30 April 2014

Mission Statement: Preamble

Back in late December, I started thinking about New Year's Resolutions, as last year's attempt went far better than I thought it would, given I swore off the practice nearly 20 years ago. This year, however, I need to take it more seriously, as more grave matters are concerned. I don't want to disclose full details, as it's extremely personal, except it's an extremely difficult decision I've been struggling with since at least the start of last year. In short, someone who has been a part of my life the past several years, who helped me through a very difficult phase of my life, and that I've tried to be as patient with as I possibly can be for anyone, I have asked to leave. 
I had told them this earlier in the year, and set plans for the change in the subsequent months. Today, however, after a quiet period, we ended up having a talk about it again, and it was almost as if it were the first time it was brought up. Admittedly, very little progress has been made as far as the plans for moving go, which can be attributed to a number of factors. As I've said, I've tried to be patient about this, but it has taken its toll on me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. 
In terms of what's brought all this on, I've tried to work that out for some time, amid a lot of doubts, feelings of guilt, soul searching, second guessing, and maybe even a little denial. What it boils down to is two simple facts that I cannot put any other way:

Changes need to be made. 

27 April 2014

A Broken Piano & A Burning Car

Pictured: Tangential Learning (this will not be on the test)
The notion of hype and I have this understanding, that I'm allowed to write off whatever it's trying to sell me for any reason whatsoever, regardless of the final product's merits. It's no novel concept that suspense is a double-edged sword every bit as likely to intrigue your potential audience as alienate them. 

The upcoming film in question has the effectively ominous title of As Above, So Below, whose trailer I came across on YouTube only a few moments ago. I'm not going to bother embedding or even linking the trailer; the IMDB page is enough and about all the direct exposure I want to give this film, especially since I'll be touching on key scenes in the trailer anyway. 
Brief Tangent: Remember AOL Keywords? You know how ad campaigns have started using hashtags as a means of marketing & promotion rather than simply referring people to a website? In all, I don't see any of that as harmful, but something about how this movie markets itself is a bit worrying. The end title to this trailer has the following phrase above its web address: 
YouTube Search: Paris Catacombs. 
This bothers me for a few reasons. Firstly, the Paris catacombs are a real place, and likely there's a number of YouTube videos about them. This may well have been the intention of the film's marketing team to help spread word about the film and help aid suspension of disbelief by having people do research and get a better appreciation for the source material. Frankly, I don't buy that notion for a second. I think this is a case of YouTube selling search results to the highest bidder, not unlike promoted Tweets. Again, this shouldn't be anything harmful, but why not have the terms in question be the film's title or some cryptic phrase relevant to the movie? Why a vague geographic reference that's likely to flood the search results of people not interested in the film but the actual location? I'm not saying it's socially irresponsible or anything like that, but it's a sign of a bad trend I hope dies. 
The trailer starts off by introducing us to our setting and our main characters, a Scoobian (not a word, but should be) team of young professionals bent on exploring a network of caves and tunnels beneath the city of Paris. Right away, we can see the earliest signs of the problem this film will either have with itself, its campaign, or both. The movie seems to be a Blair film, a term I hoped would replace "found footage" because that's already a name for experimental films such as the works of Stan Brakhage, with the perspective set in a kind of quasi-first-person view via video equipment our meddling kids are taking with them to document their journey. I don't have a problem with the genre per se (I liked Cloverfield and Apollo 18), but a lot of these shots look way too good to be "amateurism" and makes me wonder if this is going to have the same problem as District 9 where we're not sure if this is true Third-Person Unlimited the more vaguely First-Person Limited viewpoint. It's a minor gripe coming from a film production major, so take it with a grain of salt. However, these doubts about exactly what sort of movie we're in for don't get much better. 

