Daily Writing Tip 16 of 100, Beware Of Stale Ideas

For one hundred days, I’m going to post a writing tip each day. I have a whole bookshelf full of writing books and I want to do some reading and increased studying of this valuable resource. This will help me keep track of anything I’ve learned, and help motivate me to keep going. If anyone has a favorite tip of their own to add, contact me. I’d love to put it up here.

Today’s tip – Beware Of Stale Ideas

Source – Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval

As you gather the materials of writing, be careful about drawing on television and movies. When you rely too heavily on mass media, whose messages are available to almost everybody on the planet, it may be hard to write a story that will strike readers as fresh or original or worht their time. It’s the difference between fresh and stale air.

In the writing classes I have taken, it is surprising how often, when discussing plot and character, we would discuss films rather than literature. It’s simply where the shared experience lies. Everyone has seen Star Wars – but only a rare few have read Mill on the Floss.

So much the shame.

I’ve found that when I’m trying to get some writing done, the absolute worst thing is to turn on the TV. If I do that, no matter what I watch, I’m not going to be creating anything for a long time. When I was young, we called it the idiot tube. Well, at least the tube part is gone.

Afronauts

I look everywhere for ideas to lie about… to write fiction about. One of the worst, but most tempting, sources is this internet thing.

Surfing around a few weeks ago I stumbled across a series of photographs that referred to the Zambian Space Program of the 1960’s. Further research revealed that it was for real. This guy, Edward Makuka Nkoloso, from 1960 to ’69 claimed to have a program that would send a seventeen year old girl to the moon before the Americans or the Russians.

He called the members of his program “Afronauts.”

This story seemed to be a fertile source for a fictional story. I moved the location to Latin America and the Zambians became descendants of escaped Jamaican slaves – the voyagers became “RastaNauts.”

But my momentum stalled about a third of the way through and the little pile of text sits in its file unused, waiting, about as fertile and useful as the Zambian space program itself.

Meanwhile, Candy and I bought tickets to a new film that is premiering at the Dallas International Film Festival about the heady days of the Starck Club here in Dallas… and looking through the festival catalog, I saw a showing of a short, experimental film called, Afronauts.

Maybe this could give me a kick in the pants… I was there.

I bought my ticket online and discovered the film was showing at 10:45 PM on a Sunday at the Angelika as part of a collection of five odd works in a “Late Night Shorts” exhibition.

Even Better.

I showed up at the festival box office with my receipt in plenty of time and talked with the people behind the counter.

“I’m looking forward to this, I have always liked short films, but it’s hard to see them now,” I said.

“Back in the day,” I said, showing my age, “When HBO first came out, they would show short films between the feature movies. Sometimes I would enjoy the shorts more that the full-length fare.”

“You know, they have a Short Film Channel on cable now,” one of the guys said.

“Yeah, I saw that once tuning around. But it isn’t in our package. I’d probably have to pay for the volleyball channel or something like that to get it.”

“What’s wrong with volleyball?” asked one girl working there. She obviously didn’t get the point.

After waiting around, I traipsed upstairs to wait in line. I was one of only a couple folks that had a ticket, everyone else had a big film festival badge draped around their neck. It was a film nerd-fest. One guy beside me in line was espousing on the subject of proper punk attire – criticizing one guy with a leather jacket and bright red Mohawk because he, “was trying too hard.”

“How can you be showing off your uniqueness when you are wearing something that has become, in essence, a carefully regulated uniform. I’ve seen that exact jacket a half dozen times.”

He had a point.

The conversation then turned to rude animation. To illustrate his point, “I don’t know how they were ever able to get this stuff on the air,” he showed everyone a particularly obscene clip from Ren & Stimpy that he happened to have saved onto his phone.

For educational purposes only – this was the clip. NSFW – Not safe for anything… really. You were forewarned.

At this point, the doors opened and we went in. The films we saw were:

Flesh Computer
USA, 2013, 14 min., Color
Director: Ethan Shaftel
When his cybernetic pet project is put in jeopardy, the handyman of a decaying apartment building is forced to take a stand, blurring the lines between human and machine.

