I am more ancient than most of my friends. In fact, I could be grandpa to a few of them. For others I’m old enough to be their dad. To the rest I could be the big brother who left home before they hit puberty. That’s all okay, because none of them asks me for candy or presents, and that’s what I really care about.
We’ve become friends because we like some of the same things, such as acting and computers and not worrying about the stock market. We’ve had some of the same fun. We’ve made the same stupid decisions. Then we looked around at each other through the suffering we had brought upon ourselves and said, “What the hell. Let’s bond.”
My young friends embrace new things more readily than my own age group, or at least they don’t have a seizure and swallow their tongue when a new operating system is released. That dang Windows 8 is an exception, of course. My young friends get out and do things. They’re a little less judgmental than people my age. They’re sure a lot less grumpy.
My wife, who’s also younger than me, finds it hilarious that I value having friends who go out and do fun things. That’s just because I don’t go out and do things with them. In fact, she met some of them before I did, and for a year they thought she was lying about being married. They never saw me, so they figured I was no more real than a dragon or a leprechaun.
However, my wife’s amusement is unjust. Even if I stay home, I can enjoy hearing about adventures later on, after the hangovers of youth have subsided. Whenever I do emerge from my lair, some of my young friends are often busy doing fun things, giving me the opportunity to tromp along and do fun things too. Just having that opportunity is worth a lot. Otherwise my only options would be cable news, Red Lobster, and fantasy football.
A gang of my friends is going out to drink and tell lies tonight. Although I’ll be sitting here fumbling around with plot points and internally inconsistent characters, if I wanted to I could be out having fun with them, and I’d be welcome. Like I said, that’s worth a lot.
I pitched my new book to agents at the writer’s conference today. Two of them want to see chapters, and one wants to see the full manuscript. I hope the words on paper will live up to the words that came out of my mouth. I’ve only been writing like a maniac for a few years. I’ve improvised, cajoled, and spouted bullshit on a professional level for a lot longer than that.
Even though agents have asked me for chapters before, this makes me nervous. Yeah, I should be ecstatic, and a sliver of my consciousness is partying like Keith Richards on the day they legalize smack. But most of me is fixating on the gulf between the writer I am now and the writer I want to be. I refer to writing skill. I refer not to the glamorous lifestyle of a professional writer.
My sister is an artist of fabulous skill and determination. She once traveled to another city in which a gallery was showing her work. She said it was like being a rock star. People drove her around town, took her to eat, effused about her work, and generally worshipped her. It was an amazing week. The day she returned home she had to scrape dried peanut butter off the kitchen floor.
It puts things in perspective.
I wonder if I waited too late to get aggressive about writing. It takes time to get good at things. I’m a better actor now than I was 20 years ago. It’s not like I’m John Barrymore or anything now, but it’s relative. The universe of things I don’t know about writing stuns me when I can stand to think about it. Actually, I think about it a lot. My brain won’t stop thinking about writing.
Bad brain. Off the couch.
It’s almost time for tonight’s party here at the conference. I’m certain most of the writers, agents and editors will be there. How do I know this?
Free gin and tonics. That’s the glamorous lifestyle of a writer for you.
I joined two teenagers in holy wedlock yesterday. I consider it an accomplishment since I’m not a minister, they hadn’t thought about marriage when they got up that morning, and I was wearing a pair of boots on my head. In fact, they had never seen me and didn’t know I existed until three minutes before I pronounced them man and wife in front of 30 strangers who didn’t even bring gifts.
All in all, it was a pretty normal spring-time Sunday for me.
I work at a renaissance festival in the spring. Most people go there to have fun, except the guys dragged there by their girlfriends when they’d rather be watching NASCAR, but they fear they won’t get laid tonight if they say no. I don’t go there to have fun. I go there to goad other people into having fun. I get paid just like most professional actors, which means I earn less per hour than a blind dishwasher in Burundi.
People have a lot of different opinions about renaissance festivals, and festivals are run a lot of different ways. There are a lot of jokes about renaissance festivals, some of which are hilarious. For example:
You know you’re at a bad renaissance festival when there’s an eight minute drum solo in the middle of “Greensleeves.”
