Archive for August, 2009
The latest episode of The Rob Show is now available on blip.tv. Plenty of new songs, a story about cleaning up, Rob’s book recommendations, and a special sneak preview of Rob’s upcoming IF game, “High Midnight.”
Art and Tarantino
Thoughts Above and Around Inglourious Basterds
by J. Robinson Wheeler
It’s kind of weird to watch the Weinstein brothers, who are bound together tightly to Tarantino — Miramax was the house that Pulp Fiction built, as the legend goes, and in order to sustain the complete creative control and freedom every artist desires, Tarantino relies on Bob and Harvey to fund and promote all of his films — be crossing their fingers that Basterds would be a moneymaking hit, one their company desperately needed. Even before seeing this movie, and concluding that Tarantino was an Artist with a capital A, I was saying to myself, “Tarantino makes art films.” Yes, he does think about entertaining audiences, delivering payoffs, and so forth (though he will always make the quirky artistic choice if his muse says he must, which is partly what allows me to define him as an artist), but if you look at all of his movies, they’re quirky art films, not pack-em-in-seats blockbusters. He has this huge reputation, still partly from Pulp Fiction — which was a huge hit in one of those concoctions of timing and public taste where something new was embraced for being new, rather than rejected for being new — for being an exciting filmmaker, someone whose releases are highly anticipated. However, I hang around in a film geek crowd in a city with a thriving film-fan culture, so of course it tends to feel to me like his releases are anticipated. Yet, there’s a huge audience out there that is just people who go to see the latest thing at the mall every week before renting it again a few months later on DVD. They are fine with McMovies. Then here comes chef Tarantino with his five course platter of weird foods.
Tarantino’s movies are weird. His tics and obsessions are on full display. He returns to the same wells over and over again, doing variants on the same ideas. He throws in references that even people who have taken film school classes are likely to miss half the time. The violence in his movies is bloody, huge, and gross. His sense of humor is mischievous and geeky and as apt to unsettle and audience as make it chuckle. By all rights, he shouldn’t be as famous as he is, shouldn’t have the clout he does, shouldn’t have the budget to indulge himself that he’s given. It’s pretty shaky to build a career on catering to a small audience of super film geeks like yourself; the economics just shouldn’t sustain it. But he does. And he’s built his career from the ground up, by following his muse and doing his quirky art. There’s no cheating or short cuts, although there is luck.
I remember seeing Pulp Fiction when it came out. I remember seeing it with a big audience. I remember taking my Dad to see it, and he was blown away by it from the moment Amanda Plummer swung that pistol around on her bony arm and screamed profanities, until the lacerating chords of surf music cut her off and the title came up, big and fat and yellow like a young lion pouncing. It was the kind of moviegoing experience where you’ve never seen anything like it and you wanted to shout, “Hot damn!” It was like a slug of adrenaline right in your chest, just like the one Mrs. Marcellus Wallace got, watching Pulp Fiction when it was brand new. It also had the benefit of Sam Jackson as the anchor man, racing the baton home in the last scene. There’s a lot of lowlifes in Pulp Fiction’s gallery of characters, but there’s two who make moral choices: Butch (Bruce Willis) and Jules (Jackson). So the movie ends on this positive note, on this right moral choice. So after taking this long, bizarre ride, you step out of the theater feeling like maybe it was worthwhile, as bizarre and as long as it was. A year earlier, we saw Jurassic Park for the first time, and we were like, hey, dinosaurs, cool. Never seen dinosaurs not move like clunky claymation creatures before, that’s neat, that’s kind of new. Then here comes Pulp Fiction, and it was a new kind of storytelling altogether. Dialogue like that was new. The disordered chronology was new. Seeing someone get an andrenaline shot in the heart was new. Seeing a wad of bills five inches thick was new. And somehow, the public was ready for all this.
Doing something new can get you drummed out into the street and your career destroyed as it’s getting started. There’s been more of a history of that in the history of art than the reverse. And if you do manage to create a breakout success, then comes the burden of following it. Do you have the goods? Can you keep doing it? Will anyone care when it’s not new any more? That’s destroyed quite a few artists as well.
