Kick-Ass and Gregor Samsa

The other evening I finally found time to watch the 2010 movie Kick-Ass on Netflix streaming.

I’m not going to write a review of it, though I did enjoy the film. It’s the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.


I’d like to talk about a bit of the film, a single scene, and why it’s there.

This all has to do with believability – with generating the proper suspension of belief in the viewer. It’s a real problem for a writer. If he’s writing about vampires, or magic, or little prepubescent girls who massacre criminal goons like the rest of us swat flies; you have to find a way to get the reader/viewer to buy in to your own little personal fantasy.

An example – many, many years ago I took a (useless) fiction writing class in college. I wrote a character sketch modeled on a person that I knew well. The other members of the class rejected (rightfully so) my work because it, “wasn’t believable.” I objected to their rejection, explaining, “But.. but it has to be believable, it’s true!”

I didn’t understand the difference between believability and truth (the class was useless because it didn’t explain this to me, I had to figure it out myself a decade or so later). That’s the big advantage non-fiction has over fiction – non-fiction simply has to be true… it doesn’t have to be believable. Fiction, on the other hand, is always a pack of lies, but it has to be believable lies. That is much more difficult than simply telling the truth.

The key to believability is to make a deal with the reader right up front. If you tell your audience immediately, at the very beginning, then they will willingly suspend their disbelief and go along with you. They will gladly accept all the blood-drinking, invisibility spells, and jet-packs with Gatling guns, even though they know it is impossible in the real world, as long as you have told them this is what you are going to do. Be honest, be upfront, and they will gladly go along for the ride.

The best example of this?… easy, Gregor Samsa. You know, Kafka, The Metamorphosis, one of the greatest opening lines in all of literature.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a night of uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

There it is. The only question is what kind of insect. Some translations use “Cockroach,” but if you read the rest of the story carefully it is obvious that he is not a cockroach, but something like a round dung-beetle, about the size of a large dog….

But I digress…

It is, of course, thankfully impossible to have some bad dreams and wake up squirming in your bed, late for work, and wondering where those extra legs and that jointed carapace has come from. But yet, that doesn’t take away from the emotional impact of poor Gregor and his hopeless predicament. We read on without any question and with nary a concern that the story never explains how this has happened (Was he bitten by a radioactive dung beetle? A Slytherin curse gone horribly wrong?).

The answer is that Kafka has made a deal with us in the first sentence. He has stated the rules (Gregor Samsa, giant vermin, no explanation, hang on) and we accept them or stop reading right there with no harm done.

 It is critical that this is done right away. In the course of the story we learn a lot about Gregor’s life before his transformation. Kafka could have written the story with a handful of pages illustrating Gregor’s gray existence, pre-vermin, and then sprung the change on, say, a third of the way through.

That would suck. We would hate it. We would think that the author made a cheap turn and changed the story from a drab description of hopelessness to a supernatural tale of witchcraft or something. He would have to explain why that had happened or we would throw apples and then toss the tome in the garbage.  But since Kafka knew to strike his bargain while the iron is hot, a classic is born.

Gregor Samsa

Well, what the hell does all this have to do with Kick-Ass?

The movie does the same thing.

When you read reactions to the movie, surprisingly, the biggest complaint isn’t the murderous little girl, the buckets of blood, or the feel-good ending. People complain that the movie made a right turn partway through. They gripe it starts out as a typical light teenage angst comedy, with a nerd struggling to be more than he has been, trying to get the hot girl, doing stupid stuff. After a bit of this it changes completely into… what it changes into.

These people weren’t paying attention.

Like Kafka, the screenwriter(s) told everybody, right at the beginning, exactly what was going to happen. They made a bargain with us (if we saw it) and that’s why the subsequent activities, while shocking, shouldn’t come as a complete surprise – they fit neatly into the bargain that is struck, we were warned.

Remember the first scene? Maybe you don’t. It’s an interesting bit. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. The single character is never mentioned again. I think the action takes place after the rest of the story has run its course and has no relationship with anything else that happens.

The Credit Clouds part – a man wearing a superhero outfit stands at a corner protrusion of a high office building. Far below, bystanders watch as he spreads bright red wings and then fearlessly pitches forward, head first, winged arms outstretched, plummeting toward the sidewalk at increasing speed. The heroic music swells as the crowd of onlookers smiles, cheers, and claps as the hero moves faster and faster.

