Month: May 2014

Godzilla and “Postnarrative” film


It occurred to me while watching the latest Godzilla movie that we are entering a new era in filmmaking. I call it Postnarrative. In this Brave New World movies don’t much bother with characters or plot. They don’t tell stories in the traditional sense. In Postnarrative filmmaking characters and plot are just mechanisms to move us from set-piece to set-piece. Maybe also to sell copies of Maxim, depending on the Obligatory Female Supporting Character & Love Interest (OFSCLI)…

megan fox transformers maxim

Michael Bay’s Transformers movies originated and perfected this formula. In Godzilla it reaches its zenith. In Godzilla we’re not even going from set-piece to set-piece so much as “really cool shot” to “really cool shot” (or “sequence of really cool shots” to “sequence of really cool shots”). Note that I began this post with a picture centered, taking up the entire column width. It expresses the essential quality of Postnarrative movies. It says screams LOOK AT THIS AND BE AMAZED!

There is, for example, the halo jump sequence referenced in that image. In visual terms it’s absolutely stunning. I’ve never made a halo jump. I most certainly never will. But the sequence feels right in terms of what it would look like to parachute into a thunderstorm over a ruined city where three giant monsters are battling to the death.

There is another sequence that tracks a dog tied up at the beach as it flees an oncoming tidal wave, from the moment it breaks its chain to when it reaches the Great Mass of Innocent Bystanders clogging the city streets.

Godzilla is just a collection of these moments. Sure, we have a generic military dude and his family (watch for Elizabeth Olsen as the OFSCLI!) to follow around. And sure, Brian Cranston and Juliet Binoche show up for a little bit — just long enough to justify a paycheck, it seems. But Godzilla doesn’t give us any reason to care about them. So we don’t. The result feels more like a ride at Universal Studios than a movie.

I am not going to defend Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla movie. I bring it up only to mention Jean Reno’s performance as Philippe Roche, a French DGSE agent. The role was never going to win him an Oscar. But he was an interesting character to watch, and I at least felt invested in his fate. Godzilla 2014 has no such character. Ken Watanabe could have been that guy, but Max Borenstein’s script doesn’t give him anything to work with. Same with Brian Cranston.

Watch any of the following (in no particular order):

  • Kill Bill
  • From Dusk Till Dawn
  • Machete
  • Desperado
  • Die Hard
  • Die Hard with a Vengeance
  • The Hunt for Red October
  • The Matrix
  • Aliens

All these movies prove action and character need not be mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, Postnarrative movies seem to insist on treating them as such. They insist that if you want action and FX something else has to go. And that’s simply not true.

The Bazaar: Chapter 9

If You Can See It, You Can Kill It

Emily’s coat helped her fit in with the hotel hookers. That was one reason for it. It also happened to be ideal for concealing a compact personal defense weapon. In this case a PDW that fired .45 caliber hollow points.

She didn’t make a habit of bringing major firepower to business meetings. Usually a plain vanilla Glock got the job done. This time was different. They had both narcos and regular street hoods to deal with. Both could be equally trigger-happy.

When the shooting started Emily dropped immediately. That was all reflex.

Keep your ass down Number Eleven or this .50 cal will blow your head up like a fucking melon! That particular training exercise killed Number Three. He lost his nerve, started screaming (let me out! I want fucking out!), then bolted upright. Him slumped over the wire with bits of brain oozing out a smoking hole in his skull was the only lesson Emily ever needed on the supreme importance of keeping your goddamn head down.

When the shooting stopped she rolled up on one knee with the PDW at her shoulder, then emptied a clip into the precise location where the bullets stopped coming through the wall. Then she was up and moving toward the door, gun still at her shoulder, wielding it not as an object but an extension of her body.

Emily ducked outside and swept the hallway clear. A body lay in the corridor next to an antique AK. One of those cheap Chinese knock-offs. The shooter wore a red bandana over his nose and mouth.

A fire alarm wailed in the background.

