Posts Tagged ‘George Burns’

Graphic Novels

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

The Search

The Search painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2015)

“I’m a comic book artist. So I think to myself, what do I like to draw? I like to draw hot chicks, fast cars and cool guys in trench coats. So that’s what I write about.” Frank Miller

Last night we watched a DVD of the new movie People, Places, Things. The film did not have a theatrical release, which is the fate of most movies made in America these days unless they are massively expensive blockbusters. People, Places, Things is not a blockbuster and probably didn’t cost much to make, and Marcia and I both very much enjoyed the movie.

The male lead is played by Jemain Clement who has a strong New Zealand accent, so should you rent the film, turn up the volume. Also be sure to watch the opening credits; they are a graphic novella about the five years preceding the beginning of the movie.

Clement plays the part of a graphic novelist who teaches graphic novel writing and drawing at a college in New York, Stephanie Allynne plays his stressed out wife, and Aundrea and Gia Gadsby play their six-year-old twin daughters.

A few hours after seeing the movie, I realized the blocking of the scenes in the film mimics the static nature of scenes in graphic novels, otherwise known as comic books printed and bound as if they are novels. The writer/director of the movie James C. Strouse refers to graphic novels as comic books throughout the film, which I found refreshingly honest. American publishers have been striving for decades now to convince readers that graphic novels are not comic books, but they are. Calling a cow a bovine does not mean that particular bovine is not a cow.

My favorite scenes in the movie were those in which Clement is speaking to his class of aspiring comic book artists. These scenes took me back to the early 1990s when I oversaw the Creative Writing department at the California State Summer School for the Arts and many of my teenaged students were disinterested in novels and poetry, but keenly interested in comic books.

These bright young writers were in the first wave of humans to have their brains programmed since childhood by watching thousands of hours of music videos—messages conveyed by streams of swiftly changing images underscored by walls of sound and rhythm that cause viewers to hunger for more such streams of images and sound. My students were also among the first wave of humans to grow up with personal computers, thus many of them were incapable of writing longhand or speaking in complete sentences.

As a consequence of my collision with this demographic, I was given several comic books to read, each comic book touted by the giver as his or her favorite. I had not read comic books since I was a kid, and even as a kid didn’t so much read them as flip through the pages in search of arresting images. These comic books given to me by my students were essentially storyboards for shallow unoriginal movies. What, I wondered, did intelligent teenagers find so compelling about these comic books?

So I asked my students to enlighten me, and the gist of what they said was that these comic books provided them with armatures on which to hang their fantasies. Indeed, each comic book starred a lead character superficially similar to the person who gave me the comic book. What were these comic books about? Young, lonely, alienated outcasts doing battle with the dark forces of a cruel world, the line between good and evil blurry, hope a flickering candle in a tempest.

“You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.” George Burns

I screened a number of movies for my teenaged writers, movies I was fairly certain they had not yet seen and would appreciate. Alas, The Maltese Falcon bored them to tears and they hated Stardust Memories. As one erudite student said of Woody Allen’s magnum opus, “That is one fucked up dude.”

However, they loved Diva, despite the subtitles, and no wonder. Diva is about a lonely, alienated young man doing battle with the dark forces of a cruel world, the line between good and evil blurry, hope a flickering candle in a tempest, with great music and fabulous cinematography. As much as I love Diva, there is no denying it is a comic book brought to life.

“To me, it’s a matter of first understanding that which may not be put to words.” William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams likened a poem to a nude, a novel to a strip tease. Williams was born in 1883 and died in 1963 and was claimed as a major influence by the San Francisco poets I most admired in the 1960s and 70s—Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. My favorite collection of William Carlos Williams poems is Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems.

As a young writer inspired by Williams’ poems about the stuff of every day life, I practiced writing detailed descriptions of simple objects, a practice I found challenging and valuable. However, many years later when I asked my teenaged students to write descriptions of simple objects: a pen, a bowl, a piece of paper, I was startled by the dismay this exercise aroused in many of them.

“What does this have to do with writing?” asked one angry young woman.

“It’s just a stupid pen,” opined an outraged young man.

“This has everything to do with writing,” I replied. “And the pen will only be stupid if you make it so with your words. In order to write stories or poems that someone else can read and relate to, we must be able to clearly describe things with our words. And the way to get good at that is to practice. With your pen. On a piece of paper.”

Complexity

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

Are most humans inherently incapable of understanding complex arrangements of interrelated things and actions, or can almost anyone develop such a capability?