Then, with a loud thump, he crashed into a Taxi, crushing it, and killing himself instantly. The real hero, in voiceover, explains that this is a person with a mental problem and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

Watch it here.

And there it is. The movie will be an exploration of everyman’s fascination with the Superhero myth, and how, when put to the test, the hero will be found wanting, with horrible and inevitable death the only possible result.

The entire movie in a nutshell. The violence. The sick humor. The theme of innocence lost in the face of a monstrous and dangerous world filled with evil.

Pay attention. You were warned.

Pitbull in the road

I am in the final stages of finishing my book of short stories that I want to publish on the Kindle, and am struggling with the illustrations for the book. I want to put some in simply to add interest but I don’t know how many. For one thing they add size to the file, and that takes up more room on Amazon’s servers and on the reader’s Kindle. Mostly, however, I simply am not a graphic artist and don’t feel qualified to produce story illustrations.

I’m looking for photographs that I can manipulate and stick in the book. I needed one of a unique looking gas station, and set out early in the morning on a photographic quest. I wanted to take some pictures at Fair Park of the Art Deco sculptures and murals  and on the way drove around the neighborhood looking for a gas station.

If you are not familiar with the Dallas area let’s simply say that the neighborhoods around Fair Park are not the most affluent in the city. You would not want to wander around there late at night. Early in the morning, however, they are pleasant enough. Driving down one of the major thoroughfares, I drove past the exact gas station I was looking for and made a right turn into the neighborhood to loop around and find a spot to get a picture.

The streets were very quiet and narrow, the small garishly painted wood frame houses set back in the shade of a forest of mature trees. Their windows and doors were all covered with a mesh of iron bars . As I turned onto a narrow side street that led back to the thoroughfare right across from the gas station I saw the road was blocked by the body of a pit bull stretched out dead in the middle of the road. He must’ve been hit by a car in the middle of the night. I was glad that Candy was not with me; it would have upset her a lot.

Pitbull in the street

The road was so narrow I had to steer to the curb on the left side to avoid the dog. Driving slowly, I maneuvered around the corpse and turned into a parking lot, pulled my camera out and began to shoot the gas station. After each shot I couldn’t help but glance over at the pit bull and noticed that at least he didn’t seem to be torn up or bleeding or anything like that.

After my last picture I turned, looked, and jumped. The pitbull was sitting up and looking at me. The dog had been sleeping in the middle of the road. As I looked closer I noticed two more smaller pitbulls snoozing in the weeds nearby. For Dallas, it was a cool and crisp morning and I suppose the dog had picked the warmest spot he could find. He didn’t even budge when I drove around him in my car.

The pitbull is awake

After staring at me for a second he stretched back out and went back to sleep. I drove on to Fair Park and took some more pictures. I was glad he was not hurt, and amazed at his bravery and resolute attitude. I guess a pitbull feels he owns the neighborhood – damn the cars.

What’s odd is, if you’ve read my stories, you know how close this all is to something I’ve written. If you haven’t… wait a month, spend 99 cents, and buy the book when it comes out.

Pond at Fair Park

A pond in Fair Park. The red paths are part of a massive sculpture by Patricia Johanson - I have always loved those red paths running through the water, weeds, and turtles. A neglected jewel in the city.

The Countertenor

One of the many fantastic Art Deco art works in Fair Park - the recently restored Countertenor.

A sketch on a 3×5 card

Hey, little girlie in the blue jeans so tight
Drivin’ alone through the Wisconsin night
You’re my last love baby you’re my last chance
Don’t let ’em take me to the Cadillac Ranch

—Bruce Springsteen

I’m cleaning out my office room today and in a jacket pocket I found a little sketch I had done in watercolor pencil on a 3×5 index card.

Cadillac Rancy

A crude little sketch I did in watercolor pencil at the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo.

Not much doubt where this was done.

This place always looks cool  – even in Googlemaps.

Some messed-with photographs I took the last time I went by there:

Cadillac Ranch - Old Guys Rule

Old Guys Rule

There are a lot of differnt things painted on the cars. I like the little slogan. They do.
 
Cadillac Ranch

Cadillac Ranch

Laissez les bons temps rouler

We made our reservations for this fall in New Orleans for Tulane Parents weekend and for next year’s Carnival. We really liked out B&B on Saint Charles, the Mandevilla, and will be going back there. 2012 will be our third Mardi Gras in a row and I’m already looking forward to it.

