Van Helsing and the Death of American Filmmaking

Okay, maybe that headline is extreme, but I left VAN HELSING pondering the current state of American movie-making. Most of the movie… and most of the characters…are CGI. Essentially, they are cartoons… lousy, unconvincing cartoons at that. And the big, climactic confrontation in the movie doesn’t happen between two actors, but between two lousy, unconvincing CGI characters (not to mention the mostly CGI and digital matte locations and backgrounds). In essense, the movie was a bloated cartoon with a few living actors inserted. The live-action characters weren’t much more convincing than their CGI counterparts. I never got invested in the characters, the story, or the big action set pieces. None of it seemed real… because it wasn’t. There was nothing engaging about the movie at all. When did studios start believing audiences were more interested in CGI than characters, story, and genuine emotion? Is this what movie-makers think audiences want? Are they right?

Where’s the Outrage?

On her blog, Sara Weinman unearthed an incredible column by Otto Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Press and proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop. I don’t know how I missed this article when it first ran in April. I don’t know why every author of cozies and hardboiled mysteries alike isn’t incensed by his article.

The column is incredible because Penzler is something of a leader in the mystery field, both as a prominent NY bookseller, as well as a respected editor and publisher of mysteries. He’s treated as mystery royalty.
He shouldn’t be anymore, because as he reveals in his column, he’s one thing above all else:

A prick.

In his column, he trashes… and I mean trashes, “cozy” mysteries.

The books stacked in front of me are the finalists for the Agatha award, given at the annual Malice Domestic conference. This event honors books written in the mode of Agatha Christie, loosely defined as those that contain no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence. Unstated, but clearly of equal importance, is that they must contain not a scintilla of style, originality, or depth. They must have the texture and nuance of an infomercial, lacking only its philosophical power.

My fiancée, as kind and generous as she is beautiful, defended them briefly by comparing them to television sitcoms, to be read as pure escapism. “They’re throw-away books,” she says. I agree. We just disagree about timing, as I think they should be thrown away before they are read.

There’s nothing wrong with disliking cozies… but then he personally, and quite viciously, attacks the authors nominated for the Agatha Award, some of whom are the sweetest, kindest people you’d ever want to meet (and several of whom… okay, most of whom, are friends of mine). They have also helped line his pockets for decades… making the pilgrimage to his store and signing hundreds and hundreds of books for him to sell. I won’t repeat the individual attacks, but he summarizes his feelings this way:

You know the scariest thing about this little shelf of books? They are the cream of the Malice Domestic crop. That’s crop — with an “o.”

The criticism, as pointed as it is, isn’t the problem. The authors and their work are fair game. But coming from Penzler, an editor, publisher and bookseller in the mystery field, it’s an act of raging hostility, utter stupidity, and naked hypocrisy(not to mention revealing that Penzler has the social skills of a rabid weasel). For a man who has profited off authors for years… whether they write hardboiled mysteries or cozies… to write an article like this is an act of pure malice. I hope the “mystery community” as a whole boycotts this jerk and his store… and makes him as welcome as Legionnaires Disease at the mystery conventions he likes to grace with his presense.

The New Face of James Bond

I’ve been reading the James Bond newsgroup, where there’s lots of talk about who will take over the license to kill when Pierce Brosnan turns his in. Hugh Jackman seems to be the big favorite…along with Orlando Bloom, Christian Bale, and Russell Crowe… though I am holding out hope for Clive Owen. He was great in THE CROUPIER and those DRIVER mini-movies from BMW. Perhaps he’ll get noticed in Disney’s KING ARTHUR tentpole this summer.

Born Free

Tomorrow morning, I get the cast off my right arm…two weeks after the cast on my left came off. I’m looking forward to typing with both hands again…though I’m not so sure yet what else I will be able to do with my titanium-rebuilt right arm…and may not find out for some time. But I’m going to be a writing demon over the next few weeks no matter what…rushing to meet the July 1 deadline on DM #4 and the script deadlines on MISSING. And, of course, taking time off to rant and whine here!

Pot Pie Heaven

If you love chicken pot pie, as I do, I heartily recommend Claimjumpers, a chain of steak places. they make an incredible chicken pot pie and goes for a mere $10. It must be comfort food for me…because lately I have been dreaming of pot pies…

UPDATE: Several folks emailed me… saying I had to try Marie Callender’s pot pie. So I went there for lunch. It’s no contest, friends… Claimjumpers is much better. For one thing, it’s a PIE. Crust all around, not just on the top. Flaky and delicious. Oh God, I want one NOW.

UPDATE – I just discovered that Claimjumpers is selling their pot-pies in the frozen food section of my local Ralphs. While the frozen pies aren’t as good what you find in the restaurant (duhhhhhh), they are still too damn good… I’ve had three already this week.

