Starting with the fun stuff, I attended a screening of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Nosferatu” and wrote about it over on my film blog. Some musicians from the Saskatoon Symphony provided accompaniment and, what can I tell you, it was an absolutely brilliant evening. The following day I turned fifty and couldn’t imagine a more fitting way to celebrate.
Yeah, I said celebrate. I’ve hit the big five-oh and, okay, physically I’m not as strong or durable as I was twenty years ago, but mentally and artistically I feel close to the top of my game. Growing spiritually, as well, and that’s an ongoing process. I’m in a good space, some of the fears and obsessional thinking that once upon a time dragged me down are either gone or have eased to the point where they no longer cause the kind of damage they used to. My family played a huge part in that transformation and also the sense that my life and work are serving a tiny role in a Grand Design God-knows-how-many years in progress. My faith life is essential to my entire sense of well-being; without it, I’m a miserable cur, hardly worthy of consideration, barely rating a glance.
In terms of my work:
Researching for the novel, reading reference books and trolling on-line for more info, looking for those obscure little tid-bits that add the perfect dollop of detail to a scene, imparting an authenticity that makes the Reader shiver (love those moments).
I collaborated on a sound collage with my youngest son, Sam. He’s getting to be quite the musician so when my wife asked the two of us to put together an “environment” for a puppet and mask project she’s creating, I was curious to see what we came up with. Turned out to be a weird, ambient piece nearly four minutes long. Now we’re going to edit together a short film using that soundtrack and footage Sherron’s assembled over the last couple of years. Hope to have that done in the next week or so.
What else…well, I’d been giving some thought to writing something for the CBC/Enroute Short Story Contest but every time I checked my well of inspiration, it was dry as fossilized bone. So with the deadline looming I’d pretty much given up any notion of sending anything…until a couple of days ago, when I sat down and started tapping away, managing to complete a tale that adhered to the 1500 word limit (barely) and turned out to be a darn good story. Imagine that—posted it yesterday, just under the wire.
Have to confess, I hate entering or submitting my work anywhere—as an indie, I’d rather publish it myself. But the prize money for a six page story is unbelievable, ridiculous, and the notion of spending two weeks in residence at Banff…how could I resist?
From what I’ve heard, the contest receives between 1800-2000 entries annually, so I’m not holding my breath.
But wouldn’t it be nice…
What else? Ah, I’ve been in my basement cave, doing some more painting. A couple of canvases currently being prepped, exercising my visual muscles, expressing myself beyond the precincts of the printed word. Who cares if I’m any good at it?
And music, lots of music playing, which is always an indication I’m in an inspired state of mind. Frequently heard these days: The Eels, Bob Mould, Brain Jonestown Massacre, Jimmy Eat World, R.L. Burnside, Radio Moscow, old Dylan. Keeping it eclectic.
I guess that just about sums things up. Heading into November around here, but the yard work is pretty much done, all I have to do is order some pine wood and see about winter tires for the car.
The next six to eight months will be spent on the novel (mostly), so by Spring, 2014 I should have the lion’s share of the editing done (crosses his fingers). I’ll keep you apprised of developments and, hopefully, will be posting more frequently than I have been of late.
But no promises…
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
from “Jerusalem” by William Blake
I’ve met some smart, funny, terrific people, thanks to “Beautiful Desolation”, and it’s always a particular thrill to read a comment or receive an e-mail from one of you. Writing is a lonely business and those missives, brief as they are, remind me why I keep putting pen to paper, year after year after year. And let’s have a rousing cheer for the internet, without which none of this would be possible. I mean, jeez, from halfway around the world you can wave or send regards or blow a kiss…or a raspberry (whatever floats your boat).
I spent perhaps an unhealthy amount of time trying to come up with ways to say “thanks” for your support and patronage for the past three years. There are a good number of you who take great pains to keep in touch and pass the word to other folks out there who are fed up with the tepid fare offered by traditional publishing sources: the books and magazines we buy and yawn our way through.
