Monday, November 16, 2009

By Hook or By Crook - The Prisoner's roots in Henrik Ibsen and the tyranny of blogging

"Where am I?"
"In the Village."
"What do you want?"
"Whose side are you on?"
"That would be telling."
"We want information... Information... Information..."

"You won't get it."

"By hook or by crook, we will."

"Who are you?"
"The new number Two."
"Who is Number One?"
"You are Number Six."
"I am not a number. I am a free man!"
(Mocking laughter)

-Weekly opening of "the Prisoner"

AMC’s six-hour miniseries remake of the Prisoner begins tonight starring Jim Caviezel (Frequency, The Count of Monte Cristo) and Ian McKellen, (Richard III, Gods and Monsters, The Scarlet Pimpernel); an ocurrence which provides me with a unique opportunity to demonstrate one of the reasons I have don’t blog as regularly as I should.

Several factors have conspired to keep me from my online duties. A great challenge is the constant juggling of television scripts in my day job. As a modern, freelance writer working mainly in animation, I’m not paying rent if I’m not writing on several shows at once. You’d be surprised how much energy and brain power it sucks out of your creative well to switch completely gears every few hours. Add to that the fact that I often work into the night when I desperately want to spend time with my new wife. The last thing I usually want to do is take more time away from her to post a blog. So that lowers the online priority for me.

And November is more or less a bust for posting because this year because, as I did last year, I am attempting to spit out a novel in celebration of National Novel Writing Month. Last year I reached the word count but never ended the story, realizing I had very specific character and theme questions to solve first. This year, I am determined to avoid that but so far other story issues are conspiring to screw me up again.

The second challenge is that I actually write three blogs (with contributions ot a fourth coming soon): Rebel Alert, Comicanuck and Stark Raving Adventure. I began to post humorous Star Wars items and comics for a fake Star Wars online newspaper I created to go along with a friend’s fan film. (The film is Death Star Repairmen and the newspaper is Empire’s paper of record, The Imperial News – “All the news that’s fit to censor”.) The blog soon became a vehicle to talk about all kinds of things from a sci-fi bent. So I branched out to better cover my interests and maintain each blog’s identity.

The math on this is pretty simple. Even if I do manage a post a week, it goes to one site or the other. My personal blog on life, Stark Raving Adventure and writing often gets the short end of the stick after a comic or sci-fi. But the biggest challenge for me is my inability to write a short blog post.

I have some success on this front with recent Rebel Alert posts but in general my posts tend to be much more thorough than most. I ‘m not big on just linking to an item posted somewhere. I want my blogs to be more than just a link fest. Other sites dedicated to that do it far better than I ever could. When I discover an intriguing story I usually want to more about what I’ve read or seen. I want to uncover the “story behind the story”. Inevitably I discover intriguing connections and fun questions that other sites haven’t. That is no knock on them. The connections I find are often quite idiosyncractic to my own experience and sense of humour. But it takes me a while for my brain to work through all this and then write a post that takes you on the same journey.

Case in point… I have been meaning to write about the Prisoner for some time but the ideas I wanted to explore are better suited for an MBA thesis than a blog. The sheer magnitude of what I wanted to write about kept me away.

Let me run you through it and watch how the simple summary I planned to give you can bloom into a full essay.

For those of you who don’t know, American born Irish actor Patrick McGoohan was up and coming actor in the late 1950’s, eventually being named Best TV actor of the year in Britain. He rose to prominence starring as secret agent John Drake in the UK’s Danger Man series (titled Secret Agent in the US) for four seasons before growing bored with the role. Setting up his own production company, McGoohan and mystery novelist and script editor George Markstein pitched The Prisoner, about an important government figure with a sensitive post who quits his job, only to wake up the next morning in the mysterious Village: a fanciful Big Brothereque resort cut off from the world where people who know too much are under psychologically and physically manipulated to break down their sense of identity.

Markstein, who devised the setting, background and wrote “Arrival”, the pilot for the series, maintains the character is John Drake and the series is a literal and allegorical sequel to Danger Man. McGoohan denied this all the way to his death, insisting the character of Number 6 was a scientist and had no relation to his previous character. Markstein is glimpsed in the opening credits as the man McGoohan hands in his resignation to.

The series ran with its bizarre concept, taking it to heights of surrealism and allegory not previously seen on television before. McGoohan served as the series star, director, producer and taking over an increasingly large portion of the scripting duties. Markstein clashed with McGoohan over the direction the series was taking and eventually left the series around episode thirteen or so. The remaining episodes became even more wild and hallucinogenic. In fact, the psychedelic finale caused such a stir in England and continues to baffle and fascinate audiences to this day.

And the legend grew.

Henrik Ibsen is tired of explaining his plays to you.

To me, the Prisoner series, and the behind the scenes circumstances of the production, is pure Ibsen. (some Peer Gynt and a whole lot of Brand and therefore, pure Kierkegaard, but I’ll get to that.) McGoohan himself once played Brand before The Prisoner started, likely to great effect with his commanding presence, precise diction and booming voice. The play follows the life of a priest dedicated to dong the right thing no matter what the consequences are. His Old Testament view of God allows no compromise but the cost to him is great. He loses his wife and ministers to a village “flock” that increasingly fail at the moral tests Brand (and life) confronts them with. Brand’s goal is to save the world and the soul’s of man but his inability to compromise and accept human weakness eventually leave him alone with his moral fortitude.

