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!

Playwrights write down rites just right

An interesting quartet of heterographs in English are the words rite, right, write, and wright. While the latter three are frequently used with prefixes, the first three also stand alone, and the first one is never prefixed. The second of these has multiple meanings in… well… its own right.

I’ll start with the one I don’t need to go into depth on: Rite. This is the word describing any kind of ritualized ceremony, and you can clearly see that “rite” and “ritual” are related. Rites can be either religious or secular in nature, and they sometimes mix. Weddings and funerals can be either or sometimes both, while baptisms and confirmations are strictly religious. Graduations tend to be secular except in religious schools, although the only religious elements then tend to be an opening invocation or prayer and, sometimes, an optional Mass afterwards. The pledge of allegiance and national anthem are both secular rites. It’s a toss-up either way whether initiation ceremonies for certain organizations like the Masons are religious or secular, although most fraternity and sorority initiations are certainly the most secular of rituals.

Of course, if you and a group of friends regularly get together for Game Night, or Game of Thrones Night, or, like me, do Improv, those are also rites by definition, and again of the most secular kind. Note that all theatre is a rite because it’s structured and has its rules and way of doing things. Not surprising, considering that theatre originated as a religious ceremony in the first place and then grew out of it.

Next is the one with multiple meanings: Right. In its first definition, it refers to some action or thing that people are assumed to have the privilege to possess without meeting any special conditions. That is, a right is a thing you can do, a belief you can hold, or a thing you can own. Of course, “without special conditions” is itself a conditional statement, since in most places rights are established via laws or Constitutions. After all, while the American Declaration of Independence says that our unalienable rights include the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, it’s predicated by the statement that it’s a self-evident truth that all men are created equal (emphasis on “men,” naturally), and followed by the idea that governments are created in order to secure these rights.

Note that, at the time, slavery was legal, and in the new country called the United States of America, only white, male, land-owning men over the age of 21 got to vote. No one else needed to apply. So those unalienable rights were relative after all.

Another meaning of the word “right” is the direction — the hand on the gearshift side (if you’re American and drive manual transmission) or the arm on the opposite side of your body from most of your heart (unless you have situs inversus). There’s also the “right hand rule,” which is used in math, physics, and 3D animation, and is basically a way of visualizing how three directional axes move at once. In the 3D animation world, these are X, Y and Z — generally left-right, forward-back, and up-down.

And then there are… well, damn. The dictionary lists 48 different definitions of the word “right,” as adjective, noun, and adverb. I’ll be right back after I read them all…

(See what I did there?)

Okay, are we all right as rain? Good. Let’s move on to the next one. That would be the word write, which is what I’m doing right now (make it stop!). And while this one technically has 17 definitions, they all really boil down to the same thing: to put information into some form that is inscribed onto a surface via abstract characters that represent sounds, syllables, or concepts, whether ink on paper, hieroglyphics on stone, electrons on computer chips, or notes on a musical staff. The act of doing so is the word write as a verb: to write.

The last of the quartet is wright, and he’s a sad little camper because he has only one definition: a worker, especially one that constructs something. He also never appears alone.

Now let’s get to some compounds using the last three and clear up some confusion. For example… you wrote a play. So does that make you:

  1. A playwrite
  2. A playwright

Well, it’s a play and you wrote it, right? Yes, but you also created it, and this is one of the specific uses for… wright. You constructed a play, so you’re a playwright.

Okay, so you’ve written the play and now you want to make sure that everyone knows you own it so they can’t steal it. Time to file it with the Library of Congress. So do you get:

  1. Copywright
  2. Copywrite
  3. Copyright

Hm. Well, you’re a playwright and you don’t want it copied. Oh, wait. Wouldn’t a “copywright” be someone who makes copies? Then maybe… oh yeah. You wrote it, so you’d write the copies, hence you’d copywrite…? Wrong? Of course. Because what this word is really saying is that you have the right to copy the work, since you own it.

Here’s an easy way to remember. When the word “write” is prefixed, it always refers to the style or method of writing, and not really the person. It’s only a person if the word ends with “writer,” but note that “copywrite” is never a verb. You can’t say “I copywrite for XYZ Blog,” but you can say “I’m a copywriter for XYZ Blog.”

