Halloween Horror Edition

October seemed to creep up on me somehow this year. Before I turned around the month was already almost half over and Halloween was in danger of passing me by. I rarely squander the chance to celebrate the season, so I decided to binge on some horror movies and thrillers on Netflix over the past few days to get myself in the spirit. I watched a pretty decent psychological thriller (The Guest), a fresh take on vampires (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which I didn’t finish yet, but looks promising), and a really creative spin on zombies (Pontypool). While none of those were bad by any stretch, it was a different one altogether that compelled me to write up a piece about it.

The Taking of Deborah Logan

I’d never heard of The Taking of Deborah Logan before I tapped the thumbnail of the image above on Netflix. It had higher than average ratings for a horror movie, and I liked the general premise so I decided to give it a shot.

Deborah Logan is a found footage film (wait, come back…really) put together–in its first third especially–to come across as a legitimate documentary. A college student and her two person crew have gotten the titular Deborah to agree to be the subject of a film the students are making about Alzheimer’s disease. The students capture Deborah’s demise from forgetful to bizarre to self-harming to harming others and begin to wonder if something more sinister than the disease is at the root of it all.

At its core The Taking of Deborah Logan is fairly standard horror movie fare not far removed from the king of all found footage films, The Blair Witch Project, but it stands out for a few reasons, chief among them is the acting–the two main characters, Deborah and her daughter Sara,  are especially believable right off the bat, so as the trajectory of the film veers from realistic and creepy to out and out batshit crazy you find yourself too invested in the characters and story to turn back.

Add to that the clever angle of Alzheimer’s blurring the line between naturally occurring mental issues and more devious forces at work, and the movie manages to suck you in. This is found footage at its best, in my opinion. If you didn’t know going in it was a work of fiction, it would take a good 20-30 minutes to figure it out.

The majority of the jump scares are relatively well placed, but what I really appreciate is that the director resists the temptation to lace them all throughout the movie. There are a good number of scenes where you begin to anticipate a jump scare that never happens. That’s one of my favorite things, that building of tension without a payoff. Then once it finally does pay off, it does so in a major way.

Finally, there is one shot from across the room of Deborah mindlessly playing a tune on the piano with one hand while staring vacantly into the camera that is without a doubt one of the creepiest 15 seconds of film I’ve seen in a long time.

I was going to include a link to the trailer, but I think the trailer gives too much away. Look it up if you want, but I’d recommend just watching it knowing as little as possible.

While I’m at it I’ll throw in a couple other good scary movies I’ve seen in the past couple months. You’re Next is an insanely fun, twisted movie about a group of people trapped in a house surrounded by bloodthirsty killers, and Creep is an unsettling film about a filmmaker hired to document a few days in the life of a terminally ill man expecting his first child. While it doesn’t pull off the found footage angle quite as well as The Taking of Deborah Logan it’s still quite believable, thanks in part to the strong performance by Mark Duplass as a truly twisted man.

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If you’re looking for something off the beaten path of typical horror, give one of these three a shot and I bet you’re not disappointed. And if I don’t get my lazy ass to the computer to post anything else before the end of the month, Happy Halloween!

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A Night of Subverted Expectations

This is a sort of pop culture wrap-up for my Saturday (and again, my Saturday=your Sunday). I finished the book I was reading and my wife and I squeezed in three—count ’em, three—movies, and it turned out to be a mini James Gandolfini marathon. Aside from the movie Thirteen, starring Holly Hunter and a teenage Evan Rachel Wood (which was a good fly-on-the-wall look at a good girl’s turn toward the dark side, and is BOJ certified as recommended, but didn’t knock my socks off), the book and both Gandolfini movies subverted my expectations, for better or for worse. I’ll start with the ‘for worse.’

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Killing Them Softly had been on our DVR for quite awhile—if you couldn’t tell by now, I’m a sucker for gritty crime drama, noir, hitmen, etc. When you have a cast as strong as this one—Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, and Ray Liotta—I’m in.

It wasn’t a bad movie by any means, it just seemed to miss the mark a little bit. The plot is as follows: three men are responsible for knocking off an illegal gambling ring, knowing the head of said gambling ring (Liotta) will take the fall. Pitt’s character is brought in by an attorney to the mafia (Jenkins) to figure out what happened, who’s to blame, and who’s going to die. Gandolfini’s character is brought in to help carry out one of the hits.

