Dismembered Stories and Their Amputated Sentences

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As a writer, I have this recurring problem.  Film school education and the etiquette of screenwriting has a way of tarnishing my short stories, blog posts, and all of my writing in general.

In a screenplay, it is rude to overly describe sets, locations, characters, and really just about everything.  Every excessive adjective punched onto the page steps on someone’s toes.  Leave the wallpaper to the set designer.  Don’t back the casting department into a corner by fussing over the characters’ appearances.  Only list props necessary to the plot and let the professionals fill in the rest.

When you apply this way of thinking and the formatting of screenplays to narrative writing, you end up with front heavy information dumps followed by dialogue between vague, faceless characters in an unfurnished room somewhere sometime.  This was my initial problem with narrative writing:  a hesitance to describe anything other than the action (but only just a little bit because you don’t want to step on the director’s toes or stifle the actors’ performances).

To remedy this issue, I’ve wildly overcompensated.  My rough drafts tend to describe every little thing with as many pretty words and phrases as I can conjure, killing all plot momentum along the way.

Needless to say, revision for me is a matter of carving it all up.  For every word I add, I delete about ten.

Below are some words that I really liked, but deleted nonetheless.  I won’t provide you with any context for these, because it’s probably more fun that way!

From Hellfire Chicken Wings:

“The bulging gut that hangs over top of the husband/father’s jeans and his stained work shirt are unseemly sights easily found topside, but the two stunted, crooked horns that protrude from his forehead, the cellulite-ridden tail coming to an arrow point at the end – those are unique to this particular location of Fat Mike’s Bar and Grill.

This customer’s misfortunate daughters have equally spaced red bumps in the corners of their own foreheads that look like mountainous pimples – the awkwardness of adolescence is not unique to the mortal world.  Their crooked teeth are reined into line by grizzly-looking metal wires and brackets from a horror movie.  They look roughly the same age, Irish twins maybe, but one appears just enough older for it to be noticeable.  The younger has tangled brown hair that looks so grungy that Kristen thinks the girl might actually be a blonde with inordinately poor hygiene.  The older has dark black hair, too dark, a bad dye job, with reddish blonde roots showing for about an inch and a half.

The matriarch of the family is enormous.  Rolls of fat cascade down her wide frame, peaking at her hips – which must measure nearly three feet across.  Her double chin has its own double chin.  Her facial muscles can’t hold taut the weight of her cheeks and they sag in jowls.  She is wearing light makeup on her face, which is an inhuman fire engine red, peppered with enough whiskers to make Kristen wonder whether a pointy black beard lurks within the folds of flesh hanging from the woman’s chin.  Her eyes, “the window to the soul,” are vacant like a cow’s, hinting at the vacuum of intelligent thought within her skull.  Her horns might be the most pronounced of the entire brood, though it is impossible to tell given the ways that facial fat has folded around them.

Regardless of whether or not the customers sitting in Kristen’s section are poorly-bred and unattractive or brilliantly handsome and brimming with seductive facial expressions, she sees their horns and pointy beards and arrow-ended tails all the same.

She can’t remember exactly when she began seeing people this way, whether it was a week, a month, or a year ago.  These details just so integrated themselves into her perspective so well that she assumed that they were there the whole time and that she had never overlooked them.”

From Trail:

“Though I did not belong, the forest adopted me.  It became a part of me, and I, a part of it.”

From This is Where…:

“My head bobbing just above the water for days, weeks, months.”

From Last Will and Testament:

“But that wasn’t true.  The house was Wilbur – run down and neglected on the outside, untarnished and full of potential on the inside.  Or at least that must have been the way that George had seen it.”

From Decomposing on Your Doorstep:

“It could be the setting of a fairy tale.  Unnaturally lush green grass carpets an unused plot of farm land roughly fenced in and forgotten, complete with rusting tractors and farming equipment.”

“Born of inspiration greater than anything that ever fueled my painting, my ploy for notoriety will finally show the world my life’s work.”

From Antisocial Networking:

“The boredom went up in flames, kindling for Jake’s newfound fascination with strangers.  Soon he was reading their 140-character opinions and insights on Twitter, inspecting the photographic evidence of their alien lives on Instagram, even tracking their professional developments on LinkedIn.”

“All of those insignificant, boring things that bore people can take on a whole new light simply by viewing them from a different perspective.”

Don’t worry, I will share with you the stories from which these words were amputated sometime, just not today!

