Saturday, August 24, 2013

Why "revealed religion" can't be trusted

An article in today's New York Times prompts this post.  (Here's the link.)  Briefly, a well-known conservative Catholic who's written strongly against gay marriage has reversed himself and said, well, maybe he was wrong. There are probably those who'll attack him from the right as a man of weak principle, and there are undoubtedly people from the left who'll praise him for his change of heart.

Me, I believe he's simply confirmed the idiocy of his entire belief structure and world-view.

When you put your reasoning powers at the mercy of "revealed religion" -- ie: when you accept as baseline "facts" the supposed revelations of some prior prophet or religious founder -- you fundamentally abandon your responsibility to assess the world based on your own perceptions and your own ability to process the information at hand. Basically, you make yourself into a child who accepts the dictates of authority because, in essence, "Mommy and Daddy say so." As a result, when facts and evidence finally force you to change your beliefs, you're forced to do a fancy emotional two-step so you can convince yourself that Mommy and Daddy were never wrong in the first place, and you merely "misinterpreted" their perfect and all-wise words.

The fault, you say, isn't in the "revelations" that you used to justify your lack of reasoning; the fault, you say, was that you didn't fully understand the "revelation."

To which I say, bullshit.

Look, all we need to do is review the history of supposedly-immutable religious beliefs that have been abandoned in the face of new information to know that revealed religion is a pretty poor foundation for building a moral life. Two hundred years ago religion was used by Southern Christians to justify slavery. Other religious sects used it to justify polygamy. Others used it to justify racism. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, Mormons -- you name the religious belief and it's been used as the basis for some pretty repressive and reprehensible behavior. Is that the fault of the religion as such? No, because there is, in my opinion, no such thing as a uniform, stable, continuous and consistent "revealed religion." Every religious belief in history has been constantly reinterpreted to suit the current needs and prejudices of its believers. Even the Bible (especially the Bible) which so many fundamentalists hold as inerrant and never-changing, is constantly being reinterpreted by those who hold its "truths" to be plainly self-evident.

Case in point, the Catholic conservative below who once used Catholic theory to justify his anti-gay marriage beliefs and now finds he can use that same theory to justify the opposite.

If you can use the Christian Bible (or the Book of Mormon, or the Talmud or the Koran or whatever) to justify two completely opposite beliefs, then it's worth no more as a moral guide than a handful of pebbles tossed into the air to see which direction the Gods want you to follow.

So stop it. Just stop it. Think for yourselves. Recognize the world is a complex and contradictory place without an overriding logic, take responsibility for making it more humane, and grow up.

Mommy and Daddy won't spank you.

Mommy and Daddy aren't here.

There's just you, and me, and the rest of the human race. You want to be a good person? Be a good person. It isn't that hard or complex. Start by accepting you don't know more than the rest of us.

Here's the link:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

San Diego 2013

Many many many thanks to the wonderful folks who honored me as a guest at San Diego Comic Con this year. A grateful tip of my Dodgers' cap to Janet and Beth in Guest Relations - particularly Beth, who helped my daughter Rachel achieve her dream of seeing Jennifer Lawrence in person at the Lionsgate panel. (And the Fox panel, too, of course.)

And thank you, everyone, for the Inkpot award.

I haven't been to Comic Con in San Diego as a guest in, well, ever. The last time I attended was about six years ago when Rachel wanted to see what it was like (as did I). It was pretty amazing but also, I have to admit, pretty stressful. I don't feel comfortable in large crowds. And San Diego Comic Con is practically the definition of a large crowd, to put it mildly. So when I was invited to attend I was worried I'd soon find myself cowering in a corner popping Xanax like tic-tacs.

But, in fact, the entire experience was a delight. Janet and her crew made me feel extremely welcome, and the panels I appeared on were lots of fun (though I was amused/upset to learn I'd traumatized Mark Waid with the death of Gwen Stacy, among the many other readers whose childhood I unintentionally ruined). And the fans -- the fans, meaning you, we're great. It was a pleasure to meet all of you, and I hope we have a chance to talk again soon at other conventions.

And, of course, there was this, my personal favorite moment of the whole con, when Rachel made a new special friend:

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Need to Believe

Sitting in a coffee shop, overhearing a conversation about the Boston Marathon bombing. As of now there are two announced suspects, one dead, the other being pursued. Information is spotty but what we have been told indicates the people involved were alienated, operating alone in a sad and violent and muddled "political" act.

And of course, the talk I'm overhearing involves the "probability" that the bombing is the result of a government conspiracy and the "suspects" are framed patsies.

