Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

I’m Naked and I’m Far From Home: Save Me (In Video Games)

It's a purty game.

It’s a purty game.

FRIENDS, sometimes I try to elevate this blog and write about something serious, like writing or social issues. Well, I tried that once, at least. The rest of the time this blog is incoherent and spastic as I try to promote myself, crack jokes, and look smart all at once, with a typical outcome being a lot of people digitally shaking their heads and virtually tsking me as I lay sprawled on their monitors, humiliated.

So, today we’re not even trying. I’m going to go into Natural Somers Mode and simply complain. It’s what my people were bred to do. And what I will complain about is painfully prosaic and a very First World Problem and I do not care! I will complain because it is my birthright. And what I choose to complain about is the checkpoint save system in video games like Bioshock Infinite.

Slow and Dimwitted

Three things you need to know about me before we proceed: I am cheap. I possess almost no hand-eye coordination or reflexes. I am lazy. Anyone who has spent time with me knows the first. Anyone who played with me in Little League when I was a kid knows the second. And anyone who … well, actually, everyone in the world knows about the last one.

This carries into video games. I have a pretty narrow love for First Person Shooter games, and I’m terrible at them like I am terrible at everything that requires quick-thinking and lightning-fast reflexes. Let’s just say in the event of Zombie Apocalypse, I should not be your first draft into your Zombie Defense Team. Leave me to the second or third round, after your best people have been eaten.

I recall a looooonggggg time ago when people could reasonably say they spent a weekend playing Unreal Tournament, my friend Ken set up Unreal Tournament at his office, where his LAN made it easy (this was before Internet multiplayer was really a thing). Our friend Jeof and I came by, we sat in separate offices, and spent the day trying to murder each other, virtually. And I camped the whole day. I found a hidden spot just over a tunnel junction, and sat there, and every time Ken or Jeof walked past I shot them in the head. After a while they banded together to hunt down my hiding spot, and then for me the war was over. That’s how I play video games.

Also: I cheat.

This is not because I don’t believe in the rules of polite society. This is because if I didn’t cheat, gaming wouldn’t be any fun for me. I don’t play multiplayer, so when I say I cheat, I mean use cheats to do things like live forever, have endless ammunition, and walk through walls, so my lack of skills doesn’t turn the game into something frustrating. Frankly, I just enjoy playing god. I am immortal, I know all, and I can do anything. It’s fun!

Also: I save my game constantly.

Saving my game with the press of a button: If you don’t play video games you might not understand how crucial this is for sanity. This way, in case I am not cheating, if I die a spectacular death by zigging when I should have zagged, I can jump right back to where I left off. Or if I screw up by missing something I can’t easily go back to. Or if I miss a cool extra bit. Basically, by saving constantly, I can explore, roam, and enjoy the universe that’s been created for me – and that I paid for – with impunity, at my pace.

Some might say this is not really playing the game, that if I can’t manage to gun down mine enemies and manage my own ammunition, I shouldn’t complain. These people can go fuck themselves, of course.

So, Bioshock Infinite

Yes, so, I bought a game recently on Steam called Bioshock Infinite, which is the third Bioshock game. Played the first one, enjoyed it. Skipped the second, never regretted it. But it was $13 on Steam along with some extras, so that seemed about right. Game looks gorgeous. Interesting intro sequences. But it has what is called a Checkpoint save system. Basically, the game automatically saves your progress at certain points in the game and you have no input into when or where. Likely it’s because the game was developed for the consoles (XBox, etc.). There are also no cheat codes, as far as I can tell. So, yes, the game is ruined.

Checkpoint saves are the worst idea ever in the history of ideas, right ahead of National Socialism and formal wear. They force you to maddeningly repeat areas of the game over and over. Scenario, for example: You’re weak and barely survive your last encounter. So you scour the area for supplies to gain health and ammo. Then you solve a puzzle. Then you step into a firefight, get chewed up, and die. And then … you have to start over twenty minutes ago, and repeat. all. the. same. actions.

