Movie Review

Our first SUNKEN PLACE class is in the can!

“The Class is Phenomenal!”–Lacroix Scott

 

We’re just starting to get the feedback from our SUNKEN PLACE class.  This is so wonderfully fulfilling.  Once you build the business structure, you can put 100% of your emphasis on SERVING THE STUDENTS.  Giving them everything you can, in a format that is both educational and entertaining.

 

We believe art is a critical human activity, the science of heart-to-heart communication. That drama allows us to both express ourselves and open minds.    This isn’t “just” about horror, although we certainly deal with the nature of it. Or “just” about race, although race has been a generational nightmare for millions of children of the Diaspora.   It is about what we are as human beings, the way we make sense of the world, and what we can do as individuals to create that shared future.

 

If you are a fan, a teacher, or a creator of dark fantasy (pun deliberate)–join us on an amazing journey.   Www.sunkenplaceclass.com

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The Yang to Afrofuturism’s Yin

I still remember the first I ever heard of “Night of the Living Dead”. It was a Reader’s Digest article, and boy oh boy, it made the movie sound like the fall of Western Civilization. I HAD to see it.   Watched it for the first time at a  midnight show at the Wiltern Theater on Wilshire and Western, and I can tell you that within fifteen minutes after the lights went down, I was looking for the exits, planning which one I’d scamper out of if the people around me lurched up and started munching brains.

 

I was TERRIFIED.   And…I loved it.  Why?

 

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We define “Horror” as a work whose primary emotional charge is that of fear.  It can be psychological (Psycho), science-fictional (Alien), or supernatural (The Exorcist).  Why do we like it? To answer this, we have to go deeper into the question of why people seek out art in the first place.

 

If “art” is self expression with craft, then the point is to project an attitude, experience, perspective, emotion onto an audience.  The audience will choose the kind of experience they want based upon what they need to adjust their tensions into an optimal range.   If tense, they might look for something to relax them (comedy) or something that will focus their  tension to take them higher and higher until a circuit breaker “pops” and they are back in relaxation.

 

Horror can be such a “circuit breaker.”   You have vague, intangible tensions in your  life, you go watch Leatherface hack up some teenagers, scream at the screen while munching popcorn, and for ninety minutes forget all about the mortgage.  The roller coaster ride: trigger those survival drives, and you are NOT thinking about how the boss is firing people, for at least those two minutes.

 

There are so many themes that can be addressed in horror, that there is a LOT of scholarly writing about how this or that movie deals with this or that social fear.  That would make sense, that different fears at different times are foremost in our minds, and movies that help us gain perspective will get folks lining up at the box office.  As individuals we need to adjust that tension into the optimal range: too much and we wither. Too little, and we never grow strong.

 

What would be a perfect horror film to address the current tensions between men and women?  Haute Tension?   Ms. 45? Teeth?  Sleeping With The Enemy?   I don’t know…but there’ve been a bunch of ’em.

 

What about racial tensions?   I think that this is much less explored, and GET OUT hit the bull’s eye for so many people that its become the most profitable independent film maybe ever.   Amazing, really.

 

What I suggest is that if you want to write or create horror, go DEEP into your own personal terrors. Find a nugget you haven’t seen before (at least in that medium, in that way) and have something to say.  What do YOU think and feel about this. Is there an answer (in the Exorcist, the answer to an apparently unsolvable riddle was faith and sacrifice) or are we lost?  What do YOU really think?

 

Then…you can either present us with what you really think, or you can have fun playing with the social tropes around it.  Notice the fantasy (the white virginal female of breeding age generally survives) and violate it.   Do this well enough and you have a horror-comedy like “Cabin in the Woods” or “Scream”.   That kind of hipster meta-movie is hard to pull off it you aren’t first to the game. Better to realize that “Scream” rested on a foundation of “Last House On The Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes”, straight-forward, ferocious, uncompromising horror deconstructing the sanctity of family, the most basic human social unity.  Wes Craven mastered THAT before attempting deconstruction.

