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Monthly Archives: August 2013

The AFI Top 100 Films: Raging Bull (#24)

Entertainment 150Raging Bull (1980)
Starring Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty
Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (screenplay) and Jake La Motta (novel)
Directed by Martin Scorcese

This movie feels like something of an “anti-Rocky”, the story of all those fighters that don’t manage to stay on top very long or sacrifice something fundamental to get there. Even though there’s success in the ring for the Raging Bull, his personal life is in a perpetual shambles of his own making. The adaptation of LaMotta’s autobiography is surprisingly stark about painting him as an unsympathetic character, and by the time the credits roll you wonder how the real LaMotta must feel about it. Does he realize, at long last, what he’s done to his life? Or does he understand what people must think about the events that unfolded on the screen? The movie suggests that he simply lacks the self-awareness to realize the consequences of his actions. I genuinely hope that’s not the case.

La Motta is a middleweight boxer, coming up as a hot-headed kid raised in a neighborhood full of them. In one of the early scenes, a fight erupts in the club that La Motta hits after one of his bouts. He grew up in a place where fist-fighting were one of the major ways to resolve your conflicts, and it’s clear that he took that lesson to heart. Jake is the first to take offense, the last to explain why he’s offended; he simply causes things to escalate until he has the opportunity to make them physical.

His brother Joey (Pesci) is the stabilizing influence that keeps Jake on track when he threatens to go off the rails. Poor Joey has to put up with a lot; from Jake’s ever-shifting moods to managing the reputation of the fighter in the neighborhood. It’s a thankless job that he does because he sees the potential of his brother, and possesses a weary, patient love that’s evident in just about everything he does.

Jake gets out of a relationship with a woman he ignores and marries a very young blonde he fancied from the first moment he laid eyes on her in the public pool. He’s charming at first, but as soon as he’s wed her he becomes extraordinarily paranoid and possessive while ignoring her as well, for the most part. Meanwhile, he reluctantly throws a fight to get the title shot that he’s always been looking for after being told to take a dive by the Mob. Jake is banned for throwing the fight in such an obvious manner, but comes back to win the middleweight championship. He’s on top of the world with a loyal brother in his corner and a beautiful blonde on his arm. But he’s still completely miserable.

That misery gets spread to everyone he knows because he doesn’t know how else to handle it. His paranoia spares no one, and he becomes increasingly abusive to his wife and his brother. What’s worse is how he keeps sinking lower and lower both professionally and emotionally, each side exacerbating the pain of the other, and how he never realizes that the hell he’s in is the one he created for himself. It’s incredibly hard to watch; at first you feel sympathy for Jake’s lack of self-awareness, but then you just want to see his family get out of an awfully toxic situation.

Scorsese does a wonderful job making sure no punches are pulled. He’s not working with a sympathetic lead here at all, but he doesn’t try to gloss over Jake’s behavior or make excuses for him. De Niro is a wonder here, as a man who is fascinating in his unlikeability, but is somehow sympathetic with this basic, relatable desire to be liked, respected, loved. The trouble is that Jake doesn’t let higher thinking work for him. If he thinks he’s been slighted then he lashes out with the immediate, unthinking hostility of an animal. It’s instinct for him to lash back, and he does repeatedly against enemies real or (mostly) imagined.

The brutality in Jake’s world is inescapable. Even when he wins it feels like a loss; he simply takes a tremendous beating without going down before the other guy. The boxing scenes, which comprise surprisingly little of the movie are memorable for the mood they create. I remember glimpses of faces rocked by oversized gloves, the sound of meat being slapped, a face that is gradually degraded. Each battle takes something out of Jake, even if he downplays it or doesn’t realize it. Maybe it’s living with those consequences that makes it so easy for him to fly off the handle; the movie never makes that connection for us, but simply lays the evidence there to make of what we will.

So what do we make of this? Jake serves as a cautionary tale, a warning to make sure that whatever we do, make sure we do it for the right reasons. Remember who our friends are, remember their hardships too. But most importantly, be aware that we are shaped by the people around us and we shape the people we’re with. We might not be able to help the impression left on us, but we can control the impression we make. Jake has no idea about any of this because he can’t think past his own pain or pleasure. And the effects of that short-sightedness are terrible to see.

I can see why so many people regard Raging Bull as Scorsese’s best movie. He’s a director with a sure hand here, working with two actors who give stunning performances. It’s definitely earned its place here in the top 100, but that being said I’d never want to watch it again. It contains a bleakness that’s hard to stomach, and no guarantees that the people involved have learned anything by what they’ve been through. Much like La Motta himself, it is what it is.

