Saturday, July 22, 2006

Death in the Tropics: Scott Smith's The Ruins

There's something about the summer, the heat and sweat of it, that makes the brain want to just turn off, indulge in tasty candy, and every summer, there's a book that's pure adreneline, designed to do just that (recent examples include The Da Vinci Code and The Historian), entertaining bored parents who can't be bothered to watch their kids THAT closely at the beach.

I'm not exactly the first to say this, but Scott Smith's The Ruins is that book for this summer. It's a horror novel, but one of the most smartly written in a long while (I know Bentley Little has his fans, but one really has to go back to early Stephen King to find American horror this well STRUCTURED). Smith, of course, wrote the great page-turner A Simple Plan (the one about the guys who discover the downed plane full of cash and then slowly turn on each other -- Sam Raimi made a pretty great film version of it). Then, he disappeared for over a decade, writing only the screenplay for Simple Plan and abandoning a novel that was apparently over 1,000 pages.

So much for the better, though, because The Ruins, if not quite as good as A Simple Plan, is a monster of a book, conjuring up dread almost effortlessly. The build-up to the central horror setpiece is ruthless in how it builds tension, and the sequence where the central characters get trapped at the titular ruins is a bizarre yet compelling one.

Then, as you begin to realize that there's some weird stuff going on at these ruins, you think that the rest of the book will be about sussing that out, about figuring out an exit strategy.

Smith does something very smart here though. He has the smartest of his characters figure out what's going on almost immediately, deducing it through careful calculation (juxtaposing it with a horrific scene elsewhere). The rest of the book is about the characters realizing just how screwed they are.

There have been a lot of books written where a team ventures in to the jungle, confronts a horror and finds their strength in facing the horror. This is not that book. Without getting too spoiler-heavy, it's sufficient to say that Smith is writing about middle-class American twentysomethings. And middle-class American twentysomethings, at least in Smith's universe, tend to be completely incapable in the face of the inexplicable. The characters here completely shut down, and the book is one long slide to the end of the story. Will they luck in to a solution to their problem? I'll leave that to you.

What makes Smith's book work is how economical the prose is (would that I could write like this!) and how easily it establishes its characters both along genre archetype lines and as more fully fleshed out versions of those characters. Smith tells you the whole story of a character in one sentence on the second page, but he spends the rest of the novel spinning that sentence out into all its possible permutations, showing you everything that underlies that archetype.

The characters here are not as well-drawn as those in Simple Plan. And part of that is that Smith is getting (I think) at some sort of War on Terror allegory (it also hurts the characters that the villain doesn't rise out of the characters themselves so much as it arises out of the landscape). This is a story of Americans, isolated by language and cultural differences, who stumble ahead in to a situation they're not prepared for and get trapped in a brutal, unforgiving quagmire. I don't know if that sounds familiar to you at all or not, but it rang some bells for me.

What's best here, though, is the monster. I hope that this is never made in to a movie, because I don't see how you make this monster play on the big screen. Smith has taken our fear of the natural world rising up and striking we humans down and turned it into the perfect monster, the sort that takes up root in your mind and hangs out for a few days.

By all means, check it out. Just don't take it along on your Mexican vacation.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Walrus on Drums

I was going to write a long post about how I found inspiration, how I drew from my geography to write, how everything around me could become a story.

And then I realized that there's nothing more inspiring than what happens in this video in the ten seconds from 2:30 to 2:40.

I just. . .can't compete with that.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Somewhere in all of this, there's a horror movie. . .

What is that, you ask? Why it's a YELLOW JACKET nest! That's filling a CAR! In ALABAMA!

Says Associated Press:

The largest nest Ray has inspected this year filled the interior of a weathered 1955 Chevrolet parked in a rural Elmore County barn. That nest was about the size of a tire in the rear floor seven weeks ago, but quickly spread to fill the entire vehicle, the property owner, Harry Coker, said. Four satellite nests around it have gotten into the eaves of the barn, about 300 yards from his home.

"I'm kind of afraid for the grandkids. I had to sneak down there at dark and get my tractor out of the barn," Coker said. "It's been a disruption."

Coker said he may wait until a winter freeze to try to remove the nest.

In previous years, a yellow jacket nest was no larger than a basketball, Ray said. It would contain about 3,000 workers and one queen. These gigantic nests may have as many as 100,000 workers and multiple queens.

Without a cold winter to kill them this year, the yellow jackets continued feeding in January and February -- and layering their nests made of paper, not wax. They typically are built in shallow underground cavities.

