Go, Thief! Writing as Collaborative Piracy

 

howididit (1)

“A thief who steals from a thief is pardoned for one hundred years”—Eli Wallach as Calvera (Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai remake soon in theaters near you)

As a grad student taking creative writing classes, I did a lot of workshopping, but received little practical advice.  Most everything learned is earned, not given.  However, the best counsel I got was as an undergraduate toiling away in my Intro to Fiction course: “If you see something you like, steal it” (the professor/novelist who uttered these words will obviously not mind my failing to attribute to him here.)

There’s not much stealing of money by novelists, short-fictioneers, playwrights, and poets going on (we leave that to the publishing houses).  On the other hand, the best and worst of us do steal material pretty liberally from each other.   Some of this is unconscionable laziness, but I think those who take their craft seriously do hold themselves to a few self-imposed rules, which I’d like to codify here by supplementing my old professor’s advice with what I call the “Rule of Three O’s”: “By all means, steal: but try not to steal too often; nor too obnoxiously; nor too obviously.  Penalties exist for each.

  • Too often. No one likes to be labeled an unoriginal hack.  I mean, if you do this daily, you might as well become a television journalist and get paid well.  None of them seems to have recognized that Donald Trump has lifted most of his campaign platform from Adolf Hitler (“Make _______ Great Again,”) but you know that if one did, they’d all be parroting it.  Because there is no honor among thieves: they turn on each other.   Genre writers are in greatest danger of returning to the well too often, killing the golden goose, choose your cliché (a word-level version of this crime).
  • Too obnoxiously. You wouldn’t carjack a Corvette and then drive it around the same county without at least a re-paint, would you?  That’s just not right.  A plot, for example, needs to be sufficiently re-dressed to make it palatable.  Some recognize that the story of Jason Bourne is a retelling of Frankenstein, just as Blade Runner was (and to some extent the Wolverine and Deadpool tales): Scientist manipulates human limitations; scientist gets re-visited over and over by the subject of his experiment (“Why would he come back now?”)  It’s a good story with much psychological depth and breadth, as well as moral/ethical implications, which is why it gets told every five years.  Another version of obnoxious theft is a too-clever playing with familiar phrases.  Some writers get so good at this, they’re dangerous:  “Code of Dishonor,” “Twice Bitten,” “Can’t Stand In Heat.”  Seriously, why would you even crack the cover of a book entitled “For a Few Zombies More?”  Do you expect the writing to improve after that?
  • Too obviously. If last week’s marquee title is The Terminator, and you rush-premiere a B-movie called The Decimator, The De-resonator, or The Decaffeinater, even the trolls on the forums will crucify you (now there’s a story worth retelling,) without even watching it. And you deserve it.

Which leaves us with the question of how to do stealing right.  There are perhaps a hundred ways, so let’s “borrow” a few from the greats:

Allusions. Usually at the word level, these nuggets are on full display for those in your audience who may have read more than three or four books.  When John Steinbeck cribbed his novel’s title, In Dubious Battle, from the proem of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, it was more than a pretty phrase he admired.  He wanted to signal, perhaps, that workers in contemporary America (the many and weak) were being warred upon by Satanic forces (the few and powerful).  Steinbeck, in fact, grifted several of his titles from Biblical or semi-biblical sources: The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and other writers (Of Mice and Men).

Homages/parodies. In Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks wasn’t trying to get away with piracy, but instead to rely on the audience’s familiarity with both the story and previous remakes from Hollywood.  The result is wonderful: How I did It is the title of the Baron’s journal. The great danger I see, today, is that in a semi-literate culture, exposure to 2nd, 3rd, and farther-removed parodies takes the place of reading the originals, rather than supplementing it.  Children, of course, will claim they can survive on candy; and so it’s no surprise to hear twenty-somethings argue they can distill the important news from The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.

Shakespeare, yes even he of the cranium enormous, raided the Plot and trappings of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and probably Othello and Romeo and Juliet from earlier sources. Now, given what he accomplished with them, and the relative scarcity of masterplots, this is forgivable.  How many people recognize that The Terminator is a thematic retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (by attempting to avoid predestined events, one can actually bring them to pass)?  Cameron simply converted prophecy to time-travel (two sides of the same coin).

Update/Remake for a modern audience. Emerson said that every generation had to reinvent its stories (here I’m paraphrasing—at least I’m giving the guy credit!)  Especially the out-of-copyright ones (wink to the publishers and movie studios there.)     I suspect 2016’s Birth of a Nation will not much resemble the original.  You did know that was first made by D.W. Griffiths in 1915, adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen (1905,) didn’t you?  Film and literary critics fascinate themselves with analyzing how remakes tell us much about the culture that produced them, by emphasizing and deemphasizing certain elements of the ur-story.

Recasting from a different perspective. Euripides is perhaps the most prolific of western writers here.  He recast much of Greek mythology from the point-of-view of “the other,” the marginalized characters: Medea, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae.  A very neat and risky trick.  How many Americans do you know that would enjoy a film about how the Russians sacrificed twenty million souls to defeat the Nazis in World War II?  And yeah, that did happen.

Which brings us to pseudo-history. Spielberg’s Amistad, Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, Stone’s JFK, anything by Michael Moore in a more documentary mode, are all masterful narratives.  They are not history, by any serious definition.  BUT, they weren’t meant to be: they ARE meant to raise the spirit of inquiry in the audience, to challenge them to learn more and seek the truth themselves.  Poe did this with his unreliable narrators, but the solutions lay within his stories themselves.  Here, the facts lie outside the story, in other accounts one would have to research.  Sadly, this is all too infrequently done, and the pseudo-history stands as the somewhat-removed Truth.