Mainly I work there because it’s an acting challenge. I like to call it theater with no stage, no script, and no separation from the audience. To put it another way, I have no idea what I’m going to say or do until it happens, we have 33 acres so I have to pin my audience against something so they can’t get away, and I have to make them look brilliant even if they’re gaping at me with a sliver of turkey leg hanging off their cheek. I can tell when I’ve done a decent job of transforming into my character, because my character likes almost every person he’s ever met. You can ask my wife and my friends just how much that does not describe me. So—good acting challenge.
In most cases you have to select your audience, stalk them, and approach them. The best part is when they see you coming and their eyes get that desperate, calculating look. It’s as if they were trapped between a river and an army of tigers, and they’re assessing whether they can make the jump to freedom. At the same time they hover between smiling and not smiling, because they’re not sure which one is most likely to draw the tigers’ attention. That’s the best part because they have such trepidation when you arrive, and you know that when you’re done in a few minutes they’ll be happy, or amused, or feel welcome. Or maybe they’ll feel relieved that you’re done, which is at least better than getting drunk and kicking a mime.
Anyway, I don’t want to talk about renaissance festivals. I just said all that in order to say this.
One day fifteen years ago at this festival I don’t want to talk about, I got tired of selecting and stalking my audience, so I set a trap. I gathered a double-handful of little rocks and sat on a bare, flat spot on the ground. Then I began placing and stacking rocks in patterns that didn’t mean a damn thing. Within ten minutes I had a bunch of little kids, about six or seven years old, picking up their own rocks and stacking them along with me.
I didn’t give them any instructions or rules. My only rule was that whatever they did was perfect. If they knocked down 30 existing rocks, I told them that was the most beautiful thing ever and those rocks must have been in the way. The funny thing was that most kids had a parent standing nearby telling them to be careful and not mess anything up. We tried to ignore those parents as much as we could.
This weekend I realized I hadn’t set a kid trap in a decade and a half, so I gathered up some rocks and went to work. In the first five minutes several kids stopped to look, but none of them sat down to play. In the following five minutes a couple of kids brought me rocks, but they wouldn’t sit down to help, even though I invited them. The parents, who were grown up versions of my kids from 15 years ago, just looked and didn’t say anything. After 30 minutes I gave up and moved on.
What the hell?
I pondered this change last night as I ate an economically priced New York strip, and I came up with a small array of possible explanations:
Stacking rocks loses its charm when a child can play Angry Birds on his cell phone 24 hours a day, even on the toilet.
For a child today, sitting down to play with an unknown person seems as dangerous as injecting arsenic into your neck.
Today’s children are expected to follow rules that govern every type of human behavior, so when they looked at the unstructured rock-stacking activity, their minds couldn’t deal with it. Their brains had to reset like a computer that’s been told by Captain Kirk to divide by zero.
I didn’t like any of those explanations. They’re all depressing. And since I possess modern man’s ability to convince myself that the things I don’t like are untrue, I denied all these explanations. As I choked down the last gristly bite of cow, the correct explanation revealed itself.
It’s me. I am 15 years older. I’m 15 years stranger. I no longer look like the fun but kind of weird uncle. Now I look like the really weird old guy doing something with rocks that’s inexplicable but probably bad. No wonder they stood out of reach, watching like I was a musk-ox in the zoo. They didn’t know what to make of me, but they were sure nothing good was going to come out of me.
So I’ll put my kid trapping techniques aside from now on and go after older audiences. The kids are safe. Wait until they’re teenagers on a date at a renaissance festival, though. Then I’ll own their asses.
It’s not really that I don’t love you. I have reasons for ignoring you and this blog over the past couple of weeks. They are bad reasons, but then people often have bad reasons for not doing things. Bad reasons for not exercising, bad reasons for not saving money, bad reasons for not walking away from the computer before posting that rabid Facebook flame. I’m claiming solidarity with the world’s self-deluded procrastinators.
In the interest of whining about how busy and hard my life is, I’ll point out that I have a job—for now—and a family life that require me to devote blocks of time if I want to continue having jobs and a family. For example, I’ve been helping my father refinance his house. I love the optimism inherent in securing a loan that won’t be paid off until you’re 105 years old, but it does require time to arrange. Also, I’m happy to spend bonding time with my wife by sitting on the couch watching hour-long crime-solving comedies that always seem to show graphic autopsies and melting flesh just when I’m eating my dinner.
However, I’ve spent time on a few other things in recent weeks, and I can use them as whimpering excuses for my absence from this blog space. Let’s look at my creative endeavors.