Much is made of apparent sinister "inconsistencies" -- why was the MIT security guard shot, what did he see, what did he know, was someone trying to silence him? (Seriously, this person I'm listening to is actually saying this.) And so on. It's hard to describe this even as speculation since speculation is usually dependent on extrapolation from facts, and this conspiracy proponent isn't even suggesting he possesses any facts. He just has "questions" which in themselves imply answers.

Obviously, he's nuts, but he's trying to sound so thoughtful and reasonable, and really, what he's suggesting follows logically from the usual paranoid ramblings of all anti-authority conspiracy theorists. Now he's talking about gunshots, and how those shots aren't properly connected to other testimony about the bombing, and so on, making all of it up out of whole cloth, just spinning and weaving without regard for how any of this connects to what we laughingly refer to as our shared reality.

It occurs to me, listening to him, that what he's expressing through his paranoid conspiracy theorizing is the secular version of orthodox religious belief.

In both conspiracy theory and theology, the proponent is trying to make sense of something frightening and inexplicable -- the possibility that life and death and evil are random and meaningless. Faced with the bleak reality that the universe really doesn't care whether we as individuals live or die, or whether good or evil is triumphant, the religious man theorizes that life operates according to the incomprehensible plan of a loving god. Because we are in the hands of a loving god, the theory goes, bad things happen for what must ultimately be a good reason. Therefore the terror we feel when faced with random cruelty and evil is ameliorated by the reassuring fantasy that God Has A Plan. In this way, the godly man (or woman) is comforted.

Similarly, the paranoid conspiracy theorist, faced with the evidence that we are at the mercy of random events and that our authorities are powerless, ultimately, to protect us, creates a theory to reduce the anxiety this sense of vulnerability creates. Because he or she wants to believe the authorities are powerful enough to protect him or her from random evil, when the authorities fail to do so, the conspiracy theorist concludes that failure was part of an incomprehensible plan. Just as the godly man assumes that God is in charge, despite all evidence to the contrary, the conspiracy theorist assumes the Authorities are also in charge -- again, despite all evidence (or no evidence) to the contrary.

In both cases, the believer believes because he needs to believe. The alternative -- that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control -- is too horrible to accept.

Fantasy is so much more comforting.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The loss of secrets

I'm in Montreal for the next twenty or thirty minutes, until I board a train for Toronto. I've been here two days, but it's been so cold I haven't seen as much of the city as I'd hoped. (The truth is I'm a bit tired from traveling a lot the last couple of weeks and I've embraced the cold as an excuse for some down time.) But the cold did give me an opportunity to experience something I might not have otherwise -- the underground passages between buildings in downtown Montreal, a necessity for a city that apparently spends a good part of the year locked in a pre-glacial Ice Age.

I loved it, and it filled me with a crushing sense of sweet nostalgia for (bear with me here) a secret New York that doesn't exist anymore.

I haven't lived in Manhattan in almost forty years, so I may be completely wrong about this, in which case I expect I'll hear about it from more well informed New Yorkers, but what I'm about to describe is, I believe, a secret city that was on its way to being buried and/or locked away before 9/11, but was certainly shut down soon after the Towers fell.

Let me explain.

Way back, in the late 1960s, I discovered something that other New Yorkers had undoubtedly known for decades. It happened when DC Comics moved into a building in Rockefeller Center. One afternoon I went with a group of friends to get a bite in the building's basement lunch room, and afterward several of them decided to wander over to the underground concourse at 30 Rock to get magazines at one of the new stands there. They showed me how our building connected to the concourse through an underground tunnel. This wasn't a "secret" in the sense that it was hidden, it was a "secret" because it wasn't something you'd know about unless someone actually showed it to you. It wasn't on any public map that I was aware of; no prominent signs in the 30 Rock concourse showed you the way (I think there was one small sign near the tunnel exit). It was just... something most people didn't know about. A group secret. A privilege for the special few (hundred) who had a "need to know."

Midtown Manhattan, I soon discovered, had lots of secrets like that tunnel. Underground passages linking one building's basement to another, hallways that connected forgotten subway access tunnels, stairwells that led down one side of the street and up again a block away. In fact, by the mid-1970s, I'd learned it was possible to negotiate your way from Grand Central Station halfway across midtown Manhattan almost to 53rd and Broadway without once stepping on the sidewalk. (This was incredibly useful during snowstorms, much as it must be in Montreal during, say, mid-April. It's snowing outside as I write this.)