 

Just as we suggest that writers begin with short stories and master those before moving to larger works, it is also smart to start with “basic” work before trying something more sophisticated.    If you are interested in expressing a social perspective (and most art does) understanding how others have done it will both help you avoid cliché and empower your imagination: imagination is primarily re-combining existing elements into forms we’ve not seen quite THAT way. All you have to do is connect them with your internal aesthetic, and you will be about as original as you can be.  Add a serious education in the tropes of your field, and you have a recipe for success.

 

The SUNKEN PLACE class is for fans, teachers, and creators of the dark fantasy and horror of the African Diaspora.  We can’t wait to share with you (heck, I haven’t gone through T’s class, so some of it will be a surprise to me!)  We’ll be discovering a century of amazing nightmares together.  It is the Yang to Afrofuturism’s Yin.  Afrofuturism is Dreams to banish nightmares.   The SUNKEN PLACE is Nightmares to enable our dreams.

 

We start this Saturday, and we’d love to have you!   WWW.SUNKENPLACECLASS.COM

Balance in the Force

Another SPOILERY discussion about THE LAST JEDI.

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I’ve heard a lot of happiness…and complaint…about a thematic aspect of TLJ.  And that is that the actions of Finn, Poe and Rose fail, while the plan of Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo succeeds.  Let me take the movie seriously enough to dig into it–otherwise what’s the point, right?

 

So a complaint/observation has been that the girls are showing the boys what fer.  That those silly men are simply outthought by the women, and that Poe, Finn and Rose’s actions actually expose them and cost lives.

 

Partially True.  Considering the way the discussions have come down, I think it isn’t absurd to think that people are conflating female with indirect action and male with direct action.  IF we can look at that for a moment, to the degree that that conflation is accepted, then in the real world, you can’t say that the indirect is superior.

 

What you CAN say is that IN THIS INSTANCE indirect was superior.   Sun Tzu says:  “In war, when you outnumber the enemy by 10 to 1, surround and destroy them.  If stronger by 5 to one, pool your forces and attack.  If up by two to one, divide your troops and attack them from two sides.  When you are evenly matched, launch an offensive first to win.  When the enemy forces are superior only by a small extent, prepare for defense, avoid confrontation. When they are superior by a large extent, dodge the attacks.  When an obstinate small force wants to fight a big power, it must succumb in the end to the greater force.”

 

This is very Tai Chi, in the sense of avoiding force, striking into hollows.  Yin and Yang in balance.  Poe wanted to fight.   Holdo wanted to flee to fight another day.

 

It is IMBALANCE that is the real problem.  The adherence to EITHER yin or yang, direct or indirect, regardless of appropriateness.  It will get you killed.  The “Female” approach worked better IN THIS CASE. Doesn’t make it better overall.

 

Most of “Star Wars” has been direct action.  And much of history is about direct action because we can see it more easily.   Doesn’t make it better.

 

If you are of dualistic mindset, you’ll focus on one or the other.  “X is better”, “Y is better.”  That’s fine.  But people really CAN get stuck on the notion that the only approach is attack.  And people really CAN get stuck on the notion that the only approach is evasion. Either will get you killed.  Either is “toxic.”

 

There are plenty of other dualities you have to respect to resolve the duality and rise to the next level.  While sure, there are almost certainly some political/philosophical intent going on here, but that’s just saying “conscious” as opposed to “unconscious.”  If you DON’T think about it, you’ll just fall into whatever the cultural flow already is, or your unconscious preferences.  People who complain about “PC” are usually those who either approve of the current cultural flow or don’t want to deal with their prejudices, figuring that as long as they act out without conscious thought, it’s all o.k.  They aren’t looking at the fact that their unconscious attitudes are hugely influenced by a culture that has been promoting and protecting certain modes of thought or behavior for generations.   Of COURSE you won’t pay as much attention if you are advantaged by the flow. Only people being swept toward the waterfall panic.

