Archive for October 2013

Halloween, Past and Present

October 22, 2013

artaddictaHmm, who was that masked man?

(NOTE: This is a piece I wrote for the defunct Honolulu Star-Bulletin, which was published in their Sunday editorial section back on Oct. 28, 2007. I used to do a weekly column about addictions and recovery, and thought this was an interesting take on why we like Halloween so much.)

Halloween is a drunkard’s dream — a strange brew of revelry, scary stuff, and for many adults, copious amounts of alcohol. It’s one of the few occasions on which the crazier you behave, the more people cheer you on. Any other time you’d be arrested.

Before I got sober, it was my favorite holiday because I could be whoever I wanted to be. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell the truth.” Give him a flask though, and it gets trickier to tell whether it’s honesty or the booze talking.

Throughout history, masks have been associated with man’s two-faced nature. Shamans wore them to ward off evil spirits, heal the sick or communicate with the dead. Ancient Greek actors used masks to convey emotions and amplify their voices. And of course, masks have been used for comedic effect dating back to the first Neanderthal who put on a boar’s snout for yuks.

Perhaps it’s the ambiguity of costumes that make Halloween parties so much fun. When you see a man in drag, what is he really saying about his sexuality or phobias? Is the office assistant in that skintight Elvira dress hinting she’s not so prim?

Then you have the “witty” costumes that make reference to current events or historical figures. Those people are saying, “Look at me! I’m much smarter than that schlub in the Austin Powers get-up!” Avoid them at parties unless you are Mensa material.

In college, like most young adults, I tried on various personas. But my Halloween creations were more like bad performance art. One year I was the back half of a dining table, with my head sticking through a hole so it appeared to be sitting on a plate. Another time I was the fictional frontman for an awful punk rock band, Nick Nucleus & The Amoebas. I told everyone we “split up” during our first performance of “Mitosis Boogie.”

My sophomore year, I became a demure Geisha with the help of heavy make-up applied by a girlfriend who loaned me her kimono. I didn’t think I was going to fool anyone; my hairy eyebrows were a dead giveaway.

However, I forgot about the “beer goggle” effect that lonely men experience after too many drinks. While I was at a frat party on campus, I went over to the keg for a refill. Loud disco music thumped from the speakers. A clean-cut guy held the tap open for me, smiled and shyly asked me to dance. As I raised my bushy eyebrows in bemusement, he blurted: “Oh, shit.” Then he laughed and suggested we could still dance. I think he was joking.

I’m not sure why so many guys enjoy being a woman on Halloween. Women tend to stick with their own feminine gender roles — just trashier. Naughty nurses, sexy school girl uniforms, and the old standby, slutty kitties. It makes you wonder whose fantasies they’re acting out, and why they so willingly objectify themselves. Not that I’m complaining.

Another reason to like Halloween is the paradoxical aspects. It started as a Celtic pagan festival to mark the change of seasons, a time when the worlds of the dead and the living overlapped. Yet the same morbid holiday gives young ladies an excuse to display their inner kinkiness. It’s sex and death in the same Trick or Treat bag!

A psychologist could explain better what our costume choices reveal about us. All I know is in my younger days, the masks I wore allowed me to morph from an introvert with stage fright into a trickster who did things my “normal” self never could do. Like hijacking a New York City parade.

I used to live near Greenwich Village where they have an outrageous Halloween parade every year. The only costume left in the store was one of those cheap boxed sets that kids wear over their clothes. It was the “Joanie Loves Chachi” set. Somehow I wound up in front of the parade as it meandered towards Seventh Avenue South, where I frequented a jazz club by the same name. Musicians from the “Saturday Night Live” band and David Letterman show were regulars at that bar, so I thought it would be fun if I led the parade there.

I was like the Pied Piper of drunks and degenerates. Hundreds jammed into the small building. It got so crazy that the ungrateful club owners ordered me to stop partying and work behind the bar as unpaid help. On the bright side though, my homage to “Joanie Loves Chachi” won the Worst Costume prize.

Alcohol was the elixir that fueled my alter egos. But the hangovers and blackouts left me feeling empty and spent. There was no real me. Just stories about someone I didn’t recognize as myself. The Wolfman probably felt the same way the morning after a full moon.

I have a picture of myself from the day I checked into rehab, four years after the parade fiasco. On my face is the same look of bemusement I had when the guy at the kegger realized I wasn’t a chick. It’s as if in that moment, the mask had come off and I finally knew the truth. I was an alcoholic in need of help. Thankfully, I got it.

Many addicts don’t get that opportunity. Maybe it’s because we see their mug shots and they scare us — they are monsters, who will corrupt your children or kill someone. They have to be banished, locked away like the boogeyman who hides in our bedroom closets. The reality is most of them aren’t much different than me or you.

