Monday, February 26, 2007

Well, if it isn't my little buddy Benny!

Do you have any idea--of course not, but the question was rhetorical, you idiot!--how much I've yearned for a chance to say or write this in some context where it isn't just quoting a line from a movie? Which movie? Well, if you don't know you don't deserve to know, so there.

Anyway, my buddy Benny is not really 'little', except in a chronological sense, because he's considerably younger than I am. He's also not really 'Benny' but 'Ben'--so, Ben, forgive me for taking liberties with your name, but the occasion called for it (that, by the way, is another allusion to something from the same movie). Also, I am going to complimentary about something you said, so keep the finger on the outside of the trigger guard, OK?

So, anyway, it was my little buddy Benny--ahh, the joy of getting to write that again!--who is responsible for the cover of Tethys, because he a) told me that he liked covers where you can point and say "yeah, that's about where this happens", and b) he suggested something along the lines of using some of the context of the scene depicted here. I've taken myself some liberties with the implementation, but it looks cooler that way. Still, the basic idea is there, and readers of Tethys should be able to point and go "yeah, that's...[etc]". As I said, there are liberties, but the idea should be there.

My little buddy Benny--ha! again!--while not responsible for the liberties I took ,is responsible for making me feel like a twit when I finally figured out that the quickest way to get a suitable male character standing beside the ship was to do some posing, as I had done for the Tergan cover. There I was a hooded assassin holding a knife, while here I got to do heroic poses. Thank the technology gods for 7 Mpix digital cameras who can take a gazillion shots at not extra cost until the pose is right. Didn't make me feel any less like a Charlie--and why 'Charlie' anyway?--but my consolation is that, despite advancing years I can still, at a distance, fool a camera; especially when I use a bandanna to hide my lack of hair. That's because I decided it was quicker that way than trying to draw in hair. Do you have any idea how much work is involved in doing hair? It's a killer, and the Poser software does only so much. The rest is retouching; and lots and lots of Photoshop post-processing. So I decided: no hair, and a bandanna is much cooler anyway. Besides, I can write a quickie into Fontaine which indicates that Falcon wears a bandanna; so that will make it all right.

Ahh, the joys of being a little god in your tiny imaginative cosmos!

Anyway, apart from that,my little buddy Benny--last time, I promise; and I should mention that he's much nicer than his movie counterpart, who was a sleazeball who deserved to die; and that's the last hint I'm dropping here--is absolved from all design-flaws of the cover. Below is the first, as yet only slightly Photoshopped version. Still got a lot of work to so with light and shadows and stylistic tweaks here and there, plus color-matching and adjustments. But it's coming along. A few more days of fiddling and we'll be there. These are the basic elements, if you will.

This will be the first cover done ahead of contents, because I'm in the throes of giving Tethys another read-through with a red pen. Lotsa red... But 'good' red; if that makes any sense. Red that's there to make what's already pretty good even better, rather than 'bad' red, flagging cringe-factor-ten passages.

The covers so far, with some comments and rationales. All are meant to convey something important about the book, as well as trying to depict, as much as possible, 'actual events'.

Almost a verbatim scene from near the beginning. Content/symbolic relationship: the statue pointing, "go there", travel , journey, search, but for what? This applies, of course, also to the girl looking up at the statue; who is going off on an uncertain journey of her own.

The assassin and Evadne. It's about murder and palace intrigues and hired assassins. Someone commented that the woman appears unafraid of the dark figure. Indeed, she is. The Princess Evadne is a tough cookie. This is not a faithful depiction of a scene, but it's close to the basic content of several of them.

The arrival of the visitors from space. The major transition point in the series, and also a major event synchronizing Tergan and Fontaine. Somewhere on that ship is Naela, watching the heavens.

And then there's...

...following a suggestion from MLBB. Not a faithful depiction of a scene, but a stylized one with significant symbolic overtones.

I was thinking of having the man wield a gun, instead of a sword. After all, it's 'Falcon', who is a man from another world of advanced technology. Yet, standing in front of the unnaturally smooth shell and technology-reeking interior of the spacecraft, it appeared to be of more value to emphasize his connection to the world he's on by giving him a sword, and indicating, by the fact that it is drawn—which is isn't in the story—some degree of wariness and even opposition. In the foreground, watching, holding a sword of a different and 'older' style in wary preparedness, hunkers Teris, the Aslatrix, ready to cover his back in case things go wrong.

So, there's my thinking, such as it was.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Martial Arts Reflections (3): Style and Substance

A fellow dojo member unearthed—from a source he found during idle browsing and poking and prodding for more information about the style we practice, which is a version of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu—some more information on the range of kata that might have been a part of the original style. It amounts to some humongous number of forms, all of which a venerable member of the style, one who should be allowed to transmit it, might be reasonable expected to be aware of.

I have questioned the wisdom of excessive emphasis on kata before, which is where the Tigers Don't Dance phrase originated. With a gazillion more kata looming, at least potentially, I shudder at the prospect of brain resources expended on learning more and more from a bottomless pit of predetermined movements, either alone or partnered with someone.

However, others think differently; very much so. Which reminds me, yet again, that all those teaching in the dojo—like all those who come to train there—come for as many reasons as there are individuals. Each of them is motivated by different expectations of what is there and what s/he will get out of coming there. And these aren't only swords students, for the head-sensei teaches jujutsu (empty-hand techniques) and bojutsu (stick fighting) as well. Each according to his disposition, which makes for an interesting mix of people—which, to my mind, is good, because the students get a bit of everything.

As for me, I'm not much into kata, except at the 'absolutely necessary' level, which should have been superseded by the time one reaches, say, 2nd Dan. After that, the way I see it, one should expand to explore other dimensions of one's martial skill; those that were probably neglected in the headlong rush to pass gradings and conform to matters purely or predominantly 'style'. This appears like the ideal opportunity to look at opposite ends of the spectrum of what in involved in 'martial activity' and how it relates to what one 'does' at the dojo—or in life for that matter.

Investigating the small:

Iaijutsu is not just about killing, but about killing economically and efficiently. Every body position and movement should be what it should be, and only that and no more. Flourishes and 'show' are not the Tiger's way. Every hold on, position or movement of the sword should be treated the same way. Nothing more and nothing less. The sword should become like another appendage, to be wielded with no-thought.

Expanding into the wider context:

Every kata ultimately derives from a fight situation, no matter how contrived. I ought to say 'should derive from'. The vast majority are, but they often become unrecognizable, especially in spiritualized iaido. The time and events preceding the situational narrative of a kata are always filled—even if only by implication and usually ignored or downplayed in the kata context—with events that require description or narration in the progressively widening contexts of 'tactics', 'strategy' and, for a lack of a better term, 'life-philosophy'. These initially engage apparently quite different areas of the brain than the body-movement functions.

For tactical purposes you have to engage in some serious short-to-medium-scope (time, space, context) thinking ahead and assessment of a far greater number of factors than are relevant in a simple iai kata.

Strategy requires even more scope, and requires vastly extended considerations of the contingent, eventual, possible and, most importantly perhaps, the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Life-philosophy is the framework that holds it all together.

We do practice some tactical matters in our dojo, prompted by the influence of a high-ranking Australian practitioner of a 'formless' and basically kata-free school of martial arts. I've found that his training sessions during his occasional visits here provoked much interesting thought—in me anyway.

The point here is though, that, as far as tactics is concerned, it need not remain confined to the realm of careful thought and consideration. There is a scope here within which one can make the assessment of a fight situation and the probably-optimal response as automatic as one would the various ways of drawing of a sword.