In the end, Brand suffers from the harsh judgment he subjected others to when he is stoned by his flock, banished to the glacier where he grew up and buried in an avalanche. Brand’s dying words express profound doubt. “Does not salvation consider the will of man?” It is open to interpretation whether or not Brand is abandoned by God with the play’s final words, uttered by an unseen voice, “He is the God of love.” Does that mean he left no room for love in his life or that God accepts him?

Apparently, we modern readers tend to take an unsympathetic view of Brand’s harsh moral code, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, although Rand’s philosophy eschews religion and good works and places mankind as it’s own God, with individual self-interest and achievement as the noblest of activities.

Ibsen’s Peer Gynt stars a man-child who spends his entire life avoiding accepting any kind of responsibility for his actions and yet, somehow comes through unscathed, with others bearing the damage of his choices. Finally, after a lifetime of adopting and abandoning many roles, old man Peer discovers his soul is forfeit because he has never been “himself”. Peer is defenseless, having no idea who he really is and finding no one he knows can vouch for him. He is finally granted a reprieve thanks only to the pure love of his long abandoned sweetheart, Solveig (who really needs to get more).

The key to the philosophy of Peer Gynt can be found in Act Two. While in the Mountain Hall of the Troll King, the monarch asks Peer Gynt, “What is the difference between troll and man?” When Peer Gynt is understandably at a loss for an answer one is provided by The Old Man of the Mountain, "Out there, where sky shines, humans say: To thyself be true. In here, trolls say: Be true to yourself-ish.” Peer adopts his own version of the troll motto from then on, declaring to all that he is himself, whatever that is. Peer spends the rest of his days avoiding facing himself or facing truth in general. You might say, Peer Gynt was Ibsen’s version of the Nick Hornby book, About A Boy, with Will (played by Hugh Grant in the film) as a modern Peer.

Peer Gynt and Brand are flip sides of the same question for Ibsen. Both seem to be based on Soren Kierkegaard’s book, Fear and Trembling, a lengthy consideration of the bible story of Isaac, who was asked to sacrifice of his beloved son in Genesis. Kierkegaard interprets the tale, wrestling with the nature of faith, God, morality and faith’s relationship with ethics and morality. To do this Kierkegaard introduces us to the Knight of Faith and the Knight of Infinite Resignation.

The Knight of Faith, in this case Abraham, gives up everything that is important to him in the world save his faith in of, sure that he will regain everything through divine possibility. When God asks him to sacrifice his son, Abraham does so, secure in the knowledge that somehow God will someone keep he and his son together. He exists in paradox. Likewise, Peer Gynt easily gives up on what’s important in this world, assuming he will gain it all back through divine providence or simply due to the “strength of the absurd.”

The Knight of Infinite Resignation gives up everything in the hopes of regaining it in the next life, but spends their life suffering the pain of their loss. Just as Brand is governed by his faith, he also suffers through it and is punished for it. McGoohan’s Number 6 is totally Brand. Single-minded and indomitable. Heidi MacDonald sums it quite nicely over at The Beat.

McGoohan radiated angry determination to escape, fierce intelligence, and sharp efficiency when physical action was required. He was sexy but remote - unlike some other super spies, Number Six didn't jump into bed with every hot lady he met. Number Six was not a person for whom giving in or internal struggle was natural - no wonder he broke ever Number Two who showed up. In the role, McGoohan was dead fucking cool. His acting was knife sharp. No matter what he did later, McGoohan was dead fucking cool. His acting was knife sharp. No matter what he did later - from ICE STATION ZEBRA to several turns as Det. Columbo's most cunning foe - you could never stop watching Mcgoohan, because he wasnt' just so good he was scary; he WAS scary. He was as enigmatic as he was charismatic.

Exactly! And after years of my Brand/Peer Gynt theory percolating in my head, imagine my surprise to discover that my long-held belief was delightfully accurate! In an interview at www.the-prisoner-6 , George Markstein confirms the Brand influence on the development of the Prisoner.

…my feeling is that McGoohan wasn't really very keen on doing any other series. What he really wanted to do I think was to play Brand. He'd had an enormous success some years previously on the stage with Ibsen's 'Brand' and Brand personifies everything I think McGoohan would like to be: God! He was very good as God, so he wanted to play Brand ... again. He was very keen to set up 'Brand' as a film and I think that was really what he wanted to do. What a lot of the people in the studio wanted was to keep their jobs! They hoped he'd go on doing a series and so I sat down at the typewriter one day - you know, any port in a storm - and typed a couple of pages. They were about a secret agent - and after all Drake had been a secret agent - who suddenly quits without any apparent reason, as McGoohan had quit without any apparent reason, and who is put away!

McGoohan as Brand at the Lyric Theatre,
Hammersmith in the late 1950's.

McGoohan also carried the Brand image off-screen, overdosing on multi-hyphenates as he micromanaged production of the Prisoner. At this point, Markstein hit the eject button and bailed on the show when:
“…egomania took over! You know, when McGoohan was everything! When McGoohan was writing, was conceiving, was directing ... and didn't know where he was going. My presence was superfluous - and we've seen the result after my departure… the non-conclusion. I think it was an absurd pantomime. You tell me what it means. I think it was a bit of gross self-indulgence by someone who was fed up with the whole thing and wanted to get out of it and wanted to go out in a blaze of ... something or other… I was surprised because I thought something much better would emerge. After all, when one has conceived something one wants it to die a reasonable death, not some horrific joke!

