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Deck the Halls: An Excerpt from “Home Street”

The following is an excerpt from my debut novel.  A life or death Christmas Carol, “Home Street” tells the story of a man who must journey through his past in order to save his future.  He must relive his rocky childhood, the dreams of his youth, and conflicts he faced during the Iraq War before he can accept an incredible gift: the opportunity to change one crucial moment that will spare him from certain death.

This chapter sets the scene for his teenage years, when Paul discovered love, heartbreak, and the kind of man he wanted to be when he grew up.

 

As we walk through the fog, shapes begin to emerge from the gloom.  First a chain-link fence.  Then a flag pole.  Soon we arrive at the top of the hill, and a large, imposing structure rises above us.  It resembles a privately-operated, taxpayer-funded, for-profit prison.

“I swore I’d never come back here,” I say, and I silently muse how perhaps some part of me had never left.

“What?” asks Nicholas with an incredulous look.  “To your high school?”

“Haven’t been here since they put the plaque in the garden.”

“Like a commemorative thing?”

“The kind that names the kids that went to their schools and died in their wars.”

The halls are empty when we step inside, but as we encounter different landmarks and I’m reminded of specific events, they populate with ghosts, and each happening plays out just as it once did.

“Look at that head of hair,” I say as I walk Nicholas over to my younger self.  “Goddamn, I was a good-looking kid.”

I hear Nicholas chuckle, but I ignore him as I circle my old body and try not to compare it to what I walk around in these days.

“First day of freshmen year,” I say as a crowd of students choke the hall.  “The vice-principal got to know my name right away.  We were waiting to be let into our first class, and I was standing with a few friends right over there.”

I point at a group of freshmen.  Fourteen-year-old me is in a playful shoving match with a buddy, which grows more and more intense until Joel’s elbow accidentally smashes through the emergency glass covering the fire extinguisher.

“This shirt is silk,” Joel says, tugging at the fabric to check for holes.  Moments later, the vice principal appears and grabs both boys by the neck.

Behind us, a freckle-faced kid with a Cincinnati Reds jacket makes his way through the crowd.  My younger self follows close behind, making announcements like a town crier.

“Jeff Murdock coming through!  Make way for Jeff Murdock!”

Jeff’s face is becoming more and more amber as he grunts out a protest under his breath.  “Shut up, Paul.  Stop it, Paul.  Everyone’s looking at us, Paul.”

The boy I once was continues in this minstrel game, taking delight in bringing his shy buddy unwanted attention.  “Take a good, hard look at Jeff Murdock!  Hear ye, hear ye!  Jeff Murdock!  J-E-F-F M-U-R-D-”

“E-R, because I’m gonna kill you if you don’t quit.”

For the first time tonight, I’m genuinely smiling.  I turn Nicholas’s attention to a portly man with silvery Elvis hair and a Han Solo vest.  “My art teacher.  He used to draw picture after picture of Jeff’s older brother.”  I laugh.  “Had poor Steve all flustered.  There were paintings of him all over the walls of the art room.  Happy Steve.  Sad Steve.  Thinking Steve.”

“Confused Steve,” Nicholas adds.

“You know, that guy told me I was ‘too creative’ for art.  Gave me straight D’s!”

Two cute girls come bounding down the stairs.

“Oh!” I say, pushing Nicholas’s face toward them.  “I declared the last day of my senior year International Day of Free Love.  Kissed every girl I came across.  On the cheek, hand, top of the head, wherever they gave consent to.”

The pair of cute girls set down their books and sneak up behind my younger self.  As they pounce, breaking into giggles, they pin him to the lockers and plant kisses all over his face and neck.  While he laughs and squirms, pretending to struggle against their tickling grasp, I watch on in amazement, still in disbelief that this moment actually happened to me.

“Anya!  Bethany!  Come on.  There’s plenty of me to go around.”

Nicholas smirks, looking at me with amazement.  “Looks like you were pretty popular around here.”

I shrug.  “I was the class clown.”

Inside one of the classrooms, sixteen-year-old me stares down at a small slip of paper.

“My junior year,” I say to Nicholas, “there was a tie for Homecoming King for my class, and we had to do a revote to decide the winner.”

Sixteen-year-old me looks around the classroom suspiciously.