For the past few weeks I’ve been in rehearsals for an eight-week show that opens this weekend. I love performing, but it eats time the way my cats eat yogurt, which is to say, voraciously. This is an ideal commitment for me to cite as a bad excuse for ignoring my other commitments. People assume that actors are kind of artistic, irresponsible, flaky types anyway, so that works in my favor.
I also have the opportunity to pitch a book project to agents a month from now, so I’ve been editing and polishing the thing like it was a ’58 T-Bird. I’m obsessing over everything from typos to profound thematic problems, such as, “If the bad guy ambushes the hero and traps him in a church, why doesn’t the hero just slip out the back door and run away instead of standing there to get pummeled? Is he stupid?” I’ve been surprised at how many stupid things my characters do just because I want to get them into a certain situation.
I’ve been using a book called Nail Your Novel to guide me through editing. It’s been terribly helpful, but all this still takes time. In fact, I have a plan for writing so that it doesn’t suck away too much family time. I write as much as I want four weeknights each week, and the fifth weeknight is for my wife and me (and whatever melted-flesh TV programs we’re watching). I don’t write at all on the weekends. If I can average 1,500 words per night, in 14 weeks I have an 80,000 word first draft. I squeeze in other writing (like this blog) at other times, such as early morning or lunch.
It’s structured, and it works. It avoids those situations in which my wife doesn’t see me for three months because I’d rather write than do anything else, including eating, sleeping, and showering. It also serves as another bullshit excuse for not updating this blog in the past couple of weeks.
Yesterday afternoon I found myself off work early. That would have been an ideal time to blog, before evening when I would start editing my book. But instead of blogging with this free time, I chose to replace a florescent light fixture under our kitchen cabinet. A few weeks before, my wife had bought a new fixture to replace the current 40 year-old cracked and sagging fixture, and she laid it on the bench in the kitchen. She told me it was there, I said I’d put it up, and then she didn’t mention it for a week or so. At that point she said she should probably replace the fixture herself sometime. I might have mumbled that I’d get to it soon. Thereafter she ignored the fixture and didn’t mention the fact that it lay on our kitchen bench, and that I stacked stuff on and around it almost every day.
So, yesterday afternoon I resolved to replace the fixture, knowing that I could blog afterwards. I’ve done this sort of repair pretty often in my life, so the old fixture came down, and the new one pretty much flung itself up onto the underside of the cabinet. At that point I was reminded of a fundamental principle of home repair. When attaching something to the bottom of something else, you will have screws that point up.
My hands like to tell me to go to hell sometimes, for technical reasons beyond the scope of the current discussion. When I focus on doing something they will shake. When I really concentrate, they shake even more. When I get frustrated, that’s like permission for them to do The Harlem Shake (you young folks check the link). When I leaned over the counter, under the cabinet, backward and upside down to thread these screws, that’s when the fun began.
About an hour later I passed my wife, who was sitting in the den, and she asked what I’d been laughing about. I told her I’d just taken an hour to do something I used to be able to do in about 30 seconds, and she expressed her sympathy. I didn’t touch on the hour’s worth of events that took place before I laughed. Here’s an excerpt:
I try to thread a screw and drop it.
I try to thread it with the other hand and drop it.
I put it on the end of a screwdriver and drop it, where it falls behind the toaster.
I think bad words and consider smashing the olive oil bottle on the inconceivably hard tile floor.
I drop the screw five more times in a row.
I actually pick up the olive oil bottle but take a deep breath and put it back down.
I drop the screw four more times.
I start to ask my wife for help, but I think ‘What if I was here by myself?’
I drop the screw three more times, until it falls on the floor where it rolls under the refrigerator.
I walk around the kitchen a couple of times thinking that I could take the olive oil bottle out back and down the alley to smash it, where no one would ever need to know.
I move the refrigerator and get the screw.
I fold masking tape on my fingertip and stick the screw to it, then I try to thread it and drop it inside the toaster.
I shake the toaster upside down for the screw, and I clean toast crumbs off the counter, wondering why we haven’t died in a fire.
I drop the screw ten more times in a row.
I wring the dish cloth full of toast crumb really hard. I think some of the molecular bonds may have broken.
I drop the screw another ten times in a row.
[Imagine that this goes on for about another 45 minutes]
All the gods from every religion in history guide my hand, and I thread the screw.
I laugh because nothing is broken and everyone is still alive.