Like Brand, Markstein feels McGoohan was a Prisoner of his creation.
I think that in many ways THE PRISONER is a tragedy ... because McGoohan became a prisoner of the series and it's never nice to see that happen to a human being, the combination of ambition, frustration, wanting to be writer, director, actor - you name it. It was sad, it was very sad I think. It did something to him that wasn't very good and it was reflected in the series and that's why the series ended like that and that's why people have said "I don't understand the end". Of course they don't understand the end, because there is no end ... I don't think even McGoohan understood the end, or if he does, well, perhaps he does, but that is the biggest tragedy of THE PRISONER that Patrick McGoohan became a Prisoner himself.

Over at Glenn Kenny’s Some Came Running blog, we find a remembrance of McGoohan’s other genre contributions, most notably the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and his intense work in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. Kenny quotes the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, wherein the director recalls with discomfort the disorganized first shooting day and how it foreshadowed a difficult shot.

"It kept on being that difficult. Patrick McGoohan was part of the reason. He's a brilliant actor; the voice, the charisma, the presence, the face. Phenomenal. And he was aging so well; he looked so great in that beard. But he was so angry. His self-hatred came out as anger against everybody and everything. He said to me, 'If I didn't drink I'd be afraid I'd kill someone.' He looks at you that way and you just say, 'Keep drinking.' It's all self-destructive, because it's all self-hating. That's my theory. He was also terrified. The second before we went to shoot he said, 'I'm scared.' I wasn't shocked; Olivier said that he was terrified each time he had to go on stage. With Patrick, though, it was just so raw and so scary—full of anger and potent. But he was sensing the disorganization; the script wasn't there, so he was right to worry about it. He didn't know me. He didn't know whether I could bring it off or not. We parted from the film not on very good terms ultimately."

In the finale of the original series, Number 6 at last confronts Number 1, yanking off a false face to reveal his own countenance staring back at himself. Apparently McGoohan told close friends this revelation was meant to imply that Number 6, who pictured himself as the ultimate rebel, had imprisoned himself by thinking like a prisoner, thereby always limiting his options. That gives us a reasonable and very clever explanation for the answer Number 6 receives in every episode to the question, “Who is number 1?” The response is always, “You are Number 6.” But could it also he heard as, “You are, Number 6”? This fits into Markstein’s original approach to the series. Number 6’s has faith in his own self-image and ultimately, that faith is the one thing that defeats him.

So where does Peer Gynt fit into the Prisoner? Well, the other residents of the Village appear to be much like Peer; changeable as the wind and whims of the various Number 2’s and generally getting by quite well. That attitude alone makes them anathema to Number 6 and more dangerous to his mindset than any plan of Number 2’s.

But however much Number 6’s defiance and self-image make him an exemplary Brand, he is also very much Peer Gynt himself. He readily accepts and even embraces the routine of the Village and his constant struggle for identity. Intentionally or not, he seems go along with each new attempt to break his will with increasingly practised ease, always on the lookout for a chance to escape –to find something better in life. The Village has given Number 6’s life meaning his previous life lacked, as evidenced by his defiant resignation featured every week in the opening credits. Number 6 accepts that he is a Prisoner and redefines himself in those terms. Like Peer Gynt McGoohan declares himself to be a free man yet why would a free men constantly need to escape? “I am myself, whatever that is.”


You can see why it's taken some time to tackle this post. It’s a lot to consider even though I’m trying to keep things simple (More for my own poor, overloaded brain’s sake than your sprightly minds, gentle readers). I avoided the temptation to go into specific examples from the series and compare dialogue and scenes to passages from Fear and Trembling and Ibsen. But it still took ths long to reach the page.
Sigh... Weeks between posts. I try to make them worth the wait.

AMC has the original Prisoner episodes available for free viewing at their remake's website. Something I definitely plan to take advantage of.

Click over to Youtube for a fascinating four-part interview with Mcgoohan several years after the Prisoner phenomenon.

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. And Part 4 is here.

Next time: Let’s talk about the new AMC version and how it stacks up to the original and for those who’ve never the sixties series) compared to their other exemplary series, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Be seeing you.

Live the adventure.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Bigger the Lie: Never underestimate the power of a good story

My friend and fellow screenwriter Paddy Granleese sent me this link to... Well, no spoilers.

Sweet! Thank you Canal +!

Never underestimate the power of a good story. A screenwriter's mind is constantly at work in worlds like this, even when we're asleep on the couch. We're still working , dang it!

Live the adventure.

Monday, September 21, 2009

It was a Dark and Stormy Night - The Madeleine L'Engel Effect and Time with Dad

"I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children's books ask questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone's universe."

- Madeleine L'Engle

She passed away on September 6, 2007. The New York Times obituary summed up the 88 year-old as an author “whose childhood fables, religious meditations and fanciful science fiction transcended both genre and generation,” joining many news agencies and journalists in pigeonholing her as a children’s author when she was so much more.

L’Engle herself disliked the label, insisting that she did not write down to children. She famously declared in a 1993 Associated Press interview, quoted here by the Washington Post:
"In my dreams, I never have an age," she said. "I never write for any age group in mind. ... When you underestimate your audience, you're cutting yourself off from your best work."
The article suggests her literary output, which included poetry, plays, books on religion and prayer and autobiographical works were all “deeply, quixotically personal” then quotes Marygail G. Parker from the Dictionary of Literary Biography, who described “a peculiar splendor” to L’Engle’s work.