Last Mardi Gras was pretty much off the hook. The only downside is we don’t get to see Lee as much as we’d like – he’s hanging too much with his friends to meet up with his parents.

A photographer shot him and had his picture go out over the AP wire and it showed up all over the web and in a few real newspapers. I guess it’s pretty cool to have your photograph gracing a blog that asks the question, “Are there any Mardi Gras Celebrations in North Idaho?.” It seems the answer is “Yes!” but I’ll stick to New Orleans for this year at least.

Here are some great Carnival photographs – Lee is about two thirds of the way down.

The downside to Mardi Gras in the Big Easy is that it is a logistical nightmare. I’m already thinking of strategies and resources to be able to get around… places to go, people to see, and things to do.

I do need to get over my bad habit of grabbing too many beads. I had a bit of a panic attack and almost strangled myself trying to get them off of my neck and over my head in an Italian Restaurant at two in the morning. They were so thick and tangled I was trapped. Candy told me, “Just cut them off!” – which was good advice but I couldn’t do it. They may have been cheap plastic beads made in China – but they were Mardi Gras beads, caught from a parade. I can’t cut them off.

Instead of beads, my favorite throw are the doubloons. These are cheap metal coins thrown from the parade floats. There are nice ones – collectors items, given to friends of the Krewes, but that’s not what I’m talking about. They are sometimes pretty hard to get, harder to catch than a string of beads, and the Krewes are a bit more stingy with the doubloons. I did learn one trick is to run up to the marshal, usually in a convertible at the head of the parade, and he’ll hand you a doubloon.

This year, Orpheus and Endymion ran back to back and we had a nice spot near the start of the parades, down on Napoleon Street, almost to Tchoupitoulas – right behind Tipatina’s. Some of the folks that lived there gave me a couple handful of doubloons, including some from previous years and other Krewes.

I’ve never been a collector of things, and I’ll never collect doubloons, but I like my growing pile of aluminium coins, they remind me of Mardi Gras. Here are a few:

Mardi Gras Doubloons

A few aluminum doubloons from Mardi Gras Parades. Krewes: Orpheus, Carrollton, Morpheus, Endymion, D’Etat, Iris, Elks,Tucks, Thoth

I saw on Ebay, on the web, that you can buy piles of doubloons, but that’s not the same. They have to come from a parade. There’s a real excitement… hard to explain – standing in that huge crowd, shoulder to shoulder with a million strangers, ears ringing from the roar of the bands and the crowd, everyone yelling at the massive gaudy floats, desiring these worthless trinkets that come flying through the air. The arc of the flight, the leap, the grab.

You feel like a little kid again.

Refilling a Varsity

I believe that we all have addictions. Trying to navigate this vale of tears without a healthy dose of irrational cravings is an impossibility. The key is to chose your addictions.

Good luck.

At any rate, one of my addictions is Fountain Pens. I have no idea why: a childhood memory? The pure gadgetry of the thing? The nerdiness? The relationship to writing? I don’t know why. I only know that I don’t fight it.

Much.

In the spectrum of Pen Collectors I am what is referred to as a USER. I don’t care about how expensive a pen is, I simply want to write with it. I don’t care about rarity, or perfect condition, or if someone in time past had their name engraved on their pen (I think this is cool, actually). My favorite thing is to find some beat up old antique caked with dried ink and desk drawer dust at Canton or some other flea market – then disassemble, clean, repair, replace, rebuild, and then, actually write with the thing.

Enter the Varsity.

Modern fountain pens do not, as a general rule, stand up to vintage writing instruments.  There are exceptions.

One interesting specimen is the Pilot Varsity. The Pilot company is a Japanese manufacturer and purveyor of fine pens that can cost thousands of dollars. (their Vanishing Point model is very popular, their expensive shit is sold under the sub-brand Namiki).

The Varsity is one of their low-end models, very low-end. It is disposable. You can find them in office supply stores or some bookstores for around three bucks each.

They even come in packs of seven different colors for about two dollars each.

The crazy thing is, they are great writers. A wet medium line, a surprisingly smooth nib, very reliable, rarely leak. If you want to give writing with a fountain pen a try, this is a great way to do it.

