Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I Have Anger Issues...

...and I love Superman. Those two things are related. Let me explain.

Last Saturday, I rewatched Man of Steel, because why not. And it turned out to be a more enjoyable film on the second viewing, partly because I knew what to expect and was thus able to think more about the filmmakers' intentions—to reverse-engineer the storytelling, so to speak.

It's not a perfect movie. It's probably not even a great movie, as far as such things go, but I have to give producer Christopher "Dark Knight" Nolan and director Zack "300" Snyder credit for their audacity: they did not, in fact, make a Superman movie. They made a science fiction movie which leads to Superman. And they did a pretty good job of setting up what I hope will be a halfway decent movie series.

First, let me acknowledge all the bad stuff:
  • Yes, there was excessive and senseless destruction of property (and loss of innocent lives).
  • Yes, Zod talks too much, and most of it is ham-fisted exposition.
  • Yes, the gratuitous callbacks to Superman II are distracting.
  • There are too many flashbacks.
  • There's not enough humor.
  • And yes, the movie is about 20 minutes too long, mostly at the end.

Now let's talk about the good stuff. In roughly chronological order:
  • Weird-science Krypton!
  • That smash cut from spaceship to fishing trawler is genius, and you could only do it in a Superman-origin movie.
  • Clark's first X-ray visions.
  • "You are my son."
  • Lois Lane, the smartest person in the room.
  • Learning to fly in the Arctic.
  • "The truth about you is beautiful."
  • The whole surrender sequence.
  • Emergency Holographic Jor-El.
  • Clark not giving up intercut with Perry not leaving.
  • "Welcome to The Planet." (Or, as I prefer: "Welcome to the planet.")

That, by the way, was a perfect ending line for the whole damn movie. Because it's a prequel, you guys. (Even the music signals a prologue: we never get an actual fanfare, but we get a slow build toward something.) As my friend Tom says, this title character is not Superman yet; this Clark Kent has never even considered becoming a caped crusader. The movie is about why Clark becomes Superman. And its thesis revolves around what, for me, are the two most resonant things about the Superman character: anger and choice.

Man of Steel cribs quite a bit from the Superman: Birthright books. There's no Lex Luthor in the movie, but there is an alien invasion of Metropolis, and Clark is first introduced to the audience during his "angry young man" years. He's immature, inexperienced, and struggling to find his place in a world where he can't really be himself. As we saw in Frozen, it's not enough to have amazing superpowers; you have to know when and how to use them—and you have to control them even when you're angry.

We all have powers we're not using. We all have abilities that we can push to the limit when we want to, or when we feel we need to. We can run faster when we're threatened or chased; we can think harder when there are great rewards or dire consequences on the line. And we also choose whether to use a particular skill or talent for fun, for making money, or not at all.

Some people complain that Superman isn't an interesting protagonist because he's too powerful. But for me, that's one of the most interesting things about him—he's not a hero because he's compelled by some inner demons or past trauma or external pressure. He's practically invulnerable; he can do whatever the hell he wants. (Which, by the way, is the question explored in the classic Red Son and the intriguing Irredeemable: what if Superman went bad?)

I have a temper. I've put my foot through a door and my hand through a plate glass window (I still have the scar). I've kicked in a minivan door. I once made another kid piss blood after a schoolyard fight (I didn't see it, but he told me about it the next day, and I felt terrible). In a very real sense, I have—as the saying goes—used my powers for evil. But I've learned from my youthful indiscretions.

And so does Clark Kent. As Superman, he chooses to fight "a never-ending battle for truth and justice"—and he is driven to that choice by his anger.

Those two motivations collide in that train station at the end of Man of Steel, during Clark's final confrontation with Zod. I hope the filmmakers address that in the next movie, even if it's just one line of dialogue. I hope that they intentionally set up that defining moment to explain why Superman doesn't kill people. (Linked image from Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, the brilliant "imaginary tale" which wrapped up DC's Superman titles before the 1987 reboot.)

I have anger issues. I recognize that, and I'm working on it. Meanwhile, I do my best to avoid being a dick.