As may well be expected, our team finds themselves trapped in these catacombs, possibly by some outside malevolence. This is genuinely interesting, because we're almost made to think the various cave-ins and pitfalls could be little more than that, with the characters' reactions misleading us into thinking it's something worse. Honestly, that's a neat idea, playing with perspective like that, a disaster movie masquerading as a horror film. As the saying goes, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. The Blair Witch Project has a similar sort of ambiguity, whether or not there's evil afoot in those words, or if it's an elaborate murder conspiracy perpetrated by the participants. Sadly, and as much as I think it's a solid sequel, Book of Shadows threw a lot of that ambiguity out the window. As Above, So Below does not even wait for its sequel to throw subtlety and ambiguity out the window. It doesn't even wait for opening day. It reveals its ineptitude barely halfway through the trailer. 

The Broken Piano.

After the initial series of setbacks that leave our characters going in circles (paranoia, or something worse?), the gang stumbles upon an upright piano covered in cobwebs. One of them comments that he had one just like it growing up. He goes on to say that one of the keys was messed up, the A4 key. This is where the movie more or less loses me completely, as his finger lands on precisely the same key, which is broken. The camera pulls back to give us a reaction shot from the group. It would have been more subtle and less patronizing if they'd all looked into the camera and yelled in unison, "DUN-DUN-DUUUUN!" 

For the record, two of my favorite horror films are Event Horizon and Solaris, the latter not even being much of a horror movie, though it has that 2001: A Space Odyssey quality wherein by not trying to be a horror movie, it succeeds at being one anyway, if that makes sense. Anyway, those movies are about people being confronted with their own personal inner demons via hallucinations made corporeal. I don't think that's a bad cliche, though I could name about a dozen other films I abhor because of it. It can be effective, but it has to be handled very delicately. How that's achieved is highly debatable and equally subjective. In theory, the best way would be to draw as little attention to the trope as possible, i.e. not giving it away in the damn trailer. To be fair, the broken piano is still subtle compared to what comes next. 

The Burning Car. 

Having established that what we're seeing is a group of explorers confronted with a supernatural force that plays off their respective consciences and forces them to confront their inner demons, the trailer is basically done with leaving us guessing exactly what type of film we're getting into. A better film would have left things at the broken piano, cut back to some of the screaming and running from earlier, and then flashed the title and release date. After all, the piano may not be terribly subtle, but it doesn't betray the film's overall sense of scale. It still leaves a bit of mystery as to what our team is up against, how real the danger is. Sure, the question at this point has boiled down to "Ghosts or Demons?/Haunted House or Hell?" but considering ghosts often have motives and even goals (that may only appear malicious) while demons are simply evil for evil's sake, it's still interesting from a conflict perspective. Again, what exactly are we up against? Will confronting these skeletons in the closet lead to some kind of redemption or at least a moral victory (a la Laurence Fishburne in Event Horizon), or is this simply a meat grinder? 

That question gets answered when our team happens upon the burning car. Yes, they turn a corner and see a small, red car engulfed in flames. The camera whip-pans to one of the explorers, sobbing, "It wasn't my fault! It wasn't my fault!" If your eyes are rolling, that's probably a good thing because you won't see what happens next. Our "faultless" guy not only gets yanked off his feet and pulled into the car through the rear passenger window (not unlike Mica's "throwback" in Paranormal Activity), but the car then caves in on itself and implodes like the house at the end of Poltergeist, taking with it anybody's ability to take this film seriously. It's not simply because the effect itself isn't all that good (I often wonder about trailers using unfinished or rough renders of composites), but because we've lost all mystery as to the extent of the danger. The piano left us asking whether or not the worst thing these people have to fear is each other/themselves or something else. The burning car externalizes the threat. It's no longer about facing fears, it's about being picked off by a manipulative and evil force. It's almost like we've seen the entire film, because the number of possibilities for resolution are in single digits by this point. 

Some would argue it unfair to write off the movie based on the trailer simply because it appears to give away so much, going from slightly inept to downright moronic. They would argue that there still could be more to the film, something that may fall outside those few, finite possibilities. In other words, I could be completely wrong the movie's scale and the nature of the threat and conflict. My question, to those people, is how many twists and turns does it take to pique your interest and how many does it take to lose your interest? It's the same problem I had with The Machinist. That film throws so many plot twists and big reveals at you that you're left with absolutely nothing to be invested in by the final act. Questioning reality is fine, many of my favorite movies are all about that (like American Psycho), but it's all for naught if I don't even feel like asking the question in the first place because I'd prefer short answer or even essay to multiple choice. 

