Archive for August, 2013

A most unusual horror film

Monday, August 26th, 2013

John Frankenheimer’s cult masterpiece “Seconds” just came out on Criterion Blu-ray and it’s even more disturbing than when it was released almost 50 years ago in 1966. Especially if you’re close to the age of the picture itself.

I remember seeing this picture on television probably around the time I was in college because the first screenplay I ever wrote for a film course was heavily influenced by it.

But first, the plot. A bored, middle-aged Wall Street banker, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), is slipped a business address on a piece of paper before boarding a commuter train at Penn Station for his Scarsdale home. His job is numbingly dull, his marriage is devoid of any passion, his daughter is gone off on her own life, and his life is… lifeless. A call from someone claiming to be a close friend from the past eggs him on to go to the address, but how does this complete stranger’s voice know so much about him?

Curiosity piqued, he goes to the address; a cleaners, where he’s shuffled into the back of a truck and taken to a meat-packing plant, and then to a secret business location. It’s revealed this company offers life do-overs or “seconds” to high-paying customers. They substitute a corpse for your ‘untimely death’ in a fire or car crash, perform complete reconstructive plastic surgery and physical conditioning, and then set you up in a completely new life direction that you may have always regretted not pursuing.

And, just to make sure you keep your mouth shut about a business that requires secrecy (and as a surefire deal closer) they drug you and shoot staged blackmail footage of you in a compromising or criminal situation.

A gruesome operation, grueling physical therapy, dyed hair, and months later you come out looking like Rock Hudson, are a successful but unknown painter, and live in a house on the beach in Malibu among the hedonistic and hard-partying California set. What’s not to like? You’ve had your ‘seconds.’

But, of course, no one changed your brain or your mind or the way you think, and you are haunted by your former life, and these new ‘friends’ seem just as phony as you are, and when you get overly drunk at a party and start blabbing information about your former life, those new ‘friends’ are not so friendly because your loose tongue is jeopardizing all of their ‘second’ chances.

And when you go AWOL back to your old town and try to see the woman you were married to for 20 years who has no way of recognizing you, but painfully reveals the depressing truths of a passionless relationship to a veritable stranger, it’s like being a witness to your own worst funeral. What happens next when Arthur decides he wants a ‘third’ chance completes the ultimate horror.

It’s a shockingly powerful and apocryphal tale that completely subverts what so many people bored with their lives think would happen if they had a second chance. The black & white photography, framing and camerawork by Oscar winner James Wong Howe are bizarrely unnerving, and the ending is as disturbing as anything you will ever see in film.

I don’t know why this film resonated so powerfully and horrifyingly to me as a kid. I think it must have been shocking for a suburban kid to see the main character who had everything we were taught in America to cherish; plenty of money, a nice family, and a beautiful home in the suburbs… be so desperately empty. And even when he gets a second chance with a new face and as a painter, he’s still stuck suddenly longing for his old life. Maybe it’s the ultimate ‘grass is always greener’ story, that is revealed as an inevitable nightmare.

The first screenplay I ever wrote (at 18) influenced by this tale was called “Pay the Devil His Do,” about a bored school teacher with disrespectful students, who makes a deal with the Devil. In a twist, the Devil is a Calvinist, who believes in predestination, so he doesn’t have to buy souls since you are either pre-destined to go to heaven or hell. But he will commission people to speed up the fate of those who are destined to go to hell. The teacher, ‘Arthur Banks,’ commits one of these deeds, and his wish is to go on live national television and give a speech that shakes the rafters and wakes everyone up and tries to stir their souls into more passionate living. It’s the typically amateurish and overly philosophical tale every first-time screenwriter tries (and as a professor of screenwriting, I read hundreds of them). The speech was almost entirely the thrust of Howard Beale’s “Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” rant from Paddy Chayefsky’s classic “Network,” though not nearly as beautifully written. It was written a couple years before “Network,” though, and it was inspired by the frustrating horror of “Seconds.”

(Later, in Hollywood, I was commissioned to write a screenplay called “The Donor,” where the brain of a rich old dying guy is transplanted into the body of a young stud basketball player. That one didn’t work out so well, either.)

I guess the obvious moral to these tales is to live the one life you have with all the gusto possible and without any regrets, but that’s sometimes easier said than done. I consider myself lucky I got this heads up message early enough in my own development to boldly go for the ‘artist living and partying in California’ life soon after college. But I feel even luckier that I got that life out of my system first, and ultimately found myself happier back in the quiet comfortable suburbs with a nice family, where Arthur had begun (only he had no real perspective to appreciate it). He also didn’t have the luxury of pursuing alternative lives through the craft of writing and the characters we can create in our heads and in our stories. It’s a hell of a lot safer. And you don’t have to make a deal with the Devil to do it.

