Archive for August 2011

Driven to Succeed

August 30, 2011

NOTE: This is actually a repost from my Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper website blog, but I felt it was apropos since it involves the movies LIMITLESS (eh) and POETRY (worth seeing, although a little slow) and writing, which is what most of my Gecko blog readers seem interested in.

Last week, you may have noticed I didn’t post anything… or maybe you didn’t, since the newspaper no longer promotes the blogs in its print edition, and the StarAdvertiser.com home page blog box only has room for the ten most recent posts, which are sometimes three or four consecutive short volleyball/football/political items. The non-staff blogs get squeezed off the home page quickly, so there’s not much motivation for other SA bloggers to post stuff that isn’t being promoted or read.

However, that’s not within my control. So when I write something, I want it to be meaningful and not merely random notes or thoughts. The problem is good essay-style writing takes a lot more time and effort than your basic blog filler. And time has been in short supply since I took over editing duties on my Career Changers TV show. Anyhow, I just finished the new September episode that will begin airing Thursday night on OC16, and think it’s pretty good. More on that later in the week.

What I really wanted to comment on are two recent Scientific American articles about lessons from Sherlock Holmes on “seeing” versus observing, and paying attention to what isn’t there (or “non-choices” being a choice that we should also think about). For instance, have any of you wondered whether the newspaper’s new paywall would affect online content or bloggers and the Star-Advertiser’s internet readership? Does the lack of comments or public outcry signal something worse than indifference — apathy?

We live in curious times. Never before has there been so much emphasis on the need to succeed and finding a competitive edge due to the dicey economic conditions. Yet at the same time, never before have there been so many self-help books/programs about “being in the moment” and finding spiritual contentment instead of focusing on specific material goals. This hit home for me over the weekend while watching two diametrically-opposed movies that embody this existential dilemma.

The films came from two different countries with very different cultures: the U.S. and South Korea. There was the Hollywood high concept movie, LIMITLESS, which is about a loser writer guy who becomes addicted to smart pills that turn him into an opportunistic genius. He is able to make millions in weeks, but the downside is others are willing to kill him to get their hands on the wonder drug — that is, if the drug doesn’t kill him first. Essentially it’s the New American Dream: get rich fast by using the financial markets to make money instead of having to actually work for it. And success is the ultimate high.

The next night, my wife and I watched POETRY, a slow-moving, poignant portrayal of a simple Korean grandmother, who works as a maid. She’s been forgetting everyday words and is diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s. Then she learns that the teenage grandson she is taking care of, is one of six boys who repeatedly had forced sex with a school girl, leading to her suicide. The woman wrestles with the moral dilemma of what to do about the boy, while struggling to write a poem for a class she signed up for on a whim… well, not a whim, but more of a long-delayed need to express herself before dementia robs her of the words she can still remember.

LIMITLESS is a so-so film. Too much voiceover narration by the protagonist telling us the story. Despite all the snazzy visual effects and pumped up music, in the end, it felt lifeless. Artificial. POETRY is the opposite: the characters don’t actually say a lot — in fact, the protagonist doesn’t say anything about what she’s really thinking about her grandson and what he did. The movie shows us through her simple heart-breaking actions what she’s feeling inside. At the end, she finds the words for her poem, and it speaks volumes about her character and what matters in life. In LIMITLESS, the protagonist’s big goal at the end is to win a political office! Oh, yeah, like he’s gonna change the world because he’s super smart now. Obviously, that movie bears no relation to the real world where intelligence is not an asset in politics.

Lastly, on this theme of seeing versus observing, it reminded me of driving in the car with my wife. The other day, Isabel noticed there was a new shop in Kailua. It had actually been open for awhile. I knew that because she always does the driving, and I’m the passenger. As the driver, she has to focus on the road ahead and immediate concerns such as oncoming cars, while I have the luxury of time to look out the window and take in the changing landscape. But as a writer, I also try to make it a habit to “observe” my surroundings wherever I am. In a way, I’m like that Korean woman, jotting down notes and details for the poem — or scripts, in my case, that I want to write.

In my own quest for success as a screenwriter, I’ve often written with blinders on, focusing on the high concept Hollywood story — fast-moving page turners like LIMITLESS. But in the process, I may have missed smaller details that would have made my stories more personal and moving. More human. I look around at all the people who are driven to succeed in the corporate or financial world, and wonder if they too are missing the little details that transform mundane moments around us into poetry. The irony — or paradox? — is life is all about limits. But what makes us human is the need to push beyond limitations and rules, for better or worse.