Curtis

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

I Sometimes Notice Odd Things

(Contains very minor spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)

On Monday, DeeAnn and I saw the latest addition to the Marvel Comics film universe: the second Captain America movie—which, in my humble opinion, would have worked better as a more personal story for either Steve Rogers (who had a strong connection to the title villain) or Natasha Romanoff (who had an even stronger connection to the "A" plot), but it was still enjoyable. The story is not what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is the vending machine.

See, there's one particular scene, right around the end of act one, which finds Rogers standing in a hospital corridor, momentarily dumbfounded. And in that shot, there's also a guy in a service uniform kneeling to one side, restocking a vending machine. I was hugely distracted by this, because the moment I saw the vending machine guy there, I knew the vending machine was going to be an important plot point. It couldn't have been more obvious if there had been huge neon arrows pointing to it, underneath a sign saying THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER ON.

The directors, Anthony and Joe Russo—brothers, and they're also attached to direct Captain America 3, so good for them—have mostly done TV work in the past. I don't know how much that has influenced their visual style or sensibilities, but I suspect they're pretty good at getting things done on a tight schedule. Deadlines are great motivators.

Now, I'm not saying there was anything in particular wrong with that shot. It did its job perfectly well, conveyed all the necessary information to the viewer: "Captain America is thinking about doing something, and there's a vending machine right here." No fancy camera angles or complicated blocking required. All I'm saying is, there was something about the way that shot was framed, something about how the scene was set up, that communicated the directorial intent to me with complete transparency.

I can't quite put my finger on exactly what it was. Maybe the vending machine was a little too close to Cap, and there was no reason for that other than to get it onscreen and foreshadow its later involvement. Maybe the service person restocking it was a bit too much in the foreground, emphasizing the fact that he didn't need to be there unless... well, you'll see if you watch the movie. It could have been a combination of subtle cues which I can't fully explain.

Back when I was a kid, and cartoons were still hand-drawn and cel-animated, I could tell which objects or parts of the image were going to move in most scenes because the foreground elements were always painted differently than the background plates. (I've heard other people talk about seeing this too, and I'm glad it wasn't just me.) And often when I watch movies or TV shows, I'll recognize cameo appearances not because I have any idea who the celebrity is, but because I can tell the shot was framed to feature them especially prominently.

I sometimes notice odd things. That's all.

Curtis

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

I Hear Your Voice

Disclaimer/Disclosure: images below are Amazon.com affiliate links.

On Monday night, DeeAnn and I watched the Veronica Mars movie at home (which was awesome, and I can't wait for the day when all TV shows and movies are distributed on-demand, but that's another blog post). I was happy that the movie continued the TV series' judicious use of in-character voiceover narration, especially during that scene in the car with Logan. You know the one. We could have guessed what Veronica was thinking at that moment, but the words added important depth. And the show's practice of juxtaposing the mostly-delivered-straight VO with its trademark snarky dialogue is also great, but again, that's another blog post.



I tweeted about this, which started Twitter and Facebook threads, and that got me to thinking about the different kinds of voiceover a show might have. It could be an announcer, who is explicitly addressing the audience outside the context of the story; a narrator, who may or may not be one of the characters but is clearly within the world of the story; or a character like Veronica Mars, offering commentary in real time or not, possibly unreliable, and ideally providing some counterpoint to what we can already see and hear taking place. (There can, of course, be many variations on and hybrids of the three types, but I'd argue those are the basics.)

There's an old saw in Hollywood about voiceovers being the laziest possible way for a screenwriter to do exposition. (Not true, by the way: it's actually title cards.) People always point to the Robert McKee scene from Adaptation, or Harrison Ford's uninspired VO performance in the original theatrical version of Blade Runner. I suspect the sentiment continues to propagate because "film" has always aspired to be more than television—another cliché I hear a lot is TV denigrated as "radio with pictures."

