Monthly Archives: February 2011

No Man Without William S. Burroughs

Like a king-sized cliché, I sat in a chair on the second floor of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 2003 reading Penguin’s 50th Anniversary Definitive Edition of William S. Burrough’s Junky. The clock’s hands were closing in on midnight. I’d been utterly absorbed by the book for four hours and only had a mere twenty pages before the end. So I decided to buy the book and finish it on the plane back to Jersey.

Junky marks my first experience with William S. Burroughs, arguably the most profane and profound icon of the 1950s Beat Generation. My desire to read Burroughs came on the heals of yet another typical poet thing to do: a road trip with my boy Alain across half of the American landscape listening to Matt Dylan read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. As much as I enjoyed the beatnik bible, I found a deeper kinship with the language of Burroughs––the gritty streetness of it all, the details in between the travails of the junkie and his beat-down lifestyle. The book had a kind of Clockwork Orange fondness to it, as well as its own glossary of “jive talk,” two bit Nadsat so as to score a script from the doctor to lay a spikeful of stuff in your arm. Yeah, I dig that kind a wordsmithing. Real horrorshow.

It would be years later before I read my second Burroughs novel, Naked Lunch. Well, not years, really. I tried once before, probably around 2004 or 2005, but I really couldn’t get my head wrapped around the experience, for it’s no mere read. I forced myself through the hell mouth of the first few pages where I got a sorrowful glimpse of a crazy, lewd, disgusting cosmic dung heap. I shut the book, put it in the freezer like Joey from Friends, but this ice age lasted a few years.

In the interim, I watched the film adaptation directed by David Cronenberg instead. That was no picnic either!

When I finally got back to it, I found myself more deeply involved in Naked Lunch (what had happened to me during those years between, I wonder?) There were times when I’d be paging on and on and asking myself “why am I reading this shit?” Then I’d come to a single line of abhorrent genius, and I’d mutter to myself “Ah yes. That’s why!” Amidst all the talking assholes (literally!) and sexual decapitations, the catamites and their aging proselytes of doom (which is all very darkly funny, don’t get me wrong), there would come amidst this vocabulary, at times sumptuous and other times scurrilous, a pure gem of a line, a transient moment of insight into the deepest understandings of being human wandering amongst the drecks and droogies of a pissoir world. That was all I needed; I’d keep reading about Dr. Benway’s flagrant experiments in the science of inhumanity or the exploits of Placenta Juan the Afterbirth Tycoon before arriving at another vatic oasis in this desert of dark and dismal comedy and error. Then again I’d be lost in a giant orgy at “Hassan’s Rumpus Room” only to land my eyes on yet another tiny moment of prescient narrative genius.

I guess there’s something to be said about a “Harvard Man” who gets involved with heroin, has a penchant for firearms, shoots his wife in the head, is homosexual yet funnels all the love in his heart into his cats that I think might intrigue anyone, or at the very least creep a few people out. But in the wonderful documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, directed by Yony Leyser, we are given a grand tour of William S. Burroughs the man through intimate archival footage that allows the us to delve a bit deeper into the inner workings of his mind––that mysterious and mythical cosmos from where he’d penned his best known works. Interviews with film icons like John Waters and Peter Weller, who played Burroughs in Cronenberg’s film, add life to the legend of Old Bill Lee and 1950s Americana and all the misconceptions that go with them. Like other documentaries of its kind about writers and artists (Bukowski: Born into This and Kurt Cobain About a Son spring to mind), Leyser’s film offers us insight into Burroughs’s life and leaves us with sheer wonder. Unlike these other two films, we also get to see how Burroughs has impacted the pop culture scene as we know it, reaching out an influential hand in everything from the punk uprising to the gay rights movement.

I can’t recommend William S. Burroughs: A Man Within enough. It’s quite possibly the best, most honest portrait of a true artist and craftsman of words and worlds that ever walked amongst giants.

I’ll be totally honest––Burroughs scares the shit out of me! But his words are magical in their disparity and disgust, and at the same time innovative and daring. That’s what keeps me reading, or rather wanting to read, since I’ve only got Junky and Naked Lunch under my belt so far. I attempted The Soft Machine, the first part of a trilogy of cut-up novels, last winter, but I was stricken with what I call Naked Lunch Syndrome 25 pages in––I just couldn’t wrap myself up in it, even though I know that when I do, it’ll blow my mind. So this year I’ll take on Queer instead and leave The Soft Machine for the winter of 2012 where I can read all about “The Mayan Caper” in all my clichéd ecstasy!

And now, a little something from the man himself. Enjoy!

