A Night in the 80s

I’m a child of the 80s. Though I was born at the tail end of the decade, 80s culture has been a big part of my childhood. I didn’t bother much with the current fads and trends, instead relishing in the sumptuous mana of yesteryear. This began when I was especially young, spending more time watching old movies on VHS tapes than going to the theater to catch the latest Disney.

Forget that. I was watching Indiana Jones.

My love of 80s was solidified at the age of 12 when I begged the matriarch to let me delve into the Alien and Predator films, and I saw my first R Rated film. Aliens quickly shoved Star Wars aside to become my favorite science fiction series ever, and it retains that title to this day.

So when the opportunity came to see the film on the big screen, I coughed up the money and frolicked to the theater.

The event was for the Burbank International Film Festival for their film history series, which included Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Top Gun, and Aliens.

I arrived three hours early, and found to my joy that the ticket included all events in the festival, not just the main screening of Aliens. So I kicked back and caught Top Gun, relishing in the love triangle between Tom Cruise, his plane and his off centered two front teeth.

Then came the main movie. Seeing it 30 feet high in front of me was something of a dream come true. They say watching a movie in the big screen is the only real way to do it, and I would say that’s a pretty accurate statement. The big screen completely envelopes you in the movie’s world, and it becomes everything.

After the screening was done came a special treat, a visit by none other than Michael Biehn and Jenette Goldstein, who portrayed Hicks and Vasquez in the movie. They joined their fans for a brief Q&A that was filled with much laughter, jokes and nostalgia.

This was my second time seeing these two in person, the first being four years ago at a Horror Hound Convention where they autographed my poster for the movie. Pity we didn’t get to talk in person again, but perhaps that will be something for the future.

After a brief visit to the afterparty, I headed to work and prepared for my early morning shift at 6 am. I expected to feel groggy and grouchy both, but in spite of the very few and frequently interrupted hours of sleep I got that night, the morning came with a warm sun’s glow and a returned smile from me. The night before was just too much damn fun to sully it with a bad morning.

And that’s the story of my trip back to the 80s. It was a night of acid drenched goodness that featured a live performance by two of my favorite actors. It was a night where the work ended and I could just live a little. Should probably start doing that a little more.

Getting Younger Kids to Like Older Movies

One of the things that saddens me is seeing people refusing to watch a film on the simple basis of its age. After all, wine gets better with age. Cannot certain movies be the same way? What does it matter if something is dated? Why should that be a detriment when it can be part of its charm? Why is it that some people, starting at an early age, refuse to give older films a chance?

I never was like that. I got lucky.

Back in 1998, we’d just moved out of Biloxi and to a little town called Dayton Ohio. It was our first year out of the south and back in the snow. Things were a little stressful for me then, so one night my mother decided to surprise me. She said she was going to show me something that would make me laugh. It was a group of men called the Marx Brothers, and she was going to let me watch some of their movies.

The first one was called Duck Soup. Grandma and Grandpa came to join us, the lights went down and the movie began. Then I started laughing and never stopped. Not for almost 20 years. It introduced me to a kind of comedy I had not seen before, killed my initial aversion to black and white films, and became a favorite to show curious friends.

This film remains my favorite comedy to this day, and I first watched it at the tender age of 10 before I knew anything about film as an art for or a cultural phenomenon. A 10 year old boy fell in love with a movie from the 1930s. How does that happen? Well, I’ll tell you how.

Many have had that conversation where you try to show something to a friend that you know they’ll love, but they refuse to watch it because it’s black and white, or it’s from a self applied cut off age. I even met one guy who refused to watch movies that weren’t shot on digital. Me? I always looked forward to those nights in front of the television, wondering what images would grace it next. It never bothered me that some of the movies seemed different.

Now, Duck Soup was not the first so called ‘old movie’ I’d seen. My mother was busy trying to take care of two kids by herself, so she couldn’t take us out to the theater as much as most kids. So instead of seeing new movies, we would spend our evenings in front of the TV watching films from the 60s, 70s and 80s, sometimes on AMC, sometimes on the Disney Channel.

They were fun social events of popcorn and bad microwave TV dinners, but always interesting movies. Interesting because something was just, well, different about them.

