no movie gains a profit anyway, so budget is a nebulous thing. And Andrew Stanton isn’t a first-time director, just a first-time director for live-action. He made Finding Nemo and WALL-E. Talent like that can’t be squelched by a slightly different medium.
I think it failed because it’s story that’s a hundred years old.
Since the John Carter books were written we’ve had Star Trek, Star Wars, The Black Hole, WALL-E, District 9, Dune, Guardians of the Galaxy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, E.T., The Martian. Even Plan 9 From Outer Space has had some influence on “off-Earth” science fiction stories.
Don’t Blame Mars
I know I said before that I didn’t believe it was marketing, but I think there is some truth that movies based around Mars do poorly (e.g. Mission to Mars, Mars Needs Moms). That’s why they left the “of Mars” off and we got just a guy’s name (more like a phonebook entry than a movie title).
But Mars is not necessarily a black spot. Total Recall, The Martian, and even Doom (the video game) take place on Mars.
The problem comes from treating Mars the same way H.G. Wells treated it in War of the Worlds a hundred and twenty-three years ago. Back then people weren’t 100% sure there wasn’t life on Mars. Astronomers thought the canals on the planet were water-filled (but this turned out to be false). The whole point of War of the Worlds is Great Britain going “what if someone tried to colonize us?” The queen had taken a dump on nearly every country’s coast at this point, so there was storytelling to mine with the fear of invasion by a bigger bully. And the best candidate for that invader was a species off-planet.
But now, Mars doesn’t hold the same sway. It’s like a neighbor house you thought was haunted, but then you sent in someone during the day and they said it’s just a boring house. Truth is like toothpaste–you can’t squeeze it back in the tube.
It’s easier to say that movies set in a desert do poorly. I know it’s an automatic turn-off for me that few movies pull me back from (Mad Max: Fury Road succeeded in that). Deserts have nothing. You wouldn’t want to be there, you wouldn’t want to explore them. Even applies to non-science fiction movies, like Hidalgo and Sahara.
Just Because Tarzan Worked…
Time is not kind to intellectual property, especially adventure and science fiction stories. This is because A) what thrills and excites one culture or era may not do the same for another. For example, compare our movies to India’s or China’s or France’s. Stories are reflections of the time and culture they live in.
According to Wikipedia, John Carter was in development hell since the 1930s, so Hollywood recognized the cinematic-ness of the Barsoom stories and/or the success of the Tarzan franchise. Too expensive, too unfilmmable, too fantastic. But they still wanted something epic to be the next Star Wars or Last of the Mohicans. Here’s the thing: if you’re in a relationship and you keep breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together, maybe it’s just not going to work out. Maybe you should turn your eyes to something that will work and focus on that.
Some stories seem to be timeless, like A Christmas Carol, Les Miserables, Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland. The earliest book I’ve read is Aesop’s Fables (590 BC). Simple children’s stories with clear themes and interesting characters (usually animals). Even Edgar Rice Burroughs’s other book series, Tarzan, remains an often-recreated movie and story. So why shouldn’t we try to movie-fy the other wildly popular book Burroughs wrote?
Well, a few reasons. One, Tarzan didn’t go right from one-hundred-year-old book to tentpole movie. Tarzan’s been reimagined and reinterpreted since its inception, like Batman or Robin Hood or King Arthur. From silent movies, stage productions, radio programs, to the “Weissmüller era” (where Tarzan became the pop culture character he is now), then television series, cheesy movies that starred Bo Derek or Christopher Lambert or Margot Robbie. And then there’s the Disney film. It’s never left the public consciousness. Meanwhile, no one’s thought about John Carter.
Two, remember I just said “reimagined and reinterpreted”? Tarzan’s source material has… some issues. It was written by a white American male. In 1912. Taking place in Africa. Starring a white male. Often set against indigenous African tribes. Who is secretly a British lord. Learns superpowers from apes. Then becomes their king. So to get from a guy who proudly declares he’s a “killer of cannibals & black men” to a Disney film, there has to be some steps in-between.
The same goes for John Carter, a story rooted in a world brimming with “white man’s burden” and colonialism and women who still couldn’t vote yet.
And Now… A Lesson From Indiana Jones
Indiana Jones succeeded because it was based on the movie serials of the 30s and 40s where intrepid heroes race around the world after some maguffin (e.g. Doc Savage, Gunga Din, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Secret of the Incas, Allan Quatermain). In 1981, the people who saw those serials as 10-year-olds were in their sixties now. And nostalgia bites hard. But this time, they boiled out everything that was stupid or boring–the long waits between episodes, the cheesy sets, the lack of a sense of real danger, the poor acting–and maximized entertainment and humor. It’s like the Mario sports games: they remove the boring stuff and leave the fun and craziness.
