Obsoleting Reality

These are not good days for reality. They haven’t been for some time, but the old boy’s decline seems to be hastening. From all indications, people don’t have a lot of use for reality.

As an entity, reality has been, as we were wont to say in the software world, deprecated. That means it’s still out there somewhere, but you’re discouraged from using it. It’s just as well. It’s getting as hard to recognize as it is scarce.

The reality (there’s that word again) of the situation has been driven home for me most recently with the suddenly huge and profitable enterprise known as fantasy football. Fantasy sports have been around for a while, mostly played out among friends and co-workers. The lunatic fringe started getting involved. That was bad enough. Then it became Big Business, giving us all the gift of legalized gambling in all 50 states.

fantasylandThe fantasy versions of sports have surpassed their reality counterparts in importance to many people. At least it’s called “fantasy” because it isn’t “real”. (Would that TV showed the same discretion, q.v. below.) Unfortunately, some people take it to extremes and trade reality in for fantasy. They forget the actual sport – or worse, interfere with the actual sport! – in favor of the fantasy version. Read “Fantasyland” by Sam Walker for a glimpse at the insanity of it all in baseball.

Worse is when we slap the word “reality” on things that are anything but. It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I’m talking about so-called reality TV. And by reality I mean fantasy. How did that happen? In this case, reality refers to something that is surreal, absurd, contrived, and a slew of other qualities that are in reality (I mean it this time) descriptive of things such as fiction, fantasy, and general nonsense.

That situation isn’t all that distinct from the average based-on-fact movie today. Maybe in days of yore movies that were about people or things that actually existed were factual. There’s no such pretense these days. Movies simply aren’t telling true stories anymore. In order to squeeze into the save-the-cat mold or whatever other generic screenwriting template is in vogue, films are dramatized often to the point of camouflaging the truth beyond recognition. You see the disclaimers at the end of the ridiculously long credits:

Although this movie is based on actual events that may or may not have happened, none of the characters are real. The settings and dialogue have been fabricated for dramatic effect. Organizations depicted herein are not and have never been and most likely never will be real. The story has been twisted like a Möbius strip in order to maximize income for the producers. However, it is true that there once was a guy.

Movies use a variety of descriptions that, if analyzed correctly, reveal how far they’ve drifted from historical veracity. Here’s a sample:

  • a true story – This means what it says: It’s a true story. You will never see this claim.
  • based on a true story – There was indeed a story once. The movie is a fictional retelling of that story.
  • based on actual events – There were some events. One or two might have accidentally ended up in the movie.
  • inspired by actual events – Forget about it. Any connection to reality is purely coincidental and probably a mistake. You could say this about “E.T.” It could have been inspired by the actual event of a kid who ate Reese’s Pieces and faked being sick so he could stay home from school.

Reality. headstone

I miss it.

Beating a dead horse

As much as I hate to revisit and flog a deceased equine, my time is limited by other projects and general life stress. Thus I’m back to a favorite topic of an unfavorite movie: Boyhood.

My original lambasting of the aforementioned over-hyped project was written several months ago. Recently, however, while stuck in a holding position over personal issues, the topic came back to mind. My primary critique of the film, held in common with others in the blogosphere, is that it was not a great movie, nor even a particularly good one. Its only claim to greatness rests in its gimmick of filming the same performers in the same roles over many years. The only problem is…

…it’s been done! Many times!

…albeit in a different format with more entertaining results. I’m talking about television programs. Many have successfully spanned a decade or more: Ozzie and Harriet, Lassie, My Three Sons, Bonanza, Happy Days, The Cosby Show, Seventh Heaven, Two and a Half Men, and so many more of varying degrees of quality. In each case, the same cast aged before our eyes over the span of the series.

That’s right, “Boyhood” is merely the logical (but dull) extension of any long-running TV series, although the ones with children bear the closest resemblance. If you take the 10-year run of “Happy Days” and edit it into a single three hour marathon, what exactly is the difference? Yeah, the HD movie would be much more entertaining and Boyhood has nobody that comes close to The Fonz in originality. Other than that and a slew of undeserved Oscar nominations, it’s the same deal.

See what happens when I have too much time on my hands to think and too little to write?