Emily caught movement at the far end of the corridor. She squeezed off a short burst, thought she might have hit someone but couldn’t be sure. Only then did she consider it might have been be a hotel guest.

Shit. The last thing she needed was another Compliance write-up. Shit. Fuck. Shit.

Emily took off down the corridor.

At the far end she found blood spattered along the wall and carpet. She followed the trail to the stairs. It had been years since her last close-quarters battle refresher. Hopefully any other pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders had the sense to stay put and take cover.

Emily followed the blood trail down the stairs into the lobby.

On the way the shooter took a shot at her from behind a roulette table. She knew from the sound the shot was high and wild. That didn’t mean the next one would be, so Emily went low. She slid feet-first into a bank of slot machines, then got up on her haunches with her back flat against reassuringly solid metal.

Finally a moment to take stock.

Other than revenge she struggled to justify killing him. He was either with the cartels or some flunky they’d hired out of the slums. They’d stuck a gun and a wad of cash in his hand — more to follow once he wasted the gringos. He wasn’t a tradesman. Not like her. If not for the element of surprise he would hardly have rated as a threat. If she let him go he would run. The cartels would handle revenge on her own.

On top of that the military police would pitch a fit if they kicked in the doors to find her standing over yet another corpse. A sure ticket to another compliance call.

But then came her nagging professional conscience. The cops were nowhere in sight (no coincidence), and even an amateur might possess some valuable nugget of local intel…

Emily peeked round the corner.

The two roulette tables sat in the center of the machines. Her shooter had taken cover behind the first. A terrible mistake. He should have run into the street and tossed his pistol down the nearest sewer. People were good at forgetting things in this part of town. He might have lived to tell the tale over a mason jar full of slum hooch.

The most obvious problem with the shooter’s position, from a tactical perspective, was that he’d backed into a corner. No avenue for retreat. Also his position offered more concealment than cover — there was a gap between the bottom of the roulette table and the floor.

Maybe he wanted one more shot at her. Maybe he was too jacked on adrenaline to think straight. Maybe he was just plain stupid. Bottom line: his legs were clearly visible through the gap between the table and the floor.

If you could see it, you could kill it.

Again the voice of her drill instructor: You are dead Number Eleven. Do not pass fucking Go! Do not collect two hundred fucking dollars! Go straight to the fucking incinerator in the cheapest-ass goddamn box we’ve got!

Emily blind-fired around the slot machine. She heard a scream, a clattering sound, a low, sustained moan. Then came a higher-pitched sound she hadn’t heard in quite some time and might actually have been a whimper.

“Give up?”

Were he a more capable adversary Emily would have let off another burst before making any demands, just to prove she was pissed off and not to be dicked around with. But these guys weren’t exactly Syrian Republican Guard. Plus, the more time she wasted posturing the more likely he’d bleed out.

The shooter answered in piercing, high-pitched Spanish.

Emily fumbled inside her coat for her Rosetta Stone. She hooked the earpiece and mic around her ear and flicked it on. There was a brief moment of feedback before the translation came through: “…Please do not kill me…” in a monotone. The Rosetta Stone was rigid about grammar. It didn’t care for slang.

A human translator always worked better at times like this, but Emily’s happened to be lying dead upstairs.

“Slide the gun toward me along the floor,” she said. “If you have more than one then send them all. If I think you’re lying, or you’re fucking with me I’m going to shoot you dead.”

Something came skidding across the floor. A handgun sailed past Emily toward the front desk. Gradually it lost momentum, slowed, ground to a halt.

“So you remember the part about me shooting you dead if you fuck with me?”



Emily poked her head out from behind the slots. No sign of anyone else. Just her new compadre lying flat behind the roulette table.
She got to her feet and crept toward the shooter with the PDW up at the ready. She didn’t lower it till she rounded the corner of the roulette table and found her shooter lying there with blood pooled the length of her right leg.

