Category Archives: Publishing

The Weird and Wonderful World of Richard Matheson

The writer Richard Matheson was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in New Jersey on February 20th, 1926. He had his first story published when he was eight years old. After graduating from high school, he joined the army, serving in the US infantry with the 87th Division in France and Germany during World War II. His experiences of warfare formed the basis of his 1960 novel “The Beardless Warriors.”

After the war, he studied journalism at the University of Missouri and moved to California. Summer 1950 saw Matheson make his first real mark as a writer when his short story “Born of Man and Woman” was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and drew attention. It had the kind of frightening science fiction themes that became Matheson’s trademark and was the first of dozens of short stories he would publish over the next two decades.

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“I Am Legend” from 1954 was his first published novel and is probably his masterpiece (it was voted the best vampire novel of the 20th century by the Horror Writers Association in 2012) A daring deconstruction of the vampire legend, it flips the whole narrative on its head by making the last man alive the destructive predator that vampires fear and despise as he systematically wipes them out by day following a futuristic plague.

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It was adapted for film as “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price in 1964, again as “The Omega Man” in 1971 with Charlton Heston and, more recently, in 2007 with Will Smith.

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The book may have been about vampires but its main theme was loneliness and there are few better books about that subject. As the main character Neville is alone most of the time, it’s a difficult story to write but Matheson does a great job of keeping the reader engaged with his solitary hero in his nightmare world. “I Am Legend” also served as the direct inspiration for classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead”, giving birth to a whole new genre of film, almost as if the vampire pandemic gave birth to zombies.

He was also a successful television writer, penning episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “Star Trek” as well as numerous western shows.

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His 1956 novel “The Shrinking Man” (filmed in 1957 as “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, which Matheson also wrote the screenplay for) has been ripped off by everything from “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” to last year’s “Ant Man.” It had its New York premiere 60 years ago this week in February 1957. In 2009, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” was placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, this accolade is only given to films that are “aesthetically, historically or culturally significant.”

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“The Twilight Zone” seemed made for Matheson and another famous story of his, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, was filmed for the show among others. It concerned a nervous flyer (played by William Shatner in the 1963 TV show and John Lithgow in the Twilight Zone movie twenty years later) who is convinced a demon is smashing up the wing of the passenger plane he is on during a vicious thunderstorm. No one believes him, even when he saves the lives of everyone on board by trying to kill the creature and forcing it to flee.

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The Simpsons did a parody of this story in one of their Halloween specials where Bart Simpson sees a demon dismantling the wheels of the school bus he’s on. Demonstrating how his stories are so ingrained now in popular culture.

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In 1968, he adapted Dennis Wheatley’s novel “The Devil Rides Out” for Britain’s Hammer Horror films. It is one of the best British horror movies ever made and features Christopher Lee in one of his finest roles as a man battling the forces of darkness.

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His nerve-shredding TV movie script for “Duel” became Steven Spielberg’s first film in 1971.

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Other Matheson novels made into films include “Bid Time Return” which became “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour (arguably a big influence on “Back To The Future” and “The Terminator”), “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams, “Stir of Echoes”, a supernatural horror film starring Kevin Bacon and “Real Steel”, a sci-fi action movie about fighting robots with Hugh Jackman.

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He once said: “I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighbourhoods. There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighbourhood. I could never write about strange kingdoms. I could never do Harry Potter or anything like that.”

Assessing his career, he said: “I think ‘What Dreams May Come’ is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death, the finest tribute any writer could receive. … Somewhere In Time is my favourite novel.”

His daughter and two sons also became writers.

Richard Matheson died in June 2013. He left behind a significant body of work including dozens of novels, short stories, TV show scripts, TV movies and movies both adapted by him from his own work and adapted by others. Writer Ray Bradbury called him “one of the most important writers of the 20th century.” While Stephen King claimed Matheson was the writer who had influenced him the most. Another writer called Harlan Ellison praised his “supernova lifetime of writing mentioned in the same breath with Poe and Borges.” That is about as good as it gets.

I’ll leave the final word to Mr Matheson: “I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another.” You certainly have, sir, you certainly have.

(“The Vorbing”, my vampire novel inspired by Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” is available here)
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Fifty Shades Better

The sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey was the big Valentine’s weekend movie for 2017. In it, billionaire Christian Grey renews his S&M relationship with Anastasia Steele. I wasn’t a fan of the first movie. It was a huge missed opportunity. James Foley, director of Glengarry Glen Ross, has replaced the original director and his steadier hand makes for a better movie. There’s a new screenwriter also and it feels dramatically tighter, funnier and just a better movie overall.

