I still have a couple of other posts lined up, but today I started thinking about names. It’s “how we name our characters” week over at The Debutante Ball, so that’s probably a factor.

Also, I read a review of Bessie, where Queen Latifah apparently gives a really good performance, and one commenter asked when Latifah will stop being “Queen Latifah” and go back to her “real” (original) name — I guess because she’s a movie star now rather than a rapper (hey, that’s how old I am, I remember when she was a rapper).

Would you have asked that question of Cary Grant, or Tony Curtis, or Lauren Bacall (Archie Leach, Bernard Schwartz, and Betty Joan Perske, respectively)? Do you think Natalie Portman will someday switch back to using “Hershlag” rather than “Portman”? Rather a weird idea, actually. This is Hollywood, after all — one of the places where rappers learned how you reinvent yourself.

Speaking of reinvention, whenever I get into conversations about how I name my characters, I’m always aware that I’m the only one whose characters have mostly named themselves — which is always something to think about when choosing the names.

If we all got to choose our own names, the names we chose would say a lot about us.

And they (my characters) have adopted new names — the ones who have — for all different reasons. Some of those reasons we know, and some we don’t. Some of them I don’t know, which is fine with me.

Another reason I’ve been thinking about names is that I can’t think of one for my most recent story. I’m all ready to start a new one (for which I do have a name), but I want to close out the last one, and give it the big plug that I think it deserves, but it needs a name.

So, in the absence of any better ideas, I’m going to name it after the protagonist. It is his story, after all. So, as soon as I set up a few things and order some decorations and refreshments, it will be time for “Michael.” A name which he picked for himself, as it happens.

And then, “A Princess in U-town.”

The odd thing about royalty, at least in England (and wherever Latifah reigns), is that royalty don’t really have last names. They adopt them when necessary — I guess for getting a driver’s license and so on — but that’s just a formality. For most of the twentieth century the British royal family used “Windsor,” which is a made up name anyway, and now they’re sometimes combining it with “Mountbatten,” but that’s only slightly more real.

That fact may well factor into my new story, since the “princess” of the title is real royalty.

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returning to a familiar world

Julia over at Pages of Julia wrote this blog post about reading a favorite author after a long break.

This made me think of Roger Zelazny. He was one of my favorite writers when I was growing up, and now his books are (gradually) coming out as ebooks. I wrote about the experience of revisiting This Immortal here.

Well, I just bought the short story collection The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth, and I realized again that what I always remember is the plots and characters, but what I always forget is the words. The story starts with a lyrical description of what it’s like to land on Venus in a commercial spacecraft, and then (he literally says “shaking off the metaphors”) what it’s like to go through three days of quarantine on the ground.

After the three days of quarantine generally comes a binge (the effects of alcohol in variant atmosphere are mentioned but not described) — because Zelazny always wrote about the future where everybody smokes and drinks. So, more Alien than Star Trek.

It was probably a particular situation to be a science fiction author in the 1960s, during the height of the space program. It was one thing for Edgar Rice Burroughs to write about civilizations on Mars in 1917, but in 1965 it looked like humans might be visiting Mars and Venus in a very few years, and after that it would he pretty silly to be writing about Dejah Thoris, the city of Helium, and the Tharks.

So, realizing that Mars and Venus might be closed off to science fiction in the near future, Zelazny decided to write the best Mars story he could write, and the best Venus story.

They are “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and the title story in this volume, and they are excellent. They are different stories in many ways (one has a lot of action, for example, and the other has almost no action at all), but I see now a similarity that I missed before. They are both, in different ways, about how small human beings are in the universe, our bodies, our dreams, our minds, our short history, and so on.

The collection as a whole is, from my perspective now, somewhat in uneven, but those two (and some of the others as well) are first rate.

It was really good to revisit them.

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i saw the avengers movie

I just saw the new Avengers movie, and I have a few things to report.

I’d say it’s a step below the first one (a small step, but a step).

But first, the good news (some spoilers).

Two things really moved me.

The first Avengers movie went pretty far toward 9/11 in the third act, which was one thing I didn’t care for so much. In my mind, destruction of New York City buildings just doesn’t translate into entertainment at this point.

This one went further in that direction (destruction, people covered in debris, etc.), but the movie (and the Avengers) placed an almost ostentatious emphasis on protecting and saving civilians. I found this moving in places.

Near the end, Cap and the Widow are facing a real crisis. Should they sacrifice a city to save the planet (the same question that came up at the end of the first movie, actually, though it was Nick Fury who faced it then)? Natasha of course says they have no choice, and Cap says no, that’s not acceptable. (This is kind of a continuation of the last Captain America movie, in terms of their different views of the world.)

And then, fairly magnificently, a deus ex machina arrives to save the day and the civilian population (this is one of those moments when you know you’re being manipulated but you’re too busy cheering to care).

Joss Whedon gets a lot of credit for his talent with quips and snark, but that clever exterior hides (barely) a very romantic heart:

That’s what comes out of the other great moment, too. Hawkeye and the Scarlet Witch are in the middle of a battle, and she’s freaked out. They’re in the hallway of a bombed out building, and things outside are way worse than she had imagined.

I can’t quote Hawkeye’s entire speech from memory, but the most often quoted part is something to the effect that “We’re on a flying city, we’re fighting an endless supply of killer robots, and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes any sense.”

But there they are. And he says she can stay where she is, in the hallway, and try to stay safe, but if she comes out the door she’s an Avenger. And he goes back out to fight, and we look at the outside of the door, and we know that of course she’s coming out, but it’s still a great moment when she does. And she doesn’t come out diffidently, to say the least.

On the down side, there’s much more action than the first Avengers movie, and less conversation. This is not good, since Whedon’s strengths are far more with the talking than with the punching.