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The Print that Film Forgets: Script Over Celluloid

“Film is a writer’s medium, not a director’s medium.” ––Bill Boyle

As a kid, one of my favorite hobbies besides writing poetry and drawing was reading comic books. I had started back in 1988, and by the mid-nineties, I was a full-fledged collector, but I wasn’t bagging and boarding my books to preserve their future monetary value, but rather to keep in full flavor the wonderful stories they contained. Like corking a bottle of wine with an aerating pourer.

The series that brought me back home.

I took some time off from collecting during every child’s inevitable “I’m too old for this stuff” years. This was made easier because comic book stores I’d frequented started shutting their doors. It was during my first trip to California in my early twenties when I picked up the hobby again because of writer Jeph Loeb, artist Jim Lee, and Batman: Hush, which made me dust off the cowls and capes I’d locked away in my boarded up Bat-cave years earlier. However, I immediately noticed a striking difference between the comic books of today and those I’d grown up with in the eighties and nineties: Now, there were less words and more images on the pages.

A Silver Age issue of The Flash with a balanced ratio of words/images.

A page from The Flash #9 (April 2011) with more pictures than words.

Today, I’m no collector, though I have a substantial collection of Silver and Bronze Age comics in a chest and a few boxes full of Modern Age books. I follow only two titles with passion––Vertigo’s American Vampire, which has some of the best comic writing I’ve read in a long while, and The Flash (ever since DC Comics massacred its continuity, the Scarlet Speedster’s the only one I can keep up with without going bankrupt!)––and I read Freedom Fighters only because I enjoyed the two recent mini-series so much; the ongoing series feels like overkill. But even in these titles, there are more panels without speech bubbles and captions than there are words to develop a deeper story.

So are words becoming obsolete? Of course not. Our visually-inclined society demands faster information, and a picture’s worth a––well, you know the old cliché.

Recently, this year I finally read two of the greatest works of not only comic book literature, but of literature in general––Batman: The Long Halloween by the inimitable Dynamic Duo of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Both are excellent reads, but it took me much longer to get through Watchmen because Moore is a true craftsman of the written word, painstakingly making every one count, and just like in a short story by Ray Bradbury, those words don’t only get a story across, but they offer moments of depth, clarity, insight, and yes, an occasional “put the book down for a minute” appreciation of Moore’s diction. Loeb, on the other hand, a masterful storyteller in his own right, chooses perhaps not to focus on the words themselves, but highlights events and plot, and rightly so; while the story of The Long Halloween is nowhere near as literary as Watchman, it is certainly a much more compelling read; I couldn’t put the darn thing down!

I deal with this issue of words over image a lot in my own screenwriting and filmmaking. Alain Aguilar, my best friend and DP on my films, most recently Cerise, and I have brief, heated discussions because he, like most people, believe that film is a visual medium. And I agree. But without someone to craft the words that tell the story, all you’ve really got at the end of the day is some pretty visuals; put it together in Final Cut and you’ve got an experimental film which may or may not be entertaining and may or may not even tell a cohesive story that will resonate with an audience, except perhaps at the MoMA. Moving images are vehicles to get a well-developed (and thus well-written) story across more effectively. Yes, you need a driver for that vehicle, the director, but you also need a well-constructed engine crafted by a writer who understands how the gears and circuits of story work.

A filmmaker whom I have a particular issue with in this sense is Michel Gondry. As many of you may know, my favorite film of all time is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a brilliant piece of cinema from script to score. But when I saw Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, I was bored. I didn’t care about the main character (“Stop whining” and “Grow up!” were two phrases I kept repeating in my mind and eventually aloud) or his story despite all the interesting visuals Gondry used. Be Kind, Rewind was a better attempt, though the balance between art and entertainment seemed askew, which made the film too preachy by the end. And I won’t even try my hand at The Green Hornet.

Why was Eternal Sunshine such an impacting film? Simple: It was written by Charlie Kaufman. Gondry’s just not a writer, he’s a director. He can visualize great writing, but his own lacks that depth and cohesion, I feel.

When I attended Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles back in 2009, I took at seminar with Bill Boyle called “The Visual Mindscape” which was all about how to tell a story visually as a screenwriter because, as he stated at the seminar’s beginning, “Film is a writer’s medium, not a director’s medium” (and all the would-be directors exited in single file!) By showing scenes and script excerpts from films like The Godfather, Five Easy Pieces, and Quills, he demonstrated that what we read is what we see on screen, as if there were really only one way for the director to have shot the scene, which corresponded perfectly to the diction, mood and tone of the screenplay itself. He also mentioned how words can sometimes spoil the grandeur of a visually telling scene, citing various examples from Planet of the Apes (the Charlton Heston version, of course). The writer’s job is to know when words are an amplifier or an adulterant to a scene.

