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There is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.

- Stephen King, "On Writing"

A Tale Of Two Star Warses, or Why The Phantom Menace Gives Us A Bad Feeling

(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, July 2010)

I stepped out of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1999) onto the sidewalk in front of Mann’s Chinese, the second screening of opening day. As I stood there, arranging the debriefing session with my fellowgeeks, an awful thought kept surfacing – like a Dia Nogu’s algae-draped eyeball.

I thought…I thought, well…maybe I hadn’t enjoyed George Lucas’ long-awaited return as much as I should have.

I had “a bad feeling”.

But you can’t just say you have “a bad feeling” if you’re serious about studying and making movies. If something is astink, you are obligated to find out exactly why. We had looked forward to the return of the Star Wars saga for years, anticipating how wonderful it was going to be. It was not wonderful. Why?

The Phantom Menace is by no means entirely lousy. In fact, despite how universally the film is disparaged, it is not the worst Star Wars movie. The worst Star Wars movie is Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones (2002). Some of the film’s design is superb. Darth Maul – an exquisite cross between a predatory animal and a demonic monk – is one of the best character designs in all of Star Wars, and the final duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is one of the best action scenes of the entire saga.

Darth Maul

Darth Maul, beautiful & inconsequential

So what is the key failing of The Phantom Menace? It’s not the awful dialogue, which isn’t, on the whole, much worse than in any of the other Star Wars movies, discounting the babblings of the reprehensible Jar Jar Binks. It’s not Jar Jar himself either that destroys the movie. We would like to lay all the blame on Jar Jar: ‘Oh, if it weren’t for Jar Jar, TPM would be pretty good.’ No. No, it wouldn’t. And it’s not the performances either – though, it’s true, most of them are shockingly strangled and lifeless.

The central flaw is, as usual, a script problem, and it’s such a fundamental script problem that no amount of clever, high-tech decoration can disguise it.

In trying to sleuth out exactly why a story doesn’t work, it’s good to put it up next to a story that you know does work. The original Lucas masterpiece, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) – which I always call simply “Star Wars”, and so should you – is held up as a paragon of solid script structure, and for good reason. Its simplicity and clarity makes it easy to analyse and understand and, furthermore, it’s a movie everyone has seen, which makes it easy to talk about. It’s also one of the most successful entertainments in history so there ought to be some value in studying it carefully.

When we put the script for The Phantom Menace side by side with the script from Star Wars, one feature distinguishes them from each other more than any other, an element triumphantly strong in one film, almost laughably weak in the other. The stakes. The singular difference between the beloved 1977 original film and The Phantom Menace and the reason for latter’s failure is the height of the stakes.

High stakes are essential to telling a good story. “High stakes” doesn’t have to mean the threat of a bomb exploding in five minutes. A teen’s parents coming home in five minutes is more than enough to put us on the edge of our seats. It isn’t threats of physical torment that determine high stakes either – simply missing a bus can be the most devastating moment in a character’s life.

What determines the height of the stakes is how far apart the poles are of success and failure, as well as the character’s depth of commitment to achieving success. There is little middle ground in the best stories. In the movies we love, a character may strive for great success but the penalties for failure are equally great. The best stories not only have a Devil, they have a Deep Blue Sea.

In the greatest sports movies, for example, the stakes are rarely about whether or not the character will win. The character’s desire to win is usually paired with a penalty for failure that is psychologically catastrophic. In Chariots of Fire (1981), Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell certainly want to win but the tension of the story comes from their utter commitment to their calling, their commitment to their true selves. It goes beyond a desire to win a race. These men have left themselves no room to retreat; they are committed to an idea of themselves and of their futures. The genius of the Chariots of Fire script is that its climax hinges on the characters’ even greater commitment to personal honour and mutual respect, which is far greater than the desire for a medal.

It’s easy to think that death is the worst thing that could happen to a character. In the world of flesh and blood, this may or may not be true, but movies exist in the world of emotion. And an emotional catastrophe – one that is going to be communicated to the audience – can take a million forms and will almost always be more violent than any physical slaughter.

So back to our two Star Wars movies. Let’s take the five main characters from each film and examine the stakes each character faces -what action is asked of each character and what are the penalties of failure?

