Sink Me! Or the Scarlet Pimpernel as Superhero

March 28, 2009

“Sink me!”

If you’re familiar with that phrase, then you probably are also familiar with Lord Percy Blakeney, the rich, foppish dandy who seems to care more about the cut of a coat or whether a man is capable of tying his cravat correctly. He makes up rather childish rhymes about someone called The Scarlet Pimpernel, which draws delighted laughter from his admirers.

Little do those admirers know, however, that Lord Percy is, in fact, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the brave, dashing, master-of-disguise, who, with his trusty band of devoted followers, rescues condemned French noblemen and women from Madame Guillotine.

The other night, Turner Classic Movies showed the 1934 movie version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which starred Leslie Howard (of Gone with the Wind fame, playing the rather hapless object of Scarlett O’Hara’s affection, Ashely Wilkes) and Merle Oberon.

I had seen the 1982 version of the movie (pictured above), which starred Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour and loved it. I really enjoyed the 1934 version and, although I haven’t seen the 1982 version for some time, have a feeling the 1934 version was better in some ways.

Leslie Howard was wonderful as Lord Blakeney/The Scarlet Pimpernel. Howard could shift his body language and facial expression from self-indulgent frivolity to focused intensity in a nanosecond. And he was really quite funny. I’d never seen him in a comedic role before.

But what struck me as I was watching the movie was the fact that the Baroness Emmuska Orczy, who had written the book in 1905 (was originally produced as a play in 1903), had probably created the first superhero with a secret identity.

(If I’m wrong about that, please feel free to correct me. I have a feeling I am but don’t have the time to do the research to find out. I’m winging this particular post.). 🙂

What I mean is, if you look at Lord Percy and you look at, say, Bruce Wayne, they are pretty darn similar.

Bruce may not be as much of a fop as Percy is, but both are wealthy, both seem a bit more interested in spending their money than doing good, and yet both, unknown to but a few, are actually daring crusaders, fighting against what they see as the injustices of the world.

They are–when they’re not making the world a better place–in Percy’s case, a rather silly fop, or in Bruce’s case, a somewhat frivolous billionaire playboy.

For example, I love the scene in Batman Begins when Bruce is escorting two super models into a hotel. The two women commence to frolicking about in the hotel’s fountain. When the manager tells Bruce that his lady friends can’t do that, Bruce nonchalantly writes a check and tells the manager he just bought the hotel.

Bruce also, like Lord Percy, dismisses his alter ego, saying that anyone who dresses up like a bat must have serious issues, while Percy makes up inane rhymes about his alter ego.

They seek him here/they seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.”

It’s funny but it also serves a purpose in, hopefully, drawing away any suspicions that Bruce or Percy could be other than what they are.

However, I think one of the most charming and most effective alter-ego disguises was Christopher Reeve’s portrayal in the 1978 movie Superman.

When I was a kid, they used to show those old 1950s television shows of Superman, which stared George Reeves. I remember thinking, now come on, how can anyone not know that Clark Kent is Superman. Except for the clothes and the glasses, Clark acts and talks just like Superman.

However, when I saw Christopher Reeve’s portrayal, I was amazed by the fact that he physically adjusted his body and voice whenever he moved between the two characters.

As Clark, Reeves pitched his voice high, wore those dorky glasses, of course, combed his hair differently but he also hunched his shoulders and curved his body, almost as if he were trying (as best as a man who was 6 feet four inches could do) to make himself smaller.

There’s a scene in Superman when, before he and Lois leave for a date, he’s about to reveal that he, Clark, is really Superman. He takes off his glasses, straightens his back, widens his shoulders and chest, and pitches his voice to its normal tone.

But, at the last second, he changes his mind, puts the glasses back on, hunches and curves his body and takes back on that high-pitched, nerdy voice. It’s a wonderful transition, but rather poignant for you see the price Clark has to pay to maintain his secret identity.

In the Leslie Howard version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Lord Percy must bear the contempt of his wife who is disappointed with her husband’s apparent unconcern for the suffering of others. She even begins to fall in love with his alter-ego, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Something that Clark Kent can relate to as he watches Lois fall in love with Superman.

After the movie was over, I started to wonder if I could make use of this idea of a character who has two identities. Especially two identities that are diametrically opposed to the other.

Foppish dandy vs daring rescuer. Billionaire playboy vs masked avenger. Mild-mannered reporter vs super man.

Not necessarily writing such a character (although that would be fun) but asking myself, of every character I create, if this character could have a secret identity, what would it be. The more I thought on it, the more fun I saw it could be.