This is, I believe, a real way of 'developing' in the context of the martial arts and life alike. Additional kata in the syllabus may serve to define the style and its contents, but I don't know who said this, but it seems self-evidently true, that he who keeps stepping in the same spot produces only ever-deepening footprints. These may become so deep that it's impossible to even lift one's foot clear of them anymore.

Friday, February 23, 2007

虎不踊 - Tora Ha Odorazu


虎不踊

Tigers Do Not Dance.

They crouch. They wait. They hunt, jump. strike, kill. They are powerful—the largest cats on this planet, and the ones closest to extinction. They are also, in the words of Craig Bush—a.k.a. The Lion Man (And please, if you are an Australian or New Zealander, sign this petition, and tell a friend about it!), 'sneaky and cunning'. "Never trust a Tiger. Never turn your back on him." I'm paraphrasing, but I remember the Lion Man series (1 2), which played on NZ TV some while back, and which I will probably buy one day soon, just to support the sanctuary Craig Bush runs.

'
Tigers Do Not Dance' provides a clear break from the single-word titles that defined the series which started with Keaen, all of which were the place names. It's connected to something I wrote some blogs ago and a nice thread for this last novel. It's also something about which I can drop hints into the final words of the last chapter of Tethys, and allows me to give 'Falcon' some more needed back-story and provide foreshadowing. Something like the shooting star appearing in a side-glance in the Epilogue of Tergan, which served not only as a foreshadowing tool but also as a time-marker to synchronize the stories of Tergan and Fontaine.

I would like this last book to be different in a subtle sense, though not obviously so. For I've been looking for a closure of sorts, and especially closure in a historical sense, if you will; said 'history' of course being the fictional one of the Keaen novel series.

There: it's done. You have just witnessed the inception of another novel. Oh, well, not really the inception, but something close enough to it. The title is really a big deal, and going away from my usual one-worders is an even bigger deal. The folk who published Keaen despaired about the name of the book and tried to add subtitles, like that 'For Love, Life and Liberty' thing, which missed the point.

So, you might wonder, how am I going to bring Tigers into this; and the dancing thingie? Well, this title is much more about the story than the places where the stories play out. There will be no Tigers, but Falcon will get to say his piece in the final paragraphs of Tethys, and anybody who listens should be able to pick up on that.

By the way, I happen to be very fond of Tigers. I happen to be very fond of cats, period. Tigers are the largest cats extant, and they are almost extinct. They are inherently 'sneaky' for a reason, which is survival, as it usually is. They got to sneak up on their prey, because they can't run after it for a long time. So, it's the quick and powerful sprint out of the hiding place and CRUNCH! If Tiger weren't sneaky it wouldn't get its dinner. Simple.

Tigers are at the top of the food chain because of their power and their sneakiness. A good theme methinks. And it so happens that we have, left over from Tethys, a ready-made Tiger.

Cool.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Facing up to it

With my book covers I make, inter alia (the link is there to encourage you to go in search of some un-needed further education), use of a program called Poser, which allows one to pose 3-d figures of human beings, creatures and place them into 3-d 'sets' or against plain or picture backgrounds. Even the spaceship falling from the sky on the Fontaine cover is a Poser 'primitive', namely a distorted sphere. Actually it's two such objects put together. The cover for Tethys will also make extensive use of Poser and its capabilities. If I had the money I'd splurge out for Lightwave, but that one's out of my league in terms of what I can afford right now.

There are a large number of artists—for 'artists' they are—who make all sorts of objects for Poser and sell them at a often quite reasonable price on sites visited by other folks who do 3-d modelling. 'Objects' means anything from props—there's one on the Finister cover—to clothing, to figures, with the latter including everything from the shapes of bodies and faces to the textures and colors of the skin.

Most of the 3-d rendering community, let's face it, goes for posing semi-nude figures, usually of large-breasted females in all sorts of environments. The usual tone of these things is, however, more Boris Vallejo like, rather than Luis Royo. That's because algorithms have a hard time rendering the imperfect nature of what you might call 'the natural'. So, one has to make things imperfect after the basic things have been rendered. With my covers I try to aim for a sense of realism, mixed with a strong underlying hint that this isn't meant to be 'real' as such. I don't really care how I accomplish this; and often cheat, using what is called 'mixed media', with a goodly amount of Photoshop doctoring thrown in.

Back to the artists of the 3-d rendering community. A lot of them have the visual and aesthetic equivalent of what in music is called 'tone-deafness'. Actually, most of them have. This is par for the course, because people just are that way. They see what they want to see, but it's not actually what's there. They also have, of course, different senses of what constitutes aesthetically pleasing shapes—and that's OK, because we're all different. Actually tone-deafness is OK, too, if you will. It just is. There's usually little you can do about the way your brain is wired.

It's also a matter of what you might call 'aesthetic convention'. Artistic communities of all kinds are prone to setting up among themselves—mostly by aggregation of people of similar taste into that community—standards of what's considered cool. Personally I find the aesthetic perceptions and sensibilities of the 3-d renderers, and especially those who do it as a past-time—the way one does really bad pottery or oil-painting; or, yes!, ' creative writing'—appalling. But that's just me, I'm sure. I'm equally sure that these folks would be, rightly!, appalled and outraged at my elitist-prick sense of being appalled. Vive la difference! (Did I just use French? Please, tell me I didn't!)

Still, among the tits-and-bums figures, posing in alluring positions of mostly-open sexuality in strange 'mystical' settings, there are occasional gems and tendencies to produce what amounts to 'good' material...or 'mostly good' material. A couple of these artists go under the moniker of Danie and Maforno; and though they also produce a lot of...well, whatever...and probably have to, so people keep on buying their stuff, they at least provide interesting and pleasing female faces. Of course, even those remain essentially 'computer people', but you can see how it would be possible to use, say the one below, as a basis to work with. Add a bit of asymmetry here and there and tweak a few features a little more than I've already tweaked them, and the girl doesn't look too awfully artificial.

I used this face as an element of an an earlier version of the cover of Seladiënna—which I really have to give one more edit and get into Amazon circulation!—until I decided that the sword by itself looked starker and had more impact, which was softened too much by the girl's face behind it.

The face itself is a modified version of the original, which, for those who are interested, is the face of the Alina character, which fits onto DAZ's Victoria 3.

Faces are hard, and I've complained about artists' apparent inability to get faces right before. I think it goes beyond 'inability', into 'don't care' territory. Or maybe I'm wrong? I'm beginning to wonder if there is something more to it. Are there mirror-neuron issues here? Are a lot of visual artists, who apparently work just fine with the right side of their brains—"Draw what you see; not what you think is there."—but who have basic neurological issues with going beyond what they are seeing into a deeper sense of the truly subtle nuances of faces. It is possible that these nuances, which are contained very often in comparatively microscopic configurations of muscular alignments and tensions that twist the surface of a face just so, are simply lost in what one might call the comparatively 'gross', meaning 'coarse', representations provided by mere vision and the kind of 'seeing' conventionally associated with visual art. Maybe that's why Leonardo da Vinci truly sucked at faces. He was a genius by all accounts, which means there's a greater-than-even chance that he was mildly autistic as well. It's comparatively easy for a skilled visual artist to represent the features of everything on the human body from the neck on down. But go above and it requires a different kind of 'sense'; and I'm beginning to suspect a lot of visual artists simply don't possess that sense. They couldn't learn it if they tried. It's like tone-deafness. You might learn tricks to cope with its effects, but you'll never actually hear as those do who aren't tone-deaf.

