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Batman Begins: Plot Ends

(Now that the Holidays are over and the book tour for VIENNA is wrapped up, I’m taking the time to goof off a bit.  Read on!)

No other movie so Unknown-2effectively killed off plot as did Batman Begins. A huge hit both publically and critically (honestly, who doesn’t want two hours of Christian Bale doing his impression of a dying frog with laryngitis?) the movie was the final blow to coherent story telling.

Consider the case of the microwave-emitting-boiling-water contraption that zaps hundreds of people without hurting them. Because, you know, People Water has a different chemical composition that Real Water. (It’s slimy and icky and full of microscopic-thingies.) Of course, fan boys explain this away by suggesting the beams could be focused, or some such nonsense that was never mentioned in the movie. But it’s hopeless, because it’s not the real issue.

The real issue is that we have a toxin that has (over several weeks) been bled into the Gotham water supply. This toxin is released by boiling water. So apparently, over the last several weeks, no one in the entire city of millions of people ever boiled water for dinner. ‘Cause we all gave up pasta due to that gluten thing.

This is what is offered as the big evil plan, and it’s dumber than trying start a fire with spit. And you know what? It makes the entire movie dumb. Yes, Christian Bale whispering threats into people’s ears is uber-dreamy. And yes some of the background is fun (if over-long), but the plot—the bones of the movie—is a wretched, stinking heap of festering stupid.

I am far from the first to point this out, but the flood gates have been opened, and there is no going back.

Remember Matt Damon on Mars? I genuinely like Matt Damon. Loved him in True Grit. Loved him in Ocean’s Eleven. Truth is, I liked him in The Martian as well. What I didn’t like was his neurotic spaceship. You know the one that tips over if the wind blows really hard? (Apparently the spaceship was designed by the same geniuses that gave us the AMC Pacer.)

But what’s really unforgivable is that there is a second ship of the exact same design on the exact same windy planet that somehow is expected to remain standing for five years. How does this work? What’s the thinking here? Sorry Matt, you were sent to Mars by sand-munching morons. You should have died.

And while the Force might be awake, common sense dozes on. If you have a weapon that eats stars, you don’t need to add a gun that destroys planets. (Especially a gun that allows the enemy to blow the place up, because that never happens, right?) Come on, how long would life last on Earth if something ate the sun? (The answer is eight minutes. And yes, that is the real answer.) Having a gun on such a machine is beyond pointless. It’s crappy plotting. Stop trying to rationalize it, and start demanding that moviemakers actually do some writing beyond Insert explosion here.

I know, I know. I’m over-thinking it. Loosen up. Just go with it.

No. I refuse. When plots are stupid, your characters have to be equally stupid not to see through them. I will not cheer for stupid heroes. No matter how throaty their whispers.

The Writing of Vienna: The Agony in the Garden

The Agony in the Garden,  Eglise St-Jean-du- Béguinage, Brussels.  Photograph by Kathryn Kirby.

The Agony in the Garden, Eglise St-Jean-du- Béguinage, Brussels. Photograph by Kathryn Kirby.

The Agony in the Garden is an ode to human weakness. Replace the apostles with friends and you have a modern-day parable for what happens when moving time comes around. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

In the opening chapters of my mystery novel, Vienna is character whose limits are defined by the unquestioned conviction of her frailty. Spurned after a one-night stand (yet another test she has failed), her only response is tears. Every step she takes into the world seems to be off a cliff.

Wandering through her misery, Vienna finds herself at the Eglise St-Jean-du-Béguinage, in Brussels. Looking upon a centuries-old frieze of the Agony of the Garden, she reflects upon her own weakness. Depression tells her she’s hopeless, but the spur-of-the-moment verdict hides a deeper truth. Vienna does not retreat back to her sunless apartment. She turns and faces the day, a simple act of courage she doesn’t even acknowledge.

Within minutes, Vienna’s choice leads her to the heart of a 19th century tangle of fortune and blackmail.   Her self-confidence in tatters, she has lottery odds of solving the mystery. Worse, the riddle forces her to work with Justine Am, a know-it-all American loudmouth who has everything anyone could ever want. And who, despite having no rational claim to misery, seems to have a more than passing acquaintance with it.

