Archive for February, 2018

Spandex Deficient

Posted: February 26, 2018 in Uncategorized

One possible end to a relationship that makes less sense the more you play with it…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

“Man’s got to know his limitations.”

Every so often I go back and forth venturing into the Spandex (superhero) sub-genre of science fiction. Prose. Comic book scripts. Screenplays. Ignominious failure every time. And then I go do something else, admitting to the time suck of these distraction projects.

I don’t know if it’s that I hang out with comic book creators on a weekly basis and feel an oversized need to provide more examples of the signature genre of the comic book/graphic novel medium. Or that I’m distracted by colorful costumes when they finally come off an artist’s drawing board. I’ve tried several times to create spandex stories and then moved onto other types of stories in the science fiction and fantasy genres. SPLAT! I might not have enough handle on the specifics of spandex to keep doing these stories.

Mostly, I’ve failed to correctly utilize spandex in my storytelling hitting a wall of – “Why?” – with each story. Sometimes it’s my spandex villain that bellyflops into the pool off the 30-meter platform (Owwww!). Other times, I end up deciding that nothing about what the protagonist does needs a spandex persona, so why is it there? So far, this process of Wiley Coyote pancaking into the desert floor lands far worse when using legacy Big Two (DC/Marvel) characters, but it may eventually apply to my homegrown spandex people as well.

My story begins with Batman and a common whine in the comic book store – “you know, I’m not really sure I have any good ideas that take the cape.” Even though I read and see just enough Batman to understand the villains, supporting players and Gotham herself, every time I go ass in seat trying to write one I get an interesting cognitive impairment: Spandex Anemia. I end up questioning why the hell I’m using Joker (possibly the most overused Bat-villain ever) instead of Two-Face or Scarecrow.

It’s not like I somehow don’t understand the villain archetypes in that pseudo-Jungian way that most writers use and don’t admit to. It’s not like I won’t eventually write essays about Joker as a force of unbridled chaos. Or the more subtle machinations of Penguin enjoying the good life in a niche between crime boss and spandex-villain. That I don’t grok the finer points of tossing Batsie in with Selina Kyle (Catwoman) versus Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) and how each fictional woman changes the story. I recognize it at the level of busting out essays that can function as literary deconstruction. But, actually using them to tell a story…eludes me every time.

Initially, I thought it was the pressure of Batman. Enjoy the Adam West show. Enjoy the Michael Keaton/Tim Burton movies. Groove to really good examples from classic runs including Denny O’Neill or whoever and all of this can add up to the immediate need to pull a Wayne’s World – “we’re not worthy!” It’s a lot to chase Batman into good storytelling. So I sometimes went off axis trying out less fraught characters.

Superman only ever ended up being a cameo character that showed up to handle things in the background. You’d think with my three minutes of journalism training in my past I could bust out a Clark Kent Hears Something on the Scanner and Comes Back With a Pulitzer and a Victory Over Lex Luthor Story. Nope. Nada. So far, Supes has generally only appeared to do his Replace the Blown Up Jet Engine shtick from the first Christopher Reeve movie, or other similar moments where he lands making the suit looks good and it’s all over but the shouting. Besides Lois Lane deserves the Pulitzer.

And then I chased Wonder Woman as a protagonist. This one even has (had?) a title: The Widow Wayne. The plot so far…a fresh off the boat Wonder Woman marries Batman and takes over Gotham when he suddenly dies, only to realize her mistake after doing the usual comic book gymnastics to deal with the death reversal of an A-list Wait Six Months He’ll Be Back character. Okay, having Wonder Woman make a romantic mistake to be rectified with a divorce decree, kiss and agreement to be a friend with benefits has some potential but…

Not when every letter of the story in both the fan fiction and screenplay leads towards Diana resolving Bruce Wayne’s problems in the Wayne Industries boardroom. Joker showed up in a heist cameo as did Harley Quinn. I hadn’t worked out the how the Joker interacts with the unnamed somebody finding the capital to buy up Wayne Industries. Or if the Joker would be a red herring cameo (yes, the Oscar-bait murder clown is overused… but cameo? Even just thinking this heresy the Super Genius coyote just hit terminal velocity over the desert floor…) for the equally cliché trope of Lex Luthor as the purveyor of lethal boardroom jujitsu?

All of this back and forth knowing I hadn’t figured out the spandex part of the story seemed like a brick wall. Two different female opinions including – “not that it won’t be good, but, you see what you did, a Mrs. Batman story that doesn’t necessarily play to what Wonder Woman does?” – tried to warn me. I did listen after the fact because of the larger block of what to do with how spandex operates in general. That grinding teeth figuring out how Joker, Harley Quinn, Catwoman exist in this version of Gotham shared with Wonder Woman and the unspoken feminist unease that the Amazon married into the company are, in strict point of fact, manifestations of the same problem. It just isn’t a spandex story and after copying the text, I butchered it off Wattpad.

And no, mentioning the late addition about Wonder Woman filing for divorce and agreeing to an arrangement to be FWB wouldn’t have changed anything. Yes, a story that lets Wonder Woman make a mistake with Batman and stylishly fix the problem might play, but regular people make marital mistakes all the time and if I can’t figure out the why of Diana’s Lasso of Truth and patriotic one piece in the story… then why?

Moving the discussion to my homegrown characters loosely given a collective label Tales of the Angel Association (they mostly live in LA and are good guys, so double meaning on angel there…comes from having at least one ear open in English class), I do have a lot of one type of story, the origin/introduction. I have been really great at this one type of story and I’ve blundered into a decent amount of cool superhero names with either cool new powers or at least cool variations on already public domain abilities.

The Origin Story…Krypton blows up, the El family puts the boy into the Moses basket and entrusts him to good people in Kansas. Raised by the Kents, Kal-El becomes Superman. The introduction story is similar in the sense of skip over the actual mechanics of how he/she got her powers and just cut to the part where the new hero interacts with a key ally, but otherwise hangs up the same neon new hero sign that the average origin story does. But, have you noticed the weakness of these properties?

Despite at least four separate variations in all kinds of media, I have twenty or more origins for a variety of characters and precisely two regular stories that would help drive the franchise after the dust settles on the initial book. Here they are.