All the movies just sort of looked different, each had their own special character, and some seemed to be part of the same family. At the time it didn’t occur to me that these things had to be made or that they came from specific eras that all had a certain aesthetic. Seeing one of those unique looks on a film didn’t turn me off, however. Rather, I knew about what to expect from it.

I was exposed to these films at an early age, and with regularity. If any of you want to give your kids a chance to enjoy these kids of films, that’s the way to do it. Start with something that can grab them, a good monster movie like Creature From the Black Lagoon, or an action film like Gunga Din, or a fast paced comedy like the aforementioned Duck Soup. Above all else, don’t be cynical. Aversion to so called dated material is a learned behavior, and it’s learned when someone is told it doesn’t matter.

You need not say it with words. Not showing them sends the message loud and clear. Film, like any other art form, needs to be seen to be appreciated, so if these films are confined to vaults to forever remained unwatched, a proud legacy of art will be lost. This will inevitably happen to film. In due time, perhaps in a few centuries, another art form will take its place and soon some of our favorites will be adapted into a new kind of art, much like how books were first adapted into films.

Though this is inevitable, we shouldn’t be in any great hurry.

Exposing children to many different types of films is like exposing children to other languages. It’s earlier for the developing brain to learn complex languages, and film has a language all its own. With early experience, they can become fluent. I was blessed to learn there really is no such thing as an old movie, book or video game, just a movie you haven’t seen, a book you haven’t read, and a game you never played.

Happy Birthday Harrison Ford

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish one of Hollywood’s best talents, the amazing Harrison Ford, a happy birthday. To honor this occasion, I’ve posted links to some of my favorite pieces of art of my personal favorite role of Mr. Ford, the man in the hat, the good swashbuckling doctor Indiana Jones.

Words can never express how much this character and this series mean to me. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was one of my very first movies, me seeing it even before such essentials as The Wizard of Oz and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It has been a major influence on me, my fascination and pursuit of creative fiction, and is a spirit I try to capture in my adventure themed work.

Please enjoy these fine tributes by these and a host of other talented artists. Be sure to check out their work.

Remember, it’s not the years. It’s the milage.

Commercial Can Be Important

It is something that a lot of artists say, myself included. They don’t want to do shallow art just for the sake of selling it. There is no real interest in creating the next big franchise or money maker. That art is shallow. In fact, it may not even be art, and just a product people create to sell and line their pockets. There’s also a certain bitterness that more ‘important’ and ‘thoughtful’ fiction is not as widely seen as the latest big action film. People have a hard time quoting a French film about the Holocaust, but most people can drop lines from any Schwarzenegger action epic.

But commercial art can have messages that are important, and packaging it right can help that message reach more people.

Take for example the Disney film Zootopia. This recent smash has been making waves and gaining praise for much more than just its animation. While on it’s surface it looks like a mere cartoon about cute anthropomorphic animals, it discusses a much more important and relevant topic.

In Zootopia, the populace is divided into predators and prey, though the two no longer eat each other. A series of strange incidents start occurring where predators go insane and revert back to their predatory instincts. The two main characters are a cop bunny named Judy Hopps and a con artist fox named Nick Wilde, prey and predator respectively.

After uncovering that predators are reverting to their natural instincts seemingly without cause, Hopps holds a press conference, speculating that these attacks are due to natural instincts. The exchange between her and Nick after the conference sounds a lot like something out of a different kind of film.

Nick

Clearly there’s a biological component? That these predators may be reverting back to their primitive savage ways? Are you serious?

Judy

I just stated the facts of the case! I mean, its not like a bunny can go savage.

Nick

Right. But a fox could, huh?

Judy

Nick stop it! You’re not like them.

Nick

Oh, so there’s a them now?

Judy

You know what I mean! You’re not that kind of predator.

Nick

The kind that needs to be muzzled? The kind that makes you believe that you need to carry around fox repellent? Yeah the only thing I did notice that little thing on the first time we met. So l-let me ask you a question; Are you afraid of me? You think I might go nuts? That I’ll go savage? You think that I might try to eat you!?

Judy reaches for her fox spray. Nick’s face drops.

Nick

I knew it. Just when I thought someone actually believed in me.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what this movie is about. One reviewer said it best when they said  Zootopia was Disney’s answer to Crash.

