Birdman (yes it’s review time again!)


This review has been a long time coming. I actually watched the film on a plane on the way to Florida, this was back in March. So why am I  talking about it now?

The thing is, it absolutely blew me away. When it ended I thought “That is just the best film ever!”. I raved about it to my wife so much that 2 weeks later she watched it on the way back. She didn’t like it though, so why did I think it was so great?

Well, there’s the obvious stuff. All the main characters are weirdly compulsive and pull you into the story, and they are brilliantly acted. It’s beautifully filmed, with that famously long continuous introductory shot. The unrelenting, hypnotic jazz percussion sound track. I think watching it on a plane helped as well. It’s an intense movie and sitting just inches from the screen and wearing headphones really helps you to get sucked right in.

Then there’s Raymond Carver.

The film revolves around the main character’s attempt to stage a Broadway play. He’s a Hollywood actor, the star of a superhero franchise (the Birdman of the title), and this is his attempt to be a ‘real’ actor. The play is his own adaptation of “What we talk about when we talk about love”, a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, who, I’m ashamed to say, I’d never heard of. The play is central to the film, the characters and their dialogue, resonating off the stage and into the actors lives.

The words of Raymond Carver hit me like a smack in the face with the complete works of William Shakespeare. The first thing I did when we got to our apartment in Orlando was to download the book and start reading. I read two of the short stories until the fact that I’d been up for nineteen hours straight finally forced me to bed. I had two thoughts before I slept: “Wow!” and “I should write a short story”.

So in a way the ultimate result of me watching the film was the short story that I just blogged about. Which is why I’m writing about it now.

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     Original Writing – Cat video Sci Fi

   

The robot had five of these snaky limbs but unlike the other four which held the robot steady as it perched on the ridge, this latest one moved around as if the robot were looking for something. Suddenly the tentacle pulled three tiles off and plunged through the roof into the attic.

“Hey!” I shouted “That’s my house. Leave it alone!”

I thought it was ignoring me but then another triangle detached from the body and came snaking all the way down the side of the house towards me. I took a nervous step back but the triangle stopped at head height about three feet away. Then to my surprise words appeared on the surface.

“Please wait…”

“What?” I said “Why? What’s going on?”

“Work in progress…”

“What work? What are you doing to my house?”

“Dry rot…”

“Dry rot? I don’t have dry rot!”

“Dry rot detected and treatment in progress. Please wait. This video will help you relax…” To my utter confusion the words were replaced by a video of a cat falling off a sofa.

“Why am I watching a video of a cat?” The video shrank to fit in the lower part of the triangle and more words appeared across the top.

“Research shows cat videos are the most popular entertainment for humans?”

“Switch it off!”

“Do you not like cats? Other animals are available…”

“Of course I like cats. I’ve got one of my own”

“Detecting cats…” Videos of cats started appearing, each one shrinking to a small triangle until the lower half of the screen was filled by cats. More words appeared across the top.

“Identify your cat…” And there he was, my rather scruffy looking black tom cat. Without thinking I leaned forward and touched the triangle. All the other cats disappeared and I was watching mine. He was sitting on a wall having a wash and ignoring the Alsatian that was going crazy in the garden below. More words appeared across the top of the screen.

“Is this your cat…”

“Yes, that’s him. He’s called Steve”

“Contact attempted with Steve. Subject was unwilling to communicate”

“That sounds about right”

——————————————————————————

This is an excerpt from a short story I wrote called “The robot that sat on my house”. I was reminded of it by a post on Charliandmeg’s blog, so decided to post a bit here.

I don’t know whether this story is finished. It could even be part of a novel, you never know.

I got the idea for this bit after I heard a song on the radio called “The Internet is made out of cats”

I think that sits in the “Strange but true!” category.

Why can’t I whistle?

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Today I learned new ways of dribbling. This was not my intention. I was trying to whistle with my fingers in my mouth, which I’ve never been able to do. So I looked it up in the Internet, found a blog called ‘The art of Manliness’ and gave it a go, but I’m not quite there yet.

I was mainly doing it because I was writing a bit where one of my characters whistles, and I wanted to be able to do it so I could describe it better. I’ve tried to teach my self other things for the same reason, sword fighting for example. These activities usually have two results: my family think I’ve gone crazy and I hurt myself. Today it’s just the dribbling, a tired mouth and a bit of dizziness.

Still can’t whistle though!

Beware Harry Potter!

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The other day my daughter’s English class were writing ghost stories and one kid wrote a story about a haunted bus. Pretty cool idea. Except loads of the other kids said “That’s just like the night bus, you’ve stolen that from Harry Potter!”. And there’s the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like the Harry Potter books, they’re inventive, exciting, wildly imaginative, which of course is why they’re so successful. The problem is they are so amazingly, almost overpoweringly, successful that it feels like they’re looming menacingly in the background when you’re trying to write a fantasy story about a teenage hero who leaves home, has adventures, goes to ‘school’,makes friends and enemies etc.

Which is what I’m doing.