Quixotic? Hardly. Though L’Engle often implied her subconscious was in control of the writing of her most successful works and she was compelled to write them, few authors had a voice so uniquely personal and such command of poetic simplicity.
Like so many, I discovered L’Engle’s work as child through her much celebrated novel, A Wrinkle in Time. Her skillful blend of fantastic adventure, family drama, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Planck’s quantum theory, and human emotion reached me on so many levels at once, the book fairly vibrated with harmonic energy. For many, she was our first introduction to such high concepts.

In her 1998 acceptance speech upon receiving the Margaret Edwards Award (The American Library Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing in the Field of Young Adult Literature) L’Engle addressed some of the controversy attached to her young adult work.
It is still amazing to me that A WRINKLE IN TIME was considered too difficult for children. My children were seven, ten, and twelve while I was writing it, and they understood it. The problem is not that it's too difficult for children, but that it's too difficult for grown ups. Much of the world view of Einstein's thinking wasn't being taught when the grown ups were in school, but the children were comfortably familiar with it.

MEET THE AUSTINS (the book which preceded WRINKLE) took two years to find a publisher—largely because it begins with a family's reaction to the death of a beloved uncle, and children were not supposed to know about death. Largely, I suspect, because it upset their parents).

But again I was writing out of my own experience, and how my family accepted grief and loss and death. I think it made my children stronger than if we had gone placidly along with no traumas to work through.

Madeleine L’Engle had faith. Faith in God. Faith in humanity. She had little time for dogma and that made her difficult to live with for those who preferred using doctrine to control and shame others into conforming to their limited world view. In an interview on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, L’Engle admitted she considers religion and science to be linked.
Religion and science? One and the same. I don't have any trouble with it. A lot of people do. They have to put one here and one there. And I think they're much more like that, each one informing the other… Religion is less accepting than science. Science knows things move and change, and religion doesn't want that. So, I am more comfortable with science. At the same time, I am not throwing God out the window.

I respect that world view and the strength it sometimes takes to stand by it when under heavy criticism. As a writer for children, I have often been confronted by parents telling me what their children don’t like about a show. Inevitably, they share something that disturbs them, not their children. L’Engle never wrote down to children but rather, wrote up to their humanity and search for knowledge, posing questions that encourage them to find their own answers and seek out new questions.

Producers and broadcasters constantly instruct me to avoid big ideas and concepts, use small words rather than ”language.” It’s a constant struggle to expand the worlds of children even as we’re asked to make it smaller and smaller. Horizons aren't meant to be reached by stretching out your hands. They’re meant to instill desire and they’re meant to be harder to get to. How mundane must we make the dreams of children?

For the rest of the world, Madeleine L’engle died on September 6, 2007.

For me, Madeleine L’Engle died the following year, in July 2008.
She passed the moment I stumbled across that uninspired New York Times obituary. Though much of the world had already mourned her passing. I was experiencing the first shock of grief – an emptiness in my heart where L’Engle’s place had been. A space I didn’t realize was there.

L’Engle was the first one to teach me that time is fluid. It depends so much on perception. It flies when we’re having fun. It drags when we are scared or worried. It stops when we are at the lightning edge of new revelation. In addition to a pervading sense of loss, I experienced one of those revelations when L’Engle died the second time.. I realized that I had often measured the truth of my words against hers and found my work wanting.

I witnessed L'Engle's death again months later when I told a friend who loves sci-fi about the author's passing. For my friend, the devastating news was new and fresh. Despite the actual death occuring more than a year earlier, her grief was very much happening right now. As I watched her suffer I was carried back on the wave of her anguish to my own moment of loss.

But if our experience of death of someone meaningful to us could happen multiple times, then so too could our experience of that person’s life. Every time I pick up one of L'Engle's books I re-experience the emotions they had first stirred in me, almost as if reliving that first time. The writing touched me in a place I can reconnect with instantly, proving that time, or at least our perception of it (And aren't time and perception of time the same ting really?) is not linear.

Time is not linear. Madeleine L’Engle told me this and Madeleine L’Engle showed me this.

We generally experience time as a linear series of events so we can all communicate and feel we are going in the same direction. That shared perception of moving forward through experience is one of the things that unites us all. But at any given moment we may find ourselves out of sync, be stuck in the past or anticipating the future. Like right now, for me.

Several weeks ago I lost my father and I have been unstuck in time ever since.
I’m thankful that over the past few years my father and I have both made an effort to get to know each other better as individuals and not just as father and son. A great deal of the credit for this transformation to our relationship is due to my wife, whose love for family seems truly unlimited, despite the pain that sometimes brings.

Though Dad’s health had been declining for many months and he and his wife kept us more or less informed as to the details of his ailments, I can’t help but feel they kept the true depths of his decline to themselves as they quietly prepared. Perhaps I was not in touch enough to properly track events. Quite possibly I simply wasn't eager to know.

I now have all the more reason to cherish a surprise visit my wife and I made to my Dad and his wife, Marlene, to spend a day driving in the countryside outside of London, Ontario. Though he was unable to walk very far, he enjoyed being our chauffeur, parking the car and watching through the windshield as Marlene took us through a lavender farm and various roadside attractions. We then ate an early dinner in a lovely, nearly deserted café. My attempts to sit in the car with Dad and chat as Marlene and Jill shopped were gently refused. Dad was eager to see us all enjoying ourselves. In retrospect, is it possible he was subtly preparing us all to move on and enjoy life without him, for the day when his spirit would be watching from a greater distance?

It’s the natural order. No parent wants to outlive their children. They want to know their family will be strong and move on in life, never forgetting but never regretting. It’s part of our growth as people, a growth that will never truly be fulfilled until we experience and survive their passing, taking strength from their memory.