 

Being an “awake, aware, adult” human being means asking questions about the social rules, and making a conscious decision to adapt them.   To hide behind “it’s the way we’ve always done it” without taking responsibility and saying “and there is no other way that works” or  “and I like it that way, so I’ll support it” is cowardly or at best, driving the bus with your eyes closed.

 

 

Namaste,

Steve

http://www.afrofuturismwebinar.com

The Last Jedi (2017)

SPOILER-ISH.

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No one reading this needs to be told there is a new “Star Wars” film out. That it deals with Luke and Leia and Rey and Ren and Poe and Finn.  In my humble opinion it rocks.  It has also been more divisive than any SW movie I can think of. The prequels were almost universally panned.  People weren’t split. Here, they are.  Well, there are always reasons to love or hate anything.   Rather than just review the film (go see it!) I thought I’d offer some thoughts on some of the complaints.   Might be more entertaining.

 

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There is a certain scene in TLJ where people ask: “well, why didn’t anyone do that before?” You know, I view that scene much like bin Laden’s move on 9-11. No one had ever hijacked a commercial flight and rammed it into a building before. I find it perfectly reasonable that anything that has never been done before would succeed–once. We have perceptual loopholes. We can’t think of everything, and don’t tend to rank the things that have never happened as highly as those we’ve seen before.

 

I’m sure that someone, somewhere, must have written about such a scene in a short story or novel SOMEWHERE.  Surely.  But I’ve seen and read about thousands of space battles in dozens of different universes, many of whom with similar technology, and never, ever seen “THAT” done.  So the simplest answer is also incredibly satisfying: no one had thought of it.  It was an example  of Kamakazi lateral thinking, really one of the best I’ve ever seen, and stunningly simple ONCE YOU THINK OF IT. In RETROSPECT it is obvious.   But unless you can show me a few, or even one, example of such a scene in a movie or in a television show, I’m afraid it was the very definition of creativity.

 

Now of course, they’ll have to “upgrade their shields” or something to keep it from being done again, but right now, I have to give serious props to Rian Johnson.  Until further notice, I’m assuming he came up with that move, and it was SWEET, one of the very best moments in the entire saga, one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen in an otherwise fluffy space opera.

 

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There is no such thing as a movie without flaws.  Without things to pick at.   I thought the entire “casino planet” sequence went no where, had no relevance to anything beyond giving characters something to do.   You could lift the entire thing out and it wouldn’t matter very much, if at all.  The idea that the theme of the movie is, partially, that direct action doesn’t always work, then they didn’t think it through enough.

 

You have a responsibility to have every scene and sequence contribute to the overall structure of a story.  If the end of the scene has the same “charge” as the beginning of that scene, you have wasted the audience’s time.   It is also dishonest: in real life, things are always changing, always getting better or worse.   In the contracted time of a story, this is exaggerated so we can feel it more directly.  While it can SEEM that nothing has changed in Gramma’s house since last Thanksgiving, that is not true, is not and can never be true.

 

So if you want the characters to learn something, or for the audience to learn something about characters who refuse to learn, you have a sequence of “nothing happening” entwined with “something happening” on another level.  And I just don’t see it.  That is a flaw.

 

I’m also still not happy with the amount of “Jar Jar” DNA in Finn.  It is noticeable on a couple of levels, although they did allow his character to expand and grow some.  When the very first thing we see with him is him falling out of bed, the first “buffoon laugh” of the film, you have a hill to climb, and they didn’t quite climb it.  Finn’s treatment was an “othering” I didn’t appreciate. And if you defend it, you are, frankly, the reason I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized Marvel was seeking a black director for T’Challa’s saga.

