Category Archives: Pop culture

How to Find Films Exciting Again

When was the last time you went to a film where you genuinely had no idea was going to happen?

When was the last time you remember actually experiencing films, or do you feel like you’re just watching the same old thing over and over?

Go on, think about it. I can wait.

* * *

Okay, back now? That’s right, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? When I was a kid, I got to do this pretty often, because a great friend of mine invited me into the wild and wacky world of Chinese kung fu films, where I saw acrobatic feats I had no idea were possible and learned that writers and directors sometimes do kill every single hero by the final frame of the movie. Another friend introduced me to samurai films and I learned that action could be tense and silent, and death could come with a single swing of a blade.

Needless to say, those films turned my notions of storytelling upside down and made me wonder again, like when I was a kid. What’s going to happen next? What might happen next?

It’s sad when I go to a movie now and I pretty much know what the next steps in the narrative will be. Hollywood films particularly fall prey to this debilitating problem. They pay so much attention to audience surveys and to what people say they want, they forget that sometimes audiences just want to be surprised, and they want to feel. They want all the feels, in fact.

This is why Hollywood films get a bad rap. I know, it’s a guilty pleasure, watching another action movie where you know the main character isn’t really in any danger, and only his friends are going to take any sort of substantial damage. Where nothing really changes at the end of the film, and hope shines again like a light in the darkness…

I get it. I like them too. Sometimes. But here’s the deal. Sometimes, I want more. I want to be surprised, I want to make a new kind of memory, to examine the dark side of life, the little mustache twirling maniac in my mind cackling with glee, or the little boy crying with anger and sadness.

It’s okay. I think. I’m not crazier than you are, am I? But where do we find that type of experience?

I recommend film festivals. You can also visit your local library or e-book retailer, but for a quick dramatic shot in the eyes, local (or distant) film festivals deliver some spectacular content, and you’ll be able to share the experience with others.

I’m about to engage in some unabashed film exploration in about two weeks at the SDAFF Spring Showcase in San Diego, California. Come on down and join me and the Pacific Arts Movement team for a great time. Or find a festival near you. You don’t have to attend Sundance or Cannes to have a great time, and many times you’ll have better access to filmmakers at the smaller festivals.

Right now, I’m at WonderCon in Anaheim, CA. These actors and showrunners giving talks and signing autographs at big events like WonderCon and Comic-Con will sometimes roll their tanned and waxed meatsuits out to film festivals because they’re working on smaller independent features. You never know who you’ll end up meeting.

When you go, try something you wouldn’t ordinarily try. Experiment. You never know what you’ll find. The experience might be a little bit scary, but that’s what makes it memorable.

Spring Showcase April 16-25, 2015

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How to Change the Internet in One Easy Clickbait Step

There are two types of internet out there today. There are Quiet Sites and there are Screaming Sites. You probably know which I mean. Quiet Sites have articles, maybe a few links, maybe one or two pictures, some links to Facebook and Twitter, and a copyright notice. No biggie, they say their peace and they let you go about your business.

Then there are the Screaming Sites. These sites have mined the actual behaviors of users and concluded that we (the general public) really want the following:

Clickbait headlines

Clickbait images

More clickbait on the sites with purported content

Small, easily disgestable content blurbs

Listicles

Pop-up hover ads

Video content cut from old television and movies

Happy images of the champions of the human condition

Fortunately, those sites know exactly what we want, and they know how long we read, how many follow clicks we provide, and how many advertising impressions we are likely to endure in our quest for that one tidbit of new information.

So, my advice to you if you want to change the internet is to watch your own habits and to be very careful where you go. If a site delivers a lackluster article full of fluff that makes you feel unfulfilled after reading it, get out of there fast! Chances are, all the other articles linked from that site will deliver the same thrill of almost getting what you want.

Don’t do it. Be strong. Vote with your time. Demand better writing and better content. Together, we can change the world!

Bwahahahahahahahaha!

 

Flat Earth, the Matrix, and the Right to Sex

I love the first Matrix movie, but I’ve been bothered by the second and third Matrix installments for years now. I really wanted to like them, much like I really wanted to like Chapters 1-3 of Star Wars.* However, I didn’t piece together what bothered me about them until today. It has to do with lacking the theme of overcoming a hard-held belief, the theme that was so central to the first Matrix.

