Criminal Boredom

John Dillinger wanted poster
Image via Wikipedia

I like Michael Mann’s work.  I was (and am) a devoted fan of the Miami Vice show.  The Last of the Mohicans is one of my favorites and high in my movie quote rotation.  Manhunter, even though it differs quite a bit from the Harris novel Red Dragon, is superior to the generally more faithful Red Dragon with Edward Norton.  True, Miami Vice the movie was less than perfect but I kind of enjoyed it.  If you haven’t seen Collateral check it out.  It’s underrated and I think it might even be brilliant and you will totally buy Tom Cruise as a grey haired professional killer.

So I was expecting to enjoy Public Enemies.  I missed it in the theater and rented it the other day.  Michael Mann, Johnny Depp, Christian Bale…what could go wrong?  Well….

This movie wasn’t really about anything.  There were plenty of threads there that it could have been about but none of them were developed or even looked at.  A cursory glance at best and then events just sort of move on.  It could have been Dillinger’s story but we don’t really get anything from the character.  He has one scene where he talks easily with reporters at his mugshot but that’s the only glimpse of any kind of charm.  Neither is he a blood thirsty bandit, nor somehow driven to rob banks for a living, nor yet a professional robber who goes about it in a workmanlike manner.  He just does it.  We don’t even see that much of it.

It could have been about Melvin Purvis, the G-man trying to catch Dillinger but we don’t get a whole lot of his character either.  More than Dillinger for we at least get the idea he might be concerned about what kinds of methods he will have to resort to to get his man.  It never rises above concern though and it sure doesn’t slow him down.

It’s not a chase movie like The Fugitive, or Catch Me If You Can.  There’s a glimpse of how Hoover used the media to demonize Dillinger and his type and make interstate crime the FBI’s reason for being.  That would have been a pretty good movie there but blink and you’ll miss it.  It’s not about how the Italian mobs organized and turned away from the flashier and riskier shoot-em-ups of Dillinger’s gang either though thatwould have been a good movie too.  If you  think it’s a love story, think again.  There’s no romance.  Dillinger announces to Billi Frechette that she’s his girl and she has no say in it.  You know what else she doesn’t have?  Any real screen time or dialog.

In short, it was just a bunch of stuff that happened.  It didn’t flat out suck either which is the really frustrating thing (for me anyway).  All the elements of story were there.  They just weren’t developed.  It didn’t tell a story so much as record events.  I can watch that on the History Channel.

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Short story: Santa’s Gift

This was a scene I originally wrote for a sketch comedy group I belonged to ages ago. It was never performed, but I always liked it so dusted it off recently and converted it to a scene. It was mostly dialogue anyway.  I hope you enjoy it, and Happy Holidays!

Merry.......... christmas..?
Image by Nicolai Kjærgaard via Flickr

Inside the cozy living room of a well furnished suburban home, Harold, a tired and middle-aged man, sat in a plush chair next to the crackling fireplace with his wife, Kelly.

Bundled in a sweater, Kelly watched as snow drifted down past the window. She smiled happily and sipped from a big mug of hot chocolate. Harold, scowling morosely, took a long swig from a can of beer.

Kelly looked at her husband, glowing with contentment. “There is just something magical about Christmas Eve. Everything seems special. The air smells cleaner, the snow seems whiter, even the cold doesn’t seem so… cold. You know what I mean, Harold?”

Harold looked at Kelly and sighed. “Yeah, it’s like a storybook come to life.”

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Oh, here we go. I thought maybe you were going to skip your annual Christmas pout-fest, but I guess not.”

Harold shifted in his chair. “I just don’t like it, okay. A lot of people don’t like Christmas.”

Kelly set down her mug. “Yeah, but MOST people like Christmas. Even if you’re not Christian there’s still all the pretty lights, the decorations, the spirit of giving…”

“..the marketing, the commercialism, the fat man in the beard…”

“Santa?” asked Kelly.

“Yeah. Him.”

“You can’t not like Santa! Do you ever watch the children’s faces when they see him at the mall? It’s like magic.”

“Poor little bastards.”

