Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Life Test

I’ve always been impatient. Impatient to learn things, impatient to grow up, impatient to be older.

I’ve learned things, that’s true. I’ve been able to pursue knowledge about all kinds of things, and all manner of subjects. And I’ve gotten older.

Now I’m not so sure that was a great way to go through life. I always seemed to look for the easy ways to accomplish things, and often found them, but there are some things that take a long time to learn. How to be a grownup is one of them. I’m fond of telling people that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. That’s probably because I don’t feel that I have finished much of anything in my life. I have, but the feeling that I could have done more, could have done it better, could have been more useful – those things are always there.

When is it appropriate to take the shortcuts of life? My guess is “never,” but that’s probably a short answer and a shortcut in itself. Really, there are no safe shortcuts in life.

What has brought me to these thoughts? I’m old enough to sit back and do nothing, secure enough to be able to, but still I feel so much has not been done, that there is more to do, much to finish in my life or in the world around me. Can I do that? Is there still time?  Why can’t I just turn it all over to those who are following me? Wouldn’t it make sense to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labors and simply let things happen? Okay if you can do it, but that isn’t the way I’m made. There are still things I haven’t finished, or that need to be done again because of age or time or changes in the way things can be done today. Still, I’m not too sure what there is that I haven’t done, that I could still do, and would want to do.

I really wouldn’t want to be young again. Aside from a bad bargain with whatever power might be able to make that happen, I know that although I remember the good parts of growing up and growing older, there were bad parts, too. Doing them over offers no guarantee that I will get them right, or even better.

Life is a test. In the end it doesn’t matter how well you do, but that you do the best you can.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Car As Metaphor

I was driving along at a pretty good clip, maybe a mile over the 55 limit, through a rural landscape, on a beautiful summer morning, under clear skies. Around a gentle sweeping turn I had to slow down for traffic: two cars meandering along the highway. At best, on the straight stretches, we were speeding along at 45, slowing when the road curved or started up an incline. I was in no greater hurry than usual to get to an appointment, and had been content to amble along at the speed limit, and now I seemed to barely be moving forward. Still not late, and knowing that there were passing zones ahead, I let my thoughts linger over the question of why some people, including the drivers ahead of me, would buy vehicles of two- or three-hundred horsepower in order to drive (alone) at forty or forty-five miles an hour.

I have driven small cars for most of the 60+ years I’ve been licensed, with occasional forays into high-performance or otherwise over powered vehicles but never stayed with them very long. I’ve owned big 8 cylinder and more modern six cylinder cars and trucks, with enough power to move quickly the overweight carriages attached to them. I had one V-8 powered sports car (used as much for sport as for transportation), and of all of the vehicles I’ve owned, only that one was truly capable of more than 100 miles-per-hour. I know because on at least two occasions, I saw the needle sweep past that magic mark. Thrilling, exciting and (because this was in the early 1960s) dangerous. It is strange to feel the front end of a car lift off the road. I didn’t sustain the run past 112 miles per hour. Of course the accuracy of the instrument providing that number was perhaps off by five per cent, but still, I had crossed the line.

In those years you had to buy a purpose-built vehicle, a sports car, to be able to drive as fast in the mountains as I do today with almost any passenger vehicle. There has been that much technical advancement in the suspension and tire department world-wide.

My primary vehicle today is a small, 4-door that would be called a station wagon in earlier times, powered by a 4-cylinder engine of about 130 horsepower, coupled to an automatic transmission that is probably at lot smarter than I am, and I can easily run up and down the mountains with little use of the brakes and appropriate use of the accelerator. On the open road, if the law allows, I can easily cruise at 80 or even 90 miles an hour. The speedometer is electronic, and stop-watch/odometer tests indicate that it has no more error than tire-slippage can induce, so I am confidant of my numbers. But 90 wouldn’t leave me any room to go, I know that, too.

So as I rolled along, I returned to my original question: why buy a car of great horsepower if you aren’t going to need or use it? Then I looked down to check my speed and realized that here, in this economy car, my speedometer face assures me that regardless of what I do, should I be able to coax this vehicle to go faster than 90 miles per hour, I’ll still be able to know exactly how fast I am traveling because the dial has numbers up to 150 miles per hour! Now that’s optimism. And then my thoughts leave the road, as it were, for less traveled places. I wonder why we want instruments that measure things we can never achieve.

