Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Confessions of a Basher (trying real hard to be Swooper)

The most recent installment of the weekly IFC Podcast has reminded me of one of the observations contained in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Timequake, concerning two different styles of writers:

"Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter any more, have been either swoopers or bashers. Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn't work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they're done they're done."

As someone who is usually a Basher, I appreciate the evocative terminology that Mr. Vonnegut came up with. Writing, for me, has usually felt like repeatedly bashing my head against the keyboard to make the words come out. I enjoy writing immensely, but it has always been a labor of love with no shortage of painful, grueling labor. I have always felt a deep jealousy for the abilities of the Swoopers.

This has crippled me as a writer. It comes from a reprehensible perfectionism on my part. When I begin a writing project, be it fiction or non, I typically feel unprepared to write a single word before the finished product is entirely mapped out in my mind. I must have every plot point/argument laid out perfectly, every snippet of dialogue rehearsed before I touch my fingers to keyboard or pen. This involves a lot of pacing back and forth, and when I've paced all that I can in my home, a walk or two. 

Finally, a feeling of relief floods through me as I reach the conclusion that, "Yes, I have this thing all figured out. Now the hard part's done. All I have to do now is write the darn thing."

In truth, the fun part is done and the painful part has begun. As soon as I type the beginning of my mental masterpiece, I see what absolute crap it is, beginning with sentence one. I painstakingly edit, sentence by sentence as I write, proceeding at a snail's pace. I usually am utterly faithful to my mental outline as far as plot points/arguments etc., but the language that sounded so good my in head reeks of drivel when I see it spelled out, and so I Bash away. But, staying true to Vonnegut's archetype I usually hardly revise much aside from giving it a quick once-over for typos, especially looking for errors the dyslexic variety that the spellcheckers miss (I am constantly writing form instead of from, for example).

Vonnegut was a Basher, reportedly writing one page at a time, refusing to go on to the next page until each was perfect, often revising a page many times. After finishing a page, he would place it in a drawer and not return to it; when he reached the last page the novel was ready to be sent to the publisher. Vonnegut being perhaps my favorite author, I was quite pleased to learn that this was his style of writing and this information served me well as a justification for my own idiosyncratic habits.

However, I am not Vonnegut. He produced many fine novels and stories using his methods. I have yet to produce anything, despite dozens of ideas and false starts over the years, a few of which I feel may have even ended up being decent had I seen the project through. My writing style has not been conducive to me actually writing anything, and I want to break this trend.

Enter this blog. Everything I've written so far has been typed as fast as possible`, having not really thought out what I will write in any detail, moving quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Admittedly, I then, rather than carefully revising as a true Swooper would, usually immediately hit the "Publish Post" without so much as a read-through. This mostly has to do with the fact that, having a three month old daughter, I have precious little free time these days and I only allot myself so much time to waste on this thing. But if I were writing something more serious and close to my heart than a frivolous blog, I would revise carefully.

The point is, I'm trying real hard to develop some habits of Swoopers. When it come to non-blog writing, I will probably always be a Basher to a degree, but I am trying to use this blog as an exercise in generating words quickly. If I desire to write, which I do, than I need to write and not just think about writing. This means perhaps beginning to write without as clear a mental picture to begin with as I would prefer, and not laboring over each sentence to the point that I never finish anything (my hard drive is filled with the openings pages of aborted writing projects). I need to be less of a Basher. I have much to learn from the Swoopers of the word.

And so, patient reader, forgive me when these blog posts lack a certain polish or perfection. I am viewing them as an ongoing exercise in Swooperism, and little more.

Monday, September 13, 2010


The comedy website Cracked has a weekly photoshop contest wherein they toss out a topic and readers post humorously manipulated images. Having a few minutes to kill (my three month old daughter is asleep in my lap and I dare not move), I decided to enter this week. The topic is "If Historical Figures Got Gritty Reboots."

Posting a photo requires being able to link to the image, which I can do after posting it on blogger, hence the reason behind this post.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Real People vs. Reel People

As an avid library/reading-at-Barnes-and-Noble-without-buying-anything fan, I sadly do not own a copy of many of my favorite books. So when I saw a copy of Bryan Burrough's excellent history book, Public Enemies, on clearance for a couple of bucks, I naturally snatched it up. Upon re-reading the book and enjoying it just as much as I had the first two times, I can say the purchase was definitely worth it. However, there's one thing about the copy I bought that bugs me:

Johnny Depp is on the cover.

Now, I have nothing against Johnny Depp. What I find odd about his presence on the cover is that Public Enemies is a thoroughly-researched non-fiction book about real criminals and lawmen during the early 30's, including John Dillinger (whom Depp played in the movie). If this was a novel adapted into a film, this wouldn't bother me. However, since the book is a factual account of real people who, like Dillinger, were amply photographed, wouldn't it be more appropriate to feature the real John Dillinger on the cover?

Only one of these men robbed banks for a living.