“Came down to this really handsome guy that kind of looked like a young Sylvester Stallone and – uh – me.”

The classroom starts to shrink, pulling past the bodies as they sit at their desks.  The walls segment into small squares and turn into ceramic tiles.  A bathtub pushes up from the linoleum floor, and the water inside shifts.  Eight-year-old me sits thoughtfully in the tub, eating candy.

“We moved around a lot when I was little, and I had to change schools in the middle of almost every grade before we got here.  I was always the least popular kid in every school I went to.  Too sensitive.  Too introverted.  And, yes, as Mr. Fraley was so happy to point out, I was too creative.  Not only was I the new kid everywhere we went, but I wasn’t even sure how to talk to people.”

The little boy puts a sucker into his mouth and lays back in the warm water.

“One night, just after Halloween and yet another move, I was taking a bath.  I remember this grape lollipop was the most intense thing I’d ever tasted.  Just covered my tongue, mixing with the bath water.”

Eight-year-old me sinks underwater, holding the lollipop aloft to keep it dry.

“With a mouthful of that grape, I said one of the most fervent prayers of my life.  Sometimes I guess I felt like there wasn’t anyone in the world that truly loved me.  I mean, I always had a best friend, because I had my brother Chris.  And I had my sister Jen too.  I know I wasn’t being reasonable.  I wasn’t alone, but I felt helpless at home.  And school was kind of a living hell.”

“What did you pray for?” asks Nicholas.

A tall fifth grader with a ruddy face takes a corner and strolls down the hall of a different school.  His hands are thrust into his hooded sweatshirt, but he struts with confidence, as though he were the only person in the world.  He sings for himself, but he sings loud enough to be heard by everyone else.  He warbles and wails a personal rendition of the 1984 hit “Eat It.”

“I guess I must have been in kindergarten.  There was this older boy I thought was the coolest kid ever.”  I watch the fifth grader’s long strides as he passes.  “It seemed like no one ever had anything bad to say about the guy, and I wanted to be just like him.”

The fifth grader ducks around another corner and disappears.  I turn back to the boy in the bathtub as eight-year-old me scrutinizes the spent lollipop stick in his hand.

“If Solomon could pray for wisdom,” I say, “why couldn’t I pray to be funny?  Maybe people would like me if I was only funny enough.”

“And by the time you got here,” Nicholas says, “things had turned around for you.”

“See, I’ll never know if that’s true.”

The bathroom transforms back into the classroom where sixteen-year-old me asks his friends about the confusing ballot.  One of those friends, a pretty girl he had a small crush on, says, “Why not?  You’re popular enough.”

Next to her, a guy he’d always respected for honesty and insight, shakes his head.  “It’s obviously a joke.  Someone’s idea of a prank.”

We continue our walk down the hall.

Nicholas asks, “Why would it have been a prank?”

“Be careful what you wish for, that’s why.  When you’re the guy people go to for a laugh, sometimes you’re the joke.”

The bell rings, and I watch as the student body I used to be a part of switches classes.  I peer at the faces in the crowd.  Even though they’d once been part of my daily life, they’re all strangers now.  My perception – my reality – was dependent on the temporary circumstances of adolescence.

“Junior high was where I hit my breaking point,” I say.  “My cheeks hurt from my fake smile, and I had a year-long phase where I didn’t bother combing my hair.”  I laugh at the self-revelation.

“How did you snap out of it?”

“Two things happened.  First, someone loaned me a tape, and I discovered the music that kid in elementary school was singing came from a growing library of work.  Most music takes itself oh-so seriously, and that’s not what I needed.  I know it might sound strange, but Weird Al spoke to me in a way nothing else did.  Soon, Mr. Yankovic became my main obsession, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

“And did you?”

I face Nicholas with an expression drawn from my interrupted thoughts.  “Did I what?”

“Spend your life doing it?”

His question is so earnest I almost can’t believe his naivety.

“No,” I say, my voice dripping with condescension.

Nicholas turns away, nodding.  “What was the other thing that happened?”

“I got a summer job working at camp.  Teaching kids, performing campfire songs and skits, telling ghost stories.  It was a natural fit for me, and since there were two other Paul’s that year, I went by a funny nickname.  That helps when you’re working with kids.”