The Worst Student Film Ever Made

katy perry
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*Names have been changed at my discretion

Synopsis:  A college girl is diagnosed with cancer, parties hard in an attempt to hide from her potential mortality, spirals from alcoholism to drug abuse to addiction, overdoses and dies only to find out in the afterlife that her diagnosis was a false-positive.

All of this was to be accomplished in 3 minutes of screen time.

Title:  “Positive.”

Unofficial Subtitle:  “The Worst Student Film Ever Made.”

Let me lay the groundwork for how we brought this abomination into the world.  Foundations of Production was an entry level course culminating in a semester-spanning project of producing a short film.  The class was split into small groups, mine consisting of myself, a girl that I kinda knew (Laurie*); a stoner that used to live in the same dorm building as me (Tyson*); and a best friend destined to betray me in the months to follow (Elle*).

We all prepared short scripts and presented them to the class for feedback. Everyone in our group took their film ambitions fairly seriously, but this whole project was technically “homework,” so inevitably our efforts became very convenience-driven.  This led us to produce Elle’s script, which featured few characters and locations.  We put together an airtight production schedule that would knock out the brunt of production (scenes taking place at parties) in one night.

Everyone resigned themselves to an irritating group dynamic that emerged long before cameras started rolling – Elle insisted on being in charge of everything.  She shot, directed, starred in, and edited the partially autobiographical monstrosity, ignoring everyone else’s input, and calling all of the shots along the way.

Oh yeah.  I forgot to mention that her script was loosely based on something that she was going through.

Now it may seem inappropriate for me to be so harsh about this girl who made a movie about her cancer, but she didn’t actually have cancer.  She had some sort of lady part cyst.  I always figured it would be rude to ask for more details, so I only ever knew what she confided in me (her then-best friend).  It’s not cool to have lumps of any sort growing on your insides, but Elle’s cyst was deemed benign in an expeditious manner.  There wasn’t a prolonged period where she pondered its cancerous possibilities.  Also, this not-cancer could not be blamed for her drinking problem.

The production churned on painfully.  Our character entered a party, did shots, smoked pot, popped pills, snorted coke, shot up heroine.  She changed clothes between each substance abuse escalation to signal that these were different parties – a subtlety that didn’t override the four, practically identical bedrooms in the same apartment where we shot our smorgasbord of parties.

Each scene was terribly lit.  Overhead lighting was abandoned in lieu of a single lamp that we carried from room to room.  Every frame of the footage was grainy or full of awkward shadows, or both.

When it was time to set up the heroine scene, Tyson shepherded extraneous extras out of the shot.  “You only want 3-4 people max in the room when you’re shooting heroine,” he explained.  No one dared ask him how he knew this.

Elle asked what she should do after she pretended to shoot the drugs into her arm.  Tyson’s answer was something along the lines of:  “After you shoot up, you’ll probably just want to lay down on the floor and feel the carpet.”

By the time Elle was ready to edit the footage, I was the only person willing to stay involved with this dumpster baby of a film.  She trimmed every take and pieced it all together while I just sat around and watched.  Rarely, she would ask for my advice, but only on small matters.  This take or that one?  Establishing shot before close up?  Close up, insert, close up?

For the sequence of the main character getting ready to go out and party after receiving her cancer diagnosis, Elle insisted on using Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold.”  For those unfamiliar, this upbeat pop song is an absolutely perfect soundtrack for getting dressed up to go out drinking with friends on literally any day of your life except for the day that you get diagnosed with cancer.  My polite input on the thousands of reasons why this song didn’t fit the tone was extravagantly ignored.  I mean that. Extravagantly.  Ignored.

Elle considered sneaking the volume down and running the song through the entire substance abuse escalation montage.  Katy Perry – the soundtrack for a downward spiral and heroine overdose.  At least I talked her out of that.

The end of the film played out as follows:  Elle’s character wakes up in heaven, an area of pure white (the white walled hallway of Laurie’s apartment).  “A screen appears.”  That’s what the script reads.  We had no special effects capabilities or budget.  A picture-in-picture effect was edited sloppily onto one of the white walls.  On the “screen” Elle’s doctor (yours truly in a lab coat and black rimmed glasses) is shown explaining to Elle’s mother (Laurie) that the cancer diagnosis was a false positive.  Oh no.  Elle did all of those drugs and died and she didn’t even have a good reason to be depressed!

Each group had to show their films to the entire class. We delivered the final cut to the professor on DVDs.  Thank God this thing wasn’t uploaded onto the internet.

