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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Fiction: Robert’s Harness

I wouldn’t have tied up Robert if he hadn’t been so insistent. He had been acting really strangely since Jocelyn disappeared, and I figured it was just the stress of losing his wife or something without knowing what happened to her. Over the past few weeks, though, he had confided in me more and more, and I quickly realized that this went beyond Jocelyn’s tragedy. This guy has been going steadily insane, and the process had started well before his wife went missing.

He had a number of strange obsessions. I quickly learned that he was something of a carnivore, or at least he was one of those Paleo guys. His fridge was stocked with nothing but meats and the occasional leafy green vegetable. He was hyper-focused on scents, too. He went on and on about “the stink of the city,” and there were a number of times I caught him wearing a piece of Jocelyn’s clothing. It kept him calm, he said. I didn’t think much about it at the time; grief takes you to strange places, and I wasn’t going to judge.

Then I learned that he had this weird ability to know exactly what phase the moon was in, and what phase it would be in for any given date in the next five years. He knew exactly how the moon affected the tides, all the lore about how it affected people, words that had anything to do with it. A favorite of his was “lunatic,” and he’d reserve that word for a certain kind of person only. He’d look in their direction, take a deep breath, and tell me. “See that guy right there? In the business suit? He’s a lunatic. I can spot ’em a mile off. You don’t want to see him coming towards you in a dark alley.”

I assumed he was just ragging on power brokers or something like that, because it was the fashionable thing to do. I had lunch with him every day for three weeks, and in different spots around the city he pointed to different people and branded them. A bouncer at that dive bar on Oyer Avenue. A jogger who ran by in Clearance Park. An old professor-type on the bus. The city was getting crowded, he said, with lunatics and homeless people. It was weird, but who knows what connection that had for him with Jocelyn? Maybe he thought someone had taken her. She volunteered at a food bank. It put her in contact with all kinds of people. Maybe he had an inkling of what happened to her, and wasn’t ready to admit it to himself yet.

“Maybe you should talk to the police,” I told him a few days ago. We were having lunch at a shawrma place on Palace Blvd. He was picking the meat out of his pita. “If you have a hunch about someone at the food bank, they should know about it.”

“I need you to tie me up on Saturday.” He said it just like that. “Jocelyn used to do it, but she’s gone, and you’re the only person I trust.”

I laughed, nervously. He looked me in the eye, put down his empty pita, and grabbed my forearm. He had a surprisingly strong grip for a bank teller. “I’m serious. I need you to come over this weekend and restrain me. I…I know this sounds weird, but it’s really important to me.”

“Why in the world would you ask me to do that, Robert?” I pulled my arm away and stared at him. I didn’t want to even entertain the thoughts I had, but I couldn’t help myself. “What are you getting at? Is there something you need to tell me?”

He sighed, and looked down, and then around to make sure nobody was listening. “I’m one of them,” he said. “I’m a lunatic.”

I would have laughed again if he didn’t look so earnest about it. There was something in that desperate, lost expression that unnerved me. “Maybe…maybe we should go to the police. Or a doctor. Have you talked to your therapist about this?”

Robert shook his head vehemently. “I can’t talk to anyone about this. I can’t go to the police, or a doctor. I’ll…listen, I’ll be fine, really. As long as you come over and…and babysit me this weekend.” He couldn’t bring himself to look at me. He started to stop in mid-sentence, as if he was about to say something, thought the better of it, chose a different word.

The conversation ended only when I told him I would think about it. Over the next couple days, Robert revisited the question several times a day and got increasingly agitated when I tried to blow him off. I thought I would be able to wait him out on it, but nothing doing. When he started telling me I would be responsible if he hurt himself or someone else, I figured I’d better agree just to keep him calm. There was no telling what was actually going on, but someone had better be there just in case.

He asked me to come over early Friday afternoon. Well, not so much asked as made me promise. He’d provide the bindings, he said, and the food. I just needed to make sure he had everything he needed all weekend. I packed an overnight bag, made sure that Robert’s doctor, therapist and the detective investigating his wife’s case were all on speed dial, then I headed over.