And now I’m sitting here in this all-night cafe pondering Quentin Tarantino’s career and his status as an artist who has managed to keep the conditions alive for creating the art he wants to create, because I consider myself an artist, too. I’m nearly 40 years old, though, and have yet to find much of any audience for what I do. That doesn’t stop me from doing it, it never has — and my inability to stop creating what I consider to be creative works of art, despite all financial, social, psychological, and practical impediments to doing so is part of why I easily identify myself as such. I am quite simply compelled to.
What I grapple with, of course, is what to spend my time working on, which projects to throw energy and time into completing, which to let lie fallow, which to reject, which to play around with until it seems like it’s going in a better direction. Sometimes, there’s something that I just feel like I have to get done, so I do that. Other times I can dither around with a project for years. I can throw everything I have into something that’s totally not commercial or perhaps so self-indulgent there’s no reasonable way that anybody but myself is going to like it. I can scrap things because I am full of endless anxieties about whether anyone will like them or not, or because my strongest suspicion is that they won’t, so I don’t bother. It is very perplexing, most of the time.
When I was a kid and didn’t have much invested in my own ego, I proved to have a knack for writing stories that had an audience appeal. There were all these little ideas I’d scooped up from various places, from things that had pleased me — from comic books and from Spielberg movies and from young adventure novels and such — that I was able to sort of stick in at the right moments to thrill the little audience of my classmates and my writing teacher. By the time I was finishing college, I was preoccupied with delving into my own private angst and finding some way to express it, and pleasing an audience was pretty low on my list of artistic prioirities. Then I sort of moved out of that into a phase of trying to reclaim those earlier sensibilities, but I was still not the best judge of what projects would find a receptive audience and which wouldn’t. My artistic ambitions were enormous by that point.
It’s all still in flux. I still wonder, of course, whether I’ll ever make a movie again, or if The Krone Experiment was it. I was watching Tarantino expound upon his own oeuvre, as he called it, to Charlie Rose, and about how one watches the development of a unique voice over the course of a career. He said something interesting, which is that being a writer-director, as opposed to a director who is happy to pick up scripts written by other people and develop them, necessarily means you’re not going to make as many movies, partly because you have to start from scratch at the bottom of Mount Everest every time, facing the blank page and scratching something onto it that hopefully will be a movie three years later. I am now aware that I may be lucky to make three movies in my life, and that would be better than making one, but it’s too bad I won’t get to make ten or twenty, because I’d be very interested in seeing what my gimmick is, what my voice sounds like, what my themes are that I go back to over and over again, what is a Rob Wheeler movie (or a J. Robinson Wheeler movie, or a John Robinson Wheeler movie — I’m kind of schizo on the whole naming thing right now, which is a whole other deal), and what isn’t. Back when I was making Krone, I remember saying that it would be great if my partner, Ben Pascoe, ended up making a lot of movies on his own, and so did I, so that later we could look back and see how Krone was, indeed, a collaborative mix of two distinct filmmakers. With just the one movie, it’s a little harder to tease out the difference.
Of course, the other thing is, that unlike Quentin Tarantino, I have never exclusively been a film artist. I have lately been making serious plans to take some movie scripts I’ve written, that I might have to admit I will never be able to produce as movies, and draw them as webcomics (serialized graphic novels, basically) instead. I think this is a great idea and I’m very keen to do it, but it’s turning out that drawing comic pages is an incredibly labor-intensive activity, and one of the things I’m slowest at, just as I’m reaching an age where I can feel myself slowing down. So then it starts looking like it’ll take three years to do each of these comics projects, about the same amount of time it would take to make them into movies. The main advantage is economic, of course.
These days, it can cost nearly nothing to make a movie, unless you really want to rent some equipment, pay actors and crew for their time and talent, and need anything special in the way of costumes, props, or special effects. I have a lot of confidence in my talent as a filmmaker, but I have zero skill and experience at raising money. The main trick of doing Krone was figuring out a way to do it without raising any money at all, and I did, but I don’t think I can or will do that again. What I have to spend on any project is my own time, which is a limited resource, and my own energy, which is renewable but also limited.