Effed!
USA, 2013, 19 min., Color
Director: Renny Maslow
Two friends pedal across a post-apocalyptic landscape on a tandem beach cruiser and face the question: when oil runs out, where exactly is the line that society can cross before it ceases to be a society at all?

Beasts in the Real World
Canada, 2013, 8 min., Color
Director: Sol Friedman
An experimental mixed-media short exploring the tenuous connections between a naturalist, a rare land-mammal, some ghosts and a pair of sushi chefs.

Afronauts
USA, 2014, 14 min., B/W
Director: Frances Bodomo
On 16 July 1969, America prepares to launch Apollo 11. Thousands of miles away, the Zambia Space Academy hopes to beat America to the moon. Inspired by true events.

Mr. Lamb
USA, 2013, 15 min., Color
Director: Jean Pesce
A dark comedy about a lonely waitress who is in love with her pen pal — the convicted murderer, Charles Lamb.

Flesh Computer was really good – probably the best of the lot. It successfully tread the fine line between weirdness and a comprehensive plot with characters you cared about. Fantastic use of special effects.

Effed! Was a fun romp through a dystopian future with some surprisingly recognizable actors. Especially notable was the ultimate bad-ass road warrior vehicle – a solar powered Segway carrying a helmeted rider armed with a baseball bat.

Beasts in the Real World was my least favorite. It had a good premise – some laughing hipsters place a small camera on the conveyor belt of a fast food sushi restaurant. The entertainment comes from the camera as it winds around and ends up back in the kitchen. There are a couple amazing scenes, but the story falls a little flat – especially when the most compelling character is a blobfish about to be sliced.

Afronauts was the most serious of the selections. A stylized look at the Zambian astronauts. An unforgettable vision, especially the mesmerizing Diandra Forrest as the young pilot, Matha. The drama is played out as the Apollo eleven landing bursts from a transistor radio. What happens? I’m not sure. But it is haunting.

Finally a hilarious, scary, and ultimately uplifting portrait of a woman infatuated with a jailed serial killer, Mr. Lamb. This was especially enjoyable because the director, Jean Pesce, was in attendance and enthusiastically answered questions about New York theater actors, heavy cameras, and shooting in extreme cold.

Then it was time to bundle my way home and get some sleep so I could show up at work early the next morning.

I’m not sure if I found any inspiration for my story but I did have a good time. Maybe next year I’ll buy a pass, take some time off work, and see a whole boatload of movies.

I don’t get to the theater as much as I would like any more.

Now, of course, I realize that I can find more short films that I could ever possibly watch on the internet. Even beyond youtube and vimeo – past hulu and netflix – there are sites and sites dedicated to collections of them, from the prosaic to the sublime.

Another rabbit hole to fall down into.

The Perverse Lucidity of Nostalgia

“In her final years she would still recall the trip that, with the perverse lucidity of nostalgia, became more and more recent in her memory.”
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

When I was a little kid I, because I was an army brat, saw a lot of movies. A lot of movies. You could see them on base for a quarter. A quarter was worth more then than it is now, but it was still pretty cheap. I thought everybody went to movies all the time for a quarter. It was a shock when I started college and realized that not all movies started with a playing of the Star Spangled Banner (like all films on military bases did – no matter where you moved, the movies would start the same way, with the same film behind the music).

In my isolation, what I didn’t realize is that these films were at least a year old. They were the equivalent of a lower-tier dollar theater today. The other thing is that I didn’t realize how bad some of these films were.

And as a movie-loving child, I didn’t realize how bad these films were, even after I saw them.

And, like a curse, I still remember so many of these films. I forget my ATM PIN number with regularity but hundreds of movies still well up from the stratified thick mists of memory up to a half-century fossilized now – still clear and sharp. But I remember them not as I am now, but as I was then. I recollect them as a wide-eyed child, sitting in the dark, in amazement and wonder at the flickering images on the screen.