As soon as I got there, he barked order at me. Here, do this. There was some sort of apparatus that was half-cage, half-incomprehensible complex of leather and chains that he wanted me to buckle him into in a very specific manner. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but I did the best I could. Some of the little buttons and straps were a pain in the ass, and they were redundant anyway, so I didn’t bother with anything that took longer than say, thirty seconds. He made me test them, and he squirmed and tugged as much as he could, but there was no getting out of it. Only when he was sure he was totally secure did he actually relax.

By then, the sun was going down and we were both sweating. He had a goofy grin on his face, and his expression told me that I had passed some barrier between us that I had no idea existed. Whatever was going on here, we would be stuck together for a few days. No time like the present to press for honesty.

“So…mind telling me what all of this is about?” I tried to be casual, to keep my tone light. It helps widows keep their spirits up, I’d read somewhere.

Robert laughed and looked out the window. The sun was reflecting off the windows as it set. It made all the buildings look like they were melting in fire and blood. “You’ll find out here in a few hours. Would you mind grabbing a couple of steaks from the fridge?”

“I hope you don’t expect me to feed you all weekend.”

“No need. Just put it on that standing desk and wheel it over to me when it’s done. I’ll be able to reach it.” Robert kept watching the window. The streets below his apartment were growing dark now, and the darkening sky was just revealing the first and brightest stars.

“Fine. How do you want it cooked?”

“Cooked?” He looked confused.

“Yes, cooked. How did Jocelyn make your steak?”

I stopped rooting through the impossible amount of meat in the fridge to look at Robert. He had finally looked away from the window, towards the front door as if he was expecting someone. He went quiet for a time, then shook his head. “She just opened them up and put them on a plate.”

I raised an eyebrow. What the hell was this? “Cold?”

“Yeah,” he said. He looked at me, and I shrugged and retreated into the kitchen. “She would put the steaks on a plate, and we would wait for nightfall. She’d put on a movie and sit with me through the night, and sometimes she would sing and play her guitar. It made me…made me feel less crazy.”

His voice was choking up, I could hear. I lifted the steaks with a pair of tongs I found and slopped them onto the plate. Raw as they were, that was roughly two pounds of meat there. I put them on the table, wheeled it in front of him, and then smiled. I didn’t know what to say to him all of a sudden. This was way too weird. “How about I put on a movie?”

Robert blinked back tears. “Sure.”

So I did. The TV remote was coated in a fine layer of dust on the coffee table, and we immediately dumped into one of those old movie channels when it turned on. I figured that would do well enough — neither of us would be watching it anyway. I turned to make sure that Robert was all right. His head was down, his face was pale, his breathing harsh and irregular.

“Robert?” I moved to get up, and the blanket covering the couch slipped away. It would have been so much better if I hadn’t looked, but a flash of color caught my eye.

The couch had been ripped to shreds. The stuffing had been pulled out of it, but flattened underneath the blanket. It looked like everything had been splashed with red paint, aged and dried until it had turned a liver-brown. I stepped back, horrified. I meant to ask Robert what this was, but the question died on my lips.

Robert was hunched over, trying to clutch his stomach. His back and neck was sprouting hair, so much of it that his skin disappeared. Something was bubbling inside of him, warping his torso and limbs, and all the bindings strained with it. There was an awful crack, and his mouth hung like his jaw had been broken. I couldn’t tell if he started screaming first, or if I did.

His torso and arms were swelling terribly. His shoulders hunched and grew like someone had stuffed hams into them, and his chest looked like it had been pulled apart before it puffed up. His scream deepened into a half-growl, half-roar, and when he rose up the top of his head was a full foot from where it had been. He was still changing.

His body changed in fits. Bones snapped or lengthened, and Robert whimpered and howled. I couldn’t say anything. Everything was telling me to run, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. I kept backing up until I bumped the television. It tottered, then slammed against the wall behind me.

The thing where Robert stood looked up. Its yellow eyes caught the poor light coming in from the window as it stared at me. There was nothing of my best friend in there anymore. I didn’t want to know what had replaced it.

I broke for the door. It tugged on those bindings and snapped right through them. That’s what the redundancy was for, I thought to myself. Way to half-ass it.