Many people hold beliefs that defy logic, which is innocuous most of the time, like the belief in a flat Earth, which is hilarious, and doesn’t particularly hurt anybody. However, some beliefs directly endanger others, and at times those beliefs are used as an excuse for why people behave like reprehensible monsters. On a grand scale, the belief that one skin color is somehow better than another has caused the deaths of generations of human beings. On a smaller scale, the recent killing in Santa Barbara because a man believed that somehow women owed him sex allegedly drove him to commit multiple homicide. Whether or not this plays out to be the whole story doesn’t matter, the point is we easily believe this is true because we’ve seen it time and time again.

In The Matrix, Morpheus manages to free Neo from the prison of his own mind, literally overturning everything Neo thought he knew about the world. This analogy extends to any belief system that anyone has cast off, ever. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the right of white men to control the U.S. government, Manifest Destiny, homophobia, etc.

For me, one Matrix was the Christian church, which I severed ties with in my early twenties, but I expect everyone has something they believed in at one time that today they wish had never been a part of their lives. An abusive lover. A horrible job. I doubt anyone’s life is so perfect they can’t think of an example right now.

So, to me, Morpheus is the real hero of the Matrix movies, because he seems to be the only person who actually manages to help free any of the people embedded in the Matrix. Yet he is hated by some of his friends, hunted, and generally unappreciated by the government he works for.

Neo, for his part, never frees another person, and only manages to run around having fights in the second and third movies. To his credit, he is trying to free everyone at the very end (I think), but I still don’t really know what happened there, so I didn’t find it fulfilling. Besides, he wasn’t working with anyone who actually wanted to get free, he was trying to do it to them, which is so very different, and not the way I hoped the story would play out at all.

That theme, of helping someone overcome a belief they know is wrong, a belief they struggled against unconsciously all their lives, was lost, and it is something I believe we need to hold onto as a society. Even though we sometimes grate at its creaky functioning, the U.S. government is designed to allow us to overturn our previously held beliefs by rewriting laws, by encouraging a change in representation, by allowing our constitution to be updated as required. It’s part of what makes us a free society.

So today, I write this in thanks and great respect for those who died for the freedom to change our beliefs, and in memory of those who worked to change our beliefs to become a more equitable society. On Memorial Day, 2014.

 

* Go J.J. Abrams! You can do it! I believe in you.

Women of Color – Fashion’s Forgotten

I stumbled upon my wife’s Fall 2014 edition of Style.com at breakfast today. Why they would put out a “Fall” edition in April is beyond me, but that’s the fashion world, I guess. That kind of illogic may also explain why I can’t buy a decent coat in the late winter, and why I can’t find a cozy warm sweatshirt in the summer, even in San Diego, where it’s 60-80F (16-27C), pretty much year round.

Still, there’s online shopping. And for a guy, that’s enough. For a guy, there seem to be plenty of clothes available, and plenty of model diversity. For a woman though…

I counted 150 women in the first half of the massive Style.com magazine. Maybe some of those women were duplicated (they all looked the same to me), but I tried to eliminate duplications at least on the same two page spread.

Of those women, I counted a mere 12 women of color. That’s under 10%. I’m being generous here, too. Four of them had headshots only, and were buried at the bottom of a page together like they were outcasts.

I’m also lumping all women of color together, I’m talking about anyone who looked vaguely non-white.

One of the ads actually had a single Caucasian woman and two women of color standing together, as if to say, “Hey, we’re trying!” Well. I do appreciate that one designer. Thanks. Sort of. The rainbow coalition thing is a little awkward, and feels like a 90’s Benneton ad. Can’t designers just hire a more diverse set of women? They don’t all have to be piled into every ad.

I was prompted  to do my little counting exercise after watching this perceptive TED Talk by Cameron Russell from 2012. I wanted to see if things have changed at all in the industry over the last few months. I didn’t have much hope. Apparently “little exercise” is exactly what the industry has done with promoting diversity.