I like the Varsity so much, I decided it was too good to be disposable. When my blue model went dry, I decided to re-fill it.

My favorite color is a bluish-green and I decided to go there, with a slant on the green side. I chose two compatible inks: Private Reserve Spearmint and American Blue. I assembled all my tools: pen, ink, pliers, and an irrigation syringe.

Tools

Pen, ink, syringe, pliers.

I grabbed the nib with the pliers and pulled it out – it gave away with a nice firm click. The nib is the metal part of a fountain pen. It sits up against a ribbed plastic bit called a collector. This is what holds a dab of ink up next to the nib so it can go onto the paper quickly. A fountain pen is accurately described as a “Controlled Leak” – the collector is what controls that leak. In the Varsity the steel nib and black plastic collector came out of the clear body in one piece.

Easy. Much better than the method this guy uses.

I washed everything out and put some diluted green and blue ink (mostly green) into the syringe.

Pilot Varsity

Pen, nib and collector removed, cleaned out, ready for new ink.

I was a simple process to squirt the ink back into the body of the Varsity and then push the nib and collector back in. A good shove and it clicked back as it was before.

And now it writes again. I saved myself three dollars (minus the cost of the ink) but that’s not the point.

Varsity Refilled

The Varsity refilled with a sample of the ink color. My handwriting is terrible, it always has been.

Now that I think about it… I don’t actually know what the point is. Points are overrated, I guess. Aren’t they?

A junkie fix for my fountain pen addiction. Not too bad as addictions go.

Rufus Amalgam loved his Bluetooth.

Our writing group is meeting most every Wednesday after work. I’ve been doing more editing than writing lately and this week I didn’t have anything fresh to bring. I don’t like to show up empty handed, so I whipped off a silly little quick thing simply for the amusement of those involved. Now I’m sticking it here too.

If you want to read the genesis of my bit of scribbled rag, read Peggy’s blog entry, Here.

Rufus Amalgam loved his Bluetooth.

“Hey Hunk, I’m telling ya’, this is a great deal. If you keep tellin’ me no, one day you’re gonna look back and be pissed at yourself for passin’ this up. And I ain’t gonna feel sorry for ya, neither.”

Rufus’ buddy Hunk had recently lost both his elderly parents. He had received a large inheritance. That was supplemented with a healthy negligence lawsuit settlement from the tour operator that had let its bus break down in the desert. The bus was full of elderly tourists, including Hunk’s parents, on the way to a wilderness tour of an Indian village near the Grand Canyon. Heat stroke is a terrible way to go, but Hunk’s grief was washed away by the cash.

Hunk had been estranged from his parents for twenty years – ever since in a fit of youthful self-destructive pique he eschewed his families ‘ long-proud ancestral regal title, hired a lawyer,  and had his name legally changed from Percy Beauregard to Hunkahunka Burninglove. Ever since, everybody called him Hunk – except his family, which never called him at all.

And now Hunk was rolling in it.

Rufus had Hunk in his sights as a mark, or at least a potential customer, but Hunk was acting a lot smarter and with more discretion than his ridiculous adopted name would indicate.

“So that’s what it is going to be, is it,” Rufus said, finally giving up. “Hey, now, let’s not let this get ‘tween us, now. Saturday night, The Palace of Love, OK?”

Rufus was not happy when Hunk was noncommittal about a big Saturday night at the fanciest strip club on that side of the city. Rufus knew he could tap his flush buddy for a night on the town, a big night. He didn’t have the scratch to pull it off on his own.

“Man, these Starbuck’s soft chairs are sure comfortable,” Rufus said in the same loud booming voice he used on his Bluetooth phone, even though he wasn’t speaking to anyone. He lowered the book that he held in front of his face a fraction of an inch to survey the scene in the coffeeshop. It had filled up a lot since he had come in and sat down – luckily the barista didn’t seem to notice that he hadn’t bought anything. A table of four women was glaring at him, so he raised the book back up and tried to concentrate.

48 Hours to the Work You Love.” What a load of crap. He had been reading the book for a week now and nothing had happened. He still hated his work. The real estate crash had made everyone wary and tight. Rufus had been working for Glengarry Properties for three months now and hadn’t made a sale. He had been following the instructions – locate a client with money to invest, find that person’s weakness, and then exploit it. No luck.