Smiling slyly, Nicholas says, “I bet it does.”

“I’m not telling you my nickname,” I say, keeping the conversation on track.  “Sometimes you find something you’re really good at, and I was a great camp counselor.  The campers loved me.  They’d get excited when they saw me.  And the parents, when they’d come at the end of the session, knew me from letters home.  I was more than the sum of my parts there, and I can’t tell you what that experience did for my self-esteem.”

I stop, and the hall empties, going silent.  The door to my right leads to the auditorium.

“There are parts of your life you can look back on and understand,” I say, “and then there are things that leave you wondering.”

To hear the rest of the story – and see if Weird Al comes up again (spoiler: he does) – grab a copy of the book!

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Acknowledgements from the pages of “Home Street” – The First Preorder Update

The majority of you who have come to see this update are my friends and family at this point, so I thought it appropriate to help you see just how many of you have been instrumental in the making of “Home Street.”  Please keep in mind that context is key, and a lot of the references you’ll find here will make more sense once you’ve read the novel.

If you would like to preorder “Home Street,” simply go here and do so.

Without further ado, I present…

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

Legend has it I’ve been working on this book since I was seven years old.  The thing about beginning anything at such a tender age is I’m not entirely certain it’s true.  I know I began not long after we moved to Florida.  Seems about right, but just like Paul, my timeline can be confusing.

There’s a lot I can say that about: “Just like Paul.”  I could go into detail, writing dissertations on what’s a memory and what’s pure imagination, but that’s not the point.  The goal here is to thank those who’ve inspired, motivated, and aided in the creation of this book.  Still, the legend is important.

Truth is I have so many people to acknowledge in this affair it’s practically criminal.  One of the reasons I’ve embedded so many names in the narrative is to purposefully pay homage to those folks.  If you’ve known me at any point in my life leading up to the publication of this work and there’s a character with a name similar or identical to your own, it’s a pretty good bet I’m full of thanksgiving our paths have crossed.

The legal department would prefer I add a disclaimer.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

That is an important statement.  Not just because it will keep me out of court, but also – while I’ve been inspired by real individuals, these characters are pure fiction.  The characters on these pages are here to serve the story and not to be mirror images of complicated flesh and blood individuals.

The original stories – which were the spiritual precursors of this tome – were mainly screenplays, and my full intention was to film them.  I learned the format from reading old Three Stooges scripts.  Instead of hiring actors, I would cast my friends and family.  By doing so, the roles I created were greatly influenced by their personalities.

The very first story was called F.B.K.I.S. (or Federal Bureau of Kids Investigations and Stuff).  That cast included an assortment of elementary and middle school acquaintances.

I say acquaintances, because I didn’t have many friends in those days.  Certainly, there were some who were more.  There was Kyle, whose last name has been lost to history.  He was my first and only friend from the time I moved to Florida until the time he moved away.

When Damon Matrocos came to town, I saw a new opportunity.  Despite the fact no one else in school wanted to play with me – that I was the punchline to so many jokes, I would earn this new kid’s friendship.  This was after my fervent prayer in the tub but before I discovered “Weird Al.”  I was still learning to craft my charm into a tool.  I’m happy to say Damon became my friend and was a part of that original cast, as were Michael and Benjamin and my best friend throughout my life, my brother Andrew.

We would go on neighborhood adventures, sometimes searching for Old Mr. Green in the woods.  On one occasion, we investigated a real-life predator in the neighborhood.  That was the day Damon suggested we start a club.  That was the day that inspired me to start writing.

After my parents divorced and we moved to Ohio, I became further influenced by the people I met while briefly going to the private school where my mother taught.  Christian Hodges, Michael Smail, and Jacob Lees would sit with me at lunch, listening patiently as I told them about the script I was writing for us all.

I moved into a trailer park and started going to school at Big Walnut.  That was the first major shift in the overall story.  It became a study of the kids in my neighborhood.  They were trying so hard to grow up while I was desperately clinging to childhood.  Some of them were turning to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, petty crime, and sex.  I was witness to arson, incest, and brutal violence while living there, and two of my friends from school were prototypical Dylan Kliebold/Eric Harris types, building pipe bombs and threatening to one day come to school with guns.  Not to be contained in a single volume, I typed out a film trilogy under the banner Debt 2 Society on our first family computer.

