Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dark Fissures - Interview with Matt Coyle

by Holly West

One of the best things about being a crime fiction writer is being part of the crime fiction community. I count my friendship with Matt Coyle, the Anthony Award-winning author of the Rick Cahill mysteries, as a particular highlight--although you'd never know it to hear us banter with one another.

He's got a new book, DARK FISSURES, coming out on December 6, just in time for your holiday gift giving needs. Tell 'im I sent you.

HW: DARK FISSURES is the third book in your Anthony Award-winning Rick Cahill series. Tell us what it’s about.

MC: Rick is in a tough spot as the book opens. He’s now working solo as a P.I. and about to be foreclosed upon by the bank. He needs money quick and takes a case trying to help a woman prove her husband was murdered and didn’t commit suicide as ruled by the Medical Examiner and backed up by the police. Unfortunately, the [dead] man had been a cop under Rick’s nemesis, police Chief Tony Moretti, who suspects Rick may be responsible for the missing part of a missing person.

HW: Rick Cahill is a man deeply haunted by his complicated past but in DARK FISSURES, he manages to creep forward just a little. Understanding he’ll never be truly free, is Rick finally ready to leave his past behind? Perhaps more importantly, will his enemies let him?

MC: I’m glad you noticed he’s moving forward, even if you had to measure his progress with a magnifying glass. There’s hope. I’ll probably stop writing him if he ever becomes truly healed.
Rick will always have enemies. He’s good at making new ones.

HW: Rule breaking is an integral part of a P.I.’s stock-in-trade, and Rick’s not adverse to breaking a few rules himself when the situation calls for it. But in order to keep his demons (internal and external) at bay, he operates his personal life under a strict code of ethics. In DARK FISSURES, he reluctantly strays from it. Was this a deliberate choice on your part to develop his character or did the choice evolve organically as you wrote the book?

MC: Rick is deeply flawed and sometimes fools himself about his conduct. However, I didn’t intend for him to break the rule I think you have in mind. Secondary characters grow as I write them and force themselves deeper into the story. That’s what happened with Brianne Colton. She’s talented, beautiful and capable. She needs Rick’s help with the case, but doesn’t need to be emotionally rescued. That appeals to Rick. I think his decision to break a rule is a healthy choice and, in a way, aids in his need for emotional rescue.

HW: While your books are masterfully plotted, I think, at heart, they’re character driven. So with that in mind, how would Rick answer these questions from the Proust Questionnaire: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? 

MC: Emotional weakness.

HW: What is the trait you most deplore in others?

MC: Being unjust…if that makes sense.

HW: For the craft geeks among us: DARK FISSURES is a well-plotted and fast-paced mystery that deftly juggles a couple of different story lines. Do you plot your novels in advance?

MC: Thanks for the compliment. I don’t outline. I find plotting the most difficult part of writing mysteries. I start with an inciting incident and then Rick’s and other characters’ decisions drive the action. Although DARK FISSURES is only my third book, I’ve been writing Rick for fifteen years, so I have a feel for how he’ll react to certain scenarios. I try to pick ones that will cause the most chaos, both plot-wise and emotionally.

HW: DARK FISSURES is a hard-boiled P.I. novel but there’s some police and FBI procedural mixed in. Hell, you’ve even managed to incorporate some mixed martial arts. How do you conduct your research and how important is authenticity? (Remember, it’s okay to say if you make shit up. I know I do).

MC: Authenticity is very important to me, but I’m not a research junkie. I generally only do as much research as I needed to make a scene or character seem authentic. That’s not to say that the only research I so is what comes out on the page. I try to talk to experts in their field and use the one or two things that makes the scene ring true. Of course, I’ve gotten things wrong a couple times because I didn’t do enough research.

HW: I know book one in the series, YESTERDAY’S ECHO, took many years to write and several drafts before it was published. Has your process changed over the course of writing the next two books in the series? Does it ever get easier?

MC: My process has probably gotten even more loose than when I started, but I’ve learned to trust it. That has been a big key for me.

I’ve found my first drafts have gotten a lot cleaner. I throw a lot less stuff out. However, the process itself is a mess. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Sometimes I’ll toss something into a scene that bubbles out of my subconscious. I may expound on it right away or come back later when my subconscious tells me what it means. I call that dropping anchors. Sometimes the anchors give the story and emotion a lot more depth. Sometimes they have to be pulled up and discarded on revision.