Seriously, which of these guys would you rather watch grow up? Mr. emo Boyhood kid or Ricky Nelson? Ricky’s life was way more interesting.

Seriously, which of these guys would you rather watch grow up? Mr. emo Boyhood kid or Ricky Nelson? Ricky’s life was way more interesting.

Still Alice

stillaliceWriting two blogs eats up a lot of time, especially when trying to maintain the rigorous discipline of generating one post per week per blog. Now and then, when my schedule demands it, I cheat. This is one of those times.

I’m putting this post up on this blog two days late. Sorry. It’s also being published on my other blog two days early. While you could accuse me of double-dipping, using one post to take up two slots, it’s okay because the topic serves the distinct purposes of the respective target blogs.

There. I’ve rationalized my sloth.

Limping in the Light, deals with chronic illness, specifically MS. Scribbling in the Sand concentrates on my writing, including screenplays, which leads to an occasional movie review. What happens when those two worlds collide?

You get “Still Alice”.

Every now and then, a major movie is released that restores my faith in what film can do. This is one of those times. Here’s a movie about a realistic human being facing a realistic, if excruciating, fate: early onset Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve wanted to see this film for which Julianne Moore deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actress, but for some reason I just got around to it last week. It was worth the wait.

Hollywood doesn’t get too excited about the chronically ill, the exception being mental illness, but only if said condition leads to exploitable sexual or violent behavior. We were fortunate to have two quality films about “disabling” illness recognized by the Academy for 2014, the other being “The Theory of Everything”.

“Still Alice” accurately and vividly portrays the maxim that individuals don’t get sick, families do. Alice’s condition is almost as destructive to her family as it is to her. Yet it somehow brings about healing as well. How people react to sickness is as revealing as how it affects its victim.

Not enough can be said about Ms. Moore’s performance. Subtle, powerful, gripping, disturbing, and true are all words that capture the essence of what she does on the screen. I felt her slow retreat into lostness almost viscerally. The “making of” featurette on the DVD was particularly enlightening as it dealt with how she prepared for her role.

In any other movie, two characteristics found in this film would have upset me. It contained the obligatory puke scene and it easily toed the depression line that was de rigueur for most 2014 productions. Both were acceptable, maybe even mandatory in this context. I lambasted 2014’s bummer crop in a previous post, even mentioning this movie as an example. This is a film that will indeed be depressing for most, but the courage of battle can be uplifting as well.

Don’t watch the movie for a lightweight escape. Watch it to be entertained in the best possible way. Watch it to learn more about this particular condition. Watch it to develop more compassion for people dealing with disabling illness. Watch it for a master class in acting. Watch it because it’s not “Mortdecai”. Watch it to make the statement that not every movie has to have aliens and/or explosions and/or serial killers.

Just watch it.

Rating comedy

In my previous post, I asked the rhetorical question:

Is anyone in Hollywood doing ROI for laughs?

LaughterSince it’s clear the answer is a resounding no, I’m going to help the cause. Why curse the darkness when there are candles and matches aplenty at hand? Herewith, my method for gauging comedic value. Although I’m speaking of movies here, there’s no reason my system couldn’t be used for any comic medium, including, but not limited to, plays, audio recordings, stand-up comedy routines, and political advertising.

So how do we judge comedy? Let me introduce Rick’s First Law of Amusement Appraisal, to wit, “If people laugh, it’s funny. If they don’t, it ain’t.” It really is that simple. It’s a wonder Einstein didn’t stumble on this.

So now that we have the theoretical groundwork laid, how do we go about implementing a measurement technology? If you know your movies, you’ll realize that a similar process has already been developed and deployed, but for a different emotional response. Think “Monsters, Inc.” but with laughter instead of screams. That’s right, we have Pixar create a device for measuring response to humor rather than fear. Hey, they’ve already figured out how to make consistently good and popular films. This should be a breeze… if Disney doesn’t screw it up.

In fact, I’ll give them a head start by quantifying a selection of laughter responses. I can imagine assigning to each a point score.