Given the time, not surprisingly, a lot of them are of the cheap, second-rate, third-tier, science fiction, monster-riddled, space opera genre. In those days I thought The Green Slime was the greatest piece of art the world had ever seen. I remember enthusiastically hauling all my friends back the next day for an encore showing.

However, even within this fallow soil of vast film awfulness, a few jewels would fall. For example, I remember First Spaceship on Venus – an amazingly odd East German – Polish film adapted from a Stanislav Lem novel. How this came to be featured on American Military bases during the height of the cold war is a mystery. I was excited a few years ago when I was able to get a copy from Netlix. Now, the thing is readily available on the internet and, although dated, is still an effective piece of entertainment. I always liked the look of the rocket.

Movie Poster for First Spaceship on Venus (Silent Star) - I remember the excitement of seeing this poster, even though I was probably six years old at the time.

Movie Poster for First Spaceship on Venus (Silent Star) – I remember the excitement of seeing this poster, even though I was probably six years old at the time.

Then, a few years ago, something came along to through those old memories back into my face. Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you don’t already know, the idea behind MST3K is that an ordinary everyman is trapped by evil scientists on a space station and forced to watch horrible old movies. He builds a few robot sidekicks to help pass the time and this motley crew are shown sitting there in silhouette, throwing up witty insults while the execrable cinema offerings are running across the screen.

My kids always said I should be on that show because of my bad habit of insulting the television to its face.

What the problem was, is that a lot of those films from my childhood showed up on MST3K – and, instead of the glorious examples of moving picture shows they were revealed for the celluloid crap they really were. I suffered from a terrible rejection of the beloved icons of my childhood.

Even First Spaceship on Venus showed up there. What a sacrilege.

I was reminded about this humiliation last night when Paste Magazine published a list of The Ten Most Unwatchable Films Featured on MST3K. I didn’t realize it has been 25 years since the show started… time flies. One good thing is that a lot of these are now available on Youtube – if you have a lot of time to waste.

Of the ten Paste Magazine reviled films – these are so bad they are in a world of their own and I only remember one of them from my childhood.

I won’t tell you which.

I will own up to one film, though. There was one movie I was that, although I didn’t remember the title, I did recall many scenes… the beautiful french temptress turning into a horrible monster with glowing green eyes, the dragon, and most of all, the spinning yellow spiral that burned the brave knights to death. I had always wondered what movie that was – and then, one day, I saw a bit of MST3K and there it was… The Magic Sword.

And now it’s out there on the internet and I can watch it whenever I want to.

You know, it isn’t as good as I remembered it… but it isn’t really all that bad.

MST3K Version

Unmessed-with Version

First Spaceship on Venus (more accurately known as Silent Star)

Zombies and Cops

Looking at my schedule on Thursday, I had a lot that I wanted to do that evening and on Friday, so I decided to take a vacation day and try and squeeze in as much as I could. After changing into bicycling clothes I left work and drove up to Beltline and 75 in Richardson, where the new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is about to open and stashed my car in a quiet spot. I pulled my bicycle out of the hatch and rode west a few miles to the Big Shucks Oyster Bar on Coit.

The hard thing about using a bicycle for entertainment is the logistics. You have to haul stuff – phones and wallets and keys and locks and camera and extra clothes and emergency repair tools and this and that and the other. It’s too much thinking about what you have and how you can carry it and how you can keep it from getting stolen. I still haven’t figured out a good way to carry a folding chair on my road bike (my commuter bike with its plethora of racks is out of commission – I broke the seat tube the other day) so I left that in my car, where I could get to it later.

At Big Shucks, I locked my bike to the metal rail and settled in on the patio with a Mexican Shrimp Cocktail and a Negra Modelo. When you think of shrimp cocktail you probably think about a bland, slimy mixture of large limp shrimp floating in some insipid watery sauce. A Mexican Shrimp Cocktail is a different thing altogether. It’s spicy, made fresh with firm, tiny shrimp with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and avocados. It’s a great warm weather treat. Every place makes theirs a little different, but Big Shucks does them as well as anybody.