DARK FISSURES was probably more difficult to write than the first two because of the way NIGHT TREMORS ended. I had to deal with backstory from that book to satisfy my continuing readers but not spoil things for first readers. A delicate dance that I think I pulled off.

HW: What do you consider your greatest strength as an author?

MC: I think it’s being open to any possibility. Thus, the anchor dropping above. This can lead you into many corners that you have to work very hard to get out of and make the book better. However, it can also lead you into a corner that turns into a box that doesn’t work and costs you a few days of valuable writing time. It’s a dangerous, but exciting way to write. And, although I’ve had my doubts in every book, I still trust the process.

Matt Coyle grew up in Southern California battling his Irish/Portuguese siblings for respect and the best spot on the couch in front of the TV. He knew he wanted to be a crime writer as a child when his father gave him THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER by Raymond Chandler.

His debut novel, YESTERDAY’S ECHO, won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, the San Diego Book Award for Best Mystery, and the Ben Franklin Silver Award for Best New Voice in Fiction. His second book, NIGHT TREMORS, was named a top pick for 2015 by and was a Lefty, Shamus, and Anthony Award Finalist. DARK FISSURES, is the third book in the Rick Cahill crime series. Matt is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and lives in San Diego with his Yellow Labrador, Angus, where he is working on the fourth Rick Cahill crime novel.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Hateful Eight: A Little Talk about a Possibly Relevant Movie

It's been out nearly a year now, but fellow Do Some Damage blogger Renee Pickup and I have finally gotten around to a discussion we've long meant to have - about Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. The funny thing is, I'm glad it's taken us so long to have this talk. I saw the movie when it opened and liked it well enough, though I did find it a little long. I rated it mid-level Tarantino, not top tier like Jackie Brown or Kill Bill Vol. 2, but better than Death Proof and Django Unchained. Rewatching it the other day in preparation for this talk, I liked it more than I did on first viewing, and the length didn't bother me at all. And in the current political environment, it seemed to me, the film had a certain resonance it didn't have last year.

Anyway, overall, both Renee and I are big Tarantino fans (or should I say, we remain Tarantino fans after all these years of debate pro and con about his movies), and speaking for myself at least, I quite enjoyed our discussion.

It's a two part talk, starting here and resuming Friday on Renee's day to post.

So, here we go...

Scott: So it's been almost a year now since The Hateful Eight came out, to overall good but maybe not great reviews. And in what's become a regular feature in Tarantino film responses, there were a good number of people who didn't like it at all. One of the criticisms, I recall, was that the film is filled with hateful characters (though that is the title) depicting a United States in the grip of all sorts of toxic divisions. It does take place soon after The Civil War of course. You've got racial and regional differences, to name just two, that are front and foremost. Really highlighted and nasty in a way you don't get in a lot of Hollywood movies. But does what may have seemed a little over the top in terms of divisions a year ago seem more relevant now, with all that's going on? What do you think of Tarantino's vision of the US and US history, at least as it's reflected in this movie?

Renee: It feels that way, doesn't it? I wanted to see this one in a theater, I'm a huge Tarantino fan, but with babysitting and all of that we didn't get to it before it was gone. So I finally sat down with this movie in the worst throws of the election - where we were seeing so much blatant prejudice toward race, religion, region, and sex (among other things). I thought, "Man I'm really excited to talk to Scott about this," because to be honest I didn't think Tarantino would have much to say about race, or even misogyny - but whether he said it or not, he showed us some things that viewed through recent events feel really relevant.

Just the decision to have Samuel L. Jackson's Major Warren in the same room with Bruce Dern as the Confederate General, you know it's going to get ugly. Every dance move the two pull off through the course of the film revolves around this knowledge they hate each other. I think a lot of us felt that way around the Thanksgiving table this year.

Oh yeah. It's been a tense holiday season so far, that's for sure. With Jackson and Dern's characters, I think you get something Tarantino's been exploring in his last three films - Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and now The Hateful Eight. In one way or another they are all sort of alternate history stories. Basterds most obviously. Tarantino catches all this flack for making movies that are just about other movies, but I don't think that's primarily what he's doing anymore. Of course he has all the movie references and the more you get them the more you appreciate that stuff, but the last three movies definitely indulge in fantasy revenge scenarios as if to undo some of the horrors of the past. The Jewish band of avengers in Basterds, Jaime Foxx's character blowing up the mansion in Django, and that scene with Major Warren telling the Confederate General what he did to his son. You could take that scene as risible or as "Man, if only these things happened."

That scene was so uncomfortable, so horrific, and so fucking satisfying. And I think that's exactly how it was intended.

