Movies: To Rome with Love

I liked this movie.

It was weird.

And it didn't try to explain its own weirdness, really; it just let the weird hang there, pretending to be normal.

The movie is made up of four story lines that are marginally related thematically by the idea of wish fulfillment. Or at least that's how I took it. In one plot, Roberto Benigni plays average office clerk Leopoldo, who says to his co-workers, "If you ask me . . ." to which they reply, "Nobody ever asks you." Next thing Leopoldo knows, he's being asked everything, all the time: what he had for breakfast, how he prefers to shave, boxers or briefs. He is suddenly famous and for no apparent reason. He shouts at the journalists and paparazzi to go away. And when they do go and find a new target for their attentions, Leopoldo realizes he misses the spotlight and all the perks it afforded him.

In another story, Woody Allen plays, well, Woody Allen if he were a retired classical music manager who'd once staged avant garde takes on famous operas. He and his wife have traveled to Rome to meet their daughter's fiancé and his family. Retirement doesn't sit well with Woody (calling himself Jerry), and when he discovers his daughter's fiancé's father is a fantastic singer (played by tenor Fabio Armiliato), he is determined to put the man on stage. But it turns out Giancarlo can only sing in the shower. What to do? Stage all the productions around showers, of course. Giancarlo is hailed as a new Caruso, but Jerry is labeled an imbecile for his ridiculous staging. After having his moment, however, Giancarlo is happy to go back to his obscure life as an undertaker.

Also pursuing celebrity: Monica (Ellen Page), who comes to Rome to visit her friend Sally and to get over her most recent heartbreak (the boy was gay, no matter how hard Monica tried to make him not be). Monica's goal is to be an actress. Sally frets that her boyfriend Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) will fall in love with Monica, something that seems to happen wherever Monica goes . . . And he does. The somewhat bizarre streak in this particular story line is the sometime appearance of Alec Baldwin as John, who seems to be the grown-up version of Jack, though this is not made explicit. Jack is a young architectural student, and John turns up on the street where Jack lives, saying, "I used to live here when I was a student." Jack offers to show John around, and then throughout their story, John sometimes appears to warn Jack—and sometimes Monica—about what is happening between them. "I know how this ends," John says at one point. (It ends with Monica scrapping plans to run away with Jack when she is offered a part in a movie with a hot star and cute director.)

And while Monica is trading up, so is Milly, a young newlywed in Rome with her husband Antonio. Of all the stories, this one was the most strained. Milly and Antonio are moving to Rome so Antonio can hopefully begin work in the family business. It is very important he make a good impression with his bevy of cousins. Milly wants to make a good impression, too, so she wanders out to get her hair done. And gets lost trying to find a salon. Stumbles onto a movie set, meets many of her favorite film stars, is taken to lunch by an actor she idolizes, and he sweet-talks the naive young thing into coming up to his hotel room. Milly finds herself in the old should-she-or-shouldn't-she predicament. It's an awkward set up all around, really, and the actor is hardly some handsome rogue; he's balding and paunchy. Maybe I've worked with enough actors that I just don't know what it means to be starstruck, but Milly's naiveté is beyond belief. And is she really attracted to the man, or is it the idea of him, of being with a celebrity?

The story gets stranger. Milly goes into the bathroom to try and figure out whether or not to sleep with the actor only to be accosted by a burglar. The actor leaves his jewelry and hies off, and Milly . . . Decides to sleep with the burglar instead.

Meanwhile, Antonio accidentally gets sent a prostitute named Anna (Penelope Cruz) and is forced to use her as a stand-in for the absent Milly when his uncles and aunts arrive to evaluate him and take him off to meet the rest of the family businessmen. And of course Antonio finally ends up sampling Anna's wares. I guess if there's adultery on both sides, you break even? Is it the whole, "What s/he doesn't know . . ." rule? In the end, the whole of Milly's and Antonio's stories are so manufactured, especially next to the equally strange but somehow more organic tales of the other characters, that it is difficult to enjoy it.

But three out of four isn't too bad. And as I said, there are themes of wish fulfillment (or be careful what you wish for), and also of celebrity (something many do wish for, either to become or to be with), and then of adultery too, which occurs in three of the four story lines . . . I could parse it out a number of ways, but I am tired, and I enjoyed the movie too much to dissect it. If I remember correctly, critics did not wholly enjoy To Rome with Love, but maybe that's simply because Midnight in Paris was so good. A tough act to follow. I like them both, but differently, though the same thread of magical realism and blurred lines between fantasy and reality runs through both. There's a little more real in Rome. But only a little. It reminds me of all the strange things that always happen to me, the things that cause my friends to shake their heads and say, "Only you, M. These things only ever happen to you."

. . . Maybe I'm living in a Woody Allen movie.


Making a Must-See TV Show

Cross posted from PepperWords as "Fandom in the Time of Cholera Gluttony"

It has occurred to me as I watch Broadchurch each week, eagerly supping up the splendid writing and acting, that what's really missing from the television landscape—at least from my own, personal picture window of it—are more shows that leave me happily anticipating what might be coming next. Shows that drive me to want to think and talk about them, that encourage that kind of fandom.

Netflix has this habit of releasing shows like House of Cards all in one rush so that people can binge view. But . . . Just as with a meal, it's difficult to savor a show when you're scarfing it down so fast you can hardly taste it. How much really registers? Can a sleep-deprived viewer who has been awake for a whole weekend watching an entire series walk away with any actual insight into what they've seen? Can they truly appreciate the work and effort that went into the show? Or can they only say, "That was great!" and then move on to the next thing? (Should we call it NextFlix?)

And maybe the people who make the shows don't care so long as somebody watches it. As long as they say, "It's great!" and tweet, "It's great!" and blog, "It's great!" . . . But I don't know. As a writer, I'd like to think all that time I put into my work gets fair consideration. Of course I want people to think and say it's great, but I'd like them to think and say more things, too.

It's also difficult to sustain fandom when everything is so consumable and disposable. Everything becomes a flash in the proverbial pan. The conversation is singular: You talk about the show once, in that short period wherein you've finished watching all of it and haven't yet started the next thing. The watercooler weekly is no more because the show doesn't air every week; it airs whenever and wherever, and once people have seen it, they wander off and are done with it.

By contrast, something like Game of Thrones, which gets tremendous ratings each week. And why? Because it does air weekly, and no one wants to miss it. No one wants to have it spoiled for them, no one wants to be left out of that conversation on Monday morning. So people feel driven to watch it when it airs. And this is what shows really want to provide: a viewing experience that all but requires people to watch the show at the time it airs, or at the very least the same night via DVR shift. Broadchurch, too, for the people who watch it—no one wants to have missed catching any clues, no one wants it ruined, they want to be able to talk about it knowledgeably afterward.

So how does a show make themselves into a must-see? Something more than, "It's great," something about which people really talk? A compelling story line that requires the viewers' attention to keep up, for one thing. Isn't that what Game of Thrones and Broadchurch have? And characters people can rally around, can love and/or abhor, but either way discuss at length. These characters must keep people coming back even after one plot line ends; the audience must love them enough not to want to leave them once the question is answered or one goal achieved, love them enough to follow them through to the next task or situation.

I remember being a guest author at a sci-fi convention some years ago, and this woman wanted to talk to me about Highlander, the television series based on the movies. And she kept talking about Duncan MacLeod, but everything she was saying was actually about Adrian Paul, the actor who portrayed Duncan on the show. And I kept nodding and saying, "You mean Adrian Paul," but she would say, "Yeah, Duncan MacLeod." And sure, I walked away thinking she was a little crazy, but I also admired the way this character really lived in her mind. He really existed for her in some incredible (and somewhat insane) way. And so I'm not recommending encouraging people to be batshit crazy about your characters and actors, but I would say the goal is to make them into something fans really want to dig into. Something they want to talk about, and hopefully they'll find like-minded people who also want to talk about them, else they may make their family and friends who are less enthusiastic a little mental.

Anyway. Word of mouth is still the best way to sell a book, television program, or film. People still trust friends, family, co-workers over random critics. So you want people talking to their friends and family and co-workers about your show (or book, or movie), and you want them saying more than, "Yeah, it was really good." Because that doesn't say much of anything, does it? And it doesn't prompt an extended conversation. Very few people follow up being told something was good with, "Really? Why? What did you like about it? Who's your favorite character? Tell me more about it." No. Most people, when told something is good, shrug and say, "Cool."

A good show shouldn't be watched all at once, mindlessly consumed like the bag of potato chips sitting on the couch next to the viewer. It should be like a strip tease—leaving people glued to the sight of it and always anticipating the next twist or reveal. You don't remember every bag of chips you ever ate. But a good strip tease sears its image into your brain for a good long while, if not for life.


Books: Howards End (Part III)

I've only just finished Chapter 19, so you see it's slow going. This is mostly because I have other things to do (five screenwriting projects lined up at the moment), so my reading breaks are necessarily short and infrequent. I don't know how many chapters are in this book—I never like to look or read ahead—but based on the placement of my bookmark, I'd say I'm about halfway through.

Margaret has just been asked by Mr. Wilcox, in an awkward kind of way, to marry him. And she seems inclined to agree to his proposal. The chief theme here is the difference between the spiritual/intellectual and the practical. Margaret is the former and Mr. Wilcox the latter. Helen, cut from a similar cloth as Margaret (being that they're sisters, this is no massive surprise), is also of a more romantic cast, and she begs Margaret not to marry Mr. Wilcox. But Margaret, possibly by dent of being older and having had more responsibilities than her sister and brother, can look at the situation with a more reasonable eye and determine that love is not all in a marriage, that there is something to be said for security, and that one might opt for a stable kind of man over a romantic, flighty one.

