Friday, February 28, 2014

Quotations: From Perfect Movies

So the recent departure of Harold Ramis and my thinking about The Princess Bride have aligned to make me think of what movies are just about as perfect as can be. I think Raimis directed two of them, maybe a third.

Now, a perfect move, in my mind, doesn't mean that everybody loves it. It just means that there's no real possible way to make it better without making it an entirely different movie. I remember learning somewhere in film school that John Wu or somebody like that thought the movie Le Samourai, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, was perfect. And it is pretty fantastic. It's not the sort of movie that I'd want to watch over and over again, but it's been a while and I'm thinking of revisiting it.

People used to ask me what my favorite movie was. I never really knew how to answer that question. But some of my thinking about favorites has gone into thinking about perfection. A favorite doesn't need to be perfect (my favorite movies often have huge plot holes--such as The Matrix, The Professional--seriously, have you seen the international version of this?--and others).

One thing a perfect movie does is lodge into your head, and it does this in part through the strength of the dialogue. Here's a list of movies that could possibly be considered perfect. This shouldn't be taken as listed in order of preference or anything. Anyway, I've listed some below with one of the best quotes from them. Some of them could just have been transcribed whole.

He's just like every other man, only more.

I cut myself shaving.

Who knows what they're saying in this movie? It's all in French.

You're right. No human being would stack books like this.

I've come to the end of me, Rita.

Stop snoring. You'll wake up the lice.

Never start a land war in Asia.

What heart?

We all go a little mad sometimes.

My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer.

I'm tempted to put Vertigo on this, but it just drags a bit in the middle (Citizen Kane is the same, and besides The Lady from Shanghai is better). Would that be too much Hitchcock? Sorry there's no Nicholas Ray on here, I suppose. And also The Wolfman, but Lon Cheney's American accent needs to be accounted for first. I also want to say there's a Jackie Chan movie out there somewhere that deserves to be here, but I can't figure out which one.

Anybody got any to add?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nothing much

It's been a while since I posted any Frank Quitely art.

For the first splash in All-Star Superman

Posture is key to the Kent-Superman disguise.

From Sandman: Endless Nights, done with Neil Gaiman

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dear Superman

Out today: The Josh Elder (writing) and Victor Ibanez (art) story "Dear Superman," part of Issue 10 of Adventures of Superman.

While we're on the subject of "Dear Superman," the theme of writing letters to Superman has come a couple of times in my research. I found it in Joseph Torchia's epistolary novel The Kryptonite Kid, published in 1979, I think. It's about a boy's letters to Superman, in which he describes his troubles.

There are also Superman # 64.

I'm not going to get into the whole Superman and Santa Claus thing. Maybe when the Holidays are closer.

Finally (at least for now), there's this essay by E.C. Myers from Fantasy Magazine. It reads, in part:

Superman, you’ve saved more of us than you will ever know and we need you now more than ever. None of us is as invincible as we think we are. We are never as strong or as noble as we would like to be. We are not as selfless and caring as we should be, nor do we always know the limits of our own abilities. Help each of us to recognize our failings and give us the power to overcome them.

Words words words

I've been reading Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle. I'm not too far into it, but early on I came across the word "beerily." It's used to describe the way young men are carousing in the streets, walking along in a beerily way.

What a great word. It perfectly encapsulates that sort of stride down a street, in the middle of the May Day revelry. You can imagine that it's quite different from 'whiskily' or 'winily.' And I don't suggest you ever use 'winily,' because it's a horrible construction. But beerily? That word needs greater currency.

I haven't read much of Diana Wynne Jones' work. Just The Homeward Bounders, because it had something to do with Prometheus. I wrote about that one in my dissertation, which I really should get around to revising for publication one of these days.

I haven't seen the animated movie of Howl's Moving Castle, either. I hear it's pretty good. But will it be better than the book?

There's also, apparently, a sequel (or 'companion,' as the cover declares) to the book, called Castle in the Air. I love the cover to it. I've been recently fascinated by The Arabian Nights (I finished the entirety of the recent Penguin editing translated by Malcolm C. Lyons not too long ago--did you ever hear the story that anybody who reads the entirety of The Nights will die upon doing so?), so you can see why this would intrigue me.

So, is beerily a legitimate, in-the-dictionary word? Yup. It's in Webster's, though not in my American Heritage behemoth, nor in the OED. Meeriam-Webster's online dictionary has it (though you only get access if you're a subscriber, which seems weird to me; and it's worth noting that the next word in that dictionary is 'beer pong'). They associate the term with a maudlin mood, which is apt, I think.

