Incredible Journey

Vintage reads

Who remembers the movie, Homeward Bound, subtitled, The Incredible Journey? Yes, an entire auditorium of raised hands fills my vision.

homeward-bound_dvd_cover

Now. Who remembers the book titled, The Incredible Journey? Hmmm. A few uplifted hands spike from the audience like corn volunteers in a soybean field. (Can you tell I live in the Midwest?)

Yes, boys and girls, The Incredible Journey was a book long before Sally Field and Michael J. Fox lent their voices to a foolish dog and a sassy cat. Don’t think I’m criticizing Homeward Bound. The producers and director made sure the heart of the story remained true to the book, and I love that movie. It’s one of the few I’m willing to watch again and again and again.

Sheila Burnford published The Incredible Journey, the novel, in 1960. Between the slightly foreign voice of a Canadian author and the acceptable writing style from over half a century ago, kids today will have a harder time appreciating the original story than they did back when I first read the book.

Wait a minute. I’m assuming you know the premise of the story. In case you don’t: because a family has a temporary living situation that doesn’t allow pets, two dogs and a cat have been boarded with a friend of theirs. Of course, the animals don’t know why they’ve been separated from their beloved owners, so they run away from the caregiver and head home.

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The book and both movies pull at the same heartstrings. Yes, both movies. Before Homeward Bound, there was another film, appropriately titled The Incredible Journey. It was completely faithful to events in the novel and narrated in much the same way as the omniscient narrator tells the story in the print version.

 

You would think children would not enjoy the older movie. It’s black and white, narrated, and has no animal voices provided, but my six-year-old granddaughter sat in front of the television, enthralled. Similar to the 1986 comedy-drama, The Adventures of Milo and Otis, children of today still get wrapped up in a story of real animals against the elements.

If you haven’t read The Incredible Journey, go for it. Insist your kids read it, or make it a family read-aloud. Like I mentioned in my September 10th post, make sure your children eat their literary vegetables.

The Problems With Computer Generated Images

While the credits rolled up the screen and the epic music roared in our ears, we shuffled out of the theatre. Rotten tomatoes, my favourite movie review site had given the sci/fi a solid 75% which was actually pretty good, hence our presence in the crowd.

I was struck by the computer-generated images during the movie. It was as if the producers were saying “Look what we can do now, and we can also do this… and THIS!” I yet again wondered how in this galaxy were we going to top what I just saw….. Buuuuut, that was the first and last thought I had of the movie. The adrenaline rush subsided quickly as it would have after a roller coaster ride, and there I was discussing what groceries we needed to pick up on the way home.

Seriously, am I the only one who feels cheated when I’m not rehashing the plot’s twists and turns, mourning that I won’t see my beloved characters until movies 2 and 3, or marveling at how the screen writer caused us to have a closer look at our own lives?


 

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It just so happened that I recently went to another movie called Ex_Machina that delivered on all the above. It had received a 92% from Rotten Tomatoes and I figured that deserved another try.

Well, it was well worth the admission, popcorn, drink, and my Kit Kat bites. Here is the summary:

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test-charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence. That experiment is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a breathtaking A.I. whose emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated–and more deceptive–than the two men could have imagined.

The movie had me guessing all the way through, and had me more or less stumped. Which is what I love! It reminded me of my all time favourite old classic, The Sting where the audience was stung, not the actors. The CGI was present, but was only there as background effects for the story. The movie was intelligent and thought provoking and I’m still rehashing the plot when I wake up at night. And best yet, there were only 3 main characters, jostling for dominance.

The movie brought forth the question of responsibility when creating artificial intelligence, and sparked a host of interesting discussions at home. Now don’t get me wrong, I can be entertained with some impressive effects, but to be truly worth my time, I need more than that.

CGI has become an impressive tool in the movie-makers’ hands, but sometimes at the cost of good old fashioned character development, interesting plots and thought provoking themes.

Now its your turn. What are your thoughts on CGI?

