The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ah, Zion

Friend asked me what I thought about Will Smith being offered the Keanu Reeves role in "The Matrix". He turned it down for "Wild Wild West." Wow. Talk about bad choices. But he asked how I thought "Matrix" might have been different. You know, I have to answer that question differently now than I would have before. Initially, I figure "Matrix" could have played very similarly...but Trinity would have been Hispanic or black, and Morpheus would have been white. There still could have been the kiss, and the happy ending. The movie would have had a similar cultural impact. Oh, and the martial arts sequences would have been better: Smith is just more athletic than Reeves. But you know what? After watching the second and third movies (and have you EVER seen a movie series go downhill faster?) I realized that the Wachowski brothers were playing a strange, dangerous game.

Did you notice that Zion, the city of "real humans" is totally multicultural/multiracial, while the Matrix, the synthetic construct, is almost totally white? I mean, there is a brief scene in "Chinatown" that features some Asians, but basically the Matrix has the racial makeup of a 1950's movie. Even the crew of Morpheus' ship is brown, and I never really noticed it while watching the original film. So what in the world were they trying to say?

And if they had gotten Will Smith, would they have DARED to keep the rest of the casting the same? With almost all the white characters either machines, synthetic, traitors or dead? Good lord, what were they up to?

By the time we saw Zion, and they had the big dance scene, trust me, white boys in the audience were grumbling. I was there, and I heard them. So if the Wachowskis were trying to make some kind of point about how we're living in a synthetic media creation with little connection to the "real world" of multicolored people, they kept it under control in the first film, but something went very wrong, and nobody reigned them in.

Or...they just went crazy. I have a sense that there was a lot of cocaine around that shoot, and look at all the weight Larry Fishburne put on during production. And of an action film, yet. Almost as bad as Steven Seagal, that THAT weight gain is a pretty obvious mark of an emotionally damaged human being. In Seagal's case, I'd bet it relates to a serious case of "imposter syndrome"--knowing that his entire Hollywood mythology was based on a lie. Self-sabotage as bad as Meg Ryan humping Russel Crowe. But what was going on on the "Matrix" set?

I think these guys are a little nuts. I think that they went "off the reservation" and literally had trouble relating their ideas and concepts to the outside culture, began to live in a self-referential and increasingly dark and ugly that ultimately made little sense.

I kind of think this is part of what happens when people try to make blacks full-spectrum human beings in film. It goes like this: blacks have numerous problems in society. The answer for "why" is on a sliding scale, ranging between the culture treating them different, and black people themselves being different. I've made no secret of where I stand on this.

A film that depicted blacks as being too "different" would turn off an entire chunk of the American public. But what I think is NOT understood is that if you show them as being too "ordinary"--with the same hopes, dreams, and needs, it will turn off ANOTHER chunk of the public. And that this understanding is instinctive, and begins to be programmed in childhood.

The good news is that the older generation, who was poisoned with these lies from the cradle, is dying off. I'll join them soon enough, trust me: I'm not pointing a finger and laughing, just stating the obvious. But the memes that justified the institution of slavery (it's only been about twenty years since the last time I regularly heard Southerners trying to state that "slavery was good for the slave." To this date, they still believe that the institution would have "died out naturally in thirty years." Which is interesting, considering that it hasn't died out to this day.)

What I'm saying is that I suspect that the reasons that no non-white male has had sex in a movie that has been accepted across the board by the American public is BOTH that such films are rejected by the racially queasy, AND that they actually had to be just a little crazy to try it in the first place: that they are operating in a zone without any foundation or touch-stones to guide them, and run off the rails. Should it be a comedy? A drama? An action film? It's all been tried. It all fails. So the Wachowskis, trying something kind of radical, pretty much guaranteed that they would be out of touch with mainstream America. And while they were at it...just a little bugfuck as well.

The key is going to be experimentation, feedback, study (for instance, we now know that an Hispanic woman won't push the buttons as hard as either a black woman or a white woman. Man, I sure as hell never predicted THAT!) Try this, try that...and eventually, someone will get across the line. Statistically, the numbers will still tend to be depressed, but it'll happen.

