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It’s a Scream, Baby

April 21, 2011

I’m on a bit of a horror movie kick at the moment, and no horror binge is quite complete without the Scream movies. In this case, they were what kicked off the whole thing. After all, Scream 4 is opening today, and despite my usual reservations about any sequel after a third movie, I find myself being quite hopeful for Scream 4. So a rewatch of the trilogy was in order.

And I’ve been left with one thing rattling around in my head – what is Scream 4 going to be about?

Spoilers (for Scream 1 – 3.) below. You’ve been warned. But you’ve watched them already, right? Also, I haven’t seen Scream 4 yet, so no spoilers for that in the comments please…  

Any good horror movie is about more than just jumps, gore, and making the audience squirm. A good horror movie needs to do that too – and some are so good at it you forgive their lack of any real depth. But the vast majority of horror movies that are merely that aren’t actually all that good at it – and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. For a horror movie to really be able to scare the audience, it has to tap into something bigger than visual nasties. It needs to have a subtext that touches on something we fear, as individuals or a society.

Scream, as a series, was about making a lot of that implicit meaning explicit. It’s most famous for making “The Rules” explicit, and moving them into the mainstream pop culture sphere. But there was a little more to them than that.

There are a number of themes that run through all three Scream films. One of the main ones is about violence in the media, and how that has effected “the young people.” On one hand, the movies seem to be warning about a wave of desensitization (Quoth the Fonz “You desensitized little shits!”) The kids in Scream organize a party to celebrate days off they got because two of their classmates died. They drive off to celebrate the murder of their principal. In Scream 2, a murder happens right in front of a cinema crowd who are already baying for on-screen blood and glorifying the villain.

Glorifying the Villain is something that Wes Craven has commented on before, most explicitly in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare – which has a lot of similar ideas to the Scream trilogy. (And is really, really worth a watch, but watch the original first.) In New Nightmare, Wes (as himself) comments that in the sequels to Nightmare, Freddy Krueger became less and less dark, and ended up being the character that you were rooting for. Especially since the victims were always cardboard cut outs. And this is why he has the power to push his way back into the world in New Nightmare – because the audience had forgotten the true horror of him, because the truly horrific story wasn’t being told. In the Scream the public glorify the killer and wear his face (the pranking kids in Scream 1, the “Stab” audiences in the sequels) which makes it all the easier for the various Ghostfaces to stalk their targets. Also, you’ve got Gail Weathers, who takes terrible things and spins them into bestsellers, and the movie producers who turn it into a profitable franchise. The media, as the agent of desensitization/glorification, could be seen as responsible.

In addition to that, the killers themselves don’t truly realise the evil of the acts they are committing – [Billy’s Partner], [Billy’s Mom’s Partner], and Roman all think of their acts as “making a movie” in some way or another, as if their actions are guided only by narrative rules. (The Lumis’ have more traditional motives of revenge, and Roman also has a real motive; he combines into one character what the other movies had two characters for. Because we were expecting two killers at that point, after all.)

All of this could make it seem like Scream, as a trilogy, was a parable about the evil influence of the media, desensitizing our kids and glorifying our worst urges. However, our heroine, Sidney Prescott, refutes this notion strongly in all three final confrontations – in particular in the third installment, where she opines “take some fucking responsibility for your actions.” When all fingers seem to be pointing at media fed desensitization and villain glorification, Sidney breaks it down for us – No-one’s responsible for murder except for murderers. Blaming the media and desensitization just gives the murderers an excuse for what they’ve done (see Scream 2.)

Given the prevalence of this theme in the Trilogy, it would be hard to imagine it not rearing its head in Scream 4. Horror movies aren’t the bogey-man any more in that debate (Grand Theft Auto may have stolen that crown,) but the basic themes remain. And then there’s the internet. Communication technology has changed utterly since Scream 1 (“What are you doing with a cellular telephone, young man?”) and I’m sure Scream 4 will be making use of that. I fully expect there’ll be a good amount of social networking involvement. I’m also predicting that the killings will be broadcast on YouTube. (Or equivalent.)

The original trilogy draws heavily on classic horror movie themes and references to articulate “the rules.” I can’t imagine someone writing Scream 4 and not using it as a platform to reference and commentate on horror movies in the last ten years.

Mainstream horror in the past decade has mostly been about sequels (The unkillable Saw franchise, most obviously,) remakes (Halloween, Nightmare, Friday the 13th,) prequels (Texas Chainsaw and the Exorcist) and imports.(Lots of J Horror, and a smattering of others) Not a lot of novel horror films made the mainstream.  I’m expecting that Ghostface will be trying to “reboot” the franchise in Scream 4, recreate the first story all over again, possibly with Sidney not actually being the main target (someone new has to play the heroine in the reboot.)