  • Hah! A simple laugh is good, worth a point.
  • A snort is the next level of laughter. A good snort, depending on volume and duration, could net two or three points. A bonus would be allotted if mucus were involved.
  • Salivary discharge is also worthy of an increased score.
  • Like any other laugh that involves bodily fluids, peeing one’s pants is a major coup in the humor department. Point allotment could be affected, however, by age and gender of the subject.
  • “I laughed till I cried” isn’t just an expression, it’s an apt description of a truly impressive fit of hilarity. Score up to a dozen bonus points in this case.
  • In some instances of uncontrollable merriment, it’s not unusual for the subject’s ability to breath to be suspended temporarily. This is rare enough to warrant a huge award of points. A problem arises when this condition lasts too long, resulting in…
  • Death. Laughing unto death is the ultimate funny. However, surely even Hollywood producers can see the down side of this result: No repeat ticket sales, the bread and butter of the blockbuster. Therefore, if this level is reached, all points are lost and the movie must be rewritten, preferably by the writer of “Mortdecai” to ensure the humor is completely wrung out of the script.

There are probably more variations to consider. Dick van Dyke (as the character Bert) delineates a fine variety as he sings, “I Love to Laugh” in “Mary Poppins”.

There. I’ve given the PTB (Powers That Be) a ripping head start. A little due diligence on their part will spare us any future debacles of the “Mortdecai” variety.

You’re welcome.


Note to subscribers to this blog: I apologize for an errant post I generated last week as the result of not carefully reading instructions about how to create a WordPress home page. The good news is that the page was eventually created, although it still has a ways to go before I can call it complete. Feel free to check out the current revision here. I hope it’s worth the hassle of the superfluous notification.

Worst movie ever?

mortdecaiThere’s no way of judging what is truly the worst movie ever. We should immediately dispense with those that have no pretensions. “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, “Octaman”, “Reefer Madness”, as well as any title followed by a number should be automatically eliminated from consideration for this contemptible compendium.

That leaves us with such classics as “Gigli”, “Ishtar”, “Heaven’s Gate”, “Battlefield Earth”, and their ilk, movies that someone, somewhere must have believed had redeeming qualities. They were wrong. Wikipedia has a pretty good list of such beasts.

It’s time to add one more to the list: “Mortdecai”. It baffles me how a movie with such quality contributors could be so wretched. It’s a comedy without a single laugh, just a series of lame gags unrelated to the supposedly sacrosanct “spine of the story”, most repeated ad nauseum, just in case you missed them the first six times.

From what I’ve read, the blame for this fiasco should be laid at the feet of Johnny Depp, whose career has gone from brilliant actor to something marginally more impressive than sideshow freak. His returns at the box office have taken a similar tailspin. Deservedly so.

The next night, I watched a dime-a-dozen made-for-TV romcom that was infinitely more enjoyable. Unlike Mortdecai, this one actually had a few laughs in it. With probably 1/100th the budget. Is anyone in Hollywood doing ROI for laughs?

Funny thing about this is that it’s relatively easy to determine whether a comedy works or not. Show it to an audience and listen. Is anyone laughing? If not, the movie stinks. (Sadly, there’s no similar litmus test available for dramas, save the rare tear-jerker during which you can count sniffles. That measure is skewed during cold season, however.)

I cannot imagine an audience watching (more accurately, “enduring”) this drivel and laughing. Perhaps the test screeners mistook groans of pain for guffaws of pleasure. I can think of no other explanation.

Lesson learned: It is possible to see a movie for free and still pay too much.

Consider yourself warned.

Now a message from our sponsors

I really hate television commercials.

That’s just one of the reasons I don’t watch much TV. Unfortunately, every now and then I’ll be watching a movie and one of those beasts will interrupt my viewing. Here are a few for which I hold particular disdain:

The Dunkin Donuts commercial where a guy announces he got a promotion. He and his friends decide the appropriate way to “celebrate” this achievement is to get a sandwich from DD. Really? That’s the best they can come up with?? I’m thinking either this wasn’t much of a promotion (“Hey, guys! After five years in my bathroom cleaning job, I’m finally getting a brush!”) or they aren’t really his friends.

Another is for some kind of automobile cleaning product. The tagline says it all:

“Restore your car, restore your pride.”

Wow. Maybe that’s the guy with the bathroom cleaning job.