Earlier in the book Margaret mentioned a desire to be less cautious. Is marrying a man you know you don't love but feel you can at least rub along with less cautious or more so? If you're marrying him for security's sake, and because you are a bit tired of and bored with being alone, then I'd argue you're probably being more cautious. You're betting that life with someone you at least like, or [think you] can tolerate, will be better than solitude.

Not that Margaret is alone. She has her siblings. But to live with the same people you've always lived with must feel a little like a lack of progress. It would be as if you've gotten nowhere at all in life.

Then there's the devil-you-know argument for whether or not to change from people you've lived with versus someone you haven't . . .

Margaret tells Helen the difference between them is that Helen's love-making (in the old-fashioned sense) is romance, while Margaret's own is prose. And in the end, isn't this one of the oldest stories ever told? This isn't marrying for love versus money, but it's a variation on that theme. Should one only marry for love? Or are there other, equally valid reasons to yoke oneself to another person?

As an aside, I have to say Forster is a pretty funny guy, assuming you follow his sense of humor. I was raised with British comedy—I watched those long before I ever watched an American sitcom—and so I see the places where Forster means to be amusing, and I rather like him for it. Even if he's beating me over the head with all his themes and ideas, at least he can be funny about it.


Television: Broadchurch, Episode 1.4

We're now halfway through the first series [season], and the more the field narrows, the wider it becomes.

Here is the problem with sleepy little towns: They are cranky when you wake them. Start looking into everyone's business, and you won't always like what you find. And once you know, you can't un-know. So you'll never look at your friends and neighbors the same way again.

We've ostensibly ruled out Danny's father Mark, who has an alibi for the night Danny was murdered. So unless he did it before, during, or after his extramarital rendezvous . . . And I'm still wondering about the house that Elaine/Susan keeps the keys to, the place they think may have been the site of the murder, the place Mark's prints were found (though Elaine/Susan says she never gave them to him). Has anyone checked that list she keeps? Not that she couldn't doctor it, I suppose.

Because, hey, she has two names. No one honest has a reason to change their first names, do they? Unless it's a witness protection kind of thing? We also know she has Danny's skateboard in her closet, and now she's threatened Maggie (the local newspaper editor), warning her not to ask any questions. Also, she's having fights with Nigel, Mark's plumbing partner. But over what exactly?

Then there's Jack, who runs the little newsagent. Danny worked as a paperboy for him, and Jack also helps organize boys for the Sea Brigade. Alas, it turns out Jack has a prior conviction for sex with a minor. At the end of this episode he's seen burning photographs from the Sea Brigade (it was mentioned he's an amateur photographer). I have to say there have been a few times I've felt the police force has been sloppy. They brought Jack in to question him, then released him and . . . Did they go straight away to his house to have a look around? Apparently not. Which gave Jack plenty of time to get rid of evidence that might incriminate him.

Jack also handily "found" Danny's missing mobile phone. And it turns out he lived only five miles from another, similar murder some years before.

And what's up with that psychic guy?

Oh, but finally there's Reverend Paul. He has no alibi (but then neither does Jack). And no one knows much about him. He's only lived in the area a couple years and he seems a bit shy. Keeps to himself. Though he did teach a computer course at some point, which Danny and his friend Tom took. And we know, as an aside, that Tom felt the need to delete a bunch of stuff from his phone and computer after Danny was murdered. Hmm.

Really, the more they try and turn the attention to Jack, or even to Elaine/Susan, it all smells of misdirection. It's the quiet ones you have to watch out for, isn't it? Still, the show keeps one guessing and wondering. Broadchurch, more than any other procedural or mystery I've seen in recent years, does a nice job of weaving a tale. The characters are brilliantly manufactured, as is the town as a whole. It is a Rubik's cube of storytelling, each plot point a colored piece of mosaic to be twisted into place.

Only one irksome bit from tonight, and that was when Alec woke up in the hospital and found Becca there pretending to be his wife. What hospital is this? Nothing too local, else they'd know she wasn't married to him. (Well, and she smilingly admitted she thought they'd figured it out pretty quick.) But what really bothered me was Alec begging Becca not to tell anyone he was sick. It puts her in a place of power over him that I can't entirely like, and more than that, it seems like a terribly manufactured device. Everything else in this show has been so good, this twist felt like a slip. I'm hoping it won't result in too far a fall, for Alec or the show.


Books: Howards End (Part II)

Now I've just finished Chapter 15, which shows I still haven't gotten all that far, but this is because there are so many other things I am supposed to be doing—I just like to take reading breaks now and then.

And so here we are, and Howards End itself has only been briefly revisited and has now been let by the Wilcox family because none of them want it anyway. (This is me rolling my eyes.) Forster, meanwhile, has taken up a lot of space going on about London, how mean it can be and such. I visit London frequently, but I suppose I am lucky enough to be able to keep most of my adventures to places inhabited either by other visitors and/or by people who live, if not in luxury, then not penury either. The few times I have wandered astray, I've found people very kind, very willing to come to my aid. I've been ushered into cabs, guided safely to the places I am hopeless to find on my own, sometimes walked all the way back to where I'm staying . . . Forster would say these people enjoy me as they do window shopping; I am something to be witnessed—there, by interaction it is proven people like me exist outside television and magazines—and yet still I reside behind glass, for looking and not touching, and there is a class-based desire to put me back where I belong. But if Forster's Mr. Bast saves up all his little moments of culture, never wanting to spoil them by attempting to lengthen or recreate them, then I do the same with all these moments in London when someone from the corner store shields me from people screaming at each other in Welsh and walks me back to the tube, seeing me safely onto the train.

Sometimes I think I more belong in lower places than in higher ones. Though I speak French, I am not quick with it, and because no one else around me speaks it, I am very rusty. And so when I was at Pétrus and the manager asked, "Avez-vous un manteau?" I thought he'd said "marteau" and became ridiculously confused. I must have looked at him like he was crazy. But that is the moment wherein I felt I did not belong. He was very kind to me, too, of course, and we laughed over my mistake, but in places like that I always think they're being nice because they have to and they will probably make fun of me after I've gone.

This is neither here nor there in relation to Howards End except in the course of my reading I seem to have entered some lecture to do with class in London. And these are my experiences with class in London, though I can't imagine what it was like in 1910. And in America it is so different because there seems little aspiration, at least nowadays. Forster's Mr. Bast likes to read and wants to have these conversations; he wants the luxury of being philosophical, I suppose. Is that what draws the line between the classes? People who haven't the time or money can't be bothered reading and discussing and thinking about things philosophically. They're too busy working and thinking about money—needing it, wanting it—and how to pay for room and board. At least, that seems to be the gist of what I've read thus far. Was this true in 1910? Is it now? In America we had Horatio Alger and the idea of climbing out of the depths of poverty and upward to respectability. It is, in short, "The American Dream." The idea that all can do and be regardless of origin. (I won't go into the irony of that here.) Still, that "dream" is based on hard work more than learning or philosophy. Americans were set up to do rather than think, our upper class consists of people who have money from having climbed the ladder but not the time for leisure. They are too busy working their way up, then working to stay up, to read and have conversations that don't revolve around all that work.

And then there is the class that can't be bothered. The pervasive sense I get in America—and this is just my experience, a generalization, not meant to be taken universally—is that few people see education as a way out of their humble beginnings. It is all work. And talent. Look at the youth who aspire to be actors, athletes . . . They are not worried about reading literature and having discussions. In their view, these things do not win them what they want. No, these kids fight their educations, saying all the time they don't need to know biology or history or whatever. "I won't use any of it," they say. They don't think their minds need be cluttered with such things.

But for people in London in 1910 . . . Well, look at Tibby (a character in Howards End). His sisters do think he should find something to do, but he'd rather not work. Why should he, if he doesn't absolutely have to? Funny, to think for some work is a matter of merely filling the hours. Something to do so one doesn't get bored. Leisure means having the option to work if one wants to, and not if one doesn't, and I guess that's true on both sides of the Atlantic. Then and now.

And here I am, a woman of leisure, reading a book and discussing it. See what Forster has done? When I should be working.


Books: Howards End (Part I)

I'm reading Howards End, and I don't even know why except that I was bored and couldn't find anything to read, then looked over at my bookshelf and saw it there. I'd heard of it, knew there was a movie version at some point a number of years ago, but actually had no knowledge of the story. I've never read any E.M. Forster, and I don't know what I expected. Nothing really, I guess. I pulled the book off the shelf, didn't even read the back cover, just opened it up and started. Sometimes it's nice to go into a book or movie that way—utterly without forethought or foreknowledge.

So I'm reading it, have just finished Chapter 8, which tells you I haven't got very far. I like it, but at the same time I'm sort of resisting it a bit, and I think it's because I have this feeling Forster is trying to persuade me of something. And yet I'm not sure of what. So I'm reading with a kind of guard up, a sense of suspicion against the author that extends to the story that is his "tool."