By this point in my life, I was the class clown and on the opposite end of the popularity totem pole.  I’d already laid down the groundwork with classroom antics during eighth grade, but what really put me over the top were two events.  First, I accidentally pushed Joel Reynolds through the fire extinguisher glass on the first day of our freshman year.  The second thing happened the very same day.  We were in the orientation assembly when the vice principal opened the floor for questions.  I raised my hand and asked if a public display of affection could be counted if it was just one person.  When asked to clarify, I specified that I figured this guy was probably alone in a bathroom stall and could unwittingly create a slipping hazard.

That set it off.  I became a legend.  At least in my own mind.

My cast had swollen, including people who succeeded in making their impressions felt and a handful of legitimate lifelong friends.  There was my high school community (Jeff Murdock, Ann Gentile, Jes Antolik, Shawn Page, Dan Strohl, Jamie Cox, Erin Sayers, Elizabeth Grooms, Nicole Butz, Mandy Detty, Erica Roche, Naomi Kresgi, Janet Dougherty, Barnabas Boehler, John Copley, John Stankowiz, Seth Rogers, Adam Govoni, Danielle Conklin, Anya Velasquez, Bethany Whittington, Tiffany Evans, Jamie Sumner, Stephanie Heckler, Julie Thompson, Jennifer Schirtzinger, Maria Lynch, Steve Tack, Steve and Julie Murdock, David Gentile, Eric Antolik, Trent and “Bubby” Carter, Valerie Popovich, Beth Trusler, Emily and Alex Beard, Ethan Whitney, Leela Bean, Melissa Kopp, Jayson Hummel, Geoffrey Miller, Mindy and Jason McComas, Stacey Mullins, Travis Garrabrant, Shaun Decker, Brad and Kelly Wolfe, Jesse Haines, Mitch Fry, Ben Edwards, Damon Frentsos, Heath Stickney, Andy Kerr, Steve McDonough, Chris Smith, Roy and Robert Merchant, Andrew Hartley, and Jill Ceneskie), my Camp Lazarus family (Kent “Dingo” Keister, Chip Burke, Dave Hudler, David Brant, Josh Steele, Barbara Lovell, Caty Peters, Kyle Allen, the English twins, The Leonards, Eddie Wilson, Daniel Anschutz, Jason “Cookie” Cook, Ian and Nathan Cheeseman, Tony Marrazzi, Brian Roy, Anna Haas, Charlie Adams, Matt Long, Chris and Bridget Link, Jennifer Councilman, Martha Channell, Laura Henry, Maggie and Tim Smith, Clark Schwenke, Jeff Westlake, Eric Fox, and Brian Canini), and my Camp Blue Ridge kids (Drew Lerman, Larry Zinn, Ian Kay, and Josh Blum).

Suddenly, tragedy struck.  My classmate, fellow camp counselor, and dear, dear friend Bill Tack took his life.  Writing silly, disconnected stories focusing heavily on action and cartoony violence wasn’t what I want anymore.  I felt compelled to write more personally.

In college, my focus shifted to describing what it’s like to take tentative steps away from childhood.  The original Home Street featured two protagonists: Paul (who represented my my more introverted aspects) and Bill (who exhibited my extroverted tendencies).  Paul was stuck in the past.  Bill was stuck in the future.  They were both returning to their hometown for the wedding of Tom and Jen.

Bill aspired to shake off the dust of that crummy little town and make his mark on Hollywood, but first he would have to confront the shadows of his father’s physical abuse.

Paul hadn’t spoken to anyone in the four d since they graduated from high school.  He was there to see everyone one last time before he disappeared for good.  The complication, of course, was his high school sweetheart, Gayle, who despite having moved on with her life, was obviously still in love with him.  The major dramatic question: Can love save a life?

This was easily the longest series of revisions in my history of long running revisions, having lived in my memory, in dog-eared copies handed off to friends, and table readings for two full decades.

