William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Off Topic: On Horror and Fear

Last night was the mass shooting at the midnight Batman showing in Aurora, CO. Another terrible day for America. We can all only read the news and find ourselves imagining what it must have been like to be in that theater, in the smoke, feeling the concussions, the panic, the fear. In the long run, I think fear is the worst for us as a society. How many of us planning on seeing Batman this weekend (including me) now wonder if it's safe? Is any crowd safe anymore? The randomness of terror is debilitating.

In reading through comments posted online, I see a lot of people my age and older mourning for decades past when America was a different, better, healthier place. We remember being able to walk anywhere when we were kids. There was no thought for staying in sight or even earshot. You only had to be home by dinner. I remember disappearing for hours, just walking and walking, and it was glorious. Ah, the safety of the early '80s.

To those who need some shred of reassurance, I suggest this: http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/ As it turns out, violent crime in America peaked in 1991-1992. In Oregon, there's actually 25% less violent crime now than when I was my oldest son's age. These are the hard, sometimes counter-intuitive facts of statistics.

As a parent, I guard my children far more rigidly than I was ever guarded. And why not? It seems that every week, I see headlines of some new travesty streaming across my homepage and many more through my Facebook feed. Thanks to the Internet and my constant connection to it, I've been exposed to an ever-increasing awareness of just how dangerous and terrible the world is right outside my door.

Except it's not. My perception is flawed. The fear that fuels my protection of my kids stems from conditions present in the early '90s. While the danger of those conditions have declined in reality, my perception of that danger has increased dramatically because of the media and related information I absorb every day.

It's the fear. Fear is dictating my actions. Fear is changing how I behave as a parent and thus how my kids behave and perceive their world. And in reality, despite today and despite the grim tidings surrounding my daily awareness, I have less reason to fear now than any time since 1973. When we live in fear, we harm ourselves by denying ourselves joy and give others the ability to control us.

I'm going to Batman tonight. I will not let a random occurrence, no matter how brutal and tragic, make my knuckles whiter or my mind more clouded. Because we, all of us, have to fight the fear. Could it be that we see so many of these shootings, from Columbine to today, being perpetrated by youth because they were raised inside a haze of such negativity? Could our increasingly unfounded fear itself be helping to spawn these horrors?

I have no desire to participate in such a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My Kingdom For a Good Character!

Critic reviews for the new Amazing Spider-Man movie have been generally positive; I found the flick decidedly underwhelming. Is it just me, or do other people agree that the film's big bad monster looks like it evolved from a Halloween costume rather than the other way around? Honestly, though, that didn't bother me as much as Lizard's half-hearted and quickly ignored character reversal at the end. (Sorry, was that a spoiler? Meh, not really.) More to the point, the whole opening of the movie involving Peter Parker's parents could have been entirely dropped, leaving Peter to find his father's old work file in the basement, and nothing else in the story would have changed. All he has to do is find the file. The events of his childhood have no other bearing on the plot.

Even forgiving that Parker was somehow able to create web-shooting devices in his bedroom in days while it took the mighty Oscorp presumably years and untold millions of dollars, how is it that Emma Stone's Gwen character (I think of her as "not-MJ") as a lowly intern has all of this high-level access and ability to whip out a world-saving serum in 10 minutes? Anybody? Anybody?

The Amazing Spider-Man is simply poorly written, with story and logic holes as wide as a sewer main. You even see this reflected in comments by at least one of the producers, Avi Arad, who said, "We were working on what we called Spider-Man 4 and it was the same team [as with the first three films]. The problem was we didn't have a story that was strong enough and warranted ... another movie. And Sam Raimi ... realized we [didn't] have a good reason to make another one. And between [him] and [star] Tobey [Maguire] and obviously the studio, we all went into it not feeling good about the next story."

I've always found this phenomenon befuddling. How is it that a Hollywood production team sitting on a story concept likely to gross a billion dollars (The Amazing Spider-Man did over $500 million worldwide within two weeks of the U.S. premiere) can't find and develop a decent script? For an even more extreme example, look at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. How on earth did that travesty happen? Is it that the scripts are decent, but they just get butchered during production and editing? We see this over and over, and it strikes me as a terrible, heart-wrenching waste.

How can it keep happening? Well, that's easy. I can think of about 500 million reasons for starters. We get what we settle for.

Yesterday, I finished a short story called "The Plagiarist" by Hugh Howey, author of the WOOL series. Here is Howey's blurb: "Adam Griffey is living two lives. By day, he teaches literature. At night, he steals it. Adam is a plagiarist, an expert reader with an eye for great works. He prowls simulated worlds perusing virtual texts, looking for the next big thing. And when he finds it, he memorizes it page by page, line by line, word for word. And then he brings it back to his world."

There's a core concept in "The Plagiarist" that's key to the ending, so I can't describe it to you. I will say that this concept is the same idea found in a completely (and justifiably) overlooked 1999 movie called The Thirteenth Floor. By bizarre coincidence, I happened to stumble across this movie on Netflix Watch Instantly only a couple of days before buying and reading "The Plagiarist." Like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Thirteenth Floor was a big screen production (backed by Columbia Pictures) wrapped around a solid idea with a script that turned out to be one part captivating, two parts crap.

I emailed Hugh Howey yesterday and asked if he'd seen The Thirteenth Floor. He said that he hadn't, although a reviewer had once accused him of ripping off a movie -- presumably this one. And I believe him. As Howey said, "Had I seen the movie, I would have been powerless to write the story!" Yes, the ideas are that close.

But this is the point. Howey's short story is so much better than The Thirteenth Floor. Hollywood felt compelled to take the core idea and gussy it up with a bunch of intrigue and action, most of which only served to make the plot meandering and occasionally incomprehensible. This pushes us back to character. The protagonist in "The Plagiarist," Adam Griffey, is a schmuck. He's pathetic and largely unlikable, which I normally view as a story deficiency, although it can occasionally work, as it does here. In The Thirteenth Floor, there is virtually (ar-ar) no character development for the protagonist. If we can't identify with the main character, we can't bond with the story...and the piece fails. Every time.

At least there is enough meat to the new Peter Parker to sustain a tenuous thread of interest. I found his shift from confused, rebellious teen to noble superhero rushed and unconvincing, but he was still likable and sympathetic enough to keep me engaged. With Howey's Griffey, had the protagonist been likable and less pathetic, the whole story would have fallen apart; none of the action would have made sense. The reason why "The Plagiarist" works and these two films don't (for me) is because the writers ignored the essential relationship between character and plot. The two must dovetail effectively. When they don't, well...you've never heard of The Thirteenth Floor before, right?

Why, oh why, can't Hollywood figure this out on a consistent basis?