Curiously, it doesn't bother me as much as once it did that black women are jumping into bed with white guys in movies. First, that's the real world. Second, it's their business-(I just resent it when black women criticise black men for smooching non-black women, when I don't hear them complain about black women with white men. I think that is rank hypocrisy, and did in the 70's when black men claimed that THEY had the right to bed white women, but black women shouldn't cross the racial line. I told them I thought they were full of shit, and I say the same thing to Sisters now: no matter what history or statistics you quote, you simply don't have the right to say it's all right for you, but not for me. I've heard every reason imaginable, and it's all crap ). But the real reason I'm not minding as much is that I see that there's a level of game going on. People of all races are attracted to people of all races. If that weren't true, you wouldn't have needed laws to keep us out of each other's bedrooms.

If white guys want access to, say, Halle Berry, there is a limit to the number of times she can have scenes with Benjamin Bratt or Billy Bob Thornton or whatever before even the AUDIENCE starts getting uncomfortable with the obvious racial implications. And on an unconscious level, watching dark skin helps to desensitize the flinch response. And white women are gonna want theirs. Why should their guys be the only ones gettin' that chocolate love..?

Hah hah. I trust lust in this matter. That, and the dying off of Clint Eastwood's generation. The kids coming up now pretty much wonder what the fuss is all about. Keeping my fingers crossed: By June 30, 2009, I think it's gonna happen.


And no, I don't think it's so strange that whites would vote for Obama but still not be able to deal with Will Smith's sexuality. A president isn't just a popularity contest: it's hiring someone you believe can help YOU. Lotsa people would hire a black plumber who wouldn't want the guy dating their daughters. Plus...hell, there are just lots of us who consider Obama exceptional--so it's a "well, if they were all like him, there wouldn't be a problem!" In other words, when bigots meet an exceptional member of the group they despise, they will often make an exception: "THAT one is O.K." Oddly, doing this actually reinforces their other racial attitudes, because now they can say: "see? I'm not a bigot! I

1) listen to black music

2) like Kung-fu movies

3) Have a Jewish Lawyer

4) Am married to a woman

5) Own a copy of "YMCA"

6) Love to screw white girls

Thus proving that I'm open-minded. I just know that there are...certain things about "that" group that most people won't admit. I'm just more HONEST than most..."



Going to Larry Niven's New Years party tonight. I'll see some of you there. Then tomorrow I'll chill, and Friday I'll get a little more work done. Then family stuff over the weekend.


A question: is there anyone out there in the L.A. area with access to a sound studio? I need to create the core CDs for the "101" system (which, by the way, should beta-launch next week, good Lord willin' and the river don't rise). Let me know if there is anyone who can hook me up...I'm gonna keep asking until I get a "yes" from SOMEBODY!


Happy New Year, everyone! Be safe, and let's make 2009 the best year ever!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What's Up for 2009?

I don't think that 10,000 hours will put you in the top .1% of your field. It's that 99.9% of the folks in the top .1% of their field has put in 10,000 hours. In other words, you can't get there without that amount of work. But without a gift, and luck, no amount of pure work will get you to the very top. Luckily, you don't HAVE to be at the top to enjoy the benefits of most skills, or even to be considered fantastically successful by most. Or never out of work. I mean, the top 20% in almost any field are never out of work. Worried about your future? Don't worry about being the best. Just don't be in the bottom 80%, and you'll probably be all right.


"Barack The Magical Negro" is a song premiered on Rush Limbaugh, who takes any opportunity to make a racial dig, if he can plausibly blame it on someone else. For the prospective chairman of the RNC to send out copies of it for Christmas, suggesting that it's actually an insult not to the Prez-elect but to "Puff the Magic Dragon's" original writer, is the kind of bullshit that is turning the Republicans into the Grand Old White Guy's party, and they need to be aware of it. Racists delight in being able to flaunt such things and pretend they meant something else. This is playing into their hands, and I guess I have to say that anyone who doesn't see how it could do that is tone-deaf to an entire range of human emotion...or really doesn't give a shit. Of course, there will be others who "get it" totally, but find it convenient to pretend not to.