It was a year or so ago but, in one BMW commercial, a purchaser of a used BMW declares the day of his purchase to be the “best day of my life.” His wife and child stand by in amazement. So do I. What odds do you give that marriage? That kid? There’s a reason the old joke comparing BMW’s and porcupines is so funny.

I learn a lot from watching commercials, though. For instance, if a classic movie shot appears in a commercial, it has officially left the realm of tired cliche and entered the Vapid Zone. It should never be touched again. Example: Some superhero or wannabe falls into a three point crouch, usually shattering the ground beneath. It was cool in “The Matrix”, still mildly fun in “Iron Man”, but commercials have been using it for a while now. Yet movies still lean on that hack. Retire the insipidity.

Here’s another lesson I learned: Remember Veruca Salt in the “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” movie? The diminutive actress who portrayed her performed one of the great musical numbers in film history: “I Want It Now”. In case it wasn’t obvious enough from the Oompa Loompa’s song (“Who is to blame when a child is a brat?”), she was a bad girl. She was selfish. The lesson was to not be like her.

So when did “I Want It Now” become a good thing? No less than two commercials – for beer and a cell service, there could be many more; I don’t get a very wide sampling – use the chant as exemplary. Yes, American marketing tells us, we should all strive to be little Verucas, sulking and screaming and throwing tantrums if we don’t get what we want NOW.

Encouraging lesson: My era’s music still rules the airwaves. As much as I hate to have my musical heroes sell out, it’s great to hear their tunes in surprising places, such as commercials for Lay’s (Bread), Stop & Shop (Three Dog Night), video games (The Turtles), as well as many others. Either those groups are timeless or all these commercials are made by geezers like me. I’m guessing the former.

Finally, it occurs to me that advertisers are consistently telling us that their customers, both current and prospective, are jerks with warped priorities, q.v. aforementioned Beemer drivel. Think about it next time you’re viewing advertising. It’s always wise to watch commercials with a discerning mind. One good practice is to think critically and ask yourself: “Do I wanna be lumped in with those creeps?”

I vote “no”.

Joe Versus the Volcano

This is a brief ode to what is, in my opinion, one of the most underappreciated films in history.

JoeVtitleI’ve watched “Joe Versus the Volcano” perhaps twenty to thirty times. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that I enjoy it more each time I view it. Most movies can’t hold up to multiple viewings. As we lose interest in the story and characters, our attention wanders to reveal gaps in logic, bad lines, and other assorted flaws.

Not so with “Joe”.

I bribed them to sing a song that would drive us insane and make our hearts swell and burst.

Here’s a movie that somehow presents profound philosophical questions about life and death, God and meaning, yet still manages to be outrageously funny. The scenes between Joe Banks and his boss, Mr. Waturi, could be a movie on their own. (There’s something strangely familiar about that workplace. I think I worked there. In fact, I think most of us have.)

I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?

The performances, by one of the more eclectic casts you’ll ever see, are uniformly wonderful. It marks the first pairing of what could be this generation’s Tracy and Hepburn: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Ms. Ryan gives three of her best performances. Lloyd Bridges, Dan Hedaya, Robert Stack, Abe Vigoda, Ossie Davis. Great, great, great, great, great.

My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.

The best performance of all, however, is by a guy named Barry McGovern, whose role is listed simply as “luggage salesman.” I would have given that guy an Oscar.

Very exciting… as a luggage problem!

Even the music is terrific. The Rascals, Del Vikings, and Sergio Mendes all in one movie? So great. Best of all is Eric Burdon’s passionately brilliant version of “16 Tons” that introduces the film.

Nobody knows anything, Joe. We’ll take this leap, and we’ll see. We’ll jump, and we’ll see. That’s life, right?

In closing, I’ll add that the film’s writer/director (a true auteur), John Patrick Shanley, is one of the most gifted artists of our time. As evidence, he also wrote “Moonstruck” and “Doubt” (play and film). That’s good stuff.

Dear God, whose name I do not know – thank you for my life. I forgot how BIG… thank you. Thank you for my life.

I could go on and, if you were here before me, I would. Better, I’d suggest we watch it. It won’t be the last time for me.

I have no response to that.

Joe&Moon

Patricia: I wonder where we’ll end up?
Joe: Away from the things of man, my love. Away from the things of man.

