The only way is ‘Yes, and…’

Improv isn’t just a way for performers to entertain an audience. It’s a way to improve your social and interpersonal skills, which is why taking classes in it can be so useful and why it’s also a valuable tool for people in business. It’s also a great way to create an interactive holiday party or group outing for any occasion.

Okay, shameless plugs are over, but I do believe all of these things about improv because I’ve gone through the classes, I regularly perform in improv shows myself — something I wouldn’t have thought possible just three years ago — and I use the skills I’ve learned in the real world all the time.

And I also get to watch as people regularly fail at those skills. The first of these is a skill described by Keith Johnstone: “Listen like a thief.” What this means is pay attention to everything anyone else in a scene says, because you’re going to need that info at some point to keep the scene going. Listen for names as they are introduced, as well as other “endowments,” meaning characteristics assigned to characters. Did Player A refer to the other player as Aunt Nancy, and wonder why she’s so nervous? Did Player B mention that they’re both waiting for Uncle Ralph to come around with Sunday dinner? Every one of those details creates the character that you might get to enter with, but if you’re not listening intently for every little clue, you could miss something which can lead to the far too common improv faux pas of calling a character established as Nancy by the name Sally, or walking in to a Sunday scene on Tuesday.

Aside from Johnstone’s aphorism, there are two big rules in improv. The first is Make Each Other Look Good. That is, your job is to make sure that you’re doing what you can to support your scene partners and give them stuff to work with. If you walk into a scene and say to the other character, “Hi!” then you’ve given them nothing. But if you walk in and say, “Hi, Mom. Let me help you with those groceries,” you’ve suddenly taken a lot of pressure off the other person by telling them who they are and what they’re doing.

Very much related to this is the concept of always saying, “Yes, and…” to anything that happens on stage. To do otherwise kills the forward moment of a scene. You should never reply to another player’s offer with “Yes, but,” and should absolutely never reply with “No” (with a very specific exception.)

This is one of those examples best taught in the negative, and a common exercise we use to teach it is to improv planning some hypothetical event. For example, say it’s a birthday party. Each person in turn suggests something, and the next person “yes, ands” it. So the first three steps might go like this:

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“Yes, and that’s why we’re hiring the world-famous party planner Dante of Miami!”

“Yes, and we’re giving him an unlimited budget!”

That party gets pretty cool pretty fast, right? And the scene will just build from there to ridiculous and wonderful heights. Now, let’s see what happens with “Yes, but.”

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“Yes, but it didn’t go so well the last time you tried that.”

“Yes, but that’s because no one helped…”

And you can feel the energy and momentum fall away immediately and everything gets small. As for “No,” that pretty much kills it instantly.

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“No.”

And… scene.

It’s not even necessary to literally say “yes, and,” “yes, but” or “no” in order to have the same effect. For example:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“Oh my god, he’s beautiful. I’m so glad you brought him.”

And there’s a yes, and.

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“Did you see the sign that says ‘No predatory birds allowed?’”

That’s a yes, but. It might seem like a no, but it’s not, because it does acknowledge the bird, but just gives a reason for it to not be there. The other player may be able to work around it, but it does throw up a roadblock and add another step. Finally:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“What falcon? Are you okay, or did you stop taking your meds?”

And this is a hard “no,” because it doesn’t give the other player anywhere to go.

The one sort of exception to the “No” is this:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“No, David. You know allergic I am to birds!”

While this starts with “no,” it doesn’t deny that Jimmy is there. Rather, it’s a backwards “yes, and” that gives to the other performer, because now the person endowed as David knows that he’s got a thing he can trigger your character with, namely a bird allergy — and he has a bird. And since one of the things we love to do in improv is to constantly make it worse — either for our own character or others — this kind of fake “No” is just an enormous gift to give to the other players onstage. “Here’s what my character would hate, not have  at it so can get to play.”

Beautiful, really.

Now keep all of this (or most of it) in mind as we segue to part two: Why and how these skills are so important in everyday life, and especially in the working world, because here’s what I see constantly in Muggleville.

First off, no one listens like a thief. In fact, no one listens. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overheard as a conversation has started with one person asking a very specific question, only for the other person to have clearly missed all of the details, and then go on to either “Yes, but” or “No” the asker.

Imagine this improv scene.

Player A: “Oh, Mom, I’m so glad you invited us all to this picnic, and my wife, Loretta, is going to be so happy that you did.”

Player B: “We’re not having a picnic. And David, I told you, put that topiary on the other side of the yard. You’re my gardener, you should know better.”

Hard “no” there. And that’s pretty much how it goes — “I didn’t listen to what you just said, so I’m going to respond with whatever I was thinking from the couple of words I paid attention to, okay?”

This leads to a conversation that may be something more like:

Player A: “I talked to so-and-so about buying radio model A, but they really like model B.”

Player B: “If they’re interested in drones, then you should have just taken a message and referred it to Player C.”

Player A: “They’re not interested in drones. What does Player C have to do with this?”

Player B: “Player C handles drones.”

Player A: “I know. I’m asking about radio.”

Player B: “Player C doesn’t handle radio.”

Player A: “So should our customer buy radio model A even though they prefer model B?”

Player B: “(Sigh.) Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”

Me, on the sidelines: (Head/face/desk). Over and over and over.

Needless to say, there’s not a lot of listening like a thief, “Yes, and,” or “make each other look good” going on during this, either.

To abstract it a bit, try this convo:

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“No, I don’t sell toothpaste.”

“I don’t want toothpaste. Where’s the bathroom?”

“Yes, you can brush your teeth there.”

“Right, but where is it?”

“Why didn’t you ask me that then, instead of about toothpaste?”

“I didn’t ask about toothpaste.”

“Then why did you ask about the bathroom?”

