Beyond sight

Window

I cannot see the ground.

A layer of cloud obscures the view,

Keeping me from seeing the truth below,

Presenting only an illusion of solidity.

 

The world is smooth beneath me,

Imperfections and character lines

Obliterated by mists of water and ice,

A frozen mask of uniformity, of sameness.

 

I can only speculate what lies beneath,

Plumb the depths with imagination as my guide,

Probing fingers of thought descending into darkness;

Questioning, questing; wondering, wandering.

 

Even in my fear of the known to be,

There is faith in wonders ahead,

Where distance and time are not enemies,

But rather opportunities to explore and discover.

 

Even as some journeys end and others press on,

My next adventure arises in the unknown,

And with each step, my spirit is renewed;

Life energized,

Soul expanded,

Self redefined.

Autopilot biography – Understanding De Palma

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I’m generally not a fan of autobiography. Similarly, I am not a fan of retrospective panels where the topic of the retrospective is the guest.

Although the thinking behind such efforts is who better to tell us the truth of past events than the person who lived them, I find that the idea rarely manifests into a reality. Too often, we are merely presented with a series of events or facts, rather than any real insights into whom these people are and how those events both fed into and were products of those individuals.

This turned out to be the case with the 2015 documentary De Palma, recently released on Netflix.

Over a span of 110 minutes, we hear every thought that famed film director Brian De Palma has about pretty much every movie he ever made, from his days as a film student up to his most recent contributions. And yet, despite all of this exposition, I feel like I am no closer to understanding De Palma than I was when the almost two-hour odyssey began.

For film buffs and film students, there is plenty to like about this documentary, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. De Palma discusses his many influences as a cinematographer and director, offering lovely homages to older films through examples of his own.

de-palma

And the film is a nice reflection on a period of time in American cinematography, when the likes of Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg were establishing their imprints on film. We get a taste of what it was like to always be on the cusp of the studios, and the struggle to live up to your artistic vision and hearing crickets chirp in empty theatres.

But I didn’t just want a taste. I wanted to understand the artist and his art.

A few years ago, at the Austin Film Festival, I sat in a session where Chris Carter discussed the genesis and ongoing development of The X Files, a series I quite enjoyed for its first few seasons. But rather than learn anything insightful or useful—which is the norm at Austin—I felt like I was sitting in a Comic-Con session, where a lot of the questions began: “Remember that episode where…”

I’m not belittling Comic-Con or fan worship. It has its place.

I just didn’t think that a screenwriters’ conference was that place.

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This is why I don’t like autobiographies, in general. Rare is the book or documentary where a subject is required to delve deep into their experiences, to explore how those experiences moulded them during moments of personal evolution.

Instead, the documentarians tend to be fanboys or -girls, who start every segment with the question: “Remember that movie where…”

[For context, think back to a Chris Farley character on Saturday Night Live.]

Ironically, in discussing the camera work on Carlito’s Way, De Palma kind of summarized my problem with the attempt to catalogue every film in his filmography:

“The thing you learn about the long take is that you can document the emotion happening on the screen in real time,” he explained. “And once you start cutting things up, you lose the emotional rhythm of things.”

This is my issue. There was no emotional center to this documentary. It was too technical or mechanical and lacked almost any sense of humanity and therefore artistry.

And I say almost, because De Palma finally touched on a subject that I wish the entire film had documented as he summed up his thoughts.

“The thing about making movies is every mistake you made is up there on the screen,” he said, almost wistfully. “Everything you didn’t solve, every short-cut you made you will look at it the rest of your life. So, it’s like a record of the things that you didn’t finish, basically.”

And more powerfully:

“People in your life can be threatened by your intense concentration, your complete immersion in what you’re doing,” he continued. “My true wife is my movie, not you.”

Ironically, I am left thinking the same thing at the end of De Palma. What might have been?

See also:

Variety review

VOX review

The Guardian review

Cadence and Orson Welles

My favourite shot of Welles as I believe that smile and those eyes tell me everything I need to know about the man

My favourite shot of Welles as I believe that smile and those eyes tell me everything I need to know about the man

Being a good writer necessitates having a good eye and a good ear.

The good eye is the attention to details that will help you paint a word-picture of what you have seen with your physical eyes and processed in your mind’s eye. It’s not necessarily about writing long-winded passages of backgrounds or going into minute detail of a character’s physical attributes (I’ve done plenty of that), but rather in choosing the most precise and meaningful words to describe the environment or the person.

The good ear is the attention to how people communication and how they speak, not always the same thing. Again, it involves finding the right words and inflections (at least implied inflections) that give the reader and actor clues as to who this person is. And perhaps just as importantly, it is about finding just the right cadence for your character’s speech patterns.

