Monthly Archives: October 2010

My awesome influence map

There was a brief white-hot meme on deviantART recently where artists whipped up graphic representations of their greatest influences. Defined by instigator “fox-orian,” the Influence Map is meant to remind you of what makes you who you are:

If you run into a major block and cannot create new work, chances are you’re forgetting what inspires you and you need a refresher. … Refer to it as a kind of map in the future in case you get lost.

Most of the meme-keteers who participated were artists of a more graphical nature. I first encountered this through cartoonist Kate Beaton’s blog; as a big, big fan of her stuff, I was intrigued by discovering things like Hergé and Jamie Hewlett as tributaries of the River Beaton. “Neat!” I thought. “I could do that!” And so I have.

As dedicated readers might remember, I have a thing for lists that define me, particularly when considering 40 years of musical influence. When it comes to the art that inspires me, I confined myself to storytellers and their stories that most make me want to be a better writer. It’s big list, that, but when I considered the stories that best move me, and my pen, I arrived at this colorful lot rather quickly:

1. “Toy Story” — More than a great movie, more than a technological first-of-its-kind marvel. This is a masterpiece of story, from tip to toe: introducing its characters, building them out, and (best of all) putting them in an increasingly wondrous series of jeopardies that outdo each other one after another. You remember that moment when Woody discovers that he has a match that will light the rocket that will FINALLY propel them to the escaping moving van? And then, Woody lights the match … just as a car whooshes past and extinguishes it?  I can still recall the shiver that ran down my spine, that dual sensation of despair (How will they get out of this NOW?) and glee (I can’t WAIT to find out how they get out of this now!)  The No. 10 entrant on this list had a hand in the writing of this script, but “Toy Story” stands on its own as a master class in storytelling.

2. J.R.R. Tolkien — It began with a gift from my brother and his wife when I was in fifth grade with a set of magical books that looked exactly like this:

I remember with vivid clarity sitting in bed reading “Return of the King,” as my mother called me for dinner, and I refused to come, because the Witch King was taunting Eowyn, and Theoden lay dying, and my mother was growing impatient, and I couldn’t stand to put down the book, and then little, insignificant Merry stabbed that undead bastard in the leg, and I pumped my fist in the air and yelled, “WAHOO!” I practically floated at the dinner table that night until I could get back and read more.

By the time I was done with this series — and as a young reader, it took years — I was spoiled on fantasy fiction forever. To this day, I can barely read any sword-and-sorcery; most of it feels like a pale and desperate copy of the guy who perfected the genre even as he invented it.

3. The Three Investigators — Most people remember the Hardy Boys, but when I was growing up, those guys were so ’50s. My boys the Investigators were straight-up ’70s hardcore! Created by Robert Arthur Jr., this band of three enterprising boys captured my attention because:

a.) their patron was Alfred Hitchcock. No kidding! He became a crotchety benefactor of the gang after they conned their way into an audience with him at his studio.

b.) their headquarters was an abandoned mobile home. Hidden. Inside a junkyard. Oh yes!

c.) they had the eternal use of a chauffeured limo. Jupiter Jones won it in a contest, using brains.

Every book in the series has a special place with me, but No. 22, “Mystery of the Dead Man’s Riddle” (by William Arden) gets a Hall of Fame plaque. It blew my mind with a riddle-filled treasure hunt in a dead man’s will, written in rhyming Cockney slang. It captured every little bit of my over-active imagination, and if you wonder whether something so seemingly slight could really be an influence on me, I say to you there is a direct, solid line between “Dead Man’s Riddle” and this:

… being a book co-written by me. About a treasure hunt. Based on rhyming riddles. Found in a dead man’s will. (But the similarities end there. “Nod’s Limbs” quite unequivocally has its own peculiarities that make it a beast all its own.) Still: Long live mystery. Especially when it rhymes.

4. Tom Wolfe – Well, of course. I read “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in high school, and found out for the first time what was possible with words. The opening of EKAAT had a vivid description that I remember all these years later; it hooked me on Wolfe forevermore:

That’s good thinking there, Cool Breeze. Cool Breeze is a kid with three or four days’ beard sitting next to me on the stamped metal bottom of the open back part of a pickup truck. Bouncing along. Dipping and rising and rolling on these rotten springs like a boat. Out the back of the truck the city of San Francisco is bouncing down the hill, all those endless staggers of bay windows, slums with a view, bouncing and streaming down the hill. One after another, electric signs with neon martini glasses lit up on them, the San Francisco symbol for “bar” — thousands of neon magenta martini glasses bouncing and streaming down the hill, and beneath them hundreds, thousands of people wheeling around to look at this freaking crazed truck we’re in, their white faces erupting from their lapels like marshmallows — streaming and bouncing down the hill — and God knows they have plenty to look at.

No one sings like Wolfe.

