Saturday, March 27, 2021

 Sometime Lofty Towers

A Thoughtful Look at Aging Mercenaries and Their Last Hurrah

At first glance, one might think David C Smith's latest novel is just another sword and sorcery novel. But it's not. Not by a longshot. This isn't a novel about overly-muscled, barbarian warriors and half-naked damsels. This is really epic fantasy, heroic fantasy, with depth and meaning, and thoughtfulness, much like Smith's masterpiece, Fall of the First World Trilogy. Sure, it has some of the tropes and motifs of sword and sorcery, but the author knows those all too well and wisely chose not to overuse them or rely on them. For instance, there are no sorcerers and witches casting spells and summoning demons with the wave of a hand. No, the magic is inherent in this world - it's part of the world the author so carefully and lovingly created. It's earth magic, magical realism, and it's at the heart of Kirangee culture and society - an ancient, native people who were nearly wiped out years earlier during the Border Wars, as they were exploited and their lands stolen from them. The main character is the veteran mercenary Hanlin, who, like his fellow warrior Thorem, once fought against the Kirangee. But now many years have passed, and both men have grown older, and Hanlin begins to see things, to see life, in a different light. Both characters are stand-outs - solid and real, and world-weary. There is a literary quality to this novel, and the dialog is thoughtful, reflective, and insightful, and it moves the story along as it reveals the hearts and souls of all its characters. This novel is timely in it politics and message, crucial in its themes, but is never preachy, and Smith is wise enough to show restraint in his proselytizing, letting his characters speak for him, and for themselves. This novel is at once peaceful and quiet, almost lyrical in its elegant prose, but it's also loud and savage, gruff and gritty. Smith does not ignore the action, either, and he really delivers on his battle scenes. This is a story of evil, greedy men and women who fight to take what they want from others, and destroy what they do not want or need, or even understand. But Hanlin "gets it," and his personal arc is like an epiphany, forcing him to see things, understand things in he could never realize in his younger days. This puts him at odds with Thorem, and they part ways. But as the back cover hints, their "destinies will nevertheless become entangled once more as both are drawn back to the frontier that saw their earlier glories - and failures." If you enjoy intelligent dialog, fine writing, and battles that will make you hear the clash of steel, if you enjoy a tale well told, a tale told with the realism of actual history, "Sometime Lofty Towers" is the novel to read.

Published by Pulp Hero Press. Available in paperback and Kindle editions. Sometime Lofty Towers

Friday, May 22, 2020

Dead Earth

"Another day in paradise."
"Today, and everyday."
I liked DEAD EARTH a lot. I like zombies. What can I say? I've liked zombies - traditional Haitian variety as well as the Living and Walking Dead breed. So cut me some slack, okay? Yeah, two attractive young ladies are the main characters in "Dead Earth" - and basically the only characters. Two women trying to keep their flesh intact; a brief backstory shows how this all came to be. They're no superheroes, but they can hold their own. Very likable and watchable. The setting is idyllic, at first, but then . . . well, you know them f**king zombies, lol! Nice combo of old- and new-school zombies all rolled into one. Very nasty lot, too. Really rabid, like the vampires in 30 Days of Night. Oh, yeah - they can't swim. Nice touch. Very closed-universe, with a soundtrack that plays like an homage to the soundtrack for the original Day of the Dead. Although somewhat slow-paced at first, it sucked me into the story and the world of these two women who are just trying to survive in a world of the dead. Different, somewhat unique. It does its own thing. A very polished and well made film. Not a masterpiece, no startling revelations hee; it adheres to the genre. Some nice set pieces, and the actions often bursts into the open unexpectedly. Well worth the $1.80 it cost to rent from Redbox.
Dead Earth Trailer