If you listen really closely to a conversation, you’ll realize that there is little difference between speaking and singing. There is a rhythm, a cadence to speaking. Conversation is an improvised duet sung a capella. But unlike a traditional song which may have a subset of arrangements, each of us sings to our own tune, with our own rhythms and inflections. It is one of the many things that sets us apart from each other.

When writing characters, it is important to keep this in mind as all too often, a group of characters can have a certain monotone, which I use not to imply flatness so much as sameness. Often, I believe, it occurs when the writer neglects to add variety to his characters’ speech patterns and instead writes them with one voice; his or hers.

The best writers don’t make this mistake…or at least minimize its occurrences. Each character he or she presents us is truly unique, jumps off the page or screen, provides his or her own internal musical accompaniment.

One of my favourite writers of the last decade or so is Aaron Sorkin whose overall writing has its cadence but whose characters also tango (or more often tarantella) across the screen. Read the pilot to The West Wing or the screenplay for The Social Network and you will know you’re reading Sorkin.

But for me, perhaps a better example is Orson Welles, the man who would be Kane.

Recently, someone discovered a long-lost unproduced screenplay by Welles called The Way to Santiago, written in 1940-41. Another blogger discussed the find recently, and provided a link to the actual screenplay (see link below). You only have to read a couple of pages to remind yourself (or educate yourself on) how Orson Welles wrote and the energies he imbued in his characters, each one a snowflake of facets and reflections.

The opening page of The Way to Santiago

The opening page of The Way to Santiago

Now, listen to the films or read the screenplays of The Third Man, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil. Although you may question the choice of actors, you can clearly hear or see the distinctions in the characters. Bathe in the richness and depth of each one as he or she is captured for this brief moment. This is the stuff of which dreams are made.

It is also interesting to consider that Welles got his start on stage and in radio, where the human voice plays such a larger role in conveying a story than it does in film. There is much less to occupy the mind onstage or in radio and so dialogue carries a significant burden of not only informing but also entrancing the listener.

Although the stories I write are distinctly different from the Wellesian oeuvre, there is much I can and do learn from this master of the written word. He is worth the read and the listen.

A classic image of Welles in his radio days

A classic image of Welles in his radio days

Links of interest:

The Way to Santiago at Cinephilia and Beyond

The Way to Santiago, starring Howard Hesseman on Vimeo (A valiant but not brilliant attempt)

“Thank You, Mr. Welles: Definitive actor, consummate director, and true auteur” at Curnblog.com

“Screenplays by Orson Welles” (listing) on Wikipedia

Me and Orson Welles A light but adorable movie that probably portrays Welles’ character better than Welles

The word was “Thirsty”

The result of another writing exercise…and the slow recognition that almost everyone I write about is seriously messed from by previous relationships. Ah, hindsight.

“Thirsty?” Jim asked, as he watched Phil throw back yet another pint of beer without coming up for a breath.

“L’il bit,” was all Phil would say as he signaled the bartender for another round.

Jim had seen Phil drink before, but there was something different tonight; something desperate about the way Phil was pounding them back that reminded Jim of a man who was trying to drown himself 12 ounces at a time.

“Something you wanna talk about?” he asked, as he watched Phil connect the sweat rings left on the bar by the humid glasses; a massive game of connect-the-dots with no picture in sight.

Phil just sat there, head down, slightly slumped forward. The fact that his eyes were open was Jim’s only clue that he hadn’t fallen asleep; that and the random ministrations of a finger on autopilot, running across the bar.

Without Jim realizing it had happened, two more pints had suddenly shown up on the bar, bubbles rising skyward to form a frothy blanket across the top of the glass. Jim looked at his own mostly full glass and realized that he was falling seriously behind. Over the sound of his own gulping, he thought he heard Phil say something.

He looked over to see Phil staring at him with very weary eyes. Jim shuddered. Phil was only two years older than his own 42 years, but right now, he had the eyes of someone twice as old; someone who had been run over by life and was too tired to hide it.

“She called today,” said a voice that seemed to come from nowhere. “She called the office.”

Without explanation, Jim knew that “she” was Phil’s ex-wife Jacklyn; a wraith who liked to appear every so often to throw Phil off kilter. It wasn’t anything malicious, mind you. It was just that neither of them had ever really accepted that they were divorced. Phil and Jacklyn were proof that no matter how much two people love each other, no matter how much you live for the other’s company, that is still no guarantee of a successful marriage.

“How is she?” Jim asked, as much to fill the void as out of interest.

“Dunno,” Phil replied, between mouthfuls of beer. “I was out.”

A new low, Jim thought. Phil hadn’t even spoken to her and he was in a state. This didn’t bode well for the rest of the evening.

Beautiful sadness was the first thing I thought when I lined up this shot (Tofino)

Beautiful sadness was the first thing I thought when I lined up this shot (Tofino)