Tuesday, September 29, 2009
When I was being driven to the police station from the hotel, [Polanski said], the car radio was already talking about it. The newsmen were calling the police before I was arrested to see whether they can break the news. I couldn't believe...I thought, you know, I was going to wake up from it. I realise, if I have killed somebody, it wouldn't have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But...fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck you girls. Juries want to fuck young girls -- everyone wants to fuck young girls! No, I knew then, this is going to be another big, big thing.
Is commentary really necessary? From what I've gathered over the last few days, apparently so, as few will regard this passage as speaking for itself in the same way I do. Then again, no amount of commentary will convince anyone that if Polanski wasn't an acclaimed film director (a great one, I will acknowledge parenthetically, in much the same way that his defenders often parenthetically acknowledge that he raped a child) but rather, say, a priest, no one in Hollywood would be lining up to sign petitions demanding his release.
Same as it ever was, I suppose. It's amazing what Chinatown can do for a guy.
Monday, September 28, 2009
I've already read a number of stories -- and one novel, which I'm unsure I'll end up writing about -- and written a couple of posts, and I must say there have been some interesting and entirely unplanned overlaps in subject and theme, if not in quality, that should give the first several days a nice flow, unless I completely screw it up. After that, things will probably become a little more scattershot but no less interesting, or so I desperately hope.
So that starts Thursday, and this blog will likely remain dormant until then, as I try to cram in more reading and get a few more posts ahead of the game. Until then...happy haunting! Or ban-shee you soon! Or have a wound-erful Tuesday! And also Wednesday! Or should I say Wounds-day!
Friday, September 25, 2009
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Step 3: Writing Dialogue
Dialogue is tricky. What you need to do is capture the blue-collar poetry of everyday human speech, while, at the same time, revealing character and advancing the story. Sounds easy, right? I'm being sarcastic, of course. Obviously, that sounds like a waking nightmare. But before you get too worked up and end up quitting on me, let me offer you a sample of dialogue from my novel The Coldness. The set-up, basically, is that our hero, Jake Struthers, is talking to Wendell Maples, the elderly caretaker of Blackgate Woods, the terrifying mansion Struthers has just inherited. Maples is greeting Jake for the first time.
"Good morning, Mr. Struthers," croaked Maples.
"Good morning, Mr. Maples," Struthers ejected, eyeing the old man with suspicion.
"How are you this morning?" Maples wondered. "I am fine."
"I'm also fine," Struthers agreed, squinting at the old man. "Is this my new home, Blackgate Woods?"
"Indeed it is, Mr. Struthers. Behold it!"
Struthers did. It was big and old and gloomy, with gargoyles and cobwebs on it.
"What kind of a crazy place is this to live in?" he queried. "I work in Manhattan, New York, in a big firm. How am I supposed to drive all the way over here every night when I'm done working? This is crazy!"
Mr. Maples chuckled all weird.
"Ha ha ha," he bellowed. "Your Uncle Luke did not seem to mind it so much! He lived here until he was 88 years old, you know, and enjoyed every day. And every night, as well. Especially...night!"
"My uncle, Luke Seepher, was a crazy old man! He was all rich from buying paintings and then selling them, and also from secret things which I don't even know about. He never lived fast, like I do. I live in Manhattan. I need the juice! I need that wild city feel! When I stop working every day, I go out to bars and clubs. I buy sixty dollar glasses of alcohol and dance to crunk music. Who needs this dusty old place? You should bury this house with my Uncle Luke!"
"Bury it?" Maples asked, his crazy bat-eyebrows going up on his head. "With your uncle?? But your uncle wasn't buried!"
"He wasn't??" Struthers gasped.
"No," Maples grinned. "His body is still right inside Blackgate Wood. In bed. As though he were only...sleeping!!!!!!"
And, scene. When you get a chance, go back and deconstruct that conversation, and take note of how many little character details I've subtly revealed about Jake Struthers: about where he works, what his daily routine is like, what his lifestyle is. Then notice how, with every word, Maples seems to be pushing against Jake, pushing against Jake's very existence! That is dialogue, my friends. And don't think that just because I wrote it that this somehow explains my high praise. Even if I hadn't written that, I'd still think it was fucking awesome.
Also, "Luke Seepher" is supposed to sound like "Lucifer". If you didn't catch that, but felt a chill run through your veins when you read the name, a chill you were unable to explain, well, there's your answer.