Kelly threw up her hands. “Harold! Every Christmas since we met you’ve been like this and you never tell me why. It doesn’t make any sense!”

“Then just ignore me,” Harold replied, scowling. “I’ll be fine tomorrow.”

“I’m not going to ignore it this time! I want to know why this day bothers you so much.”

“You wouldn’t understand. Just trust me on this and let it go, okay?”

Kelly yawned a huge, face stretching yawn, wobbling slightly in her chair. “I wouldn’t understand? I think you would be surprised at what I… understand.” Kelly shook her head and tried to focus, but was fading fast. She tried to go on, “…but if you won’t talk to me, how can you expect me to… ohh… expect me to… Hmmm… to…”

Kelly fell back in her chair, fast asleep. Harold looked at her and grimaced.

“Oh crap, here we go. I’m gonna need a reload…” Harold reached behind his chair and came out with a fresh beer. He popped the tab and took a long drink.

From the flickering shadows in the fireplace, Santa Claus faded into view. He was the epitome of the Christmas legend, from the big sack of toys to the rosy cheeks to the jolly belly.

“Ho Ho Ho! Meeeeeerry Christmas, Harold!”, Santa bellowed.

Harold sighed. “You’re late this year, fatso.”

Santa beamed. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Harold. There’s been a lot more good boys and girls this year so I’m running a little behind”

“You could just skip our house, you know.”

“Now how could I possibly do that, my little friend?” asked Santa, reaching for Harold’s cheek to give it a pinch.

Harold knocked Santa’s hand aside as he rose from the chair. “I can always hope,” he said.

“You’re such a kidder, Harold” said Santa. “Now, let’s see what you’ve been up to this past year.” Santa pulled a phone from his jacket and punched a few buttons. “Hmmm… you’re doing pretty good this year. Definitely in the Nice column! Ho Ho Ho!”

“Lucky me.”

Santa tsked. “Although you’ve still got that surly attitude of yours. We started using a computer Child Ranking Database that automatically calculates the Naughty and Nice score for every child. Oh my, it saves us a load of time.”

“Great, even Santa is into computer surveillance these days.”

“Ho Ho! Anyway, it looks like you helped three old ladies load groceries into their car, volunteered 142 hours at an animal shelter, and turned down repeated sexual advances from Julie in Marketing.”

“I think I’m the only one who turned her down,” Harold replied, giving a small shudder.

Santa punched a button and grinned. “Oh, you aren’t far wrong on that one! Ho Ho Ho! Julie’s definitely on our Naughty list.”

“That’s just more information than I needed. Are you done now, Santa? Can I have my life back for another year?”

“You know, Harold, I just don’t understand why you are always so antagonistic. Most people would love a yearly visit from Santa Claus.”

Harold lunged towards Santa, one fist clenched, crushing his beer can in the other. “Most people don’t think you really exist! MOST people haven’t had you visiting them every year since they were seven!”

Santa smiled jovially. “That’s because you were a special boy! I still recall the first time I saw you at the mall. You wanted so badly to sit on my lap, but your mom wouldn’t hear of it. You just kept staring at me with those big, brown eyes of yours while she led you away. I said to myself, Santa, you should make a special stop for that young man.”

Harold wiped some spilled beer from his shirt. “Special? That wasn’t the word my parents used when I tried to tell them. ‘Hey mom, guess who was in our house last night? Santa Claus, complete with magic powers, big beard, smelly reindeer, the whole works!’”

“Hmmm, well, I told you to keep it a secret,” admonished Santa.

“At first it wasn’t too bad, just a pat on the head and a pitying look. Each year I thought I dreamed it, but then you showed up again the next year and I was convinced all over again. But as I got older I didn’t get pats on the head anymore. You know what I got? I got therapists! I got medication! I got fucking Santa Claus intervention!”

“Ho Ho Ho! I remember the year I had to visit you in that youth psychiatric hospital. You were a tough boy to find, young man!” Santa waggled a finger a Harold.

“There’s no hiding from Santa Claus, is there? I tried, I sure tried…”

“A different place every year there for a while, as I recall. Isn’t that when you started trying to film me?”