The monster was insanely fast, and its bulk blocked the door before I even made it two steps. I stopped, put my hands out. “Robert. You don’t want to do this. There’s…there’s meat for that!”

I pointed to the steaks on the table. It followed my finger with a disinterested glance, then looked back at me and growled. Then it leapt.

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2012 in Writing

 

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The AFI Top 100 Movies: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (#50)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross
Directed by George Roy Hill
Written by William Goldman

I’m not really sure what I was expecting when I sat down to watch this movie, but I have to say it was a delightful surprise. Most westerns from this era have a serious, mythic tone that’s honored here but also deconstructed to really great effect. It takes the idea of the legendary western bandit and shrinks it down to the size of men. This is probably how things really were, the movie wants to say. These criminal masterminds have no more idea what they’re doing than the rest of us.

The movie begins by telling us that at one time Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ruled the West, and then moving into that most classic of Western staples the saloon poker game. Sundance is accused of cheating, a tense stand-off ensues, and the only thing that saves them from a bloodbath is the fear inspired by their reputation. The scene is shot in sepia-tone, to emphasize just how iconic the situation — and its players — are. When they get themselves out of that scrape, they ride off into full-color fields and the real world of their situation.

From there, it’s one trouble after another. First, a member of their Hole-In-The-Wall Gang tries to take over the crew and needs to be put down. Then, an ambitious train robbery brings a little too much heat on them. The tycoon whose wealth their pilfering doesn’t take kindly to being ‘picked on’, and sends an all-star team of trackers and law men after them. Both Butch and Sundance try everything to throw them off the scent, but their reputation catches up with them before too long. I won’t say more than that, but the ending is both surprising and completely logical given what comes before it.

Newman and Redford made their careers with this movie, and it’s easy to see why. Redford is ruggedly handsome as the stoic Sundance Kid, and he serves as a template for what it means to be a self-sufficient man. Newman is instantly, consistently likeable as Butch Cassidy, and even when he makes a mistake (and he makes many mistakes) you forgive him immediately. He’s always one good idea away from being on top again, and he makes it easy to believe that his next one is just what’ll do the trick. They have a chemistry together that’s easy, organic and just sublime; it helps that William Goldman’s screenplay walks this great tightrope of tones, bouncing from great, broad humor to dialogue with a great sense of character to situations that point to the ominous tightening of a noose around our boys. What’s impressive is that even when the situation grows darker the tone remains light. Butch and Sundance never give up, even in the face of shrinking options.

Katherine Ross is pretty good as Etta Place, Sundance’s girlfriend and Butch’s confidant. She serves as something of an alarm clock, making sure the boys stick to their decision once they’ve made it. When they decide to move to Bolivia and rob banks there, she makes sure they know enough of the local language to pull it off. When they decide to do something else, she’s right there to make sure they actually do it. When they bounce back to robbing banks, she finally tires of their indecision. It’s surprising how much her presence is missed during the final part of the movie — she’s a great example of a strong, feminine supporting character with her own ideals. Yet she’s tied up inextricably in the story of these two men without being diminished by it.

When you take a step back to think about the movie as a whole, you see how incredibly lost and almost aimless these two are. They’re both unsure of who they are and what they really want to do, and generally they’re pulled along by what fate does with them. When you get right down to it, they’re fairly reactionary heroes. While it’s true that the narrative is jump-started by Butch’s first bad decision, everything else that happens in the film is a reaction to the consequences. It’s interesting that the film remains so engaging despite that, and I think it’s a testament to Goldman’s writing as well as the wonderful, warm performances from Redford and Newman.

I think the film’s ultimate meaning is that the people who inhabit the stories we tell — especially culled from history — are just people. They may have done extraordinary things, or lasted through extraordinary circumstances, but when you get right down to it they’re just us. They’re confused, scared, shiftless sometimes. They’re also smart, full of life, fun and have the capacity for love. Our greatest heroes — George Washington, Charles Darwin, the Buddha — had lives just as messy as ours. We clean them up for the sake of narrative, and that’s just fine. But it would do us well to remember that. Our mythic, real-life heroes have a lot in their stories that aren’t heroic, or villainous. Just mundane, stupid, quietly sweet like the rest of us.