Step 4: Scaring the Reader
How does one scare a reader? A reader is basically a big tub of nothing, sitting in a chair with glued-together paper in his hands. You can hardly expect someone like that to have enough blood coursing through them or nerves in their body to feel a headache, let alone the icy clutch of existential dread. So how do you, the horror writer, break through that slab of numbness, into the reader's primitive core?
Easy! You make things jump out from behind other things. Take this scene from The Coldness:
Jake Struthers was on a couch in Blackgate Woods. It was night outside and he was bored. Where was that hot city action?? He didn't know. Wait, no, it was in Manhattan! Not in Blackgate Woods! It was cold in the room and he had a fire going in the fireplace. It crackled like fires in Hell. He stared at the fire, and thought about Hell. Did he believe in Hell?? That was a crazy notion, if ever there was one! But what if?
He got up and went over to the fireplace. The fire danced like demons from Hell. Wait a minute! Demons...Hell...this was crazy! THEN A GHOST JUMPED OUT FROM BEHIND THE COUCH!!!!!!!
Whoa, settle down their, champ! Did something...startle you? Heh heh.
Listen, the point is, scaring the reader is tricky, but if you have the right tools in your toolcase, and then you take out the right tools at the right time and then use them correctly, constructing a solid edifice of fear over which your gentle readers mayn't climb...then you are a horror writer. You will have joined the ranks of Eddie Poe, Steve King, Howie Lovecraft, Art Machen, Clivey Barker, Bobby Aickman, and even...Bill Shakespeare! Also, Chuck Dickens.
So please...take my hand. There's a doorway opening before us! I see no light shining from within, do you? How very strange. It seems more like...darkness is pouring forth. Let us find out what lies beyond. Hold tight! Who knows what terrors we may face!
Monday, September 21, 2009
After our laughter has subsided, however, I always gently take the person by the wrist, pull them close to me, and say: "You can write horror fiction! Anyone can do it! You only need to do three things: Believe in yourself, form a bond with the darkness in your soul, and follow my rules. Especially that last one. Did you know," I go on to say, "that one of my horror novels, The Coldness, contained a critical blurb on the front cover that read 'Bill R. out-John Sauls John Saul!'? So who better to teach you?" I then ask them to accompany me to my home, where our lessons will begin. This other person, who until that point always seemed terribly interested in what I had to say, will then suddenly act as though teaching them to write horror fiction was my idea, and will say, "Oh, no. No, why would I do that? I don't even know you. I've never even heard of you. The Coldness? Should I have heard of that?" I then say, yes, you should have heard of it, but it hasn't been published yet. "Then where'd the blurb come from?" they ask. Then I'm like, "Who are you, Michiko Kakutani?? Just come over to my house!" Then they say, "No! Let go of my wrist!" So I say, "Then who will teach you? Your mom??" Then he goes, "I will fucking punch your face, if you don't let me go." So I let him go, but not before adding, "You will never out-John Saul John Saul with that attitude. You probably think great horror fiction grows like mushrooms, and you can just put it on a pizza and call it day and sell a million copies. Horror fiction is not like mushrooms, I can assure you of that." "What?" the guy says. "I said that horror fiction and mushrooms are not analagous," I repeat, and he says, "No, I know that. I actually knew that before you told me. You know, I was just talking to you to be polite. The fact is that I don't care."
And then he leaves. Curiously, not one of those people with whom I've had such an encounter has ever published a successful horror story, let alone a novel. Or at least I assume that's the case, but to be honest I rarely, if ever, get their names, so who knows. But the point is that you don't want to be like those assholes, do you? You wouldn't even be reading this if you not only want to be a successful horror writer, but also believed that I was the correct person from whom to seek guidance. And guidance from me you shall have. Let us begin at the beginning.
Step 1: Thinking Up Ideas
The hardest thing about writing horror fiction is finding unique and scary ideas. Sometimes, it seems like it's all been done. Vampires? Been done. Zombies? Been done. Wolfmans? Been done. Your job as a fresh-faced, go-getting writer is to take an old idea and add a new twist to it, make it sing, make it happening, make it now. So how about a vampire rock star?? That's actually already been done, too, and more than once, but still, you're on the right track. Vampires have really been run into the ground (pun most toothsomely intended!), and outside of "vampires who investigate crimes on a moonbase" -- which is my thing, so hands off -- you'd do best to skip them entirely.
