Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Seek the Original: There Will Be Blood

81.009% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

by Upton Sinclair

One of those books that can be retitled "Can You Finish It?" It's a thick, dense story that takes a long time to get started. In fact, the book didn't grab me until about halfway through it!

It starts with J. Arnold Ross and his six-or-seventh-grade son taking a car ride to a place in California where they are going to negotiate rights with a community to drill for oil on their land. You see, Mr. Ross is an independent oil baron. He's drilled dozens of tracts all over California, and has made quite a name for himself in the industry. The community descends into bickering with one another, and Ross abandons negotiating with those people. Instead, he drills somewhere else, on land with a much more reasonable person.

During this, Ross Jr. ("Bunny") meets Paul Watkins, a teenage runaway who wants to escape his father's religious fanaticism and strike out on his own, where he's free to think for himself and question the faith. Paul tells him there's oil on his father's land, but they're about to lose their house because they can't pay the bank anymore. Paul vanishes into the night.

Bunny is moved with compassion, so he takes his father there and begs him to buy the lease. He sees a way to get his father to do it: buy the lease and get an oil land to himself at the same time. They'll be helping a family in need and securing an oil field at once.

So they get to the Watkins ranch, Ross buys the land but doesn't tell the family there's oil on it. He is set to get millions out of the land, but only pays a few thousand for it. Bunny feels uneasy about this, but it is business.

To drill the oil, Ross has to bribe officials and buy local politicians just to get a road built. And then there is the strike. Bunny's father, along with the Petroleum Employers' Federation, put down a strike.

In practice Dad had observed that a labor union enabled a lot of officials to live off the work of the real workers; these officials became a class by themselves, a sort of vested interest, and they look out for themselves, and not for labor. They naturally had to make some excuse for their own existence, and so were apt to stir up the workers to discontent ...

Ah, but Paul, now head of the labor, argues that before Mr. Ross joined the Federation, he paid his employees a dollar a day more just to attract better workers. Once he joined what amounts to a union for the employers, he had to pay them the standard rate. The entire oil industry is unionized at the employer level who fixes prices, wages and working hours, so why should the workers not have a union to represent their interests, too?

Capital verses Labor. Bunny gets to see this conflict over and over, and then at the 45% mark or so, something interesting happens: the oil baron's son becomes a communist sympathizer. I had to slog through over 200 pages before the book got interesting. Up until then, everything Mr. Ross does comes across as just necessary to do business. But when Bunny starts to turn Red, now I have to see how this plays out.

The first world war happens, and though Bunny is protected from serving, Paul goes into it and ends up in Siberia for over a year. Bunny learns from one of his college professor the real reason for the war:

What Mr. Irving said was that our troops were in Siberia because American bankers and big business men had loaned enormous sums of money to the government of the Tsar, both before the war and during it; the Bolshevik government had repudiated these debts, and therefore our bankers and business men were determined to destroy it. It was not merely the amount of the money, but the precedent involved; if the government of any country could repudiate the obligations of a pervious government, what would become of international loans?

Bunny slowly begins to understand how the country works, and who's running it, and it isn't the government.

Bunny's father joins with Victor Roscoe, another independent oil baron, and form a joint company. As the years go by, Dad and Mr. Roscoe apply those old techniques on a bigger scale. They buy politicians, judges, everyone they need to obtain more land for drilling and to keep the workers down.

This book portrays what the communist movement was really all about, and it had nothing to do with taking hard-earned money and giving it to people who didn't earn it. It was about getting rid of the elite class of fat cats living off the work of others.

It even presents the Capitalist's point of view:

"I can buy officials, just the same as I can buy any politicians, or anybody else that a bunch of boobs can elect to office. ... It's because i had the brains to make the money, and I got the brains to use it. Money ain't power till it's used, and the reason I can buy power is because men know I can use it. ... I'm going to find oil and bring it to the top of the ground and refine it and sell it to whoever's got the price. So long as the world needs oil, that's my job; and when they can get along without oil, I'll do something else. And if anybody wants to share in that job, let him do like I done, get out and sweat, and work, and play the game."