So writers, don’t worry so much about books getting stolen, in either analog or digital form.  One way or another, it’s all in the public domain, there for the taking–isn’t it?  Put it this way–no one ever promised to pay you, anyway.  Given the choice, you’d rather give it away than keep it to yourself.

stock-video-69270945-pirate-stylus-writes-on-the-paper

 

 

Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Zombie Apocalypse Now

ImageImage

A history of Zombie evolution through the 20th century is beyond my scope here, and I’ll confine myself to a discussion of the genre, post-Romero. The old resurrection of corpses by a lone human agent, whether through Voodoo or arcane science, is sufficiently similar to the Frankenstein myth to enter into a separate analysis, another time.

Zombies as individual threats have, over time, been replaced by zombie hordes and ultimately by the all-inclusive Zombie Apocalypse, so familiar to audiences nowadays that exposition in films can be all but dispensed with, and we can proceed straight to the grisly action. How and why Armageddon happened hardly matters (we can reasonably infer it the result of human perversion,) only when, where, and most importantly, to whom. The phrase “zombie apocalypse” has become a widespread joke, masking deep-seated cultural anxieties about the future, with tentative laughter, while we quietly dig our holes (whether real or symbolic) and fill them with canned goods.

Apocalyptic tales in general are a cultural fantasy of starting over, because the mess we’re in now (economic, moral, political –- pick your poison) is just too deep, and nothing less than a scouring down to a clean bottom, not unlike the flood from which Noah escaped with his chosen few, will set things straight. Here I use the term “Fantasy” as not just the imaginative incarnation of a desire, but also an unconscious fear. We can never, by force of will and cooperation, dig ourselves out of the mire of industrial waste and human sewage we ourselves have created. This societal attitude finds its way symbolically into the story: instead of harnessing the id-energy to just “Run!,” most of the disposable characters simply cry, stumble, give up. Are the “tough” characters any better? On this archetypal level, both the “strong” wish to carry on and start over, and the “weak” act of simply falling down and letting the disaster overtake you, amount to the same abandonment of hope in society, as it now stands. In short, the apocalypse is a dramatization of the embracing of our race, collectively, of that deadliest of all sins: despair.

But what makes the Zombie Apocalypse so special?

The eating of the flesh, but especially the dainty of the brain, is telling. For it’s the left brain, the logic and the reason, that have brought all the crud down upon us by overwhelming the dictates of the right, creative and compassionate, and therefore undervalued, side of the mind. Today, computers replace the arts, infodata replaces knowledge, and destructive weapons replace generative technology. Therefore, in the aftermath of the fall, humans are often reduced to lower and lower forms of tech (trucks, then guns, chainsaws, finally axes and clubs,) and communications fail. For those paying attention to every detail, note the prevalence of images and use of the bare hands. Poetic justice.

Like the decline of civilization itself, the advance of zombies may at times be shambling and slow, but it is inevitable, and ultimately no escape is possible. They have the numbers, and the inexorable force of inertia. The horde is only the virus writ large. To spread, absorb, and move on is its very nature.

Enter our small band of resistors —- white blood cells incarnated –- varying from a single person to perhaps six or eight defined characters. Most will be claimed, one by one, amid the agonizing recognition that once someone gets infected, there’s simply nothing to be done. Unlike an alcoholic or addict who can get into a program and be reclaimed by, in a word, love, these stories tell us that love and trust are not enough, because they’re overpowered by too many other factors, mindless selfishness foremost (sometimes disguised as survival instinct.)

And that’s the point. Although it only explicitly resurfaces occasionally, inspired by the Romero sequel Dawn of the Dead, zombie stories, amid their barren landscapes, do furnish fertile ground for social criticism. They almost always employ an isolated setting and a microcosm of disparate characters, the last representatives of types of people now gone. The plot archetype beneath the collective and individual struggle for survival emerges as what Campbell called the Scapegoat Myth, wherein other human beings are sacrificed impulsively for one’s own personal safety/comfort (as in the all-too-human pushing of someone aside to escape the pursuing horde), or ritualistically, for the supposed good of the community at large, as simply told in the classic Shirley Jackson tale “The Lottery,” or most recently convoluted by Joss Whedon in his Cabin in the Woods (2011). In such tales, Man is revealed as the most monstrous Thing of them all, because alone among created beings does he turn on his own kind – zombies, aliens, pirahna, at least, do not eat each other. But a man will slay his brother, or steal his life savings, or repossess his house, or covet his wife. All in slavish worship of his insatiable hunger.

Afraid of what might happen? Brother, the symbols are telling us it’s already happening.

Digest this refrain from The Hooters’ 1985 song “All You Zombies”:

All you zombies hide your faces

All you people in the street

All you sittin’ in high places

The rain’s gonna fall on you

* * * *

Endings of these stories vary according to the temperaments of the writers, but, almost always, there is little hope for humankind to be gleaned from them. This runs counter to the typical Hollywood paradigm, and may partially explain the resistance of Big Money to embrace the genre. Mainstream films in America like to offer hope. But the perennial willingness to scapegoat others signals, unavoidably, hope’s antithesis: humans, as a species, haven’t evolved enough resistance to the disease of our desires and fears, and don’t deserve to survive.

Image

Ask yourself, Why is this funny?