Yesterday I heard live coverage of the eviction of campers at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, an occupation that began as a protest against rich people being further enriched by a corrupt financial system. After several weeks of camping in the park, the protestors morphed into an ongoing settlement of people who, judging from interviews I heard with a number of evicted campers, wanted to continue living in Zuccotti Park indefinitely because: “Where else am I supposed to go?” “The one per cent got rich ripping everyone else off.” “There are no good jobs left in America because the rich people sent all the jobs to China.” “It is my constitutional right to camp here as long as I want.” “Private property is a conspiracy of the one per cent.” “This is the beginning of a revolution.” “They can’t make us go.” “It’s time to make a stand.” “The system is totally rigged.” “It’s much better here than in the homeless shelters.” “We are family.”

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

A friend recently said to me, “I guess we should have voted for Hillary, now that we know what a fraud Obama is.”

“Are you serious?” I replied, having previously thought this person to be moderately intelligent.

“Well…just look at what he’s doing.”

“What does that have to do with Hillary? What makes you think she would do anything differently than Obama? She works for the same people he works for. She does whatever her handlers tell her to do.”

“Well…but under Clinton…”

“Don’t go there,” I warned. “Don’t rewrite history, please. Bill was the master deregulator, the champion of NAFTA, the destroyer of the safety net, enemy of our industrial base, servant of the fat cats. Don’t you remember?”

Remembering things is another human capability I wonder about. I am astonished by how little anyone remembers about anything. When I remind people that Al Gore, before his enthronement as an environmental guru, led the campaign against the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the usual reaction is disbelief. “He’s also a proponent of nuclear power,” I add, “and said so to Congress shortly after he made a big splash with his global warming movie.”

“No!”

Yes.

So if we can’t remember anything, and we can’t understand complex situations, where does that leave us?

The novel Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain is a comic tragic story of a well-meaning intelligent person who remembers things and is capable of understanding complex arrangements of interrelated things and actions, living in a society of racist imbeciles and self-serving charlatans. If the title has deterred you, I encourage you to give the book a try.

At the outset of the story we learn how our hero got his nickname, and how the dreadful label dramatically altered the course of his life.

[In that same month of February, Dawson’s Landing gained a new citizen. This was Mr. David Wilson, a young fellow of Scotch parentage. He had wandered to this remote region from his birthplace in the interior of the State of New York, to seek his fortune. He was twenty-five years old, college-bred, and had finished a post-college course in an Eastern law school a couple of years before.

He was a homely, freckled, sandy-haired young fellow, with an intelligent blue eye that had frankness and comradeship in it and a covert twinkle of a pleasant sort. But for an unfortunate remark of his, he would no doubt have entered at once upon a successful career at Dawson’s Landing. But he made his fatal remark the first day he spent in the village, and it ‘gaged’ him. He had just made the acquaintance of a group of citizens when an invisible dog began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable, whereupon young Wilson said, much as one who is thinking aloud:

“I wish I owned half that dog.”

“Why?” somebody asked.

“Because I would kill my half.”

The group searched his face with curiosity, with anxiety even, but found no light there, no expression that they could read. They fell away from him as from something uncanny, and went into privacy to discuss him. One said:

“’Pears to be a fool.”

“’Pears?” said another. “Is, I reckon you better say.”

“Said he wished he owned half of the dog, the idiot,” said a third. “What did he reckon would become of the other half if he killed his half? Do you reckon he thought it would live?”

“Why he must have thought it, unless he is the downrightest fool in the world; because if he hadn’t thought it, he would have wanted to own the whole dog, knowing that if he killed his half and the other half died, he would be responsible for that half just the same as if he had killed that half instead of his own. Don’t it look that way to you, gents?”

“Yes, it does. If he owned one half of the general dog, it would be so; if he owned one end of the dog and another person owned the other end, it would be so, just the same; particularly in the first case, because if you kill one half of a general dog, there ain’t any man that can tell whose half it was, but if he owned one end of the dog, maybe he could kill his end of it and—”

“No, he couldn’t, either; he couldn’t and not be responsible if the other end died, which it would. In my opinion the man ain’t in his right mind.”

“In my opinion he haint got any mind.”

No. 3 said: “Well, he’s a lummox, anyway.”

“That’s what he is,” said No. 4, “he’s a labrick—just a Simon-pure labrick, if ever there was one.”

“Yes, sir, he’s a dam fool, that’s the way I put him up,” said No. 5. “Anybody can think different that wants to, but those are my sentiments.”

“I’m with you, gentlemen,” said No. 6. “Perfect jackass—yes, and it ain’t going too far to say he is a pudd’nhead. If he ain’t a pudd’nhead, I ain’t no judge, that’s all.”

Mr. Wilson stood elected. The incident was told all over the town, and gravely discussed by everybody. Within a week he had lost his first name; Pudd’nhead took its place. In time he came to be liked, and well liked, too; but by that time the nickname had got well stuck on, and it stayed. That first day’s verdict made him a fool, and he was not able to get it set aside, or even modified. The nickname soon ceased to carry any harsh or unfriendly feeling with it, but it held its place, and was to continue to hold its place for twenty long years.]