One could argue that it may simply be an issue of people having different notions of what constitutes facial content, if you will—or facial aesthetics. What one gets, the other misses. What one appreciates as 'beauty' or 'attractiveness' will leave another indifferent. The triggers of aesthetic attraction are obscure and, contrary to what some folks believe, remain elusive. There are basic parameters and dimensions/proportions/relationships of 'form' that can be used to predict our responses; but to my mind they are overrated in their effect, when compared to those imposed on us through what is commonly known as 'life', 'experience', 'imprinting' and similar influences.

Maybe what I see as some people 'missing' things really is a question aesthetics, rather than coarseness of perception and neuro-cognitive deficiencies. Or maybe the two related in ways that we haven't as yet fully learned to appreciate. Indeed, I suspect that this may close to the truth of the matter. Cognitive science has a very long way to go indeed—and anybody who thinks they're doing anything but scratching the surface right now is severely delusioned. But there are definite cognitive deficiencies at work here, and the representation of faces tends to reveal this. You will find this deficiency in artists right along the spectrum. Some don't even try, because, so they claim, they don't want to; it being their style to basically not give a shit. A lot of this stuff is considered high art, though I think it's crap, and never mind what the name and fame of the artist. A lot of artistic deficiency and cognitive sensibility has been, is and will continue to be hidden underneath a veil of 'style'.

I'm rambling and shall cease to ramble now. Would you believe, I actually forgot what point I was trying to make? Hmmff...

Newflash: I think I may have a title for the next sequel—shut up! I said...—and it will be completely different from the ones I have now. I shall reveal it in my next blog.

MIA or AWOL?

One of those credited in the Afterwords to the books of the Tethys series about to be published recently finished reading a loose-leaf printout of Tethys, the so-far last in the series and declared that it was 'your best one yet'. The judgment is relative to his liking of the others, and so what it means depends on what he thought of those—but I think he liked them, too, and so it's probably a compliment, considering how many errors he found even after several other folks were through it. In the process of dealing with his corrections I decided to do another edit-pass myself, which is resulting in a load of red being inflicted on my printout. It also makes me itch—almost literally—to continue the story.

Patience, young Padawan! Patience...

Matters shall be attended to when the time is right. All in its correct sequence, for else things get majorly screwed up. It also occurs to me that, for a writer, I am actually in a very fortunate position in more ways than one. Most writers struggle to get stuff onto paper and 'out there'. I've been told that this applies to some of those considered 'prolific' as well. Since my problem, on the other hand, seems to be that I have sufficient material to fill my life full-time for the next few years...well, who's complaining? Now, if only I could get rich and famous, right?

One of the things my reader alluded to above said he liked about Tethys was the manner in which expanded the story from the scope of the planet, to which it had been so-far confined, into the universe at large. I knew this was going to be a tough sell. Fontaine tried to make the first solid connection, though things had been progressively more hinted-at since the first book. But at one stage people had to leave the planet and go off-world. At least one of these people had to be a person from this world. This was inevitable, because a connection needed to be maintained—to remind the reader of the focus of the tale. Fortunately Naela was a ready-made candidate; the girl who grew up in a small backward town and is dragged out to face the not-so-wonderful land of Oz. In a different version of this story-universe it was going to be the warrior, Caitlan; but that was too obvious, and I decided quite a while ago that it wouldn't work.

One reason that the 'outside' world kind of 'worked' was, I suspect , the fact that it had a history. In my head, that is. It's the world that derives from currently-unpublished novels such as the initial version of System Crash and Coralia. (V.I.E. folks and/or readers of the former CLS will know about the latter, because it was serialized there.) The most important thing about it, it's history, doesn't have to be made up on the spot as worlds appear before our eyes. In the mind of the story-teller things have to be thus and thus for particular reasons. The freedom to create on the spur of the moment is constrained by the need for historical consistency and rationale. It doesn't matter that the history is fictitious—at least after the point of the start of System Crash, which is set sometime in the next two decades. The history before that, however, is our history; making all of this future-fiction pertaining to our universe and containing people derived, genetically and otherwise from Planet Earth, distant in time (1500-odd years) and space (most of it hundreds of light-years distant) though it may be.

Anyway, it seems that, for my friend at least, the device appears to have been successful. The 'backstory', even if only implicit and in the mind of the story-teller, serves to provide connection and context and at the very least an inkling of wider meaning and coherence. Life may not always be like that, of course, but a story is not life, just like, to use General Semantics terminology, "the map is not the territory". Or like it says on this painting by Margitte: "This is not a pipe".

One tries to make narrative connections to establish sensicality—which not a dictionary-word, I think, but it should be. In the same manner, it occurs to me that, for the purposes of dramatic structure and connectivity with the tale on the whole, I should sow a few hints about connection between characters which so far have not been connected; just so I may use those for whatever may follow Tethys. (Don't say it! Don't even think it! Those who do will be killed without mercy.)

At one time not so long ago I was thinking about these things while walking, during lunch-time, along Dunedin's busiest thoroughfare—don't laugh, but around here we call the hustle and bustle of more than ten cars waiting at a traffic light 'busy'—and as I was, something nudged me and suddenly made me aware that, even though I was functioning perfectly normally I was essentially walking on auto-pilot. Even in that state I tend to notice more things than a lot of other folks do—mainly because I do it from long-ingrained habit. But it was still a strange condition of 'being there', but only in an observant state, if you will; while a separate part of my mind was 'participating' in something that never happened and probably never will in some place more than a thousand years hence and an abyss of space away.

In The Neverending Story—the movie will do; a charming little flick—the notion is introduced of a book, the one of the title, not being 'safe'. This was said in the sense that the book wasn't something you could just get into and then out away again, but it sucked you in, as it did the boy, Bastian. And look what happened then! That was different from the way other books were supposed to be, which presumably didn't do that kind of thing. And once you were 'in there', the world became yours and you had the power to actually change it. A bit like God Game. And it actually mattered—to the inhabitants of that world anyway, because they had their own reality and were just as sentient as you and I. Similar themes are touched on in Jack Vance's short story The World Thinker and developed at length in a slightly different context in Heinlein's The Number of the Beast.

There is some truth in the notion that books or movies can suck you into their world. That's partially why we read or watch them. We go somewhere else. It's a process we can easily reverse by closing the book or leaving the cinema—of switching off the DVD player, say—and we're smack back in our own world. Depending on our disposition, we may continue to linger partway in the stories, but basically it "I'm back". Still, we know the book is still there, and we can return to it when time and circumstances allow. It can become a refuge of sorts for some, because the world in there is so much more exciting and interesting than our own—and it usually makes sense, because stories tend to be written that way. Our own world more often than not doesn't.

If you're a person capable of the 'normal' kind of judgment about what's what, your relationship with the refuge provided by books is healthy and helpful to your life. If you're not, they might either help to keep you sane, or else make things worse. That's not the fault of the books, but is due to cognitive and other psychological defects or weaknesses inherent in yourself.

Authors are also prone to this phenomenon, except that they can't take refuge in the book they're writing because they're actually writing it. In order to do that, they have to pay extended visits, if you will, to realms existing only in their imagination; and basically spend a lot of quality time there, looking around what they see and having extended interactions with their characters. Then they come back and kind-of report on what's been going on in those places—like a spy or a journalist (yeah, sorry about that analogy...); and what they report back is usually just a pale reflection of what was actually there and happening there; no matter how much one tries. Same goes for the people they meet or whose lives they follow and whose thought and emotional processes they partook of.