Best movie I saw in 2008? Slumdog Millionaire. Best acting? Micky Roarke in "The Wrestler." He just sniped at Sean Penn, calling his competitor an "average" actor and a least, according to one source, who says he saw a text message. Way to go, Micky. You were circling the drain, pulled an ace out of your ass, and now are risking a revived career with bitterness and ego. I hope it's not true, or if it is I hope he will shut up. Otherwise, in about ten years we'll hear about Roarke found dead of drugs, living in a storage compartment somewhere.


Watched "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" the movie about steroids. While it doesn't shy away from showing some of the freakier athletes (dig that guy with the biggest arms in the world. Good Lord!), considering the tiny number of people who actually die as a result of it (fewer emergency room problems than aspirin. Of course, a lot more people use aspirin) adults should be free to use what they want. I pretty much agree with that. But I do think that sports fans have a right to decide if they want a "clean" league in their favorite sport. I'm curious about how far the human body can be taken without undue jiggering of hormones and so forth. But it is also great fun to watch people push the envelope.


The year is almost over. What do I want for next year? I want to think about this seriously. Physically, yoga, kettlebells and martial arts seem to be keeping the old carcass together quite nicely, within that "Golden Hour" I like so much. Career-wise, I want to do more film work now that I've got the door open a little. Personally...I want to strengthen my relationship with my sister, to help Jason find more emotional control, and make sure Nicki graduates UCIrvine and enters the next phase of her life with joy and promise. With Tananarive, I want to dance Salsa with her more often, and just make sure that our burgeoning schedules don't take us away from each other (so far so good...I'm just cautious, not apprehensive).


What do you guys want to accomplish in the next year? And what major steps forward have you made in 2008?

Monday, December 29, 2008

More on Media Sex

Under the "Asians in the Media" entry, a bunch of things got asked, so I'll answer 'em:

1) It's odd that someone thinks there was no sex in "Miami Vice": did you actually see the movie?

2) I want to see the SAME amount of sex for black men as white men. Otherwise, it's reasonable for me to assume that there is some kind of outside force at work.

3) Why would I complain that Blair has interracial sex? I have no objections to that. And black women who complain about it rarely seem to complain when Halle Berry, Thandie Newton, or whoever have sex with white men, and that kind of hypocracy pisses me off. Sauce for the goose.

4) Black men being "exploited" in love scenes? Excuse me? Are white men "exploited"? Jeeze. I find that absurd. I can hardly even understand this, unless I take the position that sex itself is "dirty", which I don't . I find a good love scene to be absolutely delicious, and considering the popularity of films that contain them (longest running film series in history? James Bond. Average number of love scenes per movie? Two.) I'd say the majority of people agree with me, even if they won't admit it publicly.

5) It is quite reasonable to analyze movies that fail, and say it can be attributed to X or Y. Fine. But the truth is that such analysis can be applied to any film. There is no such thing as a movie where you can't look and say: "oh! The problem wasn't the sex. The problem was Z." Fine. That's why I don't insist that some particular film "should" have crossed the line. It is in looking at the sweep of films, the dozens that did cross the 100-million mark, and noticing that, for some odd reason, if the male stars aren't white, they CANNOT get across that line if there is sex. Notice that black or Asian WOMEN can get across that line, so you're still left with the question of "why?" about black or Asian men.

4) How many 100-million plus movies have love scenes? (some of these are "PG-13" scenes, that go from a kiss to a fade, etc.) We have to go by my memory, so I apologize in advance. But looking at the list of 100 million plus films at, the following movies contain the cinematic conventions of sexuality--in other words, reproductive behavior. Two adults are in a private room or situation, they kiss and/or embrace to a fade-out, or actually engage in varying levels of explicit behavior. "Gone With the Wind" for instance, is a perfect example: for the time, the scene of Rhett Butler carrying Scarlet up to their bedroom was ravishingly, devastatingly sensual. Now, of course, it would be G-rated.