Samuel L. Jackson was in rare form through the whole movie. I'm assuming we're avoiding spoilers here, but his speech about why he carries that Lincoln Letter was perhaps the most timely and relevant commentary in any Tarantino film, would you agree?

Totally agree. Tarantino has had a lot of great black characters in his films over the years, but Major Warren is, along with Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (who's totally different obviously), his most fascinating one. He's not contemporary so he really has to use his cunning, his wiles, to survive. And he's not a character like Jamie Foxx is in Django. Jamie Foxx has this contemporary attitude toward taking shit that I'm sure is intentional but makes him a kind of fantasy character. Jackson's totally plausible in how he has his dignity but can't get outraged or strike back every time racism pops up. He wouldn't last very long in that world doing that. If he has to take a racial insult he will, but he's always using his brains to negotiate through and do pretty well in a dangerous white-dominated world. If he has to lie a little bit, be a trickster at times, he will. Great character. And you're right. It's Jackson at his best, under total control.

What I like too is how none of the other characters are totally color blind towards him. Which is also real, especially, I assume, for those days. There's a scale, from Bruce Dern's outright racist to the slightly patronizing but polite British attitude of Tim Roth's character to the fairly no-nonsense way Kurt Russell approaches him. A part I loved was how genuinely upset Russell's character is when he finds out the truth about the Lincoln Letter. It's like a grain of idealism in him was mistreated, and he almost gets emotional about it.

So we have all these men in the story and there's Jennifer Jason Lee as Daisy Domergue. First of all, I don't know about you, but I was very excited when I heard Tarantino had cast her in the film. She's one of my very favorite actors - so many great performances - and casting her sounded right in line with him writing plum parts for John Travolta and Pam Grier and so on. I was thinking how good it would be to see her back onscreen with a complex part.

Well, first, I loved Kurt Russell in this. We watch the Escape movies and Big Trouble in Little China a lot in our house and I felt like he was capturing what made him so fun and interesting in those films while also bringing a real menace to his character. And you're totally right about when he finds out about the letter. It's powerful because I think it shows more depth than we really expected from John Ruth, and also proves Major Warren's point to an extent.

His no-nonsense attitude really served the film well, too. Both in how he interacted with Major Warren, and how interacted with Daisy.

When the movie came out I remember a lot of uproar about the amount of violence Daisy suffers at John Ruth's hand. I found it really interesting, watching the movie, because I felt like there were some gems in there about misogyny and sexism. First, Jennifer Jason Leigh was amazing! I wasn't as excited about the casting as you were - I had total faith in it, because Tarantino does so well bringing actors that haven't been around much and getting fantastic performances out of them. Leigh captured the real brutality of Daisy so well. I never doubted that she was an awful, dangerous criminal. So when you pair that knowledge with the expected hard violence of Tarantino - it felt a little different than blanket "violence against a woman."

A lot of that is owed to Leigh's performance. She was scary. But there are those passing moments where the other characters ask Ruth how he feels about hanging a woman, and he doesn't acknowledge the part of the question they want him to. He doesn't get into any fantasy about the sanctity of women or a need to protect women, he is, like you said, no nonsense. She committed a crime worthy of hanging, and he was going to do his job. While everyone was debating whether the violence against Daisy was misogynist, or if all his films were misogynist (maybe a whole different post for a different time) they missed this subtle message, I think. There was something really precise about how the film dismissed the idea of "woman" being equivalent to purity, special care, or a certain set of personality traits.

Daisy was a bad motherfucker - dangerous, incredibly smart, equal to the men around her when it came to both cunning and propensity for violence. So it was interesting that of all the people in the room, her bounty hunter was the only one willing to acknowledge that having her hung was the same as having any man in the same position hung.

That's true. You could say Daisy got the respect and drew the hatred any male criminal of her stature would get. At the very end too, when her ultimate punishment finally comes, Major Warren basically says it should be by hanging, as John Ruth would have wanted, instead of perhaps the more humane way of just shooting her in the head. Like you say, no breaks for her because she's a woman. She's also an unregenerate racist so there's the clear irony of seeing a black man participate in what's basically the lynching form of punishment. Still, because it's so uncommon, I do have to admit, though I understood what Tarantino was doing, that it was a bit disturbing to see Daisy punched and elbowed and kicked around so much by men. You just don't see that in mainstream movies often - all stuff you know Tarantino is aware of as he pokes and prods his audience.