Come to think of it, Bioshock Infinite can go fuck itself, too.

Game as Novel

See, increasingly, video games are narrative. Bioshock and its sequels all have fairly intricate stories, complete with characters and twists. More importantly, their universes are extremely detailed and expansive. You can wander around them and investigate instead of simply murdering everything that moves (although, hey, that’s fun too). In fact, many games actually reward the wandering.

And for me, that’s part of the fun of cheating and saving my game constantly: The freedom to just wander and experience this world the way I want to. It’s like when you buy a new book and read the last page, or flip around and read it out of order. You read it the way you want to. A Checkpoint Save system is like buying a book that’s somehow programmed to force you to read it one sentence at a time – and if you close the book before a certain point, you have to go back and re-read that section again.

So, to recap: I have no reflexes, I’m a cheater, and Checkpoint save systems were somehow important enough for me to write 1,000 words about them today. I’m gonna put this one in the WIN column and go have a drink.

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Forever Twelve

This sweater was likely a hand-me-down and probably cost $1 AS ALL SWEATERS SHOULD.

This sweater was likely a hand-me-down and probably cost $1 AS ALL SWEATERS SHOULD.

ANYONE who knows me knows I have a distinct inability to comprehend that the universe evolves and changes around me. This is most evident in my attitude towards the prices of things: To me, everything should still cost as much as it did in 1980, and when I’m confronted with $3 coffees I am outraged, convinced I am being screwed. You don’t even want to know my reaction to discovering that a modest new car can cost as much as $15,000. My first car, the much mourned Laverne the 1978 Chevrolet Nova, cost me $1.

A moment of silence, please, for Laverne, best car ever.

Another aspect of this can be identified in my artistic identity, to an extent: As a writer I’m often still that 12-year old who feels ridiculously grateful when anyone bothers to read my work, much less actually pay me for it. When presented with offers and deals for publication or something else, I am a terrible negotiator because at some level I’m still that kid, and I think I should be happy just for the attention. On phone calls with people who want to do something with my work, I’m breathless, nervous, and supremely uncomfortable with the idea of insisting on getting paid. It’s not because commerce defiles art (Ha!) but rather because I immediately regress to that 12-year old kid who made his own book covers out of construction paper.

If Amazon-style self-publishing had existed in 1983, my friends, the world would be littered with my juvenelia (complete with my own cover art) and I would have earned about $50 in the ensuing 32 years. There would be regrets.

Kids: This is why you want an agent. This. Because if you’re like me, you need someone who will laugh in the face of piss-poor offers and fight tooth and nail for every right and every sub-right. If I were doing this on my own no doubt I’d actually owe publishers money simply because they half-heartedly published my work.

Now, writers do tend to be at the bottom of any entertainment budget, it’s true. Films that have budgets in the hundreds of millions will be paying a novel author a few hundred thousand for the source material. That’s a lot of money, but when you contextualize it, it’s a tiny percentage of the total. But of course, nothing happens unless a writer first creates a story and characters, does it? Slowly, I’ve come to realize that giving away work for free doesn’t make sense – it takes me time and energy to write this stuff, it will make someone else some money when they publish it or adapt it, so I should absolutely always get paid. It’s taken me decades, but I’ve come to own that.Still, put me in a meeting or a conversation about getting paid for some writing, and I’m instantly twelve years old again, demanding that a new pair of sneakers cost $10 and shocked to the core that books cost more than the $3 they cost in 1983 – and somehow conflating my writing career with the chores I did at the old Somers homestead in exchange for a $10 weekly allowance.

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With Age, Wisdom: Advertising No Longer Mesmerizes Me

This blog post is as lousy as it is brilliant.

This blog post is as lousy as it is brilliant.

This originally appeared in The Inner Swine, Volume 16, Issue 1/2, Summer 2010.