Now that I have, in the manner of a neurologically-challenged Prometheus, restored light to our kitchen, I’m pretty much out of bad reasons for not updating this blog. I can’t think of any good ones either, so here we are. All I need are a title and a photo before I post this. What photo should I use? The light fixture conquered and gloriously mounted on my cabinet? Or the cat eating yogurt?
I’m thinking about murdering some flying cows. It wouldn’t be hard, at least on the technical side. They’re cows, so they’d just stand there and take it, or maybe they’d chew their cuds and hover a little. But I’d struggle on the emotional side, because they have huge brown eyes, and they’re goofy looking, and they make me giggle.
These are fictional cows. I’ve written them into a story I’m working on, which I guess says a lot about the maturity of the story and my maturity as a person. I just love them. The story isn’t about them, and they don’t show up that much, but when I get to write about them I feel giddy. If you’ve never written about flying cows, I suggest you run right out and try it. It’s better than playing golf while you’re high.
And yet, my friend Dan has a great rule about acting. If something makes you giggle for more than 15 seconds, don’t do it. I believe that applies to writing too. If it entertains me that much, it’s almost certain to aggravate and insult a lot of other people who don’t share my sense of humor. A large proportion of the relatively small number of people likely to read my story would despise my flying cows. My cows might be sad. So instead I should shoot them between the eyes with the Delete key.
I’m now trying to talk myself out of writing a eulogy for my cows, since I have a couple of thousand more words to write before I go to bed tonight. Maybe I can just say that like many things in this life, too much good is bad. A slice of cake is good. A barrel of cake frosting is a heart attack. Flowers from an admirer are good, but a gift-wrapped leather sofa containing a hidden webcam is a restraining order. It’s about perspective and proportion.
“Perspective” is not my middle name. My middle name is “It probably won’t kill us, so let’s pour the green stuff into the pink stuff and see what happens.” I sometimes get into trouble because of that, causing me to tell people things that make them never talk to me again, get locked up in remote places, and have parts of my body mashed off. I was walking out of my psychiatrist’s office once (which sounds like the evil twin of a bad joke), and he shocked me by saying, “Let me know if you start feeling too happy. That’s a bad sign.” That was a hell of a note. But it made sense when I thought about it, because being too happy is bad for me, just like too much sex would be. I can’t think of exactly how it would be bad, but I’m sure it would be.
So, I know what I have to do. The road to mental health and literary excellence seems to be paved with the bodies of flying cows, and it’s slaughtering time. I’ll do it after this next chapter. It contains a flying cow chase scene, and they’re just so cute when their ears stand out like wings and their udders flap in the wind.
I broke down and dove into Twitter six months ago, on the advice of several strangers. They didn’t have candy, but it turns out they did have good advice about Twitter. Here’s why their advice was good:
First of all, I don’t use Twitter to talk to my friends. Twitter’s a big place where anyone can read whatever they want, and I don’t have anything to say to my friends that I want millions of other people reading. If I just wanted to talk to my friends, I’d never touch Twitter. I’d go to a bar, like we always do.
I use Twitter to connect with people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in. That’s mainly writers, agents, and publishers. I sometimes look for actors and food service workers, which are pretty much the same thing. I find them and follow what they tweet. Sometimes they follow me, and a-hah! We’ve made a connection.
I don’t tweet that I just ate a sandwich or that I’m waiting for Popeye to show up on Once Upon a Time. Some people like to do that, but I don’t. I try to share things I think will be useful or at least interesting to more than three people.
Unlike Facebook, a Twitter profile reveals little about you. You can share a photo if you want, you can write a 160 character bio, and you can list a website, which frankly can belong to an auto body shop and no one would know or care. That’s all. I don’t worry about creepy strangers following me. All they really know about me is what I choose to tweet. If I tweet my address and where I keep my stash, then I deserve a home invasion.
The 140 character limit isn’t a pain in the ass like people think. If I have something cool to share, I tweet a brief explanation plus a link to the full thing. A lot of people do that. For example, right now someone just tweeted “Like Gargoyles?” plus a link. Ooh, and “I wept blood after talking to my agent” plus a link. Next I’m looking at “A sadist uses trained monkeys to torture his victims” plus a link. You think I’m kidding, right?
If I’m following a thousand people, I don’t have to scan the tweets from all of them all the time. I can make a list of just the independent publishers, or only the agents, and I can follow that list when I want. It takes a tad of effort, but it makes the Facebook list creation process seem like rebuilding a Corvette t-boned by a dump truck.