Mexican Shrimp Cocktail and Negra Modelo at Big Shucks.

Mexican Shrimp Cocktail and Negra Modelo at Big Shucks.

After a while, some more bicyclists showed up and we all finished our food, saddled up and headed out. This ride was organized by the Richardson Urban Bicycle Club – the same group I had ridden to see Dazed and Confused with a couple of weeks ago. We were riding back to the same place again, this time to see a double feature of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

The Alamo Drafthouse was having a soft opening and was showing the newest film from director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, The World’s End inside. After that, they were going to show Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz outside on the inflatable screen. We didn’t have tickets for the new film, but were all excited about the other two.

I was a little worried about the crowd. Of course, there is room in a parking lot for a lot of people in folding chairs, but folks had been gathering since before noon. Some people had the brilliant idea of looking in the “free” section of Craigslist and grabbing couches. They had hauled a few over and set them up, relaxing for the afternoon. I worried for naught – there were a lot of people there (many dressed as zombies and a few as cops) but the place wasn’t overflowing and I was able to find a spot where the screen, though distant, was visible.

Going to this had been sort of a last-minute decision and I hadn’t thought much about what to do… but it was fun. There was a long string of food trucks and I had a Guacamole Pie from The Bomb Fried Pies. Then I went over to check out the breweries… and hit the jackpot.

If you’ve been reading here you know of my fondness for locally brewed craft beer. Dallas, as always, is getting into the craft brewery thing late… but also, Dallas, as always, is doing it in a big, serious, and very good way.

Tonight there were six local breweries set up, with two beers each. You bought a sample card, a small plastic cup, and a yellow wrist band… and had at it. Since the double feature couldn’t start until the festivities inside ended, and then there were two entire movies… there was plenty of time to try everything.
I have been to sampling tours at all of the breweries except 903, so I was familiar with most of what they had to offer. It was all good.

Tasting Card - six breweries, twelve beers

Tasting Card – six breweries, twelve beers

903 Brewers
Sherman
Roos Red Ale
Roasted Coconut Ale

Community Beer Company
Dallas
Public Ale
Witbier

Deep Ellum Brewing Company
Deep Ellum
IPA
Dallas Blonde

Four Corners
West Dallas
Paletero Pale Ale
Block Party Porter

Lakewood Brewing Company
Garland
Zomer Pils
Lager

Rahr and Sons Brewing Comany
Fort Worth
Texas Red
Rahr’s Blonde

In particular, I enjoyed the 903 Roasted Coconut Ale and the Four Corner’s Block Party Porter… mostly because I had never tried those before.

Soon after sunset the theater let out, swelling the parking lot crowd, a pair of black limos coursed up front and discharged their contents onto the makeshift stage. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright talked up the crowd for a while. I’m not sure what they think about Texas – they seemed shocked by the heat, though it didn’t seem too bad to any of us. There were a couple of contests – beating a zombie with a cricket bat and screaming while shooting a gun in the air. One burly Texan managed to break the cricket bat over the zombie’s head – which I didn’t think was possible.

Everybody settled down and the movies began. Shaun of the Dead is a hoot, of course – perfect fair for an outdoor showing on an inflatable screen.

The crowd in the parking lot

The crowd in the parking lot

Shaun is having a bad day.

Shaun is having a bad day.

After Shaun of the Dead ended most folks gave it up and went home – it was getting pretty late for a Thursday. I started to get up but then decided, “What the Hell,” and settled back in for the second show. I was able to scoot my chair forward and get a better look at Hot Fuzz – which I hadn’t seen before. Another great genre-mixing explosion of hilarity and bloodshed, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

It was about two in the morning when everything ended. I was very glad to have my car nearby – I didn’t really feel like riding my bicycle any great distance. That sort of thing makes for a long day. I felt like a zombie.

