Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Wish Horse

Once in awhile, as a writer, I have the privilege of meeting a kindred spirit. Lisa Ford is one such spirit. Her latest film project, "The Wish Horse" hits me square in the forehead as the kids in the story live with a parent who has a mental illness. In this particular story, a 13-year-old boy has to look after his younger sister when their mother abandons them. And the horse? Well, believing it can grant wishes may be just what these kids need to help them cope.

My brother and sisters and I grew up with a parent with a mental illness. We knew something was different from other kids' lives but it took us awhile to figure out that it is just not normal for a mother to kick in a bedroom door in at 4:00 a.m. and accuse us of stealing her panties. We love our mom and we each tried in our own ways to earn her affection. I was the over-achiever. My sister would act out in attempts to get my mother's attention. My brother tried being her friend and confidante. But what we all had in common was how we retreated into our imaginations, our music, our books, and our dreams. This is why this film is so important to me.

Worried because it's a message film and it might be a downer? Lisa's last film, Prodigy, was a beautiful, poetic piece of work. Mental illness is rampant in parents of children I volunteer with and if we don't learn recognize it, nobody can help these kids.
According to Michele D. Sherman of Social Work Today, “More than five million children in the United States have a parent with a serious mental illness (SMI) such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.” Our hope is that the characters in our fictional story will resonate with audiences and start a conversation about this important issue. Lisa Ford
Consider helping Lisa Ford accomplish her goal and support "The Wish Horse" by clicking here.  Every donation amount will help bring this film to life and when you think about all the money we spend on Netflix and Red Box and the movie theater, $10 or $20 to bring a story like this to film sounds like a worthy use of our movie money.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Defending the Indefensible or A Tale of Two Liars

Lee Goldberg has been posting quite a bit about James Strauss, the man who passed himself off as a successful television writer at conferences and today, Lee mentioned how, even though there are multitudes of people who feel duped for trusting James Strauss at conferences and individually with their screenwriting questions, career guidance, and industry educations as well as their hopes, aspirations, and dreams, there are just as many defending James Strauss and lashing out people who have uncovered his cons and criminal convictions.

While this may puzzle a lot of people, it does not surprise me a bit. I've seen it before.

Last year, I wrote an off topic post about Eric Williams, a mild-mannered former attorney and Justice of the Peace in Kaufman County, Texas, prosecuted for stealing some computer equipment from the County and sending office supplies to his private practice on Kaufman County's dime. Later, when the Assistant District Attorney, Mark Hasse, was gunned down on his way into the courthouse and people began pointing fingers at Eric Williams. It was an obvious witch hunt. Even Mike McClelland, the District Attorney, seemed to be out to get poor Eric Williams and vowed on television to catch the slime that murdered Hasse and he made no secret of his opinion that Eric Williams needed to be looked at immediately. Then two months later, Mike McClelland and his wife were shot to death in their home.

The Eric Williams accusations flew. But he had passed a gun residue test. But he had an alibi. But his home had been searched. No way he did this. No way.

Of course he did. You've surmised that by now.

Eric Williams and his wife are now awaiting trial. His wife has confessed and truckloads of evidence have piled up against them including the cars he and his wife drove to commit the murders, the weapons, their clothing, computers, phone records. And, his wife has disclosed even a FOURTH planned murder so horrific the imagination can barely comprehend it. Williams' wife told investigators that he had planned to murder former state district judge, Glen Ashworth, with a crossbow. Williams then planned to cut him open while still alive and set him on fire with homemade napalm. As bizarre as it sounds, it explains the "go bag" investigators found in his storage building. The bag contained a cross bow, hunting knife, napalm, and surgical gear.

Denial. Denial. Denial. Eric Williams' supporters are still in denial. And I totally get it. I do. They cannot reconcile the Eric Williams they know based on the allegations of a bunch of investigators they do not know. And, in the beginning I, too, was in denial and I didn't even know the guy at all! I just couldn't imagine a man -- any man -- murdering a human being over being prosecuted for a minor theft.

But then, a few days after the McLellands were murdered, I saw Eric Williams interviewed on television and he was smirking. SMIRKING! Two more people were dead and he was incapable of expressing sympathy without a Chesire Cat grin on his face. My liar-liar-pants-on-fire-radar went off and I knew this man was guilty. A week later he was in jail.

But Eric Williams is a con. He's a narcissist. He may even be a sociopath. And, he can easily convince people he is who he says he is or who he wants to be. People still believe in him even though he is facing death row for murdering three innocent people. Well, they can believe in him all they want but that does not change the evidence against him.

James Strauss, whom I have never met, may also be all these things. I really do not know. I'm not saying his next step is homicide. I'm just saying that people still defend him and people still believe in him even though they KNOW he is not what he says he is and even though they know he lied to them and even though they KNOW he does not have the screenplay or teleplay chops to be paying him to critique their work. Like Eric Williams, people cannot let go of the James Strauss they know based on the allegations of a lot of people they DO NOT know.

Regardless what things people do or say or the evidence against them, there will always be people who fall on their swords defending the guilty. And, I get it. But it does not change the evidence that James Strauss is not a television writer.




Friday, April 25, 2014

I'd Rather Be a Writer

The Ellie Kanner directed film, "Authors Anonymous" is about a dysfunctional bunch of Los Angeles writers who each sink into their own version of author-envy when the seemingly least talented of their group secures an agent, publishes her book, and gets a film deal. The girl doesn't even know who Jane Austen is but she's suddenly the "it" girl living a charmed life with a famous author boyfriend. Written by David Congalton, "Authors Anonymous" missed the mark for me as a snarky mockumentary but I have met, in real life, every sad character in that film.

And, you just feel bad for them.

You know them, too. There's an egomaniacal Tom Clancy wannbe who has a self-published book signing in a hardware store, a romance novelist who is really just exploring her inner sex kitten, and a Fitzgerald devotee who probably has some real talent but doesn't spend as much time writing as he should because he is delivering pizza and cleaning carpets to pay the bills.

We've all met people like this. Some have talent. Some don't. All believe they've been given the go-by. And some decide to do something about it.