So many people from my college years at Kent State became prototypes.  Amanda D’Angelo, Ian Crossland, Leslie Diamond, and Eric Van Baars.  Even more people from this period have influenced this novel.  Nate Hodges, Mike Maletic, Kariem Marbury, Leigh Ann Miller, Carl Gannon, Jes Kreusler, Ryan Davis, Brian Massolini, Cat Kenny, Peggy Elliott, Jef Snopel, Kat Savering, Melissa Wintringham, Kenny Bentley, Tarah Hamilton, Kate Sopko, Marya Bednerick, Sukriye Yuksel, and Holly Magnani.

As I’ve aged, Paul has aged, and even while I’ve focused on other things, Paul’s story has been alive, festering in my mind as I’ve experienced more and more of the world.  This novel has taken several years to write, mostly because like Paul, I’ve had obstacles which have held me back from fully pursuing my dreams.  While working retail (and never, ever stealing from the till), I’ve made movies, recorded albums, and wrote plays and comic books.  I’ve done music videos, sketches, web shows, and talked to a few of my heroes about storytelling.

I never stopped believing.

People like Richard Baker, Jason Nestler, Jaz Williams, Godson Chamberlain, Kurt Braun, Elizabeth Jackson, Debra Plante, Mark McKinney, Peter John Ross, Yochanan Sebastian Winston PhD, Kathy Robbins, Cristina Leduc, Elaina Pajimula, Angela Lynn Cousins, Carl Gannon, Jesse Dillon Sorrels, Holly Elswick, Tawny Whaley, David Shoemaker, Charles Castro, Dominique Gilbert, JeanCarlo Mendez, Chase Pado, Paula Stead, Jason Mank, Ryan Spratt, Jim Larkin, Michael Magnuson, Jessica Nigri, and Andrew Nielsen have fleshed out the characters herein.  A school teacher who shopped at my store invited me to speak to his class and emboldened me to claim myself a writer.  Thank you for that Anthony Poggiali.

While this story’s about Paul’s family and includes entirely fictionalized events, the spirit of my own family is ever present.  I must thank Nana and Pop (Walter and Louise Grant), Grandpa and Grandma Ball (Orville and Maxine), Great-Grandma Lemley (Ilabell) and her lover Baxter, my mother (Deborah Ball), my father and step-mother (Greg and Jackie Grant), my sister and nephew (Elizabeth and Gabriel), my brother (Andrew, again), my uncles and aunts (Dad’s side: Steve and Pat, Tim and Pegi, Marilou and Earl; Mom’s side: Dan, Mark and Chris, Pam and Ron, Mike and Brenda), cousins (Dad’s side: Stephanie, Matthew, Jennifer, Shaun, Nicole, Rachel and Rebecca, and Nathan; Mom’s side: Ashley, Josh, Jessup, Shelby, Justus, Nathan, Alicia, Anita, Annalee, and Sean), my beloved baby sweets (Stella Ingram), and her parents (Dennis and Estrella).

Of course, there are parts of Paul’s life I never lived.  These are experiences essential to the story I wanted to tell.  I’m sure it comes as no surprise to read these were the most difficult parts for me.  Writing about a war you did not fight is not an easy thing to do.  You go to the history books, to names and dates.  It’s dry, confusing, and distant.  There are some excellent frontline accounts on record.  I particularly liked On Call in Hell: A Doctor’s Iraq War Story by Cdr. Richard Jadick and Thomas Hayden, Combat Corpsman by Jonathan P. Brazee, House to House: A Soldier’s Memoir by David Bellavia and John R. Bruning, We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah by Patrick K. O’Donnell, No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah by Bing West, and Surviving Twilight: A Soldier’s Chronicle of Daily Life in Iraq by Shane A. Bernskoetter.

The more I learned about the war, the men and women who fought it, and the sacrifices made, the deeper I felt my responsibility to tell this story with dignity, truth, and accuracy.  I had to get this right for it to be meaningful.  It had to hurt.

If I got any part of the experience right, it was due to the brave men and women who told me their personal stories and answered my absurd, obsessive questions.  A heartfelt thank you goes out to Sgt. Trent Fellur (3664th Maintenance Company, Army), Sgt. Kristopher Chan (166th SOC, Army), Muhamad Dea’a Jassem (an Iraqi citizen who worked as a procurement officer for the U.S. military), and MCPO Frederick Berry, who suggested Paul should be a corpsman.  Fred also went above and beyond the call of duty, agreeing to read through this novel and correct as many of my military facts as possible.  Talk about honor, courage, and commitment!

