Category Archives: Shakespeare

John Milius, Hollywood Wildman

John Milius

John Milius was once a force of nature in Hollywood. He co-wrote the first two Dirty Harry films, received an Academy Award nomination as screenwriter of Apocalypse Now, and wrote and directed The Wind and the Lion, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn.

Here’s an interesting anecdote about Milius, from the Castalia House blog:

My all-time favorite Milius story concerns his frequent battles with producers and other movie executives.

One day, Milius was describing the concept of a movie he was writing to a woman who was high up on the studio chain. It was a macabre tale of a soldier betraying his king, filled with murder, sex, and madness.

At the end, the female movie executive gets up and exclaims; “Mr. Milius, what you have told me is absolutely disgusting and awful! We have no interest in making any film like that, and hope you will work hard to come up with something better!” She walks off.

Milius then looks at a man who witnessed all this, shrugs his shoulders, and says “Some people just don’t dig Shakespeare.” He had described Macbeth to her.

Good thing he didn’t pitch Coriolanus.

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Thomas Bowdler’s Revenge!

Shakespeare censored

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had a happy ending. In Hamlet, Ophelia accidentally drowned. And when Lady Macbeth gazed upon her guilty hand, she cried, “Out, crimson spot!”

Doesn’t sound quite right, does it? But those are some of the edits Thomas Bowdler made to render Shakespeare less violent and less frightening. Bowdler’s 1818 The Family Shakespeare removed what Bowdler called “those words and expressions… which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”

In fact, Bowdler’s work was appreciated in Victorian times, and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne credited Bowdler for making Shakespeare approachable for children. But today, the word “Bowdlerize” signifies the reworking of a piece to make it less offensive, but also weaker and less effective.

Before we start feeling superior to those stuffy old Victorians, we need to pay attention to a growing neo-Bowdler campaign to tone down text that could offend. Sadly, some publishers are resorting to “sensitivity readers” whose explicit job is to Bowdlerize manuscripts:

Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.

These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.”

The Chicago Tribune story cites the case of author Veronica Roth, whose novel Carve the Mark was denounced “for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.”

That’s sad. It’s a rough-and-tumble world out there, and if you can’t handle viewpoints that challenge your sensibilities, you’re in for some rude shocks.

I see this as yet another symptom of a society that’s self-segregated itself into prickly, snarling little dens of conformity. Too many people see the world through a pre-fabricated lens and as a result, cannot cope with views from outside their cocoons. If all you know of the world comes from Fox News or Huffington Post, you feel you must condemn all who fail to uphold the One True Way.

Get away from that computer. Go outside. Talk to real people. At the very least, dare to consider ideas from outside your “Favorites” list.

Jack Kirby is Still King!

thor

I loved this tribute from playwright John Ostrander:

What makes Jack Kirby the King? For me, it’s this.

Imagination – The word “prodigious” comes to mind. So many concepts, so many characters, bear his mark. So many styles of stories. From the spires of Asgard to the weird distortions of the Negative Zone to the brutal cityscapes of Apokolips, to Ego the Living Planet, no one could top his visuals.

Storytelling – His figures leaped off the page. The panels couldn’t contain the events on them. Even standing still, they vibrated with potential power. There was energy to burn on his pages. You felt them as much as you read them. You couldn’t read the story fast enough and when one issue was done you wanted the next one right now.

Artistry – Okay, his anatomy was not always perfect. And every woman’s face looked the same. He was still one of the best ARTISTS that ever drew a comic because comics are about storytelling and no one beat Kirby as a storyteller.

The featured image is a scan from my copy of The Mighty Thor # 159, from December, 1968. It’s a perfect example of the barely contained power that animates all of Jack Kirby’s illustrations. You can feel the tension in this scene: Thor, despite his earth-shattering might, approaches his father Odin with the most profound respect — and more than a little bit of fear. As well he should: Odin could rage and roar like no other monarch in comicdom.

I have no doubt Marvel Comics in its Silver Age strongly influenced me. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby definitely expanded my vocabulary, often forcing me to set my latest comic down to riffle through the dictionary to discover the meaning of what I’d just read. And the high quality of the stories and characterization I encountered in those comics, as well as the heroic subject matter, whetted my appetite in grade and high school for Beowulf, Shakespeare, science, and history.

Side note on the scanned picture of Thor: At the tender age of 31, barely a year after getting married, I sold my comic book collection. My wife and I needed money for a down payment on a house, and the stern lesson of 1 Corinthians recited at our wedding still reverberated in my ear: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

So it was time to let go of Spiderman, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. But I held on to three of my favorite issues of Thor. I’ve found the best way to move forward is to hold on to a few pieces of a beloved past.

Balancing Creativity and Mental Illness

Medb

Where do writers get their ideas? Some say they spring from fevered minds. Those folks may have a point. There’s now scientific support for that view. From NewsMax:

Nancy Andreasen, a psychiatrist at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, studied writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and found that 80 percent suffered from depression, mania, or hypomania — compared to only 30 percent of non-writers.

Creative people tend to have adventuresome personalities and are likely to take risks. The high rate of mental illness in highly creative people could also be explained by a genetic predisposition to both creativity and madness.

Creativity involves combining new ideas in ways others have not considered. Sometimes when a person’s ideas seem too far off the norm, he or she doesn’t make sense and may seem mentally ill.

Hmm. A few names come to mind. Philip K. Dick. Robert E. Howard. Sylvia Plath. Troubled individuals all. And all talented writers.

But once again, science is just now discovering what astute observers have known for centuries. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Theseus scoops Dr. Andreasen by some 400 years:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Queen Hippolyta agrees with Theseus, adding that the “strange and admirable” often thrives within the grey and shifting border between madness and craft. I’d add that imagination is just part of what makes all art possible; it’s a skill — something that can be learned and honed — to make “airy nothing” into something concrete the reader can experience.

I resolve to be very bad this year

… and very good. It depends on what I’m aiming for at the moment.

Now that I’ve had a chance to digest all the advice and resolutions of various writers and writing coaches, I’ve decided what advice I intend to follow and what advice I will violate.

For starters, a number of well-meaning gurus counsel writers to finish what they’ve started. Only they say it like this: “Finish that manuscript! And eat your broccoli!”

No doubt they mean well. And there are times when you have to buck up and WORK at getting words onto the screen (or paper). But when a project just doesn’t work for you, there comes a time when you have to admit you took a wrong turn. Why keep on working to complete a piece that you know in your gut is a waste of time?

Another way I intend to be bad is to be more open to artistic expressions I once rejected or was afraid to approach. The “bad boys” (and girls!) of literature have something to say, and many of them say it damned well. For example, I just finished Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, and loved it. He’s a writer who, from what I’d read ABOUT him, I just knew I’d despise. Boy, was I wrong. Ham on Rye is honest, gritty, vivid literature.

We all need a little crazy in our lives. In Act V, Scene 1 of my favorite Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus offers these observations about the little spoonful of insanity that makes art come alive:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

As Hippolyta acknowledges, that interplay of madness and craft can yield “something of great constancy” that is both “strange and admirable.”

But fear not; I only intend to flirt with the dark side, not elope with it. I’ll be good, too, in the coming year — I’ll continue to set writing goals, blog often, and keep myself mentally and physically sharp by getting outdoors more often and exercising. It’s good to have both feet planted on the ground. However, the idea is not to stay planted, but to have a good foundation from which to explore and grow.