For the past six months or so the e-Reader crowd have been coming by in droves. Welcome, welcome. Dive right in and enjoy my stories, poems and radio dramas. There are dozens of offerings on this site, hundreds of thousands of words. Works that will astonish, amaze or, at least, entertain. And it’s all FREE. Download it, peruse it on your Kindles and iPads and Sonys (what the hell, a book is a book) and God bless ya.
I have to say there are certain, ah, special circumstances that give this anniversary more significance.
The impending release of my novel So Dark the Night is a super-big deal around Casa Burns. The cover nears completion and then it’s a case of loading the book onto Lightning Source’s template, crossing our fingers…and zipping it off. Looks like a late-April release. Will give you a peek at the cover soon–it’s a beauty. Wait’ll you see it, kids, it’ll knock your socks off. Christ, I love this book. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written and I’m practically vibrating in anticipation.
2010 marks my 25th year as a professional writer. That’s a helluva long time, a helluva lot of words on paper. Too many to ponder without suffering some kind of brain seizure. So we’ve got the third anniversary of the blog, my silver anniversary as an author and a new book coming out. That’s gotta call for something a little something extra, a bonus item or two…
How about an hour of free music? This is music I recorded with my iMac’s Garageband software. Space tunes, all instrumentals, totally trippy and out there. Some of my friends have downloaded these oddities on to their iPods or their computer hard drives. Go for it. Knock yourselves out. And above all else, enjoy the music. With my compliments and thanks.
I call my project Soundtrack For a Science Fiction Film Never Made and if you’d like to give it a listen, pop over to my “Audio” page, scroll down, past the spoken word section and you’re sure to find it.
Ah, but I’m not done.
I also want to unveil my new blog, Cinema Arrete. After literature, film is my great passion and for ages I’ve wanted a site where I could talk about some of my favorites and steer people toward flicks that aren’t on prominent display at their neighborhood movie store. I think that with places like YouTube now renting movies, there might be an increased demand and a wider assortment of movies to choose from–after all, cyberspace is like an endless virtual store and titles are always in stock. It might be the perfect time to re-introduce film fans to the work of auteurs like Henri-Georges Clouzot and Carl Theodor Dreyer.
But it’s not just a one-way street. I want cinephiles to steer me toward works and creative individuals that I’ve missed or neglected for some reason. I want to re-watch classic movies, research them and write essays based on my impressions and speculations. Sometimes I’ll re-examine a work and discover I’ve been dead wrong and will be forced to backtrack. The downside of being an honest critic is that you have to learn to like the taste of crow.
My refusal to bestow any respect on CGI fests like “Avatar” and the latest comic book adaptation will enrage those of you who (shudder) go to movies purely for fun, for the eye candy and escapist fluff. Sorry, if that’s the sum total of your aesthetic, Cinema Arete likely isn’t for you.
Pop over, give it a look-see and let me know what you think.
Okay, that’s enough for now. I’m feeling kind of misty-eyed at the moment and it might be that extra shot or two of scotch I’ve had. Or it could be an indication of emotions lurking closer to the surface than usual as I ponder this blog and what it has meant for my writing. Most importantly, it’s given me access to you, o wise and discerning readers, a venue to display my odd wares.
Thanks so much for spending some of your precious time here. Visiting and browsing this…repository of my poor words.
Well, cinephiles, the news isn’t good. An article penned by Neil Smith for the BBC website previews some of the big releases and most-hyped films of 2010 and it’s enough to make any serious film-goer weep in despair.
“The prevailing trend, ” Mr. Smith concludes gloomily, “is towards established film titles from yesteryear given a hi-tech makeover.”