– A. Wayne Carter

The Facebook Funk

Monday, August 19th, 2013

 

What we always suspected has now been confirmed by a university study – Facebook actually depresses people. Frankly, I was completely depressed when I saw in the news that the first thing the abducted teenage girl did when she was returned home after her mother and son were murdered by her kidnapper and he was gunned down by the FBI, was to go on Facebook to answer questions from her “Friends.” Is this how we now process grief in America, by giving a virtual press conference on matters most personal? I’d argue that nothing gets processed virtually except the shallowest aspects of one’s own ego, need for attention, or vanity.

The study, conducted through the University of Michigan by psychologist Ethan Kross not only revealed that a person’s mood fluctuated depending on their Facebook usage, but that, “the more you used Facebook, the more your mood dropped.”

Is that really any surprise when you consider this form of social media is used more like a depository of bragging rights for the computer literate suburban set, just as rap music is used for the urban street? But instead of bragging about how many bitches, bling, BMWs, size of your crib, or members in your ‘posse’… it’s children or grandchildren, career or scholastic achievements, bling, size of your crib, and members in your posse, otherwise known as “friends.” When you base your self-image or life on comparison of material possessions, number of friends, and where you career is on the food chain like it’s some kind of scorecard, it’s no wonder most people become depressed. Remember, there’s only 1 percent in the 1 percent, and even if you consider yourself lucky or privileged enough to fall into that category, there’s always someone within the 1 percent who’s going to be doing better than you are.

Wouldn’t it be an amazing leap in evolution if we measured success in terms of emotional balance, empathy, conscientiousness and selflessness? But than those qualities, too, would somehow turn into a game of one-upmanship, as well. There would be a competition to see who gave the most to a charity, or volunteered the most, or gave the most humble acceptance speech at a humanitarian award ceremony. Our Hollywood ‘royalty’ already plays this game.

But as long as we measure anything or buy into such comparisons, we put our self-image into play. Dr. Thomas Harris once authored a national bestseller, called, “I’m OK, You’re OK,” yet Facebook fosters a paradigm shift that promotes “Look at how much better I’m doing than you, but I hope you’re still okay with that and will ‘Friend me.’”

I hate to break it to people running up their ‘friends’ score, but that’s not how ‘real’ friends roll.

According to the study, Facebook users wound up feeling worse about themselves after two weeks, and their moment to moment-mood-darkened the more they browsed the social medium, no matter how large their network was, or how supportive they thought their ‘friends’ were.

The fact that businesses and corporations now feel compelled to have Facebook pages only serves to emphasize even more obviously that Facebook is used more to promote, than to actually connect.

Eventually – and there’s evidence it’s already happening as people drop off or move on – Facebook will fade away and some other new-fangled way to ‘keep in touch’ or ‘connect’ will emerge.

There’s this thing called the telephone where you can talk to people live, actually hear the context or sincerity in which they are saying something, and have a real give and take conversation, where, hopefully, you listen as much as you talk.

I hear it’s a fantastic device to lift a friend’s spirits when they are depressed. Just try not to brag that you thought of calling first.

– A. Wayne Carter

(And I’m hereby vowing to call at least one long distance friend per week as penance for writing this blog)

Summer Reading Round Up

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

 

Joyland by Stephen King

A better title might be “Summer of ’73.” Stephen King’s jaunt into crime pulp fiction has a hauntingly familiar theme about a writer who nostalgically remembers back to a summer in his youth when he lost his virginity to an older woman, whose husband was recently killed in the war. That’s right, it’s “Summer of ‘42” re-do, but the war is now Vietnam, and the setting is an amusement park on the coast of South Carolina instead of the coast of Long Island or wherever that beach town was where our hero Hermy lost his. (Ironically, the film “Summer of ‘42” came out in 1971 shortly before the events of this novel). I happen to love crime pulp fiction, plus stories about carnies, so I give the Big Bang plot a pass and applaud King’s tremendous restraint here. This book’s a mere 287 pages, whereas most of his recent novels are short stories padded with another 700 pages of unnecessary exposition, lately. You can read this one by the time the hoister (Ferris Wheel) comes back down and dumps you and the other rubes back off again into the Midway.