In Star Wars:

  • LUKE must deliver R2D2 safely into the hands of the rebellion. If he fails, the fully-operational Death Star will mean the end of the rebellion – and of galactic freedom.
  • DARTH VADER must retrieve the stolen Death Star plans and learn the location of the secret rebel base. If he fails, the rebels could destroy the Death Star and cripple the power of the Empire, and he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Emperor.
  • HAN SOLO must pay back Jabba The Hutt. If he fails, he will be a fugitive, fleeing bounty hunters and ruthless gangsters for the rest of his life (wonderfully, he does fail in order that the other characters may succeed).
  • PRINCESS LEIA must retrieve the plans for her fellow rebels. If she fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.
  • OBI-WAN KENOBI must get the plans safely to the rebels. If he fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.

Looking at The Phantom Menace, we see a different picture:

  • QUI-GON JINN must negotiate a peace between the Trade Federation and the Naboo. If he fails, the Trade Federation may take over the planet Naboo. Never really clear why this would be a terrible thing.
  • QUEEN AMIDALA must stop the Trade Federation from dominating her planet, it would seem. If she fails she will no longer rule – and someone else will, I guess.
  • DARTH SIDIOUS must make Queen Amidala sign a treaty with the Trade Federation. If he fails, the status quo will probably continue.
  • ANAKIN SKYWALKER must increase his understanding of The Force and return to Tatooine to free his mother and the slaves. If he fails, he will have broken his promise to his mother. (note that he does fail, with no real consequences to anyone, including himself)
  • JAR-JAR must do what he can to help Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. If he fails, it’s doubtful the Jedis’ mission would be negatively affected and the status quo will continue.

The lack of consistent high stakes in The Phantom Menace is the movie’s main flaw. Almost across the board, the price of a character’s failing is simply that the status quo will continue or the slack will be picked up by some other character.

In Star Wars, the few main characters are the only people in the galaxy who can pull off the necessary task to resolve the conflict. In The Phantom Menace, few characters are really essential. If, say, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were cut from the story altogether, would anything in the world of the story have changed? I tend to doubt it. The Trade Federation probably still would have invaded and Amidala would still have been forced to lead some kind of armed resistance in the Act III.

If Anakin – who will become one of the most famous characters in cinema – had never appeared in the film, would there have been any alteration in the story? Not likely. Apart from the destruction of the Trade Federation command ship – a lucky accident – Anakin is superfluous to the story. And two Jedi Knights who are supposed to be expert negotiators could certainly have drummed up spare parts for their ship without resorting to gambling on the life of a child.

The Phantom Villain of the movie, Darth Sidious, who is manipulating the Trade Federation, makes many villainous pronouncements but for no clearly discernible purpose. We have no reason to think he would sleep any worse for not making them.

Compare that to Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin’s predicament in Star Wars, where the Emperor himself is counting on Tarkin and his armoured bulldog to solve the problem – and fast. And it is a big problem. The secret plans for the keystone of the Empire’s new military strategy are flitting around the galaxy somewhere, possibly in the hands of the very people they are trying to crush.

Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader

“I’m taking an awful risk, Vader.”

It’s been said over and over that if you want to make your hero’s story better, give him a better villain. Star Wars, in a very few strokes, conveys a great weight of responsibility on the villains. They can’t just decide to focus their energies elsewhere or wait for it all to blow over. If they fail, it’s their careers, their lives and the lives of all their associates, not to mention the staggering investment in money, manpower and ideological commitment that the Death Star represents.

Also note how in Star Wars all the characters – protagonists and antagonists – are bound together by the same problem. Whatever the outcome is, every character will be permanently affected. It is simply not possible for any of the principal characters – even the minor characters, for that matter – to pass through the story without being changed for the worse or the better. In fact, no one in the entire galaxy will be unaffected by how the story plays out. Those are high stakes. That’s how you tell a story.

Introduction To Sequence Structure

(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website
Twelvepoint.com, March 2010)

I always pat myself on the back for having written a great scene, but writing a great scene doesn’t help you tell a great story any more than getting a great shot helps you make a great film. What makes a shot “great” is what’s on either side of it, its relationship to the larger assemblage of shots. What makes a scene great is how it plays against the scenes before and after it. A scene, no matter how I feel about it, is only useful insofar as it contributes to a larger whole, and that whole is its big brother, the ‘sequence’.