Added Later:
Slideshow Photos: Zombies, movie stars take over Alamo Drafthouse for ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ trilogy

The Hunger Games and Battle Royale – Compare and Contrast

I have not been watching enough television… no, no, no, that’s not right. I’ve been watching too much television (isn’t watching any television too much television?) – what I mean is that my television watching has been too unfocused. I waste my meager allotment of precious time with sports or my obsession with How It’s Made/How do They Do That/Modern Marvels (por ejemplo – do you have any idea how much work goes into making a tennis ball?). I want to stop that and start working my way down my Netflix Queue – especially the twisted obscure crap that feeds my imagination.

In that regard, I watched too similar (yet completely different) films that I’ve been meaning to check out. I finally came around and caught The Hunger Games on Netflix, and then, last night, stayed up too late and watched a wild and controversial Japanese film from a decade ago called Battle Royale.

I had not read the books from The Hunger Games and now, I’m know I won’t. I had heard a lot of good things and, sure enough, The Hunger Games was a well-acted, slick, excellent production of a popular story and it was a serious disappointment to me. It was simply too Young Adult for my tastes.

Then there is Battle Royale. People say that Battle Royale is the inspiration for The Hunger Games – though the Suzanne Collins claims to have never read the book or seen the film. The overall concept is similar – a group of teenagers trapped in an isolated area and forced to fight each other to the death.

However, there are more differences than similarities. The Hunger Games is a carefully calibrated teen vehicle where the most horrific aspects of the godawful situation are concealed and glossed over – making a tale which is unsavory on the surface palatable for the masses. Battle Royale, on the other hand, pulls no punches. It is an unfettered tsunami of death… a tornado of gore, terror, and raw emotion. It is deeply disturbing. The ultra-violence makes A Clockwork Orange look like Barney.

Both films have political overtones. The Hunger Games concentrates on class warfare in an Occupy Wall Street inspired tale of the wealthy versus the poor – the monied, powerful elite oppressing and suppressing the unwashed, starving masses. Battle Royale has a more subtle, complex take. It is, first of all, a conflict of generations. The young people are out of control – it starts with a student stabbing his teacher – and the older generation decides to take revenge.

It is the story of a traditionalist society unraveling, of personal vendetta and obsession, of child abuse and the sins of the fathers’ hoisted on the young. Above all, it is about the Zero Sum Game and the idea that none of us, really, gets out of this alive.

The Hunger Games is modeled after television reality shows, while Battle Royale takes the form of an adolescent fever-spawned nightmare.

The Hunger Games has beautiful model-like specimens of perfection running around in a well-lit carefully manicured park-like setting, while Battle Royale is gritty, dark and more than a little rough around the edges. Instead of a shiny bow and arrow, the contestants in Battle Royale are each given a random weapon – some useful, some not. Some get submachine guns while the hero gets the lid from a cooking pot.

Model-like appearance of the contestants from The Hunger Games

Model-like appearance of the contestants from The Hunger Games

The class from Battle Royale

The class from Battle Royale

The Hunger Games contestants are carefully selected and trained, while in Battle Royale a class of forty students (half girls and boys) are gassed while on a school trip and thrown together on an island with no preparation other than a cute, silly instructional video. That means they all know each other well beforehand – and the usual alliances, crushes, and hatreds of the young come forward as a matter of life and death.

The Hunger Games is broadcast as an entertainment for a worldwide audience… like the ultimate Roman Gladiatorial Extravaganza. It is a spectacle for and about the media. On the other hand, the Battle Royale itself is not even televised. The authorities seem to stage the Battle Royale mostly because… well, because they can.

One interesting section of Battle Royale is when the members of the school’s Cheerleading squad are shown hiding out in the luminous whitewashed lighthouse. They are organized, have set up a watch schedule, a kitchen, an infirmary, and have settled into what appears to be a polite, happy, domesticated, and insulated clique. They are shown cooking and carefully cleaning – wiping down the tables before a meal. However the horror of their situation is running right under the surface and all it takes is a plate of spaghetti eaten by the wrong person to set everything off. Minutes later, they have all slaughtered each other – with the last survivor throwing herself off the lighthouse into the rocks below. One exclaims while dying, “I at least thought I’d live until tomorrow.”