Then in 2008, they made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. No one told Hollywood that the world had moved on from Indiana Jones. Everyone who remembered the old serials was dead. All that was left were the ten-year-olds who had seen the original in the theaters, and on VHS, and video games, and played it in the backyard, over and over and over, were the adults. We never stopped being exposed to Indiana Jones. But what did Hollywood deliver?
The same ol’ same ol’. They weren’t piggybacking on old serials anymore. They were piggybacking on Indiana Jones. Trying to make us nostalgic for the cold war with Russians and the nuclear scare. Marion (who Jones had a questionable relationship with) comes back from the first movie, and now he Indiana Jones is a deadbeat dad. And his son’s an obnoxious thief who seems like he’s just out of the diner in Back to the Future. Also aliens.
Instead of compensating for the march of time, they gave us the same thing, forgetting twenty years had passed. That tastes had evolved. That stories had evolved. But they gave us the old junk repackaged with CGI.
What does any of that have to do with John Carter? I bring it up because there’s very little new here. Some cities at war, alien tribes, a coliseum, a few flying vehicles. Even while watching I said to myself “oh, another action scene”. I literally cannot tell you who John Carter is. Whereas the Avengers all have their own unique personalities and philosophies. Everyone is distinct.
John Carter is just a basic Superman. He’s doing right because he believes it’s right, which is another thing that rubs me the wrong way, in that colonialism “I’m coming into your yard and fix all your problems because I’m ‘more advanced’ than you.” That would be like me going to Detroit in a mech suit and yelling “We going to war, my bitches!”
Todays good adventure stories are The Fast and the Furious, King Kong, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean, and lots of superhero stories like Harry Potter and Batman and anything Marvel. Some take place in fantastic worlds, some are down-to-earth, but they’re never about wanting a crown or conquering a world. They’re about stopping bad people in power from doing bad things.
The best way to describe John Carter is Conan the Barbarian crossed with Avatar(in fact, Disney+ even recommended Avatar after I was finished). And I didn’t like either of those movies. Both of them have stories that have either static characters or a story that’s tedious, overused, and cliched, even in our time.
Conan led the way to a lot of cheesy clones like The Beastmaster and He-Man. Avatar was overhyped and over-marketed with the promise of being the next Star Wars with four more movies inbound. Where are those other movies, James?
The best these movies have now is a cult following. And that’s who John Carter is for–a cult audience. One with niche interests (like old stories, desert warriors saving princesses, old-style aliens, etc.). A movie seen fifty times by as many people.
The movie ended up getting a final grade of “mixed reviews”. Which seems about right to me. There is an audience for this movie, but it’s not a majority audience.
I like to play Marvel: Legendary. I’ve got a bunch of expansion sets, and I thought I’d come up with one for WandaVision.
Mastermind: Agatha Harkness Always Leads: Bystanders. Each bystander has ATK 4 + the number of Scheme Twists Master Strike: Agatha’s runes prevent you from using any rules text. You can only use the printed attack or recruit from your hand this turn. Tactic 1: Cast Out Interfering Heroes: Each other player reveals their hand and discards a non-grey Hero. Tactic 2: Cast Out Interfering Humans: Each other player reveals their hand and discards a SHIELD card. Tactic 3: Remove the Interlopers: KO any number of your SHIELD Heroes. Tactic 4: Remove the Heroes: Put all Heroes from the HQ on the bottom of the Hero Deck in random order. Rescue two bystanders.
Scheme: Trapped in the Hex Setup: 6 Twists. The City starts with six spaces. Special Rules: Villains do not escape. If a villain would escape, it gets put into the space above the Sewers, then continues on for as many spaces as the city has. Example: if there are three spaces (Sewers, Bank, Rooftops), a villain leaving the Rooftops goes above the Sewers. Twist: The city reduces in size by one. Evil Wins: When the city reaches capacity.
I tried playing this many years ago, but an irritating video stuttering issue stopped me. I thought I just needed a new graphics card, so I archived it until I got a new computer. Now I got a new computer, and it still plays like crap.
I haven’t dived (dove? diven?) into a GTA game in years. Not since Vice City on my PS2 (which I still have). But I don’t remember it like this. I remember vibrant cities and fun stunt ramps and zippy motorcycles and colorful characters (they were misogynist douchebags, but it’s GTA–you have to expect some “unenlightened” material, just like you can’t be surprised when someone slaps his wife in a Martin Scorsese film).
