Monday, October 3, 2016

Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park Talk About Storytelling

NYU teaches a class in storytelling the Tisch School of the Arts. On the first day of class, Professor Liotti invited Trey Parker and Matt Stone to discuss their take on storytelling. In this short video, there are a couple of nuggets of great advice, which helps explain the 20 year success of the animated television series. I found it interesting that they basically said writer's block is not an option. If they can't come up with a show idea, seventy people are idled. This reminded me of William Shakespeare, who had forty people depending on him to come up with a new play that would draw a large enough paying audience to feed themselves and their families. Nothing drives creativity like hunger.

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By the way, kudos to NYU for teaching storytelling. Many universities think creative writing is solely about crafting wonderful sentences. Not true. Storytelling is at the heart of anything still read or viewed that was written over twenty years ago.

Storytelling is the art, good writing is the craft that brings it to life.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Magnificent Seven—Hollywood Finally Gets It Almost Right

Hollywood doesn’t like Westerns. They keep trying to make them into something else. If a traditional Western is a success, like Unforgiven, critics tag it as an anti-western. The Chicago Tribune said of Unforgiven, “This dark, melancholic film is a reminder -- never more necessary than now -- of what the American cinema is capable of, in the way of expressing a mature, morally complex and challenging view of the world.” As if a Western never plumbed the depths of depravity before.
Last night my wife and I went to see The Magnificent Seven, the remake. It’s a good movie. I thought the climatic gun battle was over the top, but that’s what audiences expect nowadays. Also the storyline was more implausible than the original. A roving band of bandits in the age of Poncho Villa raiding villages for food is far more believable than a mine owner killing random farmers to acquire land that hasn’t proved to be lodes of precious metal. But, hey, this is entertainment. Suspension of belief is de rigor.
An NPR review said of the movie, “it's not a revisionist western. Nor is it an anti-western. It's a western.” The reviewer, Chris Klimek, did not necessarily mean that as a compliment. I say, thank goodness. It’s about time Hollywood got back to good storytelling. Modern Hollywood often gets itself wrapped up messaging. Storytelling is an art that requires a meaningful plot, engaging characters, proper pacing, and craftsmanship. When they made the The Magnificent Seven, they set out to make an entertaining film, not a statement. Great stories can make statements, but they must be subtle enough to not jar the reader/viewer out of the story. Philip Pullman once said, “Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.” The Magnificent Seven did include a message about inclusiveness, but never did that theme interrupt the flow of the story.
I liked the movie, and my wife liked it as well. The film did $41.4 million on its opening weekend, which bodes well that box office receipts will be high enough to encourage more of the same.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In Desperate Need of Ruby Slippers

In a previous post I lamented our poor travel luck of late. The good news is that once we left the USA, all of our travel difficulties disappeared. We flew to Paris without incident, and took taxies, trains, and Metros without mishap. The bad news greeted us on reentry to the USA. The final leg of our flight was cancelled due to weather. Despite claims by Global Warming alarmists, airlines still consider weather an act of God. No free hotel. No paid one either. When weather has a temper tantrum, New York hotels fill up in a New York minute. A long taxi ride into the city found us a place to stay.

Our airline booked us out of LaGuardia the following evening. Since we were anxious to get home, we left for the city four hours ahead of our scheduled departure.  We wanted to miss the work traffic. What we didn’t know was that since our last uneventful trip to LaGuardia, some nincompoop decided to tear up all access roads simultaneously. It took two hours and a wheel barrow of money to get us to the terminal. But we still had a sense of humor. We laughed at our travails as we grabbed a glass of wine at the Delta Sky Club. We were in heaven. A quiet, little sanctuary hidden from the hubbub just outside the sliding glass doors. Then all hell broke loose. Alarms went off, tense announcements ordered us to evacuate immediately, and people rushed everywhere. First responders burst in from outside. Was it the Sky Club or the entire airport? Once we got outside the lounge, we found calm and order. Who had turned the world upside down? Apparently a short in the dishwasher. The culprit had been an electrical fire in the kitchen.

In our haste, we had brought our wine out with us and it was less than an hour before our flight time. C'est la vie. We’d manage. Heck, we’d already endured much worse than being thrown out of an airport lounge.

How naïve. Our early evening flight got delayed until the dead of night.

When I had a horrible game of golf, my eighteenth hole was always spectacular. I think it was someone’s sly way of enticing me back onto the links. In a similar fashion, once we landed in Omaha, everything went perfect. Technically, it was morning. At that hour, taxicabs were rare, but our luggage came out first and we beat the competition to the cab stand. Omaha traffic is light in comparison to big cities and non-existent in the wee hours. We flew home.

Six weeks of travel makes one homesick. Home, sweet home. There’s no place like home.