[And as long as being I'm nitpicky, I'll also point out that Dillinger (or anyone else recognizable) wasn't on the original cover since the book is about the 1933-34 crime wave in general, weaving together the stories not just of Dillinger and his gang but of Pretty Boy Floyd, The Barker-Karpis Gang, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Babyface Nelson, J. Edgar Hoover, Melvin Purvis and dozens of others.]

Now of course, the Dillinger strand of Mr. Burrough's book was adapted into a film directed by Michael Mann and starring Depp in 2009 (in my opinion, an incredibly disappointing film, but that's for another post), which is why the book has the cover it does. Of course, movie studios need to promote their products. I get that. They could use the font and imagery (a 1930's car, a close-up on a tommy gun, e.g.) associated with the film, and slap a large "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture Starring Johnny Depp!" label on it, but do we need to see Depp's face?

Maybe a Lego guy instead?
This wouldn't bother me if it weren't such a common practice. Take, for example this book about the life of brilliant economist/schizophrenic John Nash:

That's not John Nash. That's Russell Crowe. This is John Nash.

Similarly, some high school student will someday do a paper on John Adams, check out a library copy of David McCullough's Pullitzer Prize-winning biography, and wonder what the hell Paul Giamatti is doing on the cover:

When it comes to this sort of thing, Johnny Depp is a repeat offender. He has appeared on non-fiction books not only as Dillinger but as drug lord George Jung and as Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

It gets even weirder when we move from non-fiction to autobiography. Temple Grandin doesn't get to appear on the cover of the book she wrote about her own life; she's replaced by Claire Daines:

When they make a film based on the bestselling memoir I will someday write, I hope they get somebody totally badass to play me:

It could happen.
All kidding aside, I guess what I find bothersome about this practice is that it ultimately seems disrespectful to the real person. Am I supposed to admire John Nash's ability to cope with mental illness, or Russell Crowe's brilliant performance? If Temple Grandin's life story is worth reading, do I need to see Claire Daines staring out at me whenever I reach for the book? Was John Adams a significant figure in American history and a complicated human being, or the protagonist of an HBO miniseries?

In addition to the desire to cross-market books and movies to reach a broader audience, I believe this practice stems from a (not unreasonable) fear that Americans are terrified of reading in general, and specifically afraid of reading anything that is not entertaining. We love movies, and so the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a book is a film adaptation (hence the ubiquitous "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture!"). We also love fiction, and so many book-reviewers save "reads like a novel" as their highest compliment for works of non-fiction. And marketing folks assume that the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an individual is to be portrayed by a (usually) better-looking celebrity.

This phenomenon relates to the fact that, when marketing movies, star power is everything. Independent films can hardly scrape together financing without a star of some kind, and getting distribution and even admittance to most festivals depends on having at least a B-lister attached to your project. And when it comes to Hollywood marketing, the preference is to create movie posters which consist of a bunch of floating celebrity heads. You may not get a sense of what the movie is about, but if Brad Pitt is in it, people will see it.

I imagine the same marketing logic dictates that more people will be interested in learning about John Dillinger if they see Johnny Depp on the cover. I really hope this isn't the case. It certainly doesn't have to be, even for movies. After all, countries like Poland have often successfully sold movies with no celebrities in the marketing at all.

The rather death metal-ish Polish poster for "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Not pictured: Harrison Ford.
In my work as a guide at two different historic sites, I often tell myself, "If people can give a crap about what Brad Pitt said that angered Angelina Jolie last night, I can get them excited about history. We're all wired to care about human stories, and that's what history is full of." People read both Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies and grocery aisle tabloids because we have a fundamental craving for stories about other people. We are a social animal. But I seriously hope that we don't ever reach the point where people care about historical figures only because they had a TV miniseries based on them, or read about the lives of brilliant but troubled mathematicians only because we're fans of Russell Crowe. Let's give real people the respect they deserve and let them appear on the covers of their own books, and not actors.

Its the sort of basic respect for human dignity that Founding Fathers such as Paul Giamatti fought to preserve.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Review: The Final Destination

I want my money back.

Usually, I've said that after paying $10 to see a bad movie in theaters. However, I rented The Final Destination from a Redbox. Still, I want my dollar back.

Perhaps I'm being overly harsh. After all, what should I expect from the fourth in a series devoted to needlessly complicated over-the-top death scenes? The first film (I'll admit, I've not seen the second and third installment) was not exactly high art.

It was, however, good at what it did. That's all I really ask of a movie. To recap: the first Final Destination  (which the fourth follows plot point for plot point) involved a character who received a premonition of a horrible disaster about to occur. This character saves himself and his few friends, who narrowly miss the fate that should have been theirs. Since they cheated Death, the Grim Reaper now has decided they will all die in the order that they would have originally. Nobody has a stroke or anything quick and simple; each death scene is a Rune Goldberg contraption of deadly terror.

The film was stupid, but were at least fun. It came up with ghoulishly ridiculous, but undeniably interesting and creative, methods of death, and knew how to milk to "ewww" factor for all of its worth. Most importantly, there was effective suspense. The characters were surrounded by potential causes of death, and the original film got much mileage out of fake-out scenes where everything turns out to be fine. When the peril finally set in for real, the scenario was then elevated to such extremes that our expectations of imminent death were constantly being teased as the elaborate situation continued to crescendo to its gruesome conclusion. 

