Under the Silver Lake
Under the Silver Lake (2018) is a homage to noir cinema. There’s a great performance by Andrew Garfield, a slick Hitchcockian film-score, and constant references to classic noir films, male desire, beautiful women, and unhappiness. Right from the opening, which quotes Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the scene is set for Sam’s journey. We get the usual noir runaround. There’s a bit of Harper here, The Big Lebowski, some magic, some horror, a bit of this, a bit of that, Magnolia, and North By NorthWest. Sam is a flawed character. I can understand why some viewers might find him unlikeable. Under the Silver Lake we’re witnessing Sam’s story. It is his POV. How he reacts to women, and how they react to him are part of his own life experience. I’m wondering, would a device like a voiceover have helped to convey this more clearly? It’s the world itself – with its betrayals, distrust, cheats, liars, and bullshit – that the protagonist doesn’t get. In some ways the central character is a classic naïf. But, as always, the protagonist, somehow (does it really matter), returns full circle, back to the beginning. The same, but a little wiser. In this case it’s in a scene that is an oblique reference to, The Last Picture Show.
The Myth of the American Sleepover
The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010) does a great job capturing the uncertainty of adolescence. It charms, and amuses without overplaying its hand. The over-nighter scenario (American Graffiti (1973), Dazed and Confused (1993), Superbad (2007), Booksmart (2019)) is a common one in coming of age stories. It captures the sense that everything is to play for during the course of a single night. What they do, or don’t do will impact the rest of their lives. They can’t afford to mess it up. Time is running out for them to learn the rules of adulthood, to begin living their own lives, to make sense of their reality, to take their own choices, to think for themselves. If they don’t get it right on this night they will somehow be forever catching up, or doomed to forever miss the point. Failing. Lonely. Unsuccessful. Watching their friends be happy and succeed. It’s a c classic case of FOMO (fear of missing out). The Myth of the American Sleepover, like all coming of age stories, with its nostalgic music, first loves, and encroaching sense of newly forming individual identities, captures a lost moment in time. A single night marks the end of childhood. Something new is about to happen. And nobody knows what it will be. It might be something you least expect – or something you subconsciously half-realised all along.
- Things to Come is a vision of the future, from 1936. It predicts the world from 1940 to 2036, beginning with a decades-long world war that leads to the destruction of civilisation. A new civilisation eventually rises from the ashes. It’s a society led by engineers and scientists. While the new epoch develops technologically at speed, many within it are unhappy, and uneasy with its obsession with science. Culturally the film is very much of its time. The dialogue is preachy. The interactions are often ridiculously wooden. And I found the music (acclaimed by many), imposing and unsubtle. For all its limitations and flaws, Things to Come is still a remarkable prediction of the future. It also reminds storytellers that technology is in some ways easier to predict than cultural change.
- Hans Haacke: 4 Decades is a documentary about Hans Hack, the artist. He started out in the 1960s producing artworks that explored physical and biological systems. Then he turned his attention to sociological systems. Back in the 1970s Haacke was creating subversive artworks attacking the hypocrisy of big business. Corporate environmental destruction, and their self-promotion as ethical entities while exploiting cheap labour and supporting apartheid South Africa. Hans Haacke’s art is witty and funny. It’s cheeky and occasionally dark. He is clever but never over-intellectualised. While he references art history his goal is to appeal to a general audience.
- Chapter length is important for the writer and reader. The writer needs to feel that the length of each chapter is comfortably obtainable. Without that it can become stressful. Stress means fear. Fear means writer’s block. So, it’s important to feel comfortable. Challenged. Yes. But also comfortable. I know that I can write 1,000 words on just about anything. That’s my comfortable word count length. But it makes for quite a short chapter, so I tend to write 1,000 word scenes and join them up into larger size chapters. Next comes the outline. My concept of an ‘outline’ is a bare-bones bullet point list. Each bullet point is three to five words long. Three words is the ideal.