By the way, love that brief scene where she plays the guitar. As always with Tarantino, the worst sort of human being is given at least a little humanity. He's very effective at that. And it's telling how John Ruth at first likes listening to her play and sing, then gets really mad about it. I guess he doesn't want to humanize her too much in his mind.

I do try to be careful with the discussion on the brutality she suffers because it's definitely uncomfortable. You /don't/ see it on film and I am definitely empathetic to people (especially women) that just can't stomach it. We started out talking about viewing the racial/regional differences through today's lens and I don't think you can view a man beating a woman outside of today's lens, either. These are bad men, and she's a bad woman - but if you're watching it and you're made uncomfortable that's understandable. I also think it's intentional.

Like the moment with the guitar! Every character beat has intention behind it. Watching Walton Coggins as Chris Mannix, you have to believe he'd take Major Warren's side, you have to believe they'd share that moment of camaraderie with the letter at the end - and you do! But would you believe Daisy ever saw Major Warren as anything other than a black man? I wouldn't.
Also, you opened my eyes a little about Ruth's reaction to the song. I thought it was a reaction to her line about getting away to Mexico (the idea she could still get away when he knew at least one person in the room was working toward that goal), but I think you're right, he was also angry that he was seeing something about her that made her human.
Speaking of Mexico, I find the oddest part of the movie - and it's another one with a weird resonance after the recent election - to be the entire flashback scene that shows how Daisy's accomplices arrived at the store before the blizzard. It's odd because the owner and main employee of the store, Minnie's Haberdashery, are two black women who seem very friendly and open to customers coming through on stagecoach, yet we hear from Major Warren how Minnie absolutely loathed Mexicans and refused to let them come into the store. For one thing, it shows Tarantino doesn't glorify any one group - blacks can have their racial prejudices too - but overall I found the entire segment a little strange and clumsy. What did you make of that part and the "Mexican angle"?
So I have to break this into two parts to really get my thoughts on it clear.
First: Minnie hates Mexicans. I had no issue believing that. I grew up in an area with a huge Hispanic and Portuguese population (I'm Portuguese) and everybody had blatant racist attitudes toward both groups, regardless of their own race. And within those groups, there were perceived hierarchies - obviously, who you thought was at the top depended on what group you were in. This played out toward the Asian communities and within them as well, but I wasn't experiencing that, so I hesitate to speak on it. But I definitely was involved in conversations where people "ranked" the Hispanic/Portuguese groups, and I saw how people who felt oppressed and discriminated against sometimes just needed to feel like "but at least I'm not a portagee". (Scott's Note: The word "portagee" is a racial slur with a gnarly history historically). You can kind of see this in race relations among the "white working class" we keep hearing about, too. You can kind of see this in race relations among the "white working class" we keep hearing about, too. Discriminating against other races, genders, sexualities won't bring them jobs, and I don't think they believe it will.
Second: That scene - yeah, it was a little weird. You have to assume they've never been there before, but it plays out like it's planned to the millisecond. Then, the decision to keep the General, but not, say, the new hire who fled, that might actually lend a "real" authenticity seemed forced.
A rare instance from Tarantino of just poor story construction. It's awkward also because we never actually see evidence of Minnie's distaste for Mexicans. Major Warren describes for us and the other characters in the film how Minnie felt about Mexicans, but nothing more is presented to us. It's all telling, no showing. But Tarantino clearly wanted to get in something about this particular type of animus, so it's there.
We'll stop the talk here and take an intermission.
The discussion will continue at DSD Friday.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Over the River and Through the Woods

We came back from Grandma’s (and Grandpa’s) house yesterday. It’s a drive that takes a little less than two hours, which is just about perfect. Not so long that you go crazy from being stuck in the car forever. Not so short that you barely get settled in before you’ve gotten where you’re going. It’s just the right amount of time for some serious brainstorming.
My mind wanders more on car rides than it does almost anywhere else. And for a writer, there’s nothing better. One random thought leads to another and another, and before you know it, you have an idea.  
And that, after all, is our bread and butter, isn’t it? Ideas. Some amount to nothing, some start out as brilliant and then fizzle, and some – those rare gems – become actual stories.
As we whizzed along on the interstate yesterday, I had an idea for a stand-alone thriller, pondered a different take on a short story I’ve been mulling for a while, and came up with more character development for my next Hank Worth book.
That’s a pretty good start to the holiday travel season.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Hoopla: App Review

Scott D. Parker

Everyone of us has a stack of To Be Read items piled on our night stands, either real or virtual. And, let’s be honest: that can get pricey. What to do when you want to read a book and your book budget is completely blown and you’re already in deep trouble with your significant other? Go to the library! But, let’s put another obstacle in your path. What if you prefer digital content or you can’t get to your library and it’s midnight and you absolutely, positively have to start reading a book? Well, Hoopla is your answer.