The Aesthetics of Genre: Horror

deep-sea-anglerfishWhen it comes to the genre of horror, many Christians have pronounced it ugly, sinful, nasty, and won’t give it the time of day. Others may enjoy the adrenalin rush of a good scare from the safe distance of a book or theater seat, but may not admit it to their church friends. Then there are individuals, like myself, that find the genre of horror useful.

 

I like to read things that make me better, challenge me in someway. Good horror, like good science fiction and fantasy, will do that for me.  That’s not to say that contemporary fiction or YA fiction doesn’t do that either, but good horror has a very special way of challenging a reader on deeper topics. Before you chastise me for not mentioning the Bible, remember that you will find all the known genres, including horror, in that Book of books.

People seldom equate being frightened as useful.Like I pointed out in my last blog entry, being afraid of the right things can be helpful. To me, good horror isn’t about inciting blind fear or terrifying an audience. There is horror like that, and I almost never waste my time on that. Good horror it’s about challenging fear in the right way. This is where aesthetics come in. All genres have aesthetics (linked to definition above), it is what happens when an author’s story collides with a readers expectations, imagination, and world view. These are a few that a great horror story will touch on for me.

  • What is beauty?
  • What makes something beautiful?
  • What is good?
  • What makes something bad?
  • What is evil?
  • What makes something or someone evil?
  • If something looks beautiful, is it automatically good?
  • Can God redeem Evil?
  • Should God redeem Evil?
  • Should those given to Evil be redeemed?
  • If something is ugly to me does that make me the monster?
  • What happens when a human tries to play God (you know mad scientists)?
  • What does it mean to be human?

As frightening as a horror story may appear on first blush, it is my response to it that always interests me. Some of the most frightening stores to me portray Evil as banal or everyday. A good example of this is the bureaucracy of Hell in Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

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There are several things I find useful in good horror, and it isn’t blood and gore or the fact that a story may give me nightmares for months. In fact, the shock and gore horror is something I rarely care for, much like jump scare scenes in movies. Such tactics are nothing more than a trick at your audience’s expense, tricking an audience is inexcusable.

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All fiction has the ability to challenge and inform. What makes horror so different is it’s ability to challenge specifically the things we fear. When done right, even cause us to evaluate those fears and perhaps strengthen our humanity. For your viewing pleasure, here is a good example of something from a sub-genre of horror. Something that actually hits a little closer to home and current events. The type of horror I find useful (It’s in two parts).

 

 

Would you classify these videos as horror? Why or why not?

 

The next post I do is on the topic of sub-genres of Horror. You might be surprised as to what you find in them.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” Biblical History or Entertainment?

20th Century Fox Original Movie Poster-Exodus: Gods and Kings

20th Century Fox Original Movie Poster-Exodus: Gods and Kings

Last week I watched Sir Ridley Scott’s new movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings. A cast led by Christian Bale and Ben Kingsley, epic cinematography, a sure formula for success. Right?

 

Colossal statues at Abu Simbel 1

Colossal Ramses Statues 20th Century Fox – Exodus Gods and Kings

 Colossal statues of Abu Simbel by torchlight in their original glory, detailed sets of Pharaoh’s palace, and intriguing portrayals of pyramid-building made my inner archaeologist turn cartwheels.

 

Several character-driven scenes establish the conflict as sibling rivalry (Moses and Ramses) which deepens to a war of of cultures when both men learn Moses was born of the slave cast.

 

Moses and Zipporah.  20th Century Fox - Exodus: Gods and Kings

Moses and Zipporah. 20th Century Fox – Exodus: Gods and Kings

So far so good. Then Moses—exiled and married to a Midianite—attempts to retrieve three sheep from what his wife refers to as the Mountain of God. He stumbles and is partially buried in a rockslide. When the burning bush appears, Moses is lying in the rubble with a broken leg. No voice admonished Moses to remove his sandals while standing on holy ground (perhaps because Scott had Bale lying flat on his back?). Instead, a boy with a British accent cryptically encourages Moses to help his people. Meh.

