Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Thanks Again to Magnet Magazine For Giving Me All That Indie Rock

The music rag Magnet is my absolute favorite magazine in existence today. But one of its columnists, Andrew Earles, seems to have gone a bit off the deep end in recent years. I really don't like a lot of his "street team" writing. That's why I was skeptical going into reading his new book, Gimme Indie Rock.

It's a survey, or his opinion, of the 500 best indie rock albums since indie rock began, according to him, in the late 1970s. Or more accurately, Earles only includes albums between 1981 and 1996, no matter how much it pains him to leave out the one classic Feelies album. He rightly describes indie rock as a combination of pop hooks and sonic distortion. He also notes that the true heyday of indie rock was 1986 to 1996, also something I agree with largely.

The book is laid out alphabetically. And when I started reading and listening to the music Earles suggested, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was suggesting a lot of indie bands I had not really listened to. And several of them are so good that I'm rushing out to buy this book. I love his writing style in Gimme Indie Rock. It's nothing at all like his column in Magnet, which is the only thing I skip in the magazine each month.

The first album Earles lists is by 100 Flowers, which he compares to Wire, the Mekons, and Alternative TV. I only really like Wire of those three, but this self-titled 1983 album is really good.

I am a huge fan of Slint, which Earles accurately compares A Minor Forest to. So it's really surprising that I never heard the album that he suggests. Moving on, the next band is Adickded, which is a noisy punk trio of Pacific Northwest women, also equally surprisingly good.

Shortly after these reviews, Earles gives multiple-album credit to some of my favorite bands, like Afghan Whigs and Archers of Loaf. So even though he says that some of the bands and albums included are not necessarily his favorites or the most influential, he's really done his research. It's really impressive, and I hope to find a couple of hundred albums out of the 500 selections he examines to add to my library.

Thanks again Magnet, as always.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Gravity is Surprisingly Good, Like a Better, Modern 2001: A Space Odyssey

The benefit of having a 103-degree fever this week was that I had the time while lying in bed to watch Gravity, which turned into an unexpected treat.

It's as if 2001: A Space Odyssey all of a sudden had interesting, deep characters in the form of the almost-always-great Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. They get caught up in a debris cloud that results from Russian missile strikes on a satellite and their NASA Explorer mission in space goes horribly wrong.

The film is absolutely captivating. It should have beat American Hustle for best picture of 2013. but at least Alfonso Cuoron claimed best director. (12 Years a Slave maybe should have been them both.)

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Sinatra: All or Nothing At All are also two HBO documentaries worth watching. The Scientology movie seems like it could have been a little better, but the weird cult-like sect remains riveting as always (**** out of ***** stars). The Sinatra flick is best when it covers the Reprise and Rat Pack years (**** out of ***** stars).

Monday, July 6, 2015

Classic Reads: Great Expectations May Be Unlikeable to Some, But It's My Favorite Dickens Novel

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens was one of the first great classic novels I remember reading.

While the book does have its problems ...
Facebook friend Rebecca Brown notes: "I disliked all the characters, so I didn't really care what happened to them. I can't remember why I even finished it, honestly."
I think the combination of mystery and moral values within the story contributed to turning me onto a life of being interested in literature. Also helping in this regard, I think the characters are great (even if mostly unlikeable). Pip, in particular, is memorable in building our compassion for him before he destroys that trust with his obsession of climbing the social ladder, which Dickens clearly finds to be a distasteful way to live one's life.

Seven-year-old Pip is brought up in his sister's home after his parents and five brothers have died. He gets hired by Miss Havisham to be a play partner for her adopted daughter Estella. Pip loves Estella from the beginning but finds Miss Havisham very eccentric. She had all of her clocks stopped, for one example.
Facebook friend Lynn Davis adds" "Miss Havisham is a hoot. I think of her when I see a lot of cobwebs (not in my house, of course :o). She fascinates me too."
Estella goes off to school and Pip's sister gets badly assaulted by a convict Pip has coincidentally once helped. Her new caretaker Biddy falls in love with Pip. These events cause him to increasingly become disenchanted with his status in life.