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The first Fifty Shades film should have been the Basic Instinct of its generation but it completely wimped out to get a cash-friendly lower age rating. In one scene, Anastasia says to Christian: “Show me how bad it can be” (or words to that effect). He smacks her six times really hard on the ass (anyone who has been near an internet connection in the past two decades will know that that is very, very far from the worst it can get). Ms Steele’s face contorts into floods of tears. “Never do that to me again!” she howls. (She just told him to do it to her! Idiot.) Although this is based on a trilogy of books and they might have needed to pace the franchise. If they had gone full-on in the first one, there’d be little wiggle room left for the sequels.

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Despite being dubbed “mummy porn” by the British press, Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fan fiction. Christian Grey began life on the page as Edward Cullen the vampire. There are flashes of Grey’s dark vampire origins in Fifty Shades Darker. A damaged former submissive of his starts jealously stalking Anastasia Steele, a paradigm of what the future could hold for her if she continues exploring Grey’s “kinky fuckery” with him, as Ms Steele calls it. Grey appears to be an energy vampire, sucking the life out of females that cross his path, destroying them and discarding them. That was good writing there.

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There is inconsistency in the writing of Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades Darker. On the one hand, she’s this ordinary girl who is out of her depth in a naughty relationship with this rich chap. On the other, she’s this ravishing beauty that a billionaire and her boss fight over (Grey even buys the publishing house she works for. Helen of Troy she ain’t), while everyone else tells her she’s the most gorgeous girl in the world. So which is it? Is she a struggling ingénue or this beautiful girl used to such attention all her life? That doesn’t make sense. Then again, the whole thing is a female fantasy and not a documentary. If you’re looking for logic, put on the Discovery Channel.

E.L. James gives her heroine a job in a publishing house. There’s a handy movie job for ya. No research needed there, James already knows the publishing world well. Even so, that whole section isn’t very convincing. It’s lazy writing.

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Julia Roberts as a hooker in Pretty Woman

Fifty Shades peddles a similarly dangerous Pretty Woman notion in that it suggests that getting involved in degrading sex will lead girls to their rich Prince Charming.

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(Kim Basinger appears in Fifty Shades Darker as the baddie. She was also in 9½ Weeks with Mickey Rourke in the 80s; arguably the spiritual movie grandparent of Fifty Shades. That was about a similar kinky relationship and showed the reality of the situation – bondage only leads to more numbing bondage. The woman doesn’t get to change the guy into a vanilla version of his pervy self as happens in Fifty Shades Darker. Strangely, after Christian Grey tones down his act, Anastasia suddenly announces “take me to the Red Room!”, Grey’s whips-and-chains dungeon. This chick doesn’t know what she wants other than wanting to have her cake and eat it too like E.L. James)

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On the other hand, it’s an anti-feminist message to acknowledge that some women enjoy bondage and letting men take control sometimes (some men enjoy it too). To deny it or repress it is censorship and a denial of freedom.

The sex scenes while they are well shot, lit and blocked out, feel perfunctory like the actors are just going through the motions. There’s little eroticism in them, that frisson that elevates the whole thing. Writing sex in books and for the screen can be difficult to do, you’re always going close to the line of humour; too much and it’s a laugh riot, not enough and it’s no good.

So, yes, I’d just about watch a third Fifty Shades movie, but let’s hope there’s not a fourth. We need to stop playing around in the grey areas…

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

 

Press Self-Destruct: Newspaper Dinosaurs in the Digital Age

If I ever have grandchildren, I’m sure I’ll tell them about the time a newspaper did an article about me. “What’s a newspaper, granddad?” they’ll ask with genuine wonder.

Traditional or “legacy” media (a term which already appears to have consigned television, radio and newspapers to history’s dustbin) forms are struggling to survive in the 21st century. Newspapers, in particular, are seeing sales drop at an alarming rate which, in turn, reduces advertising revenue and only older, die-hard brand loyalists are happy to pay to access content on newspaper websites. It tries to roll with the times to stay afloat by hiring bloggers and sourcing stories from hackers and activists (or “hacktivists”, if you will).

The problem is that the newspaper business model of is dying and the purveyors of the new business model are not only deciding what crumbs to feed the press, they’re naming their price too.