Spewing chunks

nopicSpeaking of uncomfortable content, which you might recall I was in my last post, what’s the deal with all the puke in movies recently? I thought it was just me. It seemed as if every movie I watched had someone barfing up their innards. Like the F-bomb issue, it was unrelated to genre or (lack of) consumer demand.

Then I saw an online discussion of the phenomenon. Others had noticed it, too. I was relieved. But only a little.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with occasionally spewing a few chunks on screen, especially if it fits. Pregnant women often throw up in early stages of pregnancy. A stomach bug is bound to bring back breakfast and a few snacks.

But every movie?? If anyone is even slightly off-center about something, here come the chunks. Confused? Dizzy? Angry? Depressed? That’s all it takes to lose lunch these days. In the aforementioned discussion, someone made the claim that every movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year had a puke scene. I can’t verify that because I haven’t seen them all, but every one I saw towed the retch line.

This isn’t reality because people don’t puke that often. It isn’t commercially necessary because nobody goes to the movies saying, “Man, I hope someone hurls in this one!” It’s not edgy because it’s mainstream.

So why all the regurgitation? There can be only one reason and it’s the same reason young kids take up smoking, swearing, and stealing: Everybody’s doing it. You’d think artistes would want to rise above the morass of the mundane and stick it to the status quo.

You’d be wrong.

They’re lemmings just like the rest of us. Monkey see, monkey puke.

I can deal with this. I just ignore it, since it doesn’t add anything to the story. What worries me is what’s next. What about when it becomes cool to show people with diarrhea? That episode was in a major movie last year. And the dumper was nominated for an acting award. Could the Hershey Squirts be the next offensive trend? Unlikely because the movie was a flop, but you never know.

Nose-picking is a likely candidate. Starts innocently enough but before you know it, they’re drawing blood as they strip mine for nose gold. Great visual. Hawking loogies, fingernail (and toenail!) biting, squeezing zits. There’s a deep well of unsociable behavior to draw from.

All this talk has made me sick to my stomach. I gotta…


I thought this was a new trend. Sadly, this guy noticed it eight years ago. It must be getting that much worse.

Defusing the bombs

fbombSomeone wiser than me (that’s covers pretty much everyone) once observed that no one ever left a movie theater saying, “Yeah, it was a good movie. I just wish there had been more swearing.” Plenty of audience members yearn for more violence or lurid sexual content, but swearing is not really in that great demand.

I guess the market is saturated.

This topic came to mind recently when I read an online discussion among screenwriters wondering whether the whole F-bomb thing had gotten out of hand. The discussion was initiated by someone who questioned whether movies rely too much on that popular profanity to convince viewers of the film’s edginess.

Funny thing about that. F-bombs have been defused merely by their ubiquity. They aren’t spoken only by nasty thugs in edgy movies or shady characters in bleak noir films. They’re in goofy comedies, historical epics, and science fiction. They’re in everything! We’ve been carpet F-bombed. As a result, the very effect they supposedly serve is gone. It’s just another cliché. A cliché no one questions.

Let’s think about it. If a character in a movie said any other word as often as Robert De Niro or Chris Rock use The Big One in an average movie, no one would take them seriously. The argument is that this is the way people talk. Which people? I don’t know them, and I’ve been in some pretty rough environments. In my experience, the number of times a person uses that word is inversely proportional to the IQ of the speaker.

Besides, film characters aren’t written to speak the way people really speak. The “um”s, “uh”s, and “er”s are generally banished because they’re boring, just as excessive swearing has become boring. Suppose, for example, a character said the word “like” as often as many people do today, say, like this. That dialog would be unlistenable. It would never pass development muster.

So we’re on our way to completely declawing another obscenity. We’ve seen it before. When I was growing up, there were still older people who remembered where the word “screw” came from. If we innocent children referred to something as “screwed up”, we were shushed or, if we were unlucky, went on a soap diet. We had no idea why. Today no one bats an eyelash at screw, which means essentially the same thing as… well, you know.

For better or worse, our culture is in the midst of the dilution of another cuss word: suck. No one said this when I was young. It was a “swear word”. Like the other no-say-ems, it referred to a sexual act. Now it means… well, it means nothing. And everyone says it with impunity, from children to parents to ministers to teachers. It’s just another word.