“Where is it?”

“Down the hall two doors, on the left.”

That went nowhere fast, didn’t it? Way too typical of way too many conversation I overhear everywhere.

If this sounds like your co-workers no matter what field you’re all in, consider turning them on to improv one way or another. At the very least, it’ll turn all those work spaces into much safer, saner, and more fun spaces. And remember: You can’t spell “improve” without “improv.” Cheesy, but true.

185 improvisers walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry. We’re closed.” And the improvisers say, “”Yes… and?”

 

 

The Play That Goes Wrong

So, “The Play That Goes Wrong” seems to be a bit polarizing. I have friends whose reactions were “Meh.” I have friends whose were like mine: Loved it. Then again, I’ve always loved “Noises Off,” which is another British play with a similar conceit, in which we watch an amateur theater production go off the rails. In “Noises Off,” there are three acts and a rotating set, so we see the first act as the audience would, the second from the wings, so stage and backstage at once, and the third is only backstage. It’s three looks at the same show, so by the time we get to the end, we know what got screwed up onstage and finally get to see why it happened.

The Play That Goes Wrong” takes a more linear approach, so we see one performance that gets increasingly wonkier. The show-within-a-show is ostensibly an Agatha Christie manqué murder mystery set in a stately mansion. The actor who plays the detective, Chris Bean as Inspector Carter (in reality, Evan Alexander Smith), not only directed the play, he designed costumes, made props, etc., etc. And if you do go to the show, your enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by reading the fake actor bios and whatnot in the playbill info for “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” because they will add so much to the play for you.

Is this necessarily a good thing? Well, considering that the show starts well before curtain with the stage manager and tech dude futzing with the set (and hilariously involving an audience member in what turns out to be foreshadowing) while two of the running crew wander the audience, frantically trying to find a lost dog, I’d say yes. There is no fourth wall here at any point after you enter the theater, and that’s half the fun. There was even one moment when an audience member shouted something to the actor on stage, and I could not figure out whether it was an usher, or just someone who really got into the spirit of it. It certainly set up the rant from the character that followed, and it says a lot about the writing and performing that he got exactly the reactions he needed from us to make successive lines make sense.

Or maybe there was a lot of ad-libbing and improv of the order of things. Hard to tell which.

As for the show itself, I think the big reasons it amused me so much were these: First, I’ve done a lot of theater in… let’s say, low-budget circumstances… and things are always going wrong, people are forgetting lines, missing cues, breaking props, and so on. Oh, sure. Never to the disastrous scale seen here, but this is just the nightmare cranked up to 11. Second, as an improviser, I was incredibly amused by the conceit that the actors are going to stick to the script as written no matter what happens, dammit! And this is what gets them into the most trouble.

For example, at one point, a character enters to get a pencil for the detective, but it’s not where it’s supposed to be. He finally exasperatedly grabs what is very obviously an antique key to the door, still calling it a pencil. All of the characters are working very hard to try to ignore everything that’s wrong around them. Improvisers would embrace this, acknowledge the weird, and run with it.

A perfect example is when one character refers to a portrait on the wall, saying that it’s the father of the brothers in the story and that one of the brothers is his spitting image. But it’s actually a painting of a dog, which in the real life of the play is the same dog the stagehands couldn’t find before the show. The characters continue to play it as if the portrait is human. Improvisers would have gone right to it actually being a dog portrait, but that being the most normal thing of all, and would have come up with one of a dozen ways to justify the brother being its spitting image.

The performances are amazing, and the physical feats as well as the timing here are just mind-boggling. Several characters apparently get whammed really hard by errant parts of the set, and we have stage combat, acrobatics, what amounts to juggling, and several physically tricky exits of characters carried, dragged, or dropped  by others through doors and windows. As for all that “whamming,” which quite often involves hits right to the face and multiple knockouts, I know how this is done, but it was done impressively and convincingly and at more than full-speed.

This is definitely a show that probably has a good hour of slo-mo combat/action practice before every performance.

And as for the acting… it takes an amazingly talented cast to take a bunch of actors as characters who aren’t so great, and make them bad in just the right ways. There are no standouts because everyone was exceptional. Dennis Tyde as Perkins, the butler (Scott Cote) has somewhat of a problem when it comes to remembering or pronouncing obscure words, like “fakade” or “kianeedy,” (façade and cyanide), and this becomes a running gag that leads to a meltdown. Cote draws this character perfectly. As Robert Grove playing Thomas, Peyton Crim the actor brings a very Brian Blessed bigger-than-life vibe to the whole thing, and his physical work, especially when trapped on a lofted playing era threatening to collapse is amazing. Jamie Ann Romero, in real life, plays Sandra Wilkinson who plays Florence, the female lead, who can’t seem to keep it in her panties, at least figuratively, and her affairs with several characters seem to be the catalyst for the murders. Romero is brilliant at giving Sandra just enough talent to be not that talented, but way too declamatory and funny as hell, and watching her morph from Gatsby flapper to a demented and battling Betty Boop is hilarious.

I’ve already mentioned Evan Alexander Smith as Chris Bean, man of many hats, and our detective, Trevor. Not only does he hold the center of the piece together, but he does it as a man who, in his reality, is about to fall apart since this show is his baby, and it isn’t going well. In fact, the moment when he finally breaks character and lets loose is one of the highlights of the whole show.

Then there’s Ned Noyes as Max and Arthur, the trust fund baby, and it’s clear from his fake bio that he’s probably only here because he donated a shitload of money to the company. He’s also the only character who, as an actor, plays two roles but the clue to that is, again, in that bio. He breaks character and the fourth wall constantly, fawns and prances for the audience in many “Wasn’t I clever, there?” moments, and gives a huge bit of fan service in the second act. In short, Noyes makes us love his character for all of his shortcomings as an actor and it’s clear that he, himself, as an actor is just having a ton of fun up there. (Well, everyone is.)