THERE is an infamous incident: About 20 years ago, give or take, I was sitting in a living room with TIS Staff Artist Jeof Vita watching television. This despite Jeof’s dangerous and horrifying levels of unacceptable odor, which shall be the subject of another article altogether someday when the restraining orders expire.

Anyway.

This is not the story of Unacceptable Odors. This is the story of our Taco Bell experience.

I’d never been to Taco Bell before, which is strange. By that time of my life (carefree, single, and with a liver that wasn’t the size of a football) I’d been to most of your standard fast-food establishments, this being before I learned to love and respect myself. I haven’t actually had a meal at a fast food restaurant in probably a decade now, I don’t think; maybe I’m forgetting something, but at any rate it’s certainly not a common occurrence. Back then, though, I loved that shit. I also loved Olympia beer and any kind of hard liquor found lying around, so that tells you all you need to know about my level of taste and life experience, bubba.

Anyways, we were watching TV, just farting away an evening, when an ad for Taco Bell came on. This might have been back during the ¡Yo quiero Taco Bell! days with that annoying dog, but who the fuck knows—I can barely remember the incident at all. The amazing thing about this is that it’s the last time, I think, that a commercial actually took control of my brain like a wasp riding a roach and made me do exactly what it wanted, which in that case was to leap up with Jeof Vita, get in the car, drive to the nearest Taco Bell, and order some food.

Jeof and I were in perfect harmony: We stood up and went. No discussion, no doubt. The food looked delicious, we were suddenly ravenous, and so we went to Taco Bell. It was terrible, and I’ve never been back, or even mildly desired to. I mean, it might have been one of the worst meals of my life, although my brain has self-defensively deleted the actual sensory input from the meal, saving me from night sweats and bad dreams.

This would never happen today. I’m old and withered, yes, and if I met 1990 Jeff he would be able to defeat me in any sort of Games of Strength or Endurance. But I’m smarter than 1990 Jeff. If nothing else, I now pretty much completely ignore advertising, knowing the central truth of it: That even when it is telling the truth, it is lying to you, somehow. It’s like quantum physics: The commercial can be 100% facts, and yet still equal a lie.

The main thing to always remember about commercials is that they are trying to convince you that you need something you obviously do not need. If you needed it, they would not need to convince you about it; no one has to convince you to eat, after all. They merely try to convince you what to eat, but the necessity of the act is never in question, right? The necessity of, say, drinking Bud Lite, on the other hand, is pretty much given: there is none. Thus, advertising!

Once you realize this, you gain a level of simple perspective. Nothing that is advertised is necessary, because if it was necessary it wouldn’t need to be advertised. Sure, in general the things advertised can be absolutely required—food, again, is a good example. You must have food. But you already know that. You know what food is, where you can get some, which foods you like especially. Yes, advertising can lead you to foods you’ve never tried before but that isn’t advertising’s goal. They don’t want you to be aware of other choices, they want to convince you that you need other choices.

While I don’t doubt that advertising bamboozles me in ways I can’t even imagine every day, shaping my behaviors and desires, I do think I’ve grown more resistant and aware of it. I distrust advertising to begin with, and generally go in to every commercial break assuming I’m going to be lied to, fucked with, and manipulated. This is partly why advertisers more and more target kids—kids are dummies with money, these days. Which is not to say anything specific about the current generation of kids—I was a dummy when I was a kid, too. I didn’t have any money, but times change and kids are now a huge force in discretionary spending in this country, so advertisers like them. See, I’ve got life experience and bills to pay, so I’m a harder sell. Taco Bell is a perfect example: Due to decades of life experience I now know that Taco Bell’s food is like eating plastic that has been flavored with Fail, and I have better choices to spend my money on. Taco Bell doesn’t want to waste time on me.

