Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Freedom to Change: The Haunting of Bly Manor

Two years ago, Mike Flanagan delivered The Haunting of Hill House, a horror show with a great emotional center I never saw coming. Now, in 2020, we get a spiritual sequel in Bly Manor, and Flanagan has pulled off a wonderful feat: daring to be different.


Unlike Hill House, I kind of predicted Bly Manor would have a nice emotional core. In that, I wasn’t disappointed. It was exactly that and more. But where Hill House was a horror show—complete with mystery and jump scares—Bly Manor dares to be less a horror show but more like an eerie tale of menace.

Loosely based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw—a book I’ve never read—Bly Manor is narrated in the present day by Carla Gugino to a small group of people. She tells the story of Danielle Clayton, a young woman who, in 1987, takes a job as the live-in nanny/teacher for a pair of children—Miles and Flora—at Bly Manor, tucked away in the English countryside. Rounding out the small group is the housekeeper (Hannah), the chef (Owen), and the gardener (Jamie).

Oh, and the ghosts.

That’s not a spoiler. It’s what you’d expect from a story taking place in a giant manor house. But who the ghosts are and why they’re there, that’s the mystery.

I’ll admit I haven’t watched Hill House since it debut in 2018 so I cannot remember all the intricacies. But I do remember some of the jump scares and genuinely terrifying moments. I expected that here as well.

Flanagan, however, had a different idea. Instead of manufacturing simple scares just to make viewers jump, he crafted a well-told story over nine episodes (one less than Hill House). The story’s leaner and swifter, pulling you along nicely.

We get a good dose of flashbacks and present-day action doled out in just big enough scoops to make the mystery tantalizing. My wife had recently see a filmed version of The Turn of the Screw so she knew a few plot points going in, but I didn’t. All I did was let the story wash over me.

The actors were stellar. A few of them—Henry Thomas, Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Kate Siegel—also starred in Hill House. It was good to see them again. But the newcomers were just as good. Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, who plays Miles, can turn from innocent child into something else on a dime. That was unnerving. Another standout T'Nia Miller who played Hannah the housekeeper. There was always something buried just underneath her skin, and Miller was outstanding at her portrayal, especially episode five. And the scenes where she and Rahul Kohli (who played Owen the chef) interacted were very good.

It was probably around episode three or four that I realized Flanagan was doing something different with this new show. It wasn’t as scary. True, there was a palpable sense of foreboding, but not scary. Initially, I wanted the scares, but then I was content to watch the show he made. The longer the show went on and I finally noted what Flanagan had done, the more impressed by it I was.

Sure, Bly Manor could easily have just been Hill House 2 with even more jump scares and more lurid stuff, but that’s not what he did. He told a different kind of story, and I’m really glad he did. It let us viewers know that for however long he creates stories like this, they won’t just be cookie-cutter shows. They will be distinct stories with a similar, but unique style.

And it makes me even more excited to see what he comes up with next.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Proactively Trimming a Book's Fat

I think it's common knowledge that a good rule of thumb for reviewing your own work is to read it aloud. I do it all the time. I find easy-to-miss grammar snafus, but I find this method especially good with dialogue. I'll always read the dialogue (with voices!) to hear how it sounds. If I find my mouth adding words or saying the prose differently, I change it on the page.

Side note: if you have a computer that has the capability of reading text to you, that's also a good way to go. Just be sure you have a computer that'll sound more or less normal.

The reason I bring it up this week is that I completed my index card outline for my next major novel on Thursday morning. It's around 100 scenes or so--some smaller than others. It was kind of an exciting thing to be writing that last index card right as my alarm to signal it was time for me stop working on my new book and get ready for my workday.

Later on Thursday, I cornered--er, asked nicely--the wife if she'd be game to listen to me go through each notecard and tell her the story. She agreed, but initially didn't know what I was asking of her. She much prefers to read the drafts after I've finished them. She's a voracious reader, knows what works and what doesn't, and I rely on her all the time to course correct a story.

All I needed her to do is take the tale on a test drive. Did it make sense? Did the scenes flow nicely. Was there a huge plot gap in the middle of my story? Did she even like it?

We sat at the kitchen table. Initially, I laid out the first forty scenes or so, but swiftly realized it was much better with just the stack right in front of us. I talked over each scene, one by one, taking her through the story.

There's a look she gets when she glazes over and I stopped when I saw that. What was the problem? It was the sub-plots. They seemed extraneous. I reminded her they were sub-plots, but I adjusted on the fly and just kept to the main POV character--since it is her story.