Your trailer is supposed to be you putting your best foot forward. If you can't even sell me on your suspense, or make me care to ask what else your movie has to offer, what else are you getting wrong? 

13 April 2014

An Eternity Measured

My entry for the Sci-Fi London 2014 48-hour storytelling competition. Late Friday evening, I was messaged with the following prompts to build the story around: 

Line: As far as I'm concerned you're 31 with a mental age of... Probably 12.
Theme: What if people could reproduce asexually?"

This is the result. It was a challenge, but immensely fun to work on.

Her eyes scanned the topmost shelf of the bookcase, empty save for three black books, each with a Roman numeral on its spine. The rest of the room was far less reserved and enigmatic. The walls were practically covered with black-framed photos of their gracious host shaking hands with various past presidents and other select world leaders. A few more were on some of the other shelves, propped up against photo albums and scrapbooks. The other shelves contained all various manner of mementos, most of them toys. Some she found quaint, even endearing, such as a rusty metal pickup truck, the kind her own grandfather likely would have had passed down to him. Others, though, struck her a bit less flattering, such as a diorama of a semi-nude slave girl chained to a pillar, the base bearing an undeniably barbarian-sounding name in gold foil. The circle of Mardis Gras beads around it didn't help. It was even starting to turn her stomach a bit. She wondered if those little black books up top were full of numbers arranged according to cute little pet names instead of real ones. She took a sip of her wine and tried to tell herself she was only projecting. 
It was late in the evening and the party had quieted down, apart from the occasional fit of raucous laughter from her boyfriend, having made it his mission to match each of her sips with a full glass. She took another sip and pinched the bridge of her nose as she heard footsteps from the stairwell, expecting it to be him. Another laugh from downstairs told her it wasn't. 
"Impressed?" it was their host, a man who'd cheated death three times thanks to modern science. She said nothing. Her boyfriend was convinced meeting this man would lead to some high-tier networking, thanks to all those famous and powerful people he'd met in his multiple lifetimes. She tried to inform him gently that simply knowing someone wasn't the same as having someone's ear or a direct line up a chain of command, but it was no use. "I'd ask if you'd like to see my etchings, but I don't think your guy would approve. He says that's how you met. Surprised he knows that routine, young as he is." It was the last straw. She hated that story. It wasn't true. He only told it to get a rise out of her, and now it was being used as an icebreaker to get in good with someone whose only claim to fame was being one of a dozen successful cloning experiments. 
"As far as I'm concerned, you're 31 with a mental age of... Probably 12." She shot him a dirty look. She didn't care anymore; she wanted to leave. If it meant offending the host, so be it. 
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but passive-aggressive quantifications of my emotional maturity make head feel no good, then all better." Considering she was expecting him to go for the obvious and make some snooty remark about how, once upon a time, having a childhood was a mark of distinction and class, that he went the mocking manchild route was something of a relief. She tried to hold back a smile, but gave in, a small chuckle coming with it. Looking down into her wine glass, she waved her free hand around, trying to think of where to start and how to phrase an apology. He cut her off, "I'm sorry. I'm not very good at entertaining. I'm more used to being a guest. Even then, I'm lucky if one joke or story clicks." 
She motioned to the diorama and beads with her glass, "If you want to try for two, I'm sure the story behind this is hilarious." He looked a little embarrassed, giving an "aw, shucks" sort of smile. 
"They're only technically mine. Old Mister Zero knew the guy who drew those comics when he was about half my age." he said, reaching up and taking down the first book, holding it as a preacher holds up a bible, putting his other hand to his heart and donning a comical Irish accent, "I was a different person back then, poppet." He replaced it and took down the second, this time only pinching its corner between his thumb and forefinger, waving it side-to-side, "You don't want to know what this guy was into." he put it back and took the third one down, flipping through a few pages. "This one's a work in progress." She could see they were simple notebooks, informal journals, and realized the reason for the shelf space. 
"Old Mister Zero? Not number one?" she nodded to the shelf. 
"He was ninety when he submitted his original material. Died about a year later. No memoirs."
"No family?" She asked, knowing the answer, and the awkward reason for it. 
He turned toward the pictures on the wall, turning the notebook over in his hands, "Clones are perfect copies, flaws and all. You need good genes to pass on. Luckily, he was the kind of guy insurance companies loved; no pre-existing conditions. No heart problems, no cancer, no diabetes... extraordinary by being ordinary. Almost a perfect specimen." He saw her blush a little, but gave a comforting smile before going on, "One hundred total candidates passed. Only half were successful, and only about a dozen of us have carried on. Number four will put me in the top three after I'm gone."
"What happened to them, the ones who didn't carry on?" She asked. 
"They decided to solve the birth rate problem the old-fashioned way, settling down and having families."
"I'm sorry," she said, feeling she'd put him on the spot. 
"I'm not. It's win-win, really. They get normal lives, and guys like me get their appearance gigs." He looked around at all the photos, sighing, "Of course, talk shows and garden parties can't pay bills forever. My stand up career clearly isn't going to take off, though I think my Irish accent's getting better." 
"So, what are you going to do to fill the book, besides your Father Ted impression?" 
He thought for a moment, "I've heard etching has become kind of a lost art." 

