Chimera Song Mosaic
Saturday, October 04, 2003
Consumerism, Screenwriting, Students, Parasites, Proboscis, & Poetry

In the midst of every other thing that has been going on in my life, I suddenly realized this morning that there are blogs out there--friends' blogs, poets' blogs, my blog--and that I have been neglecting them. I once was obsessive about my blog (hey, I once was obsessive about writing), but now I have turned my focus to something else entirely--something equally primitive and emotionally draining: home buying.

I am in the process (the beginning) of something that is deemed extremely stressful, fulfilling, and the epitome of consumerism. Of course, I am really excited about it, but it is very disruptive: I woke up early this morning in a panic: What is a utility easement, and how does it affect my yard? But I don't think that ultimately, whenever this deal goes through, if it does, that I will experience an extreme degree of buyer's remorse. I know this builder is a good one, and the same home in Houston would cost half again the price here in the Valley; in Austin, the same home is double or even triple the price.

And it's going to be a new home. My handpicked colors, flooring, plan, etc. Everything matches in the way my life never has.

And then sometimes I think, what am I doing? How could I possibly have it all, so to speak? I have a full time job that is labor-intensive, I am a writer, I am actively attempting to continue my education, and now I want to play homemaker. The implication is, of course, children. I can't possibly do all these things. I don't like to operate on full throttle. I need to get rid of the job--the thing I love least. But then that increases my dependency on others.

This semester, I am taking a screenwriting class from Kim Henkel, the co-creator of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (Kim just showed the class last Monday the stylish trailer and poster for the film, which will be released in October, and I encourage everyone to go to it so that Kim will see some returns for his primary effort.) The class has been fascinating. I have wanted to write about it, but haven't so far.

The thing that first fascinated me about screenwriting (beyond the general obsession with movies) is the language of it--the precision of qualifying imagination. Screenplays are fairly sparse in their stage direction, provide limited direction to actors, camera people, and directors, and are above all an unfinished product. Unlike stories, which are a finished product, screenplays only provide a blueprint of genius; it is up to the talents of the various individuals--the aforementioned ones but also the makeup people, special effects, sound, costume directors, and more--to create the whole. This is a collaborative effort seldom seen in novel-writing (the exception is the author/editor relationship and almost never in story writing and never--no, almost never--seen in that genre of genres (at least to my way of thinking), poetry.

So those involved in the production of screenplays are old school Hollywood superstitious: a screenplay must be typed in Courier New font--so as to resemble the pages produced by the slow, meticulous, unforgiving, and brooding typewriter. A screenplay must capitalize sparingly--only the sounds produced separate from the dialogue track and the first appearance of a character and the character's name as it appears above his or her lines (centered on the page for easy reference). This format makes things easy for the casting director, the sound person, and the actor.

As a teacher, this reminds me of MLA (Modern Language Association) format, which dictates to students the use and size of fonts, margins, and spacing. They balk at this, of course, preferring to personalize their papers--perhaps because of personal aesthetic or because of a need to distract from the paper's poor or unoriginal content. I can appreciate the conformity of all this; the words and ideas should provide the genius and intricacies--not the fancy colors or curlicues.

Hollywood has a great demand for conformity. On the surface, at a glance, it appears that we all have the same ideas. It could also serve to undermine the role of the screenwriter, which we'll get into later of course.

Something else that goes along with this totalitarian perspective of Hollywood is the removal of the Paramount Laws, which enabled studios to create monopolies of kinds--the same corporation can now own production and distribution. This is significant because the theatres owned by the studios will show their films (and a smattering of others owned by other big-name conglomerates) and have little incentive to create more competition for themselves by offering alternatives. The same corporations (like AOL/Time Warner, for example) own the magazines that promote the films, the theme-park rides, and the video distribution centers (I knew their was something funny about Blockbuster).

In this atmosphere of rigidity, alternatives may thrive because they have a norm to struggle against. However, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to screen these alternatives (although there are more and more independent festivals, the number of alternative film venues are shrinking, even in big cities).

This news is disheartening for independent film makers, but it also comforts me because now I don't have to believe that American film viewers have extremely bad and banal tastes, fueled by an ever-increasing taste for gratuitous sex and violence, tired and predictable plots, and more and more costly and implausible action shots.

This is just all most people have to chose from.

It's also interesting that today a hot topic of controversy is whether or not entertainment should be required to contain moral teachings (most of it does--few films do other than promote American values and institutions) when at one time, in the infant stage of Hollywood, it did. These were called the Hays Code and were self-imposed by the motion picture industry in the 1930s.

Then we also discussed tips about how to handle scenes--they are just a slice of life, not the whole thing, so get in at the last possible moment and get out at the first possible moment. Information would not simply be exposition but should be exerted under pressure (my example of this--on my own notes--I did not share it with the class--is a guy walking in to an interview and the interviewer placing his dick out on the table and beginning with questions like, "How long were you at your previous job?" This concept of paucity in dialogue is very difficult for me because I love high degrees of realness in films. Real conversations, like those found in films like Clerks, appeal to me. I don't want dialogue to sound like its purpose is to reveal some element of the plot--it should exist for the sake of itself and be entraining that way. But I am a very verbal person and don't respond to action sequences. I tune out, start looking around the room or shifting in my seat. Presumably there are others out there.