Ah, subtlety, another of the lost arts, along with complexity and memory—attributes of an interesting mind, of the sort of intelligence I love engaging with, and just the sort of intelligence that is so painfully lacking in our contemporary fiction and plays and movies and humor. I love subtle irony, subtle sarcasm, subtle innuendo; and because I employ such subtlety in my speech, people are forever falling away from me as from something uncanny, so I feel compelled to say, “I was only kidding. That was a joke. Let me explain. Please.” But by then it is usually too late, as it was too late for Pudd’nhead, and I am taken for a fool, or for someone who likes complexity and subtlety and remembering what happened not so very long ago.

“It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that make horse races.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

So…while the various Occupy encampments around the country were being raided by police, and the tents and belongings of several hundred campers were being removed, a video game called Modern Warfare 3 was released in America, and within twenty-four hours the game sold 6.5 million copies and grossed 400 million dollars, with the Japanese and German versions of the game soon to be released. “This game’s Survival Mode features one or two players fighting endless waves of enemies, with each wave becoming increasingly difficult. Despite being so frequently compared to the World At War Nazi Zombies Mode, enemies do not spawn at fixed locations like the zombies do; instead, they appear at tactical positions based on the current location of the player.”

This may be a stretch, but can you imagine a video game entitled Occupy Wall Street wherein the player(s) not only have to figure out how to successfully camp at Zuccotti Park and keep the police at bay, but also try to achieve objectives beyond continuous camping? Killing the enemy will not be an option in this game; which means subtlety, complexity, and an excellent knowledge of past protest movements will be extremely important in any game-winning strategy, which means, of course, no one will buy the game.

Say goodnight, Gracie.

Goodnight, Gracie.

Robbery

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2011)

Someone broke into our car last week while we were in Cotton Auditorium for another marvelous Symphony of the Redwoods concert, Marcia in the orchestra, I in the audience. I left our car unlocked, having lost the habit of locking up since I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley six years ago. The thief or thieves took a water bottle, a pair of dark glasses, and several CDs. They did not steal the stereo or wreck anything, but the invasion left us feeling sad and cranky. Marcia always locks her car, and I will do so henceforth, though it pains me to feel I must.

I’ve been robbed several times in the course of my life, each robbery ushering in a time of self-review. I’ve had six bicycles stolen, each theft necessitating the purchase of my subsequent mount, along with new and improved locks and chains. And because riding my bicycle was, until quite recently, my primary mode of transport, I understand very well why we used to hang horse thieves.

The grandest material theft of my life befell me two days after Christmas in 1979. I had just moved to Sacramento and was renting a house in a demilitarized zone—poverty to the south of me, wealth to the north. For the first time since childhood, and after more than a decade of living a monk’s life, materialistically speaking, I was relatively affluent. In quick order I had acquired an excellent stereo with fabulous speakers, a fancy camera, a state-of-the-art electric typewriter, and several items of new clothing, having theretofore shopped exclusively at the Salvation Army. Friends were visiting, one of whom was a professional French horn player, another a professional guitarist. We went to the movies and were gone from the house a little more than two hours.

Upon our return from Going In Style, an appropriately bittersweet comedy starring Art Carney and George Burns as elderly bank robbers, we found my front door wide open, lights blazing, the house thoroughly sacked. Gone were my friend’s one-of-a-kind French horn, my other friend’s one-of-a-kind guitar, and most of my possessions, new and old. The thieves had driven a van up onto the front lawn and backed it up to the front door. They took the beer from the refrigerator, the sheets and blankets from my bed, every last one of my newly acquired gadgets and articles of clothing, as well as my entire record collection (seventy albums or so) including nine Ray Charles albums, my favorite jazz, Ravel, Debussy, Stevie Wonder, the Sons of Champlin double album, Leon Bibb, Buffalo Springfield…everything except a Laura Nyro album left to me by a long lost girlfriend.

I immediately called the police and was informed by an extremely irritable woman that unless the thieves were still on the premises and actively stealing things, it would be two or three days before they could send anyone out to take a report. She said they were currently experiencing a tsunami of crime and the non-violent nature of what had happened to me combined with my unimpressive address made me a low priority for the overworked gendarmes. I thanked her profusely for being so compassionate and understanding, but my tone must have betrayed my dismay, because her last words to me were, “Hey, it could have been worse.”

“True,” I replied, though she had already hung up. “They might have taken my piano, too, if only it wasn’t so heavy.”

