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The Nightingale

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Jennifer Kent’s Australian film “The Nightingale,” from 2018, is an astonishing, unflinching examination of man’s inhumanity to man, told through the lens of a female Irish convict in Tasmania under British occupation in the 19th century.

I’m not a big fan of trigger warnings, but if ever there was a film that needed one, this is it. It’s art, there’s no question about that, but it has what is possibly the most excruciatingly painful scene of violence I’ve ever seen on film.

You’ve been forewarned.

There has been a movement in the last few years in film, television, and fiction to bring stories of oppressed minorities to the mainstream, and we are beginning to see the fruits of that. I am fascinated and eager to learn from these experiences, but boy is it sobering to see what humans are capable of. It’s one thing to intellectually understand the horrors of war, racism, and oppression, but it’s another thing entirely to see it captured unflinchingly on film or in fiction. Our species is capable of depraved violence on a level that is very difficult to face.

The thing is, we have to face this stuff to move beyond it (and hopefully learn how to mitigate this monstrous aspect of our nature), so these works are important, particularly when done to this level of artistic achievement.

But holy fuck—my wife experienced a visceral reaction the likes of which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen. She walked out of the room in a rage—and I understood why.

But we have to come to terms with this stuff, and art is how we do it.

You and I may have never behaved with indifferent cruelty, but make no mistake— this is part of our collective humanity, whether we want to believe it or not.

We have to face who we are in order to change and move on.

Two Sides of the Same Coin, AKA Fermi’s Mistake

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”I think that the problem of discovering alien life and solving the origin of life are deeply coupled and are in fact one and the same problem. The first contact with alien life will actually be an origin of life experiment.”

– Sara Walker, Theoretical Physicist

And So It Begins

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Anesha Prasad-Jackson sat in the window seat at 30,000 feet and looked down on an expanse of white, pillowy clouds that looked like a child’s version of heaven. Her watch read 0538. The rising sun bathed the scene in a pinkish hue, and she wondered how many other planets in the universe offered this kind of beauty as a matter of course.

The brief she’d been given had been matter-of-fact, but its implications were clear. Ten years as an archaeogeneticist had prepared her well for this moment.

“Non-human remains found at an archaeological dig site dated approximately 300,000 years ago,” the director had said. “Buried with an early hominid, most likely Australopithecus. Extract specimens for DNA analysis doing as little damage to the specimen as possible.”

Dr. Ndoki dozed in the adjoining seat, but for her, sleep was impossible. If this is what the military seemed to be implying, it could be a discovery with the potential to change the course of history. Slow, steady breaths, she told herself. You’ll know soon enough.

What Is Gifted?

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”When you look at who really achieves great things, you notice that most of them were not prodigies. They didn’t wow people at age 18, but over the course of their adulthood they found some deep interest in something, and they achieved mastery. Many of society’s great contributors didn’t have an easily identifiable extraordinary ability; they had the right mixture of slight advantages and character traits that came together in the right way.”

— From “What Happens to Gifted Children,” by David Brooks, published in the New York Times

But & Therefore

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Students at NYU asked the creators of South Park the million-dollar question:

“What makes a good story?”

They gave one of the best explanations of story I’ve heard:

“If we can take the beats of your outline, and the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats… you got something pretty boring.

What should happen between every beat you’ve written down is the words ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’”

They go on to say, “That gives you the causation between each beat, and that makes a story.”

Point 1:

There’s an idea in storytelling called ‘Promise, Progress, Payoff.’

Essentially, a story is a never ending cycle of promises that are paid off over the span of the story.

It’s a cycle of expectation and resolution. Cause and effect. Conflict and progress.

Point 2:

A story isn’t a bunch of random events thrown together.

A story is a series of but / because / therefore moments.

A famous example:

  • Harry discovers he’s a wizard. Because of this, he goes to learn magic at Hogwarts.
  • But then he learns Voldemort wants to kill him and rule the world.
  • Therefore, he must find a way to defeat him.