”Hell yeah, I wanted proof. But nooooo, Santa doesn’t show up on film.”

“And wasn’t your chimney covered in garlic one year?”

Harold looked a little sheepish. “Well, after you didn’t show up on the video tape I had a theory that maybe you were related to vampires.”

“Ho Ho Ho! That’s a good one! Still, I liked the garlic better than the years you tried to pass out drunk before I arrived. You were such a mess, I’m glad you gave that up! Do you have anyidea how hard it is to clean vomit out of this suit? Mrs. Claus was getting quite mad at you, you little rascal!” Santa winked.

“Well, how was I to know you could instantly sober me up. They never talked about THAT ability in any of the songs.”

“I mainly use that trick on the elves. Cute little guys, but can’t hold their liquor. Sometime remind me and I’ll tell you the story of the Christmas Eve Party of ’68. Ho Ho Ho!”

“Lovely. Then of course I also found out you’re bulletproof.”

“Oh my, I almost forgot about that! No, you can’t kill Santa with a semi-automatic, Harold.”

“Or a double-barreled shotgun.”

“Or a grenade. Boy, was your house a mess. I’m glad you gave that up when you met Kelly.”

“Dammit, Santa! Can’t you at least show yourself to her? If I tried to tell her about this without proof I’ll end up divorced.” Harold spread his hands pleadingly.

“Ho Ho Ho! No can do!”

“Then how about at least leaving a gift? 25 years being stalked by Santa Claus and I’ve never actually received one lousy present! Come on!”

“Now Harold, Santa exists because little children all over the world believe in him. If I left proof that I was here all that would be over.”

“Then can I at least get a ride in your sleigh for once?”

“Nope, sorry, that’s for official Christmas business only.”

“You know what, Santa?”

“What’s that, Harold?”

“Santa Claus is an asshole.”

Santa’s belly rocked as he laughed. “Ho Ho Ho! A man has to have his hobbies, even a magic one like Santa. Now give Santa one of those beers, and I’ll be on my way.” Santa reached behind the chair and took a beer.

“Don’t let the chimney hit you on the ass on the way out.”

Santa pinched Harold on the cheek, who this time didn’t resist. “You’re such a kidder, little Harold! Now be a good little boy, because Santa Claus will be watching! Bye bye, now!”

Harold watched morosely as Santa turned towards the fireplace and faded from view. As soon as he vanished, Kelly began to stir in her chair.

“… if you won’t talk to me… Hmmm… expect me to understand why you hate this day of the year so much.” Kelly looked around sleepily.

“I’m sorry, Harold,” Kelly said, getting up and stretching. “Look, I didn’t mean to fight about this.”

Harold sighed and set down his beer. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I made you upset.”

“Don’t you worry about it! Everyone in the world is entitled to their little quirks, even my Harold Goldstein.” She gave Harold a quick hug.

Harold wiped away some tears with the back of his hand. “You’re right,” he said. “Let’s go light the Menorah.”

~ end ~

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Sliced: A Storytelling Event

via ethermoon on Flickr

via ethermoon on Flickr

On October 3rd I participated in a live storytelling event organized by Robert Hoekman at the Hob Nobs Cafe in Phoenix. I was one of 5 storytellers, and had 10-15 minutes to relate a somewhat autobiographical tale for the audience.

I’m a gabby fellow to put it mildly, so talking in front of others didn’t worry me. It was when I sat down to really think of how to tell a story that I had a bit of a pause. Telling a story is not the same as talking, and it forced me to consider some basic elements I might have otherwise glossed over.


I needed first to tell the audience where they where, and what they saw. My story took place on a farm, so I explained the sights and sounds, the weather, the dusty tractor. It brought the audience into the picture with me, so as things progressed they had a common anchor.  Taking the time to build the setting forced me to think about the pacing and the elements that characters could interact with as I spoke. For example, a farmer climbing up on a tractor is more interesting if I’ve already described the tractor as a big part of the scene, rather than something that appears for the first time when he hops aboard.


