The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, August 22, 2008

An Oddly Perfect Film

The real point of the "One Step Down" idea is twofold:

1) To encourage writers to read at the highest level possible. Too many aspiring writers neglect their reading, and suffer as a result.

2) To encourage writers to connect with their own lives as deeply as possible. You will be limited by the quality of your perceptions--YOUR perceptions--of the world. If your understanding of life is filtered through the words of other writers and philosophers, regardless of their skills, you are missing the point. What you really have to offer the world is an original vision, based in an honest assessment of your own existence. All else is just borrowing someone else's life and ideas.


Saw "Pineapple Express" last night. Reminded me of a Cheech and Chong movie, and not in the best of ways. There was a lack of sharpness there that made me suspect a LOT of pot was being smoked during script development. But then, it might well have been aimed at an eventual home audience that would be chiefin' their lungs out, and howling deliriously. I'd kinda hoped for a pothead "Midnight Run" but nope. Basically, we have James Franco and Seth Rogen as a pair of pothead slackers, one of whom witnesses a murder. And, we're off. That's basically all there is to the movie, and illogic abounds, while there actually is an easy amiability to the whole thing, and Franco actually seems committed to the part. Rather liked his Dealer character. Grade: C. If you're high, bump that up to a B+, probably. But then again, enough pot would make Ewe Boll look like Tarantino.


On the other hand, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada", starring Tommy Lee Jones, is just superb. Released a couple of years ago, I've had a screener of this sitting around the house for months, and just never popped it in. It deals with concepts of justice, love, friendship, sex...death, illusion, and redemption. And the title says it all. A man is killed, and another man struggles to give him a good burial. That's it. Filled with sharp, small, crystalline observances of life along the border, "Three Burials" features another brilliant performance by Jones, and is an oddly perfect film. An "A."


Anonymous said...

Where do you present the "One Step Down" idea? It sounds interesting, but I can't find where you talk about it in your blog.

Pagan Topologist said...

I think the link is:

Steve Perry said...

Me, I'm not so sure about this one.

Sometimes, a so-so idea can get picked up and carried across the goal line by somebody who has the talent and skill.

Usually books are better than the movies made from them. Godfather wasn't.

Men in Black was a so-so comic book. The movie was way better and more fun.

I will agree that the further away you get from the sun source, the dimmer the light is apt to be usually, but that isn't always the case.

If all you read is science fiction and that's what you write, chances are you are apt to miss some great lessons from other literature. But any such rule has got to be qualified pretty well with that old "Well, generally ..." appellation ...

Bennett said...

I think the notion of input from other artistic sources is multifaceted. On the one hand you're looking at technique--and if you've never seen great technique, you're a lot less likely to just up and develop it.

Then there's subject and verve and whatnot. That's a place where you can really surpass the 'original' (which was itself just a recombination of things the first guy or gal saw in life or art).

Take Tarantino, for example. He's seen a whole bunch of godawful B movies in his time (and some serious masterworks, for technique), and spins that straw into gold. A synthesis of great work for studying the craft, and anything he can pack in for subject, theme, etc.

Incidentally, I'm quite sure there's not a human being on earth who could metabolize enough drugs to make Uwe Boll's work appear competent. Maybe he's an example of someone who /just/ watched the crap movies and spun that straw into... more straw.

Angie said...

I think the whole point is to accumulate as much data, as much raw material, as possible. When you get down to it, all creative producers are making collages or mosaics -- we take bits and pieces of what we experienced and put them together in a new and creative way, hopefully in such a way as to provide a new thought or some insight or at least some fairly original entertainment. Limiting your experiences is like trying to make collages with only pictures from one magazine, or mosaics with only blue glass.

When I was working in the computer gaming industry, newbies would ask what they should major in at college and were told invariably, "Anything except computer programming." I've heard similar answers given to aspiring writers asking the same question -- "Anything except English Lit or Creative Writing."

The idea is that you'll learn to write by writing, and you'll learn to program by programming (and there, so many companies use proprietary languages anyway that no matter what you study for your degree, you'll have to learn something fresh when you get a job anyway). While you're in college, though, you should take the opportunity to learn something you can write (or design) about.

Writers who read only within their genre are similarly limiting themselves. Writers who read only fiction, or only non-fiction which they specifically need for their next fiction project, are again limiting themselves.

The best collage artists work with a wide variety of materials, from a wide variety of sources. Whether you're taking classes or reading or going out and doing things, it's all going to provide bits for the mosaic, and the wider you range, the more material you'll have to choose from next time you sit down to create.


Michael Canfield said...

Off topic: New color scheme is easy on the eyes. Nice.
On topic: Three Burials ... great. Like an undiscovered early 70's masterpiece.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

This splits into two topics-- derivative works (including sequels), and artists' backgrounds. The latter is much more important.

What was Tarantino watching, reading, and so on? Was it just B movies, or was it all sorts of stuff?

I recommend Sparks of Genius by Scott and Michele Root-Bernstein-- it looks at various aspects of high quality thought from geniuses in art and science. The range of possibility is amazing, but what brought this book to mind was an earlier discovery that scientists who make major discoveries are apt to have worked in more than one specialty and (iirc) been faced with solving practical problems.

Steve Perry said...

I'll agree that life experience is crucial if you want to keep telling stories. A lot of us have a book in us, but having more than one is apt to be aided by having done things that shine a light on the human experience.

Been there, did that, here's what I learned.

And I'll go with the notion that a catholic education is more apt to provide a good base for artists -- generally. Knowledge is power for writer -- and this can be knowing who to ask or where to find it.
If you are trying to present the ring of truth so a reader can hear it, it helps if you believe what you are saying -- it rests between the lines even if you don't baldly state it.

That said, the way one gains experience can be varied. I don't believe you have to have been steeped in the best literature to write a good book; nor have to have seen all the great movies to do a good script. Probably doesn't hurt if you have, but:

Form follows function, and what you bring to a project isn't just what you've read or seen, but who you are.

Most people can tell a story. But the devil is in the details.

If Puzo's Godfather was the original, and the first movie was better, and the second (written by Coppola) better than the first, then the theory that the further away you get from the source, the more diluted the stream, isn't exactly true.

In fact, given the number of sequels that are better than the originals in movieland, you might be able to make the counter-argument ...

Mike R said...

My shameful secret:

I did not like the Godfather. Or the Godfather II. (Never seen III.)

Didn't care for them, did not think they were good cinema, or interesting stories.

There is a great scene in "Family Guy" where Peter says the exact same thing, and pretty much gets the reaction that I've gotten when I've told people I did not like the Godfather;

Steven Barnes said...

I wasn't talking about sequels, or translations. I'm talking about the general quality of input in the artist's life. That great comic book artists study not comic books, but great art. That great science fiction novelists know not just SF, but literature, and science. That the primary input for performance should be aimed at least one level "up" from whatever your goal is. Now, that said, while there are levels of preparation that can, I believe, reliably create COMPETENT art at a professional level, "greatness" is something else. I believe that that is created by a unique and abnormally clear view of the human condition. The artist then takes his skills and molds pieces that reflect what she sees and feels about life. Tarantino's ability to do this with B movie tropes is a case in point--no one would suggest that steeping yourself in B movies is the way to build an artistic reputation. It works for him, in the same way that boxing with his hands down worked for Ali. There, you see genius at work. And genius is beyond anyone's ability to teach--so far.