The obvious answer is to write something else. There are two reasons why not. For a start I’m a teacher, and teenagers and schools are what I know, but the main reason is that this is the story I’ve got inside of me. This may sound strange but I feel like I invented this person and I’ve got them into a situation and I sort of owe it to them to get them out of it. Ed McBain said he always started writing his detective stories with a body and then went about solving the murder, I sort of feel the same way.

The fact is that when I was a kid I loved books about teenagers having adventures and this was way before Harry Potter. I particularly remember P.G.Wodehouse’s books ‘Mike and Psmith’ and ‘Tales of St. Austin’s’. Swap Cricket for Quidditch and you’re well on the way to Harry Potter right there. I loved Robert Heinlein’s books like ‘Farmer in the sky’, I read all the Swallows and Amazons books again and again, it’s only natural I suppose that those are the sort of stories that I want to tell.

You can always draw parallels between stories and it’s always hard to know where your influences come from. There are probably millions of books being written right now, all are unique in one way or another. This one is mine.

 

 

The technicalities of writing

  
Roald Dahl used to work in an old shed at the end of his garden. Patrick O’Brian wrote the Jack Aubrey series in a vineyard shelter in southern France. I write on my iPad.

Ok, so it’s not as romantic in the classical sense, but I actually love my iPad. Even before I started writing I used to carry it around the house with me, now we are rarely parted.

I use an app called Werdsmith, pictured above. I’m sure there are lots of good apps for writing but I started with this one and I’ve never had cause to look for anything else. It’s easy to use with two menus: ‘ideas’ and ‘projects’. I use ideas for just that, bits of story that don’t fit in exactly where I’m writing, ideas for short stories, descriptions of places that I might use etc. The only difference with a project is that you set a word goal. Here I have all my chapters, each with a word goal of 2500 words according to the plan (see previous post). In the menu you can see a little circle by each chapter; a tick means I have reached the word goal, otherwise it shows progress towards it. You can see that chapter thirty, that I’m working on now, is about half way there.

You can export from the app which I do by email. That way I’ve always got a back up. Plus I then take the chapters from email and put them onto one document on my laptop. 

So that’s how I work. I’m at about 75,500 words. Coming up to two years and three months. Nearly there!

Am I a psychopath?

IMG_1005  According to this test from Channel 4, I most definitely am. Of course the idea that you can give someone a questionnaire and from that identify their personality traits has been around for a long time, but I’m sceptical.
Maybe that’s because I’ve just read ‘The Psycopath Test’ by Jon Ronson. It is a well written and interesting book that starts with an intriguing mystery and turns into the author’s journey through society’s differing approaches to mental illness. And it is a real roller coaster, from LSD soaked encounter therapies in the 60s, to the checklist driven approach of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness) and the ever increasing drive to classify children’s behaviour in terms of mental illness. I recommend it to anyone, particularly if you work with kids.

The issue that worries me is that if you take normal behaviour and diagnose it as an illness then the label sticks for life. Some kids have a lot of energy and if they’re stuck in a boring classroom with a boring teacher doing something that doesn’t interest them, then that energy is going to come out, probably in a way that gets them into trouble. If you’re a naughty kid then you get the chance to shrug that label off, if you are diagnosed as bipolar you’ve got it for life.

I realise that one of those classrooms can be mine sometimes.

I’m not talking here about genuine cases, I have taught quite a few kids who were, for example, clearly autistic or dyslexic and they needed care and support. What worries me is that education is being pushed down an ever narrowing route, and that leaves less scope for kids to be themselves. If you narrow the definition of normal behaviour (and if you read the Ofsted criteria for ‘good’ behaviour you might as well write ‘traditional middle class’), then you just identify more and more people as abnormal.

Jon Ronson comes to the conclusion that you shouldn’t classify people by their extremes and I think I agree. There is no such thing as normal, unless you are talking statistics. And normal doesn’t necessarily mean better, slavery was normal in the 17th century, doesn’t mean it was a good idea.

I faked the test by the way. I’m not really a psychopath. My uncle was. He had a certificate and everything. He got it because he faked being mad and impulsive so he could get discharged from the Navy, but then that’s exactly the sort of thing a Psychopath would do isn’t it?

What’s so great about Dystopia?

   In my previous post I referred to the world of The Hunger Games as Dystopian, meaning a place that is terrifying, evil and generally not nice. It’s not the only franchise that uses such a setting, see the Maze Runner and the Divergent series to name but two. But why are we so fascinated by such a dark vision of society?

The standard answer is that while Utopia (a good and safe world) might be a nice place to bring up the kids it is actually pretty dull. We want excitement from stories and that requires danger. Our heroes and heroines need to overcome peril and defeat their enemies, preferably against the odds and in the nick of time. Fair enough.

But maybe there is more sinister reason.

Perhaps there is something in human nature that wants chaos, because chaos brings opportunity. Maybe we value ‘winning’ more than happiness, maybe what we all really want is a little bit of mayhem. I realise this is a cynical point of view but look around the world at the moment. War in Syria, terror in Europe, you’ve got to admit I’ve got a point.

Personally the thing I fear most is boredom.

Although being torn apart by a bunch of flesh eating mutants comes a close second.

Either way the message for a writer is this. Give your characters a hard time. Keep them on their toes. Put them in danger. Make your story exciting.