So we can expect more updates and reinventions, the character names familiar but the faces different, with a budget rumoured at around a hundred mill. Let’s see, just off the top of my head I recall movies based on “The Dukes of Hazzard”, “Get Smart”, “The Avengers”, “Miami Vice”, “Bewitched”, “Charlie’s Angels”, “Starsky & Hutch”; in terms of remakes there’s “War of the Worlds” and “Day the Earth Stood Still”, “3:10 to Yuma”, “The Pink Panther”, “The Longest Yard” and, coming soon to your theater, a nastier rebooting of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise. We have sequels and prequels…and even the great Ray Harryhausen isn’t immune to pale imitation: the new “Clash of The Titans”, helmed by Luc Besson protege Louis Leterrier, premieres in Canada in March.
And it would be negligent of me not to mention the highly anticipated “A Team” movie, which promises to be even better than the original series.
I’ve written previously of my absolute loathing for JJ Abrams’ take on “Star Trek”. I thought it utterly vapid, not to mention incoherent. “Star Trek XI” barely bothered paying lip service to the original, JJ resorting to bottom-fishing Leonard Nimoy in a vain attempt to lend the abomination some small measure of legitimacy (he failed). The mega-success of that film bewilders me–is the government putting something in the drinking water to make us dumb? Was that crazy guy standing behind me at Tramp’s Records down in Regina right and the H1N1 vaccine is a plot by Barack Obama to enslave our minds?
Let us not forget (I certainly can’t), the top grossing film in 2009 was, wait for it…”The Transformers”.
And (the good news just keeps coming) if the present trend continues, Jimmy Cameron will easily top his “Titanic” tally, “Avatar” already pulling in over a billion bucks from people who like their movies big, loud, pretty and predictable.
I get a monstrous headache when I ponder what all of this bodes for the future of film. Have we reached the creosote at the bottom of the barrel or–
Holy fuck, the Rock as a hockey enforcer and (ulp) tooth fairy? You gotta wonder what the pitch was like for that one. And if the guy who gave it the green light was over-medicated that day. Maybe it was a total whim, a desperate writer, his ideas shot down one by one, goes for broke and tosses out the first stupid thing that comes to mind. “There’s a hockey goon, see, and he’s somehow cursed and has to take over as tooth fairy…”
But what’s a budding screen writer supposed to do? Nobody’s buying “high concept” these days and who wants to wait around three or five or ten years to get funding through some indie? Fuck that. Everyone knows a writer’s life blood is development dough. Milk that tit dry, baby! And all but the terminally moronic have heard the news: producers and film execs aren’t looking for anything original or different and any agent who wants to keep his “A List” contacts isn’t going to champion a script that’s literate, low-key, thoughtful and utterly lacking explosions and eye-catching CGI effects.
Not when there are old ideas still to be resurrected, a rich vein of nostalgia to be ruthlessly exploited. By wunderkinds like Abrams and Zack Snyder and Michael Bay. Comic book fans and video game junkies. They don’t read anything that doesn’t come with colour illustrations. Not the sort who are interested in niceties like character development and well-rendered, believable dialogue, silences that speak volumes.
And apparently neither are you.
You’ve seen many of the films I’ve just named, haven’t you? And when the end credits rolled, you didn’t feel the slightest bit enlightened or ennobled by anything you’d just seen in the preceding 104 minutes. You know what you’re doing, don’t you? You’re padding the box office receipts of garbage films, encouraging the Hollywood mill to churn out yet more garbage. Charmless, superficial, derivative drek. Berke Breathed, that old curmudgeon, wrote about the sensawunda that is missing from films these days and I couldn’t agree more. Two hundred million bucks worth of state of the art special effects don’t amount to a hill of horseshit if your story is thin, trite and cliched. Sorry, Mr. Cameron.
But most film-goers (apparently) couldn’t care less. So what if “Cloverfield” was just a tarted up “Godzilla” flick? Big deal if “300” is historically inaccurate. They lined up in the driving rain for an hour to see “Star Trek” and will happily, uncomplainingly plunk down forty or fifty bucks when the “special ultimate limited edition” of “Avatar” is released this summer, with hours of bonus footage and deleted scenes and alternate endings and–
Okay, sorry I’m coming across so smug and morally superior. After all, Mr. Trekkie here just had to see “XI”, didn’t he, even if it was only to confirm it was as bad as I feared (actually, it was far worse).