A young woman. Very thin. Emily couldn’t settle on wiry or malnourished. Like the dead man upstairs she wore a red bandana over her nose and mouth. In all the excitement it had ridden up to expose her neck. A large, X-shaped scar ran the length of it. Her brand. “Please do not kill me,” she said.

“Let me see your face.”

The shooter tugged the bandana down below her chin. Her jaw quivered. The muscles in her face and neck went taught. Her eyes were alive with pain. Dark circles ringed her eyes. Not the purple kind you got after a sleepless night but the black, permanent rings that gradually seeped deep into your skin like tattoo ink binge after binge after binge.

“Here’s how it’s going to be,” Emily said. “I’ll ask questions. You’ll answer. If I don’t like your answers I’m going to hurt you. Understand?”


“Sample question: Who are you?”


“Wrong answer.” Emily shot Lela in the leg.

The girl shrieked like she’d stepped in a bear trap. Emily had seen that once – somewhere outside Grozny. It surprised her someone who’d made it from the slums to adulthood via Las Ninas could react so intensely to pain. Especially a woman. That level of sensitivity ought to have been beaten or gangbanged out of her years ago.

“Who are you?” Emily repeated.

“Ninas!” Lela howled.

“Who sent you?”

“The boss.”

Emily paused for a moment, unsure whether Lela meant “the boss” as in “my boss” or “El Jefe” as proper name. The latter being street for the casino operator/money launderer/sometime narco flunky/black market tech broker who’d helped arrange this fucked-up buy. “Why’d he trade us out?”

“I do not know,” Lela wailed. “They tell me go and do, I go and do. They get phone calls. Plans from other bosses. The others say there is a man who tells them things. No one sees him. He stays locked in the room.”

“Is he one of you?”

Emily recognized Fulton’s voice so she didn’t bother turning. She never put her back to a shooter, even one so disarmed and pathetic as this. She translated the question.

“Please!” Lela exclaimed. “I do not know I just hear things. I need a doctor I am dying here.”

“Who sees him?” Fulton asked.

“I told you before no one here sees him. They are just stories anyway. They might be making them up.”

Emily looked to Fulton over her shoulder, careful to keep Lela in her peripheral vision. Take your eyes off the enemy and you will be dead, Number Eleven. Stone fucking dead on your way to the incinerator in that cheap-ass goddamn box. “Anything more questions?”

A police siren kicked on in the distance. The cops had finally checked their watches, sighed, tossed their half-smoked cigarettes. A bribe only bought so much time. They had to show up eventually.

“I’d like a moment to think,” Fulton said.

“No time.” Emily turned back to Lela and put a bullet through her forehead.

The Extremis Review on “Vampire Brides from Planet Hell”

Julian Munds at The Extremis Review has reviewed “Vampire Brides from Planet Hell.” You can read the whole thing here (and you really should, especially for his insights on the history and qualities of pulp fiction). For those of you with attention span issues, however, here are the bits that pertain specifically to “Vampires”:

Here at Extremis we don’t like to pass judgement on publications through the lens of good or bad. We strive to examine our subjects on their own terms. And so I look at Vampires as a good example of pulp. A story worthy of a read from anyone who likes a pulpy violent adventure for a hot afternoon in the backyard with a beer.

The story concerns a space mercenary, hired by the aristocracy of a galactic empire to save a noble damsel from a coven — can I call a group of vampires a coven? — of alien vampires.

The story feels like a mixture of the tail end of From Dusk Till Dawn, mixed with the language of a Silver Age comic, headed by a hero who is reminiscent of Han Solo.

Without giving too much away, and ruining the short 19 page tale, nothing is what it seems.

I have no qualms with calling this story pulp; pulp that isn’t half bad to read. There are rich characters and inspired sparse description. What you’d want from a short story.

If there is a failing in the story, it is not the story itself, but the narrative voice. The whole yarn is told from first person perspective.

What is tough about the narrative voice of Vampires… is that descriptions that would be common place in third person read as stilted and forced. At times Chandler’s narrative voice feels conscious of itself like he does not trust the reader to fill in the holes. This lack of clarity makes it hard to grasp the protagonist in the beginning.