The most shameful development in advertising over the last few years is, of course, pharmaceutical advertising. The people who come up with these commercials should be lined up and shot in the ass. These commercials all seek to convince us that every little tweak and creak can be best treated with a pill, and strongly advise us to pressure our doctors to prescribe them, with the unspoken admonition, I think, that any doctor who refuses to do so is obviously trying to destroy your life.

FOR GOD’S SAKES, THEY NOW HAVE A PILL TO TAKE IF YOUR FIRST PILL DOESN’T WORK.

Abilify: That’s raw genius, there. If our first pill doesn’t work, you don’t need to reassess your treatment, you need our second pill. That’s like saying, if your first car doesn’t run, you need our second car to pull it along. Convincing people to do shit like this is why advertising is evil, and pharma advertising is like selling your soul to the Robot Devil.

So, my Timeline of Advertising Horror goes like this:

THE INNER SWINE’S TIMELINE OF ADVERTISING HORROR

Age 7: See an ad in a paper for plastic milkshake cups I inexplicably think come with milkshake in them. Pester Mom to buy these cups, which she does. 6-8 weeks go buy as I wait impatiently for my milkshakes. Cups arrive, no milkshakes. I almost commit suicide.

Age 12: Advertisements for the Atari 2600 almost make me murder a man in Journal Square in hopes that he has enough cash in his wallet so I may purchase one. Get a Sears knockoff for Christmas and spend 6 months mindlessly playing Pac Man and Pitfall.

Age 19: The aforementioned Taco Bell incident. Faith in world shattered, stomach never quite the same.

Today: You can’t sell me water when my house is on fire. I’ve gone around the other end of crazy: Frightened of being fooled, I just don’t believe anything and buy nothing but whiskey and processed deli meats. Sure, I’m living like an animal, but at least corporate America isn’t getting much of my money.

The lesson here is that you can only be fooled so many times before you just walk away and don’t look back. I will always have the searing memory of what that Taco Bell meal did to my internal organs to remind me that advertising is a strange game where the only way to win is not to play.

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Draftback: Burn After Writing

Let's edit.

Let’s edit.

So, the Somers How Close Are We to True Dystopia (SHCAWTTD, pronounced SHWATTED) Scale has basically been at two minutes to midnight since the Internet came to be, and inched just slightly closer to Kaboom Time with the invention of Draftback, which allows you, essentially, to record yourself while working in Google Docs. In theory, this means you could spend two years working on a novel in Google Docs and then you – or someone else – could watch the whole slog, complete with every typo, deleted chapter, and occasional Freudian Slip where you insert your mother’s name into a squicky sex scene or something.

On the one hand, I can see where something like that might be fascinating to readers. Imagine being able to see James Joyce write Ulysses word by word (possibly fast-forwarded just a tad, and maybe with some judicious editing to compress time a little). The insights you’d get! Assuming you could stay awake/stay alive long enough, of course.

For a writer, or at least for this writer, this is a horrible thing. It’s like that episode of Black Mirror where everyone records their entire lives: Horror. The last thing I want anyone to know is how awful my initial ideas are – or, sometimes, how little I actually edit (revising is for nerds). Although, naturally, I doubt anyone will ever be sufficiently interested in little old me to want to view my writing process that closely – but still, it’s a thought akin to dying suddenly without being able to contact your Porn Buddy to instruct them to destroy your collection before your family finds out you took that Brony thing waayyyyy too seriously.

Plus, knowing that your early drafting and revision might be viewed by people someday would, of course, have an affect on your writing. And probably not a good one.

Intent

There’s a time in a writer’s life when they don’t seriously expect anything they create to be published. It’s usually when you’re younger; if you stick to it and do the work, chances are you’ll get published somewhere, somehow. Maybe not as often, or as widely, or as lucratively as you’d like – but still, published. But when you’re still starting out, that can seem very, very far off. So a lot of the writing you do is private, in a sense – you don’t expect anyone to ever see it.