Crap, heck, darn, shoot, screw. The euphemism backlog is growing as the “real” swears fade into impotence. I’m not sure if all this is good news or bad. Are we lowering the standards of the language or are we gradually removing the words that hurt?

I don’t friggin’ know.


Addendum: OK, just so you know it’s not only narrow-minded bloggers like me who think this way, here’s a quote from a recent newsletter from Richard Walter, chairman of the UCLA screenwriting program:

“The downside to writers having the freedom to write whatever they want is that it allows us also to write as badly as we want. The relentless exploitation of vulgarity is supposed to foster a sense of authenticity. In fact, however, it usually achieves precisely the opposite: heavy-handedness, thudding self consciousness, and a tone that is overbearingly shrill.”

To which I say, “Amen, Professor Walter.”

Born to be broken

IMG_20150330_200252587The old adage says rules are meant to be broken. There’s no shortage of “rules” for writing. Those commandments are intended to aid in the writing process. They might be helpful if only they weren’t moving targets. I’ve written before about the difficulty of writing. Trying to remain upright on the shifting sands of unstable standards doesn’t make it any easier.

Go ahead. Try to get a group of authors to agree on the tenets that are most useful to guide the writing process. You’re likely to get a protracted religious argument for your trouble.

Here are a few of the most well-known non-negotiables that are constantly being negotiated:

  • Write every day.
  • Write what you know.
  • The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
  • Use sparse language, i.e. “less is more”.
  • To write well, you must read a lot.

For every writer who subscribes to one of these statutes, there’s probably one or more who eschew it. For example, I was at a book reading by a highly regarded, best-selling author who, when asked what other authors he read, claimed not to read other authors in order to avoid being unduly influenced by them. So much for reading to become a good writer.

With all due respect to adverb-phobic Stephen King, who deserves a great deal of respect indeed, I don’t have any problem with adverbs as a reader. In fact, I kinda like them. So why avoid them? If you’re writing a book for Mr. King, I guess. But why leave any tool in the toolbox unused? They’re there for a reason.

Fundamentalism is generally condemned in other spheres, but it’s alive and well in the writing world.

And the “write what you know” dictum would be better expressed as “write what you care about.” You can always gain knowledge about a topic. It’s no easy task to develop enough passion to write well about something about which you are otherwise indifferent.

John Fox, manacled hand and foot by his pirate captorsIf you’ve read enough about writers writing, you’ve undoubtedly come across the ones who claim they don’t know where their characters are going to take the story. Those lifeless entities are independent actors with wills of their own. I guess that’s possible, but is it mandated somewhere? Some would have you believe that it is or that at least it’s a hallmark of a higher level of fiction. I don’t think so. No less an authority than Vladimir Nabokov says he has no use for that tactic when he says, “My characters are galley slaves.” No surprises for Mr. Nabokov, thank you.

This confusion first confronted me when I was trying to master screenwriting. The rules to screenwriting are many, absolute, and quite specific. The only problem is, accomplished screenwriters break them as a matter of course. One decree beyond discussion is: Don’t describe what can’t be shown on the screen. For example, a script can’t say in its descriptive text, “Joe was nervous about the interview.” Fine. At a lecture at the Austin Film Festival (the screenwriter’s Mecca), a man who is arguably the most successful screenwriter of this generation, told all of us rapt listeners that he does it all the time.

AFF produced a nice little book of excerpts from various talks given at the festival over the years. “On Story” has lots of advice for writing the next great movie. Unfortunately, much of the advice is conflicting.

This is one of the reasons I question a prime directive of screenwriting education: Read scripts. A problem with that advice is that screenwriters don’t follow “the rules” we’re supposed to learn, so we’re likely to learn the wrong way. Also, most scripts we have access to are “shooting scripts” filled with camera angles and other technical directions that don’t belong in submitted scripts.

What’s a struggling writer to do? Obey the rules (“Do as I say, don’t do as I do.”) until you break in. Then you can do anything you want. Another way of saying it is, “Write something great and you have permission to write whatever you want.” I think of it as learning a secret handshake. Based on what I’ve seen and read, once you’re in the club, the rules no longer apply.

Fair enough. If I want to play their game, I’ll do my best to play by their rules.