Dark Warrior (Batman as a younger trust fund baby exiled to Los Angeles owning a plucky record label gifted from Daddy with the instruction to find content for an in-house streaming service) endures the special line at the DMV intended to preserve spandex secret identities. Crap! When the backstory inside the parenthesis is longer than the pitch something just went SPLAT!

Or I like this one. Night Fury (the middle sister Greek Fury, Alecto, basically Wonder Woman with Hulk’s rage issues underneath being the normally sweetest woman on the planet) is currently employed at a Hollywood production company and when faced with MeToo behavior must call in her new friend, Speed Angel (Lady Flash), to help enact a response that appropriately splits the difference between full Greek Fury and roll over and give the asshole what he wants with a fake smile. The ladies choose to put Ex-Lax in the man’s coffee earning Night Fury a promotion in Hollywood when someone important sees her make the work day without the boss. Again do you see the pattern that nothing about this story needs to have any four-color spandex costuming at all?

Another thing about this body of characters and origin stories is that I’m massively light on villains. So far I have Funnyman (a wholesale looting of all things Joker) and Devius Maximus (Marvin T. Martian without the fraught blackface of the cartoon). In an early novel attempt, I did have about four other members of the Legion of Chaos, but promptly shoved them into the background. And then I added Metal Goddess (Lady Iron Man meets Firestorm) as the narrator of the operation with first person stories about all of her spandex friends and her origin journey while trying to salvage the earlier third person stories of the earlier characters using the story within a story technique of The Arabian Nights.

Where are the regular episodes of, say, Adam West Batman that pitch like this – tune in next week same Bat-channel, same Bat-time as the evil Egghead comes to Gotham seeking the Diamond Egg of Thromuria? Eventually I do have to answer this question about what happens to my heroes between the origin stories and however I end these characters. And I don’t know how to solve this conundrum, making me wonder if I should just put the characters out there in some quick and dirty origin story fashion and basically walk away to let these spandex people thrive in everyone else’s comic books.

Do I actually know my limitations?

Blade Runner 2049

Posted: February 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Some movies just land wrong and Blade Runner 2049 is one of them. But, then there’s landing wrong in the sense of belly-flopping off the 30-meter platform at the Olympics and misjudging the last step off the escalator at the bottom of the landing in a London Tube Station. For me, watching this movie on disk well after the theatrical run felt more like the latter.

Scene. We open on the same white over black exposition cards that in the original Blade Runner told us all about the replicants, blade runners and the Tyrell Corporation. This time thirty years have passed and the Nexus 8, a later series progressing from the Nexus 6, have rebelled so often that they were banned driving Tyrell out of business. A new corporation figured out how to hardwire slavish obedience into various newer series of replicants allowing their usage on Earth. Blade Runners still exist to retire any remaining Nexus 8 and other replicant lines that might still be hiding in plain sight on Earth.

A replicant designated Officer K-[lots of letters] (Ryan Gosling) flies his car through the ever present rain that has defined Southern California since whatever ecological damage dumped on the City of Angels before the first movie. He lands near a protein farm that grows edible worms that can be ground up to mimic meat and other more palatable protein sources. K-[lots of letters] gets out into the gray gloom to investigate.

K-[lots of letters] meets Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), an early model Nexus 8 long on the LAPD old case list. After conversation that reveals things like the protein farmer also grows garlic for his own use. To Sapper, the irony of sending a replicant from the newer slave series created by the Wallace Corporation that replaced Tyrell to kill him is funny or tragic depending on how much whiskey the listener had just before entering the farming pods. But, then Sapper says – “Doesn’t matter, I’ve seen a miracle!” – just before K-[lots of letters] puts a big bullet through the big replicant’s head.

And what is that miracle? K-[lots of letters] spots a tree under which he finds a dropped daisy that may or may not be a remembrance for the dead. The various scanners in the tricked out flying car solve that question right away detecting a box buried among the roots. He digs it up and takes it back to the lab for analysis. In the box, the ME finds bones of a woman with the markers of someone likely to have died in childbirth when the emergency C-section went bad and septic. The lab also finds a replicant serial number on a rib, which leads back to the oldest of the outstanding old cases…Rachel (Sean Young).

And so K-[lots of letters] begins a journey that will ultimately lead to him taking the name Joe and reunite Dekard (Harrison Ford) with the child he made with Rachel. And the replicants hiding in the shadows of society are lurking waiting for just the right rallying cry to rise up and demand rights from their creators.

I wanted to like this movie more mostly because of the strength of the original despite my annoyance with original director, Ridley Scott, creating four different cuts of his movie that really didn’t change very much understanding. Denis Villenueve did everything he could as director to call us back to the original film, but ended up giving us a slow moving and long film that couldn’t quite live up to the promise of the premise.

It was in the B-plot between Joe and his holographic helpmeet Joi (Ana de Armas) that I found things to like. Joi names Joe overcoming his clunky K-[lots of letters] designator and she’s always there in her mobile emitter to warmly welcome her man home. And when this culminates in Joi hiring a replicant hooker with whom to merge for a sex scene because holographs need help to have sex, my eyes opened up.

As you might guess, the identity of Dekard’s child is the McGuffin of the movie. K-[lots of letters] was sent to kill the child. Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is sent by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) to grab the child alive in order to reverse engineer replicant sexual reproduction to expand the use of replicant slaves in interstellar exploration. By the time, that K-[lots of letters] fully transforms into Joe, we spend a few minutes thinking that he might have been the child due to scrambled genetic records that suggest the child might have been male or female.

As this plot unfolded, I found myself trying to guess the most interesting way to land a huge twist with the reveal. And I thought the choice underwhelming. No, I won’t say what my personal “if I’d written the movie” whine-fest solution was because as a writer/reviewer I can’t think of anything more insulting to another creator than to lecture him about the “proper” way to make his movie. All you need to know is that these concerns exist and move on from there.

I’ve mentioned that the real knock against this movie is the nearly three-hour running time and slow pace that makes said three hours feel like six. Don’t get me wrong, three hours with more gunplay or just scenes that matter more dramatically might come out closer to Lawrence of Arabia, but it was not to be what with K-[lots of letters]/Joe sitting in chairs looking at screens that told him what the next clue was. I’m already clawing out my eyes.