Point 3:

The ‘But / Therefore’ concept works in layers.

You can apply it at the line level, paragraph level, or whatever your largest unit of story is – be it chapter, Act, or whatever.

I’m reminded of a Hemingway quote:

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”

Great writing is intentional. It doesn’t wander. It builds upon itself.

Revelatory

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Astute writer critiquing one of my short stories in a writer’s workshop: “Some writers are plot driven, while others are more focused on character. You write to answer philosophical questions.”

Me: Stunned silence of recognizing the truth.

It’s Alive!

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So, I’m working on my next novel, and I had given my characters “working” names — just placeholders, really. In my head, they were pretty developed, complete with backstories, character traits, and ethnicities, but somewhat nebulous, nonetheless. Faceless. Not yet real.

Then yesterday, I spent some time nailing down their names, and something weird happened.

Suddenly, they were real. Not made-up characters. REAL.

Kind of creepy but at the same time, very, very cool.

And so it begins…

Hunter Hunter

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It’s always a pleasant surprise to chance upon a terrific film unexpectedly, and this one is really something special. Directed by Shawn Linden and released in 2020, this compact film was shot in a Canadian forest with three primary characters and three secondary. The location and cinematography are beautiful, but the script and acting are absolutely first rate.

This is not your typical horror film—it functions more like a wilderness drama until the last twenty minutes, but holy shit—the ending is like taking a punch from Mike Tyson.

It’s best to go into this with as little information as possible, so I’m not going to give anything away. Let’s just say that nothing is quite what it seems, but everything is believable and ultimately devastating.

Great stuff.

Furiosa (Part 1)

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Just saw George Miller’s epic film, “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.” Imagine Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur set in a lawless wasteland. Lots of thoughts, but here’s some first impressions.

In 1979 I saw the original “Mad Max” and was suitably impressed and puzzled at the same time. It seemed to be a kind of weird combination of “The Wild Ones” mixed with a mashup of American car chase movies—Bullitt, The French Connection, Vanishing Point, the original Gone In 60 Seconds, and The Seven Ups—but very Australian, very nihilistic, and laced with some very dark humor.

It was unlike anything I’d seen before, and I wanted more…

Then in 1981 came “The Road Warrior,” Miller’s first real masterpiece. Unlike his first movie, this one was dystopian: set in a hellish desert wasteland (the Australian Outback), he created an entire post-apocalyptic world. Human war had broken civilization into nomadic tribes, all fighting to survive.

I became somewhat obsessed.

Then, in 1985 came “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome,” and thirty years later, 2015’s “Fury Road,” which I’ll write about in another post.

I’m not engaging in hyperbole when I say that what he has achieved with this series is a staggering example of cinematic genius—this latest at the age of 79 no less.

The detail of world-building in these last two films is so dense, it will take at least three viewings to fully appreciate what he’s done. This is a movie that will be taught in film schools, and endlessly dissected by movie nerds for decades to come (assuming we don’t wipe ourselves out first).

Here’s the upshot: it’s not for everyone, but if you love film you owe it to yourself to see it on the big screen before it hits streaming.

And prepare to be amazed.

Still Alive and Well

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Shit goes wrong. Sometimes it piles up and gets you down.

At times like this, it’s good to take a moment and reflect on whatever it is you’re grateful for. If this part is giving you any trouble, please allow me to help.

If you’re reading this, you’re still fucking alive.

It ain’t over yet.

The Rule of Three

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“If you use any three of the five senses, it will make the scene immediately three-dimensional.”

– Diana Gabaldon

Welcome to the Black Box

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In the tech sector, when someone refers to a “Black box,” what they mean is they can’t reliably reverse engineer whatever it is because it’s impossible to look inside and see how it works. It’s opaque.

What, you might be thinking, would we ever make that would fall under that category?

AI.

The result? We already can’t explain what it’s doing.

So much for safeguards.