Guess Winter’s Over


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Meanwhile, this is my driveway. Color doesn’t quite come through, but that’s a distinctive pollen ring. Which means winter is over, and summer is coming.

In the South, we don’t have white walkers. Our walkers are covered in yellow dust, red-eyed and sneezing.

And it is terrifying.

It’s only February. I wonder how many record high months we’ll have this year?

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The Doors of “Frozen”: Subconscious Storytelling At Its Best


You know that song from the opening third of Frozen? Princess Anna has just met Prince Hans (who she doesn’t yet know is a scheming sharknadobag) and starts singing. And because it’s a Disney musical, of course Prince Hans is ready to start singing right along with her. And dancing. Okay, I’m not here to kvetch about the willful suspension of disbelief; we’re talking about a fantasy story with talking snowmen and ice-casting princesses. (And don’t forget about the rock turds. I mean trolls. Even though they’re turds. For some reason I hate those things.)

Nope, today it’s the extended metaphor of doors. “Love is an open door,” Anna and Hans sing, and somehow I didn’t catch it on first viewing, but the movie is shot through with the door metaphor.

After Anna is injured, the parents separate the sisters by giving them separate rooms; and Elsa’s door is locked. After the parents die and Anna and Elsa are left alone, the door remains closed and Anna lingers outside it. She could just open it and talk to her sister, but she doesn’t — the door has become its own barrier, symbolic of the growing divide between them. In her very next song, Anna sings about opening up the gates of the castle, and how long it’s been since that happened.

Then, of course, it’s “love is an open door”, and we’re on to the second half of the movie, where Anna follows her sister into the wilderness only to find she’s built herself a totally badass ice castle, but she hesitates right on the threshold of — the giant ice door. (Quoth the snowman: “why doesn’t she knock? Do you think she knows how to knock?”) The doors in the ice castle are massive, but Elsa can open them with just a thought — they really are simply barriers of the mind, not the impenetrable barriers Anna takes them for.

The final third of the movie finds both the sisters trapped by the now-evil Prince Hans: Elsa in a dungeon, Anna in a sumptuous castle bedroom. Of course, both cells feature locked doors the princesses cannot escape. How will they overcome their captivity? Elsa channels a bit of power and counters the locked door with an exploded window, while Anna gets rescued by her childhood snowman, who picks the lock with his disembodied nose. It’s a funny moment, but viewed another way, Olaf the snowman seems like the purest manifestation of love in the story, so of course he can open any door he encounters. (Think back: “why doesn’t she just knock?” Doors are not a problem for him.)

The movie ends with the sisters reunited and committed to tearing down the barriers between them (blah blah an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart blah). And how does the movie end? With Elsa vowing that the gates will forever remain open. Probably not the greatest policy in terms of security, but for symbolic significance between the sisters, it’s as rich as it gets.

So I guess it should shock nobody that Disney knows how to give good story, but the extended metaphor of the door in Frozen shows how story elements can function behind the scenes to do subconscious work on an audience.

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This mini-essay is a part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday. This week’s prompt: “door”.


Terrible Reviews: Black Panther


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Black Panther is probably the smartest movie Marvel has made yet.

We saw it the other night. I’m writing this knowing that my review is going to be terrible, because I loved the movie so much. It’s too much fun, it’s too well done, it’s too socially savvy, for me to give it a thrashing. I spent most of the movie grinning like a maniac. So rather than “The Good, The Bad, The WTF,” I’ll just focus on a few points that the movie executes like an olympic figure skater on uppers, hopefully without spoiling too much.

So here’s what’s awesome about it.

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The Characters

The film is beautifully cast with characters to love, and to love to hate, all around. Sterling K. Brown turns everything he touches to gold. We didn’t even know he was in the movie when we bought our tickets — and he’s just a minor part. Here you’ve got the likes of juggernauts like Forrest Whitaker, playing a damaged prime minister type; Angela Bassett, the widowed queen and mother to the new king — and these, again, are only the supporting cast.

If you don’t leave the theater loving Shuri (Letitia Wright) and quoting her (“What are THOOOOOOOSSSSEEEEE??”), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t leave the theater conflicted as hell over the fate and the idealism of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger (horrible name but fantastic villain), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t pump your fist and grit your teeth every time Danai Gurira’s Okoye puts the smack down on some hapless dude, there may be something wrong with you.