Like this guy:

Introducing James R. Strauss, a man who was outed by Lee Goldberg as living the screenwriter life and speaking at seminars as a guru acclaimed for working on television shows that there's no real evidence he worked on. He apparently bypassed all the slammed doors and rejection letters and just went straight to getting paid to teach about a career he never had.

It reminds me of the book, "The Woman Who Wasn't There" about Alicia Esteve (Tania) Head who pretended she was in the World Trade Center when the towers fell.  Her deception went unexposed for quite some time among survivor groups and she gained some acclamation for her heroic story of escape.

The difference in these two people is that while both of them appear to have some kind of deep-rooted need for recognition or acknowledgment, Alicia never made money off her lies. She broke a lot of hearts but didn't profit by it. James R. Strauss, on the other hand, is being vetted by Lee Goldberg's internet friends and has a colorful history of being accused of fraud and profiting from it.

How many times have I had the discussion about writing for the sake of writing versus writing to be produced and how even though screenwriters want to see their words breathing on film, there is also a level of satisfaction in putting pen to paper and doing what you set out to do?

Rhetorical question. Duh.

Point is, jumping to the finish line without running the race seems like an excruciatingly unsatisfying life. And I genuinely feel a deep sense of regret for the choices made by this person I've never met.

I think I would rather write and be unknown than not write and be known for writing.





Thursday, September 12, 2013

Something Worth Writing

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." So, here's my question: if you do something worth writing, are you morally obligated to write it or, at least, find somebody to write it? What if you don't care if you are forgotten or not but have done something worth writing? Lacking a paid contract or career as a professional, do we owe it to the world around us to write worth reading?

I'm not being flippant. Stay with me. This is a legitimate question.

Sometimes, I forget I even have a blog. Today, however, the burden on my obsessive-compulsive brain is peachy-relieved to have a personal public forum for vomiting up unsolicited opinions into the great void. Does anyone still read it? Yeah, a handful. Okay, a little more than that but this blog is certainly not the resource for expanding my screenwriting skills (or lack of) that it once was. But it is still here, even if it is not particularly relevant, and it still has a purpose, even if that purpose is nothing more than serving as my invisible friend.

So, what is on my feeble mind? We see a lot of books out there based on people’s lives. There’s something inherently narcissistic about the notion that the rest of us want to know your life story, wants to follow you on social media, wants to read your blog. Biographies run amok now that self-publishing is readily available and why anyone thinks it is necessary to tell the world what they had for breakfast is simply too out there for me to digest. But, are there people in the world who have an obligation to write memoirs, blog, tweet, or explain themselves to people they have never met?

I’m thinking presidents are kind of a given. As cogs in history, they are expected to write something. But who else? What about scientists, historians, humanitarians and other people who explore the complexities of health and life and history in order to understand the world we live in or make it a better place? Do they have a moral obligation to share their findings with the rest of us or is it okay for them to tuck their knowledge under a pillow even though it affects millions of people? What if your role in life has been devastating to a large portion of humanity? Do you owe an explanation?  And if you do, do you have the moral fortitude to give one? Someone who is mentally ill may not have the capacity to give an accounting and a criminal, unethical enough to commit a heinous crime in the first place, lacks credibility even if he does somehow find the depth of character to come clean in order to help people recover and go forward.

Films affect people and can affect change. And the written word? Well, it has educated us, shaped us, stretched our imaginations, given us wings and beat on our consciences since we first learned to put our thoughts on paper. So, are people ever ethically obligated to write a film or book or memoir?

A film called “The Woman Who Wasn’t There”, directed by Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. and released in 2012 recounts a woman who fabricated a World Trade Center story and become somewhat of a celebrity-survivor among other survivors, dignitaries, and family members of some of those who lost their lives that day. The book by the same title is written by Robin Gaby Fisher and Guglielmo and, as is always the case, the book is able to elaborate and explore areas only touched on in the film.

And, it haunts me.

Yesterday, I did not turn the television on. I mostly avoided my Facebook and I did not read internet news sites. I could not endure the infinite World Trade Center memorials, testimonials, “never forget” photos, and patriotic pledges. I do not apologize for my lack of desire to see people mourn, suffer, weep and relive the anxiety of 9/11/01 but neither do I condemn those who need to connect and vent in order to heal, who struggle to move forward in their lives, or who search for some kind hope rising up out of one of darkest days in American history. But, I am not one of them and it feels almost like a form of blasphemy or Munchausen syndrome by proxy for me to even fathom the suffering people endured on that day and have endured through the years.

Not so for Alicia Esteve Head, a native of Barcelona who moved to New York under the name Tania Head. She, apparently, wanted so much to be part of something bigger than herself, something meaningful, something historic, that, for YEARS, she rode an elaborate story of how she escaped a failing tower, witnessed unimaginable horror, lost the love of her life, and suffered a complex and excruciating physical recovery before she could even begin her long journey to emotional healing. She achieved hero status among the World Trade Center Survivors Network and eventually become president of that organization, led Ground Zero tours, shook hands with politicians, and met family members of Welles Remy Crowther, the man in the red bandanna, credited with saving many lives that day, including Tania’s.

But every word of Tania’s story was a lie. She was in Barcelona on 9/11/01.

And, she haunts me.

I read the book, “The Woman Who Wasn’t There” last year and have since watched the film several times on Netflix streaming video.  I was nowhere near New York on 9/11/01. I remember the bile in my throat as the second tower collapsed on live television and I wondered how many thousands of people were dying that very second as I stood in my safe, air-conditioned conference room. No dry eyes in that room. Just quiet sobbing and an unspeakable grief for people we did not know. Tania Head was even further from the nightmare but I have no doubt that she, like everyone I know, was profoundly and forever affected by the horror unfolding under the very eyes of the world.

And, she haunts me.

Something odd happened with Tania. She developed some kind of deep personal need to bond with people over the event and caught up in her poignant story, people drew strength, courage, and hope from Tania. From the survivors network and her new “family”, Tania found acceptance, admiration, respect, and love. She was needed and she belonged. Then, the bottom fell out of her fiction and she disappeared, leaving her friends in a vortex of betrayal and disbelief.

And, she haunts me.

