Life is cruel

One of life’s cruel ironies is that just when you think you’ve begun to figure things out, you’re either too old or too tired to act upon your impulses. When I lurk on writing message boards, it amazes me how so many can waste so much time arguing about stuff that amounts to nothing in the bigger scheme of our relatively brief existence. It’s a matter of perspective.

That’s what I think is lacking in much of today’s entertainment scene. It’s all so now-oriented. TV shows and movies have to hit the ground running, literally, before you even get to know the characters’ names. If a script or book you write fails to grab a reader in one page, it’s a pass. New television series that don’t catch on after one or two episodes get the axe. Movies that don’t test well won’t get a wide release and go straight to video.

Yet it’s so subjective when it comes to judging or evaluating any creative work. Which is why you shouldn’t put too much stock in contests or peer feedback. Pretty soon, early round screenwriting contest results will be going out and thousands of hopefuls will anxiously be waiting for Nicholl Fellowship letters or emails from the Austin Film Festival and Big Break contest or Page Awards. A few hundred will be happy to advance to the next round. By the end though, most will be among the “better luck next year” crowd.

However, since I’m getting older and have less time to fritter away, my question is: Why wait? Why not just either make your own movie or short or “test movie” as Amazon Studios calls them, and put them on YouTube or your own website? The odds of you or I winning a major contest are pretty slim and we ain’t getting any younger, folks.

If you can’t afford the financial risk of movie-making or paying for storyboard artists, etc., why not turn your script into a book and self-publish it or pitch it to traditional publishing houses? Again, the odds are better for book writers than screenwriters, since it doesn’t cost millions or hundreds of thousands to put out an ebook. Take it from someone who’s been a finalist in big and small contests, won a few thousand bucks, and made the Nicholl quarterfinals a couple of times… doing well in contests will probably not change your life (unless you win the Nicholl Fellowship or a huge cash prize for something like Amazon Studios).

But “hope” will forever steal away the little time we have left, as someone once said. It reminds me of a sad story involving my parents. Years ago, when they were living in New Jersey during a bitterly cold winter, my dad bought a lottery ticket. The next morning he checked the winning numbers — and his ticket matched! He called me in Hawaii with the fantastic news. The jackpot was something like $7 million if he was the sole winner. There was a happiness in his voice I had never heard before. He said it was snowing, but despite the frigid temperatures and messy road conditions, everything suddenly looked beautiful…

The next day he found out the store clerk had inadvertently handed him the store’s print-out of the winning numbers. It wasn’t an actual lottery ticket my dad was holding. He said it was fun while it lasted to imagine what he and my mom were going to do with their millions. But that’s how life goes, he said. Eventually, they retired to Hawaii. They had enough saved to travel… but they didn’t go anywhere. They had time to take up new hobbies or interests. Nothing interested them. They didn’t need millions to enjoy the rest of their lives. Instead, they mostly got into pointless arguments with people in their condo association and with each other.

Life is cruel. It hands us bad breaks or fails to meet our expectations. Yet, when you cease expecting, you often find you have all you need to be happy right before you. Write your own story, and screw anyone who tells you the only way to succeed is to do it such and such a way. Most of what’s being put out in books, TV and film is crap, anyway.

To wit: anyone watching FALLING SKIES, the new TV series that has Spielberg’s name on it as executive producer? Sheesh. It’s basically THE WALKING DEAD with aliens… dull, unimaginative aliens. The humans are even duller.

On the other hand, I just saw a little British film, MADE IN DAGENHAM, that I liked a lot. Took awhile for me to get into it because the English accents are tough on American ears, but this was a movie about something real: equal pay — and respect — for working women in the Sixties. Surprisingly, my wife wasn’t as inspired as I was by this true life story, which resulted in England (and other countries) passing laws to prevent gender pay discrimination. “In this country, we still don’t have equal pay laws, ” she noted, explaining her muted response to the film.

I guess what moved me about the Dagenham story was that these women had the courage and strength to stand up for something they believed in, and fought for it at the risk of their jobs and their marriages. To me, that’s a lot more meaningful than a bunch of stock TV characters running around with guns and shooting at big bugs or clunky robots.

Anyway, isn’t it sort of nice to know that even Spielberg can make crappy stuff that wouldn’t get past a first round contest judge? It means your lousy script or mine still has a chance of selling — you just need the right combination of aliens/zombies/vampires and apocalyptic setting!

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4 Comments on “Life is cruel”

  1. Exactly — zombies, vampires and aliens are the be-all and end-all. But why can’t a good piece of another nature sell — say one about a sin eater in a Welsh colony on the American frontier? (Tee! Hee!) There are so many things these days that I watch, and so many books I start and don’t finish that are just the same old, same old. The story about your Dad and the lottery ticket is great. Do I smell a script???

  2. I feel compelled to correct myself — the thing about your Dad is a great story — it’s not great what happened.Just one more example of a problem caused by awkward writing.

  3. richfigel Says:

    Nah, it’s too sad to write about my parents! But it reminds me that I shouldn’t wait to “win the lottery” (i.e., sell a script or get a book published) while letting life slip by unlived or not lived to the fullest…

    I wonder if the zombie craze is connected to some kind of zeitgeist that Americans feel like they are becoming soulless, lifeless, brainless creatures?

  4. I was thinking more of a comedy where the slip up with the ticket happened to some born loser or total screw-up. But we all have great stories in us that are so close to us we could never write them. Good point about letting life slip by while waiting for something more. That’s where it pays to be totally delusional and view oneself as a famous author despite a lack of publishing credits.
    Interesting about the zombies…another extremely inspirational thought.

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