We think we’ll stay awhile.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Travel Memoir—Partie Deux

Yesterday my wife and I left Paris for Omaha. That’s not a sentence most people would enjoy writing, but we’ve been gone a month and look forward to our home and dullish routines. Twenty-five years ago I was in Paris nearly every month and my wife often accompanied me. She did the museums, cathedrals and other large buildings. I worked. I enjoyed interacting with the French in a non-tourist setting and kidded my wife that she did dead France while I did live France.
This trip we focused on dead France … and walking. Museums and walking. Cathedrals and walking. Monuments and walking. Walking to find new and interesting places to eat. Sometimes just walking to watch the street life. But if you placed all of our steps end to end, you still wouldn’t reach a Brasserie-free zone. How cool is that!
We noticed a couple of differences from twenty-five years ago. For one thing, tourism isn’t nearly as easy or enjoyable. Terrorists and technologists put a dampener on the fun.

Security is everywhere. And I mean tough, no nonsense soldiers, not our clock-watching TSA gatekeepers. These decked out fully armed men and women strode purposefully in urban warfare formation. They never stopped. They never quit looking around. They never acted friendly.
Every public place included security checkpoints. In most cases, this meant two lines; one to check your bags and another for tickets. Standing line could wear you out before you got the first glance at a historic artifact. Worse, everything was cordoned off. No more grand vistas of the Eiffel Tower. The base is surrounded by barricades and open space under the tower is the province of black and white photographs from the pre-digital age. Notre Dame is still free, but a glacial line to get through security can consume the entire forecourt. If you’re a millennial, you think this is normal. How terribly sad.

Technologist have spoiled the party as well. Everybody born after the breakup of the Beatles has a selfie stick and insists on recording every moment of their lives. It’s as if they can’t enjoy life in the moment. They must see a digital representation to believe it’s real. And they can’t just snap their picture and get on with it. They wield their selfie stick like a baton, twirl it, shove it in other people’s faces, or just endlessly hold up traffic as they preen and mug for the perfect shot to share with the world on Instagram. Everybody is a celebrity in their own mind.
In the olden days, read the distant Twentieth Century, single-purpose cameras took photographs on expensive film that took more coin to develop and print. It also cost far too much to make a copy for everyone on the planet. Tourists stood away from the object of interest, took their picture, and moved on. That meant Kodak Moments seldom disrupted your enjoyment of a world wonder. Not today. People crowd forward so they can shoot backwards while claiming an arc of free space by waving a plastic stick with all of the authority of a scepter. Digital is free, everyone has a device, and spreading copies to people you don’t know is de rigueur. Pity the poor soul who just wants to feast on an exhibit with their eyes and ears.
These inconveniences were restricted to tourist attractions. Our small hotel in a pleasant neighborhood had all the charm of the Paris we knew twenty-five years ago. We were nestled on a quiet side street, with tiny grocery stores, casual cafés, fine dining, with trendy shopping, Metro stations, and bustling Parisians just steps away.
We had a wonderful time. Actually, our first visit was thirty-five years ago. At the time, we had never been anyplace more exotic than Tijuana. On our first night, we walked out of our Left Bank hotel and wandered down the street to a restaurant. We had no idea how to order. We knew no French. The waiters knew no English. We were so naïve, we ordered entrées as our main course. We had accidentally chosen La Coupole, the most famous and historic restaurant on all of the Left Bank. The whole experience was fun as hell, and it had a lot to do with our penchant for travel ever since. We were again in Paris for our fiftieth anniversary, so we decided to celebrate our grand night at La Coupole. It was fun. The food was great. The waiters charming. And best of all, the ghosts of all those famous artists and writers joined us in celebration of our first fifty years together.
Viva la France.
P.S: I write this from New York City, not Omaha. Our flight was cancelled. My last post (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) bewailed our travel mishaps getting to New York. Evidently our travel hobgoblin has returned.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—A Travel Memoir

"And by the way, you know, when you're telling these little stories? Here's a good idea -
have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!"

My wife and I are on an extended vacation that traverses five states and a couple of countries. (Can you vacation in retirement?) We started with meeting high school friends in Carson City and then my wife’s brother in Garnerville, Nevada. Since many of the Steve Dancy novels take place in and around Carson Valley, I always enjoy visiting the area to get ideas and check up on how Jenny is doing. From there we flew to San Diego for a week of surfing and beach-style laziness.
After SoCal, we were supposed to return to Omaha for a week, but schedules got messed up, so we stayed home only overnight before flying to New York. Well, not exactly. Seems SouthWest had a computer glitch that turned every airport in the nation into serpentine lines of anxious travelers trying to figure out a new way to get from point A to point B. Due to family commitments, we had to get through this goo of snarling humanity or miss our opportunity to see all six grandkids together. Unfortunately, when we got to the front of the glacial line they told us the only available flight to New York was two days in the future. Bummer. Our son saved the day by booking us a car to drive us to Chicago for an early morning flight the next day. As we tooled along the highway in splendid exasperation, he even got all six of us flight reservationsmy wife and me, my daughter, and her three kids. Since it was seven in the evening, our driver assured us he could get us to Chicago by 3:00 AM.