Love scenes: actual intercourse or kissing and passionate embracing to a fade-out in a protected, private context:

Titanic, Iron Man, Matrix Reloaded, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Ghost, Mission Impossible II, 300, Gone With The Wind, Pearl Harbor, Mr and Mrs. Smith, What Women Want, Grease, Pretty Woman, Top Gun, Chicago, Casino Royale, Catch Me If You Can, Quantum of Solace, Die Another Day, The Firm, Fatal Attraction, Jerry McGuire, What Lies Beneath, Sex and the City, Knocked Up, Lethal Weapon 2, American Pie 2, The Fast and the Furious, Animal House, XXX, Look Who's Talking, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Good Will Hunting, The Green Mile, The Godfather, American Gangster, Officer and a Gentleman, The World Is Not Enough, Tomorrow Never Dies, Something's Gotta Give, The Bodyguard, Fifty First Dates, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Rocky, Double Jeopardy, 8 Mile, Notting Hill, Face/Off, Twins, Doctor, Zhivago, 40 Year Old Virgin, GoldenEye, Indecent Proposal, Love Story, Every Which Way But Loose, Porky's, American Wedding, Scream, The Aviator, American Pie, Maverick, Contact, Vanilla Sky, Shakespeare in Love,


My memory MIGHT be mistaken in a couple of cases:

Dances with Wolves, Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind, The Rock, Superman II,


Curiously, I noticed "Hairspray" this time, which has a scene where a black guy climbs in a white girl's window, they kiss and sink out of frame. Technically, that qualifies...but we still don't have the STAR getting any. Interesting that it' s another case of a secondary character. And , "Blazing Saddles" we TECHNICALLY have a scene in which, during the black-out, the Sheriff and the singer get it on. But we see absolutely nothing. There is no kiss, barely any touching at all. Mel Brooks isn't shy about showing people kissing. Hmmm. Why do YOU think we saw absolutely nothing?

But in fair play, I have to say that these two movies kinda, sorta, tip-toe across that line from oblique and incredibly cautious angles. So while no stars have ever had on-screen nookie, it's clear that the line is getting a little fuzzier.


And to answer the question I've answered a dozen times before: why do I care so much? Because I consider this issue to be a measurable marker of an unconscious aversion, the same thing that leads to bigotry, cops shooting unarmed black men, preferences in loans and jobs and legal acquittals. Whether you like and accept someone and consider them a member of your tribe, on a deep unconscious level. When I see black actors being accepted as being just as human as white actors, I will believe that the playing field has finally gotten sufficiently level.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Three Christmases

Had three Christmases. One on Christmas day with just Tananarive and Jason. The day after, we drove up to Paso Robles to celebrate with Nicki's mom Toni and her family (wonderful people), and then Saturday Joyce and her family (my niece Shar, her husband Mike, nephew Steve, brother-in-law Mitz, and Nicki and her guy Micheal [arrgh! Too many Micheals!]) and that was fun. But wow, driving from L.A. to Paso and back in the same day is definitely a stress. Woke up the next day feeling hammered. But it was worth it.


I want to see "Valkyrie" today. Always liked Tom Cruise, even if he is more interested in being a star than an actor. More money in it. But I do get a bit disturbed by people's reactions to his Scientology beliefs. So he jumped on Oprah's couch. So what? He didn't hurt anyone. Didn't hit-and-run, beat his wife or a papparazzi, throw heavy objects at his assistants, get caught in a sex scandal, or anything like it. He has some kinda whacky beliefs, but what religion doesn't sound a bit whacky when viewed through a logical lens? And exactly what is it that Scientology has been accused of that other religions have not? I really can't resist the sense that there is some simple, straight-forward religious bigotry going on here, people looking for an excuse to dislike people who "worship" something they disapprove of. Now, that makes sense in a way. Stars (as opposed to actors) are paid largely for how much people like them, the degree to which audience identification or hero-worship makes audiences want to come out to see them regardless of the film project.