For example, let’s say I create a character who spends his days working 8 hours a day, five days a week, stuck in a cubicle, processing insurance claims all day. What would he be if he could be someone no one suspected was really him?

The reason I’d want it to be a persona that would be secret from others is that the point of the exercise would be to get into the shadow parts of the character’s personality

It would be easy enough to have him imagine himself a famous movie star or a football legend, but that really wouldn’t get me into the dark heart of my character. I’d want to know what he would be if no one ever suspected it was him.

And it wouldn’t necessarily have to be just the dark parts. Jung said that our Shadow also contains gold; those good, noble, wonderful parts of our psyche that we’re too afraid to acknowledge because we can’t see ourselves as being better than we are.

Sometimes it’s not failure that frightens us. It’s success.

So, anyway, I’ve decided, just as a creative exercise, that from now on I’m going to ask every one of my characters that question. Just to see what they say. Perhaps I’ll be surprised and discover there’s a dimension to this character I had no idea existed.

Actually, you could ask this question of yourself. Who or what would you be if no one you knew was aware that it was you?

Don’t answer that here. Remember, it’s a secret. 😉 But see what you come up with. Might even lead you to a new character for a story. Or a possible secret life. 😉


Horror Noir

March 26, 2009

I love Horror Noir. You know, the old, classic black and white horror movies. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf-Man.

I remember once Roger Ebert talking about the sacrilege of colorizing black and white movies. Remember that? *shudder*

(I don’t mean the interview with Ebert, but that horrible heresy of wanting to make black and white movies more palatable to modern audiences by colorizing them. *shudder*)

And, no, the irony is not lost on me that the three movie posters I’ve posted are in color. 🙂

Ebert had said that black and white movies were more like dreams than color movies because we live in a colorized world. I agree. And I think it’s that dream-like aspect of black and white horror movies that, in my mind, makes them more compelling than color.

The shadows; the blacks, whites and grays; the movement from light into darkness, like the slippage from dream into nightmare.

Just recently, thanks to my beloved local library, I watched three black and white horror movies directed by a man named John Brahm. If you’re saying, who?, don’t feel bad. I said the same thing.

John Brahm was a German born director who came to America in the 1930s. He worked within the studio system in place at the time, but among the films he did while at 20th Century Fox, three of them (the three I saw) were really well-done horror films. Films I had never heard of.

They were The Undying Monster (1942), a story about a werewolf curse haunting a brother and sister, The Lodger (1944), a truly excellent movie about Jack the Ripper, and Hangover Square (1945), which is also set in Victorian London, amid the fog and gas lights, and is about a brilliant composer, who, whenever he hears discordant sounds, goes on a murderous rampage.

The last two films, The Lodger and Hangover Square, starred an actor by the name of Laird Cregar. Yes, I also went, who? Laird Cregar was becoming one of Hollywood’s top “heavies” back in the 40s. He was also physically big, usually weighing close to 300 pounds. However, he was also a brilliant actor as his roles in the two films mentioned attests.

However, Cregar came to a tragic end. Only 28 at the time of his death, he had grown tired of playing heavy-set villains. For his role in Hangover Square , desiring to give his character a more romantic look, he lost 100 pounds on a crash diet. He became obsessed with becoming a “beautiful man”. The strain on his body to lose the weight caused him to have a heart attack and die. And it is a shame that he died so young because, based on his performances in the movies I saw, he had the potential to have become a real star.

As for the director, John Brahm, he went on to work in television, directing many Twilight Zone episodes, including the classic, “Time Enough at Last”.

You know the one. About the bookworm, played by Burgess Meredith, who finally gets all the time in the world to read his beloved books.

With a nasty little Twilight Zone twist, of course.

So, anyway, if you’re a fan of Horror Noir, that is, movies about werewolf cursed families living in huge, foreboding mansions on the edge of dark cliffs; brilliant but psychologically tormented composers with an obsession with fire and murder; or a Jack the Ripper who not only had some big-time issues with beautiful women but a rather unnatural obsession with his dead brother, all set within a black and white drenched world of shadows and gas lights, I highly recommend all three films.

I have to say not only did I enjoy watching them, they primed my creative pump.


March 24, 2009

I’m currently in revision mode, as I’m revising two novellas I recently drafted.

Now, editing, in my mind, involves the more nuts and bolts, grammar-type stuff. The stuff that used to bore me to tears when I was in grade and high school.

Do they still teach sentence diagramming at school?

Then there’s the stage I like to think of as post-draft research. Usually, when I first begin a story, I do just enough research to feel comfortable enough to draft.