After a brief introduction, the lights were killed and the movie started rolling.  I’ve never blushed so hard in my life.  The class roared with laughter at the substance abuse escalation montage.  Elle’s editing made it seem like the entire downward spiral unfolded in one comically wild night.  To the audience, her character got dressed to go to a party, drank too much, smoked some weed, popped some pills, snorted coke in the bathroom, shot up heroine and dropped dead all within the course of like an hour.  The professor applauded us before admitting that he wasn’t sure whether or not the tone was supposed to be so freaking hilarious.

This was Elle’s mutant progeny.  We let her answer his inquiries into what the hell everyone had just witnessed.

An almost equally horrible film took some of the heat off of us.  It was called, “Mrs. Jickle’s Pickles.”  It was about an old lady who can’t open a pickle jar.  She really, really wants a pickle.  She calls her son.  He doesn’t have time to drop what he is doing and drive across town to help her open a pickle jar, because “Really Mom?”  She tries everything before calling 911 as a last resort.  The cops show up and aren’t nearly pissed off enough when they realize that this old lady is wasting their time with such trifling bullshit.  They scold her but can’t stay mad and end up opening the pickle jar for her.  The End.

For a student film that is as awesome as is just as “Positive” was horrible, check out:  Evil Beer.

Memorable Classes: Script Analysis

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Peg was a strange bird and she taught a variety of somewhat-dry classes with all of the flair and drama that you would expect of someone with her stage acting credentials.

If the word pairing “Script Analysis” doesn’t conjure boredom for you, let me elaborate.  The class covered three units, three schools of thought on storytelling.

The first followed Aristotle’s Poetics, a breezy read that emphasized the importance of Plot (yes even above Character).  It was supposedly the first book about storytelling ever written, though being the loquacious type that he was, I’m sure Aristotle opted to go around talking about his ideas rather than shutting his trap long enough to jot them down himself so there was probably an unpaid intern that deserved a little bit of credit too.

The second unit delved into Lajos Egri’s Art of Dramatic Writing.  It was a dusty old book that you can buy for a nickel on Amazon.  Written in the mid 1940s, Egri’s book focused primarily on stage plays as his source work.  Regardless of the minor irrelevances for my film education that this bred, his notion of character-driven storytelling was revolutionary at the time and is still what we pretend to be aiming for with our screenplays and novels to this day.  Granted sometimes as writers we have to indulge a little bit and make the T-Rex inexplicably kill the Velociraptors.  Sure it’s Deus Ex Machina, but “Forget it Jake, it’s dinosaurs.”  <- Sorry, but we read the script for Chinatown in this class too.

The third unit was based on a blustery tome written by a pretentious windbag:  Story by Robert “Deuce Muffin” McKee.  That’s not his real middle name.  Well it might be, but I doubt it.  By the way, a “Deuce Muffin” is a muffin that is poop.  It’s probably not a real thing.  I might have made it up just now.

If you’ve seen the brilliant film, Adaptation, then you know Bob McKee as the man that killed that movie’s extremely engaging voiceover.  His work was very film-centric, and while it was good and useful, his tone was haughty and he liked to pretend that all of his rules and tips and guidelines were laws of physics that couldn’t possibly be defied by mere mortals such as you and me.

The spinal cord of the class was a series of criticisms that we had to write about a specific script that we chose at the beginning of the semester.  I chose 25th Hour, by David Benioff (currently of Game of Thrones fame, but this was long before that).  It had been produced and directed by Spike Lee, one of my favorites at the time.  The story chronicles the missteps of Monty Brogan as he wraps up his affairs in his final 24 hours of freedom before reporting to jail for an enormous drug sentence.  The script is powerful, the film beautiful, the performances stunning (Edward Norton playing Monty, Rosario Dawson as his wife, Philip Seymour Hoffman as his dweeby teacher pal and Barry Pepper as his brash stockbroker friend).  Let’s not get sidetracked here – unless you need to step away from the computer to go watch this movie.

This was one of three classes where I began to notice certain familiar faces and made friends accordingly.  Johnny (of Evil Beer fame) chose either Donnie Darko or Edward Scissorhands.  I don’t remember which, only that I was insanely jealous because those are two of my absolute favorite movies of all time ever.

Elle (of the doomed imploding friendship) chose My Own Private Idaho – a film so masturbatory that anyone other than Gus Van Sant claiming to have enjoyed it is either:  A.  A Liar  B.  Gus Van Sant in disguise.  I’m sure there is a great deal of meaning in the flick, but to this day my friends and I only mock a handful of scenes in this bizarre tale of male prostitutes starring River Phoenix and Keanu “I Know Kung Fu” Reeves.  The point is this:  Elle wasn’t very smart, so she should have picked something a little more straight forward like Ice Age 2 or something.