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There is now a timescale for the demise of newspapers in most countries. It is comparable to how self-publishing challenged the dominance of printed books. Reports of the end of hardback and paperback books have been prematurely announced many times in the last decade. Then sales of ebooks dropped and the electronic takeover didn’t happen. It turns out that people like the feel and smell of a real book. Technology has an annoying habit of losing power or breaking down. Recharging is not always possible but printed books never need that just a light source to read from.

ebookvsbookThe internet had a similar affect on music too. The mp3 file appeared to have trumped vinyl records which were in a similar decline. Now vinyl sections of record stores are growing as are sales. There’s life in the old analogue dog yet.

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Could print media stage a similar comeback? It’s probably wishful thinking as news or rather the information itself is freely available from endless sources. If newspapers charge for content, people can get it somewhere else for free. Citizen journalists don’t have the resources of a major newspaper or that Pulitzer cachet, but they do have that most precious modern commodity in abundance – time. Printed newspapers report yesterday’s news, by which stage a newer story has broken online. Yes, the papers can update their websites but the loyalty is to the information and whoever breaks it first now and not the brand. Even if a newspaper gets a scoop, it can be repackaged by news aggregrator sites and the reader may not even know who originally broke it. In the frenzy to get likes and shares and the kudos of being first with news, the basic courtesy of a hat tip to the originator of a story also appears to be endangered.

So it appears the newspaper is terminal decline. It was a remarkable phenomenon while it lasted but, sadly, it seems to be going or have already gone the way of the Dodo.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

 

Story: In The Beginning…

Where do you start your story? A key question and one of hundreds if not thousands to be answered when writing and publishing a book. Do you start when your character is born or before? When they are a child? A teenager? An adult? When they get married? When they are old? Do you start at the point of death or after and tell the story in flashback?

If you were telling the story of your life, where would you choose to start and why? Looking at your characters in the same way and treating their lives as real can be hugely beneficial. When you start treating them seriously, they become more realistic to you and hopefully your readers.

When a potential reader opens your book, how do you pique their interest? Your first sentence is crucial. The point you choose to start the story will determine that first sentence. The whole structure is like a line of dominoes (no, not the pizza place); set the first one right and the rest should stand. Get it wrong and they all could topple.

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It took me many years to publish my book The Vorbing and, during that time, I wrote many different versions of it. I went through a city map of blind alleys but it taught me what worked and didn’t work each time and sharpened the story. When the time came to pull all the strands together, I could use all the best bits from all the various drafts to come up with a kind of “greatest hits” version of the story. All those ideas gave the whole thing a fast pace and fresh perspective. I won’t have that luxury on book two, but such is the challenge of writing.

This is where a fresh pair of (preferably experienced) eyes on your work can pinpoint a loss of initial focus. Even if you need to lose earlier material, you can use it later in the story or in a sequel or even just as backstory to help you know your characters better. No piece of writing is ever really wasted. You can cannibalize it later or even combine bits to create a new story (Anne Rice was writing a book set in Atlantis and hit a dead end, so she put her vampire Lestat into the mix and, hey presto, got a new Vampire Chronicles book out of it – Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis.)

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That old cliche “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” is doubly true for writers, especially in the internet age. If someone is viewing a preview of your book using the “Look Inside” option on Amazon, that mouse button is right at their fingertips and they are ready to click off if you fail to hook them. So think carefully about that first sentence. Be original. Be surprising, but be true to your characters, your story and yourself above all.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

 

Imagination Vs Technology – The Writer’s 21st-Century Faustian Pact?

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Imaginary things take time to write. Fantasy and horror and, to a lesser extent, science fiction can be among the toughest genres to write as they are works of pure imagination. Science fiction can be slightly researched and current trends can be followed to their logical conclusion. Educated guesses can be made as to what direction science will go in. Fantasy and horror mostly comprise world-building from scratch and, depending on the writer, the concepts can take time to generate.

Added to that, readers want new product yesterday. They’ve become ultra-impatient in the internet age. Some of them even refuse to read the first book in a series as they are unable to wait for the other books to be written and published. “Am I going to have to wait years for you to finish your Vorbing trilogy? I’m an impatient bitch,” one of my readers helpfully explained to me.