Some will say it’s a cheap bait and switch, advertising something as a children’s film only for it to be a ‘message movie.’ Here’s the thing though. Shouldn’t that be what mainstream movies try to do?

You see this in a lot of different eras and a lot of different genres. The 1980s saw a slew of highly commercial and highly profitable movies dealing with the Cold War and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. One of the most famous of which, War Games, had a computer attempting to start World War III, unable to tell the difference between the projections in its program and the real people it was going to kill. When the young hero, played by Matthew Broderick, uses a game of tick tack toe to teach the computer that nuclear war is a no win scenario, the computer laments the following.

“Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

The preview audience cheered at the line.

Two of my favorite science fiction/horror films of all time, Alien and Aliens, feature strong anti-corporate messages. The best example is in Aliens where a corporate CEO, played by Paul Reiser, attempting to smuggle one of the deadly creatures back to Earth for use in their bioweapons division. When his plan is revealed, the heroic Ellen Ripley calls him to the carpet for his greed, saying he is lower than the monsters she and the marines are fighting.

“You know Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

While it’s sometimes popular to disregard commercial film and literature as being just that, the fact remains that this work is the most widely seen. Experimental art films are wonderful, visually stunning, and psychologically unsettling pieces, but they don’t appeal to the masses. A story about a young boy going to a school for wizards does. People may not be too interested in seeing another documentary warning about the dangers of climate change, but an adventure to preserve the beauty of the far away Pandora is something people will flock to. An anti-corporate message will bore most people, but throw in acid bleeding aliens and you will draw a crowd.

Important and relevant messages can reach a wide audience if they’re packaged right. This isn’t a cop out and it doesn’t diminish the purpose os your art. Doing this only increases its chances of reaching more people, ensuring your message is heard by a wider audience, and allows the to have fun while you’re discussing potentially hot button topics.

Balancing both commercial and topical art can be difficult, but if you go too far in either direction, you have failures. The Transformers movies may earn a lot of bank, but they’re pretty shallow and exploitive action films. A French art film about genocide may be well made and heartfelt, but people need to see it for the message to be heard. If you find the healthy middle ground, you can make something people love, something that lasts, and something that gives an audience food for thought.

Zootopia has a cast of cute animals, but it’s still about the problems our society continues to face with ethnic and racial groups continuing to mistrust and categorize each other. If that message is still there, who cares if it’s told with a fox and a bunny?

Books or Movies? Evaluating My Career Path

In these two years since I got out of college, a lot has happened in my professional life to give me pause over which career would be best for me, film or books.

When I was a young boy of around six years old, I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom. The movie was so rich with imagination, action and creative imagery, I fell in love with it right away. Looking at what was playing out on the screen, I asked a question that changed my life forever.

“How did they do that?”

I had never considered the question before when watching a movie. I had always assumed these wonderful things just winked themselves into existence. After that question, I watched documentary after documentary on how these works of art were created, and made the declaration when I was 10 years old.

“That’s what I want to do.” So I went to college for it, aced my grades, and learned everything I could about the elaborate and complex craft of filmmaking, from conception to the screen. I was going to be the greatest director ever. Now 27, I have only made a few short films, no features, and have a small job in a film company. They are good achievements to be sure, but not my greatest. My greatest was that I wrote a book.

Over one hundred thousand words, over three hundred pages. I sooner saw myself directing a massive budget epic then I did writing so much as a short story, but here it is. Locked away in my external hard drive is a book, and I had the time of my life doing it. It has made me wonder which art form is more right for me as a career path.

Two questions go into choosing books or film, how each works as an art form, and what goes into making either one.

Movies are an art for that interest me a lot more than books, because they are every art form rolled into one. They have writing, acting, music, digital and painted art, architecture, everything. Whenever a new art or technology comes along, movies absorb it, growing as humanity grows. They are in many ways the universal art form. Not everyone has the time or the patience to read a book or play a video game, but with a movie all you need to do is sit back and take it all in.