Hoopla is a fantastic app. What makes it special is that it links with your local public library. When you have it set up—you’ll need a library card—you get up to 8 check-out items per month. And get a load of what’s available: movies, music, audiobooks, ebooks, comics and TV shows. All. Free. For the standard ‘checkout’ time of your library.

The books are pretty straightforward. You find an ebook you want and check it out. Ditto for comics and graphic novels. Just the other day, I discovered a James Bond graphic novel as written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Jason Masters. I’m reading it on my Kindle fire. Sweet.

Where this app shines is in the other digital content. You can stream music, movies, TV shows, and, for folks like me, audiobooks. I’m an subscriber and have been for over a decade. But there are still some books I want to listen to but I don’t have the credits for them. Enter Hoopla. For the kinds of audiobooks I consume—mysteries, westerns, thrillers—Hoopla has just about any I’d want. Right now, on my iPhone, I’m listening to the second Rio Kid western as written by Brett Halliday.

So, in case you didn’t catch that, I have the Hoopla app on my Kindle Fire and my iPhone. Every piece of content I check out is linked to every device. Naturally, I’m not gonna read the graphic novel on my phone, but I listen audio content there. I use the Fire for graphic novels and TV shows and movies.

At the end of the month, all your checked out items are ‘returned,’ i.e., removed from your device. There’s a “Recently Returned” section on your main page so you can re-check-out with ease and finish that book or TV show.

It’s a great service. And it’s free!

So, go ahead and let your TBR stack rise to the rafters. Yeah, you’ll buy a lot of books, but let Hoopla be your best kept secret. You can support your local library and still consume the content you wanna consume, and your significant other won’t complain about going over your book budget every month. It’s a win-win all around.

Friday, November 25, 2016

If you're reading this, it's Friday...

And that means you survived Thanksgiving (or, if you're not in the US, you made it through another week, which is pretty great, too)!

Thanksgiving is a complicated time for a lot of people, so before I go on, I want to make a note of a few resources for anyone who is feeling drained post-Turkey Day.

National Suicide Prevention (you can chat online here, too).

Veterans Crisis Line (phone number, online chat, text chat, help for deaf and hard of hearing).

The Trevor Project (LBGTQ) (phone, online chat, text).

RAINN (call or chat).

Now, on to the blog:

My final NaNoWriMo updates is as follows: whoops, I finished my draft before I could hit 50k this month. As far as "failing" goes, this is a great way to go. I've got a first draft, and am outlining a new project. I didn't have time to celebrate this achievement because it happened late Monday night, Tuesday night I was driving, and, as I write this, it's Wednesday before Thanksgiving and I'm in a house full of relatives I don't get to see often. I might help myself to an extra slice of pie, though.

Around Thanksgiving every year I like to take a moment to appreciate the things I've managed to accomplish throughout the year and the people who've helped make it happen. It gets harder every year because I'm surrounded by fantastic people - chances are, if you're reading this, thinking "I wonder if Renee is thinking of me?" The answer is most likely yes.

A few highlights though:

I got a book out! Huge thanks to Andrez Bergen for letting me work on this amazing project with him. Thanks to everyone who bought it, read it, and supported it. It's a beautiful little baby.
Buy it here

I went to Boucher for real. I'd been before, as a party crasher, but this year I got the full experience and got to see all the wonderful people in our crime writing community - make new friends, hug old friends, and get really re-engerized about our community and genre. Whoo!

A direct result of an amazing Boucher experience, I've made an effort to spend more time in Los Angeles and getting to know our Southern California writers. You know, the people who are actually close to me. Thanks to all the people for always making me feel welcome and keeping me excited about crime fiction.

These are all writing related because this is, after all, a crime writers' blog. There are a hundred more things I could list and a hundred people I owe a hug and a drink. This is has been a hell of a year, but it's been made all the better by the awesome community we're lucky to have. I'm glad we got through this year together and I hope to keep you all around for a few more.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

Doctor Strange is the new Harry Potter

Went to see the new “Harry Potter movie” this weekend, FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM.  Saw the new DOCTOR STRANGE movie last night. Turns out, the Marvel movie is more Harry Potter than FANTASTIC BEASTS, at least in terms of the main character and his relationship to the audience.