If you’ve never heard of sequences and are now feeling a bit disoriented in the story anatomy hierarchy, just remember: shots make up scenes; scenes make up sequences; sequences make up acts and acts, as we all know, make up movies.

Of all those building blocks, I would argue that it’s the sequence, not the scene or the revered act, which is the most important one in the screenwriter’s toolkit, and the one he or she must come to understand completely and intuitively. Yet sequences are not well understood by most writers, beyond a vague sense that a sequence is a few scenes stitched together for some kind of common purpose.

What’s a good definition of a sequence? Here’s mine: A sequence is a unit of story structure composed of a series of scenes with a coherent dramatic spine. It begins when a character is placed in a state of uncertainty or imbalance – i.e., when the hero has a big problem. It ends when that problem is resolved and – and here’s the key – the solution to that problem creates another, further problem that then begins a new sequence.

So a sequence begins when a character is confronted with a crisis – and a crisis is any situation in which you can’t say, ‘Let’s just forget the whole thing’ – and it concludes when that crisis is resolved in favour of a new crisis. When a sequence completely resolves or eliminates the central problem that began the whole story, then the movie is over.

A master storyteller is one who leads us to believe that each sequence will be the one that will finally resolve or defuse the main conflict of the story, that will solve all the character’s problems, and then surprises us, frustrates us, thrills us, by delivering the complete opposite: an even greater complication that draws us into a new sequence.

Each sequence has a beginning, a middle and an end. Or to frame it in writer’s language, an inciting incident, a rising action and a climax. You can even think of each sequence as having its own mini-story arc. LA-based screenwriting teacher, Chris Soth, calls his seminars on sequence structure, the ‘mini-movie method’ and encourages students to treat each sequence as if it were a short movie unto itself – not a bad suggestion if you don’t take it too literally.

Some screenwriters will construct a ‘beat sheet’, a kind of outline, for their scripts and often what they’re doing, though most amateur writers wouldn’t think of it in this way, is flailing around in the dark trying to find what the sequences are.

When there are troubles with a screenplay’s act structure, the real fault can often be found in its sequence structure. In my own writing, when the story feels adrift and vague – or when Act II just isn’t working – the cause is almost always a lack of clarity in the sequences that make up the film. I run into the trap of overconcentrating on individual scenes, stringing them together like a child’s bead project, without noting how they contribute to making up a larger sequence, and time and time again I have to look at the bigger picture.

Many screenwriters who are aware of and consciously manage sequence structure in their work have been influenced by the teachings of Frantisek ‘Frank’ Daniel who was Dean of the School Of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s. This is where I learned about sequence structure, alongside many other media creatives whose names are more familiar to you than mine. Frank Daniel delighted packed lecture halls with his analyses of a wide range of films in terms of their sequence structures and many of us undergraduates would sneak into the back of his graduate level courses in order to learn something we knew was invaluable for our craft.

Frank insisted that every complete film story has exactly eight sequences, usually two sequences in the first act, four in the second, and two in the third act. Some say the origin of this eight-sequence template is the division of early feature length movies into reels, physical reels of film, usually around ten minutes long. Reels, typically with two projectors operating side by side, would have to be switched during a showing, and writing films in ten-minute, cohesive sequences then helped keep each dramatic beat of the story contained within its own reel. I have my doubts about this. I tend to think it worked the other way around. I think the reason a ten-minute reel was used in the first place was becausse that was – due to some mysterious quirk of the human emotional makeup – a satisfying length for a single dramatic beat to be introduced and progress to a climax. I believe the storytelling element came first and the technology followed.

I do not have the courage to say that every feature film always has eight sequences, although Frank Daniel used to amaze us by somehow making every film fit the structure. Sticking to a strict eight-sequence feature film model though can be very helpful in trouble-shooting. It encourages us to look more deeply when a story appears to have too few sequences, or to compress or cut when confronted by a plethora of sequences. The world is not literally divided into lines of latitude and longitude but it helps to pretend that it is.