Upon hearing about my father’s passing, a friend pointed out another side to the experience in this way, “Now you get to start a whole new relationship with him.” I suppose that I already have started a new relationship with my father, though where it takes me will only be revealed in time. It certainly worked that way when my Mom passed away while I was in university. I stumbled along and as I learned more about my mother she became more than just a Mom. She grew into a person in my head.

It takes a long time to acclimatize yourself to losing a parent at a young age but I suppose I found it all the more difficult due to the suddenness of her departure. She simply winked out of my life. No warning. No drama. She was there and then she wasn’t. I like to imagine she tessered across the galaxies to spend eternity in the company of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, who, along with Aunt Beast, represented the many facets of familial love in A Wrinkle In Time. With time I grew accustomed to this new relationship and I know in my head that I will develop a similar new relationship with my father. Some time. Just not yet.

Because time is not linear.

We can experience an intense reverse déjà vu (vuja de?) of a future we haven’t been to yet, but we know is coming. Even now I can catch momentary glimpses of my future self, who’s already processed this so the pain is not so fresh and therefore finds everything a little bit easier. Senses can take us back in time. A smell, a song, a taste, or a touch can catapult us backward. And sometimes time holds us in two places at once. Our minds or spirits can be trapped in the past as our present selves go forward, making coffee or reading the paper or getting back to work.
I remember anticipating the premier of Deep Space Nine after a particularly good season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I found myself surprised at the heady mixture of speculative fiction, political intrigue, the true difficulties in fostering community and the emotional turmoil of DS9’s Commander, Benjamin Sisko played by Avery Brooks. Sisko is a reluctant leader, raising his teenage son as he struggles with the loss of his beloved wife.

The Deep Space Nine space station is on the edge of a wormhole in space occupied by quantum beings that do not exist in linear time. Sisko’s inability to escape the memories of his wife’s tragic, final moments proves to be a point of communication between himself and the aliens. As they exist simultaneously in the then, the now and the future, so he exists in the past and present. Sisko constant flashbacks to that moment belie his attempts to explain mankind’s linear existence.

I can remember being deeply moved by DS9’s two-hour premiere and Avery Brook’s charged performance. His willingness to embrace the humanity of his character made me feel less alone in dealing with my mother’s passing years earlier. My memories of Benjamin Sisko will always center on his immense sadness in the pilot and his throaty laughter in subsequent seasons, embracing two extremes of human experience.

A week after Dad's death I found myself at Toronto's Fan Expo, Canada's largest sci-fi, comicbook, anime, horror and gaming convention. I saw Avery Brooks signing autographs and greeting convention goers at Toronto’s Fan Expo and found myself remembering that Deep Space Nine pilot. Somehow, his ability to embrace the entire spectrum of humanity in his role with joy and such joie de vive helped normalize my grief. And the memories of Sisko’s passage through his own grief made me feel less alone in my time loop.
I couldn’t resist the opportunity to tell him how he helped me with my mother’s passing and now with my father’s. The poor man seemed at a loss for words (not surprisingly). Then he extended both hands to grasp my own and that gentle, generous smile crossed his face. Avery looked at me with his gentle eyes and said… I have no idea what. Something, something in his whole career, something, head nod, something. Couldn’t hear a word he said. I thought he was theatrically trained for God’s sake but he wasn’t projecting at all.

But the connection was precious in that moment and I’ll never forget it.

Like Benjamin Sisko, I have been caught in time loop of my own, reliving my father’s last day as I move through the days and night that have followed. My body types away at my scripts, takes notes at meetings, and tries to sleep but my mind has, well, a mind of its own lately. It gives no warning as it takes me through that last minute call to rush out of town to Dad’s bedside. I relive the near sleepless overnight shift at his bedside, first with my sister and eventually, all alone. Returning after a few hours sleep to relieve Dad’s wife and holding his hand and talking to him after his pain moans turned to steady breathing, which soon would gradually slow to nothing.
Each time I am hijacked in this way, I feel suspended in utter stillness then I find myself right back in that room. I can look around the room and see what time of the day or night it is. I can smell the hospital’s hand disinfectant and hear the steady chug of the oxygen, emitting its gentle mist to reduce the drying effect of pure CO2 on Dad’s throat and lungs. But mostly I hear his breaths grow short and the gap between his final gasps lengthen. I wait, relieved each time a new breath comes and look in his eyes, hold his hand (Jill holds the other) and talk to him about his family, and where each loved one was at that moment, his wife, his children and his grandchildren.

And then, the space between breaths become all there is and he is gone.

A smaller percentage of the time I spend in the past takes place in the hours immediately following Dad’s death. I spent them contacting the family and waiting for my brothers and sisters to have their final time in the room with our father. I suspect they are all experiencing their own time loops. I know my oldest brother is. After a conflicted relationship with my Dad he likely has many things left unsaid. And I know to some extent, his feelings and judgments regarding those old wounds are locked in the mindset of the child who first experienced them. I hope he finds his way out.

Though I am spending extensive time in that final day, I am grateful I’m not alone in those concluding moments. Though I never take my eyes away from my father’s (these instants are too precious), I know that I have but to glance to my left and I will see my beloved wife holding Dad’s other hand as she sends her considerable reserves of love to Dad and for me. But I don’t ever look at her. If I look I may break down, overwhelmed by the unending depths of her love and support and unable to cope with the intense reality we’re facing. I look into my father’s eyes and he looks back, ready to move on and knowing his family is ready for him to go.