Can’t be. Justine has everything. How could she need help from anyone? Especially anyone as addicted to failure as Vienna?

It’s another mystery Vienna must solve.

Vienna walked to one of the friezes that flanked the doors of the church, if only for the sake of appearing to be doing something. Other than crying.

Christ waited there, beseeching weathered apostles. The Agony in the Garden. There were words that went with the scene, written in italic red letters: Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation; the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.

My Life as a Supermodel (Part 2)

The Berserkers Field, Iceland.  Photograph by Author.

The Berserkers Field, Iceland. Photograph by Author.

After a bit of a hiatus, due to blown rotator cuffs and broken hands, I’m ready again to face the question of how an average-looking male can reasonably be expected to write the thoughts of a twenty-something supermodel during a same-sex encounter.   If you’ll recall, we were in the Berserker’s Field in Iceland, with Justine Am and Vienna.  We were trying for a subtle love scene.  So what, exactly, would supermodel Justine Am be thinking out there on the tundra?   Coming up with an answer seemed more unlikely than the Cubs winning the World Series.  What was I supposed to write?

The easy answer, which is:  “Just wing it” is not without merit.  After all, what are the chances of being caught?  How many people can actually claim to be supermodels?  How would anyone know if I even did any sort of research?

Of course, another possible (if not exactly plausible) answer was to spend the afternoon looking at pictures of supermodels doing a Victoria’s Secret show and hope for inspiration.

Unfortunately, the need for some sort of cogent hook for this scene finally drove me to the Internet in search of whatever it is supermodels think about when they’re out in the wilds of Iceland with an introverted, depressed, and likely autistic, young lady.

My hard-won advice is to never try these search parameters.  Never.  It’s a really stupid way to waste time.

The correct answer serves as my answer to every question along the lines of “What makes you think you can write such-and-such characters?”  The answer is to shut off the computer.  Shut off the cell.  Shut off the background music.  Shut off the TV.  Close your eyes and think about what it means to be human.  And then assume that supermodels are human too.  Risky, I know, but there is a certain twisted logic to it.  Think about love and what that means.  Think about a place with no honking horns and no deadlines, and what that means.  Think about being alone with another person who wants to be with you, and what that means.

Think about an hour in paradise.  And then turn the word processor back on and write about that.  My guess is, everyone (from supermodels to old writers) can understand that point of view.

“Why aren’t we making love,” Vienna asked.  “We are,” Justine said.

My Life as a Supermodel (Part 1)

The Hauptplatz of Graz.  Photograph by Kathryn Kirby.

The Hauptplatz of Graz. Photograph by Kathryn Kirby.

On a warm September evening in the Graz Hauptplatz, I was approached by the most beautiful woman in the world. She was dressed from neck to ankles in a modest combination of black wool and cotton. Her brunette hair, shoulder-length, caught the evening sun in a perfect metaphor for health and youth. Her flawless skin made my freckle-dotted arm look diseased. She had liquid brown eyes. This was not Helen to launch a thousand ships. This was an earthquake. Our eyes met. She smiled. I stepped to the side. That’s what a gentleman does. Encounter over. I turned to watch her glide down the crowded sidewalk. Except I found myself watching everyone watch her. Male, female—it didn’t matter. Everyone looked. Kathy commented on the woman’s beauty before I did.  She parted the crowd like Moses going for a swim.

Fortunately there’s a fountain in the center of the Hauptplatz.  I could sit beside the gurgling water and think things over.  That’s what writers do: act morose and glare out at the world while trying to figure out what the hell is happening.  Kathy, who is used to this silliness, explored nearby architecture and had a great time while I scowled at the perfect evening.

My conclusion was that the beautiful woman was an alien life form.  Or close enough anyway.  On the most trivial level, when she smiled people got out of her way.  How weird would that be?  On the particular fall evening, the thought seemed earth-shatteringly important.  So I spent half an hour sorting through all the ways the woman’s world was different than mine.  There had to be story in that, right?  So I talked to Kathy about it, and she agreed that I should write something, because (she pointed out) that’s also the kind of thing writers do.

Which was fine in theory.  “Hey, I could write this thing about this beautiful fashion model doing this stuff.”  It sounded solid until the story moved on to a place called Berserker’s Field in the middle of Iceland.  Then it all fell apart.