Generally speaking, the better written a movie is, the clearer its sequence structure will be, and vice versa, the clearer your sequence structure is, the better your story will probably be. Films dominated by strong physical action, adventure movies and musicals, tend to have a more transparent sequence structure and lend themselves to easier analysis. Both action movies and musicals will often have set pieces at the climax of each sequence.

Solid sequences and the writer’s facility with them are what make some three-hour movies seem to fly by and some 80-minute movies last eons. Dances with Wolves (1990) is the second longest movie to win the Best Picture Oscar yet it flies by largely because of its rock-solid sequences, each with a clearly-defined tension that leads into the next sequence. On the other side of the coin, loose or vague sequence structure is usually to blame in that bizarre, yet frequent, phenomenon of a movie that is packed with action but is utterly boring and exhausting.

Ask a friend to list their favorite movies and you’ll get a diverse set of responses but it’s a good bet that most of the choices will have in common clear, strong sequence structure, and the very best will have sequences that keep surprising us and keep us guessing, and play in contrast or in sympathy with each other like find symphonic music.

I am an on again/off again David Lynch fan. I can never make up my mind whether I love his work or not. One thing that keeps me coming back though is his solid sequence structure. I may not like what he’s doing on the screen all the time but it’s always presented in a structurally rock-solid, coherent way if you look at the skeleton under the strange and fearsome flesh he puts on top of it. Imagine my surprise – lack of surprise, it should be – to learn when researching this article that David Lynch was a devoted student of Frank Daniel.

How a story is dissected into sequences may depend very much on the analyst’s point of view. Like an isolated, non-technical civilisation that doesn’t distinguish yellow from orange, for example, one analyst might see one large sequence where another sees two shorter sequences.

I’ve included below a simplified outline of the sequence structure of Star Wars: Episode IV (1977), indicating the problem that begins each sequence, and the resolution that ends it and launches us into the next sequence. You might disagree with my breakdown, which is good. Do your own analyses of as many films as you can and don’t worry too much about trying to force a movie into eight sequences. The key is to locate exactly where each new dramatic tension begins, note how the character tries to solve that tension, and then to find exactly where that tension is replaced by a new one.

STAR WARS 8 SEQUENCE BREAKDOWN

SEQUENCE 1

  • Problem: The Empire is about to retrieve the Death Star plans, capture the Princess and send R2D2 and C3PO to the spice mines of Kessel – in short, the movie is about to be over.
  • Complicated by: the droids are captured by Jawas.
  • Resolution: The droids find safety with Owen Lars and his nephew Luke.

SEQUENCE 2

  • Problem: Luke find a mysterious message from an important person begging for help from someone he might know.
  • Complicated by: R2D2 runs away.
  • Resolution: Luke decides to go with Ben Kenobi to Alderaan.

SEQUENCE 3

  • Problem: Luke and Ben have to find a way to get to Alderaan at Mos Eisley Spaceport.
  • Complicated by: Imperial forces are searching the city for them.
  • Resolution: The Millennium Falcon escapes Mos Eisley and heads for Alderaan.

SEQUENCE 4

  • Problem: Fly the droids and the plans safely to Alderaan.
  • Complicated by: Alderaan is destroyed.
  • Resolution: Our heroes are captured by the Death Star.

SEQUENCE 5

  • Problem: They discover the Princess is aboard the Death Star.
  • Complicated by: The Princess is scheduled to be terminated.
  • Resolution: The Princess is rescued.

SEQUENCE 6

  • Problem: They must take the most important person in the galaxy to safety, starting from the bottom of a garbage masher.
  • Complicated by: Legions of single-minded fanatics are trying to kill them.
  • Resolution: They escape the Death Star and the Death Star’s sentry ships.

SEQUENCE 7

  • Problem: The Death star is following the heroes to the Rebel Base.
  • Complicated by: Han is abandoning them.
  • Resolution: Luke and the rebels fly out to destroy the Death Star.

SEQUENCE 8

  • Problem: The Death Star is going to destroy the Rebel Base and end the rebellion forever.
  • Complicated by: Darth Vader engages the rebel pilots in his own ship.
  • Resolution: Luke destroys the Death Star and becomes the hero of the galaxy.
Seq. 8 - fighters approach the Death Star

Sequence 8 begins.