The further away from 'real life' these worlds and their denizens are, the weirder is the experience for the author/creator. There are times when I inhabit a strange twilight world. It doesn't mean that I'm not 'all there'. I actually do notice more of what goes on around me than most people, because most people walk around in states approximating somnambulism. I don't know why this is so, but it just is. The mechanics of everyday life on the street that people aren't aware of never cease to amaze me. Wrapped up in their own worlds, they're further 'gone' than I am at my worst. So I don't feel too bad at those times when I'm 'there' and yet not quite 'there'. At least I follow the basic precepts of living consciously and safely. Like be aware of the people around you and where they are going and who they are. Don't turn blind corners with no room for maneuver. Look up the facades of building to anticipate potential plant pots or other deadly objects that might be about to fall or be pushed by some moron. On a highway, watch those bridges for teenage psychopaths that might drop rocks on you. (I'm not joking. People did get killed that way.) As a background task, run a subconscious routine to identify people you know and wave to them if you cross gazes; it makes for better social relationships lateron and avoid potentially awkward silences. If you must forget names, so be it; but never forget a face. If your gazes cross and they look familiar, smile—unless they're some retard on your personal hitlist. For that matter, smile at anybody you cross gazes with. And, above all, and this is a rule not to be broken is at all possible: never sit with your back to a door in a restaurant! This an elementary survival skill, not necessarily confined to professional hitmen.

Where was I? Ahh, yes, the stuff people don't do but should. Still, I claimed to be occasionally 'not quite there', which, despite everything I said above, is nonetheless true. The 'not there' expresses itself as a disinterest in, or utter indifference to, things that are of no immediate importance—or, one might argue as I sometimes do, of no damn importance at all. Like signs advertising 'sales'; dumbwits on the road and footpath alike, whose antics might cause others to become irate, while I tend to dismiss them as the predictable products of mental deficiency, which is a common ailment in the human population.

One learns to dismiss, and do so with disdainful readiness, things that don't fit one's categories of 'importance'. That's because, when one is living in this half-world of the fantasy-land in one's head, what is 'important' isn't necessarily what is important to the person next to you. Mind you, it's really no worse than what most folks do who aren't on the same wavelength on this issue or that one. Some care and others just really don't give a shit. For the writer of imaginative fiction of the not-quite-of-this-world kind, at least there is, or will be, something at the end of this that might just be of benefit not just to him or herself. The rest of the world has no such excuse.

When I'm asked how much time I spent writing every day, I often point out that, on the average, it's not really that much. I write about 800-1000 words per hour when I'm going at my normal speed. But that only happens after I've spent a lot of hours doing nothing but not-quite-being-there when maybe I should. Every minute spent on thoughts or imaginings connected to the story one is contriving—some would call that 'daydreaming' by the way, which it is!—actually should be counted as time 'writing'. It may not be spent in front of a computer typing stuff in, but it's still time spent on developing the story. Therefore the 'true' rate of word-production is rather low; and unless one sells a gazillion copies of one's work or gets a shitload of cash for a script, the bottom-line is that the hourly rate of pay for this kind of activity is pathetic. That the likes of me persist in doing it anyway—making the lives of those around them into occasional misery because of the apparent absence of mind, attention and/or interest—must signal some kind of madness I'm sure.

If you want to be grandiose about it, you call it 'passion', and I'd like to think that that's what it's all about. There's stuff you apparently need to do, and so you do it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Music and Lyrics, so sue me!

Well, do. Rant, rave, berate, ridicule, snort, giggle or just sniff disdainfully at my folly.

It's all Aynia's fault, you know. In a recent phone conversation she told me she'd just seen Music and Lyrics, and it was exactly what she'd expected and she really enjoyed it. I was going to wait for the DVD, but yesterday I said to myself "what the heck?", and my wife and I went to see it anyway.

M&L is driven by several major sources of energy, if you will, mixed together with skill and a fine sense of timing: absurd comedy, parody, utter predictability and an overwhelming charm that only a romantic-comedy hater could resist. As for me, I was...well 'charmed'. Hugh Grant, as my wife noted, basically always plays the same character: a mix of hapless by amusing bumbler with a self-effacing sense of insight into his own bumbler-ness and maybe human nature in general. In anybody else this endearingness would be annoying—and do not doubt that there are a lot of Hugh-Grant-haters out there; and good for you, because I know where you're coming from. It's just that I'm not with you on this.

Drew Barrymore has always had a slight inherent cluelessness and innocence, mixed it with a twinkle of the actress's own life-ups-and-downs, that made her perfect for this little flick. This is in contrast to another not-so-recent movie Ever After, which was very likeable and charming, but I wished the Cinderella character had been someone else, because the US accent just grated—just as did, for example, the accents in The Three Musketeers and especially Chris O'Donnell's D'Artagnan. I can't abide that kind of sloppiness. However, in this instance Barrymore was well-nigh perfect for the part.

They spent a lot of time on music numbers in this one, playing songs almost all the way through. This normally would have annoyed me for I would have thought of it as the time-filler it might have been. If it was, well in this instance I don't care, because it worked as well. And the ditty Way Back Into Love is a real earworm. It made the whole thing almost believable—believable enough at the time to allow, for me at least, effortless suspension of disbelief.

Last, but not least, this is the kind of movie I could never make or script. I don't have the disposition for it. Because of that I really have no notion of how to make it better—and that's a good thing, because I wasn't sitting there, asking myself "but why didn't they...", which is what I sometimes do in flicks that I might have written, but in which I detect serious flaws. If this thing here had flaws, well, I don't care. It was fun and games and lots of laughs. And yes, call me whatever you want to, but I was humming that damn tune when I came out.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

No News Is Good News

For the last two months or so an experiment has been in progress. It started almost unwittingly, driven by circumstance. It's now gotten to the stage where it shows results, in the sense that I can claim that there have been noticeable effects on my life. The main one could be described as me experiencing a form of cleansing—like what happens when you give up the habitual consumption of a drug. Tobacco/nicotine springs to mind, though the withdrawal symptoms were nothing like when I gave up a pack-a-day habit some decades ago. It was more like giving up the up to ten cups of black coffee a day. This left me with minor discomfort in terms of unusual tiredness patterns for a while, plus the disruption caused by the cessation of the practice a certain familiar and almost compulsive set of daily rituals—something smoking also had associated with it.

At this stage in the experiment it occurs to me that there are worse things than Reality Shows (RSs) on TV. This may come as a surprise to those who have heard me berate RSs at great length. I meant every word of it, but I also realize that there's something far more insidious about.

You see, if an RS in on TV, you either decide to watch it or not—as a whole, because it is a thing that goes from some beginning to some end. Add the inevitable ads, but they can always be used to go and pee or do something equally useful and satisfying. Also, RSs make no pretense to being anything but what they are: low quality shit, produced by money-grabbing opportunists who exploit people's various nasty desires to see others make even greater idiots of themselves than the watchers do by...well, watching.

Still, there's something honest about this shit—and I can handle 'honest', even though it may be motivated by cupidity (cu·pid·i·ty: n. Excessive desire, especially for wealth; covetousness or avarice) and exploitative to the n-th degree. In that sense RSs are like any odd TV serial and everybody knows what they get.

Not so, however, with the other bane of the airwaves, audio or audiovisual: meaning radio or TV. It's called 'The News'.

As someone who's been TV-and-Radio (plus newspaper) news-free since late last year I must tell you that I feel a sense of something that might almost be labeled as 'being cleansed'. This not because I am not interested in what's going on in the world, but because I have stopped wasting any time whatsoever, in my practical life and also just in terms of plain emotional and thinking time, on items of crappy 'information' selected by manipulative editorializing retards, and adjudicated as being suitable for submission to the receptive minds of the consumers of said 'information'.