Color Out of Space

When they changed the spelling of HP Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space" to "Color Out of Space" I thought - uh-oh, this isn't going to be Lovecraft. Well, it is, and mostly, it isn't. Naturally, the first thing they did was to update the story to the modern era. Fine. It's well-crafted, pretty well acted at times - although it's often just plain goofy and over-the-top, and the special FX range from halfway-decent CGI to retro-1980s of varying degrees. Not sure I liked the pink "colour." It's an okay film, and it's an okay script, although the silliness of some scenes tips it off balance. This is director Richard Stanley's comeback after a 20 year absence, since co-writing (and I believe partially directing) the 1996 mess, "The Island of Doctor Moreau." He does a fair to middling job here, and he now has his eyes set on making a new version of Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror." (Come on, guys: what about "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," "The Shadow Out of Time," or "At The Mountains of Madness?") In this new version of "The Colour Out of Space," Nicholas Cage does a hammy job of channelling Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance in "The Shining," Tommy Chong plays, well, Tommy Chong, and Joely Richardson seems like she was in a walking coma even before the "colour" from outer space landed on their property. I think this film owes a lot to Stuart Gordon's "From Beyond" (another Lovecraft adaptation), and John Carpenter's masterpiece, "The Thing." Indeed, the "color" of the title could very well be the shape-shifting Thing - or one of its offspring. I liked the film for what it was: fun to watch and laugh at. But did it shake me? Did it make me sit up and say "WOW!" Nope. Maybe I'm just too jaded from watching so many horror films since 1957. But as with many recent films I've seen lately, it's worth the $1.80 rental fee from Redbox, but I wouldn't buy the DVD at any price. It is somewhat of a throwback to some of the low-budget horror films of the 1980s, but it lacks - something, to make it stand apart. It's nothing special. What would Lovecraft think of this film? I have no idea. I believe he would have shaken his head at the film's lack of subtlety. In spite of all the "official" this and "official" that, the film stands on shaky legs, that's for sure. The trailer is much better than the film.
The Color Out of Space Trailer

Monday, February 24, 2020

IMHO: Giving Voices to Your Characters

His Girl Friday  (scene)

I owe a great debt of gratitude to my two good friends, who were of immense help to me in the creation and shaping of my two (so far) volumes of Mad Shadows. Neither are strangers to Black Gate, for I interviewed both of them for this e-zine: Ted Rypel (author of the Saga of Gonji Sabatake: The Deathwind Trilogy, Fortress of Lost Worlds, A Hungering of Wolves, and Dark Ventures); and David C. Smith (author of Oron, The Fall of the First World Trilogy, the original Red Sonja novels (with Richard L. Tierney), Dark Muse, the recently-released Bright Star; Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography, for which he won the 2018 Atlantean Award from the Robert E. Howard Foundation, and many other novels, including Waters of Darkness, on which we collaborated.) Both gentlemen write wonderful dialog, and taught me how to make my characters “talk like real folks.”

Now, I don’t claim to be a great writer nor do I think I’m a “know-it-all” when it comes to plotting, creating characters, telling a story and writing crisp, entertaining and enlightening dialog. I am far from being a literary genius. I’m not a college professor or a grammar Nazi. I’m not here to tell you what to do and how to do it. We each have our own styles and methods. I’m here to just pass on my own way of doing things, hoping what I have to say will help a writer or two. As far as creating compelling dialog is concerned — and we’ve all heard this one — my personal rule is: Give Each of Your Characters Their Own Unique Voice. 

The Cecil B. DeMille Syndrome

One of the things that really bugs me, especially in the genre of Heroic Fantasy, is how so many writers have their characters “speak” in a very formal manner, like stilted dialog from an old Cecil B. DeMille Biblical movie. Every line of dialog is a declaration, a proclamation that sounds unnatural and unrealistic, at least to my ears. Or writers who try to outdo Shakespeare by using way too many words like “thee,” “thou,” “thy,” “thine,” “whence,” “whilst,” etc. Each character ends up sounding almost exactly like every other character: they don’t have their own distinctive “voices.” In “olden times,” uneducated peasants surely didn’t speak in the same manner as educated aristocrats. How many English-speaking people, for example, speak without using contractions? Not everyone says “cannot,” “it is,” “that is,” “will not,” and “shall not.” And slang isn’t an invention of the modern era; surely different classes of people in ancient Greece, Rome, Britain, and other countries had their own dialects, their own slang words and phrases. Just to give you an example . . . watch a lot of early films from the 1930s and 1940s. You’ll hear how people spoke, hear the slang and the phrases commonly used in those days.