Rating: 9/10.

 

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How Our Writing Gets Better

Writing 150There’s a bit of an ongoing kerfluffle in the furry writing community about critics of stories and the role they should play. From my admittedly limited experience with the subject, it seems like the argument has been broken down into two camps. Some folks feel that furry literature should be subjected to the same standards as any art form; critics should be able to call out bad writing wherever it might be found. Others feel that critics are useless; they’ll never be happy with the quality of writing found in our humble little corner of the SF/F fandom and are really in the game to make themselves look or feel better by putting others down. After seeing some of the more vitriolic and controversial reviews out there, I have to admit that I could see why someone would think that way. But that’s a problem with the critic, not criticism itself. It’s important to make that distinction. Good criticism is an essential element in the growth of any art form; we need to have a way to share our opinions about where our work is at any given point, and keen eyes to point out what preoccupies us as a community, what we talk and dream about, and how well we all communicate what we’re trying to say.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m for the critics. A good critic provides a valuable service to the artistic community he talks about. All art is essentially communication, and writers are trying to say something in a way that moves past language by using language extremely well. It’s a difficult thing to do, especially since the combination of words that might hit us where we live might just make someone else roll their eyes. In order to be successful as a writer, we need to know the effect our writing has on someone else. We may have picked up a few tricks that navigate past the defenses of our audience, but it’s by no means a sure thing. The more sophisticated our audience, the more important it becomes to use the right trick at the right time in conjunction with the right combination of other tricks. Critics can help us know whether or not our gambits have worked, and they can help us gain exposure to an audience dazzled by a multitude of choices. As writers, we want the time and attention of our readers, and critics can help us out by telling our potential readers which writers are worth paying for.

In order to do that, though, critics have to be honest, fair and respectful. Honest because any reader savvy enough to read a critique in the first place is very good at smelling bullshit in the first place; fair because it does no one any good to judge a book the same way as any other book — each work has to be judged by its own measure; and respectful because art communities are small and fragile things, and it’s far too easy to tear ourselves out of them. A good critic never tears into a work unless its creator can handle it, and the work is truly disrespectful to the time we’ve spent on it. I don’t think there are many furry works that qualify for that, but I’m admittedly a novice when it comes to reading our fiction.

And that brings me to the next point, one that a lot of anti-critic people like to point out. We’re a genre of hobbyists for the most part; we simply don’t have the resources to match the quality of output of professionals. That’s true. We’re all hobbyists with (hopefully) day jobs, and that means we can’t put the same time and effort into writing, editing and promoting furry fiction as we could if we were getting paid for it. Critics should be aware of this, and be fair about it. At the same time, it does the fiction itself a disservice if we’re not trying to make it the best we can. For writers, that means refining it until we’re happy with sending it out into the world. For editors and publishers, that means catching mistakes and issues that the writer may have missed, further refining the the story until it has the shine of professional work. For critics, that means telling the audience which works have been taken care of properly and which have been rushed out perhaps before they were ready. The audience gets to know what’s really worth their precious attention, and the writers and editors get to know what needs to be improved on their next project.

The strive to get better at what we do extends to critics as well. I’ve seen far too many critics of furry fiction try to make a name for themselves by tearing down the works of others. What’s worse is they do it without a sharp and critical eye. They don’t actually know the craft of the writer, though they might think they do, so they end up missing a trick deployed well and focus on a difference in style. They mistake this for poor writing, and put together a slickly-produced essay with all of their best put-downs and call it a day. This isn’t about the work; it’s about themselves. Critics should never attempt to establish a personality cult; their attention should be on the work, and they should help their audience to make informed choices about the work. Anything else is a waste of time.

I know that most of us are in our infancy with this sort of thing. Writers coming up are still learning the tools of the trade, and what it means to be professional. Editors and publishers are learning about the tremendous workload necessary for producing a good story, making it the best that it can be. And critics are still learning how to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way, directing audiences to the best that the fandom has to offer and telling writers and editors about gaps in their process wherever they may be found. But we’re all in this together, and we all want the same thing — for furry fiction to stand on its own as a worthy, accepted part of the greater SF/F umbrella. And we can’t do that if we’re trying to step on the faces of the people we should be helping to rise above the pack. A lot of critics have made this mistake, and it’s left a bad reputation on this entire part of the community.