Hashtags make things easy. A hashtag looks like this: #hashtag. If I tweet about humor, I might stick a #humor hashtag in my tweet. That way, anybody searching for that hashtag would find my tweet. I also like to use #mentalillness, #dumbass, and #vampirecows. If I want to see what people are saying about science fiction, I can search #scifi. It’s a good way to find cool links and to find new people you want to follow, or who might be fooled into following you.
I can manage my electronic space pretty easily in Twitter. I drop in when I have a few minutes, and I check out tweets on topics about which I’m interested. I spend far less time on Twitter than on Facebook, but I get a lot out of Twitter. I can just look at the things I’m interested in rather than wading through my friends’ religious manifestos, pictures of lions hugging bunnies, and notifications that this was the worst morning of their lives. I love them all, but it’s a lot to read through when I only have five minutes.
Twitter doesn’t try to sell me shit. Sometimes people send tweets that try to sell me shit, but I can just stop following them.
To sum up, if I just wanted to hang with my friends, I’d never use Twitter. For finding people and information that interest me, it’s been the WD-40 of social media. Well, maybe not that good—let’s say it’s been the crescent wrench of social media.
Oh, and one more thing. It’s a lot harder to flame someone or write an insane rant if you’re limited to 140 characters, because you have to write with discipline. That alone is worth its weight in kittens.
I love the fact that stories make my real life look like the dim cousin with snot on his cheek. Things that happen in stories don’t happen in the real lives of real people, and that’s kind of the point. Stories are so unreal we can sink into them without squirming. Come on, nobody wants to be told about real life when they have a real life of their own to deal with.
We don’t live in stories. We’re not going to bring down a corrupt government with nothing but our pistol and a three-day beard. We’re not going to get seduced by some leather and lace vampire prince crime lord saxophone player assassin. We don’t wield magic swords that sweaty fan boys buy replicas of to wear with their fake chainmail and cheap boots. These things are not going to happen to us. We’re going to update spreadsheets, build houses, mow the yard, eat junk food, chase our kids, watch bad TV, go to the bathroom, and sleep. Maybe we’ll drink a margarita. And die. Not from the margarita I hope.
Stories resemble our real lives in almost no way at all, but still we want to understand our lives through stories. Life is big and scary, but fun little stories unfold in familiar ways. Stories strip the detail off our flabby lives and leave us with the polished bones.
Let me demonstrate. I’ll summarize the well-known tale of Luke Skywalker in the very first Star Wars film.
Normal Life. Luke’s a whiny, reckless farm boy on a boring planet hot enough to melt all George Lucas’ Oscars. He wants adventure and glory more than anything else, so he bitches about his chores and drives his uncle insane.
The Adventure Begins. Luke meets wise but scruffy Obi-Wan, and then the evil Empire turns Luke’s family into medium-rare lawn art. Luke makes his first decision. He joins Obi-Wan and right away gets into trouble in a bar. It’s all he can do to avoid tripping over dismembered arms.
Loyal Friends Appear. Luke flees the planet just ahead of the Empire, courtesy of cynical Han Solo and his wookie friend, Chewbacca, who’s like a huge, psychotic shih tzu. We find out that wookies tear off people’s arms, and that Obi-Wan can be given a migraine from a hundred light years away, even when he’s in hyperspace. Luke gets to show he can use his mystical powers to outsmart levitating D&D dice.
Bad Decisions and Worse Results. Luke has recklessly followed Obi-Wan and is rewarded by getting sucked into the arms of the evil Empire, particularly the villain Darth Vader. Then, like a moron, Luke recklessly decides to save the princess. That results in:
being trapped in a room with a dozen maniacs shooting blasters
almost getting crushed after some garbage monster humps his leg
getting stuck on a ledge with storm troopers shooting at him, or at least at the walls near him, and being saved only by heroic wire work and an incestuous smooch.
seeing Darth Vader murder the beloved Obi-Wan, producing a disappointing lack of gore.
Setting Up the Big Fight. Luke escapes from the Death Star after a two minute space battle that could have been replaced by footage from any film about WWII air combat. However, he’s leading his enemies right back to the rebel base. Luke’s crappy decisions have now endangered the base and the entire rebellion made up of every white male extra in Hollywood. What does Luke do? He rolls up his sleeves and does some determined moping. Luke and his friends reach the rebel base, and the rebels plan the ultimate assault on the Death Star, which all the pilots agree is pretty much doomed.