Thus it does all come down to trying to choose every day which project to invest in. Every now and then someone will poke me with a request to finish something I started that they wanted to see more of, and they probably wonder why I don’t do so. It’s not necessarily that I don’t want to, but when a project cools off, it takes an extra investment of energy to heat it up again, so that, in a way, it’s more expensive than a newer project, which is hot to start with. The energy economics don’t make sense, and there’s no money economics to balance it out.
I’ve drifted far away from Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds, I know, but this wasn’t supposed to be a review of that. It was my own situation that was on my mind, but seeing that movie and thinking about Tarantino and his situation brought it into focus.
Okay, I’ve been thinking lately about starting to release my IF development logs, which I always keep as a text file when I’m writing a game. They’re essentially blog posts about how it’s going, except I never actually post them to a blog, which seems wrong.
I may have to start a separate blog just for these, but here’s a starter one: the dev notes from Ascii and the Argonauts.
03-08-03 6:54am Let's see. So there are seven treasures you give to Zeus, and he gives you help at each step, sort of. You can't get the golden fleece itself until you get zeus all his treasures. One of the things zeus does for you is tell you about using a dove to get past the crashing rocks on the sea. Maybe that happens after the 7th treasure, just to simplify things. There is a one-eyed hag who will give you a sleeping potion to use on the dragon guarding the fleece if you give her a glass eye. Or wait, to simplify things again, maybe she gives you one of the treasures. What happens is, you have to give her something wrong (say, the rock) and then she gets mad and shrinks you to the size of a mouse (or turns you into a mouse). Then you run away from a cat into a mouse hole, and there is a glass eye in there. You push it out and then leave, and poof, you return to normal size, and can pick up the eye. I wonder if you need the cat for something else? Let's see. Maybe there's a big dog guarding another treasure. So you drop the cat and it chases it away, and you get that treasure. So that's two treasures. I feel like there should be a merchant you have to buy something from. I'm not sure where the magic word comes in. Maybe since the witch doesn't give you a potion, you use it to put the dragon to sleep. How else could you use the rock to get a treasure? Maybe there's an alchemist or a wizard who will turn it into treasure if you bring him something. Maybe a newt from a swamp. Why can't you get the newt right away? Maybe you need a basket, and that's what the merchant sells you. So where do you get a coin from? Maybe it's also in the mouse hole. So that's three treasures. Hrm. Maybe the coin is also a treasure. Which means you need to spend it and then figure out how to get it back. Maybe the merchant will take something in trade, like an urn. Simplifying, maybe the urn is just sitting in the oracle room. Maybe there's a vat of wine. Or a big barrel of it. IE, a treasure too heavy to pick up. So how do you get it to the temple? It seems more likely that you'd just fill the urn with wine and deposit that. So then what could you give the merchant instead to get the coin back? Now I'm thinking fine silk cloth, but that's also a treasure. Maybe that's just sitting in the boat. Maybe there'd be a precious statue as another treasure. Maybe there's a couple of locations out at sea, like an island. Maybe there's a cyclops, but you can kill him with the rock. Heh. Oh yeah, forgot about this. Another treasure is honey, which is found along with beeswax, which you have to stick in your ears to get past the sirens. Maybe you can't take either of these because there are bees. So how do you get rid of bees? Hm, this is a direct steal from Adventureland. Oh well. The solution there is that there's swamp mud which prevents bees from stinging you, but I don't want to do that. Maybe you could wear a suit of armor. Maybe that's also a treasure, and it's found in the court of Pelias. Okay, let's tally this up again. Vineyard: *wine* Court : *armor* Cyclops: *statue* Hag: *jeweled flute* Argo: *silk* Dog: *bowl* mouse hole: *silver coin* Wait, if there's a flute, you could play that to put something to sleep. Hmmm. Or maybe charm the bees! That'd be weird, huh? So that makes the armor kind of useless. Oh, maybe it's a red herring. You have to travel through the swamp to get to the bees, and the armor rusts. Hey, that's seven. Okay, so that's the list. Here's the other thing. The alchemist guy can turn the rock into a *gold rock* for a time, but he tells you it's just an illusion, and will wear off. So you just take it to the merchant for a trade (perhaps the merchant will accept: coin, silk, urn at any point), the sucker. If you give the gold rock to Zeus, he'll accept it, but he'll be unhappy and will kill you when it wears off. Hey, this is basically the whole game. Awright. Hrm, wait. Maybe the dog is guarding the wine. In which case, why would he be also guarding the bowl? Oh heck, maybe he guards both. Never mind. 7:31am 03-08-03 ----- ! ASCII and the Argonauts ! Scott Adams tribute speedIF ! Started 03-08-03 3:49am ! Progress: ! 6:50am - First five rooms implemented. ! Pelias and Zeus implemented. ! Oracle not implemented. Can't sail anywhere. ! ! 8:37am - Implemented Vineyard, Dog, Vat, Urn ! Implemented Armor (well, it exists) ! Implemented Old Hag, changing into Mouse, Flute, Cat ! ! 1:00pm - All seven (8 counting the gold nugget) Treasures implemented ! *** Note: Merchant doesn't disappear after you give him the nugget ! I am just starting to implement the sailing part of the game ! I am also getting kind of dizzy headed and empty stomached ! ! 2:04pm - Fixed the Hag a bit so that she will curse you in all non-treasure cases ! Fixed the Merchant so he kills you with the rock for tricking him ! Fixed the Temple because there are actually eight possible treasures ! Implemented the cyclops island ! And now I simply must quit because my brain is shutting down ! Still to go: Sirens, Crashing Rocks, Dragon island ! ! Day 2 - Starting ~7am 03-09-03 ! 7:40am - Decided to put it back so that you have to give Rock to the hag ! Implemented Ocean2 - Ocean5 ! Implemented Sirens ! Implemented CrashingRocks and the DoveDrop ! ! 8:23am - Implemented everything, am now playtesting the whole game ! ! 9:01am - Hmm, I think the whole game is working. One more test... ! ! 9:17am - I can win! Yay! Still a couple of tiny issues to iron out. ! ! 10:13am - Ok, it's winnable and all. Am just now realizing many items ! that should be static are takeable. I am also trying to remind ! myself that I haven't implemented the Oracle at all. Hrm. ! ! 10:41am - Making first attempt at Oracle code, using some borrowed ! Ask/Tell stuff from Colours. Hope it kind of works. ! ! 11:14am - Rar! Ask/Tell is such a stupid mess in Inform. Also in TADS. ! Why do they all default to passing strings instead of objects? ! And this weird scope stuff. Bleah. So I ripped out the library ! handling and put in my own. Now maybe I can write stuff. Although ! I think the idea of having a built-in help system is dumb, and ! really beyond the old-school genre I'm using. So maybe I'll just ! put a few vapid things into the system and leave it at that. ! ! 12:12pm - Okay, I think I'm ready to call this done. Oracle mostly cycles ! through a set of ten standard "hints" (none particularly helpful), ! with a few specific messages generated by some items/people. Who ! knows how it'll work in practice, but since it is supposed to just ! be a speed effort, I think it'll do. So let's see, it was ten hours ! yesterday and five today. 15 hours? Okay, yeah, that's not bad. ! And it was a heck of a lot of fun to write.
The latest episode of The Rob Show is now available on blip.tv. Rob delves into the question of fan letters, and determines that you can’t write them any more because there’s no address to send them to.
This is from the great local video store (Vulcan Video) that I go to. Purportedly a true story, it sounds polished through frequent retelling over the years, but the end result is great. Scroll down and start reading from where it says:
“It was maybe, like, four years ago,” begins Shivers. “It was a night that some of our more frail employees were working, all the small, terrified, shy folk.”