Don't mess with the Cheerleaders

Don’t mess with the Cheerleaders

In a movie with an ensemble cast like this it is fun to try and spot actors you’ve seen elsewhere. Sure enough, playing Takako Chigusa (Girl #13) in Battle Royale is Chiaki Kuriyama who played Gogo Yubari in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1. I’ve always thought that the fight to the death between Gogo and Beatrix Kiddo is the best fight scene in pretty much any movie. It’s no coincidence; Quentin Tarantino is a fan of Battle Royale and based Gogo on Chigusa. I kept expecting Chigusa to pull a chain with a spiked ball on the end out of her weapons bag.

Takako Chigusa  (Girl #13)  from Battle Royale - in this one, she gets to wear the yellow jumpsuit

Takako Chigusa (Girl #13) from Battle Royale – in this one, she gets to wear the yellow jumpsuit

The same actress as Gogo Yubari in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1

The same actress as Gogo Yubari in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1

Now, the important question… what to watch next? I haven’t decided but I have it narrowed down to two that I have on DVR – Sharknado or La Traviata. They’re sort of the same thing… aren’t they? La Traviata is basically Sharknado plus tuberculosis.

What I learned this week,March 01, 2013

10 Great Music-Inspired Posters


I’ve done most of this stuff – read my blog to learn about them.

Things to do in Dallas


I love internet radio and I love local things. Internet radio from and about Denton, Texas.

DentonRadio.com


A friend of mine from college goes on an arctic expedition:

expedition 1: igloo

2013 cypress park expedition 2

In Wichita, Kansas

journal entry for today: 3 deg C., no wind; first igloo 0.02 km from base camp; extension cord will not reach. plan to hunt for walrus on the ice tomorrow, though few are seen here at 37deg N. latitude.


15 Movies with Awesome Tributes to Other Movies



Protecting the environment:

Love hurts: Man arrested for releasing helium balloon with his girlfriend


7 Reasons Why Coffee Is Good For You



10 “Italian” Foods You Won’t Find In Italy



What I learned this week, November 16, 2012

Exclusive: Justin White’s ‘Rated G’ Art Show – Your Favorite Movies Reimagined As Animation Cels


In  preparation to see Skyfall at the theater, I’m watching the two previous Daniel Craig 007’s – which I haven’t seen – first. Not only that, but I rewatched the original Casino Royale, catching it on some odd cable channel – the 1967 comedy with David Niven as 007, Peter Sellers as the hero, Orson Wells as Le Chiffre, and Woody Allen as the evil mastermind. I had forgotten how much fun that silly mess was – especially the msuic by Burt Bacharach, Dusty Springfield, and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.


Oh, one more James Bond thing… I’m finally reading a few of the original Ian Fleming books, starting with Casino Royale. Not surprisingly, they are very different from the films. The oddest thing is that they are told from James Bond’s point of view, and actually convey exactly what he is thinking. I think one of the most interesting aspects of the films is the fact that 007’s innermost thoughts are a complete mystery.

And, as far as the “Shaken, not stirred,” thing goes. Here’s a quote from Casino Royale:

 “A dry martini,” [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

Oh, and here’s another quote from the same book:

It turned out that Leiter was from Texas. While he talked on about his job with the Joint Intelligence Staff of NATO and the difficulty of maintaining security in an organization where so many nationalities were represented, Bond reflected that good Americans were fine people and that most of them seemed to come from Texas.

Ha…. Really can’t think of Daniel Craig’s 007 thinking something like that.


Which 90s Films Are Cult Classics?


I am going to this on Saturday… it is sold out. I am going to drink some of this stuff. Be jealous, be very jealous.


Great Movies With Terrible Endings


Top 10 Films That Shouldn’t Be Remade