What seemed like it should’ve been a pretty straightforward plot was unnecessarily messy and hard to follow, ending rather abruptly and leaving my wife and I with questions like, “What happened to ____?” and “Who the hell was _____, anyway?”

It was also a bit heavy-handed with political tie-ins—the movie takes place during the McCain-Obama campaign run, and ends on election night. At the very end it becomes more clear why the tie-ins are there, but it still could’ve been handled with a little more subtlety.

It felt at times like a Tarantino/Scorcese-light kind of movie: aiming high but falling short. If you’re into these kinds of movies like I am I would still give it a go. It’s well-shot (with some stomach-turning graphic violence handled nicely, in my opinion), and well-acted. James Gandolfini is awesome (if ultimately irrelevant to the plot) as the unhinged, unstable hit man brought in to help Pitt’s character. If you don’t typically like these kinds of movies, you probably won’t care much for it.

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Chuck Palahniuk seems to be what I’d call an “avocado” author: people tend to either love him or hate him. I can’t fully fall on the love side, but I like a lot of his work. I’d heard Rant was really good without really knowing much about the plot at all, so when I got the chance to check out the e-book from my library, I took it.

**(side note: did you all know you could recommend e-books to your local library for them to purchase using the Overdrive app? I don’t know about other cities, but the lovely folks at the Wichita Public Library have bought two books on my recommendation, and I think that’s downright awesome)

It starts as a character study of Buster “Rant” Casey, a backwoods country bumpkin who as a kid has an affinity for getting bitten by insects and vermin, picking his nose and sticking the boogers on his wall, and finding valuable coins.

We follow Rant to an early diploma from high school, where he moves to the city and the story takes a turn into sci-fi territory, as we learn society has been divided between the respected “Daytimers” and the lowly “Nighttimers”, with a strict curfew to keep the two groups from intermingling. Rant falls in with the Nighttimers and into a social circle known as Party Crashers—an organized sort of after-hours demolition derby that takes place on the city streets. To give much more away would ruin the book.

About 2/3 of the way through the book I was interested in the story, but starting to get a little bored. After reading the last third in one long stretch, I felt dizzy. The book goes from taking a turn here or there to spinning like a top until you don’t know up from down, left from right, or father from son.

The “hook” of Rant is in the way the story is told. The official title is Rant: An Oral History of Buster Casey, the key words being ‘an oral history.’ The book constantly changes perspective as different characters give their accounts of the events that unfolded in Rant’s life, sometimes outright contradicting each other. Kind of like a documentary or a special on TV, the way they jump from one talking head to the next. It’s used to great effect, but also made me wonder—

Where’s the line between originality and gimmickry? One of the complaints I hear about Palahniuk is that he’s a gimmick writer, with nearly every novel using some kind of cheesy narrative device to tell the story. There’s no denying he uses different techniques to tell his stories, and I can see the ‘gimmick label’ being applied. The thing is, is it only a gimmick if it doesn’t work?

Pygmy, Palahniuk’s widely hated 2009 novel told via the journal entries of a 13 year-old foreign exchange student/terrorist in badly broken English, is downright tough to read (I think I liked it more than most), and dismissed as a gimmick. Rant, on the other hand, is held in much higher regard, and the ‘oral history’ gimmick isn’t mentioned as much. I don’t necessarily think every book by an author has to have some kind of gimmick to tell its story (I sure hope not, because my storytelling thus far is pretty straight ahead), but wouldn’t the literary world be a boring place if there weren’t people like Palahniuk taking chances with their stories?

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The last subverted expectation was also the most pleasant surprise. I suppose it would come as no shock that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “chick flicks,” but I try not to discount them altogether, because I know there are some good ones out there. I’ve confessed before my liking for my wife’s favorite chick flick, Return to Me, and last night found one I liked just as well, if not better, with Enough Said.

The film takes what on paper sounds like a fairly standard chick flick or rom com plot—masseuse meets a man and woman separately, begins dating the man and takes on the woman as a client/friend, only to find out they’re ex-husband and wife—and handles it fairly realistically, playing it straight for the most part, but with plenty of chuckles thrown in (and one moment involving a baseball in a drawer that had me laughing so hard I nearly fell out of my chair, thanks to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s impeccable comedic timing and delivery).