However, saying that criticism is worthless because so much of it is bad is a mistake. It’s just like a reader saying that all furry fiction is worthless because they have yet to read a book that’s grabbed their attention. When a critic has missed the point of a certain story, or given it an unfair review, the writer, editor or publisher is well within their rights to have a respectful, personal debate about it. The critic needs a check and balance as well, after all. His audience won’t respect his opinion if it’s all flash and no knowledge. Worse yet, he’ll burn down the relationships with the rest of the community that he’ll need in order to do his job (or his hobby) effectively.

Everyone in this process should be striving to get better at what they do, whether they’re a hobbyist or have designs to make this a living. And every link of the chain should be trying to encourage every other link to strengthen themselves. I know that this hasn’t been the relationship that critics have had with their counterparts in the rest of the community, but I really hope that it can be established moving forward. It’ll be much harder to develop the quality of our work if we don’t.

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Maltese Falcon (#23)

Entertainment 150The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet
Written by John Huston (screenplay) and Dashiell Hammett (novel)
Directed by John Huston

Chances are when you think about the quintessential film-noir detective, you’re thinking about Humphrey Bogart from The Maltese Falcon. On the off chance that you aren’t, the person you’re thinking of owes a great debt to Bogey, who invented the mold. The Maltese Falcon wasn’t the very first film-noir to hit Hollywood, but it was the first one that garnered major attention and inspired an entire movement of style in popular culture. We’re getting to that point in the top 100 where just about every film is a major inspiration or marked a significant turning point in the history of cinema. It’s fascinating to watch these movies; they’re either the skeletons of an entire genre that you can see being built through the films that follow or they’re the fully-formed gold standard, the movie that exemplifies what we’ve come to think of when we say “mob movie,” or “film noir”.

This is a combination of the two; Humphrey Bogart stars as Sam Spade, a private investigator based in San Francisco. He’s approached by a woman named Ruth Wonderly (Astor), who hires him to follow a man she believes is involved with her missing sister. He takes the case and his partner decides to do the leg-work; later that night, Spade gets the call that his partner’s been murdered.

The man his partner was following — Floyd Thursby — was murdered too, and now Spade is implicated. He has the motive, certainly, and the means. This is just the gateway into the story of the Maltese Falcon, and soon Spade is caught up in this weird war with three players all vying for a priceless, lost bird. Joining Wonderly — who renames herself O’Shaughnessy once the jig is up — is jovially dangerous Gutman (Greenstreet) and fastidious worry-wart Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). The trio tries to use Spade as a pawn to their own ends, but he does a remarkable job of somehow slipping right through their control. No one’s quite able to get a handle on him; he thinks fast and manages to exploit a lucky turn astonishingly well.

Bogart plays Spade as a wily, cagey bastard who can’t help but needle the people that get on his nerves. There’s no filter between his brain and his mouth, which gets him into quite a bit of trouble in the most amusing ways. Spade is either competent or quick enough to get himself out of the scrapes he causes, and it gives the movie the feel of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Well, it would if everyone smoked cigarettes and adult themes were allowed.

Hold very still, there's something on your nose.

His fist is a metaphor…for violence.

The plot is convoluted, of course, but it’s also fairly easy to follow. The trouble with noir is that the narrative often gets so twisted it’s difficult to keep track of the players in the game or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Even though there are a lot of moving pieces here, crosses and double-crosses, you never quite lose the thread of the story. I think it’s a testament to the writing: John Huston, adapting from the Dashiell Hammett novel that’s been brought to the big screen twice before, really had a great handle on what made the story pop and kept his focus tight on the gallery of characters that would each be engaging enough to remember even with limited screen time.

I think that’s what makes The Maltese Falcon so successful, ultimately. With so much noir (and stories inspired by it), authors fall into the trap of creating archetypes instead of actual characters. So much attention is given to the plot that the characters end up as faceless pieces on the chess board, only there to make moves that bring the story to its endgame. Here, every character is distinctive. They give the impression of a rich inner life beyond the confines of the story, so they’re rather easy to identify. The audience really gets to know them as people, not pieces in service to the plot.