What we see in the masks worn by others, more often than not reflects our own fears and desires. Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. I look at them now and they remind me of addicts, caught between the land of the living and the realm of the dead. I was one of them. But that party monster has been laid to rest, along with my other alter egos.

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Nicholl Notes and Depressing Comedies

October 11, 2013

It’s been a rough month for me. After I got word my LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET script didn’t make it into the semifinal round, I received more bad news. Two smaller fellowship programs — one for Asian-Americans, another geared to Hawaii screenwriters — notified me I did not make their cut either. The same LOST script that scored high enough to be in the top 5 percent of 7,251 Nicholl entries did not impress readers in other contests that don’t attract nearly as many submissions. But judging at any level is subjective, so none of this surprised me.

In any event, when I get depressed, I look forward to reading books or watching movies that might get me out of my funk. Something to make me smile, laugh, see the bright side of life in general. So I had high hopes for THIS IS THE END since most critics said it was hilarious, although there was profanity and a lot of “adult” humor. They must have seen a different movie than the piece of crap I saw. Okay, at first the idea of watching Seth Rogen, James Franco, et al, playing over the top versions of themselves was amusing… for about 15 minutes. Then it became a series of increasingly juvenile bits with them screaming “sh*t… what the f@ck… f@cking this/that/you” and other unimaginative putdowns that I hardly consider “adult” in any way, shape or form of writing. In hindsight, I wonder if they even bothered to “write” a script for this movie. It was depressing to think that this is the new standard for humor in modern American films.

Which brings me back to the Nicholl Fellowships. I guess their readers are out of step with Hollywood because the notes I got back from two of their contest judges said they liked my script because they felt it was funny, yet was “very mature” and had an “adult vibe” that made it stand out. This was the first year that excerpts from the readers’ comments were sent to writers who placed in the quarterfinals on up.  They did not send the complete reviews/scores or indicate who the readers were, so it’s sort of like incomplete coverage that only focuses on the positives.

The thing I found most funny — and flattering — about the comments was that one reader wrote: “I would bet money that the author once worked the same job as the protagonist in real life.” In the script, my protag works part-time in a supermarket as part of the security staff that monitors customers for theft and other potential problems in the store… a job I never had, but did research for the screenplay. I always strive for authenticity and try to find details in my characters’ occupations that will create a sense of verisimilitude, and give the illusion I know what the hell I’m writing about.

For what it’s worth, here’s the Nicholl notes in their entirety just as I received them on a single page Word Document. If you’d like to read my script, feel free to hit me up with an email…

2013 Nicholl Fellowships – QF Readers Comments for “Lost in the Supermarket” by Rich Figel

This script captures both the thrill of witnessing a born musical talent who has gone full tilt to fine tune his ability as well as the yearning for an artist’s beloved and realization that a life of artistic passion also carries many costs.

Phil’s honesty about his own lack of sheer genius or extraordinary talent as well as his open awe for those who possess them are touching. Through his perspective, we too both admire Davis’ gift, courage and choices as well as mourn the losses these choices have cost him.

Gen is flawed yet sympathetic as we ride the ups and downs with her, through Phil’s infatuated eyes while he covets his idol’s girlfriend. The writer adds welcome complexity to this love triangle: Phil loves Davis as an inspiring mentor and longs for his gift and girlfriend yet also feels her pain in loving an artist whose music comes first.

The story builds more and the craft improves as it progresses. Phil’s honesty is disarming. The humor is funny yet also feels genuine. This story is poignant, and the writer doesn’t compromise, particularly at the conclusion.

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Reader 2:

There’s a very mature and adult vibe and tone to this story that makes it stand out.  The way the protagonist comes to care about and form a friendship with the musician feels different from what we usually see and the way he falls in love with the man’s girl is refreshing— though he longs for her, he respects the musician too much and keeps his relationship with the girl on a friends only level. 

This has a simple set-up and is easy to follow yet it has special touches that make it feel unique and fresh.  Humor is integrated expertly into the story and there are some great individual scenes and moments that add to the story without necessarily advancing it.  The central conflict is subtle yet still drives the plot slowly drawing us into the action.  We can’t help but fall in love with these characters and care about what happens to them.

The characters show real depth and personality.  They are likable.  Many of them are funny and provide a nice balance to the main drama which deals with the jazz musician and his girlfriend.  The way our protagonist becomes involved with the couple is worked into the story in a logical manner.  The dialogue is great — the conversations have a smooth flow and the lines sparkle with wit and realism.

The setting is used to good effect and there are a lot of “inside” moments about the way the supermarket works — I would bet money that the author once worked the same job as the protagonist in real life.  The descriptions are good and movement and action are laid out clearly — the reader easily forms a mental picture of what is happening on the page.

There were a few typos and some minor formatting issues but nothing to get worked up over.  All in all, this is a solid and tight work that shows a lot of creativity and skill.  I liked it a lot.