Thursday, December 20, 2007

Going Postal (part three)

(When last we left our hero, he was standing in a slow moving line at the post office remembering past lines in the post office when he was just starting out writing short stories... much as Marcel Proust ate a cookie and remembered things past.)


So, the magazines where Stephen King was first published had evolved into porn... and the editor liked my stuff, but thought it needed, well, porn.

I took some of the Cain inspired and McDonald inspired stories and added a sex scene. A graphic sex scene. Often featuring unusual sex. Well, at least unusual for me, and probably unusual for the readers of Dugent magazines, since the lure of the story would be some fantasy thing that they couldn’t get their wives to do. Anyway, I added scenes to existing stories and then went down to the post office...

But now, when I was standing in line, I was embarrassed. I was holding a porno story in my hands. A story filled with sex... and unusual sex at that. I wondered if the other people in line looked at the name of the magazine on the envelope and *knew*. I wondered if the postal clerk *knew*. I couldn’t wait to get this over with and get home.

The results were pretty much the same - only know Mr. Dewalt’s handwritten notes were even more encouraging. Often the reason for rejection was that they had recently published a similar story. Part of the problem I had was trying to “normalize” writing what was essentially porn with a story wrapped around it. You might watch a movie like THE ICE STORM and think that everybody was into free love in the 70s, but I didn’t know anybody doing that. There were porno movie theaters in Concord (the old Enea) and Walnut Creek (the El Rey, know as the El Lay) but I didn’t know anybody who ever went there. I knew the *projectionist* at the El Lay, a deeply religious man who plastered religious messages over the projectionist's window so that he could not see anything on screen. This created a major problem if the film was out of focus or when he had to do change-overs to a new reel. Often, the raincoat crowd complained... but he wasn't going to look at the scren to see what was wrong and correct it! Sex was still something private, and maybe a little dirty, to me. And here I was writing short stories filled with sex.

And as Dugent struggled for their men’s magazine market share against Hustler, they went deeper and deeper into porn territory. First with their pictorials, then with their stories. Soon I was standing in line at the post office worried that someone would know the complete smut I had in my 9x12 envelope with a nested 9x12 return envelope inside. Couldn’t I just mail this from the privacy of my home? Or stand in the post office line wearing a brown paper wrapper?

Just as Mr. Dewalt was scribbling that my story was one of the two up for the issue, and aced out because the other guy had a stranger sex scene, I was realizing that this wasn’t exactly the direction I wanted to go with my career. What if the next story sold? Okay, I’d make $300... but I couldn’t show the magazine to anybody. I couldn’t even imagine showing the magazine to my parents. It was filled with nekkid women. I made the mistake of showing them one of the stories, once... and felt like a degenerate that year at Thanskgiving. And the stories I was writing... instead of the story that was 90% my story and 10% their sex scene, the percentages had been changing along the way... and now maybe 20% of the story was “mine” - what I wanted to write. I was pretty sure Stephen King wouldn’t have written these stories.

Someplace along the line, I had landed a short story in a penny a word mystery magazine... I don’t even own a copy of that, now... lost in a flood along with a few dozen movie posters from the 1940s through 1960s I had collected. That story was the thing that set me back on track...

Oh, and getting hired to write the script that would eventually become NINJA BUSTERS.

I wrote a few short stories after that, stood in line at the post office knowing that the nested SASE would be coming back to me with a rejection letter. Even if they *did* publish the short story, what would I get? $25? No way to pay the monthly bills on that! I would focus on the screenwriting thing... Stand in line at the post office with query letters and the occasional script shipping out to Hollywood... requested by some producer.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Conflict and SPIDER-MAN 2 & 3.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Should have been chicken soup, but it was a Burrito at El Faro, Concord - a burrito so big you can't eat all of it.

Movies: I AM LEGEND. Okay, I am a huge fan of the Richard Matheson novel, even though I haven't read it in years. I first read it, probably in high school. Still have that copy. If you don't know who Matheson is, he's the guy who wrote all of those TWILIGHT ZONE episodes you remember. Seriously - make a list of 5 episodes and I'll bet at least 3 of them are his. Anyway, that's how I discovered him. I was a fan of old THE TWILIGHT ZONE TV show, noticed that Matheson wrote some of my favorite episodes, discovered that he wrote books, too... and Stephen King called his haunted house book HELL HOUSE the best horror novel ever written. An Matheson also wrote the book that was made into INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, one of my favorite Saturday afternoon Sci-Fi movies.

I AM LEGEND has been made twice before, once with Vincent Price and once with Chuckles Heston... and was the inspiration for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (so just about every modern zombie movie owes its existence to the book). Here's the thing - no one has ever done a faithful version of the book. So, several years ago they decided to correct that, and make *the book*. They needed a star, and Ah-nuld stepped up - not the guy I see playing Robert Neville, who is kind of a typical 1950s suburban husband. But I would accept Ah-nuld if the movie was like the book, rather than like the Heston version. Then Ah-nuld became governator and the project was shelved....

Until someone dug it out and did some rewrites and some more rewrites and suddenly it was nothing at all like the book... and so they made it.

My problem with the film is that it's kind of one note. I thought it started out good... then just kept going on a straight line without changing or escalating or twisting or becoming dramatic or anything else... which means it becomes more boring with every minute until it just turns to crap with a silly ending.


The book is kind of a through-the-looking-glass commentary on 1950s suburban life - the kind of stuff on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and OZZIE & HARRIET and FATHER KNOWS BEST. Robert Neville is the typical suburban husband and father who carpools to work every day with his buddy Ben Cortman... then a plague breaks out that turns everyone into vampires. Now all of his neighbors and everyone he knows lives at *night* and he is the sole person who lives by day - his world is been turned upside down.