Aside from remakes/homages/reboots/prequels/sequels, the other thing that stands out about contemporary horror is the “horror porn” genre. Gratuitous violence for no purpose other than making the audience squirm in their seats. To an extent, this potentially extends the “desensitization” theme of the original trilogy, with audiences now baying for not only blood but suffering on their screens.

Finally… what are the rules of the fourth movie in a series?

By the time a 4th movie rolls around, the focus is usually on the villain. It was the 4th Nightmare on Elm Street where we learn about Freddy’s birth. Saw IV is all about “understanding” Jigsaw. The villain focus also results in villains whose capabilities become even more superhuman – To take Jigsaw as an example, by Saw IV he seems to be able to predict human behaviour with ludicrous precision.

That said, Scream 3 already did the backstory retcon where we saw who “birthed” Ghostface. So that ground has been trodden, and furthermore, Sidney’s actually still in the movie. This is pretty much unprecedented: That the original protagonist is still involved in the story by the 4th movie. The villain is usually the only source of continuity, which is usually why it become all about them as the numbers get higher… so perhaps we won’t see that in Scream 4. Scream has a tendency to appear to follow the rules to the letter in the first two acts, then subvert them in the final act.

So, quick capsule predictions:

1)     Killings on Youtube.

2)     A “reboot” motivation for Ghostface.

3)     Villain focus (reboots and 4th movies both tend to focus more on the villain. See Rob Zombie’s Halloween)

4)     Sidney’s not the main target. There’ll be a “new” Sidney, and Ghostface will want “old Sidney” to watch. Perhaps even approve.

5)     Ghostface will get called on being totally unoriginal at least once. In true arrogant fan fiction fashion, he will believe he is improving on something he purports to love.

I’ll do a follow up post after I see the movie, to see how much of my rambling was even loosely relevant.

I’ll be right back.

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A Town called NEVER.

April 11, 2011

Never is the sort of town you only ever see in a story. You see, it is, on the surface, a distinctly normal town. It is not too big, nor too small. It is not too near any other town or city, nor is it too far away.

 

Never is not in any particular country, and its people do not speak any particular language. The weather is not very hot, and not very cold. The townspeople are, for the most part, friendly and good natured, greeting each day with a smile.

 

So you see, Never is the kind of town which is so normal that you would only ever hear about it in a story. There is one thing that makes Never very special. It is the reason we are here, taking a look at the town called Never. It is why we are telling this story.

 

In the Town Called Never, Something That Has Never Happened Before Happens Every Day.

 

On Saturday, the townspeople found a mermaid in the fountain in the town square. She had been swept up from her home by wind and storm, and fallen from the sky like an Angel, to be caught in the arms of the waiting water. Mermaids, you see, always land in water, because the water looks after them especially. She was far away from her home, so the people of Never placed an inflatable swimming pool on the back of a flatbed truck, and brought her on the long journey to The River, which as all rivers do, led back to the Sea. That way, a mermaid can always find her way home.

 

On Sunday, a traveller came to Never. This was something that happened often, but this Traveller brought with her something special. In her long train of carts and wagons, there was a zoo of many animals. These animals were not the sort you would see in a normal zoo, or anywhere else in fact. These were the animals that only live in stories, and in this zoo. There was a snake, long enough to wrap around a house, which had the face of a beautiful lady. There was a Griffon, with the head and wings of an Eagle on the body of Lion, and it was indeed the noblest creature you could ever see. A cat that was sometimes just a grin reclined in the passenger seat of the lead wagon, and monkeys with many fingers and painted faces played hopscotch on the roofs of the town. They stopped for only a little while, and after they were gone, nobody could remember all of the shapes and sizes that they had seen, because you while you might see a Nessie in a zoo, you would never remember having seen it, because that is not how magical things work.

 

On Monday, everybody in the town gave each other gifts, even though it wasn’t Christmas, and it wasn’t anybody’s birthday. Each person gave what they could give best, and none of the gifts were bought with money. Home-makers baked fresh warm cakes, and their partners cooked dinners with flavours from all over the world. Children painted their imaginations in a hundred different colours. The elderly told their stories, and the youth listened and laughed and learned. The dogs gave their unconditional love and enthusiasm, though that is nothing rare for a dog to do. The birds gave song and the cats gave little things left on the doorsteps. The teenagers shared their music, and their parents did too, and everyone heard something new. Everybody had something to give, a little piece of their world that only they knew, until it was shared.