There's nothing wrong with making words and images work together. You just have to know why and how you're using each element. Comic book and graphic novel creators know this, and I am continually dazzled by the things that people are doing in those formats, from Chris Ware's insanely detailed designs to Jim Williams' gorgeous Batwoman layouts. Seriously, man, if you're not reading comics these days, you are missing out on some great art.

But I digress. We were talking about voiceovers.

In October of 2005, Entertainment Weekly ran a piece titled "What's with all the TV voiceovers?," where Gary Susman pointed out seven new shows debuting that fall—including How I Met Your Mother—which "use voiceover narration or feature a character who breaks the fourth wall to address the audience." I'm not sure 7 out of 354 constitutes "a plague," but whatever. He remarked that "the rise in voiceovers has coincided with the rise of single-camera sitcoms...filmed and edited in such a way that there was no room for a laugh track" and concluded that "if self-consciously clever voiceover narration was the price I had to pay to get rid of laugh tracks, maybe it was worth it." (All I'll say to that is: How I Met Your Mother. Laugh track. Nine seasons and a spin-off.)



In June of 2010, the more upbeat Chicago Tribune article "Voice-overs rule TV" proclaimed that "we're in a Golden Age of Voice-Overs...because they're being used with more artistry, eloquence and flair than ever before, to set moods and tones, to deepen and sharpen characterizations, to mystify and beguile as well as to explain and elucidate. The voice-over is now a distinctive—even crucial—feature in many popular series." Writer Julia Keller calls out In Plain Sight, Burn Notice, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, and Dexter for using "voice-over as a dazzling creative device, fit for far more than mere exposition."

Speaking of Burn Notice, did you know there's a web site which has organized all of Michael Westen's spycraft voiceovers by topic? It's pretty groovy.



Finally, there's the recent news that starting with this year's Primetime Emmy Awards, the Television Academy has split the "Outstanding Voice-Over Performance" category into two different awards: "Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance" and "Outstanding Narrator" (my emphasis). I suspect this actually happened as a catty attempt to keep that particular statuette from going to animated series nearly 80% of the time, but let's hope it also has the civilizing influence of recognizing different artistic applications of the same storytelling tool.

Curtis

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I Am Going to Clarion West

When the phone rang on the afternoon of Saturday, March 15th, I didn't answer it because I didn't recognize the number. The call rolled over to voicemail, and a few minutes later I got this transcript by e-mail:



(Though that first sentence contains some egregious errors, I can't help but imagine what a "craigslist writers workshop" might look like.)

I listened to the message at least twice before I called back, leaving my own voicemail and initiating the twentieth-century practice known as "phone tag." I then returned to whatever I was doing, a bit distracted because why would Clarion West call me if they were just going to reject me again? I'd applied several times before, starting in 2008, and they'd always sent responses by e-mail. Could it be? I did my best not to get my hopes up. Maybe there was a question about my application info, or some kind of file problem with my uploaded writing sample PDF.

Anyway, long story short, they called back about an hour later, and this time I picked up the phone. I don't quite recall the details of the conversation because I was alternately nervous, excited, and flustered throughout. But the gist of it is: they offered me a spot in this year's workshop, I said yes, and now I'm going to spend part of this summer at "an intensive six-week workshop in Seattle’s University District, geared to help [me] prepare for a professional career as a writer of speculative fiction."

Wow.

I almost didn't apply to either Clarion workshop this year, because the one-two punch of annual rejections from both of them had become a pretty discouraging ritual. But DeeAnn convinced me to do it, because if nothing else, the process would force me to (1) write two new short stories and (2) reflect on why I had wanted to go to a Clarion workshop in the first place. And she was right, as usual. I was rejected again by Clarion UCSD, but now I have two great new stories to submit to paying markets; and writing my "backgrounder" essay for Clarion West reminded me of why I do what I do. Even if I hadn't gotten in, that would have helped me keep on keepin' on.

So that's the big news from the last couple of weeks. This will be the longest workshop I've ever attended. Some people describe the Clarion experience as "boot camp for spec-fic writers," and I'm hoping it will be at least as motivating and focusing as Viable Paradise was for me, nearly six years ago. I've been working at this writing thing for a while now—over twenty years, if you count my high school scribblings and ignore my long hiatus in the late 1990s and early 2000s—and I'm ready to take the next step into a larger world.