It’s been years now since Tania’s story unraveled and even though the book and film reveal the details of her deception, we’ve yet to hear from Tania. She haunts me because I want to understand how her late night lie in an online forum spiraled into a raging maelstrom of deception. She haunts me because, in this age of instant information and social media where she could easily post an apologetic memoir, blog, or tweet, she is silent. She haunts me because I do not believe she is evil, cruel, or heartless and I do not know why. I want to understand. Maybe it is because I remember, as a teenager, being a broken human being and telling tall tales to make myself look important, popular, or acceptable. Maybe it is because I feel such pity for this woman and the people she hurt that my own inability to take an eraser to what she did is what really haunts me. I dunno. But, I am haunted.

The conundrum facing anyone who wants to set a record straight is that doing nothing looks bad but attempting to explain often looks worse, like an attempt to justify. If Alicia Esteve Head were to write a book or go on television to explain a tragic event, mental illness, emotional breakdown, or personality disorder, or to discuss therapy she’s undergoing to try and figure out in her own mind why she made the choices she did, she would be accused of profiting off her deception and would likely be crucified by the press.

If I were able to speak to Alicia Esteve Head, I think I would tell her to write that book anyway. Write a biography and make sure the proceeds go to a worthy charity and do not take a single dime from it. Write it under the supervision of a good editor with a view toward coming clean with the world. Help us understand who you are, where you came from and what troubled you so deeply that it drove you to perpetuate such a bizarre tale. Make no excuses. And, know that there will be fact checkers and people anxious to see you get your comeuppance so it has to be 100% verifiable, honest, and heartfelt.

People change. People are capable of forgiving people who change. How many celebrity gaffs have been forgiven, forgotten and even overlooked entirely because the person we see now is not the one who stumbled years ago? People with pasts are able to grow, mature, blossom, come out of hiding, and become a credit to society. I believe Alicia Esteve Head has a deep desire to be that person that changes the world and that may be what fueled her story. If she is recovering from some sort of personality disorder or mental illness or depression, she could use the mistakes of her past to help people. She has proven she has the capacity to lead.

Alicia Esteve Head is a human being who knows love and loss just like the rest of us. I Googled her and ran across an obituary for her brother who died unexpectedly in 2008. I do not know how he died but if she could not relate to loss before, she certainly can now.

I hope she comes out of hiding. I hope she writes something. Is she morally obligated to? I dunno. But, I hope she is doing good in the world. I hope her legacy is not the hurt left in her wake.

Because she haunts me.


Thursday, July 04, 2013

Silence of the Unenlightened

Don't we wish. Really. Don't we wish that the unenlightened would remain silent and people would research, read, and research some more before shooting their mouths off? Wouldn't it be lovely if BEFORE somebody posted something on the internet or forwarded some rumor or thrashing on social media, they checked it out first? I guess most people just aren't wired that way. But writers are. Or, I thought they were.

Many years ago (2007 to be exact), Terry Rossio was speaking with several writers over dinner in Austin, Texas, about creative control and told us a cautionary tale of a visible and known critic who gave two thumbs down to a film citing the fatally flawed screenplay, a piece of work the critic never set eyes on. Terry urged us to remember that few people who criticize writers in this way have any real concept of how the process works. Otherwise, they would not make such uninformed judgments.

Fast forward to present day and a particularly scathing Lone Ranger review by Michael Phillips who seems to lay everything he doesn't like about the film squarely at the feet of Terry Rossio without ever seeing a draft of any screenplay or, evidently, learning about the film's story process or finding out when the writing of the film began with Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio or when Justin Haythe came on board or who was holding the creative reins when the film was shot.

A werewolf plot line? Really, Michael? A werewolf?

Maybe the film feels schizophrenic because the work of the replaced writers was morphed into the work of a new writer with a different vision. Maybe you had an actor on the set adding his own personal touches, some of which worked and some that did not. Maybe the film is precisely what Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski wanted it to be. Maybe the horse was really the one doing all the writing, producing, and directing. Who knows. Oh, wait. Michael Phillips does. A replaced writer is to blame and he knows this without ever having set eyes on a screenplay.

QED, Mr. Rossio. QED.

I don't have a problem with anyone saying what they liked and did not like about a film. That's what we do as movie-watchers and sometimes we even walk out spoiling it for people in line with our loved her, hated him, this sucked, that didn't, and can you believe they stuck a horse in a tree? Wait ‘til you get in the car, people!

What does bother me, though, is when people wag their fingers about things they didn't take the time to investigate and spread assumptions that other people will accept as fact and then also spread without checking. This is particularly heinous if you are a high profile finger-wagger.

I saw The Lone Ranger and while I have very strong opinions (primarily disappointed that the violence is not implied enough for me to take my seven year old nephew), I will see it again since I have a habit of getting lost in a particularly exquisite soundtrack and forgetting to watch the film. This happened more than once in The Lone Ranger. But, I do actually know who to blame for that. Thank you, Hans Zimmer. I wag my finger at you, sir.

Meanwhile, I just had a film idea I need hurry up and draft on paper. It's a western with – wait for it – werewolves!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

'Nuff Said

Took this from Go Into the Story, the Black List blog:
"Write your screenplay.
Not because it is your dream.
Not because it will make you rich, famous, or powerful.
Not because there is a lack of (fill in the blank) genre stories.
Write your screenplay because you are YOU.
Write your screenplay because of what YOU bring to the table.
Write your screenplay because ONLY YOU can write it.
Everyone has a story only they can write and it would be a crime against humanity for you not to.
Write your screenplay."
Paul Quade

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tell Me No Lies

What does truth on the screen look like?

My mantra has long been, to paraphrase a line Billy Wilder wrote for Betty Schaefer in "Sunset Boulevard", that I think pictures should say something, not just sit there like an abstract piece of art waiting for individual interpretation. Oh sure, there is subjectivity and interpretation in everything we watch and read and a little mystery is a good thing but a film shouldn't leave us feeling like we're watching an old episode of Mark Goodson's "Match Game" where Gene Rayburn holds up a card and we've got to fill in a crucial element of the story.

