Girl is really into the Bermuda Triangle right now. She wants to take a boat to the edge of it and flay a paper plane into it. Her big thing now is "teaching" in her classroom, and of course I am the inept pupil. Her earnestness is so cool, and she's obviously modeling her second grade teacher. And I get to trick her into improving my math skills.
Got contributors' copies today of Legends of the Mountain State, a collection of stories based on West Virginia folk tales. My story "Silver Run" was inspired by the haunted train tunnels that abound in the coal country. It's a little cynical, almost Twainish, and probably is pretty honest about my interpersonal relationships with females, such as they are. I feel my last couple of novels were cynical, too, but I think the newer projects move away from that a little, mainly by making women more prominent and heroic figures and moving away from the value of a "core relationship" to the plot. Let's face it, family moving to haunted house, couple under stress, couple resolves their differences while overcoming Evil is a pretty tired scenario. And I've yet to see that actually happen in real life.
I do a lot of thinking about storytelling, in whatever form, and usually I can figure out the ending, or the two possible plot twists, very early. I think it's because I'm thinking along with the creator, not because I'm a genius or anything. Most creators paint themselves into a corner in the second act, so it's delightful when something completely works for me. I've been under the weather so I've been on the couch watching a lot of movies. I'm not stretching my brain much. Recent ones have been Revenge of the Zombie Army, Boogie Nights, The Emperor's New Groove, The Astronaut's Wife, and The Attack of the Killer Leeches. Okay, this may surprise you, but for pure storytelling skill, here's how I rate them:
1) The Emperor's New Groove. This movie is just plain awesome. It has charm, humor, and heart. A good moral lesson without being cheesy, decent animation without copping out for the visual extravaganza and losing the story. This is the kind of thing I would be very proud to create. This is probably the fourth time I've seen it and it still holds up.
2) The Attack of the Killer Leeches. Roger Corman. That tells you all you need to know. Lack of budget and inflatable vinyl monsters aside, this one delivered exactly what it promised and maintained its tone. Square-jawed, hairy-chested hero saves the day with a little help from his friends and the support of the loyal but overprotective gal pal. An honest movie, with a solid plot and interesting characterization.
3) The Astronaut's Wife. I love Johnny Depp, he's probably my favorite actor now that Eastwood and Nicholson have aged out of prime time. He does a great job here as the warm man turning cold, and Charlize Theron is easy on the eyes, but the plot is little more than a big-budget version of a Corman effort, with an inherently flawed premise. It gives nothing away to say that once the big mystery is revealed, you automatically realize that the plot development is contrived solely to benefit the convenience of the storytellers--the reality is that the premise doesn't require the cooperation of Depp and Theron at all, it could happen to anyone, or everyone at once. It gets even worse when they try to throw in "twists" when there are really only two possible outcomes and neither would be a surprise.
4) Revenge of the Zombie Army. Old b & w with zombies that basically just stare straight ahead and do whatever their master bids and never so much as munch a finger. But it is built around a timeless conflict, a man's love for a woman and how he's willing to shed morality to win her, while knowing she loves another. Despite some ham-handed production and predictability, it still has some heart.
5) Boogie Nights. The late 1970s disco era was already old and square when I was entering my formative cultural years, so I try not to let that influence my look at the structure. Okay, we get it: the porn industry is filled with desperate, vapid, cynical people. Anybody who watches five minutes of real porn understands this already. And it would have worked if it had maintained that air-headed tone throughout, but somewhere near the end of the second act it veers off in a totally random and violent direction and becomes another movie. Sure, there is violence in any seedy industry where funny money abounds, but to have it happen all at the same time to a small group of people in separate incidents seems way too contrived and basically broke the contract with the audience, and Humpty Dumpty could not be put together again. All I ever heard about this movie was "It's Burt Reynold's comeback," which is probably the only thing anyone could really say about it, for better or worse.
Okay, so now I've figured out what works and what doesn't. And I'm sure you're thinking, "Gee, Scott, if you're so damned smart, why aren't you writing blockbuster movies with heart?" Good question. I think I'll go do that right now.