And of course that gives you a lot of freedom, because if you doubt anyone will see it, why not experiment? Have your characters say and do awful things beyond the pale? Be incomprehensible, maudlin, sentimental, savage – make your main character a Sue of yourself and delight as they do everything right, cut down their enemies with devastatingly precise bon mots – go crazy. Why not? If it turns out to be half-decent you can revise it into something civilized. If it remains half-assed and embarrassing, you can have a private ceremony and burn it in the bathroom. Or add it to the Brony porn stash and set up a Dead Man’s switch that will alert your Porn Buddy. Either way.

But if you knew everything you wrote – literally, every single key you hit with your pudgy little fingers – was being recorded and might be viewed someday (say, at the inevitable depositions you’ll be mired in after your criminal schemes go awry), you’d do it differently. You’d pause longer between words. You’d think ahead a bit more, maybe even cheat and scribble out your first drafts in a burn-after-writing notebook. It would change everything, and not for the better, because you only know something’s worth reviewing in Draftback when it’s finished.

Now that we’ve got that settled, on to more important questions: Who wants to be my Porn Buddy?

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Frank

Frank Poster by Ryan Gajda

Frank Poster by Ryan Gajda

NOTE: The illustration included here was created by Ryan Gajda (http://www.sundaydogparade.com) and I neglected to credit him.

If you’ve heard of the film Frank, you’ve probably heard it described as the one where the improbably attractive actor Michael Fassbender wears a fiberglass head through 90% of the film or possibly as the one where this musician won’t take off his fiberglass head or somewhat less possibly as the one based loosely on the real-life Frank Sidebottom or something similar. And while that’s technically accurate description of the film Frank, both descriptions manage to miss the point, because this isn’t so much a movie about a crazy (and possibly genius) musician who wears a big round head all the time. It’s a movie about creativity, the creative process, and, most specifically, what happens when you want to be creative but aren’t very good at it.

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Professional Reading Vs. Reading for Pleasure

Eventually I'll just spend all of my time in the bathroom.

Eventually I’ll just spend all of my time in the bathroom.

As most everyone knows a few years ago I embarked on a fabulous adventure known as Jeff Lost His Day Job and Thinks He Can Earn Money by Freelance Writing, which so far has had a more or less happy ending (though, of course, none of us are getting out of this existence alive, so “happy ending” is relative – and transient, and therefore not an ending at all, is it?) in that I am in fact making a living writing things for people, both in terms of fiction and bloggy stuff done work for hire.

A lot of the bloggy stuff involves books; either reviews or listicles or round-ups and stuff. Plus, my publisher occasionally asks me to blurb something. The end result? A lot of “professional” reading, you know, reading books I might not otherwise get to. This is usually not because I’m not interested in reading said books, but more a matter of time management: I’ve only got so many years before the liver goes and the dementia starts (or, possibly, worsens; you have to always ask yourself every morning if you’re existing in a self-imposed fantasy driven by delerium tremens and bad burrito choices).

There are pros and cons to all this “professional” reading:

PROS

  • I’m reading outside my usual comfort zone.
  • I’m reading a lot more, overall.
  • I’m reading with more of a critical eye; even when not reviewing books, I’m usually trying to think of an “angle” to write about, and therefore not simply enjoying myself as I read.

CONS

  • I’m reading fast, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but does mean I’m not just luxuriating in a good book.
  • It interrupts my pleasure reading, meaning I’ve been reading certain books so slowly it’s going backwards.
  • I’ve read some really awful books I was totally right to not want to read in the first place, and these abominations will be part of my brain forever now.

This is a very First World type of problem to have (my god they’re paying me to read too many books! oh wait, that’s not a fucking problem at all NEVER MIND) but it’s such a mix of good and bad it’s hard to keep everything straight, to be honest. When your bathroom book changes every time you go to the bathroom in a vain attempt to meet deadlines, your life becomes a whirlwind of toilets and words.