- Story places – the wilderness is essentially one person against nature. It can be in a desert, a jungle, a frozen landscape, or the sea. (The story can even take place in the sky, above a wilderness). Sometimes it’s a small band of people (a family, or a group of people connected by a common situation or interest). Even if they work together, they remain individuals. They’re not a ‘society’ as such. The wilderness hero is often a lone superhero, or he or she leads a small band of heroes. In the village, a small group of wonderers have come together and formed a society. Everyone has more of less the same power. Everyone is listened to. They may live in a camp, in tents, or in houses. The buildings are the same size. They are a community. People are there to help one another out. The hero is a superhero who arrives from outside of the village, often from the wilderness. In the town some people have become more wealthy and powerful than others. They exert a greater influence. They employ other people to work for them. They control more of the land and resources. They live in larger houses. They run the larger businesses. Not everyone in the town is listened to, or treated fairly. The hero may appear from the wilderness or come from the city. If they have come from the city it is because they have fled from a traumatic experience that’s left a lasting impression. In the city the divide between the powerful business owners and the poor has increased. The less wealthy and poor have less influence and power. The disparity shows in the architecture. The elite has joined forces to create a system that enforces their dominance. The hero is an ordinary person who fights against bureaucracy, complacency, corruption, and injustice. In the megalopolis, the gap between the rich and poor has become obscene. A tiny elite has turned the lives of ordinary people into virtual slavery. It’s a police state. Ordinary people have almost no rights. The system is perpetuated by the elite who use violence and repression to control the population. The hero of the megalopolis is a downtrodden ordinary man or woman who fights the system. Or they are someone from within the system (like a policeman) who refuses to be corrupted.
- The 1990s saw the rise of a new kind of young hero. He or she was different to the ones that had come before. These new heroes were not armed with guns and fists. They were armed with laptops and modems. They sat in darkened rooms, dressed in fashionable black, peering into computer screens behind designer sunglasses. They were hackers. The Matrix has come to epitomise the essential hacker tropes. The protagonist works outside the system. They discover something unusual and seek to reveal the truth. They have a street fashion or underground chic. They are usually anonymous, hiding their true identity. They are not after power or material gain. Contemporary hackers in fiction are more emotionally evolved than their 1990s predecessors. They are emotionally scarred and suffer from mental health issues. And yet they are able to ‘fight the power’.
- In Portrait of a Lady On Fire a painter comes to paint a portrait. There’s a love affair. That's the plot. It’s nice and simple. I like nice and simple. But it does feel like there should be a little more going on. The location and French-ness of the film will appeal to Francophiles. To that Francophile middle-class English audience. The film is full of ‘lovely’. A lovely old house. Lovely coastal scenery. Lovely old clothes. Lovely bread and wine. A lovely rustic world. It’s all lovely, but somehow not entirely satisfying.
- In Escape From New York Manhattan Island has been turned into a gigantic open-air prison. Criminals are sent to the island, which has developed its own hierarchical gang system. But – even the most depraved and hardened criminal is no match for Snake and his deadly fashion sense. Snake is an anti-authority action hero. He acts like a teenager around his parents when he is given his mission briefing. The action sequences are ridiculous, comic book stuff, but nonetheless fun. Snake is a semi-superhero with his signature eye-patch, singlet, snake pattern drain pipes, and army boots. His hair looks like he’s just stepped out of a fancy salon. It’s all cleanly washed and blow dried.
- Stories as Celebrations and warnings. Happy stories are celebrations. They are uplifting, jubilant – sometimes comedies, sometimes serious in tone, more often than not associated with success. Unhappy stories are warnings, tragedies – linked to failure. Hansel and Gretel is a warning that turns into a celebration. Scarface is a celebration that turns into a warning. Dramatic stories are extremes of the two states. Constant reversals of fortune. Less dramatic stories are more nuanced, existing within a grey area. The audience continues reading or watching to find out if the story is a celebration or a warning, or a combination of the two. Celebrations are the heroic victories that we look up to and admire. They are simulations of success. Warnings tell us not to emulate the characters, or pay a price, because poor choices, bad luck, and foolishness bring ill fortune. We read or watch their mistakes reassured that we are not so stupid.