If, however, I come to a part in my drafting where I need to know something specific I don’t stop writing. I use the Comment bar in Word and leave one of those comment bubbles, indicating I need to research this and once I get the answer, here’s where it goes. I’d rather not stop the flow of the draft in order to do research.

Sometimes I may have to do some Q&A (quick and dirty) research in order to continue on with the draft, but usually I just leave a comment bubble and move on.

The reason I don’t like to do a lot of extensive research prior to drafting is that, one, I’m lazy and two, I don’t see a need to learn everything about a subject when, more than like, it’s not going to appear in the story.

I do believe in getting a general idea of a topic that I’m not familiar with, but I tend to like to wait until I have drafted the story before I start more intensive research. That way, I know exactly what to research and it focuses my efforts. I really have no desire to spend hours and hours doing research.

So along with editing and the post-draft research, there’s the revisioning. Or, as I like to think of it, the re-visioning. That’s where I look at my story and characters with new vision, especially if I’ve let the draft steep for a bit before tackling it.

It’s rare that I’ll tear a story down and start all over again. I tend to do a bit of preparation before beginning a draft in order not to have to do that.

But I may find that a character needs some adjusting, or the plot isn’t going exactly where I had hope, or, perhaps, during drafting it took an unexpected turn or detour. Then come the process of deciding whether to continue on the path I had first envisioned for the story or going down this new road.

It’s hard-work, this re-visioning process, but it’s also a lot of fun.

A Muse of Fire

March 22, 2009

I was channel-surfing the other day because next week I’m going to pull the plug on my cable TV, and I was kinda saying goodbye to the channels I won’t be able to watch anymore. And I came across the movie Xanadu.

Xanadu was a 1980 musical starring Olivia Newton-John (at the height of her popularity), Gene Kelly and Michael Beck. It’s one of those movies that tried to cash in on the disco/dance craze of the 70s. It was also the remake of a 1947 movie titled Down to Earth, which starred Rita Hayworth.

Xanadu is pretty awful, I hate to say, and barely broke even at the box office.

But, the reason I bring it up is that in the movie Olivia Newton-John is actually a Muse. Yes, one of the original nine Muses of Greek mythology. She is Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance, who has been sent to earth to help a struggling artist named Sonny, played by Michael Beck, realize his dreams.

That got me thinking about the nine Muses in relation to writing genre fiction, which is what I write. The concept of the nine Muses came into being long before people were even writing such things as novels, much less genre novels. As I looked over the listing of the Nine Muses and what domain of the creative arts they ruled over, I wasn’t sure which would apply to genre fiction in particular.

Calliope’s domain is epic poetry; Clio’s, history; Erato’s, lyric poetry; Euterpe’s, music; Melpomene’s, tragedy; Polyhymnia’s, choral poetry; Terpsichore’s, dance; Thalia’s, comedy, and finally, Urania’s domain is astronomy.

The Muses were often called upon at the beginning of an epic poem. And they were the subject of many paintings and sculptures over the centuries. One of my favorite artistic portrayals of a Muse is Gustav Moreau’s Hesiod and the Muse, which is pictured at the right.

As for a Muse for genre fiction, the closet I can come to is Calliope, whose domain is epic poetry, and would include such works as The Illiad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid and others. Those epic works come pretty close, I think, to what we would think of as genre fiction. Larger than life characters, life-changing events, exotic settings, some sex and plenty of violence. Not to say all genre fiction has sex or violence, but it’s pretty much a staple of what we tend to think of as genre fiction.

Calliope was Homer’s Muse and the mother of Orpheus. She was the eldest of the nine Muses and her emblem was a writing tablet. Which is very appropriate for a Muse of genre fiction writers.

Another reason I got to thinking about Muses is that, having submitted two manuscripts last week, I’m now ready to begin new projects, and I was thinking about creating and enacting some kind of ritual to begin a project with. Calling upon a Muse to ignite me with creative fire, perhaps doing a tarot reading before starting, etc.

I haven’t yet decided upon a ritual but I thought it would be cool to come up with one.

But, anyway, I have designated Calliope my own personal Muse.

So I’ll end this post on Muses with a quote from the Prologue of Shakespeare’s play Henry V:

Chorus: O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

BSG Series Finale

March 21, 2009

I have just one question about last night’s series finale of Battlestar Galactica.

What the frak?

Seriously, I am like so clueless about so many things that happened, especially in the last hour, that I don’t even know where to begin.
I had planned to write this rather long post about the series finale. But I decided not to.

