Dark Heresy recap: Session two

So our first plan was to try and play a session on Fantasy Flight Games’s Dark Heresy every week. Unfortunately we picked quite possibly the worst time of the year (December and January – lots of movement and lots of time spent with families) to start and subsequently I picked the worst time to attempt to write up recaps of said sessions.

Some of the events have been altered to better fit a narrative structure.

I got some great feedback from people who read the first session I recapped and I’m hopefully taking all that on board.

And thus continues the adventures of Jacques, a former penal legionnaire in the Imperial Guard of the Imperium of Mankind in the Warhammer 40,000 setting. For those who cannot be bothered to read my 5000 word previous entry (relax, this one is less than 3000 words), Jacq has been sequestered from his penal legion by a woman named Adgencourt onto a ship full of other guardsmen. He was sent by Adgencourt to a monastery on the planet Tokugawa to covertly retrieve a ledger of some importance. Shortly after arriving, the monks began dying and reanimating, but they’re the least of his worries – there is at least one daemon afoot.

Luckily Jacq has a steadfast ally in a fellow guardsman and pilgrim Severus, who happened to be staying at the monastery on his way to a campaign.

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How Pacific Rim could have been so much better

Seriously.

On July 12, I was very disappointed.

Being an in-depth look at Pacific Rim, there will be numerous spoilers in this post. I’ll also make mention of Pacific Rim-specific terms like Kaiju, Jaegers, neural drifting, the Breach etc. What I’m trying to say is that this post will make a whole lot more sense if you’ve seen the film.
Cameron.

Pacific Rim is probably my biggest disappointment of the year. It was so disappointing that I wrote not one, but two separate reviews for it on my other blog.

I initially thought the disappointment was probably my fault. I saw a trailer about big robots fighting monsters while using a cargo ship as a makeshift sword and something inside me just flicked to “on.”

Although, to be completely honest, I actually had to work myself up to a state of excitement when the advertising campaign began. The first time I saw a trailer I said “I’m not see this movie – it looks like a dumb, dumb thing.” I call it my Terrible Movie Alarm and it’s usually pretty reliable. I should have trusted it.

But I didn’t. I kept seeing more and more trailers and promotional material and I let myself be sucked into the hype.

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I like everything about Doctor Who – I’ve just never watched it

No, seriously.

It’s a guy in tweed pants holding a robot head. What’s not to like?

I like Doctor Who. For those who know me, it probably comes as little surprise. I know all about Davros, both types of Cybermen, Bad Wolf, the Time War, celery that turns purple, jelly babies, and Gallifrey,

But  here’s the thing…I can probably count on my fingers the number of Doctor Who episodes I’ve actually watched all the way through. I might even be able to count the number of episodes I’ve watched even partly if I count with my toes.

I don’t know why I haven’t seen a significant number of episodes, I just haven’t. It’s on the telly often enough, but I just don’t find myself compelled to stop when I’m channel surfing.

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A recap of my first Dark Heresy Game

Just a quick summary of what this post is going to be about, before I get started on what will undoubtedly be a terrible piece of fiction.

Dark Heresy is a pen-and-paper role playing game set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Last week we played our first game and finished up what you’d call “Scene One” last night.

If you’re not familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 setting, I’ll try and write it in a manner that makes enough sense to you. If you are familiar with 40K, I’ll probably have to apologise for butchering it.

This has been something my friend and I have been working on for quite some time but have never really got around to doing. We used to play pen-and-paper games – D&D, Warhammer 40,000, Inquisitor, D20 etc –  back in high-school, but never really found the right group. Now that we’re older, however, we reckon we can find a couple of people who will dedicate the time to see this adventure through to the end.

My friend and I are both storytellers and performers and want to create some kind of sprawling narrative that we both have input in. It might sound a bit wanky to some, but to me it’s actually feels like I’m building a world and a character.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy mission one of our Dark Heresy campaign:

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Writing Fiction: Redux

About a week ago, something amazing happened: I sat down to write a fictional story.

I’m a professional writer now (my coworker calls me the “staff journalist”, which is very kind of him but probably a stretch), but I haven’t had a fictional piece in my head for at least six years. Last time I wrote fiction I was eighteen, virginal, and still figuring out who I was–so, basically like most teenagers. Now, at twenty-four, things are very, very different.

I often wish I could write letters to my younger self, to tell her what’s coming down the road; I don’t think she’d ever have believed it. In the past week, the differences between then and now have been especially clear. So in the spirit of me kicking off my very first NaNoWriMo ever, I’d like to share some of the things that are different about the fiction process now.

1. Planning.
When I got my idea, it came in the form of a few loosely connected scenes and concepts. As a teenager, this would have been enough to bang out a prologue and start writing away, inevitably doomed to run into impenetrable writer’s block several weeks later and abandon the project.

This time, my thought was: “This motherfucker needs to be planned out.”