As I write this, I’ve also decided that the evil corporate CEO Niander Wallace proved a character mostly superfluous to the story I saw on my TV screen. Replicant Luv didn’t need an onscreen boss as she tore up the rainy Los Angeles on her mission. This is not me throwing shade at Mr. Leto over his stellar performance but the realization that some roles are just easy to cut out when the audience might like their diet of cyberpunk metaphor served quicker with more film blood.

But, it wasn’t a completely miserable experience. Watching Sylvia Hoeks, Ana de Armas and Robin Wright (LT. Joshi) tear up their individual variations on the female metaphor was pleasurable. Homicidal replicant, loving hologram and human police commander should make for some interesting English papers discussing metaphor and females archetypes in college English classes for the next few years. It helps that all three ladies acted the hell out of their roles; otherwise students won’t care.

I must also shout out for the cinematography that has always been a hallmark of the franchise. Roger Deakins found every shadow needed to help put me visually into the dystopian Los Angeles where it always rains like present-day Seattle and I can’t say enough good things about how beautiful the darkness is even when the darkness becomes an orange blur in the nuclear wasteland that is Las Vegas.

Pretty much a shorter and more violent version of this movie with more replicants getting “retired” might have been more fun. A shorter and more violent movie that lets Joe and Joi go out for a bad date that then forces changes to society and their relationship could also work. A shorter and more violent movie that sees Niander Wallace kept off screen in favor of Luv also might fly. Shorter and more violent…got it!

And with that…review’s over go home!

12 Strong

Posted: February 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Some war movies have helped define filmmaking for generations to come. Other war movies miss the presumed good version of the why and divide the audience into the “it’s a movie and war is part of our shared experience” and “how dare you produce such obvious pro-Government militaristic toxic masculinity propaganda” camps. The recent movie 12 Strong is no Hurt Locker in that choosing to depict a generally successful true-ish to life operation there are going to be fewer highly emotional War is Bad scenes “approved” for viewing for the latter camp.

When the soldiers win a quick three-week campaign as Special Forces advisors to the Afghan Northern Alliance starting in the two weeks after 9/11 there aren’t going to be very many scenes of fear, hurt and aftermath that can either make for great filmmaking or drag a war movie down in being unwatchable in its darkness. What came out on screen in this story of twelve Green Berets going to war to strike back for 9/11 lands squarely in the middle between giving both sides of the argument plenty of fuel for the next year or so.

While it says, “Based on the Book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton” on the credits and promotion materials, all the names except for Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum have been changed for the movie. This is what gives the How Dare You camp much of its ammo. The movie as presented on screen takes liberties that might have observers of how Special Forces foreign internal defense missions (advisors) actually operate spitting up their coffee.

For starters, there were more Americans on the ground in the real campaign to take a key city in northern Afghanistan from where the Taliban held sway. The Air Force really doesn’t like taking bombing adjustment orders from non-Air Force personnel and trains Combat Controllers to operate with ground forces no matter the level of training of the ground unit. And the CIA sent a few Paramilitary Officers. But, it’s a simpler and presumed better story if just twelve guys go to slay the Taliban/al-Qaeda dragon.

One problem with the fictionalization that landed on screen is that Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is really the only American character that gets enough airtime in order to reach the viewer in his/her seat. He kisses the wife goodbye as he asks for a transfer back to his old unit now that there is a real war on. He highlights the difficulty inherent in advisor missions that live and die on making nice with the local commander, General Dostum (Navid Negahban) in this case. The two men finally agree on the ultimately successful course of action to take Masar-i-Sharif sooner than planners expected.

And most of the other Americans on the team despite being played by a small handful of recognizable actors like Michael Peña are cardboard cutouts. They board the helicopter entering Afghanistan singing Barry Sadler’s Green Beret Theme, a product of the one movie ever to make the case that Vietnam is Good…John Wayne’s The Green Berets.

But, the filmgoer doesn’t get the sense if these moments were intended by the filmmaker as ironic or not, that these professional warriors make fun of what the public assumes about their job based on past movies in our shared database. Or do we see the camaraderie of highly trained true believers going into battle sure of the rightness of the cause? This is where the filmmaker has to let the audience know his/her personal philosophy concerning these things and I feel in this case someone ducked a question that needed answering.

My ambivalence is also rooted in my earlier statement that successful operations that fit into Napoleon’s quote about short and victorious wars simply may not be as dramatic. When we think about the really great war movies derived from past wars whether invented from whole cloth or somewhat truthful to events, these stories have moments that stick with us that spring from dramatic reversal. We remember Chef’s head dropped into Willard’s lap while held prisoner in a tiger cage, a moment that just screams All is Lost from Save the Cat.

We have the relationship between team leader and local general that could have consequences if things go south. We also have what starts out as a slipped disk in the back of the team’s second in command that later is made worse when the same character takes a bullet. The rest of the movie describes the kind of dramatic arc where the bad things that do happen are too minor to be very interesting to the drama addicts that make up the American movie going public. The real mission described was only three weeks and everybody made it home.

But, on the positive side for people like myself who can appreciate war movies at many levels, including that things move and blow up, 12 Strong delivers a fast ride through the desert trying to capture an important enemy city.

Now how do I feel about this movie beyond being a middling war movie that moves and blows shit up? As you may guess from me trying to keep my opinions relevant to the actual movie seen on the screen, I see both sides. I see war movies and war itself as part of the condition of our species and don’t mind so much about the rah-rah war movie as escapism. However, the war movie that understands the cost of that glory is a whole lot of pain more likely to play out two years after the soldier rotates home to get on with life is inherently more dramatic. This is because the events likely to inform a soldier’s PTSD seem to be the best moments to stick into the dramatic reversal slots as instructed by certain structure heavy writing manuals. Somewhere out there is the movie that does both…

Black Panther

Posted: February 16, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

PHEW! I like it when highly anticipated movies work as intended, justifying the several million words of many people that just couldn’t wait. The latest entry in the Marvel MCU just landed with either the unstoppable brute force of, say, Hurricane Andrew, or the more subtle irresistibility of a well-constructed whisper and rumor campaign. Pick your metaphor, we now live in a post-Black Panther world and now that it paid off, it didn’t come soon enough. I’m ready, at least, to move onto the next Internet buzz bomb arriving in…Five…Four…Three…

Black Panther tells the story of Wakanda, a fictional African nation that lucked out with a nearly endless mountain of Unobtainium…uh, vibranium (the metal of Captain America’s shield) that created a utopia of at least one place in Africa that didn’t get colonized or suffer the terrible indignity of slavery. The movie, like many depicting the hopefully universal trope of The Good King, makes the metaphorical point from John Boorman’s Excalibur that – “The Land and the King are one.” In this case, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascends the throne after the tragic UN bombing depicted in Captain America: Civil War and grows into his crown and throne with the assistance of the metaphor of the Black Panther that protects the people.

