The Quest for Archibald Leach

Cary Grant just wasn’t getting it.  He’d signed on to be the star of the film, was being paid handsomely for his efforts, and he was working with the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, no less.  What could possibly go wrong?

North by Northwest seemed destined to be a box-office smash when it debuted in 1959.

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Indeed, prior to the start of shooting, screenwriter Ernest Lehman was quoted as saying he wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” He held nothing back, and created a melange of suspense, lighthearted fun, intrigue, and nonstop action.  There’s even a fight-to-the-death sequence that takes place on the face of Mt. Rushmore, not to mention arguably the most famous scene in Hitchcock’s long, storied career–the crop-duster attack!

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And, of course, and above all else, the film features Cary Grant.

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During filming, though, Grant wasn’t thrilled with the direction North by Northwest was taking. One day, he pulled Hitchcock aside, and said, “It’s a terrible script.  We’ve already done a third of the picture and I still can’t make head or tail of it!”  Hitchcock assured his leading man that things were going well.  The film is designed to be confusing, with myriad twists and turns, so if his lead actor was finding the story line hard to follow, all the better!

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All Hitchcock said to Grant was to be himself.  Don’t even worry about the acting.  Don’t worry about the script.  Just be Cary Grant.  The rest would take care of itself.

And it did.

Hitchcock understood a fundamental truth, and used it to his advantage–people just liked Cary Grant.  He’d been Hollywood’s most luminous star for decades, the epitome of charisma, debonair charm, and cool.  Indeed, Grant himself once famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

everyonewantstobecarygrant

 

Grant’s on-screen persona was larger-than-life.  If you wanted to see raw emotion, vulnerability, weakness, you weren’t going to find that here.  His roles were designed to match his never-let-them-see-you-sweat mystique.  He was made out to be more icon than actor, more romantic ideal than flesh-and-blood person.  Grant’s public image surely wouldn’t have been so spotless if he were acting today, but in Old Hollywood, he was lifted up to stratospheric heights, and for the duration of his career, he never came down from his perch.  Well on into his fifties and early sixties, Grant played the lead opposite actresses such as Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren–all two or three decades his junior.

grantandkelly

grantandsaint

grantandhepburn

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Then, abruptly, in the mid-1960s, at the age of sixty-two, Grant retired from the cinema.  Hollywood’s quintessential leading man would not go on to play the sage, grandfatherly roles that would surely have come his way if he’d pressed forward with his career.  He would simply walk away and preserve the image, the concept, the legend that was Cary Grant.

It hadn’t always been that way.  During his growing-up years in the suburbs of Bristol, in southwest England, Cary Grant wasn’t known as Cary Grant.  He was born Archibald Leach, and his hardscrabble childhood bore little resemblance to the fame and prestige that would materialize decades later.  His father struggled with alcoholism and his mother was clinically depressed, sent to a mental institution when Grant was just nine years old.  His father simply told him that his mother had gone on a “long holiday,” and later, when she failed to come home, said she had died.  Grant didn’t learn of the lie for over two decades, and at that time, arranged to meet his mother just as his movie career was taking off.  But in his childhood, Archibald Leach, the future hero of the Silver Screen, was antsy, on edge, uncomfortable around others, nervous and awkward in his interactions with girls.  Described by a classmate as a “scruffy little boy” and by his teacher as “the naughty little boy who was always making a noise in the back row and would never do his homework,” Leach was expelled from school when he was fourteen.

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Over a decade later, after honing his craft onstage and in vaudeville, and on the doorstep of Hollywood superstardom, Archibald Leach was advised to change his name to Cary Grant.

If you were to choose between “scruffy” Archie Leach and his later, more celebrated alter ego, and select the winner to serve as the main character for a novel you wanted to write, the choice would seem to be obvious.

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And it is.

*******************

The four primary protagonists in The Eye-Dancers each struggle with their own personal hang-ups, outlooks, inner demons, and shaky self-esteem.  None of them are what anyone would call popular in school.  They don’t hang out with the “in” crowd, they’re not the trendsetters or movers-and-shakers of their peer group.  Mitchell Brant feels the need to fabricate and invent stories about himself, as he’s not confident that he’s “good enough” as he is.  Joe Marma lives in the shadow of his high-achieving older brother, and as the shortest boy in his grade, he has a king-sized chip on his shoulder.  Ryan Swinton doesn’t want to rock the boat; he likes to go along with the crowd and tell jokes to make people laugh.  Marc Kuslanski never met an equation he didn’t like; he closes his mind to the mysterious, the unexplained, the supernatural.  In his logical, rational worldview, everything, no matter how extraordinary, has a commonsense explanation.

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As the novel progresses, each character is confronted with circumstances that challenge his perspective, threaten to erode his already fragile sense of self, and even sabotage his ability to survive.  The boys can either be swept away and swallowed up by their own insecurities and weaknesses, or they can rise to the occasion to learn, grow, and adapt.