But that was an aberration. Something completely out of character for me. Usually I resist the blandishments of the ads and trailers and ignore the well-meaning twits who say “well, I thought it was different from the usual stuff”. People inured to the eye candy and mindless, adolescent shite that pollutes theatres and the “New release” section of local movie stores, reducing a once-great art form to utter pap.
The “Star Trek” movie was merely confirmation of what I already knew. I don’t fit the demographic of contemporary film-goers. I have pubic hair and a real job; a life. I left that movie feeling like I’d been swindled by a particularly graceless and inept con man. The plot was ridiculous, it made no sense and, again, it made gazillions. I just don’t get it. These films, the remakes and sequels that show up week after week, are completely devoid of personality and any nuances or dashes of fine detail are entirely computer generated. What’s the appeal, folks? Why are you so averse to films that make you think?
Fuck the new “Sherlock Holmes” film, even if Guy Ritchie is directing. Especially if Guy Ritchie is directing. Here’s a guy with some talent (“Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch”), participating in the utter rubbishing of one of the great characters in English literature. I’m a fan of the stories, I’m a huge fan of Jeremy Brett’s sublime interpretation of the master detective and I will not be seeing this new version. Transforming the cerebral sleuth into an action hero is an act of artistic heresy. For his crimes against the canon, Ritchie should be burned atop a pile of Madonna albums.
Okay, Mr./Ms. Average film-goer, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to repeat after me:
I am hereby declaring myself immune to hype and vital marketing campaigns; I will sneer at the latest franchise film, scoff at the laughably glowing reviews it receives from idigdumbmovies.com or KCLR Radio Topeka.
“The #1 Movie of the Summer!”
“The motion picture event of the year!”
“The Best Movie Ever!”
Sorry, we’ve hear that before, haven’t we?
It’s been many years since I’ve been the slightest bit interested in partaking of the latest “must see” film. I avoid the new stuff, instead plunge into the stacks, the “catalogue” movies. Making forays into Saskatoon and pillaging their main library. Finding films and checking them off my list. Old noir, classics of every genre, every era. The kind of titles that are gradually being weeded out of local rental shops to make space for 50 copies of “Spiderman 6” or an entire wall devoted to the “Laverne & Shirley: The Movie”. And I use the wonders of technology, go on-line and track down the movies I’ve heard about, yearned to see for years, decades: Murnau and Fellini and Dreyer and Clouzot; foreign and silent films, cult curios, visual melodies and meditations assembled and spliced from the zeitgeist.
It’s hard to turn up Monte Hellman films these days (try it sometime)…good Lord, someone’s selling some old Herzog flicks on eBay…and here’s my hero, Orson Welles, snippets from “Filming Othello” broadcast on YouTube . I watch them all and then seek out the Micheál Macliammóir film diary Welles alludes too. It’s wonderful , as well.
Recently I secured a copy of the remastered Criterion edition of “M”. And it’s high time I watched my VHS copy of King Vidor’s “The Crowd” again…
There is more craft, thought and artfulness put into either of those efforts than any flick released in the past ten years. Maybe longer. Isn’t that something? And they’re both at least 80 years old.
The auteurs like Lang and Vidor have died off or grown old. That image I have of Kurosawa, lying in his coffin, one of his longtime collaborators putting flowers between his toes to hide the bits blackened by frostbite. From the years spent outside, stalking about cold sets, making sure everything was exactly right. Now that’s an artist.