The entire process was incredibly enlightening. I got to tell the story to someone else, serving as a way to get it out of my own head. I took notes along the way, mostly with nips and tucks my wife suggested.

But I came away with the idea that some of the sub-plots likely bogged down the story.

Look, I've written books like this before and I've written books without an outline at all. Each method has its merits and I stand behind both of them. But for this book in particular, I needed to verify that the story structure was solid. It was. Side benefit: I might actually have fewer scenes to write since I'll be proactively cutting some fat.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Recursion by Blake Crouch: A Time Travel Book with Heart and Thrills

 

(Imagine my surprise yesterday when I finished this review and went to post it on DoSomeDamage...only to discover my fellow author, Beau Johnson, also reviewed it. No, you are not suffering from False Memory Syndrome. Perhaps that is yet another key indicator of how good this book is.)

How often do you read a book in which the last sentence is the perfect end to the story?

Well, I finished one this week, and the last line was awesome.

Recursion by Blake Crouch is a thriller with a huge scoop of science fiction, specifically time travel. It was the most recent selection for my SF book club although I wasn't the chooser. We generally keep our selections within the genre--I actually picked the Sherlock Holmes book The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz--but occasionally we get books like this one. But this is one that really leans into the thriller aspects and it kept me engrossed all the way through.

As the story opens, New York police detective Barry Sutton has lived eleven years without his teenaged daughter who was killed in a hit-and-run accident. He's meeting his now ex-wife to commemorate their daughters birth. There have been a lot of things called False Memory Syndrome, a condition where folks remember whole other lives. 

In the reality of the story, these are alternate timelines.

Soon, Barry meets Helena, a scientist with a mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Her goal is to invent a tool that can help map her mom's memories before they are all gone. What another character realizes is that this machine can be used to travel back in time to a specific, vivid memory. And, when a time traveler arrives at the point in time where the traveler actually left, all the other timeline's memories cascade on them...and everyone else.

And there's a race...against time. 

I really enjoyed it. Loved it, actually. As recent as this past weekend, I hadn't even started it. I started listening while doing chores...then started finding new chores to do so I could keep listening. The Houston Texans helped by sucking so I stopped watching and started listening to this book. The premise drew me in pretty quickly and just kept me going.

The alternating narrators really worked in the audio. Enjoyed both of them. 

Really liked the moments when a certain timeline caught up with a character. When I was explaining this to the wife, what came to mind (but not during the reading) was the end of the movie Frequency back in 2000. Also had lots of echoes to Replay by Ken Grimwood.

Go no further if you don't want the spoiler, so if you don't, I thoroughly enjoyed Recursion and would highly recommend it.


SPOILERS for the end



Lastly, it is very rare that a last line of a book is this awesome, but this one is. Again, this is where listening to an audio version really brought it home. I was standing in line at the DPS on Tuesday. Outside, morning sun, looking at all the other folks doing what I'm doing. Crouch is talking from Barry's POV and building it up to talk to Helena. This is after he's killed the bad to prevent the whole thing from even starting. And he has realized that life has pain and that, as humans, we just have to deal with it. 

And then the last line! "And he says...."  I barked out a "HA!" as the credits rolled, grinning big time. Loved it! Crouch let the reader finish the story, creating our own, unique timelines.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Butterfly Moments

How do you know when something you’ve written or planned out is good?

That’s my question for the weekend, folks. Thanks!

Okay, I’m kidding, but it’s an honest question, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For me, it has something to do with the butterflies in my stomach and the racing pulse.

This week, as I’ve been planning out my next book, I’m still doing the notecard method I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. My routine is up at 5:30 to write/prepare/think for an hour before I have to prep for the day job. In that time, with no music, TV, or anything other than my cup of coffee (in my awesome Halloween mug!), I visualize the story unfolding. 

With a schedule like this, I have already spent the last day idly mulling various aspects of the story. I’ll write them down in my comp book and then get started writing the notecards, one at a time. Oh, I’ll spread out a dozen or so to remind myself where I am in the story. 

There were a couple of days this week when, as I’m seeing the movie in my head, I can actually feel the butterflies in my stomach flying around. I start writing faster (and sloppier), trying to get down all the details. 

In other moments, I can literally feel my pulse pounding in my wrist and arms as I’m writing. I realized it’s not just the coffee, but the story that’s making me excited.