I left New York in the late 70s, but when I retuned for visits in the 80s and 90s, most of the "secret" passages were still there. Still secrets waiting to be discovered by the curious or the initiated, little gifts from New York to those who cared enough to explore.

9/11 slammed and locked the doors on those secret tunnels, in the name of "security" and "safety." Padlocks and chains, rusty gates, steel fire doors permanently sealed, and armed guards with suspicious glares, are what greet the urban explorer nowadays under New York. The secret empire of underground Manhattan is no more.

I miss it. I'm not sure what we've gained by giving up our secrets, but I know what we've lost.

Monday, April 08, 2013

I love train travel, and here's why

Mostly, because it's slow.

Most people would consider this a negative, but most people are in far too much of a hurry to get nowhere in particular. Life speeds by and the destinations we seek are far less interesting than the journeys we take to get there. Traveling by plane short circuits the best part of the journey, which is the sense of traversing space and time, going from here to there, and processing the experience in real time. When you fly from, say, Los Angeles to New York, your experience of the journey is this: you arrive at a building filled with anxious, usually frustrated people; you stand in lines and have your personal space invaded repeatedly in the name of "security"; you wait with other anxious, potentially frustrated people in a room to find out if you're going to have to wait for a longer period of time, or whether you'll just have to wait the regular period of time; you get in a small crowded room with hundreds of other anxious, potentially frustrated people, and spend four to five hours scrunched in an uncomfortable seat, hoping that when you need to use the bathroom you won't find yourself trapped behind a food cart; you exit this small room and walk through endless corridors without windows to another big room filled with anxious, potentially frustrated people, and wait to see if you're going to get the baggage you handed over hours before to strangers who really don't care if you ever see your shirts again. Then you leave this building and take a bus/car/taxi/train to your "final destination." Where, exhausted and emotionally drained, you spend the next couple of days adjusting to the change of time zone, change of weather, and change of pace.

Yeah, that's traveling in style.

To sum up:

You pack and prep on, say, Sunday for an early-morning Monday flight. It has to be early because you'll be fighting traffic to the airport. And you have to get there at least two hours before your plane takes off to be sure you can get through security in time. So you leave your home on Monday morning at, say, six a.m., which means you have to be up by five a.m., which means you've probably not had a good night's sleep. So, before you even start on your trip, you're emotionally drained and exhausted.

Monday, you travel. Forget Monday. Monday is a lost day.

Tuesday, you recover. You try to do stuff on Tuesday but you're dealing with jet lag and general trip exhaustion, so whatever you do, you more or less do it in a half-stupor. Maybe you tell yourself you're having a good time because you're in a great city and being tired doesn't matter, you're fine, what a wonderful time you're having, let's all go to that museum, let's have dinner, let's see a play. Tuesday night, to your surprise, you crash early and you're asleep hours before your usual bedtime, and when you wake up Wednesday, you're a little disoriented, but you're beginning to feel a little better.

By the end of Wednesday, you finally feel about as good as you felt on Saturday.

And you tell yourself you're having a great time. To prove it, you pack in a lot more activities, fill the hours up with tours, more museums, more restaurants, more touristy things. Surprisingly, none of this will make much of an impact on you in memory, which is why you'll take a ton of pictures, to prove you were actually there at the Statue of Liberty. But you've got to rush to catch the boat back to the city because you have a Broadway show to see at eight and the traffic is a killer going uptown.

Now, in contrast, here's your train trip:

You pack Sunday and get a good night's sleep because your train doesn't leave till eleven and that's well after rush hour, and you don't have to get to the station before ten thirty because there's no security line. And that's Sunday.

So on Monday, you leave home more or less relaxed and you get on the train and you unpack, walk around, have a coffee, read a little, take a nap, enjoy the scenery, talk to your fellow pretty-relaxed passengers, watch a video, do some work (in my case, writing), have a meal, watch the scenery. The scenery is pretty damn nice. And you can see where you've been, you know where you are, and you can imagine where you're going. You have a sense of moving through space. You're not in a small room crowded with other passengers. You're in a moving vehicle passing through places, through towns, over hills, under hills, across fields, past garbage dumps and baseball stadiums and school yards and lakes. You're moving through America. You're traveling in the rhythm of time.

Tuesday, more of the same. The climate is changing, the towns are different, the people getting on and off the train are from a different place, and they occupy a world different from the one you've always known. They aren't rushing to get somewhere, they aren't compelled to see something, they're here, they're here right now, and so are you. Surrounded by rivers and mountains and long fields of grass. And are those cows? Yes, yes, those are cows.