You remember that show, right? Well, I do and it usually made me mad.  Gene Rayburn asks a question like "Dumb Dora is so dumb. She has been in Kindergarten so long, she's the only girl in class with  _______" and the OBVIOUS answer is boobs. Seriously, BOOBS. But do they say boobs? No. They say grandchildren, maternity dress and hysterectomy. You know what the matching answer turns out to be? Gray hair! WRONG. It's BOOBS, you morons! At which point, I threw my popsicle at the television and got yelled at later because when I was a kid televisions got really hot after they had been on for awhile and if you forgot to pick up your popsicle AND didn't dust behind the television like you were supposed to before you went swimming and then your step-father found cherry hairballs on the floor when he got home from work, you would get yelled at. And grounded from swimming which wasn't fair because my sister didn't fold the clothes either and guess who did NOT get grounded from anything because she was younger (18 months younger, big whoop) and I should help her and remind her to do her chores?

That, my friends, is truth. Stuff you can relate to - frustration, anger, making a mistake, feeling cheated, being justly punished, being unjustly punished, not being punished at all, feeling loss, abandoning responsibility, unfair expectations. People know what that's like. They can identify. Maybe they can empathize a little. They know who that kid is. Maybe they know that kid as an adult. Maybe they ARE that kid.

The "lack of truth" is any story that comes across like Dumb Dora. We're told she's dumb and still in Kindergarten. Who can identify or understand her in any way? We don't feel anything because we're left to our own devices to fill in the blanks. I'm not saying that we need every single answer. What happened to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"? Do we really know? Yes, we do and no, we don't. But we do know Butch and Sundance and not because we have robbed trains. We know them because we understand love and loss and grand dreams and not knowing how to swim and all the things about the film that make if feel "true".

The Black Board recently tweeted an old discussion where they quote Terry Rossio as saying:
"Call it truth, wisdom, insight, epiphany, revelation, or theme… truth always works up there on screen. It may never show up on a response card, but an audience hopes for the story to be ‘right,' for it to resonate within them, for it to be ‘about something.' The audience eats up truth whenever it's presented — truth about the human spirit, truth of the world, truth of a particular character, or the truth of an ideal. It's never overlooked; in fact, the audience is searching for it. And when they find it, it's the ultimate way for the audience to connect with a story."
Having presented to your my argument that truth on the screen is basically that which makes your story feel real, I also fully acknowledge that truth, much like love, is recognizable to all but defies explanation.

In his Wordplay article, Deep Thoughts, Terry Rossio also has this to say about truth:
It is nearly a universal quality of human beings to be able to recognize the Truth -- and that's Truth with a capital 'T' -- nearly always when it is presented to them. Yet it is a rare quality to be able to define the Truth, and to make those presentations.
So, basically, what I'm thinking here is that we better recognize when the truth is missing from what we have written because although readers may not be able to verbalize what exactly that big blank is they're feeling while they're reading our screenplays, something deep in their guts is telling them it should have been boobs instead of gray hair.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Now Playing in the Pons Region of Your Brain Stem

The internet was abuzz this week with grim predictions by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for the future of film. Basically, it sounds as if each new swollen-budgeted blockbuster is contributing to a sort of entertainment global warming that will one day result in changes to the whole magnetic force of the movie industry. We're in the ice age and a melt-down is coming.
"You're at the point right now where a studio would rather invest $250 million in one film for a real shot at the brass ring than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal -- and even maybe historical -- projects that may get lost in the shuffle because there's only 24 hours. There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even half a dozen of these mega-budgeted movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm again." Steven Spielberg
The cinema system as we know it would be transformed into a costly behemoth of an outing and in its place will rise on-demand television and internet films.
"You're going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost $50 or $100 or $150, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game. It'll be an expensive thing. ... [Movies] will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does. That will be called the "movie" business." George Lucas
Critics are already crying foul and saying that such a catastrophic implosion could not possibly occur in a single season but those of us not close enough to the economics of the industry are left to wonder.

Films, regardless of where they are shown and how they are funded, still must be written so our pens are not likely to become T-Rexes any time soon. But for the those of us who have only recently come to the realization that if we want to write films, we probably need to make them, too, this could be a game changer. What happens to independent film? Where do the art house theaters go?

Well, here's one place. How about your BRAIN.

The two film giants go on to make predictions about video games being more character driven and some sort of dream creating gadget where people can control what they see in their minds when they sleep. Maybe that's the future of the writer's the pen? Writing people's fantasies. Oh wait. I thought that's what screenwriters already did. I guess now the movies will be in the mind instead of on the big screen.

What I find kind of amusing about the whole "watch your own story in your dreams" thing is that writers have been seeing their own movies in their sleep for as long there has been pencil and paper so  I guess it's about time technology caught up.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Can Writing Keep You Sane in Your Old Age?

Writers often jokingly point at the blank page as the source of their insanity (and yeah, white paper is evil) but an article by the National Institute on Aging suggests that participation in some kind of regular artistic activity may do the opposite. (Thank you, Susan Lee Smith for the article) Specifically, the article says that singing, writing, dancing, playing an instrument, painting and acting may directly affect not just health and well being of the aging but also slow the decline of cognitive ability. I wonder if photography counts. I hope it counts.

Did you see what I said? The arts may keep you SANE!

If these assumptions are true, they explain a lot for me, personally,  and the premise of the arts as a fountain of mental youth is a beacon of hope. HOPE, I tell you.

Here's why. Stay with me. I will tie this back to the arts and writing. I promise.

There's no easy way to say it. This past year has been utter hell because my mother is batty, bless her southern fried heart. It's not Alzheimer's. It's not dementia. She is just plain ol' mad as a March hare nutty and my sister and I are spent from balancing our own lives with her outbursts and ongoing struggles to make her seek and maintain proper care. She is only 68 years old. Aging parent issues are exhausting enough as it is but throw in a reasonably young woman who thinks you sneak in her house in the middle of the night and steal her Lorna Doones? Oh boy. It's no joking matter, really. Her own mother did actually suffer from a form of dementia that progressed into Alzheimer's. I see their two illnesses as very separate situations. My mother has personality disorders and mental illness. Her mother had a disease. However, her mother ALSO exhibited some of the same anti-social behaviors that my mother does so she got a double whammy.

Ugh. Where does that leave me? Is it hereditary? Will I be crazy, too? Am I already?

I dunno.

Here is what I do know.

Neither of them ever had a glimmer of love of books or music or poetry or art or theater or photography or ballet or anything at all artistic in their lives. Nothing. Oh, they faked it now and then when it suited them but histrionic narcissism makes you incapable of appreciating somebody else's talent because you are so consumed with your own desire to be the center of attention that appreciation in another direction is insulting.

