William Goldman was an optimist

One of my favorite quotes is from one of my favorite screenwriters. William Goldman, who wrote such brilliant scripts as “The Princess Bride”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, and “All the President’s Men”, among others, once summed up his opinion about the state of affairs in the film business by saying:

Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess—and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.

He was talking about Hollywood’s ability (or inability) to predict which movies would be hits and which bombs. His wisdom has proven accurate over the years.* Supposedly sure things with well known commodities as subject matter and bankable stars have soiled the proverbial bed. (Think “Jungle Cruise”, for just one instance.) There are several every year, just as there are several surprise hits. All this in spite of the focus groups, market research, and billions spent on advertising.

Let me suggest that Mr. Goldman, as much as I respect him and his acerbic opinions, was an optimist by limiting his comments to the film industry. Here are a few more fields where his insight applies just as well:

  • Medicine
  • Sports
  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Publishing
  • Weather forecasting
  • Religion
  • The list goes on and on…

Go ahead. Check “predictions” about what college quarterback will be a star. (Tom Brady? No way! That’s why he was drafted in the sixth round.) Ask ten economists how to solve some financial crisis and you’ll get a dozen plans. You can’t even get doctors to agree on whether a patient has multiple sclerosis, never mind how it will progress. (They don’t even know what it is.)

Even a field such as technology where there a lot of smart people (although I spent my professional career in high-tech, I wasn’t one of them) has had its share of gaffes. Check out this curiously entertaining list. The folks making those predictions were no slouches but they still got it wrong.

This is why as a child of the 60’s (okay, Boomer) I still abide by the motto, “Question Authority”. Especially in medicine. Especially in neurology. Especially in multiple sclerosis.

Your mileage may vary.

But probably not.


*With the possible exception of the pre-Disney Pixar, which produced hit after hit after hit… etc.

[Goldman photo by Bernard Gotfryd, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Ultimate Christmas time-saver!

Like many of you out there, I’m addicted to Hallmark-style Christmas romance movies. They’re awfully acted, wretchedly written, dreadfully directed Christmas-cookie-cutter calamities. Yet, for reasons I can’t identify, I watch them anyway. (Admit it, you watch them, too.) I already wrote about my addiction in a post from a few years ago.

Other than “A Christmas Kiss”, the “Citizen Kane” of Christmas romance movies (from a non-Hallmark source, more recently and inexplicably renamed “A Kiss for Christmas”) they are a complete and total waste of time during a season when time is at a premium. We’re fortunate they’re all almost exactly only 90 minutes long or some people might never leave the house for the whole month of December.

This year, however, I’ve come up with the perfect time saver for addicts like me. As a public service, I’m passing along my findings to you, no charge. (I know, that kind of selfless anti-capitalist behavior isn’t in the modern Christmas spirit.) First, I found the following video at my local library: a collection of nine of these dogs on three DVDs in a single package.

Now here’s the tricky part. Hook up your DVD player(s) so they can read and play all nine movies at the same time! (How? You’ll have to work it out. Hey, I gave you the idea; I can’t do everything for you!) Once that’s all set, sit down and watch all nine movies in parallel. You just watched 810 minutes of miserable movies in 90 minutes, a time savings of 12 hours!

When I did this, other than a few scenes where characters seemed to have multiple shadows and the colors were a little funky, you can’t tell you’re watching multiple movies. That’s because, in reality, you aren’t! They really are all the same movie!*

There. My Christmas gift to you. You’re welcome.


*Seriously, two of the movies had the same actor as the male protagonist with the same irritating personality in the same job: a workaholic advertising executive. I’ll admit to giving up after that revelation. That’s another approach to the problem: go cold (Christmas) turkey.

Modern movie clichés…

Hollywood is built on the back of clichés. It thrives on the familiar, which is why we get endless retreads, reboots, and remakes, not to mention trite pop culture icons (e.g. comics, board games, toys, and theme park rides) rehashed into lame movie franchises. I once joked with a production company executive that the next frontier of such drivel would be breakfast cereals. (“Cap’n Crunch Meets the Flying Dutchman!”, “Snap, Crackle, and Pop: Crime-fighting Triple Threat!”) I was kidding. He said it had already been discussed. You may yet see the horror flick, “Lucky Charms: They’re Magically Deadly!”