I'm also trying to figure out if we're ever actually going to go to Howards End (which turns out to be the name of a house in Hertfordshire). Well, we started there only briefly, but I'm wondering whether we'll ever get back. It would be rather stupid to name a book after a place you hardly spend any time at, but (having worked in publishing as an editor) I've seen authors and publishers do many stupid things. And if we don't go back to Howards End, it would only confirm my suspicion that Forster means something . . . As if the place were not a place but an ideal (which, even if we do go back to it, it more or less is just based on the way it is treated when people talk about it). Harumph. Tara in Gone with the Wind was an ideal, too, for all it got anyone, but Margaret Mitchell and her publisher had better sense than to name the book Tara.

I will say I identify a bit with Helen, or I did at a particular moment—at the concert at Queen's Hall. I, too, see pictures and stories when I hear music; these things flash vividly upon my mind's eye, though I am not so intractable as Helen in insisting they are the only possible interpretation. There is a flow between types of art, I think, and some people's gates are more open than others. I recall once when I was fifteen and sitting in Honors Lit, we read Poe's "The Bells" aloud, and when the teacher asked how it made us feel, I raised my hand and spilled the most complicated story . . . The teacher (who was also the girls' basketball coach, and probably only taught Literature as a secondary interest) was rather stunned, and around me my classmates exchanged glances that suggested I'd taken away rather more from Poe's words than was necessary. But at least I'd saved them from having to answer.

So anyway. I did take a peek at the copyright page of Howards End and saw that it was first published in 1910. I always find it interesting to read things written right before something momentus—in this case World War I. How the pervasive sense of foreboding sometimes informs the prose. Or not. Was the author blind and deaf to it? Or was he simply not interested? In this case, of course, Forster does note the discontented grumblings and distant drums of war, and even the main characters are children of a [deceased] German father, so that their cousins are German too, and the English-German tensions of the time are enacted in the novel as part of family feeling.

Forster talks a lot about class, too, going on about money and the lack thereof. This is part of my sense that he means to convince me of something, something to do with class and/or money, though I haven't entirely figured out what. I really want to be able to read this book and just enjoy it, but it keeps trying to teach me something, which I find a tad distracting.

I can't say much more about Howards End just at the moment because I've hardly put a dent in it. I will let you know how it progresses, though.


Books: Sun Queen by Emma L. Patterson

. . . Or Sun-Queen, if one goes by the dust cover. A minor distinction but still important: hyphen or no hyphen? The interior of the book (the copyright page, the title page) forsake the hyphen.

The copy of the book in my possession is hardbound, published by David McKay Company in 1967. It was a discard from the Oconee County Library in South Carolina, and if the stamping on the date card attached to the back flyleaf is to be believed, it was last due at the library on Feb 1 1984.

I find such little things very interesting, a form of biblio-archaeology.

The back of the dust jacket gives an account of Emma L. Patterson (online often referred to as Emma Lillie Patterson) that covers a scattered career as what would appear to be a privileged upbringing in New York, on to a life as a librarian, teacher, and sometime winner in writing contests. Her other books seem to focus on the American Revolution, so Sun Queen is a departure of sorts in that it is a novel about Nefertiti. Yes, that Nefertiti, the once queen of Egypt made famous by the sculpted bust discovered in 1912.

I don't know about Patterson's other work, but Sun Queen suffers in part from a lack of academic understanding of Akhenaten and, by association, Nefertiti herself. This is surely because we know more now than we did when Patterson was writing, though it also seems Patterson fudged and romanticized a few elements to suit her story. In her defense, many authors of historical fiction do the same, and Patterson admits in her [very short, far from detailed] notes, "While I do not guarantee that it happened this way, it could have."

Still, as a student of ancient and classical history, some of Patterson's freedoms bothered me more than such ones in other, similar books. She makes Bek the sculptor of the bust, which is typically attributed to Thutmose, in whose workshop it was found. Patterson works up a love triangle amongst Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Bek, but neglects any mention of Kiya, another of Akhenaten's wives. In fact, in Patterson's story Akhenaten has only one wife and queen. Though she is not explicit, it seems Akhenaten's belief in monotheism extends to a practice of monogamy. (And note that Patterson does portray Akhenaten as a monotheist, as opposed to a henotheist or monolatrist.) Kiya's existence as one of Akhenaten's wives became known in 1959, well in time for Patterson's book, but I suppose she had a different story to tell.

Besides the love story, the book is primarily concerned with Akhenaten's attempts to convert Egypt to his new religion. Akhenaten (she spells it Akhnaton) grows a bit repetitive and wearisome as the story drags on, and his inefficiency as a pharaoh is enough to make a person grind his teeth with frustration. Soon there is much intrigue as people line up to take over this feeble ruler's throne. Horemheb, who heads the army, has such designs, as does Nefertiti's own father Ay. In a better writer's hands, it is a compelling story, but Patterson's craft is somewhat clumsy. The dialogue is stiff; I think she means to convey a sort of royal tone but it all ends up sounding awkward. And the words she chooses for some things are not quite right, as in "pylons" for what I can only guess are obelisks or other monuments. Smenkhkare is called Sakere. Too, she never refers to Amarna by its Egyptian name, instead only calling the city "City of the Horizon of Aton." And again, her spellings of Amon and Aton and the related names are unusual, though not unheard of.

All lack of historical bedrock aside, the story moves quickly (chapters average eight pages) but ends unsatisfactorily with Horemheb advancing on Nefertiti and her remaining supporters in Amarna. The princesses of Egypt are evidently in Thebes (Waset), and at this point it is not clear who is actually running the country. Maybe this is because even today the succession after Akhenaten is hazy, much of the records destroyed by the Egyptians themselves in attempt to erase that period from their memories. Patterson does not give any suggestion as to what might happen past the point of the narrative, or what might have happened historically, which is interesting since she seemed fine with spinning any amount of fiction up to that point. What would be the harm in giving readers a real finish? Or at least in letting Bek and Nefertiti be happy together? (Did I just ruin it for you? Sorry. Though I can say this much: of all that Patterson writes in Sun Queen, the love between Bek and Nefertiti has the greatest impact. Patterson conveys their attraction well.)

It is not a bad book, for all its lack of accuracy and craft. It gives the overall feeling of someone who is a good writer but not great, someone in the middling part of their attempted literary mastery. Maybe Patterson did not feel so confident about the subject matter. Maybe her American Revolution books are better. But here, while passable, there is a caution and hesitancy to the prose that gives the reader a feeling of the author not quite putting her all into the work.


Movies: Oblivion (2013)

A mish-mash of old standbys like Star Wars and Wall-E (with some shots reminiscent of Dune and Neverending Story), Oblivion is not a bad movie, but it is very standard for its genre.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, whose job is to fix drones on the war-scarred remains of planet Earth. The drones defend large power stations that hover over the ocean and extract water that gets converted to fusion power or energy or something. The idea is that all this energy is needed to get remaining humans to a colony on Titan. The film opens with a long voiceover by Jack that explains all this. I can see why the exposition was handled this way, but I always cringe a bit when so much exposition is served up first thing. Any story that requires so much establishing information is, by definition, structurally unsound on its own.

Okay, anyway. Jack works as a team with Victoria. While he goes down from their Cloud City tower to handle drones and fight "Scavs" (aliens who have holed up on Earth after the big war), Vika stays topside to consult with Sally of Mission Control. This control is stationed on a large, triangular Death Star type thing known as the Tet that hovers over Earth. Jack and Vika believe their mission is almost finished and that they'll be free to return to the Tet and jet off to Titan soon.

Trailers gave much of the twists in Oblivion away, so I don't think it's going too far to say that the Scavs are not aliens after all; they're humans who are resisting the Tet. I won't say any more than that in case some of you still plan to see the movie.

Meanwhile, Jack is plagued by flashes of memory of a life on Earth, particularly in New York . . . He is less eager to return to the Tet, and has even gone Wall-E in building a little hidden cabin for himself where he collects Earth artifacts like books, ball caps, whatever odds and ends strike his fancy. Vika seems unaware of his hidey hole.

I spent much of the movie denouncing Drone 166, which I named "Pete" in honor of the same character on Broadchurch. In this case, Pete spent a fair amount of time making a nuisance of himself by popping up and attempting to shoot Jack and his friends on a semi-regular basis.

There are parts of Oblivion that made me wish I'd seen it in the cinema; I think some of it would have benefitted from big-screen treatment. (Note to self: get a bigger telly.) The dialogue was pretty cliché and kind of awful, though. And the plot points were rote; every "twist" was just an old trick, easily anticipated. Still, because I do like movies like Star Wars and Dune and old Creature Shop flicks from my 80s childhood, I could appreciate Oblivion even as I picked apart all its obvious influences. And because I went in with no wild expectations, Oblivion ended up being about as good as I thought or hoped it might be. Nothing more, nothing less. Rather like getting exactly what you order in a restaurant—no delightful surprises, but nothing terrible either. Just a solid, if average, meal.

Food: Cheerwine

I'm sitting here drinking my first ever Cheerwine. I'd heard of it, of course. I've listened to people rhapsodize nostalgically about it . . . Though they always seemed to finish with, "It's actually not very good." Huh?

Apparently Cheerwine inhabits a place in many people's childhoods (at least people I know). We didn't have it where I grew up, but I found it at a store the other day and decided to give it a try.

The bottle (I bought one individual bottle as a tester) reads: "Legend since 1917." Um, okay. It also says the drink is made with cane sugar, wild cherry, and other natural flavors. Is it all natural? Seems unlikely. But it is milder than a lot of other colas. My first impression was that it didn't have much flavor at all, that despite its carbonation it was somehow flat.

