Posts Tagged ‘ art ’

Falling Barriers

october surprise coverI’m a writer. I write for work, strictly professional stuff. I’ve always wanted to write fiction, though, or rather, I wanted to tell stories. I started as a 10 year old kid, listening to the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar and dreaming of recreating the movie, shot by shot, in my desert home of Hermosillo, Sonora, where my father served in the American Consulate. I only had a Super 8 movie camera then, and the camera I had didn’t have the luxurious feature of sound. My plan, then, was to shoot a silent version, with my actors lip synced to the soundtrack LP (ask your parents if you don’t know what an LP is). That dream never came about because my family moved back to the States before I could get my act together.

Back in the States, I made little films–mostly special effects shots that never matched the beauty that inspired me in Star Wars and Space:1999. I blew up a lot of plastic models with cheap firecrackers shot against a black piece of fabric. When I got to college, I enrolled in film classes, and shot a crappy 16 millimeter movie with some friends. The exposure was all over the map, but it was fun.

I gave up film making at the urging of the professional diplomats in my family who told me my affinity for languages and time living overseas made me a good fit for political science or area studies. I dutifully studied Russian, and then Chinese. They were right. I found a good job as a researcher, and was pretty happy. I got to write for a living, telling stories, but I never got over my love of movies.

On my birthday in 2001, my then-wife gave me a slim book about screenwriting. She told me to follow my dreams. It was a very kind gift. I read the book, and followed its step by step instructions on how to turn my story ideas into a screenplay. Three years of writing during vacations later, I had a finished draft of a screenplay, Honor Bound. I shopped it around, entered the script in contests, and won some. It didn’t sell, though. I didn’t care. I was proud of having written a viable work. I knew that the thing that separated writers from everyone else was text on a page.

Older and wiser, I had abandoned the idea of being an auteur. Having managed people as an Army officer, I knew that being in charge wasn’t the most fun one could have. Telling stories was cost-free. All I needed was a word processor and my imagination. I had produced a viable story, and I thought about the next one.

A few years passed, and I made another realization: I didn’t have to be a screenwriter. I just needed to tell stories. I could lose the very particular style of the screenwriter and just tell a story. I was seized with the alarming changes I had seen in American politics, and wanted to tell a story that captured what I saw. I thought about telling the story of an American coup, but couldn’t see a credible plot. I just didn’t see any group in government organizing to depose a sitting president. Then it struck me: a coup might not be possible, but clearly private citizens were trying to engineer elections in their favor. I started drafting a story in the spring of 2011, and tinkered with it over the following months.

As the 2012 election got going in earnest, I saw some of the ideas I had coming to pass. I thought to myself that if I didn’t do something fast, my prescient story idea could quickly seem like hindsight if I ever committed my ideas to print. At the same time, I noticed that Amazon was giving authors the freedom to publish their work and sell it in the world’s biggest bookstore.

I had an insight: I could get my story out to a huge audience in chapter form. This would also  force me to get off my ass and finish my story.

Months later, I’ve published each chapter of October Surprise as it was finished, giving it away for free thanks to Amazon’s brilliant Kindle Direct Publishing plan, and now the whole book is available as a Kindle download for 99 cents on Amazon. I’m extremely pleased to have finished my first book, and I’m amazed that I’m in the world’s biggest bookstore without having to convince a publisher that my story is any good. The audience can decide.

That said, the market has spoken. When the book was free, 435 people downloaded it. Now that it’s 99 cents, I’ve only had three downloads. I’m learning about marketing, something that a publisher would normally take care of, but it’s not that big a deal. I have a campaign going on Facebook that is beautifully tailored. I pay only for clicks to my ad, and I don’t spend more than $10 a day. Likewise, I have a campaign going on Twitter. Similar deal. Compared to the money I would have spent sending my manuscript to publishers, there’s no question about the way to go. Wish me luck, and read my book!

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The Film(s) That Changed My Life

This cool book asks 30 directors to name a film that changed everything for them. I cheated and came up with two. My answers are Jesus Christ Superstar and Star Wars. The former was the one that told me “I can do this.” I only saw the movie once, in a theater in Mexico, but I had the soundtrack and played it to death. Since it was a rock opera, the records ran the entire length of the movie. That allowed me to visualize the movie in real time, and my young imagination led me to start planning a shot-for-shot remake that I would film with my friends. Never got further than that, but the experience made the idea of making movies real for me. In the following years I started reading books about how to make movies. Two years later, Star Wars was the movie that changed everything, that made me burn to make movies. I read about it in Time magazine’s cover story the week it came out. I clearly remember each publicity still, because they were so alien, so unlike anything I had ever seen in a movie. I hounded my dad to get me the novelization, and I tore through it. I was spending the summer with him in LA, and insisted that he and my brothers see the movie in the biggest theater I could find near his office in Westwood. I stood in line outside the theater, holding places for them. Once the lights went down, the Fox fanfare hooked me, the silence of the blue letters on screen hushed the audience, and then a massive star field filled my view. The blast of the theme’s first chord grabbed me in the chest as I watched “STAR WARS” fly away and finally fade into infinity. I had just finished reading the prologue, when the camera suddenly tilted down and my jaw dropped as this giant wedge of a ship filled the screen and I heard the hot, cracking sound of what would come to be known as pew pew pew. From that point on, I didn’t dare blink for fear of missing something amazing. Things would never be the same.

Beijing Stuns

The Chinese can be rightly proud.

The Chinese can be rightly proud.

Having watched China for much of the past 20 years, I had come to expect to be disappointed by the Chinese Communist Party’s inability to restrain its need for safe, conservative art. From the Beijing leadership’s perspective, art, like everything else, is judged not by its ability to move, but by its ability to serve the Party. As a result, major Chinese events broadcast to the world have consistently appeared just as stifling and archaic as the government that continues to hold a billion people back in the name of stability and harmony.

Against this backdrop, yesterday’s Olympic opening ceremonies were a marvelous surprise. Yes, it is clear that Zhang Yimou, the famed and acclaimed movie director, had to make compromises and accept a political imprimatur from the fearful men running Zhongnanhai. Nonetheless, the spirit, strength, and beauty of thousands of years of Chinese culture punched through the usual government crust to express, for the first time to so many at once, the majesty of China to the rest of the world.

Plenty of others have provided a play-by-play, so there’s no need to add to that volume here. Suffice it to say that if I was set back on my heels, I hope that many of my fellow countrymen now are also reconsidering their perception of this complex country that already plays a central role in our economy and will play an increasingly large role in the rest of our world over time.