The signal-to-noise ratio in this information transmission is very high. And, yes, I mean that. It looks like it's low, but it isn't. The meta-information and meta-messages modulating the carrier wave of 'news' represent the most focused assault on our ability to think clearly ever. Nazi or Communist propaganda could have learned a thing or two from these people. Hell, three or four!

The main meta-message contained in the 'news'—and 'news magazines' like 60 Minutes—is that "if you are uninformed [= don't consume 'news'] you are out of touch with 'what's going on', and that is not a good thing". You've got to listen to the news, because there's something in there that's important—and never mind if it's wedged in between a wealth of things that, to you, actually are not important and never will be. But if you are 'informed', then you are in a good place, and you're actually in a moral position where you can claim to be informed enough to exercise, say, your basic right to vote. Otherwise, how could you vote 'informedly' and therefore presumably wisely. Never mind that nobody ever votes with their head, but always with their gut and their self-interest—so that's a crappy bit of urban myth to begin with, but what the heck? Watch the 'news' because they'll disabuse you of this notion, because the news-selectors know better, the writers editorialize their pompous hearts out of whatever meager 'facts' they actually have available so that you're fed the correct fare (like something about nappied-ex-astronauts), and the presenters work themselves into orgasms of self-righteousness about their importance and mission to 'inform' the great unwashed—sorry, 'uninformed'—public.

God, I hate the fuckers. I admit that I feel like a reformed smoker—and, yes, I know how that feels, because I was one! And I feel about these cretins just about the way I feel about the tobacco industry, booze peddlers, politicians, rapists and your common garden-variety serial killer.

Going off the reservation? Well, maybe, but so what? The amount of time and thought-space wasted by being bombarded with 'news'-type messages is staggering, and the insidious nature of the phenomenon—apparently benign, benevolent and socially responsible; but in truth sleekly manipulative and judgment-imparing for those its affects—has a Kafkaesque air about it. We don't notice the influence anymore, because it has become a part of our daily lives.

One needs to distinguish between TV/radio and newspaper/magazine. The latter usually have to be purchased and therefore constitute a matter of explicit choice. Not in NZ, but in most developed countries one can choose a 'rag' according to one's political disposition. In some countries the same goes for the A/V media. You can dose yourself with whatever material suits you and makes you feel good and self-righteous about your social and political disposition—left, right, center, top, bottom, face-up, face-down. That's at least like being able to choose! But in the general-purpose context no such thing is possible—and in countries like NZ the messages and meta-messages all serve to promote the official view of life and the universe and all that jazz. Since there is only one 'official' view, avidly promoted by just about all the extant media, there is not much of what you might call 'choice'—except to just shut out the crap completely. Cold turkey.

It's a cleansing experience. A little bit like regaining one's sense of smell after ceasing smoking for a few months. All of a sudden you notice things you were ignoring before. And it's not like I'm unobservant, or at least I think not. But if even someone whose business, if you will, is to observe closely the human condition, individual and social, finds out that his better senses were drowned out in the flood of concentrated garbage spewing over him by all ilk of 'news' media, and I don't give a shit which one you're talking about...then, may I suggest, others may conceivably find their senses even more dulled, stunted, anesthetized, to the point of not actually perceiving anything relevant at all anymore.

End of anti-'so-called-"news"media' tirade.

Phew, that felt good! Even better, it's probably not just a bout of logorrhoea, but quite possibly an accurate representation of what these fuckers are all about. At least I'd like to think so, though most folks would question my assessment. Because we've got to be informed, right? And how can you be informed if you don't pay attention to 'news', right? How do you dare call yourself a responsible citizen even? How do you have the gall to go to the ballot box? Yeah, good question that. I'm considering breaking a habit of a lifetime and cease wasting my time voting as well. Or maybe not. Maybe... Ahh, what the heck. A lot of water will wash up and down the beaches before the next election of yet more cretins to 'represent' our interests and 'administer' our nation. Sometimes I think that a monarchy, one exercised with popular consent, could not possibly any worse than the bilge dwellers we're burdened with right now.

And now, to contradict myself...

Despite my systemic cleansing there are items that warrant being called 'news'. I generally don't think much of the UN, as many of you will probably know. Still, this report warrants reading. Spend the time you'd normally waste in front of a TV, listening to fatuous talking-heads-and-torsos, on reading this report instead. Or not—which is much more likely; people being who and what they are. Well, at least scan it!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Existentialism in Action

My daughter Aynia, who lives antipodean to us, recently blogged on some issues after seeing Blood Diamond, a movie I have mentioned since seeing it myself.

As a budding absurdist of sorts, she naturally had absurdist kinds of thoughts; which is all cool— most people don't have these kinds of thoughts, and most people are also philosophically either shallow or seriously fucked in the head. Having these kinds of thoughts is a sign of maturation as a human being and a thinker. They acknowledge the basic discrepancy that often exists between what one does and what one feels one ought to be doing; between what clamors for our attention and appears 'important' at any given instant in the course of our lives, and that which, given an appropriate perspective, we actually would consider truly important.

I share much of Aynia's conflict. I, too, spend my working days doing and dealing with things and issues that more often than not step over a clear line into the trite, irrelevant, trivial and outright pathetic. Of course, they aren't really—not if one views them from a purely functional perspective and in terms of what requires one attention at the moment, for example in the context of trying to render a service to someone for which one gets paid some compensation, which in turn enables one to feed one's family etc. The thing that keeps me going is that I try to think of the people who, as customers or clients of the people I work for, actually benefit from me doing my job well. Since a lot of this involves biomedical research, this can only be good.

And, yes, I, too, must worry about fonts and layout and esthetics. Not for their own sake, because 'for their own sake' they have no meaning whatsoever; but—and I mentioned something related in a previous blog—for the sake of those who are the 'recipients', if you will, of the experience created by whatever it was I produced.

Or, consider my efforts as a story-teller—which, in my life, have a overwhelmingly greater significance than my 'day job' activities. In the course of getting these stories published—by myself or by others—they invariably require...well, attention to fonts, esthetics, cover design and so on. There are always 'details'—and that is, of course, where the devil resides. But when I consider that the esthetic aspects of the internal layout and cover design—and especially the cover image—actually contribute to conveying the story to people. I try to make a point of doing this. Don't know if it's successful, but it's got to be better than the cover for Keaen provided us with. And if this is so, then that proves that esthetics can matter.

The important thing here is, I think, not to lose the connection with the 'why'. Why design something pleasing to the eye or other senses, including the inner ones that have to do with balance, rhythm, harmony, meaning and context, and so on? If we keep that in mind, then it makes sense after all.

Not that it necessarily ranks up there with saving the world or helping the billions that are worse off than we are ourselves—and if you read this blog, that alone proves there are multiple billions who are much much worse off than either you or I. But it provides a context nonetheless, so that we don't do what we do into a vacuum of meaninglessness.

Not that there is some underlying meaning there! That's not what I'm saying. I, too, subscribe to most of the tenets of absurdism. But the conclusion "what's the point" misses the 'point', which is that the 'point' is what we choose to make it. Insofar as there is anything corresponding to a 'point' it is created by the choices we make. This is the 'deep' message of absurdist philosophy: 'choice' is the creation of the only meaning that this universe will ever know.

I've said this before, and I say it again: this is really cool!