Speaking of Martin Scorsese, the story needs a cocaine injection. It looks like, instead of ripping off Scarface and Goodfellas, they tried to make their own gangster story. This time, it’s Eastern European immigrants in America, the “land of opportunity”, doing drug runs and taking verbal abuse. Like The Departed meets An American Tail. The protagonist is literally just off the boat and his only ally is a loudmouth cousin who sounds like Ali G if he watched nothing but Casino. He beats up loan sharks and takes shit from another equally Eastern European co-worker.
I appreciate the graphical upgrade, but that’s all it is–an upgrade. The textures are in high def, the corners are smoother, but where’s the style? Vice City and GTA3 all had bright skies, colorful buildings. Here, all the colors are washed out and it’s always cloudy. Every day looks like Ireland in Winter. If it wasn’t for the American radio, I would think this game was taking place in whatever Eastern European country the protagonist escaped from.
The character movements are the weirdest. Previous GTAs didn’t have the best motion capture. Everyone moved like marionettes with mitten hands. But they were marionettes controlled by trained puppeteers. These guys move like they’re in Garry’s Mod.
But most of all it’s boring, boring, boring. Every mission is driving someone somewhere. Maybe you shoot a few dudes. Then you drive back. That’s it. Over and over again. All I’m doing is chauffeur missions. I might as well be playing Crazy Taxi. Except in Crazy Taxi the cars are actually fun to drive. Here, they all control like bricks. I’m always running into something stupid and then slowly backing out to correct my course. Meanwhile the asshole I’m pursuing is getting away.
I’d understand if this is the tutorial level, but here’s the thing: a tutorial introduces you to the basic activities that reflect what the future gameplay is going to be. And none of these activities are enticing me to play the game any further.
The point of GTA is that I can run around and do what I want. I don’t have to follow a storyline to have fun. I know I’m usually the one rooting for linear gameplay, but I like side missions to break up the experience, to go exploring, to see a part the world that I might not if I stick to the main storyline.
Here, I don’t have any reason to do that. Each city block is the same slate gray as the other. I can’t take “odd jobs” like taxi driver, cop, ambulance driver, firefighter, ice cream truck, etc. I can’t shop at the mall, drive RC cars, find hidden packages, do street races.
Maybe it’s early and I don’t have access to the fun stuff yet. But if I have to get through hours of gameplay to get to the “fun stuff” (I’m looking at you Kingdom Hearts 2), it’s not worth it. Or maybe I’ve been spoiled by Saints Row 3 and 4, which took out everything dull and plodding in GTA and replaced it with fun, wacky, bizarre shit like hoverbikes and zombies. Unrealistic? Maybe. But who played video games for realism? The first video game involved a plumber who could super-jump, shoot fireballs, eat mushrooms, and punch bricks.
I’ve been trying for more than a decade to be happy.
Ever since my second child was born, I’ve been taking various cocktails of medication, trying to get to a point where my days are eights and nines instead of fives and fours. I have depression and anxiety. Don’t know if it’s severe, but it feels like I can’t get it better.
It wasn’t because of my second child that I started meds. It was because my job stability was suffering. I had had three jobs since graduating from college. One I was laid off from. One I was fired. One was a three-month contract that didn’t hire me back because of a hiring freeze. And job number four was shaping up to be the same story.
First I was moved to a different team (half because they needed more manpower, half because I wasn’t getting on with anyone). Then I got disciplinary action for being insubordinate. I thought sticking to my conviction about following policies and good coding practices was the right thing to do. But I guess I wasn’t diplomatic about it.
But this isn’t about my work history. This is about trying to stabilize myself and stop getting in trouble for poor attitude, being a creep, and thumbing my nose at authority. I wasn’t a bed of roses at home either. When you have a kid, you got to make a change. And I knew that change wasn’t going to come within. I’d tried, and I wasn’t strong enough.
Looking at my work history, I’m not sure that the medication succeeded in keeping my career stable. Maybe I just have a short attention span. Or something in my brain says that, after two years, rejection is coming, so I try and sabotage it to have the power in that situation. Or maybe my work-ethic is too influenced by my environment (good environment = I’m a good worker, bad environment = don’t expect much from me — my work reflects the support I get).
Nonetheless, I’m still not where I want to be emotionally. The medication’s succeeded in muting the lows, but it’s also killing the highs. I can’t laugh anymore, I can’t smile. Nothing makes me happy. Nothing’s funny. I went to “Guys and Dolls” last year and everyone was laughing uproariously at everything… except me. Not that it wasn’t funny, but nothing hit my brain with enough energy to laugh. Things in the past that evoked a response in the past (see “Five Songs that Made Me Cry”) or nostalgic movies or memories have an effect anymore. Nothing gives me joy or delight.