I also owe a great deal of gratitude to Fred for reassuring my fears.  “Don’t worry about making it political,” he said.  “You can’t write it without it being political.”

One of the common challenges I’ve heard about those who serve is when they get to the V.A. for help with their PTSD, and the psychologist is someone with no combat experience.  It’s not comfortable for them to share their feelings – to expose themselves and their frayed thoughts – to someone who doesn’t understand what they’ve been through.  I’m fully aware in the context of trying to cull information, I was playing the role of neophyte.  It’s the major reason I owe so much to those who chose to speak with me.

I sincerely hope I’ve contributed something meaningful to the conversation.  To those who fought, I hope this book brings some clarity, compassion, maybe even closure.  To those who still fight the demons of war, I hope this book inspires you to ask for help.  And to those civilians like myself who stoked the home fires, I hope this book helps to make the cost of freedom something a little more personal.

To me ‘Home Street’ isn’t a war story.  It’s not even a Christmas story.  It’s a ghost story – a fictionalized memoir thirty years in the making.  It’s a deeply personal story and something I’ve been compelled to work on for almost as long as I can remember.

This leaves me with one last acknowledgment.

Thank you for picking up this book and allowing me to tell my story.  Thank you for taking the time to read it.  Thank you for reviewing it online, spreading the word, and recommending it to the special people in your life.  In that way, you’ve shared a piece of your life with me too, and I’m eternally grateful for that.

 

‘Fear of Flying’ is a Delightfully Pretense Free Journal Comic from Drunken Cat

Full disclosure: I personally know Brian Canini and am in fact in one of the daily strips, complete with Brian’s observation that I am balding.  I have even done some work with Drunken Cat Comics.  I wrote a one-shot, did a short-lived webseries, and did extensive production for a yet-to-be-released graphic novel.  However, this comic covers the year after he and I moved into separate apartments and directions in life.  This book represents a time when we were in somewhat close proximity but were drifting apart, and it represents aspects of Brian that I was not fully aware of until reading the book.  Besides that, dude is a bit of an introvert, and even if I had shared a bigger portion of his life during this time, I would likely have been surprised by many of his daily observations.

Alright?  Is that enough disclosure for you savages?  Can we get on with our review or whatever you want to call this?

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Brian Canini is driven by sheer force of will and single-minded devotion to his beloved storytelling in comic book form.  Because of this, he has contributed a stack of work that any indie artist of the sequential art ilk should be proud of.  Recently, he put together a kickstarter campaign, which acted as a way to preorder his newest work, ‘The Big Year.’  It’s a journal comic that covers the three major life events that define adulthood for many: getting married, buying a home, having a child.  I used this opportunity to acquire everything in the Drunken Cat bibliography, and I just started going through the library last night.

Yep, you heard me right.  I started going through the library last night, and already this morning I had finished the 332 page ‘Fear of Flying.’  The truth is that as I lay my head down on my pillow (my balding head… thanks, Brian!), I decided to sit up a little and read a few pages of the book.  The thing kept me up until 3 am, at which time I was inspired to write a new, reflective, and sad portion of my own upcoming novel, ‘Home Street.’  And then this morning, I was compelled to polish Brian’s masterpiece off.

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Here’s the first thing you should know about ‘Fear of Flying’: It’s honest.  It’s messy.  It’s not meant to be perfect.  It includes spelling and grammatical errors and crossed off words, and you have to be okay with that, because, despite his perfectionism, Brian had to be okay with it too.  It’s relentless.  It’s all-encompassing.  It strips away pretense and lays its subject bare.

The thing about a lot of journal comics is that it is naturally self-deprecating and yet in keeping the writer or writer/artist as the protagonist, it can often fall victim to the rationalization of self-centered thinking.  Certainly, Brian’s work is no different from – say, Harvey Pekar in that regard.  However, while Pekar assumes that the world would cough up money for the honor of reading his stories, Brian is putting himself through the torture of doing a page a day that chronicles his dreams of working in the industry full-time while working on his many other books, working his demanding nine-to-five, dreaming of another life that seems just within reach, struggling with self-doubt and rage and mortality and inspiration and roadblocks and television addiction and a quest for peace, and exploring what seems like true love.  He does it because he was inspired to do so.  He does it without knowing if anyone will ever read it, because even though when he feels like he’s screaming into the void at times, ultimately the art is all that matters.