At core, if you come out of the theater thinking that you’ve seen this story about two cousins with an equal claim to the throne but with diametrically opposed viewpoints before…you have. Think Lion King lightly salted with the thematically similar Hamlet filtered through the visuals of Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets and you’re nearly there if you actually need the reductionist Player Pitch.

T’Challa represents The Good King that knows not to overplay Wakanda’s hand, while doing what he can covertly as the Black Panther. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) is T’Challa’s long lost cousin from America who hasn’t been raised with the sense of security of living in a safe nation (obviously not America in this case) that insists on “get off your fortified mountain and do something!” The two men square off in the ritual combat for the throne that acts as crucible for T’Challa to grow past the complete isolationism of the past, while rejecting the need to become the very thing that ruined the rest of Africa and the diaspora.

At this point in this review, I have so many glowingly positive things to say about every aspect of this movie…where do I start? Somewhere in the connective tissue between director, Ryan Coogler’s, work behind the camera and his considerable work on the script, we are treated to a story that doesn’t drag, flag or fail to hold the viewer’s interest. We’re with the Panther, hope it works out in the end.

The production also helped this impression of massively impressive storytelling by finding literally every affordable African or African-American actor worth looking at. More importantly, the cast fits the roles they took instead of giving off the feel of stunt casting because Hollywood almost always selects for Big Name instead of Right Actor. That this doesn’t apply here says someone somewhere in some bleak casting office cubicle deserves a promotion (a window, at least?).

Speaking of casting, there are two white actors who, taken together, stand in for the duality inherent in how white westerners are perceived in the rest of the world. We have the great motion capture actor, Andy Serkis, as Ulysses Klaue, a South African arms dealer infamous for being the only outsider to enter Wakanda and walk out alive with vibranium. Martin Freeman plays Everett K. Ross, a CIA case officer and former Air Force pilot.

I realize that I’m reaching here, but if I had to find something that went lumpy and pear shaped in this movie the juxtaposition of these two foreigners would be it. The Ross character didn’t equal the bravura performance going into Klaue. Mister Serkis and the movie as a whole let us feel the character as all kinds of batshit crazy, completely impressed with his reflection in the interrogation room mirror. Or the feel that this guy would kill everyone in Wakanda and then calmly finish their dinners for them.

By contrast, the Ross character came off as underwritten as both a case officer and former jet jock. At least, the aspect of Ross’s ongoing friendship with T’Challa came off suggesting it wasn’t the actor but the writing. Mister Freeman has two big moments, explaining that Erik Killmonger specializes in destabilizing governments that piss off the United States and it falls to him to remotely pilot the Panther Jet to shoot down several Wakandan ships about to leave the country to start the global revolution. Both moments landed a little flat.

The explanation scene led me to specifically wish that Mister Coogler and other writers had watched the final scene between Cliff Robertson and Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor where despite a justified revulsion for the tactics of most scared nations and their black ops entities seeking to stave off scarcity we come to understand the why. Just a little more unapologetic dialogue from the point of view of a patriot trying to guide his country through the bloody mess in many global back alleys and who knows?

The remote piloting dogfight failed at the level of visual design and shot construction that we really might unfairly blame the writing in the early script drafts. Yes, a bad guy ship tracked the drone signal back to the remote pilot chair but I still felt the bellyflop. Basically, this is me saying that the dogfight took place on one horizontal plane and thus brought with it the dramatic interest of a videogame where the player has the immortality cheat code. My suggestion would be to take this furball into the vertical intentionally stealing from The Battle of Britain and a couple dogfights from Pearl Harbor (just about the only thing I liked about that monstrosity).

Minor quibbles about minor characters aside, you’ll get caught looking at the CGI eye candy of what Wakanda looks like behind the illusion of a small and seemingly poor but proud African nation. Mag-lev trains. A virtual remote control console easily reconfigured for any type of vehicle including the Black Panther jet. And a boatload of the blue, vibranium’s natural ore state before refinement into something akin to stainless steel. Yes, the look isn’t exactly like what we got in Valerian, just the closest analog.

All in all, Black Panther is yet another amazing example of uniformly great filmmaking from the Disney-Marvel shop. Oh, and please Dear God stay through the credits!

Important? Yeah, Right!

Posted: February 16, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

As I started this post, I had yet to see Black Panther (review to follow). I pulled out a pen from my overstuffed pockets (prepared to write, always) partly to kill the couple hours having come early to make sure I had my seat. I washed in hope for a good movie and stewed in my usual cynicism about the hype surrounding this one. Hype that bears comment.

Largely because we live in the kind of world where Black Panther seems such a new thing, despite the first steps by Hattie McDaniel, Sydney Poitier, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington and several other giants with broad shoulders that perhaps didn’t get their statues when they’d earned them, the hyperbole defines inevitable for the next six generations. Okay, I generally support the why of this particular class of blovius, but less so at the level of having my Facebook feed increasingly clogged over the past six months with posts wallowing in this overripe stew whether for or against.

When it’s my friends expressing joy that a few things might go their way, I read or skim and move on. I don’t trash the things that friends feel they need and I can work with almost any honestly stated position. But, trust me, nothing makes me click through to hear Sargon of Akkad’s addition to the stew. Life’s too short for most of the clutter on social media. I suppose I should be specific about what I don’t like here; I run screaming for the hills anytime I hear people tagging a book, play, movie or opera as important.

Before I go further, please don’t confuse my disdain for the adjective’s use in commentary as being somehow in favor of a world without art or discussion. I’ve seen and read Fahrenheit 451 as well as watched the thematically similar Babylon 5: Crusade episode “The Needs of Earth.” Once men, women, children and domesticated animals evacuate, I really want to believe I’m going back in for irreplaceable things whether personal like photo albums or the verified last copy of almost anything. As always, ask me this question again when there’s a fire.