"But Mr. Roscoe, that's hardly a practical advice for all the workers. Everybody can't be an operator."

"No, kiddo, you bet your boots they can't--only them that's got the brains. The rest have to work."

Bunny realizes all his father's wealth was earned on the backs of underpaid, overworked workers. People die getting their oil out of the ground, and yet the oil barons don't think the workers deserve a living wage, or safe conditions.

This is what the Men Who Built America thought of their workers.

This is fascinating, watching a rich kid come to terms with the reality of where his life of luxury came from. He's not really a communist, but he does sympathize with them. Really, what were the ideas that constituted a Red?

Apparently there are communist ideas: To acknowledge that the whole reason we go to war and are involved with other countries is because the rich business owners demand a return on their investment, therefore the rest of us must fight and die for them. They buy the press, the movies, the politicians and get them to present it as a moral and just reason to fight, but really it's all about money and protecting their status as the rich elite.

Perhaps we have no right to be in foreign countries. Perhaps we should leave other countries alone. Perhaps these people were merely trying to fight for their equal right. Perhaps they fight to get rid of the burden of occupation, and we are in fact the bad guy? Maybe the only threat was to the white man's ruling class and it had nothing to do with morality at all, but to protect the current establishment?

These are the ideas that got someone branded as a communist? To dare criticize America's intentions, its institutions? There was a time when certain viewpoints were heavily censored. We don't like to call it that in America, but it's what happened. Voicing ideas like these was once forbidden. These were the ideas that were branded un-American and censored??

Nothing could change the fact that it was on money wrung from Paradise workers that Bunny was living in luxury; nothing could change the fact that it had been to increase the amount of this money, to intensify the exploitation of the workers, that Paul had spent three months in jail and the other fellows were to spend nearly a year in jail.

J. Arnold Ross got rich by working his people into the ground. The Capitalists argue that without themselves to direct the whole process, none of those men would have had a job to begin with, but, Bunny wonders, does that really justify taking everything and giving next to nothing to the people who got that oil out of the ground for them? The Socialist movement was about balance and fairness, not redistribution.

Bunny witnesses all the things his father did when he was just an independent. He took the Watkins land without telling them he thought there was oil on it, bribed politicians to get roads built for him, bought up land secretly so no one suspected an oil man was there and the prices go up. When it's small like this, it's just something a man has to go get business done without being cheated.

But when Mr. Ross and Mr. Roscoe do these things on a national scale, things are different. Their company buys politicians, judges, clerks and everyone up and down the line to manipulate the government to the oil barons' favor. People fake documents, destroy still more documents and create legal reason to kick people off their land when oil is discovered on or near it. These people are out of a home, receive no compensation for the oil on their land, or the land itself, and because the oil companies bought the judges and the politicians, there is no legal recourse.

A pitiful, pitiful story--and the worst part of it, you could see it wasn't a single case, but a system. One more way by which the rich and powerful were plundering the poor and weak!

Bunny learns it isn't those who work the hardest who get the reward of riches and success, rather those who exploit others the best that get to be rich and live easy lives. He wonders if there is a better system to live by than simply to throw all the world's resources on the ground and let everyone fight for it all, and only the greediest, nastiest, most heartless people get anything.

Here are a few more good quotes:

It was a world in which some people worked all the time, and others played all the time. To work all the time was a bore, and no one would do it unless he had to; but to play all the time was equally a bore, and the people who did it never had anything to talk about that Bunny wanted to listen to.