Curtis

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

I Like Signage

One of the many reasons I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation was its art direction and set design--in particular, the signage. Here are a few examples, courtesy of Ex Astris Scientia:



Of course, the text shown on these signs consists of various jokes, including song lyrics and references to other TV shows and movies. But in the world of the series, I love the idea that everything on the Enterprise-D was clearly labeled, and even a new crew member would be able to easily find what they were looking for by checking a map, asking the computer, and/or reading signs.

In the bachelor pad apartment I had right after college (which I shared for a time with this roommate), I made my own paper-and-tape signs for a lot of things. I labeled which switch was the light and which was the fan in the bathroom; I labeled what that one random switch on the wall by the kitchen did; I even put a sign on the bottom of the toilet seat cover to remind guests to put the lid down after using it.* And in our current home, we have signs showing where the trash and recycling bins are in the kitchen. (Some guests still get confused, but that's another story.)

Why so many signs? Because each label I can read is information I don't have to remember. We can debate about whether it takes more mental effort to read a couple of words than to recall the same fact, but the point is, I'm used to reading signs. Reading signs and interpreting their meaning is how I survive in the world. I'm doing it several times a minute while I drive, I do it every time I look for the restroom in a new bar or restaurant, and basic literacy is a requirement for using Twitter. Signage is civilization.

More than that, signage is inclusive. Putting up a sign is an implicit welcome to people who aren't intimately familiar with the culture of your place, who may not understand all the "unwritten rules" or traditional etiquette. Posting a sign means you acknowledge that the people who visit may not have studied the complete local history before stopping by--and that's okay.

I don't like not knowing the rules when I meet people or go to a new place. I don't like people not telling me the rules but acting like I should know them anyway. You don't want people in your club? Fine. Just make it clear that it's a private thing. Don't be a dick by pretending like anyone can come in, then treating the uninitiated like they're second class citizens. Everyone was a newbie once, and of course nobody's going to know what your rules are if you don't make the rulebook available.

Maybe it makes you feel more important if you have the power to make other people feel bad. And maybe you'll eventually alienate so many people that they go away and make a bigger, better organization without you, and you become the underprivileged. At which point you'd better hope those unwashed masses don't hold a grudge.

So that's why I like signs, I like FAQs, I always look for the "about" page when visiting a new web site, and I always read the fine print. Because even if you were pressured by threat of legal action to put it there, even if it's written in dense legalese, and even if most of it is boilerplate, it's inviting me to learn about you. And that's a friendly gesture.

~CKL

* Closing the lid entirely bypasses the inane "leave the seat up or down?" question that often divides women and men. It also prevents pets and small children from accidentally falling into the bowl.

Curtis

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SnoutCast #203: Stacy Costa

This month, we talked to the world's only female enigmatologist, Stacy Costa at the University of Toronto, who helped create the recent "Research Matters" Virtual Scavenger Hunt!


[ Download mp3 ]

Show length: 49:49
File size: 47.8MB


Our conversation topics included (but were not limited to):

Follow @Stacy_A_Costa on Twitter for more!

What Else?

Tell us we're wrong on the Internet! E-mail podcast@snout.org or post a comment at www.snout.org/podcast.

Music: instrumentals from "Code Monkey" and "The Future Soon" by Jonathan Coulton

[ Subscribe to SnoutCast / iTunes link ]

Curtis DeeAnn Stacy

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I Love My Wife

Nine years ago today, I married my best friend.



A few fun facts about our wedding:

Our invitations included custom-made Fluxx cards.



As part of our ceremony, The Richter Scales sang "Pencil Boy," "Storybook Love," and "Up the Ladder."



We had pyrotechnics on stage.



There was a mini-puzzle hunt.



Instead of dancing, we had a game show called "Win Curtis and DeeAnn's Wedding Presents!"



All our friends and family made it a wonderful day.



Happy Anniversary, DeeAnn. I love you.



Curtis