Many filmmakers today seem to focus their attention on innovation (how a film is shot, what camera to use, what editing style to try), but what suffers most is story. I’m noticing more and more of us are looking less and less at the blueprint of the film, the one aspect that will ultimately get the ideas across from first minute to Fin. The words we pen will ultimately dictate what camera we should use, hand-held or Hitchcock, Eisenstein or MTV editing and answer the other myriad questions so as to enhance the story rather than detract from it.

We don’t all have to be Alan Moores or Charlie Kaufmans, but we all do have to tell compelling stories, and that starts in Final Draft, not Final Cut.

Thoughts? Comments? Post them below. I’d love to hear your opinions.

SilverHawks, Ho!

I was inspired to write this up after reading a neat article on ComicVine.com posted by Tom Pinchuk called “A ThunderCats Revival? What About BraveStarr?” As huge a fan as I am of those ‘80s cartoons I grew up with, I wasn’t much into BraveStarr (westerns were never my thing, and Thirty/Thirty kinda scared me as a kid!) I was more attuned to another series that for some reason, like BraveStarr, never enjoyed the commercial success of Lion-O and his prowling pack of intergalactic exiles from Thundera––SilverHawks!

Some of you may remember Quicksilver, Bluegrass, Steelwill and Steelheart, and the Copper Kid with his mime-like musings. Together, they form a bionic superteam of space cops assigned to put an end to organized crime in the galaxy of Limbo by defeating the evil Mon*Star. Now, a lightning fast comparison of ThunderCats and SilverHawks will show that…well, the Cats are much cooler than the Hawks, of course. I mean, you can’t really compare superpowered cat people with cybernetic humanoids labeled as “Hawks” because of some metal wings and rockets built into their silver boots (Val Lewton would agree for sure.)

Despite the simplicity of the SilverHawks themselves, there are most definitely more memorable baddies in the SilverHawks’ mythos than in the ThunderCats’ one. First of all, the fact that the Hawks are hunting down space mobsters and their lackies was pretty innovative for the time. But just look at the names of some of the SilverHawks’ foes: Mo-Lec-U-Lar, Zero the Memory Theif, Windhammer and Melodia. And they each have interesting powers; Mo-Lec-U-Lar makes his way as a shapeshifter by modifying his molecular structure; Windhammer alters the weather by banging a giant tuning fork; and Melodia creates dissonance with her devastating “Sound Smasher.” Compare these hepcats with the merely mutant miscreants of ThunderCats like Slithe, Vultureman, and Ratar-O and there’s no contest. Granted, ThunderCats will always claim the pot, and rightfully so, for it’s the series that introduced audiences to quite possibly the greatest villain of all time––Mumm-Ra, the Ever-Living (Mon*Star’s simply a bargain-basement version of the great demon-pharaoh, as shown in the two videos below.) But at least Mon*Star could afford some more qualified lackeys; I’d put my money on Mumbo-Jumbo in a battle of brawn against Hammerhand and his Berserkers any day!

I’m looking back on SilverHawks not so much because it’s a great series (in truth, it isn’t, especially with its opening theme song!), but because I’ve always been more a sci-fi lover than anything else. Obviously ThunderCats tells more compelling stories, has heroes that are made more of heart and less of steel and circuits, and deals with grander issues on a smaller scale; that is they are fighting for their own survival on a strange new planet, whereas the SilverHawks fight for justice in a vast, seemingly endless part of a dark cosmos.

After five strong years of syndication and the complete collection available on DVD, why on Third Earth would anyone want to wake these sleeping Cats and unwrap the Mumm-Ras of our childhoods?

I’m obviously not the biggest proponent of revivals. If something was done right the first time, there’s no need for a reprise. ThunderCats was the coolest cartoon on TV from 1985 to 1990. Why burden those classic characters with new (and more than likely diminutive) adventures and postmodern animation when Studio 4°C could just as easily brush off the wings of a series that had so much potential during its three months of airtime, despite its inability to reach the Thunderous speed it takes to soar into the hearts and consciousness of cartoon lovers everywhere? Or they could resurrect BraveStarr and let this space cowboy and his trusty (and scary!) steed Thirty/Thirty prance on into the sunrise of a new generation’s HD-optimized living room.

Let sleeping Cats lie, I say, and revive instead the dead, not those who had a great run and now deserve a well-earned retirement.

Obviously the reason for a ThunderCats revival is because there’s no risk for Studio 4°C––it’s bound to be a success. What are YOUR thoughts on revivals? Why are they cool? Why are they not?

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