In my life review that followed such a thorough erasure of my physical assets, my first thought was that the robbery was a clear sign I should not have moved to Sacramento and that I should quickly change course and move to Mendocino, which is where I really wanted to live. But I did not love myself well enough to heed that intuitive wisdom, and so I stayed in Sacramento for fifteen years, bought a house, married, divorced, gave up the house, and finally fled to Berkeley where more bikes were stolen and more self-reviews pointed me to Mendocino, though I would wait another eleven years before finally trusting the wisdom of that recurrent impulse.

Not that I regret the twenty-six-year delay. What is done is done. Regret is a venomous leech, so rip that sucker off and get on with things. Right? We rob ourselves by dwelling in self-pity, just as we rob ourselves by not expressing our feelings—happy or sad or angry. We rob ourselves by staying in rotten relationships and rotten jobs. And that, I think, has always been the greatest gift of being robbed—a wake up call, a reminder to discover and expel those parts of our lives that are self-robberies, self-swindles, self-sabotage.

Betrayal is another kind of robbery. I was lifted out of my first long stint of poverty by the sale of the movie rights to my novel Inside Moves. I had long aspired to write and direct movies, and to that end I had been writing screenplays for several years, as well as writing novels and short stories and plays. The agent handling the movie sale of my novel informed me there were two offers, one from Robert Evans who had recently produced The Godfather and Chinatown and Love Story, and one from Stephen Friedman who had recently produced The Last Picture Show. I was told that Friedman was offering twenty-five thousand dollars more, but the agents advised me to take the offer from Evans because they said he had a much better chance of getting the movie produced.

And I said to the charming agent handling the deal, “I just want to remind you that I very much want to write the screenplay of my novel. Is that a possibility?”

“No,” she said, laughing delightfully. “Bob has some big names in mind for that. Let’s get the movie made and then we’ll see about getting you some screenwriting gigs.”

Since I had yet to learn anything about the true nature of the movie business, I agreed to the deal with Bob Evans, and he did, indeed, hire the now-famous Barry Levinson and Barry’s then-wife Valerie Curtin to write the screenplay for Inside Moves. But then Evans dropped the project and it was relegated to limbo for a couple years. I subsequently published a second novel, Forgotten Impulses, and one of my suitors for the movie rights to that tome was the same Stephen Friedman. I flew to Los Angeles to meet with him, and the first thing he said to me was, “I’m still angry that you didn’t go with us on Inside Moves, especially since we offered you more money and the screenwriting gig.”

“But (name of agent) never told me you offered me the screenwriting gig.”

“Fuckin’ agents,” he said, scowling. “I told her you were born to write that screenplay.”

Hilariously naïve, I went directly from my meeting with Friedman to the agency representing me wherein dwelt the beautiful woman who was my official representative in Hollywood, and when I informed her of what Friedman had told me, she smiled sweetly and said, “Yes, that’s true. He did want you to write the screenplay, but we thought it would be better for the project to go with Evans.”

“But…so…you lied to me.”

“Oh, honey,” she said, her voice dropping to a husky whisper. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that in this town. Things are far more complicated than you realize. This business is all about relationships and the balance of power.”

A few weeks later, I was informed that I had been assigned to another agent in the esteemed agency representing me, another charming woman who “totally got” my yen to establish myself as a screenwriter; and to that end she encouraged me to write treatments for the movies I wanted to write. A treatment is a thorough synopsis of a movie’s plot accompanied by detailed descriptions of the characters, with snippets of scenes and samples of dialogue. I wrote a dozen of these cinematic treatises for her over the next few years, virtual novellas, and at least one of them caught the eye of a powerful producer at Tri-Star. My enthusiastic agent called me from a celebratory lunch with that producer at the Beverly Hills Hotel to let me know a lucrative deal was imminent, after which I never heard from her again. However, a few weeks after her exuberant phone call, I was informed I was being shifted to yet another agent at the esteemed agency representing me.

Then a year or so after that, I went to see a new comedy from Tri-Star with my friend Bob, and about five minutes into the film, I realized we were watching a movie based entirely on my treatment, down to the minute details of the characters I’d invented, the content and order of the scenes, and much of the dialogue. There were, of course, things in the film I had not imagined, but for the most part the movie stayed remarkably faithful to my treatment. I knew well enough by then there was no way I could prove the theft and win any sort of settlement, though the story and characters were entirely mine, which knowledge simply added to myriad other sad and discouraging things I had learned and was learning about the big money end of American culture. I felt robbed, yes, but this time I also felt stupid for having trusted Lucy yet again to not pull the football away, so to speak, right before I was about to kick a winning field goal.

I am currently reading The Horse’s Mouth, a wonderful novel about an artist, a painter, a truly gone cat, his art more important to him than anything else, even friendship. And he is forever coming to the conclusion that everything that happens to him—everything that has ever happened to him—is not only the result of his own actions, but precisely what he requires to continue evolving as an artist.