Will others find those scenes exciting? I hope so. It does depend on me writing compelling prose to suck in other readers, but I’m comforted knowing that if folks like the stuff I like and *I’m* digging these scenes, there’s a good chance others will, too.

Time will tell. 

But I love those butterfly moments.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Glitch TV Show - An Unexpected Delight


“Just watch the first episode and let me know what you think.”

That was the request my wife made about Glitch, a TV show out of Australia now streaming all three seasons on Netflix. What was it about? Dead people crawling out of their graves.

Sold.

The show has a solid cast of characters, but the anchor is James (Patrick Brammall), a local policeman in the fictional town of Yoorana in southern Australia. He is called to a local cemetery in the middle of the night for a rather unusual reason: people have crawled out of their graves, in perfect health, but with no memories of their past lives. James enlists the aid of a town doctor (Genevieve O'Reilly) who conducts tests on The Risen. The stinger? One of them is James's wife, Kate (Emma Booth). We know her backstory a bit: she died of cancer and now James has married Kate's BFF, Sarah (Emily Barclay) who is now pregnant. 

The other formerly dead folks include Paddy Fitzgerald (Ned Dennehy), a man who died almost two centuries ago, Charlie (Sean Keenan), a World War I veteran with a statue modeled after himself, Kirstie (Hannah Monson), a young woman with a tragic past, Maria (Daniela Farinacci), an Italian wife who died in a car crash with her child, and Carlo, a man who early on sets the rules for The Risen: as he passes a certain point over a bridge, he disintegrates.

The Science? 

One of the best things about Glitch is it never loses focus on what really matters: the characters. What would it be like to have died of breast cancer and return healthy (and with breasts)? What would it be like to be the victim of a murder and come back, barely remembering who your assailant was? What would it be like to be a gay man in a world in which that was not only a crime but something to keep hidden. 

The creators of Glitch, Tony Ayres and Louise Fox, know that the foundation of a good show is characters we care about, and the wife and I instantly were drawn into the complicated life of James. Here is a married man with a pregnant about to give birth who not only has to figure out why and how dead people have come back to life but one of them is his dead wife whom he stil loves. Patrick Brammall excels in his role as James, often showing his emotion only by facial expressions. The anguish is clear on his expressions and his actions. Even when he makes choices we don't agree with, we felt for him. 

But my wife and I also felt for the other characters, some more than others. Another standout is Chris (John Leary), James's fellow policeman and the single character who remains unaltered by the science of the show. Leary shows Chris coming to terms with what his eyes show him (Kate alive? Other dead people alive?) and the sometime duplicitous actions by James. As the show went on, he became the one character I sincerely wanted to survive. Leary's performance, like Brammall's, are all in his actions, some you expect, and others you don't see coming. Chris has to live with the choices he makes. I shan't tell you, one way or another, what is his fate. You'll have to watch to find out.


By having multiple generations of people awakened, you get to see how, say, Paddy, deals with the 21st Century (he of the 19th). Ditto Charles, the veteran of the Great War. Kirstie and Kate have less of a learning curve, but their backstories still prove compelling.

Back to the science (or magic?) of how these people returned to life, the show does give an explanation, and it is enough of one to pass muster. But there's not a lot of focus paid on it. All attention is given to the characters, the ones who have come back and the ones who, somehow, are also "altered" and who seem to be out to kill the Risen.  

Who are they and why are they trying to kill The Risen? The show keeps their origins vague for the most part--better to propel the mystery of the show--but some characters change during the course of the 18-episode, 3-season show. 

The Ending

I've read a few articles about the show and fans were notified that season 3 was going to be it for the show. But, the showrunners promised, while the show was cancelled, a satisfying conclusion was to be delivered.

And they delivered. In spades. And tears. 

Not to give away the ending, but the wife and I were simultaneously satisfied and wiping away tears. It was an excellent ending, well earned, and wholly predictable when you look back on it. But even if you guessed how the show needed to end, it doesn't take away from the emotion of the moment. 

Any show that brings tears to my eyes is a good show. That Glitch, a show with a very unusual beginning, did so, makes it a wonderful 18 hours of television, and one of the best things we've seen on TV in 2020.


Highly recommended

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Humble Index Card

Like many a wordsmith, I've tried multiple ways to get a story out of my head and onto paper. I've outlined, planned, and written stories without and outline. I've even tried the index card method, but it has been a long time since I employed this method.

But I'm trying it again with my current book.

What is the Index Card Method?

