Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Spielberg Knows What He's Doing. You Don't.

Okay, first off, that headline is needless antagonistic. I acknowledge it. Forgive me. I'm listening to punk as I write this. It just seems to fit my mood.

Anyway, prompted by Steven Soderbergh's interesting recasting of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the other day I was daydreaming and my mind wandered to action scenes in films, specifically why some sprawling action set pieces work and some don't. The Star Wars prequels were at the forefront of my mind at the time, but it led to a train of thought that is relevant to action movies in general.

Now keep in mind, I'm a big Star Wars fan, but not one of THOSE Star Wars fans. Saw the original in a shitty little theater as a kid, blah blah blah. You know the drill. I'm also not one of those people who froth at the mouthMy point is

The second prequel, Attack of the Clones, ends with a massive battle on Geonosis that goes on for 20+ minutes and has TONS of explosions and robots and shit. It's a huge, chaotic battle that attempts to one-up the Hoth battle from The Empire Strikes Back at every turn.

It doesn't. The battle lovely, but it's also rather incoherent. The entire scene is a lengthy series of impressive looking but completely empty explosions.

This is an issue in a lot of modern movies. The action is big and loud, but there is little sense of forward motion or narrative to it. Sometimes these scenes go on for 15 minutes or more, but it's all just a jumble of sound and image.

Not EVERY modern action movie, of course. I'm not an old fuddy duddy. The action scenes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example, are well-staged, dynamic, and actually have a sense of narrative and physical space that is easy to follow. Love the car chase with Nick Fury:

Winter Soldier stood out, though, because it got action right when so many modern action flicks confuse cacophony for excitement. Have you SEEN the Transformers movies? Or hell, any post-Saving Private Ryan war film. Throw in enough shaky cam, fast cuts, and closeups, and no one can tell that your action scene doesn't have an interesting through-line because you beat their senses half to death.

Spielberg, however ... this guy understands that actions scenes are in and of themselves little stories, and the ones that work best have tight, impeccable visuals.

The opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan is rightly hailed as one of the greatest feats in cinema history. On the surface, it's 20+ minutes of bullets, explosions, and torn up limbs. It's relentless. An assault on the sense that more than a few filmgoers (including this one) found overwhelming.

Spielberg makes it work, though, because it tells a story. MANY stories, in fact. The core of the sequence is, of course, Hanks getting off the boat, up the beach, and leading his men to take the bunkers. There is a narrative that runs through all that hectic action, and one you can easily follow. Hanks goes through a clear journey over the course of this extended sequence.

But there is more. In a big battle scene like that, you want to cut away to other moments in order to show the scale of what's happening. You see this is almost all big action set pieces like this. Show this thing blowing up, show those people dying, show that amazing sight. What Spielberg does, though, is ensure every one of those little cutaways tells a miniature, self-contained story. Look close at the seeming chaos of that Saving Private Ryan scene and you'll notice that the "chaos" is all actually a series of focused moments, each intended to say something:

  • The doctor checking over a row of bodies and giving his assessment.
  • The guy who gets saved by his helmet, only to be shot a moment later
  • Burning the Germans out of the bunkers and then deciding to let them burn.

And so on.

These are small narrative moments that punctuate the action in meaningful ways. You come away not having seen an overwhelming series of explosions, but an actual narrative that fits together as a series of important moments that can be clearly followed.

That Attack of the Clones sequence, meanwhile, is an excuse to show off lots of badass CGI and cool robot designs, but can you spot the narrative in it? Can you remember any specific moments?

Spielberg is a storyteller first and foremost. Even in his most audacious, self-indulgent moments, he's laser-focused on sending the audience on a journey, and he does so in a way that generally needs no trickery or hand-holding. All that sprawl and spectacle has something to SAY. And because of that, it works.

I guess that's he is Spielberg and Bay is Bay.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The power of music is astonishing

I love the power of music. Sometimes I'm astonished by it.

For a few years now, my son's favorite song has been Against Me!'s cover of "Here Comes A Regular" by The Replacements. It is, admittedly, a fantastic rendition. Check it out:

Thing is, it's a sad dirge about aging alone in a small, shitty town and finding your only solace in a small, shitty bar. Here are the lyrics.

My son is a teenager. He does not live in a small shitty town. He does not drink (and yes, smart guy, I'm sure of it). He is not a weary middle-aged man wondering where his life went. He should not relate to this.

But it stirs something in him all the same. He takes his own thing from it, he weaves it into his own life, and it means something to him, and it strikes a chord in him, and it's powerful to him. He CONNECTS with it through the sheer power of music.

I've had the same experience with many songs over the years. Songs that connected with me despite being the furthest possible thing to my own experiences or emotions or feelings. Songs that can make you feel sad when you are happy, or that can make you dance when you're feeling lazy, or that can make you pine for yesterday's you've never actually experienced.

I love that music is capable of this sort of thing.

I love music.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Saving Private Ryan on the 70th Anniversary of D-Day

Watched Saving Private Ryan in honor of the 70th anniversary of D-Day yesterday.