What I find myself doing these days is “escape” or “distraction”. Finding some way not to face reality, either by listening to podcasts, writing my novel, watching movies, or playing video games. Granted, this is probably what most people have been doing during Covid year, but that doesn’t mean I should accept it.
Really the medication’s benumbed everything. I’ve been keeping track of my mood via Daylio. According to my statistics, since January, my average mood has been 5. Which, I guess, is the definition of average. But it’s not because the highs and lows cancel each other out, it’s because I don’t go anywhere. In the past ninety-four days, it’s broken down like this:
Number of Days
I want to have more eight days and fewer four days. Or at least have some dynamics.
That’s why I call it a Gordian Knot–all of my options that loosen one thread tighten another. I could keep tweaking the cocktail of pills that I’m taking–stronger stuff, more of it, and so on. I’ve taken Pristique, Lexapro, Paxil, Trivium, Zoloft, and all their generics. I’ve paid $400 out-of-pocket for genetic testing to see which medications I can metabolize and which I can’t.
I’m on 75 mg of venlafaxine and 1200 mg of lithium right now. And while my psychiatrist says that’s not an unusually large amount, it’s still lithium. Kurt Cobain named a whole album after it, then killed himself. Evanescence wrote a song about it. The 90’s alternative station on SiriusXM is named lithium. RadioLab just ran a story about a girl with bipolar who went nuts because she wasn’t taking her lithium.
But I don’t have bipolar, I have social anxiety and depression. Am I even taking the right medication? How long before until I find that pot of gold with the right combination? Is there one? Isn’t there a point where you stop trying these infinite combinations of infinite prescriptions before you have to consider something more drastic?
Which I’m willing to do. I turn forty this year–I don’t want to do this dance the rest of my life: seeing the psych every three months, saying “didn’t work, what’s the next one”. When should I move onto something more dramatic? Taking these pills feels like poking at a wall with a pencil. I need something bigger to break this dam.
Of course, I could just stop taking them altogether, which would be the slicing of the knot, but that sounds dangerous too. I don’t have a guarantee that my problems twelve years ago are better. I don’t want to turn into the same angry young man I used to be.
All I know is a body can decide to do something, decide not to do something, or decide not to decide. And the last option is oft taken by fools.
Okay, so it’s not a game, but it’s on Disney Plus and it’s got all these characters I’m apparently supposed to know. They show up in other movies and shows and everyone freaks out and I’m supposed to know what it means. Who is Asaaj Ventress? Ahsoka? What is the “Bad Batch”? Bad batch of what? Brownies? So basically, I’m binge-watching to catch up on Star Wars lore.
It’s… it’s not very good. The animation is cheesy and crappy. I’m not a fan of the character designs, from Ahsoka’s flat chin to Palpatine’s raisin skin. Everyone looks like an action figure. Which I suppose is expected, since that’s always been Star Wars’s biggest money-maker.
The serial format is cute. Reminds me of the old-timey WWII films the original Star Wars was inspired by. But it also seems like fight-fight-fight. No plot, no character development. Just blasters and lightsabers flying back and forth with stories as thin as paper. Most of the series is story arcs of 2-4 episodes. The problem is, not all of these have anything to do with the mythology, which is what I’m here for.
I watched it expecting to have all this lore explained. A whole war takes place between Episode II and III. Clone Wars should have been the unnecessary-but-nice-to-have side story that describes what took place. Why does Anakin have a scar? What happens that causes the Jedi’s council not to give him master rank? Who is Ahsoka? Where did she come from? Why does she have two different colored lightsabers? (Several bad guys have two, but it’s uncharacteristic for Jedi to have anything but the single basic model.)
Where did General Grievous come from? What’s his rivalry with Obi-Wan Kenobi? But nope, Anakin starts the series with his scar. Ahsoka just shows up and is assigned as Anakin’s padawan. And suddenly, in season two, she has a second lightsaber. Did they just want to sell more toys?
Anakin suddenly has a student of his own? Is he no longer under Obi-Wan’s tutelage? He’s barely out of Jedi diapers himself. Is that appropriate during a war? I thought his apprenticeship ended at the beginning of Episode III, where Palpatine appoints him his personal envoy. What’s the point of having a canon if they never explain these Chekhov’s guns? That’s why I’m watching–to see the origin of these little touches.
The dialogue is trite and useless, like filler. Someone is always telling someone else “be careful”, “stay sharp”, “proceed with caution” before doing something dangerous. Like are they ever going to do otherwise? They’re constantly doing dangerous stuff. Are they ever going to say “go in riding a dewback, guns blazing, looking like you have googly eyes.” It’s not like anyone of importance can die. Grievous, Dooku, Obi-Wan, Anakin, Palpatine, Windu, Yoda. We know they all live to Episode III, so there’s no tension. Plus, the episodes with Jar-Jar prove going in with no caution or heed works just as well.