All the characters in the movie felt like real people, not one dimensional and flat or caricatures like in a lot of movies (and books, for that matter), and the dialogue felt realistic and smart. There was also a subplot I liked with Dreyfus’s character subconsciously replacing her daughter, who was preparing to move off to college, with her daughter’s friend. None of the characters were perfect, none of them were total a-holes (although I must admit I didn’t care for Catherine Keener’s ex-wife famous poet character—I’m beginning to wonder if I just don’t like Catherine Keener), they were just fairly normal people with flaws like anybody else. It was well-written and wonderfully acted, and I was glad I watched it. I had expected to look up from Rant every so often to make sure I was following along with the movie, but found myself with my book (phone) in my lap, all my attention devoted to the movie.

 All in all a great night with my favorite person, and a good way to recharge the batteries for writing and some very likely overtime in the coming week.

Yep.

Ever been talking with someone and the conversation seems to just sort of grind to a halt? Not necessarily an uncomfortable one, but it just seems like there’s nothing more to say for the time being? I think this is the blog equivalent of that.

Yep.

Yep.

I’m going through something of an identity crisis, I suppose. Nothing seems a) important enough or b) timely enough to put on the site anymore. When I started, I was watching a ton more TV and movies and could easily fill my blog with reviews or news of upcoming shows. A change in my work schedule and more time spent actually writing has meant a serious decrease in TV viewing, so I really don’t have that to fall back on now.

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For example: I just watched Gone Girl. I thought maybe I could devote a post either to a full-fledged review of the film, or a comparison of the book vs the film. Then I thought, isn’t it a little late to be talking about it? I mean, I’ll tell you what I thought of it, but to spend a few hundred words on a movie that came out several months ago seems a little late.

Anyway, regarding the movie: I liked it a lot, and thought it was just as good as—if not better than—the book. The things that didn’t make the film were pretty minor, and Gillian Flynn did a pretty excellent job adapting her novel for the screen. As much as I like Trent Reznor’s work, I felt like in some scenes the music was a distraction from what was going on. When Nick and Amy were having a huge blow-out fight, hearing a film score under it (even a somewhat ominous one) took me out of the scene.

The real highlight of the film for me was Rosamund Pike. I literally can’t think of anyone who could’ve pulled off Amazing Amy so perfectly. Cold, calculating, psychotic…her performance was awesome. I don’t know whether or not she’ll win the Oscar, but I think she definitely deserved the nomination.

Want a Netflix recommendation? I’ve got one of those I can throw your way.

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If you’ve never heard of Better Off Ted, you’re not alone. It was only on for two very low-rated seasons on ABC back in the days of yore (2009-2010) when people still watched TV primarily on TV instead of their devices. Take it from me, though, this show is hilarious.

Part romantic workplace comedy, part biting satire of corporate America, and part screwball comedy, how this show never caught on is one of life’s biggest mysteries (because I don’t use my brain to think about things like science or the universe). Once I saw the show was on Netflix I went back to re-watch what I remembered to be my favorite episode and it totally held up, so a BOT marathon may be in the works.

If you’re going to give it a shot and want one episode to see if you like it, I point to “Racial Sensitivity” from season one. The show is set at the headquarters of megacorporation Veridian Dynamics, a sort of SC Johnson or Glad type industry giant, and in a cost-saving measure all the lights, elevators, water fountains, etc. in the building are replaced with motion-sensors that turn off automatically when not in use. The problem? The sensors are defective, and do not detect light reflected off darker skin tones—i.e., they don’t work for black people. The solution? Replacing all the sensors is initially deemed too expensive, so as a temporary fix the company hires a bunch of white people, paying them minimum wage to follow the black people everywhere.

Exchange between Ted and his boss (and company puppet) Veronica:

Ted: “The sensors don’t see black people? …That’s racist!”

Veronica: “The company’s position is that it’s actually the opposite of racist, because the system isn’t targeting black people, it’s just ignoring them. They insist the worst people can call it is indifferent.”

As I write I get more anxious to go back and re-watch the whole series—it really is that good. Give it a shot!

And now, I submit the BOJ suggestion box. Like I said at the top, topics for blog posts are getting a little thin. I have a few ideas, but I’m open to ideas. Soon I should have more writing-related things to talk about as I move from the actual writing of my first novel to trying to get it published, so there’ll be some material there, but what else?