But most movies these days are merely collections of individual clichés. The age-old list of classics include such tired bits as:

  • The L-shaped bed sheets that reveal the man’s chest but not the woman’s.
  • Every room in Paris has a view of the Eiffel Tower.
  • All police investigations must have a scene in a strip joint.

There are many more back in the past but this post is about the newer banalities infecting our streams not the antique ones that used to infest our cinemas. The best way to know a movie effect has achieved cliché status (even better than seeing it repeated endlessly in mass-market studio productions) is when it starts to appear in commercials.

I won’t mention the proliferation of vomiting or profanity, which I’ve dealt with already in previous posts. They’re ubiquitous and gratuitous to the point of becoming clichés.

Here are some of the best ones I can think of off the top of my head:

  • The protagonist casually saunters toward the camera, walking away from a huge explosion that he (or she… but let’s face it, it’s usually a guy creating the mayhem) caused. Wondering where you’ve seen this one? Everywhere!
  • A person falls from the sky and lands in a three-point crouch, waiting to spring into action. Typically, the ground where he lands shatters. Yeah, Iron Man and Thor, I’m looking at you. And countless others, including advertisements.
  • Walking unscathed through the middle of a wild firefight, shooting in both directions… sometimes with arms crossed for some inexplicable reason.
  • Speaking of shooting, there’s the person who dives sideways while shooting. Inevitably, even though he’s flying through the air out of control, he hits everything in sight. On the other hand, he’s untouched by anyone shooting at him. You knew this was a cliché when it appeared in a fake trailer in the movie “The Holiday”. Actually, that trailer includes several popular clichés.
  • A person defies gravity by leaning waaaaay back in slooooow motion to avoid a swinging sword. The character is essentially playing sword limbo. They might also be ducking bullets (yeah, right) but only Keanu Reeves can get away with that one.
  • Viewed from inside one car, another car slams into its side, shocking everyone. Well, it shocked everyone when I first saw it in “Adaptation”. Now it shocks nobody.
  • Important character makes dramatic entrance by opening a massive door, backlit as a silhouette. Cool when Aragorn entered Helm’s Deep in “The Two Towers”. Now? Not cool at all.
  • Someone opens a refrigerator door (or other door, but the fridge does this best) and when they close it, someone (or something) is revealed standing behind it. It was cute in “E.T.” It ain’t cute or scary anymore. It’s boring and unoriginal like all the rest of these.

Scenes like those are so hackneyed, I mentally check out of the movie as soon as I see them. It means the director is lazy and unoriginal and I’m no longer interested in what the movie has to say. But it’s not just scenes. An individual line is enough to send me heading for the exit… or the head. Here are a couple of examples:

  • After an atrocious encounter involving intense emotional conflict that unexpectedly blows up in a character’s face, that person looks at another and says with thick sarcasm, “That went well.” It has now become part of everyday parlance. Or maybe it began there. Either way, it keeps coming at us from what used to be called “the big screen” long after it lost any impact.
  • A surprised character declares, “I didn’t see that coming.” Maybe not, but I did. And I’m sick of it.

The saddest part of this is that, somewhere along the line, each of these was original and effective. “The Matrix” was a gold mine of great shots and effects. By now, all those have been hijacked by lesser movies thus making even the original less enjoyable. I’ve already seen one of my favorite action shots, that of Bruce Willis stepping out of a rotating car in “RED”, botched up in some inferior wannabe clone.

And don’t get me started on movies that show one of the final scenes as some sort of “teaser” at the beginning. That might have been clever once or twice (although I doubt it) but it’s reached epidemic levels. There’s almost never a legitimate reason for it either, beyond the director’s conceit.

There are so many more examples, but I’ve run out of time, patience, and energy all at once.

[Side note: One of the primary indications that my life is sweeping by faster than a Delorean with a flux capacitor is how quickly I get behind on these posts. If you’d asked me how long it had been since I posted one, I’d have said 2-3 weeks. Nope. It’s been six weeks. ((sigh)) ]

In case you missed it…

In case you missed one of my many announcements, this post is to let you know about the documentary I recently released on an unsuspecting populace.

“Who Is MS?” profiles the lives of a group of men and women living with multiple sclerosis, MS, a devastating, incurable disease that afflicts nearly 1,000,000 people in the US and almost 3,000,000 in the world. By listening to their stories, you will gain a new appreciation for the problems and possibilities that come along with an MS diagnosis.