Of course, the titular Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is dashing and conflicted and awesome. He’s believable and sympathetic, and he anchors the picture admirably. But the standout really is the supporting cast; especially:

The Women

Okay, so Black Panther is the figurehead, but the movie is less about the single superhero and more about the network propping him up. Of course, they can’t call the movie Black Panther’s Support Group, but trust me when I say that the real heroes of this movie are the women. Shuri is the Q to the Panther’s James Bond: her inventions have BP on the cutting edge of keeping bad guys down. His first lieutenant, Okoye, doles out enough beatdowns on her own to deserve her very own film. And his mother, the former queen, is the glue holding her family — and the country — together in the face of a series of national crises.

They don’t just support the hero, they do virtually all of the heavy lifting. If not for the women, the Panther would be beaten, killed or captured in the first twenty minutes, movie over.

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But what’s refreshing about the way this movie treats its women is that there’s not a single moment of condescension or disbelief that the world of Black Panther works in this way. Of course Shuri is the head of technology in Wakanda; why shouldn’t she be? Of course Okoye is the first lieutenant — just look at her fight. (There’s a fantastic moment where one of the male warriors realizes he’s about to have to fight with Okoye, and he is visibly shook.) There’s not a whisper of any futzing about with the “but she’s a girl!” nonsense — from the people in the immediate circle, anyway — they just are what they are.

The Villain

So it’s sort of an understood rule in storytelling that a good villain can’t be a mustache-twirling, take-over-the-world evil bastard in black. The villain has to be sympathetic, their drives must make sense, there must be an element of there but for the grace of God go I. Every character, and every villain, is the hero of their own story, after all.

But unlike most movies, this villain is particularly problematic. Because if you flip the script around, and imagine that the story we follow is not the story of T’Challa, but is instead the story of Killmonger (god, what a stupid name), the story works just as well — just with a different ending. Killmonger’s goals are entirely sympathetic, and are particularly troublesome for T’Challa: so much so that the king actually has to change the way he thinks about the world.

Killmonger fights for what he knows to be right. He’s a villain only because of the forced perspective the film gives us. That’s good storytelling. And Michael B. Jordan’s performance is really something to behold.

The Social Side

It’s hard to read about the movie without hearing about the social commentary, but what I really love about Black Panther — why I think it’s Marvel’s smartest movie yet — is that the commentary is less sledgehammer, more dagger in your ribs. It’s so easy for movies “with a message” to come at you, guns blazing, with everything but a flashing neon THIS IS IMPORTANT marquee over the screen. Black Panther doesn’t do that. In fact, if you prefer your superhero movies divorced from social commentary, it’s entirely possible to enjoy Black Panther just as much. The meta level is just another layer in a billionty-layer cake of goodness: ruminate on it if you like, ignore it if you don’t. The movie will be just as sweet either way.

But assuming you’re like me and you don’t mind — you actually prefer — to think about what a story is trying to tell you, here’s a taste: Wakanda isn’t a backwater country in deepest Africa. It’s America. Technologically advanced beyond every other nation, yet mired (and maybe even hamstrung) by archaic traditions and religions. Turns a blind eye to the suffering of untold millions across the world in the name of self-preservation. Righteously nationalistic.

Then: the nation finds itself in turmoil when an outsider unseats the king and threatens to blow up the status quo. The second half of the movie is about the power struggle and the existential question of whether the country and its people must adhere to tradition and law or whether they must do what they believe is right.

So … yeah. Let me not spoil things any further.

The Verdict

Look, I love a good superhero movie. I even enjoy a bad superhero movie (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman, which I did not hate). But even a guy like me, who theoretically cannot get enough superhero movies, is sort of suffering from superhero movie fatigue these days. Pretty soon we’ll be on our 5th Spider-Man reboot and Netflix will be launching its original series about Wolverine’s cousin’s daughter’s step-sister. It’s hard to ignore that Marvel is milking the current cash cow for all it’s worth.

But this is a movie worth getting milked over. It’s not just a good superhero movie, it’s a great superhero movie — and a darn good movie, whether it’s about a superhero or not.

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Do yourself a favor and see it.

Final verdict: Five out of five cooler-than-you salutes.

All images are obviously the property of Marvel.


Rock Salt


This is a story about rocks.

Quinn loved rocks.

It wasn’t such an unusual thing for a young boy to love rocks, although maybe it was unusual for a young boy to love rocks as much as Quinn did. Every day, after school, Quinn would go into the woods behind his house, follow the leaf-strewn path down to MacIntyre Lake, and play with rocks for hours.