The Final Destination gets off on the wrong foot, however with an opening scene in which almost no buildup whatsoever precedes the onslaught of dismemberment. A car crash at a racetrack leads to many audience members dying in an orgy of CGI that would look disappointingly cheap in a SyFy Channel original movie. Everything flies straight at the camera, because this film was originally shown in 3D and the filmmakers don't realize how quickly that gag loses its novelty. We of course learn that this was just a vision of things to come, and our Protagonist (the characterization never really explores depths beyond that) manages to escape the real disaster along with Protagonist's Girlfriend, Female Friend, Douchebag, Black Guy, Soccer Mom and Racist. The Racist (who's actually listed as such in the credits) is sadly the most developed of these characters; we know he's a racist because he says "There goes the neighborhood" when Black Guy approaches, whistles 'Dixie', and has a Swastika tattoo on his arm. Get it? Later, we see him about to burn a cross in Black Guy's yard. Because he's racist, and that's what racists do, right?

The opening sequence fails on just about every level in ways that will be repeated throughout the film. None of the scenes are suspenseful or surprising, the deaths are not creative or inventive, the fake-outs are too obvious, and the "ewww" factor exploited by the rest of the franchise is left underwhelmed by a lot of obviously CGI splatter but no real horrors.

The film is gratuitously bloody, but gore enthusiasts are likely to be as disappointed as fans of good film making will be. The filmmakers apparently think the human body behaves like a water balloon filled with blood which will burst at the slightest provocation. We see [SPOILER ALERT] people explode and spray blood everywhere after being hit with flying debris, after being hit by a car (in a moment stolen from the first film), and we see a man sucked into a drainage pipe in a swimming pool (the pipes of course then burst out blood and guts) and man pushed through a chain link fence (he comes out the other side like spaghetti). [END SPOILER] The human body and the laws of physics do not work this way. An audience can only suspend disbelief so far, and by being less faithful to reality than most Looney Tunes, The Final Destination lacks the visceral thrills that horror fans crave. Instead we have all the realism of a violent early-90's videogame (and I refer to the plausibility as well as the level of special effects).

All in all, if there's a silver lining in this film, it is that it forced me to appreciate what had been well done by a film which, prior to seeing the fourth film, I would have only have admitted to slightly enjoying. In retrospect, Final Destination comes off as a relative masterpieces of cinematic art.

Grade: F

Sunday, September 5, 2010

To Blog or Not to Blog?

I have an irritating habit.

Every night, right around bedtime, I begin rambling to my wife about whatever random topic happened to be going through my head that day. It is as if my brain must purge itself of any unheard inner monologues in order to be in a condition ready for sleep. This means my wife gets to suffer through unsolicited rants on whatever movies I've seen recently, history topics I'm currently obsessed with, politicians that irk me, and any number of eclectic subjects.

Her response is usually a polite, "That's interesting, honey. Maybe you should start a blog."

Aside from sparing my wife from having to sit through late night ramblings, perhaps writing a blog would give me an ideal outlet for these random thoughts that need to escape my skull. However, I've always been skeptical of the Personal Blog. Blogs on specific topics by someone who actually has something worthwhile to say, for example a blog on history by a published historian, seem to make sense, but a personal blog always struck me as rather egotistical.

After all, if I type something and publish it, even if only via the internet, isn't there an implicit assumption that I expect someone to read it? And who am I to assume that my late night ramblings are worthy of being read by someone?

And so, I've decided to start this blog off first by offering a disclaimer: I don't assume anyone will/should read this, or that I will necessarily have anything noteworthy to say. Of course, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I hope to occasionally have something worthwhile to say, and perhaps even a follower or two. But that is not why I've chosen to blog.

My reasons are thus:

1) I need outlet for the ramblings of my overactive mind (or, to quote H.L. Mencken, "I write in order to attain that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk.").

2) The process of writing will hopefully help me organize my thoughts on topics I have been pondering.

3) I don't write very often since leaving school. Written communication being a necessary and valuable skill, and skills being something which improve with practice, than it follows that the more I practice writing (of any sort), the better.

4) Material that first appears in rough, unpolished form on this blog may perhaps be refined into something usable elsewhere. Good writing, after all, is good rewriting.

5) I used to write a LiveJournal a number of years ago, in the pre-Facebook era when such sites were much in vogue, and I actually found it quite cathartic and enjoyable. And no, I won't link to it; the posts were made by a younger, less mature, angrier and surprisingly profane version of my self and it is rather embarrassing to read now (as I'm sure this post will someday seem).

6) Perhaps, occasionally and accidentally, I may have something worthwhile to say.

And so without further adieu, I present the debut of my personal blog, North By NorthWeston (all the good blog titles were taken, and so I had to go with a pun. I seriously spent about forty minutes just thinking of great names, only to find them all unavailable. At least North By Northwest is one of my favorite movies, so it fits.)