Saturday, October 25, 2008

Vote Obama

Rebuild our democracy.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Gigantic Releasing

The indie film world has been on the cusp of a distribution revolution for...years and years and years. There's always a big bold world of endless availability for even small filmmakers just around the corner. Somehow it never quite happens. I'm not sure why. We all thought Netflix would be a huge boon. Not so much. Itunes Movie Store. Hmmm.

The latest iteration of the coming online revolution is here now. Gigantic Releasing is moving into distribution of independent films online the day of release in theaters. So, you'll be able to see the tiny little flick with a heart of gold that never gets to your town. And it'll cost $2.99 (popcorn not included). It's higher picture quality than you're used to. No ads. And they're throwing in a freebie: unlimited free access to a huge library of documentary and short films. Who knows? It might just work.

Check out this article in Indiewire.

Monday, October 20, 2008

What the Audience Understands

I've been thinking a lot about what the audience understands implicitly about a story. Knowing what the audience gets immediately is a big part of the writer's toolbox. And so today I want to talk about conceit.

No -- not conceit as in conceited. Conceit as in concept. Conceit is an approach, a strategy, a pose. Conceit is the way you bring unity to your work.

I went to see Max Raabe and The Palast Orchester last Saturday. Mr. Raabe and his band are some of the foremost advocates of the music of the 1920's and 30's. They dress in period coat and tails. They play original orchestrations and they take it very seriously. It's almost strange not to hear the scrapes and scratches of the old victrola recording. The concert took place in Oakland's art deco gem, The Paramount, and it was hard not to feel a bit of nostalgia for a time I never actually experienced. The immersion was total. It didn't matter if you weren't particularly a fan of music most of us remember from The Great Gatsby. You were caught up in the experience. You were rewarded for going with it.

That's what conceit is.

Conceit is following a good idea to its full unfurling. You might mistake Raabe's music as a nostalgic play at first. But it's done with incredible care and attention to detail. You might mistake the outfits as kitsch -- until you see that he's truly aiming for the kind of elegance that contemporary music has lost. He wants to regain that. He wants to bring something back. He wants to make something new again.

I took my seat with a grain of salt at first. I hadn't chosen the concert -- just to go along. But within a song or two I couldn't help but feel I was back in the Weimar Republic, that time of loose morals, political strife, and great fun before Hitler came to power. You could hear something real from then in the music. It made you think. It made you compare your own time to that period. It made me teeter back and forth between optimism and pessimism about where we might be in five years. My Little Green Cactus actually got me thinking about history and the world and what's going on in it. I don't know if Mr. Raabe had that in mind, exactly. But any strong conceit -- any idea worked out organically -- has that kind of resonance. It means more. It's dynamic. It has a dynamic that gives it life in a listener.

Raabe got a standing ovation that night. He came out for his encore and played a cover of... Britney Spears. It's worth a listen.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Quote for the Day

"If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn't matter a damn how you write."

– Somerset Maugham

Saturday, October 11, 2008

первый блин комом

For some reason I had a class from 1987 stuck in my head all yesterday. I was studying in the Soviet Union, and locked into an incredibly torturous class on Russian aphorisms. The teacher was writing a dissertation contrasting English and Russian sayings, and the class basically consisted of her trying to milk us for as much new material as she could come up with.

We'd sit there, she'd fire off a saying at us, and grill us into providing an English language equivalent. Then she'd scribble it down in her notes -- "A steetch een time saves nine... steetches?" -- then she'd pretend to teach us another aphorism. This went on for weeks.

One day she offered up this little gem of Russian wisdom: "The first blini is комом." I've never come up with a good translation for комом. It basically means a misshapen mess. We sat there in silence. She demanded an answer. Finally one student said, "The first pancake always sucks." And she wrote it down. "Socks?" No. Sucks. The first pancake always sucks. She seemed skeptical. Then we explained that 'sucks' has an idiomatic meaning. "Ah!" A two-fer. She scribbled frantically.