Our kids grew up with Harry Potter, both in book and movie form. In the first story, Harry stars in the mortal world and is brought into the wizarding world. From Diagon Alley and jumpy chocolate frogs and invisible cloaks, the world puts a look of awe on Harry’s face. When he’s looking over the balcony and it’s just him and Ron and the Christmas tree (I’m thinking of the movie) and Ron says they have presents under the tree and then orphaned Harry says  “I have presents, too?” it’s just all a jumble of happiness and tears and you really feel for the kid.
Steve Ditko

When Harry sees something in the wizarding world for the first, you feel his awe. He’s new there. So are we. We’re astounded. Harry is astounded. When he is scared, so are we. When he’s happy, we’re grinning. He’s our bridge character. He’s our surrogate. We see through his eyes and we are brought into the world through him.

In FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, this Newt Salamander guy already knows everything. He’s an expert in magical creatures. What’s that? Oh, just a perfectly normal graphorn in my suitcase. Everything is fine and normal for Newt Salamander. Of course, we’re introduced to a nomag/muggle baker, who is kind of our surrogate. But he ain’t the main character. We’re not identifying with him in the same way. That’s like saying the turkey wasn’t good, but gracious the yams were delightful.

Where is my excitement, Newt?

Stephen Strange is the main character in DOCTOR STRANGE. (Not Mr. Strange, beeteedubs.) When he gets to the Temple of the Ancient White One he’s flabbergasted. He’s LITERALLY knocked out of his socks. He’s brought along kinda slowly in the same way that Harry Potter was in the first Potter movie. We’re introduced to some weird stuff, then the stuff gets weirder. And, as HST used to say, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Strange comes along and, while we’re all still in awe and wonder, we’re moving along to bigger and more nuttier events.

Newt Salamander’s movie was perfectly fine. It was fun and enjoyable and the kids dug it. But in terms of entering into a world of magic, DOCTOR STRANGE lined up more with the first Harry Potter movie.

PS: My guess is that the DOCTOR STRANGE movie is even better if you’re higher than an Allman Brother.

PPS: "Sling Ring" is a dumb name for a thing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

San Junipero and the Vanishing Hopeful Future

Black Mirror is one of the greatest shows on television, but I would not recommend binge watching it. For one, there are only thirteen episodes in three seasons and a holiday special; you can do it in a weekend and then you'll have to wait a year, at least, before NetFlix releases another, and secondly you might die of dehydration after you weep for humanity.

The generic view of the future has become dystopian, and many science fiction writers (such as David Brin, and the authors who contributed to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future think that this is contributing to a hopelessness that makes such a future a self-fulfilling prophecy. Read Brin's dissection of The Idiot Plot, a story that only works if all institutions are deadly stupid, for an idea. In general the system works, but we all agree that it doesn't; the average person distrusts the federal government but approves of what they do (highways, national parks, Medicare, disaster relief, etc). Are "gritty" visions of the future dooming us to seeing it as inevitable?

Black Mirror is no different, it is usually a show about the perils of technology, or rather the unintended consequences of an increasingly connected world. One shining light of hope in the series is "San Junipero," directed by Owen Harris (Kill Your Friends), written by series creator Charlie Brooker, and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Tish Jones on Dr. Who, and Famulus in Jupiter Ascending) as Kelly and Mackenzie Davis (Mindy in The Martian) as Yorkie. This one is rather hopeful, and part of me wonders if everyone's enjoyment is due to it being a diamond in the rough, rough, rough horror tales of the third season's masterful run.

When we meet Kelly and Yorkie, two young women on a permanent vacation in a beautiful island set in the affluent late '80s, complete with neon night clubs and arcades, they seem to be in a sort of loop. Yorkie is a bit nerdy and socially awkward and Kelly is outgoing and breaks her out of her shell. But there's a mildly creepy element to it, like a chat room come to life where everyone becomes the ideal avatar of themselves and puts their best selves forward. There's some drama as well, but the story never takes the darker turns we expect. The characters are whole and have their own feelings and needs and desires, even in a strange little paradise that only seems to exist on weekends.

Clint Mansell's score and the use of Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven on Earth" help keep the mood up when we learn the secret of San Junipero. Scroll down if you don't mind spoilers.