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I started writing this because I simply wanted to tell my friend how much I enjoyed his book.  How much it haunted me.  How much it inspired me.  And how much I am looking forward to reading everything else.  But in the end, I decided that I should publish this here on my blog, so that ‘Fear of Flying’ might find some others to haunt and inspire.

But as Levar Burton used to say on ‘Reading Rainbow,’ you don’t have to take my word for it.  I encourage all of you to head over to DrunkenCatComics.com and check it out for yourself.

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What makes a great romance? An exploration of ‘LA LA Land’

 

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Like The Artist before it, LA LA Land is a film that dares to think backward while telling a story that tells a story for a forward thinking audience.  It is a film that feels timeless, an instant classic.  Movie-goers feel like they are watching something akin to Singing in the Rain, Rebel without a Cause, and especially Casablanca.

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“I SHOULD PROBABLY TELL YOU SOMETHING NOW – I HATE JAZZ.”

Just as last year’s Whiplash had jazz purists saying, “That’s not how you become a great jazz musician,” LA LA Land has gotten some criticism for oversimplifying the genre into a “hackneyed cliché.”  While these would be fair criticisms of films that boast of being a thorough and definitive exploration of the genre, neither of these movies are actually about jazz.

LA LA Land’s got rhythm pumping through its veins from beginning to end, but the conversations in the film about the music style are used to clarify the metaphor.  Both metaphors, actually.

In one figurative sense, a jazz song is like a love story.  It is alive, improvisational, happens in the moment, and happens once.  You have to be there for it, paying attention and feeling it, or you’ll miss it.  This is a jazz song about two young hopefuls with stars in their eyes.  They find each other in a town that’s become stale, each filled with ambition to change their little piece of the world.

The second thing that jazz represents in LA LA Land film is the town in which the story takes place.   Hollywood – specifically the culture of film – is changing.  The classic cinema that this film lifts up is “dying on the vine.”  When Mia, a talented and yet frustrated actress, tells Sebastian, an equally frustrated jazz-obsessed musician, that she doesn’t like jazz, she might as well be saying, “I don’t like black and white movies.”

A writer tries to chat up Mia at a Hollywood party by telling her his specialty is “world building.”  He tells her he’s working on a “reimagining” of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, and the way he describes it makes it sound ridiculous and familiar.  As he explains that he sees it as “a franchise,” it sounds like the kind of project that could be in development right now.  This trend is comparable to the “smooth jazz” station that you put on at parties and talk over.  It doesn’t challenge or move you, because it’s elevator music.  The only debate left when talking about the popcorn fair that breaks the box office these days (Batman v. Superman, Transformers, X-Men, TMNT, etc.) is whether or not it’s actually any good.

Make no mistake, however, when it comes to that second analogy, LA LA Land isn’t a stickler for stringent traditionalism.  You can’t grow your audience if you only play for an aging audience.  You have to appeal to young people without losing the guiding principles of compelling storytelling.  Films, like great jazz, must continue to be revolutionary.

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“WHY DO YOU SAY ROMANTIC LIKE IT’S A DIRTY WORD?”

Romance stories are difficult to make compelling to a modern audience, and because of that, the genre often becomes stale and predictable.  Like the blockbusters that have come to dominate the large and small screen, modern romance stories tend to involve gimmicks and props (i.e. vampire/werewolf/human love triangles, zombie/human partnerships, or the trust-fall exercise that is a sadomasochistic relationship).  Still, instead of having mass appeal, as it once did, the romance genre has become a niche market that is often enjoyed as a guilty pleasure, usually in a bubble bath with a glass of white wine.

This is not the moment for romance stories.  In decades past, romantic-comedies were an enormous part of the industry.  I’ve heard commentary from producers that made their entire careers off that business that has bemoaned the loss.  They often speak of the quality of the films that have replaced them, insisting that the loss of rom-coms signifies a decline for Hollywood.  They refer to old stereotypes (“She’d see his comic book movie, and he’d go see her romance”), but that misses the point.