 

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Those things said, Star Wars movies, like the Bond films, or Superhero movies or franchises of any kind, can only tangentially be compared to films outside their own continuity.  They are all flawed, and exist in a universe of their own. I love that universe, but ALL the movies are hinky…except for a thread of heart, of feeling, a sense that you are experiencing another chapter of a beloved bedtime story. For some, the absence of bloodline characters from the original film will eventually break their connection, like having a Bond movie without Bond.   For others, if their view of the Jedi is violated, that will break their connection. Those who think that only the Jedi can use the Force are welcome to feel their trust has been violated. They are establishing a rule that isn’t even kept within the formal continuity: there are the Sith.  If there are two groups, using a natural force, and you don’t think that in a galaxy with billions of planets and countless trillions of beings there would be more…that’s your business.

 

I have no problem rolling with that.  The fact that the Jedi said that they were the only ones?   Wow.   THAT’S definitive.  Right along with Christians having the only route to Salvation, Conservatives being the only ones who love America, Liberals being the only ones who care about other human beings, Shotokan being the only “real” karate, and Corporations being more moral than governments.

 

ALWAYS trust what people say about themselves. And what they say about their enemies. You can 100% count on that.  As Obi-Wan said, nailing down the fact that every word a Jedi speaks can be trusted:  “what I told you was true…from a certain point of view.

 

Sigh.

 

Anyway, what you have in “The Last Jedi” is, as far as I can see, a respectful but not slavish evolution of the original ideas, allowing the characters to be human, not merely archetypes.  No, Leia wouldn’t have exploded in vacuum.   Humans can survive a minute or two. FORCE enabled humans?  Who can say?    And if you can use a fire extinguisher for propulsion in zero gravity, you think that a power that can lift boulders and spaceships couldn’t propel 130 pounds of human being?   Really?  Almost every damned Star Wars movie has shown a different aspect of The Force.  You think that Luke projecting his spirit force billions of miles is less unlikely than Leia doing something that is actually physically possible by pissing in the opposite direction?  Really?

 

Frankly, I suspect that if Luke had done that exact same thing, many of the nay-sayers would say “oooh!  Badass!”

 

But…I can’t prove that. It’s just a suspicion, based on the fact that when there is something about a movie we don’t’ want to deal with, we search for ways to say “its only a movie” and pop out of the narrative.  All that invites speculation about what aspects of TLJ might have triggered such a response.  Later on that.

 

For now, I’ll say that it was the first SW movie since “Empire” that struck me as seeking to really ask questions about that universe, those characters, the implications of the ideas.  The first to actually extrapolate, while respecting the emotional integrity of the concept.   I’ll be damned if Rian Johnson didn’t actually try to make a movie, rather than just a “Star Wars” movie, and there were scenes that were stirring, powerful, really kickass after what, 40 years?

 

While flawed, TLJ was like SKYFALL was to the Bond movies–asked us to ask questions about these characters we love, and this world we’ve adored most of our lives.   I think that is something startling, requiring courage and creativity and real love of the material.

 

And the fact that a certain segment of the fans attacked it so rapidly, tried to say that the second-largest opening weekend in cinematic history is some kind of failure is fascinating. Makes me wonder what they are so pissed about.  We’ll see what happens in the coming weeks, but frankly, I think it will do fine.

 

I don’t know about them…but it is certainly STAR WARS.  It is not just the STAR WARS of the past, however, it is moving toward being a STAR WARS for the 21st Century, which makes it a living, breathing thing.   Lucas himself was said to have “really liked it” and thought “it was beautifully made.”    Consider that he criticized “The Force Awakens” as too “retro.   I don’t like that. I like — every movie, I worked very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships — you know, to make it new.

 

Man seems  to speak his mind.  People will discount this, say that he was forced to say this, or that his opinion is irrelevant for X or Y reasons.    So this won’t change anyone’s mind. Fair enough.     Art belongs to the audience as well as the artist. People are entitled to their feelings.   But if EMPIRE had never been made, and they made it today, do you really think there wouldn’t be valid criticisms?

