Current Book: If Chins Could Kill

If Chins Could Kill is Bruce Campbell’s (star of the Evil Dead franchise) autobiography. But it isn’t the typical “I’m a brilliant artist, and here I will depict my struggles with drugs and fame” autobiography. Campbell always had a niche horror movie audience (me), and he never tormented himself with drugs.

His audience does find him to be the most believably badass actor to ever hit the big screen (or at least my film buff friends and I do). His book isn’t really about finding success in Hollywood though; it’s about the b-movie people who grind out long work days to pay rent month-to-month. That’s something I can appreciate. He did this for his entire damn career.

Campbell is utterly believable as a blue collar guy because he is one. I remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. It was 9th grade, and I rented it on VHS at the local Blockbuster Video. I watched it alone that night and found it so utterly terrifying that I felt compelled to watch it an additional three times that weekend.

Then I went back to Blockbuster Video and rented the sequels. I got through them before school started on Monday.

The next week at school I was referring to my “boomstick” and spouting “Hail to the king, baby” every chance I got. I even said it when it wasn’t necessary to say it, just to say it. Then I was saying it at swim practice. Then soon enough, my brothers were saying it. I think I even forced them to watch some of the sequels.

Even last year, I forced my youngest brother to watch the entire Evil Dead television series with me over the Christmas holiday break. He actually liked the show, so this isn’t as cruel as it sounds.

I’m about a quarter of the way through the book. So far I’m liking it, not only for Bruce’s recollections of a brutal industry, but for some pretty awesome anecdotes of Sam Raimi (his lifelong friend and the director of Spider-Man).

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The Last Jedi Sucked

I refuse to kowtow to a corporate media that egregiously shoves a concept in my face.

It was a nice concept they shoved in my face, don’t get me wrong. “The Last Jedi will be daring! It will take you, narratively, where no Star Wars film has gone before! It will be emotional. It will be The Empire Strikes Back for a new generation!”

I wanted to believe it, but the movie was just bleh. It was too long. There were too many characters I frankly don’t give a damn about. Purple-haired Laura Dern was extraneous. So was Benicio Del Toro. So was Poe. So was Finn. So were the porgs. I’m getting nauseous thinking about what I just witnessed.

Every damn new character is extraneous, for that matter. They came and went in meaningless subplots that wove through a two-plus hour theme park ride.

Mark Hamill was fantastic, as I hoped he would be. That much I’ll admit. It’s too bad the story killed Luke Skywalker, because he’s still more compelling than anyone else.

Yeah, I spoiled it. Oh well! The movie sucked, so I don’t really give a damn. Rogue One was much better. Look at the audience score on RottenTomatoes for The Last Jedi. It’s the lowest of the franchise!

Oh, and there are too many plot holes concerning the capabilities of The Force to count now.

George Lucas’s films, even the worst ones, had more genuine emotion than this thing. Darth Maul was a more interesting villain than emo-doofus Kylo Ren.

I was incredibly disappointed by this movie. It will be difficult for me to find a reason to return to the franchise now that all the characters that drew me in to the Star Wars universe are dead.

This story doesn’t count. You can’t kill Luke Skywalker. To hell with Disney.

 

 

 

They Make Great Winter Clothes in Changchun…

No really, they do. One of my Chinese colleagues explained to me what makes the clothes so warm. I’m not sure if something was lost in translation, but she told me the clothes are lined “with the dense fur of the baby swan.” Maybe she meant baby seal instead of swan? I don’t know, but the stuff is dense.

I arrived in Changchun with wool underwear, Burton gloves, a wool hat, a well-insulated North Face jacket, wool socks, a mask, and winter boots.

It was negative 8 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday morning when I walked to the bus, and negative 22 with the wind chill. The cold bit through my hat, underwear, and gloves. My fingers were red and numb within seconds. We’re talking frostbite weather here, folks.