A murder mystery needs a victim, and we open with Jonathan Harris as Charles, the victim, played by Yaegel T. Welch, caught at lights up in the first of many mistakes. His Harris is an actor who can’t quite play a convincing corpse, which is problematic in a murder mystery, but perfect in a play like this. The harder he fails at it, the harder we laugh.

Rounding out the cast are Angela Grovey as Annie Twilloil, the stage manager, and Brandon J. Ellis as Trevor Watson, the light and sound operator. They are also the only two American characters in the play. (Again, read those fake bios, people, they’re worth it.) Trevor is only here to get a credit needed to graduate, and he’s not a theater person. Meanwhile, Annie seems to have a terror of being seen by the audience at all. That’s another reason to get there early and watch the pre-show, not to mention that specific things she does then actually turn out to be more foreshadowing of what happens later.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but both Annie and Trevor wind up involved in the onstage happenings more than they want to be, and Grovey and Ellis nail it in character to a T, but in two totally different ways. Annie is initially terrified to be there, but after a moment of audience approval, she suddenly opens up and steals the stage — quite literally later.

Meanwhile, Trevor clearly doesn’t want to be there at all, and especially not when he’s suddenly put in an awkward situation that becomes one of the biggest moments in the second act. (Kudos to Ellis for just going for it as an actor, by the way.) Also impressive: While he spends most of his time during the show scrolling on his phone between cues in the “booth,” which is played by a mezzanine level box, he is still able to take focus exactly when the script needs it, and also plays the audience brilliantly. Of course, I happened to be sitting dead center in the main Mezz, which was right where his eye-line went, so he and I kind of developed a weird little thing during the show.

Not that I have any complaints about that. Nor did Max. But I do digress.

The other two really impressive things about the show are, well, of course the script, and the tech. Script first… the thing to remember is that the murder mystery story here really doesn’t matter, because that’s not what we’re following, but it still made sense. But on the level above that, what really impressed me — and I don’t know how they did it unless there was improv involved — was that certain moments got exactly the emotional response needed from the audience to justify the next lines of dialogue, and this happened multiple times. In fact, when Chris Bean melted down onstage, it happened about five times in a row in the same scene.

The other is that, beyond the timing and juggling of the actors, the physical working of the set was perfect, and whoever designed it deserves All the Awards. We had things falling off of walls, or randomly suddenly staying, a door that became a character on its own, a lofted playing area of many surprises, a stage elevator that, behind the scenes, was way more complicated than this fake company should have attempted — hey, lights and a ladder, maybe instead of a practical lift? — props that either vanished or fell or flew apart, flats that decided to, um, take a bow, recalcitrant doorknobs, and on and on and on. It was a set built to fail, and it fails spectacularly, bit by bit, over the course of the show. The set was, as Trevor describes it, “a death trap.”

The most impressive thing is that the timing of set failures is just as exacting as that of the actors, and I would love to interview the tech people and find out how they did it all. I’m suspecting a ton of remotely controlled magnets and levers (probably via MIDI?), and a third running crew member beyond sound and lights in charge of all the effects.

But I’m just gushing now. As a theater kid, I loved the show just because. As an improviser I loved it even more just because because. Most of the muggles watching with me seemed to love it, too. If you fall into any of those categories, see it if you get a chance. This run ends on August 11. And then before or after, stream “Noises Off,” a 1992 movie version of that play starring Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, and Michael Caine, among others.

Meanwhile, this play goes wrong in all the right ways.

Why astrology is bunk

I know way too many otherwise intelligent adults who believe in astrology, and it really grinds my gears, especially right now, because I’m seeing a lot of “Mercury is going retrograde — SQUEEEE” posts, and they are annoying and wrong.

The effect that Mercury in retrograde will have on us: Zero.

Fact

Mercury doesn’t “go retrograde.” We catch up with and then pass it, so it only looks like it’s moving backwards. It’s an illusion, and entirely a function of how planets orbit the sun, and how things look from here. If Mars had (semi)intelligent life, they would note periods when the Earth was in retrograde, but it’d be for the exact same reason.

Science

What force, exactly, would affect us? Gravity is out, because the gravitational effect of anything else in our solar system or universe is dwarfed by the Earth’s. When it comes to astrology at birth, your OB/GYN has a stronger gravitational effect on you than the Sun.

On top of that, the Sun has 99.9% of the mass of our solar system, which is how gravity works, so the Sun has the greatest gravitational influence on all of the planets. We only get a slight exception because of the size of our Moon and how close it is, but that’s not a part of astrology, is it? (Not really. They do Moon signs, but it’s not in the day-to-day.)

Some other force? We haven’t found one yet.

History

If astrology were correct, then there are one of two possibilities. A) It would have predicted the existence of Uranus and Neptune, and possibly Pluto, long before they were discovered, since astrology goes back to ancient times, but those discoveries happened in the modern era, or B) It would not have allowed for the addition of those three planets (and then the removal of Pluto) once discovered, since all of the rules would have been set down. And it certainly would have accounted for the 13th sign, Ophiuchus, which, again, wasn’t found until very recently, by science.

So…stop believing in astrology, because it’s bunk. Mercury has no effect on us whatsoever, other than when astronomers look out with telescopes and watch it transit the Sun, and use its movements to learn more about real things, like gravity.

Experiment

James Randi, fraud debunker extraordinaire, does a classroom exercise that demolishes the accuracy of those newspaper horoscopes, and here it is — apologies for the low quality video.