Here’s the links to the aforementioned Scientific American pieces that got me to thinking about this topic:

Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

Don’t Just See, Observe

Last chance to see the August episode of Career Changers TV before the new show premieres on Thursday night! Click here for daily viewing times... or check out video segments on the CCTV YouTube Channel.

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Dedicated Follower of Fashion

August 12, 2011

I am a man of impeccable taste. When I Tweet, each message is pithy and wry, worthy of Re-Tweeting. The photos I post on Facebook are artful without being pretentious or cliches; people I hardly know “Like” my pictures and the YouTube links I share. My music playlists are perfect for the hippest parties… eclectic, yet each song connects to the next either lyrically or through the melody. The people I follow, and who follow me, are trend-setters. We are in fashion even when we purposely try to be anti-fashion. Yes, I am the ultimate social media machine: a complete and utter phony, who needs to check my blog hits and FB/Twitter follower counts every fifteen minutes for affirmation of my popularity in the online world.

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The above is an opening paragraph for a short story or essay of some sort, inspired by the songs of Ray Davies. I’ve been thinking a lot about him and the music of the Kinks lately. When the movie CAPTAIN AMERICA was about to be released, lines from “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” (1979) played in my head:

I remember, when you were down
And you needed a helping hand
I came to feed you
But now that I need you
You won’t give me a second glance
Now I’m calling all citizens from all over the world
This is Captain America calling
I bailed you out when you were down on your knees
So will you catch me now I’m falling

So I pulled out a more recent CD by Ray Davies from 2006, titled “Other People’sĀ  Lives.” Did you know he was 61 when he released that first solo album? Many of his songs are like mini-movies or short stories about characters. Not coincidentally, he wrote music for movie projects and rock operas that yielded mixed results. But they were always about something. He would comment on society, the times we live in, the state of the world… or something much smaller and closer to home, like your neighbor and what really goes on behind the respectable facade they put up for others to see.

I thought of his songs while watching that Bravo reality series, Platinum Hit. The young songwriters were talented and ambitious. Most could sing fairly well and were attractive. Yet nearly everything they wrote as part of the competition was about themselves or what they wanted — be it a love interest, success, or recognition. It was all Me, Me, Me. I can’t recall one song any of them wrote that was about broader social issues (other than being gay because one of the guys was gay).

How this connects back to my opening paragraph is this is the Age of Me: Twitter, Facebook, blogging… and yes, this blog is about me too. The irony is the more people I “connect” to via social media, the less time — and interest — I have in trying to keep up with other people’s constant stream of FB updates or Tweet and Re-Tweets. It seems like everyone is selling something. I keep hearing social media “experts” say it’s all about personal “branding.”

At first I bought into that idea. I thought I could use Twitter, Facebook, blogging, to promote my screenplays and myself as a writer. But I’m not a brand. I’m a human being, and what I want to say doesn’t fit neatly into 140 characters or short Facebook “wall” posts. Nowadays the facade of respectability isn’t scenes from suburbia as portrayed in old Kinks songs — it’s the way we interface via computer screens and smart phones or iPads. There was a time when I took pride in being an “early adopter” type, quick to try out new technology. Lately though, I’ve become nostalgic for vinyl LPs and album covers with lyrics on them, along with my old handwritten journal notes and actual letters written by friends in faraway places that I have saved — unlike the countless emails I’ve deleted or Tweets that are forgotten two minutes after I’ve scrolled through them.

I guess I’m not such a dedicated follower of fashion, after all.

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I’ve been putting off my latest update on this year’s screenwriting contest results and the ongoing Amazon Studios experiment since I’m still in the running for a couple of competitions and am working on two proposals for $40,000 project awards that Amazon will be doling out for test movies. What’s interesting is an old sci-fi script I had shelved a few years ago scored high in the Nicholl Fellowships and is a finalist in another contest, while screenplays of mine that did well before in the Nicholl bombed out this time around… which just goes to show it often comes down to the subjective taste of an individual reader. Or maybe “taste” changes over time, and what’s old becomes new again?

Real Love

August 2, 2011

I haven’t posted anything here in awhile for a couple of reasons: first, the person who was shooting/editing my local TV show informed me he was offered a full-time job, so I’ve been “auditioning” replacement camera people and editors the past two weeks — and wound up having to do most of the editing myself for the August episode of Career Changers TV; and frankly, there hasn’t been much in the way of new movies or TV series that has excited me enough to comment on them.