The only one that can experience any consequences is Ahsoka, but she can’t because she’s the main character. She’s the audience surrogate–the one who gets expositioned to and closest in target age. The hand-chosen kid who gets to wield a lightsaber and learn under Darth Vader Anakin Skywalker. I like Ahsoka’s character. Even if she starts out whiny (“but we’re not supposed to!”, “but we should follow orders!” “But that’s not what the general said!”) she has the most character development. She actually learns her lessons. Her transition is subtle and earned. And now that I’ve seen more seasons, I see where her appeal lies.
But it feels like there’s no imagination in the stories. The content feels like something Mike Teavee would be into–lots of explosions and people dying (robots and clones) and guns blasting.
Speaking of blasters, the funniest part is how incompetent everyone is. I’d love to see a percentage of “Number of blaster shots fired” over “Actual targeted object hit”. I bet it’s something like .001%. Star Wars has always had a tradition of never hitting anything. But Clone Wars takes it to a whole new level. There’s one scene where Ahsoka is trapped in a four-way corridor with twenty clones and droids on either side. And no one’s getting hit, least of all Ahsoka. She doesn’t even move or do Jedi gymnastics to avoid it.
It’s like Cobra Kai–everyone has marshmallow punches, no one ever gets tired, no ever draws blood. Are the guns designed to act this way? I guess the cost for having infinite ammo is that your accuracy goes down to zero. Likewise, the armor does jackshit. I saw a clone trooper wearing a helmet get punched out. If that can happen, your helmet sucks.
Speaking of badly designed technology, these droids are the worst. You would think an army full of disposable soldiers without the trappings of human error would be a windfall. But they’re terrible. I have more confidence in my off-brand Roomba killing someone, and it’s constantly getting stuck. They’re robots–they should be intelligent and rational like Data or Hal 9000. That would be an unstoppable army. Instead the strategy seems to be overwhelming numbers of replaceable, recyclable troops. Because they can’t hit anything, can’t take a hit themselves, aren’t strong, aren’t dextrous, have neither insight nor intelligence, and no superhuman abilities like reaction time or flight. These guys, a Jedi jumps between them. “Hey… you… shouldn’t… be… here…” Slash.
All in all, the only gap Clone Wars fills out is how significant they were in Star Wars lore. It’s just a throwaway line in “A New Hope”, but here we see what a war hero Anakin Skywalker, how it makes his name. And how meaningful his downfall is–from hero of the Republic to blackguard of the empire. But I wish I had watched just the mythology episodes. My dream of Clone Wars redeeming the prequel trilogy did not come to fruition.
I’m revisiting The Mudbow Sisters, my “Sons of Katie Elder with Dwarves” novel, by sending my query to publishers instead of agents this time. That’s how I got Merm-8 first published, and I miss having a book on the shelves. There are people who do read my work. My wife knows someone who read it because she looks for books by local authors.
There aren’t as many publishers as agents who take direct, unsolicited submissions so this won’t take long. Most of them have some excluding factor, like being only Christian or only romance, neither of which my book is. And you can tell by the quality of the book covers where they sit on the vanity press spectrum.
As I make my new queries, I realize one of the problems I’m running into is that it’s so unlike anything else on the shelf, now or in the past. It’s a story about four dwarf women. When have you ever seen fantasy dwarf culture portrayed in any medium? They don’t even show it in Lord of the Rings, the quintessential epic fantasy where dwarves originated. Oh, they show dwarves (male dwarves) but they never go to their homeland and show their family lives or architecture or culture.
Past that, it’s not about four dwarf women on an epic fantasy quest. It’s a close-to-home “rite of passage” story closer in plot to Little Women or The Outsiders or The Royal Tenenbaums without the twee or quirk. But it’s not “file the serial numbers off Terms of Endearment”. There are real characters in here–rough, tough, hard as stone, twice as craggy dwarves. Products of a defined culture and upbringing.
So when the publisher asks me to “name three to five other books published in the past half-decade that are similar to yours”, I am scraping the bottom of the 99-cent bin. The setup sounds like tear-jerker family drama, but I’ve transplanted the cast of characters from The Hobbit. Two great tastes that taste great together? Well, I think so. But no one else has made the recipe.
Maybe that’s the reason I didn’t try very hard to get it published. I mean, I certainly didn’t shirk. I combed through all the agents that rep “fantasy”, but got fewer bites than I ever had before. Was it because no one writes about dwarves, much less women dwarves? Maybe. Was it because it was a bit on the short side (85,000 words) and most fantasies are epics? Maybe. Was it because it was 2019 and everything was a garbage fire? Maybe.