Actually, that’s the new title of my autobiography: A WHIRLWIND OF TOILETS; subtitle, small print: and words.

And in-between all of this I’m trying to write the next novel some sucker hero will pay me. In the long run, I fully expect all this anti-comfort zone reading I’m doing to have a beneficial effect on my writing as it opens up all new things to steal, er, reinterpret for my prose. Time will tell. Until then, it’s back to my whirlwind of toilets.

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The Video Gaming of Movies

SHE KILLS LITERALLY EVERYBODY

SHE KILLS LITERALLY EVERYBODY

I recently watched the film Everly, directed by Joe Lynch and starring Salma Hayek, specifically so I could write this little essay, because I suspected that it would be a good place to start. Everly is a simple film despite the sheer number of corpses and gunfire – it’s also not exactly a good film. But that doesn’t actually matter for my larger point.

To get it out of the way (and SPOILERS HO!) here’s the basics: Hayek is a woman who has forced into prostitution by a very, very bad man, and has been living as a prisoner in a nice apartment, forced to never see her daughter or mother. Planning to betray the crime boss, her intentions are exposed and he sends a group to gang-rape her and then kill her in revenge, but she has a gun and a phone hidden in the bathroom and manages to kill them all. The crime boss sends wave after wave of people to kill her, and she manages to survive through a mix of luck, determination, and a very high tolerance for pain.

To say the film is inconsistent would be an understatement: It picks up ideas, plays with them a little, then discards them. It throws in several pointless moments of “excitement.” It has no relationship with reality at all. For all that, it’s kind of entertaining, actually. Some of that goes to the script, which is mildly witty, and some goes to the direction, which is occasionally arresting. And some of it goes to Hayek, who looks good with a machine gun and manages to sell the emotion when she’s not gunning down nameless thugs.

But mainly, the movie entertains because it’s essentially a video game run-through.

CUT SCENES FOR THE PLOT, Y’ALL

This is an increasingly popular form of action movie. It doesn’t matter much what the plot is, or the genre, or anything else. The main thing is, the film is structured like a video game: Quick setup, then a series of levels, each with its own challenges, special look, and sometimes a specific Boss battle.

Dredd was like this, too. These films are marked by the wave-after-wave structure, where the hero fights off a wave of adversaries, gets a brief respite (level loading) and then wades in again. The waves of thugs get either increasingly tough, show up in increasing numbers, or become increaingly bizarre as the hero advances through the game, er, story.

Everly follows this pretty closely: The thugs going after the title character start off relatively weak (they’re the other prostitutes in the building, who are offered a reward if they kill her). Then some standard-issue criminals in black suits and better weaponry show up. Then some bizarre torturer Boss-type guy, then a police SWAT unit with body armor and assault rifles, then the Big Boss himself with an RPG, a katana, and a nice suit. Every time Everly  kills off a wave, there’s a sequence of quiet akin to a cutscene, where the story advances until the next level loads up, I mean, the next scene begins.

You Know, For Kids

Now, this isn’t an awful way to set up a film (and I liked Dredd very much if I didn’t think Everly was so great) when what you’re going for is that breathless, adrenaline-soaked experience. But the model is very clearly video games, and I can’t help but wonder if this is a conscious attempt to capture the youth market, where a lot of kids have come to prefer the way video games tell stories. The rhythms of action/cutscene/action, the stylized violence, the increasingly bizarre Bosses – it all matches up pretty well.

It’s been theorized that Video Games might someday be the future of visual storytelling – aside from action games, games like Gone Home or Myst had the feel of being inside a movie, walking around (albeit in Myst’s case the movie was an insanely dull one) and I can see it. Once graphics become truly realistic, why not – games like Half Life and Portal and others are already very story-driven in some ways, and, frankly, there’s something exciting about the idea that you could “re-play” a movie and explore different areas and plot options, etc. And instead of sequels, there would be downloadable content.

Although, as I get older, that would make watching a movie exhausting. But at least there would be speed run-throughs on YouTube.

