Is Life More Dangerous in 2009?

Forgive me if this post seems a little heavy for the season. The Orange Park Police Department held a news conference yesterday outlining the profile of the suspected murderer of seven-year-old Somer Thompson.

It's a nasty word, "profile." It's one of those paranoid, suspicious terms that divide communities and diminish our shared humanity. Still, it's one of those terms that we see more frequently. In political terms, it haunts the stereotypes of Republicans and Democrats, often becoming a barrier to any meaningful discussion about the actual issues. The word "profile" has a special connotation in communities like Portland, Oregon, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Jacksonville, Florida, where accusations of racial profiling have been levied against local law enforcement agencies. And, in the instance of Somer's murder, it's used as a tool to potentially identify an individual who has created an atmosphere of outrage and fear in a close-knit Florida community.

Mark Woods is a good writer. I like his outlook on life, and I admire his willingness to ask some good questions. Take a look at this article. The crux of his piece is an investigation into whether times have changed (in this case, taking a turn for the worse), or if the proliferation of information (amber alerts, blogs like the one you're reading, 24-hour cable news) has magnified the impression that we live in a dangerous world.

Woods's final summation is that the crimes haven't changed, but the technology used to discuss and investigate them have changed our perceptions of them.

I agree with him.

Michael Moore, lightning rod that he is, used the notion that our information-dissemination systems are trying to titillate and shock us in the interest of creating ad revenue as the thesis to his documentary Bowling for Columbine (2002). Portland television critic Pete Schulberg called it "fearful world syndrome" back in the early portion of this decade, and there are scads of articles in the academic world on what sociologists are calling "mean world syndrome."

I think depravity--true and shocking depravity, like the type we're seeing play out in Orange Park right now--is as original and enduring as our species' kinder impulses, such as compassion and community building.

Thankfully, there's far more of the latter than there is of the former.

I think the knee-jerk reaction is always to wax nostalgic when we compare generations and eras. Our personal biases color our views but, in my view, life is cyclical. Culture was outraged when Elvis Presley swiveled his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was outraged in the '80s when Madonna made music videos that flaunted her sexuality. Culture grimaced when Janet Jackson had a wardrobe malfunction in the Super Bowl.

No doubt, it will become outraged again soon. That said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

To bring this whole post full circle and put it, if ever so tangentially, into a writing context, I'll say that, while I thought King and Straub's novel Black House was decent, I can't write about violence against children. Just can't do it. It's a horror staple and a well-worn trope, but I've said before that part of my writing garden just doesn't bear fruit.

The birth of my daughter has changed my perceptions of such topics more drastically than I could have ever predicted. It's not that I can't look at films or read stories that feature such subjects, and I'm not a full fledged Disneybot or anything like that, but I will say that my impressions of such artistic works is far more critical and much less forgiving.

Sorry for the rambling post here, but I wanted to jot a few thoughts in here on the topic. It's an interesting question, I think. Is life more dangerous in 2009 than in previous eras?


Go Ducks!

So the University of Oregon is now 6-1 on the year. We had a dominating 43-19 victory tonight against our most-hated rival, the evil and spurious University of Washington. Yes, they are spurious.
The Ducks' win, another game when we pull our QB prior to the fourth quarter, has aligned us with a game at Autzen against the hated Trojans.
Bring them on.
This Oregon team knows how to play football. I've never been more impressed with an Oregon team, or more happy with the way they are being coached. I like that our defense and special teams are actually our strengths, and I'm amazed by the fact that our offense is still evolving.
Thanks LaMichael James. Thanks JM. Thanks Coach Kelly. Thanks fans of Oregon.
Lets keep this thing rolling!


Alas, Babylon and Apex Magazine

I don't know how I got this far along in my life without reading Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon. The novel, published in 1959, is purportedly one of the best selling works of apocalyptic science fiction--and for good reason. It's a ripping yarn and a sobering political narrative, populated by round characters and creative plot developments.

Frank, the pen name of journalist and government consultant Harry Hart, writes actively, with a simple approach to sentence structure. The novel is heavy on good dialogue, the Cold War-era phrasing adding a measure of grim realism to the novel.

Frank touches on sentimentality (the joy of hot coffee and the importance of a gallon of gasoline) without becoming sentimental. To the contrary, some sympathetic characters in this one don't survive the nuclear annihilation that wipes out half of America's population (the new capital is Denver, Colorado).

In one typically chilling passage, the head of Fort Repose's bank tries to push a telegram through to the regional Federal Reserve branch in Jacksonville.

Florence rose and walked to the counter with Edgar's message. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Quisenberry," she said, "but I can't send this. Jackosnville doesn't seem to be there any more."

It's this spare prose, in the revelation of just how complete the Russians' annihilation of the United States really is, that gives this text its edge. I won't reveal who won the war, but it's not a spoiler to include this final sentiment in a quick nod to the book's impact:

The engine started and Randy turned away to face the thousand-year night.

It's not a story about the how or the why, but more about the what if? What would happen to our culture? How would the survivors go on with their lives?

It's chilling and absorbing and more than a little frightening. After reading the chapter where Frank details the failure of the paper-money system, I was tempted to go out and invest in gold (but that only gets its worth because people say it has some, so it's not much different).