However . . .

The more I drank it, the more I could taste it. (It may also have benefitted from my having poured it out of the glass bottle and into a cup with a straw.)

I like cherry-flavored things in general. Cherry Coke, black cherry drinks, Black Cherry Dr Pepper, cherry sours. (Come to think of it, my car is a color known as "dark cherry.") Cheerwine is definitely cherry once you get a bit of build up out of it; unlike Cherry Coke, the cola part in Cheerwine is in the minority in that you don't taste much "cola" at all.

Also, it leaves my mouth feeling a bit dry.

Final verdict: I like it but don't love it. Though it's the kind of drink I can imagine developing a taste for over time, on the whole I probably wouldn't buy or drink it regularly.


Television: Broadchurch, Episode 1.3

There are few television shows that compel me to put down my laptop, my iPhone, and really pay attention. In fact, there's only one: Broadchurch.

It's an incredibly well-constructed show from every angle: characters, writing, acting, editing. Which is probably why FOX is planning to do an American version. I probably won't watch it. It's like another artist doing their version of, I dunno, the Venus de Milo or something. It'll be suggestive of, but in that artist's own style, and he'll probably give her arms because he feels like the original is missing something.

Now, we all knew the moment Mark refused to answer (in the guise of handily "forgetting") the question of where he was the night Danny was murdered that there was probably an affair going on. Right? I mean, it's been made clear that marriage is all screwed up anyway. But I love Alec Hardy's efficiency, and also the writer's, because they didn't try to drag it out at all. The pacing is just another really great thing about Broadchurch. They don't miss a step and are still able to keep things interesting. There's no drag.

I think, too, the show benefits from being only eight episodes. It's a mini, really, and in tone reminds me a bit of Tana French.

Okay, but let's look at the cleaning lady (whose name I've missed). She keeps a log of the keys—we've seen this—so I am waiting for Hardy to insist on seeing that to confirm Mark did not sign out any keys. In fact, shouldn't they be looking at that log anyway to see who did have keys to the crime scene? I'm going to trust Hardy has it covered. That, and asking Chloe about the fishing incident.

And what about the skateboard? The cleaning lady has it in her closet. Did she find it? Is she a scavenger of sorts with a mistrust of authority born of a hard life? Or does she have something to hide? (Her argument with Nigel in the clips for next week suggest there's something going on.)

What is Tom hiding? Where is Danny's phone? Still lots of questions to keep us interested. (Don't answer them if you know; I'm avoiding reading anything about this show until I've seen it all. I enjoy it too much to spoil it for myself.)

And still, I'm also enjoying how Ellie keeps bringing food to Alec, culminating finally in her invitation to dinner with her family. Very nice character development and interaction happening there.

And for comic relief, we have Pete, who in my house is subject to such exclamations as, "Shut the fuck up, Pete" and "Goddamn it, Pete" and (with a head shake) "Typical Pete."

In short, I really enjoy this show. I'd have binge watched it if it were possible. But maybe it's a good thing it's not; there's something lovely about having that old-time anticipation of a favorite program each week. Thank you, Broadchurch, for bringing that back to me.


The Writing Life: Projects and Minor Wins/Losses

I've come to the point in my writing career when I need to make and prioritize lists of projects. Because there are some that I'm doing for myself, on my own time, and others I've agreed to do for and with others. There are some that have, you know, contracts and obligations and all that kind of thing.

I like that people want to work with me. I'm flattered, actually, and still at that stage where I'm a bit astounded, too.

Here is my current list:

  1. Expanding the St. Peter in Chains screenplay to full length by marrying St. Peter at the Gate to it. I've agreed to have a draft done by early September.
  2. Rewriting another writer's draft. (Meeting with him in September to sort out details.)
  3. Writing a draft based on another writer's outline. (Phone conference next week to sort out details.)
  4. Getting back 'round to 20 August to tidy up a few things.
  5. Writing the pilot for Hunting Victor Frankenstein.

And that's just my screenwriting list. My prose list includes:

  1. St. Peter Ascends
  2. Sherlock's Daughter (working title)
  3. More Sherlock Holmes stories
  4. Another K-Pro novel
  5. Helping my mother pull together her book about being a hospice chaplain

Meanwhile, news on the competition front: 20 August made Quarterfinals in CWA. Alas, the Sherlock script and St. Peter in Chains did not. I'm not surprised Peter got cut, and really, it has already won one competition and its destiny seemingly lies elsewhere anyway. But I was sad for my Sherlock script, which did get really great feedback, except they'd said it was too long and I should cut it back to 50 pages, which makes me think the reader didn't realize the show is a 90-minute format. I like to think their mistake is what worked against me (rather than my writing), but who knows? I'll believe what makes me feel better and hope my talent gets recognized by the right people eventually. Though, busy as I am, I can only suppose I'm getting noticed by a someone . . .

Screenwriting conference at the end of September as well. Need to brush up on my pitching . . . One more thing for the list . . .

CNN: "Why I Choose Not to Work"

Actually, I do work. I write. But that was the choice I made: not going back to the office grind, even though I could make, you know, money and maybe put that expensive graduate degree to use.

I'm partially featured in the CNN article here.

And I wrote more about my choice on PepperWords here.


20 August

Today we mourn the passing of Lucky, neé Bernard . . .

When I gave 20 August that title, I was merely picking the date I began writing. The stage version came first, the screenplay later. The stage play has never been produced due to production requirements, but there is interest on various fronts in the scripted version, and I hope yet to see it made into a movie.

The original play was set in London, but for the screenplay I've Americanized it a bit, since that's where the producers and directors who are interested in it are located. But when I was writing (and I've said this before in previous posts) I sort of had a young Ewan McGregor's voice in my head when writing Dixon (who narrates the piece). Not sure in American terms who that might translate to. Actually, not sure in British terms who that might translate to these days. Sigh. I'm showing my age. (Let me just say however, for the record, that Mr. McGregor is older than I am by a good half decade.)

I wrote 20 August in a ridiculously short amount of time; I remember Hurricane Irene happening the day I finished it. I chose the title, and then chose the name Bernard at random, and only discovered later that 20 August is the actual St. Bernard's Feast Day. One of those magical moments when whatever you're in the process of writing suddenly seems meant to be.

Anyway, it didn't seem right to let the day pass without a mention.


Television: Spaced

So having watched Black Books, I followed up with Spaced, as per Netflix's advice. It didn't seem like a bad idea anyway, seeing as Hot Fuzz is one of my favorite movies. (I'm less a fan of other Simon Pegg movies, though I do still intend to see The World's End.)

Anyway, Spaced stars Pegg and Jessica Hynes (aka Jessica Stevenson) as Tim and Daisy, two nigh strangers who decide to pretend to be married in order to get a flat that the owner wants to rent only to a couple. I actually tried watching this show a couple years ago and only found it mildly funny, therefore I only made it about four episodes in. Just goes to show, however, that frame of mind is everything; upon a second attempt at watching it, I liked it much better and watched both series (seasons). While somewhere in the middle they foundered a bit, on the whole it was quite fun.

There are only 14 episodes anyway, seven per series. The first series aired in 1999, the second in 2001, and so they are necessarily dated as they rely in large part on pop culture references like The Phantom Menace and Robot Wars. Still, for nerds these things are timeless, so the right kind of viewer can follow the humor without any trouble. And the use of homage is done incredibly well (I loved the Jurassic Park moment at the end of "Gone"). It's the kind of show that prompts a game of Name That Movie/Program/What-Have-You. Biggest nerd wins.

Also, while Pegg and Hynes hold their own as the central characters, there are strong supporting characters as well that add value to the stories being told. Nick Frost is there, of course, as Tim's militant friend Mike. But I especially got a kick out of Mark Heap as troubled artist Brian Topp.

On the whole, then, I can recommend Spaced to friends of a certain stripe: nerds, Simon Pegg fans (usually a subset of my nerd friends, or vice versa) . . . And my artist friend whose name is also Brian. Though, come to think of it, I'm not sure how he'd take the comparison.

Now it's on to The IT Crowd, Netflix's latest recommendation for me. I'll let you know how it goes.


Books: The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon's Court by Michelle Moran

I was looking for something to read, having difficulty finding something that appealed to me, and then I remembered how much I had enjoyed Michelle Moran's novels Nefertiti, The Heretic Queen, and Cleopatra's Daughter. And I wondered whether she had anything else out. So I looked her up and found The Second Empress.

Now, I'll admit my knowledge of Napoleon is limited to vague memories from history classes and references made in Regency romance novels, so this novel wasn't in my usual line. I love historical fiction, have since I discovered Judith Tarr when I was a middle grader, but mostly read stuff set in Ancient Egypt or Rome, or else Medieval and Tudor England (Regency romances notwithstanding). These are the areas I'm educated in. Which is funny because I'm French and should probably know more about France . . . I just get hazy around the 1700s because that's when my family fled and took up in Louisiana.

Okay, so The Second Empress is a quick read. And it's been a while since I read the other books by Moran, but I had the impression this one didn't have quite as much depth as those. That seems strange to say, since The Second Empress actually tells the story of the last few years of Napoleon's reign (and defeat, and attempted new reign, and final defeat) from a number of angles, using various players' points of view—though none of them Napoleon's own. The reader gets the thoughts of Marie-Louise, as the titular second empress after Napoleon set aside Joséphine; the thoughts of Napoleon's sister Pauline; and those of Pauline's Haitian chamberlain Paul Moreau. But instead of providing depth, the effect is prismatic, a sort of bouncing off of light and understanding. In the end, it all seems a kind of gloss, the story itself failing to delve.