So yeah, I don’t exactly follow the trends of literature. But all the writing advice says not to. As soon as you cater to one trend, it fades and another takes its place. I just need to wait until small bearded woman hop on board and I’ll be riding that gravy train.
I was watching the Netflix series Ragnarökand decided I needed to catch up on my Norse gods. It’s not Marvel’s Thor, so you can’t just wing it. You have to remember who Tyr and Fenrir are and that Frost Giants aren’t just cannon fodder to be whacked around.
It still holds up pretty well. I maintain the same opinion from my first review. One new problem I realized is that there is a lack of continuity between tales. One guy dies and is immediately resurrected in the next story. No explanation why (or ever). But that’s a symptom of a spotty written record. I don’t blame the author. It was his choice to maintain truthiness to the source. And sometimes cohesion is the cost.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
So much internal “thinking” and description of the minute details of everyone’s actions. Not enough multi-person dialogue. The main character lacks relationships with anything or anyone. You might say “well, that’s denotive of the main character, her being a robot and all. Observant of everything but never able to assimilate into it.” And I say, “Great. Why do you have to bore me with that?” People call her sarcastic, empathetic, sweet, socially awkward, but I didn’t get any of that. You know how I am with my robots–it seems they’re never written the way they should be. I might have left it unfinished if it wasn’t so short. But I won’t be reading any more in this series.
Save the Cat!: Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody
It’s 90% the same as the original “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. Same beats, same outline. The only difference is that the examples are novels instead of films.
I always thought Save the Cat is a way to get “how do I make this idea into a commercial story”. And the keyword is commercial–something that will sell. Because, really, unless you can sell your story to a major publisher–someone who can get it in front of eyes–you’re just shouting into the wind.
Everyone’s looking for the magic formula to create that best-selling story, myself included. But the real magic is in the lines themselves, and there’s nothing that can help with that. Sometimes you’ve got to just build one Lego brick on top of the other.
My point is, either read this one or read Blake Snyder’s version. There’s not much difference. But I guess if you haven’t read either, and you’re aiming for novels instead of screenplays, read this one. You’ll get closer-to-home examples (and hope to god you’ve read them).
Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel (Themis Files #2)
It feels like an odd coincidence, reading this so close to A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, both of which are about large alien robots no one knows what to do about. The difference is that one is about the effect on pop culture. The other is global politics a la Godzilla/total-destruction-weapons “I’m gonna smash everything, whatcha gonna do about it?”
I wish I could say I thought of it myself, but it reminds me of what an American version of Neon Genesis Evangelion might look like. Less on the Christianity, more on the whizbang Hollywood moments (mix thoroughly) — but that’s a compliment. There’s less angst and more CSI-style character drama. But it’s still good.
The problem is, if you go into this expecting a typical mecha story, with action and team strife and missiles flying around and questions of fate vs. destiny, that’s not here. These themes are more nihilistic and “we’re all doomed because we can’t get the world to act together”.
But it’s a sequel, so if you didn’t read the first one, I don’t know why you’d read the second.
The Empire Strikes Back: From a Certain Point of View by various authors (unfinished)
Like the first, this is an anthology of short stories. Each one is about a different side or background character in “The Empire Strikes Back” that influences or is affected by the events of the movie. For example, the imperial officer who discovers the rebel base or the tauntaun keeper on Hoth.
Short stories are a hard sell for me, and this book made me realize one additional problem to all the ones I’ve listed before: you have to learn a new guy’s backstory every ten minutes. As soon as you’re comfortable in his or her skin, you jump to a new one, and you will never see that first one again. All that information you absorbed is rendered useless.
Plus, these are all the unimportant characters. I know that’s the hook, but when your subject matter is, by definition, characters who don’t matter to the central conflict, it’s not compelling. These are all the rebels and stormtroopers whose only purpose is to get shot by lasers, upping the stakes for characters who do matter.
So that’s why I stopped reading–it was just boring. You’re either reading the internal narrative of Yoda as he sneaks up on Luke or the non-adventures of the rebel base administrator or snowspeeder pilot. The only way you’re going to get anything out of this is if you know the names Onsell and Dak.
What the Hell Did I Just Read? by David Wong (John Dies at the End #3)
I love that macabre humor from David Wong. I’ll always say this guy deserves more accolades and notoriety for the books he writes. There are so many books that are trying to be Victorian prose and stylistic word poems and post-modern literary realism and there’s nothing for the reader that just wants a good time. Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it has value. Don’t be The Exorcist, be The Evil Dead. Books should be fun, not homework.