After a few hours’ sleep at an airport hotel, the six of us boarded a crowded flight to JFK. As a special treat for our 50th wedding anniversary, the kids had rented a house in South Hampton. Unfortunately we arrived too late for the train or jitney, so once again we piled into a mini-van for a sluggish ride out of New York City on a Friday night.

Now things came together beautifully. We arrived in time for a late grilled dinner in the backyard. The grandkids, together again, went bonkers. They laughed and ate and played and swam and generally made us feel old. A drink took the edge off, another put us to bed.

The world looked different after a good night’s sleep. We had four days ahead of us to do nothing but try to keep up with six kids under twelve years old. We even went surfing. Crummy wind-blown waves, but it was fun having three generations in the water. I lost a bet with my grandson that I would catch the better wave, but we had only wagered an ice cream cone, so I had enough money for the rest of the trip. The experience reminded me of Warren Miller’s admonition that “you only ski better than your kids one day in your life.”

All good things must come to an end. On Tuesday evening, we took the jitney back to New York. Our travel hobgoblin had not retreated into the woodwork. After leaving the Jitney, we flagged down a cab to take us to our timeshare. (Hotel costs hampered visits to see our NYC grandkids, so a few years ago we bought into a timeshare-like arrangement.) The cab driver’s mouth dropped open when he saw all the kids and enough luggage for Duchess Kate Middleton. Then he started dancing in place and begged me to allow him to drive over to McDonalds to pee. Having been there myself, I said yes. I didn’t know McDonalds was ten blocks in the wrong direction. It was late, we were tired, and our cabbie took us on a prolonged detour (meter off, of course.) I didn’t complain because we were piled in well beyond the legal limit for a single cab.
Our next travel adventure was beyond inconvenient, it was dangerous. In Times Square we signaled for an Uber, but a pirate pretended to be our car. Dumb us, we didn’t verify the driver’s name before jumping in. Trapped in gridlock, a small gang of teenagers started banging on car hoods and then threw Pepsi on our driver’s car. He immediately jumped out yelling and took after the boys. They jeered and threatened him, so he returned to the car and I saw him pull a cheap steak knife out of the driver’s door. Oh Shit! He brandished the weapon and the boys went on to harass sane drivers. When he finally dropped us off, he delivered the coup de grâce by demanding $30 for a twenty block ride. I had already seen the knife, so I paid him sans tip and we bailed out as fast as we could.
I have a chocoholic granddaughter, but instead of venturing back to Times Square to visit the Hersey store, we decided to take a train to the mother lode of all things chocolate, Hersey, Pennsylvania. By this time you would think we had learned our lesson and stayed put. No way. Except for jostling crowds at Penn Station, comatose Amtrak employees, rude train passengers, WAY-overpriced snacks, and a first-time Uber car that ran around in circles because our driver didn’t have a clue where to find the biggest amusement park in Pennsylvania and felt looking out the window at big signs was a sign of weakness or something. The trip was as pleasant as an emergency trip to the dentist. I exaggerate … a bit. The good news is that once we arrived, everything went like clockwork and we had a great couple of days wolfing down chocolate and getting the bejesus scared out of us on rides engineered by sadists.
When we returned to New York Penn Station, I lost it with a driver who yelled at my daughter on the phone because we couldn’t find him. He kept telling her that he was parked right behind the police. I asked him to look around and tell me where he didn’t see police. He had no answer.  After our sullen journey, I over-tipped because I felt guilty for yelling at him, only to discover that my daughter also tipped him heavily to make up for her rude father.
We celebrated our 50th anniversary with the kids early because for some odd reason, school now starts in mid-August, and what we really wanted as a gift was to see all of our kids and grandkids together. On our actual anniversary, we decided to do our own private celebration in Paris. What seems like a long time ago, I ran an operation in Paris. My wife joined me on many business trips and it’s a city with a lot of memories for us. Because our schedule got shoved forward, we are now waiting in NYC for our flight to the City of Lights. After our travel experiences so far, I wonder about flying over vast amounts of very cold water.
As I write this, I am sitting quietly in my timeshare. My daughter and her family have returned to Omaha. Our other grandchildren are still on Long Island. We see little of our son in the city because he works day and night.
We are alone. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. We don’t travel again for another week.
I’m bored.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Magnificent Seven Ride Again

I was never a fan of signing cowboys. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and lesser lights were too goody two-shoes for me. I categorize heroes as wholesome, flawed, and anti-heroes. In my mind, this is not three distinct categories, but a continuum, with Roy Rogers at one end and Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men on the other.