Maybe it was the prose. It moves so quickly, and though at times the descriptions of the palaces are lush (particularly when dealing with Pauline, who is obsessed with all things beautiful, including herself), there were plenty of times I did not get a real picture of where anyone was. The book is filled with conversations and interior dialogue, but the settings are often impressionistic. I don't remember ever thinking this of the other books I've read by Moran, but because it has been so long it may simply be that my tastes, the things I look for when reading, have changed.

Still and all, for someone like me with only the vaguest knowledge of Napoleon's rule, The Second Empress is quite instructive. Moran has done her homework, and her notes at the end of the book are worth reading as much as the novel. I did enjoy the book on the whole. And I will continue to read more by Michelle Moran.


Screenwriting: Preliminary Finalist in the Creative World Awards

I submitted three scripts to the CWA this year, and I'm pleased to be able to announce all three made it through the preliminary round. 20 August under Drama, St. Peter in Chains under Short Screenplays, and Sherlock: "A Society of Martlets" under Television (proving that girls can write this stuff just as well as boys).

Of course, there are still many stages to go (quarterfinals, semi-finals, finals, and then the winners), but I'm just very pleased to have jumped one of these hurdles. Meanwhile, my current project is extending St. Peter in Chains to full length by adapting St. Peter at the Gate and adding it to the existing script. Though it hasn't been formally optioned, I do have someone interested in taking it on as a film project, so that is encouraging. I also have someone interested in 20 August, though it needs some tweaking. But I'm pleased that there is interest in my work, and that people are asking me to help them refine their scripts as well. Better to have projects than to sit around twiddling my thumbs!


A History of Tarot Decks

So I've mentioned before that I collect Tarot decks. I find them interesting, and the artwork can be quite lovely. People sometimes ask me which Tarot deck(s) I use, so here's a little history of the ones I have.

The first deck I ever bought was the Mystic Faerie Tarot. I liked the artwork, and I tried to learn to read the cards, but I couldn't. There is some kind of block between me and these cards. Though I do find it interesting that when I opened this deck, I found two Eight of Pentacles. All the rest of the cards were there, but there was this extra Eight of Pentacles . . . So maybe there's some life message about "mastering my craft" that I'm supposed to heed.

Anyway, since I wasn't getting anywhere with those cards, I picked up the Harmonious Tarot. I absolutely adore these cards. This is the deck I use every morning for my three-card draw. I keep them in the drawer beside my bed. If I had to get rid of all but one Tarot deck, this would be the one I would keep.

Still, I have an illness. I am compelled to collect these cards. So the next set I got was . . . I get confused here, actually, because I got two at around the same time. I got the Mystic Dreamer Tarot and the Pamela Coleman Smith commemorative deck. For the latter, it was really that I wanted a "traditional" deck to reference. And the book that came with it—it's so old school but really very interesting in its interpretations. Sort of shows how much things have changed over time. I feel like meanings were far harsher back in the day, and I wonder whether in modern times these have been toned down somewhat to make the Tarot more "friendly" and approachable. Like, maybe the old way was scaring people off from trying Tarot or something. Or maybe it's just that contemporary readers prefer to seek out the up side, the positive. After all, we've learned positive reinforcement works far better than negative.

And then I was in a store somewhere and I found the Paulina Tarot. I thought it was pretty, so I picked it up. I've had mixed results in reading these cards, however. I sometimes feel like they're secretly taunting me. Or they're only telling me part of the answer and smiling slyly behind my back. So I don't use them much.

Then, a couple weeks ago I got the Hermetic Tarot. I thought they were interesting and different, liked that they incorporated the astrological symbols into the designs. However, I have since decided I am not fond of them. Something about them puts me off. So I never use them.

In a few days my Shadowscapes Tarot will arrive. I'm excited about this. Stephanie Pui-Mun Law does some of the loveliest artwork, but I hadn't picked up her Tarot deck. And then I tried the iPhone app and it's terrific. So I decided to go ahead and get the cards as well and can't wait to try them out.

I have one other Tarot deck, this one from a long time back, a bootleg X deck from the CLAMP manga. I've never tried to use them for readings, though. I have Clow Cards, too, come to think of it. And I have used those to read fortunes, but not in a long, long time. Though I was told my readings with these cards were very accurate . . .

Things I Used to Do As an Undergraduate . . .

. . . Some of Which Would Probably Get Me Arrested Today  

  • Talk to blackbirds. In French. (I still do this. No risk of arrest, though people do think you're a bit mental, and a crow once stole an earring. Yes, while I was wearing it.)
  • Run up to campus tour groups and yell, "Welcome to Jurassic Park!" . . . then run away. After a few months the guides began to wear this harassed expression as they furtively ushered prospective students and their parents across the campus.
  • Use a French accent in the library, pretending to be a foreign exchange student so the desk clerks would take pity on me and go find my books for me, thereby saving me the trouble.
  • Put on my "Scully" suit, hold a hand to my ear as if on a com, and run between the campus buildings glancing up at the roofs and saying loudly, "I don't see him! I don't see him!" (It was really fun to watch everyone start looking.)
  • Get to class really early, before anyone was in, and leave random business cards at just a few desks. The cards read, "Archangel Gabriel: Messenger Service, Baby Sales & Judgment Day Counseling"—Again, hugely amusing to watch people react when they found them.
  • "Raptor" my dorm mates.
  • Dive in and out of open dorm rooms with a water gun, shooting people while humming the theme to Mission: Impossible.
  • Put on a rock star wig, some glittery eye makeup, and a gold hoop earring and pretend to be "Ollie" from the Olive Branch Band. In fact, I once did this at the mall, using a banana as a phone, while a friend filmed it. Store clerks and shoppers alike were utterly befuddled.
  • Put on my cloak and "haunt" the campus late at night. Sometimes I'd go into buildings that were still open and frighten the cleaning crews.


Concert: Gavin DeGraw, The Script & Train at America's Cup Pavilion, San Francisco

Last night I went to see The Script. That's who I went to see. It's just that Gavin DeGraw and Train were also playing.

Now, I really like Train, but I've seen them a lot lately, so I wouldn't have gone to see them again so soon if they hadn't happened to be toplining the concert where The Script was playing.

And Gavin DeGraw is one of those singers I hear on the radio a lot and really like. He's got such a unique voice, though its grittiness sometimes makes me wonder if it makes his throat hurt to sing like that. It's funny—I would have seen DeGraw back in August of 2011 when he was supposed to open for Maroon 5 and Train (that was the first time I saw Train in concert), but he'd been attacked in NYC and had to sit out a few concerts. So at least now I've seen him play, and I can say he puts on a good show. Listening to him, I found myself wondering why I didn't own any of his albums, since I do really like his music. He didn't play "Sweeter," but other than that, a very satisfactory outing.

Gavin DeGraw
After Mr. DeGraw, The Script came out. This made me very happy, as they've sort of been my new favorite band the past two or three years. (No offense to my darling Rob and Matchbox Twenty, but it took you ten fucking years to make an album, and a girl's gotta have music. Though Cradlesong was really pretty good as a solo outing.) I've wanted to see The Script play for a long time but was never in the right place at the right time. So finally! I got to see them.

And they were good. Not stellar, but solid. I think if they'd played longer, they probably would have warmed up more. (Also, they would have been able to play more songs that I love, but as it was, they did a nice selection.)

The Script's Danny O'Donoghue
I look at it this way: these boys are doing their best and learning the ropes and the tropes. Some of their schtick was a tad forced and/or cliché, but I had a good time seeing them, and in the end that's all that really matters. I'm curious to see the trajectory of their career(s) and how their shows change over time. After all, I first saw Matchbox Twenty playing a gymnasium, and now . . .

And then it was time for Train. Quick recap of my concert history with these guys: I first saw them in Massachusetts in August 2011 when they were double billed with Maroon 5 (fantastic). Then I saw them last year at Berkeley (a fabulous show). Then they turned up last month at the Genentech Gives Back event, so that was sort of a bonus round. And last night, once again . . . Another really good performance. Though I do have a bone to pick about this mermaid thing. Because the first time I saw them do it, they called all the little kids up on stage, and it was really cute and sweet. But now it has turned into a carnival of dressed-up attention whores, and not only is it not cute, I just don't think these people should be encouraged in that way.

One might think, having seen them four times in two years, the shows would start to be monotonous, but Train manages to keep things pretty fresh. They play the usual songs, sometimes mashing them into medleys . . . Last night "Free" segued into some Beatles tunes, which was fun. They also had the benefit of Ashley Monroe's presence for "Bruises," and I have to say her number "Weed Instead of Roses" was a good time.

Train—or, really: lights, fog & Pat Monahan

It was another good time with the Train gang. (Can I add that my son Alex has named one of his favorite stuffed animals Pat, after Pat Monahan? But this might only be because the name Rob is already taken by his little brother.)

Train. Now with less fog!
I continue to mourn my inability to get decent concert photos. I need a better camera . . .

Oh, and Sherl will have his comments about the night later today.


Television Movie: Clear History

I haven't seen Curb Your Enthusiasm, but a number of sources have told me Clear History might as well be titled Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Movie. Well, okay. I'll have to take their words for it.