07 April 2014

Angel of Mercy

     The receptionist had no face to speak of, merely a blank, white void with a rather crass-looking speaker grill where a mouth would be. The head bobbed a little as prerecorded segments of speech were spliced and rearranged in real-time to answer simple questions or give directions. The subtle moves were made less so by the sausage curls of the stark, white wig swaying with each tinny syllable. The groomed loudspeaker chimed its canned answers from behind the reception desk, effectively obscuring the horrifically serpentine cluster of fiber optic cables and pneumatic hoses pouring out from the skirt of the white uniform. Its dress form of a body was completely motionless apart from its head and six furiously busy arms. One pair was typing away at a teletype machine, answering a call from a deaf patient. Another were shuffling and filing small computer punch cards whose exact advantage or even purpose was likely beyond the grasp of even the most tenured of staff. The fifth was running a finger over a stack of forms in a labyrinthine pattern, a magnetic sensor in the tip following the metallic ink lines of previous patients' handwriting. The last, after handing off a clipboard to a patient, went back to helping the literate lefty by moving read forms into an outbox. Like the face, the hair, and the uniform, the arms were clad in white, seamlessly ending in fine, silk gloves stretched over the long, spindly, spring-loaded fingers. The only item of color was the red cross in the dead center of the cap which was undoubtedly bolted to the head to keep the wig in place. 
     Susan imagined a technician standing behind the android, ratcheting the bolt loose to swap out the sausages for a swing bob or possibly dreadlocks festooned with pearly beads. She was so lost in her little daydream, looking back and forth between the animatronic octopus and the clipboard it had given her, that she'd completely tuned out what it was saying. The concussion she was in for wasn't helping, but she knew all she had to do was say "Repeat that" at any time. She also knew there was no one behind her, so she could probably say "Repeat that" as many times as she needed. What she didn't know was how many times she had already said "Repeat that." Her daze was broken when, while clumsily signing her name at the bottom of the form, a messy red drop beat her to the punch in dotting the "i" in her last name. She knew it was her own blood from the gash between her eyes; she'd felt it creep down her nose, welling up at the tip while ticking boxes on the triage form. What she hadn't realized was how much further it had crept beyond merely her nose. Looking down revealed a hand-sized red teardrop on her shirt. It wasn't this bad in the car ride over, she thought. Panic set in as she felt a presence behind her, and tried to form the words she'd lost count of saying. 
     "Room 106. To your right. Third door on the right." The male voice from behind Susan was distinctly non-mechanical, but almost as cold apart from the tinge of impatience. She awkwardly spun round to apologize, nearly saying sorry to an ID card on a lanyard dangling in front of a blurry splash of pastel pink. Looking up, she found she could no longer blink both her eyes at once, or very quickly, so clearing up her vision to get a better look at the man was a tedious ordeal. All she could really work out at first was that the pink of his scrubs didn't go very well with his olive skin. He leaned forward, which helped a little bit. "My God, that's really bad. I couldn't tell from down the hall. I thought you were just having fun." The impatience was gone, taking the coldness with it. He turned to his left to grab something off the cart he'd been pushing. 
     "I fell off a horse." She winced as she said it, realizing he hadn't even asked a question, let alone about what happened. 
     He gave her a puzzled look over his shoulder, "Why would you do such a thing?" She tried to roll her eyes, but got dizzy in the process, and shut her eyes while trying to keep her balance and formulate a retort. 