I still remember when I first saw this in the theater. I live in a retirement area with a huge senior population.When we went to see this the theater was full, and it was a sea of white heads in every aisle. My wife and I were some of the only young people there.

It was harrowing. That opening sequence, no one had ever done anything like it before. For 20 minutes you're assaulted with graphic violence and noise and fury that relentlessly pounded your senses. By the end of the sequence, you were out of breath and tired of being battered and just wishing for a break from the sensory overload. The result was that for the rest of the movie, any time gunfire started you went right back to that same feeling again. You began to dread war scenes.

But far more difficult to endure was the audience. Grown men, strong old guys with bones tough as old oak, sobbing all around us. Sobbing because so many of them were there, had fought in the war, had seen friends die and had taken lives themselves, and because they had never before seen the reality of what they went through brought to life in this way before.

It was a hard thing.

And then later, watching it at home for the first time, alone in the bedroom as I watched, and weeping as the medic bled out, calling for his mother and wishing he could go home, and wondering why the hell I was watching this again.

Saving Private Ryan doesn't have the visceral impact it used to. Too many movies have cribbed from it in the nearly 15 years since it was released. The dizzying way Spielberg filmed combat now borders on being a cliche. Plus, multiple viewings over the years have softened its impact.

But damn if it isn't still a great movie with some truly moving moments. The opening sequence no longer leaves me exhausted and begging for it to be over, but the film itself retains its strange sense of breathless claustrophobia despite the predominantly outdoor settings. It still shakes. It still moves. It still reminds us about the sacrifices made all those decades ago.

It's a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, really, a spectacle you can't look away from. It's not without its flaws, but it's still one of the few war movies that dazzles without ever feeling like entertainment. When you watch this, you're not merely getting adventure. It's bigger than that. It's a war movie that never feels heroic. It kind of makes you feel small.

And sometimes that's a good thing.

Monday, June 02, 2014

m2 - we finally made it (2014)

I have a big backlog of music right now. Just haven't had the time or inspiration or whatever to "release" it. Not because I don't feel like it's worthy. Hell, I've been dying to get some of this out there! I've just had stuff going on.

Managed to muster up the energy for one here, though. This one is unofficially dedicated to my buddy Cary, a great writer you haven't heard of yet but will soon enough. Recorded this by accident, listened, liked, refined, and the end result is the longest single piece I've ever done. For me, at least, it's a little bit of audio bliss. Enjoy.

we finally made it

all songs (c) Eric San Juan 2014
drop me a note to use this music; permission is usually gladly granted

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why Nirvana Was Important (To Me)

There is a segment of music fandom that say Nirvana is overrated. They're probably not wrong. The band got catapulted into sainthood on the strength of a small catalog, albeit a pretty great one, and a metric ton of media hype. Their status as deities is perhaps overblown, even if they were briefly great.

Still, some among the naysayers also say they don't get why people connected with Cobain. They say his lyrics were mostly strung together nonsense (true) and his songs were simple rips on Pixies and Beatles melodies (also true).

So why the hell did anyone connect with this junkie?

For me, I can point to two small music moments that exemplify what it was that bored under my skin.

The first was from a throwaway song not released until after Cobain's death, a tune that may have gone nowhere if not for his suicide. The moment starts at about 1:55, and is attached to these lyrics: "Things have never been so swell / I have never failed to feel" (though I used to hear the second line as "I have never felt this well"). But it's not what he is saying, it's how he says it. Listen to the delivery:

The incongruity between the lyrics and the delivery, the unspoken yet completely realized cry for help, is something a lot of us felt during that time, especially if you were of a certain age range. He's saying, "I'm pretending everything is fine and HOLY SHIT it hurts so damn bad to pretend everything is swell when it's really NOT."

Typical teenage shit? Perhaps. But it resonated. Though it was released after his death, that moment showcases the emotion a lot of us heard and felt in a much of Cobain's music.

The other moment came from Nirvana's stunning unplugged performance, a somber, meditative set that probably did more than anything else to solidify the band's legend. Stripped down, you saw the songs as songs and his voice as a voice. No noise, no fire, just a guy and a guitar. And it was lovely. THE moment, though, starts at 3:44 in the below video and builds with wonderful emotion until the ugly, dirty, broken climax at 4:58, the vocal tear at 5:00, and especially the crazed look at 5:07, plus the long, slow wind down from that emotional high. Maybe more than anything, this captures what we were drawn to:

This is really, for me, THE Nirvana moment. You either get it or you don't. Nothing I can say or write can make it click. That's not a cop out, it's the truth.

If you've ever wondered what the draw it, THAT is the draw. And if you still don't understand, then all due respect, but you probably never will. Nothing wrong with that, either. Just sayin'.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Trick to Writing Great Conversations

The trick to writing great conversations is dear god how the hell am I supposed to know? Who COULD know?

Seriously, do you understand how hard it is to pen dialogue that sounds real and natural but that also gets across the information you need to get across?

'Cause that's the thing, really. In a book or a short story or comic or whatever, dialogue isn't merely people talking. It has to get across information. That information may be characterization or character history or plot details or exposition or mood or a million other things, but the point is that dialogue should be there for a reason.