This is shameful. I really wonder who these people are making these model hiring decisions. In the movies, they’re depicted as bossy gay men or bossy old women, but I think the reality is far more disturbing. These executives are likely racists, probably white, probably men, and probably straight. Ninety percent of the women I saw in that magazine had the following characteristics:

Physical
Young – to the point of being disturbing. Seriously, pedophiles need to work in other industries, like maybe oil refining or cardboard manufacturing. Something to keep them away from young people.
Skinny – bony knees seem to be favored. I wonder how they can sell these clothes to women who have healthy BMIs, let alone average Americans? They must have no idea how the clothes might look on themselves from these photos.
White – while 90% were Caucasian, they were all also extremely pale. Tans are so 80’s, apparently, and these runway models looked very New York. Seasonal Affective Disorder anyone? Vitamin D might help.

Demeanor
Stark – most seemed pissed off to be looking at the camera.
Sad – action shots seem to be old-school. The new stuff feels very clinical, with the women holding their arms to their sides, dejected, like they are waiting for a bus because they lost the keys to their bike lock. Oh, and a bully stole their backpack.
Bored – I can understand this, it’s not exactly a thought-provoking job, and I figure many of them are just as intelligent as other people, they just don’t get to exercise those brain cells much at work.

Makeup & Hair
The blatant racism annoys me the most, but the hair and makeup designs seemed the most spooky to me, because everyone looked like clones from Orphan Black (though none seemed as talented or sexy as Tatiana Maslany). Some single-page ads deliberately tried to get women who appeared identical, and made the more-so. Most of the ads used predefined looks that the makeup and hair artists probably pressed on with stamps, and the end result stripped away any individuality the women had, making them all look the same, within these basic categories:
Perfect skin girl – by far the most popular look for younger models, skin nearly white as paper, all pigmentation variations, blemishes, and imperfections removed, to the point of her looking like a blown-up plastic bag. Hair often long, straight, and stern.
Strung-out woman – the modern equivalent of sex kitten, this effect adds bags around the eyes and frazzled hair, making the woman look like she was just beaten by her abusive boyfriend and kicked out of the house because she smoked all his meth.
Vampire woman – this is a merger of the two common designs above. Perfect skin woman with slightly darker lips, who looks strung out because she hasn’t had enough O-negative in the last week.

Look, I understand they want to sell their clothes, but this type of treatment of people just isn’t healthy for the industry or our world culture. Both the United States and Europe have become a mishmash of cultures, looks, desires, and business styles. While corporate systems work hard to come to grips with the new reality, it seems like the fashion industry is content to live in the 1950’s.

The sad thing is, all they have to do is invite more people into the fold. It’s kind of easy. Which makes the reluctance to change all the more annoying.











More Women, Please

The Bechdel Test has been on my mind recently. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a simple little ditty you can sing in your sleep, namely:


1. The story/movie/whatever has two named women characters
2. Who have a conversation (meaning that they both talk to each other)
3. About something, not a man.

Anything. Shoes. Genetic manipulation of sapling DNA. Clouds of choking dust. The freaking wall color. Anything. (For a list of movies, see BechdelTest.com)


As they say in some commentaries, this is neither a guarantee of a balanced story nor of a story that has women as compelling or powerful characters. However, it’s a start, you know? It’s a start.

Because, when you apply the opposite rule, you get like 100% of movies and 100% of books ever written, except maybe Thelma and Louise (which I haven’t seen, so I’m just making things up, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie or read a book that did not have two male characters having a conversation about not women).

Romantic comedies are particularly bad at this, I’ve noticed. There actually are women characters in romcoms, but they don’t often bother to discuss anything other than the problem getting or having a relationship with a man. Unless it’s a lesbian comedy, of which I can think of like one independent film. Maybe two. Which is sad.

I think one of the problems is that there’s not a lot of competition on this front yet, despite the whole women’s movement. There’s not a lot of content out there yet that goes the other way. Because I believe that to obtain balance, we need to have content available that shows the other side of the spectrum, dramatically. Books and movies that minimize the male voice as much as possible.