I lost one of the gloves on the bus, which was a blessing in disguise. At a Chinese market I later bought the warmest gloves, long underwear, and hat I could find. I figured I’d take my Chinese colleague’s word that the clothes were warmer than anything I possessed.

These clothes are warm. Really, really warm. I truthfully don’t know if it’s baby swan fur lined inside them, but my legs are toasty. My hands don’t feel a damn bit of cold, nor does my head. Suddenly a trip to McDonald’s seems pretty damn painless.

So, score one for China. And if warm clothes like these really do require the deaths of baby swans… well… they’re just swans after all…

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Writing and the Fear of Failure

I believe there is one key barrier an aspiring writer must break through to complete a story: the fear of failure. All other fears are offshoots of the fear of failure, which is the nexus of all thing a writer dreads.

The fear of failure has stymied me more times, and ultimately more years, than I care to admit. I dread putting out work that I suspect is worse than the authors I admire. I know that I don’t have the gift of prose that Neil Gaiman or Cormac McCarthy possesses.

I also cannot create the dialogue, narrative arcs, or strong characterization that I’ve seen in Taylor Sheridan’s screenplays.

My ideas, likewise, always seem to feel like cheap rip-offs of b-movies and Stephen King novels. After a few pages my mind starts screaming at me, It’s too much like that Stephen King book you just read!

So why, then, would I want to write a story? The dread can be all-consuming. It’s the sort of stifling fear that I would compare to public speaking, and they say many prefer death to public speaking.

All of these fears are variations of the fear of failure. What it boils down to is a stomach-churning dread of other people judging a work I spent load of time, dismissing it as something schlocky, corny, less than credible, lazy, or worst of all… stupid.

Yet, part of me likes to write in spite of these realizations and humbling truths. Though the logical side of my brain says, “Don’t even bother trying to hash out an awards contender,” it also says that I never really enjoyed watching the awards contenders anyways.

Truthfully, I’m drawn to the SyFy channel schlock and grindhouse cinema exploitation as a cinema viewer. At night, I read horror pulp and gimmicky short stories with an excess of gore. I’m more Skeleton Crew than Pulitzer Prize winner, more Creepshow than historical epic starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

So why, then, wouldn’t I write the very thing I love reading and watching? I think that for a writer to delve into B-horror, life is especially humbling. This is because we are intelligent enough to recognize that we aren’t creating high art, and a large portion of the world will scoff at the very thing we hold dear to our hearts.

Is it better, then, to have the legacy of an Ed Wood than no legacy at all? This is a question I often grapple with. Some writers, I suspect, know instinctively when they’ve made a masterpiece. Others will throw away the manuscript of a masterpiece, their humble mind dismissing their prose as total trash, only to be recognized by the world much later. They say Stephen King’s wife discovered the manuscript to Carrie in the garbage bin.

There are no easy answers or solutions for the aspiring writer, but I’m comforted by the story of Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Wind River. Sheridan wrote his first script when he was 40 years old, but it just so happened that his first three scripts were adapted into award winning films.

This isn’t to say that I believe I can be the next Taylor Sheridan (I don’t believe this at all). Simply, it means that it isn’t too late to write, and if I’m remembered as a corny b-movie writer, forever entrenched in SyFy cornballs, so be it.

I have a good day gig now that affords me ample time to write, so it’s time to start hashing some things out…

Meeting Miguel and Speaking With Other Colleagues

I met a friend a few weeks ago, a man a little older than me named Miguel. He’s from Montreal. He speaks with a thick Spanish accent (he was born somewhere in South America), has a rail-thin body, and wears some of the thickest scarves around his neck I’ve ever known existed. He also seems to have hat glued to is scalp.

He’d have wear multiple scarves to in this cold, as his neck is about three inches wide. When the daytime high in winter is rarely above 15 degrees Fahrenheit and you’re rail thin, you need some dense insulation.