I have had discussions with people who made the point that society can lose a few so called important things because it is the responsibility of the current generation of artists to keep working and create the works that fill the void. The person making this argument didn’t believe people would ever get to the point of Ray Bradbury’s story where burn everything defined the day. Hence why I’m not going back in for just an ordinary library of CDs, regular books and digital files backed up in the cloud.

But, I still really hate important describing works in commentary and how we have literally rat-fucked the understanding of Shakespeare over the previous 300 years is the best example. Approximately 100 years after the Bard’s passing, elites who were already segregated into balcony seats from the peanut gallery Groundlings in the SRO on the floor near the stage started up with the importance of the plays. The Groundlings pretty much waved their hands and went off to create other entertainment that may or may not be taught in schools. It was the Groundlings who made Shakespeare the richest screenwriter of his day and created the reputation that has followed for the next 400 years…never forget that.

We’ve had nearly 300 years of importance rooted in admittedly peerlessly beautiful iambic pentameter and many gifts to the body of metaphor in Modern English. It shows up in how we teach the plays and sonnets in school, sometimes made worse by bad teaching. Every single student in Dead Poets Society groaned and grumbled upon the announcement of the Shakespeare unit until Robin Williams did an impression of John Wayne doing the Scottish Play. And these thoughts that importance delivered externally from the school administration will kill true appreciation doesn’t even factor in the related issue of the three centuries of naturally occurring linguistic drift where it’s easier to find a Spanish-English dictionary than it is to find a Then English-Now English dictionary.

In the 11th Grade, my English teacher nearly killed Hamlet for me. A woman with odd proclivities in her personal belief system, we chewed through the play with a steady diet of what it means (or rather what it meant to her), which I contend goes hand in hand with declaring something important. I ground my teeth through the whole unit (actually the whole class, but a post for another day on another blog). I want to find what the play means to me without cognitive interference. Luckily, like with my appreciation for the Bible, I found reasons to keep reading and ignore the noise from a badly taught class, or worse, Sunday school (yet another post for another blog).

In the face of such heavy handed assumptions that we must revere this stuff to the tune of lighting it like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction because the curriculum says so because the principal and PTA says so, I completely understand those of us that hew more towards the modern day Groundling mindset of “is it good?” My friend and I both fire up contemplating the Bard and we took his then girlfriend, a classic example of someone who avoided the plays in school, to the Scottish Play. What happened next, the lady exiting the play swearing that Shakespeare sucked is on us.

I remember my comment at the time as – “Look, the Scottish Play is the thickest and densest play in the whole canon and if we’d thought it out we’d have taken you to something easier first as a set of training wheels.”

She remembers that I also said it more pithily – “Basically, we smeared you in chum and kicked you off the boat, sorry.” I’ll steal that for the mostly true movie about me. Anyway, the story had a happy ending when other plays proved more accessible to her after the fact.

Importance got me in the door of the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. And I get to say that the combination of not really wanting to throw elbows at tourists crowding the room, that the painting is a 3’x 2’ poster and a much more interesting Titian of Saint Sebastian hanging on the right wall and the trip wasn’t wasted. The Smiling Lady has more impact peering up from that dusty coffee table book none of us open.

Bringing this back around to Black Panther, I walked into the movie trusting that the Disney story machine will come extremely close to paying off the hype. But, this comes at the tail end of six months of having to skip nearly every social media post reveling in the apparent importance of the movie and an equal amount from the other side pulling the similarly corrosive yes, but (I did mention Sargon of Akkad above) bullshit that is also rooted in being declared important. All I need to know for my own personal meaning, my preferred synonym, is that Black Panther represents a new to me hero that I had yet to discover that will find things to speak to me. If successful, I will find things to learn from this movie and smile more when friends present their personal meaning in ways that I understand.

Hit Points

Posted: February 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

On the subject of heroically surviving grievous injury whether for movies or RPGs, Sergeant Frank Rock will always come up. When discussing the DC war comics character at the store, I said this, “if I had a dollar for every time I read an issue where Sgt. Rock took a sucking chest wound that the medic wrapped up in mummy bandages only to have the Rock check himself out of Battalion Aid 36 hours later to lead Easy to victory, I could pay off your school debt.”

Hyperbole alert, the man behind the second person pronoun owed $100,000 and Sgt. Rock only appeared a total of 339 distinct times before being ported to the regular DC spandex narrative (usually associated with Suicide Squad), or used as a rarely published nostalgia bait for old farts bemoaning that our wars don’t have nearly as much romance to them. Let’s just say Sergeant Rock took a lot of grave chest wounds that were promptly shrugged off enough times for exaggeration to set in.

Now why talk about the Rock in an RPG column? Have you seen the whole bit about Gain a Level Gain Hit Dice and therefore more hit points that has consistently existed in Dungeons & Dragons since the beginning? Depending on rules version, a fighter (assumed to be a trains outdoors sort of person) gets D10 or D8 with each level. Wizards get D4. Thieves get D6. Clerics get either D8 or D6.

Wisdom and experience do count for something, like Mr. Miyagi reminding Daniel, “best defense, don’t get hit.” And willpower and drive might increase with a warrior’s increased experience. This may explain why the Rock had the mummy bandage visuals land on his Script Immunity and not any of the other Combat Happy Joes of Easy Company. He does have the stripes and rockers of a Master Sergeant denoting a presumption of greater experience.

I suppose we need a real world example. In the same conversation where I spooled up the college debt brag, my friend told me that he didn’t read Sgt. Rock because it was too similar to his scary grandfather. This man I never met reportedly said on many occasions, “bullets are merely an impediment to forward progress.” I was later told after the man’s passing that the pathologist opening him up found upwards of 30 bullets or fragments spanning a nearly 40-year career in mostly covert service. In RPG terms this warrior is an upper level fighter that rolled high on hit dice gained and milked every Constitution bonus available.

So the RPG/film trope of the unstoppable tank-man slashing/shooting/scorching his way through armies of bad guys might be thing some of the time. Another way to look at the situation is that at about 4th Level most characters gain the ability to survive a single grave wound of the sort likely to disembowel a rookie, because the damage from the common weapons don’t increase to match. There are a few general and class-specific rules to provide at least some balance upon the tank-man trope in this bloodthirsty arms race being hit points and weapons.