Why? Well, because in my personal world, I work with women. I work with a lot of women. I live with women. Believe it or not, I respect my friends and co-workers who are women. And I rarely, if ever, discuss men with them. Seriously.

So, if they say you should write about what you know, I really should be writing about women running multi-billion-dollar Fortune 500 companies. I should be writing about girls who build things out of cardboard and duct tape. I should be writing about women who create cooking and entertainment shows on YouTube and become famous.

Because that’s life today. I’m just kind of sad that our fiction in many ways hasn’t caught up to the reality of the world of fact around us.

I’d also like to see more women in video games. And no, I’m not talking about cheesecakey women who fight with big guns, have bigger guns hiding under their clothes, and look like they should be posing for a glamour shot on a nerd’s shelf. I’m talking about women like in The Walking Dead video game, who try to navigate the zombie apocalypse. I’m talking about Mass Effect, where my Commander Shepherd can be female, has women on her team, and hardly ever talks about anything other than the mission.

So, if you’re like me and you want to see more of this stuff, buy it. Promote it. Talk about it. Because it’s all about us. We’ve got to make our voices heard, every day.

Wow. Soap box. Step off, dude…

Back to your not-so-regularly scheduled commentary…

Top ten inspirations for Demigod Conception

I had a great time with some friends this last weekend and we had some deep conversations about what a weird world we live in, and how hard it can be to get by from day to day, especially if you’re poor, out of work, addicted, or homeless. Think about other people when you cast your votes this season – I don’t care who you vote for, so long as you do it with good conscience and measured thought.

Demigod Conception - Demigod Chronicles IWe also had a much shallower, but more fun conversation about what inspired me to write my book. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have inspirations – many, in fact. Some people, some were events, some were things I know I like or dislike. However, I don’t remember many of them, as I wrote Demigod Conception over such a long period.

So, here’s a rundown of some of the main ideas I wanted to get across, in a top ten list, because who doesn’t love lists? Before anyone gets angry and says they hate any of these, remember: My book. Not yours. That said, feel free to disagree in the comments below. :D

10) No Royalty. (Not royalties, I like those.) I dislike kings, dukes, barons, and princes. Queens are okay, but only if they’re gay. Princesses are not okay, neither are duchesses, nor baronesses. I hate knights, errant or straight. Unless they guard bridges. Royalty bothers me. I’m American, okay? We’re born this way now.

9) No teenage boy coming of age story. *Yawn*. Read it too many times. Also, I dislike the awkward non-sexual crush they must have on the only cute but unobtainable girl in their village.

8) My hero wants to go home. One of my favorite facets of heroic literature is the uncomfortable hero. They are thrust into their position and must decide: will they take up the challenge?

7) Battles aren’t won by warriors and feats of strength. Not always, anyhow. Battles are sometimes won by logic, timing, and cunning. Remember the invasion of Iraq? We hardly shot a bullet there because we had great timing and troop movement.

6) I want a female hero! When I started writing this, I felt like you could only find female heroes in Anne McCaffrey fantasies. There wasn’t even a Buffy back then. I was dying for a powerful female character willing to bust some heads. Kyla fit the bill.

5) No weak women. I love Ursula LeGuin’s work. I would love to have that kind of talent. But, I can at least follow her lead and promote my female characters to the helm. I have a baddie, a hero, and several female side characters that I hope are strong parts of the story. I’m particularly fond of Cameo, who will take a much bigger role in the sequel.

4) I want action. I remember reading a book where the main character had an entire battle described like this: “Stepping crow, cross-sweep. Upward crane, flying cheese-cloth. Split the silk with dragon tooth.” The author had jumped the shark for me, and had been watching waaaay too much kung-fu. I love kung-fu movies, don’t get me wrong. But this is a book. There’s no cool action on screen to back up the fancy-snappy names for the moves. The reader has to see it. The author must describe it. That’s the arrangement. I decided I would have action in my stories. Always. If I ever make a story with no action, slap me.

3) People are complex. We’re both experts and novices, perfect and flawed. Even people I dislike are complex, and deserve respect. Everyone’s a hero in their own story.

2) Black holes are awesome. (Think about it. There’s a black hole MacGuffin in the book.)

1) Bald people rule.