One thing I’ve been bouncing around is a series of “In Defense of…” posts, where I defend something in pop culture that’s either (unjustly) unpopular or was overlooked by the population at large. I may start the first installment of that next week if I don’t think of anything else. So, if you have ideas, suggestions, feedback, whatever it may be, feel free to let me know. What kinds of things would you like to see discussed here?

On The Joy of Discovery

This post mainly serves as a way for me to knock the rust off, as it were. As you may or may not have noticed, I’ve been gone for a little bit. I’ll go into what caused my temporary absence sometime, but for now I’m just trying to get back in the water, so to speak.

Here are words I wasn’t sure I’d ever say: I saw a really good Woody Allen Movie recently. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the man, and there are quite a few of his movies I might enjoy, but the ones I’ve seen, well, they just weren’t my thing (full disclosure—I haven’t seen any of the “classic” Allen movies like Annie Hall or Manhattan). Then I saw Match Point (2005).

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Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as a has-been-that-never-quite-was tennis pro who takes a job as an instructor at a posh country club in London. He strikes up a friendship with one of his clients, then becomes obsessed with his friend’s fiancé, played by Scarlett Johansson. Meanwhile, his friend’s sister falls head over heels for him, so he begins dating (and eventually marrying) the sister mostly just to keep himself around the fiancé (and his wife’s family’s money), until finally initiating an affair. From there things unravel in quite an interesting—and intense—way.

The movie was a bit unusual in it’s pacing to me. It was sort of a fast-paced slow burn of a thriller. At times it seems like not a whole lot is going on, and yet the story really never stops moving. It was interesting from a storytelling point of view how little wasted time there was. Some scenes would literally be thirty seconds long, giving you just a glimpse of a character’s facial expression to show what they’re thinking/feeling before moving on to the next scene. It was the increasingly rare movie that didn’t feel too long or drawn out; the two hour running time flew by.

Near the end the police enter the story, and their handling of affairs borders on implausible, but the movie was so good that I felt I could let that slide. If you’re in the mood for a dark, intense couple of hours, give it a shot. The tone reminded me a bit of The Talented Mr. Ripley, though not as high a body count.

Now then, on to the title of the post—discovery.

As I’ve mentioned before, in my early twenties I worked at a retail record store (the fact that we didn’t sell actual vinyl records not withstanding). I clearly remember when LeAnn Rimes came out with her debut album, lots of older/elderly people would come in asking for the CD, all of them remarking “She sounds just like Patsy Cline.” I would think, Why do you want to listen to somebody who sounds like someone else? Why don’t you just listen to Patsy Cline?

There was another artist, the name escapes me (maybe D’Angelo?), that people would buy because they thought he sounded like Al Green. Again, I thought, Just go listen to Al Green. Which really isn’t too bad of advice, people. Seriously, put some Al Green in your life. I digress. The point is, now I think I get it.

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I was reading about the goings on at SXSW and happened upon a sentence or two about a band called Radkey. I decided to look them up on YouTube, and well…holy crap. Three brothers from Missouri who play punk rock with just the right touch of melody and harmony (for my tastes, anyway—I’m not much for the really poppy sounds, if you haven’t been able to tell from previous posts), and hearing them felt like someone put jumper cables on my nipples and jumpstarted my head.

There’ve been the occasional bands I’ve come across in the last few years that I liked pretty good, but I seem to keep drifting back to my comfort zone: music from the 90’s and early aughts. Nothing I found recently really moved me except for a select few: Red Fang, which is really up my alley but still not totally freak out worthy; Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, whose funk stylings are awesome but sometimes veer too far to the R&B/soul for my tastes; and OFF!, whose brutal attack of songs are great but short—you can listen to their first four EP’s in less time than it takes to watch a sitcom (without the commercials).

All of which makes Radkey that much more special to me. For the first time in years I found a band that’s actually out right now that I like a lot. Part of what makes them so exciting is how young they are—both in the literal sense and also as a band. They managed to get attention early on and are getting breaks fast, having put out only two EP’s so far. To be able to track their progress in the industry and see how they grow as a band as it happens is something I haven’t done in a long, long time.