For reasons that seemed sane at the time, I’d placed my fashion model, Justine Am, and my troubled orphan, Vienna, out in Berserker’s Field.  They were going to make love.  Not the sweaty, clothes-off–in-a-pile kind of love, but that much more difficult, “Hey, I think there might be something here” moment when you have to converse with another human being on a level that will later allow the clothes-off gymnastics to take place.  That tiny, beautiful, slice of time when simply holding hands qualifies as erotica.

This had to be a quiet scene.  Physically, it could be nothing beyond Justine and Vienna talking and looking up at the night sky.  There had to be gentle humor.  There had to be an undercurrent of deep emotion.  There had to be enough bravery to overcome various internal glitches I’d written into these characters.

Piece of cake.  All I needed to do was write…  I could start with…  With a bit of tweaking I could…  There might be this clever exchange of dialogue where….

The thing was, out on the tundra of Iceland, Justine had to be assured in both intent and action.  She had to do the heavy lifting because (at this point in the novel) Vienna has no idea what’s called for.  Whatever problems Justine faces elsewhere in the book, in this scene she has no room to get it wrong.  So I had no room to get it wrong.  I had to think like an utterly fearless and confident twenty-three year-old fashion model contemplating an uncertain relationship with a young woman who was not always on speaking terms with reality.

Alas, a few minutes of running an internal memory check confirmed the worst:  I didn’t have any experience being a twenty-three year-old fashion model.  I’d somehow skipped that stage of life.  It wasn’t that I had no idea what Justine would do (though there was a bit of that) but I felt that anything I put down would be viewed as clueless at best and exploitive at worst.  (Look at the old perv writing about lesbian romance!)  So I stepped out of my study to speak to Kathy.  “Hey, that story I’ve been working on for the last three months?  It’s going to be hard to sell.”  Kathy, who is used to this silliness, said, “You should finish it anyway.”

I did what any writer would do.  I bought a six-pack of outrageously priced microbrew.  I drank too much of it and projected exceptionally vile thoughts at my blank computer screen.  Then I played Minecraft for three days straight.  And then…

(to be continued)

Your Vampires Suck. But Not Enough.

Part of why I enjoyed Max Brook’s World War Z (the book, not the movie) is that Brooks carefully sets rules for what zombies are, and then he sticks to them. This makes for good times because once you have rules, you have tension. Conversly, no rules equal no tension. Say, for example, Brooks made it so zombies could be cured, and everyone got better. Before you know it the Cubs win the World Series and the IRS makes its money at bake sales. No tension.

“Example?” you ask. I present the festering pile of zombie vomit called 28 Weeks Later. It got mixed reviews among the general populace, but aficionados were near universal in pointing their thumbs earthward. Why? In part because the movie broke every rule of behavior, intelligence, and science that one might think up. The “writers” simply changed whatever rules they wanted in order to make the best highlight reel. “Hey, we have a bunch of people who are 100% infectious here, what should we do with ‘em?” “Put ‘em in the middle of London with healthy people, and then put a perimeter around the whole mess so we can grease the entire population when the disease invariably gets loose.” “Okay dokay, sounds like a solid plan.” Wait… what? I’m cheering for the zombies at that point.

I Googled "vampire" and got this image, among others equally as tasty.  Question: Why does she have suntanned arms?  Answer:  Who cares!

I Googled “vampire” and got this image, among others equally as tasty. Question: Why does she have suntanned arms? Answer: Who cares!

Which segues perfectly into the disaster that is modern vampire lore. A happy place where rules of every type are constantly being rewritten for the sake of the perfect scene. Tension, meanwhile, is swirling away like blood down a drain.

You want your vampire to live off groundhog blood? Less tension. You want your vampire to walk around in daylight? Less tension. You want your vampire to be the Pope? Okay, well, that’s kind of a good idea. (“I vant to sving your thurible!) (I have waited three decades to use the word ‘thurible’) But let’s be honest, these days your typical vampire looks like either a GQ model or a playmate (depending on whom is behind the keyboard) and acts like that guy in the office who always smiles, even on Monday mornings. And most importantly, come nighttime they know how to shake the bedposts. Because, you know, we always play with our food before we eat it.