In their book, The Neuroscience of Clinical Psychiatry: The Pathophysiology of Behavior and Mental Illness, Edmund S. Higgins and Mark S. George note: “People who can delay gratification and control their impulses appear to achieve more in the long run. Attention and impulsivity are opposite sides of the same coin.” This is especially true of all those internet babies who have grown up in the technological age. So the internet is a bit like Brexit; we don’t know what the full implications of its arrival are yet.

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The web has its advantages. It’s a phenomenal communication tool. Twitter has definitely made me think faster and streamline messages better, that is certain. As a way of quickly disseminating a message or a product worldwide immediately, the web takes some beating. The net is like a giant synthetic brain our thought patterns are connected to (a strength and a weakness that can be exploited). There are concerns over privacy and who is doing what with our data and those worries will only increase as time goes on.

Back to the writing. This awareness of the disintegration of attention spans has unquestionably changed both the method and style I employ when writing books. I started writing my first book when the internet was in its infancy. I was able to remain in the world I had created all day interacting with my characters. I was totally immersed in it and wouldn’t notice hours passing. Now social media, that great thief of time, eats up chunks of my day without me noticing hours passing. I mostly interact online with people I don’t know instead of my characters. I’m totally immersed in the internet. Writing is done now in feverish bursts to meet my daily word count so I can get back online. Experience has enabled me to do much more in less time though. I no longer need to spend all day going down blind alleys trying to find myself creatively. So perhaps there is no damage done there.

There are writers who have given up social media for a month to get books out there. I’d be concerned about losing half my hard-earned followers. You can’t expect people to continue following you if you’re offline for weeks. Especially if you’re a self-published writer dependent on social media to market your books. It appears to be a 21st-century Faustian pact with the web.

Then there is the pace of the novel itself. I am only too aware that if you fail to hold the attention of your readers, social media is tickling their ears non-stop to woo them away. So they’re dealing with getting their electronic fix too (especially if they’re consuming your book on an e-reader or smartphone app that’s connected to the internet and the ejector seat button for your novel is half an inch away). The pacing of a novel has to match the online frenzy going on out there or you’re toast. Then again, if the flour is going rotten to begin with, maybe the quality of the toast isn’t so important these days. We shall see.

So the internet has rewired our brains, changed our expectations and how books are written, edited, sold and read (or not as the case may be). What form will books take in 2026? 2036? 2066? Will we be taking downloads directly into our brains as in a William Gibson cyberpunk novel? I have a saying: “The possible is just the impossible that we’ve come to accept.” It will happen.

My novel “The Vorbing” is available here

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Indie Authors: The New Punks

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We’ve all heard about the self-publishing revolution in books in the last few years with Amazon Kindle and all the other e-readers and websites. I was watching a BBC documentary called ArtsNight last week and the presenter made an interesting point: punk rock bands were the first indie authors. They learned their three chords, set up their own bands and, in some cases, record labels and self-published their own music. They took control of their own destinies in the same way novelists did recently. Even the punk fanzines were do-it-yourself wonders; stapled together, photocopied and distributed through record stores, mailing lists, by hand and by word-of-mouth in those pre-pre-internet days.

It’s a very cogent analogy. As with the self-published books, some of the DIY punk music that was put out was awful, but some of it has reached classic status in hindsight. Self-publishing until recently was called “vanity publishing,” but writers were no longer prepared to sit on their hands waiting months for a form rejection letter. They too seized their own destinies through the technology that was around them and turned the publishing industry on its head.

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Movies are even being made from self-published books for the first time like Ridley Scott’s The Martian starring Matt Damon and a future fantasy film that 20th Century Fox has purchased the rights to called Fall of Gods (even after that movie deal was signed, the book was taken down from Amazon due to formatting issues, the bane of indie authors everywhere. Luckily, it didn’t impact on the movie deal and Fox could see the merit of what was there despite the flaws.)

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Punks and indie authors are strange bedfellows indeed, but both groups were and are pioneers in their fields. While the punk movement didn’t manage to overthrow the mainstream in the same way hippies in the previous generation hadn’t, they democratised their art form and showed others what was possible with self-belief and a little effort. Just as indie authors did. The shockwaves of the indie author revolution are still spreading out from the epicentre and nobody really knows where it will stop or what comes next. The most important thing is that books that would have gathered dust in drawers and on hard drives and memory sticks are now finding a worldwide audience. That can only be a good thing.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Paper Tablet – Setting Your Writing In Stone

Writers in the 21st Century think they’re so sophisticated in the way they can store, transport and transmit stories. We worship at the altar of electronic technology. However, hard drives can fail. Memory sticks can get damaged, lost or stolen.