When I first started writing, my dialog was atrocious, to say the least. No contractions, too many “Biblical” words and phrases. I didn’t know what my characters’ voices sounded like. I didn’t know how they would talk to one another or what they would discuss. And they all spoke as if I was trying to channel the Bard. While I knew the “show, don’t tell” rule, so much of my narration, my exposition broke that rule, something I’m still guilty of to this day. Then I gradually learned how to turn a lot of my narrative into action, to “show it,” rather than tell it. Even more importantly, I learned how to turn narration into dialog, to have my characters tell the reader what was going on in the story while they carried on conversations and discussions. Still, my dialog rang false, and every character sounded alike. I had a “tin ear,” so to speak.

But I was learning. 

The key is: mix it up. Create voices to match your characters’ personalities, level of education, and status in society. Have one character speak in a formal manner, have another use more slang and contractions, or another talk in broken English — as if English is not their first language. Be an eavesdropper. Listen in on conversations you hear in public. Pay attention to how people of different ethnic groups speak English, how they pause to collect their thoughts, and even the physical things they do when holding a conversation. (Of course, if you’re writing in another language—say French or German, the same applies.) Take notes on how people talk to each other. Listen to the inflections in their voice, the way they construct their sentences, the way they stutter or trip over their tongues. Pay attention to how they put emphasis on their words, and which words and phrases they use over and over again, such as “like,” “you know,” “you think?” and “see what I’m saying?” These are their “tag-lines,” their trademarks. One of the things I love about living in Chicago is the diversity of cultures, the many languages and accents I’ll hear just sitting in a restaurant for a few hours. I try my best to capture some of the voices I hear.

Dialogue Is Action

Over the years I’ve encountered many readers who dislike dialog, stating that too much of it slows the pace of a story. They find it needless. They want fast-paced narrative, with plenty of action. They aren’t interested in the characters so much as they’re interested in the plot, the battles, the monsters, and the sex scenes. But I disagree. Dialog is verbal action: it can and should be used to advance the plot. Character interaction is, in my mind, essential to almost every story. Human drama is a key factor in engaging your readers, making them live the story through the words and thoughts, hearts, eyes and emotions of your characters. Dialog enhances characters; it lends them a depth and realism that will make them leap off the page. What grabs me, what sucks me into a story is how the characters interact and relate to one another. Without dialog, what would Shakespeare have done? Without dialog we’d have no live theater, without dialog, we’d have no need for talking pictures; we’d still be watching silent “picture plays.”

Don’t lecture: Discuss. Debate.

If you have a very long passage where one character is addressing a group of people — I call it “Giving the Speech” — and it goes on for a page or more, break up the dialog with a little bit of “stage business.” Have the character pause to drink some water, light a cigarette, blow his nose, or have the speaker be interrupted by other characters . . . anything to make it more exciting. While dialog can drive the plot forward, long passages of it can slam on the breaks as surely as endless descriptions of what people are wearing or what a room looks like. The trick is: never preach, never lecture for pages on end; then it becomes a monologue, a soliloquy if the scene. If you have something of import to say, keep this in mind: yours isn’t the only opinion. The late broadcast journalist, Jim Lehrer, had a set of rules for journalists. Number three holds true for writers of fiction, too: Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story. So, if your character is giving The Lecture or The Speech, add some fire to it by having another character voice his or her own opinion. Create some tension. Posit some differing views. If it’s a political, philosophical or religious belief or idea you want to get across, add some confrontation and argument; let the characters discuss and debate: don’t have one character monopolize the entire scene. (We are not Congressmen, after all.) If it involves a sermon or a professor giving a lecture, keep it as short as you can, using only the necessary and important talking points. Above all, make your dialog fun and interesting to read, make it sound natural; have characters disagree and argue a point. And remember, unlike Lehrer’s Third Rule, where he states “I am not in the entertainment business” — writers, however, are entertainers.