Forcibly trumping the relevance of all of our academic endeavors as they pertained to this class was Midnight Cowboy.  Now I know what you’re thinking, “Brantley, that guy has a name.  Surely his parents didn’t name him ‘Midnight Cowboy.’  That can’t possibly be on his birth certificate.”  And you may be right about that, but I’m telling the story and I haven’t given you enough information to produce documents to prove that this isn’t his name, or even that he was born in the United States as opposed to say, Kenya.

Well, Midnight Cowboy was writing his papers on, you guessed it, Midnight Cowboy.  (Trivia Aside – Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards).  He sometimes had a little bit to contribute to the weekly class discussion, but most of the time he had everything to contribute to the weekly class discussion.  Don’t get me wrong.  He chose a rich film to write essays about, but I wasn’t being graded on his essays so listening to his oppressive hogging of one of my favorite professors got old.  Quick.

Anyways, I managed to squeak out an A in the class after rebounding from a C on my first for-real college paper.  Apparently Aristotle and I didn’t get along.

But the highlight of the class was Peg and her grand sense of characters and symbolism and metaphor and freaking everything in life.  Yes, even that model plane advertising the aviation museum where her husband worked.  It was grand too!  She was like Sally Bowles as played by Liza Minelli, only she didn’t provoke a bubbling rage within you every time she opened her mouth.

Years later I would watch Peg go HAM as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the most microscopic black box theater in the world.  Seriously, this thing was like those Mighty Max and Polly Pocket play sets with the little figurines that you always lost immediately.

Memorable Classes: History of Motion Pictures

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What would all of these old college stories be without a few anecdotes from the actual classes I took?  Despite this blog’s focus on everything else, I genuinely was in this thing for the higher education!

History of Motion Pictures was my very first film class.  It was a three-hour once-a-week class, one of two that I took in my first semester.  Now these sound magical in theory and for the most part they are, but it was quite a departure from the consistently 50-minutes/class period high school classes and those were only a few months behind me in my rearview mirror.  Three hours is a long time to be doing anything.  Whether or not a class like this is convenient or unbearable solely rests on the professor’s shoulders.

It’s not like I ever had much of a choice in whether or not to keep scheduling myself for this style of course.  All film classes were three hours once-a-week so as to allow for screenings and discussions (or it would have if not for some of my professors’ predilection for extremely long films).

History of Motion Pictures was one of the few classes that I took that were taught by actual film faculty, rather than adjuncts and graduate students.  The gentleman teaching it, Bob Jones (no really, that’s not an alias), was probably the oldest member of the film faculty.  He was easily in his late sixties, possibly in his early seventies (or maybe he just aged very poorly).

Though his hearing aid suggested some deterioration with age, you never would have known it from his sense of humor and surprisingly decent lectures.  For those who believe that all history is boring, I encourage you to study film history.  It’s full of larger than life characters, sex, debauchery, and ruthless business moguls.  It’s like Game of Thrones:  Capitalism edition.

That being said, like most of my film classes in enormous lecture halls, I rarely stayed for the movies.  He didn’t start us off on the right foot in terms of keeping us motivated to attend the second half of the class.  Our first film was Sunrise by F.W. Murneau.  It wasn’t bad, but I quickly discovered my short-attention span for silent films, and this one was really pushing it.

The second film made my decision for me.  D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance was a sweeping, epic apology piece (he had just faced harsh criticism for his last film, Birth of a Nation, which depicted a heroic Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction Era south).  It was like Crash for the 1920s movie goer.  There were multiple story lines, spanning multiple eras all tied together by a theme preaching tolerance for our fellow man.  Jesus even showed up for one of the subplots.  The set pieces were massive, a true testament to Hollywood’s showmanship back then.  I couldn’t watch it though.  The film quality made too many characters look alike, which made the switching from plot line to plot line impossible to follow.

If you haven’t seen the Netflix season of Arrested Development, (for starters, what the hell are you doing with your life?) there’s a character that is “Face Blind” – he can’t distinguish one face from another, meaning he can’t recognize people, not even his girlfriend or his own mother.  Well, imagine suffering this guy’s affliction and trying to follow Crash.  I couldn’t tell if that lady on the screen was a Suffragette or Mary Magdalene.  I walked out.