Yellow jackets, often confused with bees, may visit flowers for sugar, but unlike bees, yellow jackets are carnivorous, eating insects, carrion and picnic food, according to scientists.


More where that came from.

If carnivorous yellow jackets start invading cars and barns and such. . .what will be left for US? And if global warming will lead to warmer winters and more scary, carnivorous bugs in our cars, I am completely down with whatever Al Gore wants me to do. I will BURN DOWN MY HOUSE if he keeps the bugs out of my car.

Via Blog of Madness.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Crafty TV Writing: 50% craftier than normal

Alex Epstein's great screenwriting blog, Complications Ensue (which just might be THE screenwriting blog, what with its no muss, no fuss attitude), is the sort of thing that one trying to break in to the screenwriting game will find instantly inspirational. Epstein's advice runs the gamut from business advice to story structure advice to dialogue advice. He's always forthright and honest. He may tell you just how low you'll have to stoop and just how hard you'll have to work to make it, but it's always, somehow, encouraging because you know he's being honest.

But, then, there are those of us who AREN'T writing screenplays.

Recently, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer commented on how the dream of writing the Great American Novel has been supplanted by the dream of writing the Great American Screenplay. And that's very true, even outside of L.A. I went to college in the middle of roughly nowhere, and everybody there was working on a movie idea or writing a screenplay or something. That joke you see in every Hollywood-based show where the famous producer is stranded in Klamath Falls, Oregon, or something and the guy who's manning the hotel desk says, "You want to read my screenplay?" That's almost certainly a very real problem for Mr. Famous Producer Man. We've gone from a nation of wannabe F. Scott Fitzgeralds to a nation of wannabe Charlie Kaufmans. And you know what? Fine.

Unless, of course, you want to be a television writer (or a television critic -- but I'll get to that at the House Next Door). Try telling someone at a party sometime that you're working to be a television writer (again, outside of L.A.), and they'll usually look you up and down and glumly nod their heads, as if to say, "Couldn't hack it as a screenwriter, hm?" At this point everyone smiles and excuses themselves.

But fear no more! For the aforementioned Alex Epstein has crafted THE TV writing book, which is equal parts how-to manual, thesis on what makes TV be TV and defense of the medium. If it's not THE VERY BEST television writing book out there (and I've read or skimmed a lot of them), I'd be very surprised. Granted, it's a limited market, but Epstein's prose is clear, his examples are witty, and his how-tos are lucid enough to make anyone feel both the reality of how enormous the task ahead of them is all the while realizing that it is very much accomplishable (for anyone -- honestly -- I mean, have you SEEN According to Jim?).

So if you want to be a TV writer, this is the book to get. It talks you through writing your first TV scripts and takes you all the way through creating your own show, making stops at breaking in to the business and working your way up in between. Priceless, priceless stuff (and yours for this onetime offer of $15!). I've never seen a book that laid out the process as clearly as this one (and with good reason -- much of it has been tested out on his blog over the years).

But most of you who read this blog don't WANT to be TV writers. Fair enough. But I still think you should plop down in a chair with this at Barnes and Noble some day and flip through it, if not outright buy it. Because Epstein lays out in clear language just what it is about TV that makes it not quite a film, not quite a novel and instead a weird hybrid of the two art forms (character development like a novel, presentation like a film, basically).

What's more, he gets in to things that most TV critics (even the good ones) hardly recognize. When TV critics complain about a procedural being formulaic, they usually have a point. But since they don't understand how the underlying structure of the show is operating, they can rarely say anything beyond, "That was formulaic!" And when a show like House BREAKS its format to do things differently, even our best TV critics can almost never point out just what in the structure played differently. "That sure was a different episode!" they'll usually say.

One of the things film criticism has going for it that TV criticism doesn't is that everybody understands the three-act structure because it's basic narrative stuff you learned in high school (again, I'll get in to this more over at HND). Critics can point at a foreign art film and proudly say, "This does not have the American three-act structure!" and we'll all nod and agree with them and give them Pulitzer Prizes (actually, probably not on that last part -- but that's another column). TV doesn't have a three-act structure to fall back on. It's a collection of three-act structures, designed to get us from commercial break to commercial break. And each episode has its structure. And each "story arc." And each season. And so on and so on, right down the line. It's complex, an organism in its own right, and nobody understands quite how it works.