It's too good to be true, of course. It's a simulation, and the week-long hiatuses are because it is therapy for the elderly, to stave off depression and dementia, and lives for the bedridden. The "real" world doesn't look all that horrible, but we could just be seeing a very affluent assisting living facility and hospital; we never know. It's the dream of being able to upload your consciousness into "The Cloud" and become immortal as a collection of ones and zeroes, in an immense server farm, for as long as the electricity keeps running. It's been explored before in stories of "The Singularity" such as Charles Stross's excellent Accelerando and others, but this one was especially tangible and hopeful, that we would use this as a gift to lonely older people whose friends have all died or "crossed over" as they call uploading to the cloud (which may or may not be in a world where you exist; it's unspoken but assumed that "Heaven on Earth" is not the same for everyone.)

If you think that's too sappy for you, watch the first three episodes of season 3. Or just skip to "Playtest," one of my favorite horror stories in some time, and "Shut Up and Dance," the best techno-thriller I've yet seen. It is truly terrifying, and utterly without hope, so watching "San Junipero" directly afterward is especially soothing. I kept waiting for the horrible reality, and I was relieved when it wasn't there. It's certainly not pleasant; Yorkie and Kelly have both suffered tragedies, but who doesn't?

So, what are your favorite stories with hopeful visions of the future?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Didactic and Not Didactic

This past weekend, I saw two films: Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, which came out in 2015, and the newly released Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins.  It occurred to me, watching Lee's film through Amazon streaming on Saturday night and Jenkins' film in a theater Sunday afternoon, that I'd wound up doing a weekend program of two films that represent two diametrically opposed ways of presenting art.

With Lee's film - no surprise - you get the didactic approach.  Chi-Raq is a musical drama about the horrifically high rate of violence, gang violence especially, on the south side of Chicago.  The film is very funny and satirical, as befits a story based on the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes.  Lee takes the playwright's conceit of women who are fed up with war (the Peloponnesian War in the play) and so refuse to give their husbands sex until the fighting stops, and transfers it to a group of Chicago women. Led by fiery Lysistrata, whose boyfriend Demetrius is the head of one gang, these women do not go to bed with their rival gang member men (or even the men not in gangs) until the gang members surrender their arms to put an end to the constant killing.  The film is extremely stylized, with characters talking in a kind of street verse that approximates Greek dramatic verse, and Samuel L. Jackson, as only he can, serves as the chorus, regaling the viewers with commentary on the action throughout.

But what's didactic about the movie?  Everything. It's the Spike Lee way. He uses tool after tool he can - graphics, songs, lectures, speeches, history lessons, plot-breaking absurdity - to make his points about gun violence, institutionalized racism, and mass incarceration of African-American men.  "This is an emergency. This is an emergency," a disembodied voice periodically tells us throughout the film.  The characters are not flesh and blood people so much as they are types who represent a political or social position, a point of view, and Lee's willingness to mix tones and let the story, such as it is, wander all over the place makes for some messiness. But when is Spike Lee, a fully impassioned Spike Lee, not messy? With the utter artificiality of everything and characters addressing the audience, we are constantly aware that we're watching a movie; we're unable to lose ourselves in a piece of narrative fiction. But Lee doesn't want us to "escape" as we watch.  He doesn't want us to empathize with rounded characters.  All Lee's techniques keep bringing the audience back to the real world and the real Chicago, and when a character who is the city's mayor appears, you wonder, "Is that supposed to be Rahm Emmanuel?"  

Chi-Raq is Spike Lee working in full-on didactic mode, aiming to instruct and educate as well as entertain. There's no need for subtlety in a work like this, and he wears his political commitment on his sleeve.  It's a movie Bertolt Brecht, master of didactic art, would have admired.  As Brecht did with theater, Lee uses this film as a forum for political ideas loudly stated.

Moonlight is precisely the opposite kind of film.  Set and shot in Miami, adapted from the Tarell Alvin McCraney play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue (which I haven't seen but I love that title), the story is broken into three parts in the life of one person.  

Part one, called "Little", shows us a boy named Chiron, who's about 11 years old, as he deals with school bullies and a crack-addicted, emotionally abusive mother.  He's a shy little boy who rarely talks, but his life is made easier when he meets the local crack dealer.  In the kindest of ways, the crack dealer becomes his protector and mentor, and Chiron finds comfort in the time he spends with the dealer and the dealer's girlfriend, Teresa, who becomes a surrogate mother to him.  

Part two, "Chiron", follows Chiron as a teenager, still dealing with bullies and his dysfunctional mother, but he continues to have Teresa for refuge (the dealer, Juan, has died), and he experiences sexual attraction, and release, with a classmate named Kevin.  Unfortunately, when he retaliates against another fellow student who has tormented him for years, Chiron's life takes a turn for the worse.