The Dark Moment. The assault goes poorly, if getting 95% of your force wiped out can be considered a poor showing. When the rebel base is seconds from annihilation, when the deadliest villain in the galaxy is about to give his son Luke the ultimate time out, when things could not possibly get any worse, and it’s all Luke’s fault—Luke grows up. Rather than recklessly relying on his targeting computer, he trusts his instincts and obeys the disembodied voice of a dead man. Luke fires an awesome sci-fi torpedo into a port the size of a wamp rat. I still don’t know how big that is, but it blows the Death Star into a jillion cheesy 1977 special effects bits.
Wrap Up. Luke gets a shiny medal from a cute princess with whom he has an ambiguous relationship, and about 5,000 rebel soldiers watch while wondering what the mess hall is serving for lunch. And hoping it’s not wamp rat. Luke gets adventure and glory because he changed from a whiny, reckless youth into a confident man with mystical powers and a badass black wardrobe in the sequel.
The story is clear and structured and non-threatening. It’s a nice way to understand things. But here’s my take on real life for Luke Skywalker.
Real Life. Luke’s a whiny, reckless farm boy who wants adventure and glory. He works on his uncle’s sand farm, until the sand market crashes and they go broke. They move to the city where Luke sells deep fried wamp rat on a stick. He does well, opens his own wamp rat stand, and then opens a few more.
Luke meets a girl who can stomach the aroma of wamp rat, she marries him, and they crank out some kids. He recklessly opens a blue milk smoothie franchise, and he loses everything except one broken down wamp rat stand. He recovers by adding grilled wamp rat and wamp rat fingers to the menu.
Luke grows up, stops making reckless decisions, and saves his money, even though there’s nothing worth a damn to buy on this stupid planet. As the kids grow, they take family vacations to the planet’s other squalid cities. Things seem really good.
The kids leave home, and Luke turns the wamp rat business over to his son. His wife gets tired of hearing his stories about the droids he owned when he was a kid, and he spends more time in the garage rebuilding classic land-speeders. He breaks his leg in a horrible bantha accident, and he never dances again. The city raises the taxes on his mud brick hovel, and his idiot son runs the business into the ground. Luke and his wife move to a small sand farm and rarely see their kids. Not only does Luke never leave the planet for adventure, he ends up back where he started, on a sand farm. I could go on, but you see where I’m headed with this.
Luke’s story and Luke’s real life both contain lots of references to wamp rats, so they’re alike in that way. Also, Real Luke and Story Luke both learn to stop flailing off to rescue every princess that comes along, getting their mentors killed and/or sending their blue milk smoothie franchises into bankruptcy. The difference is that Story Luke takes 121 minutes to learn that, while Real Luke takes half a lifetime. That’s a lot fewer trips to the bathroom, even with 64 ounces of Dr. Pepper inside you. Of course, Real Luke doesn’t get any medals, or mystical powers, or a light saber, but restoring land-speeders is probably fun.
If Real Luke saw Story Luke’s tale, would he understand more about his real life? Would it help him grow up and stay away from schemes involving blue milk? Would it convince him to stop wasting his time on land-speeders and go have some adventures? I think it might, but I could be wrong. I guarantee one thing though. It would convince him that you should never let anything bigger than a beagle hump your leg.
One disadvantage of being a soulless, horrific fiend, who with a mere glance can boil the marrow in the bones of the innocent, is that people think you don’t like cartoons. Peasants, tradesmen, and scruffy German professors who should know better all clasp this flabby misconception to their bosoms, as if it were a sickly infant that only the milk of ignorance could nourish. This notion is nothing but odious rubbish. I assure you that I and four other Vampire Princes sat in attendance on opening night of Fantasia, urging that Mickey Mouse suffer damnation, delivered by a broom that surely was animated by the forces of Hell. Therefore, to those churlish enough to suggest I must disdain animated films, I say bah. May their slumber be destroyed by scorpions behaving in an entirely improper fashion.
Today I propose to discuss the film Despicable Me. I admittedly approached it with elevated expectations, since its protagonist is a literal villain, and the word “despicable” dominates the title. It is as if the filmmakers have promised ninety minutes of terror, suffering, and grinding degradation. Indeed, my henchman Nodwick squirmed in anticipation to such a distracting degree that I resorted to chaining him to his seat, and I found myself compelled to threaten him with nailing his hands to the armrests.