If you have MS, these peoples’ stories will inspire you to make the most of your life. We might not be able to stop MS, but it doesn’t have to stop you either. There are people and resources available to keep you moving. You are not alone. This movie lets you know you are in good company.

For those who don’t have MS, it’s been said that you won’t get MS unless you get MS. If you want to understand what it means without having the “full MS experience”, the film will give you first hand testimony, the only real way of understanding this miserable disease.

For those who doubt that MS even exists in spite of watching your friends and loved ones struggle with it–yes, you’re out there and you know who you are–you will be confronted with the truth of what life with MS really means. You owe it to those people in your lives.

You can see the movie on YouTube here:

Like “Don’t Look Up”? You’ll love this!

In light of the nomination of the film “Don’t Look Up” for Best Picture at a certain awards ceremony that must remain nameless or I’ll have to put ®’s and ©’s all over the place, it’s time to point out that the production company I’m affiliated with filmed a very similar epic (the screenplay for which I humbly admit authorship of) ten years ago.

The film, entitled “Worst Case Scenario” predates some of the issues that gave rise to the newer film, concepts such as climate change denial and an insane cult trying to overthrow the American government, but it deals with other foolishness, just as topical now as it was then. Let’s see if “Don’t Look Up” remains as relevant in ten years as ours is today.

Want to see how the two films compare? Watch “Worst Case Scenario” here.

FAQs

(Any web site worth its salt has an FAQs page. Mine has never done so. That could be an inhibitor to its growth from a platform for a curmudgeon trying to unload his lame scribbling to a viral social media giant.

Or not.)

  • Why do you bother with this blog after seven years of almost complete reader indifference?

A fair question, one I’ve wrestled with many times. The most obvious is ego. Having a blog allows me to pretend I have something of import to say, when it’s highly doubtful I do. That’s a self-defeating concept since, as you so clearly and painfully point out, no one appears to be reading it. Ouch! (Thank you for not noting my other blog, “Limping in the Light”, which experienced a similar lack of impact for 10 years. Oh my.)

Another, more reasonable excuse is the desire to sell books. I have seven out there as of this typing (2021) with one more in the works. There’s an infinitesimal but non-zero chance that Oprah will happen on this site and discover that my novel about Haiti, “A Slippery Land”, is perfect for her book club… which it is.

Finally, I just like writing. It’s enjoyable and it’s therapeutic.

  • Have you read the new Andy Weir book, “Project Hail Mary”?

Yes, and it’s great. Similar to “The Martian” in both style and entertainment value. Highly recommended.

  • Can I borrow ten bucks?

No.

  • What’s the deal with that guy in the commercial who points at all your junk and it just goes away?

Nothing is more annoying to me. Our stuff doesn’t just “go away”. There is no “away”. Living under that delusion has brought this world to the predicament it’s in today.

  • How many Frenchmen can’t be wrong?

Last I checked, it was 1,000,000. That might have changed.

  • Is it true that Dick van Dyke was originally cast as the lead in the old movie, “The Omen”?

That’s what I heard. It would be a very different movie with him instead of Gregory Peck, don’t you think? It might have been a musical.

  • Why do people say “dial the phone” when there hasn’t been a dial on a phone in decades?

The same reason my father used to tell us to turn off the gas on the electric stove.

  • How about five bucks?

Okay.

  • Why do motorcycles make so much noise their riders can’t hear themselves think?

They aren’t missing anything.

  • Then they turn up their music above the sound of the bike?

Go figure.

  • Is my call important to you?

Yes, and it will be recorded for customer satisfaction purposes.

  • Where can I get your awesome books?

On Amazon or from me directly.

  • What do you want to be when you grow up?

I have no intention of growing up.

  • What’s the meaning of life?

The Westminster Catechism says “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.” That works for me.

  • Who are your favorite actors?

For some reason, my favorite actors tend to be more commonly in supporting roles as opposed to carrying a movie. Among those that come to mind at the moment are Stanley Tucci, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Bill Cobbs, Steve Zahn, Michael Pena, and a bunch more I can’t think of right now. I appreciate people like these folks who (1) are humble enough to take smaller roles, (2) flexible enough to play anything from drama to OTT humor, and (3) make every movie they’re in better.

  • Have you heard the one about the…

Yes.

  • What does “clockwise” mean?

You were born after 2000, weren’t you?

  • $7.50?

Give it a rest!


(Let me know if you have any more questions you need answered.)