A character or non-player character on the attack that rolls a natural 20 that survives all negative modifiers gets a critical hit where damage is multiplied by a lot. A thief could get similar multipliers using the Thief Backstab rules. An assassin in the early rules could circumvent the regular combat rules rolling a percentile dice for an instant killing, possibly bending all logic of an assassination by using this rule in a regular melee. My characters have helped wipe out several examples of large monsters using both the critical hit rules and backstab (never liked assassins as a class), most vividly a giant pretty much lost his spine under my blade.

When pushed various Dungeons & Dragons authors, playtesters and rules gurus have generally stated their belief that most of an upper level character’s extra hit dice represent a metaphor experience making a character being harder to hit. They asserted extra hit points to be a measure of exhaustion, parrying, blocking with some damage to the body. A 10th Level character might have nine dice of metaphor and one die of potential damage to the meat suit.

Okay, so they’re trying to capture the swirling roil of an Errol Flynn style cinematic fencing match while still having a turn-based combat system, aka “only one good strike per turn, everything else is feint and misdirection to be role-played.” But, even in this system declaring that all hit dice and hit points gained since first level are metaphors of exhaustion and driving through defenses belies the fact that they’re called hit dice in the first place. The complexity increases when you realize that optional rules allow for parrying, blocking, riposte, counterstrike and avoidance that are separate from the roleplaying section of the combat turn. All I know, the giant in the above example bled all over me.

The need for clarification increases when you port the killing machine trope back into the movies whence it spawned. Conan never got hit in any battle taking place past the midpoint in the story, unless the writer decreed a truly inconsequential slash much like a shaving scar. Closer to the end of the story, the Cimmerian doesn’t feel much exhaustion either. All those years in gladiator pits paid off and Arnold Schwarzenegger designed a regimen to match.

Other RPG systems have tackled the tricky balance between the desire to get ripped enough to fight dragons, Vermicious Knids or even the average Klingon and the truth of “don’t get hit” in many different ways. Some average various statistics like Strength and Constitution. Some DM/GMs add bleeding rules intended to keep players in an honest fear of death when slashed across the belly.

For instance, a friend currently experiments with a Marvel characters campaign using the Open Game License D20 (aka Dungeons & Dragons 3.0) rules. His solution is to give only one or two hit points per character development level after the first. He said he wanted to do what he could to convey that the human gains 90-percent of all damage resistance upfront and that all other gains represent small amounts built from experience. One way to go for a meet in the middle compromise between the dream of the tank and something that appears real. I wonder if I should drop an average Sgt. Rock issue on my friend or tell him the story of my other friend’s grandfather.

Regardless, please don’t confuse observation with critique. I can be riding in on the proverbial white horse when it has been some time since I played any serious games. Put me at the table with my blue and green dice and watch me chant, “come on, Baby, gimme at least a seven!” Yeah, I sometimes play RPGs like I did that one time shooting craps…go figure.

Anyway, there isn’t much else to say about the oddity that is hit points…get back to your literary mayhem!

Bluetooth is a Bitch

Posted: February 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

The current setup…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

In my quest for just the right tools, I’ve chewed through a lot of stuff that I know the social media gods and monsters that like nanny shaming people over all kinds of things will get a-yellin’ over. Things like the right way to write (or rather type in this case) that maximizes for several possibly mutually exclusive factors. Portability. Connectivity to my Dropbox account. Assists editing. Size of screen and angle of display. Connectivity between keyboard and the rest of my gear. Size and feel of the keyboard.

Frankly in building up the small pile of old but still functional gear that I will soon have to clear out making them someone else’s problem through the Salvation Army, I’ve jumped on at least one grenade in each category. And I have gone back to an older solution with some twists, which says new ain’t always better.

Portability. Sounds self explanatory; buy the smallest object that does the job. Luckily, Microsoft finally built-in quite a bit of useful to the mobile version of Office that they sell to Apple users that circumvents the near automatic subscription shill for Office 365 found elsewhere. That means you can use a late-model iPhone for most of your writing…if you bring the right supporting gear.

For years, people didn’t want to write on phones because the screen proved too small and finger-tapping revealed as too slow. Emergency use only. Phones got a little bigger pushing up against the lower limit of tablets. The whiny became more strident if someone tried to write with the touchscreen keyboard. Enter the Bluetooth connection which allowed the user to add a keyboard in order to type normally-ish.

Bluetooth gave, Bluetooth took. The connection gave the ability to mate a keyboard to whatever tech you wanted while generally making the same small screen seem larger removing the visual obstruction of the finger tap keyboard. And Bluetooth doesn’t always work…the take.

Most of these observations result from also having a couple variations on the iPad that were never as portable as a phone, even the Plus size. Once I had my iPad Mini, the game was to try to find a keyboard that fit the size of the tech that I liked typing on and that also didn’t cause more problems with the connection. I’m batting .500 at best.

Small keyboards are more portable, but sometimes too small for typing. Small tablets are maybe eight inches across and my hands stuck index finger to index finger like for a fingernail inspection are also about that wide. I was taught to type on larger keyboards where the raised parts on the F and J keys help keep each hand safely on its own side. It feels miserable to type with a small keyboard, possible like fighting with a spear in a phone booth.

Initially, I had solved the problem with a full size Apple wireless keyboard to go with the iPad and now my iPhone that I’m admitting that maybe I should stop experimenting when something actually works. I wanted to maximize portability. The keyboard is as light as it gets given that Apple can’t make a regular size keyboard smaller, but at the time the wires and cables and protective cases still seemed too heavy in my bag.

Concurrent with the above, I went with a bunch of mini-sized Bluetooth clamshells that mimic notebook computers. Tried at least two by Logitech and the latest one by Brydge. They were for the iPad Mini creating the ugly typing feel, but only some of the time did the Bluetooth connection even talk to the devices properly. And guessing when something would work had no rhyme or reason.

Oftentimes, the connections would seem to work. Tap the buttons on both phone and keyboard and wait out the microsecond long handshake before working. But, the iOS mobile version of Word still has many secondary features that make use of the touchscreen to provide information. Word count. Bold. Italics. Underline. If you’ve guessed wrong with a cheap Bluetooth, these features might not work causing the need to shut down the connection and reset the phone to restore functions.