He’d seek out thin, palm-sized rocks smoothed by centuries of flowing water to skip on the lake. Largish rocks with flattened edges cracked by time to stack into teetering towers. Tiny, dense pebbles to wing at the occasional squirrel (he hit one, once, and watched it twitching on a bed of pinestraw for almost thirty minutes before it got up and stumble-ran off into the woods again). He even had a special collection of rocks that he just liked to look at.

Quinn’s mom thought his geological fixation was a bit much. But she also knew that her friend, Cheryl, had a husband who kept a collection of rocks in a cabinet in his basement. He was known to take them out and polish them and write the odd column about responsible rock ownership in the slower midweek editions of the town paper. “Quaint, but harmless,” was the thing most often said about him, and she could deal with her son being quaint, but harmless.

That all changed when Quinn took his rocks to school.

The first time, he didn’t do anything with them — just stowed them away in his backpack to prove to himself that he could do it.

The second time, he showed them to a few of his friends. They didn’t really understand why he wanted to bring rocks to school — school was school, after all, rocks didn’t really have much to do with it.

The day before the third time, Will Barrett tripped Quinn in the lunch line (his buddies dared him to trip the weirdo kid bringing his rocks to school). For the rest of the day, everybody called Quinn “Potato Face” (you couldn’t say a lot for the creativity of your average school kid, but what they lacked there they made up in tenacity).

Quinn showed up the third time with a bag brimming with good throwing rocks, waited til Will and his buddies were face-deep in cafeteria Sloppy Joes, and let fly. Will lost a tooth. Terry caught a sharp one in the eye and had to wear an eyepatch for a month. Finn took one in the head and thought he was fine, but later in the day they had to call an ambulance for him when he kept falling over. A little girl sitting at the next table — a third grader Quinn didn’t even know — got her forehead gashed open.

Of course, Quinn was suspended, but more surprising, the school board immediately moved to ban rocks in all schools. “Rocks have no place in the classroom,” the press release read, “and their presence can only serve at best to distract from the learning environment, and at worst to pose a threat of tangible physical harm to our students.” But the very next day, Cheryl’s husband (the rock collector) penned his midweek column and argued that rocks did have a safe place in schools under proper conditions, and even made the (admittedly in poor taste) joke that if some teachers had been carrying some good throwing rocks of their own, they might have taken Quinn down before he could do more substantial harm to his classmates.

A heated debate bubbled up in the community. The school board’s office became a regular site for heated arguments between previously civil members of the community. Some were angry that their kids, suddenly enamored with the idea of bringing rocks with them at all times, should be punished for doing so. Others were incensed at the possibility that their child might be in the same room with a rock without their knowledge. Still others argued that access to rocks was a fundamental right not to be impinged regardless of how anybody else felt about it. The ban was lifted, then reinstated, then lifted with restrictions, and there were regulations proposed about how many rocks a student could bring to school, or how long a student had to wait between applying for a rock permit and actually receiving his rock, until very few people actually knew what the specific rules were on rocks in the first place.

While that was going on, a strange thing happened. Kids at the school began bringing rocks to school anyway. Rocks could be found everywhere, after all, and were easy to conceal. And you didn’t have to be a rock enthusiast to recognize the advantage a rock in your backpack could provide in a schoolyard scuffle. Before the month was out, rock-related incidents between students had skyrocketed.

Even worse, the kids were innovating. One student proudly kept a thirty-pound rock, practically a boulder, in his backyard, just for the purpose of dropping it off the roof onto tin cans. Another devised a contraption — basically a forked stick with a bit of rubber tubing strung between its extremities — with which he could fling stones much faster, much farther, and much more accurately than anybody could throw them before. “Why would you ever need such things?” People asked them. They could have talked about the primal urge to domination, the hard-coded mine-is-bigger-than-yours urge, even the simple fact that having such things meant that you could seriously hurt somebody who messed with you, even if you didn’t want to. But all that tended to be ungainly and hard to explain to those asking the questions, so they answered “for sport” instead.

Worse still, an economy had sprung up around the enterprise. Some individuals found it worth their time to go out in search of the biggest rocks, or the most streamlined, or “rocks you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of,” and sell them for a profit. There was no shortage of demand, after all — since everybody, especially bad guys, had access to rocks, it only made sense to consider having some rocks yourself, just in case.