It strikes me that any character, really, needs to have the motivation, ability, and impetus to change over the course of a story.  If Character X begins a novel one way and ends the novel exactly the same way, we as readers might pause and ask ourselves, “What was the point of it all?”  Then again, maybe “character” isn’t the best word to use.

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“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people,” Ernest Hemingway once said.  “People, not characters.  A character is a caricature.”

hemingway

 

Real people are flawed.  They have moles and in-grown toenails, regrets and long-held secrets, wistful memories and would-be dreams that, through lost opportunity and the inexorable march of time, are now irretrievably lost.  The Cary Grant that the world saw, and thought they knew, was, in the words of Hemingway, a caricature–a glittering creation of Hollywood and the movies.  Archibald Leach was in there somewhere.  We just couldn’t see him.

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If a literary character is Cary Grant-perfect right from the first page, there is no room for growth, no way for readers to relate.  The plot may wind through hills and valleys, wander through wooded ravines and turn sharply around sudden hairpin curves, but the protagonist will remain static.  The story will not engage.

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If I were a producer or a director in Hollywood sixty years ago, the choice would be a no-brainer.  I’d take Cary Grant in the proverbial heartbeat.  But as an author, looking for a character to build a novel around?

Give me Archibald Leach.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Pausing for a Look–Over the Rainbow

So . . . which scene is it for you?

The tornado sequence, perhaps, filmed in atmospheric black-and-white, and no doubt the cause of countless nightmares for young children throughout the decades?

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Or maybe it’s the magical moment when Dorothy first enters Oz, as the monochrome of black-and-white suddenly gives way to a vibrant palette of color.

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Not quite, you say?  Then how about the legendary Wizard of Oz himself being exposed for the fraud he is, hiding behind the curtain?

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But of course, who can forget the Silver Screen’s most iconic villain, The Wicked Witch of the West, melting away?  “I’m melting, I’m melting!” is such a famous line, it has been mimicked and re-created many times over on both stage and screen in the years since.

wickedwitch

 

meltingwitch

 

Indeed.  There are many unforgettable scenes in The Wizard of Oz–arguably the most beloved motion picture in Hollywood history.  There are so many such scenes in the 1939 classic, based on L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that, at first blush, it may seem impossible to choose just one as a favorite.

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But for me, there is one sequence from the movie that stands apart, not only as my favorite scene in The Wizard of Oz, but one of my favorite scenes of all time, anywhere, from any film or TV show–the “Over the Rainbow” scene, featuring the film’s heroine, Dorothy Gale, and her dog, Toto.  The irony is–the sequence was very nearly removed during the cutting process.

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Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t depict houses flying in the wind, witches soaring through the night on broomsticks, or cowardly lions and tin men and talking, walking scarecrows.

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The “Over the Rainbow” scene occurs just five minutes into the movie.  Studio executive Louis B. Mayer and producer Mervyn LeRoy both thought it should be deleted because, they argued, it “slowed down the picture.”  If not for the sturdy resistance on the part of others associated with The Wizard of Oz, “Over the Rainbow,” the signature song of Judy Garland’s career, most likely would have withered and died.

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After Dorothy is unable to get her aunt and uncle to listen to her about an unpleasant run-in she and Toto had (“Find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble,” her aunt snaps), she wanders off into the barnyard, loyal Toto at her side.

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“Some place where there isn’t any trouble,” Dorothy muses.  “Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?  There must be.  It’s not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train.  It’s far, far away.  Behind the moon, beyond the rain . . .”

And here she begins to sing of a place “over the rainbow way up high,” where all your “troubles melt like lemon drops.”

beginningovertherainbow

 

It must be pointed out that Mayer and LeRoy were right about one thing.  The “Over the Rainbow” sequence does in fact slow the picture down.  I would argue, however, that this effect makes The Wizard of Oz a better movie, and a far more memorable one.

*******************

When the adrenaline rush and creative maelstrom of a novel’s first draft gives way to the laborious and painstaking process of revision and rewriting, we often delete far more than we add.  And that’s the way it should be.  In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King suggests authors should be able to cut at least 10 percent of their total word count from a first draft.  First drafts are generally padded, bloated things, gorged and made fat with too much description, too much repetition, and chock-full of sentences, paragraphs, entire scenes just begging to be tossed into the pit of discarded excess.

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It’s natural, when trimming the bulging waistline of a first draft, to look for scenes that slow down the action of the story, that seem to lack relevance  or that do not advance the plot.  And most of the time, such scenes should indeed go.  But sometimes . . . yes, sometimes, there are exceptions.