That said, it’s the “least good” of the JDATE books. Maybe because there are several Deus ex moments that ruin the stakes. And some plot elements that don’t fit in, don’t make sense. It’s borderline bizarro fiction, so things that don’t make sense are par for the course (like a Santa Claus made of sausages). But when they affect the consequences or challenges of characters in the narrative, when they scoop them out of trouble, that’s where I have a problem. It’s cheap to say “I set this up while I was on a drug bender where I don’t remember anything, and now it shows up to save us.”
It’s not as erratic or short attention span as the first book, but also not as cohesive and linear as the second one. It’s a mix of the two.
Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (Themis Files #3)
To be honest, I only finished it just to complete the series, and that’s a terrible reason to read a book (but a great way to hook you into buying it–why do you think there are so many series?) I just stopped caring about the characters after the midpoint of book two. Everyone I had cared about was gone by that point.
For the first two books, we’ve been trying to figure out who these aliens are. Then they actually got to go to the alien planet to meet them… and no one cared. I mean both the Earthlings and the aliens. They’re accidentally summoned to the origin planet of the giant robots and no one knows what to do with them. They make decisions like Ents. All these big revelations about advanced science and our evolution and where the war comes from and cures for cancer and “To Serve Man” and what happens? They get put in a home in the suburbs.
They live there for twelve years and just kinda exist. Like Alf or The Munsters. All these questions linger–what do they do all day? How do they brush their teeth? What do they do all day? Do they get jobs? How do they get money? Where’s the alien Walmart? How is learning the language so easy? There are still languages on Earth we haven’t totally deciphered. But it’s more about father and daughter bickering.
I felt the same in Book 2, where they find enemy aliens in a robot and we never hear a thing about it. No one figures out their biology or culture. No anthropology or forensics on them. I would think we’d have an Independence Day or Watchmen situation, but nope, we just care about the robots. That jars me out of the story because it seems cognitively dissonantt (i.e. “I don’t think this would happen in this situation”).
Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by John Cleese
Well, it’s definitely short. I read it in two days, but I only needed one.
It’s quite useful, but the problem is I had already heard most of it in a talk John Cleese gave that was recorded on YouTube. But now I can’t seem to find that talk, so at least the book preserves it for posterity.
It’s a cheerful little volume that helps you understand how to fuel creativity. It can be condensed into two phrases: “allocation of time” and “allocation of space”. You need to set aside a time and a place where you can sit and be creative. This book adds a few more details as to why this works and ways to make it work well. It’s like a long web article. But I’d say it’s worth your time. Couldn’t hurt.
Warlock: Reign of Blood by Edwin McRae (unfinished)
I learned about LitRPG from Felicia Day’s promotion that she was narrating a book from such a genre. So I think to myself “what is this ‘LitRPG’?” I like to think I have my fingers on the pulse of today’s lit scene and that this passed me by is egregious (note that I said “I like to think”).
I thought it would be like Dungeons & Dragons but in book form. So that means you get the fun dynamics of table talk, party banter, rules changing on the fly, wacky stuff happening. Like Acquisitions, Inc. or The Adventure Zone. But as a novel.
At least not in this case. It’s more like they live in a world where the success of actions (like sword strikes and arrow shots) is determined by dice rolls, not skill or luck. And they know it. It doesn’t affect the narrative that much because that’s how anything in life is–coincidence and chance and how the characters react to that. It’s the author’s job to engineer that into a compelling story.
I made it 20% of the way through. The story never started–I didn’t know what the main character wanted and I didn’t care whether he got it. When making a new genre, you’ve got to keep some fundamental storytelling elements, like character and goal and stakes. Otherwise, you won’t be able to smooth out that new path without something for the reader to tread on. Like Guitar Hero–that game can be played with a controller, but that’s not very immersive. But playing with a real guitar would be too complex and not fun. So you get the hybrid toy model, and a video game phenomenon is born.
It reminded me of Wizard’s Bane or Off to Be the Wizard, where the characters are blah and have no idea what they want or what bad things happen if they don’t get it. Pretty much a male fantasy where they fight with swords and get the girl. Boring and amateur. The author seemed more concerned with the character build than who he’s with or where he’s going.
There’s a song I heard on country radio the other day. Didn’t even hear the whole song, just a snippet. But it was enough to know what the rest of the song was about–it’s a sappy mushy country ballad, how deep is it going to go? All I really heard was “You’ll learn how to be a lady”.
This is, of course, “Lady” by Brett Young. If you read all the lyrics you see it’s more of a love letter to his wife. Not as directed at the daughter as songs like “My Little Girl” by Tim McGraw or “Butterfly Kisses” by Bob Carlisle
But I immediately had a visceral reaction. Learn how to be a lady? Fuck that. What makes you think a “lady” is the end goal for women? A “lady” is a token–a person in a pretty frilly dress whose only ambitions are gossip and who to marry. They’re little porcelain figures you put on a shelf as a decoration. Something that gets looked at, but never used, until you need to dust.