Wednesday, it's night when you move through a large Midwestern city, and the city is a sculpture of light and shadow. You see people moving in lighted windows. You see cars passing on bridges. The trees are different here, the homes are different, it's a different place, and you can see it because you're here, right here in the middle of it all, passing through, slowly, like a long drawn breath.

Thursday, you reach your "destination." But you don't feel pressed to see everything Right Now because you've already seen so much, so you can take your time, you can experience the moment, you can be in the now.

Tell me that's not a better way to travel.

And that's why I love trains.

Also, on a train, you can write a blog post like this while watching the countryside sweep and roll past your window. And then you can post it. Like I'm about to do... Right now.

Travelin' man mini-review of "The Place Beyond the Pines"

I haven't forgotten the implied promise in my previous post to continue a discussion of "Big Dumb Movies." For the last couple of weeks I've been in Family mode, accompanying my daughter on a series of college tours ranging from New Orleans up to New York, and haven't had the time or energy for a Big Think post. (Actually I'm considering a Big Think post about college tours before I get back to BDM, but we'll see.) However, after seeing Rachel off on her way back to LA yesterday (I'm continuing my own trip further up New England to do some location research for my upcoming YA novel), I caught a movie last night, and want to share a few quick thoughts about it.

The movie was "The Place Beyond the Pines," and while it has a lot to recommend it superficially -- great filmmaking technique, an interesting and underused location (upstate New York) -- it is, ultimately, a pretty weak, if not outright bad, movie pretending to be A Film.

Take away the directorial grandstanding, the big name male leads, and the unusual location, and what you're left with is a remarkably vapid, ill-conceived cliche of a story that relies almost entirely on a ridiculous coincidence and undeveloped character moves to create one momentary dramatic crisis that seems completely unattached to anything else in what's come before. Plot lines are introduced only to be abandoned almost instantly, moral questions are raised and left to dangle without any development, characters appear and disappear and do things that don't matter but are convenient for the plot, an entire story arc is introduced without any credible character underpinnings --

It's a mess.

What astonishes me is that this is a well-reviewed film by a supposedly "serious" film maker, with a script that wouldn't pass muster for an episode of Pretty Little Liars.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Big Dumb Movies

Step into the Wayback Machine with me, Sherman, and take a trip to the ancient era of 1982, when yours truly and his writing partner, Roy Thomas, were briefly Warm in Hollywood.

Thanks to a script we'd written for Ed Pressman (which would eventually become the less-than-we'd-hoped-it-would-be "Conan the Destroyer") Roy and I enjoyed a momentary notoriety as the go-to screenwriters for Big Budget Fantasy and/or Science Fiction Films. We were pursued by top agents, we were offered hot (or warm) projects ranging from The Mad Magazine Movie (don't ask) to John Carter of Mars (we wanted that one desperately). We wrote a script for Orion Films called X-Men: The Movie; we sold a science fiction film based on a one-line pitch (which was later became an entirely different movie when the studio head decided he didn't think audiences would turn out for a movie based on time travel -- this was the year before "The Terminator," "Back to the Future," and "Star Trek IV"). We were for a time the Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci of our generation, though with considerable less long-term success than those snot-nosed punks, probably because they're much more talented and business savvy than we were.

(Hi Alex, Hi Bob; love you guys!)

Anyhow. In our capacity as Momentarily Warm Writers (otherwise known as Flavor of the Month, though in our case it lasted a couple of years) we had a ring side seat to the spectacle of Hollywood's earliest attempts to quantify and formularize what at least one producer we met called The Big Dumb Movie.

We have all lived in the Big Dumb Movie world for the last thirty-odd years, so it might be fun to have a look at what some people were thinking back in the prehistoric days before the Big Dumb Movie became a fully-fledged category of Hollywood-processed entertainment.

I'll post more about this era in future blogs, but for now, I'd like to explain the concept of the Big Dumb Movie as it was explained to us by a Hollywood Producer who'd been around a while, and to put the time period I'm talking about in historical context.

First, the context: Roy and I sold our first screenplay in 1979, while Hollywood was still trying to get its collective head around the triple whammy of "Jaws," "Star Wars," and "Superman: The Movie." We owed our first sale to the fact that an assistant at the production company we pitched to knew our work from comics and vouched for us with her producer. Hard as it may be to believe today, but in 1979, a history of success in comics was actually an obstacle to overcome for the eager new screenwriter. Most producers of the time were in their 40s and 50s and their cultural references, at best, were formed and frozen in the 1950s, or maybe the early 60s. The younger producers, like Ed Pressman, were products of the 60s counter-culture, and imagined themselves to be "hip," but there was a world of difference between hip in 60s terms and the geek-hip of today. Roy and I were extremely lucky to find a sponsor-producer who was willing to overlook our shady comics career to buy our first script. Even luckier that he had an assistant who went to bat for us based on that shady comics career.