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Literary Devices: Booze

Lunch!

Lunch!

In some of my writing, I have characters who use guns a lot, and every now and then I get some detail about guns wrong and I get flooded with notes from helpful people explaining my mistake. Which is fine and good. So, let’s turn the tables a little. I may not be an expert on firearms, but I am an expert in firewater (see what I did there? Me good professional word person).

I am in many ways, a walking cliché: The writer who enjoys his liquor a little too much. It’s certainly not my fault that my ancestors made alcohol both delicious, all-natural, vaguely healthy if you believe European doctors, and man’s best friend. I am the victim here, is what I’m saying. And my books often reflect this lifelong love affair with The Drink: In the Avery Cates books, in Lifers and Chum and We Are Not Good People my characters all drink heavily and while you might argue this also explains why the stories they find themselves in are so dark and awful (and yet, hilarious!) because getting shitfaced is itself dark and awful (but hilarious!) it remains a literary device I use a lot. Admittedly, I use the Booze Device mainly so my characters have something to do with their hands (see also: Cigarettes).

Still, if you’re imagining that I myself get all ginned up and plow through fifty pages of golden prose while my eyes are crossed (method writing, in other words), you’re wrong. I remember once Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane being interviewed and he was asked about playing live shows while high, and he dismissed it out of hand, saying something about how you can’t do that because the guitar strings would suddenly seem like they were as thick as firehoses and everything would go to hell (I’m paraphrasing). While a glass of the brown stuff has often been my companion when writing, it’s not like you can guzzle a fifth of bourbon and then write fifteen pages of really coherent prose.

Of course, characters actually in the book? Why not. From what I can tell no one wants verisimilitude when it comes to liquor in our stories.

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“Lucy” & The Art of Pulling Back

Scarlett Johansson in Believably Bloated Mode

Scarlett Johansson in Believably Bloated Mode

Lucy, written & directed by Luc Besson and starring Scarlett Johansson, is currently enjoying a 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is, frankly, amazing, since it’s not a good movie or a good story. Oh, it’s pretty-looking. Some of the imagery is breathtaking, there are a few kind of cool action moments, and I’ll admit that the first forty minutes or so of the film is rendered with a bouncy, off-center energy that is enjoyable, cutting back and forth between Lucy’s increasingly dire predicament with some gangsters and an incredibly daffy lecture being presented by Morgan Freeman, uttering some of the most ridiculous bad science in recent memory.

But the story is pretty dumb. (SPOILERS, HO!) In a nutshell, Lucy (Johansson, looking believably bloated and rough as a young woman apparently surviving on tequila shots, questionable sex partners, and ramen) is conned by a skeezy boyfriend into taking a briefcase to a gangster (Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi), who turns out to be lamentably unconcerned about Lucy’s wellbeing. In the case is a new drug the gangster is smuggling around the world, accomplished by surgically inserting plastic packets of the powder into his drug mules’ bellies. On Lucy’s part, at least, it’s an involuntary job. After some shenanigans, Lucy gets kicked in the stomach hard enough to rupture the packet, and this experimental drug begins to leak into her system.

And Lucy turns into a god.

More specifically, the drug somehow unlocks the “unused cerebral capacity” of the old, bullshit saw about how we only use 10% of our brains. This wonder drug allows Lucy to suddenly use increasing amounts of her own brain, which in turn allows her to first control her own body, then the bodies of others, and finally, as she consumes more and more of the drug, matter and energy (and, ultimately, time).

Yeah.

So, this is kind of silly. Johansson goes into Stonefaced Goddess mode, and the rest of the story lacks any sort of tension whatsoever because Lucy is almost immediately unstoppable. One scene where she causes a bunch of thugs to float to the ceiling like balloons as she walks stiffly beneath them is a nifty visual, and completely boring. When Lucy can make people collapse, wall them into invisible boxes, and make their weapons fly off as if suddenly magnetized, there’s little doubt who wins the confrontations she gets into.