The movie opens up with an iconic, sepia-toned scene, and it ends with the same sepia-toned image that conforms to our understanding of the western criminal. And make no mistake, all that might have happened. But the reality happened between those old photographs that we make our myths with. Knowing and understanding that enriches our grasp of our myths, and makes people out of them.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2012 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: From Here to Eternity (#52)

From Here to Eternity (1953)
Starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed
Directed by Fred Zimmerman
Written by Daniel Taradash

From Here to Eternity almost comes across as a melodrama, and without a doubt all of the ingredients are there. Shocking revelations from damaged people with haunted pasts, villains who are infuriatingly incompetent and unlikeable in a way that gives you pleasure in hating them, and an interesting, unique location, for example. This movie, about an Army barracks on the island state of Hawaii before the start of World War II, could have easily become a potboiler romance that stood out as a prime example of its kind.

What makes it different is the sure-handed, subtle direction of Fred Zimmerman, which is a real asset here. He strives for a sort of realism that feels counter-intuitive given the subject matter, but it turns out to elevate the material quite well. Scenes are tightly constructed, with small Easter eggs hidden in the background and peripheries that enrich the personalities of the characters you’re watching on-screen. Conflicts and interactions come across organically, and even though the lives of these people amount to a huge hot mess, you see how they ended up where they did logically and emotionally. It’s quite impressive.

Montgomery Clift is Robert E. Lee Prewitt (yes, really), a rebel (hah!) who’s just joining the G Company after a falling-out with his previous commander. The Captain of the company wants Prewitt to box but he steadfastly refuses, which draws him the ire of the commanding officer and other folks in the outfit. This, of course, leads to extra chores and abuse. The second-in-command, relatively straight-laced Sgt. Milton Warden, doesn’t approve of this but goes along with it despite the respect he has for Prewitt. He also has his eye on the Captain’s unhappy wife, Karen.

During one of his rare base leaves, Prewitt meets Alma, one of the girls at a club downtown. They hit it off pretty well, but their relationship is complicated by their desires — for all his trouble with the company, Prewitt wants to make a career out of the Army, while Alma wants someone rich and respectable. The tension between their dreams and the good life right in front of them grows more and more taut until a chain of events caused by the company’s dysfunction forces them to make a decision, one way or the other.

The movie explores the way our sense of duty to the wrong things really runs us through the wringer. Almost every major character has a misplaced sense of loyalty that makes them unhappy and in some cases, ultimately does them in. Instead of working towards things that deepen the relationships with the people they’ve come to care about, everyone struggles to uphold a misplaced ideal that they don’t even care about. What’s interesting is how this makes them all feel victimized and wronged, so that they feel those closest to them owe them breaks. Prewitt feels a loyalty to the Army that has consistently run him ragged. Warden hates Army officers (presumably) for their feeling of entitlement, and it keeps him in a miserable position where he has all of the responsibility of running the ship but very little power to do so. Alma’s insistence on status keeps her from giving in to the love she shares with Prewitt, while the Captain’s wife feels a strange bond with her philandering husband even though he’s wrecked their marriage beyond repair.

The tragedy here is that people stay the course in their lives hoping that things will magically become better instead of acknowledging that they’re on the road to ruin. It’s puzzling behavior from the outset, because each of us can clearly see that things will never change for them unless they do — something has to give. But haven’t each of us done the same thing, staying in an unhealthy situation for far too long with the hope that something will put things together?

Clift, Lancaster, Kerr and Reed all portray their characters as smart people with large blind spots, and you genuinely empathize with them even they’re being exasperating. That’s a fine tightrope to walk, and everyone does it expertly. By the time the finale rolls in and the consequences of everyone’s actions are forced to the surface, you get the sense that really, it couldn’t have ended any other way. The fragile ambition of even the most competent people is no match for the pulverizing tide of society and history.