Capitalism formed a class of rich elites who do nothing but go to parties and gossip about each other. Bunny doesn't fit into this life at all. He sympathizes with the oil workers who risk their lives to get oil out of the ground, all so he and Dad can live easy. Bunny feels guilty about it.

but what did she want with five thousand a week? To buy more applause and attention, as a means of getting more thousands and for more weeks? It was a vicious circle--exactly like Dad's oil wells. The wobblies had a song about it in their jungles: "We go to work to get the cash to buy the food to get the strength to go to work to get the cash to buy he food to get the strength to go to work--" and so on, as long as your breath held out.

It was the working world then, as it is now.

...their lack of familiarity with their jobs was a cause of endless trouble; they would slip from greasy derricks, or get crushed by the heavy pipe, and the company had had to build an addition to the hospital. But of course that was cheaper than paying union wages to skilled men!

It is cheaper to hire people who don't know what they're doing and mess up more, than to hire skilled people a decent wage.

The book is about Bunny trying to decide what he is. Pink or Red. Socialist or Communist. Those who want to achieve better conditions and wages peacefully by negotiation, or those who want an outright revolution against the rich men who manipulate entire countries to protect their own power and business interests. This is what the Communists stood for. No wonder the Capitalists were so hell-bent against it.

The Capitalists despise democracy because it is only through buying the government that business can exist in this way, and they can have such power. Therefore, business becomes a competition to buy the government. The book portrays the Red goal being to break the strangle of big business on the government and restore democracy that represents the people's interests. Doesn't that sound familiar? Upton Sinclair wrote about today's world in 1927. Nothing has changed.

It's a very dense, hard-to-read book, but once J. Arnold Ross Jr. begins to sympathize with the communists, it becomes a surprising page-turner.

Compare that to....

There Will Be Blood (2007)
starring Daniel Day-Lewis

Take a moment to click on that link to rotten tomatoes. The movie has an astounding 91% rating from critics and 86% from audiences.


I found the film boring, pretentious, amateurish and unfocused. What do people see in this movie? Does anyone see anything, or was this a case of cronyism to boost a director's career?

The film has nothing to do with the book. The character names aren't the same, the events aren't the same, the themes aren't the same. The book is both a presentation of what the communists are against, and an oil baron's son trying to decide how to sympathize with the Reds without distancing himself from his father. The struggle of capital verses labor, and the young man who straddles the border between the upper class capitalists who have everything, and the lower class workers who toil for table scraps so the upper class can have that life of luxury.

The movie tries to be a character study of an oil baron named Daniel Plainview (not J. Arnold Ross). Ok, that can still work. Portraying what kind of man it takes to be an oil baron in the early 1900's could be interesting in and of itself.

The first ten minutes or so of the movie are silent. At first I thought there was something wrong with my copy, then finally something happens that makes a noise. I knew then I was dealing with a "director's film," meant to showcase the director's "vision." All right, I respect that--it worked great for Quentin Tarantino.

So a man named Paul Sunday tells them he found oil on his father's land (the family is not named Watkins for some reason). The family leases the land and they start drilling. When they finally hit oil, Plainview's son is struck deaf.

There's a scene with Eli Sunday that has him confronting Daniel about getting their share of the money. Plainview slaps Eli and shoves his face in the oil, yelling that God wasn't there for his son, so why should he pay up? Yeah, the big fight scene is just a silly slap and getting his face shoved in oil. It's poorly acted, not choreographed, not dramatic. It comes across as kinda lame.

Then Eli berates his father for letting Plainview come into their town and push them around. What? When? We have seen no evidence of Daniel pushing anyone around. He's done nothing but drill for oil, and we have not seen how this affects anyone else.

The movie tries to make Eli and Plainview into rivals. Eli the famous preacher standing for God, and Plainview the businessman who stands for no God. But just as their conflict heats up, Eli goes away to spread God's word elsewhere and isn't seen again until the end of the film.