Yet at the same time, it should feel perfectly natural. Perfectly real. Perfectly alive. Otherwise readers will cry "FAKE!" and be pulled out of your story.

How do you do that?

If there was some easy writing shortcut I'd have mastered the art long ago, and so would thousands of other writers. Fact is, dialogue is a fuzzy weird not-quite-science you have to do on "feel." It takes practice to be able to make it work on a consistent basis. It's a writing muscle, really.

You can flex that muscle and make it stronger, though.

Once in a while, I like to do something like this: I think of two or three or four varied and different people. I put them in a room together with a vague purpose or, more commonly, with a weird hook to get a conversation started. For example:

Priest with guilt about recently seeing an escort/call girl, stereotypical soccer mom with a pill problem, and a terribly shy 17-year-old kid who is also high are the only passengers in a bus that has just run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. The driver just left to walk to the nearest gas station an hour away.


Get it? You have to crawl into all three heads and just let fly.

But not really.

If you're telling a story, you can't actually do that. Every word counts. Real conversations are rambling and stupid. So you write these people chatting it up, then you slice it to ribbons in order to get it down to the point and to advance the story the way it needs to be advanced. It may take draft after draft after draft after draft, with each draft involving changes of a single line or even a single word each time.

But that's how you boil it down to perfection.

Writing real, good, true dialogue that crackles but that also serves its purpose is HARD. But it's worth it.

If you want, take my writing prompt above and give me a few lines in the comments. If I get a few, I'll do my version in a future post and we'll talk writing!

Monday, November 18, 2013

This book about Breaking Bad is out.

So hey, check it out. Breaking Down Breaking Bad: Unpeeling the Layers of Television's Greatest Drama is available for purchase and stuff.

It's from me, so that's kind of cool. It's available for Kindle and Kindle-friendly devices such as iPads and iPhones, as well as in a print edition. It's totally affordable, too. Impulse buy!

This book began as a germ of an idea about a year or so ago, but it wasn't an idea I took very seriously at first. Too much on my plate at the time, dealing with too many other things, juggling too many other projects.

But in the run up to the show's final eight episodes, my fever for all things Breaking Bad reached ridiculous proportions. I spent an absurd amount of time digging into what made this show special with friends like Rick Lundeen (who did that killer cover illustration) and others. And as I chatted up anyone willing to listen, I took notes. Lots and lots of notes. Lots and lots and lots of notes.

Those notes became the seeds of this book. It ain't no collection of random thoughts, though. It's a full-on, real-deal, 20-chapter exploration of the entire show from episode one to the finale, diving into the characters, moments, and motivations that kept us glued to the TV for six years. My goal was to take what I learned during the writing of A Year of Hitchcock and Hitchcock's Villains, combine it with my enthusiasm for the show, and use it to create a book worth reading. I'm pretty proud of it. Hope you enjoy. Check it out on Amazon at this link.

Monday, October 14, 2013

I have recorded 15 years of noisy, droning, m2 music

 For 15 years, I have recorded noisy, droning music under the name m2.

Okay, it's actually been longer than that. Recording music of this sort long pre-dated the m2 project. It even pre-dated owning a four-track recorder. I used to own one of those old twin-deck cassette stereos with a turntable on top. One day I discovered that if you plugged headphones into the mic jack and dubbed a tape from one deck to the other, you could kinda sorta play with the tape and have it record layers on top of one another. It was messy and ugly, but it worked. You could layer music.

So I promptly took a cassette I had -- I remember what it was, too; a dub of R.E.M. with "Green" on one side and "Document" on the other -- and recorded 45 minutes of guitar feedback. Then I did it again. And again. And again. All on the same tape. Probably five or six times. Each time layered along with the other layer. Each time the tape was more worn and distorted, but sure enough the sounds laid on top of one another and I ended up with an epic blanket of sonic bliss.

I lost that tape many years ago.

And I sure do regret it.

But it tells you where my mind was all those years ago. Even before I discovered bands like Flying Saucer Attack, Azusa Plane, Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and others,. I had a thirst for music that sort of filled up the room with sound yet lacked the hooks and form and structure that defined traditional rock music. So I recorded it myself.

It came to a head in 1998, when I released from seven fields of vision. I figured no one would ever like this junk (and I remain mostly right), but I did it for me, so I was pleasantly surprised when some college station in Phoenix picked it up and a few scattered positive comments came in. Cool!

Nonetheless, I put the project on the backburner. For nine years. Sure, I recorded, but didn't think much of it or do anything with it. Then, in 2007, during a difficult time, all this stuff poured out of me and I posted eight times alone to the Internet. The record was cathartic. It might sound like noise to you, but for me it was pure release. Those songs mean something to me.

It kickstarted something.

Since then, I have regularly plugged in my guitar (LOUD) and recorded ugly soundscapes of overloaded guitar when I have something to get out of my system. For me, records like Dying Mother and Ashes and The Endless Twelve actually mean something to me. I know few people listen. Some do. It may be surprising to learn that there are a few hundred dedicated downloaders for each record (and THANK YOU!), but that's not why I do it.

It has been 15 years this year since I put a name on it. I expect I'll be doing it for 15 more.