After that first script, we became acceptable commodities, allowed a seat at the grown-up table, though we were relegated to the then-ghetto of fantasy and science fiction films. Producers and studios were all floundering about, trying to get a handle on Big Budget Fantasy, with mixed success. (Anyone here remember "Krull?" Anyone? How about Disney's "The Black Hole?") Independent producers and low-budget productions had more success -- Ed Pressman and Dino de Laurentiis made "Conan the Barbarian," Jim Cameron made "The Terminator" -- but generally speaking, Hollywood producers had No Clue how to make the kind of Big Dumb Movie that has become a summer staple the last three decades. Primarily because they thought of it as a Big Dumb Movie, is my guess.

So, what exactly, in the mind of the producer who explained it to me, is a Big Dumb Movie? A Big Dumb Movie is a movie with a big budget (the big part) based on what the producer perceived as a dumb idea (ie: a rebellion against an evil Galactic Empire led by teens with light saber swords). (Alternately, a Big Dumb Movie could also be a big budget High Concept Action Film. That takes us into Die Hard territory, which I'll approach in another blog.)

How, you might wonder, do you approach making a Big Dumb Movie as a producer if you cynically believe you're making a fundamentally dumb film? Good question, which is why Roy and I got hired for several writing gigs during this period, and why we were momentarily Warm: hire people who've written or directed other Big Dumb Movies and hope they know what they're doing. Of course, since you believe the entire idea is dumb already, you won't really respect anything they say or follow their actual suggestions, but at least you can explain yourself in terms other cynical producers will understand. You hired the guys who are supposed to know these things! Is it your fault they made something dumb? (Actually, yes, because you wouldn't let them do anything smart, since, by definition, you were making a Big Dumb Movie, and the dumber the better, right?)

I mention all of this because last night I saw "Olympus Has Fallen," which is the very apotheosis of the Big Dumb Movie approach to filmmaking. And in my next post, I'll explain why I think that.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The B-Movie Time Machine

A few nights ago I watched a B-movie adaptation of Richard Stark's "The Seventh," called "The Split," starring Jim Brown, and released in 1968.

Not a great movie, though it has its moments. (It also has a phenomenal cast: Ernest Borgnine in his pre-Wild Bunch "muscular" phase; Warren Oates; Jack Klugman -- Quincy! -- as a ruthless getaway car driver; pre-Bonnie & Clyde Gene Hackman; James Whitmore; Julie Harris; and the lovely, hopelessly-miscast Diahann Carroll.) The central heist is well-imagined (it should be; it was taken directly from Stark's book) and reasonably well-staged, and there are a couple of nice character beats with Warren Oates and Klugman, but overall, the movie is something of a mess. There are structural leaps and plot bumps that make no sense, and the director seems to be struggling to make the material mean more than it does. Tonal shifts arrive with breathtaking clumsiness, and there are logical leaps that defy rationalzation.

That said, it's a wonderful B-Movie Time Machine.

Anyone who's watched a Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Laurel and Hardy comedy shot on location in Los Angeles in the early 1900s is being given an opportunity to look over the shoulders of the film makers into the world as it was. Downtown Los Angeles was the silent comedian's back lot, and if you want to know what early 20th Century urban California was like, all you have to do is watch a Keaton two-reeler from 1921. ("The Goat" being a perfect example.)

Similarly, if you want a view of Los Angeles in the 1930s and 40s that reflects the city as it actually was, watch a Republic serial. Big studio productions shot their exteriors on the studio back lot, and while the serials also did some back lot shooting, most of their car chases and exterior action sequences take place in and around the San Fernando Valley. (If you'd like a great view of what the Valley looked like in the late 1940s, check out the flying sequences from "King of the Rocketmen" -- the Lydecker brothers who created those effects did so by stringing wires between two hills on Mulholland Drive, with the Valley in the background.)

In the late 40s and through the 50s, film noir took low budget productions to the streets of The City with Six Million Stories (New York) while Dragnet dragged us back to Los Angeles. All of these movies provided us with an unwitting documentary view of mid-century America in the background of sometimes otherwise undistinguished stories.

Which brings us to "The Split."