I look into my father’s eyes and he looks into mine until he'd no longer there to look.

His eyes see nothing anymore. And where there once were the sounds of his final breaths, now there is silence. I relive that twenty-four hour period over and over in real time. The only bright spot in the day is the knowledge that if I glance to my left I will see my wife. But thankfully, whatever force drags me back there allows me a second of pure transcendence...

Jill and I exit the hospital, the storm of the day (which brewed up a tornado north of Toronto in a masterfully timed example of pathetic fallacy) is over and the sun streams through the clouds like the climax of some widescreen, Technicolor, biblical epic. We breathe in fresh air.

I live this wonderful moment over and over too. And where every other part of the day leaves me with remarkably ambivalent feelings, this instant makes my heart soar. A smiling Jill takes my arm as we walk across the parking lot and after deep breath declares…

“There’s your Dad, shining down all around us.”

And just like that I’m back in the present. My wife is my anchor in the now. Just as Dad’s wife, Marlene, allowed him to live a longer and happier life, so too does mine. Life and death go on as always.

Eventually I will spend less time in that room and more time enjoying the memories of my Dad when he was hale and hearty, young and robust. But if I must be trapped in that final day a little while longer, I am grateful that I am not there alone.

I love you, Jill.

I love you, Dad.

Live the adventure.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Master the Formula! - Wycliffe A. Hill begat McKee, Field and Truby

When the work piles up, deadlines loom and second act woes howl at the door, I long for those long-promised future days where we all fly to work in saucers, learn from glowing boxes and eat out of squeeze tubes and pills (okay we're already in some of that future).

But what I really need is my robotic screenwriter.

I'm not talking about plot software. I'm talking about "Shakespeare's Ghost", the honest-to-God, rivet-covered, robotic writing machine promised by the February, 1931 issue of Popular Mechanics:

A mechanical robot that turns out plots for brain-fagged authors is the invention of Wycliffe A. Hill, Los Angeles scenario writer. Christened “Shakespeare’s ghost, “ this device is said to produce a complete outline of a fiction story in twenty minutes, to an accompaniment of whirring gears. It selects background, characters and dramatic situations from a series tapes.

Heh heh... brain-fagged. That's definitely my new favourite term for the fog that descends after several hours of straight work past the point where your brain has checked out but you're still typing away.

SG (whom I would dub "Sir Tippy Tappy" or "Shakesy G"), could take meetings with my producers and networks and record exactly what they want (within pre-programmed parameters) and he'd be a lot cooler about changes or cuts made with no thought to plot or character. Those times when he did lose his cool all that exasperated heat could be piped out through his metal, stovepipe, chimney head.

The astounding story is detailed by Paul Collins over at Slate Magazine's Summer Movies Special issues.

Most excellent by Design Crux's John
Soellner shows off his retrofuturistic touch.

SG was one of many variations on Hill's sales pitch for ease of scriptwriting. If only he had used it for his own career, which apparently stopped pretty much dead by the 1920's. But the "profoundly obscure" writer of silent cinema, along with French critic Georges Polti, laid the groundwork for an entire industry built on the promise to reveal the secret formulas of dramatic writing. Formulas that would allow every journeyman, hack , and desperate wannabe scribes to create stories that would touch the widest audience possible.

Yup. We have Wycliffe A. Hill to thank for Syd Field, Robert McKee, John Truby and even Linda Seger. Let us hope that their lives don't follow the same destructive path Hill's did. Though his formulas, delivered in the form of books, board games and good ole' SG sold, none of his later screenplays did. He grew so desperate he got involved in trying to locate a San Quentin convict's hidden stash of stolen loot and attempted to sue the man for breach of contract when he couldn't find it.

I'm sure I'd find Hill's robot writer charming for awhile but soon I'd be all chuffed up to create my own work again. Inspiration, creativity and a grudging work ethic will do that to a screenwriter. I'd place SG in a closet and cover hm carefully with a cloth, wondering if I have the time to organize a yard sale someday soon to give him a new home. And then I'd get down to work.

Oh darn, my office door is open and the television in the next room is distracting me.

If only I had a door-closing robot to help me with that.

Thank you, my dear Dr. Dippy Door.

Live the adventure.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Summer Reading: The 30-Second Commute

I've been reading "The 30-Second Commute", by Toronto writer critic and culture writer Stephanie Dickison (Writerscramp, The Knack, PanMagazine) . It's an overview of the daily life of a freelance writer and although Dickison writes non-fiction and articles for countless magazines and on-line publications and I write for television, her vision of a day spent trying to keep all your writing, research, follow-up, invoicing, pitching and deadline plates spinning rings universally true.

It's a gentle, funny read and a nice compliment to Michelle Goodman's "My So-Called Freelance Life", which has valuable, no-nonsense advice for anyone considering jumping free of the 9 to 5 for the grind of the 24-7.

Michelle tells you how to survive and Stephanie will help you understand how you'll feel in funny, gentle way.

Read those before you take the plunge so you can do it with your eyes wide open.

Live the adventure.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tokyo Red Eye - What we can learn from a night flight to Japan

Years ago, when I was more readily able to fly around the world at the drop of a hat (not that I took advantage of it very often), I flew to Japan to visit two friends who were teaching English. One friend was in the heart of Tokyo, and the other was living a somewhat lonelier existence farther south in Marugame, Kagawa, the home of most of Japan’s fan (uchiwa) production and the tastiest soba noodles I have ever encountered.