Yep. Those daily horoscopes you read are general enough to be true for anyone, and confirmation bias means that you’ll latch onto the parts that fit you and ignore the parts that don’t although, again, they’re designed to fit anyone — and no one is going to remember the generic advice or predictions sprinkled in or, if they do, will again pull confirmation bias only when they think they came true.

“You are an intuitive person who likes to figure things out on your own, but doesn’t mind asking for help when necessary. This is a good week to start something new, but be careful on Wednesday. You also have a coworker who is plotting to sabotage you, but another who will come to your aid. Someone with an S in their name will become suddenly important, and they may be an air sign. When you’re not working on career, focus on home life, although right now your Jupiter is indicating that you need to do more organizing than cleaning. There’s some conflict with Mars, which says that you may have to deal with an issue you’ve been having with a neighbor. Saturn in your third house indicates stability, so a good time to keep on binge watching  your favorite show, but Uranus retrograde indicates that you’ll have to take extra effort to protect yourself from spoilers.”

So… how much of that fit you? Or do you think will? Honestly, it is 100% pure, unadulterated bullshit that I just made up, without referencing any kind of astrological chart at all, and it could apply to any sign because it mentions none.

Conclusion

If you’re an adult, you really shouldn’t buy into this whole astrology thing. The only way any of the planets would have any effect at all on us is if one of them suddenly slammed into the Earth. That probably only happened once, or not, but it’s what created the Moon. So probably ultimately not a bad thing… except for anything living here at the time.

The art of war

Ending just over a century ago, World War I, originally known as The Great War or the War to End All Wars, turned out to be none of the above, since it was eclipsed by its sequel, World War II — to date, the planet’s only nuclear war — which also outdid the first World War in terms of “greatness” if you take “great” to mean number of deaths. Also, obviously, the fact that there was a II to follow the I — and many other wars thereafter to the present day — means that World War I didn’t end any wars at all.

What’s often forgotten about the aftermath of that wr was the effect it had on the people who lived through it — sometimes barely — and especially the effect it had on the arts and culture, as well as the politics of the rest of the first half of the 20th century. It left a generation that was as stunned as the post-Vietnam generation. In fact, it gave us the original term for what we now call PTSD: shell-shock.

In the arts, it gave us things like Dada, which led to Surrealism, which were both efforts to deal with the absolute horror of what really was the first modern war. After all, WWI gave us the first aerial warfare with planes (after a brief prelude in Mexico), the first trench warfare and the first large-scale chemical warfare. It also led to the development of new techniques in plastic surgery. Hey, gotta figure out how to rebuild all those faces that got blown off, right?

But it was the art connection that really hit home, because I can think of three films that dealt with World War I that have really stuck with me — the first because of the way it manages to demonstrate the pure horror of that war and all wars, and the other two because they show, brilliantly, how that war went on to influence the arts and artists of that generation as they grew up after it.

The oldest film and oldest source is Johnny Got His Gun, based on a book written Dalton Trumbo in 1938 — or, in other words, right before the sequel to the Great War was released. Ironically, he was later blacklisted as a communist in the 1950s. The movie came out in 1971, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. Both it and the book tell a first-person story about a young veteran of World War I who comes home with all of his limbs and his face blown off. He basically has no way to communicate with the world, and keeps reliving the war while telling us what he can sense — which is mostly the sounds and touches from the nurses around him.

It’s a very dark and hopeless story. This man has basically been condemned to be trapped in his own practically useless body which is just being kept alive because, well, it’s what you do for the wounded, right? He is denied euthanasia and can’t even commit suicide. Even though he finally manages to try to communicate in Morse code by banging his head on his pillow, he’s ignored — just like so many veterans of that (and other) wars have been.

The second film, Savage Messiah, is one of Ken Russell’s earlier biopics. Released in 1972, it tells the story of artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Gaudier was his birth name, but he had a rather unconventional relationship with a much older woman and took her name as a hyphenate way before it was even a thing, even though they never married.

Eventually, he marches off voluntarily to fight in World War I, and one of the scenes near the end of the film is one that has stuck with me since I first saw it in an art-house revival years ago. One character is reading a letter from Henri on the front that is glorifying the war, talking about killing the enemy. Another character, pitched as somewhat of an antagonist, says, “Whoever wrote that should be shot,” and the man reading the letter replies, “He was. This morning.”

And that is how we find out that this artist and sculptor is dead. It’s one of those rug-yank moments that works so well.

The final film, Max, came out thirty years after Savage Messiah, but is perhaps the strongest synthesis of the “how this war affected the arts” with “how this war got a sequel.” In it, John Cusack plays the titular character, a would-be artist who lost his painting arm in the trenches and so who is now just an art dealer and agent. He meets a young Hitler, portrayed by the brilliant Noah Taylor, and tries to mentor him, but it does not go well because Hitler cannot understand the human side of art while Max cannot see Hitler’s nascent fascism in his works.

One of the highlights is a Dadaist performance piece by Max in which he is lowered, apparently nude and with lost arm in full view sans prosthetic, into a giant meat-grinder while he talks about the war, tons of ground beef pouring out the business end. While the character of Max Rothman in 1918 may have been fictional, the film is still a very effective take on the emotional scars that this war left on everyone who had to live through the battlefield. Only the dead were left with just physical scars, and not emotional ones, although that’s probably not better.

Of course, there are a bunch of top-rated World War I movies, some made before, a lot made after; some of which I’ve seen, a lot of which I’ve haven’t, along with the long list of all World War I movies. Also, I can’t forget Black Adder Goes Forth, which basically ended a beloved series with (SPOILER ALERT) all of the characters rushing out of the trench to their certain deaths. But, c’mon. It’s a Black Adder series. That shouldn’t be a surprise at all, considering how the first one ended.