My general sense of Clear History is that it's a loose framework of story wherein Larry David has reason to go to various places and kvetch. Sometimes he goes back to the same places and kvetches some more about things he's already kvetched about. It's a stand-up routine on location. And it has funny moments, if you like that kind of humor. I could imagine my parents saying at some points, "Yeah, he has a point there."

There is a reliance, too, on repetition as part of the joke. How many times must we go back to the "unsanitary" conditions of placing silverware on a diner table? (And yet it's somehow less unsanitary to lick your finger when touching money—do you know where that cash has been?) And even the final moment of the whole thing is predicated on a through joke. ::shrug::

Really, there's something old school about the whole of this little movie. Clean it up a bit and give it a warmer ending, and it could have been a Wonderful World of Disney Sunday Night movie from the 80s. Not necessarily a bad thing. But it's a very particular audience, and I think a lot of people won't find Clear History funny at all. It's a tad too long, for one thing. Meanders a bit in the middle as the plot swerves then goes back . . . What is the plot? Oh, well, Larry David plays Nathan Flomm, who walks away from a company just before its shares go through the roof. In short, he loses nearly $1 billion, becomes a national laughingstock, then moves to Martha's Vineyard under a new name. When the billionaire owner of the company Will Haney (John Hamm) takes a house on the Vineyard, Nathan (now Raleigh) decides to get revenge by blowing up the house. Then decides he might rather steal Haney's wife. But when that doesn't work, Nathan/Raleigh goes back to the house explosion idea. And the whole thing culminates in a Chicago concert (that viewers don't get to see, or are spared from seeing, depending on whether you like Chicago).

Anyway, around the 70-minute mark, I began to wonder how much longer this was going to go on. Which is pretty bad when the whole thing is only 100 minutes to begin with. (I also kept thinking Larry David, when in a baseball cap and sunglasses, looks an awful lot like Jimmy Buffett. But that's something else again.)

In the end, Clear History was marginally entertaining. It had its moments, and I enjoyed seeing Michael Keaton act crazy and Liev Schreiber with a ponytail and an accent. I didn't really buy the ending (would have enjoyed the Disney ending more, I think), but whatever. I wasn't invested enough to be truly disappointed. The plot was rote and flimsy, and the whole thing was really just a Larry David showcase. So if you like that kind of thing . . .

Woody Allen Shares (a little)

I've never been a fan of Woody Allen. I'll say that up front. By which I mean, we were forced to watch Annie Hall in film school, and I didn't like it. Thought it was boring. Didn't find the relationship at all relatable, or funny, or interesting, or anything.

Then people say, "Well, have you seen Manhattan?" (A: No, but Richard Marx sings about it . . .) "Have you seen Hannah and Her Sisters?" Nope. After Annie Hall, I couldn't be bothered with any of that stuff. Because I was having it recommended to me by people who liked Annie Hall.

Now, I should perhaps mention that I did love What's Up, Tiger Lily? as a kid. But that's a different breed of animal.

Okay, and then later I tried to watch Match Point but ended up turning it off because I thought it was boring, too. Maybe I was just in the wrong frame of mind, though. I mean, I could try watching it again. I understand, of course, that there's a difference between watching (or reading) something because it's required and doing it because you really want to. And I know that reception is in part about mood and environment and just general circumstance. So, you know, it's possible I could go and even try Annie Hall again and discover it's not as awful as I remember.

Then, too, I watched Midnight in Paris during a flight to London and enjoyed it. Came home and watched it again, just to be sure it wasn't that I was fatigued the first time. But no, I really liked it. And that's receptivity again: I'm always happy when on my way to London, so then I watch a movie while on my way over, and my general good spirits color my feelings for what I'm seeing.

Anyway, that long preface finished (because I believe in being honest about my biases), I have to say I also really enjoyed this short little piece in which Woody Allen tells Esquire what he's learned. Because I'm a writer, too, and can at least relate to some of what he says. Yes, sometimes I do surprise myself when I'm writing. When it pops into my head, it's as funny and amazing to me as it is to anyone who might read or see it later. That's why you can't ask a writer where his or her ideas come from; we don't know. They spring like Athene from our skulls. (Okay, not always. But you can usually tell the difference between something that's been worked over and something that is and was magic in the making.)

Also, I never go and re-read or see something I've done. Because, like Woody, I would only find the flaws. At most I might go check one of my books to see if I can remember what happens when, or what a specific line was, but I avoid it if I can. It makes me uncomfortable to see myself on film, or read my work, or see my work performed. And it's like going backward in a way, too; one mustn't dwell on what's already done. One must continue to produce and move forward. And if I were to tangle myself up in worrying about stuff that's already out there, regretting things (or reveling in them), I'd never get loose and be able to do more.

Woody mentions the shower, and I have to say I do some of my best writing in there. Problem is, I hop out and try to go write it all down, and it's never as good as it was in my head when the hot water was streaming over me. I should have some kind of dictaphone for the shower, I guess, but that would kind of ruin it for me.

I don't know if I was born with the gift for writing. I'd like to think so. God knows I didn't get my grandparents' ability to paint or draw (my dad also draws and is a photographer as a hobby as well) . . . My grandfather was a poet, too, but I'm useless with that kind of thing. Writing is all I have. And some acting. As for the achievement side of things, I keep trying. But as Woody points out, I have very little control over what happens in my life. Same as anyone. If I wanted complete control of my writing, it would never leave my laptop. I would keep extra backup flash drives stashed all over the house or something, just to be sure I never lost any of my work. But I wouldn't share it, either. I'd hoard words like squirrels hoard nuts. And the flip side of that is, you can never achieve anything that way. At least not while you're still alive.

Fighting? I don't do it often. I discuss. I'll argue my point, but I keep my cool most of the time. I get hot on the inside, sure, but at the end of the day, I prefer equilibrium. Makes it easier to sleep. Some people love the drama; they equate it with passion. I'm passionate enough in my own way, but as for the fighting and the excessive life drama, I try to save it for my work.


Books: Pretentious Literature about Pretentious Literature

At least, that's what I've managed to understand from the first 28 pages of Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot. So don't hold me to it because I've barely read any of the book. But even just starting, so many things pop out at me, reminding me why I seldom read contemporary "literature." (Love old stuff. But anything after about 1950, with a few exceptions, is a no for me.)

So The Marriage Plot is, thus far, about Madeleine Hanna, who in 1982 is about to graduate from Brown University. That alone [Ivy League setting] is worth one Pretentious Point. That she calls her parents Daddy and Mummy . . . Two more Pretentious Points. That Eugenides insists on referring to Madeleine's parents as Phyllida and Alton? Double points because of his using their first names and giving them such pretentious first names. Also, Madeleine's friend Mitchell Grammaticus. Yeah, what is he, a gladiator? Another point for that one.

Madeleine's manufactured angst over (a) having broken up with her boyfriend Leonard—and let me just add that no college girl has ever dated a guy named Leonard and felt any amount of serious affection for him; Leo, yes, Leonard or Lenny, no, not even in 1982—and (b) not being sure what to do with herself after graduation . . . Sigh. With all the pretentious buildup around her, to have the story boil down to this is rather rote. And being that her parents have money anyway, and her mother has suggested she could move home, I'm not sure where Madeleine's problem really lies. Sure, no one wants to move home after college. And Madeleine is mourning the fact she was supposed to be moving to the Cape with Leonard. But not having met Leonard (well, only just having met him in one of Madeleine's classes—remember, I'm only on page 28), it's hard to feel sorry for her because as a reader, I don't know what she's lost. A guy with a really awful name, maybe. Or a sweet house on the Cape, I guess, but I haven't seen that either, so I don't know. ::shrug::

And now I'm stuck with Madeleine in some lit crit classes that are apparently early, literature-based versions of all the film studies classes I took back at uni. So I know all that pretentious shit because I waded through it with the usual spectrum of professors—the Marxists; the one crazy guy trying to sell his own new angle (it was called "omniphasim" and I have no idea if it ever went anywhere); the professor who ran his class like it was an afternoon talk show, running through the aisles with a microphone . . . I didn't buy all of what was put in front of me, but I'll say it was all interesting in one way or another, fun stuff to chew over at the coffee houses (sometimes in French when we wanted to be pretentious). It's the kind of environment where you're led to believe things like "the silent agenda in non-narrative television" might really matter. Except when you get out into the world, it doesn't. Or maybe it does, but not in any way that can get you a job.

Anyway. As for The Marriage Plot, I'll continue reading for now, partly because I have nothing else to read at the moment, and partly to see how many points it can accumulate before I can't stand it any longer.


Books: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I hesitate to say if you've read one Kate Morton book you've read them all, but I've read two, and they are very much alike.

You might recall I really enjoyed The House at Riverton. But when I picked up The Secret Keeper, I developed an almost instantaneous sense of déjà vu. The books are structured in very similar ways, what with the modern-day frame story and the flashbacks to an earlier time. It's a fine formula, I guess, but having read Riverton, I had The Secret Keeper's secret(s) figured out well ahead of the characters, turning what might've been an intriguing mystery into a kind of trudge toward the inevitable. All the details of the prose, which are indeed lovely, became obstacles to be skimmed as I skated toward the conclusion, trying to divine whether I'd been right in my guesses. (Answer: yes.)