In order to add a visit with a friend teaching in England on my way back, I had to fly the same route both ways, starting with an Atlantic crossing from Toronto’s Pearson Airport to Heathrow airport, in London, England. The second leg consisted of an overnight flight across Europe and Asia to Narita Airport, near downtown Tokyo.

My trip came upon me much faster than I’d intended, lost as I was in the flurry of activity required to meet a story-board deadline… which I didn’t quite make, sadly. I’m not sure the director has ever forgiven me. But the result of all this work was a number of late-night work fests and a final all-nighter, right before I was due to leave. I hadn’t left my apartment yet but after being up for about 36 hours straight I had taken care of that nasty jet lag all on my own!

I dropped off my board, then rushed home, threw clothes in a suitcase and hurried to the airport to catch my plane. By the time I got through customs and checked my bags I had pretty used up any reserves of energy I had left after my extended deadline push of the days preceding my trip.

The flight to England was about eight hours, and I tried to roll up a jacket for a headrest and push my seat back to get some shuteye. It was then that I discovered the main drawback to British Airways’ vaunted service… it never stops. I was seated on the aisle and was consistently interrupted with offers of tea (always yes), snacks (always no) , meals, magazines, blankets and headphones. And when the hyper efficient staff wasn’t offering me yet another creature comfort, the other people in my aisle were squeezing past me to use the facilities.

Suffice to say, I got very little sleep in my up and down, upright position and was one groggy, bleary-eyed world traveler as we touched down at Heathrow for my five- hour stopover. It was then that I discovered that Heathrow is, indeed, the world’s most expensive airport. A single cup of coffee and a scone cost me over13 pounds! Holy %$#!!!

So I was 46 hours awake and dead on my feet when I finally boarded my night flight to Tokyo, which was to take something like 11 hours. Thank heavens this flight seemed more conducive to napping. There was some actual legroom to stretch out my gams, and they had dimmed the lights to create a pleasantly soothing, sleep-supporting atmosphere for me and all the Japanese travelers surrounding me. I managed to score two blankets so I could roll one up to support my neck.

Sadly, I had officially passed exhaustion and was well into my “too tired to shut my brain off” stage. So I simply closed my eyes and tried to fool my whirling brain into thinking it might actually be drifting into slumber. The wonderful thing about the flight to Japan was the fact that a number of the meal options were delicious Bento boxes, much like those available on the Shinkansin bullet trains that link Japan’s islands at super speed.

My body was thrilled to be facing real food as opposed to the vacuum-packed muffins and plains sandwiches at Heathrow. By now I had not only crossed several time zones, I had passed the 50-hours-awake mark, and I needed all the nutrition I could get. I was lost in the pleasant stupor of dinnertime, smelling the aromas and thinking about, well… not thinking at all, actually. That’s a polite way of saying I was completely exhausted and my brain was pretty much flat-lining by now.

As I sat with my dinner in front of me I felt a tug at my sleeve.

Across the aisle and one row back, a Japanese man was holding out his plastic-wrapped knife, fork and napkin combination with a supportive smile on his face. "Mistah! Hey Mistah! You use!" He smiled at me and shook the utensils.

I smiled and shook my head back, thinking, "He must think I'm some kind of silly Gaijin who can't use chopsticks." But the man, and his wife beside him, kept trying to foist their spare utensils on me. After all, what did they need with silly Western knives and forks?

As the pair continued to plead with me to take their cutlery I felt myself growing more insulted. It was pretty rude of them to assume I couldn't handle chopsticks on my own just because I'm not Japanese. I smiled as graciously as I could muster and shook my head "No" a final time. Then I indignantly turned back in my seat. Seriously, the nerve of those two, right? After much shifting in my chair in a losing effort to make myself more comfortable, I finally settled down with my meal.

Then I looked down at my tray…. and at my hands.

And all was revealed.

I suddenly realized that while I had picked up the chopsticks I had not yet taken a bite. And all this time, my slack fingers, barely holding the chopsticks upright, had been listlessly dragging the chopsticks back and forth across my plate. Back and forth. Back and forth. Baaaaack and forth. It was quite hypnotic to watch, actually.

I had not picked up a single grain of rice.

I had not lifted a single morsel of teriyaki salmon to my mouth.

It had been not doing all of that utterly independent of my conscious brain.

Back and forth. Back and forth. It was still happening.

And I had no idea how long I've been doing this.

That poor man and his wife had been watching me fail to take a single bite of my much-needed nourishment for who knows how long until they were finally driven to their cross-cultural mission of mercy! Would no one give this poor, idiot, western man a knife and fork?

I surreptitiously placed my fingertips on my food, taking a quick temperature to help me determine how long my hands had been making a fool of the rest of me. The food was still lukewarm, which meant, thank God, that I likely had not been making my sweeping motion for more than, oh, ten minutes or so.

For some unknown reason, that gave me a feeling of quiet dignity.

I gathered myself, mustering all the willpower at my command and stared at my hands, ordering them to clench around the damn chopsticks. With intense effort I managed to steady my hand somewhat and position my fingers correctly. Shakily, I directed my wooden utensils toward the salmon. Picking up rice would have been too much to ask of my poor extremities just yet.

Narita Airport, Japan.

It was amazing how difficult it was to do something I do without thinking any other time. The stress of the moment, and some of my embarrassment, faded away as I lifted the teriyaki salmon to my mouth. I quickly took the bite, worried that somehow it would explode out of my quivering hands if I didn’t act right then. My mouth full of the delicious salmon at last, I turned and smiled broadly at my Good Samaritans.