Finally, to really bring it full circle, Rajiv Joseph wrote a play about the start of World War I called Archduke which was pretty amazing and that played in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 2017, exactly a century after the U.S. finally entered WWI.

Oh yeah. The other big effect of that war? It’s the one that solidified the U.S. as a world super-power after we fired the first shot in the Spanish-American War but before we stole the thunder from Britain and France by finally jumping in to end the First World War. That part is not necessarily good, though, either.

What films about war particularly move you? Tell us in the comments!

On the shoulders of giants

A while back, I wrote about two writers who had a big influence on me, one directly in real life, and the other stylistically. But I’ve also been influenced by four film directors, one of whom directly inspired me to stupidly pursue a career in this business. Unlike one of the writers above, I never met any of them, and they all also happen to be dead now.

In a nutshell, and in order of influence, those directors are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell, and Nicolas Roeg. Sure, four old, white British men (Kubrick being an American ex-pat), but I didn’t know better as a kid, okay? All I knew was that my dad took me to see Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of those many times when the Cinerama Dome opened a would-be blockbuster that bombed, so they had to fill time with something else — and this movie blew Star Wars right out of the water. It was Science Fiction that felt real. There was no sound in space, the movie took its time, the soundtrack was mostly classical music in a future context, and I walked out of that first viewing thinking, “Yeah. I want to do this.”

Present me would love to time travel back to then, grab that kid by the shoulders and shout in his face, “No, dumbass. You want to figure out how to make enough money to pay other people to do this for you so you’ll be richer than Croesus.”

Young me wouldn’t have listened.

Anyway, a few years later, I discovered the several “Art House” cinemas in Los Angeles like the Nuart Theater, mainly because I noticed that they showed other Kubrick films. They also didn’t seem to really pay a lot of attention to ratings, so I could get my young ass into R-rated films. Note: There are absolutely no penalties, legal or otherwise, for a theater not following the MPAA ratings when they sell tickets. None. Nada, and one theater openly defied an NC-17 rating. It’s all smoke and mirrors, folks. So anybody can go to an R-rated movie. It’s just the idea that ratings are some legal bar that makes them effective. But I do digress…

So I worked my way through the Kubrick oeuvre, then stumbled into Hitchcock, and while he created in a G-rated world, his films were just as amazing for different reasons. Kubrick’s works are all about Big Ideas passed through the filter of human experience. 2001 deals with the evolution of the human species, past and future; Clockwork Orange handles crime and punishment; Dr. Strangelove takes on war and peace; Barry Lyndon is all about the class system, and so on.

Hitchcock, though, was all about plot, especially when layered with suspense. Kubrick would make you think. Hitchcock would make you sit on the edge of your seat and clench your butt. Hitch was also far more prolific than Kubrick, which is why I think that there isn’t a single Kubrick film I don’t love, but I’m not a fan of every Hitchcock film.

The ones that really bowl me over, though, are North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Rope. Oops… Psycho isn’t on that list? Well, for me it’s not, because it really doesn’t stack up against the others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great film, but in the context of the rest of his works, it’s actually on the lower end of the scale.

The other thing that struck me about both of these directors, though, is that they were technical innovators. Both of them constantly came up with new ways to do things on film. Hitchcock actually has a particular shooting technique named after him, and Kubrick managed to out-Star Wars Star Wars a decade before Star Wars without a single computer in sight.

After Hitchcock, though, those art house movies led me to another director who worked on a completely different plane, but to whom I clung immediately: Ken Russell. And if Kubrick specialized in ideas while Hitchcock mastered in plot, I’d have to say that Russell’s playing field dealt with emotions in general, or fantasies specifically. His biopics were amazing exercises in giving us emotional truths through metaphors.

Three in particular, each of which dealt with famous composers, run the scale (pun intended) from lightest to heaviest in fantasy: The Music Lovers, about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with some fantasy sequences, but not a lot; Mahler, about the composer Gustav Mahler, about half and half; and Lizstomania, almost entirely fantasy and, while it seems to be the most off-the-rails of them all in covering the life of Franz Lizst, it is actually the most accurate in its metaphorical way, because Lizst really was the first rock star, even if it happened 120 years before the Beatles.

Russell used fantasies and dreams to explore the emotional life of his characters, and it is beautiful. He’s another director with an oeuvre limited enough that I think I’ve seen almost all of his films, and while I have ups and downs, I don’t think there are many I don’t like. For calibration purposes, I’d rank Lair of the White Worm as worst, and the aforementioned Mahler as best.

After Russell, the art houses introduced me to another influence, a director named Nicolas Roeg. And the thing he specialized in was playing with time. Not a single one of his films took place in chronological order, and this was what taught me the power of editing. He’s probably best well-known for a film that most people haven’t seen but only know about because David Bowie starred in it: The Man Who Fell to Earth. And here’s the thing. This is one damn difficult movie to sit through, and it wasn’t my first Roeg film, so I came to it knowing his style.

Here’s the order I learned Roeg, as far as I can remember. Don’t Look Now, which is an amazing and stylish suspense horror film that isn’t gory, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie; Walkabout, which deals with issues of privilege at a time when that wasn’t even a concept, as White Girl and White Boy (literally their names in the credits) are dumped in the Australian outback by their suicidal father, only to be saved by an aboriginal Black Boy who is on his Walkabout, which is a right of passage for his belief system. Needless to say, guess who it doesn’t end well for.

And before I got to The Man Who Fell to Earth, I also saw Roeg’s first big “Hey, look at me” movie, Performance, which actually gave us an incredible, well, um, performance from a young, often nude, and sexy Mick Jagger.

But the most important takeaway for me from Roeg’s films was this. Do not tell your story in chronological order. Tell it in emotional order. If the thing that happens in normal Act 3 seems meaningless then, but can serve as set-up for later, then move it up. And if the thing from Act 1 that seems meaningless up front takes on power later, move it down.