 

bow training EntertainmentWeekly

Moses showing Hebrews low-intensity-warfare Entertainment Weekly

Back in Pi-Ramses, a most-unhumble Moses returns to train Hebrew men the skill of low-intensity warfare—attacking high value targets and quickly withdrawing. This turn of events surprised me, but I can’t say it’s impossible, given that human nature first strives to solve our problems without supernatural assistance. I’m still pondering that one.

 

Plague of Hail.  20th Century Fox Exodus: Gods and Kings

Plague of Hail. 20th Century Fox Exodus: Gods and Kings

And then the first plague begins. Instead of Aaron jabbing his staff into the Nile and turning the waters to blood, a cadre of giant crocodiles kills several fishermen and animals, enough to turn the entire Nile and all the canals red with blood. In fact, Aaron was largely absent the entire movie. Odd, given that he was the designated spokesman for a stuttering Moses.

After the brutal ‘crocodile’ plague, the rest follow, each shown as a natural consequence of the previous . . . except the Passover. In the evening, a dense dark shadow steals across the city, swallowing up the light one street at a time and stealing the breath of each firstborn who did not have the blood of the Passover lamb in the door. It had the kind of supernatural shock and awe that gives me the shivers.

 

pharaoh chariots

Near the end of the movie, hemmed in between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea, Moses despairs of leading the Hebrews to freedom. Frustrated, he throws his gold Egyptian sword into the water. Immediately, the entire sea retracts southward until completely out of sight … huh? Even Disney’s Prince of Egypt got that part right. Are we to believe the sword was imbued with magical Egyptian power?

At the conclusion, the Hebrews were depressed, not joyous as depicted in Miriam’s song, even after the Pharaoh’s demise. And speaking of Ramses … I don’t have enough space here to explain all my objections to Ramses being depicted as the Pharaoh of the exodus. An excellent analysis of the Exodus within the historical context is postulated in the Associates for Biblical Research by Dr. Bryant Wood http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/09/Debunking-The-Exodus-Decoded.aspx. The site contains many other valuable resources about the Exodus and Conquest of Canaan.

Bible and Spade Magazine

Bible and Spade Magazine

 

I can enjoy a Biblical movie even if it omits minor details due to production time constraints, but to turn the actual events on their heads and remove the Lord from the equation is another story. I struggled with my final opinion of the movie, due to the well-researched historical settings, but in the end, I remembered John Calvin, who said, “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.”

If you’ve seen Exodus: Gods and Kings, what did you like/not like about it? Do you think it’s permissible for movie adaptations to take creative license with the Bible?.

Hop aboard the Faith-Based-Movie bandwagon!

I guess you could say I’ve hopped on the support-faith-based-movies bandwagon and plan to stay aboard.

I’ve been so excited about the success of the faith-based movie “Old Fashioned” that premiered over Valentine’s Day 1531667_870090766371256_7520934718922429915_nweekend. Dubbed the “little film that could” by producer/director/writer and lead actor Rik Swartzwelder, the movie’s opening weekend broke box-office records for a faith-based film (under 300 screens). The movie continues to open in new cities weeks after its premier weekend.

While many assumed the multiple roles Swartzwelder took on had to do with a lack of funding, he actually auditioned for the lead role of Clay.

The mainstream media would have us believe Swartzwelder only recently bounced onto the movie scene and in response to the highly touted big screen premiere of E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Neither assumption is true.

As Soncee Brown Partida discovered while interviewing Swartzwelder

“Rik Swartzwelder is no stranger to the entertainment business. As a college student in Florida he created Studio 13, a live sketch comedy/improvisation show that ended up playing to exclusively sold-out audiences for the entire two-and-a-half years he was its primary writer, director, and featured performer. He has an M.F.A. in Motion Picture Production from Florida State University, and more than 50 major awards for his work as a Writer/Producer/Director. Nearly ten years in the making, Old Fashioned is clearly more than just another project to Rik Swartzwelder – it’s his labor of love.”