So what do we learn from this? I walked away from the movie with the idea of adaptability in my head. It’s incredibly important to be adaptable to your situation, recognizing when your ideals need to be softened in the face of an untenable situation. I don’t necessarily mean throwing out the values that mean the most to you in the face of the slightest resistance, but more recognizing when a certain value needs to be sacrificed for something greater. We live in a world that can be much more stubborn than we could ever hope to be, and learning how to bend when it’s necessary is one of the greatest assets we could have as adults.

From Here to Eternity is a great study in characters who are too stubborn and headstrong for their own good. It’s something that we still struggle with as a society, pretending that “strength” means unwavering from a decision even when it’s revealed to be wrong. It’s interesting to me that this individual drama can be drawn over a larger tapestry today, and how if we’re not careful we could find ourselves facing the same unhappy fates of Prewitt and his company.

Rating: 7/10.

 

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Flash Fiction: The Tiger’s Wife

She winced when he grabbed her arm to help her into bed. He immediately pulled away, folded his fingers together in his lap. “I’m sorry, did that hurt?”

“A little,” she lied. The nerves along her arm screamed through the medicine, telling her that something was wrong, that her bones and muscle were not in their proper order. The cool touch of his fingertips on her arm didn’t change that. She still didn’t want it, though.

He leaned forward and stared at her. She knew he was trying to look earnest, but the intensity of his gaze disquieted her. “I’m sorry. What can I do for you?”

He purred quietly in supplication. She could see his tail lashing through the back of his chair. His fingers kneaded his thighs, a clear sign that he was nervous. She was uncomfortable with so much of his focus. He was so unpredictable when he used his full attention.

“Nothing,” she said, and she forced herself to smile. “Don’t think that I’m not grateful for everything you’ve done these past few days. I am. Truly. We just have to wait now. The doctor’s done all he can.”

She glanced at him. His fur was subdued in the fluorescent light, brown with shades of orange broken up by black stripes. His sweater was solid beige, his jeans were as black as the tips of his ears. So few colors worked with such a bright pelt. She wondered if he had changed his clothes since that night.

“Has the doctor said when you’ll be able to come home?” She knew he was trying to sound casual, but he couldn’t keep the excitement out of his voice. The thought made her stomach turn. She thought about their cramped apartment, the way he stepped behind her when she was in front of the sink, the way their bodies were forced to touch in close hallways, the way he filled the frame of the door at the top of the stairs.

Her smile faltered, and she had to look away to maintain it. “I don’t know. He…he says it’s touch and go. They’re not sure they set the arm right the first time, they’ll have to see how it looks tomorrow.”

She wasn’t sure if he growled, or if his purring had grown louder. She was sure that his tail lashed more quickly. “I–”

“We’ll just have to wait until tomorrow.” She took a deep breath. Her arm hurt so much, and she just wanted to sleep. “Listen, why don’t you go home? I know you’re exhausted, and it’d do you good to sleep in a bed.”
He stared at her. She forced herself to look back, and told herself to keep smiling. His eyes were so small and sharp and cold. She could scarcely remember how they could have warmed her. She had been fooled into thinking that mystery was a good reason to fall in love. She knew so much better now.

For a moment, it looked like he would lunge. She steeled her spine. She would not shrink back.

“You’re right,” he said. He broke his gaze, and took the part of her hand that hadn’t been bandaged. “But I’ll be back first thing in the morning.”

“Take your time,” she said. She squeezed his hand as well as she could. A shock of pain travelled up to her shoulder, and then her arm went strangely numb. “The doctor won’t be back until the afternoon anyway.”

He rose, told her he loved her, and crept out on soft and silent feet. When he left, he took the charge in the air with him. She felt her chest relax and suddenly she couldn’t catch her breath. It took her fifteen minutes to calm down.

She slumped into the hospital bed at last and thought about her meeting with the doctor tomorrow morning. Maybe if he weren’t there hovering at the edges of the conversation, she would be able to say what really happened.

For now though, she lied in this strange, cold bed and waited to sink under the influence of the painkillers. For once the quiet was peaceful. For once she didn’t fear what waited on the other side of it.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2012 in Furries, Writing

 

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Coming Back From the Point of No Return

Ryan and I saw Dream House over the weekend, and it was interesting for reasons that ultimately didn’t have anything to do with its actual story. I’ll try to briefly describe what happens without spoiling it, just in case any of you are interested in watching a psychological thriller from last year starring James Bond and the Wife from the Brendan Frasier Mummy movies.