 

But ah…(and here it comes):  there is that other dimension.   It is impossible not to read the fan threads of criticism and see how often they complain about SJWs and Forced Diversity and Liberal Agendas so forth.  That one wonders what the demographic composition of the most rabid objectors might be, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

 

The fact that on those threads I’ve not seen a single complainer “call out” one of the people complaining about SJWs: “no, that wasn’t a problem, but I didn’t enjoy…”

 

Haven’t seen that once. It is…suggestive to me.  Not definitive. There is ALWAYS room for valid complaints.  But man oh man, would I ever like to know how many of them were the same people, or the same TYPE of people who excoriated Samuel Delaney for complaining about the tiny range of humanity displayed in “A New Hope.”    And suspect there is a LOT of overlap.

 

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My opinion is that this is REAL Star Wars, a Star Wars for its time as “A New Hope” was for 1977.   Flawed, clunky, but with real imagination and wonder and something to say about friendship, love, sacrifice, heroism, and the complexity of the human heart. About myth and reality and how we confuse them.  And opens the door to a thousand new stories set in a universe long ago and far away.

 

We need our fantasy and science fiction.    They speak to what we are as individuals, as a species. Express the past, contextualize the present and point the way a shared future.

 

I’m sorry for the people who could not embrace THE LAST JEDI, but respect them.  Even the ones who were primarily offended by the notion that non-white human beings are less alien than Bothans.  Fine. You’re people too, even if you can’t extend that respect to me.

 

It’s cool

 

But for those who disliked it for OTHER reasons, I’m sorry.   Better luck next time.

 

And for those like me, who loved it…

 

Wasn’t it @#$$% COOL!!!! I put it right after “Empire” and “A New Hope”.   And ahead of all the rest.

 

 

May the Force Be With You…

Steve

(Don’t miss the Holiday sale!   www.afrofuturismwebinar.com)

Candyman Sweet Candyman: Victim as Monster

Candyman Sweet Candyman: Victim as Monster

 

We just scored TONY “CANDYMAN” TODD as a guest in January’s THE SUNKEN PLACE class, so things are exploding.  Today we’ll be talking about the heart of horror on LIVE! With Tananarive and Steve.

 

All art stems from core emotions like fear and love, and when you see it and feel it, you can appreciate, teach, and create art more honestly, as well as have the emotional power to practice and refine your craft.  So whether you are a fan, a writer, film-maker or teacher, JOIN US today at 4pm Pacific.

 

Here are links for my page:

https://www.facebook.com/steven.barnes.7127

 

For Tananarive’s Page:

https://www.facebook.com/tananarivedue

 

And for the “Lifewriting” page:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/lifewrite/

 

See you then!

Steve

What was the last movie that taught you something?

“All That Jazz”  may be the last film that ever taught me.   Perhaps.   The story of a man addicted to sex, drugs, and musical theater (line stolen from the great Robert McKee) I walked out of the movie stunned, realizing that that could be my story if I was not very careful.  I decided that very day that the secret to success was obsession, but obsession creates imbalance, and imbalance destroys and denies you the chance to enjoy your success.

 

So I decided to become obsessive about being balanced.  Ka-ching.  One of those “cubic inches of opportunity” I’ve had in my life. Everyone gets them.   The challenge is recognizing and implementing their implications.

 

 

The Way that can be named is not the true Way.  But…by looking at some of the structures and vectors discovered or designed by some of the best, wisest and most successful human beings who have ever walked the planet, as well as the combined wisdom of the tribal elders, we can glimpse it.  Cannot put it into words, no–that would be asking too much of language.  It will not bear the weight.

 

I like to look at a story from multiple directions.  Each new perspective teaches something different about the story, but the story is not the perspectives or structures.   I can look at it from plot, character, poetics, thematics.  In my head, on index cards, in an outline, as a synopsis, written, oral, visualized, played in my head like music, as a short story, a novel, a movie script.   Every different perspective tells me something different. But the story is always the story. It is like looking in on a fireplace from different windows, through a keyhole, through an open door.   Each perspective is different. The fire is the same, and you have to actually burn to understand its essence.

