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 . . .