Four years later, a lawyer named Mr. Jaggers comes and buys Pip from his sister's house, noting that a secret benefactor claims he is a boy of "great expectations." He is taken to London to try to learn gentlemanly ways. His sister, his poor sister, is murdered and then, at age 21, Pip inherits a large amount of money. He is soon visited by a weather-beaten stranger and is horrified to learn that his longtime benefactor was not Miss Havisham but instead has all along been a convict named Abel Magwitch, whom he had encountered in the story as a child. Coincidentally again, his co-criminal had jolted Miss Havisham years earlier.

A series of characters and soap operas ensue, resulting in the death of many characters and the eventual maturity of Pip.

I would say that if there is one Dickens book to read, even more than A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations is the one to pick.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Blueprint for Better Storytelling and Writing the Great American Novel

I was recently reading Secrets of Story: Well Told by screenwriter William C. Martell, and it relates to a talk I've been giving at conferences called Telling Better Stories About Public Transportation (PDF of my presentation). 

And since I'm often beginning writing books but almost never finishing them, Martell provides an excellent blueprint to complete before attempting to put pen to paper.

The story begins with an idea. Ideas are really important, but it takes a whole bunch of them to make a story and to create one great concept based off of all those ideas.

Many people have a hard time getting through Dan Brown's books, but his concepts are what keep others reading and buying those books. His religious conspiracies and puzzles make up for his terrible writing. Screenplays, novels, magazine articles, blogs, and any other forms of writing are all sold on their concept.

Also crucial is conflict. Without conflict, a story is dead on arrival. Little problems must be part of a larger problem otherwise the conflict is weak, unfocused, and makes for a bad story. There are two kinds of conflict, and the physical kind must connect with the emotional kind or else the story will leave readers on the sidelines along with the protagonists.

One of the most important decisions for a storyteller is determine which character's point of view the story will be told from. A story must create an emotional connection between the protagonist and the audience, and of course the protagonist will have a very limited point of view. The story should only detour from that point of view when an antagonist's view is presented, and that still must be related to the protagonist's problem. Movies and books must, simply put, always be about a person with a problem.

Writers don't often think enough about the all-important character. It doesn't matter what that character looks like, it only matters what's inside that character. You can't just plug a great character into a great concept, one will flow from the other.

Many writers confuse plot and story, but plot is what happens. It's an element of the story. Plotting is often a lost art in today's blockbuster films. Plot is how one scene logically leads to the next.

Place and time are also crucial to consider. By using distinctive locations and times, writers can take us to worlds we've never seen before and give us an unusual experience. Focusing on one time and one location is important. Bouncing back in time or place can happen, but it is something to be dealt with delicately or the audience will get confused.

Tone is also important. It must stay the same throughout the story. In Pulp Fiction, there was both violence and comedy, but they were mixed well consistently throughout. The violence was funny, not serious. When Marvin gets his head blown off in the backseat of the car when they hit a bump, that's funny. Gross and violent, but not taken seriously. You can have a comic-relief character in a serious film, but just establish him early enough so that the audience can know what to expect.

As for genre, know your genre. Make sure your story follows the rules of the genre or at least acknowledges those rules when you bend or break them. Clint Eastwood's True Crime was a box office failure because it wasn't what the audience paid to see.

Arena is another important element. Caddyshack takes place in the arena of golf caddies. Network takes place in the world of network news. The fastest way to turn an old concept into a fresh exciting idea is to drop it into a new arena.

Every story worth telling has a point. That is the theme, which is all of these pieces working together. Every story has a theme somewhere, the question is whether you will explore it or ignore it. In The Matrix, the theme is that Neo doesn't believe in himself. Neo eventually realizes he has to believe in himself to save Morpheus. That theme ties all of the movie's scenes together and makes them a story. Theme is the glue. It isn't necessarily the moral of the story, it can just be some element of the human condition that your story explores.

Jot down really good outlines for each of these elements and you may be well on your way to writing the Great American Novel.