Determined to complete my return from the depths of embarrassment and restore my tarnished dignity, I held up the chopsticks clicking them triumphantly in a salute to my would-be benefactors and displayed the international symbol for yummy by rubbing my tummy in a circular motion.

The man and his wife smiled back, evidently relieved that I would neither starve nor force them to watch me disgrace chopsticks any longer. They joined together in silent round of applause for the big, stupid Gaijin learning how to eat. Their job was done.

If you teach a man to fish and use chopsticks he will always have food.

There are several morals to this little story.

One. Just because you think you’re doing something right, doesn’t mean you aren’t fucking it up.

Two. If someone offers you help, guidance, or even a little constructive criticism, they could be seeing something you’re too close to see.

Live the adventure.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Responsibity to Ourselves

"Every one of my books has killed me a little bit more."
-Norman Mailer
As I mentioned in my last post, I've been in a responsibility frame of mind. I've talked about fan expectations. This time let's discuss self-expectations.

A Facebook friend recently sent the link to Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert's talk on a different way to think about Creativity. Gilbert suggests that before the Renaissance creators and artists felt that the spark of all their creative ideas came from the heavens. This idea, suggests Gilbert, spared them the pain of fearing failure and the danger of getting a swelled head from any success they acquired.

Elizabeth Gilbert and her best-selling memoir.

The Greeks called these Muses daemons and the Romans called them genius. Not a brilliant person... but rather a spirit guide. This allowed for the artist to have a distance from their work.

The Renaissance gave rise to the idea that the artist is the sole creator of the work. "Let's put the human being at the centre of all creation." This resulted in artists being put on a pedestal as the sole vessel of the creation. Gilbert goes on to say this is the first time we begin to see the modern usage of genius and she thinks this is a bad idea.

"It completely warps and distorts egos and creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years."

The idea that an artist requires distanc e from their work to do the work seems valid. There is a point where you need to immerse yourself in creation and let the it flow. But holding something too close, or being too deep in it removes perspective. Every time I see someone bristle at criticism or get defensive about comments, I know they're in too deep to see the comments for what they usually are: genuine interest and potential insight into the work.

But while we do need to dive deep into the waters of creation to explore an idea thoroughly, we also need toperiodically come up for air. By doing so we, we remove ourselves from the creative process briefly to eye the work as a whole. That critical distance helps us to shape and hone the final product.

As Gilbert points out, that's tough on the psyche when it's just not working and you have no one but yourself to blame. And even if you do succeed, you may have to confront the fear you will never create anything as good again. In other words, if your first book is the Catcher in the Rye, your ego is screwed tyring to live up to it for the rest of your life.

If the inspiration came from God or the universe, then you have someone to share the blame with with. "I have a lame Muse." or "My Muse was hungover that day." On the other hand, you can't get a swelled head if your book is a bestseller or your painting launches a bidding war between art galleries. "Your Muse was working overtime tht day."

Gilbert suggests a return to thinking the way the ancients did because it's as accurate a description of the maddening capriciousness of the creative process as anything. Sometimes it can feel "downright paranormal".

Many of my artist friends found Gilbert's talk extremely inspiring. It seemed to encapsulate how they felt about their artistic process. But the magic of is less about the presenters themselves but rather about conversations they create in those watching. That's why I got more out of the comments section below Gilbert's chat.

Ruth Anne Harnish was "comforted, encouraged, educated, and inspired by the content of this talk." Others feel the metaphorical nature of the talk is useful but people taking it literally is dangerous. But that's up to the viewer, not to Gilbert. She's expressing a theory. How people use it up to them.

Gilbert is not suggesting an artist should be absolved of responsibility for thier work. She's saying, this is a way of reclaiming the slight distance from a work that you need to stay stable and focused without raking your psyche over the coals. "Don't be afraid. Just do your job. Show up and do your part. If you dance... dance."

Oddly, by letting go of a small piece of the responsibilty for creation to the universe, collective unconsciousness, Allah or whatever you refer to a higher power as, Gilbert is not saying you absolve yourself of responsibility. She's telling you to take responsibility for your own self. Your physical and psychic health. On her website's Thoughts on Writing page, Gilbert suggests that discipline is less important for a writer than self-forgiveness.
As for discipline – it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness (which comes from a place of kind and encouraging and motherly love). The other thing to realize is that all writers think they suck. When I was writing “Eat, Pray, Love”, I had just as a strong a mantra of THIS SUCKS ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything. But I had a clarion moment of truth during the process of that book. One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.” The point I realized was this – I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it, as per my vows.
We can't create if we ignore our bodies needs to eat and sleep and relax and have. We have nothing to draw from if we don't explore our world and share friendships and experience family. You owe it to your art not to work all the time, to read about things you know nothing about, to have experiences and unexpected moments of confrontation or bliss.

Werner Herzog.

Gilbert's web essay goes on to tell of a independant filmmaker friend who wrote to his hero, director Werner Herzog, when he was feeling defeated. Herzog's reply is priceless.
Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”
Gilbert takes as much inspiration those words as her friend did.
I repeat those words back to myself whenever I start to feel resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated with regard to my writing: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.” Always, at the end of the day, the important thing is only and always that: Get back to work. This is a path for the courageous and the faithful. You must find another reason to work, other than the desire for success or recognition. It must come from another place.
You owe it to yourself a chance to recharge and gain perspective. ou owe that to your art. You don't have to acknowledge a higher power to do that if you think that's ethereal and artsy fartsy. But you do have to find a way to step back and forgive yourself.

Then get back to work.

Live the adventure.