The way I do it, one index card equals one scene. It's not necessarily a chapter a scene, but I know that some scenes will be long enough to be a chapter. I've read a few books in recent years that have something like 125 chapters and I know that every scene is a chapter. I'm not a huge fan of short-as-a-page chapters. I prefer to group them together into larger chapters. You?


Anyway, the beauty of index cards is the ability to see the story laid out on your table or on a corkboard. You can lay them out any way you, but I've done mine this way just about every time I use this method. The scene number is in the upper left. The upper right is the setting, while the middle top line is the POV character. In this case, Keene is my main character. 

In the body of the card, I list the action. I am using a blue ballpoint pen for the first time in forever. Not sure why, but I started that way and I'm running with it. Every time a character appears on stage for the first time, I use all caps and underline the names. You can see that listed here with a pair of HPD detectives. 

For this card in particular, in pencil, I wrote a question to myself. It's a guide for my thinking about the story and whether or not this scene is actually needed. If it's not, I can discard and not bother writing it.

With the "NEED" comment, that's also a note to myself. When I get around to writing this chapter in a few days, I'll need to work in that little comment. 

The "EXPAND" comment refers to the 1.0 version of this book that's already written. I'll likely not simply rewrite/retype this chapter when I get to it, but I'll revise what's already written in my 1.0 manuscript. This note, in red ink, serves as a reminder to expand on something that's already in the text. 

Every morning, after I've poured my coffee, I'll lay out the existing cards and move forward. I'm up to scene 27 so I don't necessarily have to lay out the first dozen scenes or so, but I lay out the last dozen. I'll follow my thought process and then start writing new scenes. I have a comp book in which I write additional notes, mainly about structure and overall thinking. Together, I have an ongoing mindmap-type thing that I can re-read along the way. Also, when this book is done, I can re-visit all my thought processes, especially if they veer away from the index cards.

Yeah, it can happen.

Do you use index cards? If so, how.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Cherishing a New Bruce Springsteen Song

 A couple things occurred to me on Thursday when I heard the new Bruce Springsteen song, "Letter to You," from his forthcoming album of the same name.

The most obvious one was that there was a brand-new Bruce Springsteen song! Just a day after the rumor started, the official press release drops as does the first single. It is always a great day when there's a new Springsteen tune, especially in 2020 (a damn good year for music). It struck me, however, that this one was slightly different. 

Not only was it a record with the E Street Band, but it was by an artist who had already reached the age of seventy. The Boss is seventy? Seriously? And then the video shows the entire band recording the songs for the album. It was like seeing old friends gathered again, smiling, laughing, working, creating, all in its black-and-white glory. 

The song's lyrics are mature and nuanced, deep with emotion. Hearing them, reading them as they played across the screen, I'll admit to a bit of emotion. Not nearly as much as last year's "Hello Sunshine" debut, but it was there. Why? Well, the meaning of the lyrics, of course, but also the echo of a question I hated to admit at the time: how many more days will we have that feature a new Springsteen song? 

He's seventy and the rest of the band ain't getting any younger. Unless Springsteen releases an album and unequivocably announces it is the last one, chances are we'll never know which day was the last to hear a brand-new Springsteen song. We'll be able to look back and note it, but not on that actual day.

I swept those thoughts away from the front of mind, but confess to thinking them and just relished the song.

Know what else made it special? The person I was with when I heard it.

I wake early every morning to work on my fiction writing, so I had already been alerted that the new song dropped. I had read the press release, seen the album cover, and read the tracklisting (which means little ahead of hearing the actual album). I was ready to hear the song. Last year, with "Hello Sunshine," I had listened to it about five times before my son got out of bed.

But on Thursday, I waited. My son, a college freshman, likes a few Springsteen albums and I know he'd want to hear the song before he drove to school. Well, *I* wanted him to hear it before school, so I made sure he did. Perhaps, on an unconscious level, the thoughts about The Boss not getting any younger played a role. I can't say, but I wanted to share the experience.

And it was all the more special.

It also made me think of all the other musicians, authors, and actors who I've grown up with. Some have already passed on but most of my favorites are still with us. Made me cherish them and their work all the more.


Saturday, September 5, 2020

Recognizing Progress in Your Own Writing

Should I or shouldn't I re-read a completed manuscript before picking it back up again to work on it?

I debated with myself for longer than you'd expect, but let me give you a little backstory.

I wrote and completed the 1.0 draft a few years ago. I particularly enjoy the premise and the characters in this mystery/thriller. I remembered how the story started and the very end, but not a lot in the middle. I had vague memories but nothing crystal clear. Maybe it wasn't that good?