The Eye-Dancers, for example, is a novel told through the point of view of four main characters–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–and one of my primary goals when I wrote the story was to enable readers to get into the mind of each character, get to know him, and, hopefully, root for him.  There are several “slower” scenes where the boys talk among themselves or where one of them wanders off by himself to think, ponder over his problems, and try to figure out his place in the universe.

placeintheuniverse

 

While it’s true action sequences and scenes that serve to advance the plot should and do reveal aspects of character, they cannot capture the thoughts, fears, aspirations, dreams a character might have in a quieter moment.  Nor can they portray an everyday scene, where we can witness the characters interacting over events that are mundane and normal as opposed to earth-shattering.  Without such scenes, little islands of stillness amid the roller-coaster ride of action, intrigue, and death-defying chase sequences, we cannot pause long enough to know and like (or dislike, as the case may be) each character over the course of the story.

islandsofstillness

 

***************

When the forward momentum of The Wizard of Oz pauses, just long enough for Dorothy to sing “Over the Rainbow,” we as the viewers are introduced to one of the primary themes of the movie–magic, fantasy, the promise of a place far, far away bursting with color and life and sights to stir and astound the senses.  We get a foreshadowing of Oz itself, of the quest Dorothy and her friends-in-waiting will undertake.

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And, perhaps most important of all, we get a glimpse of the girl herself.  We share in her dreams, her wishing upon a star if you will, her ability to see and imagine beyond the nondescript reality of her daily life.

This was not lost on history.  On June 22, 2004, sixty-five years after The Wizard of Oz debuted in theaters and exactly thirty-five years removed from Judy Garland’s death, the American Film Institute voted “Over the Rainbow” as the greatest movie song of all time.

afilist

 

So the next time you’re sweating over the edits of your second draft and are all too eager to cut a scene that does not push the action along, take a breath, read it again, and reconsider.

Maybe, just maybe, the scene in question will transport your readers to a land “heard of once in a lullaby,” where “happy little bluebirds fly.” where the “skies are blue,” and “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

bluebird

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Swinging for the Fences (Or, I Will Not Be Pigeonholed)

On the afternoon of May 5, 1925, in St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park, legendary Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb sat beside a sportswriter in the dugout before the game between the Tigers and the old St. Louis Browns.

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“I’ll show you something today,” Cobb, then in the twilight of his playing days, at the age of thirty-eight, said.  “I’m going for home runs for the first time in my career.”

This was a bold proclamation for the player nicknamed The Georgia Peach, to this day the all-time leader in career batting average, at .366.

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For years, Cobb had tormented opposing pitchers with his seemingly robotic ability to hit safely and reach base.

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One of the game’s great competitors and nastiest personalities, the left-handed batter was almost universally disliked leaguewide.

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Cobb’s reputation even followed him into the film Field of Dreams, a full sixty years after his playing days were over.  In one scene, when Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella talks with the legends of yesteryear, who magically appear in his cornfield, Shoeless Joe Jackson tells him, “Ty Cobb wanted to play, but none of us could stand [him] when we were alive, so we told ‘im to stick it!”

fieldofdreams

 

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Cobb’s batting prowess was legendary.  He led the league in hitting twelve times in a thirteen-year span from 1907 through 1919, and hit over .400 three times in his career.  But while he did have extra-base power–his 724 career doubles rank 4th all time, and his 295 career triples rank second–Cobb was never a home run hitter.  His career best was 12, which he accomplished twice.

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To put that in context, it is important to note Cobb played the majority of his career in the “dead ball era,” where pitchers were allowed to throw spit balls, umpires rarely changed balls during the course of the game, and home runs were an afterthought.  In fact, in 1909, Cobb led the American League in homers with just 9.  It was a different game, one that valued stolen bases and fielding, sacrifice bunts and smarts.  This was the game Cobb grew up in, and the way he loved to play.

deadball

 

By 1925, when he sat in the dugout that spring day and claimed he was going to try to hit home runs for the first time in his career, the game had changed drastically.  Babe Ruth had come along, hitting home runs at a record pace.  In 1920, Ruth had smashed 54 homers; in 1921, 59–numbers that, at the time, seemed superhuman.

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Deep down, The Georgia Peach seethed.  He hated the long-ball game of Ruth.  He didn’t believe that was the way baseball was meant to be played.

But on May 6, 1925, he had a point to prove.  If he wanted to swing for the fences, if he wanted to emulate the Babe–he could.

“Just you wait,” he said.  “Just watch.”

****************

Ernest Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.  A character is a caricature.”

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When I think of caricatures, I think of one-dimensional characters who, by their very presence, are mere devices to drive a plot one way or the other.  It can be the larger-than-life hero who shows no weakness, cries no tears, and goes through the rigors and dangers of a daring adventure as if strolling through the park on a lazy summer afternoon.

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It can be the villain, evil to the core, who exists for the sole purpose of sowing seeds of death and destruction–and to serve as the foil for the protagonist.  We can see no shred of light, no ounce of compassion or goodness in this villain.  There is only the dark side–on every page.

bondjaws

 

The trouble with characters like these is obvious.  Real people just don’t operate this way.  Every hero cries at some point and has moments of weakness and doubt, not to mention a closet full of skeletons.  They may not always be tabloid material (though they certainly can be), but they do exist.  Every villain has a gentler side.  No one is 100% rotten to the core.  The same person who commits armed robbery one day does something selfless for someone they love on another.  It’s hard, and unfair, to place people in neat little boxes, labeled “Hero” or “Villain” or “Greedy” or “Altruistic.”

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To steal a popular title, people are (at minimum) fifty shades of gray.