But WHAT IF you are an average normal aging human being and the arts are a regular part of your entertainment diet? What if you paint and dance or go to concerts or write? Can you slow down the decline of your mental faculties?

I choose to believe you can. If so, I'm doing okay with my singing and painting and writing and flute playing and gardening and photography and theater and whatever other trouble I can get into between now and the time my hair turns gray. But if not... well, even if I go crazy,  I think I'd rather be nutty doing something that makes my body and mind feel good instead of screaming about  missing Lorna Doones.

The photo below is of the Nile Temple Dancers from Daughters of the Nile. I confess to knowing very little about this charitable organization except that they are associated with Shriners Hospitals. Judy Lee, a lady I worked with many many many moons ago, is part of this amazing group of ladies and she says they dance  to help raise money for the the Shriners Hospitals in Houston and the Burn Hospital in Galveston.

These ladies are leaving positive footprints on the planet in the wakes of their individual existences regardless of what seasons they live in and don't you want to be just like them when you grow up? How do they do it? The arts.


Monday, April 15, 2013

Just Keep Breathing


You can feel it. You really can. The freedom to breathe again. Whenever something horrific happens, I often feel like I suck in a deep breath and don't exhale until there is some kind of ending, resolution, or long enough passage of time that I am forced to exhale.

The afternoon breeze today is not so much the clouds giving way to sunny skies as it is the collective sigh of relief from thousands of people who have been hoping and praying that the bloodthirsty Chimera prowling about Kaufman County would not be unstoppable, untouchable, and anonymous forever.

Today, Kaufman County is exhaling. It's not over yet. But we can breathe.

The terror inflicted on officials, their families, and the Kaufman County community cannot be overstated, especially for those of us with close ties to law enforcement. In the beginning, each theory about who would murder ADA Mark Hasse and District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, had its impediments to probability. Could it be a cartel-type revenge for interfering with meth trafficking? Could it have been that disgraced Justice of the Peace who lost the bench last year? Maybe it's that gang of white supremacists who swore bloody repercussions for thirty-something multi-jurisdictional convictions last fall?

The gargantuan horde of investigators was tight lipped and smartly so. The FBI, ATF, US Marshals and Texas Rangers descended on Kaufman County like a swarm of rootin' tootin' locusts and never have I been so glad to see so many suits, badges, and ten gallon hats.

Each theory was ridiculously thin and fantastic but plausible in its own way. But there was no arguing that people were being murdered. Who would have this kind of training and equipment? Who would know where Mark Hasse parked every day and know the best and fastest way to escape downtown Kaufman? Who would be able to put in motion the strategic murders of the McLellands on the weekend that they were expecting Easter company and happened to have put away the guns kept in every single room of the house? And who would be prepared to show up on short notice? Like maybe when the thunder started clapping loud enough to disguise gunshots?

Yeah. We all knew somebody was either close or was watching closely.

Judges, prosecutors, and important elected officials were under tight guard. But the rest of us spoke about the murders privately and in hushed voices. Who was watching? What was the motive? Who might follow us home if they knew we were a county receptionist, court clerk, or had a uniformed officer or public official living in a house that was not being guarded?  There was no limit to where our fearful imaginations went.

And, as expected, online comments erupted on posted news articles. Some comments were vicious and said that Kaufman got what it deserves. Some were sympathetic and hopeful. Some were political and made it about gun control. Some said the investigation was going nowhere. I'm guessing that is because the Feds didn't friend them on Facebook, create a Twitter account, or put evidence pics on Instagram.

Shortly after ADA Mark Hasse's death, a friend of mine told me that DA Mike McLelland was certain former Justice of the Peace Eric Williams was behind Hasse's murder. Williams was the guy convicted of stealing computers from the courthouse and using county library funds to supply his own private law office. My friend was close to the McLellands and suggested I review the Eric Williams trial so that I, too, would know what the former Justice of the Peace was capable of.

I was skeptical. I thought my friend was running on raw emotion because she was too close to the situation but I did what she asked. I reviewed the trial. And yeah, Williams had a history of being a mouthy bully but murder? Tough to believe. Even after the McLellands were murdered, I had doubts that Eric Williams would kill three people over two years probation and a $5000 fine. But when you dig a little deeper, you realize he lost a lot more than that. He lost the bench, his reputation, his law practice, his income, his health benefits and retirement benefits and probably his military commission. And, he knows weapons. He has the training. He knows Kaufman County.

Then one afternoon, I saw a video excerpt of Eric Williams being interviewed at his front door. There he was. Blue polo. Giant smirk. Extending his condolences to the McLelland family. Wait. What? A smirk while he was extending condolences? Then it was blah blah blah bringing justice for this incredibly egregious act and he's STILL smirking.

A chill - - a physical chill - - darted up my spine. That cliche exists for a reason, people!
REPORTER: Anything you'd like to tell the community or somebody who might think, you know, this Eric Williams guy, you know, has an ax to grind and this Eric Williams guy might have done this? What would you say?
ERIC WILLIAMS: I would say ask someone who actually knows me from the past and they'll tell you that that's not me.
Smirk gone. It's a full blown smile.  It had only been FOUR days since the McLellands were found dead and he was smiling while he talked about it. And then I knew. Yeah. He did it. Maybe not alone. But he did it. And, if I knew, I knew the swarm of local, state, and federal investigators knew. They were taking their time amid rumors of white supremacist boogieman, they were tracking down all other leads, and they were arresting anyone and everyone who made a terrorist threat but they knew. They just had a job to do and a method of doing it.

And now, even though formal capitol murder charges still haven't been filed, Eric Williams is all over the news and the evidence is piling up against him so everyone else knows, too. And, the online comments? No change. The story may have changed but the comments from the public are the same.

Meanwhile, the world is still mad and violent. Two explosions just went off at the Boston Marathon finish line and a lot of people are down. I can barely conceive something so horrible and violent. And yet, I can.

Deep breath . . .