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Take my case, for example. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my cat Ginger was going blind. He thought he was in his litter box but was actually squatting over my memory sticks which had fallen onto the ground. He peed on them and wiped 8 gigabytes of data on me, a huge amount for those who don’t know what that means. The acid in his urine corroded and rusted the metal tips of the memory sticks, making them unreadable. Although I had saved the contents of my prime memory stick to a back-up, the cat had managed to pee on both of them. Through that freak accident, I lost things I can never get back.

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Similarly, I went away on holiday once. While I was gone, my sister decided to surprise me and clean up my place. She threw out a load of writing I had saved on disk, including about half a book’s worth of material. When I got back, I was shocked and not a little pissed off (we’re back to urine again, see a theme emerging here?). Luckily, she hadn’t thrown out a stack of hard copy printouts I’d done. I went through the pile, silently praying that my discarded work was there. It was and I breathed a massive sigh of relief. Now, I had to retype it all from scratch but the material wasn’t lost forever. I was able to retrieve it. You might think you can retype something verbatim from memory but every time you sit down to write, you make different choices. It’s never the same way twice. Retyping it all was actually a good way of revising what I’d done. I spotted some errors, fixed them and took the story in a different direction as result.

The point being, print out early drafts of your material as well as storing back-up copies separately from the primary source. If you’re blocked, reading what you’ve done so far gets you thinking. Even if the solution doesn’t present itself immediately, your mind is working on it. You may not find a way to progress the story ahead but, very often, you’ll see a way to link earlier sections of your book with new sequences. That all adds to the wordcount and gets you closer to completing your novel.

Yes, paper can be shredded or torn up but it’s far more difficult to do than wiping something electronically which can happen in an instant before you know it.

So there’s the writer’s life for you; sometimes we sabotage ourselves and sometimes it’s technology, those around us or even nature itself preventing us getting our work out there. (I wonder how many great books have been lost over the centuries in that way?) For all our perceived sophistication, you really can’t beat having that tangible paper copy in your hand. Some things never change.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

David Bowie – Anonymous Icon

“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just in the right place to do something exciting.”

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David Bowie was all wrong for the 1960s for many reasons. Firstly, he tried to fit in with whatever trend was happening at the time. He hadn’t found his own look or voice yet. We’re all guilty of mimicking our influences until we find ourselves. (Some of Bowie’s 60s output has been compared to The Who. During the recording of Under Pressure with Queen in 1981, Brian May played a take and said it sounded like The Who. Sixties Bowie might have been pleased with the comparison but not the Bowie of 1981. He frowned and said to Brian May: “Well, it won’t sound like The Who by the time we’ve finished with it.” He was not an imitator anymore but an innovator pushing for perfection.)

David Bowie had been ignored in the 1960s. He had been trying since he was 15 in 1962 to break into music with various bands, images and sounds. He’d been a mod, an acoustic hippy and even tried putting out novelty records like The Laughing Gnome. After seven years, he had only managed one hit right at the tail-end of the decade in September 1969 with Space Oddity (he’d never be allowed that much time in today’s music business and the world would miss out on a spectacular talent). For nearly three years after that, nothing he tried worked.

The late sixties were all about Flower Power and everyone being one with each other and the Earth. Bowie, with his unusual eyes, was about the opposite – the outsider.

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Bowie wasn’t going to be ignored again and decided on a new strategy for the 1970s. He would push his outsider look about as far as it could go to become the gender-bending extraterrestrial messiah Ziggy Stardust in the 1970s. Whereas Elvis was himself, Bowie would play a character to become a superstar, an interesting twist on what The King had started. It was influenced by the androgynous look of Little Richard in the 50s and Bowie was a huge fan of that.

“It’s always time to question what has become standard and established,” he said.

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David Bowie wasn’t going to follow the crowd and try to fit in anymore. He was going to use shock tactics and press everyone’s buttons. He was going to wear a dress and publicly state that he was gay despite being married to Angie (the gay thing is no big deal these days, back then the impact of such a statement was seismic. Many Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson denied they were gay in interviews until the end as they were afraid it would ruin their careers. As Bowie didn’t really have a career at the time, it had the reverse effect and was the making of him).