Avatar (2009)

Saw James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) yesterday afternoon in 3D at the Shepherd’s Bush VUE Cinemas in London. Went with my Dad who has seen more movies than I am ever likely to see, including the 3D masterpiece, “Bwana Devil” (1952).

One of my first thoughts was: Now I know what the Act III of “Return Of The Jedi” (1983) should have looked like.

“Avatar” isn’t Jim Cameron’s best movie. That honour still goes to “Aliens” (1986), as beautifully plotted an action movie as there has ever been. A respectable horror movie too, but it is primarily an action movie. Still, I really found “Avatar” exquisitely beautiful in its design and execution.

Already I’m getting flack from Film World Colleagues, who thought the movie ham-fisted. Where I saw delightful design choices, they saw lipstick on a pig.

The fact that there is nothing new in its premise – that “Avatar” is “Dances With Wolves” (1990) / “Little Big Man” (1970) / “Lawrence Of Arabia” ?? (1962) / “Fill In The Blank” In Space – seems a weak criticism of the movie, though it’s been trotted out a lot over the past couple weeks.

Wes Studi (far left) in "Dances With Wolves"

Native American actor & Vietnam vet, (far left) leads a Pawnee raiding party in Dances With Wolves. He played Eytukan in Avatar

Cameron has deliberately kept the story simple, obvious even, to provide a solid framework on which he can hang all his beautiful decoration. To get clever with both design and story at the same time could invite Unmanageability – the bane of Cameron’s existence. Cameron has always kept his plots and characters very simple, virtually mechanical in their efficiency. When he has tried to reach for more complex and subtle (relatively) themes and plotting, the movies have suffered. And, recalling the tales told about the production of Cameron’s two “wettest” movies, “The Abyss” and “Titanic”, his crews have suffered too. For Cameron, “Keep it simple” is a mantra that leads to success.

The story structure in “Avatar” is really quite adroit – solid and simple. As any good writer will tell you, “solid and simple” is actually hard to pull off, because false notes – and there are some in “Avatar” – stick out like signalling antennae on an alien lifeform.

The movie has a skeleton of very simple, rock-solid sequences – like its cousin “Dances With Wolves”. “Dances”, one of the longest movies to ever win a Best Picture Academy Award, flies by for most people because it is constructed of straightforward, firmly constructed sequences. Knowing where the story is going – having “seen it before” – carries the audience along. We are always anticipating the next beat. We know what is supposed to happen next, more or less, but we don’t know exactly how it will be presented. And that is the way expert storytellers do it – just ask Hitchcock.

Oh, and Cameron stole the entire “Avatar” idea from me. I wrote, in high school, a story of a race of simple blue-skinned aliens who lived on a jungle world. A human male is drawn into defending them from a highly technological man-machine who wants to take the blue-skinned guys’ precious, sacred mineral.

Naturally, I plan to sue.

Of course, I ripped off – and still do – all the other sci-fi writers I knew and loved. “Avatar” is a conservatively plotted, “classic sci-fi” story, in the vein of one of the Heinlein or Asimov books. It absorbs all the flavours and styles that those great 20th century sci-fi authors – and their hundreds of imitators – spun and then sings it back in Cameron’s voice. Just as I did in my own voice via my high school “Avatar” precursor.

We are in an age of illustration in movies – and we have Peter Jackson to thank/blame for it. The goal in so many big studio movie adaptations is not to bring new insight to a story or a franchise, but to illustrate an existing property faithfully. Peter Jackson’s stunning success rested on giving audiences exactly the “Lord Of The Rings” that they had imagined – plus a bit more. A lot of people – well, myself anyway – watched the “Lord Of The Rings” movies thinking, “Wow. If I had a bit more imagination, then that is exactly how I would have imagined it.” In other movies, the source material has been so sacred that barely a word or beat is changed in the film adaptation – “300” and “Sin City”. I think “Avatar” follows in this tradition, illustrating a sci-fi story already existing in the back of our collective imaginations. Dragon riders, floating mountains, glowing forests with trees the size of skyscrapers – we all know bits and pieces of these from books and wall calendars and dreams. It’s as if Cameron has supplied the movie to a story we had known about all along.