 

The martial arts are the same way.  I can discuss them culturally, psychologically, philosophically.  In terms of anatomy, physics, strategy, tactics, integrative lifestyle, practical application, sport, fitness, self-defense, all-out combat, mathematics, and more. Each perspective offers up different information.  But the thing is the thing.

 

The experience of life is the same.    You have to burn to understand it. And when you do, “you” are not there. “The thing” is there.  This is much the same as sex.  If you can remember your name while you’re orgasming, it wasn’t good sex.  The subject-object relationship must break down, labels disappear.    People who think that labeling things is the same as understanding them are missing it.

 

But if I break my life down into those components: Body, Mind, Spirit.  Child, parent, grandparent.  Male and female.  Black and white.   Each tells me something different. And while my monkey mind is busy thinking about it, the Truth can slip through the cracks.     They are useful tools, useful distractions, useful lies.

 

I think the problems of life are like rocks in a white-water rafting trip. They obstruct and constrict the flow of water, and make the ride wild.

 

The truth always lies between.    People get stuck in the rocks.   Fear the rocks.    Shrink your ego and float past the obstructions.

 

Come on in: the water’s fine.

 

 

Namaste,

Steve

www.fiveminutelifehacks.com

 

(P.S.–what was the last movie that really taught you something, and what did it teach?)

 

“Brawl In Cell Block 99” (20017)

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The American film that comes the closest to “The Raid” might well be “Brawl on Cell Block 99” starring Vince Vaughn (!) as Bradley Thomas, a small-time criminal and former boxer who has to commit an impossible assassination of a man in a maximum security prison or his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and unborn child will suffer horribly.   The movie, by “Bone Tomahawk” director S. Craig Zahler, is a slow-burning stick of dynamite, a genuinely nasty piece of work that is beyond “R” level in terms of violence, but a genuinely terrific piece of Grindhouse cinema.  NOT for the faint of heart, as Vaughn plays a man willing to do anything, and I mean anything, to keep his family safe.   Be warned. But…for those looking for the kind of ultra-macho film (with a bit of genuine heart) that Charles Bronson used to make, this is in the same category. The fights look as if they were all done by the actors, and they are more than well choreographed: the face-smashing (and in one notable sequence, scraping), arm-breaking and skull-cracking is…well, it is as revelatory of character and perspective as any Sammo Hung/Jackie Chan work.  Not at the same level of coordination or skill, but Vaughn sells the physicality, handles the choreography just fine, and is doing some career-best acting here.   Sells it like crazy.

 

Bradley “Don’t Call me Brad” Thomas is a man driven to desperation, a man who is NOT what the people manipulating him think he is, and the gap between what they think and what he is…is the meat of the film.  Dark, violent, oddly touching, and exciting as hell if you have a strong stomach..”Brawl on Cell Block 99″ is the real deal.  An “A” for fans of such things, but the rest of ya’ll?   Stay away.  You’ve been warned.

 

Available Video On Demand, and on Amazon.

 

Steve

http://www.lifewrite.com

A thought on “Barry Lyndon” (1975)

Kubrick’s 1975  “Barry Lyndon” is a movie about an absolute rotter who does one good thing and is destroyed by it. An excellent case could be made that he should have shot Bullingdon instead of discharging his pistol in the air. I believe an even better case can be made that by losing the world, Barry gained an opportunity to save his soul. That losing his leg was the price for POTENTIALLY righting his life. The narrator only tells us that Barry immigrated and failed to match his former success as a gambler, not what his internal states were…so we are able to project our own beliefs and values onto the situation.
 
The question for those of you who have seen it is: did Barry Lyndon do the right thing?