You know what 'beerily' makes me think of? That one Christmas carol...

Beerily, beerily, through the snow, Christmas bells are ring-ing!

Yeah, caroling and beerily don't sound remotely alike, but they fit the same meter. And in my head the song is "merrily, merrily, through the snow," which is why I associate it with 'beerily.'

I'll have a lot more to say about words when I get the chance to write about Christopher Moore.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Better than the Book--Too Close to Call Edition: The Princess Bride

I love this movie. It’s just about perfect. Everything, from the framing story about the sick kid and his grandpa to Peter Cook’s lisp, just works. So many memorable lines. So many great shot compositions (seriously, look at the end of the boat chase and see how deep Rob Reiner makes the field of focus to get Buttercup, Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo crystal clear, even though they’re all different distances from the camera).

Then there’s the book. When I started reading it, having already seen the movie, I wondered why the narrator intrudes so much. There's a lot of the narrator's life and how he's handling his son, who has some issues. Where the movie had a few short scenes with the boy and grandpa, the story of the father and his son takes up a lot of the novel. A lot. And there’s the indication that much of S. Morgenstern’s Princess Bride book has been glossed over, so that all we get are the good parts. All this sounds bad, but we’re safe in William Goldman’s hands. And it all pays off. When we get to the climax of the father-son plot, it’s hard not to get choked up. 

Some things are very different in the movie version. Take Inigo’s use of his father’s sword to call upon his father’s spirit to help him find the pit of despair. Not in the book. But the book includes a lengthy road of trials that Inigo and Fezzik must get through—traps and poison spiders, etc.—to get to Westley at the bottom of the pit. In the movie, they just walk down a few stairs and there’s the guy they’re looking for. So, which is more satisfying as a story?

Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

I dunno.

If prose style really is analogous to cinematography, this is a tough call. Goldman’s writing is excellent throughout. If the movie edges out the book, I think it's only because the line delivery is so much more memorable when uttered by real people instead of read on the page. This is one case in which I don't think my imagination could have come up with a better version than the film in terms of characters, setting, and raw beauty.

Good night, Westley. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning.

And how are we to compare the Impressive Clergyman? In the book, it’s written really, really effectively. I don’t even have to imagine Peter Cook’s accent. It’s well-realized in the film, but does that make it better?

There’s a lot to be said for the way actors deliver lines as making a story more enjoyable, for the interpretation offered by a film being superior to the reading experience. For me, it’s hard to say which was better in this case. They’re too close to call.

Yeah, that's a lego r.o.u.s. by Leda Kat.

Friday, February 21, 2014

How it feels to read Gene Wolfe stories

I just realized that I've been posting about writers most of this week. So let's finish it up with a bit about Gene Wolfe.

Wolfe's stories make me feel weird. You ever read Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land? You know that one part near the beginning, where Valentine Michael Smith first makes a guy disappear, and then nobody talks about it for something like twenty pages, so I had to go back and reread that sentence where the guy just vanished like twenty times to make sure I read it right and still none of the characters were talking about it and then Gillian finally asks him what he did and so I was relieved that I wasn't crazy and I really did read that sentence right?

Well, for me, reading Gene Wolfe stories makes me feel the way I felt for those twenty pages, before Michael's powers are explained, when everything is fascinating and strange and weird and only almost makes sense and your head swims and you think you might be nuts.

I started with the two novels that make up The Wizard Knight. I liked these a whole lot, especially the first half. I read an interview with Wolfe in which he states that this book was his attempt to write a story about what Europe would have been like if Christianity hadn't come there. I never saw that angle in it, but I appreciated the way a whole lot of Scandinavian ideas cropped up here and there. The second book (called The Wizard, because with the two volumes that comprise The Wizard Knight you read The Knight first and then The Wizard) gets lost for a bit in a murder mystery set in giantland, but it still rolls along nicely before and after that. It's high adventure; fantasy, but unlike anything else.

Then I read The Book of the New Sun, whose four volumes are a seemingly endless series of events that evoke that feeling I mentioned above. Every time you think things are going in a particular direction, they turn 245 degrees and mess with you. It's great.

It's almost like the altered state of mentality that comes with certain drugs. I think I could be come addicted to that feeling, which I have gotten only from Gene Wolfe books. The Sorceror's House (read that one, and you'll feel the same thing when the vampire comes out of Bax's trunk for no reason at all and then starts making phone calls), Home Fires, There Are Doors, An Evil Guest--they all give me that same feeling.