Daniel Craig is Will, an editor fresh from quitting his job and purchasing a fixer-upper of a house he hopes to raise his young family in. Pretty soon it’s clear that there are strange things happening in and around the house, and Will’s discovery of the house’s history causes him to question quite a bit through the rest of the movie. There are a couple of twists, and I have to give the movie credit in that it reveals the first one just when you’ve figured it out. I love when a film respects the intelligence of its audience and delves into the messy aftermath of what the twist means.

Only with Dream House, that’s not quite what happens. The plot pivots around a bit of the backstory that Will is involved in but ultimately not responsible for. I mentioned to Ryan that this was disappointing because the story of him coming to terms with his responsibility would have been more interesting than what we got, but he disagreed. He said that it wouldn’t work for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here because, spoilers. Instead, I’ll just go ahead and launch into my main point from here.

The protagonist is an easy character to screw up in a lot of genre stories. I think we have a tendency to construct our main characters out of a template because there are certain demands we place on them; they have to be active, heroic, but believable, relatable. They can’t be perfect or else they’re boring, and they can’t be too damaged because who would want to spend time with them, then? It’s really difficult to get the tone down because this is the person that will be pulling the audience through your story; you want them to like your main character, but you also want to make sure that he or she is textured enough that they’re not a Boy Scout. The flaws have to be legitimate but not alienating.

I’m becoming more interested in just how far you can go with making a flawed protagonist, though. The reason Dream House was ultimately disappointing is that it felt like a bait-and-switch to me; it teased with the possibility of this great, tragic protagonist struggling through this irreparable damage, then gave us something that was a bit more heroic and thus a bit more bland. It makes me wonder what you could have a protagonist ‘get away with’ and still have the audience on their side.

Can you have a murderer as the protagonist of your story? What about a mass murderer? In what context would those actions be acceptable or unacceptable? I know that there isn’t a pat answer for this; there are so many other factors that influence how an action like that looks. What about, say, a story of a thief who kills an entire family during a botched robbery? Would the story of him coming to grips with what he’s done sound believable, much less intriguing? To me, it would be. There’s something beautiful in someone finding grace and acceptance of the horrible things they’ve done. But perhaps I’m in the minority on that one.

I immediately think of the first book in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever — Lord Foul’s Bane, I believe it was called. Thomas Covenant is an intensely unlikable protagonist, and it’s actually kind of impressive to read for that. Stephen Donaldson spends quite a bit of time telling us about Thomas; he is a writer who had a runaway success with his first novel, then contracted leprosy and lost his wife, his confidence and his health. The description of his mental state and his disease is thoughtful enough that it generates enormous sympathy for Thomas, and even though he’s bitter and cynical you understand why he is. When he’s whisked away to a magical realm known as the Land and told he’s fated to be the savior of its inhabitants, you can forgive him for his skepticism. What you can’t forgive him for is the raping of a young girl, one of the first people he meets.

I had never had such a visceral reaction to a book before then. Once both the girl and her mother don’t immediately call out Thomas for fear of displeasing him, I put the book down. But that small bit of story stuck with me; Donaldson’s obviously an effective writer, and now that I’m thinking about it what he did was quite remarkable. Even though I can admire his technical proficiency, his creation is just something I can’t spend any more time with. Thomas crossed the line, and I…still don’t know if I want to stick around to see if he’s redeemed or not.

But can you have Thomas do something like that and still make him…somewhat heroic? Obviously, that act is going to stain his personality for the rest of his existence, and rightfully so. What could Donaldson have done differently to set up Thomas for future redemption without lessening the horrificness of the act? For me, the act exposed a depth of disregard and near-sociopathic tendencies that I had been willing to overlook before. The rape stripped away the goodwill I had built for Thomas, and it made the anger and disgust I felt for him that much worse. Would it have been different if there was any indication beforehand that he had the capacity to be selfless? Would I have felt sadness instead of anger if Thomas had been portrayed more as someone who suffered greatly?