I went looking for story tips, cracked open my old screenwriting books to review the components of the three-act-structure, and realized just how many elements I was missing from my core concept. I’m still in the planning stages of the damn thing; a lot of my initial ideas have been scrapped, but better ones have replaced them as I steadily plot out the major events of the story. It’s an immensely refreshing demonstration of the fact that those prefrontal lobes do eventually grow in, and that little bit of foresight results in a far more sophisticated story.

2. Sexytimes
Part of my story involves a guy having an affair with his best friend’s girlfriend. While writing during adolescence, this wouldn’t have happened without a guaranteed happy ending and paragraphs upon paragraphs of buildup to that first kiss. I was a late bloomer in the world of dating, and remain to this day a curmudgeonly introverted weirdo who’d rather read a book than try to get into someone’s pants, but I’m happy that I’m going to get the opportunity to write sex scenes in a far more realistic light.

I can barely read my old romance scenes now, because they’re horrible. They are fluffy and overwritten and reveal a very young, very narrow view of how romance works. And that’s just the ones I published online; I’m grateful that I had the presence of mind at the time to get the very worst ones down on paper and then hide them away in folders on my hard drive, never to see the light of day.

People bump uglies for all sorts of different reasons and with a wide variety of emotions at play. I’m no longer a blushing adolescent about the subject, so I can challenge myself to create sex scenes that are actually well-written. And as certain outselling-Harry-Potter midlife-crisis erotica authors prove, sex scenes are difficult to write well, even if you are decades above the age of consent in your home country. So my goal is to do better than E.L. James, and then get around to addressing my overwhelming addiction to flogging dead horses.

3. Assholes.
When you’re a teenage girl and your fictional characters are all either projections of yourself or people you wished you could know, the harsh truth is that your characters are going to suck a little. The heroes are all far too heroic, the villains are somehow both cartoonishly evil and, at the same time, far too lenient, and female characters all tended to just be me, in a variety of masks. Romantic interests were…well, see Point #2, and wait while I retch into my wastebasket for a second.

We identify with characters, in part, because they have very human flaws; this means that they sometimes act like assholes. As a writer, you cannot be in love with your characters, because they will need to do stuff that is thoughtless, hurtful, or just plain bad. But it’s not just that characters will act like assholes; they do so because in their own mind they think they’re right, not because the puppetmaster has pulled the “be a dick” lever in their heads. That’s another thing I wouldn’t have considered back in the day. A good character-based story works because the subjects have a significant arc; they must have significant stakes which prompt them to change, and that means that they probably can’t react ideally, no matter how much you wish they could. A character who dodges every bullet is interesting to precisely one person, and that is the writer; if you can’t bring yourself to throw actual, significant obstacles in the path of your protagonist, then you need to have the words “Kill your darlings” tattooed onto the inside of your eyelids.

4. Burn that Mother Down
When I was sixteen, I possessed the following two things: dozens of potential story ideas stashed all over my computer, and a devastating, debilitating fear of change.

I would come up with story ideas, character profiles, set pieces, and scene progressions, and they’d be wonderful. But they’d never, ever go anywhere, because as I tried to think of a full plot, all of those initial status quos would remain as they were, because I loved them and didn’t want to destroy them. This had the effect of killing the story before it even had a chance to exist.

University, heartbreak, and a healthy dose of critical film studies has made me realize my mistake. The drama of a story comes from a disruption to the status quo, and quite often the most effective stories are the ones which apply change in a permanent and devastating manner. Never being able to go back to the way things were used to frighten me on a very visceral level; now I understand why, and I’m perfectly willing to just set every fucking thing on fire (…in the story, guys) to make sure that the protagonist can never, ever go anywhere but forward.

Some of you may argue that it’s natural that a teenager would miss some of these things, but my point is that when I was younger I really felt that I had a talent for fiction–and in some ways, I did. But I did not have the courage to plunge into the depths of what truly makes a good story captivating. Coming back to fiction after so many years away has felt like being a time traveler, emerging from my machine after a whirlwind trip to the future and back: a lot of the world feels the same as when I left it, but I am overwhelmingly different and know much more than I did the last time I saw these streets and houses.

So, fiction, here I am. I know far more of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll than I did the last time we did this little dance. Let’s fucking roll.

Southland Tales and Prophetic Insanity

Note: This blog post is an expanded form of a piece originally published on my tumblr, for the very brief period when I was trying to blog on tumblr. The original can be found here: http://strange-matter-blog.tumblr.com/post/57741331010/southland-tales 

Have you heard of Richard Kelly? If the name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the director of the 2001 cult classic film Donnie Darko. It was a low-budget sci-fi horror flick that played around with ideas like determinism, psychosis, time travel, and the Lynchian horrors behind suburban doors. It became an underground hit, with fans debating its puzzles and theorizing about its ultimate meaning; Richard Kelly eventually became enough of a household name that Samuel Goldwyn Films gave him license to do whatever he wanted as a followup. And so Kelly made Southland Tales

I can’t really concisely explain the plot of Southland Tales. Part of its problem was that it took so many ideas and crammed them so wildly together that all the coherence got squeezed out. Suffice to say, it is a partial adaptation of the Book of Revelations; leaping off from horrific nuclear bombings of two Texas cities in 2005, it depicts a nightmarish version of future Los Angeles careening towards an apocalypse that nobody really understands. It stars Dwayne Johnson as an amnesiac messiah, Sean William Scott in a dual role as twin police officers, Sarah Michelle Gellar as a philosophical porn star, and Justin Timberlake as the scarred Iraq War vet narrator. The sentence “I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide” is a significant coda for the last third of the film. Kevin Smith makes a cameo, covered in age makeup. It actually takes more effort to try to explain the film than it does to write a whole new screenplay from scratch.