Friday, December 07, 2012

Eye of the Beholder's Camera

My Canon is low end beginner equipment so my pics are not hyperbole worthy. But, for me, chasing wildlife with a camera and taking fun pics around the house relieves some of life's stresses better than bicycling, smelling flowers, yoga, meditation or any kind of chi balancing exercise. Photography is also a nice break from writing when you've been at it several hours. So, if you need a break and don't have a camera, herewith I share with you some of my favorite photos. They are not photo-shopped or color-altered or edited in any way. Most of them aren't even cropped. These are raw images the way your eyes would see them if you were a digital camera.





















Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Why So Many Faith-Based Movies Don't Work

This is a post I've long needed to write and long delayed writing because there's just no way to do it without offending somebody or even alienating people. But there are issues related to writing Biblical, family-oriented and spiritually uplifting films that need to be said. So, here we go.

First, let me make it clear that I am a NOT attacking Christianity or Christians. Christianity is not the topic here. Christian films, faith-friendly films, family-oriented films and spiritually uplifting films are the topic. And, just so we're clear on this, I will remind anyone who doesn't remember that I am, myself, a Christian - a fallible and imperfect person doing my best to live out what I believe.

Okay, so why oh why oh why are so many faith-related films so stinking bad?

  • Nobody else gets it - Let's start with this. Most faith films are made for other church-going people. Biggest mistake. Christians make them. Christians watch them. Christians like them. They use situations, themes, and even church-y jargon that are unfamiliar to an audience that doesn't attend church. That makes the non-church-going audience outsiders looking in. If people cannot relate to a film or empathize with its characters, the film disaffects them. 
  • Too much message and not enough art. Films are artistic expressions. But a lot of faith films are all message and very little art. Victor Hugo's book which has been adapted a gazillion times for stage and film, Les Miserables, is a story of redemption and atonement and a lot of other positive messages. Lots of good stuff going on in there. But, it's also artistic. It's visual. It's poetic. And no, it's not overtly a faith film but can anyone doubt the Christian charity that changed John Valjean from a bitter, resentful and selfish man into an unselfish lover of humanity? This story is a fine example of a message revealed through artistic expression, not in an on-the-nose sermon or in-your-face kind of way.
  • Funding low expectations. Everyone is looking for money and let's face it, faith films are not usually strong contenders. One reason is that they have an automatic handicap as they must overcome a history of and expectation of low quality. Even funding platforms like Kickstarter can do more harm than good if the pitch does not demonstrate a skill and knowledge that will make investors want to participate. Done poorly, it could perpetuate the expectation that great aunt-so-in-so will get a lead role since she once played Lady Macbeth 40 years ago. .
  • People want to be entertained, not preached to. We've seen some great message films in recent years that attracted large audiences. Facing the Giants met the expectations of its target audience and crossed over into mainstream audiences. The opposite is true with the The Blind Side which was made as a mainstream film that attracted Christian audiences. Both were football stories. Both were successful. But, the real common denominator here is that the films were entertaining and got their point across without being sanctimonious. 
  • Weak writing. Faith films are guilty of some of the worst writing I've ever seen. Not all, but many of them are littered with cliches, poor dialogue, lack of structure, and characters with no dimension. Regardless of the genre of the film, that's disaster. Okay, maybe porn is the exception. But you get the point. Being a preacher does not make you a screenwriter unless you're a preacher who actually IS a screenwriter. The very romantic film, The Vow, was based on the experiences and memoirs of a Christian couple who, in their book, very clearly demonstrate their Christian faith and values but the screenplay was written by people who knew how to take something designed to be read and transform it into something designed to be viewed. Again, it goes back to the art thing. Storytelling is an art. Screenwriting is a craft.
  • Theme - Many faith films try to say everything there possibly is to say about something in the ninety minutes they hold the audience captive. They've got multiple themes competing for the alpha dog role. No workie. Like any other film, faith films need a theme, a direction, a focus. Is there any doubt whatsoever what the theme of Crash was? It was a very strong message film and that message won it an Oscar for Best Picture in 2005.
  • Unrealistic View of the World - Sometimes, I think faith filmmakers believe they are sacrificing beliefs or selling out or watering down their message if the film includes anything less than G rated material with some Bible verses and a few prayers thrown in. By the end of the movie, everybody repents and lives happily ever after. In the real world, there is ugliness. There is violence. There is conflict. There is sin. The Bible doesn't pretend it's not there. Why should we? I was not a fan of the film Joyful Noise. I believe it nailed the entertainment value but compromised its message so much that it subsequently lost its identity in order to get butts in seats. What was it trying to say exactly? The theme was butchered by the comedy. Doesn't have to be that way. But I give this film credit for entertaining the audience. And, I also give them credit for showing some real life. I, too, on more than one occasion, have wanted to throw hot dinner rolls at my choir director but I was not thrilled with how bitter and petty and selfish the real life ultimately made people of faith look.
All filmmakers must find ways to entertain, earn back the cost of making the film, and still express themselves thematically and artistically. Regardless of the film genre, the goals are the same. What I'm saying here is that a faith film is still a film. It still needs all the elements of strong filmmaking to make it a strong film.  The spiritually uplifting value of the film doesn't change the fact that it's still a film and that's what people want to see.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

If you don't get that title, don't worry about it. You're young and you won't get my other references in this post either. You probably ought to just move along or get a pencil and be prepared to write down the stuff you'll need to Google.

So here's the break-up. Sort of. It's with Dexter Morgan. Oh yeah. I'm genuinely concerned divorce is on the horizon.

My affair with the Showtime series, Dexter, began when friends kept telling me it was some of the strongest writing on television. I was eventually forced to succumb to peer pressure and experience this phenomenon for myself just so I could participate in the myriad of conversations about theme and character complexities and sub-plots and sub-sub plots and sub-sub-sub plots.

For six seasons, I have been hooked -- hanging on every episode and watching each one several times to make sure I don't miss anything. Yup. A hopeless Dexter-holic. That show was the television writing love of my life. I thought it was flawless. Even when I found a flaw and had one of my lovers' spats with the show, that flaw was explained in a later episode and I was forced to kiss and make up out of sheer awe.

Our relationship was perfect.

But it was too good to last. With the show's final two seasons ahead of us, the romance is over. I'm now stuck in a loveless marriage with this show -- with Dexter. I watch now because I must, not because I want to. I am bound to this show because of unanswered questions and possibilities that I cannot risk missing. But the thrill is gone

WHY??? 