 

On Tuesday, a new family moved into the Town. They were called, they said, The Frosts. They told their new neighbours that they were moving north for the winter, because they did not like the warmer climes down south. They wore raggedy clothes, and their eyes were as black as coal. They had long, pointed noses that were quite a different colour to their very white skin, and whenever they shook hands, you would feel your hand quickly become cold and damp. But the Frosts were very friendly indeed, always smiling, except on the warmer days, when they would stay inside and you could hear their air conditioning running at maximum strength all through the day until the night time brought the cold. In the spring, the Frosts were gone – moving North, they said, for the Winter.

 

On Wednesday, Catherine challenged all the other children in the town to a race – a race in which their pets would compete to see who was fastest. Johnny brought his greyhound, a champion racer. Kevin brought his rabbit, because even though racer greyhounds chase the rabbit at the track, they can never catch him. Marie brought her Parrot, reasoning that something that had wings must be faster that all the pets that walk or crawl. Angela brought her beloved Tortoise Cecil, because she believed with all her heart that slow and steady would win the race. Catherine Rourke, however, surprised everyone when she produced her pet – a mighty Elephant, whose single stride was ten times longer than any of the other animals. How disappointed she was, then, when Bobby arrived with his little white mouse, whom Bobby said was  “subject in spearmints”  that would make him special. Catherine’s Elephant did run, very fast indeed, but he did not win the race.

On Thursday, old Mr. Machen built a rope ladder to the sun. He launched it on the back of a rocket he had built in his backyard, and the whole town watched the ladder fly up into the sky, and, miraculously, stay there. Mr. Machen said something about satellites and orbits, and then proceeded to climb. Many people tried to dissuade him, telling him that space was vast and cold and would kill him, and he said loneliness was just the same. He said he wasn’t going to wait for that, and that he wanted to go on a glorious adventure, and that riding off into the sunset didn’t sound half as fantastic as climbing a ladder to the sun.

 

Friday, however, was the strangest day The Town Called Never had ever experienced. And this is quite something, for the people of Never were used to spontaneous wonders coming into their lives, and indeed, they rather looked forward to what every day would bring. But on Friday, the oddest thing of all happened.

 

On Friday, Nothing happened whatsoever. Everybody got up in the morning as normal, went away to work and school and normal, and returned home for the evening meal as normal. The evening passed without incident, everybody using their free time for whatever they usually used it for. The people of Never found themselves very perplexed, when the children had gone to bed and the clocks had struck midnight, and they discovered that nothing at all had happened. Except, of course, for a perfectly normal Friday, which they were quick to note, had never actually happened before.

 

 

 

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Story Archaeology

March 21, 2011

I read this story on Wired today about a Dad who found tape recordings of his own father reading bedtime stories.

In it, and in an article linked within that article, the author mourns the fact that physical media, like cassettes, CDs, and books are on the wane. Personally, I find myself torn on the issue. On one hand,  I love physical books. My individual history with stories is too bound up in actual paper-and-ink for me to get away from, as much as I generally embrace new information technology. In reading John McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, the book itself was as much a part of the experience as the words. It is printed on paper so thin you’re afraid that every page turn will be accompanied by a tearing noise. The story itself has the same feeling – you know, from the very beginning, that the everyday experiences it describes are stretched taut, ready to be torn by something truly terrible.  It’s a fragile and beautiful story, and the physical experience of fragile pages just drove it home for me.  Intentional? I don’t know, but that doesn’t really matter. Any story is tied intrinsically with the medium, and Words on a Page are subtly different from Words on a Screen in the same way that a story being read aloud is different from one you read to yourself.

And on the other, I recently rediscovered The Storyteller series, thanks to the wonders of digital media. The physical collection itself is hard to come by, either prohibitively expensive, or, more often, incomplete.  But I was able to obtain a copy in mp3 format, and it has been an absolute joy to re-experience them. I have found myself mouthing the words to poems I couldn’t name two weeks ago, instantly reminded by the musical cues and the rhythym of the reading what line should come next. I’ve listened to stories and felt the very same as I did hearing them as a child, the gut reaction to the words coming back to me as easily as the memory of the words themselves.