Another View on the Book Fest

My brother Tod offers his take on the LA Times Bookfest in this weeks Las Vegas Mercury. He also talks about the experience of being quasi-interviewed by Byron Allen.

I’m sitting in a chair talking to Byron Allen and I think, man, if this were 1979, this would be one of the biggest thrills of my life. I’d be peppering Byron with questions about Sarah Purcell and the rest of the “Real People” cast and digging for info about his stunning turn on “Battle of the Network Stars” alongside Greg Evigan and Fred Willard. Instead, it is 2004 and I’ve spent the past two days walking among the broiling multitudes at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, the largest literary gathering in the universe (400 authors and upwards of 140,000 people attend over two days) and though Byron Allen is preparing to interview me for a new show called “The Writer’s Hotlist,” the biggest thing burrowing in my mind is that I think, though I’m not positive, that I can smell my own groin.

More On Fanfic

Novelist Sara Donati responded to my post on fanfic by directing me to a long essay she wrote on the topic. Among her thoughts…

But there’s a lot more to fan fiction than the obvious. It has to do with storytelling in the first line, yes, but far more important: fan fiction has to do with communities of storytellers. People who get together (symbolically, of course, and mostly on the internet) and starting with a character they all love, they spin tales. Then they write back and forth about those stories, exchanging ideas. Five hundred years ago people sat together around fires and told stories about the gods, about heroes they all knew and feared or loved, about Coyote, about ancestors. That was a kind of fan fiction, too.

She also pointed me to a very interesting overview on Fanfic from the BBC. I especially enjoyed the “fanfic glossary.” Some highlights:

Fanboy/fangirl – A fan who is childishly obsessive about his or her fandom, and so over-the-top that even other fans are embarassed to be associated with them.

TPTB (or TIIC)/Canon – TPTB – or in full, The Powers that Be – are the producers of the original source material; more specifically – in terms of TV series – the creator, the executive producers and the most prolific writers/directors. The term is mostly respectful, but a little sarcastic; the opposite balance exists in the term TIIC – The Idiots in Charge. The material which they produce and sanction – the series itself, plus some of the accompanying books, comics and what have you – is canon material, and is revered and referenced like the unadulterated words of the gods by the majority of serious fanfic authors. Anything else – and in particular all fan fiction – is non-canon, and fanfic writers feel no compulsion to consider it when creating their stories (but cf fanon).

For example, while a Buffy fanfic writer would be considered bound to respect the fact that the character Jenny Calendar died before the end of season two, they would not be expected to respect a fanfic in which the entire Scooby Gang were turned into vampires and burned down a 7-11 (cf AU).

Fanon – Fan canon. A fan-created fact or event widely accepted as canon, or a fact deemed to be unstated canon.

(To Be) Jossed – To have events in one of your fan fictions be invalidated by a canon development. Originally derived from Buffy fandom, the term ‘Jossed’ is named after Buffy creator/writer/guru/god Joss Whedon.

Plot Bunny – The central idea of a fanfic; the equivalent of a movie pitch. Writers sometimes swap around plot bunnies, especially if they have an idea which they don’t have time to explore more fully. The term comes from the fact that if you get one or two of these ideas together, they tend to breed like…well, you know.

Joys of Pitching III

I went into a meeting with a major TV producer with an over-all series deal at a big studio. He brought his nine-year-old daughter into the meeting. I was midway through the pitch when the producer got a phone call.

“I’m gonna take this outside,” he said, heading for the door, “but please keep going.”

And he left me alone with his daughter.”Go on,” she said, her pencil poised on a notepad, “I’m listening.”

A friggin great show

It’s official…Deadwood is my favorite show on television right now. Unpredictable. Shocking. Offensive. Memorable. Hilarious. Ugly. Unexpectedly moving. The characters are fresh and surprising, the sense of place palpable, and the dialogue utterly original. I don’t think I have ever heard profanity used so effectively or, dare I say it, poetically. Watch this show are your peril…it’s addictive and hard to get out of your head.

Maintaining Integrity

Another true TV anecdote…

Bill Rabkin and I were in middle of writing an episode of “Spenser: For Hire,” which was airing at 10 p.m. on Saturday nights. In our episode, Spenser sees a woman jump off the roof of a building, so he begins to investigate why she wanted to commit suicide. He discovers she’s fleeing her brother, with whom she shared an incestous relationship. The network loved the story.

We get a call on a Friday from the network. They had just decided to move “Spenser For Hire” to 8 pm on Sunday, sandwhiched between “The Wonderful World of Disney” and “The Dolly Parton Show.”

Somehow our episode didn’t seem quite right for the Family Hour, unless your idea of family is rather twisted. But the network didn’t think it was quite as big a problem as we did.

“We love everything about the script, so all you need to do is take out the incest,” the network exec said, “but maintain the integrity of the story.”