In The Eye-Dancers, it would be easy to label Mitchell Brant as the liar and storyteller, Ryan Swinton as the comedian, Joe Marma as the fighter, and Marc Kuslanski as the glasses-wearing nerd.  Certainly, at the beginning of the novel, this is how the characters are presented.  But it’s my hope that, as readers get to know them, and enter into their thoughts and fears, their hopes, their insecurities and self-doubts, the characters emerge multi-faceted, not so easily pigeonholed into a tight, snug corner.  Also, over the course of the story, the boys must confront challenges and situations that force them to view the world in a different light, to look in the mirror and determine whether or not they like what they see.

In short, they have to grow and adapt and overcome.  What results, I hope, are real people, not caricatures.

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******************

Ty Cobb hit three home runs that day, and two more the next–making good on his promise to “show them something.”  It was a brief flourish of power, a blip on the radar screen of his career built on speed, guile, and precision.

cobbspeed

 

Nevertheless, he had proved his point.  He wasn’t going to allow himself to be labeled as a “singles hitter,” a relic of the dead-ball era who couldn’t adapt to the changing conditions of 1920s baseball.  He could adapt if he wanted to.  He just chose not to.  He believed the game should be played a certain way, the old way, and that’s exactly how The Georgia Peach went about it.

cobbfierce

 

But for two days in May 1925, Ty Cobb went against the grain and stepped way outside of his comfort zone, showing a dimension of himself and his abilities previously unseen and unheard of.

A good fictional character should be able to do the same.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Rear Window Point of View

Some stories grab you by the throat, plunge you in from the get-go, and never let up, sprinting frenetically to the finish line at a speed so blistering your head spins as you race along for the ride.  An old-school action movie, perhaps, or a thriller that scarcely pauses to catch its breath . . .

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window, based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich titled “It Had to Be Murder,” is definitely not such a story.

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From the opening sequence where we view, along with main character L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (played by James Stewart), the apartment complex across the street, the film is decidedly unrushed.

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It takes its time, the plot unfolding slowly, allowing the viewer to ease into the story line and characters, the cinematic equivalent of a leisurely stroll along a country lane.  This is not to suggest that Rear Window is dull.  Far from it.  It is widely regarded as one of Hitchcock’s most accomplished movies, and has long been a personal favorite of mine.

The story centers around Jefferies, confined to a wheelchair, his left leg broken and in a cast, suffered while photographing an auto race accident.

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He has been whiling away the time in his small New York City apartment, with little to do except spy on his neighbors across the way.  For a man of action like Jefferies, whose job routinely takes him to some of the world’s most remote and dangerous locales, the inactivity is like a slow, torturous death sentence.

We meet his neighbors, right along with him.  The entire film is shown from Jefferies’ perspective.  When we see his neighbors, we see only what he sees.  We are never actually in their apartments.  We, like Jefferies, are spying, voyeurs, peering in through back windows at the private rituals and arguments and parties of the Other.

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From this point of view, we meet a dancer whom Jefferies calls Miss Torso, who is continually prancing around her room in a bikini and other various states of undress.  She practices her dance steps in full view of Jefferies, who eagerly takes in the view.

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We meet a single woman Jefferies nicknames Miss Lonelyheart.  One evening we spy her entertaining an imaginary guest at her table, before breaking down in tears.  We, like Jefferies, question whether or not we should be witnessing such private acts.  But we do, and we are.

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And we also meet a bickering married couple, the Thorwalds.  The husband is a salesman, the wife is unwell, spending her days in bed.  Jefferies can’t help but notice their quarrels.  Their flat is just across from his.

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While me meet the neighbors, we also enter into Jefferies’ personal life.  He has problems of his own, apart from the broken leg.  His girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly), a wealthy socialite, wants to get married.

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Jefferies tells her it wouldn’t be a good idea.  He doesn’t want to settle into a comfortable city life taking photos at her fashion events.  And he doesn’t believe she is cut out to be the wife of a traveling photographer who spends much of his time in rustic, back-country places.  He tells her it’s not the life for her–neither of them would be happy in the other’s world.

One night, after an argument with Lisa about this very issue, Jefferies spies the Thorwalds in the apartment across the way having another of their fights.  Later, after midnight, there is a scream and a crash and a single cry of, “Don’t!” and then all is quiet.  Jefferies observes Thorwald leave the apartment three times during the night, each time carrying his salesman’s case.  Something seems amiss.  As the days pass, Jefferies, collecting various clues as he continues to keep an ever-present eye on Thorwald, believes that the salesman has murdered his wife.

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But even here, the film takes its time.  We never leave Jefferies’ apartment.  We learn what he learns, at the same pace he does.   The movie continues to build in momentum, slowly, allowing us to taste every nuance, pause at every twist and turn of the plot.  Along the way, we further delve into the lives of Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyheart, along with other neighbors.  The time of year, midsummer, with an oppressive heat wave, only serves to emphasize the unhurried pace of the plot.  Everyone is hot, the air is thick with humidity, muggy like soup.  Nothing will be rushed.