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall

If you subscribe to the belief that television is now the place where great characters dwell (unlike feature’s addiction to comic book heroes), and also, thanks to “The Sopranos,” that the protagonist in a TV series no longer has to be like you or even likeable, then this is the book for celebrating the true age of writers ruling television: Vince Gilligan (photo top with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul) with “Breaking Bad;” David Chase with “The Sopranos;” David Milch with “Deadwood:” David Simon with “The Wire.” The shows covered in this book look like they were cribbed directly off my DVR viewing queue for the past decade. Of course, all of television’s dramatic show runners are now trying to follow this formula of morally questionable lead characters (who is Ray Donovan but a thinly-veiled West Coast version of Tony) but it all started with James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano: a brute and a killer, but a man who also suffered the slings and arrows and disrespect of trying to be a regular family man with a ‘real nagging housewife of New Jersey,’ and two rebellious teenagers whining him down to size.

The Unwinding by George Packer

Here’s your more serious read for the summer – a documentation of the last 40 years of America and its decline through the stories of several real life characters from the depths of Youngstown, Ohio projects to the heights of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. This is territory the great Studs Terkel used to mine so well, and it’s a beautifully written and worthy successor to his theme volumes (such as “The American Dream,” or “The Great War”). Packer doesn’t so much re-create his subjects’ dialogue in interviews as Terkel used to do, but instead encapsulates their stories in finely woven and succinct updates that alternate throughout the volume. Expect to see this one on Pulitzer or National Book Award lists at the end of the year. Equal parts depressing and uplifting, perhaps no book this year will give you a better sense of what we’ve been through and the toll it’s taken, but also one that showcases the spirit that might just drag us out of the mire and wind us back up.

Stop Feeling Lazy: How to Break the Procrastination Cycle Once & For All and Excel by Carol Look

Okay, I admit to a bit of procrastination getting around to reviewing a book that was sent to me:

I don’t really consider myself a procrastinator, at least not for work. Early on during my school years I learned that the sooner you got your work done, the sooner you can play, while all the other kids were waiting until the last minute stressing over their projects. I carried that attitude, for the most part, into my adult working life. But, as the basic dynamics of parenthood would have it, my 16 year-old son is one of those who puts homework assignments and projects and trumpet practice off until the last possible moment before getting around to it. It drives me nuts. But that’s the point, since being a teenager is all about establishing your own identity and driving your parents nuts. And, the process doesn’t seem to stress him out at all. He knows he’ll get to it, and that’s all he needs. You can’t force your will upon a teenager without it biting you back, so if he doesn’t see it as a problem, I will learn to accept that it’s not a problem.

But, as the writer of this book points out, if it IS a problem – if it does affect your productivity, you financial situation, your stress level or your happiness, then why not do something about it?

The surprise to me was finding out the technique advocated in the book was Meridian Tapping. I had experienced this form of therapy before during grief counseling after my mother died, but here it was tapping me in the face again in a book on procrastination. Meridian Tapping, for the uninitiated, works on the flow of vital energy, or as the Chinese term it, ‘chi,’ through your body and how to keep it from getting blocked or stagnating. Anyone who practices or believes in yoga, meditation, acupuncture or acupressure should be familiar with the concept. Tapping is a gentle form of acupressure for various meridian points on your face, torso, or head that seek to open up or keep open the flow of that energy while you are also ‘meditating’ or focusing on a desired goal or thought. You are stating the problem and also the emotional state you wish to be in to overcome that problem while you do the tapping. I’ve seen the value of this with the practice of “I Ching,” where you toss coins while focusing on an issue in your life that you want resolution for, and then read a proverb relating to that alignment of coins. These techniques are really just forms of forcing you to intensely focus on what you want to resolve, and to apply your own consciousness through these conflict-resolving meditative techniques to bring you a solution. It’s not as far out mystical eastern hooey phooey as you might imagine. And the surest way to test whether something’s whack or not is to at least give it a try.

You don’t need to be a procrastinator to enjoy the potential benefits of Carol Look’s book. Personally, I used the tapping to focus on overcoming any projected anxiety over the unknown variables in my life; to stop worrying about them so much, and to reinforce that I am a basically grounded individual with reservoirs of talent that can bring me unlimited financial and emotional happiness. Simple, right? What do YOU want to accomplish? Why not pick up this book –  it’s a mere 71 pages – and apply the simple tapping techniques to see if they resolve any blockages or stagnation you are experiencing, or to achieve any outcome you are desiring. What can it hurt, right? Just be careful and not too hard or you might tap yourself silly.

– A. Wayne Carter