The Comeuppance Factor

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about comeuppance.

First of all, who doesn’t love such a wonderful word? It’s so much fun to say. That’s half of what I want from a word. I have several favorite words. Nefarious, detritus, and capricious—yeah, I know, they all sound like ancient Greek politicians—are among those near and dear to my heart, tongue, and virtual pen. “Ne’er-do-well” is in the running as my favorite word of all.

Sounding good, as important as that is, isn’t enough. To gain my seal of approval, a word must also express major, complex concepts clearly and powerfully all while rolling playfully off the tongue. Comeuppance fills the bill in every way. All you have to say is, “I hope that guy gets his comeuppance,” and people nod their heads in complete understanding.

This is one of the primary ways I judge a film, book, or story in any form. It’s a cardinal rule of mine for action films, especially. The bad guy must get his comeuppance. (Forgive the sexist terminology; it’s just that the best bad guys are in fact guys.) What does a true quality comeuppance entail? Here are a few characteristics:

  1. The bad guy must lose. He can’t ride off into the sunset with the girl, with the booty, or with his head held high. He’s done, finished, end of the line. He’s either dead or demoralized or both. And he can’t come back. Countless terrible sequels have taught us that lesson.
  2. The bad guy must know he lost. At the end of the day, said miscreant has to be saying or thinking, “Curses! Foiled again!” He can’t be allowed to rationalize away his defeat. He blew it and he knew it. While it’s true that he might change his ways in response to his failure—that’s a Good Thing in real life—it’s anticlimactic in a story. Special dispensation is given in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge.
  3. It’s best of all if he knows it’s coming and can’t do a thing about it. This gives the wretched reprobate a chance to beg for mercy or melt down to the lump of evil that he is. (Here the “guy” thing falls apart. It’s the Wicked Witch who literally melts.)

Some examples are in order at this point.

Two of the best comeuppance scenes form the climaxes of two of the best action movies: “RoboCop” and “Die Hard”. In fact, they end the exact same way. The primary antagonists have a long descent from the upper stories of skyscrapers to consider the error of their ways and accept their comeuppance. Do they? We’ll never know because they end up as stains on the sidewalk.

A less violent but just as satisfying comeuppance is that of Prince Humperdinck in “Princess Bride”. Having lost all, he’s left tied to a chair with nothing to do but mull over his ignominious but well-deserved defeat. The comeuppance of Christopher Guest’s six-fingered man, on the other hand, could be the ultimate in cinematic comeuppance. It doesn’t get much more satisfying than watching a sadistic scoundrel beg for his life at the point of his demise.

It could be said that Donald Trump, a stereotypical bad guy of the worst order, got his comeuppance. Sadly, it was far from satisfactory. He lost the popular vote twice, he cost his party the Senate and the House, he never built his cherished wall, he failed to overthrow the government, he lost the White House, and he lost countless business deals because this time he couldn’t sweep his shenanigans under the rug. Failure doesn’t get any more blatant or comprehensive than that. To use his own words against him, the guy is a loser.

The problem, of course, is that his malignant narcissism blinds him to reality. As far as we can tell, he still thinks he won those elections and accomplished all his goals. Mental illness is a sad thing. I wish him healing and recovery.

And comeuppance.


Does anyone else find it frighteningly ironic that, in his attempt to rid the US of foreign terrorists, Trump has bred a crop of domestic terrorists, kind of like Saruman’s senseless Uruk-hai, who will almost certainly wreak more havoc on this country than all those Muslims and Mexicans he likes to rail against?

Or that, in spite of the religious right’s inexcusable devotion to him, he has probably paid for more abortions than he has prevented?

Just sayin’, is all.

Worst Case Scenario

As a writer, there’s not much more gratifying than having your words read by others. Hearing them read out loud is even more fun. That’s one of the benefits of writing plays or screenplays as opposed to prose. Those words are meant to be performed.

Because I have yet to sell any of the dozen or so screenplays I’ve written, I have at times taken matters into my own hands (actually into a whole group of others’ hands) and created vehicles for those words. I present one of them here.

Today we find ourselves mired in–choose your favorite adjective–unprecedented, challenging, trying, difficult, crazy times. As I described in this post on my other blog, unless you were alive in 1918 to experience the incorrectly named Spanish influenza epidemic, you are flailing about with the rest of us in uncharted territory. Perhaps I was prescient when I wrote the script for the accompanying video, but probably not. The video does, however, capture the spirit of the times in which we live. I hope you enjoy the gallows humor.