11035292_871610902885909_4700098698302888467_nOriginally scheduled to open in mid-2014, Swartzwelder nixed those plans when he saw the announcement that “Fifty Shades of Grey” would release Valentine’s Day 2015 as a mainstream, romantic date night option. He was stopped in his tracks and describes it as a “moment when the skies part and you hear the choir of angels singing in the background”. The realization dawned that “Old Fashioned” was made for “such a time as this.”

Having begun the project long before the existence of “Fifty Shades”, Swartzwelder never dreamed of the David vs. Goliath type drama he and his film would be embroiled in.

Ten years in the making… That’s a long time.

This fact caught my attention as I’m 5+ years working on a young adult Christian fiction series whose high school characters grapple with issues of love and intimacy, abstinence and renewed abstinence in today’s sex crazed world.

I so appreciated Swartzwelder’s comments

“…when it comes to issues of intimacy or sex, we are terrified of being perceived as judgmental. So we don’t want to make comments on anything, because we don’t want to be a joke on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. We don’t want to be a punchline or be written off as out of touch or just judgmental or condemning.”

I can identify with those feelings but agree with Swartzwelder’s conclusion—

“If the Church is so afraid of being laughed at, or having to bow down and have pop culture sort of affirm us, that we’re can’t even offer an example for that young girl to follow, or that young man who’s growing up, then what’s the purpose of us even being on the planet?”

Amen and amen.

Thanks, Mr. Swartzwelder, for not giving up… for believing in your story… for being obedient to GOD’s timing.

We’ve grown weary of perusing movie rental sites and the cable/satellite TV offerings for the rare less than “R” rated film. I’m praying that the response to “Old Fashioned” will inspire more faith-based films to pursue the oft-times long, rock-strewn journey to the big screen. And I vow to be more supportive of those that make it to either TV or CFDb-Banner-300-x-250the big screen.

I was thrilled to discover the Christian Films Database (CFDb) chock full of information on upcoming TV and theatre movies  including release dates, in-depth reviews and previews. Easily searchable by genre, category, even film format as well as month of release and TV vs. theatre, the site is a comprehensive source of information.

CFDb led me to ccinema_cfdb-2ChristianCinema.com offering plans for buying, renting or streaming faith-affirming, family-approved movies. It appears to operate similar to NetFlix. I will definitely be looking into the details on this great as faith-based films often are not widely released or considered popular enough to be stocked at rental outlets.

Let’s not give up on Christians making an impact on our world but rather get behind cinematic attempts to share truth and light.

What upcoming movies are you looking forward to seeing?

Pay No Attention to the Man, Woman, or Whatever Behind the Curtain- Part 2

My last post was a precursor to introducing one of the most important elements in storytelling, “narrative”. There were some good responses by the contributors, but no one mentioned the five hundred pound gorilla in the room: the excellent narration of events in this video. Let’s refresh our memories:

The fact that responders didn’t think to mention narration means the editors did a bang-up job on assembling this story for us. Good storytelling gives us the feel that a story is telling itself.

One of the things that I like about this video is that whether or not the story is true, and I’m sure it’s close enough to what really happened, the details are so specifically human and universal, they fascinate us. But if the details of what happened aren’t given to us in  specific ways, the human aspects become lost or uninteresting. How storytellers assemble the details of a story is called narration. What are some of the ways we judge a narration to be good or bad?

if the details of what happened aren’t given to us in  specific ways....we become lost or uninterested.

if the details of what happened aren’t given to us in specific ways….we become lost or uninterested.

There is of course in all stories the beginning, middle, and end/conclusion. That type linear reality in real life isn’t always so clear cut. But in a story, without a clear linear progression of time the narrative its hard for an audience to process. Really good storytellers lead an audience through the elements of time in any order. The stories we love the best present unique details in a specific context (time to name one) so we may provide the emotional ramifications as events unfold. What are some of those emotional ways we responded to the tenors?

We are introduced to our protagonists and we understand from the beginning what’s at stake. There’s no guessing as to what’s going on here – these guys are on TV to follow their dreams. We are then introduced to the main obstacle and the conflict: they’ve never performed in front of an audience together. We also don’t know if these guys can sing or not? How are we feeling about this?