The film’s initial scenes sated my hunger for an execrable, villainous hero and whetted my anticipation for greater depredations to come. True, I could wish that Groo had simply killed his horrible neighbor’s dog rather than alluding to the act in a sideways manner, perhaps with entrails artistically hurled across the lawn. But that is no more than quibbling on my part. I sensed the film urging us forward from Groo’s current loathsome, alligator and rhinoceros-filled existence into a future of shattering destruction, rushing along a story arc that would make Aeschylus blush with approval. I saw the film’s promise come into flower as three moderately innocent young persons thrust themselves into Groo’s world of devastation and woe, and I waited for him to visit profound, agonizing, and all-encompassing obliteration upon them, as certainly he must.
That which followed shocked me in a manner unequalled since Lord Zülta devoured twelve drunken gypsies and goat in three minutes. In fact, I heard Nodwik whisper, “Holy shit,” and I clouted him so fiercely he was unable to open his left eye for a month. Aghast, I observed Groo allowing himself to be cajoled and goaded in a manner that would make any black-faced lamb weep with shame. He accepted this abuse from three insignificant, barely sentient children, some of whom wore pink, if that can be conceived. I felt impelled to slay Groo without hesitation, yet I realized he was merely an image wrought by an animator and his calculating machines. I resolved to find this animator at once and dismember him, hiding each limb on a different continent like grisly Easter eggs.
As I began to unchain Nodwick, an image scraped across the screen that altered my entire perception of the film. I refer to Vector, the supposed antagonist of the film, presented as a villain to rival Groo. I came quite near to smiling in amusement—indeed, my lip might have twitched. Vector was a vapid, crass, worthless excrescence of a villain, undeniably so. Even the squid in Vector’s “squid gun” rolled its eyes at his ineptitude. The appearance of Vector’s repugnant self placed this film into its proper focus. Despicable Me is not a heroic saga of evil and horror on a profound scale, as I had initially conceived it to be. Rather, it is a cautionary tale of allowing one’s potential for hideous malignance to dissipate into pathetic ineptitude. Heedless of the peril, Groo descends into mediocrity by waging against a mediocre puff of flatulence. He embraces frailty by coddling frail and unhygienic urchins, rather than splintering their bones and stripping their souls from the flesh.
Why does Groo fail? The brilliance of Despicable Me resides in Groo’s excuses for his abject embarrassment, which he disguises as compassion and ridiculous finger puppets. Groo fails because his mother treated him abominably. That weakness then seeps into his mighty cruelty and splits it, just as water might seep into an oak tree and smash it open at the first freeze.
Good lord, Groo, we all had mothers. Having a mother excuses nothing.
Every being that wishes to perpetrate evil upon the pure and guileless denizens of this world should immediately watch Despicable Me. Do not wait until you have tortured that final shabby villager. Do not wait for that virtuous young woman to retire, clad in her ridiculously diaphanous nightgown and awaiting your mesmerizing presence to usher her into damnation. Go and see it forthwith.
Despicable Me serves as a foul beacon reminding us to master our craven weaknesses, and to slaughter every prepubescent child before it utters a solitary precocious syllable. For that, I give Despicable Me five horrific tortures involving the mucus membranes, out of five.
I’m watching this movie called Red Beard, and it’s a cool Japanese movie, even though it doesn’t have any sword fights. It does have Toshiro Mifune in it, who was a Japanese movie god in his day. For Japan, he was like Clint Eastwood and Robert DeNiro put together, except his face didn’t look as weird as either of theirs. He’s a doctor in this movie, and after he pounds the ever loving shit out of about 20 guys, he sends his orderly to carry them back to the clinic to get all their shattered arms and legs splinted. Then he tells his intern how bad it was that he, a doctor, beat the crap out of these guys, and how he’s a weak-willed person, and that it was an all-around awful thing he should be ashamed of. And he says it without sounding pathetic, or whiny, or preachy—like he’d do it again if he had to, but he’d be sad about it later. And you totally believe it.
That’s how god damn cool Toshiro Mifune was.