Rufus had found the “48 Hours…” book in a pile dropped outside the dumpster at his apartment building. It looked like a good idea, but Rufus couldn’t get a handle on what the author was trying to say. He was never much of a reader anyway. But at least the book was good as something to hide behind while he was trying to bilk some marks from the comfort of the Starbucks.

He was getting desperate. His power was off at home, so he had to go out and find some air conditioning. Glengarry paid for his phone and Bluetooth, but they were threatening him with termination if he didn’t produce anything. His salary was less than minimum wage, no benefits to speak of – he was supposed to make it all up in commissions.

He was relieved when a buzzing at his waist gave him an excuse to ignore his book-skimming and answer his Bluetooth.

“Rufus… whatchagotgoinon!” he bellowed into midair, his book deflecting the soundwaves into all corners of the Starbucks.

“You miserable, lying scum, you disgusting bastard!”

“Oh Sandy, it’s you,” Rufus smiled when he recognised Sandy Samsonite, a woman he met six months earlier when they worked in adjacent cubes at the call center. Rufus always felt there was a connection between the two of them. They were fired together when they were both caught smoking weed in the alley during afternoon break. It was Rufus’ idea, but it was Sandy’s weed, so he always felt she was responsible and owed him a solid.

“God, you no-good…”

Rufus cut her off. “Hey, Sandy, how did your date go?”

“That’s why I’m calling. That moron you set me up with… he was the biggest perv I’ve ever met… and that’s saying something. Not only that, he was cheap. A cheap perv. And boring… a boring cheap pervert… that smelled like bad chicken.”

“Well, Sandy, I’ll give you that one,” Rufus chuckled into the air. “I noticed his aroma… I thought it was our lunch.”

“Jeeze, Rufus, I don’t know how I managed to let you rope me into this. You owe me big time now.”

Rufus had convinced Sandy to go out on a date with Sylvester Radio, a painfully awkward man he had met at the door of a class called “Coming out of Your Shell”  on the State campus. Rufus had figured that the cost of the class would indicate anyone enrolled had spare cash and the shyness thing would indicate weakness. Mr. Radio fit both criteria.

A couple beers and Rufus was able to pry Sylvester open and a smidgen of information fell out. Sylvester hadn’t had a date since his cousin had gone to his senior prom with him and Rufus figured a night out with Sandy would deliver him into the not-so-happy family of Glengarry Properties investors and a start to the painfully exclusive club of Customers of Rufus. He had to bribe Sandy with his last twenty and a handful of Oxycodone, but she had agreed when Rufus promised to cut her in once he had his fish hooked.

But it looked like things had gone wrong. Horribly wrong.

Happy Towel Day!

Today is Towel Day. That’s the day we celebrate the late author Douglas Adams and all he created.

I first came across The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  in 1980 or so when a forgotten cow-orker loaned me some eroded cassette tapes with a bootleg copy of the BBC radio series. It was great. It was more than great. I still remember the laughter and awe as I listened to those fuzzy warbles tumbling out of my pitiful portable picnic player. These were the days before Dolby. Long before Mp3. Before Benny Hill. The only exposure to British humor we ever had was the invasion of Monty Python a few years before.

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty- five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

But Douglas Adams wasn’t merely Bristish humor. He was pure imagination spiced with droll bitter sarcasm, yet leavened with an innate sense that things will turn out all right after all. Somehow.

I guess is was very improbable that a set of tapes would wind their way to me in the vast emptyness of the Kansas plains, but they did. Very improbable, but not infinitely improbable.

After the tape, there was a BBC television series (which was great), a stage show (which I never had a chance to see), a series of books (which are great, of course), and finally a big budget Hollywood motion picture (which was…. well it had Zoey Deschanel in it).

Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.

Douglas Adams, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

I am proudly in possesion of an autographed copy of So Long and Thanks For All the Fish. I remember slipping away across the Interstate to the mall where he was signing copies when it was first published. The series wasn’t at its full popularity in the states yet, so there was no line – I bought a couple copies and had him scribble. Now, I wish I had stayed a bit and had a chat, but I had to get back to work.

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Douglas Adams

So I give thanks to Douglas Adams on his day for the years of enjoyment his creations have given me. Am I carrying my towel today? I’ll never tell.

There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

Douglas Adams

Remember, Don’t Panic