For folks like me—who don't like their meanings served up to them by idiot philosophers, moronic ideologists or retard religioids—this is exhilarating; a freedom to choose and contribute to the expansion of the existence of...well, the universe and everything, really...by making choices...

I mean, WOW!

The human encounter with absurdity—and I will incorporate these notions into Thunder Trail, because it is an obvious vessel—leaves us with basically three choices (the Wikipedia article is a good starting point to explore absurdist philosophy):

• We can terminate our existence through direct or indirect suicide.
• We can perform Kierkegaard's leap of faith and choose to believe in something that gives 'meaning', such as 'God'.
• We can accept the absurdity, the inherent lack of a priori meaning, and get on with things—one of which is filling the meaning-void with 'decision'.

These are already 'choices', or course—and opting for one or the other alternative is the first act of basic choosing—from which everything else will proceed.

Me, I go for the last alternative—for it gives me the freedom to impose my own limits on my freedom. These limits will be real enough, once one treads onto that path. But think!—here is the one and only way to remain 'free' in some sense through the retention of 'responsibility', which is exercised and implemented through 'choice'. Active choice, preferably, instead of the couch-potato variety of those who are too blind to even see that there are choices to be made.

In fact, the only way to remain of an essentially 'absurdist' disposition is to choose the last alternative. The first one removes all possible choice and the second relegates the really important things to something that is not us. And how can we possibly accept that?

Monday, February 12, 2007

African Elephants

On the table in my osteopath's waiting room I found a book, called African Elephants. It's a book of images, prefaced by a few dozen pages of text by a wildlife photographer, whose last suggests a German origin. If you chance across it, like maybe in a library, do have a look inside. If you find the time ro read some of the information, do that, too. One of the facts that caught my eye evidences the merciless nature of natural selection, as much as it provides a ready metaphor for the dark nature of Africa.

The story goes like this: an African Elephant need to chew the food he shovels into his mouth. Said food is fairly tough, even if it's green, and he has some whooping molars to crunch it into a suitable format for swallowing and digestion. The molars wear down. As they do, new ones grow from underneath to fill their place. The elephant is capable of growing (I think) four sets of these; and that's the end of it. The last set has usually worn down by the time the elephant is about 50-60. After that he can't chew his food anymore and he basically starves to death; no matter how healthy and/or vigorous the animal may be. The king of the African wild becomes predator and scavenger food.

Evolution has worked well, if brutally so. The elephant, by the age of his forced demise, has produced sufficient offspring to propagate the species. The animals basically remain vigorous until the end. There's a strict limit on the maximum of elephants a habitat can handle, and this here will certainly take care of it. The prefect adaptation, from a species and an ecology point of view alike. Very rough on the individual though.

The point? Work it out yourself. Don't make me hold your little hands all the time.

Meanwhile, here's the probably-final version of the Fontaine cover. Not much change from the last version, but there are some, mainly in the sails and some general tidy-ups all around. I think I'll leave it like that and go on to Tethys. Two themes suggest themselves, and I can't make up my mind which way to go: jungle and dinosaurs or a spaceport and a giant planet in the sky.

Tough call, this one. It may come down to the time that's likely to be involved in implementing either. I don't have forever to do these covers, and that must factor into my considerations. There are books to be written this year, too. Screenplays, too. Lots of stuff; and I'm only one person, and all that.

Skin and Bones

A buddy lent me his copy of the Skin and Bones DVD. It's a live recording of the Foo Fighters in a concert hall in LA. I watched it mainly because it had songs on it that never made it onto the CD but in the course of it came to very much enjoy the visuals as well—which were subdued, since this was a fairly sedate occasion; bu, well, they provided a very nice context for the music. It was a first for me, because I generally am not into that kind of audio-visual experience, but it was a good first.

I often come to bands like FF in roundabout ways, because I'm not really up with what's what, being mainly a soundtrack-music kind of guy these days. I came across FF through a movie connection, namely the brief clip of 'Next Year' that provided the theme music for Ed for its later seasons. So I idly wondered where the music came from and followed it up, equally idly—found FF and downloaded some of their music through my trusty P2P networks. Oddly enough, the first thing I chanced across was Skin and Bones, and I didn't even know that it was 'their latest'. (Yeah, I know, how clueless can I be? Well, sorry and sorry again, and would you please fuck off and stop nagging, but I have a lot on my mind, and the brain has limited resources to spend on tiered levels of priorities.) Now I do, and I shall be a good boy and actually buy it, because I have a number of FF collections now, and there's rules.

Which brings me to a question same guy who lent me the S&B DVD asked me after reading my blog about P2Ping, and it was how I, as a 'provider of content' for possible P2P usage, felt about this whole thing from that perspective.

The answer is that it is like global warming. It's a fact of life. My feelings about it don't matter. It has good aspects—especially for the small guys like me, because it implicitly gives them a 'distribution network', though not an immediately profitable one—but it also has profit-reducing drawbacks. Way I see it is that you treat it like 'life' (and this link must be one of Wikipedia's most inane entries) and...well, live with it. Do your work and do what you do taking its existence into account. Build your profit estimates accordingly. Use it whenever you can to maximize whatever you can get out of it.

Thing is, in due course, people will do so—even the big corps, who will come around to real-politik soon enough. They always do. Of course, once that time has come, what will that do to P2P—which is inherently anarchistic and really doesn't resonate with Big Brothers of all kinds?

Back to Foo Fighters. Cool band. Good music. I'm sorry I came to them this late, but I'm enjoying having found them somewhere along the way.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fontaine Cover


Some tweaks still to come, but basically this is it.

The Day the Music Died

Surely, one of the supreme ironies of the history of recent music was the rendition of Don McLean's American Pie by Madonna; which trivialized what may be one of the lyrically most significant piece of song-crafting of recent decades to a degree that would make anybody want to take the 'last train to the coast'—maybe the West Coast of the NZ South Island, or somewhere down along the Baja Peninsula. How McLean allowed that trivial nutcase, Madonna, to twist his song into a trite piece of crap is beyond me. I would hope that his reasons or the forces behind him doing so were compelling, or that, alternatively, he had no control over the matter. Otherwise the action of allowing her to take it from him like that itself represents maybe an even more supreme irony, which will no doubt be lost in the other ironies of life like, as the dying replicant said in Blade Runner, 'tears in rain'.

A somewhat lesser, but to me no less significant irony, occurred over the last few days. Just after I had slagged Blood Diamond for making its actors spout politically correct messages, thus defiling what had otherwise been a really cool movie, the matter of some demented former female Astronaut driving vast distances with evil intent wearing nappies hit the news—and, boy, did it hit. I have been news-free for almost two months now, but how can you help noticing when even a snippet of in incautiously-overheard sound-bite on a TV not truned off quickly enough or an item on a front page of a low-class local newspaper, displayed prominently in a supermarket stand, informed one yet once more that this had indeed happened. I'm still not sure what happened—and my daughter's blog told me more than anything I'd found out about it otherwise, and I do read that one!—but it obviously attracted the attention of the strange universe of importances and priorities inhabited by 'journalists' and 'editors' enough to make a big deal out of it.

And there I was, deriding the writers and directors of an otherwise good movie for letting Jennifer Connelly say a few lines about the trivialization of news and how by and large nobody really gives a shit about the misery of the victims of our stupidities, and a former astronaut driving a long distance with possibly murderous intent in nappies is much more something that should waste information bandwidth and mind-space.