There’s much more to say about “Avatar”. For one, its political stance is fascinating to me. It’s a major studio movie by a major studio director that takes an aggressively anti-neocon POV. Very unusual.

But I’d like to hear your comments, then we can get into some discussion.

Watch the Avatar trailers

Click to watch the Avatar trailer

10 Worst Star Wars Dialog Moments

You can’t have too many Star Wars lists. You just can’t.

Everyone has their favorite Star Wars dialog bits they love to hate. Here are some of mine:

  1. “Mesa cause one, two-y little bitty axadentes, huh?”, etc. – Jar Jar Binks, TPM
  2. “I will come back and free you, Mom. I promise.” – Anakin Skywalker, TPM
  3. “Now this is podracing!” – Anakin Skywalker, TPM
  4. “Mmm. Lost a planet, Master Obi-Wan has. How embarrassing. How embarrassing.” – Yoda, AOTC
  5. “Noooooooo!” – Anakin Skywalker, ROTS
  6. “Two fighters against a stardestroyer?” – Hobbie, TESB
  7. “Aiiiyyeeeeeee.” – Boba Fett, ROTJ
  8. “Many Bothons died to give us this information.” – Mon Mothma, ROTJ
  9. “I know. Somehow, I’ve always known!” – Princess Leia, ROTJ
  10. “He wasn’t. I can feel it.” – Princess Leia, ROTJ

Jar Jar Binks

Interview at Innsmouth Free Press

I’ve been interviewed at the fine, H.P. Lovecraft-inspired horror site, “Innsmouth Free Press” (www.innsmouthfreepress.com).

I yawp about writing & sci-fi & The Cyclopedia Of Worlds & the new novel.

Read it now.

Tarzan, Mon Ami

TARZAN, MON AMI

(from his faithful friend Paul d’Arnot, Capt.)


How lordly indeed you are, my friend,
In the new suit from La Confection des Élysées.
How you honour them
By condescending to wear it.

When I was in the jungle
With you, at your mercy,
I was afraid of you.
Now here in La Ville-Lumière,
Where no man like you has walked for 10,000 years, now you are afraid.

You showed yourself to me, naked in your jungle – the only fearless man in all the world.
And now I see you, hackles up,
Moving from stillness to stillness like an unquiet animal.
When the marquise shakes your hand and says “Honored. Honored,”
You smell the blood on his
Breath, and you chill and wonder why no one else does. Are they all in league?
When the girl in service curtsies, says “Bonjour, monsieur,”
You hear her heart breaking, and you wonder why no one else does.

Return to the jungle my friend, out of this dangerous place.

Return to the tranquil jungle, under your mother’s canopy,
Where the names of things come easily to your mouth, where things are called what they are.

Every word of French I taught you – like ashes in my mouth.
I said “God made you a gentleman at heart, my friend”!
Dieu!
I feared you so.
I hoped to make you into something more like me. How could I know that I was making you
More dangerous with every word? Injecting you slowly with urbane distemper,
Pasteurizing you with good intentions.
When tantor became l’éléphant,
Numa, le lion,
Hista, le serpent – per Académie! –
I turned the sweet opera of your world
into the jeers of packs of lunatics, the whoops and hoots of cannibals.

That you would save my life and mother me back to health and I in repayment, would set the dogs on you.

Forgive me, Tarzan.

There was a moment, mon ami, when you were almost saved.
Do you remember? Did you know?
I put on my helmet, ready to go,
Picked up my revolver from that wide table stump, the one I’d made my toilet table.
And – perhaps in fever still? – abruptly threw it into the brush.

I didn’t know why then.

But I know now. After that month with you, I felt so naked, vulnerable, like a baby cleaving to his rattle. I had to throw it away or lose all courage forever.

But you retrieved it for me.
You dived after it.
You put it back in my hand.
“Tu, tu, tu, tu, tu!” you chirped like a jungle bird, pressing the revolver on me.