Profound thanks to my friends at Dark Glass who produced this video eight years ago. Check out their other videos on their YouTube channel.

Free screenwriting seminar

Everyone loves movies but how many people know what goes into a screenplay and what part it plays in the filmmaking process? If you’re interested in learning more about the answers to these questions, come to a free seminar I’m teaching on the basics of the craft of screenwriting. This seminar will be enough to get you started so you can study further on your own. Or, if you’d rather participate in a guided study, I’ll lead a longer class later in the year at the same location.

The free introductory seminar will be held Saturday, January 25, 2020 at 11 AM at The Artisans Exchange in Chelmsford, MA. If you’re in the area and this topic interests you, come by and learn more.

Satisfaction guaranteed or double your money back. 🙂

Have a Hallmark Train Wreck Christmas!

Returning to writing screenplays is a significant adjustment after writing nothing but prose for the past four years. Reading quality screenplays and watching good movies with an eye toward dialog, character, and plot has helped me get back on track. On the other hand, there’s value in coming at it from the other direction.

It’s a truism that we should learn from our mistakes. To disagree with that adage would be foolhardy, but there’s a better way: Learn from others’ mistakes. That way, you can avoid some of those mistakes in the first place and still come out fully informed. That’s the rationale behind watching bad movies. And when you talk about bad movies, this is the best time of year for them.

No, I’m not talking about wonderful holiday films such as “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I’m talking about a relatively recently created genre: The Hallmark Christmas romance movie.* There is a long list of immutable truths about these denizens of the holiday airwaves:

  1. Though there are dozens of them, all are minor variants of about three distinct plots. (Lest we sit too high on our horse, the same can be said of most superhero movies.)
  2. There is an ensemble of (usually) Canadian actors who take turns playing the leads.
  3. There’s a cute kid… who can’t act.
  4. Each features at least one washed-up sitcom star in a minor role.
  5. Although there is lots of talk about faith, belief, and fate, there is exactly zero reference to any of the spiritual aspects of the season. None. Nada. Zilch. Ever.
  6. If any of the protagonists spent any time being honest with each other, the movie would end after 15 minutes because all the misunderstandings would be resolved.
  7. The Kiss, which is always delayed until the final two minutes of the movie and is preceded by multiple near misses, is 100% antiseptic, and is performed with less passion than your average oil change.
  8. As with a train wreck, however, I can’t keep my eyes off them.

Re that last item, I confess it’s true. I watch a dozen or more every year. My expectations, which couldn’t be any lower, are rarely met, never mind exceeded.

Why do I put myself through this? They have all the suspense of a game of tic-tac-toe, the ending of which, like the Hallmark movies, is set in stone from the first move. There is almost never a new plot.

(Example template: Successful woman comes from the “Big City” in an attempt to convert a beloved local establishment into an impersonal commercial development, until some colorful local characters resist her, causing her to give up not only the project, but her home and career to marry her childhood sweetheart, an amiable fellow in a flannel shirt with a permanent three day growth of facial hair with whom she’d had a misunderstanding after the Big Game in high school, but not before a last minute appearance by the woman’s fiancé, who arrives from said “Big City” wearing a Brooks Brothers suit worth more than the other guy’s pickup truck and almost puts the kibosh on the burgeoning romance.)

Three reasons I watch these things almost against my will:

  1. Most of them are graphic lessons in how not to write a screenplay.
  2. I’m an incurable romantic and hope springs eternal (some of the time) that one of them will actually be… well, romantic.
  3. Occasionally, very rarely, one will rise above the dreck and actually be pretty good. In those few cases, I don’t have to waste another half hour of my life bemoaning the fact that I just wasted an hour and a half of my life.

The truly embarrassing reason I watch them, one I hesitate to admit, is that I want to write one.

Yes, it’s true! I would love to write the movie that rises above the miasma of the typical holiday romance porn. In fact, I’m doing it now. In truth, I’m rewriting one of my general romantic comedies to align it with the genre.

Yes, I’m a Christmas mercenary. So be it. At least I’m a romantic mercenary. ❤


* Other networks have noticed the popularity of these movies and have joined Hallmark in this orgy of quasi-romantic, quasi-Christmas tales. Ion and Lifetime are cranking them out almost as plentifully, often with better quality.