But their must be some happy medium because even Clerks has moments of sacrificing reality for art (like the extremely witty and possibly overwritten dialogue), and it does extract information (like about the old girlfriend and her sexual conquests) under pressure--the girlfriend is coming back into town, and Dante is nervous. (Okay, see this film if you haven't yet.)

So far, I have written two scripts for class: one is based on a scenario proposed by the instructor, and this one is a complete short film in my mind and about 20 pages and 20 minutes long (I would post it here, but I need to ask Kim's permission first), and one is my own invention that is a verbose 42 pages long and drags in places (my fellow students say, "Throw in some action!" "Make the characters leave the room!" they suggest) and is far from finished. It was supposed to be a quirky and edgy piece about vicarious obsession with other's love lives and voyeurism. But it ended up being more of a romantic comedy with a dark edge, like Pretty Woman (okay, it's not anywhere near that good). I was originally going to write it as a short story but thought I'd give this genre a try--maybe the very genre of screenwriting forced me into the more predictable plot. I have no doubt read more experimental short stories than I have seen inventive films.

So I am actually writing, I am just not writing poetry. I need to remedy that as soon as possible. Of course, my job is getting in the way again; I now have a stack of 40 essays to grade.

I don't like to talk about my job on this blog, but Thursday some fairly remarkable things happened. A student came in to have me look at his essay--an analysis of a published argument--and while we were looking over the paper (a supreme effort above and beyond what I had asked for, displaying nuances of independent observations and fascinating insights) and I was just about to struggle to find something to suggest that he do to improve the paper (although really he had already done more than enough work to receive an A, I like to give them the idea that revision is an on-going process, and they is always something more you can do to improve things) and a fat, house-fly-sized mosquito landed on his essay. The mosquito stumbled around a bit, not quite able, perhaps, to get off the ground.

I made flicking gestures at it and said to the student, "I want to flick it away, but I also want to kill it" (we have had some serious rains lately and massive mosquitoes resulting and everyone is talking about West Nile Virus), and the student simply pinched it between his index finger and his thumb. Blood spurted across the page. A horror-film, two-inch wide arc of blood.

We were quite surprised and didn't know what to do. I handed him a box of tissues and wiped off the page. A brown stain remained. As I wisped away the blood, I wondered whose it was--had it been feeding on my office mate? Me? This student? A combination of others? It made me rethink what little blood receptacles they are, red balloons of human genetic material (if a mosquito was found at a fresh crime scene, could we detect the identity of the criminal?).

Then another student came in, and big tears started rolling down her face. She was telling a heartbreaking story about an impossible family situation.

The original student got up and offered her his seat. He was very sympathetic, as was I. Eventually, I asked the original student to excuse us, told him he didn't need to work anymore on his paper (really he didn't), and turned my attention to his very distraught classmate.

She handed me her essay and explained why she wasn't in class the last week and a half. She is having so many problems that she might have to drop my class.

I listened as best I could and offered a little advice, mainly about the class. I referred her to a counselor and told her to keep in touch (I see her outside of class often because she also works at my grocery store as a cashier). I asked her if I could do anything. Really, what could I do?

Sometimes this is the hardest part of teaching--seeing how getting an education can create such added stress and strain to an individual. It is the hardest because there is so little you can do to help them outside of class (outside of tutorials and extensions and academic second chances).

I am thinking of her, but mainly I was able to go home and think about myself, which is something it takes a teacher a long time to learn to be able to do. Those who do not learn to separate themselves from their job to some degree get burned out or impossibly frustrated. But I am able to do this now and still care and still help and retain (what I believe to be) a more professional conduct with my students. I don't give them my home phone number anymore. Maybe I can keep this job a little while longer because of it.

About the mosquito, her life cycle was about to be complete. My Dad and I discussed this later (both my parents have been staying with us this past week, which has been really fun, but it has been difficult to get my work down--for example, I skipped workshop this week and didn't finish our assigned reading, The Secret History, but did manage show the film Atarnanjuat: The Fast Runner, on campus). We determined that mosquitoes can "bite" more than one person, but that each attempt somewhat damages their proboscis. Even when they are biting the same person, they often have to probe around before finding a capillary and filling up. Once they are full, they fly off to still water and lay their eggs, thus completing their cycle. They die soon after. So those pesky mosquitoes we crush full of blood are female and are on their way to birthing.

And they don't eat blood; they eat other stuff, like plant juices, most of their lives. The blood is just required for the female's final stage.

My Dad and I also talked about other parasites at the dinner table. My Mom, Dad, Lance and I were gnawing on massive stuffed pork chops and considering whether or not we had cooked them fully. Toward the end of our meal, we talked about trichinosis and how it is spread. The organism lives in pigs and completes part of its cycle there. It first manifests in the pig's diaphragm, where it creates millions of microscopic cysts that harden and toughen the tissue. Then it spreads to other muscles.

In the pig, the larvae grow from the pigs and come out in its feces, so it moves through the pig in its cycle and doesn't harm him. But if a human ingests pork with these cysts that has not reached the proper temperature in cooking, the human will also manifest these cysts in his diaphragm. The cysts do not develop further in a human, so his diaphragm fills with these cysts and toughens and becomes inflexible, like a metal plate. It further infects other muscles and cannot be cured.

Bears, which, like humans, ingest pork but do not provide the necessary conditions for the trichinosis larvae to develop and leave the body, are often found to have diaphragms riddled with these cysts.

Maybe now I am finally ready to write some poems.

Powered by Blogger