Bowie was clever enough to figure out that there are two ways to get your message out there; advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). He was going to make the press work for him by tossing them eye-opening quotes and posing for provocative pictures to make them do the work of drumming up interest in his career with headlines. While wearing dresses didn’t give him the breakthrough he craved, it gave him his first unique image and people started to remember him. Bowie was moving in the right direction.

To give an example of how brave David Bowie was, he decided to walk around TEXAS wearing A DRESS in the early 70s! A guy called him a fag and pointed a loaded gun at his head. Did it phase Bowie? Nope, on the contrary, it proved his shock tactics were working. He was getting noticed at last. He wasn’t following another trend, he was setting his own. Bowie would do exactly what he wanted in the 1970s and nobody was going to stop him and they didn’t. He was about to take things even further and really push the boundaries of what was acceptable.

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On June 17th 1972, Bowie performed mock fellatio on guitarist Mick Ronson at a show in Oxford. Bowie’s manager Tony De Fries took Mick Rock’s photo and had it made into a full-page advert in music paper Melody Maker. There were repercussions and paint was thrown on the front door of the house in Hull where Mick Ronson’s parents lived. Paint was also thrown on the car he’d bought them. Ronson left the tour but was persuaded to return. If Bowie was going to suffer for his art, so were those around him.

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On July 6th 1972, David Bowie appeared in what would be a life-changing performance of Starman on the now-defunct Top of the Pops. During his spot, guitarist Mick Ronson joined him to harmonise and Bowie draped his arm around him in a limp-wristed fashion. Bowie knew exactly what he was doing. A young Boy George remembered his grandmother saying “oh, he’s a poofter!” when she saw Bowie make that gesture and similar statements were uttered in homes all over Britain. Of course, anything parents didn’t like was automatically what kids were going to get into and they flocked to Bowie in their droves as new fans (concert audiences began to grow noticeably after this). It was a masterstroke. In a Stardust flash, David Bowie was a star after a decade of trying. Such was the power of television then. It had made Elvis a star in the 50s, saved his career with the ’68 Comeback Special and did the same for Bowie in 1972.

Bowie Eyepatch

The Ziggy Stardust image was such a hit, Bowie said “I thought I might as well take Ziggy out to interviews as well. Why leave him on the stage? Why not complete the canvas? Looking back it was completely absurd. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity. I can’t deny that experience affected me in a very exaggerated and marked manner. I think I put myself very dangerously near the line. Not in a physical sense, but definitely in a mental sense.”

While Bowie appeared to be telling all his most intimate secrets to the world, what he was really doing was projecting a fake image of himself and revealing nothing. In later years, long after he stopped playing characters, he retained that air of mystery even up until his death (especially after his enforced retirement following a minor heart attack on stage in 2004).

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Check the finger, Paparazzi!

 

It’s something he has in common with Freddie Mercury, both men hid in plain sight for decades. When you look at the information they left behind about themselves, it seems to tell you a lot but doesn’t. They showed but didn’t tell and perfected the politician’s art of doublespeak. That is why the public remain fascinated with them and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Film Review: Spotlight

This review is spoiler-free.

Spotlight is the story of how journalists at the Spotlight newspaper in Boston exposed child abuse in the Catholic Church at the turn of the century. It desperately wants to be All The President’s Men, but just isn’t good enough. Ben Bradley Jr. is a character in this film. His father, Ben Bradley, was editor of The Washington Post when they broke the story of the Watergate break-in that ultimately brought Richard Nixon’s presidency to an ignominious end. Spotlight also tries to get into the nuts and bolts of what a day in the life of a newspaper is actually like. From all the staff meetings and editorial decisions that have to be taken to the subsequent journalistic legwork on the street, it’s structurally identical to All The President’s Men. (This movie is set in 2001 and it is strange how none of the information the journalists need is gleaned from the internet. It all comes from books, paper files or knocking on doors. There’s another deliberate attempt to ape President’s Men. Spotting something on a computer screen is nowhere near as dramatic as a shock face-to-face revelation with actors.)

The Spotlight team comprises Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams among others. Keaton has already played a newspaper man in 1994’s The Paper. There were some key early acting beats that Keaton fluffed, I thought (that comic bouncy walk of his is all wrong for this movie), but his performance gets better as the movie goes on. Maybe he’s miscast in this and someone with more gravitas might have been better.