I had a great talk with a another colleague this morning. The excerpt below is the summary of a conversation we had:

What is human free will, and do we really possess it? If you collect the life events of your social network and observe the patterns, you see that we’re all just following the order of our genetic programming. We’re animals, after all, programmed to find a mate, breed, sustain a stable house for the offspring, and preserve the nest until old. This translates to “get a degree, get married, settle into a career and a house, and raise kids.” But is it really choice that dictates this, a soul telling us of the right thing to do? Or is it the same type of genetic mapping that tells a mosquito to take a bite out of some human flesh? I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

And what are we expats, then, who seem to willfully shun everything about this predictable pattern of behavior? Are we mere outcasts, or artists in search of a different way? Those of us who are out of our 20s have seen past loved ones find another mate, settle down, have kids, and jump into the pattern of life we find so deplorable and basic. Many of us think, “Damn, that could have been me,” with a sigh of relief.

To be honest, I think that I avoid these “settle down” instincts because I equate them with death. At least, it seems, it’s the death of free will.

I think back to our culture’s obsession with all things shiny and cars, and how they’re used to convey self-worth and importance. “Look at this ring, look at that bracelet. Look at this baby, look at that baby. Look at this dress, look at that dress.” How, I’d often think, can a mind attribute the size of a car and ring to the value of a life?

There is always someone to fill the role of Facebook status-affirming companion, if that’s what really gives your life meaning. In the digital age, I guess that’s the core of it. I prefer living without the need to build a digital reality for the sake of reputation. I’d rather people think of me whatever they naturally would. The best moments in life are private anyways. They cannot be shared.

I think back to my manager at my previous job. He used to talk about the stars a lot. “You grasp the meaning of the stars,” he’d say, “and you understand how small all of this bullshit is.”

So I have some donuts with my friend and tread through the Changchun streets as a snow flurry hits. We laugh about how badly our pronunciation butchers the Chinese language. I take a photo of the snow falling down over a nearby school, but possess no desire to post it online. It’s mine, a moment from my life, and I don’t really give a damn if no one else can peer into it. And somewhere all around us, I think, are people obsessing over rings, and social media photos, and shiny things to show off on Instagram, and mortgages.

Wind River: Movie of the Year!

Forget all the awards buzz for the pretenders that will be pushed out as “contenders” over the next month: Wind River is the best film of 2017, and it isn’t close.

Wind River is Taylor Sheridan’s best film yet, which is no small accomplishment. The director is establishing himself as more than the “next John Ford” or the “next Stanley Kubrick.” He is the first Taylor Sheridan, and is the only breath of fresh cinematic air in the business right now.

Sheridan’s films are everything a great film should be: emotionally gripping, masterfully written, and visually poetic. Wind River pulls you into a world right here in America that the casual viewer will find haunting, unfamiliar, and tragic.

I hereby nominate Wind River as the best film in every category. Sheridan is 3/3 on making classic films. This one is a total tour de force. To hell with the candy ass Daniel Day Lewis film about making dresses. Sheridan is making films that will stand the test of time.

To Teach in China

I’ve been teaching English in China for about four months now. I think I’ve become a much better teacher in that time. Sometimes you aren’t really sure, especially when your primary source of feedback doesn’t speak English.

I was just given a “Most Excellent Teacher” award by my company, which employs over 100 instructors, so I must be doing something right. I thought I’d share some insights here. All I can say with certainty is, I’ve changed my approach dramatically over the course of the term. Some teachers have a set style that they stick to, regardless of the class or setting. I’m not this sort of teacher. I’m the type that leaves every class and asks myself, “How could I have made that better?”

I’ve also changed my style because when you’re teaching in a different country, at some point I believe you have to.

Like many teachers who move abroad, I had a set Hallmark video in my mind of how classes would go. I had outlines for lessons on the full English gamut, from grammar to pronunciation.

I teach at both a primary school and a high school. For the sake of this story, I’m going to stick with accounts of primary school teaching.

After your first few classes reject your lessons (it’s bound to happen in a different country), your initial reaction is to blame the students. They seem especially blameworthy when they’re speaking over you, ignoring your requests to be quiet, and throwing paper airplanes.