Put them all together, and this is where my playwriting goes: Stories about big ideas that are still very plotted, but which also use fantasy and surrealism to explore emotional truths, and tend to not take place in chronological order. In fact, only one of my produced full-length plays takes place in literal time, and that happens to be the first one produced.

And so there you go. I constantly play with ideas, plots, emotions, and chronology. The big idea comes first, and I build the story from that via plots that are driven by emotions. Once that’s in place, I chop the story up and order it based not on when, but on how the emotions drive the timeline and the plot. And this is how four very different directors created my artistic vision.

(Not noted above, Terry Gilliam, who I didn’t realize really was an influence at first, but taught me the idea of not taking anything too seriously, least of all yourself, and also confirmed that I was playing the game of cut and paste creativity properly.)

So who are your major influences? What have you taken from them, and how do you use that? Tell us in the comments!

Fangry

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the petition started by fans demanding a re-do of Season 8 of Game of Thrones, and this may have given you a flashback to last year, when fans of Star Wars demanded the same thing in the same way for The Last Jedi. Hm. Oddly enough, that was Episode VIII, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Of course, there’s no chance in hell that any of this is going to happen. Personally, if I were one of the producers on the receiving end of that petition, my response would be, “Okay, sure. Season 8 cost $90 million. When I checked, 218,141 of you signed the petition. So if each of you sends us $412.56, we’ll do it.” (Note: I am not going to link to the petition at all, and the reasons why not should become obvious shortly.)

This is called “putting your money where your mouth is,” although I’m sure that many of these fans who are complaining are either torrenting the series illegally or sharing HBO to Go passwords with each other, which just makes it more infuriating.

As an artist, nothing galls me more than armchair quarterbacking from the fans. Note that this is different than critiquing. If a fan sees one of my plays or reads one of my books and says, “I really didn’t like how the story played out,” or “I couldn’t relate to the lead character,” or similar, than that is totally valid. But as soon as a fan (or a critic) gets into, “It should have ended like this,” or “I would have written it like that,” or “this character should have done this instead,” then you’ve gone over the line.

Note, though: Professional critics do not do this. That’s what sets them apart from angry fanboys.

Thanks to the internet, we’ve moved into this weird area where what used to be a consumer culture has morphed into a participatory culture. Sorry to go Wiki there, but those are probably the most accessible ways in to what are very abstract concepts involving economics, marketing, and politics.

There are good and bad sides to both, which I’ll get to in a moment, and while the latter has always been lurking in the background, it hasn’t become as prevalent until very recently. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs understanding and context to work.

So what do we mean by consumer and participatory? The short version is “buy stuff” vs. “give stuff.” A consumer culture focuses on getting people to spend money in the pursuit of having a better life in a capitalist economy. Its marketing mantra is, “Hey… you have problem A? Product X will solve it!” It is also aimed at large groups based on demographics in order to bring in the herd mentality. Keeping up with the Joneses writ large. “Everybody is doing it/has one!”

Ever wonder why people line up down the block at midnight in order to get the latest iPhone or gaming console on the day it comes out? It’s because they have been lured, hook, line, and sinker into consumer culture. But here’s the thing people miss, or used to miss because I think we’re becoming a bit more aware. Because demographics are very important to consumer culture, you are also a product. And if some corporation is giving you something for free — like Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc. — then you are the only product.

Participatory culture is one in which people do not just buy, watch, or read the products, but in which they give input and feedback, and the rise of the internet and social media has pushed this to the forefront. Ever commented on a post by one of your favorite brands on how they could make it better? Ever snarked an elected official for whom you’re a constituent? Ever blasted a movie, show, or sketch in a mass media corporation’s website? Congratulations! That’s participatory culture.

As I mentioned above, it’s not new. In the days before the internet, people could always write letters to newspapers, legislators, corporations, and studios. The only difference then was that it was a bit harder — physically creating the message, whether with pen and paper or typewriter, then putting it in an envelope, looking up the address via dead tree media, taking the thing to a post office, putting a stamp on it, and dropping it off.

Phew. That’s some hard work. Now? Fire up Twitter, drop an @ and some text, click send, done.

And, again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve had more direct responses from my own elected officials to my social media comments than I ever did back in the days of mail of the E or snail variety only. The mail responses were always form letters with the subtext of, “Yeah, we get this a lot, we don’t care, here’s some boilerplate.” Social media doesn’t allow for that because it becomes too obvious.

But where participatory culture goes too far is when the fans turn it into possessory culture. Again, this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s only become more common because being a participant and not just a consumer has become so much easier.

Here’s the anecdotal part. I’ve spent a lot of my working career in the entertainment industry, particularly film and television, and a lot of that dealing directly or indirectly with fans. And one thing that I can say for certain is that people who aren’t in the industry — termed “non-pro” by the trades and often called “muggles” by us — don’t have a clue about how it all works.

If you don’t know what “the trades” are, then you probably fall into the muggle category. Although it’s really a dying term, it refers to the magazines that covered the industry (“the trade”) from the inside, and which were read voraciously every day — principally Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Billboard.

But I do digress.

In college, I interned for a game show production company, and one of my jobs was reading and properly directing fan mail, or replying to it with one of a dozen form letters they had printed out en masse, because yes, the questions or complaints were so predictable. One of the big recurring themes was the mistaken belief that the host of the game show personally wrote, directed, edited, and selected contestants for the entire thing. Yeah, no. Unless the host was an executive producer (and the only example that comes to mind is Alex Trebek, for whom I almost worked), then the only thing the host did was show up for the taping day, when they would do five half-hour shows back to back.