Are they perfect? Hell no, far from it. A couple of their songs are kind of generic, and all three brothers are far from virtuosos (the drummer is adequate at best). But that’s the beauty of punk rock—you don’t have to be a master of your instrument, you just need the passion, energy, and emotion, and as long as that comes across in your music, why, you’re just fine. And they’re only going to get better.

Now, I know a lot of you may not share my taste for this particular slice of musical pie, but if you’re so inclined, give ’em a whirl. They have a definite Ramones influence, and at times the singer/guitarist sounds an awful lot like Glenn Danzig, giving them a Misfits vibe. There’s more to them than that of course, so if you’re into that kind of thing check them out. You can visit their website and stream their EP’s here, or you can find performance clips on YouTube—I’ve included a link to my favorite song of theirs, Out Here In My Head, live on Later…with Jools Holland.

And with that, I think I’m officially rust free. 🙂

On My Unapologetic Love for The Oscars (with predictions)

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I don’t know anyone else where I live now who cares about The Oscars. There are a lot of casual movie fans here, and some of the best movie theaters in the country, but the amount of people who are really hardcore movie buffs is pretty small. Every Oscar season I tend to hear the same comments…Hollywood wingnuts patting each other on the back with meaningless awards, who cares?

Well, I do. I love movies, and I love watching the Academy Awards to an almost irrational degree. Now that I live in a part of the country that makes me feel like some kind of freak for being this way, I decided to look at what makes me how I am.

A little of it is the simple fact that I grew up approximately 100 miles from Hollywood. In LA, the Oscars are a BFD. Even being somewhat removed like I was, if you live in or around Los Angeles, show business impacts your life in some way.

It starts first thing the morning of the show, when the morning news tells you what streets around the theater are blocked off for the day, and how those closings will affect traffic. Then you’ll see some footage of the setup going on inside and out. As the red carpet fires up there’s always an overhead shot from a helicopter, showing the line of limos going around the block (I always wondered how all the limo drivers killed the time until the show was over). Afterwards there are reporters at all the after-parties trying to catch celebrities; it’s inescapable.

There’s something else, though, because even a lot of my friends in California didn’t/don’t get into the Oscars like my wife and I do—it’s like Super Bowl Sunday for us. I’ve always had a love not just for movies, but for movie making. The whole process, the business of making movies. In a lottery wet dream, if I won millions of dollars one of the things I would do is start a movie production company and make movies for the rest of my life.

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When I was a kid I always loved playing make believe. I was in a school play as a lawyer in maybe second or third grade, and I loved it. I’m barely able to make eye contact in a one on one conversation, but give me a part to play, let me be a character, and I come out of my shell.

So, to summarize—I love movies. Everything about them. Oscar night is a national holiday in BooksofJobe-istan, so I’m putting out my Oscar thoughts on now because no writing will be getting done after about 10 am on Sunday. I will, however be sending the occasional tweet throughout the day, so if you’re so inclined follow me on Twitter if you don’t already and share my little slice of Hollywood heaven with me.

Alright, on to my thoughts for the show.

As much as I love Ellen, I’m a little underwhelmed about her hosting this year. I’m sure there will be some really funny bits and some laugh out loud jokes, but it just feels a little…safe. I’m sure she’ll do a fine job, but until they find that next Billy Crystal-in-his-prime-level host I wish they’d keep searching and trying out new hosts. Seth MacFarlane was surprisingly good, but not quite right.

As far as the actual Oscar race, this year is anticpated to be rather surprise free (as are my predictions). There are clear favorites in every main category with the exception of Best Picture, which (according to some) is a three-way dead heat. I don’t mind when there are no real surprises in store, what I really enjoy are seeing people who are winning for the first time, especially the ones who you can tell are deeply touched to have won. And not just in the major categories, either. When some guy wins for one of the technical categories, then goes up there and starts choking up saying how it’s for his dad who just passed away recently or something like that? I love that stuff.