Books by contrast only deal in writing. There is no music, no acting, no effects work of any kind. They are just words on a page. Unlike movies, books ask a lot of their readers. They ask for time, concentration, but greatest of all, they ask for imagination. That is the one thing books will always win at. A book is different for each person, and on each reading. The words change and grow with you, and you are in control of it all. How the sunset looks, how the birds sing, how the couple kiss under the moonlight. Movies have the personality of their makers, while books have a lot more of their readers in them.

Movies and books are both wonderful, beautiful things. Thing is, I know much more about movies than books as I’m a very visual thinker. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the great authors of our time, but you ask me one question about any film from a Hollywood blockbuster to an 80s slasher film and I can spew out more trivia than your average google search.

As for reading books, I’ll freely admit my guilt in not reading some of the best ever written. The Great Gatsby, Gone With the Wind, Slaughterhouse Five, 1984, the list goes on and on of great books which never graced my unfortunate eyes. Perhaps it’s because I better process the auditory and visual information in movies. I like seeing and hearing all these things, looking at a good piece of cinematography or hearing a great score to go along with it. With books however, you get to make your own. Chose your own actors, write your own music. You could have Dumbledore played by everyone from Gregory Peck to Harrison Ford.

Harrison Ford as Dumbledore. How kickass is that?

What about what goes into making either one? That perhaps is where the two differ the most. Though I always dreamed of being a film maker, the actual making part always filled me with dread.

Movies require many things. They require money, untold numbers of man hours, crew, safety regulations, you name it. These are all things one must consider when making a motion picture, because movies do have limitations. A first time director isn’t going to get a job directing a megabucks movie.

Also, as much as this pains me to admit, you don’t have that much creative freedom in movies, especially a big studio film. Studios give you the money, and they want a product they can sell. I suppose this does make sense. If I shoveled that amount of cash at someone, I would want them to follow certain rules also. Studios won’t give you that kind of money to see your dreams come true. Movies are art, but they’re expensive art, and expensive art has to sell.

With a book though, there is no crew, there is no limit on budget, and there is no person looking over your shoulder whispering yay or nay. You just set your fingers loose on a keyboard and watch them dance. You can do this anywhere you want. On a lake, in the few hours before work, on a vacation to Universal Studios, wherever your fingers can meet those keys. If something goes wrong, just erase it and start over. No time to reset the effects and actors. It’s ready to go as soon as you are.

Best part about a book though, is there is no waiting. No waiting for someone to green-light a passion project you’ve been wanting to make for the last twenty years. No waiting for a bigwig to take a passing interest in that baby that means so much to you. Whatever project you want to do, whichever one is most in your heart at that moment, that’s the one you make.

You can do whatever you want, whenever you want when writing a book, and that’s the dream of any artist. You want to sink an entire continent into the sea? Have an entire city fly to the moon? Whatever you can imagine, it only costs the ink to print it and the paper to put it on, available at any fine retailer. It takes only two things, your patience, and your time.

Still, making a movie is an experience. It’s collaborative. You meet and work with a lot of people. You make memories while making a movie, of late nights and early mornings, hanging out and trying the catering, all the things that have gone wrong and all the things that went right. It may be stressful, but it’s the stuff memories are made of. When all is said and done, it’s a mountainous achievement.

Making a movie is much more challenging than writing a book, but in the end, both are just as rewarding for the artist and their audience. Honestly, I’m not sure which is better for me now. Film has made a much greater impact on me. They were my focus on college and in my dreams for almost twenty years. But the writing of a book was such an enjoyable and free process, it was the first time in my life where I felt free of any limitations. Whatever story I wished to tell, I could just get started.

I’m still working on both careers. I have a meeting with someone who’s wanting to work together on shorts and features, and you better believe I’m completing my fantasy/adventure book series. The question now is which one I find more fulfilling, the challenge of filmmaking, or the freedom of book writing.

It has given me a lot to think about.

 

Ego Can Destroy Art

Artists who let their egos run rampant.

We have all heard the stories. They come time and time again of artists, often once talented and revered, spiraling into a pit of mediocrity, all while claiming they are misunderstood geniuses. There is a certain tragedy to this, seeing a great visionary fall into this trap of believing they are indestructible, or a newcomer unable to overcome the belief they have no more to learn. That feeling of indestructibility can destroy works of art that may have otherwise been great, and stop great careers before they even begin.