In terms of online magazines doing great work, I can't say enough good things about Apex Magazine. This magazine features some of the freshest fiction on the internet. Give it a read (and look at the archives--lots of fine stories published in the last three issues) and drop them a comment if you enjoy it.



From time to time, a director will come along and take the best of a popular tradition of storytelling, tweak it slightly to add a few fresh nuances, then package the whole thing together in a crowd-pleasing format. Despite the mixed critical appraisal of Zack Snyder's 300 (2006), I think that film is a fine example of such an artistic hodge-podge.
Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland is similarly delightful.
The casting in this film was top notch. Woody Harrelson is a damned hoot as the zombie-ass-kicking Tallahassee. A brutal butcher of blood-soaked brain brunchers, Harrelson also has a soft side. His losses in the wake of the zombpocalypse, revealed late in the film, are substantial and heart-breaking. Plus, the man simply longs for a twinkie. It's the carrot that drives him--life's simplicities.
Jesse Eisenberg is perfect as the neurotic Columbus, whose rules for survival literally flash on and off the screen throughout the film. He's got the dork thing down pat, but he rises to the occasion when needed. Eisenberg shows some promise; I think he might have more chops than the rest of the Micheal Cera, Jonah Hill set.
Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are solid as a couple of hard-as-nails sisters with "trust issues." They hold up well against their male counterparts, though it's certainly not their film.
Oh, and there's a cameo in this one that simply slays. I won't bust it out on the blog, and stay away from IMDB if you want to enjoy that surprise. It's awesome (stick around for the quick post-credits deleted scene).
These zombies look like Romero's dead-eyed scourge, but they run like Danny Boyle's faster creatures--hence Columbus's first rule to survival: cardio.
It's an entertaining, fast-paced romp through the United States of Zombieland, at times a touching buddy comedy, at times a sad ode to existentialism. Fleischer gets in, gets messy and keeps the action moving forward. At a little over eighty minutes in length, the film blazes by.
Oh, and check out the effects on Columbus's rule about seat belts. I've never seen anything like it, and I'm not talking about all the pre-pubescent zombie girls hanging off the minivan, folks. Killer effect.
Zombieland earns an 'A'. Nice to see some quality films coming coming down the pipeline of late...



Tom Tykwer, the accomplished director of such fine films as Paris, je t'aime (2006) (contributor) and Run Lola Run (1998), did a fantastic job with 2006's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

This film succeeds on almost every level. Shot beautifully by DP Frank Griebe, this film is pretty to look at. Tykwer engages his subject, the gifted Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, with tight close-ups. He plays with foreground, middle ground and background to great effect, making grimy Paris come alive all the while (love the still shots of the row house slum on the bridge).

The film is very dark. Most of the scenes, with the exception of the beautiful panoramas as Grenouille makes his way over the mountains, are shot in muted greys and washed-out browns. When Grenouille is collecting his scents, however, Tykwer lights many of the women in innocent whites and soft oranges. There is an arresting, difficult montage early on in the film, illustrating the minutes-old Grenouille's superior sense of smell.

The narrative is pretty unique. It's a common story (outsider with a gift seeks fortune by creating something transcendent), but with an interesting twist: Grenouille is trying to create the world's most powerful perfume, and he's obsessed with collecting the finest essential oils.

To create said oils, he needs to capture the essence of beautiful women.

That many of his victims are virginal, including a nun, only adds to the complexity of his creation.

Alan Rickman gives a good performance as the protective and wealthy father of one of Grenouille's targets. Ben Whishaw is more than up to the task as Grenouille; his turn was so unsettling (all those flared nostrils!) that he'll have a hard time putting this performance behind him. Ed Norton was able to get well beyond what he did in Primal Fear. I'm not so sure Whishaw can do the same.

Whishaw's excellent performance aside, the scene stealer here is Dustin Hoffman, an exacting perfumer on the downside of his career. He traipses angrily through a couple of scenes, drinking splashes of wine here and there and growling in his French accent. Funny and compelling and wholly entertaining.

I give Perfume an 'A' grade. My wife thought the third act a little unnecessary, but I think it suited the story. And the final twist is just delicious--if you've seen the film, you know what I mean.

Rent this one, folks. It won't disappoint.


Writing Dialogue and the Apex Halloween Contest

I'm really enjoying Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series. His research is meticulous and I really like his pacing. Crisp, ten-page chapters that move well and are nicely stuffed with Bosch's personal and professional tribulations abound in these books.

Bosch has his requisite demons and he's more than driven, but he's also a fighter with a sense of fair play. He's one of the good guys, despite his questionable methods, and the kind of character you hope truly exists in law enforcement.

Connelly's Los Angeles is well rendered. A former reporter, he knows the city and its flavors well, giving each of the hundreds of neighborhoods in greater L.A. a fair shake. In that way, he reminds me a lot of Jon Kellerman.

My only gripe is with the dialogue. Almost none of his characters use contractions when they speak. It seems disjointed in spots. These are cops, right? Notorious manglers of the English language...

Still, the books are great. I'd say they're required reading for any aspiring crime writers.

Also, in terms of a market update, Apex Books is hosting its fourth annual Halloween Contest. This one closes on October 15, so try to work up something quickly if you'd like to enter. The prompt (sci-horror blending urban legends and aliens) is awesome, and I'll be ordering the finished anthology.

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...