- In The Assistant (2019) Jane gets her dream job in the film industry. She rapidly discovers the realities of working as a lowly assistant in an environment where the staff experience verbal abuse, and the boss uses his power to systematically sexually harass young women. I found The Assistant an uncomfortable watch. This isn’t a story with heroes or easy solutions. There’s no quick fix here, or characters with superpowers to put the world’s wrongs to right. In some ways the story is too realistic, so completely believable that it’s depressing. The Assistant chronicles these realities, portraying a selfish and egotistical boss, a person who can turn on the charm and instantly switch to threatening behaviour, making everyone afraid. The problem with this story is that it doesn’t tell the viewer anything which we didn’t already know. And it’s nothing new to the audience that organisations defend the powerful and influential perpetrators of such abusive behaviours (because of the widespread system of enablers). Clearly this is a story coming in the wake of ‘me too’ awareness. It’s definitely a worthy story that tackles the subject with intelligence and sensitivity.
- Parasite is a contemporary story with a scenario straight out of a 19th Century English novel (like the struggling Bennet family striving to ‘do better’ in, Pride and Prejudice), with 1980s Hollywood comedies like, The Housesitter (1992), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), but done through the contemporary Korean lens and aesthetic. It’s put together in the style of classic theatrical comedy, false identities, and characters hiding under the bed, with the Kim family stepping into the role of the Bennet family – but here it’s all put to a darkly comic effect.
- It’s essential to take proper refreshment during the writing process… In Reacher Said Nothing, Andy Martin discovered that Lee Child drinks over 20 cups of coffee a day, smokes slightly more Camel cigarettes and eats mostly breakfast cereals. This is nothing new – coffee has long been a key ingredient of literary success. John Gruber defined success as coming from three essential qualities – being a ‘fussy coffee drinker’, using a ‘clicky keyboard’, and drinking lots of ‘over-carbonated water’ (in his case, double-fizzed water from a Soda Stream).
- Stories where dead bodies are brought back to life are not new. The resurrection story of Jesus Christ in the New Testament of The Bible is probably the most famous. There’s an Ancient Egyptian resurrection story too (the story of Prometheus), and there are other ancient resurrection stories and myths from around the world. These life-transcending stories are about overcoming mortality. In more recent times stories of the dead coming back to life are less like miracles and magic from the gods, but something to be afraid of. Zombies as we know them have their origins in ancient West African mythology. These stories were brought over to Brazil and the West Indies with Voodoo. In them, corpses are reanimated through magic. The living dead in zombie films like Night of The Living Dead (1968) reflect ideas about catastrophic social change, the ills of consumerism, social disconnection, and eco-disaster. George A Romero was heavily influenced by Richard Matheson’s, I Am Legend. But, instead of chronicling the end of a catastrophe Romero wanted to film how it started. Zombies tend to be monstrous, frightening, ‘the other’ – drained of humanity. Zombie stories are about the fear of contagion and the fear of loosing our own humanity through a simple bite. Zombies are abominations, breaking natural laws and social norms, but they are often portrayed in a way that acknowledges they were once human.
- Back in the days before the internet and social media, the closest thing you got to someone with genuinely ludicrous ideas was a crowded pub. Without anywhere else to go you were forced to listen to their bullshit for a couple of minutes. These days the nonsense-talkers are on social media. These platforms allow them to publish their opinions to a wider audience. And, with social media, likeminded thinkers can team up to support one another – nothing happens in a vacuum now. Traditional media – newspapers, magazines and the TV networks – in the UK have restrictions on what they can and can’t say. They’re held accountable and so they have to consider their responsibilities to the regulators. Social media platforms don’t need to provide the same degree of accountability. They retroactively police content, and usually not very effectively. Free speech comes with responsibilities and social media platforms have repeatedly broken these responsibilities – allowing their users to publish racist material, hate comments, to bully and harass other users, and to publish lies. Publishing to the web is publishing. Just because it’s being done by a ‘non-professional content creator’ shouldn’t mean that it’s unaccountable.