A Few Tips and Tricks

If I can’t find my character’s voice, I look to old movies for inspiration, to actors and actresses whose voices and patterns of speech I think will be suitable, and I try to emulate those voices. Old movies are great for this because there was a vast array of character actors who were great at ethnic accents, plus so many actors from other countries who had thick accents and a unique way of talking. In the stories I write for Janet Morris’ Heroes in Hell™ series, two of my recurring characters in the series are Doctor Victor Frankenstein and his lab assistant, Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. For Victor, I looked to the voice of Colin Clive, the actor who played the infamous physician in the 1931 Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff. For Quasimodo, I gave him a bit of actor Charles Laughton’s voice, from the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, although I try to add a bit more eloquence, and sprinkle his dialog with some French words and phrases, and endeavor to have him speak like a Frenchman for whom English is a second language. And that’s something else I’d like to pass on to you.

During a screenwriting class, the instructor gave me a suggestion for one of my screenplays, in which I have an American woman, an Irishman, a Spaniard, and a proto-feline, alien medic. I had the woman speak like a hip, modern-day woman. For the Irishman I chose actor Victor McLaglen’s voice, using words and even some old phrases my Mom and a few Irish family members used. For the alien, I chose some odd phrasing for him, but what he never does is use the words “I,” “me,” “my,” or “mine.” He always refers to himself as “this one” or “this mewling.” Example: “This one would like very much to try this beverage.” Or “This mewling is so very much unhappy.” But for the Spaniard, I had some trouble. The instructor suggested I have him speak English as if he was speaking Spanish. Hombre gordo in Spanish is “fat man,” with the adjective following the noun; he would say, “O’Hara, you are a man who is very fat.” The Spaniard, as it turned out, was the most eloquent of the three characters, and I finally found his voice in actor Pedro Armendariz. That screenplay, by the way, became the basis for my space opera, Three Against The Stars. For my German, Dutch, Italian, and other ethnic characters, I’ve done the same as I did with my Spaniard, often relying on the voices of various actors to help me nail it all down. In Dave Smith’s and my Waters of Darkness, the main character, the pirate Captain Angus “Bloody Red” Buchanan is Scottish. Now, how to capture his voice? I didn’t want to go the route of H.P. Lovecraft and misspell words to sound the way a character speaks, although I did substitute “dunno” for “don’t know.” What I did was watch a few movies to help develop my ear, but my main inspiration was actor James Doohan — Scotty, from the original Star Trek television series. I used words in different patterns for Bloody Red, just to give it a Scottish flavor without going overboard: less is more. He never says “I will not do that” or “I won’t do that.” He says, “I’ll no’ be doing that.” In place of “my lad” or “my bonny lass,” he says “m’lad” and “m’bonny lass.” Instead of saying “The man who buried that treasure,” he’ll say “The man what buried that treasure.” Just little things like that. I didn’t want to overload his dialog with too much of a Scottish accent that I felt would only be distracting for the reader.

Create some signature line or phrase for your characters. Think of Gollum’s “My precious;” John Wayne’s “That’ll be the day!” from The Searchers; think of Sam Gamgee’s quaint way of speaking, always calling Frodo “Mister Frodo,” and always talking about food; or the oft-quoted, “I’ll make ’em offer they can’t refuse.” It’s the little things that often carry the greatest effect you can create for your characters. And don’t forget: not everyone is grim and dour; put some humor into your dialog. Cops, soldiers, mobsters . . . they all joke among themselves; they all tease and bust each other’s balls. Drama is more effective with humor, and comedy has a sharper bite if there’s some drama behind it, some element of danger. If you can’t come up with a signature phrase, use the way a character speaks, his tone of voice, his attitude. Is he arrogant and sarcastic? Vulgar and mean? Respectful and proper? Sardonic and overly dramatic?  A little of this can go a long way in helping to shape your characters, define who and what they are. And don’t forget the posturing. A character’s body language also adds to your story.