It’s such a surprise that Huston nails this basic truth so early in the genre, and the feat hasn’t been duplicated quite as well since. Of course, since my knowledge of noir is admittedly limited, maybe I just haven’t seen the right stuff. But The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful example of an intricate, twisting plot inhabited by rich and memorable characters. Even though all of the characters feel the tightening noose of fate around their necks, they never seem blind to it. They know when they’re in trouble, and they’re smart enough to try and get out of it. The trouble is, Sam Spade is almost always smarter.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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33

Myth 150When I was 13 years old, I decided that I wanted to be a UFOlogist. I had discovered the existence of this profession by watching episodes of Sightings every Friday night and reading OMNI Magazine, and I thought it was the most awesome thing to get paid for studying phenomena related to UFO sightings and alien abductions. I had been reading various case files and “non-fiction” books about alien abductions for a year or so, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life.

Before that, I had vague designs of being a writer. My mother had an old electric typerwriter that I banged out stories on; one of my very first projects was a sequel to my favorite book, The Wind in the Willows. I’m so glad that we didn’t have the Internet back then, or else I’m sure I would have been one of the first people rabidly arguing whether or not someone’s fan-fiction was a worthy addition to some communal cannon that had been established.

My obsession with UFOs took a long time to die. But by the time I was 16 I had gotten a hold of All Creatures Great and Small, and a new feverish passion took hold. The heady promise of youth had already begun to fade for me; I went from being a ‘gifted and talented’ student to a distinctly mediocre one, and that loss of my identity of being “the smartest kid in the room” had yet to be replaced by something else. When I read Herriott’s account of rural veterinary medicine, I began to rebuild myself in his image. I wanted to be dedicated to the well-being of animals and people, officially a vet but unofficially a therapist, a friend, this big community organizer. I couldn’t believe that you could get paid to do that, either.

That dream died when I took my first biology lab course, and when I discovered how insanely competitive any sort of medical field would be. I interned for an actual vet over the summer, and he turned out to be a Dr. House-type; he had burned his left leg very badly in an accident, dependent on painkillers and snark to get him through the day. When I had to take my dog to him to have her put to sleep, that was the final straw. I knew I couldn’t do that. I just didn’t have the stomach for it.

So I thought I would be a playwright. I became a double major in Theatre and English, changed my wardrobe from flannel to black everything, painted my fingernails, wore a pentacle necklace. I wanted to be a voice from the wilderness, a conduit for the forest and wild places to enter civilization through art. Then I found out just how extroverted and gregarious you had to be to make it anywhere in the world of theatre; high art has plenty of egos, and if you’re not putting on a show all the time it’s almost impossible to stand out. The identities I had constructed for myself were crumbling faster and faster; after a couple years in college, I lost my religion, my idea of my sexuality, my family almost simultaneously. It was too much, so I dropped out.

It took several years in Arkansas to even begin rebuilding. I followed a relationship to Fayetteville, and that didn’t work out. I tried reconstructing myself again and again, trying on different personalities, flailing around to see who I was. It wasn’t until I met Ryan that I found an anchor, learned how to be still and stopped trying to become someone. I learned how to discover who I was, who I had been this whole time.

Tomorrow morning I’ll have been on this planet for 33 years. I’m nowhere near who I expected I would be: at first I thought I would be someone brilliant, a multi-hyphenate who excelled at everything he touched. But the problem with folks who have things come easy to them is that they never learn to work at something, so the moment they come up against some resistance they fold because they’ve never developed stamina. It’s something I’m still making up for, even after all this time.

I thought I would be a writer, a scientist, a UFOlogist, a playwright, a veterinarian, a missionary, a monk, a mystic. It turns out I’m just this rabbit. 😉 And a husband, to a wonderful man. The pieces of every dream I’ve ever had still resides within me, repurposed for use with who I’ve come to be. I’m happy that my life hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would. It’s been so much better.

Now, I get to apply the lessons of over three decades of living towards the next year, just to see how good I can make it. I know how to take whatever comes, be grateful for what I have, be patient with myself as I continue to discover and refine myself. There’s a lot more stamina and strength within me that I can use whenever I need it. And there’s so much experience that I can use to be compassionate towards whomever I meet. That’s why it’s wonderful getting older. You get smarter, wiser, more experienced and comfortable. I still have a long, long way to go in my development, but I’m so happy with the progress I’ve made and the man who grounds me.

All in all, it’s been a pretty great life. I’m really looking forward to seeing what it looks like a year from now.

 

Friday Fiction: Unstable Future Snippet

Writing 150(The Clarion Write-A-Thon fundraiser was…unsuccessful, to put it mildly. I wasn’t able to drum up any donations for the workshop and subsequently my will to follow through on writing Unstable Future plummeted. I didn’t actually write much of it at all during the write-a-thon, and to date have raised no money for Clarion.