It’s sort of like politicians: we know they won’t deliver what they promise, but we keep on buying them anyway.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hot Air, Hot Words

Words, those spidery combinations of horizontal and vertical lines, circles and semi-circles, are perhaps the most powerful tools the human brain has ever invented. With them we can make love and war, build and destroy. Yet we treat them in such a cavalier manner that often what we meant to say and what we end up saying are so far apart that we change the world, or stop change from happening.

Words are what I have depended on for my living for as long as I have been working. Other things too, of course. Drawings, pictures, sounds all played a part in what I have done in my life, but words were the first tools I learned to use. In that I don’t think I am so very different from others. Learning to speak, to communicate, is the essence of being human. Even those deprived of speech, or sight, or sound strive to make use of words one way or another. But if it is such a natural, normal toolkit to use why do we have so much trouble making ourselves understood?

It all goes back to words and how we use them. Demagogues, promoters, politicians, or people who truly believe what they say, pick and chose words to try to convince others that there is only one way, one code, one answer to the great questions of the day. The truth is, even the most provable of theories is subject to change. Not interpretation, but change. As new discoveries are made, new knowledge gained, new truths must be recognized, must displace old theories, becoming the new "conventional wisdom."

Some people are stuck with their own limited vocabulary, just as some must rely on failed or out-of-focus vision. Often the two go together, but most often it seems it is words that fail them. Fail all of us. Precision cannot be attained without work, without thought. Thinking, and then giving voice to the results, is sometimes a slow process, but much more satisfying. And while it is often great fun to parry a verbal thrust with an immediate riposte, it should be the precise, knowledgeable reply that wins the day.

Before you say something, be certain you have something to say.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hanging Out, Hanging Together

Last week I had a visit from a colleague who worked with me about 30 years ago, and whom I had not seen since that time. We’ve kept in touch via the internet, (one of the few blessings it bestows), so neither of us was really surprised at how much the other has changed, at least to look at. Steve and I would recognize each other anywhere, I suppose. These kinds of visits are always welcome, if for no other reason than that they give all those memories we have stored away something useful to do. You realize however, that time has moved on, that you are part of a diminishing cohort. Visits like this remind us of the shortness of our future.

Usually when you sit down with someone you haven’t seen in a long time, someone you knew well once, you find yourself repeating stories, recalling events, thinking about times and people past. That part of the visit was reasonably short. About the only positive things that comes from these conversations is a realization that regardless of time, you are still here, still working, still (hopefully) growing. It is what prompts me to say, from time-to-time, that I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. For some reason I fail to internalize the fact that I probably won’t ever have time to figure that out. Still, it seems a good thing, to be looking forward more than I look back.

During the day that we spent together we visited a museum across the mountains, dedicated to photography (www.cameraheritagemusem.com). Since that is work we both had done, and my friend still does, it was of great interest to us both. I have donated equipment to the collection, including an enlarger I had bought from Steve, for my wife’s darkroom way back when that was part of the photographer’s tool kit.

In this short visit from my friend, we visited the past, the present, and then a bit of the future. Some of it is good, some tells us that we need to keep learning if we are to keep moving forward. In some ways the visit focused my thoughts how writing films has influenced my words-only work.

The essence of film writing is constructing a visual line that tells a story, and uses words to emphasize or underline or enlarge the story being told. That applies to non-theatrical as well as theatrical productions. Using film as a one-reel slide show, much like a computer-based presentation, is convenient but it isn’t "moving pictures."

One test of a film is to look at it without sound. Dialog or narration should be used to enlarge what can only be shown in bold outline. Part of my self-education as a screen writer was to look at productions with the sound off. I had to understand the basic message. If I couldn’t, then the production wasn’t ready for release. I used that technique to improve my own understanding of my craft. Looking at other people’s work silently (MOS in the jargon of the trade), I could more easily discover the bare bones of the production, see the skeleton before the meat was added. Sometimes I would find the bones so obscure that I would have to look at the production more than once, or at least with the sound on. No three stars for that one!

Now, focusing only on the written word, telling stories that may evolve from something I’ve read or seen, from a newspaper story or some obscure source, from things buried in my own subconscious, I try to write the scenes as if a director were going to set up the shot and tell the story in pictures. Description sets the scene, guides the players around the set, establishes the point of view of the scene and the story. Dialog advances the plot, gives insight into the characters, brings the many threads of a story together in a single, solid rope. And like a rope, it gains strength from the weaving together of the many separate strands.

When it’s right, we say "it all hangs together."