And always read your dialog aloud, to see how it sounds. Read it aloud in the accents and voices of your characters, if you can. 

Films As A Source Of Inspiration

If you’re having trouble finding a voice for one of your characters, turn to films for inspiration. In Sunset Boulevard (screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett), washed-up silent film actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), when talking about the silent film era, tells Joe Gillis (William Holden) “We had faces then.” Well, I look to old movies of the 1930s thru 1950s for my “voices” because “They had voices then!” This is just personal preference, and not everyone enjoys those old films. But I learned a lot about writing dialog from many films of that era, such as Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch; based on the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison); and The Front Page (based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who was the father of Hawaii 5-0’s James MacArthur; the film was later remade as His Girl Friday, by director Howard Hawks, with a screenplay by Charles Lederer.)

In the film industry there’s a phrase pertaining to dialog that is obvious, straight to the point, with no dissembling and no attempt to hide a character’s motives or true self. This type of dialog is called “on the nose.” Characters don’t always say what they mean, or mean what they say. Subtext goes a long way, and it can be fun, too. While being “on the nose” in a novel or story is more common, using subtext can enhance a scene, make it more interesting. In the glory days of Hollywood, before the sexual and verbal revolution, screenwriters had to walk a high-wire act. Subtext was king. For instance: in the first screen version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, (screenplay by William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, and legendary fantasy and sci-fi author Leigh Brackett,) there’s a scene where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall are flirting and sizing each other up, sexually. What they’re doing is obvious. But their dialog isn’t. They’re discussing horse racing, but the subtext of the scene is not about horse racing, it’s about sex. Likewise, in the film version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, (screenplay by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder), there’s a hot scene where Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck are also sizing each other up, but they’re discussing being pulled over for speeding by a traffic cop. The dialog doesn’t match the looks the actors are exchanging, or MacMurray’s fixation on Stanwyck’s ankle bracelet, but the subtext is there, boys and girls. They’re talking about S-E-X. If you get it right, subtext can be fun to read, and fun for the writer, too.

On Telling the Reader Who’s Doing the Talking

As I stated earlier, dialog is action, and no one can talk me out of that belief. Dialog can be a lot of fun to write, especially when you have the “voices” of your characters nailed down. You can just let them interact, verbally letting us into their worlds, their characters, and also helping to push the story forward. But don’t let it get too boring, and I’ll give you a few tips on avoiding that pitfall. First, there is nothing more annoying to me than continuous lines of dialog that end with “he said,” “she asked,” “he told her,” “she said to him,” and variations thereof — especially when there are only two people in scene holding a conversation. You can skip a lot of that, as well as reveal insight into a character, keep the story moving, and pass on valuable information. 

For example, you can try doing this:

Unless absolutely necessary that you begin a scene “at the beginning,” utilize what many screenwriters do: come into the middle of a scene. Of course, you can begin with a few sentences to set the scene, but you don’t need to spend a page or more doing it. No need to go into intricate detail: less is more. Let the readers’ imagination fill in the blanks and create the setting in their own minds. Describe only what is necessary to understanding the characters, and what is essential to plot and story. Remember what Anton Chekhov once said (and here I paraphrase) — If there’s a gun on the mantle in act one, make sure that gun is used by act three, otherwise, why put it on the mantle in the first place? Screenwriters call it a “plant” and “foreshadowing events to come.” Clues to past or future events, basically.