I take it back, OK? I still think it shouldn't have been in the movie, and the hokey ending was awful, but after the feeding frenzy about the nappied astronaut maybe I shouldn't be so damn judgmental! Thing is that, basically, the reasons why 'blood diamonds' are being produced and sold and will continue to be produced and sold and finance terrible deeds are the same reasons that drive people to actually pay attention to the story of some poor woman consumed by...whatever. How would I know what she was consumed by? How would any of those idiotic journalists know? Maybe she doesn't even know herself! And does it matter anyway? Really: does it matter, except for her and as far as it relates to a personal and none-of-the-public's-damn-business tragedy?

One could declare, of course, that indeed there's a valuable lesson here that needs to be spread and is worth all the wasted bandwidth: that maybe this proved that all that training she had as a flyer and astronaut did nothing to improve her thinking or her ability to handle herself as a human being—or something like that; you can see where I'm aiming with this.

Well, duh! Do you really need that poor woman's fate spread out for all to see, when said bit of insight is a part of just about everybody's daily experience? When have you last suffered under a 'manager' who has been trained in managerial matters but doesn't have a clue anyway? A doctor whose training appears to have no truly significant effect on his/her ability to critically analyze and diagnose illness? Or consider your average philosophy graduate who evidences no ability to think or act clearly and coherently despite years of 'training'! Think of the 'scientists' who believe in 'God'!

You can't look around and miss—unless you're blind or neuron-deficient—that the world is full of 'trained' people, whose training has not had any effect on anything but an extremely narrow area they were trained for. (In the case of philosophers even that's not true, of course, but we'll leave that aside.) And if the training is related to matters that have to do with 'people things' a certificate or degree or wherever one has advanced to in an organization bears stunningly little to no correlation at all to what a person is actually capable of. Cluelessness about 'people matters', or so I am tentatively concluding, cannot be 'trained' out of existence. It is a congenital defect, just as is a missing backbone. Human invertebrates are far more common than you'd think.

So, folks, I don't think we needed to display for all to see a somewhat deranged woman and her personal tragedy. That's what we have soaps for. Enough bandwidth is wasted on those.

Let us pause for a moment then, to ponder irony...

Friday, February 09, 2007

Flat on your back


Take a moment out of your busy life and reading dumb blogs like this one. Got a reasonably clean and clear stretch of floor, carpeted preferably? Good. Find a moment or two when nobody cohabiting with you—if such folks there are—is likely to step on you or require your attention. Lie down flat on your back on the carpet, place your arms beside you, palms flat against the floor and close your eyes.

Just lie there for a while and allow yourself to realize a few things; among them:

• That you're pressed against the carpet because of some very fundamental laws of nature, and that, when you come to think about it, you're not really facing 'up' at all, but 'out'—and what all that implies. Try to get a sense of what it actually means to be 'facing out' as you lie there. Allow your imagination to see you, and everything else be attached to the side of the Earth, rather than 'down'.

• As you lie there, also notice that if your heart didn't make that next beat, it would be a corpse attached to the side of the Earth, looking out—or not, because corpses in general are unable to 'look' at anything whatsoever. Please remember that.

As a story-teller I find it useful to go back to usually-neglected 'basics' and 'implicits'. They are the things people forget about—even those who think they're looking 'deep' or at something otherwise very 'basic' or 'fundamental'. That includes mostly those calling themselves 'philosophers' of one ilk or another.

Thing is, the 'basic' questions aren't the ones that go like 'Why are we here?', but rather variants of 'What is?'. They are the ones that provide 'grounding', the one of the existential kind. Your back flat against the floor, with you looking out from the center of the Earth into space, and your heart beating thump-thump-thump.

Now take this one step further. If you live in the southern parts of the world—anything below, say, 20 degrees north—you are in the fortunate position of having in your field of view, between about June and October at various times of the night, the center of our own galaxy.



It is a truly magnificent sight, especially if you're outside the noxious influence of city lights—in that way I very much miss living where we used to live between 1989 and 1999—and if you are equipped with a bit of information, namely about what it is you're seeing; plus some imagination.

What you are seeing is what one would see if one were where the picture below indicates we are, and looking toward the center of that disk.

Of course, winter nights in this part of NZ are notoriously cold, so it's probably good to be closer to the equator where you can lie down on some piece of ground—or maybe on the swaying deck of a ship, where there won't be a gazillion insects trying to get at you—and gaze into the sky and not only feel how you're held to the ground looking 'out', but looking out at this scenario I tried to hint at above.

Trust me, it is a mind-expanding experience. It's also very basic, fundamental and grounding. For we are star-stuff after all, and what could be more grounding than looking out at this thing called the 'galaxy' which is our great 'expanded' home, if you will. 'Galactic' awareness and grounding puts the whole circus down here into an even more humbling perspective than is the often-praised view-at-Earth-from-space.

Look outward and you'll find that, in a strange way, you are looking in. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Gates's Fury

Rumor has it that Bill Gates doesn't like the Apple vs. PC ads, and when you look at the latest one, which takes a swipe at something called 'Vista'—which rhymes with 'blister'—you can probably understand that. Rumor, currently unsubstantiated, has it that he berated the ads for being lies—after stating that he never watched a single one of them.

Apocryphal tale or not? Who knows? Who cares? Ignorance and apathy battling it out without much heat. Just have a look at the 'cancel-allow' ad and have a good chuckle. And, yes, I know it's unfair and cheap and doesn't take much of an aim to hit the crap Microsoft pawn off on the public, but let me have my moment of cheap vicarious fun. It's my blog, after all! If I can't do it here, where can I??

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

TIA

The ensemble cast of Deadwood made me think about actors. The subject has pertinence for me; I would like to make another movie, and this one will require some decent 'acting', by people who don't think it's all about themselves—and not about the story they're helping to tell.

That's a tough one. With Dating Blind I was very fortunate to have actors and actresses, who either were simply good or else had enough fun doing what they were doing, that for the most part their egos didn't come through. With some nifty editing occasional slips were mostly glossed over and hopefully not noticed. But Thunder Trail is a different animal; not a romantic comedy, but something that should wrench everybody out of the notion that 'performance' is what matters. It isn't. Making the story and characters come to life is.

I've gone back to thinking of it as a 'threesome' again. Let's leave the ghost out of it. It may be too gimmicky—and even if it isn't, as it is not intended to be, it may be perceived that way and therefore destroy the story. Perception, as we know, is everything. So, back to three characters. And I need three good actors; two of them males—which is really tough around Dunedin, where non-self-important good male actors are...well, 'rare' is a nice term for it. I'm thinking maybe I shouldn't go for trained actors at all, or for someone who may not have had 'training' but fancies himself a bit of a cool guy on a stage or in front of a camera. Then there is the fact that I'll probably not be able to pay them. It's getting tougher, as you may guess. Still, I have hopes, faint though they are.

It occurs to me that actors can roughly be divided into three classes. The boundaries between them are fuzzy and there's always some overlap and folks drift from one class to another, and so on. But basically we have this:

• The low-level kind who matter not, will never matter, couldn't tell a story if their lives depended on it, make everything about themselves and generally have an overinflated estimate of their importance in the scheme of things.

• Those qualifying as 'professionals', who know what their job is and do it; and generally do it adequately-to-very-well.

• 'Stars'. People who have forgotten that they are professionals and have become 'celebrity'. Egomaniacs by any other name; sharing with those at the bottom an overblown sense of their significance.

A few 'stars' are professionals—or maybe that should be 'a few professionals are stars', because there are far more professionals than stars; and though 'celebrity'-like exposure is part of the game in the acting world, only stars seek it for its titillation. Professionals generally use it to get the roles they want.