There is a method to the madness, of course.  Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, is taking his viewers by the hand, and leading them, gently, softly, up a winding mountain back road.  We have to solve the mystery right along with the protagonist, and while we do, we get to know him, his personality, his insecurities, his faults, and his idiosyncracies, right along with those of his neighbors’.  It is a rich, layered story, strangely comfortable in spite of the potential horror taking place across the way.  It makes us want to settle in, stay for a while, and lose ourselves in its world.

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It also makes the ending, a confrontation between Thorwald and Jefferies, stand out in bold relief to the rest of the film.  Everything has been leading up to this–the crash of the cymbals after the slow, melodic dance.  The bold, brutal display of violence after two hours of merely hinting at it.  It is a climax earnestly won, an eruption of suspense perfectly timed.

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It is also a very good reminder.

Sometimes, when in the process of writing a novel, or even a shorter work, it is easy to fall into the finishing-too-quickly trap.  If you’re in chapter 21, and you have big plans for chapter 22, the natural temptation is to cut that last scene in chapter 21 just a little short, the eagerness, anticipation, and excitement over the big chapter to come simply too much to resist.  I know I fell into this mind-set at times during the writing of The Eye-Dancers.

While every chapter in a novel is important, there are, naturally, certain chapters that stand out as truly crucial, the linchpins upon which everything else rests.  When I was nearing a “linchpin” chapter, I often had to remind myself to slow down, and give the present chapter the attention it deserved.  If I rushed the current chapter, then the impact of the “big” chapter that followed would be minimized due to the faults and sloppiness of the chapter that preceded it.  In such moments, when the temptation to rush was at its strongest, I would think of old L.B. Jefferies in his wheelchair, watching, waiting, slow, slow . . . and I would take a deep breath, and carry on, careful not to race through.

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And while the major chapters, the big fight scenes, the incredible time warps all serve as the “wow”scenes in any story, it is the little chapters, the quiet sequences that often move us and help us to relate to the story and the characters who populate it.  A short conversation between friends.  An inside joke between a husband and wife.  A moment of introspection as your main character relaxes on the sofa, watching an old rerun and sipping tea.  Scenes like this add nuance, substance, and texture to the story.  They are the peeks behind the curtain, the herbs and spices that bring out the rich, hearty flavor beneath the surface.  They are the hidden gems at the bottom of the pile, the rare finds at the back of the store.

And they offer us, in their shy, softspoken manner, The Rear Window point of view.

pov

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

Have you ever gone through something and wondered if you were losing your mind?  Have you ever witnessed something no one else saw?  Did you try to convince others that what you saw was in fact real, only to be met with skepticism, unbelief, and odd, quizzical glances?  And, after facing the doubts, did you then begin to question your own perceptions, doubt your own eyes and ears?

This is precisely what happens to Robert Wilson (played by William Shatner in a pre-Star Trek role) when he boards a plane in an unforgettable fifth-season Twilight Zone episode called “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”  Recently released from a sanitarium, where he’d been admitted for six months following a nervous breakdown on a flight much like this one, Wilson is noticeably nervous as he takes his seat–beside the emergency exit.

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“I’m not acting much like a cured man, am I?” he says to his wife.

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His wife assures him all is well, they just need to get home.  “Everything is still intact,” she says.  To which Wilson replies, “Except me.”

Adding to his distress, the aircraft is flying through an electrical storm.  It is night, as the thunder rumbles and the lightning flashes across the black canvas of the sky.  His wife now asleep, Wilson glances out his window.   He does a double-take.  There is a man on the wing of the plane!

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Wilson buzzes for the flight attendant, but when she arrives, the man on the wing is gone.  He draws the curtain, as if trying to block out the vision of what he just witnessed.  The commotion wakes up his wife, but he tells her not to worry, he’s just having trouble falling asleep.  She gives him a sleeping pill, and dozes off again.

He tries to relax, but the pill isn’t working.  Glancing at the window, tempted, he pulls the curtain back again.  An inhuman face stares back at him.

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The man–the creature–is back.  But how?  How can there be a living thing out there, on the wing of an aircraft flying through a storm at 20,000 feet?  “It isn’t there,” he tell himself, closing his eyes.  “It isn’t there!”

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But when he opens his eyes, the creature is still looking in at him.

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Wilson rings for the attendant again, but, just as it happened earlier, the creature vanishes when she looks through the window.   Sure enough, when the attendant leaves, the creature returns.  Only this time, he begins to tamper with the wing, as if he wants to crash the plane.

onthewing

 

Wilson wakes up his wife, tells her there’s a man on the wing.  “No, no, don’t look!” he says when she tries to see past him and out the window.  He explains the man out there disappears whenever anyone else tries to see him.  Then he clarifies.  The creature on the wing is not a man.  It’s “a gremlin,” he tells her.

She looks at him like he’s lost his mind.  He can’t deal with that look.

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“I’m not imagining it!” he says.  “He . . . he jumps away when anyone might see him.  Except me.”