Anyone familiar with Los Angeles as it is today will experience several minor (and one major) shock watching this movie. The 405 Freeway at Mulholland Drive features prominently in one car chase, and it's stunning to see the empty hills and half-deserted highway of 1968 (today this intersection is the site of a massive construction project, the freeway is constantly packed with cars, and the hills are crowded with homes, schools, and an expansive museum, the Skirbal Center). LAX is visited; so is Pacific Coast Highway; so is downtown Los Angeles. All are familiar and yet weirdly different -- LAX is surrounded by, well, nothing; Pacific Coast Highway is a slum; and downtown Los Angeles is several decades from the wonders of gentrification.

The real shocker, though, is the centerpiece of the film -- the heist at the Collesium.

The Collesium, of course, is physically unchanged, but culturally its place in Los Angeles' daily life is astonishingly different now from what it was in 1968.

In 1968, the Collesium was an NFL stadium, home to a professional football team.

There is something truly surreal about watching a movie involving Jim Brown as a professional thief executing a heist from a football stadium, and it's particularly surreal when the stadium in question hosts a team that no longer exists. (The Los Angeles Rams; there may be a Rams team somewhere in the world, I don't care, the L.A. Rams are no more.) The only thing that would've made it more perfectly meta would be if the Rams had been playing the Cleveland Browns.

It's a B-Movie Time Machine, and if it isn't worth watching as movie (though I think it is) it's certainly worth watching for its view of a world now lost to the smoggy past.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Writing for a living is Hard, and other Obvious Observations

I'm one very lucky son of a bitch.

I recognize this, believe me. Most people never have the opportunity to fulfill any of their childhood dreams, but I've been lucky enough to fill many, if not most, of mine. It helps that my childhood dreams were relatively modest (though at one point I did want to be Robin to my dad's Batman, a notion which for some reason he didn't embrace with an enthusiasm equal to mine). When I was nine years old, I decided I wanted to be either an actor, an artist, or a writer -- in other words, I wanted people to pay attention to me and admire me for something I performed or accomplished. (Childhood narcissism is so cute and simple, isn't it?) To that end I started to perform plays and make movies with my friends (the acting part), I started drawing (the art) and I started writing (the, uh, well, the writing). It was my good fortune that I had parents who either encouraged or permitted or idly stood by and scratched their heads while I pursued these dreams. And it was my great fortune that I grew up in a time and place that made the potential accomplishment of any of these dreams even remotely possible.

If you read the biographies of many authors, you may find that their life stories follow two different patterns. Some writers write for a living, other writers write as a hobby.

To clarify: Some authors are what I'll call (in my insufferable superiority) part-time, non-professional writers -- people who have paying jobs which allow them to make a living (or scrape by) and who subsequently write, more or less, as a hobby. I don't want to suggest that writing as a hobby is somehow less serious or less worthwhile than the alternative (which I'll get to in a moment), I'm simply using the term to make a distinction. People pursue hobbies because they have the time and freedom to do so, and because they want to. Hobbies are, to an extent, an escape from the stress of work. By definition, a hobby may be difficult or hard or require a great deal of effort and commitment, but it is not work. Work is something you do to pay your bills and support yourself and your family; it may be difficult or easy, it may require great effort or no effort at all, but it does require a commitment, and while it may often be fun, fun is not an essential ingredient. The essential ingredient of work is that you must do it in order to survive.

To further clarify: As opposed to the authors described above, other authors are what I'll call (in my insufferable superiority) full-time, professional writers -- people who write to pay their bills and earn a living. They may enjoy writing (and most do) but the central reality of their writing lives is that they write to make money.

For most of my adult life I was a professional writer. I wrote to earn a living, and I was lucky enough to earn a very good living. I recognize that: I was lucky. There are many talented writers trying to earn a living who are unable to do so. Why the light of fortune shined on me and not on them, I have no clear idea. Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time. I grew up in New York City in the 1950s and '60s, was well-educated, and happened to approach the comic book business for work at a time when the business was desperately eager to embrace new, younger writers and artists. I didn't have a lot of competition. I was good enough and energetic enough and ambitious enough to embrace the opportunity fate offered me. And I made good.

But here's the thing: temperamentally, though I was a professional writer who wrote for a living, emotionally I wanted to write part-time as a hobby. The same good fortune that opened the door for me to become a professional writer at 16, and gave me more than four decades of success as a professional writer of comic books, novels, screenplays, and television episodes, closed the door for me to pursue writing purely for the love of it.

I made a bargain with fate at the age of 16 and was well into my 50s before I finally managed to break free. And once again, I was incredibly lucky to find a way to do so.