5. Dungeons and Dragons — D&D isn’t technically a story, though it has story elements (villains and settings and such) that have remained cohesive over the years. What D&D is, instead, is an invitation to the reader to tell the story himself, through a game that invites its players to come up with what happens after the sword is strapped to the hip. Want to build a dungeon? A kingdom? A continent? Nothing’s stopping you. This collaborative game was my first introduction to telling my own stories for the enjoyment of others, and it remains a powerful come-thither finger that compels young storytellers (or older) to spin their own yarns and make their own heroes.

6. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — This is the book that finally — finally — convinced me that comics had something for me as an adult. Alan Moore’s adventure story that brings together the heroes and villains of classic pulp fiction is itself a classic pulp tale, and it’s smarter than most works of prose. Moore commands an unrivaled knowledge of literature, from classic works and obscure fiction to penny dreadfuls and cheap potboilers. Even better, he knows how to thread all this ponderous knowledge through a zippy pulp tale that is every bit the equal of the greatest genre fic it borrows from. (He even knows how to mimic the ads of a turn-of-the-century newspaper with dead-on accuracy. In fact, there’s not a style Moore can’t mimic.) This novel is a marvel on many levels, and I reread it when I need to be reminded how to wow.

7. William Shakespeare — Clearly. I would have come to the font of Will eventually, but I thank Mr. Edmonds in 9th grade for getting the ball rolling early on. I groaned with everybody else when forced to wade through impenetrable Elizabethan language. But then I learned how Marc Anthony used the power of language to manipulate the angry masses at Caesar’s funeral: “I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him,” he begins, before pouring on the praise and turning the mob against the dastardly Brutus and his conspirators. Mr. Edmonds made sure we understood how and why the words worked the way they did — and they only worked because of the bard behind them. Oh, Will,  you had me at “lend me your ears.”

8. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — I had never conceived of “wire fu” before this movie, and when I heard about sword fights on the tips of bamboo stalks, I knew I was the target demo. I was surprised to find later that a crazy-action slugfest kung fu flick could move with such depth of character and heart. This taught me that great stories come from everywhere, and that genres aren’t mutually exclusive.

9. Monty Python — Pretty much their entire body of work has had a major bearing on me since I first glimpsed “Holy Grail” on PBS when I was still in the single digits. To quote a single influential joke or sketch would be futile; they are all magic seeds of random thought. Who knows where an idea will sprout when planted in a soil fertilized by dead parrots and rabbit victims and confused cats. I will say only this: when I mentioned to my 8-year-old that I needed to take his bike to the repair shop before he could ride it again, he said in his best Terry Jones voice, “Bicycle Repaaair Maaan!” The torch of lunacy has been passed.

10. Joss Whedon — This guy writes dialogue so good it could charm the rats out of Hamelin. I admit I am not much of a scholar of his greatest creation, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but that’s because I arrived at the moving train too late. By the time my learned friends had told me how great this show was, I had missed all the tasty character foundation and bonding that I enjoy at the beginning of a true literary journey. But I am well at home with “Firefly,” his space-Western saga. Here are character archetypes that embrace their genre cliches and add something fresh to the arrangement. Here is dialog that pops and crackles like a Tesla experiment. Here is cleverness that begs for the repeat viewing of entire episodes. (If you’ve never seen an episode of “Firefly” you can’t ask for an easier commitment: It was only 13 installments long before Fox mucked it all up.)

11. Kurt Vonnegut — I never took the class in high school that wold have introduced me to him properly, but I noticed a lot of people carrying around “Cat’s Cradle” in the halls, so I took a shot.

This is where the dialog goes on the first page:

Listen:

When I was a younger man — two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago…

When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended.

The book was to be factual.

The book was to be an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

It was to be a Christian book. I was a Christian then.

I am a Bokonist now.

Listen: This is some compelling stuff, and not because Vonnegut is a master of eloquence like Wolfe or Michael Chabon. Vonnegut is the weird man’s Hemmingway, dazzling with an economy of words carefully chosen and doled out in short, declarative sentences that drip curiosity and ooze clues. He’s the opposite of Wolfe in this way, but no less masterful in spinning a tale, distilling the absurdities of life, and flat-out outweirding the competition with idea after idea.

When I despair that I’ll never match the complexity and erudition of a Chabon-penned sentence, I will often ping-pong off the opposite wall, where I know I cannot hope to do so much with so little, like Vonnegut.

But I keep trying.

12. Who else? As  maps go, this one has a pretty limited field of view. I’ve left out many, many other creators I deeply respect: Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Hunter S. Thompson, David Byrne, Christopher Nolan, Neal Stephenson, Tim Burton, Spike Jonze, Edward Gorey, countless mad-genius comics writers like Grant Morrison, Brian K. Vaughn, Bill Willingham, Jeff Parker, Fred van Lente, and even the bizarre one-off-wonders A.C. Weisbecker and John Kennedy Toole, authors of “Cosmic Banditos” and “Confederacy of Dunces” respectively.

But that’s making my Influence Map sound more like a Facebook profile. I think I’ll just hang my 11-city map in my writer’s cave and stick to this handful of destinations as I drive my brain into off-road adventures yet to be dreamt of in any philosophy, Horatio.

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The Missouri Method of Entertainment: Show me something, man!