His car pool buddy Ben Cortman is now the leader of the vampire clan in his suburban town - and comes for him every night, pounding on his door and screaming for him to come out... so that they can kill him. Every day Neville goes from house to house through the town, searching for the vampires and driving stakes through their hearts... mostly searcing for the leader, Cortman. The people he stakes - are his neighbors, his friends. It's a terrible job, but they become an army at night... and soon they will be powerful enough to get through the barricaded windows and doors of his typical suburban home. Every morning, his lawn is littered with dead vampires - people he knows. He has to clear them, take them to the giant bonfires that were designed to burn the dead when the plague had just begun taking lives...

None of that stuff is in the new movie. The creatures aren't people he knows, just CGI fake looking monsters, and who cares if you kill them or not?

But he doesn't kill them - the typical suburban dad from the book has been turned into a top military scientist who was working on curing the plague... and still is. He wants to help these vampire-creatures, not kill them. And, because he's a scientist *and* a badass army guy, he's got all the heroic bases covered. He's the *perfect* guy to deal with this sort of problem (unlike the character in the book who had to grow and change in order to deal with it).

And everything from the novel has been blunted or thrown out - In the book, his daughter contracts the plague, and he and his wife do everything they can to get her medical attention... but she dies. They want a funeral, but instead must take her body to the huge bonfire and toss her in with the others. There is nothing as sad and horrible as the mass pit where they burn the dead from the book... which is also in the Vincent Price version.

The dog death in the Will Smith version is no substitute for the daughter's death... or the wife's death and return... and death again.

That's the big scene in the book - Neville's wife gets sick... and dies. He is supposed to take her put to the big bonfire, but can't go through that again... so he sews her up in a shroud and buries her... and then she comes back - covered in earth - dead... and wanting to feed off of him. This is the love of his life... back from the dead! A miracle. He just wants to hold her in his arms. Kiss her. Tell her how much he has missed her, how much he loves her... But instead he must pound a stake into her heart! This scene destroys him... and destroys us when we read the book.

Instead we get a dead dog and a scene where his wife and daughter are the victims of an accident - never to be seen again.

And the "Alpha Male" in the movie is a poor substitute for his car pool buddy Ben Cortman - after he turns into the car pool buddy from hell. Those two characers had a *history* and a *relationship* which brough drama and baggage to the scenes where Cortman and Neville battle each other. By making the "night seekers" strangers they rob drama from every scene they are in.

Having to kill his friends and neighbors by day was gut wrenching - a normal guy having to do terrible things to survive. In the film we have a hero who does heroic things (search for a cure). Nothing dramatic about that. It's a person doing what is already in their nature.

Though I haven't read the novel in years, one of the things I loved about it when I first read it was how it looked at vampires *scientifically* - all of the vampire lore gets a logical explaination that make complete sense. In the book, Neville doesn't begin as a scientist, the part of his days not staking his friends and neighbors is spent trying to figure out what happened - and that leads him to learn about science and learn about the plague... which gives us all of these amazing logical reasons behind vampires being killed by wooden stakes, and garlic repelling them, and light burning them. You read the book and begin to believe that vampires *could* really exist. None of that in the film - it's just a bunch of creatures.

The book's title comes from the end - a huge twist where we discover that Neville is a monster to the vampires. To them, he's a serial killer. I think you could pull that twist end in today's popcorn world. I think as long as 99% of the film has Neville as "hero", that 1% where we reveal he's a monster won't rock the boat too much. And he's still a vampire killer - which may be a good thing to most of the audience. But to those of us who are looking for more than popcorn, that end would have had us thinking about being on the right side or wrong side in a war - is there really any difference? On both sides, people are killed.

There's a Matheson short story about a suburban guy who cuts himself shaving... and bleeds oil. Now, everywhere he looks he sees people eating greasy food and realizes that he's lived with his eyes closed his entire life - and he is a robot. I think the end of LEGEND is Neville opening his eyes... and Cortman and all of the vampires are not really any different than they were before - they still have their eyes closed. They see him as a monster... and he gets a chance to see them as people.

This movie wasn't the Matheson book... and it's strange that the cheapo Vincent Price version you can download on the internet for free (LAST MAN ON EARTH) is closest to the book. But, maybe 20 years from now, they will make a faithful version. Who knows?

Pages: I have had the worst headcold for the past few days and have written nothing and done nothing but blow my nose. I could be a mucus doner. The good news is that the cold has now moved to my chest - meaning I have even more mucus to give. Hopefully this will all be over soon - this blog post was supposed to go up yesterday, but I was just too miserable.


Anonymous said...

Get well soon.

Anonymous said...

I have learned that often you take a movie that shares the name with a book but otherwise diverges and the big fans of the book are turned off. This seems to be what happened In your viewing of I AM LEGEND that I suspect you would have enjoyed more if it had a different name. So why keep the name? Seriously? If fans of the book are likely to turn on it what is the upside?

I haven't read the book but loved the movie. I like zombie movies because my mind races. "what would I do?" It's what Science Fiction did once upon a time before Space Opera dominated. In the new I AM LEGEND my mind was racing the entire time and I had a blast.

Emily Blake said...

I liked the movie.

I agree it would have been cooler if the chief antagonist had been someone he knew. That would have been easy to fix too - just plant that person in his flashback and problem solved.

But the rest of the decisions I liked. The dog thing got me all teary. That was a great dog.

Anonymous said...

So Uncle Bill DOES write porn, but DOESN'T get into Playboy. Whew!

I'm just hoping for a marriage in part 4, so this thing ends as a comedy. But with a title like Going Postal...

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