Jane sat at the kitchen table across from Joe, watching him fumble with a pack of cigarettes. She noticed how the sunlight gleaming through the open window made the dull, orange paint on the walls look brighter than they were. A soft breeze blew in through the open window, ruffling the faded purple curtains.

Joe’s hands shook as he lit a cigarette. “Do you think he’s behind it all?” (Here we’ve learned that Joe smokes, and he’s nervous. You don’t have to type “he asked” because we’ve already “tagged” Joe, and the question mark is there to tell us that he’s asking a question.)

“No, I don’t. Not at all.” Jane reached into her coat pocket, pulled out an envelope and slid it across the table towards Joe. “I swiped that from his wallet while he was sleeping.” (You don’t have to say “Jane said” or “Jane replied,” (or even “he said,” “she asked,” and “Jane told him,) because first, they’re the only two people in the kitchen. Second, the narration after Jane’s reply shows that she’s the one doing the talking here. We’ve revealed that Jane is a thief. Also, we’ve just created a little mystery here: who is Joe talking about? What’s in the envelope? What’s going on between these two and why did Jane steal the envelope? These are questions that can be addressed through dialog as the scene progresses, or can be answered later in the story through dialog or narrative.

“You’re a wicked woman, Jane.” (No need to type, “Joe said,” we know he said it because he addressed her by name.)

Jane held out her hand. “Flattery may have gotten you to first base, but only money will get you to home plate.” (No need to type “Jane said,” because we tagged her before she spoke.)
You can go back and forth like this, either having the characters doing things while they talk, or you can just type out the dialog without any action, and maybe every sixth or seventh line of dialog you can throw in a “he said” or “she asked,” just to keep the reader on track. Of course, when you have more than two people conversing in a scene you’ll need to establish who’s doing the talking at any given moment either by adding some bit of “stage business” for them to do or by using a “he said” or “she asked” or “he replied” now and then. Just don’t overdo it.

Writers like Paul Cain and Elmore Leonard would write pages of dialog without using any exposition and character business, without telling us who’s talking. You just have to keep up with them and their characters.

You can also reveal a character’s emotions and even their thought process using a bit of stage business to coincide with their dialog. You don’t have to use “The Wrylies,” which is a screenwriting term often used when describing how an actor should deliver a line, using such words as wryly, angrily, heatedly, and so forth.

Joe threw the empty bottle of beer against the wall, where it shattered into tiny pieces. “I don’t care what he says, I don’t believe him.” (We’ve just shown Joe’s anger through action, without telling the reader “he said angrily,” and without even using an exclamation point — which many writers — including yours truly — are guilty of overusing.)

“But I do, Joe.” Jane wiped a tear from her eye. “I really do.” (Here we’ve established Jane’s emotional state by showing, and not telling.)

Taking a long drag from his cigarette, Joe exhaled a smoky sigh. He was about to take a second lungful of smoke but then quickly stubbed the cigarette out in the ash tray. “I know you do. I just wish there was something we could do.” (Here we show Joe’s frustration through his words and action.)

Jane pointed a finger at Joe. “You never listen to me!” (Here we’ve let the reader know, by Jane’s action, that she’s talking directly to him. It helps when there are one or more other characters in the scene.)

Anyway, you get the picture. Good or bad, these are just examples of what you can do. You don’t need to, and shouldn’t, show action with every line of dialog. Break it up with just dialog for a few lines, then some action, and the occasional “he said” or “she asked.” You can also do this when you have more than two people conversing in a scene. Main thing is, use your imagination: thinking up what characters might be doing during a conversation can be a lot of fun and hold the reader’s interest. Observe what people do, how they look and react when they’re involved in a conversation. No one sits perfectly still during a conversation.