I think this stuck with me because "The first pancake always sucks" probably should be an aphorism. The first pancake is either burnt or undercooked. It runs too much to one side. It sticks to the griddle or bubbles in the butter. The purpose of the first pancake is not to be eaten. The purpose of the first pancake is to prepare the way for the next pancake. The first pancake gets the amount of butter adjusted correctly. It probably adds a microscopic dose of batter to the griddle that paves the way for better pancakes down the line. It tells you the pan's too hot. But it's not a good pancake.

First pancakes are like first drafts. You can't aim for too much. You have to get it down on the page -- but there's no doubt that the second draft will be better. You can mix your batter all morning but you won't get to the perfect pancake until you've made your way past the first one. It's just a fact. For me, it makes writing easier.

Now, I firmly believe in planning. There's no substitute for it. You MUST work out a strong concept before you begin. It doesn't matter how many cauliflower pancakes you make -- they aren't going to get significantly better with practice. But even the best concept won't get you past the testing stage. And that's all a first draft really is. You'll adjust the batter. You'll adjust the temperature. Maybe you'll add a bit of vanilla, or some berries from the freezer. But you won't know until you try it out.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

We Are What We Repeatedly Do

It rained for the first time in six months last night.

This is normal for the Bay Area. All summer long the fog rolls in nightly, but not a drop will fall. By October everything is dusty. There's a collective crick in everyone's throat. Worries about drought fill the airwaves. You (and everyone around you) physically crave rain falling from the sky. By law, meteorologists must predict rain four times before it actually falls. It's torturous. And when it finally arrives no one wastes time to find their raincoat to run outside and breathe in the astounding smells of wet pavement. The trees seem to take a collective deep breath. The earth opens up. Dogs dance around frantically.

Last night was the meteorologists' first prediction of rain. You see clouds, but you know the rain won't come. I went to an outdoor Sigur Ros concert. The band is much like the weather -- it takes it's time getting there, but you're glad when it finally happens. They open up a great, gorgeous sound. The lead singer is a counter tenor. It's all quite ethereal and quirky. Toy pianos and weird meters eventually give way to guitars and drums. But like I said, you have to wait for it. I sat in a great Greek amphitheater as gigantic eucalyptus trees bowed in the wind. It wasn't until the encore that it all made sense. They played a crowd favorite: Track 8. The song repeats some Icelandic phrase over and over. Droplets started to fall. And as the song built to its incredible climax, the rain started to pour down. I'm a very modern person, but I couldn't help but feel they'd called it down, demanded it from the gods, made it come down and quench California's thirst with the proper offering.

There was rock concert ecstasy. There was crazy Norse raindance ecstasy. It all fed together like some well thought out movie plot. They called the rain down. It made me think about Aristotle.

Aristotle had a surprisingly simple view of human nature: We are what we repeatedly do. He applied this to every field of endeavor he touched. He believed that the ethical basis for a human being was repeated good action, that habits would bring out the best in people. He was an optimist in this. He believed we were basically good, and that it just took some work for us to realize it and make the best of ourselves.

Aristotle also laid the foundation for our understanding of drama. He is the first to sketch out the three-act structure. He is the first to dig into the relation between character and plot. Almost all western drama goes back to Aristotle.

And, in a way, it's all about uncovering what is best in humans through repeated action. When you start a movie, what do you see? The main character's world is defined by his repeated action. There's something healthy and good there, or there's something not so good there. Then he reacts with the same basic reflex at the inciting event. His world is thrown out of balance. He hews to his basic reflexes even more -- and gets stuck in the plot. He continues down this path, repeating the same basic reflex action over and over again. It keeps him from getting the girl. It gets him punched in the face. It makes him rich and miserable. It drives him to hate himself. It doesn't matter. It's the same action, over and over. Only the context really changes. Until the climax.

And in the climax he wakes up. He overcomes that action. He sees he past his little world. He opens up. And the reward comes down upon him. (Or, in Greek drama, he doesn't -- and pays with his life).

The protagonist wins a battle by overcoming the self. He connects to something bigger. It's the repeated act that drives him to a better understanding.

Back when Aristotle was bopping around the acropolis, drama was part and parcel with magic and religion. He saw this repeated action as a call for intervention from above. We'd laugh and say that you can't call rain down from the sky with a song that repeats the same phrase over and over. But we seem to agree with everything else he had to say, so maybe it's worth at least wondering if he was on to something here.