The new kids have it easy. They don’t even have to go outside. Green screen the actors and add in the sets, backdrops post-production. Perk up the tits on the leading lady while you’re at it, will ya, boys? The present breed write with laptops, instead of their hearts and souls. One eye on the box office, ever eager to please their corporate masters. Up to and including shooting a new ending for their labour of love, should a test audience of retards grade it too low…
Okay, not entirely true. I took a break from revising Of the Night to help celebrate Sherron’s parents’ 50th in southern Manitoba. The weather was terrific and just about the entire clan was present. Great people, lots of laughs. Sherron and her sister Kathy even talked me into writing a short tribute to the guests of honour, which I managed to carry off without making an arse of myself. First public speech or performance I’ve given in ages and it probably showed.
Congrats to Kendi and John, who surprised everyone by getting married (why do things halfway, eh?) the night of the formal supper. What a weekend! Thanks to everyone involved, especially Kathy and Donna, who served above and beyond the call of duty. See y’all again soon…
* * * * *
In one of my recent posts I provided a reading list, a roster of the books that have had a lasting impression or influence on me.
This time around, I want to acknowledge some of the movies that have meant a lot to me. My writing—its structure, in particular—owes much to the cinema and it’s no small accident that there are a couple of movies based on my work currently in development. My fiction is ideally suited for adaptation to the large or small screen.
Anyway, to the list:
Citizen Kane….All-time greatest? Hard to argue when you’ve got a creative triumvirate that includes Orson Welles, Herman Mankiewicz and Gregg Toland
Brazil…………Terry Gilliam at his very, very best
2001: A Space Odyssey…finest SF flick ever. A powerful and cerebral experience. We won’t see the likes of Stan Kubrick again
Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction….thank you, Quentin, thank you, thank you…
Naked.….David Thewlis’s performance the best in film history. A staggering achievement and, concurrently, one of the bleakest movies I’ve ever seen
Henry V.….Kenny Branagh’s Agincourt speech still brings tears to my eyes (fuck the purists who insist Olivier did it better; this Henry is the one I prefer)
Chinatown...might be the perfect motion picture: script, direction, acting are all sublime. One for the ages.
Casablanca..…..need I say more? Ingrid Bergman is radiant—no wonder Bogie can forgive her and fall in love all over again
The Third Man….Welles again (acting); literate, authentic, intelligent; from the pen of Graham Greene (directed by Carol Reed)
Reds...……..Storaro again & super-intelligent script, terrific, under-stated (for a change) performance by Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill
Godfather (Trilogy)………Part I, half of Part II, burn Part III
The Long Good Friday….one of the best gangster flicks of all time. Bob Hoskins will scare the mortal piss out of you
Mean Streets/Raging Bull/Taxi Driver….Scorsese’s masterpieces. Note to Marty: start making good films again
The Professional.…Luc Besson has been slumming it ever since–Gary Oldman’s portrayal of a bent, homicidal cop is electrifying
Miller’s Crossing……best of the Coen Bros. so far—awesome ensemble cast
The Big Lebowski….Coen Bros. again; hilarious performance by one of the finest actors in the biz, Jeff Bridges
Straight Time…….Dustin Hoffman’s best role; an under-appreciated minor masterpiece, directed by Ulu Grosbard
Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels/Snatch...Good God, what happened to Guy Ritchie? Makes two fantastic flicks like this, then starts knocking boots with Madonna. Next thing you know, everything he touches turns to shite. Too bad…
Eraserhead/Blue Velvet….and then David Lynch died and went to Hell
The Fly/ Videodrome.…Cronenberg knows what you’re afraid of; James Woods is a marvel in Videodrome
The Exorcist….still the scariest movie of them all. Give credit to director William Friedkin and a solid cast for giving power and intensity to such a dopy, implausible concept
The Thing (1982)….John Carpenter, another guy whose career has dropped down the toilet. Wonderful performance by Kurt Russell and a supporting cast of veteran character actors. (Best line: “I don’t know what’s in there but whatever it is, it’s weird and pissed off.”)