I’m not an enthusiast for either extreme. As a youngster, I preferred Wanted Dead or Alive and Paladin to the Lone Ranger. (I admit I watched Rin Tin Tin. You can’t get more wholesome than a boy and his dog.) Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall and Richard Boone’s Paladin engaged in gray professions and rejected many societal norms. Both characters were portrayed as generally good, but conflicted people who did the right thing in the end.

In the fifties, western films mostly pitted a good guy (and frequently a sidekick) against bad guys. In 1960, The Magnificent Seven broke this mold to start a trend toward far more complex protagonists.  There were not only seven “good guys,” they were flawed to the point of tipping into the anti-hero class. The Magnificent Seven was not the first western with anti-hero protagonists, but its enormous success triggered the Hollywood trait to copy what worked in the past. One of my favorites was the 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The complex, dark Tom Doniphon was one of John Wayne’s best roles, and James Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard certainly had reason for remorse. The Wild Bunch (1969), Silverado (1985), Young Guns (1988), and others employed crews of anti-heroes who seek redemption by righting wrongs.

The Magnificent Seven, directed by John Sturges led the pack. In its original theatrical release, the box office exceeded more than double the cost of the film and it has been considered a genre classic ever since. Anchored by movie star Yul Brynner, the cast included television stars and solid character actors.  Many emerged from the film as bankable Hollywood properties. The taut script moved the story capably forward with character-driven dialogue and memorable scenes. A great director, a seminal cast, and an exceptional script. That’s all you need to make a Hollywood classic.

The seven are again coming to a theater near you. Antoine Fuqua is directing a remake, due for release this fall. Will it be a hit or a miss? Remaking a box office success seems safe, but taking another turn at a classic carries its own set of risks. Most remakes fall short because the audience already has a preset image of the story and deviations can be jarring. Why would a studio invest 9 figures on a risky venture? Who cares about a new Magnificent Seven? Evidently a lot of people. As of this writing, the teaser below has nearly 7.5 million views. That number will fill a lot of multiplexes.

Will the movie be a success? Some have expressed concerns about this version’s adherence to the politically correct. That’s not my concern. From the teaser, I’m worried about too much reliance on pyrotechnics. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) that overwhelms story is the current Hollywood disease. We’ll see.

By the way, my favorite piece of trivia from the original film has to do with a little tension on the set between Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. McQueen kept upstaging Brynner, so Brynner supposedly told McQueen that if he did it one more time, he would remove his hat. It must have worked because Brynner is never seen without his black hat firmly snugged down on his bald head.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Hateful Eight— Tarantino mailed it in

I like westerns and I like Quentin Tarantino films, so I had high expectation when I rented The Hateful Eight. Bummer. It's not only a crummy movie … punishment is compounded by its interminable length. Long is usually good for Tarantino, but it’s a bad sign if you ever consciously wonder when this thing will be over. The movie desperately needed editing by someone unintimidated by the grand master.

The Hateful Eight came across as a parody of a Tarantino movie instead of the genuine article. His good films are characterized by stylish cinematography, clever and incongruous banter, startling and extreme violence, and artful revelation of plot through time displacement. The Hateful Eight included all of these elements, but without charisma. It felt flat and uninspired. Tarantino dispassionately applied his formula without the artistic essentials that make it work.  Too bad. He’s tried twice to hit one out of the park with a western. Django Unchained was a ground-rule double, and he may have barely beat out an infield grounder with The Hateful Eight.

I have watched Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill films many time. I’ve also re-watched other Tarantino movies. I can’t imagine spinning up The Hateful Eight again.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

1,000 Book Reviews and Counting

I read every book review. Can't help myself. I'm perverse. I even like to read bad reviews. I also keep count by book. Dumb, I know, but it's a five minute exercise I enjoy with morning coffee. Anyway, on May 31, I hit a milestone of sorts: 1,000 Amazon reviews for an average of 4.41. Pretty cool. (Actually I  have 2,304 Goodreads ratings, but those only require a simple mouse click or screen touch.)

I appreciate every reader. For the most part, I don't know them. A review or an email note gives me a feel for my audience and helps me connect with readers. Less than 1% of readers leave a text review and I'm grateful for every one. Each review helps me with my next book. Thank you.

If you like short illustrated reviews, I get a kick out of 3-Panel Book Reviews by Lisa Brown.

Lisa Brown's 3-panel Book Review  of The Metamorphosis