Yet I realized something important when I finished outputting my little TV show this weekend: I was happy with the work I had done. Well, let me back up — it’s something my wife said that triggered the epiphany. Over the course of 25 years of marriage, Isabel has stood by my side and supported me financially and emotionally during the tough times — rehab, then rebuilding my life and experiencing a lot of rejection as a writer. When I felt I was wasting my time pursuing my dream of being a screenwriter, she encouraged me to keep writing. Each time I fell short or didn’t win a contest, or had a potential movie deal fall apart, she was there to pick me up… while at the same time she was struggling to keep her own business going after 9/11 and the ensuing recessions. Eventually, Isabel sold her company, and found a new job after a long search. But she didn’t really love what she was doing. Still, she worked hard to be the best manager she could be for that company.

And she never complained. It hurt me though because I knew the unspoken truth was she felt she didn’t have a choice since I wasn’t making enough money to allow her to quit or take a lower-paying job she might have enjoyed more. I mean, we still had a good life — we’ve traveled and own a nice townhouse in Hawaii. But when you’re married to a writer who hasn’t sold anything, you have to make certain sacrifices. For instance, we put off remodeling our bathrooms and kitchen until this year because we had to choose between taking vacation trips or fixing up the house. Hardly Sophie’s Choice type decisions, but you get the picture. It makes you wonder if you should have changed course sooner and abandoned unrealistic goals.

What got me to thinking about all this was a piece by Owen Gleiberman in the July 29 issue of Entertainment Weekly in which he offered theories on why the glut of superhero movies was leaving him feeling uninspired. When every other movie is about characters with super powers and the stories revolve around absurd world-in-danger plots that bear no resemblance to reality, yeah, it is kind of hard to work up any genuine emotion for what you’re watching on the screen, regardless of how many hundreds of millions of dollars they spent on special effects. I just want something real, you know what I mean?

The only thing I’ve seen in the past year that made me care about the characters was Friday Night Lights. My wife and I just started watching it from Season One last year. She was so hooked on it that I had to ration out the episodes so we didn’t blow through all four seasons in two weeks… and then we had to patiently wait for the final season to be available through Netflix.

If you’ve watched the series, you’ll understand how the top part of this post relates to Friday Night Lights. It’s not just a TV show about football. It’s about family and marriage, and in the end, it’s about real love. They talk about things like buying a nicer house and what they can or can’t afford. They make mistakes. But at their core, they are all decent people who try to do the right thing. I think that’s why we became so attached to the characters. We didn’t want to see them fail. They reflected what we’d like to believe is the best in ourselves. That’s what marriage does too. It brings out the best (and worst) in us. As I watched FNL, I kept telling myself, “They’re only characters in a TV show. Stop crying, dammit!” That’s how real it seemed to me. It was that rare blend of great writing and terrific acting that transports you into their world, and it becomes your world too.

If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry about the spoiler I’m going to reveal. For five seasons, we see how the Coach and his wife support each other when they encounter obstacles in their respective career goals. But for the most part, it’s the wife who puts her career second to her husband’s needs and desires. Sure, he always says the right things about how she should do what she wants to do… then in the final episode, he has to put up or shut up when she finally says, “It’s my turn.”

I cried… all these years, my wife has been doing whatever she could to see me realize my dream. So when I started producing my local TV show that wasn’t very good in the beginning, and was barely making any money from sponsors, I felt like a loser. It felt like surrenderĀ  — I was admitting to myself and to her that chances are I’ll never sell a script or get a book deal. And this was the best I could do? Put out a low budget, low quality TV show for a channel that’s just a couple of steps up from public access television. How sad.

The thing is, that’s not how she saw it. Each episode she would see some small improvement. She would compliment me and tell me it was getting better and better. Then this past month, as Isabel watched me struggling to get the show out and trying to learn a lot of foreign jargon related to cameras, technical television stuff and Final Cut Pro editing, she kept assuring me I could do it.

She went with me to the cable station to turn in the finished show. The techie reviewed it and said everything was okay for airing. As we walked out, Isabel said: “Honey, I’m really proud of you!” I just kind of shrugged. But inside, I was glowing. This is what real love is… it’s not about two young, attractive people meeting cute, having some stupid misunderstanding, then getting back together in formulaic fashion 60 minutes later, representing a few weeks or months. Real love is like Friday Night Lights, played out over seasons and years in which we grow, we suffer, we cry and laugh. We hold each other and that’s enough.

That’s not something you see often in TV or movies, or even find in many books these days. Maybe I need to write that story for myself — and for Isabel. I know it sounds sappy, but she makes me want to be a better writer, and a better person.