Since I was relating something that happened to me, the people in the story were familiar to me. To my audience they were strangers. I needed to set them up as they entered the story – their look, their clothes, their accent, their demeanor.  This proved to be a nice way to refresh the characters in my own mind, and emphasize parts of their personality that helped the story.

Story Arc

Did my story have a beginning, a middle, and an end? I gave this only partial thought beforehand to make sure I met this criteria, but I was really glad I did afterwards. There is a clear difference between talking, and going somewhere with what you are saying. Especially when relating something that happened to us personally, we meander down tunnels and tangents.  Knowing my story beats kept me much more focused.


What was the point?  What did I take away from this event? How should the audience?  It didn’t have to be epic, but it needed to be something that gave some context to the story and wrapped it up. If you do it well, the audience should see things wrap up as you go, and be right along with you in the progress.


All the above helped me focus on being able to improvise a bit, and really have fun with the telling.  If I had been focused on the structure, and saying things like “Oh yeah, there was also this weird old lady!” as I backtracked around, I wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.

I appreciated being invited, and would love to go it again. Storytelling is an ancient art, and one I’d like to continue to learn from as I practice it.

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What’s your story about?


img from Jerry @ Flickr

I realized I was becoming a big(ger) writing geek when someone asked me “what’s your screenplay about”, and without thinking I replied “Do you mean what’s the story, or what’s it about?”

Of course he meant what is the story, but it made me realize how much I can get my head wrapped around this particular axle.

The Story

The story is the what happens and who is doing it of the writing. It’s where I start, either with an idea or a character, and build things out. Some of this is just mechanics, but it is still a place I’m learning and trying to improve. Stories without good characters, plot, and development have a fairly small readership. Usually among insomniacs.

As it develops, though, something odd happens. The story becomes “about something”. A theme develops. Or maybe just a perspective. A deeper meaning.

What’s It About

This is where I usually get into trouble. I see a pattern or an idea in my story, and instead of continuing to develop my story I start to worry about the idea. I wrote a piece once that started to incorporate some religious ideas. Suddenly I realized I had a pile of things that could be metaphors – like a group that had 12 members, or someone showing up after being thought dead. I got paranoid. Was I making it too heavy handed? Too obvious? Were there better metaphors to use?

I upended the story to try and hammer in cues and clues that I felt better supported my developing theme.  It was no great shock that I ended up with a mess.

It’s About The Story

I put the story away for a while, and came back to focus on the story. I ignored the little yammering voices that were guessing, second-guessing, and third-guessing my subconscious motives and just focused on the story. As a result, I made more progress with that “inner meaning” than when I was obsessing over it.

I did some minor tweaking in the end to support the theme that developed, but I treated it as a fairly minor cleanup item at the end. It was something I did alongside cleaning up plot consistency and character dialog.

In the end, focusing on the story worked out much better for me, and is what most people really are interested in anyway.

Twice burned

I recently experienced the self-inflicted misfortune of watching two similarly styled films based on video games: Hitman & Max Payne

Each featured an array of decent acting talent (not A-list, but well above C-list).  Each was also pretty well shot and offered some interesting visual effects.  But each was also severely lacking in the story department.  Now, I will say that I have not played the games that begat the films.  It is likely that the screenwriters were both constrained by and propped up by the stories that are presented in-game.  The projects were probably little more than work for hire and neither was able to be pulled up to rise above that ignominious start.  In retrospect, only Max Payne really had any chance of engaging me as a viewer since the characters appeared to have some unmined depths.

I don’t even need all of the digits on one hand to count the satisfying (for me) movie ventures that fall into this genre – Mortal Kombat & Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.  And Mortal Kombat was more of a nostalgia win, since it was based on a game that I actually enjoyed playing.

Looking ahead, I only see two films in this space that might have a chance to break the mold.  One is Alice, based on the American McGee game title.  If the film makers (and more importantly, the screenwriter) can capture the deliciously twisted vision of this game, I will be impressed.  The other is Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, but only because the game designer, Jordan Mechner, based the game on old movies to begin with.  Still, it will require more than flashy swordplay to hold my attention for ninety plus minutes.  That’s right, it’s going to take a story.