What I would recommend for you is to start with something more mysterious. Let's just spitball something here. Let's say your story takes place somewhere in the Midwest, some rural communty in Nebraska or something. Okay, now let's say that it's Halloween. And your teenage hero, Chip, has a tough family life, because his dad drinks all the time, and his mom got killed by a plane crash. Chip wants to go out trick-or-treating, just like a normal 17 year-old boy, and he's got his favorite costume, which is Dracula, because all teenagers thing Dracula is "cool beans", but his dad is all drunk, so instead of trick-or-treating, Chip has to go the local market store and buy his dad some alcohol medicine. Otherwise, he might die. So he's driving out to the market store, and an old homeless farmer jumps out into the road, and Chip runs right over him. Chip goes to him, and just before he dies, the farmer says, "In exactly one year you will all die!" Then the old man dies, and his body turns into thousands of ants which then fly away (Note: When you describe the ants flying away, be sure to put in something about them flying "into the night sky" or "into the night air". We're trying to set a mood, after all).
After that, I think you should be off an running.
Step 2: Creating Characters
I won't lie to you: this part is hard as balls. Fortunately for you, as you can see above, you're almost halfway there as far as Chip goes. You already know that Chip has a father who drinks nothing but alcohol, and that Chip wants to be Dracula for Halloween. If you flesh him out too much more than this, then you might be accused of "over-boiling the soup". But you still have to ask yourself: Who is Chip? Who does Chip want to be? What does Chip care about? What clothes does Chip wear?
You can get most of this out of the way in one paragraph, but remember, in horror fiction, as with all fiction, good writing is king. You have to be able to make your reader live your story, and see through the eyes of your characters, and the one tool you have is that wondrous and frightening old mistress we call Words. I just made up an old saying: "If you can't bring it, then you better not sing it." And that's exactly what I'm trying to tell you. Our language has all these words, just sitting there, waiting for you to use them, but you better choose them wisely. If you want to use the word "pentacle", but accidentally use "pendulum", then fuck you, because that's your problem, not mine.
So you're introducing Chip. Here's the wrong way to do that:
Chip loved school and wore nice clothes most times. He also like to watch TV and eat hot dogs, too. Do you know what kind of music he liked? Rock and roll! He loved to dance to it. His friends thought he was crazy! Another thing he liked was girls, but he was also sad because the one girl he liked was dating with the Football Quarterback. And remember from before that his dad drank booze.
Congratulations. You just made Chip a pussy. Now here's the right way to introduce him:
Chip hated school and his teachers. He wore jeans that matched his taste in rock and roll music. You would never catch him dancing though, because he thought it was for pussies, except if you danced, that was okay. Chip didn't judge people like everybody else in Nebraska. He liked girls but was sad because the one girl he liked, whose name was Tammy [Note: I gave the girl a name this time. You must always remember to name your characters], was in love with the Football Running Back [Note: I changed him to a running back. Making him a QB is too obvious, and you must always avoid cliche', or you should avoid it as often as it is practical to do so]. He liked to watch TV and eat hot dogs, too.
Voila. Clean, precise language, that nevertheless invokes for the reader a complete and living human being. Take the stage, Chip! The spotlight is ready for you!
Oh, shit, you should also give him a last name. Maybe "Mackey". Chip Mackey? Does that sound okay? Or "Macktin". Chip Macktin. Chip Macktin. That sounds pretty good. Chip Macktin.
All right, take the stage, Chip Macktin! The spotlight is ready for you!
Next: Dialogue and How to Scare the Reader
Friday, September 18, 2009
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
But why should I, though?
Did he sound anything like that!?
He pulls a knife? You pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago Way, and that's how you get Capone.
You got 'im?
Yeah, I got 'im.
Somebody steals from me, I'm gonna say you stole. Not talk to him for spitting on the sidewalk.
What the hell. You gotta die of somethin'.
And so on. Speaking of dying of something, I cried hard when I first saw this movie. When Oscar (Charles Martin Smith) dies, and Morricone's beautifully sad piece (on the whole, I'd say this score is one of Morricone's most underrated -- it's really amazing) begins as the camera pans across the elevator to reveal that Nitti has written the word "Touchable" in Oscar's blood, I broke down. Yeah, and so what of it? Similarly, when Malone (Sean Connery) chases the goon out of his apartment, only to find himself staring down the barrel of Nitti's Tommy gun, everything inside me deflated, because I knew there was no way out for him at that point, and there wasn't, because Nitti hit the trigger and tore poor Jimmy Malone to pieces. But that son of a bitch Nitti got his, when Ness snapped and chucked his miserable ass off the roof of the courthouse.