Still. It's a solid piece of writing with very neatly drawn characters. The one I feel like we could have used more details on was Vivien. She more than the others felt a bit more hastily cobbled, relying in large part on literary gesticulation. Something about her just didn't ring quite true . . . As if she were too good to be true, maybe.

The story, for those who might wonder, is of how aging actress Laurel and her brother Gerry strive to piece together the mystery of their dying mother's shadowy past. They have other sisters, but these women pass through and around the narrative, and it is Laurel and Gerry who have the particular connection because when they were younger they witnessed their mother [insert inciting incident here]. And while they've gone on with their lives keeping this childhood secret, apparently there's no better time than when Mum is on her deathbed and more or less incapable of answering questions to start dredging up all that kind of thing.

Again, flashes of Riverton, wherein a dying woman relates to her grandson the true story of a murder that occurred in a house she'd worked in. Just so similar in style and technique, these two books.

So I have to wonder if I'd have liked Riverton less if I'd read it second? Because while The Secret Keeper was good, it wasn't as good, and I'm inclined to believe I feel that way because reading it felt a bit like eating warmed over leftovers.


Television: Broadchurch, Episode 1.1

I have been hearing about this show—whispers in passing—since before it aired on ITV and have been champing at the bit to get a look. Alas, I wasn't over at the time ITV was showing it, and I was then determined not to have it spoiled for me, so I've stayed away. Until now.

Broadchurch will begin airing on BBC America starting the evening of Wednesday, August 7, but the first episode is available On Demand as a sneak. I finally decided I couldn't wait any longer. And now I'm just sorry I'll have to wait another week to ten days to watch the next episode.

It's a fantastic show. Just in the first episode, so much is done with the cinematography and minimal dialogue, very realistic. Here, actions and reactions speak louder than words.

David Tennant (I'll admit, the big draw here for me) does his best David Duchovny slouch as he plays DI Alec Hardy, latest installment in the Broadchurch police force, attempting to put nasty accusations (of which he was acquitted) behind him. Alas, his first day on the job he is greeted with the murder of an 11-year-old boy. Back in the saddle he goes.

Riding beside him, the somewhat bitter DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) who had anticipated getting the DI position. Ellie knows everyone in town—the local newshound is her nephew—and plays the heart to Alec's head. Her own son Tom was the murder victim's best friend and clearly knows more than he's said.

The first episode does a nice job of introducing the town and its people without being too heavy handed with the exposition. Viewers get a good sense of what's going on and who is who, and it pleases me to see a show written and produced in a way that doesn't treat the audience like imbeciles. At the same time, Broadchurch also avoids coming across as smug or self-satisfied with its own cleverness, which is a problem I've sometimes found in even well-constructed programs.

Some have likened Broadchurch to Twin Peaks, and I'm guessing that's mainly because (a) the victim is found on the beach (though not wrapped in plastic), and (b) the story centers on an insular town wherein anyone might be the culprit while (c) the chief investigator is an outsider. I do wonder what it says about the differences in American versus British culture when Americans kill off a beautiful young female teenager and the British choose a pre-adolescent boy. But maybe that's more a sign of the times, what with Twin Peaks being so much older . . . Or even more likely, it's just that Twin Peaks was created by David Lynch. So far, I don't see quite that level of strange in Broadchurch, which in the first episode at least remains quite grounded in reality. I think I would be disappointed were it to go off the rails in Lynchian fashion.

Really, Broadchurch is the best show I've watched in a while. Smart of BBC America to put it on in advance of the fall premieres, thus filling that late summer gap. Broadchurch might have suffered, too, if it had gone up against Game of Thrones and/or American Horror Story in early winter, but at this time of year the ground is fertile for a Broadchurch-style drama. At only eight episodes, the show squeezes in before most networks begin rolling out their latest wares. I hope people will give it a try. It's tightly written, nicely filmed, and well acted. A real treat.

Television: The 12th Doctor

Peter Capaldi has been announced as the newest incarnation of The Doctor on Doctor Who, taking over from Matt Smith at the end of the year. Already remarks are running the gamut from "Hip hip hooray!" to "Oh, another old white guy, what a bold new direction /sarcasm."

While I'm inclined to think that those who are really excited by this unveiling are the kinds of people who would have been happy no matter what because they are determined to like all things Whovian, I really have no opinion one way or another on Capaldi as Doctor. Yet. Truth is, it will depend as much or more on the writing as on the actor. Give even the best actor a crap script, and even if he does his best to elevate the material, it will still be mostly crap. Give a bad actor a great script and the material elevates him.

Why yes, I am a writer? Why do you ask?

Seriously, though, it's the truth. Look at movies that have been known to have rampant script problems, ones that go through multiple rewrites and several screenwriters—they're typically a jumble that even special effects cannot save. It all starts with story.

So I'll withhold judgement on Capaldi as the latest in a long line of [yes, white male] Doctors and wait to see what they give him and how he manages the part.

Movies: John Dies at the End

(Admittedly watched while drinking a quantity of rum, so . . .)

I don't watch horror movies as a rule; I don't like gore. Psychological thrillers—I love those. But anything bloody and slashery is a no thank you.

Still, I liked this movie. I wasn't sure I would because I wasn't really sure what to expect, but the trailer did its job by intriguing me, and so . . . In its favor, it wasn't so gory. And a lot of the effects were just this side of gimmicky so that I didn't mind the nasty bits so much. I did mind the spiders, but they were brief.

The plot itself is a somewhat ridiculous romp, a tale of alternate dimensions and the need to protect the world as we know it from extraterrestrial influences. And there's a dog! It's all rather Buffyesque in a way, though the gang didn't quite gel in JDatE. No, here the focus is on Dave and his friend John who use an alien drug to heighten their senses so that they can defeat, um . . . Well, anyway, it was a fun movie, apparently based on a book (or a web serial? I'm not entirely clear on that and too tired to go look it up), the kind of thing you watch while drinking lots of rum on a Saturday night. Or beer. That would probably work too. But wine would be too artsy.

On the whole, the movie had the feel of a bit of a would-be zombie flick (thanks to the effect the drug has on some people), or maybe it's more like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, followed up with the video game big boss thing. The plot structure isn't fantastic, but the movie is fun enough to skate by these issues. It's comic book fare, really. Going in with little expectation, I found myself enjoying the movie, and its short running time means you don't feel the 99 minutes are wasted. JDatE is the stoner movie of the horror genre (or one of them; I assume there are probably others). It hits the sweet spot between silly and gross if and when you're in the mood for that kind of thing; fans of shows like The X-Files and/or Doctor Who might surely want to take a look, as JDatE inhabits a nexus between the two.


About the Author

I could begin with my schooling, having been part of a pilot program through fifth grade, my limited tenure at a private school until they determined I was, if not a bad influence, a bizarre one (having convinced the fifth and sixth graders to pretend at length to be rabbits from Watership Down), and the subsequent shunting of me into the American education system wherein I made more friends amongst the teachers than my fellow students.

Truthfully, my teachers were my greatest encouragers. Coach Roberts called my parents one day to enthuse over my obviously very good home life, given what a bright and level-headed young lady I was. (This man also used to sing "Amanda" every time I walked into the classroom, so . . .) Mrs. Bason taught Journalism, and under her tutelage I would go on to be both a student newspaper columnist and yearbook editor. (She and I would also go to science fiction conventions together.) Dr. Robertson, my World History teacher, who lived just 'round the corner and had great stories to tell. And of course Mr. Crivello was my English Lit teacher for two years—he and Mrs. Bason in particular were the ones to tell me my writing might actually lead to something one day.

I went away to university with the idea of going into journalism (though my high school debate teacher thought I should be a D.A.), but there was a bottleneck for intro classes, and I was not allowed to take any other classes without first taking the basics, so I switched to Radio-TV-Film. I'd always liked movies and TV, had even at a young age proclaimed I would one day make movies like Steven Spielberg, but who was I kidding? No one makes movies like he does. Still, I somehow cobbled together a degree plan that looked like this: cultural media studies, screenwriting, psychology (fan psychology in particular, and it was here, too, that I was diagnosed with Asperger's), and a minor in Classics. I took some drama classes, too, that resulted in the drama instructors asking me to consider changing to a drama major, but I was too far into my degree to make the switch. At least, that was how I felt about it at the time. In the meantime, I did a bit of Holiday and Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Crimes of the Heart. (Best moment ever was when I came off Crimes and began talking to someone and he exclaimed, "But wait! Where's your accent?" Turns out the Southern accent I'd been using during the show, he'd assumed it was my true speaking voice.) By the end of the program, I was spending more time haunting the halls of the Classics department and snuggling up to all those lovely gentlemen with their Welsh and Scottish and British accents anyway.

From there I could go into all my working experience: my first job at the public library when I was seventeen; working the jewelry counter in a department store, which is its own set of stories; and also for a famous doll designer, which is a strange thing to fall into . . . And then I went on to do the movie stuff, and yes I was hanging out with some famous people there for a while, and learned that if I nursed a drink and sat quietly, the people around me would sometimes become very free with their information, so it was quite the learning experience!

But then I decided that I wasn't 100% comfortable with never knowing where my next job might come from, which is part of film production. Things wrap and then what? I was in Austin, Texas, finishing my degree, and I wasn't ready to pack it in and go to L.A., though I'd had offers. (Stupid me, I know that now! But I wanted to finish what I'd started, namely my degree.) And all those famous people moved on. Meanwhile, I went back to my love of writing and headed in the opposite direction, off to Emerson College to get a Masters in Writing, Literature and Publishing. (Yes, my degrees are RTF and WLP.) Through Emerson I (a) met more famous people, and (b) networked my way into my first publishing job. I ended up working in publishing as a project manager and editor for eight years before realizing that working on other people's writing meant I was never doing any of my own. So I quit and picked up my pen laptop once more.