So a year or so ago, I attempted to write the story again *from scratch*. That is, do not read the old manuscript, but just rewrite the story. I changed some of the focus of the story, but ultimately shelved the 2.0 version in favor of books I've already published.

But I really like the tale. I decided it would be my Fall 2020 writing project. And that should I or shouldn't I question kept swirling in my head. On the one hand, were I to pick up the 2.0 version and just keep going, I might leave some cool stuff out that I didn't remember. Yeah, I know that if I don't remember something, it must not be memorable, but I don't subscribe to that idea. There are plenty of things about which I can remember my personal reaction but not quite the details. The end of Redshirts by John Scalzi is one.

I finally came down on the side of re-reading the 1.0 version. This was over 500 manuscript pages and, as of yesterday, I have about 100 pages left. Two things struck me.

One, there were indeed some cool scenes and moments in the book. I found myself actively reading and enjoying the story anew. I'm still time constrained in the mornings before work, and just about every day, I cursed the alarm that signaled it was time to get ready for the day job. I was into it and glad I decided to re-read the 1.0.

I read it with my yellow legal pad next to me, outlining the story as I read it. I noted POV, settings, character names, and general flow. All of this was in blue ink.

It was the red inked notes that told me just how far I've come as a writer.

These red notes are ones where I'd say "Need more description" in a scene where I'd introduce a character, but then give either a cursory physical description or none at all. I know, right? Other times I'd write "Need new option" when the 2020 me, reading the story, could see the next step a mile away. 

The biggest thing I noticed was how easy the characters had it. In more than one spot, I'd have a challenge and the next thing I knew, they had solved it. Really? I mean, if I'm irritated that they had it so easy, you know other readers will fire off a 2-star review.

I'll finish my re-read of the 1.0 version this weekend. I'll follow through with a re-read of the 2.0 version (about 75 pages) and do the same outlining. Then, with my improved storytelling skills, I'll craft the 3.0 version.

Have you re-read old material and realized you've improved your skills?

Monday, August 31, 2020

Bill and Ted Face the Music, Grow Old, and Teach Us a Most Excellent Lesson

It’s the little things in this movie that really stood out to me. Oh, and the big, goofy grin plastered on my face nearly the entire time.

1989

I’ll admit something here I’ve mentioned elsewhere: I didn’t go to see Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure because I knew what it was and wanted to see it. I went because the trailer for the 1989 Batman movie was playing before it. So basically, I bought a ticket for a trailer and got a movie as a bonus.

And what a movie it was. History major that I was (and am), I loved Excellent Adventure and saw it multiple times in the theater. And no, not just because the Batman trailer was attached. I enjoyed the film for what it was: an overly enthusiastic, charming adventure movie about a couple of Gen X high schoolers to which I could relate, even if I lived in the suburbs of Houston and they San Dimas, California.

The snippets of dialogue became engrained in my head and the culture. I mean, how many of us in the past thirty-one years have not thought about something being strangely afoot when we pass a Circle K? How many of us can recite Bill and Ted’s basic mantra: Be Excellent To Each Other. And Party On, Dudes!

Bogus Journey was different, but still good. I like the first one more largely because I could see myself in that story, but Bogus Journey had some marvelous sequences, most of which feature William Sadler as Death.

But that was it. For the past twenty-nine years, Bill and Ted 3 lived its own bogus journey in development hell. I didn’t think it would ever get made. Part of me didn’t think we needed it. Seriously, did we want to see Bill and Ted…old? Was there even a story there?

Face the Music: The Set Up

Turns out, there was.

The writing duo of Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon—the same folks who wrote the first two movies—proved there was a story worth telling. And a story worth viewing by all of us, especially the members of Generation X.

When we finally meet Bill and Ted in the third movie, they are fiftyish. Long gone are the heady days immediately following Bogus Journey when they saved the world and toured as Wyld Stallyns, complete with Death as the, um, killer bass player. Now, the lovable duo are ensconced in the suburbs, living next door to each other, married to the literal princesses from Bogus Journey, each with a twenty-five-year-old daughter. Bill’s daughter (played by Samara Weaving, kin to Hugo Weaving from The Matrix fame) is Thea and Ted’s daughter (played to a T by Brigette Lundy-Paine) is Billie. You see what they did there? Bill’s daughter is…Ted and Ted’s daughter is…Bill. [Cue air guitar]

The one thing they’ve not done is write The Song that will unite the world. [As an aside, I kinda thought that was how Bogus Journey ended, but what they hey.] In fact, they’ve sputtered into middle age, complete with marital problems. The two wives just want their respective husbands to recognize how co-dependent Bill and Ted are for each other and to channel some of that energy into their respective marriages. The daughters are just like their dads, complete with an intricate knowledge of music.