And I’m okay with that. The manifestation of Dracula as a sexual surrogate for whatever fantasy you have is scrumptious as kittens in chocolate as far as I’m concerned. And as for those who have become rich off this formula, I have nothing but praise. I mean that from the absolute bottom of my bloodless heart.

But your vampire is not my vampire. If you meet my vampire in the middle of the night, you don’t end up sharing soft kisses, working a Sudoku or two, and having that nice bottle of blood wine that you’ve been saving all these years. If you meet my vampire in the middle of the night, you are either lucky, or you are dead. Because, like it or not, my vampire has rules. The first three of which are:

Rule One: Vampires feed on people. Not dogs. Not squirrels. Not nematodes. People. And like all predators, they don’t (in general) give a hoot for their prey. When was the last time you saw a lion discussing Shakespeare with a water buffalo? It just isn’t done. The same has to be true of vampires. They’re hungry! Hungry creatures do mean things to their food. Just this morning I put leftover pizza in a microwave and nuked the crap out of it. Is that considerate? Is it nice? Look, if you fall in love with a vampire (which is fine) there has to be some baggage there—some issues you might want to think about. (How, for example, did the bloodless corpse of your mailman end up in the guest bedroom? And (while we’re looking at him) where did he get that nifty thurible tattoo?)

Rule Two: Vampires die in the sun. Period. Why? Because every Achilles must have a heel, or it’s no fun. Vampires who walk around in daylight are nothing more than mass murders with a fetish for dark eyeliner and a predilection for filing their teeth. But things get crazy complex when you have to trust Ms. Vampire not to bleed you dry, and she has to trust you not to install tanning lights in her coffin.

Rule Three: Vampires can’t just make more vampires on command. Why? Because then everyone would be a vampire at eighteen. Sexy vampire walks up to teenage you and says: “Hey, if you become a vampire, we can spend endless nights together!” And with all your teenage wisdom and hormonal control, you reply: “I would, but I have this history test I gotta study for.” Sure. That’s what happens.

You want your vampire to fall in love? Great! I do too. Vampires in love are wicked fun. But with a few rules things are so much more interesting. So much more tense.

And yes, I know: My vampire has no mass appeal in modern times. I accept that. I like her anyway. I have faith that sooner or later she’ll back in fashion. She has bite.

A Novel Idea

Galleries St. Hubert, Brussels

Galleries St. Hubert, Brussels (Photograph by author)

For the next twelve months, I will be using the main page in this blog for many a fun and lighthearted post. But I will also be using it to run a race.  The finish line is the publication of my new novel, VIENNA set for 2015.  VIENNA is a contemporary mystery centered on a world-famous fashion model named Justine Am, and a world-class social outcast named Vienna.  As for the race, the rules are simple: I have to pique your curiosity in Justine and Vienna enough that you’ll give their story a read when it comes out.  The starting line is the picture to the left.  The first step goes like this:

In the heart of Brussels Belgium, there sits a 19th century mall called the Galleries St. Hubert.  It was near the entrance to St. Hubert that my wife, Kathryn, and I came across two young women at that delicate stage of romance where merely holding hands is enough.  You know the drill: Lots of blushing coupled with an utter disregard for anything happening in the mundane world.  You also know how important this moment is.  Throughout life, there may be many chances for sex, but precious few moments of delirium caused by the simple touch of hands.

The image of these two women became glued to my memories of Belgium.  It wasn’t a matter of their beauty, though to my eye both possessed more than a fair share.  It was a question of how they had ended up together on a perfect summer’s eve in Brussels, backlit by copper twilight and looking very much like an expensive perfume ad.  There had to be a story there.  As intruding into their world was out of the question I had no alternative but to write a story for them.

So here we have a young lady named Vienna, walking down the Galleries St. Hubert on a beautiful evening in Brussels.  She can’t be a local as she would sound foolish conversing in my elementary school French.  Best make her speak English.  In fact, make her a Londoner.  We don’t as yet know anything else about her.  But we know where she is and where she comes from, and that’s a start…

A few turns and she entered the Galleries Saint Hubert.  Vienna loved the spider web of iron and glass that covered the long plaza, hung from the heavens with spectral grace.