Paperhouse….a little seen Brit nail-biter, genuinely spooky and atmospheric; directed by Bernard Rose
Lawrence of Arabia….epic with a brain and O’Toole is magnificent in his film debut
Out of the Past…..quintessential noir; Mitchum and Douglas; Jacques Tourneur directs
Crimes & Misdemeanors….I’m not a fan of Woody Allen’s any more but this film is an important reflection
on morality and responsibility. Martin Landau is particularly good
City of Hope/Matewan…..John Sayles is one of those writers I envy and admire with every fiber of my
being. He’s occasionally preachy but his dialogue and his ability to portray characters from other
cultures and races sets him apart from almost anybody else
Withnail & I.…the funniest movie of all time. Richard E. Grant’s acting in this film is an amazing thing to behold.
They Might Be Giants.…hard to find but a truly lovely addition to the Holmes canon
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother…hard to find too; haven’t seen it for years but I recall it with much fondness and affection; the combination of Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman…delightful
Modern Times/The Gold Rush……Charles Chaplin. Timeless!
Public Enemy/White Heat….James Cagney, what a man. These are my particular faves but just about all of his movies are worth searching out.
Duck Soup/A Night at the Opera….The Marx Bros. Anarchic and brilliant.
Spun……..astounding Jonas Akerlund film; unflinchingly depicts the horrors of crystal meth addiction; a harrowing experience
Salvador….Oliver Stone scripts and directs his most effeective film; James Woods is nothing short of astonishing
Sorceror.……great soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, strange and surreal. Based on Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, many critics savaging it, saying it didn’t hold a candle to the original. I disagree–but it tanked and director William Friedkin paid a heavy price for its failure
Thief………..Michael Mann’s first film; a great caper flick and character study. James Caan, Jim Belushi and Robert Prosky head the cast.
Narc……….bravura performances by leads Ray Liotta and Jason Patric; intense, to say the least. Complications regarding financing nearly closed down the production but the cast and crew worked for reduced wages to save it; directed by Joe Carnahan
Syriana….saw this one recently and found it compelling and convincing. Horrifying torture scene and (I’m happy to report) no shiny, happy ending to tie things up
Lord of War….best American flick I’ve seen in yonks. Cynical, downbeat. And check out those opening credits!
Monty Python’s Life of Brian/Holy Grail…seen ’em both at least 30 or 40 times and they still make me laugh. That tells you something.
The Pink Panther Strikes Again….the dentist…ha ha…the dentist scene…ha ha
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon/ The Searchers/True Grit…I’m my dad’s son: I enjoy Westerns & war flicks. The Duke looks like he was born on a fucking horse. “Fill your hand, you sonofabitch…”
The Long Riders…..the last great western (1980); directed by Walter Hill
Alien I, II, & IV.……only David Fincher could fuck up a concept as great as this
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…yes, yes, I admit it, I’m a Trekkie. And this is by far the best of the
series. Credit goes to Nicholas Meyer, who breathed life back into the franchise.
Silent Running….vintage sci-fi; Bruce Dern is one of my favorite actors and he is exceptionally solid in this one. Directed by SFX whiz Douglas Trumbull
City of Lost Children/Delicatessen (Jean Pierre Jeunet)
Faust (F.W. Murnau)
My Life As A Dog (Lasse Hallstrom)
Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo)
Napoleon (Abel Gance)
City of God (Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund))
Aguirre: Wrath of God (Werner Herzog)
Das Boot (Wolfgang Peterson)
The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio de Sica)
Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel)
Zazie Dans Le Metro (Louis Malle)
King Of New York…Abel Ferrara ugliness; repellent and riveting
Revenge...savage film by Tony Scott; starring Kevin Costner
Scarface…De Palma’s version…unrelenting.
License To Kill...surprisingly brutal James Bond with under-rated Timothy Dalton
Favorite Movie Stars: Steve McQueen; William Holden; Peter Sellers; James Cagney; Groucho Marx
Most over-rated film folk: Alfred Hitchcock; Steven Spielberg; Jean-Luc Godard; Bernardo Bertolucci; Michelangelo Antonioni