“Geostorm” (2017)

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“Geostorm” re-acquainted me with an old and dear friend: the Matte line. Wow, some really bad, grainy FX for such a big-budget movie. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film where I could predict the plot points more easily, or had to swallow as many absurdities to enjoy the fun. A single film violating the laws of logic, physics, governmental structure, human psychology, cinema and story-telling all at the same time is sort of genius, isn’t it? Have to admit that I really did enjoy it. As someone said, the only box they failed to tick was: where’s the Sharknado? A “D” if you aren’t in the right mood. If you ARE in the right mood…maybe a “B.” But I’ve never missed Rifftrax half so much.

 

And yeah, Gerard Butler makes the least-likely scientist since Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones.    At least his “blockbusters” only come once a year.

Lifewriting and “All That Jazz” (1979)

The last time a movie changed my life, I was twenty-seven years old.  I’d published maybe a story or two, paid in contributor’s copies.   I was cocky, driven, and terrified that I wouldn’t be able to be a successful writer. I’d bet EVERYTHING on that one goal.

 

I was working at a bookstore, I think, and writing at night.  Pulling my end of the bills, but earning way under what I knew I could earn if I went into some more formal occupation.  But was afraid that if I took some more “serious” job it would devour me, and I’d lose my drive to write.  I’d seen it happen.

 

So I hid my fears behind a mask of bravado, a denial that anything could stop me, a commitment to work and work and focus and focus until I got what I intended.

 

It was the “Whatever It Takes” attitude. The Psycho-Cybernetics “create your self image and live up to it” attitude. The Think and Grow Rich/Strangest Secret “Make a contract with yourself and bet your life on it” attitude.

 

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I’d seen television commercials for a movie that looked pretty cool, starring Roy Schieder (hey, JAWS!) and featuring some really amazing dance choreography (glimpsed only in flashes in the TV ads) that looked angular and flashy and somehow…insane. There was something crazed about it. I loved that, and went to see ALL THAT JAZZ.

 

For those who haven’t seen it, ALL THAT JAZZ is a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by choreographer Bob Fosse.  He tells the story of “Joe Gideon”, a genius of stage and cinema simultaneously editing a movie and choreographing a complex play, pushing himself beyond human limits. He is a cheater, drinker, smoker, drug abusing borderline maniac who pushes people who genuinely love him away while giving his life to people who don’t give a shit and are literally negotiating away his life while he has open-heart surgery.

 

It is funny, profane, sacred, brilliant, terrifying. One hell of a movie, and I walked out shaken.

 

Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe Gideon, a dancer who discovered a talent for choreography, who wanted to create art in motion.  He focused everything he had, becoming a knife too sharp to handle safely, until he ultimately became the genius he was afraid he wasn’t, but destroyed himself in the process.

 

And I realized I loved that movie, because I was afraid it was about me.

 

Once upon a time there was a guy named Steven Barnes, who had dreams of being a writer.  Everyone (it seemed): family, teachers, schoolmates, society, said that he couldn’t do it, and he swore to show them.  He dropped out of school and took minimum-wage jobs to have the time to focus on his work.  Every time he met defeat, he just swore to focus more tightly.   But he had to admit that deep inside, he was afraid that they were right…

 

There was a problem.  The problem is that if the secret of success isn’t “pure talent” or luck, then it is monomaniacal focus, over time.  There is only one problem: that focus throws your life out of balance.  So…you can succeed, but you will trash another aspect of your life doing it.  Become like one of those houses at Universal City: look great from one angle, but step around behind…and there is nothing.

 

There are basic aspects of life: the career, the relationships, the physical body.  And most people really don’t have “more” than others in all three.  Most really successful people simply concentrate everything they have in one arena and neglect others. The luckiest of them find the right teachers at the right moments of their lives, have the right role models in childhood, and create something elegant and beautiful with that same pound of flesh.

 

The paradox I faced is that excellence demanded monomania.  Monomania creates imbalance. Imbalance destroys your life, such that you will never become as excellent as you could be, or live to enjoy the fruits of your work.