The Apple to Apple Bluetooth connection always scored high on working. Presumably, Apple employees drank much coffee whining in meetings about playing ‘Tooth Roulette and did what they could to make sure that they sold you the phone and the keyboard to go with it. But, it was a little bit bigger despite being the lightest possible for its size.

The Brydge clamshell works pretty well but it only seems like it maximizes portability adding weight to my bag that made me still want to go lighter. Moving me towards my Plus-size iPhone.

Unfortunately, more design effort has gone towards making a tablet like a notebook computer than has gone to doing the same for a large phone. The problem with phones used like this is that while the clamshell keyboard case will stand a tablet up so we can type with an approximation of good sitting posture, no one has thought to do that with phones. And a clamshell for a phone will be even smaller.

People do try to fill these market needs and helpfully blast the adds into my Facebook feed. I recently bought a keyboard (see second picture) that should work with my phone or a small tablet. The keyboard feel is okay for being about the same size. They got me selling the fold up keyboard that goes even lighter in my bag and has a shelf on which to place the phone. Oooh! Light and not too bad trying to type!

Too bad the Bluetooth connection proved cheap returning me to the old tricks first learned on the iPad Mini. Tapping the button that leads to the secondary features like Word Count got me a blue screen where the tap keyboard usually goes, jammed. I cleared this several times by turning off the Bluetooth connection and resetting the phone. Doing these things several times within a few minutes because you’re just stupid enough to repeat what didn’t work the first time, just to be sure, is angry making.

What is the current result of my experimentation? I went back to the Apple Wireless Keyboard that I hadn’t thrown away when I pulled out the batteries. I made the connection that requires a typed code which many barely functional Bluetooth objects don’t. I needed something to prop up the phone improvising putting my phone up against two lights I already have in my bag (see top photo). The keyboard is as light as it’s ever going to get knowing my typing requirements. More importantly, the Bluetooth functions first time every time.

And this is my process of trial, error and stupidity in stepping away from something that worked but wasn’t small enough and then ended up either not working or being too small. And I realize that none of this has more than a 15-percent bearing on your search for your writing tools. I hope you recognize Good For Now sooner than I did.

Really? Opera? Are You High?

Posted: February 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

An old pizzicato theme likely to recycle elsewhere and a bit of random inspiration…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Hey, doing an opera here! Yeah, you heard me; I’m going to create operas (libretto and score)! Announcing for the Met’s 2028 season, the comic opera Just Another Drunken Dwarf. Now, there’s a good way to burn the ships behind me on the Trojan beach.

I either write the opera to thunderous applause, write the opera to – “Huh? Most atonal crap I’ve ever heard!” – or just never do this and slink out of town before the laughter gets too loud. I have other creative outlets; so all three outcomes are okay with me (especially if I bust out a good book…lots of books). It’s not like I haven’t previously flopped on the floor for other peoples’ entertainment. However, you’ll notice the specific use of the still soft 10-year deadline? I need the time.

Why an opera? This question more or less drops along these lines – storyteller who also likes music, duh! Get me drunk and…no, even loaded my enjoyment of opera doesn’t publicly go beyond a writer simply wanting to punch up a scene with an aria for strings and brassy soprano. Besides, to wax that craptological about What Opera Means (almost as ridiculous as the original Point Break explaining What Surfing Means) I actually need tickets to a show (on my To Do List, I swear). For now, I like the music and the plots pop off Wikipedia.

So why Just Another Drunken Dwarf? I’m going to weasel here and explain the why not of another opera concept briefly included as a Go Project in an earlier version of this post. Provide contrast with a rejected idea first – Tales of the Angel Association, which is no longer a proposed opera. This year, at least.

What is Angel Association? A pack of mostly twenty-something spandex-heroes set up shop in Los Angeles to fight the villains of the Legion of Chaos and learn to grow as people. Yes, Folks, a superhero opera.

I got the idea about six hours after the one for Just Another Drunken Dwarf rubbing my hands with glee. I’ve periodically wondered why neither Time Warner nor Disney-Marvel (they paid for a concert hall in LA) have commissioned operas to flog the products of their respective IP mills to the opera going segment of the public, stereotypically a different bunch than superhero movie fans. Apologies to my fellow crossover people.

Imagine Batman: the Opera. Bruce Wayne stands brooding atop Gotham Cathedral and rips off his cowl to sing – Don’t Cry For Me, Gotham City (Really? I can do better than Andrew Lloyd Webber as a source). A hit in the making once you figure out that Batman is the single most Wagnerian character in a mythos that probably lands on Wagner’s head being a stark Gods and Monsters franchise.

By contrast, Marvel operas would run all over the style map. The Wagner clone from above could pull off The Avengers, but so too could a composer doing Verdi, Berlioz or Mozart, with a different feel to each. But, many of the other characters would need other giants on whose shoulders to stand.

No way does Spider-man land on the opera stage for anyone but Gilbert & Sullivan. All you have to do is repeat With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility while grooving on the joke about these Brits that all their work is about Duty. Besides, Peter Parker spends so much time comically stepping into it with Gwen Stacey and later Mary Jane Watson. Fits the funny edge to Gilbert & Sullivan.

Of course, all of this ran through my head contemplating my spandex opera. But, without either a commission or permission for doing it on spec, what follows is essentially fan fiction with good music. I’ll save that itch for actual fan fiction gifted as a loss leader for increasing readership, thank you very much.

I thus needed to cast about for other similar concepts. Angel Association is a set of characters that might out Wagner the DC mythos, just knowing from where I grabbed inspiration, especially Night Fury (a heroine for Me Too times from before the hashtag). Pretty much, I knew I needed to acquire Richard Wagner’s sheet music to reverse engineer the style and tone without devolving into outright plagiarism.

At this point, Angel Association is a go. I hear the themes that I suspect many librettists might hum while setting down the story, especially since the characters will brood from the spire of the Library Tower (brooding in high places is union-mandated at this point). Luckily, the beauty of doing both Book and Score is that I can’t piss off a composer (unless I go full MPD, a post for another day).