This movie also continues the Marvel tradition of uninteresting villains. They’ve done very well with the semi-villains (evil in the first movie, uneasy ally in the second): Loki and Magneto. They’ve done it twice with Magneto, in fact (McKellan and Fassbender).

But they’ve never come close to giving us a Darth Vader. The closest, in the movies I’ve seen, was Kevin Bacon in X-Men: First Class, but that the was the movie made with no idea which stuff was the good stuff.

And, as has been widely reported, Avengers: Age of Ultron is yet another guy movie. It’s very good that people are upset about how the Black Widow is treated here, but it’s really no surprise. I’m still having high hopes for the Captain Marvel movie, but I do have my doubts about how it will turn out.

If you want an action movie that isn’t a guy movie, Marvel isn’t going to give you that (and neither is DC, despite the fact that they have by far the most iconic female superhero ever).

You’ll have to go to the Hunger Games, or the Alien movies, or Resident Evil.

The last Resident Evil movie (Retribution) was probably not my favorite in the series, but in the credits at the end of the film, the top five actors listed were all women. I don’t think Marvel (or DC) is ever going to give us that, at least not in the movies.

And, by the by, the big ending fight scene at the end of Resident Evil Retribution (over eight minutes, mostly hand-to-hand, no big explosions or fancy CGI) shows what a difference it makes to have action scenes written and directed by people who are really into action.

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this is going to be fun

I’m going to write something about the new Avengers movie, but first I have to geek out for a moment (even more than I would in writing about the Avengers).

As I’ve talked about before, I’m a big fan of the Dark Shadows audio dramas from Big Finish Productions. I’d just finished a wonderful miniseries called Bloodlust (terrific extended story with a very large cast — mostly younger actors with a few key members of the original cast).

When I was got to the end, I went to the Big Finish website to see what was coming next, and I saw this.

David Selby was from the original cast of the TV show, where he played several characters named Quentin Collins. He’s been part of the audio dramas since the beginning. But Susan Sullivan, his costar in this story, had nothing to do with Dark Shadows.

But after Dark Shadows, Selby went on to star for many years on a nighttime soap called Falcon Crest, where his character, named Richard Channing, was friends with, and later fell in love with, and even later married a woman named Maggie Gioberti. Played by Susan Sullivan.

I was a devoted Falcon Crest fan (partly because of Selby and partly because it was so far over the top — Falcon Crest was the show for people who thought Dallas was too low key and realistic).

This is going to be fun.

(I’ve realized that that I have a surprising number of half-finished blog posts lying around. I’m planning to finish and post them over the next few days.)

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the third man

Orson Welles took a lot of his acting roles in order to raise money to make his own movies, so he mostly didn’t act in great films (except the ones he directed himself). The one undeniable exception was The Third Man, and there’s an excellent article about it here: “With The Third Man, Graham Greene wrote a book to write a movie.”

If, as Howard Hawks insisted, the definition of a great movie is “three great scenes, no bad scenes,” then The Third Man qualifies easily. The reveal of Harry Lime in the doorway (the most famous entrance in the history of movies, as Roger Ebert said), the “cuckoo clock” speech, and that awesome, and thoroughly unsentimental, finale — all as great as anything I’ve ever seen in the movies.

Of course, the rest of it is pretty great, too.

By the way, the fact that Greene felt he had to write the story as prose before he wrote the screenplay is presented as some sort of absolute, at least in his view, but when Paul Thomas Anderson started out to adapt Inherent Vice the first thing he did was to write out the entire novel as a screenplay, because that’s the way he could start editing it.

The tools we’re used to using always feel most comfortable in our hands.

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more about the writer-reader contract

Kristan Hoffman wrote a very interesting blog post called “Broken promises and clinging on for too long (or: What ruined Grey’s Anatomy)

I don’t know from Grey’s Anatomy (my reaction was, “that show’s still on?”), but I’ve written before about the various types of contracts which exist between writer and reader.

My comment over there at Kristan’s blog covered a few aspects (Sherlock Holmes, Lord of the Rings), but it occurred to me that this applies to a few TV shows that I’ve been attached to over the years.

1) Dallas. Dallas has taken a lot of shit for the “dream season” where they basically retconned an entire season of the show, saying that it had never happened. But they’d broken the contract by killing Bobby Ewing, since the point of the show had been the tension between two brothers, J.R. (evil, charming) and Bobby (younger, earnest, honest). Without that, it wasn’t the same show we’d signed on for.

So, according to what I’ve read, Larry Hagman (who played J.R.) took control, got the new producer fired, brought back the original producer, and went to Patrick Duffy (Bobby) and said, “We need you back.” And so, the contract was restored, by saying that Bobby’s death had been a dream. Not an elegant solution, but the best option available to them at the time. They knew what they had to do.

2) MASH. A lot of people, including me, were upset when Dr. Henry Blake died, but I don’t think that did break any kind of contract. It was more like, “Hey, this is a show about a war. Did you notice that? And you thought nobody was ever going to die?”

3) Dark Shadows never broke the contract, which was, in essence, “no happy endings.” This may be one reason the show has such a devoted fanbase even now.

Barnabas could help other characters become happy, but he couldn’t get there himself. In the final story arc, in parallel time, the Barnabas character (Bramwell) and the Angelique character (Catherine, if I recall) ended up happy and in love, all the curses ended, but we knew that the real Barnabas and Angelique were still going down through the centuries making each other miserable.

At one point, in 1890 I believe, Angelique does something selfless and heroic, and Barnabas realizes that he’s in love with her after all. As he’s about to tell her, she’s shot dead. Her curse on him a century before, after all, included the fact that anybody he loved would die. It was a sad moment, but definitely within the contract.

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