The self consciousness is only present in the opening few pages of the story and when the conflict gets going the narrative finds a nice rhythm. The archetypes and quick violence of the story carry the reader away to the seedy world of Drekken IIi. By the end, I was sold.

Chandler continues the rich tradition of pulp. It makes you long for the days when you could buy this and twizzlers as you check out your groceries.

Incidentally, Julian and his team put out some pretty great content. As an example I’d offer up this post: “What Star Trek’s Balance of Terror Can Teach Us About the Ukraine Crisis.” The Extremis Review‘s tagline is “Where Fandom Becomes Literate!!!” As you can see they come by it honestly.

“Like Killing A Mockingbird” published!

It’s been a long time coming, but “Like Killing A Mockingbird” has finally been published on Every Day Fiction.

You can read the full story here:

I would love to hear what you think!

The Bazaar: Chapter 8

Shell Shock

The first thing Fulton noticed when he flipped back to the room was the wall opposite him, riddled with bullets. The holes ran in a line about six inches above where he laid flat on the bed.

He didn’t react at first. He didn’t know how to react. He had never fired a gun, much less been shot at. The closest he’d ever been to live gunfire was playing silly FPS games where terrorists took over the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China and half the point was inflicting collateral damage on whatever UNESCO World Heritage Site happened to be playing host to the carnage.

Gradually, as his chip’s sensory damper wore off, Fulton became aware of other details.

Lingering smoke. The smell of cordite.

Plaster dust all over everything as if someone had played Jack Frost with a kilo of cocaine.

Luis and Flannel Shirt lying face-down and bloody on the floor.

Fulton sat alone with the bodies.

Emily was gone.

The Bazaar: Chapter 7

Black Widow

The spider person spoke with Claire’s voice.

The resemblance didn’t end there. It had her face. Her body. Not quite an exact copy, though. You had to work off personal photos or hacked medical records for that, and Reese wasn’t a detail man. Here Claire’s features were harsher than Fulton remembered: her face more narrow, her nose and chin more pointed. In fact all the angles were sharper. Everything about her had gotten more jagged in the rendering. Her eyes were the same pristine blue Fulton remembered from the funeral, but here they were devoid of warmth or light. They could have been glass marbles stuck into her skull.

Claire the Black Widow.

Reese coined the name after a half bottle of scotch or handful of Valium. Fulton couldn’t immediately recall which. “I’m here to see David,” he said.

“I’m sorry, Sir. Is that one of our guests?”

“Do you have anyone by the name of David Reese?”

“Please give me a moment to check.”

Claire cocked her head forty-five degrees to the right. “I believe we do have a Mister Reese staying with us. Room 113. May I ask if he is expecting you?”

“We’re old friends.”

“I see. Right this way.”

The spider led him out of the lobby and down a long corridor with threadbare carpet. Bare, incandescent light bulbs hung from the ceiling. They cast a sickly yellow light over everything. Walking with the Claire Spider beside him making its characteristic tick tick tick sound Fulton realized the corridor itself was an optical illusion. They walked and walked but never really went anywhere. The floor and walls shifted parallel to them in such a way that Fulton and Claire actually remain in place, in front of room number 13, which Fulton knew well enough as the number of the room where Reese shot himself.

“What do you know about Mister Reese?” Fulton asked.

Claire Spider stopped.

In lieu of answering it swung one of its massive javelin-like legs out from its body and tapped the door to room 13. The door creaked open a crack. A line of pale light spilled out into the hallway.

“Can I go in?”

Claire placed her metal leg perpendicular to the door frame, as if to bar retreat.

Fulton rephrased: “Must I go in?”

She jabbed at the door frame. The pointy end of her spider’s leg sank a good inch into the lacquered wood.

Fulton edged toward the door.

Then came a sustained banging noise — close and at the same time far away. It echoed through the corridors, seemed to emanate from the walls themselves, and Fulton knew immediately it was not part of Reese’s app.