No, I’ll just say goodbye to the valiant crew of the Galactica. I can’t say the show wasn’t interesting, because it was, but I’m done. No spin-offs, no sequels or prequels for me. It was a fascinating, if often frustrating, journey, but I’m getting off here. 🙂


March 19, 2009

I used to read a lot of comics when I was a kid. Back when they were relatively cheap. Now, they’re pretty darn expensive. So I wind up reading some of them once they’ve been turned into graphic novels. Which I usually wind up getting from the library.

Trust me, I wish I had gobs of money to spend on books and stuff, but I don’t. Especially now. Not to say I don’t have lots of books here at home, but most books I tend to get from the library.

Anyway, I digress. I’m currently reading a series of graphic novels called Fables, published by Vertigo comics and created by Bill Willingham. The overall premise of the comic series is that characters from fairy tales and folk tales have been driven from their homelands by a creature known as the Adversary.

As a result, characters like Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Prince Charming, Jack of all Tales, Little Boy Blue and others now live in 21st century New York. They have their own community and they struggle to keep themselves hidden as much from the mundy world.

The Big Bad Wolf, for example, is the chain-smoking sheriff of what is knows as Fabletown. He’s in human form, looking a lot like a cross between Wolverine and Colombo. Snow White helps run Fabletown, along with Old King Cole. Prince Charming, having married and divorced, in succession, Snow White, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) and Cinderella is a womanizing Lothario, whom Snow White divorced when she caught him sleeping with her sister, Rose Red.

Those Fables who are not able to pass as humans, such as the Three Bears, The Three Pigs, etc, live up on a farm in upstate New York, where they are hidden from the mundys through a series of enchantments.

I’m really loving this series. For one thing, it’s cleverly written. The dialogue is crisp and clean and all the storylines move at a quick and enjoyable pace.

I just heard, however, that ABC has requested a pilot based on the comics. My first reaction was, gee, I don’t know. I really don’t have a good feeling that they can make this comic series work as a live-action TV series.

It would be interesting to see these characters come to life, but I sometimes wonder if what works in a comic can actually be transferred to live action and actors. (One of the big problems, among others, that I had with the movie version of Watchmen).

Well, for now I’m going to keep reading the graphic novels. I’ve come to care a lot about Snow White, Prince Charming, Bigby Wolf and the others.

Tying up Loose Ends

March 18, 2009

This Friday on Sci-Fi Channel Battlestar Galactica will wrap up it’s series run.

I’ll be watching the 2-hour series finale but I have to say I have a hate/love relationship with the show. I admire some of the things they’ve done with the show in terms of the way it looks, the chances they’ve taken with the characters (no one is just black or white, they’re all shades of gray) and the fact it’s a sci-fi series when there are so few on these day.

I have a problem, however, with the fact that the darn show seems to take itself so seriously.

Yes, I realize that being the only survivors of the human race pretty much takes the bounce out of one’s step. But one of the ways I deal with stress and disaster and things going to hell in a hand basket is to joke about it. Gallows humor, I suppose you could call it. But it helps.

So, initially, I refused to watch the show. And not because I was one of those fans of the 70s version. It just didn’t appeal to me. My brother, however, was watching it and I started watching it around the third season. Which I believe is the season they were on New Caprica. Anyway, I got the prior seasons on DVD from the library and watched those.

And now, I’m waiting to watch the season finale this Friday.

However, I’m wondering if the writers/producers for Battlestar are going to pull a Sopranos. The last episode of that series, from what I understand, ended rather abruptly. (I never watched The Sopranos but I heard about the ending on the news).

Just recently, a Showtime series called The L Word, ended its series run by not revealing who had killed a main character.

There seems to be a new development of ending series—not just seasons–with stuff hanging in the balance. Some speculate that it’s being done in order to set up possible movie versions, or sequels, or even another series down the line.

I have no idea. I just know that I, myself, prefer loose ends neatly tied up. They don’t have to be tied up in a big, fat, pink “happily ever after” bow. But they do have to be tied up. I don’t like loose ends.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate an ending that suggests that the characters will go on after the series is over. But to leave questions hanging? Subplots unresolved? That’s very frustrating. At least to me.

So, me, my brother and my son are wondering just what the heck is going to happen on Friday with the crew of the Galactica, with the Cylons, and with every subplot and character question they’ve raised over the last five seasons.

I fear that there’s no way they’re going to resolve everything in just two hours. And on the Battlestar Galactica Special that was on just the other day, Ronald Moore, the series creator, said that, during the writer’s meeting for the final episode, they decided that the plot wasn’t that important. The characters were.

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! That’s a sign, at least to me, that they’re planning on not resolving some of the loose ends of the series.

We will see.