People call him the greatest living science fiction writer. That might be true, but it's hard to pin down exactly what makes him great. I'm sure that not everybody who reads his stories feels the same way I do while they're doing it. But there is an undeniable superlativity to his work. It's not just that Wolfe uses words that you might not even guess are real words (I might have invented "superlativity," but he didn't invent fulgin to describe Severian's cloak in New Sun). It's not just that his books are engaging intellectually and viscerally. He's a tremendous prose stylist. His short stories are marvels of ideas and thrilling sentences. And when I read his shorter works is that I think I've got my mind wrapped around them...until the last sentence. Every time, the last sentence of his short stories just gives me that weird, swimmy, high feeling, like I've woken from a hundred year nap.

I can't wait to read The Land Across.

by Murray Ewing

Thursday, February 20, 2014

My Harlan Ellison Story

I've heard that everybody who comes into contact with Harlan Ellison has a story to tell about him. Ellison is a writer and storyteller whose greatest strengths are the short story and the essay. He has written in pretty much every form and genre, from film scripts to television shows to radio drama to comic books, nonfiction including journalism and criticism, stories and novels that range from science fiction to westerns to romance and crime stories to rock and roll. He has traveled the world as a speaker and storyteller. A while back I wrote a short essay about his stories, called "Shelfscapes," It's about how some of Ellison's stories had affected me, quite profoundly--particularly "On the Downhill Side" from Deathbird Stories. My essay appears in the book The Folklore Muse: Poetry, Fiction, and Other Reflections by Folklorists, edited by Frank DeCaro.

Here's my Harlan Ellison story.

Art by Gahan Wilson. This was used as the heading for Ellison's column "Harlan Elllison's Hornbook" but later used for a stage production based on Ellison's writing--including "The Cheese Stands Alone."

I wanted to make a movie. I had moved to Bloomington, Indiana, to study folklore. I met lots of guys who liked movies, and we talked about making movies all the time. I got sick of talking about it and decided to make one.

To understand this decision, you have to know that I never finished my film degree. In college, I discovered that I wanted to make movies, but soon learned that I was no good at it. I couldn't light a shot to save my life. I could compose shots pretty well, but that was it. For me, it wasn't good enough. I decided to focus on writing, so I wound up with  dual majors in English and Communications.

With no real producing skills, I decided to produce a short film. I put together a crew of people I knew--a director, a sound editor, an electrician, cinematographer, and the like. I even got my friend Mike Judd to fly out from Los Angeles to do the camera work. I knew that, to show these guys I was sincere in my efforts, I had to make some sort of gesture. I decided to buy the rights to a short story.

Contains "The Cheese Stands Alone"

I wanted to make a movie of one of my favorite stories, Ellison's "Grail," which was collected in the volume Stalking the Nightmare. A glance at that story would show anybody that it's impossible to make into a movie without a considerable budget. I had no budget, so I picked "The Cheese Stands Alone" from the same collection. The two stories explore some of the same themes. "The Cheese Stands Alone" has limited settings, few characters. It seemed producible on my budget. And it's set in a bookstore.

Contains "The Cheese Stands Alone"

I wrote to Harlan Ellison to ask if he'd sell me the rights. A couple of weeks later, he called my house. Turns out I had mentioned that I had already written a script. He called because that wasn't kosher, not without the rights. But it was no big deal, what with my offer to buy them, so he sold me the film rights for fifty bucks.

Contains "The Cheese Stands Alone"

He said he wanted to see the script before we shot it. I sent it to him, and a few days later I received another phone call at one thirty in the morning. And I got yelled at by my favorite writer. He said the script was no good. At the end of that conversation, during which I was mostly silent, Harlan said, "There's no way I'm going to let you make a movie out of my story. Call me back tomorrow."

I had no idea what to do. I called Mike, and he calmed me down a bit. The next day, I called Harlan back.

We talked for nearly two hours. Turns out, Harlan hadn't really hated the script. Instead, he thought it was necessary to give me a shock. He wanted to upset me. He told me that I wound understand why he'd called so late and yelled at me in about eight years. And then he proceeded to go through my script, page by page, line by line, and talk to me about what to do and why with a movie script. He asked me why I'd made certain choices, and then critiqued me based on my answers. He offered suggestions and forced me to examine my own writing in a new way, more thoroughly than I'd ever done before. He gave me the single greatest education in writing that I have ever gotten.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Josh Elder

I met Josh Elder at the Superman Celebration in Illinois a few years ago. He got me addicted to golden oreos and then agreed to let me interview him for my book. During our conversation, he told me about a story he had written called "Dear Superman." DC was interested in publishing it, but these things can take forever. I'm excited to say that "Dear Superman" was published online last November (as #28 of the digital Adventures of Superman series) and will be available in print next Wednesday (2/26) as part of Adventures of Superman #10.