Don’t be a lady. Throw mud at a wall. Fight and scratch and yell. Ugly cry during a job interview. Hit a baseball. Get something pierced. Show off your body, including the scars, the pooch, the veins, the moles, the cellulite. Write terrible poetry about the guy who broke up with you. Connect people–get someone to talk to someone else. Have sex with people (except assholes; don’t reward assholes–sleep with good people you want to sleep with). Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Dance badly in the living room with the windows open. Don’t just have a period–squeeze that shit onto the pad. Wear bright lipstick. Be an orc, not an elf. Listen to Nine Inch Nails and Backstreet Boys and Ariana Grande and Nickelback. Be grossly pregnant–fart and vomit and fall asleep at inappropriate times and be sick. Get in a man’s face and scream at him for being a chauvinistic dick. Protest injustice. Become vice president of something. Hit with your fist, not a slap. Sprint at nineteen miles per hour and go viral.
So one person’s first name is the other person’s last name. And the other names have that “li-son” sound. How can I not be confused? Doesn’t help that they’ve both been on the same show (Community). And that I’m more familiar with the roles where they played against type (Captain Marvel and G.L.O.W.).
Gillian Jacobs vs. Gillian Anderson
I have no reason to get these two mixed up. One’s an established television icon famous for a decade-long sci-fi series in the 90’s. The other’s a fresh face comedian known for a sitcom. I also get Allison Brie and Gillian Jacobs confused–they both played the “love interest” on Community. And then my brain keeps pulling out Gillian Anderson from the folder. Maybe it’s the common last names?
Olivia Munn vs. Olivia Wilde
I really don’t know how these two are different people. They both have long straight dark hair and similar bodies. Other than that, couldn’t pick them out of a lineup. Olivia Wilde has the spooky eyes and was in Tron: Legacy. And I know I’ve seen Olivia Munn in things, but I couldn’t tell you what.
Anna Kendrick vs. Anne Hathaway
As you can see, it’s the first names that trip me up. But they’re always worse when they look alike. Both of them are about the same height, have dark hair, do both comedy and drama, and gravitate toward musical roles. The only way I can tell them apart is that Anne Hathaway has bigger eyes and Anna Kendrick has more of what I call “mouse mouth”.
Keith David vs. Kevin Clash
These two couldn’t be more different. One plays tough baritone characters like in The Thing, Road House, and Goliath in Gargoyles. You’ve definitely heard him in something. The other is Elmo. But I’m more familiar with Kevin Clash after reading his name in the credits of any Jim Henson production I grew up with. Splinter in TMNT? Played by Kevin Clash. Baby Sinclaire in Dinosaurs? There’s Kevin Clash. And somehow Keith David flew under my radar, which meant I had no idea why they were making a big deal about him in Saints Row IV.
Amy Adams vs. Amy Acker
It’s the Battle of the Amy’s (Amies?). Amy Acker, I knew from Angel, which aired at the same time Amy Adams started coming up in her career, doing spotty parts in various movies, until Enchanted broke her out. At some point, I thought they were sisters (“oh, good for Winifred‘s sister getting movie roles while the other one has a stable job in TV”). As if first names are the family name. I must have got my wires crossed at some point. It didn’t help that Amy Adams was Tara’s cousin on Buffy. I’m just lucky I didn’t get her confused with Isla Fisher.
Ryan Reynolds vs. Ryan Gosling vs. Dax Shephard
Triple threat of hearthrobs. Two of them are Canadian. All three have the same build, same poofy hair, same lean face. The difference is Gosling looks like you can bring him home to Mom. Shepard looks like he’ll definitely sell you weed. And Reynolds would sell your mom weed.
Tom Hardy vs. Anyone
Everybody’s hunkalicious treat, but I can’t tell him from Adam. He’s been in a hundred movies, but I would never recognize him in one. Bane in The Dark Knight Rises is the same person as Max in Fury Road? Surely you jest.
Elizabeth Banks vs. Elisha Cuthbert
I don’t know why I get these two confused. I think The Girl Next Door and The Forty-Year-Old Virgin came out around the same time, they both deal with similar subjects (plus Banks made Zack & Miri Make a Porno a little later), and both of the “sexy women” are short-haired blondes. I’ve sure seen a lot more of Elizabeth Banks than Elisha Cuthbert though. Although not always so, ahem, recognizably.
Strangely, I can tell the difference between Katy Perry and Zooey Deschanel easily. Useless skills for the win.