This is what digital media gives us – a place to put art and ideas that will last far beyond any physical artefact holding the same thing. Once we have scanned or uploaded a story, it will be there to be found. I count myself terribly lucky that I grew up in just the right era that I could find these stories again. The tapes I once had are old and worn out – in fact, they were already worn when I listened to them, and of the 40 something tapes I inherited, only half survived my constant use of them to be passed on to my sister, and pretty much none of them survived long enough to be enjoyed by my youngest sister by the time she was of an age to do so. (The book, by contrast, is a far more durable piece of technology than the cassette)

But if I come across a complete collection of the tapes and books when I have money enough to buy them? In a heartbeat. There is still more of the childhood experience that I’m missing. As I listen to the mp3s, the chimes remind me that there are pages I ought to be turning, and artwork that remains only half-remembered even as the words come back to me. There is the scramble to turn over the tape and hear the next story.  There is a lot of good in digital media, but we’ll never replace the physical. That said, physical vs. digital is one of those false dichotomies. Embracing digital media does not necessitate rejecting the physical. Loving the contents of your bookshelves or your CD collection doesn’t mean that backing them up in digital form isn’t a good idea. I look forward to being able to buy a book and receive both a digital and physical copy at once. One for the experience, and one that will last forever, so that at least some part of that experience can always be relived.

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Some musings on writing scenarios for conventions.

March 10, 2011

It’s been a while since I wrote a pen and paper RPG scenario for a convention. The last one, I believe, was for Confess 2008.  In the intervening two years, I’ve been writing LARPS.

Today, I’m finishing up my scenario for Itzacon

 

Famous Last Words

Come One! Come All! And witness the finest outing of the White Hart Players! Marvel at a tale of fornication, opium, and murder most foul! Be amazed by exploits of daring, acrobatics, and skill!

Will the many splendoured talents of the White Hart players aid them in reclaiming Christopher Marley’s mysterious last stage play in the face of nefarious betrayal and thievery?

A 7th Sea Scenario

 

The best part about writing a LARP is that you know that you’re it’s only going to run in one room, with the author(s) running it. Because of that, the only thing you actually have to put on paper are the characters. The rest, you can have loosely in your head and allow plenty of space for improv.

 

With the Pen and Paper variety, there’s a good chance of a second or third table, which will be run by someone else. So you have to write everything down in such a way that someone else can run it. This is more work that you think it is. Even when you’ve done it before. You think “It’s all in my head, I’ll just transcribe that.” But we all know how much sense one’s internal monologue really makes when you do that. You’ve got to put a structure on it. A real, actual structure.

 

I’m never sure of the best way to write scenarios for others to run. I don’t neccesarily know the person who’ll be running the other table(s), so I don’t know how much they’re used to improvising – do they prefer a loose plot, and then let things roll? Or do they like it all laid out clearly for them? The latter is the safer, if more boring to write, option for a RPG writer to take, because the former kind of GM will be fine either way, and the latter kind will be a bit lost if you’ve left them little to work with.

 

The other thing is timing. Pen and Paper RPGs involve combat scenes, with dice, and these always take longer than I expect to resolve. I think for a simple combat system, three combats (of any real size) is the most you want to be handling. I think back to con games I’ve played in that went well and were well written and that’s the shape I see. 2-3 major combats, with investigation bits in between.  So that’s what I’m going for. Even if I find it hard to resist the urge to pack in more because I’m writing 7th Sea, and in swashbuckling games the massively dramatic action scenes are the best bits.

 

The last thing is the Rules Stuff. I think it’s good practice to write a 1-2 page “cheat sheet” of the system’s rules in case you end up having a table run by a poor random staffer who doesn’t know the system. Most game systems can be boiled down to a simple enough rules set. It’s also useful for players – there’s a good chance some of them won’t know the system either. It’s also a good idea to note, in simple form, what the stuff on the character sheet means and how they use their skills/abilities. Luckily for me, 7th Sea is pretty straightforward that way – most things do what you’d expect. I really hate writing Con games for D20 though. Blargh. Them’s a lot of rules to explain on a character sheet.

 

And a last thing to round out this not-very-informative rambling:

‎”Ours is a high individualized culture, with a great faith in the work of art as a unique one-off, and the artist as an original, a godlike and inspired creator of unique one-offs. But fairy tales are not like that, nor are their makers. Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup? Think in terms of the domestic arts. ‘This is how I make potato soup.”‘ – Angela Carter (via Tanya Dean and the wonders of Facebook)

 

This is true for all art, but I think particularly true for convention games. In the history of the Irish Con Circuit, someone has probably already written and run a game a lot like the one you’re writing right now. There are no completely original convention games. (Campaigns have a bit more wiggle room to become properly unique, if not 100% original)  But that’s not the point. How do you do your amnesia game? Or your dungeon bash or swashbuckling? Even though the 3 hour slot is restrictive, you can bring a lot to a game you’re creating that other people can’t.