As for words that end in “right,” immediately ignore any that actually end in “wright” or in other words that overlap, like “bright,” or “fright.” You’ll find that the few of these that exist really just modify one of the many other meanings of “right.”

And then there’s “wright.” What’s really fascinating about this word is that there are so many occupations, many long forgotten, that not only use this word, but have given names to the English language — and which also remind us of all those other occupational names, and not obvious ones, like Baker.

Playwright I’ve already mentioned. But what would you go to a wainwright for? No… not someone who designs your Batmobile. Although maybe. A wain was a farm wagon or cart, so a wainwright was a cart-maker. And if that cart were going to be a covered wagon, he’d probably need the services of a cooper to make the metal ribs to hold up the canvas. He’d probably also work in close partnership with a wheelwright, who does exactly what you think.

Side note: Ever heard the word “wainscot?” It isn’t related to wagons, but to wood. It’s one of those fun cases of similar sounding words coming from different origins entirely.

Other wrights you might have seen: shipwright and millwright, both of which should be self-evident. And a lot of these wrights would have relied upon the work of smiths, who are people that work with metal. Pretty much it’s a game of “metal+smith” and there’s the occupation. That’s because the word “smith” meant “to hit,” which is what metal works do to form their molten raw materials. Hm. I wonder whether “smith” and “smash” are related.

And then there’s “blacksmith,” which brings up the question, “Hey — why not ironsmith?” The simple answer is that iron used to be called “black metal” because that’s what it looked like in its unoxidized form — ever seeing iron filings? For similar reasons, tinsmiths are also called whitesmiths. Compare the word “tinker,” who was someone who repaired household utensils, most of which had probably been made by smiths. Or maybe potters.

Another fascinating thing about these occupations is how persistent they become as last names. I mean, there’s Rufus Wainwright, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gary Cooper, Will Smith, Josephine Baker, TV producer Grant Tinker, the fictional Harry Potter and the very real creator of the fictional Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter.

But the real point here, as always, is how four words that sound exactly alike but which are spelled so differently and have such different meanings managed to land in the language through very different routes, because that is what makes English so interesting, versatile, and difficult. I’d probably be right to say that it’s a rite of passage for everyone who’s trying to learn how to write English to mess this stuff up until they meet a wordwright to help them. I hope that I can fulfill that occupation and set things right.

Good night!

Influences, influencers, the influenced

I seem to be slowly developing a following here, and it’s not all people I know in real life. In fact, it’s mostly not people I know in real life. And a lot of you seem to like what I’m doing, and I’ve gotten positive comments and messages, and I appreciate them all. This next sentence is going to sound like a mega-tautology, but here you go: I write what I write here because I’m a writer, and what writers do is write.

In other words, this all began as an exercise in keeping my chops up. When I started this blog, it was right after the end of a decade-long gig which involved, in part, ghost-writing a weekly column for a certain D-list celebrity. Since I was given a ridiculous amount of free-rein, I basically took their philosophies in one subject area and applied them to human psychology and self-improvement, and got to at least enjoy the praise vicariously. I made the words. D-lister got the thanks. Go figure.

So it’s nice to actually get the positive comments myself, finally.

But this also reminds me of my own adventure with a columnist. The Los Angeles Times used to run daily columns by a writer with the most generic of names: Jack Smith. When I was a kid, my parents subscribed to the Times, and I used to read his column regularly, but one of them stuck with me. It was about the etymology of the word “undertakers,” and this sentence in particular, referring to the U.S. Civil War, jumped out: “…undertakers used to follow the armies like prostitutes, not to pleasure the soldiers but to embalm them.”

It stuck with me enough that I eventually wrote an entire play about undertakers, a prostitute, and the Civil War, called Noah Johnson had a Whore… (Later productions would try to drop the last three words from the title only for me to learn an important lesson: As offensive as they might seem, those words effin’ sold tickets.)