This insanity happens frequently, especially when the teacher is foreign and the students are young. It isn’t mentioned when you’re recruited to teach or learning to teach, but it’s something every teacher must overcome.

One trait that helped me become great at swimming was having the ability to take criticism constructively. It means fighting my own nature; I hate having my feet held to the fire. Who doesn’t? But I also learned at a young age to take a laissez-faire approach to life. That is, to value everyone’s opinion equally. For swimming, it meant taking a comment on my technique from a stranger as seriously as an idea sprung from my own mind.

I have a big ego. Some people don’t recognize it because I’m a little quiet, but it’s true. And I definitely possess a strong and defensive reflex against people telling me that I’m doing something wrong. But, over the years, I’ve learned to recognize my own ego and cast it aside.

My previous job, actually, helped me fine-tune this ability. I have my last manager to thank. Sincerely, I’m lucky to have had a lot of people help me better myself.

So after a particularly bad class, one in which I was feeling especially testy, the last thing I wanted was to receive criticism from someone. It was a lesson I took a long time to prepare, so I held it as “beyond reproachable.” But a Chinese teacher gave me some criticism anyways, at a time when I didn’t want to hear it.

“Give them more songs and games. They’re just too bored and they need more fun.”

Surely, I thought, this can’t be the secret to managing a Chinese primary school classroom. My ego kept telling me, “If they don’t want to listen, it’s just because they suck.” And I assure any non-teachers: no teacher wants to hear that his or her lesson is boring.

But then again, this was a teacher who had worked with the grade level for multiple years. It was also a teacher who liked me; if she wanted me fired, she would have kept her mouth shut.

Regarding boring: we’re talking about a unique situation in which a nine-year-old is put into a class with a teacher who doesn’t speak a word of his or her language. I processed this for awhile and thought that there is a point to be made on ESL students being especially prone to boredom. More importantly, it isn’t their fault.

I went home and took a few deep breaths. What if, I thought, she’s right? And more importantly: What do I have to lose by trying something dramatically different?

Songs and games. These are not things that come naturally to me, especially songs. But still, if I’m going to try something new, I’m going to go “all in.” So, I developed an “alter ego” of myself, one who loves to dance, sing, and clap in front of primary school kids. I’d unleash the “alter ego” during class time, whatever his name is.

Then I looked through my lesson plan and scratched out everything that involved me lecturing. I brainstormed for awhile, asking myself, “How can the students receive the same topic in a lesson without having a teacher lecture them, at all?”

I devised a lesson that was something I’d never do under normal circumstances: a class that starts with learning the song “B-I-N-G-O” and the vocabulary in the song, then uses various chalkboard games for vocabulary work. I created a clapping chant for students who answer correctly. I started handing out stickers for prizes. I finished the class by introducing a second song.

The students loved every second of it. Students who weren’t even looking at the chalkboard were suddenly mesmerized. It was a total success.

I learned something then: you cannot fight a culture. You have to shape yourself and your teaching into the culture and the setting, and it does not matter how little you agree with what this entails. And if you’re going to teach primary school kids, you better have a goofy side.

I’ve met foreign teachers who have been in this city for five years or more and loved every term of it. I’ve also met teachers who are utterly embittered after three months and ready to catch an early flight home. Usually they’re bitter because their style of teaching isn’t working.

When something doesn’t work, try a different approach. The greatest rewards come from taking risks.

The foreign teachers who love China have one thing in common: they’re chameleons. They recognize that they’re in a different country and are willing to adapt themselves to meet its demands. They’re more apt to learn Chinese, to change their own approach, and to simply remove judgment when interacting with people.

Adapting yourself doesn’t mean losing yourself. It means having fun embracing and learning about something totally unique and new, while still being you.

Hey, I got a trophy for teaching, so like I said: I’m no Jedi master, but I must be doing something right.

Four months in, but they flew by…