     "Look," she managed, trying in vain to point, "I've just been lectured by an answering machine with a stupid haircut, I don't need this from you." How much of this suddenly-difficult thought ended up in spoken words was just beyond Susan's grasp. Fortunately, it turned out to be enough. 
     "I apologize." he said, followed by a quick battery of questions, like if she was nauseous or felt chills or was short of breath, among others that all blurred together. She lazily swung her head from side-to-side in response to all of the above, even the one about feeling dizzy, which she was as shaking her head with her eyes still closed threw her balance completely off. A hand firmly grasped her arm, making her tense up with a start, dropping the clipboard. She opened her eyes to see him coming at her with a wad of gauze. She reflexively made fists, ready to reach up and push him away. When he gently pressed the gauze against the gash, she felt relief, and a bit of guilt over how defensive she was being. 
     "You need to apply pressure." He pushed a little harder on the wad of gauze with each word. She reached up, felt about for the compress, and slid her fingers under his. He let go, kneeling down to pick up the clipboard. She looked down, spotting the edge of a tattoo at the base of his neck. Some kind of star, she thought. He stood up, giving the clipboard a once-over before looking back to her. "Can you walk?" He asked. She didn't answer. "I'll walk you to your room." 
     "Thank you..." her eyes finally focused enough for her to read the ID, "Oliver." She found herself too easily amused at "Oliver with the olive skin." She was bad with names, always making up quick little mnemonics. So rarely did any of them fall into place this easily. 
     When they got to the room, Oliver tossed the clipboard onto the counter before guiding Susan onto the exam table and helping her lie down. He pinched her wrist between his thumb and forefinger, asking her to tell him what happened without looking up from his watch. She told him of how she and her friend were out riding when the cinch of her saddle snapped. She managed to roll as she fell, but the saddle fell the rest of the way with her, one of the stirrups hitting her right between the eyes. 
     "It wasn't bleeding like this in the car," she went on, "so I told my friend to just drop me off and come inside when he found a parking space." Oliver rolled up her sleeve and pressed a small handheld device against her forearm. There was a sudden warming sensation that ran up her wrist to her elbow, followed by three beeps. He pulled the device away, subtly mouthing whatever he was reading off of it, then glancing over at the clipboard on the counter. 
     "Well, Susan, the good news is it looks worse than it is. You may get a scar, but you won't need stitches. You haven't lost that much blood. A touch anemic, obviously, but it's nothing serious. I can just wheel in the Hemvac, clean up and bandage that gash while it's working--"
     "The what?" she interrupted. 
     "It's for transfusions. Don't worry, the name is the scariest part. You don't have any heart conditions, and you're not on any medications, so it should only take about fifteen minutes. Won't even need to call in an RN." 
     "Oh, only a one nurse town?" She joked, propping herself up on one elbow. 
     "I'm not a nurse. I'm an orderly." He saw her smile melt to a nervous quiver. He leaned in, assuring, "It means you're fine." He started to leave. "I'll have the doctor paged when I pass the reception desk. He'll give you your discharge instructions when we're all done." He got to the door, stopped, and turned back to her. "What's your friend's name?" 
     "Simon." She blurted amid trying to process his mile-a-minute prognosis. 
     "I'll see if he's in the waiting room yet, let him know you're all right." 
     "Thank you, Oliver." 
     "It's why I'm here," he smiled, closing the door behind him.
     Susan laid back down, staring up at the ceiling in silence. She pulled the gauze away from between her eyes and looked at the stain.  
     It looked like a star. 

This story was written in a weekend as a warm-up exercise for a 48-hour story telling contest happening later in the week.