In the book, Eli Watkins starts a religion called the Third Revelation. He encourages the congregation to commune with the Holy Spirit by going into fits of seizure and rolling around the floor speaking in tongues. He seduces all of southern California with his powerful preaching and radio messages, but he's never Ross' rival. Eli and his religion serve no purpose to the story aside from some comedy relief, and to demonstrate why the rich think they have a right to buy the government: average people are idiots, so why should businessmen respect the government and the rules when idiots like these elected those politicians?

The movie's problem is that it has no story to tell. It can't decide what it wants to be about. It's supposed to be a character study, but for as much screen time as Plainview has, we don't have a clue how he thinks, or why he does what he does. There's no big conflict, and even though he gets stinking rich, he stays completely local. He doesn't use his money on a grand scale, doesn't seem to do anything with it apart from buying himself a bigger house.

The oil guy of the movie exists in a vacuum. He has no family, no roots, no origin. In the book, he has an extended family with ties to the social upper class of the time. He has a former wife. He has business partners, political allies, and on and on. In the movie, he never branches out. His actions don't touch anyone outside of town, and there is no blood, no vendetta, no conflict, no opposition. He doesn't have to trample on anyone to get to the top, doesn't have to bribe or cheat or do very much to be the best. He must have, but the audience doesn't see it.

At the end, he goes into an amusing speech about milkshakes and kills Eli for no apparent reason. It's the most memorable scene in the film, but what was the point of all that?! Eli was never a threat to Plainview, never even a foil! The two were barely in conflict, and he just kills him like that! Why??

I was bored out of my mind watching the film, and the book was kinda boring, too, until the story finally began. The film could have portrayed the kind of man it would take to rise to the top of the oil industry, minus the Red sympathy. It tries to portray a rivalry between the man who believes everyone needs God to succeed, and the man who is succeeding without God. This could have been a good conflict, but it is so underdeveloped it doesn't exist. Instead, the movie spends all its time being artsy and stylish and completely misses the point of the story it wanted to tell.

Watching the Ross Jr. of the book become a socialist because of his millions of dollars, and discovering how the rich and powerful live off the work of others and control the governments of the world and send people to die in wars because it's good for their business, is way more interesting than trying to analyze an isolated oil baron in southern California whose actions never leave the neighborhood.

The book may be a dense, longwinded defense of the Bolsheviks and their cause, and maybe it paints too rosy a picture of what the Russian Revolution achieved prior to Stalin rising to power (which all sides agree was the worst thing possible that could have happened to the movement), but the book is far more interesting than the movie.

Kudos to the movie for inspiring me to read the book in the first place. For better and for worse, Hollywood makes books immortal.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Seek the Original: Forrest Gump

I wrote this a long time ago but didn't post it because I was afraid of coming across as too negative. As an author, I don't think it's wise to be too critical, since I live in a glass house after all. Now... I'm tired of not doing things. Refraining from action is not progress. Action is progress! So here's action!

97.03% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

Forrest Gump
by Winston Groom

A retarded (sorry, mentally challenged) man tells his life story. Life has taken him on a wild ride, and though he can't speak clearly and his mind doesn't work quite like you and me's, he done lived a good life.

You see, he's a huge kid. Over six feet, 200 pounds, and only a teenager. Well, one day he's walking down the street and somebody sees him and recruits him to play football for his high school. This starts him on the course of his entire life.

He doesn't understand plays and strategies, nor can he even catch the ball, but he can run. He can run very well, and nobody can get in his way. It's enough to make him a valuable player.

He gets to go to college playing football for them. He discovers he can do the complex physics equations that the professors took years to learn. He is labeled an idiot savant: super intelligent in a small number of areas, and yet, with an IQ of 75, barely able to spell his own name.

He learns to play the harmonica as soon as he picks one up, surpassing his friend, Bubba, who has been practicing for so long. When the game goes bust, he has to drop out of college and the Army snatches him up and ships him to Vietnam.