The film kicks off with some forced comic relief (no one in the cinema laughed, that’s flawed writing) as the makers know there are a litany of depressing abuse stories ahead and try to lighten the load for the audience. It was similar to Suffragette in that way.

There are further problems with the script. At one point, Mark Ruffalo even yells “We gotta nail these scumbags!” in one of many righteous rants from various characters in the film. That’s a cliché straight out of every cop movie you’ve ever seen. They don’t need to overdo convincing an audience that child abuse is wrong by judging their characters like that. “I was just doin’ my job!” is another chestnut, the equivalent of a Holocaust movie where a former Nazi says they were only following orders (the parallels are deliberate and subtle as a sledgehammer. The character that says that line is Spotlight’s equivalent of the informant Deep Throat from President’s Men, thankfully there are no references to Deep Throat in this as it would have been entirely inappropriate given the sensitive subject matter.) There’s another cliché recycled from Thrillersville later on when there’s a race-against-time to get a crucial source to confirm vital information. Guess what happens.

The church administrators are all soulless, dead-eyed politicians using every trick in the book (guilt trips, threats, intimidation and the law itself) to keep the truth of clerical abuse from being made public. It’s a simplistic black-and-white good vs evil story with some unforgivable hackneyed moments in it. (Even the title plays into black-and-white simplicity, with the crusading journalists shining a spotlight on the darkness of the Catholic Church’s sins. The journalists are such martyrs that they even injure themselves putting on their dishwashers due to the stress of the investigation) Great movies play around in the grey areas more, as that’s where realism lies. The acting, writing and direction in Spotlight are okay, nothing remarkable.

You could sense the movie’s lack of buzz at the announcement of the Oscar nominations recently. Every time Spotlight got one, there was silence. It does feel like it was conceived as worthy Oscar-bait and, as such, it follows the awards rulebook to the letter.

Spotlight is a good film striving for greatness that’s beyond its reach.

Perhaps Spotlight’s best moment comes when it fades to a black screen at the end and lists the names of all the places where abuse scandals involving Catholic clergy have come to light around the world. The screen is filled with them page after page after page. That is truly chilling. Images speak louder than words.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Segregation of Shock

“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness” – Pablo Picasso

I have written a fantasy/horror novel about war with vampires called The Vorbing. It is hard to deal with either of those subjects without dealing with bloodshed. Yet, I have discovered, to my great surprise, that there is discrimination by book reviewers against books with “gore” (which they find “tacky” and on the same level as porn) and “extreme violence” (which they find “offensive.” That’s strange as fiction isn’t about real pain or suffering so there’s nothing to be offended by. It’s all make believe). They had better not read The Bible then or anything by Shakespeare.

In Act III, Scene VII of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the elderly Earl of Gloucester has his eyes gouged out by the Duke of Cornwall with the words: “Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?” Pretty graphic stuff but it perfectly illustrates the upside down nature of Lear’s kingdom once he mistakenly divides it up between his three daughters.

The crucifixion of Jesus in The Bible also has scenes of graphic torture followed by the slow death of Christ that follows. Again, this is deliberate to make the reader or the listener in church live every wound with Christ as he dies for our sins (or so The Bible says, believe or don’t believe what you want, dear readers).

Where did this ludicrous squeamishness appear from suddenly? Why are books being prejudged for their content without being given a fair chance?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” the old adage goes. Equally, don’t judge a book by its content until you’ve read it. If you dare to write extreme scenes, you are essentially barred from getting not just a fair review but ANY review. This is wrong on all levels. It is holding back writers that want to try new things and push boundaries. You don’t get great art by playing it safe but that is the message being sent out loud and clear by these reviewers. Conform and be unimaginative is their coda.

It is a form of censorship and all that entails (I always get images of Nazi book-burning in my head when I think of censorship) My old acting teacher told me never to censor myself as that’s when all the good stuff happens. She was and is right. I never have censored myself and I never will. Nor will I allow others to censor me either. The glorious freedom of writing is a beautiful thing that must never be stifled.

I am not saying be outrageous or controversial for the sake of it. That is petulant attention-seeking. Some writers are acutely aware that there are two ways to get your message out there – advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). Being cynically controversial is the cheapest and fastest way to sell anything. The media and chattering classes see to that. I am saying take risks because your characters and their world take you there or demand that you do. Even if these lily-livered reviewers want you to water down your work, I say don’t. Why? I’ll give Shakespeare the final word: “To thine own self be true.” Amen.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.