Part three, "Black", picks up with Chiron as a grown man, and I don't want to say anything more so I don't give too much away.  But suffice it to say that the Chiron who you see as an adult is not exactly what you expected, though he is completely believable considering what came before, and the whole section unwinds beautifully.

While Chi-Raq works from the outside in, as it were, Moonlight works from the inside out.  On the surface, we get characters we've seen before.  There is a crack dealer, a troubled boy from a difficult home, a drug-addicted mother, and so on.  Yet nobody in this movie conforms to standard expectations.  Perhaps the mother, at times, comes closest to being a type, but even she says things that reveal an insight that makes it clear she has surprising depths. This is a movie where characters are believably complex and contradictory, and no person's identity is definable by one word or phrase.  There are no types here, just fully developed, idiosyncratic human beings.  The director, Barry Jenkins, doesn't push you to go to this place or that, as Spike Lee does in Chi-Raq, but he leaves gaps in the narrative that you have to fill in. As in life, there is ambiguity and indeterminacy, acceptance of imperfection and compromise. Here is a movie that does work through subtlety, that focuses on people you don't often see lavished with such attention in film. 

If it seems like I'm saying Moonlight is a terrific movie, I am, but it's also an example of the best kind of non-didactic art.  No message or point is pushed, but through the development of a story about specific individuals in a particular place at a certain time, much is said. People almost anywhere in the world could see and understand this film.  Through understatement, richness.

So, no question, it was a satisfying weekend cinematically.  I saw two movies I enjoyed a lot.  If I had to pick, I'd say Moonlight is a greater film than Chi-Raq, but I also can say that generally speaking, I prefer non-didactic art to didactic. Of course there are great didactic works, too (for example, and sticking with Spike Lee, there's Do The Right Thing, 1989), but everybody has their preferences.  Anyway, I'm just glad we have old hands like Spike Lee and new ones like Barry Jenkins working, and I'm curious to see what each does next and what approach each will take toward his material.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Character Study

Our beagle, Indy, passed away yesterday. He wasn't sick long; a week ago he was still walking around the yard. By the weekend he couldn't get to his feet at all.

There's a lot of sadness that comes with a pet passing, but there are also a lot of good memories. Indy - Indiana - was so named because he came with a docked tail. No explanation, and as a failed hunting dog who found his third home with us, there was a lot of his history we didn't know, but could only guess at.

Like the way he'd cower when we pulled out a broom to sweep the floor.

He had his distinct traits. He loved pizza crusts and bread. He would walk around the house whimpering with a pizza crust hanging out of his mouth like a cigar and things would go one of two ways. If he went outside he'd bury the crust. If he stayed in, he'd hide it under Brian's pillow.

We have a lot of pets. We also have farm cats that aren't ours, but we feed and they hang out inside a fair bit, because they were born in this house. One of the things that Indy's passing got me thinking about was the distinctions between all of our four-legged characters.

Pumpkin will meet me at the bottom of the stairs and escort me up to the bedroom when he thinks it's bedtime.

Echo is so fearless that he thinks sweeping the floor is a game he should get in on.

Sasha loved Indy, and would greet him at the door every time he came inside.

Boots has security issues. He either sleeps on a kitchen counter or in our recycling bin. He freaks out if you take him upstairs or into another room.

Mo has always been a bit of a butthead, especially to our Cookie, who passed last year. Cookie didn't like other cats. We adopted them from the human society together, and they insisted they'd be fine together, but it turned out Cookie didn't like other cats at all. Mo would hide in a nook in our hallway and when Cookie would come down the hall he'd jump out at her and freak her out.

For many of our pets, we're their final home, but not their first. They're rescues or strays. All of their quirks prompt me to consider how that trait developed.

If you're struggling to think of ways to flesh out your characters, if you're wondering how to ensure they're all distinct, think about your pets. I'd had many dogs before Indy. Bingo, Suzy, Bandit, Taco, Chinook, Nootka. And yet Indy was the only one who had a thing for pizza crusts.

Our four-legged friends aren't just part of our family. They can inform us of the ways an individual distinguishes themselves from another. And when you don't know a character's past, their quirks may offer hints.

There will never be another Indy. We were so so lucky. He had the perfect personality for being a family pet, and has been a vital part of our family for 7.5 years. And even in his passing he's with me today as I think about writing, and what it is that breathes life into our characters.