In Closing

My advice to young writers is always first and foremost: know the genre you wish to work in. Don’t just write with an eye towards trends and fads; look for ways to twist things around and make them your own by branding your tales with something different, something unique. And you can find ways to do all that by reading outside your genre. For over 20 years, starting in the early 1960s, I read nothing but heroic fantasy, sword & sorcery, horror, and science fiction. I’ve read enough to know the genre, I think, and I’ve surely been influenced and inspired by all that I’ve read. But I broke away to read other genres — although I still dip an occasional toe in the water of the genres in which I write in. There’s so much else out there, though: histories, mystery, crime, WWII thrillers, westerns, romance novels, biographies, and so on. I’m sure everyone has their favorite authors, authors who influenced and inspired them. Study their dialog, how they write it, how they present it, what they have their characters doing — from twiddling their thumbs to toying with a knife, from tapping a tabletop to dicing a chicken breast with all the precision of a skilled surgeon.
As the title of this article infers, this is just my humble opinion. I’m just here to share what I know, what I do, what I like, and what works for me. I hope all this has been of even a small source of inspiration to some authors who are just beginning their journey.

Thank you!

Saturday, February 15, 2020

A Valentine's Day Card to Everyone....

Where is my own Katharine Hepburn?
As we approach the Hallmark holiday called Saint Valentine's Day, named for a poor, horribly martyred man, I grow introspective. There will be many, many of us who will be alone on February 14th, and that's okay. It lessens us not. It makes us strong, independent and invincible warriors.
I just watched an old, but lovely documentary on Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, two of my favorites. From my point of view, I always saw what he saw in her, why he liked, admired and respected her, and why he fell in love with her, and why he loved her. I loved her, too, and had I known her, been her friend, I know I would have fallen in love with her, too, and because of the people they were, liked and respected by so many, I would have been honored to call them both my friends. I could see what Kate liked about Spence, too, how she admired and respected him, liked him, loved him as a man and loved him as a friend. And I think their love, combined with their awesome talents, are what made made their wonderful films shine like polished gemstones. They were truly and deeply in love with each other - doesn't matter that he never divorced his wife, Kate was with him until the end. In the final scene of the documentary, she reads a letter she wrote to Spence, 18 years after his death - which followed close on the heels of their finishing Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - just talking to him, asking him questions, discussing life and his body of work. Reminiscing and thinking about all the wonderful memories they shared. The tears in her eyes were real, the emotion in her voice was real. She still missed him after all those years. They were each other's best friends. The letter ends with her saying how she asked him a question, but he wasn't there to answer.
I then considered my own life, reflected back on my 68 years (well, 50, let's say, starting when I was 18), and thought about all the decades of searching for my own Kate, and never finding her. Perhaps I did, but was too blind, too dumb, too self-centered to see her. Or perhaps I wasn't meant to have my own Kate. So I looked back at my life again, all the good times, all the wonderful friends and family, all the love given to me and, hopefully, all the love I gave. Was the love I took equal to the love I gave? I don't know. I can't answer that. Some higher octave of being can and will answer that for me. None of us can have it all. We may look at others and think, "Jeez, they have money, fame, power, success, spouses, children, grandchildren . . . but surely there is something in life they always wanted but never could attain." I've had many dreams in life, and actively pursued those dreams, dreams which never came true. But the dream I now pursue daily, and with a force and passion which often takes me by surprise, is one I never thought I could take hold of, let alone even reach for. I have many blessings, far more than many people I know, and I am eternally grateful for each and every one. In the end, all we can really, truly count on are our blessings, and be thankful for what we have, because there is always someone who is far worse off than we are. In the end, what matters is not wealth, power or notoriety, but the love and the blessings which grace our lives each and every day. So in the end, I may never find my Kate, and at my age, that is something which no longer really matters. All that's important, all that will shine like polished gemstones when I'm gone is the love I've been given, the good memories I leave behind, and the great wealth of family and friends I have been blessed with.
So don't focus on the negative, on the bad. Focus on the good, on the positive. Count your blessings every day and you just might find a treasure chest overflowing with all the things you have, the things you've accomplished in life, the truly important things, and the love you not only gave, but the love you in turn received. Blessings upon you all!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