One such 'star', who, I realized a few days ago when I saw Blood Diamond, may actually qualify as a 'professional' is Leonardo DiCaprio—of whom I always thought as a bit of a 'twit', as the English say. But I must admit, I believed every second of his portrayal of Danny Archer, the Rhodesian mercenary. More than I believed any of the other characters, except maybe Arnold Vosloo. In fact, he was the character that turned this super-PC movie into something that went beyond that and thereby, and despite its "I'm Important!"-shouting ending, made it into a 'good' movie.

Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou were wasted, burdened with lines so loaded with 'message' that it was almost cringe-factor-10 material. That they managed it to deliver them without me wanting to duck every time one of those lines was coming, is a testament to their skill—but in the end it was DiCaprio's sustained characterization—and accent!—that kept it all going.

Blood Diamond, whose best and most enduring lines were those relating to the acronym 'TIA' (This Is Africa), wears the 'important' label like a General wears his decorations. Still, its impact is lost in overkill. The same movie without the message-bits would have been simply superb. And without that hokey ending, of course. Does anybody really believe that this trade is ever going to stop? Does anybody really believe that the true evildoers are the traders, middle-men, corrupt government officials, local potentates—and not the ultimate buyers themselves: the people of small minds and/or stupid vanities? For the majority of these diamonds do not go to the rich and powerful, but to those who flood into the local cheap-special-offer jewelry store when the occasions for buying arise or are fabricated by the peddlers of the goods. Without customers there are no middle-men and peddlers turn their attention to something people will buy instead.

Apart from all that, let's look at the other messages of this movie. One of them was that about the child-soldiers in Africa, and everywhere else, for that matter. The Hitlerjugend happened in the middle of Europe, remember—and there's nothing new about this anyway. When you need some killers and are running out of grown-ups, the young are the most impressionable and easiest to mold. Even volunteer armies consist mostly of those qualifying as 'young'—and for good reasons, one of which is that in their brains one is more likely to find 'impressionability' and a lack of big-picture judgment. I believe the age of cerebral maturity is somewhere around the age of 25. Most soldiers are significantly younger than that.

So, nothing new about child-soldiers, and if anybody thinks that's going to change, think again. The point was that as a 'point' to be made in a movie, Blood Diamond, practiced overkill. The same point was made with much more impact and much more to the gut in Tears of The Sun, when one of the team of SEALs, while interfering in some ethnic cleansing in the middle of the jungle, killed one of those in the process of some serious rape and violence—only to find, to his horror that "He's just a kid. Just a fucking kid!" The look on the soldier's face as he stared close-up at the face of the dying child-soldier he's just stabbed: that will stay with me forever. Related scenes in Blood Diamond I already have a problem recalling. But what I do remember about it are all scenes involving 'Danny Archer'—which tells me something about the caliber of the actor who represented him.

Here we have the difference between bad and good story-telling. But, of course, Tears of the Sun was a flick about US soldiers having a conscience and one with Bruce Willis at that. So it can't possibly have been as 'important' and was probably pure US Navy propaganda. Right? Never mind that it asked more questions per average minute of film than Blood Diamond asked in an hour. It's just that they weren't shoved into your face with a "Look here! Important stuff coming up!"

And so we went from Deadwood to actors to Blood Diamond to Tears of the Sun, and now, to close, it's back to Deadwood. What a total hoot and genius of scripting when the only one allowed to spout a bit of what otherwise would be trite romantic wisdom should be Dan Dority, Al's hitman—when, in the last episode, he ends up telling the barman, Johnny Burns, that when it comes down to it, Al does what he does and we all do what we do, because we follow our hearts.

Inspired genius...

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Deadwood

Deadwood...

So I finally watched the last episode of Season 3, and it ended as it should, on a somber note of indefiniteness, with Al Swearengen kneeling there and trying to scrub the floor clean of the blood of an innocent he sacrificed by his own hand in order to save someone he wanted to live. Trade one life for another. Decide who lives and who dies. Leave it to Al.

Deadwood is the creation of David Milch, of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue fame, and it may well be his masterpiece—because I can't see how anybody could top this, not even Milch. I doubt anybody else in the universe of TV-serial makers would have a chance of even getting close.

Deadwood is a (36-episodes = approximately 30 hours) story in search of a genre. It's a 'Western' because of its setting, but it isn't really a Western, except in a deconstructionist sense. It's a gangster flick, except that in its context there aren't really any 'gangsters' as we would understand the term. It's Shakespearean comedy and tragedy alike, except that William is long dead. He would have been proud of it though. There's even a troupe of bards—a.k.a. 'actors'—in this last season. I have no idea what their narrative function is, but will figure it out one day. I'm sure it wasn't thrown in just on a whim.

The show has two central characters, who provide the thread: the aforementioned Al Swearengen, played by Ian McShane of Lovejoy fame, and one Seth Bullock, played by Timothy Olyphant of not much real previous fame, but many appearances in a lot of flicks and series episodes. Arguably there's a third central character, one Alma Garret, played by Molly Parker, also of not much real previous fame, but just as hard-working as Olyphant. The cast of secondary characters is strong, as they drift in and out of the story.

The writers of the show screwed with our minds from Episode One, building up preconceived notions, only to take them down one by one as time went on. Al appeared to be the evil one, who had people killed as it suited him by the agency of his right-hand hitman, Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), who then fed the bodies of the victims to the piggies of the Chinaman, Mr. Wu (Keone Young). Surely there could be no more evil man than big Al. Until, that is, the outside world made itself felt through the arrival of various creeps that made the locals appear like Sunday School teachers with spotless ethics. And so the murderous Al teams up with the upright but man-with-a-mean-f..ing-temper Seth Bullock—and even the widow, whose husband he murdered and who has adopted a child whose parents in turn were also murdered by agents of Al; trying to keep this place—which is a lawless town, not yet member of the encroaching 'Union' and always referred to as 'a camp'—from being effectively destroyed.

Why would anybody bother with the place anyway? Gold, of course. Shitloads of it. It doesn't take anything more than that; attracting greed on all scales, as well as the hopes of every loser and winner in sight, and, of course, corruption on a grand scale. Deadwood demythologizes just about every 'Western' legend or stereotype. Whether this is true-to-life or just a narrative device I do not know. But nothing is sacred. Well-known figures of the time are pulled down from their pedestals. The language is probably the foulest on TV—and I'm amazed they got away with it!—and just about all 'c', 'f', 'm' and 'n' words that must not be spoken or written down for fear of retribution by the PC-powers, are said, shouted, muttered, groaned, whispered... over and over and over again; with relish, gusto and at great length. Team America: World Police could have learned a thing or two from Deadwood.

As one who does not think that civilization is necessarily measured by the promotion of 'clean' language, this did not disturb me much, though I fancy it wasn't everybody's cup of tea, or whatever their poison happens to be. I'm more interested in the substance of that thing we call 'life', and swearing copiously, or not, has never been something by which the quality of either man or woman should be measured.

It's also been claimed that the foulness of the language is historically accurate. Well, I generally don't set much store in the researches of historians, who are just a bunch of fiction writers in disguise; but maybe it's true anyway. In that case Deadwood was, indeed, long overdue, from the 'language' aspect alone. And it certainly provides a counterpoint—in existential terms—to the world epitomized by the refinements of civilization, which, inter alia, provide us with absurdities of waste-of-thinking-time and resources that should really be applied to making the world a more livable place, such as this and this—to mention just two I chanced across recently. I'm not entirely free of certain predilections, including one to philosophize, but there are limits to my tolerance for the inane.