(As an aside, when Sean Connery won the Oscar for his portrayal of Jimmy Malone, a lot of people chalked it up as a career award for an old guy who might not get another shot with the Academy. All of which might well be true, but it also ignores the fact that Connery is really damn good in the film.)
The film made me giddy. My pre-teen self was as exhilerated by The Untouchables as my current self was by Inglourious Basterds, and for many of the same reasons (given the influence De Palma has had on Tarantino, this probably isn't surprising). The Untouchables cut right to the heart of what I wanted to see in a film about Eliot Ness and Al Capone, and it did so without ever having to ask me. I wanted the good guys to get the crap beat out of them, because their job was near impossible, but then to rise up and defeat evil -- not just defeat it, but humble it, and do both completely and without ambiguity. When I first saw the film, I had no idea how accurate the film was to the history of Ness and Capone, and while I would go on to find out (partly by reading Ness's book, also called The Untouchables, and also not entirely true) that the answer was "Almost entirely inaccurate", I wasn't bothered by that, because I must have sensed, without having the words to articulate it, that the history didn't matter so much in this film. What mattered was the myth, and whether or not that myth was well told.
Then, as often happens, the years went by, and I cooled on The Untouchables a little bit. I read a piece by David Mamet -- who would go on from The Untouchables to become one of my favorite writers, and congratulations to him for that! -- in which he said that he was told by Art Linson and De Palma that certain changes would have to be made to his script, and that if he refused to make them, they would be made without him, and the job would be done poorly. This implies that Mamet did make the changes, but he doesn't say what those changes were. If I had to guess, I'd say that one of them was the laughable scene near the end, where the corrupt judge presiding over Capone's case tells the bailiff to switch juries with another case down the hall. That's taking the myth a little bit too far, I think, and really hurts the film. It's one of the big, crowd-pleasing scenes, and to any half-intelligent adult it plays as utterly phony. It also plays, now, to someone who has read a bit on the making of the film, as a quick fix. I feel like at some point the courtroom scene had some other climactic moment, something that De Palma didn't believe lived up to the high drama of the rest of the film, and he needed something big, and he needed it fast. De Palma wanted to play the myth to the absolute hilt, and for great stretches he pulls it off, but not here.
The main reason I've cooled a bit on The Untouchables, however, is that I've simply seen a whole lot more films now. I have a better handle on what I think is great, and what I think is good, and what I think is trash. And I've even seen De Palma beaten at his own game with Inglourious Basterds. I just have too much experience with the vast world of movies (though still not nearly enough) to think that The Untouchables is the masterpiece I thought it was 22 years ago. There was also a period where, outside of this film, I'd decided that I really disliked De Palma. But the experience and knowledge I've gained has shown me that De Palma is actually a weird kind of genius -- his films are inconsistent, frustrating, sometimes out-right terrible, but he's still a genius of a particular sort. The drive to gain that experience was spurred in me by The Untouchables. I've seen a lot of movies since then, and struggled with De Palma the whole way. It's sort of strange to think that he, to a degree I wouldn't have considered even a year ago, is largely responsible for the movie fan I am now.
This has been part of the Brian De Palma Blog-a-thon, hosted by Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Saturday, September 12, 2009
But still, I figured this is the Onion AV Club we're talking about here. They're the serious ones, not the jokey, fakey news one. So I thought, well, maybe I don't fully understand what backlashes are. I don't even know how you go about acquiring one. This would be a problem, because I just now, or about three minutes ago, decided to conduct a science experiment. What I would like to do is get myself a can of gasoline, and a backlash (or perhaps a jar of backlash -- truly, I'm at sea here) and throw the gasoline on the backlash, and see what happens. But since I can't do that, I have to do the next best thing which is obviously to hop on over to Google Image, download the first picture of gasoline I can find, and then type in the word "backlash", take the first picture I get from that search, and see what kind of reaction might reasonably follow, were I able to physically combine the actual things represented by the images.
And so. First, "gasoline":
Okay, perfect. We all know that gasoline is a flammable liquid that sometimes comes out of pumps, so this image matches our understanding of that word. Plus, the dollar sign spelled out by the leaking gasoline really makes you think about things, such as gas prices, and those knuckleheads in Congress.
