personal shopper, and writing i like

I just saw Personal Shopper, and I liked it a lot. It’s kind of a horror movie, not my favorite genre, but I’d been very impressed by Clouds of Sils Maria (also written and directed by Olivier Assayas, and also starring Kristen Stewart), so I decided to give it a shot.

It’s a very effective, spooky film, with some pretty conventional ghost-story elements which work better than they should, mostly because Stewart sells them so well. The writing also helps, of course, and I think one thing that makes it work is that there’s also a real, corporeal murder mystery going on at the same time — and the two tend to bleed into each other (so to speak).

The movie isn’t much interested in the murder mystery, but it’s there and the pieces make sense if you bother to think about them. I like mysteries, but I also like stories where the mystery is there but it’s not at the center.

Anyway, recommended.

On another front, I’ve always admired writers who can do things that I can’t possibly imagine myself doing.

For an analogy, my favorite movie director is Robert Altman. I love his films (well, most of them), but I can see how he does what he does. I see why the scenes affect me the way they do, though it’s certainly beyond anything I could imagine achieving myself, even if I directed movies.

But there are times that I’m in awe of Jim Jarmusch’s movies, since at his best I have no idea how they do what they do. Sometimes he shows three images and I’m knocked sideways, like if somebody tapped you on your left elbow, put a hand on your right shoulder, and beeped you on your nose, somehow putting you in a trance.

Analogy over.

My stuff always tends to make sense, or at least it moves toward making sense. Even the things that I don’t explain (like why Vicki has superhuman strength) mostly have reasons.

There’s a comic book I’m particularly enjoying now, called Doom Patrol, mostly because it doesn’t make much sense but somehow everything works anyway. The Doom Patrol started in the early 1960s, right about the same time as the X-Men. The characters and situations between the books were very similar, and neither was very successful at first, but eventually the X-Men took off and more or less took over Marvel Comics, whereas the Doom Patrol just got weird (and weirder). The Doom Patrol book has got cancelled quite often, but it always comes back, at least for a while.

The main character now is Casey Brinke. She’s an ambulance driver, and a member of the Doom Patrol, and I think she has superpowers but I tend to forget what they are (it’s that sort of book).

In the most recent issue, Casey is driving her ambulance at top speed for the hospital, because her roommate, Terry, is about to give birth. Terry and Casey had sex a few hours ago (after falling out of their apartment together through the giant hole in the wall), and this sex has resulted in Terry being about to give birth now.

At no point does Casey protest that Terry can’t have gone through an entire pregnancy in a few hours, or that the pregnancy is rather unlikely anyway since they’re both women.

Instead, careening through the streets, followed by the other members of the Doom Patrol (on bicycles) and their current enemies (The Brotherhood of Nada — led by Mr. Nobody, Terry’s father) in a car, Casey’s only comment is “I can barely take care of a cat, I can’t be a mom!”

See, there’s no way I could possibly make that sort of thing work, which adds to my enjoyment of how it does (and I left out the backstory of the cat in question, Lotion, and the fact that Casey’s ambulance is sentient, and… a lot of other things).

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farewell to dorothy malone

(I wasn’t intending to write another farewell post, but I couldn’t resist this one.)

Dorothy Malone had a long and distinguished career as an actress, but I’ve seen obituaries which devoted several paragraphs to this one scene, her only scene in The Big Sleep. A scene which does nothing for the plot, but you can see why Howard Hawks couldn’t bring himself to remove it.

(The Big Sleep was a big step in Hawks realizing that “A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes” — and that audiences cared a lot more about those three good scenes than they did about a tidy plot. For example, nowhere in the movie, or in the book which it was based on, is there any explanation of who killed the chauffeur. Readers and audiences have always seemed to be fine with that.)

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farewell to gwenpool (and today’s writing tip)

Today’s writing tip: Don’t sit around waiting for the world’s best and newest idea for a story — just write it well.

Gwenpool was never supposed to be a real comic book. It was a joke cover, a mashup of Deadpool (the “merc with a mouth”) and Gwen Stacy (Spider-Man’s long-ago girlfriend who died tragically).
Gwenpool, in a pool. Photo: wikipedia.
But the idea caught on — maybe because the combination was so silly — and people began dressing up as Gwenpool at conventions and demanding an actual Gwenpool comic. So, there was a reason to produce a comic, but there was no real idea for the comic — just the goofy image (right, courtesy of Wikipedia).

Supply followed demand and we got the comic book Gwenpool, starring Gwen Poole (not actually a Gwen Stacy after all), a regular girl who is a fanatical comic book fan, in a world like ours where there are no actual superheroes. And then she finds herself in the Marvel universe, where all the superheroes live, and she decides to become a superhero, despite her complete lack of skills or powers (and with not much respect for human life, since she thinks the people around her are all just comic book characters — which they are, of course, from our perspective).

But she does have powers, of a sort. She knows all the secrets of all the heroes, since she reads their adventures every month. And she understands how comic book stories work, the tropes she can use to her advantage.

And later, she develops a real power: the ability to move around in between the panels and pages of her book itself, in whatever direction she wants.

Which means she can also step outside the panels entirely and see the pages ahead of her, and so she knows when her book has been cancelled because she can see that the pages end. So, while we feel bad that the supporting characters which were invented for the book may never be seen again, Gwen is upset by this even more than we are because those people have become her friends.

This whole thing should never have worked, at least not for 25 issues, but it did. And the extent that it was because of the writing (and the art) is shown by the fact that whenever Gwenpool showed up in other books, written by other writers, she was always terrible. A very annoying and self-involved sociopath, basically. Which she sort of was a lot of the time in her own book, too, but there we could see why and what she was trying to do (and, being comic book fans, imagine ourselves in her situation).