In a recent Facebook exchange, I asked my e-people, “Parent to parent: What’s your secret for getting out into a movie theater without the kids?”

My amigo Mark, a true wag and a father, asked, “What’s a movie theater?” Hoping to out-wag him, I replied: “A movie theater is a kind of gambling establishment where you bet the cost of babysitting and $12 tickets for a 1 in 10 chance of being entertained.”

And I realized: That’s not really a joke. I remembered how my wife and I paid $90 cash money to see that third Star Wars prequel, and that includes the realization that we needed to skip the planned dinner out to afford the rest of the evening. Suddenly there’s nothing funny about that FB exchange. Big-screen movies are a gamble that pays off with the stingy rarity of a dollar slot in Reno.

Which is why I have turned to a new theory of cineplex enjoyment I have developed myself: The Missouri Method of Entertainment.

As in Missouri, the Show Me State. Wikipedia tells me the “Show Me” nickname comes from a political speech that enshrined Missouri as the home of skeptics. But it’s not skepticism I seek to have sated when I go to a movie.

I want to be shown something. Something new. Something amazing. Something I haven’t conceived of before.

Show me.

I want to watch a filmmaker swing for the fences. I want to read an author who’s thinking, “Bet you’ve never seen someone do this.” I want to be surrounded by storytellers who are taking a dare. I want a large percentage of the entertainment I consume to come from creators who are muttering, “Wait ’til they get a load of this.”

The Missouri Method is not an excuse for avant garde excess. I’m sure that before 1964, no one had seen an eight-hour movie about a sleeping man, yet Andy Warhol’s “Sleep” is disqualified from the ranks of Missourihood because who cares? Missourists know that cleverness counts. It’s a mental dare to the audience to keep up, or to bring their own imagination to the ping-pong table of ideas.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Inception

This is the movie that defines the true tenets of the Missouri Method. This flick’s non-stop wowzering left my head spinning — and when I paused to reflect on all that hootenanny, I realized it wasn’t just typical Hollywood bombast. Clearly director Christopher Nolan thought long and hard about his universe and he sharpened many a knife to carve this precise tale.

Here’s the sure sign of the Missouriness of “Inception”: I giggled out loud.  During the zero-G tussle in the hotel (oh, if you haven’t seen it, see it for that sequence alone), I began to breath funny and weep at the eyes because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and it all came out as a childish chortle in the darkened theater.

When a movie motivates its audience to think and debate its layers — or even to blueprint its intricacies with a helpful dream map — it has Shown Me Something.

Being John Malkovitch

“Inception” gets points for taking the modern thriller and injecting it with ingeniousness. “Malkovich” earns Missourihood by taking the modern romance and injecting it with Sheer Gonzo Batshit Insanity. The good kind.

This movie is solid fantasy, focusing as it does on a portal on the seventh-and-a-half floor of an office building that lets you become John Malkovich for 15 minutes. But that nutso portal is just the maypole around which stars John Cusack, Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener dance a riveting romantic jig. The plot is the brainchild of famously off-kilter writer Charlie Kaufman, but it’s his dialogue that brings this movie together and makes it a joy to watch.

Take this, for example. Craig (Cusack) is desperate to make an impression on Maxine (Keener), the aloof office hottie. Once he’s experienced the magic of the portal, he gushes to Maxine in a state of raw euphoria:

Craig: There’s a tiny door in my office, Maxine. It’s a portal and it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich’s eyes… and then after about 15 minutes, you’re spit out… into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Maxine: Sounds great. Who the fuck is John Malkovich?

Craig: Oh, he’s an actor. He’s one of the great American actors of the 20th century.

Maxine: Oh yeah? What’s he been in?

Craig: Lots of things. That jewel thief movie, for example. He’s very well respected.

When Craig ends this impassioned outpouring to Maxine, saying, “Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is? I don’t see how I could go on living my life the way I’ve lived it before!” here is Maxine’s pitch perfect response:

Truly Kaufman, you showed me something.

 

Hero

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another “wire fu” martial arts movie — and it is a damn good one — but there’s more at work in Zhang Yimou’s 2002 movie about an assassination attempt on the first emperor of China.

Any director could have made this a head-on train of bare-knuckle action barelling toward the audience, but under Zhang it becomes a poem. At the best of times in a wuxia film, violence and swordplay is balletic, but this takes it to a new level.

An assassin relates his recent kills during his audience with the emperor. Each segment of the assassin’s recollection is set in a distinct palette, and his embellishments to his story become the work of a bard, not a killer. An early high point is the scene above, where Nameless, the assassin, faces fellow killer Broken Sword in a battle that takes place entirely over water. This isn’t just wire acrobatics, it’s majestic film-making; even the drops of water become weapons in their beauteous battle.

This scene comes in the first half of the film, and for me, what follows builds upon this and rewards us for the journey. Zhang is a Missouri Hall of Famer for brushing away the viewer’s expectations and rebuilding what’s possible with a kung fu yarn.

The Hall is open for more members. Who do you nominate?

 

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