And so… I would read endless letters with sob stories begging the host to cast them, or complaints about wanting them to fire one or another guest celebrities, or, ridiculously often, outright requests for money because reasons (always from red states, too), prefiguring GoFundMe by a decade or two.

A lot of these letters also revealed how racist a lot of Americans were then (and still are) and yes, the response to that crap was one of our most sent-out form letters.

This pattern continued though, on into the days of the internet and email. When I worked on Melrose Place, we would constantly get emails telling the stars of the show things like, “I hated what you did to (character) in that episode. Why are you such a bitch?” or “Why don’t you change this story line? I hate it.”

Really? Really.

Gosh. I guess I never realized that scripted TV had so damn much improv going on. Yes, that was irony. And here’s a fun fact: While a lot of it may seem like it’s improv, SNL is actually not, and doing improv there is the quickest way to never get invited back.

At least those comments were much easier to respond to. “Thank you, but Heather Locklear does not actually write her parts, she only performs them. We will pass your concerns on to the producers.” (Which we never did, because, why?)

Still… misguided but fine. And even things like fan fiction are okay, because they aren’t trying to change canon so much as honor it — although it can sometimes spin off the rails, with Fifty Shades of Gray being the ur-example of a fangirl turning a Twilight fanfic into a super dumpster fire of bad writing and terrible movies and still somehow making a fortune off of it — the perfect storm of participatory culture turning around to bite the ass of consumer culture. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but if anybody did this to my work, I’d probably want to punch them in the throat.

Of course, there are always textual poachers, who approach fanfic from a slightly different angle. Their aim isn’t to make their own fortune off of rewriting stuff. Rather, it’s to, well, as a quote from the book Textual Poachers says, “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.”

So that’s perfectly fine. If you’re not happy with how Star Wars or Game of Thrones turned out, then write your own damn version yourself. Do it on your own time and at your own expense, and enjoy. But the second you’d deign to try to demand that any other artist should change their work to make you happy, then you have lost any right whatsoever to complain about it.

castle-rock-misery-stephen-king

Don’t be Annie Wilkes. Stephen King knew that.

See how that works? Or should I start a petition demanding that the other petition be worded differently? Yeah. I don’t think that would go over so well with the whiny fanboys either.

The perception of art is completely subjective while the creation thereof is completely under the artist’s control. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it, don’t watch it, don’t buy it. But, most of all, don’t tell the artist how they should have done it. Period. Full stop.

Bad movies that really aren’t

Judging any art form is really subjective. After all, one man’s masterpiece is another man’s mishegoss. And you can’t really measure the entire world of creativity based on just your standards. Sure, it’d be nice if everything conformed to your taste, but why does it have to? You don’t have to watch it if you don’t like it.

I mean, if I ruled the world of entertainment, then most reality shows would not exist, no one would have ever heard of the Kardashians or the residents of the Jersey Shore, and professional wrestling would have died in the 1950s, along with a lot of other things. And sorry, but there would also be no MCU or DC movies.

If all of that pisses you off, good. It should. Because, like I said, if there’s room for my fanboy stuff, there’s room for yours. If I don’t like your stuff, I don’t have to watch it, and vice versa.

This isn’t to say that everything ever produced is perfect, or that all critics are wrong. Sometimes, a hot mess can be damn entertaining despite, or even because of, its flaws, and here are my ten examples of movies that, IMHO, are much better than they have any business being.

  1. Myra Breckinridge (1970)

Adapted from Gore Vidal’s “book that couldn’t be written,” this “motion picture that couldn’t be made” is actually much better and far more subversive than it was given credit for at the time. Then again, maybe it was too far ahead of its time, since it dealt with issues of gender identity, sexual orientation, feminism, and the capitalistic rape of the arts at a time when American society wasn’t ready for that discussion. As if we really are now.

Vidal disowned the film, and a lot of the cast involved, especially Raquel Welch in the titular (ahemn) role bad-mouthed it before it came out. Some critics think it’s the one thing that prevented her meteoric rise to stardom from continuing, which is a shame. Rex Reed also isn’t half bad in his debut, but the rest of his onscreen acting career amounted to small parts, cameos, or appearing on game shows, although he did frequently appear as himself in documentaries about other performers.

Still… viewed through the lens of the world almost fifty years later, the film comes across as a wry and knowing satire that somehow managed to understand the marginalized, even if the director was a straight and probably homophobic moron.

  1. Caligula (1979)

This one is an interesting milestone mainly because it’s the only example I can think of that had a big name, famous cast combined with hardcore porn. Oh, sure. None of the stars were involved in the actual boinking, but nonetheless there was plenty of real sex happening onscreen in this film, money shots and all — and some of the big names did do a lot of faking it.

But here’s the thing. I’ve been a fan of Roman history for a long time, and had read Suetonius long before I saw this film in an art house revival, and if anything, it actually holds back a little bit from the reality, despite all  that jizz and gore on screen.

If you can handle all the ick, though, what’s not to like? We have Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud, leading up a cast of mostly Italian actors who were probably doing the old “it’s getting dubbed later” trick with their dialogue. But, anyway… for the most part, Caligula follows Suetonius pretty accurately, paints a really nice portrait of Rome circa 40 C.E., has a little bit of something for everyone, and has some really nice dark humor.

Bonus points and a connection to the first entry: the screenplay was written by… Gore Vidal, who also disowned it and insisted that his name be taken off. Somewhere in my collection, I think I still have a rare paperback edition of the novelization of the film that credits him as the author. He would have hated that.

  1. The Apple (1980)

Kudos for this one, because it happened right at a point when Hollywood musicals seemed dead — although it didn’t manage to get the same attention as the next entry on the list. This is definitely a B Movie and set in the then far-off world of 1994, where “life is nothing but show business.” The only thing they got wrong was in jumping the gun a little bit, but not by much.