It's the image. If John Wayne had gotten his ass kicked in a street fight, don't you think it would have affected his box office? Meg Ryan had the "wholesome girl next door" thing until she paraded her affair with Russell Crowe in front of everyone. Trashed her. No, I don't think it's primarily sexism. Angelina Jolie ALWAYS had a rather bad-girl image, so when she "stole" Brad Pitt from Jennifer Aniston, it didn't hurt her at all. It arguably HELPED her, because her image was "man, if you ever got her alone, she'd rock your world." and this was just more proof that she wasn't a tease. So whereas women are certainly more penalized for being sexually aggressive than men (while men are penalized for passivity of any kind) stars have to be very careful about their public images...whereas actors just have to perform. But stars get paid about ten times what actors get, and they are one of the only "sure things" in the movie business.

Has Cruise blown that? I don't know, but it's possible...though for the time being I'll bet on him. I think the guy is smart as hell, and a little bit of a physical freak. I'm still weirded out that he began doing physical stunts so late in his career. Ever see the "behind the scenes" footage of MI2? He was outperforming the stunt-men in some fairly complex gymnastic movement. I've never seen that, except with actors like Stallone who have been highly physical their entire careers. It was a little spooky, and made me wonder if those e-Meters might have something to them after all.


I do think that some of Hubbard's ideas have merit. The concept of "Engrams" is a lot like Sufi "Nafs" or Coach Sonnon's "Fear Reactivity"--kinks in the psychic wiring. Straighten them out, unknot them, and your life energy (whether viewed as literal or figurative) flows more easily. Use a galvanic skin response device to measure your reactions while a therapist de-sensitizes you? Makes sense to me. The problem comes when they tried to create a proprietary system, insist that their e-Meters are somehow quantum leaps beyong the GSR meters you can get for twenty bucks at Radio Shack, and that you need to spend vast amounts of money to have their councilors "clear" you. Ever heard the story about Hubbard producing a supposedly "clear" student for the press? His writings suggested that a "clear" would have a perfect mind, perfect memory, especially...and she didn't remember what color tie Hubbard was wearing. Hysterical.

Well, that's probably why most religions don't promise a quantifiable result. Bad press if you can't produce.


But none of that changes the fact that I often sense some gleeful bigotry in criticisms of Cruise...maybe I'm over sensitive to intimations that the STATED reason for liking or disliking something is very different from the REAL reason, even if the person is unaware of it.


**Warning, Sambo Alert. Minor Spoilers**

So....Will Smith's "Seven Pounds" dropped to #7 in its second week. It's earned about 31 million, total. No way it's getting across the 100 million mark unless it pulls off a minor miracle. So the Curse is still happily in place whether you think its a matter of audiences, artists, or studios...something is wrong, I have my theories about it, and you have yours. But there is one interesting thread that shouldn't be missed. Like I said, two black characters in "Benjimen Button" are clearly engaging in behavior which, in say a James Bond movie, I'd label a "love scene." I think that Button will cross the 100 million mark.

Does this count? Well, it's certainly a step in the right direction. In this case, if it works, then we can look at the fact that the woman involved is a mother figure (but not a Spiritual Guide: she has her own life and love, and ultimately rejects Benjamin for her own child), the black male is utterly minor (I can't even remember his name), and Button is very sexual in his own life. So then, we're left with the following rules:

1) Be a minor, supportive character guiding a white actor or actress toward sucess

2) Be servile and non-threatening

3) Be very oblique in presentation

4) Die.


Of course, there will be those who say "that's not was just a lousy movie. The audience would have been happy to see it it it had been good."