It’s no surprise that Southland Tales flopped spectacularly; it had a budget of $17 million, but it made roughly $1 million at the box office. Critics blasted the film for the seriousness with which Kelly framed the complete nonsense on display. Why was Jon Lovitz playing a racist cop? Why were Amy Poehler and Avon from The Wire trying to fake a race crime by using fake noses and afro wigs? Why was Christopher Lambert driving an ice cream truck filled with automatic weapons? Why was Wallace Shawn gleefully screening a commercial in which two animated SUVs had graphic sex? These questions and more were never, ever answered.

If you haven’t seen the film, you probably think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Every single thing I just listed actually happens in Southland Tales, and more. Somewhere in the middle of act 2, Justin Timberlake’s character takes a drug hit and lip-syncs to The Killers’ ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ as sexy nurses dance around him. Why? Because it Has Significant Meaning. What does it mean? Beats the hell outta me.

So yes, Southland Tales is a mess–but despite all of that, I love it. I watch the above trailer and I can’t help but see glimpses of the film that could have been: a postmodern apocalyptic swan song where Bush-era politics and celebrity obsession collided head-on to spell inevitable, awesome doom for the human race. An apocalypse film where humanity wasn’t so much condemned as it was celebrated for bringing itself to such a permanent end, where American exceptionalism and Tea Party paranoia were taken to their most nihilistic extremes. Southland Tales could have been a film about filmmaking, connecting the act of storytelling with the creation and destruction of worlds. But the film itself falls short of that—very short. While it has the bombast, it utterly lacks the coherence.

Nonetheless, I love Southland Tales, and in a way that is entirely different from other bad movies. I look at it and feel the same way as I do when I watch Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive: I sense that this is a film which has a completely consistent internal logic, but which takes place in a universe where the basic rules of reasoning are slightly different from our own. The characters’ actions and reactions don’t make any damn sense, but not because they’re breaking logical rules; it’s because we don’t understand the rules themselves. It’s one of the most provocative things one can do as a filmmaker, and speaks to the nature of film language itself. We are used to being told the rules of the world within a film; usually they’re spelled out for us, and in most speculative fiction pieces these rules are fairly arbitrary changes to the logic of real life. But film presents us with an opportunity to observe vastly different universes; it takes a lot of guts (and skill) to drop any pretenses of hand-holding and present a world on film that challenges our core understanding of cause and effect.

A Zed and Two Noughts is probably the best example I’ve seen of this fundamental alteration of reality. Greenaway presents us with a universe shaped by taxonomy and postmodern notions of decay. The characters do not react to situations in a way that makes sense, at least not at first; however, one gets the sense that we’re experiencing a language that we’ve never heard before. We recognize the sounds and shapes of a story, but have limited translation capabilities.

There’s something about Southland Tales which taps into the same logical alterations, but nowhere near as artfully. It is a vision of the future, but it is a future that we struggle to reconcile with our present. The setup explains how the PATRIOT Act ran rampant after twin nuclear attacks on US cities in 2005, and how global warfare has caused a worldwide fuel shortage and prompted the development of the technology which eventually causes doom to humanity. Kelly is reaching for relevance, but his view of the future is so far off the beaten path that it careens into absurdity. This can be because Kelly dropped the ball when it came to basic storytelling, but it could also be that he was making a film which was decades ahead of the audiences who could appreciate it.

I honestly believe that Southland Tales may be taught in film theory classes someday, many years from now. It has flashes of brilliance, and those flashes are absolutely stunning. They’re loony and absurd and sometimes just immature, but they’re stunning nonetheless; watching the film is an exercise in being immersed in chaos. If it’d been angrier, we could have called it a modern Dada masterpiece; an avant-garde push back against early 2000s Americana. As it stands, Southland Tales is a train wreck, but I don’t believe it’s necessarily because Kelly completely failed; I have a feeling it’s because we aren’t ready for it yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, film scholars will be praising Kelly for having more foresight than we could have realized. That foresight will still be absurd, of course; I don’t think that we’ll have floating zeppelins or endless energy that slows down the moon. But the allusions and symbols in Southland Tales still draw from a very well-known source–the Book of Revelations–and it’s an adaptation that throws itself wholeheartedly into its premise with an impressive amount of courage. There’s no doubt on display, and it’s actually almost refreshing to see a filmmaker so passionately attached to his project. There’s something crazily prophetic about Southland Tales, and that notion tickles my film nerd brain in a way that causes the film to be one of the most endearing things to come out of the 2000s.