But Epstein does. While his advice is directly geared at wannabe TV writers, it will also pay dividends to wannabe TV critics. Because once you know the structure, it's easier to figure out what's wrong (or right) with something.

So, basically, everybody who reads this blog should read this.

Except, maybe, for my mom.

Tomorrow, I go to Los Angeles to audition for Jeopardy! If the hotel has Wi-Fi, I'll try to get a film review up, but no guarantees.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Cain/Abel; Jacob/Esau: Brotherhood

There's just something about two brothers, one good, one bad, that nips at the soul in a primal fashion. Just think of how many stories in the Bible, in classical mythology and in Shakespeare (and other classics) are about brothers who earn the favor of their parents in different ways.

But the brother paradigm stretches into novels and films. And, yes, into television shows.

The latest attempt to tell this sort of story, Showtime's Brotherhood, makes no attempt to hide its vaguely archetypal roots. The episode titles are all Bible verses, so you know which well is being visited before you even start.

That said, the pilot for Brotherhood is perhaps the finest drama pilot Showtime has ever had (I haven't seen Weeds, so I can't comment on its quality in re: television in general). It moves. Its characters are interesting and seem as though they will grow into complexities as time goes on. And (the pilot at least) it's nicely directed by feature veteran Phillip Noyce.

So many previous Showtime dramas (Huff most egregiously) have felt assembled from spare parts left over by better dramas, usually on HBO. While Brotherhood is pretty firmly in both the mob and "flawed men who try to be better people" genres, it's interesting in its own right, thanks to some good writing and fine performances.

Brotherhood tells the story of two brothers, one a politician and one a criminal, and the ways in which they try to rule their Providence, Rhode Island, neighborhood. Before you even ask, I'll agree that the attempts to show that the worlds of politics and crime are ALMOST THE SAME are a bit too on the nose, but the show earns points from me by making its politician a decent guy who is beset upon by all sides (even his loving, perfect wife is cheating on him).

Unfortunately, our good guy politician (played by Jason Clarke) is blown out of the water in the charisma department by his mysterious bad guy criminal brother (played by Jason Isaacs). The rhythms of the scenes where Isaacs (who has returned from a self-imposed exile) retakes his turf on the streets flow with a kinetic energy that the political scenes just don't have, even though Noyce and company try their very hardest to make subcommittee meetings and the like have a verve and life to them. Isaacs makes these scenes, well-shot as they are, even better, tearing in to the material with his full actorly charm working for him. Clarke just doesn't have as much interesting material to play (though one hopes that creator Blake Masters and his writing staff have some tricks up their sleeves -- other critics got to see the whole 11-episode season, but I was only sent the pilot).

As I said, the cast makes much of this work. The potentially confusing storyline (which parallels the criminal and political worlds, centering around an Interstate construction project) is made crystal clear by the actors, as are the various family relations. These actors understand their characters completely, and they inhabit them fully. Masters has obviously given them a wonderful template for where they've been and where they're going, and nothing makes an actor happier than information (it should be noted that Noyce is a marvelous director of actors as well -- see Michael Caine's work in The Quiet American for more on that).

I particularly liked the women in this project. In an age where so many "bad boy" dramas have underwritten women, Brotherhood has women who at least have layers to them. While Annabeth Gish as Clarke's wife and Fionnula Flanagan as Clarke and Isaacs' mother don't have much to do in the pilot, they're not the usual underwritten wife and mother roles. Flanagan, in particular, gets the only laughs in the pilot (especially when she scams a friend), while Gish gets a scene where she gets to show just how much her life has not turned out like she thought it would.

And this brings me to my greatest issue with the pilot: This is a dark, dark world, and there's no real attempt to leaven that situation.

Showtime, obviously, is competing with HBO, trying to play catch-up with that pay cable leader. But so many of their shows feel like pale imitations of HBO shows that it often seems to some that there's no reason to bother with getting Showtime. Brotherhood goes a long way toward making itself seem vibrant in its own right, but it forgets that one of the things that sets HBO's series apart is their use of humor. The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and even The Wire have deeply, deeply comical and humorous moments. Their characters are able to crack jokes and make fun of desperate situations. The characters in Brotherhood all feel very, very serious (aside from the mother). It can be ponderous to watch.

I never review a whole series from its pilot, but Brotherhood's pilot is good enough to make me curious about the rest of the season (the best thing a pilot can do). There's a lot of potential here, and I think Showtime could finally have the show that lets it start building a package of hits that will be irresistable to TV aficionadoes. I just hope it gets the time to grow and realize that potential.

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