And kids continued to bring rocks to school, not always because they really liked rocks, but because rocks, being well-and-truly everywhere and the focus of so much discussion by now, seemed like the answer to all problems.

But little by little, kids — strangely, it was the kids and not the adults — decided they’d had enough of living with the fear that somebody could just walk into their school and start throwing rocks. It wasn’t fair to them that their education, to say nothing of their health and well-being, was suddenly viewed as secondary to the rights of a handful of students to tote rocks all over the place.

“But it’s for sport,” came the arguments.

“We have rights,” they continued.

“You can’t just –” they protested.

“Bullshit,” responded the students, and they went and laid down in the lawns of very powerful people, hoping somebody would notice them there.

They are laying there still.

But they are not entirely unnoticed.

It’s entirely about rocks, and not about something else. If you think it’s about something else, that’s your problem, not mine.

This story was born from a prompt by my writing spirit animal, Chuck Wendig: “a world without guns.” Even though this story is obviously about rocks, it was inspired by recent events surrounding things which are not rocks. Probably it doesn’t end quite as cleverly as I would have liked, but it’s hard to write endings for things which seem to have no end in sight.

Still, maybe there’s something different this time.


I Can’t Just “Watch Movies” Anymore


It’s no great secret that being a writer — well, being an artist at all, but specifically being somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about storytelling — warps the way you see the world a bit. In fact, part of my general unease of late centers on the fact that the real world functions so very decidedly unlike a story.

Still, it’s hard to help how you think, and while I’m hairline-deep in the editing process trying to make my drivel readable and coherent (a task that seems more in need of a blowtorch than a laptop most days), I can’t help seeing story everywhere I look. They say that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; but what does that mean when every problem you see looks like it could be solved with a bit of narrative restructuring?

Anyway: my wife and I are sitting down last night watching Wonder, one of those feel-good movies designed to play on your heartstrings at the expense of a satisfying narrative. (See also: Parenthood, This is Us, or any other contemporary drama starring a big cast with a troubled family and scored with the sounds of a sweet, sweet soulful acoustic guitar. My wife will give me heck for not liking the movie. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just don’t feel satisfied by it. Emotions are not my thing since I’m basically a robot in a skin-suit. But it was fine. HONEY IT WAS FINE.) And, as we’re watching, in my head I’m silently going down the list.

Call to action: check.

Meeting the mentor: check.

Crossing the threshold: check.

(What? This is how I watch movies now.)

And we get to the final third of the movie, and — no big spoiler here — the family dog gets sick, gets taken to the vet, and dies. (Okay, spoiler-for-everything alert — if the family pet is shown to be exceptionally adorable or loyal in the first act, it will die by the third act. Call it Chekhov’s Canine.) I jump up from the couch, pointing like Sherlock Holmes discovering the crime-solving clue, and shout “THE WHIFF OF DEATH!”

See, I’ve been reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, and I know that there comes a moment toward the second half of the story where somebody or something close to the hero dies, reminding the hero of their mortality and spurring them to make the change necessary for the resolution of the central conflict. Snyder calls this the “whiff of death,” and for whatever reason, I forgot about it, or wasn’t expecting to see it in this movie, or maybe it’s vacation so we were a couple of adult beverages in and I got a little enthusiastic. Anyway, the moment dropped like a a blue whale falling through the stratosphere and I HAD TO POINT IT OUT TO SOMEBODY.

My wife is unimpressed. She’s puzzled, and a little affronted, since she’s in her feelings watching the dad come home, sad-faced and apologetic, to deliver the bad news to the kids. It’s kind of a bolt-from-the-blue moment in the story. The dog isn’t really relevant to the narrative at all. But I saw it — and SEE it — for what it is: a cattle prod up the posterior of the protagonist to get him hustling into the final third of the movie. I try explaining this to her with lots of full-bodied gesticulation and noises about character development and guttural grunting. “THE WHIFF OF DEATH,” I exclaim again, both hands flung out toward the TV in a can’t-you-see-it gesture.

“Yeah,” she says. “The dog died. It’s sad.”

Which is right, too, I guess.

I have no idea how the movie ended; writing was so much on my brain by that point that I had to stop watching in favor of jotting down several book-saving ideas that I had failed to write down earlier in the day because I am an idiot.

Just kidding: (spoiler alert!) everything works out okay for the kid in the end, and everybody in the kid’s orbit learns some important lessons about life. See? It’s uplifting, and not at all like real life!

Now to figure out what we’re going to “watch” tonight.

 


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