So with that, here are my (rather safe) predictions for the major awards on Sunday:

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Best Picture

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

The Wolf of Wall Street

This is seen by most to be a 3 picture race between Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle. I would be absolutely shocked if American Hustle won, I really see this as just between the other two. Gravity was a major accomplishment in filmmaking and I expect it to be rewarded handsomely, but I still feel like the academy will hand the prize to the more “serious” film. Prediction: 12 Years a Slave

Best Actor

Christian Bale (American Hustle)

Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf of Wall Street)

Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

There are a lot of people who would like to see DiCaprio win his first Oscar for the balls out crazy performance he gave, but I think Mr McConaughey has academy voters transfixed with his McConaissance (™ Hooray for Movies). Plus, there’s no better Oscar campaign than acting your ass off in a TV show already being hailed as one of the greatest ever that is airing during Oscar season (True Detective). Prediction: McConaughey.

Best Actress

Amy Adams (American Hustle)

Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Sandra Bullock (Gravity)

Judi Dench (Philomena)

Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

Cate Blanchett has been the frontrunner pretty much since Blue Jasmine came out and no one, not even the Oscar machine that is Meryl Streep, will be able to stop her from taking home the statue. Prediction: Blanchett

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)

Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)

Jonah Hill (Wolf of Wall Street)

Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

The biggest sure thing this year. Period. Prediction: Leto

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)

June Squibb (Nebraska)

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)

This again has a clear leader in Nyong’o, who has already won the smaller awards and seems poised to win her first Oscar. There’s this little voice in my head telling me there’s an outside chance June Squibb could win, but I think this one is pretty much sealed up. Prediction: Nyong’o

Best Director

Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

David O. Russell (American Hustle)

Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)

Alexander Payne (Nebraska)

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)

It’s rare for the Academy to split Best Picture and Best Director, but that’s what I think is going to happen this year. Even if 12 Years a Slave takes home Best Picture, Alfonso Cuaron’s achievement cannot be denied. He made history with Gravity, and he’ll be rewarded for it. Prediction: Cuaron

Best Adapted Screenplay

John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)

Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Richard Linklater (Before Midnight)

Terence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)

Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (Philomena)

There’s a little more wiggle room for a surprise here: the prevailing wisdom seems to be that John Ridley will win, but a lot of people would like to see Before Midnight take it home, and you really can’t rule out Terence Winter’s f-bomb extravaganza The Wolf of Wall Street. I’m torn here, because I really would like to see Winter win here, but I have to go with my gut; I think Ridley’s the man. Prediction: Ridley

Best Original Screenplay

Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine

Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club

David O. Russell and Eric Singer (American Hustle)

Bob Nelson (Nebraska)

Spike Jonze (Her)

This is another interesting race. Woody Allen is out, pretty much guaranteed, due in no small part to the drama surrounding him lately. The two favorites are American Hustle and Her, which interestingly was written by someone (Spike Jonze) that David O. Russell has previously directed (3 Kings). Her was unquestionably the most original script of the bunch, but I’m having a hard time believing American Hustle will be completely shut out. So as much as it may pain a certain friend of mine who may or may not be reading this that absolutely hated it, I’m calling Russell for the win. Prediction: Russell and Singer

Alright alright alright, that’s it. If you watch the show Sunday I hope you all enjoy it. I know I will.

The Wilhelm Scream—Hollywood’s Inside Joke

I’m in total movie mode this week. We’re six days from the Oscars, and I’m keyed up. I’ll go into exactly why the Oscars excite me so much later in the week, but suffice it to say I’m thinking movies nonstop—making my predictions for Oscar night, reading about upcoming movies (strangely excited to see how Gone Girl turns out when it hits theaters October 3rd), and I came across a gem of a story about how one second of sound became one of the longest-standing traditions in Hollywood.

First, here—listen to this.

What started as a simple sound effect in 1951 has turned out to have a legacy no one could have ever predicted. In the film Distant Drums, a scene was shot where a character is bitten by an alligator and dragged underwater. As is usually the case, the character’s scream was recorded separately and inserted later. In post production, six screams were recorded in a single take. Three of the screams were then used for various scenes in the film and that was that. Then, as future movies were made and screams were needed, sound editors referred back to the ones already in the bank and continued using them in several Warner Brothers films over the years. By 1976 the scream had already been used in some manner in 18 films and a few episodes of TV shows.

Which brings us to 1977. Ben Burtt was the sound editor for Star Wars, and a huge movie buff. He was doing research for the film, looking for sound effects, and stumbled across the original recording  of the screams from Distant Drums. Having already noticed the recurrence of the scream throughout the years as a film student, he decided to make it a cross between an inside joke and signature of sorts. He named the scream the Wilhelm after the earliest character he knew of to utter the cry, and included it in all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, Willow, Poltergeist, and several others.