I’d classify this one as pretentious silliness, but the musical numbers are enjoyable enough and well-choreographed, and the issues of reality shows with audience manipulation to tinker with the results still ring true today. Bonus points for the Big Bad being played by famous Polish character actor Vladek Sheybal in what is, as far as I know, his only musical role. He made a career out of playing dubious Soviets during the Cold War, but is probably best known to mainstream audiences for his role in the James Bond flick From Russia with Love. Here, it’s a hoot seeing him play a saucy singing and dancing stand-in for Satan.

Oh, yeah. In case the symbolism in the title was too subtle for you, yes, it’s that apple ultimately, with Mr. Boogalow and Mr. Topps competing for the souls of innocents Pandi and Dandi. I’m sure the symbolism of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s names will probably jump right out at you, too.

  1. Xanadu (1980)

Another musical dealing with religious mythology, although this time around it’s Greek, and involves a muse (Olivia Newton-John) who came down to Earth. (She’s Terpsichore, the muse of dance, in case you’re keeping track.) The plot involves some silliness about re-opening a long closed roller rink as a failed mural artist (Michael Beck) teams up with an old time band leader (Gene Kelly), and they all sing, dance, and skate around combined with some really cheesy 1980 visual effects that were in that awkward slot between purely optical and purely CGI.

Still… it’s an entertaining romp if you just let your brain go and marvel at this attempt to combine the au courant (Olivia) with the past (Kelly), and an even further past (the Pan Pacific Theater, which was another character, really),  and set it all to cheesy as hell pop songs. Hey, it was good enough to be unironically turned into a Broadway musical.

  1. Meet Joe Black (1998)

The main critique I hear of this film is that it’s just too damn long, but come on. It happens to be exactly the same length as Avengers: End Game to the minute. What I enjoy about this film, though, besides the amazing pairing of Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins in the leads, is how much of a throw-back to 1930s and 40s Hollywood films it is, particularly Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Death Takes a Holiday (1934) — which was the direct inspiration for this film.

After Joe Black takes over the body of a young man who struck the interest of Hopkins’ character’s daughter before he was hit by multiple cars and apparently killed, it becomes a meditation on the need for love and the inevitability of death and, indeed, how the former can conquer the latter. This is a film about big ideas, and it takes its time with it, which is probably why it put a lot of people off.

  1. Battlefield Earth (2000)

This one is on the top of my “So goddamn bad it’s gold” list. Cheesy as hell? Oh yeah. Cosmic shit show? In spades. Worth watching? Definitely. Here’s the review I wrote when it came out. What wasn’t to hate about it? Crazed cult member spends millions on vanity project with no apparent oversight, chews up and spits out the scenery, and everything in it seems derivative.

On that last point, here’s where I have to give props to L. Ron, though. Sure, there are bits that seem to have been ripped from Logan’s Run and Blade Runner and other stuff. However, he did write his pulp epic before those books and movies ever came out. So this is chicken and egg stuff. Still…

The best part of Battlefield Earth is that if you know it’s a thinly veiled explanation of Scientology, then everything in it makes that pseudo religion look so goddamn ridiculous that this movie is practically an anti-recruiting tool — and Travolta couldn’t even see that. And that was L. Ron Hubbard’s joke, really, I think, because he parodied hard the religion he created and its structure. Who are the villains in this story? The Psychlos. And even though he gave them a name reminiscent of the people Scientologists consider the villains — psychiatrists and psychologists — that was just a dodge,  because everything thing the Psychlos do and say, especially to each other, is right out of the Scientology  rule book.

So, yeah. This movie more than anything reminds me of what an evil genius L. Ron was. He managed to create a cult and then mock them quite openly in his fiction, knowing that they’d never get it because he’d blinded them to it. Brilliant!

  1. National Treasure (2004)

History: 0. Fun: 10. That’s all I really have to say about this one and its sequels. It’s a romp that may teach some people some stuff, and it’s sort of an Americanized Dan Brown, except without quite so much made up bullshit. Okay, a modicum of made up bullshit, but at least it’s not stolen from other writers who made it up first.

  1. John Carter (2012)

The only reason that John Carter tanked is this: Disney bought Lucasfilm. Period. Why did that have an effect? Simple. They didn’t want to start supporting another science fiction franchise in the wake of the behemoth they’d just reined in. So all PR and marketing for this film stopped abruptly before it opened, and more’s the shame, because it’s a pretty accurate take on what is arguably one of the earliest American science fiction franchises, and Mr. Carter deserved a hell of a lot more.

I mean, come on. Is Disney really that blind that they don’t realize how damn many fourteen-year-old boys (and girls) they could have gotten to come see A Princess of Mars? Otherwise, John Carter is a well-done ripping adventure that combines every desert planet from Star Wars with all of that MCU jumping about.

  1. Jupiter Ascending (2015)

This one was misunderstood by people who don’t like comedy or satire in their science fiction. (“You got chocolate in my peanut butter!”) But, come on. It’s funny and off-kilter, and it’s meant to be. The other thing to keep in mind: during the time this film was in production, the Wachowskis were going through some difficult personal times, just after Lana’s public transition and just before Lily’s — and one of them was outed as transgender against her will. So take that title, as well as the plot, as symbolic.

Is the whole thing meant to be camp and with a double meaning? Oh, hell yes.

  1. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

I consider this film to be the unofficial sequel to Luc Besson’s amazing The Fifth Element, because it really feels like it’s set in the same world, and it starts off with an absolutely amazing opening sequence (with Rutger Hauer and Bowie bonus points) and then includes this amazing bit of stuff from Rihanna that made me question my sexuality. What’s not to like?

Which movies that are generally considered “bad” do you really love and why? Tell us in the comments.