Right. And "Wild Wild West" and "Hancock" were good movies. Like "good" is what gets a movie across 100 million. It's all just coincidence. Truth is, I made a comment a while back: "if Will Smith can't get laid, Obama can't get elected." And I suspect that that's reflexive: in other words, it will work both ways, that given the right property, at the right time, the door is cracked open now, even if the opening isn't terribly wide. SOMEONE will get through it. Who? Smith? Terrance Howard? Jamie Foxx? Denzel? I don't know. But my guess is that it will happen this year, and possibly within the first six months. But please: none of this "gee, they were looking at each other with passion in their eyes...doesn't that count?" Nonsense. Nope. Two people, alone, kissing and sinking toward a bed...fade-out. Fine. Worked in old "Hitchcock" movies, and everybody understood the cinematic short-hand just fine. That's the "PG" level. We all know what the PG-13 and R-rated iterations look like. When the percentage of black-starring films having sexual content is the same as the percentage of white-starring films, and it doesn't create a negative blip at the box office or the mysterious "gee I don't know, but all the movies where black guys get laid just somehow seem terrible to me..." response, I'll know America has crossed an unconscious threshold. We're close...but not there yet.


How were your holidays, and whatcha doing for New Years?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Just got a Panasonic 42" Plasma, and noticed that video games are just FAR more immersive. Playing Grand Theft Auto IV, Resistance (I love playing Co-Op with Tananarive. The orignal Medal of Honor was about the only game I ever played all the way to the end, and that was purely switching from me to her or back every time one of us got killed.) Looking at where the games are going, I'd bet GTA will be wedded to Rock Band by the end of next year: you'll have a fully functional city with multiple career opportunities, including playing in a club.) Add photo-realism (GTA is almost there) and Sim-like ability to build your world and trade goods, services, and's probably on-line in a primitive state now. The future is looking sedentary...unless you add some Wii-action, of course.


I've actually heard of Wii-injuries. I wonder if the problem is warm-up, cool-down, the exercises themselves, or whether unfit people are just trying too hard. The phenomenon of sensory motor amnesia is a very real thing, and people can actually forget how their bodies work. Going from couch potato to exercise fiend without a stop at "Proper preparation" can lead to lotsa sprains and twists. The terrible thing is that there will be a part of you totally happy with that result. "I can't work out? Well, I tried!" and back you go to the couch. It's sad. But Wii sounds like a healthy, positive development, and I hope it grows...


The 10,000 hour threshold is a great rough measurement. If someone says they want to be a writer, I ask what they've written, and whether they're willing to spend a million words to get the crap out of their system. That's probably around 10,000.

Look, I'm not saying that there aren't some people with greater natural ability than others. What I'm saying is that the concept of "natural ability' has never seemed particularly useful to me. In fact, I've only seen it hurt people: either they don't try, or they don't practice. The people who make it tend to have an ego shell around some basic insecurity about their abilities. In other words, they are tough enough to shuck off the negative input, but insecure enough to work long and hard after others have gone home. I think that, for 99% of people, 10,000 hours would put you into the top 1% of people who approach your skill. That's not gonna make you Einstein, or Baryshnikov, or Shakespeare: but it will make you a Math professor, a fine fine dancer, or a working writer. Yes, I've met people who put in hours and never get better: but they don't listen, or they listen to the wrong people. In other words, they are practicing mistakes, and won't go to people better than they are for advice.

Big mistake. You should spend about 1/3 of your time with people better, smarter, more skilled than you in your specific area of interest. What if you're already world-class? Break the skill into its component pieces. Let's say you want to get better at archery and you're already State champion. Gonna be hard to find people to hang with who are better than you. But the component aspects of archery include, for instance, concentration and remaining utterly calm under tremendous pressure, so that you can execute extremely fine motor skills again and again with perfect precision. While you may be better than anyone within a thousand miles at archery, you can easily find experts at Zen meditation and yoga who can help you take your mind to the next level.

Only ego puts you in the "I'm so good, I don't need to listen to experts" category. Inevitably, people who think this about themselves are doing something almost entirely subjective ("I'm already a great poet, and I don't care what anyone says!") or you fish in a very small pond ("hell, I took the West Side championship in freestyle pogo-sticking...") which enables you to hide your insecurity inside the armor of ego to an unhealthy degree.

10,000 hours? I don't see how looking at that as a measurement can hurt someone. If you aren't willing to invest that much time, you aren't really interested in being good at it. It's just a dream, not a goal. Goals are worth fighting for, planning for, working for. Dreams dissolve as soon as you wake up.