A friend and colleague of Ben’s, Richard Anderson, began using the scream liberally as well, and by the 2000’s they had an impressive number of films peppered with their now-trademark wail, ranging from Planet of the Apes to Madagascar. Future generations of filmmakers also began to use the scream once it was discovered that the classic version was free to use without penalty or fines, and regardless of studio attachment.

In recent years, noted filmmakers to use the Wilhelm in their films include Peter Jackson (2 of the 3 Lord of the Rings movies) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Inglorious Basterds). Once I realized what the scream was and how often it was used, I realized it was like that road sign you pass a thousand times and don’t notice until someone points it out. I’ve unknowingly heard it probably hundreds of times, and every time I hear it from now on I can’t help but chuckle.

For a much more detailed account of how the Wilhelm came to be the stuff of legend, including a theory of whose voice is actually providing the scream, click here for the full story. And just in case you think I’m exaggerating about how much it’s been used, click here for the most recent list of movies that feature some variation of the scream (last updated in 2010 with over 200 films). There are also some compilations on YouTube, if you’re so inclined. I guarantee you, you’ve heard it before.

The Bechdel Test: I Passed and I Didn’t Even Study

I recently became aware of a sort of litmus test for movies, which I feel also relates to writing and storytelling in general. It’s called The Bechdel Test, the origins of which go back to a comic created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985. From the site Bechdeltest.com:

The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule is a simple test which names the following three criteria:

(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

bechdel-test-logo

Sounds pretty simple, right?

Yet despite its simple construct many, many movies fail to meet the criteria. That piqued my interest, so I decided to take a look at my own work to see how I fare.

Of the four longer projects I’ve either completed or am working on (novels/novellas), two pass and two don’t. Is that good? Should I alter the ones that don’t meet the criteria?

I understand the point of the test—to put a spotlight on gender (in)equality in moviemaking. Which makes sense, since most big budget Hollywood movies are produced by a group of old, rich, white men, and the movies they put out are not always a true representation of the moviegoing public. The publishing industry is a different beast altogether, what with the multitude of indie and genre specific publishers in the business, but that doesn’t change what became my ultimate question: whether they pass the Bechdel Test or not, are my stories relatable?

Sometimes a story just can’t have every demographic present. The Pass the Remote blog just discussed the Bechdel Test, and presented a lot of examples of movies that do and don’t cut the mustard and for what reason. As I thought about it, I realized one of my wife’s favorite movies (and mine too), The Shawshank Redemption, fails miserably. I don’t think there’s a female in the whole movie, other than a few mentions of Andy Dufresne’s wife. That doesn’t take anything away from it of make it any less of a movie (or book, as I’m sure most of you know it’s based on the novella by Stephen King).

Still, while I wouldn’t go out of my way to alter my story simply to pass this unofficial test for gender bias, I do consciously think about gender and ethnicity when I’m dreaming up a story. There’s even a version of the Bechdel that changes the focus from women to people of color—unfortunately none of my work passes that test. I want to have characters from all walks of life, but I don’t want any of them to be caricatures or stereotypes, and I don’t want to throw in characters who are flat or one dimensional just to be able to claim diversity.

One of my current works in progress features several hispanic characters, for two reasons. 1) Necessity, since the first half of the story takes place in a small town in Mexico, and 2) I have been surrounded by Latinos and their culture my whole life and am comfortable creating Hispanic characters that are realistic and three dimensional (or at least as realistic and three dimensional as any of my other characters).

My newest work in progress has an African-American character in it, my first. I did originally conceive the character as a white guy, but all the other principle characters (who am I kidding, every other character in the book) were white, and it just seemed like that was A) boring, and B) unrealistic. So I made the change, and I’m glad I did. It brings a different dynamic to the four main characters (homicide detectives) and makes the story more interesting. What I realized as I began writing this post was that I made the change because I thought it would make the story better, not because it would diversify the make up of the characters.

Now I want to hear what you guys think. As a writer, a reader, a watcher of TV and movies—how much do you think about this stuff? Will you watch/read something even if it leans one way or the other in terms of it gender and ethnic make up? Would you consider adding more diverse characters to your own story for diversity’s sake or do you trust your instincts and let it fly as it is?