Classic Reads: Ibsen Ponders Whether Life Means Anything in Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt is a man in Norwegian Henrik Ibsen's 1867 play of the same name who is trying to discover whether he's a good modern man or a bad one.

Despite not being much interested in a girl named Ingrid, Peer decides on her wedding night that he's going to try to steal her from the groom. This does not endear him to the community so he simply runs off into the forest.

While searching the woods, a girl named Solveig hears Peer's mother Aase talking about what he's like and falls in love with the young scamp. Peer falls in with some trolls in the woods and has a riotous night with some farm girls. He considers staying with the trolls but decides he has to go home.

After making a bit of a life with Solveig and witnessing his mother on her death bed, Peer journeys far from home. He makes a fortune in the American slave trade and selling idols in China, then loses his business riches in Morocco. He briefly becomes an Arab sheik as well. While pondering what he views as his wasted life in Egypt, he eventually is placed in an insane asylum.

Surviving the asylum, Peer makes it back home to Solveig. Although he is convinced he's bound for Hell, Solveig confuses him by saying that he is a good man and that's where the story ends, with Peer perhaps no wiser about the mysteries of man than when he started his many adventures.

The play remains one of Ibsen's most famous, along with A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler, with many films and adaptations (and Ibsen is the second-most-performed dramatist behind Shakespeare). Roger McGuinn of the Byrds even wrote music for a pop version of the play that has never been released. Several of those songs appear on Byrds' albums in the early 1979s however.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Stones and the Holocaust Lead the Pack of Stuff You Should Watch Now

I've been doing a lot more TV- and movie-watching lately than blogging. What have I liked and what has stunk, you ask?

Crossfire Hurricane (***** out of ***** stars), a documentary about the darker side of the Rolling Stones, including the drug busts, Altamont, and the death of guitarist Brian Jones, is hands down the best thing I've seen this spring.

The runner-up, although extremely sad and very difficult to take, is another documentary, called Night Will Fall (***** out of ***** stars). It's the story of British and American filmmakers who were given access to the final days of the Nazi death camps. They film endless horrors but also capture everyday moments of at-least-momentary sanity behind the camp walls. The Germans decided the movies would hurt their attempts to move on as a people and buried the footage for years until now. I began watching because of the promise that Alfred Hitchcock would be featured as the man hired to direct the films. I stayed watching because this part of the Jewish people's history is too important to all of mankind and it's our duty to watch.

I finally got around to Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (****1/2 out of ***** stars) and I have to admit it is pretty great. If this 2013 fictionalization isn't reason enough for Congress to reform the investment sector, then at the very least Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio have taken a step forward in helping us all realize the sliminess of the profession.

Three little films I didn't expect much from but ended up being pleased by include:

  • This Is Where I Leave You (**** out of ***** stars): I guess it's just too difficult for Jason Bateman to do any wrong. It helps that the all-star cast works really well together. It includes Tina Fey, Adam Driver, and Jane Fonda.
  • The Way, Way Back (***1/2 out of ***** stars): Fourteen-year-old shy kid Duncan has to spend the summer on Cape Cod with jerky relatives played by Steve Carell and Allison Janney. Luckily, he finds shelter with a new group of friends, including Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph, at the local water park.
  • Talk Radio (*** out of ***** stars): I haven't missed many Oliver Stone flicks over the years, but this one from 1988 slipped past me. Eric Bogosian turns in a powerful performance as the talk host who passionately and offensively argues against everyone who calls the station.

I thought I would like A Million Ways to Die in the West (*1/2 out of ***** stars), but Seth MacFarlane rips off Blazing Saddles with absolutely none of that classic's charm. Painful.

I also looked forward to the sci-fi Ender's Game (*1/2 out of ***** stars), but the story of a kid sent to military school to train for an alien attack is an absolute snoozefest. Even Harrison Ford's cool can't save it. In fact, Ford is pretty bad and seems flat-out uninterested waiting around for his turn in the upcoming Star Wars reboot.

Also worth mentioning are four TV shows I have really been getting into: Bloodline, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, and Bate's Motel. They're all well worth watching.