My review of Bright Star, by David C. Smith

Reviewed in the United States on January 29, 2020
I received this book as a Christmas present and dived into it soon after. The story begins in the present day when a screenwriter sets out on a quest to uncover the truth behind the mysterious disappearance, in 1920, of (fictional) silent film star, Catherine Farr, his great aunt. We then slip back to Chicago, 1912, "at the beginning of things, where the magic is," to quote from the book, when Farr is discovered and begins her ascent to stardom. The author's knowledge of the silent film era is masterful, and he tells us how "picture plays," as they were called back then, were produced. He even gives us a number of scenarios of 1, 2 and 3 reelers that would have made excellent silent films. Farr is a very strong and modern lead character - a talented and creative woman, and what this novel does is show us how so many women were prominent, powerful players in the film industry back then, before Hollywood became the center of the cinematic world. While sections of the novel alternate between the past and the present day, with the screenwriter trying to puzzle out what really happened to his great aunt, the bulk of the story, the main story, stays rooted in a firmly and expertly realized past. The characters are fully realized, and the story is not just a history of silent cinema, and a mystery surrounding Catherine Farr, it's also a heartfelt tale of love, the filmmaking business, friendship, and family drama. There are poignant moments exploring the human heart, and dealing with all the loss and grief, pain and joy that go hand in hand with living and creating. This book is superbly written, well-told and nicely paced. There's great dialogue, a real sense of time and place, and a gentle sense of humor deriving not from situations, but from the characters themselves. Finely crafted and plotted, well researched and thought out, Bright Star reads more like a biography than fiction. Catherine Farr is one special character, someone to fall in love with, as I did. And the mystery of what happened to her in 1920? Well, you'll have to read the novel for yourselves in order to find out. This is truly an excellent novel that would make a great film. Truly a tour de force. Most highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Something Big (1971)

I'd never seen nor heard of this 1971 western until the other night, when I caught it on a local TV station. It's a fun, good little film, directed with his usual sense of glee and energy by Andrew V. McLaglen, (son of actor Victor McLaglen), and very much in the vein of the classic westerns directed by John Ford. The scenery, locations and sets are excellent, and the epic scope of cinematographer Harry Stradling, Jr is magnificent. The film stars Dean Martin, Brian Keith, Honor Blackman, Carol White, and veteran character actors Ben Johnson, Albert Salmi, Harry Carey, Jr, Denver Pyle, and Paul Fix, in a small role. 

Martin plays against type - that is, he doesn't play "Dean Martin." He plays it straight as a decent outlaw who abhors violence, isn't much of a fist-fighter, but can shoot a gun and hold his own when it's called for. There's more comedy and character-interaction in this film than there is action. The running gag is that Martin is up to something, but no one knows what that is. All they keep hearing is that he's up to something big. (In the rousing last 20 minutes or so we find out what that "something" is.) Oh, yeah - a woman he promised to marry two years earlier shows up to drag him back to Pennsylvania, while Brian Keith's wife shows up to make sure that this time he truly retires from the United States cavalry. Solid performances by all, especially by the character actors. But it's Albert Salmi and Denver Pyle who steal every scene in which they appear. The only real problem I had with this film is the musical score by Marvin Hamlisch, who was riding high during this period. His score is too modern, too unexciting, and too cartoonish - "Mickey Mousing," they used to call what he does. The title song, written by Burt Bacharach, well . . . IMHO, it's one of the worst songs I've ever heard, although it's sung very well by Mark Lindsay, lead singer for Paul Revere and The Raiders. The song, like the score itself, doesn't fit a western - and both are definitely "products" of some of the early 1970s "soft rock," bland, commercial, Top 40 sound. Other than that, if you like westerns, you should like this one. Not a great film, but like I said, it's well-made and a lot of fun. Check it out, if you've a mind to. Here's the film's trailer.
Something Big (1971)