Using his football running skills, he pulls several wounded soldiers from harm's way. He is wounded in combat, sent to a hospital, picks up ping pong and excels at it instantly. He is discharged, meets president Johnson for a medal of honor, and then he is recruited to play table tennis professionally, representing the USA in a tournament in China. He saves Mao Zedong's life, gets lost in the city, and plays in the tournament. He doesn't even know who wins or loses by the time he goes home. He wanders up north where he meets up with Jenny, a hippie girl, whom he has known since grade school. His harmonica playing gets him noticed, and he ends up in a band with her.

Jenny persuades him to throw his medal away as an act of protest against the war. He accidentally injures an important man, and is sent to an asylum. Up until now, his adventures have been believable. It's here, after the medal-throwing incident, that things take a turn for the downright ridiculous.

His talent for complex math lands him a spot at NASA in lieu of a prison sentence. Forrest is sent into space along with an abrasive female astronaut and a nasty orangutan. They crash somewhere in New Guinea, where they are taken in by a tribe of cannibals, one of whom went to Yale and became a chess player. They have to plant cotton for the cannibals for four long years.

From here on out, the book lost me. Every review on the cover says this is a hilarious satire, but I can't figure out what it's satirizing.

Over and over, Forrest is "discovered," and someone else takes him for a ride, and at everything Forrest does, he succeeds. Everyone else around him--the educated, the sane, the qualified normal people--fail in whatever they do, and here's this idiot with no plan, no direction, succeeding at everything and not even trying. That's supposed to be funny, and I think it would have worked if not for the 4-year detour with the cannibals. That one just went too far, and the rest of the book builds on those events, so I can't pretend it never happened.

After some more misadventures, he ends up making a name for himself arm wrestling at a bar. Someone hears of his talent and recruits him for pro-wrestling, and he becomes a star!

He leaves wrestling, and is discovered to be a great chess player! He happens to meet a former grandmaster and whips his ass at a game. The guy then sponsors Forrest's entry into a real chess tournament!

I'm supposed to find this funny, absurd and endearing, but instead I found it irritating. Forrest isn't even on board with any of this stuff. Other people approach him, recognize his talent and say he's perfect for this, or a natural at that. They offer to bring him into ping pong, or pro-wrestling, or tournament chess, or running for senate. None of it is Forrest's idea. He's just there, doesn't know what he's doing or why, but he sure is good at everything that comes his way.

We should all be so lucky to be "discovered." We should all be so lucky to succeed at everything without even trying, like the shrimping business he starts that becomes a multi-million-dollar industry overnight ('cause apparently nobody else in Louisiana farms shrimp). We should all be so lucky for life to come to us instead of making us find it.

When Forrest finally makes a decision for himself, instead of letting someone else tell him he should do this or that, his life falls into place. But even that's not enough because he gets bored of it, walks away, lives on the streets like a bum, figures out how to play keyboard and becomes a one-man-band!

What is the point? What is this satirizing? What's so funny? I was on board until chapter 12. Really, I was, but after that point it becomes too ridiculous for its own good, and not even in a funny way. If there is a joke, I missed it.

I do like how the idiot of the story seems to be the normal person, and all the normal people are made the fools for it, but I don't think the book draws enough attention to that. Perhaps Macbeth was right. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, symbolizing nothing. That seems to be Gump's life all right. I don't think it's all that funny, and if it had something to say, I missed it.

compare that to

Forrest Gump (1994)
starring Tom Hanks

Taking every adventure of Forrest Gump that works and leaving out the ones that don't, adding in a few new ones.

As a kid, Forrest is in leg braces. He meets Elvis Presley, where he dances along with Elvis' guitar playing. Then Elvis starts dancing just like Forrest did.

He's good at running, and coach recognizes this and recruits him. He plays football through high school and college, gets a degree for it and meets president Kennedy, shakes his hand and shares a joke.

Then he's shipped off to Vietnam, picks up table tennis, meets president Johnson, shows him his war wound and is recruited for the team to play against the Chinese. Forrest is discharged, buys a boat and starts a shrimping business in honor of Bubba, his shrimp-obsessed Army friend who was killed in the war.