 

I rode home on the bus, depressed.    I wanted my career with all my heart, but in ALL THAT JAZZ clearly saw how my desire could destroy me.   What the hell could I do?

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There is a saying I heard once: From time to time, life gives you a cubic inch of opportunity.   If you take it, its yours. If you don’t, its gone forever.

 

And just one such “cube” can change your life forever.  I can identify several of those in my life.   Five?  Ten?   Maybe

 

But this was one of them.  Obsession creates imbalance. Obsession is necessary for excellence.

 

What if…what if…

 

What if the only thing that was safe to be obsessed about was balance itself?  True, you could go all OCD about that, become paralyzed…but for a relatively healthy person, it seemed to me that balance was the safest path.  But did it lead to excellence? Weren’t there (and aren’t there) people who swear that dysfunction is NECESSARY?  That it is the creative norm?

 

Yes…but if there were counter-examples, people who seemed sane and happy and healthy and loving, who were also at the top of their field, didn’t that suggest it was POSSIBLE?

 

Well…that was what I decided. Ray Bradbury and William Shakespeare seemed to be a couple of human beings operating at as high a level in their fields as I could imagine, and from all evidence, they functioned well. Quirks, sure.  But those basic aspects seemed healthy.

 

So I made the commitment: I would be obsessed with balance.   The inner and the outer.  I would touch base with the people I loved EVERY DAY.  Work on my body EVERY DAY.   Write EVERY DAY.   Meditate EVERY DAY.

 

The inner and the outer.  And…did I see some people starting when I did, who went further? Sure.  Of course.   But I noticed that it didn’t matter.  I was having a GREAT time.  I was becoming the human being I intended to be, and noticed that the time and energy I used to spend looking at what other people were doing or achieving I now spent actually improving myself.

 

And that was good, because there is ALWAYS someone better, and ALWAYS someone worse, and depending upon your emotional filters can spend your entire life in misery, or oblivious.  If you happen to be in an arena in which there is objective measurement, and you CAN get all the way to the Best of the Best, you are very aware of the wounds you’ve taken to get there, how short your tenure will be, and have to keep your eye on the young toughs coming up behind you, eager to knock you from your perch.

 

Prince wrote a song on his wonderful “Gold” Album about having made it to the mountain top…and there is nothing there.

 

So focusing on balance could enable me to enjoy the ride. But could it also help me become the best writer I could be?

 

Sure…if I considered myself, my own life, my own struggles to be the clearest laboratory experiment in the nature of humanity I could possibly find.  Yes, I could bury myself in books, and know far more about specific literary qualities. But could I really learn more about the nature of human beings?  And at the core of art, wasn’t that one of the two great questions?

 

Who Am I?
What Is True?

 

If there are many roads up the mountain called “artistic excellence” wasn’t one of them just understanding what human beings were, developing a theoretical model and testing testing testing every day in your own life, and taking what you learn and applying it to your characters.  Wouldn’t this be as valid as learning specific writing tricks and tropes–actually observing humanity and sharing what you learn?

 

Because if it was, then the primary goal would not be to be “clever” or even “erudite” or “gifted” but…honest.

 

And what was Musashi Miyamoto’s first principle to become excellent, if excellence is a matter of life and death importance?

 

DO NOT THINK DISHONESTLY.

 

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Even before I saw the connection between the Hero’s Journey and our lives, I saw that this approach: ” A life lived in balance as your primary work of art” would be a unique approach. It was MY approach.   I could embrace it fully with minimal risk of destroying myself, and, while a long-term solution to the problem, so long as I didn’t get discouraged by the sprinters burning past me, I would either outlast them, or ignore them and just have a wonderful time along the way.

 

This commitment, to connecting the inner and outer worlds, gave me everything I have to offer my students, a path that will take you as far as your heart and will and mind can carry you…safely.  One step at a time.

 

Starting with just a single sentence a day.

 

 

 

Write with passion, live with purpose

Steve

www.lifewritingpremium.com