What else? I tend to be very healthy except when I'm not, at which times I am very ill. I can actually enumerate the times I've been sick: at six months with pneumonia the doctors were sure would kill me (I am partly deaf in one ear as a result); at age five with chicken pox (but that was all Chad Minton's fault, as everyone knows); in spring of 1988 when I came home from school and collapsed and was unconscious for a couple days; my freshman year of high school when I was so sick they put me on codeine, but still I insisted on going to school to take my mid-terms, and I passed them all even though I was high on medicine and did, in fact, yell out "Millennium Falcon!" in the middle of the English Lit exam and then dissolved into a fit of laughter that went on for a good fifteen minutes or so, to the alarm of my teacher and fellow students; and finally, the delirious fever I suffered for nearly a week in October of 1996, during which I spoke to people beside my bed who probably weren't there. Scared the bejesus out of my roommate, though. Oh, and swine flu. I had that a few years ago, and it kept me in bed a couple days. Well, and I have allergies too, but who doesn't?

Traveling . . . I do it as often as I can, which still isn't as often as I'd like. I get bored and restless pretty easily, so I crave changes in scenery. I've been all over Europe and Central America, have not yet gone as far as Asia or Australia or New Zealand, though I'd very much like to. There have been two attempts to kidnap me—one in Mexico and one in Greece—but those are other stories.

My father is brilliant recluse, my mother a social butterfly, and I am an only child brought up in a rich cultural history and amongst a crowd of cousins. But I was the quiet one. A celebrity friend of mine once said, "Thing about Manda is, she only says something when she's sure," to which I answered, "And that's why I don't speak very often."

I like to sing and dance and was member of a Shakespeare troupe for one lovely year . . . I build with LEGOs and put together puzzles whenever I'm suffering writer's block, the drawback being once I start I'm as likely to sit down and do the whole puzzle in one go and get very irritated if I'm forced to stop . . . I'd rather stay up late than get up early, and I love sun and to swim and have an intense dislike of snow. Not cold, mind. A cold, crisp morning is lovely, and even a walk in a chilling rain can be refreshing, but ice and snow are my nemeses. Oh, and telephones. I hate talking on telephones.

There. A small history of me. Not everything, but enough to give you an idea. Assuming you ever wanted one. Or maybe this is more for me, to remind me of who I am and where I come from. I think it's important to compile and summarize sometimes, else life starts to sprawl, and one can begin to lose track of oneself. I look around my office and think, How did I get here? And this answers my question, at least in part. So I can gather myself up in these words and then ask, And where to now?

Television: Showrunners in Variety

So I'm flipping through my weekly Variety, and they have all these television showrunners featured, you know, little headshots with pull quotes and what not. I find myself skimming them, stopping only to really read the ones from shows I actually watch, or used to watch, or tried to watch . . . Most of the showrunners mention how television is this great way of exploring character, etc. More so than movies because those have a limited amount of time to tell a story, whereas in TV you're trying to make it last (which sometimes also works against it, but) . . . And most of them are men, of course. But whatever.

Still, I look at Rob Doherty's little blurb about how Elementary is a big hit for CBS. And it is. But it only earned a couple Emmy noms. And Doherty's quote is: "You have to make sure you're telling a pretty intricate tale. Our cases always have to merit the attention of Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson." Which is funny because I'd say the reason they didn't get more Emmy consideration (aside from the remarkably stiff competition) is because the stories weren't good enough. They were, at the end of the day, pretty rote procedurals. Elementary needs to up the depth of its character quotient and find some deeper stories if it wants to continue to do well, I think.

Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame says, "The key to almost every successful TV show is a team not pulled in different directions. If you have a small team of three, it greatly increases the same-mindedness." Put another way: Don't let anyone else have a chance. Keep your system closed. We want homogeny here.

Over in Revolution Land, showrunner Eric Kripke has this to say: "Forward momentum is everything on a show." Pretty funny coming from a guy whose show is all about his characters taking one step forward and two steps back. Maybe he meant to say the illusion of forward momentum is everything—if you can just trick the audience into believing something is happening, they might keep watching. (The Following operates under this same theory.)

I'm one to talk, of course. No one has yet picked up my television pilot, but with such a great need for content, eventually someone may be desperate enough to put it into production. And even then, I don't know if I would have the stamina to run a show indefinitely; I'd be happy enough to hand over the pilot and a bible and let it go. Weird because I can invest a lot of time and energy in characters I love, but . . . Running a television show is work beyond work. So I have to really respect these people, even when poking at them. Yes, sometimes an episode falls short, but look at how many they're doing and how quickly they're expected to turn stuff around. So kudos to them in any case, for at least keeping the ship sailing, even if not always on course.


Television: Black Books

I watched this because Netflix recommended it based on other things I'd watched and liked, and because there weren't so many episodes (only 18) to make me feel like I would never get through it all. And it was really funny. Though I have to say the second series [season] was something of a slump, on the whole it was a very good show.

Black Books centers around three main characters: Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), owner of the titular bookstore, his lackey/employee Manny (Bill Bailey), and Bernard's friend Fran (Tamsin Greig). It aired in the early to mid-2000s and is visibly a product of its time, an odd cross of something like Friends married to the absurdity of, say, a Monty Python sketch. That is to say, take everything that would fly in a typical sitcom—a plot about a heatwave, for example—and push it past the limits of what one might reasonably expect in a pseudo-realistic framework, and you get (a) Manny suffering from a syndrome that prevents him from being able to get hotter than 88°, and (b) Fran's landlord installing a sliding wall that slowly makes her flat [apartment] smaller.

The show ran for three seasons, six episodes each, and even took home a couple BAFTAs. It is Bernard's vituperative nature that gets the most laughs, followed by Manny's bumbling responses, and these are driven by the absurd circumstances that build around them (i.e., housesitting for someone and then drinking a precious wine, which leads them to trying to make a new wine and re-cork the bottle) . . . The finale does end on a strange note, which makes one wonder whether they'd intended to do more, though I've been told they felt they'd run out of material. Now, a lot of shows go on long after they've run out of plots, but quitting while you're ahead isn't a bad idea, and the somewhat uneven feel of Black Books demonstrates that maybe they were right to stop when they did. But I wouldn't mind seeing a reunion show of some kind, just to find out where they all ended up.

On the whole, then, very funny, and I'm glad I watched it. Now Netflix is telling me I should move on to Spaced, but I don't know yet if I'm ready for that . . .


Books: Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

My son spotted this book lying around and asked about it, and after I described in the vaguest of terms the general sense of the Peter Grant series, my son said, "Oh. It's Harry Potter for grown-ups."

Yeah, kinda.

I've enjoyed the series, of which Broken Homes is the fourth installment. I did get tripped up by the seriously bad editing job, however. I used to work in publishing as an editor, so maybe I'm oversensitive, but I think these would be errors almost anyone might notice. Like, page 7*, which refers to Richard Weil as a "dead Volvo driver." Except, assuming I've followed the action on pages 1–3 correctly, Richard Weil (identified as driver of the Volvo in the very first sentence of the book) isn't dead. In fact, he ends up taken in for questioning on suspicion of murder. Which you don't typically do with dead people, even in a Peter Grant book.

And page 216 uses Gandalf as a villain as an example. Is Gandalf a villain? Did I miss something in all those years of reading and watching Lord of the Rings? I'm going to assume Aaronovitch meant Saruman, but still, pretty glaring.

Okay, so those are nitpicky things to do with the writing, but then there's the actual editing, wherein typos too numerous to include here (yes, even taking British spelling into account) niggled at me, and a floating comma on page 94 nearly gave me a seizure . . . Seriously, these things scream "slapdash!" Did anyone read the fucking thing before printing? Proofs? Anyone?

Yes, all right, you want to know about the story. Fine. It's scatty, actually. A bit mosaic, more so than typical even for these books, by which I mean there are a lot of incidents, a few of which add up to what becomes the central plot, and a few that remain hanging, to be threaded into future plots I suppose. Aaronovitch tips his hand a bit too obviously in Chapter 17, so that the twist ending is utterly foreseeable, and the groundwork is also being vociferously laid for Nightingale to go the way of Dumbledore at some point, though I do hope we'll avoid that old chestnut. I like Nightingale and feel the books could do with more of him.

The big draw for me when it comes to these books is that as the main character, Peter Grant's tone is just the right balance of smart and smart-ass. He's fun, and because the books are filtered through his POV, they're fun to read. The world Aaronovitch has built is layered and intoxicating. It's good stuff. Mostly. Though do we always have to meet the bad guy on a rooftop?

Bottom line is: Broken Homes is a good book (even for a weak link in a strong series) and sets up some interesting dynamics for any forthcoming follow-ups. I was distracted and distressed by those editing snafus I mentioned, and I felt the book took a while to gain traction, but at least Peter keeps things amusing even when doing mundane work. Though, when you're a wizard apprentice, perhaps there's no such thing as mundane . . .

*Page numbers and editing problems refer to the hardcover first edition of this book (UK) and may not be applicable to subsequent editions. At least, one hopes not.