Thinking about these questions makes me realize how much I rely on the intent or mental state behind an action to determine a judgement on it. There are an awful lot of things that I would forgive if someone was “properly repentant,” and took responsibility for their actions. It wouldn’t make the actions any less heinous, but it would prove these people were still capable of, or desired to do, good. And that matters. Watching someone find their way back from a terrible mistake that can’t be erased is compelling, and failure or success brings with it a very intense return on your emotional investment. For me, the desire to be good is enough to get me on the side of the protagonist, and while there are a lot of things they could do to exhaust that goodwill, good intentions will go a great deal farther than anything else.

Now I turn the floor over to you: what attribute is absolutely essential for a character to keep your sympathy? What one thing will cause a character to become irredeemable? And who was the most unlikable protagonist you followed through the end of a story? Looking forward to your comments.

 

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Simplifying the Work

Last week was an overwhelming one. The carpool I had shared with a friend had just ended when he took a new position at work, so I was back to travelling to my job by Caltrain. I hadn’t expected it to be a big adjustment, but it turns out it was. The fact that the trains were late going home for the first three days certainly didn’t help.

Work is beginning to pick up towards the holidays as well. I work in an industry where holiday communications are very important for our customers, so anything that goes wrong is expected to be handled with a bit more urgency than usual. As “air-traffic control” for my support department, that means dealing with people who want results as soon as possible all day. It’s…challenging, to say the least. These two small changes were enough to tax my mental energy and willpower almost completely.

I went through a brief period last week berating myself for not being able to handle the changes that had come, but that really gets you nowhere. How you feel is how you feel, and talking down to yourself for emotions that arise makes it that much more difficult for you to deal with them. Now that I’ve had a reasonably relaxed weekend, I’m sitting here thinking about what I can do to better cope with the stresses that will be coming in the future and still remain productive.

The answer is to simplify. Do one thing at a time as best I can, move on to the next, take a break when I need to. That’s an easy thing to plan, but it’s very difficult to put into practice. We live in a world that wants us to multi-task as much as possible. Our attention is often being pulled in many different directions at once. Even when there’s an emergency, say, that demands our complete focus, there are a number of things queueing up right behind it.

Despite that I’ll be trying to focus on doing one thing at a time this week. Hopefully, this means I’ll be able to be a lot more efficient and productive than I have been before. I’ll put all of my attention into reading when that’s what I decide to do. When I write, I’ll work on one project through its completion before moving on to something else. When I’m working, I’ll devote a period of time to focusing on that, and plan my breaks so that I don’t burn out in the middle of the afternoon.

Right now I’m working on a short story that’s essentially supernatural erotica. It’s for a friend, so I’m not sure I’ll actually show it anywhere when it’s done, but my goal this week is to finish it. It had been requested for last Christmas, so this story is far, far overdue. But my perfectionism has gotten the better of me, and I’ve never been happy with the story that I’m writing. It’s time to simply be content with the way the story has come and work on improving it through other drafts.

I’m reading Mad Ship by Robin Hobb at the moment, and it’s quite good. Hobb’s able to bounce back and forth between multiple perspectives to create a complete world, and you end up sympathizing with or hating each person you come across. Even as the story deepens and the many characters’ purposes come into conflict with one another, you end up rooting for whoever you’re reading about. The villain of the first book in the series has this tremendous exchange with a rather meek boy in one scene, and it just knocked my socks off. This guy has done things that places him firmly in the antagonist column, but I find myself liking him an awful lot just the same.

At any rate, supernatural erotica and Mad Ship are what’s on my plate this week. What’s on yours?

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2012 in Reading, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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The AFI Top 100 Movies: Amadeus (#54)

Amadeus (1984)
Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce and Elizabeth Berridge
Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Milos Forman

I think we’re getting into the stretch of the top 100 where there are nothing but good movies left; each of these movies does exactly what they set out to do, exemplifying the craft of film-making and storytelling in their own way. So instead of doing a traditional critique of strengths and weaknesses, or talking about the way performances or writing stand out, let’s just assume all of its excellent and talk about the themes, all right?