I’m still planning to write it though — it’s an exciting world and I’m really excited about the serialized concept. Right now I’m learning Scrivener so that I can take advantage of its organizational capabilities to keep me together through the project, and once I feel I have a good handle on it Unstable Future will be the very first thing I work on there. For now, though, here’s a small bit of Chapter 1. We’re introduced to the setting and the main character here, and I wanted to make it something that folks outside of the furry fandom could pick up reasonably quickly.)

Waterford Avenue in Oleander City was named after the town’s founder, a Human named Samuel Waterford. He and a dozen-other shell-shocked families stumbled through the wilderness of Farellia after the war that had threatened to end their civilization until he arrived at a large valley nestled between ranges of hills. The land was good, the weather was temperate, and the wood was plentiful. Here is where we will settle, he decided. So he spent a fortnight sketching out plans for a small farming community and together the settlers built Oleander from their bare hands over the course of several years. The city was named after Waterford’s favorite plant, the nerium oleander. For all he knew, it was extinct, one of those things that was lost with the conflict that had consumed the known world. It was the only way he had to remember it, and it was a fitting name for the 83 survivors who now lived there. They were hardy and pretty in their own way, but each one of them were deadly poisonous if they had to be.

Over 150 years had passed since Oleander was founded, but Waterford Avenue had kept much of its ancient charm. Buildings of wood and brick lined the streets, fitted with raised porches that protected people from the dirt of the road. Each building housed one or two shops, many of which had been there since the town’s inception. Roland’s General Store, The Rose’s Thorn Restaurant, Bambarella Hardware. There were other shops that were newer, of course, but each was owned by a member of the community that was known by most of the town’s 200 residents. Oleander hadn’t grown much in the past century and a half, but many changes were evident.

The road had been paved very recently with smooth asphalt, blacker than the night sky in October. A few of the stores had replaced their old signs with ones of neon, and Shackleman’s Dive, the most popular bar in town, even fitted their storefront with a hologram. In the center of town, where Oleander’s clock tower had stood for over a century, a floating observation deck was being built on the rubble of the old structure. It was nominally a gift from the technological college that had risen to prominence in the last twenty years, but several of the long-time residents saw it as a clear message: progress is coming, and we will build it upon the bones of the past.

Many symbols of the past were still around, however, rolling slowly down the newly-paved road. A Rabbit drove a large cart down the right side of Waterford Avenue, pulled by a large workhorse. The Mare was solidly built in the manner of her wild cousins, her thick fur and tough hide revealing tremendous strength rolling underneath it as she easily brought the Rabbit and his cart behind her. The Animal sitting in the cart’s high seat was bipedal, like a Human, but looked like a leporidae in every other way. He had white fur, brown eyes, long ears and a short, spaded tail that currently flicked in annoyance as he spotted the line stretching out the front door of Roland’s General Store.

“Goddamnit,” said Abernathy Jones. He tugged on the reins of the cart in front of the nearest hitch (there weren’t that many any more; most of them had been pulled up and replaced with parking spots) and sighed as Krystal slowed quickly to a stop.
“Watch your fucking language,” the Horse said, turning her long head on her thick neck to look at him over her shoulder. “You shouldn’t be so crude in front of a lady.”

Abe quirked an ear and smiled. “I’m very sorry,” he said. “I forgot my company, and it shan’t happen again.”

“It fucking well better not.” Krystal turned to investigate the trough of water in front of her. She took one sniff at it and snorted; Abe would have guessed that it wasn’t fresh, and wouldn’t be surprised if it had algae growing in it. Gerald Port, the current owner of Roland’s General Store, couldn’t be bothered with paying attention to the ‘small’ details that were easy to take for granted. Abe would surely have to badger him into filling a fresh bucket for her when he got in.

“Just stay there, and I’ll make sure you get some fresh water and some nice oats. If I ever get to the front of the line.” Abe hopped down off of the cart, right onto the raised platform that served as a walkway between shops. A few of the Animals in line glanced his way, then turned right back to their conversations.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Krystal replied. She took a long, lazy look at the line, then stared at Abe. “It doesn’t look like you’ll be, either.”

Abe grinned at her in a way that let her know how much he hated her in that moment. She responded by snorting before finding something very interesting on the road in front of her. He walked back a ways to join the back of the line, ignoring the chatter of the Animals along the way.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2013 in Furries, Writing

 

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