He continues to explain himself:  “I know it sounds crazy.  But do I look insane?  I know I had a mental breakdown.  I know I had it in an airplane.  I know it looks to you like the same thing’s happening again, but it isn’t! . . . If I described him [the gremlin] to you, you’d really think I was gone.”

His wife tries to console him, telling him it’s all right, but he grows angry, tells her not to patronize him.  He could see in her eyes that she doesn’t believe a word of what he’s telling her.

“I am not insane!” he shouts, and says he’s only telling her about the gremlin because he’s starting to tamper with one of the engines under the wing.

arguingwithwife

 

He asks her to tell the pilot what he’s just said, and to keep an eye on the wings.  If they see nothing, he says he’ll re-commit himself to the sanitarium.  “But if they do . . .”

When his wife gets up and walks down the aisle, Wilson sees the gremlin return.  The creature pulls up a cowling plate.

wingplay

 

“Hurry!” Wilson shouts.  “He’s out there!”

But of course when his wife and the flight engineer rush to his seat, the gremlin is gone.  The engineer, however, pretends that he’s seen the creature before.  Wilson sees through the act.  They are merely trying to placate him.  “You can stop now,” he says.  “I won’t say another word.  I’ll see us crash first.”

otherslook

 

Later, his wife asleep again, Wilson sees the gremlin come back.  The creature continues his assault on the wing, and Wilson decides to take matters into his own hands.  He steals a gun from a sleeping policeman, then returns to his seat, careful not to wake his wife.  Before allowing himself to back down, he opens the auxiliary exit window, and, despite being nearly blown out of the plane, succeeds in shooting and killing the gremlin.  He screams as he fires the final shot.

After the plane lands, Wilson is carted off in a straitjacket.  Everyone on board is sure he has gone insane.  But then the camera pans to show us the damaged airplane wing–which no one has yet seen.  But when they do, they will realize Wilson had been right.  There had been a gremlin out there.  He wasn’t delusional, after all.

wingdamage

 

The beauty of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is that we the viewer, along with Wilson himself, are not sure what he sees is real.  Is there really a creature out there, on the wing of the jet?  Or is Wilson suffering another breakdown?  We do not find out the answer for sure until episode’s end.

*********************

A parallel exists in The Eye-Dancers.  The four main characters journey through the void, and when they emerge on the other side, they find themselves in a strange new world.  But are they still dreaming?  Is this nothing but an extension of their shared nightmare of the “ghost girl” and her hypnotic, swirling blue eyes?

In chapter 6, as Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton, walking in their sleep and caught up in the throes of their nightmare, begin to vanish before Marc Kuslanski‘s eyes, Marc wonders the same thing.

“He reached out with his own hand, placed it on top of theirs.  Instantly, he felt a force, like a vacuum, grab hold of him.  He tried to pull away, but couldn’t.  . . . Had he somehow entered into their dream?  But that was impossible.  He was wide awake.  Besides, since when did dreams exert a force, a literal, tangible force, that could hold you in place?

“He tried to think–all of his knowledge, the theories he had studied, the insights he had gained–searching for the answer.  Possibilities, potentialities spun around in his mind like clothes tumbling, layer upon layer, in a drier.  He hoped one of those possibilities would stick, make sense, unlock the trunk that contained the answer.  But nothing could adequately describe what he was experiencing.”

******************

What is real?  What is a dream?  How much does perception shape what each of us views as “reality”?

Maybe Einstein was right when he said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”

Or, in the words of Thoreau:  “The question is not what you look at.  But what you see.”

reality

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Character Interludes (Or, “Yo, Marie! We Need to Talk . . .”)

When most people think of Rocky Balboa, they think of larger-than-life boxing matches, grueling slugfests against the likes of Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang.  And with good reason.  Rocky, of course, is a fighter, and the movies are built around the pugilistic perils of his career.

rockycreed

 

The Rocky brand, too, has been somewhat tarnished over the years due to the excessive number of sequels.  The sequels have, for the most part, been Box Office gold, but at the same time, they have relegated Rocky to something of a caricature.  With each new installment, it seemed the level of predictability and corniness increased, and Rocky’s opponents became more and more imposing.  Boxers such as Clubber Lang in Rocky III and Ivan Drago in Rocky IV were nearly on par with comic book supervillains.

But go back, if you will, to the original.  When Rocky premiered in 1976, Sylvester Stallone was a no-name writer/actor who had to fight hard just to play the title character in his screenplay.  The film studio wanted Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford.  Stallone stubbornly demanded the role.  Obviously it was the right call.

When audiences were introduced to Rocky Balboa, they weren’t sure what to expect.  The Rocky formula didn’t exist yet.  Stallone had a blank slate with which to work.  He decided to devote much of the first half of the movie to Rocky’s life.  We see Balboa in a smoke-filled ring to start the film, a club fighter, short on skill, but with a fierce heart and a hard punch.  We see Rocky drifting aimlessly around the slums of Philadelphia, bouncing his ever-present rubber ball and wearing his black, finger-less gloves.  He works the docks as a loan shark.

rockyloanshark

 

He hangs out on street corners.  He likes a shy young woman who barely gives him the time of day.

adrienne

 

He’s friends with her older brother, cranky, temperamental bristly-edged Paulie.

paulie

 

As we watch the film unfold, we generally like Rocky.  He seems like a decent enough guy, down on his luck, just struggling to scrape by and earn a living.  But, this early on, we’re still not sure.  The movie is still young.  Maybe the guy will turn out to be a creep.