At this point in my narrative about my mouth writing checks my musical ear can’t yet cash, I’m also thinking about the state of spandex genre across all media. I’ve commented on Facebook how limiting it is that we have an IP duopoly, which until things shake loose with characters from other smaller publishers, will eat up all the big bucks in our culture. Marvel and DC feed directly to their in-house production studios and no one else in Hollywood wants to take a risk developing/buying characters from other sources.

Part of the wild, now time wasting, tangent about my desire to port over these characters from the fragments of prose, comic scripts, screenplays and, most recently, and old-timey radio script relates to this concern. Maybe if I do an opera with these characters I can force the issue of cultural relevance, I thought. Which isn’t the purest motive for doing anything, akin to “write a screenplay to make money.” But, something somewhere has to give to expand things beyond Batsie and Spidey, over and over again…until the end of time.

All of the above runs through my head. So why is Tales of the Angel Association now officially off my proposed opera plate? I have four words for you split down the middle. The first two: Wagnerian Scale.

I’m sure that the underlying darkness of characters like Night Fury (Wonder Woman meets The Hulk), Night Fury (Batman as a young record executive) and Funnyman (outright theft of the Joker archetype) would naturally find a home emulating the style of that crazy German bastard we only tolerate for the amazing music and being safely dead at least a hundred years. But, Angel Association is a spandex team story with at least twenty characters plugged into different modular stories. I might want the style to the exclusion of the scale especially since I’m just starting out; basically here’s an SAT analogy for you Tales of the Angel Association equals The Ring of the Niebelungen. Yipe!

However, believe it or not it was the other two words that really killed this spandex opera…for now. Stagecraft fail. An opera is first and foremost a stage play and I can’t port these characters to the opera stage without at least one bit of this has never been done before forced on that poor director. Yes, I’m aware that big budget stage and opera productions have solved most of the common effects problems: flight, fire, swinging, lightning and probably both water and ice. And then I created a character that will need a tandem flight rig.

Metal Goddess is a dual character that would need two singers to play, a young teenager tall enough to play volleyball and an alien armor symbiote. Pretty much, she’s femme Iron Man meets Firestorm. Unless the production decides to cover the Artemis (the symbiote) character by having her stay offstage on a headset until visibly called on stage, the soprano I imagined for Tullia (the girl) and the mezzo for Artemis will be joined at the hip. And Metal Goddess is pretty much the Dr. Watson narrator of the franchise so she’s in every scene!

I basically don’t need the bad karma from strapping two singers together and flying them around and having the rig blow up on stage. Hubris of this scale might have gone into Spider-man: The Unlucky Musical. Pity, I hear some interesting debate duets in my ears. Well, I can still pull off the radio drama.

And so we now come back full circle to Just Another Drunken Dwarf. When asked the real reason I buried the lead for the loaded dwarf idea, truthfully it comes down to…dude, I was just rolling my story dice and the pink image of a dwarf holding pick and stein kept coming up. I did sixteen rolls with twelve dice each and the dwarf came up six times.

No, I don’t get to wax craptological about getting the same result multiple times without it being a common result of probability juxtaposed with unconscious/semi-conscious behavior that diminishes the randomness. I keep my dice in a Ziploc bag and some sit higher on top of others and if the person picking the cubes doesn’t shake them flush beforehand, I freely admit that I might pull the same dice repeatedly. The rest is covered by the fact that when tossing coins true random probability says that long strings of Heads or Tails are possible results that will even out over time. So I had the die with the dwarf in hand at least six times and it came up six times.

I’ve wanted to do music and operas for a while trying to fight through the naysayers external and internal. Fighting against the laughter that knows I stopped the clarinet and the earlier flute going into middle school. Fighting against throwing some kind of fit at the age of four in some kind of preschool piano class and not really going back. And also fighting the disappointment from not trying the things I say I want to do.

It is in this emotional firestorm where all it takes to burn boats on the beach is two things, a loaded dwarf image seemingly coming up more than it should and the right interesting opera on the radio. What you listen to when you get your ideas will shape the idea.

In this case, the Met rocked and rolled with The Merry Widow on a Sunday morning as I’m going out to see a movie. Presented in English for the linguistically impaired, I’m just having fun listening to a comic tale of diplomats, their wives and the many “bargirls” (if you want a polite word for it) at Maxim’s in Paris scheming to get the wealthy widow properly married to a hometown suitor to keep her bank account at home. Halfway through the live presentation I get the idea for Just Another Drunken Dwarf and I’m laughing.

Comic operas and the classic plays on which many are based are typically “comic” if they end with a marriage, the Old World definition of Happy Ending. The tenor sniffing after the soprano singing the widow says and does the right things to create real love and everybody gets what they want. By contrast, if I’d been listening to my usual fare of Verdi, Wagner and others…my dwarf might just kill everybody in the room in the Fifth Act.

Right now, all I know is that I’ve pitched to myself that I’m doing an opera about a drunken dwarf and his adventures. I got the idea while listening to a comic opera, which guides the style of my idea. Which guides answering key questions about the basic plot.

Is Drunken Dwarf a story about the one fantasy/fairytale dwarf who is a teetotaler and angrily overcomes the diminished expectations of those around him? What composers would have gravitated to this version of the story? Wagner? Verdi? Berlioz? Basically, if the story is about overcoming others’ low expectations I might as well bid for the rights to do Martin Luther King Jr. from his estate.

Is Drunken Dwarf a story about a nobody that overcomes the alcoholism believed endemic to dwarves by getting clean to win the day? Right, Rocky meets Lost Weekend. If I’d been listening to any other opera that morning, maybe. Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t need me to add to their outreach, so pass.

Or do I go with the Drunken Dwarf that must realize that getting loaded is a cultural imperative for dwarves and that our hero must embrace being a dwarf in order to win? Rocky meets Drunken Master if you will. Given that Jackie Chan did a funny movie learning to get loose as he fought and I was listening to a comic opera, I think you’ll understand if I land the concept here.

Of course, this means that I need to acquire the right kinds of scores as part of the research and reverse engineering parts of going from “An opera? Are you high?” to “Wow! You did it!” I’ll need The Merry Widow. I’ll probably need to read more Shakespeare comedies. And if I’m really going after the underlying duty of a dwarf that gets drunk and wins for his people, I’m going to become more intimately familiar with the whole of Gilbert & Sullivan. And start making notes. That would help.

Did I bring enough gasoline for the boats? Time will tell.