Which is when the future intervenes. The Great Leader sends Kelly, daughter of George Carlin’s Rufus, back in time to give Bill and Ted their mission: write The Song in 77 minutes or all of space and time will be destroyed. Taking a cue from their earlier adventures, the pair decide to travel into their own futures to meet their older selves and get the song that way.

In the meantime, the future wives have traveled back in time to get their younger selves to leave Bill and Ted.

And also in the meantime, Billie and Thea meet Kelly and the daughters take her time machine back in time to form a most excellent band for their dads. [Cue air guitar]


Face the Music Actually Says a Lot

While I’ll admit it took a few minutes for me to get into seeing Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter as old versions of their iconic characters, once the time traveling stuff started, it was all fun from there. Meeting their future selves didn’t necessarily pan out like they’d thought it would. Future Bill and Ted are bitter at losing their wives and their daughters and not having written the song. They blame Present Bill and Ted and actively try and thwart them. Thus, Bill and Ted become the villains…to Bill and Ted.

Hey, it worked for me. Why? Simple: what if your younger self could see how your life turned out?

Think about it. When you’re in high school, your head is full of dreams for your future. Whatever you want to be when you grow up, your dreams put you in the best possible version. You’re a doctor? Then you cure cancer. You’re a teacher? Then you educate the next president. You’re a baseball player? You hit the game winning home run to win the World Series. And if you’re a musician? Then you write the song that can unite the world.

I think few of us would even want to travel back in time and tell our younger selves how we turned out. You had the dream of being a musician? Well, now you have an office job in a cube (or at home, in 2020’s reality) and your guitar sits dusty in the corner of the room. You wanted to be a baseball player? Well, the injury you sustained in college killed that dream and you had to adjust.

Because adjusting is what we all do. We figure things out as we go along, rarely sticking to the dream path we envisioned. Some do, yes, and more power to them. But for many of us, how we envisioned the future may not necessarily be how we’re actually living in it.

Gen X Grows Old

Another obvious aspect of the film is the age of Bill and Ted. Reeves and Winter look great, but they still look middle aged, especially after having watched Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey to prep for Face the Music. You can’t hide age.

Name your reunion movie in which beloved TV characters from your favorite show come together. Gunsmoke. The Andy Griffith Show. The Brady Bunch. Perry Mason. The Rockford Files. The Wild Wild West. Gilligan’s Island. Whatever. The original TV shows are burned into our consciousness, especially us Gen Xers who, as latch key kids, grew up watching reruns. Ron Howard is forever Opie (or Richie Cunningham) in our minds, the small youth walking and whistling with Andy. Bob Denver will always be twenty-nine or so, the lovable goof from the island.

But seeing these same actors play the same characters years or decades older is odd. (The Brady kids kind of get a pass because they had multiple spinoffs and we got to see them age up almost in real time. And I’m not talking about reunion specials when the actors gather to discuss their shows.) There’s something you have to get used to. Exactly the same with Bill and Ted (and William Sadler as Death).

They got old.

But so did we.

Many of us may not have access to our high school yearbooks anymore (I still have mine) but we have access to the movies of our high school (or early college) years. Up until 2020, Reeves and Winter, were forever frozen in 1989 or 1991. Reeves not so much because we saw him age up in his movies, but as Bill and Ted, they are like fossils, preserved in amber.

But so is everything about growing up Gen X. Think about this: to the best of my knowledge, Bill and Ted are the only 80s icons we revisit in middle age. The Breakfast Club are still in high school. So are the kids from Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Ridgemont High, St. Elmo’s Fire, the Goonies, and, of course, Ferris Bueller. They are forever young, forever looking to their futures and their dreams.

With Bill and Ted, however, we get to see them how we are now. Older, shaken from our younger dreams, and heading into the realm of being a senior citizen.

The Real Message of Face the Music: It’s Never Too Late

All of this talk about dashed dreams may seem like a downer—especially in 2020—but there’s an underlying ray of light in this movie: It’s Never Too Late.

One of the small things I really appreciated is the moment with Ted and his father. Played again by Hal Landon Jr., Captain Logan never got over his desire to set his son’s path in life straighter. In the first two films, military school was the answer. And in this one, he explodes to his son and Bill about their wasted lives. Because Gen X was basically labeled as the slacker generation, and we have dozens of films to reinforce the point.