Try and make it so players tell other con-goers afterwards “You had to be there.”  That’s the thing that RPGs/LARPs have, that so few other media do.

 

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My first stories.

February 25, 2011

An idle dinner table conversation has rekindled a whole bunch of new memories.

http://storytellerwebsite.wordpress.com/

The “Storyteller” series was a collection of children’s stories read by a variety of famous voices from the British theatrical scene in the 80’s (Brian Blessed included.)

I lived and breathed these stories when I was a child. I used to sit with the book on my lap, listening to the accompanying cassette. If I hit a word I couldn’t read, I would rewind the tape and try again.  These stories taught me to read, taught me the joy of hearing a story read, and filled my head with all sorts of fragments I haven’t been quite able to place since. They were my first stories, and even though the exact words of them are lost, I can still remember how it felt to hear them.

Reading the titles today, I get a rush of fragile imagery, and an unmistakable shudder of emotion. “Petrushka,” and “The Inn of Donkeys” and “Hugo and the Man Who Stole Colours”  scared and fascinated me. Every time they began on the tape, I contemplated fast forwarding to be safe from the scary story within. But I could never quite bear to look away.

“Shorty and the Shooting Star” and “Gatecrashers” and “Party in the sky” delighted me in ways I can’t remember. But the names make me smile.

They gave me my first brush with the wonderful patchwork of stories from across the world. King Arthur, Noggin, Anansi and Br’er Rabbit and so many more. These are stories I know better now, but my memory of their first tellings is fragmentary and irresistibly magical.

The memory of the “storyteller” collection is a treasured thing, even though it’s incomplete and barely tangible, and I would love so very much to hear those stories again, to see how many of them have worked their way into my thoughts and stories without me ever being able to remember why that fragment lurked in my mind.

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World’s Blankiest Blank.

February 25, 2011

I hate blank pages.

Blank pages are the second hardest thing to deal with when you’re writing.

 

They stare at you, waiting. Expecting you to write something on them. But picking up a pen (or reaching for the keys, or whatever) and making the first marks on it is always a slightly terrifying thing to do.

 

Ideas are easy. They’re better than easy. They’re addictive and wonderful and make you feel like Superman on steroids riding a Tyrannosaur. You move through the day, and all the little fragments of information flow through your brain. Fact and fiction, random banter, that thing you overheard on the bus. Then fragment the first latches on to scrap the second, and the third thing jumps in and all of a sudden it all falls together and you know it’s going to be something and then it’s Something. You scribble it down on the nearest scrap of Thing That Holds Ink (the back of your hand and up your arm is perfectly acceptable in an emergency) and before you know it you’re grinning like The Joker in a Candy Store filled with Policemens’ Children.

 

That’s the easy part, and it’s a huge amount of fun, and absolutely the best part of being a writer because you’ve just Thought Of Something New and you tell yourself that’s what makes you a writer.

 

Then you go to turn the idea into a story.

 

You try to get in touch with the mood you were in when you had the idea, and only get the dialing tone.

 

And the blank page looks at you.

 

You don’t want to start writing. It’s scary.  There is nothing there, and because of that, it still has the potential to be anything. It’s just an idea in your head – and there, it’s free to grow and move and mutate. As soon as you begin to commit it to a page, the possibilities are culled. Every scratch on the page reduces the potential from Anything into more of a Something, and by the time you’ve finished it it will be a very definite thing and that Thing might not be very good. It almost definitely won’t be as good as that initial Idea felt like it could be. Collapsing possibility into actuality… if you do it and you make a mess of it then maybe you’re not a very good writer.

So you hold off, waiting for the idea to develop, until you have it “fully formed.” Until it’s “ready.”

 

The problem is, it never will be.

 

And if you don’t write it, you’re not a writer. You’re just a guy who has ideas.

 

That’s what I keep telling myself anyway.

 

But blank pages still scare the hell of me, whether I’m writing a story or a thesis chapter. The Thesis is the biggest piece of writing I’ve ever undertaken, and I want it to be good. But the fear of words being written that aren’t has had me not writing anywhere near enough for the past two months.

 

I had the idea flood this past week. It felt pretty damn awesome. But the ideas aren’t finished, and I want to  keep them in my head while I read more and “refine” them. I had to tie myself to my computer for a silly amount of hours this week, but I actually managed to get words on paper. They’re not very good.

 

But they exist.

 

And that means I get to say I’m writing.

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“Wildy Original and Heterodox Language”

February 12, 2011

 

Saw it, had to share it.

 

And I could unnecessarily elucidate on how I agree with everything that the good Mr. Fry has said.  But that would be redundant, so I won’t.

 

Enjoy.