Archive for March 2012

Tropical Twister: Holy Tornado!

March 10, 2012

Less than an hour after I clicked on the “publish” button to post my blog entry about witnessing hail in Hawaii for the first time,  a twister — yes, an actual tornado — tore threw nearby Lanikai and parts of Kailua that are about three miles from our house. There was major damage to a few homes, but no one was physically injured from what I’ve heard.

In the past few years, there have been water spouts sighted over the ocean waters around the islands. Once in a great while, someone will photograph or record a dust devil on video — basically, a mini-twister that doesn’t last very long. However, I didn’t even think you’d call a tornado a “tornado” if one ever touched down in Hawaii since it seemed like there should be a special meteorological term for such an event. For instance, hurricanes in Asia are typhoons, and tidal waves are tsunamis. “Twister” is what you would call a tornado in Kansas. But Hawaii?

The closing sentence in my prior post noted my feelings of fear and wonder. Little did I think those could have been my last words had that tornado deviated slightly or was more powerful than it was. We were lucky. It makes you philosophical for a moment, pondering the big questions of existence and fate. Then you think about calling your insurance agent to find out if Acts of God or things like tornadoes are covered by your current homeowner’s policy.

As a writer, it made me ponder other mysteries, such as who are all these new visitors to my Squashed Gecko blog that were Googling “hail in Hawaii” — and what were they looking for? Reports of destruction or articles on climate change, or perhaps whether it is another sign of the apocalypse? I don’t know. However, it did bump up my daily view counts, so I figured a follow up on the tornado was in order.

Ostensibly though, this is supposed to be a blog about screenwriting and sometimes recovery-related thoughts (if you are curious as to why, there is an “About” button you can click on). Even if you are not a writer, and have no interest in movies or TV because you think all modern culture sucks, well, you are still welcome to visit. I digress, which is my M.O. as a writer.

When I sat down to dash off this post, there were two movies that came to mind. Obviously, “Wizard of Oz.” If I had to pick a personal favorite film, that would be it. I could go on and on about why it captured my imagination — and heart — as a child, and continues to entertain me on so many levels decades later. But let me focus on just one aspect that ties into screenwriting…

The opening. Anyone who has studied the Hero’s Journey stages by Joseph Campbell or Chris Vogler will instantly recognize the classic set-up of the “ordinary” world, which is a mundane farm filmed in black and white. The movie takes its time in introducing the characters and themes that will be flipped when the twister transports Dorothy (and Toto too!) to the Special World, which magically transforms into Technicolor. To this day, when she opens the door to Oz, I get chicken skin. Yet it’s a few minutes before her journey really gets going. There’s no rush. Nothing feels forced or unnatural.

Which brings me to the second movie, “Cowboys and Aliens.” With a high concept title like that, you’d expect something fun, different and exciting. The movie is none of that, and worse, it’s boring. And yet, the A-list writers and producers clearly understand classic Hero’s Journey structure. They (there’s a bunch of cooks in this script kitchen) take their time in introducing the characters and dosing out back story via brief flashbacks and exposition to tell the audience stuff the Hero doesn’t know or can’t remember. On the page, the opening hook of a cowboy with a mysterious device strapped around his wrist and no recall of how he wound up in the middle of a desert, should work.

But it doesn’t, and I think I know why. There’s actually no mystery. We know it’s an alien device and he was abducted by aliens. It’s there in the title! That’s the main problem with high concept. It doesn’t necessarily fit the Hero’s Journey model as far as emotional involvement, because in this day and age, producers and audiences want to jump ahead without building up the ordinary world in any meaningful way. Hence, the flashback/non-linear structure that has become a cliche in TV and films (thanks, Quentin for ruining many perfectly fine linear stories, all because of “Pulp Fiction”).  Every time I see an opening that starts at what should be the climax, I think uh-oh, here comes the belated subtitle: “Three days earlier” or “One hour earlier,” whatever. To me, that’s a cheat. It says the writer/producer didn’t have much faith in their ordinary world set-up and were worried they’d lose the viewer with a conventional opening scene.

Now imagine if you took the opening of Oz and after Dorothy sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”… then what appears on the horizon –instead of a twister, it’s a freaking UFO! Suddenly she and the farm hands are battling aliens that abduct her precious Toto! Well, okay, maybe that’s a little too far over the rainbow. Someone is probably already working on a mash-up of “Dorothy Versus Vampires and Zombies.”

At least that sounds like it could be fun. But “Cowboys and Aliens” confuses the ordinary world with being a dull, dour place where cliches like the Mysterious Silent Stranger rides into town to save the day.

Anyhow, the sun is shining again in Hawaii, and I’m happy to be back in my ordinary world where rainbows are part of everyday life. Which can only mean an alien invasion is probably on the way, or maybe they were the secret cause of the tornado and hail storms.

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Hail in Hawaii!

March 9, 2012

Winter in Hawaii can bring lots of rain, and on occasion, a rare thunderstorm. But for all you climate change skeptics who believe the effects of global warming are a myth, gotta tell you we’ve been seeing more wild weather swings in the past two, three years than I’ve ever experienced since moving to Hawaii in 1985.

For the first time, our home in Kailua — sea level and about a mile from the ocean — was pelted by chunks of hail, ranging in size from marbles on up… some were reporting hail as big as tennis balls, which might be exaggerating a wee bit. The sky over the ocean was lit up by lightning, and thunder has been rattling the house. The heavy rain and thunderstorms have been going on all week, which is unusual too. We’re used to rainy patches during the winter that can last a few days… but not thunder and lightning.