It's actually much better than the book. Forrest's misadventures are more down to earth. There's no being shot into space, no living with cannibals, no wrestling, no Hollywood gig, no chess championship, no reunion with the orangutan that flew into space with him and keeping him as a pet for years. In the book, Forrest has so many adventures, and they follow such a predictable pattern and become so ridiculous that he becomes a cartoon character. Omitting these adventures improves the story greatly because now, in the movie, Forrest becomes a real person who could conceivably have gone through life this way.

The movie also explains why Forrest's shrimp business takes off: a hurricane destroys everyone else's business but Forrest's. Bad news for the local economy, good news for him, who is able to rush in and dominate the industry. (Symbolic of America after WWII? ...nah)

Jenny returns, leaves him, and Forrest decides to go jogging. He has no reason to stop, so he just keeps running because why not? He runs around the country for three years. This sounds like something Forrest would have done, and for just that simple reason. It's a hell of a lot more believable than him getting recruited for a chess tournament and a Hollywood movie at the same time. Forrest is a real person in the movie, and the audience can identify with him and his trip through American history. I don't know what he's supposed to be in the book.

In the movie, Dan is Forrest's lieutenant, and he's wounded in battle. Forrest pulls him out of the jungle and saves his life, but he loses both of his legs. In the book, Forrest doesn't meet him until he gets to the hospital. They become friends, but they didn't serve together.

Dan becomes a down-and-out bum in both versions of the story, but I actually like the book's take on why he becomes depressed. The Dan in the book thought he had life figured out. He had an academic philosophy for how life works, and he thought he was living by it until Vietnam happened to him. Now his life's philosophy is in shambles and he doesn't know what to do or where to go.

The movie uses this idea, but now Dan is convinced he's destined to die a hero in the war, and Forrest ruined his plan. It's a weaker reason, but his and Forrest's relationship is much stronger in the movie than it is in the book, more than making up for the slightly less sophisticated reason for Dan to be so depressed. Digitally removing his legs in every scene he's in is incredibly well done. Creepy, too.

Incorporating Forrest Gump into these archival reels is a nice touch. It's very convincing, though you can tell something just ain't quite right. The lips synch up with the voice, but something is still off... They go by so fast you don't have time to question them, so they're amusing for the couple seconds they're on screen and then we move on.

Subtle special effects, detailed sets and costumes and lots of archival footage recreate every era of American history in recent memory. Forrest feels like a real person who somehow made his way through all of it. He may be an idiot, but things turned out all right.

Now that his adventures are more grounded in reality; now that Forrest isn't ridiculously good at absolutely everything; now that he doesn't get shot into space and become a chess champion, his life story is amazing to watch. Its message is a little unclear, but it's more than the book, which had nothing at all.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Interesting pictures

It's official: my childhood is officially RETRO. I owned every one of those toys except the sock monkey. I loved my tinker toys, though the new ones are all plastic. No wood :-(

Guilmon, save me from the Y2K Bug!

At the office.

Father and daughter.


Comfortable dogs.

The Rain Outside.


Watching you write.

A visitor.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Last Haul complete, 300K words

It's done. Third draft complete as best as I can, thirteen months after I began it. I still worry about the visuals during the final confrontation, but there's always time to fix that up if necessary.

Three books.

One story.


My eyes hurt so much.

My oldest idea is finished. It's about 300,000 words--my second project of such length.

Nobody is going to publish this, not until I prove myself with something shorter. My trip to ConText confirmed it.

So please read my shorter works and enjoy them so I can publish the big stuff :-)

No more big stuff. Everything I do in the foreseeable future will be small. Short. Sweet. Something that won't take up so much energy.

I think I am finally tired. Making my oldest, biggest idea real took a lot of work. Someday it will pay off. Someday everyone will know it.