This is where a pivotal scene takes place. . . .

It’s night.  Rocky passes a street corner as a bunch of young men heckle him.  He ignores them, clearly used to this kind of thing, unfazed by it.  But amid the hecklers, there is a young girl named Marie, maybe twelve or thirteen years old.  She joins in, hurling curses at Rocky.

He instantly leads her away from the throng, and asks her if those “yo-yos” back at the corner taught her to swear like that.  “Don’t you never talk like that again,” he admonishes her.  They walk down the darkened city streets, toward Marie’s apartment.

rockyandmarie

 

Rocky tries to give her some advice.  He explains that if she continues to hang around with the wrong crowd and talk like a sewer, she’ll get a reputation.  And twenty years down the road, when people ask, “Hey, do you remember that girl Marie, they’ll say, ‘No, who was she?'”  But then they’ll bring up her bad reputation, and the people will remember.  “You see,” the Italian Stallion says. “They don’t remember you.  They remember the rep.”

When they arrive at the girl’s apartment, she seems to appreciate Rocky’s advice.  She acts like she gets it.  But then, when he’s about to turn and walk away, she says, “Hey, Rocky.  Screw you, creepo!”  And she gives him an obscene gesture before heading inside.

marieobscene

 

Rocky just stares after her, and then, to himself, he says, “Yeah.  Who are you, creepo?  Who are you to give advice to anyone?”  And he walks off, into the night.

Despite doing nothing to advance the plot, this is easily one of my favorite scenes in the movie.  The producers, however, wanted to delete the scene entirely, deeming it senseless.  Thankfully, their advice was not heeded.

With just this one short interlude, Stallone fully exposes Rocky to his audience.  The fact that this tough, street-hardened boxer would take the time to talk to a girl, try to steer her in the right direction, with no ulterior motive, permanently endears us to him.  If we wondered about Rocky before, we no longer do.  This is, unequivocally, a nice person, with a good heart.  This is a guy who cares.  This is a guy we can root for, and like, and that sentiment will carry the rest of the film.  And the fact that he then agrees with Marie–“Who am I to give advice?”–this, also, works in Rocky’s favor.  He comes across as vulnerable here.  Beneath the battle-scarred exterior is a compassionate man who is just as easily bruised as anyone else.

The scene, in short, is a slam dunk.  In two minutes, it displays a depth of character that some roles never project over an entire film.

And it shows the importance of  “character interludes”–short pieces of a story that shine a light on a character’s motives, insecurities, beliefs–anything that enables us to get better acquainted.

**********

In The Eye-Dancers, in chapter two, we meet Joe Marma.  Joe is brash, easy to anger, always ready to fight.  On the surface, we may discount him as a simple troublemaker.  But shortly after we meet him, we witness him talking to his older brother, Bob.  Bob, who is everything Joe wishes he could be–smart, desired by the girls, athletic, and, perhaps most important, tall.  Joe, the shortest kid in his class, has a gorilla-sized chip on his shoulder due to his stature.  The scene between Joe and his brother doesn’t really advance the story line.  But it does let us in, deeper, and we can begin to understand Joe a little bit more, and, hopefully, feel some compassion for him.

The text reads: 

“It wasn’t fair, and so often he felt a river of anger flowing just beneath the surface.  No matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he always came in second place.  If he heard one more teacher say, ‘Joe Marma?  Bob Marma’s brother?’ on the first day of classes during roll call, he thought he’d tell that teacher to go stuff it where the sun didn’t shine.  It was hard at Christmas, too, and on Bob’s birthday.  What were you supposed to get the brother who had everything?”

***********

Character interludes, as with so much in writing, can be overutilized.  Most scenes in a story should be there to advance the plot, in some way.  If every other scene depicts your protagonists in small talk or shows them doing some trivial, if endearing and idiosyncratic task, the character interludes will kill the momentum of the plot.

On the other hand, if every scene were strictly utilitarian and meant only to push the action along, a story would lose some of its luster, and we wouldn’t get to know the characters as well as we need to.  Balance is the key.  I sometimes think of character interludes as the hot pepper sauce of the literary world.  Too much, and they choke the piece and cause your eyes to water.  But, in just the right amounts, they add flavor, zest, and nuance. adding to the overall reading experience.

pepper

 

Because, no matter if you’re writing about down-and-out boxers who just want one more chance at the big time . . .

rockydocker

 

. . . or a group of adolescents who journey across an endless blue void to a parallel universe . . .

parallel

 

. . . there is always a place, at some point in a story, for your characters to say, in effect:

“Yo, Marie!  We need to talk . . .”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

To Like or Not to Like, That Is (Not) the Question . . .