Oh my dear sweet Christ. Oh my dear sweet Christ. If I'd really done this experiment, I would be dead as fuck. No wonder they don't just sell sacks of backlash at the local 7-Eleven. It can kill you and/or be used to make meth. Which regulatory committee is responsible of keeping this stuff out the hands of irresponsible boneheads such as myself? The FDA? The CDC? Whoever it is, thank you. You saved my life today. Now, when I go outside, the birds smell sweeter, the air tastes fresher, or more fresh, whichever, and the car horns and loud, swearing human voices sound like the lightest of piano concertos. I'm finally really living.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Demons of the Mind (d. Peter Sykes) - This apparently all-but-forgotten Hammer film from 1972 is basically a "sins of the father" story about a nobleman named Zorn (Robert Hardy) who has lived much of his life fighting the desire to commit bloody murder. Fearing that he's passed this violent gene down to his son and daughter, Emil and Elizabeth (Shane Briant and Gillian Hills), he keeps them locked in separate rooms in his sprawling manor, and also periodically bleeds them in hopes of ridding them of their depraved tendencies, which include, by the way, incest (the original title of the film was Blood Will Have Blood). The eternally bizarre Patrick Magee features as the shady doctor hired by Zorn to oversee all these various treatments, and to try and expel Zorn's own demons. Naturally, all of this is discovered by outside parties, and things turn out poorly. But the film, I thought, was quite good, and creepily strange, too, in both its mood and its willingness to keep the audience confused. Magee's introduction to the story, for example, leaves several questions scattered behind it, and no one to answer them. But that didn't much bother me, not least because Magee's eventual exit is a stunner. The short version of all this is that there's no reason for Demons of the Mind to be thought of as third-tier Hammer: it's serious, loony, Gothic and bloody.
As a side note, I found it curious that, on the DVD commentary track, Sykes, writer Christopher Wicking, and co-star Yvonne Griffin claim that Robert Hardy overdid it a bit, while not saying a word about Patrick Magee's spastic face. I liked both performances, and in any case don't see why Hardy was singled out.
I Sell the Dead (d. Glenn McQuaid) - McQuaid's debut film, inspired by a particularly wonky brand of horror comics -- I admit I'm guessing slightly here, based ont he occasional freeze frames that then morph into comic book panels -- is about two grave robbers, of the Burke and Hare variety, named Blake and Grimes (Dominic Monahan and horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden) who, after being freed from the iron fist of their previous employer (Angus Scrimm), go freelance and find their graverobbing experiences growing more and more bizarre. The find themselves unearthing the undead, a business which proves very lucrative, until they find themselves at odds with a rival graverobbing gang. It's all pretty slight, and occasionally over-stylized, but it's also a pretty fun time. Monahan and Fessenden pull their weight, ably supported by people like Ron Perlman, and the last half of the film, which is considerably more eventful and pulpy, is actually better than the first half, which is a rare quality. This movie isn't much, but it's enough.
One Million Years B.C. (d. Don Chaffey) - Speaking of Hammer, I just saw this somewhat atypical-for-them film over the weekend, and two things struck me. One is that I never knew that this was a Quest for Fire-esque grunting-and-pointing caveman movie, with no English dialogue at all. This revelation both impressed and, somehow, disappointed me. The other thing that struck me is that somewhere, someone is no doubt furiously typing up a thesis on how Stanley Kurbick spent roughly one-sixth of his career ripping this film off. Most obviously, Kubrick included a shot of cavemen getting pummeled by falling rocks during one of Alex's fantasies in A Clockwork Orange which is actually from One Million Years B.C., but the multiple shots of dry, rocky vistas at dusk that opens 2001 is reminiscent of the opening of the Chaffey film. So obviously Kubrick was a no good thief who never had an original idea of his own, and he also never had the stones to include a single pterodactyl fight in any of his films. Game, set, match, Chaffey and Co.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The Untouchables - A big film for me when I was a kid, but one I have since cooled on, at least a little. On the pro side is that I know the movie very well, but on the con side is that David Mamet wrote it, and I talk about him an awful lot already.
Carrie - Pros, it's one of De Palma's better films. Not sure what the cons are yet, other than that between the film and King's novel, there can't be much more left to say.
Dressed to Kill/Blow Out - Probably my favorite De Palma films. Probably. You can only pick one, however!
Mission to Mars - I think this movie deserves some sort of mild defense, so maybe I'm the guy who can do it. Or one of the guys. I bet it's been defended before. But hey, why not me, too?
Man, what a half-assed post. Anyway, remember, one thousand comments.
Saturday, September 5, 2009