Thursday, May 29, 2014

Being Creative in the Old Days

     The movie F/X is about a special effects artist who is framed for a crime and uses his own particular genius to turn the tables on his enemies.  It might sound a little campy and there's no doubt that you have to accept its premise with belief well-suspended to fully embrace it, but it has everything you could ever want in a first-rate thriller: it's exciting, suspenseful, exceedingly clever, funny at just the right moments and is loaded with enjoyable characters and situations.  Featuring a number of top New York theater actors of the day in supporting roles, it also boasts unusually good acting (though Brian Dennehy as an acerbic and relentless cop steals the show).
    The movie
      With a (literally) striking homage to Three Days of the Condor and possibly the inspiration for the TV show MacGyver, F/X was made in 1986, before the art of special effects had all gone digital.  As a practitioner of purely practical effects, the protagonist uses nearly anything at hand to create illusions, sew chaos and generally misdirect his opponents.  Consequently, the movie stands as a paean to creativity through improvisation, craftsmanship and D.Y.I. skill-mastering

Thursday, May 22, 2014

No Windows

     The AT&T Long Lines Building in Downtown New York City has no windows; none at all.  It houses a great deal of communications technology, but aren't there any human beings in there?  If not, that's troubling in its own right; a whole building with nothing but machinery working away?  But if there are people in there, what are they doing all day with no natural light, no outside air directly circulating through.  It must be like working in the subway, yet the fact that it's a skyscraper makes it all feel somehow eerier. 
     There's some purely practical reason there are no windows in that place, no doubt, but it begs a story to be told: something we're not supposed to see in there, or something in there that's not supposed to see out.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Frozen Sea Within Us

 Franz Kafka, author of The Metamorphosis (among other things), said "a book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." 
     Not known for his sunny disposition, Kafka nevertheless was keenly aware that a book can make us feel and think in equal parts and that a story's greatest potential is its ability to awaken the passions of our hearts as well as of our minds.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What Creepy Is

     I was watching a Twilight Zone episode with my daughters and afterward we had our standard debriefing.  The episode we watched leaned toward the scary end of the Twilight Zone spectrum and I've found that discussion and understanding often prevents bedtime anxiety.  My ten-year-old had been squeezing my hand pretty tight during the episode, so I asked if it was a little too scary for her.  "No," she assured me.  "I mean, it was a little creepy during the episode, but once I knew what was going on, it didn't scare me at all.  Things are creepier when you don't know what's going on."
     Now, the final explanation for all the creepy goings on in that episode ("The Hitch-Hiker") is a supernatural one and, in concept at least, no less scary than the rest of the episode.  But, as someone who tries to attain a sense of weirdness and creepiness in his own story-telling, my daughter's comments did highlight a crucial point for me.  Creepiness is all about not knowing, about not being able to explain something.  That, essentially, is what creepiness is.  Yet stories (or perhaps it's really readers of stories . . . or perhaps it's really publishers of stories) seem to demand an ultimate explanation.  As enjoyable as creepiness is for many, it seems intolerable that it should linger beyond the end of a narrative.  It's as if, if that were to happen, it would be to suggest that the world doesn't work properly.
     Many of us seem to read stories for a sense of closure or satisfaction that feels unattainable in our actual lives.  But I often wonder, isn't there something compelling, something enjoyable, maybe even something healthy, about facing our unease over things that are simply beyond our ability to control?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Two Kindergartners Discuss Vomit

     As I was washing my hands in the school bathroom the other day, I overheard this conversation between the two kindergarteners in the nearby stalls.  This was a co-ed bathroom for the kids.  I've changed the names to protect the innocent.

Adam: Sofie, are you there?

Sofie: Yes.

Adam: Do you know that some people drink vomit?

Sofie: Ack!  Really?

Adam: Yes.

Sofie: Do you?

Adam: No.  Well, I have.

Sofie:  Really?  Was it bad?

Adam:  Not as bad as drinking blood.

Sofie: Yeah, my blood doesn't taste very good.

Adam: Yeah.

     So this is a real conversation that trumps just about every fictional conversation I've ever read for a great opening, surprise twists and a universally accessible subject matter.  Can you capture the these qualities in a fictional conversation and not have it sound stilted or artificial?  That, I figure, is one of the great quests of the writer.