But Captain Logan gets himself drug into the larger plot and he finally realizes that the thing Bill and Ted have talked about for thirty years was real. It all was. The father comes to realize his son really did make a difference to the world, and he apologizes for his misunderstanding. Here’s the father, nearing retirement age, figuring out it’s never too late to apologize.

Late in the film, Present Bill and Ted visit their elderly selves, the villains of most of the film. There, Middle-Aged Bill and Ted get to have a heart-to-heart with Elderly Bill and Ted and clear the air. Both versions of Bill and Ted realize it’s never too late to come to terms and appreciate all the choices they’ve made—and we’ve made—with our lives. We are the accumulation of every single decision we’ve made, the good ones, the bad ones, the cherished ones, and the anguished ones. I live with few regrets, but there are always the little things I wish I could go back and tweak. But all of that vanished the day my son was born. It was that day I realized each and every decision I made led up to that day, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Another small thing is with Bill and Ted’s marriages. For their entire adult lives, they’ve been blinded by their mutual affection for each other. Boy, to have a friend like that, huh? But during the movie and after meeting their future selves, they realize it’s never too late to reinvest in their marriages with their wives.

Then there’s the big little thing, the one the whole movie hinges on: Bill and Ted realize it’s never too late to pass the torch onto the next generation. Slight spoilers here, but ones you could pretty much see coming.

Their daughters go on their own most excellent adventure, drafting the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, and Mozart form the band to play The Song. But the fathers don’t have the song. They don’t even know it.

But they realize, even as the seconds are counting down to annihilation, that it’s never too late to help your children do great things, especially if that thing is to save space and time. The parents facilitate all that’s necessary to enable their daughters to do what they could not: unite the world through a song.

Conclusion

Yeah, this piece edged into heady territory, especially for a movie that’s often laugh out loud funny. But it has a lot of heart and emotion in this film. And I think it can speak to multiple generations. For my son, a college freshman, it’s a fun movie with lots of in jokes and over-the-top shots. I’m thinking Jesus walking on water next to George Washington as he crosses the Delaware River. Or how the two actresses playing the daughters nail their respective impressions of their fathers yet still make the characters unique.

But for us middle-aged Gen Xers, there’s an entirely different movie playing in front of our eyes. It’s a movie about our lives that we never expected, never saw coming, but is so important to many of us. We are getting older. Heck, we *are* old. We’ve become our parents and, with that perspective, we can reevaluate how our parents raised us. For me, I’ve long known my parents were most excellent role models and if I could follow their examples, I’d do well. But only after I became a parent did even more things come into view about my own childhood. Most of us have these realizations some time or other, and now Bill and Ted do, too.

It’s remarkable that a film about two genuinely lovable dudes who possess a genuine affection for each other and the world could deliver such a profound message to the world in 2020. I’m sure the screenwriters could never have dreamed the finished film would land the way it did: in few theaters and on demand (how we watched it) in the middle of a pandemic and an election year with racial strife and fellow Americans yelling at each other. If ever we needed Wyld Stallyns to sing their song, it’s 2020.

But we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with a genuinely funny and heartfelt movie, and also the realization that it’s never too late to look at our fellow humans on this planet and preach and act in the way Bill and Ted told us to do over thirty years ago: Be Excellent to Each Other.

 


Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Summer of Bosch

A few weeks ago, I wrote about watching the Amazon Prime TV series Bosch. Based on Michael Connelly’s novel series, there are now six seasons, 60 episodes of excellent television.

And I’ve gone through them all.

Now I’ve caught up with the rest of the folks who watched Bosch live as it aired. I’m not a binger. I still have the weekly airing of TV episodes ingrained in my DNA. But with streaming, I have modified my viewing. With about an hour a day for TV, my wife and I watch a show at 9pm every night. Thus, a 10-episode season of Bosch typically took about ten days, more or less.

Except the last couple of seasons.

Now, work nights, I still have only an hour for TV, but when the viewing bled into the weekends? Well, we might watch two or (shocker) three a night. I know that sounds funny to some of y’all, but I don’t like to blow through TV shows and have nothing left.

Early on this summer, we watched season 1 of Bosch then switched to another show. Prodigal Son. Happened again after season 2 (although I forgot the other show). Then the magic happened. After season 3 as we were discussing which show to watch next, the wife suggested Bosch season 4.

Done!