That being said, the musical is all but dead on the big screen.  The modern musical – if such a thing exists in film – exists in the form of a musician biopic (Ray, Walk the Line).  It can only be fiction if it’s purely on the soundtrack (The Great Gatsby) or if it’s centered around a music venue (Rock of Ages) or a rock star (School of Rock).  Aside from rare exceptions (Les Miserables), movie characters have only been allowed to sing where they would in the real world, such as on a stage (Ricki and The Flash).

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A BRIEF CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF

Are you saying that theaters full of mindless drivel that tell sloppy, incoherent stories?

Sure.

More so than before?

Depends on when you mean.

I mean – movies like The Lone Ranger?

Oh, or The Tickler!

The Tickler didn’t have the inflated budget of The Lone Ranger!

No, but let me tell you a story about Elizabeth Taylor and Cleopatra.

Come on!  That was a classic!

No.  It’s just old.  Just like The Lone Ranger, it was a flop when it came out, and it included similar cultural appropriation.

But some of these big blockbusters are actually pretty good.

I don’t care if your movie is Captain Philips or Captain America, if you’ve got a good script, some nuanced performances, and a competent director, I will support it.  I’m just sick of the cookie cutter stories.

And you think that the issue is more prevalent with big blockbusters?

Oh, no.  Remember when we were talking about rom-com producers talking about the decline of the genre and saying it’s a symptom of declining quality in Hollywood?

Yeah.

Well, for every As Good As It Gets or Silver Linings Playbook there was a Serendipity or a Failure to Launch.

So what separates a bad romance story from a good one?

GREAT QUESTION!

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WHAT MAKES A GREAT ROMANTIC STORY?

The prevailing consensus for romance movies seems to have been to write the main characters straight, and then write fun, interesting friends for them to get advice from.  It’s not something that doesn’t work.  After all, it comes from Shakespeare’s playbook.  If Much Ado about Nothing is the prototypical rom-com, then why wouldn’t you do that?  Write an ingénue character for the women to sympathize with.  Write a romantic man for the men to sympathize with, and if you think it will make things more palatable for the guys, simply give the male lead a gender-specific pastime, like sports.

The memorable parts of Much Ado about Nothing, however, don’t involve the young lovers.  It’s all about Benedict and Beatrice and their bickering, prickly, reluctant love story, which is why I couldn’t implore more for you to craft characters that are specific and flawed.

Let’s take a look back at a film that is reasonably considered the greatest romance ever put on celluloid, Casablanca.  Rick is a man with some principle, but he isn’t a hero.  He’s a broken man, haunted by a broken heart.  He has disappeared into a crowd of low-life criminals that prey on the innocent, and he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone.  In walks Elsa, a complicated woman that Rick both loves and hates.  She carries a secret that is the only thing that can heal Rick, but it will only work if they are both willing to make sacrifices.  The “friend” characters are colorful because every character is colorful in this film.  Everyone is allowed to shine, and it makes for a story that is anything but dull.

Now, let’s take a closer look at what is possibly the best romantic movie in modern times to discuss the second main point.  The Notebook, also starring Ryan Gosling, takes a step back from the main ingredients of romantic storytelling and frames them in a context that gives everything greater weight and power.  The deeper subject, that of the power and longevity of love even in the face of debilitating illness has often fallen into clichés of its own.  Boy meets girl; girl gets cancer.  It’s the pitch that’s launched a thousand Lifetime Originals.

What makes both The Notebook and LA LA Land so remarkable is that they each craft the story in a way that it allows for each season of the romance to bloom to its fullest.  Make no mistake, they both come with a gut punch, but it isn’t played to manipulate the audience.  It is the poetic crux of the story.  The same can be said for Casablanca.  There is poetry in pain.  There is love in sacrifice.  There is redemption in compassion.

It’s obvious to anyone that has studied Plato’s Poetics, but the elements of a remarkable romance are the same as those for any great story:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Language
  4. Music
  5. Spectacle

Take care of each of those things, do it in that order of importance, and you’ll have something.  If you can incorporate Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, then you might end up with a cinematic treasure.

Needless to say, LA LA Land does all of this.

 

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