A big ego is a dangerous thing to have, particularly if you’re an artist. With it comes the assumption that everything you do is flawless. Surrounding themselves with ‘yes men’, no one ever questions what they do, and by the time the art is finished and available to the public, it’s too late for the criticism to make any difference. There are few examples as great as the saga of Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate.

The story of Heaven’s Gate is a tragic tale of an up and coming artist’s self destruction. Drunk off the success of The Deer Hunter, Cimino sought to make the great American Western. Given full creative control and a budget of twenty million, the film ran over time and over budget, Cimino frequently clashed with his producers at United Artists, and the incidents that happened on set caused ripples still being felt to this day.

The film was eventually completed on a budget of 50 million in 1980 dollars, only making 3 million at the box office. It flopped so hard that it closed United Artists, which had been the studio for creative freedom. The rampant mistreating of animals on set, ranging from live cockfights to a horse getting blown up with dynamite, resulted in new regulations against such cruelty. In the ensuing fallout, Cimino destroyed many careers, including his own.

This incident ended the era of creative freedom in Hollywood. Not enough people said ‘no’ to Cimino, and he refused to listen to those who did. There is a lot tragic about this story, from the destroyed careers, to the resulting restrictions on creativity, not to mention the the animals harmed on set. Another tragedy is this film was Cimino’s passion project, the film that meant more to him than anything in the world, and he bungled it. It is forever a part of film history not as a rousing success, but as a crushing failure.

If you see Heaven’s Gate, it’s a beautiful film to look at. Not a single frame in the movie doesn’t qualify as modern art. The acting is astonishing, the direction is top notch, the sets are breathtaking, even its plot deals with the Johnson County War, an important chapter in American History. All of it however, is wrapped around a script that is dull and uninteresting. Had Cimino listened to those around him, he may have been able to improve the script enough to make the film his masterpiece, paving the way for a great future in movies.

In the making of documentary, one of Cimino’s friends said it best. ‘No one wants to believe they have an ugly baby.’ That’s true, especially when that baby means as much to you as Heaven’s Gate did to Cimino. It becomes more damaging when you believe you’re a genius, because then a legitimate criticism can be written off without a second thought. Looking at the saga of his botched western, one can’t help but get the feeling that Cimino thought of it as his show, and not the show of the characters or story.

I personally believe that’s what every artist should remember. The show isn’t yours. The show belongs to the art. People didn’t go to see Raiders because of Spielberg. They went to see Indiana Jones. People didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird because of Harper Lee. They read it because of the Finch family.

You can point to celebrities and artists who are beloved and revered, but it doesn’t really have much to do with their personalities or private lives. People don’t chat with Spielberg about that time he and his mother snuck a few lobsters, or how Harper Lee took a spring walk with her father in the south. They talk about the art and how it moved them. 

There’s something oddly liberating about taking that stance. You don’t worry about what people think of you and don’t have a drive to prove yourself. You don’t have that thought nagging you all the time of ‘I’ll be famous.’ You just want to make the art the best it can be, and if it makes you famous, that’s nice too.

Artists always have a lot to prove, and the desire for recognition is one of the bigger drives in a creative mind. We all make art with the goals of making better lives for ourselves and building successful careers. Remember though, it’s not you who makes the art famous, but the art that makes you famous. A good work of art can elevate its creator to new heights, gaining you a place in history and making all your dreams come true.

This is not to say you shouldn’t be confident. Confidence is a great thing that lets an artist take that risk of putting their work into the public eye. Confidence can keep you from giving up, not stopping until you’re finished. Its also a great thing to make something you’re proud of. Validation at making something great is one of the best things a human being can feel, but there is such a thing as taking it too far.

There are also many artists who can be called vain, but they may have developed that vanity over years of success. Many artists boast of how they will one day be famous, and never get there because they don’t try to get better. They effectively put themselves in a trap, and refuse to leave to greener pastures.

There’s a fine line between feeling proud of your accomplishments and declaring yourself a perfect genius. If you keep yourself from crossing that line, you’ll find things are much easier. There’s always more to learn, and always time to stop and take a look around before making a mistake. If you put your own feelings aside and give the art the care it deserves, it will be good to you.