Without a doubt, Paul Newman was a superstar, one of the great Hollywood actors.  His success dates back to the 1950s, starring in such films as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Long, Hot Summer.  But it was his performance playing pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson in the 1961 movie The Hustler that cemented his status as one of the all-time best.

hustlerdvd

 

The question immediately arises:  What is it about Fast Eddie Felson that gripped and moved audiences, that allowed Newman to catapult to the very top of his profession?  No question, Newman was a gifted actor, and a lesser talent may not have played the part so well.  Nevertheless, there is something memorable about Fast Eddie, the fictional character.  There is something about him that stuck with people, and wouldn’t let go.

Is Fast Eddie just so likeable?  Is that it?  Surely, he is charming.  With his boyish grin, good looks, and natural flair and charisma, Eddie Felson is easy to notice.

fasteddycocky

 

A great guy, right?  Not really.  All too often, he’s a boorish jerk who mistreats the people closest to him.

A small-time hustler, Eddie thinks of himself as the best pool player in the country, and he wants to prove it by squaring off against the legendary “Minnesota Fats.”  He gets the match, and, despite jumping ahead early, ultimately loses the contest–a grueling 36-hour pool marathon.  After losing to “Fats,” Eddie is down to his last $200.

He then runs out on his longtime friend and business partner, Charlie, scrapes just to get by, and meets Sarah, a troubled alcoholic who falls in love with him.  Throughout all this, we see Fast Eddie at his worst.  When Charlie finds him, and asks him to come back on tour with him, hustling pool on the road, Eddie dismisses him, calling him a “small-time Charlie.”  He wants a rematch with “Fats,” nothing less.  He wants to be the best.  He tells Charlie to “lay down and die by yourself.  Don’t take me with you.”

fasteddiesmoking

 

He is often insensitive to Sarah, treating her with very little respect, yet he maintains his cocky attitude.  Eddie Felson doesn’t walk.  He struts.  He doesn’t smile.  He smirks.  He’s a jerk.  And yet . . . there is something about him.  Something endearing, nuanced, vulnerable.

Beneath his bravado, Eddie is like a little boy desperately trying to prove himself.  He feels the need to be the best because, deep down, he doesn’t believe he is.  By movie’s end, he does get that rematch with Minnesota Fats, and he does in fact beat him.  At a terrible cost.  Sarah has taken her own life, largely as a result of Eddie’s choices and misplaced priorities.  Beating “Fats” is hollow.  The goal he had wanted all along means nothing.  Eddie finally understands this, too late.

You might think, as an audience, we would say, “He had it coming, he should be miserable,” and leave it at that.  After all, if he had chosen a different path earlier in the movie, the tragic outcome could have been avoided.  But then we pull back.  Don’t we all have a little Fast Eddie in us?  Don’t we all make mistakes?  Don’t we all, at times, overemphasize trivialities at the expense of life’s essentials?  Eddie Felson is not less of a character because of his flaws.  He is more of one.

felsonsymp

 

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I hoped to create characters with layers, depth, dimensions.  It would be easy to label Marc Kuslanski, for example, as the “science geek know-it-all,” and Joe Marma as the “tough kid with the big mouth.”  And it’s true.  Both boys fit those descriptions.  But, it is certainly my hope, that’s not where the descriptions end.

If Joe is rash, violent, angry, and has a chip on his shoulder, why is this so?  When we meet him, we see that he feels he needs to prove himself because he’s the shortest boy in his class.  We also discover that he has an older brother, Bob, who seemingly has it all–grades, girls, sports trophies.  “It wasn’t fair,” the text reads in chapter two.  “No matter what [Joe] did, no matter how hard he tried, he always came in second place. . . . It was hard on Christmas, too, and on Bob’s birthday.  What were you supposed to get the brother who had everything?”

Likewise with Marc, it’s easy to dismiss him as a creep.  Even Mitchell Brant, who becomes his friend later in the story, tells him at one point, “Your horse gets pretty high sometimes, you know that?”  But beneath the know-it-all exterior is a person who, even though he doesn’t like to admit it, hungers for a sibling (he is an only child), and a friend.  Early in the book, the narrative reads, “Sometimes, when [Marc] sat in his room, with only his science books and favorite Web pages for companions, he would feel a loneliness that threatened to reach down and crush him in its fist. . . .  He would see kids his own age playing ball, laughing hysterically, joking around, and it was hard not to wonder . . . if perhaps childhood had passed him by altogether—assuming it had ever visited him in the first place.”

I’m not sure if readers will like Joe Marma and Marc Kuslanski.  But I hope they’ll understand them, and look at them as flawed people with real feelings and real emotions.

And maybe that’s what it’s all about.  Maybe that’s what characters need to do.  They feel.  They hurt.  They strive, and they fail.  They make progress, and lose ground.  They cry and scream and claw.  They are us.

They don’t need to be perfect.  They don’t need to have all the answers.  They don’t need to be an archetype or an ideal.  They don’t even need to be liked.

They just need to be human.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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