Anyway… this was the first full-length play I ever wrote, the first of mine ever produced, and I wound up starting at the top. It won an award from and was first produced by South Coast Rep, which is basically the Center Theater Group of Orange County. In other words, big time. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget and, to this day, I happen to have one of the 19th-century style wooden coffins from that production sitting in my living room as a coffee table as a constant reminder. (Note: Yes, coffins and caskets are different.)

But… to quote another produced play of mine, “I do digress…”

Because my play won a contest and turned out to be a big deal and got a lot of PR at the time, SCR reached out to the Times and Jack Smith to get a comment about the whole thing, since he had given me the idea in the first place. And not only did he respond, but he came down to see the show, I got to meet him, and then he wrote about it in another one of his columns.

Yeah, talk about an ultimate fan-boy squee moment. It was all really overwhelming for a baby playwright. And then the show closed and life went on.

Jump cut: About 2010. An old actor friend of mine remembers one of the plays I wrote not long after Noah, but had long since abandoned. Called Bill & Joan, it was about a fateful night in Mexico City in 1951 in which the writer William S. Burroughs shot his wife Joan Vollmer in the head and killed her in front of horrified party guests in what may or may not have been a game of “William Tell” gone horribly wrong. I was inspired to write it because Burroughs was one of my early influences as a writer. Unfortunately, right around the time I started to shop it, David Cronenberg released his film version of Naked Lunch, which infuriated me on two fronts. First, it really had nothing to do with the book (and mostly de-gayed the entire thing). Second, in order to come up with a plot, they did the whole “Bill shoots Joan” storyline, which killed the market for my play.

But… the actor who had read one of the young roles ages ago remembered the play and was now old enough to play the lead, so he got in touch, we pitched to his theater company and… they turned it down on the first pass. (This particularly hurt because one of the artistic directors at the time was French Stewart, whom I have always admired the hell out of.) But, persistence paid off, so we tried again the next year, with a new artistic board (they change every year by design) and ta-da!

So the play opened at the beginning of 2014, to coincide with the centenary of Burroughs’ birth. Bonus points: His birthday was the day after mine and, as we found out in pre-production, his wife’s birthday was the same as mine. Whoa!

But the best and trippiest part was that this whole process became a collaboration between me and my younger self. I hadn’t looked at the play in years, so looking at it again effectively put a third pair of eyes on it, even if those eyes were still mine. When I’d written the play, I was the same age as one of the hustler characters Bill lusted for. When it was produced, I was only a tad older than Bill was when he killed his wife.

Combine all of that with an amazing director, dedicated production staff, and a killer cast, and I think that the whole thing turned out well. But the icing on the cake came after the Burroughs estate sent a spy to see the play, he reported back that I had plagiarized Bill’s words, and we got a cease and desist. This being small theater in L.A., that notice came after we had closed, so the one producer who was and is a major asshole dumped it on me. I replied by just sending them the play, and the ultimate vindication came from James Grauerholz himself.

If you don’t know who he is, you don’t know your Burroughs. He was a fan who wound up being Bill’s secretary and personal assistant in the 1970s and stuck with him to the end, and hence became executor of the estate. In other words, he is William S. Burroughs’ living representative on Earth. It’s not even clear whether they were actually ever lovers. Honestly, probably not, but Jimmy is the fiercest protector of Bill’s legacy.

And his response to reading my play? (Which didn’t quote Burroughs, but just made shit up in his style.) Paraphrased: “There is no plagiarism here. We give you our blessings to produce this play.”

So on the one hand, I’m really flattered to realize that I duped some people into thinking I quoted a literary idol instead of wrote in imitation of his voice. On the other, I am super honored that Hand of God told me, “Yes, oh yes. You can do this. Carry on.”

And that’s a lot of words to get around to saying this: If you appreciate a writer’s work, let them know. We are solitary creatures who do not trust feedback we get from friends and family, because with rare exception, they will tell us we’re brilliant. (If you have a friend who will tell you to your face that something you wrote sucked, hang onto them, because they truly are a friend.) But when the compliments come from strangers, they are the best kind of validation.

And if you are a writer yourself, then  just hang on, do what you do, and trust in yourself until someone else says, “Hey… I like this.”

Because nothing feels better than that.

Image: From the Sacred Fools Production of Bill & Joan; Betsy Moore and Curt Bonnem