I want to be in love again!

Maybe my fellow viewers aren't there with me but it feels kind of like when Mulder and Scully became a couple on The X-Files and that sexual tension was over. I was over, too. Same think happened on Mork and Mindy, Moonlighting, Boy Meets World, and an abundance of other shows where the chemistry just petered out for me.

Welp. Back to Dexter. What happened here was not sexual tension released when the principals became a couple, but tension that was released when the principals were no longer facing each other from opposite sides of a cavernous gap of a secret. I won't explain the secret (no spoilers here) but if you watch the show you know which wall was torn down. That conflict, once resolved, left me without an ever-present conflict on the back burner, simmering, waiting to erupt and keeping me fearful, excited, and expectant at all times.

Or, there's another possibility. Maybe the show has run its course as all shows eventually do. Maybe I'm burned out the same way you get burned out on a favorite song you've heard one too many times. It's sad when your heart no longer flutters at the sound of the opening instrumentals. 

Journey - Don't Stop Believin'. 

I rest my case.

So, what's the solution here? The writing on Dexter is still solid but instead of the giant claw gripping my chest week after week, year after year, I'm being swatted at by a bunch of little claws. They're thrashing aimlessly at me hoping they'll land one good slap. 

Yeah, "breaking up is hard to do" so not much choice here but to fall back on that favorite song that says "don't stop believin', hold on to that feelin'" and then hope against hope that Dexter and I kiss and make up on Episode 8.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Re-post - That Would Never Happen

A teacher recently emailed me a request to re-post this article so it would be easier for her students to find. Enjoy. But know this. I'm not qualified to teach writing. I'm just a know-it-all full-of-herself busy-body wannabe with a lot to say. Good luck, class.
_________________________________________________________________________
JULY 11, 2007

We've all done this. We're watching a film or reading a screenplay, rockin' happily along in our la-la land, when "No way! That would never happen!" We're brutally yanked out of story land because our brain refuses to accept some fractured piece of logic the film tried to feed us.

Welcome to the land of broken magic.

Often, in the course of reviewing screenplays and critiquing films, reviewers comment about how a situation was too much of a suspension of reality to work for them or that it simply could never happen at all. Suspending reality is a good thing. That's what we do in screenwriting. Suspending it beyond recognition is something else. The trick is to to create an orderly and logical suspension of reality that can be followed and understood. That's, I suppose, what separates the masters from the apprentice writers.

In storytelling, reality is a product of the author's pen, not the reader's existence. One of my complaints about online peer review forums is that while writers certainly have a burden to create a reality that works in the imagination of the reader, too many of these reviewers, I think, are subjecting stories to litmus tests based on their own environments. That's not to say that there's no merit in arguing that something would never happen. But the argument has to be based in the story world, not in the reader's world.

That would never happen moments, for me, fall into three categories: legitimate screwups, spoofs, and misinterpretations.

LEGITIMATE SCREWUPS - These are genuinely messed up moments where somebody blew it and the magic was lost. In Swimfan, a male arresting police officer gets in the back seat of a squad car with a handcuffed female prisoner about to be transported. That would never happen. Sorry. It just doesn't. Officers don't ride in the back seat with dangerous criminals and they certainly don't ride with females. They call in their beginning and ending mileages when they transport women. Departure and arrival times are then recorded so if they're accused of something inappropriate, a time line can be established. Oh, and as for prisoners being cuffed in the front? Yeah, that happens when cuffing is a formality or the officer is really stupid.

SPOOFS AND COMEDIC BEATS - These moments aren't supposed to really happen. They're just there to make us laugh but some people have no sense of humor and take them entirely too literally. The result is a that would never happen moment. Of course, that would never happen! That's what makes it funny! Or, not if it the timing is off or it's poorly written.

MISINTERPRETATIONS - These moments are the ones that actually would happen in another time or place or culture or religion but maybe the filmmaker didn't do his job well enough to convey this to the audience. Or, maybe the reader or viewer has such a narrow outlook on the world that he wouldn't find the magic no matter how well the filmmaker did his job. But if the majority doesn't get it, the problem is probably not with the recipient.

SCREW-UPS, SPOOFS, MISINTERPRETATIONS, So, how do we keep our readers and viewers from doing that annoying Homer Simpson "DOH!" thingie when they look at our work? For you sophisticated non-Simpsons viewers (Mom), that "DOH!" is like the "Wow, I could have had a V-8" forehead thump but from a beer bellied bald guy who would only have a V-8 if he confused it with a teeny tiny Duff beer can. But to answer the question -- there is one back there some place -- I have a few self imposed rules.

The Roller Coaster Rule - Reality is organized chaos. Roller coasters look like a looping, twisting, mess but every turn, climb, and drop has been carefully designed and engineered. Whatever reality we create in our story worlds has to be planned, purposeful, and organized even if it looks like chaos and feels like chaos to passengers along for the ride.

The Pluto Rule - Reality isn't for Indian givers. Don't establish a reality and then yank it away (unless that's the story itself). There are still a few questions left unanswered and a place or two left to explore in this universe. But the boundaries of the unknown are shrinking with every book published and every film released. Whatever I create, readers and viewers will probably still accept regardless of how fantastic it may be but they have little patience for situations where it's obvious the writer didn't establish a cause and effect that's logical within itself. Once a story contradicts itself, even commonplace facts lose credibility among the suspect ones.

Huh? What did she just say?

Okay, try this. I've never been in outer space. I've been accused of it, but alas, no. However, for as long as I can remember, nine planets have orbited the sun. Nine. I accepted this because there was scientific proof. My teachers said so. My text books said so. Plus, I made a mobile out of Styrofoam balls and tempera paint so it had to be true. If you had told me two years ago that one day in my lifetime, there would only be eight planets orbiting the sun, I'd have said that would never happen because Pluto isn't just going to disappear or get blown to bits by a meteor. But it happened. There are only eight planets now. Pluto has been voted off the island. Reality as I once knew it has been yanked away from me and now all astronomy is suspect in my mind. They're Indian givers. They can't take that away from me. I will ALWAYS think of Pluto as a planet. Always. Pluto has to be a planet. Come on. We named a beloved Disney character after it. It's a planet -- the people's planet.