This is my second time seeing Amadeus, and for the AFI run we wanted to make sure we got the director’s cut. This adds about 20 minutes of additional footage to the movie, but I’m not sure it adds too much more texture to the film. The character of Stanze (Berridge) actually benefits the most from the extra scenes — a confrontation between her and Salieri (Abraham) puts her reaction to him in an entirely different (and much more understandable) perspective. Other than that, you could probably see the theatrical version and miss very little.

Still, even with the minor amount of padding the movie is so, so good. Salieri is a musician who develops an admiration and resentment of Mozart quite early on. While Mozart’s father encourages his son’s musical gift, Salieri’s own dad doesn’t see the point in it at all. Despite this early setback, he’s extremely motivated to be a great musician, devoting his life to the craft to the exclusion of all else. At first, Salieri is a chaste and pious man, who only wants the voice of God to speak through his writing. He wants to reflect the glory of creation, and he achieves enough success to be satisfied for a time.

However, Amadeus rolls in, vulgar and immature and possessed with impossible talent. The rest of the film is Salieri struggling to make sense of his position. He knows enough about music to know how much better Mozart is, and the fact that God saw fit to give so much talent to so despicable a man drives him quite literally crazy. Despairing of his own talent, Salieri eventually turns his back on God and vows to destroy his creation. As you might suspect, things go downhill from there.

Even when Salieri is doing some of the most underhanded things, you really feel for him. I’d venture that he’s one of the most sympathetic, complete villains in movie history — make no mistake, he is not a good man, but there is so much to admire him for, so many points you agree with him on. His struggle is entirely relatable. How many times have we been faced with the fact that someone is so much better at something we’d really give anything to do that well? And how many times has that person, blessed with incomparable talent, sees their gift as no big deal, takes it for granted? It’s a universal frustration amongst storytellers, writ large by Murray’s passionate, controlled performance.

What I find most interesting about Salieri as a character is his tragic flaw. He’s a smart, capable fellow, who can be shrewd and charming by turns. But he lacks grace and the power to accept his position in life. Granted, it’s an incredibly bitter pill to swallow, but he also forgets that even though he has meager musical talent compared to Mozart he outshines his rival in a number of ways. He’s far more responsible, knowledgeable about the ways of the world, able to navigate the political situation of his day with more aplomb. Mozart is a genius, but that same gift makes it impossible for him to get along with people in so many ways. Salieri, though he’s mediocre, benefits from the constraint of his talent.

That’s small comfort to most of us, admittedly. It stings to know that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be better than average at certain things. But acceptance of that can be liberating; instead of judging yourself by the impossible standards of your favorite genius, you gain a more modest perspective that allows you to make and measure progress in a much more reasonable way. Ambition carries us further than we’d ever thought we’d go, but if you leave it unchecked it leads to the bitterness and resentment we find in Salieri. His desire comes from a pure, good place, but it’s twisted by his inability to accept humility.

And even though Amadeus is this epic movie full of powdered wigs and severe 18th century clothing, the themes that run through it are universal. Most of us, on some level, want to excel at something. And it’s an uncomfortable truth for us that it’s quite likely we never will. How do you deal with that? Especially when the truly talented waste the ability you would kill for all of the time? The answer, on its vaguest terms, is not like Salieri. Mozart thinks of him as a guide and a friend who comes to rescue him from the excesses of his own personality, and in a way he’s right. In his efforts to ruin Mozart, Salieri comes very close to actually saving him, and the true tragedy of the movie is that he never got out of his own way enough to do that. Salieri spends so much of the movie wondering why God saw fit to give him enough ability to recognize Amadeus’ talent, but not enough to match it. Perhaps it was so Salieri could preserve and protect it for as long as possible, to learn from it.

That’s the lesson I take from the film. That true beauty and genius should be celebrated, even when it’s not your own. That it’s OK to be a small talent in a big, crowded field. That in so many ways, maintaining your perspective keeps you sane. And that even the most sickeningly talented people have their own troubles, so it pays to be kind when you can.

Rating: 9/10

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2012 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Pop Culture, Reviews

 

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