The sound was gunfire, and the gunfire was real.

How creative writing helped me prepare for the CFA Exam

In a word: discipline.

Writing isn’t so much different from studying. For the most part it is a lonely, thankless task with an uncertain payoff. Most of us (myself included) have to squeeze it in between making a living, spending time with significant others, working out and handling all of life’s other ups and downs. As I see it there are two main things that keep writers going:

  1. A compulsive (mildly unhealthy?) desire to transfer ideas from our imaginations to the page.
  2. The knowledge that with every word we write we get better at our “craft.” Ironically enough, reason number two is pretty much the same reason people pursue professional development. That and making more money — which I’m pretty sure most writers aspire to anyway.

Motivation aside, writing is a long haul. If I’m really in the zone I can knock out about 1,000 words an hour. My average is probably closer to 500 or 600. Assuming the average novel is 100,000 words long, it would take me an average 200 hours to produce a draft.

The CFA Institute recommends roughly 300 hours of study for each level of the exam. From a time perspective, studying is like writing a somewhat longer-than-average novel every year for three years. Challenging but hardly impossible — particularly when you’ve spent a couple decades honing your independent study skills.

Speaking broadly, the discipline you develop writing will help you throughout life. People tend to dislike tasks that are lonely, introspective and time-consuming. People also tend to lack discipline. If you develop the ability to work independently on projects and deliver consistent results, you will be shocked at what you can achieve, whether in the realm of art, business, finance or fitness.

Breathe a sigh of relief, writers: you’re basically there already.

The Bazaar: Chapter 6

“Black Screen of Death”

Their hotel room should have been wired.

But when Faisal switched from the lobby surveillance system to the channel that should have had the feed from the room he found nothing, just a black screen and a curt message informing him of no channel output, to please check his hardware configuration. A Black Screen of Death.

He dialed in on his lens to be sure.

The same message materialized across his vision in shimmering blue letters: No output, please check hardware config.

Faisal slammed a fist off the table. “Where the fuck is my feed?”

It was a difficult thing, to turn around and face your critics. Particularly when they were AK-wielding narco militants with a festering case of small-dick syndrome. They stood huddled behind him, chattering furiously in pidgen Spanish.

Faisal knew they were important as soon as they stepped into his shack. There was a clear hierarchy out here in the jungle. You could tell a person’s class by his clothes.

Natives were lowest of the low. They wore whatever rags they could scrounge. They weren’t members of the Liberation Front or the cartels, just cheap labor (cheap labor = slave labor). They worked the refineries spread throughout the jungle, where they turned large volumes of coca leaves into refined cocaine bound for Europe and America. They were kitchen staff, pack animals and occasionally human mine detectors. The narcos/rebels recruited and managed them at gunpoint.

Next up the chain came foot soldiers and site managers. These guys got actual clothes, but their outfits were a bizarre mix of donated items from less-impoverished nations. One guard standing in the shack wore shirt with block red, white and blue lettering across the front boldly trumpeting the New England Patriots Superbowl XLII win and undefeated season.

Faisal had seen those shirts before: Palestine, Libya, Egypt, Zimbabwe, the Congos. All over the world the downtrodden and destitute were wearing sports history’s great might-have-beens, each a tiny window on a parallel universe where it went the other way.

Eat that, many-worlds theory.

The bulk of the men milling behind Faisal, however, were the highest-ranking narcos: military and political leadership. You could tell them a long way off because they had actual military uniforms (olive drab ensembles vaguely reminiscent of the Castro brothers). Faisal swore he spotted a few Israeli Defense Force castoffs in the mix. Beside them, set slightly apart, was Don Carlos in his white linen suit, smoking Turkish cigarettes out of a camel-bone holder.

Really Faisal could give a shit about the narco big shots.