Remember those author biographies I mentioned earlier, when I said the life stories of authors tended to follow two different patterns? The part-time authors are usually academics, or people who have successful professional careers (doctors, lawyers, politicians, police men or women, etc.) who write in what they amusingly call their spare time. (I really admire people who work full time and then dedicate the remaining hours of their day to struggling with words.) In contrast, full-time authors are often people who pursued other careers with little success until they fell into writing as a last-ditch effort to put food on the table. Some of my favorite authors are in that second category (usually writers of genre fiction), though several writers I greatly admire are in the first. I'm sure you can think of several in both.

Because I started writing professionally while I was still in high school I never really faced the choice of pursuing a different career. If anything I felt I had no choice. I was earning a living doing something I loved -- in fact I earned more money than my father, who worked hard, long hours at a job he didn't enjoy. Faced with the opportunity to continue to earn money as a writer (and with the example of my unhappy father's working life providing a view of the unattractive alternative) I naturally embraced a career as a professional writer. Like I say, I was lucky, though at the time I was too excited by the apparently endless possibilities before me to understand both how lucky I was, and what a devil's bargain I was making.

Here's the thing I've discovered about myself over a forty year career as a writer. I'll put it in the second person because it's easier for me to do so, but I don't mean to suggest this is a universal truth:

When you start writing because you love to write, and you end up writing because you have to write to survive, you eventually find yourself unable to write at all.

By the time I quit my career as a television writer about six years ago I'd gotten to the point where it was a daily struggle to face an empty page. After four decades of writing to make a living I'd lost my enthusiasm for writing. In fact I developed an almost pathological aversion to the physical act of sitting at a keyboard. The thought of writing filled me with an emotion I can only describe as horror. I hated my working life. I wanted out, desperately.

I got out.

I've spent the past six years gradually rediscovering the original love I felt for writing. I've consciously avoided taking on assignments that might require more than a casual commitment. I take my time writing scripts when I do take assignments (to the considerable grief of my editors, I'm certain -- sorry, Joey; sorry, Jim). I write deliberately, and as thoughtfully as I can. I try to approach writing as a hobby -- as a passion project, a way to express my personal vision of the world, and whatever insights and with whatever empathy I can bring to that vision. As a result I've written very little in the last half-decade, but what I have written, I've written because I wanted to write it. Not because I've had to. I'm now working on a Young Adult fantasy-horror novel, and I'm loving every minute of it.

The fact that I've found the freedom to do this after a lifetime of pursuing a career as a professional writer is nothing short of miraculous. I recognize that. Very few people get a second shot as pursuing their childhood dreams... especially when they've already had a first shot, and enjoyed considerable success doing what they thought they wanted to do.

I am, as I say, one very lucky son of a bitch.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The sadness of the "Green Lantern" movie

Making movies is hard.

This is obviously not a newsflash for anyone remotely conscious, but it's important to remember, as William Goldman put it so aptly, no one ever sets out to make a bad movie. (Even Uwe Boll thinks he's doing something good.) Like a well-written villain, bad movies are the product of what appear to be, from the inside, good intentions. In the case of "Green Lantern" those good intentions are obvious, which makes the failure of the film to achieve its goals a sadness.

Look, I was in the film and television business for (gasp) almost thirty years, and while I was certainly party to several projects that went down in flames and ended up being truly awful, I can honestly say that for the most part, everyone involved in almost every project wanted to do something good and tried their best to accomplish that goal. But here's the problem: when you're inside looking out, it's really really hard to see that what you're doing isn't as good as you think it is.

It's human nature to equate hard work and maximum effort with positive results -- and people making movies work very very hard, at maximum effort. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever spent time in a gym knows, hard work and maximum effort don't always produce the results you expect. In my thirties I worked out a lot, hoping to build up my shoulders and get that Charles Atlas body I knew the ladies liked, but even though I became pretty damn strong, my genetic makeup was basically ectomorphic not mesomorphic -- so, no big shoulders for me.

In the same way, sometimes a movie is so fatally flawed at the conceptual level that no amount of talent and effort can change the final result. "Green Lantern" is flawed in that way -- not the concept of Green Lantern, as such, or even the world of the Corps, or Hal Jordan as a character. What is flawed in "Green Lantern" is the concept of the movie itself. By attempting to introduce the mythology of Green Lantern before and during the introduction of Green Lantern as a character, the film gives the viewer too much information to process during what should be an emotional journey. The filmmakers were so taken with the mythological backstory of the Lantern that they forgot it's a backstory and put it in the foreground, instead of putting Hal Jordan in the foreground, and making the story about him.