And I accepted it.
I shouldn’t have accepted it, should I?
I ought to have thrown it again, farther still, and turned my back on you.
Should have run away down to the river and never seen you again,
Emerged from the jungle a better, braver man.

I waited for you to run away,
While hoping you’d stay
To lead me home.
Hoping – again, yes – that you’d do my work for me. Poor slave.

By nightfall, you had brought me to the Solomougou Post
Where the men smelled like bloody earth
And more vermin creeped than in the deepest jungle.
I held your arm.
Together we found a one who would take us down river next day.

All night you perched in a tree – do you remember? –
Watching the coolies, after hours, stagger and sing below.

On the river the pilot asked many many questions about the strange white man out of the jungle –
Not about me, one more European out of his depth – about you.
I answered them. I answered all his questions!
What a villain!
The gall I had to answer his questions about you!
Maybe I was fevered still. Not in my right mind. Not in my right mind.

Forgive me, Tarzan, my White Skin. Forgive me.

C’est une drôle d’idée – that you should be “White Skin”.

Among my shallow, colorless people, you are deep and black as your rivers, deep and black as your night,
Deep, black as the great expanse that cradled and suckled the world before the mind of Le Dieu blasted away all that was peaceful, wiped away all that made sense and was sweet and perfect.

I have a black top hat and a black coat. And in Belgium the winters are white and wide and cold.

The Africans, in those hell-squalors we saw along the river,
I swear I saw them shed tears at the sight of you.

I swear I heard them sing:

“Oh there goes an African. Africa has made that man. And only Africa made him. He was not deprived of his lordly heritage, no. No. He was rescued and exalted. Exalted by the land. Saved by Africa. Taught by Africa to be strong and wise and to hear all the knowledge pouring in like cataracts from within, from without. Oh, Africa, that unites spirit and mind. Oh, Africa, that unites heaven and hell. And, look, they are taking him away! And they are taking him away!”

Mon Dieu, my white ape.
I have returned you to the hands of your captors.
I have delivered you back into the clutches of the slavers.

Forgive me, Tarzan.
Forgive me, Tarzan.

“After Hell” & The Paradise of Audio Drama

Having just launched my horror site, “All The Hells”, how I could I not listen to an audio drama called “After Hell”?

“After Hell” a supernatural drama, a mix of police procedural and “28 Days Later”-style Armageddon story. It’s enthusiastically presented and – the key to any good audio drama – uses an intelligent sound design to create spaces, describe scenes, illustrate scenes in detail.

I was sent one of the new CD copies from SciFind Ltd., UK based aggregator of all things scientifically fictional. I was sold on the concept, sight unseen – or sound unheard.

I love audio drama – as anyone who has heard my delightfully self-indulgent (yes, delightfully!) “Wretched Goo Of The Imagination” podcasts will tell you. One of my first forays into media production was the recording of a thrilling audio space adventure with my older brother. It was entitled “Face To Face With The Planet Scanodon!” and recorded in the living room of our Ohio apartment on glorious reel-to-reel tape. I wonder if my parents still have that tape in storage somewhere.

And I have not grown up – have not “changed my principles”, let’s say – that sounds better – one iota since then. Here is the planet Scanodon at The Cyclopedia Of Worlds:
And, heck, here’s a movie of the planet Scanodon at The Cyclopedia Of World’s video channel, that you can watch till your eyes cross:


The quality of writing and production design may have improved since I was seven years old, but the subject matter…remarkably the same.
Writer-director Joe Medina at Ollin Productions has put together something he should be proud of with “After Hell”. I think Orson Welles would agree with me, if he were animated and rotting next to me in some kind of horrific horror story way, that audio drama – radio drama, we used to call it – is it’s own, self-contained media form. Audio drama, like music, engages the mind and imagination directly – and can – in partnership with our brains – describe atmospheres, textures, spaces, and all manner of impossible absurdities (see again, The Wretched Goo Of The Imagination) with ease. I love it. And will do more of it myself some day, when I finish these several dozen other projects.

Well done, to Ollin Productions and the entire “After Hell” crew. Keep up the good work. We want more. We need more.

Happy New Year from The Cyclopedia Of Worlds

Happy New Year from Cyclopedia Of Worlds

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Wurrmarr Landscape

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