Don Carlos was a different story. Don Carlos had friends outside the jungle: Abu Nidal, Army of Islam, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iranian Quds (who Ahmed felt ought to have grown the balls to wash their own dirty sheets by now), the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, al-Qaida and its various and sundry subsidiaries (AQAP, AQIM, AQASEAN), Ansar Dine, ETA, even some warmed-over bits of Irish Republican Army for good measure.

Also Don Carlos reminded Faisal of his father. He had a firm handshake. He did business in person. Faisal’s father did his best work in the souqs. He tore Faisal away from his terminal for whole afternoons to explain arbitrage, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes forcing his son to sprint from stall to stall with handfuls of cash to prove how fast you had to be to make money this way. Well-intentioned maybe. But he never quite grasped that Faisal already understood arbitrage (definition & practice), and that Faisal really spent those afternoons wondering why the fuck he would ever run back and forth between money changers’ stalls like a madman when every major currency exchange in the world had the good sense to use computers.

Faisal cranked his neck around and shouted over his shoulder. “How the fuck am I supposed to know when the broker shows up if I don’t have a feed? Did I tell I was psychic? I don’t think so. I can’t see through space and time. Do I look like fucking Nostradamus to you?”

Paolo, his translator, looked to Don Carlos for direction.

Don Carlos ashed his cigarette.

Faisal’s face flushed. “Translate that!”

Don Carlos said something in Spanish that was most definitely not Faisal’s rant about not being psychic. The thing Faisal never understood about Don Carlos (by association his own father) was how a well-organized guy with so much ambition could sit back and take this kind of bullshit in stride. It was sloppy. It was unprofessional. It was the reason the Russians and Chinese couldn’t stand to work with Latins and Arabs. All the hacking talent in the world didn’t mean shit if your guys couldn’t plug in a USB cable.

If Faisal were in Don Carlos’ shoes he’d chainsaw the flunkies to pieces and feed them to his pet alligators.

Mistakes like this destroyed reputations, and in this business reputation was more important than money, sex and health. Reputation was life.

Bad enough these primitive assholes had him running the sting off old-fashioned hardware: custom-built PCs, a couple all-in-one flat screens, an old push-button keyboard banged all to hell with an ambiguous stain on the space bar.

A step back in time for the clients’ benefit, Don Carlos had explained. The customer was always right. Apparently even if that involved stepping so far back in time you slowed the ops to a snail’s space so the clients could wrap their tiny minds around it.

Faisal preferred direct data links so Don Carlos didn’t have to bother with a lot of ungainly explanation and narration. It was generally easier to show than tell. But here the clients were so dense that just wasn’t possible. None of them were wired. Not a single augmented brain among them. Explaining ops was like teaching cavemen to use a particle accelerator. For these guys the net existed on screens and inside hardware: mobile handsets, laptops, tablets, televisions. They were living in the past. In the late twentieth century, actually. They belonged in a museum.

“How am I supposed to do my job if they don’t do theirs?” Faisal asked. “It’s in the contract, isn’t it? It’s not our fault if they fuck up.”

Don Carlos held up a hand, which was Don Carlos for shut up kid. “Send the shooters anyway,” he said.

Faisal sighed, turned back to his hardware and punched RETURN on his antique keyboard.

Fuck this, he thought.

…And now for a form rejection

You can’t win them all. While Every Day Fiction accepted “Like Killing A Mockingbird,” Flash Fiction Online has summarily rejected “First Corinthians.” The email didn’t get into details. The original submission guidelines, however, stated that the editor isn’t looking for downer stories. I have a feeling “First Corinthians” was a bit too much of a downer, what with its central premise being the absence of God and all.

“Like Killing A Mockingbird” accepted

After a somewhat lengthy wait (and a rewrite) Every Day Fiction has accepted my flash story, “Like Killing A Mockingbird.” According to their editorial calendar the story will be published on May 20.

I can’t say enough about the editorial team at EDF. They have given me great critical feedback throughout the submission process and have really pushed me to improve the story. It’s come a long way since the first draft. I will post a link when “Like Killing a Mockingbird” goes live on May 20.