Sometimes I look back and feel bad about passing up on so many opportunities to watch incredible classic films such as these, especially because so many of them are hard to come by.   Back then, however, I was simply following my professor’s lead.  He appointed ushers and left a teaching assistant to run the films.  And then he left the lecture hall and went back to his office.

The most memorable thing about Bob Jones was his microphone.  He had somehow developed a comfort zone with his handheld, wired mic.  Remember, he was old.  When some yuppie AV administrative lackey decided to force onto him a lapel mic (the ones that you clip onto your shirt), he wouldn’t have it.  Instead, he attached that dainty little microphone to his old bulky one with some cardboard and tape.  He looked like a hobo MC, but that never seemed to bother him.

The Day that I Met the Love of my Life

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I remember the exact day that I met the love of my life and it isn’t for the reasons that you would expect.

I don’t have a position on whether or not love at first sight exists.  I might have at one point, but that was back when I thought I knew a lot about love (which conversely was when I knew the least about it!).

If you’ve read some of my stories of 18/19 year old Brantley fumbling his way into disasters by believing that life is just like they say in the movies, you probably expect me to address the realism of the “Meet Cute” of romantic comedies.  For those who make better use of their time, in chick flicks the protagonists always meet through some adorable, candid, pure and magical circumstances.  The message is that their love has been adorned by destiny and that regardless of the challenges they will soon face, they will prevail because they are meant to be.  They’re soul mates.

Well here is my meet un-cute:

A few weeks into the second semester of college, I was indulging one of my more devastating vices.  I obsess over movie trailers.  As the type who always falls for the ones that will hurt me the most, I specifically obsess over incredibly constructed trailers for movies destined to disappoint.  Case in point:  I started looking forward to Spiderman 3 a full six months ahead of its theatrical release.  The teaser and eventually the trailer were the soundtrack of my senior year of high school as I watched it over and over again.  Those who have seen the film can very easily imagine my devastation at the midnight premier of that crap fest.  It was like looking forward to a visit from Santa for 365 days a year and then having him tumble down the chimney drunk and crass as he accidentally sets your Christmas tree on fire while making lewd gestures at your mother.

If the people that cut together movie trailers actually made the entire movie, we would be living in the new golden age of Hollywood.

Being the Lost fan that I was, the teaser for Cloverfield seduced the hell out of me (J.J. Abrams is the common thread between the two).  I watched it over and over again, watched video responses on YouTube (by rule, a complete waste of time), and studied the lore of Cthulu just in case the movie made reference to the dark one.

Of course I was going to that midnight premier.  I had reserved my tickets before I even started looking for some company.  I invited Mallory and Stephanie, roommates on my floor that I knew from the dorm area council.  Stephanie wasn’t going to go.  Mallory did want to go, but thought that they were the only ones invited and that it would look like a date.  Little did she know, I also invited Maggie and her roommate and they were definitely in.  As you can tell, I hadn’t yet made friends with the guys on my floor, or any guys anywhere for that matter.

Mallory contacted the girl who would change my life forever.  Her sales pitch, “I need you to go to this movie with me because otherwise it will just be me and this awkward guy and I don’t want him to think it’s a date.”  The universe took my awkward lemons and made some strange lemonade.  My now-girlfriend and her roommate loyally agreed to help her out by joining our burgeoning Cloverfield Fellowship.

Five girls accompanied me to that horrible, found footage gimmick, shaky camera, plotless, likable protagonist-less waste of an hour and a half of my life.  I barely remember my girlfriend even being there, except for the fact that she was on crutches because she hurt her ankle on the rock-climbing wall.

The found footage gimmick is just an elaborate excuse for making a cheap, plotless, more-often-than-not mediocre film.

I wouldn’t see much of her or her roommate again for a while, during which time I came out of my shell, started drinking too much, and found it in me to be kinda a decent guy.  Even then, we were hanging out with a bizarre menagerie of friends destined for implosion.  Also, we were talking to other people.  Like several other people.  But that’s a subplot to be played out over the course of other chapters.

According to my girlfriend, she and her roommate were sugared up and insane that night and I came across as an anti-social jerk.

This was our “meet-cute.”

Around 11 PM on January 17, 2008.

Not every turning point in life is marked by some ridiculous feeling of being one with the universe.  Some come and go unheralded like any other mundane moment.

I know it’s early, but Happy Valentine’s Day!  Did you and your significant other have a memorable meeting?  Or was it profoundly forgettable?

P.S.  We’ve been together 5 years now, and they have been the best years that I could have ever asked for.  I have no idea how I survived so long without her!