It reminds me of that movie TAKE SHELTER, where the guy has a sense of impending doom because he has visions of an apocalyptic storm on the horizon, bringing yellowish rain. We’re not sure if he is mentally ill or possibly psychic. Critics liked it, and I was on board for awhile. But around mid-point I just got bored, and the ending was so ambiguous that I felt like I wasted my time watching it.

This morning though, when the chunks of ice were hitting our front door and rattling the windows, with the lightning flashing, rain flooding the backyard, and thunder booming in the Koolau Mountains, I felt a strangely exhilarating mix of fear and wonder.

Rainy Day Tidbits

March 8, 2012

It’s been raining hard in Hawaii the past week, with heavy flooding on the island of Kauai and rare thunderstorms here on Oahu. Say what you will about climate change, but the weather has become more severe and unpredictable these past few years. My wife and I laughed when my folks gave us emergency lanterns as Christmas gifts, but damn, those battery-powered lights sure come in handy when the power goes off. Old people don’t get old by being foolish. They think ahead and plan for the worst.

I suppose I inherited some of my parents’ tendencies to anticipate problems, which is why I’m constantly thinking about Plan B scenarios or squirreling away things for “just in case” situations. I even do that with my blogs and TV show, jotting down tidbits, saving articles, in the event I don’t have any real news to impart. Today is one of those days since I’m in limbo on scripts and pitches I’ve been sending out, and just handed off a new screenplay I started to my co-writer. I don’t collaborate often, but I’m enjoying this project because it’s a big budget sci-fi action spec and we’ve been coming up with good stuff during the outlining phase.

Anyhow, back to the tidbits I had saved up for a rainy day blog post: more Australia notes! Before we went on our trip, a friend told me we should get Tim Tams, a chocolate-covered cookie that is popular Down Under. So I bought a box and thought they were good, but it wasn’t until I had a couple more that I got hooked. My wife really started to like them too. Next thing I know, we’re hunting them down in supermarkets where they have a dozen varieties of Tim Tams — my favorite being the dark chocolate mint version. Before our return home, we bought six boxes to give as gifts. One by one, however, the Tim Tams packages disappeared from the gift bag and wound up in our snack cabinet.

In a way, the Tim Tams remind me of reality TV series. You try one and think, eh, it’s okay… I can take it or leave it. But you keep watching, even though you know the shows are just empty calories. Like those insipid “Real Housewives” series on Bravo, which I hate… yet now and then I tune in, then find myself mesmerized by the sheer superficiality of these people, acting out their little personal dramas in front of cameras and pretending this is real life.

When we travel though, I want authentic experiences. I like to watch local news or read the papers, even if I can’t understand the language. It gives me a sense of what their “reality” is as compared to our manufactured American version of Real Housewives type life. I’m always curious to see what passes for big news in other countries. While we were in Sydney, the tabloid front page headlines were about the Wiggles breaking up. I vaguely recalled hearing about them being a music group that did concerts for young children… but in Australia they were huge, stars on the level of the Beatles, or so it seemed. Weird.

But the big hype on TV was for a new reality TV series called “Please Marry My Boy.” The premise was intriguing. Single bachelors who were still living at home would go on speed dates with women — while their respective moms sat in on the dates. The mothers then choose three girls who would live in their house for a few days. After about a week of seeing the commercials, I couldn’t resist tuning in for the premiere. It was pretty funny. The women didn’t know the moms were going to be present for the dates, and also choose the prospective mates for their sons. As you might guess, the sons weren’t always attracted to the same attributes of the ladies as their mothers were.

Coincidentally, while we were visiting the Old Gaol (Jail) in Melbourne, we happened to be there while TV crews were filming what appeared to be couples competing in “The Amazing Race.” The staff weren’t permitted to confirm what show was being shot, but after I got home and mentioned it in my Honolulu Star-Advertiser blog, I was contacted via Facebook by a person in Norway who said it sounded like I saw the Norwegian edition. It turned out they had a network of “spies” all over the world who were tracking the contestants and scouring the internet for sightings such as mine.

That got me to thinking about special edition ideas for Survivor. This year the twist is they started out by pitting women against men. Eh, battle of the sexes. But my recent travels made me wonder if people in different countries react the same way to certain situations. For instance, in Australia when the bus or tram is out of service, the sign in front says: “SORRY! NOT IN SERVICE.” By contrast, you’d never see that sign on a New York City subway train or bus. It would be more like, TOUGH LUCK. The Aussies we met, by and large, really exhibited a “No worries!” attitude whenever there was a problem or complaint.

We happened to be there during the Chinese Lunar New Year weekend, so we also got to see what it’s like being around 16,000 Chinese travelers in one place at one time. They are nothing like the quiet, reserved Japanese tourists we’re accustomed to seeing in Hawaii.  The Chinese were very loud, and in the words of some Australians who had to deal with the tour groups, “pushy.” Not all,  of course, but clearly they have a different temperament than Japanese travelers… or Aussies… or Americans. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if Survivor pitted groups from different countries against each other? Would they reinforce the image we have of certain people or break down ethnic stereotypes?

All I know is if you put the Real Housewives on Survivor, they’d probably all quit after three days of bitching and back-stabbing.