We are also helped to process all the specific uncertainties by being allowed to see the interviewer’s response to these singer’s surprise confession. All these uncertainties are continued to be reinforced by specific things like the interview with the three tenors and one of them doesn’t know Puerto Rico is a US territory.

we may provide the emotional ramifications as events unfold

we may provide the emotional ramifications as events unfold

In how these events are presented, we the audience are never told what to feel, or how we should process these events. We are given the freedom to experience a lot of emotions, and the more emotions the better. Narratives become manipulative when a teller demands you to respond a very specific way and not give the audience room to be themselves.

Look at our example, some people may want the tenors to fail and will take joy in this. Others may have compassion that these guys will humiliate themselves on national television. Some may want these guys to succeed and continue to live vicariously through the experience. There is room for all kinds of emotional responses, but the only common thread\plot is: will they fail or succeed and in what way should we care or not care?

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What are some of those emotional ways we responded to the tenors?

One of my favorite elements in this narrative is when the women in the audience says, “they look like a joke.”  This highlights why human beings love stories so much. Stories help us see into the lives and experiences of others. In real life, there is no way we could know the response of the woman in the audience. We don’t even know such auditions exist, this story lets us become the fly on the wall as three men follow their dreams.

Let’s look at a basic example of how narrative creates order. Start the link below, but before you play the video, mute the volume.

 

Now play the video again with the volume up, notice the difference? Without narration or narrative, everything appears random, incoherent, and uninteresting.

The stories that fascinate us always provide what we need to understand it- or provide for an audience the center of consciousness or perception. That’s just a fancy way of saying, “seeing an interesting story through the eyes of an interesting character, and never getting lost as events unfold.”

In The Art of the Novel Henry James states, “…there are…five million ways to tell a story, each of them justified if it provides a ‘center’ for the work….” James believed that a good story was always interesting and accomplished what it’s author intended it to. If it didn’t do that? The book was awful. For the record, James loved Treasure Island for the exact stated reason.

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Henry James liked Treasure Island.

So let’s go back to our tenors and their tryouts. What do you suppose this clip was intended to do (theme)? Did it accomplish what it was shooting for? Is the narrative successful? What emotions did you experience as you watched?

My next post will be about the “nuts and bolts” of building narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Write Your Novel From the End?

sunset  It’s not something planned, but I always imagine the end of a story I’m writing before settling on the beginning. How do I want my protagonist to have changed for the better? Which other characters do I want to appear with her in the final chapter and scenes? Just how bittersweet do I want the ending to be, and who or what do I want her to have lost when the end comes?

My personal library of books on the writing craft has grown to include several by James Scott Bell. The latest is Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between, and it’s a great tool for someone like me who is a “tweener.” I don’t write by the seat of my pants, but neither do I outline. Chapter summaries work best for me because I like to write the beginning, middle, and end and then fill in to tie them all together.

That’s where Mr. Bell’s book has been helpful. He describes the middle of a good story (novel or movie) as having a “magical midpoint moment.” The main character looks at herself “in the mirror,” either literally or figuratively. This is a hard look, one in which she reflects on the kind of person she is or has become, how she might (or might not) be responsible for some of her own troubles, and what she might have to do to overcome her challenges. In a plot-driven novel, that mirror moment must show the protagonist considering the awfulness of the antagonistic forces against which she must fight and risk death of some sort–physical, professional, or psychological.

“Mirror moment” is so descriptive, it’s one of those elements of story that I will probably never forget now that I’ve heard the term used. I will look for it in others’ work as well as my own.

If I know why and how, and at what cost, I want my protagonist to change by the end of my novel, it makes sense to set up a “mirror moment” for her somewhere in the middle as soon as possible. It’s the place where I should see (and later the reader will see) the entire narrative pulled together in one character. If my writing has somehow failed to place the reader in deep point-of-view with the protagonist anywhere else in the story, I certainly don’t want to fail with this opportunity!

Do you recall a mirror moment from a favorite book or movie? Have you ever created an ending for a story before writing the rest of it?