A joke idea, never intended to be a real book, saved, month after month, by really good and inventive writing (by Christopher Hastings) and art (by Gurihiru).


Just to illustrate how complicated comic books are these days — all the things that are trimmed and simplified in the movies:

1) Spider-Man: Peter Parker. Bitten by a radioactive spider. Gets spider powers. (There have also been other Spider-Man characters at different times, but I’m trying to keep this manageable.)

2) Spider-Woman: Jessica Drew. No relation to Spider-Man — different origin and different powers. (May have been created in order to copyright the name — so some other company wouldn’t get there first. There have also been other Spider-Woman characters at different times.)

3) Gwen Stacy: Spider-Man’s girlfriend. Died tragically — I think a bridge was involved (I was never a big Spider-Man fan.).

4) Spider-Gwen: A Gwen Stacy in another dimension (like parallel time in Dark Shadows, or the famous Star Trek episode where Spock has a beard). She gets bitten by the radioactive spider, instead of Peter Parker, so she gets the spider powers and becomes Spider-Woman, but her book can’t be called “Spider-Woman” because there already is one (see #2 above), so her book is called “Spider-Gwen.” She does become friends with the other Spider-Woman, though, and another woman called Silk, who also has spider powers, though I forget the details.

Spider-Gwen is very popular, leading to the various Gwen Stacy mashup covers, including Gwenpool (see above).

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farewell to sue grafton

I first learned about Sue Grafton from an article I read a long time ago, way back when the Kinsey Millhone books (“the alphabet mysteries”) were around “C” or “D” somewhere. She said that she started writing because she was going through a bad divorce and found herself thinking of different ways to kill her ex. Having come up with a good method, she figured it would be better to write a book than to carry out her plan in real life.

I started reading the books with “A” Is for Alibi and kept going — I think I lost momentum around “M” or “N.”

The mysteries were good, very reminiscent of Ross Macdonald — families and generations of secrets and trouble which only gradually come to the surface. (Grafton was not shy about Macdonald’s influence — her books were set in the same fictional California city where Macdonald’s Lew Archer stories took place: Santa Teresa.)

A couple of the endings I remember particularly well — one where Millhone made an uncharacteristic choice (for believable reasons), which she immediately regretted but was unable to take back, and somebody died; and another where on the final page she realized that she might have misjudged who the villain had been all along, and that she would never be completely sure of the answer. Both were handled very well.

The books weren’t perfect. Millhone’s friends were a singularly uninteresting crew, and in later books she acquired a family she didn’t know she had and didn’t really want, and that was tedious, too. I used to like to listen to them as books on tape — the audio versions were edited to remove most of the friends and family stuff and focus in on the mysteries.

I also liked the fact that the books had a slow time-scale, so that, for example, if a book came out every year, each book would account for three or four months of Millhone’s life (I forget the exact ratio). So, Millhone aged, but not at the same rate as the rest of us, and she never had to deal with the internet and cell phones and so on.

Another thing I remember from that magazine article is that Grafton was asked what she would do when she got all the way through the alphabet. Would she stop? (As I say, she was still near the beginning at that point, so the question was pretty lighthearted.) Her answer was that she wasn’t going to stop — the “Z” book would be “Z” is for Zero, and then she would do numbers.

Well, she made it through the alphabet all the way from “A” to “Y” before she died and the series will end there (her family has confirmed this). That’s good — series should end when the author dies. And there are no movies — Grafton was against that, too, which is also admirable.

There’s another “farewell” post coming soon, but I couldn’t put them together, for reasons which will become obvious.

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today’s writing tip: floor plans

Today’s writing tip: Draw a floor plan, and don’t wait until the last minute to do it.

I’ve had a note on my To Do list for a long time, to draw a floor plan for “The Bus Station Mystery.” I knew there might be a problem or two that needed to be fixed in the story, mostly with who can (and can’t) see what from where in the station.

So, I came up with a solution to the most obvious difficulty, and then I drew the floor plan…

Well, I really should have drawn it sooner, because it made it obvious that certain aspects of the building don’t make sense architecturally, even apart from the mystery.


So, draw the plan earlier rather than later. That’s my advice.

On another subject, I just saw Atomic Blonde (the trailer is NSFW — but then so is the movie).

I think this is the type of movie that Unlocked was trying to be. Twisty plot in the world of international espionage, good cast (in this case: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, and Toby Jones), and a smart, kickass female protagonist.

But Atomic Blonde is much more fun (stupid title, though). There is a plot, as far as I can tell, but based on the reviews it seems I’m not the only one who decided to skip the plot and enjoy two hours of Charlize Theron fighting (mostly winning, though not without acquiring a lot of bruises of her own), evading questions, drinking vodka, smoking, cursing, and fighting some more.

And it’s a particular treat watching McAvoy, too. He plays a British agent in Berlin who’s (as his chief puts it) “gone feral.” McAvoy looks like he’s having a lot more fun than he gets to have in the X-Men movies.

And, unlike Unlocked, there are surprises which are actually surprising. For example (spoiler): Lorraine (Theron’s character, a British agent) meets Delphine (a young, inexperienced French agent) in a bar. Delphine makes a move, and they end up becoming lovers. Lorraine actually seems to care about Delphine (though it’s never entirely clear what Lorraine is feeling or thinking about anything), and the classic “twist” would have been for Delphine to be revealed as a villain at the end, breaking Lorraine’s heart and trying to kill her at the same time.

But no — Delphine is exactly what she appears to be (unusual for this movie), and the surprise about her is simply that she’s actually a better agent than anybody, including Lorraine, thought she was.

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