The really fun thing is that right after that scene the movie stops for an INTERMISSION. I mean, music plays and the screen shows a Japanese character that I assume says “intermission,” because that’s what the subtitle says, and that lasts about five minutes. That’s how long it takes me to jog out to the men’s room, drop off 36 ounces of Diet Coke, and jog back, so an intermission is a pretty neat thing to have in a movie that’s three hours and forty-five minutes long.
Somebody once asked Alfred Hitchcock how long a movie should be, and he said the length should be proportional to the endurance of the human bladder. The director of Redbeard, Akira Kurasawa, who himself wasn’t exactly Mortimer Snerd when it came to making movies, clearly agreed with Alfred. At one time, if a director made a film much over two hours long he showed some mercy on his audience and their urinary tracts. Long movies like My Fair Lady, Gandhi, and The Great Race all had cozy little intermissions.
But now movies like Independence Day, Dark Knight, and anything with hobbits in it give their audiences a stiff punch in the bladder. And what was up with that god damn Titanic? Three hours into the thing I leave for a five minute restroom visit, and when I come back I have to ask my wife, “Why the hell are they running around below deck with freezing sea water up to their nipples? Does this have something to do with the old lady’s necklace? Did you take notes?”
Even The Avengers pushes two and a half hours with no break. Apart from the fact that some of it’s funny enough to make me pee, I’d like to be able to hang in there to see the after-credits fun without an embarrassing accident. Come on, Joss Whedon, you’re a rebel. We know you’re on our side. Don’t be afraid to stand with giants such as Hitchcock and Kurasawa. Bring back intermissions, and help us out. It’s hard enough for young people to get a little action on a date without having to waddle out of the theater like a penguin with a crotch infection.
Do they smoke dope at an elvish solstice festival?
I know it sounds like a frivolous question, but I grappled with it for several hours yesterday. You see, I’m writing a story about Santa Claus, and he’s an elf, and the next thing that happens in the story requires a bunch of elves all together in a jolly horde. So, I needed to create an elvish solstice festival. Obviously. But then I had to describe the damn thing.
What do big groups of elves do for fun? I’m not talking about those gangly, pasty Tolkien elves that creep me out, and that would creep you out too if you met one of the pouty, immortal bastards. I’m talking about happy elves that clean your house in the middle of the night and make toys and steal your firstborn child if you can’t guess their name. You know, elf hijinx. But what do big gangs of them do for a good time?
I thought of lots of things they might do. Dancing around elf-sized solstice-poles, holding shoe making contests, dueling with candy canes, and so forth. None of it seemed right. I liked the image of the teenage, future St. Nick and his friends hiding behind a giant toadstool and smoking a joint. But that didn’t seem right either. I felt like a crummy writer. I hated my brain, and I wanted to beat it to death with tequila.
My fourth tequila shot reminded me of something I learned in improvisational acting. When you want to start a scene, don’t think about something happening. Go with an emotion.
Okay, you may not relate to that, so try this. Think about when you were five years old and you wanted to tell a fib. Some enlightened parents call it telling a story. My parents called it being a lying little shit. Whatever you call it, you needed to tell something that wasn’t true. It’s just like being a writer, except that five-year-olds don’t get paid, and writers don’t get paid either, but they get lots of rejection letters that make them think about tequila and smoking dope.
Anyway, your five-year-old self may start his lie with, “What happened was, I was standing in the kitchen, and then I was just playing, you know, and just standing there petting the dog, and then the dog jumped on the table and then knocked the baby on the floor…” You know the whole time you’re talking that you knocked the baby on the floor when you climbed the height chair to grab a fist full of cake frosting. This pathetic lie ends with you locked in the broom closet for a week and fed only spaghetti noodles slid under the door. All because you just talked about stuff happening.
Instead, go with emotion. You should start your lie with a hurricane of tears, and then shriek, “The baby’s going to die! Don’t let the dog kill me too!” This is more like it. Your mom is so freaked out that she never considers you might be a lying little shit. This lie ends with the dog tied to a stake in the backyard and you getting a popsicle.
So how did Mr. Tequila help my five-year-old self create an elvish solstice festival? Instead of trying to imagine what was happening at this festival, I took each character in the story and wrote about his favorite thing at the festival, and why it was his favorite thing. It didn’t exactly write itself, and the four tequila shots didn’t help. But when I’d finished it felt right and made sense, and I had a realistic place for my characters to do some dumb stuff. Well, as realistic as an elvish festival can get.
And no, they don’t smoke dope at an elvish solstice festival. Snorting lines of pixie dust is another matter.