And we didn’t look back until we had finished the entire series to date.

I wrote earlier about the cast and they remain the best thing about the show. But as the series went on, I particularly liked the relationship between Bosch and his daughter who, by season six, is a college student finding her way through life. Titus Welliver and Madison Lintz have such good chemistry that you’d almost think they really are father and daughter.

The one thing I dislike about binging is the sudden void after you’ve reached the end. Tis why I like to watch shows slow. When we reached episode 60, there was a moment where we looked at each other and questioned if that was it? (We had purposefully avoided looking up anything on the internet because we didn’t want any spoilers. My wife spoiled herself when she was reading about the show and learned the fate of one of the major characters.)

Yes, there will be a season 7, but that’ll be it. Amazon has cancelled the show, but allowed it to end gracefully.

So it turned out that the Bosch TV show was our through line during the summer of 2020. I couldn’t be more satisfied.

 

BTW, our next show is Glitch (Netflix), an Australian show with an interesting premise: a few dead folks crawl out of their graves one night without any memories but in perfect health. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Learning About Life from Reruns

Late Sunday evening, after the wife and I watched a new-to-us show, Glitch, on Netflix, we turned off the steaming service and landed back on regular cable TV. This being a weekend, the channel was still tuned to MeTV, the channel that shows classic TV. I love Saturdays because it’s westerns all day. During our Covid-19 era, Sundays have become The Brady Bunch day right after I stream my church’s service.

That Sunday evening, the show being broadcast was The Dick Van Dyke Show. It was "Show of Hands," a season 4 (1965) episode in which Rob and Laura and their son, Ritchie, accidentally get their hands stained with black ink. This being episode 28 of the season, it was probably late spring 1965. What gave the show its comedic element was that they were to attend an awards show specifically, although not explicitly, on the in-show’s treatment of the equality of African-Americans in society.

The acceptance speech Rob gives—after he admits the truth about why he's wearing gloves and takes them off to show his black hands—basically said that to treat each other equally is the right thing to do. The characters on the show all laughed at Rob's predicament. This episode led directly into the next.


Tired though I was, I sat and watched these two episodes. The wife did, too. We started chatting about us being latch key kids in the 1970s. That is, we school-aged kids would go home after school to an empty house because both parents would be working. Sure there was homework, but there was also the freedom to do what you wanted with no parent telling you 'no.'

Not having the plethora of entertainment options available in 2020, we'd zero in on TV and the reruns being broadcast. Here in Houston, that was mostly Channel 39 and Channel 26, the two independent UHF channels. Here's where we'd get a steady diet of shows from the 1950s (I Love Lucy) and the 1960s (Dick Van Dyke, Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie, etc.). Day after day, we'd consume these shows, memorizing them, laughing at them.

And learning from them.

It was my wife who made the observation: Because these shows we watched in reruns were intended for adult audiences (or at least the entire family), they were not specifically geared to children and their tastes. That was for Saturday morning cartoons and PBS. Watching and seeing how adults interacted with each other, we learned about adult life. Sure, it was often over the top and overly funny, but the common thread was there. Adults got into situations, worried about what to do and the consequences, and made decisions. If it was the wrong decision, they learned. If it was the right one, someone on the show also learned. 

We kids absorbed what we saw and internalized it without even knowing it.

Now, don't get me wrong: entertainment geared for kids is perfectly fine. And yes, lots of it is imbued with lessons to learn. But when you have a diet consisting only of kids entertainment, how do you learn about the adult world? Yes, I know, learning about life from TV is not really how you do it. You get out there and live life, learning along the way. But entertainment plays a role, too. Movies, TV, books, music: it's all in the mix. 

Seeing Old Shows With Fresh Eyes


What's fun about catching an episode of an old show like the Dick Van Dyke Show we saw as an adult is the ability to see the content with fresh eyes. Sometimes, your adult self sees old episodes you remember as a kid and you go "Boy, was that silly" or "How did I even like that?" Often, as we're eating lunch on Sundays and The Brady Bunch (actually, the Brady Brunch where MeTV sequences four episodes with a common theme) is on, the wife will remember and (sometimes) chuckle, while the boy rolls his eyes. I simply grin and keep watching. it's the historian in me.

Then again, you catch an episode like "Show of Hands" and you realize a subtle, powerful message was being delivered not only to adults in 1965 or the kids who might also be watching in 1965, but to folks in the 1970s and beyond. Especially kids. 

We were learning and laughing at the same time and didn't even realize it.