Fixing a Hole

You know what, though? This could have been a much better story with one simple tweak: Instead of the drug granting Lucy what are, essentially, magic powers, if all it did was sharpen her perceptions and reflexes to godlike levels, this could have been an interesting revenge tale: Lucy starts off as a crying, weak person confused and terrified, is abused and brutalized, and then through sheer accident uses the gangster’s own product to destroy his organization via uncannily accurate shooting, superhuman reflexes, and a sudden ability to plan sixteen steps in advance like a boss.

In that version of the film, Lucy would still be mortal and would still be able to be injured. The story would still have tension. And we’d still get to see Scarlett Johansson kicking ass and taking names while looking slightly hungover the entire time. In other words, if Besson had just pulled back a little with his premise, this might have been a fun film. Instead, it’s a lot of crazy imagery with an ending lifted straight from The Lawnmower Man.

Of course, there’s the alternate explanation that the last hour of Lucy is just the titular character’s death hallucination as she quietly overdoses on the drug, which is more interesting but no more entertaining, frankly.

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Phillip K. Marks

69448_7155Writing is a curious thing, sometimes. On the one hand it’s art and you have to respect the mysterious and largely amoral idea machine that lurks somewhere inside your head – mysterious and somewhat disturbing, most times. On the other hand, there’s artifice and artificiality to it as well – you take those ideas and you think about manipulating a plot, and the market you might sell it to, and how readers will react.

So, you sometimes develop crutches or tools – like, say, a character who exists mainly to star in a certain kind of story that you often return to. I’m a fan of detective novels, and I’m a fan of the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, and for some reason I keep coming up with gonzo supernatural stories that are presented and structured as mysteries. And so I’ve created a character named Philip K. Marks who often stars in these stories as an alcoholic former writer who investigates weird, strange situations.

BUY ME

BUY ME

In fact, he’s not that different in some ways from Lem Vonnegan, the main character in We Are Not Good People. He’s a bit run-down, has made bold, moral choices in his life that have cost him, and he’s oppressed by forces often – regularly – beyond his control or sometimes even his comprehension. Whereas in the earlier stories I wrote about him he was well-known and somewhat prosperous, over time he’s had adventures that went horrifyingly wrong, and there’s continuity in the stories themselves, so in the more recent ones he’s lost his memory and some of his focus and energy, and he’s fallen pretty far in social and economic turns, too. Although he’s not a mage or a gunner, he’d get along well with Lem and Avery Cates, I think, and his adventures always involve magic, horror, and science fiction elements.

I like almost all of the stories I’ve written about Marks, and I’ve actually sold a few. “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the MWA Anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris, in 2010, and “A Meek and Thankful Heart” appeared in Buzzy Mag in 2013. And I recently sold a third story, titled “Howling on for More” which should be appearing over at Black Denim Lit in April (or so I’m told).

Three stories ain’t exactly an anthology, but I have a bunch of others, and it’s been surprisingly successful for me to sell three stories with the same character, especially one so different from Avery Cates and Lem Vonnegan (or perhaps not so different). And since I have several other stories starring the amnesic and world-weary Mr. Marks, I guess I have a long-term project now to start sending out more of those stories so I can someday collect them into one anthology that no one will publish.

At my current apparent rate of selling one story every 2-3 years, I’ll manage this by the time I’m 157. Which is fine. I plan to live that long anyway through a careful application of booze, lack of exercise, and positive thinking.

In the mean time, Marks will remain a sponge character for all the ideas I have that need a bit of structure to hold them up. Even though Marks started off as a catch-all tool of sorts, he’s developed quite the backstory and personality. In fact, it might be time to write a Marks novel one of these days, if I can think of the right idea for it. All writers have tools they use to hide the gears from y’all, and sometimes it’s nice when those tools ascend a bit and become characters.

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