Posts Tagged ‘ film ’

And the winners are…

My ballot:

Picture: Argo

Director: Steven Spielberg

Actor in a Leading Role: Daniel Day-Lewis

Actress in a Leading Role: Jennifer Lawrence

Actor in a Supporting Role: Christoph Walz

Actress in a Supporting Role: Sally Field

Original Screenplay: Django Unchained

Adapted Screenplay: Argo



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!

Prayers for an Atheist

The last act of Christopher Hitchens’ life, his terminal illness, provided Hitchens with perhaps his greatest opportunity to make his case for atheism and against religion. He would face the end happy in his certainty that there was no god, and his very comfort in facing death with no prospect of an afterlife made many of us think and rethink the biggest questions of our existence. Not a bad legacy at all for a man who wanted nothing more than to generate thought. We should all be so lucky.

That Hitchens died slowly also provided believers with a chance to show a spectrum of religious thought. Sadly, a good many made Hitchens’ case for him by hoping or praying that Hitchens’ looming mortality would finally win him over. As he incisively put it:

[I]t seems to me a bit crass to be trying to talk to people about conversion when you know they are ill. The whole idea of hovering over a sick person who is worried and perhaps in discomfort and saying now is the time to reconsider strikes me as opportunist at the very best. 

Hitchens did, however, express appreciation for the many people who told him they were praying for his recovery. He called these gestures “a kindness” and a show of solidarity, but he pointed out he was certain the prayers did no good. On this last point, both Hitchens and his intercessors got it right and wrong at the same time. Indeed, the prayers had no effect on Hitchens’ health, and he died. Moreover, is praying for a given outcome even consistent with faith? Many certainly think so, but I don’t  believe in what I call transactional prayer, in which one asks for something and treats the outcome as a response from god. I’m not making a theological argument, because I’m ignorant of theology, but an argument about what I believe faith and god and prayer are about: love, compassion, wonder, and the ability to feel them. Roger Ebert did a nice job of summing it up for me in his review of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life:

Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

I’ll go further: acceptance of “what will be” is a prerequisite for prayer of the kind that Ebert describes. I don’t know if the people who prayed for Hitchens, and who pray for him now, really expected to change the course of his disease. I did not. I left it at compassion, of feeling for him. For those of us who still feel awe, who seek and cherish the ineffable, who seek love and compassion, this approach may help  bring us into communion with our atheist brothers and sisters. As brilliant as Hitchens was, he was never going to win over a person who has felt a greater reality than this one, and no religious person was going to persuade Hitchens of the intangible. So why try, when in the end no one gets the answer until they die? Until we die, the one thing I see common to the major religions and ethical systems is a call to embrace our lack of control over the world, over the future, and in doing so free ourselves to love. To the extent that we can answer that call, atheists and believers could have precious little left to fight over. 

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.

Review: Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 isn’t better than the original, but considering it doesn’t have an origin story to drive it, the film more than satisfies in moving the franchise forward. The film does suffer from a proliferation of characters, a common mistake of sequel producers who think they have to provide more of everything, and Mickey Rourke is surprisingly flat as the new villain, Ivan Vanko. Scarlett Johansson is beautiful but deadly dull and completely unbelievable as a super spy/martial arts expert. She gets so many great movie roles yet does so little with them. Nonetheless, these weaknesses don’t bog the movie down because Robert Downey is so fun to watch. He makes it look effortless, but it’s important to note how much better he does compared to others who have tried out the superhero mantle. More than Tobey MacGuire or Christian Bale, Downey has made Tony Stark into a believable human being.  This is in good part because Downey is so well suited to play a brilliant, charming, wealthy man with deep flaws. He knows it and makes it work, bringing real sparkle and personality that keeps the movie from becoming a total cartoon, a job was made harder by overblown and overlong action scenes.

Bottom line: if you liked the first one, you should like the sequel. It’s a fun way to start the summer movie season.

Now that Iraq War movies sell…

…how about taking another look at my screenplay, Honor Bound?  It’s the story of a young Latina US soldier in Iraq who heroically saves the lives of her men in combat, but is traumatized by the experience. When she returns home to civilian life in America, she struggles to control the violent skills learned in war when faced with brutal injustice. I wrote it because as a veteran, I could see early on in the war that the multiple combat tours my fellow veterans were serving would inevitably lead to an explosion of psychological casualties. I won some awards for my work, but couldn’t get anyone to buy the script. Following the lead of Josh Klein, I’ve now decided to give my screenplay away through a Creative Commons license to anybody who wants to adapt or produce it. Check it out, Hollywood! You can download a copy of this award winning script here.

Anita Bryant then, Rick Warren now

Watching “Milk,” the new biography of murdered San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, I was struck by the arguments made in the film by Anita Bryant against gays in the mid-1970s. She and others of her ilk at the time claimed that gays were immoral and thus should be denied their civil rights. In California, this thinking manifested itself as Proposition 6, which called for firing gay public school teachers.  The argument behind the proposition, as John Briggs, the California state senator who led the campaign stated repeatedly, was the demonstrably false argument that gays somehow “recruit” or train children to become homosexual. This claim was at the heart of Bryant’s broader anti-homosexual crusade and the beginning of the modern Christian conservative political movement.

I was struck both because the idea that sexuality is learned is so ridiculous, but also because the evil lie that homosexuality is immoral persists so strongly today. The proof of its persistence is the fact that Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback megachurch, can publicly assert views nearly identical to Bryant’s and still be invited to give the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration Tuesday. Warren said late last year that allowing gays to marry would be equivalent to allowing “a brother and sister to be together and call that marriage,” or “an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage.” This is the same argument Bryant was making in the 1970s–that if we tolerate gays, the next thing you know we’ll have to tolerate bestiality, incest, and pedophilia. It is shocking to have to explain this, but just to be clear, homosexuality is merely a status, a person’s identity. There is nothing immoral about being attracted to a person of the same gender. Bestiality, pedophilia, and incest, on the other hand, are behaviors chosen by (mostly heterosexual) people. A homosexual may act in an immoral manner, just as a heterosexual may, but Warren and Bryant see immorality and criminality in the mere existence of homosexuality. And if Warren indeed is only concerned with avoiding a redefinition of marriage, why not push for civil unions to be allowed for homosexuals? After all, that’s all a civil marriage is anyway. The sanctity of a “5000-year tradition” exists in the church, not the courthouse.

The movie version of Milk’s life and politics highlighted his brilliant insistence that gays come out to the people they knew. My best friend bravely took Milk’s advice just a few years after Milk’s murder, even though I had earlier drawn upon my Psych 101 expertise to confidently tell my friend that homosexuality was “clearly abnormal.” When my friend told me, I spent the whole day trying to reconcile what I thought I knew with the reality that he was the same person he had always been. By the end of the day, I accepted that it just didn’t matter–we were friends and would remain so. He wasn’t a monster or any more or less moral than he had been when I didn’t know he was gay.

We may need another wave of gays coming out to their friends and family, but this time in our churches. We have to demand that our fellow congregants know that the gays among them are sinners, just as we all are, and thus have a place at God’s table.  Rick Warren should be ashamed to pretend to judge any person, gay or straight, for that is God’s job, not his.  And Barack Obama should be ashamed to accommodate Warren’s hate.