This was made clear to me the other night when I finally got around to watching the extended cut of the film. In truth the extended cut isn't really that much better than the theatrical cut, but it does do one thing the theatrical cut failed to do: it put Hal Jordan at the center of the story, at least for the first half hour. Then it all flies to pieces, just as the theatrical cut does, with information dump after information dump, an emotionally dead-end villain (who is eliminated before the climactic battle), characters who aren't fully developed but who we're clearly supposed to care about, and a life-and-death Cosmic Stakes Battle that's resolved by not much effort at all in a "Why didn't almost anybody else think of that?" deus ex machina that's embarrassingly pitiful.

I swear to you, though, the people involved with making "Green Lantern" undoubtedly thought they were making a really fine film.

In the mid-1980s I had the opportunity to work on a number of animated TV shows during the toy industry-sponsored syndicated cartoon era. Without exception these were shows motivated into existence for one purpose: to sell toys. And, without exception, the talented writers who'd been hired to develop these toy-based properties into cartoon series would write extensive series "bibles" that sometimes ran over a hundred pages, with enormously well-worked-out back stories about alien wars and strange robot-races and trans-dimensional dinosaurs. Also, without exception, each of these toy show bibles began with the same assertion:

"This is a character based series."

No, it was a toy-based series, but in order to motivate themselves to do good work, the writers and artists involved had to convince themselves that they were, actually, doing good work. And so they closed their eyes to the reality, embraced the contradictions, and sold themselves a myth that allowed them to put in the hard work and long hours any film or TV project demands.

It's how you survive in the business. And it's why bad movies get made. And it's why when a movie is bad, it's a sadness. Because the people involved tried so hard to make it something it was never going to be.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Book Review: "The Score" by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

The first time I encountered Parker, he was almost extinct.
This was in the early 1970s, near the end of Parker's original run of novels. I picked up "Plunder Squad" in hardcover, which in hindsight was not the best introduction to the series. For one thing, it was longer than the average Parker novel. For another, by the time of "Plunder Squad" Parker's self-identification as a loner and a renegade was becoming a thinly-disguised self-delusion. I don't mean to say that Parker wasn't a renegade (by society's standards he clearly was and remains an outsider), but his deeply-held belief in his own self-sufficiency was clearly at odds with the network of allies and, yeah, friends, who peopled "Plunder Squad" and the "final" book in the series, "Butcher's Moon." Parker, in these later early-70s novels, thought he was one kind of man, but in reality, was a very different man altogether.
That's why I say that when I first encountered him, Parker was almost extinct.
Donald Westlake, Parker's creator (as Richard Stark) obviously felt the same way. As happens with writers who devote considerable time and attention to writing a series character, Westlake, I believe, had come to see Parker as a more fully dimensional being than his original creation. In spite of Parker's expressed determination in the early novels (like "The Score") to remain rootless and unattached, Parker had in fact developed roots and attachments. The fact that Parker apparently refused to see and accept this truth about himself made him an intriguing, multi-layered protagonist, but it also must have made it harder for Stark/Westlake to write him with conviction. The Parker of the early novels saw the world simply, but the Parker of the later (1970s) novels lived in a more complicated moral universe. For Westlake, the contradictions must have become too great to overcome. (Contemplating those contradictions undoubtedly gave rise to Westlake's second greatest criminal creation, the hapless John Dortmunder.)
Anyway, back to "The Score."
As an early Parker novel, "The Score" manages to walk the line between Parker's uncomplicated world view and the more complex reality created by the intersection of conflicting human motivations. The set-up is simple: a group of criminals plan and execute the looting of an entire town. It's really the ultimate heist. And it works as planned, without a single technical foul-up. As always in the best crime stories, the fly in the ointment comes from the human factor, and here, we see a hint of the contradictions the later Parker novels (like "Plunder Squad") would express. The heist is almost thwarted by one of the planner's "personal motives." For Parker the professional, "personal motives" are an incomprehensible and potentially deadly distraction from the work at hand. What makes this ironic and foreshadows the end of the original series of Parker novels, in 1974, is that the first time we encounter Parker, in "The Hunter," Parker himself is driven by extremely personal motives, despite his grim self-identification as an untouched and untouchable professional.
Like Ian Fleming's Bond novels, the Parker novels are really separate chapters in the story of a character's evolution from believing himself to be one kind of man, to understanding himself to be another kind of man entirely. In Bond's case that realization led to existential despair. Where it leads for Parker is for you to discover. If you can't begin at the beginning with "The Hunter," "The Score" is as good a place as any to start looking.