In stores next week.

"Dear Superman" is a tremendous story. It's got action and drama, but above all it's a story about the role Superman can play in the lives of individuals. It's not about rescuing people from danger; it's about making life worth living. I actually devote a lot of space in Chapter 3 of my own book (which some day you might even get to read) to this story.

It's also an outstanding example of an economy of storytelling. Josh and artist Victor Ibanez work together to pack an unbelievable amount of material into a very short story. In this age of decompressed comics, it's out of the ordinary to find this sort of storytelling.

Josh created the comic Mail Order Ninja, released by Tokyopop.

Good title.

He also wrote The Batman Strikes for DC.

He got to write Superman into #44.

He has also been working on the Scribblenauts Unmasked comic.

My kids love these comics.

In 2009, Josh started Reading with Pictures, and organization dedicated to promoting the educational value of comic books. Here's their mission statement:

Reading With Pictures is a nonprofit organization that advocates the use of comics in the classroom to promote literacy and improve educational outcomes for all students. We work with academics to cultivate groundbreaking research into the proper role of comics in education. We collaborate with cartoonists to produce exceptional graphic novel content for scholastic use. Most importantly, we partner with educators to develop a system of best practices for integrating comics into their curriculum. At Reading With Pictures, we get comics into schools and get schools into comics.

They're putting out The Graphic Textbook in August of this year.

Is that Abe Lincoln riding a tyrannosaurus?

As if all that weren't enough for one man, earlier this year Josh traveled to Belarus for the US State Department as Comics Ambassador. Yes, you read that right. Comics ambassador.

So check out his work. He's working to make the world a better place, through comics.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Quotations: Writers on Writing, Part I

For a while I wrote down everything useful or interesting that writers I liked wrote about writing and storytelling. These are a few of the quotations.

Sunday 14 May: I did a certain amount of writing yesterday, but was hindered by two things: the need to clear up the study (which had got into the chaos that always indicates the literary or philological preoccupation) and attend to business; and trouble with the moon.  By which I mean that I found my moons in the crucial days between Frodo’s flight and present situation…were doing impossible things, rising in one part of the country and setting simultaneously in another.  Rewriting bits of back chapters took all afternoon.
--J.R.R. Tolkien, From Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 202

The only thing worth writing about is people.  I’ll say that again.  The only thing worth writing about it people.  People.  Human beings.  Men and women whose individuality must be created, line by line, insight by insight.  If you do not do it, the story is a failure.  It may be the most innovative scientific idea ever promulgated, but it will be a failure.  I cannot stress this enough.  There is no nobler chore in the universe than holding up the mirror of reality and turning it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the ‘normal,’ the obvious.  People are reflected in the glass.  The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself.  And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us.  Failing that, you have failed totally. 
--Harlan Ellison, “Telltale Tics and Tremors”

There is no technique that can be discovered and applied to make it possible for one to write. If you go to a school where there are classes in writing, these classes should not be to teach you how to write, but to teach you the limits and possibilities of words and the respect due them. One thing that is always with the writer—no matter how long he has written or how good he is—is the continuing process of learning how to write. As soon as the writer ‘learns to write,’ as soon as he knows what he is going to find, and discovers a way to say what he knew all along, or worse still, a way to say nothing, he is finished. If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader…The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.  We hear a great deal of lamentation these days about writers having all taken themselves to the colleges and universities where they live decorously instead of going out and getting firsthand information about life. The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate the experience, not to be merged in it. Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.
--Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Art of Fiction”


Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works and how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from things in the darkness.
--Neil Gaiman, Smoke and  Mirrors, 12

In other words, if your boy is a poet, horse manure can only mean flowers to him; which is, of course, what horse manure has always been about.
--Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine, X

If any artist tells you “I am a camera’ or ‘I am a mirror,’ distrust him instantly, he’s fooling you, pulling a fast one. Artists are people who are not at all interested in the facts—only in truth. You get the facts from outside. The truth you get from inside.
--Ursula K. LeGuin, “Talking About Writing”