I digress.

The point is - don't do that to your viewer mid-movie. Don't establish a reality in your story and then contradict it or erase it. Or, if you MUST for artistic reasons, then make sure you're a genius and can craft the story so that your reader/viewer doesn't cling to the original reality the way I cling to Pluto.

I've mentioned before that one of the most annoying suspensions of reality in film for me is the "disturbance of nature" theme in Failure to Launch. The film sets up a certain romantic comedy kind of reality. We get comfortable in it and settle in for a light hearted Nora Ephon-esque romantic story. Suddenly, we're jerked into various Chevy Chase-ish skits where animals attack the main character. In this case, it's because he's is a freak of nature still living at home and it just doesn't work with the reality already set forth in the film. If this was Caddyshack, it would work. If this was Mr. Deeds, it would work. But the reality established by Failure to Launch doesn't support angry chipmunks.

The Equator Rule - Reality is because I said so. My pen is the final answer. How much inaccurate information did we all learn about dinosaurs from Jurassic Park? I'm sure more than one paleontologist said "that would never happen" during that film but does that make it a flawed film? Or, does that make it a film that established a reality that viewers could feel engaged in even if it took liberties with prehistoric animal behavior? The important thing about Jurassic Park is that most viewers didn't sit there thinking "that would never happen". They were too busy marveling, screaming, laughing, and enjoying the ride in an open jeep while experiencing the terror of being pursued by a T-Rex.

If my story establishes that the temperature is twenty degrees below zero at the equator and the abominable snowman lives there, then that's the reality of the story. It's as much the reality of that story as a talking droid in Star Wars or a hobbit living in middle earth in Lord of the Rings.

Somebody mentioned on this blog that the wedding scene during Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End was too much of a suspension of reality to accept. I found that odd considering the myriad of outlandish characters and inconceivable events taking place in the film. We've got dead people in boats, ghosts floating under water, barnacley and shell-headed fish people, a titanic squid, an undead monkey, a live heart beating in a chest, a tentacle-faced guy walking around with a gaping hole in his chest, a sea goddess who turns into a hundred thousand crabs, and a pirate licking the brain he just removed from his own skull but it's a wedding amid a swordfight that bugs ya?

Still, most men I've asked said they didn't like the wedding part in this film. The reality established in this film wasn't stretched or suspended for a swordfight wedding on a ship in a spinning vortex. I think the problem with these guys is the REALITY of marriage. Period. A wedding is still a wedding and men in the audience don't want the cold, hard reality of marriage to momentarily wreck the adventure. They aren't annoyed because that would never happen. They're annoyed because they know darned good and well it could.

The Aunt Lizzie Rule - Reality isn't stagnant. It changes with time and culture and continents. My Aunt Lizzie cleaned house in a dress and apron every day. She got out of bed an hour before my uncle to put her make-up on so he wouldn't see her without it. Even when she was in the hospital dying of Cancer, she begged my cousin to help her with her face and hair before my uncle arrived to visit. If I was writing a devoted immigrant housewife from Austria, my Aunt Lizzie would be it. A modern 2007 woman wouldn't do any of those things but Aunt Lizzie's characteristics would work in a spoof, a period piece, or a 2007 story if my character is old and set in her ways, daft, senile, caught in a time warp or suffering from Alzheimer's.

Events that happened twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago may not happen today but they work in stories if set in the proper time and context. Too many writers put today's behavior, statutes, standards, and environments in their period pieces and vice-versa and then wonder why people say that would never happen. They might even point to my equator rule and say if they write it that way, it must be so. True. But that doesn't mean it's logical or that it will work. Remember the roller coaster rule.

My high school journalism teacher, Mrs. Hooper, who went by Hoop because it was more newsroomy than "Mrs. Hooper" and less masculine than "Boss" or "Chief", took me aside one day for what I assumed would be her customary "go get 'em, Tiger" speech before a writing competition. She pointed out a young honor student from Highland Park High School who had transferred from Austin and said he was a brilliant mind by all accounts, the son of a former press secretary to Lyndon B. Johnson himself. A press secretary's son! Oh, my gosh! She was surely about to warn me that he was my toughest competition. Nope. She told me not to talk to him or make him angry in any way. He was a killer.

No way. That would never happen! I was in competition with a killer? It was all very hush hush. The teachers weren't allowed to talk about it. He was a minor. But they were terrified of him so the teachers secretly talked about it anyway.

Hardly two and a half years had passed since John Christian had walked into a Murchison Junior High School English classroom and shot his teacher three times with his father's .22-caliber rifle in front of 30 students. He had been only thirteen at the time. Now here he was, barely sixteen, and his slate was technically clean even though he had supposedly been found schizophrenic and suicidal and even though a judge (Hume Coker) had ordered him to a Dallas psychiatric hospital until he was 18 years old.

Whether it was privilege or family ties or his age or his father's connections, I don't know. Nor do I have all the facts. But John Christian appears to have spent a short time at Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital and then lived under the foster care of a Dallas physician while he finished public high school and went on to graduate with a law degree from the University of Texas.

Can you even BEGIN to imagine a child today strolling into school and killing his teacher and then going on to graduate from a public school as if nothing had happened? That would never happen today but I was there. I sat in a desk three feet away from him as if he was just any other student because he WAS just any other student even after killing Wilbur (Rod) Grayson, Jr., a 29 year old first year teacher, in front of his entire class.

If I wrote a character in a 1981 story who had been a teacher killer and for whatever reason managed to get back in public schools and graduate, who is going to read my screenplay and NOT say that would never happen? The cruel reality of our daily existence with recurring violence in schools will certainly affect the way anyone receives a story like that one.

So, if people are going to draw conclusions based on their own lives anyway, is there really anything we can do?

Reality is organized chaos
Reality isn't for Indian givers
Reality is because I said so
Reality isn't stagnant

Okay, okay already, so I'm not McKee. But the reality of story reality is that even with our best effort, there's a limit to what we can do to prevent the that would never happen moments. No amount of engineering prevents roller coasters from breaking down, Pluto really isn't a planet anymore and charming aunts who once vacuumed in checkered dresses will eventually lose their battles with Cancer.

Unless somebody finds a cure.

That may never happen.

But it doesn't stop us from making the effort.