Sunday, July 18, 2010

Movie Musings: Metropolis, Completed

Last Friday I had the best cinematic experience of my life. A friend told me one of her friends had an extra ticket to see Metropolis at the Castro Theatre here in SF. Of course I said I would go. I've seen Metropolis many times but never on the big screen. I didn't realize just how special this screening was going to be until a couple of days before. Before I launch into that, here's some background information.


Metropolis is a 1927 German Expressionist silent film directed by Fritz Lang. Lush with eye-popping visuals that still impress today, the film has influenced generations of film directors. The film is set in a futuristic, totalitarian society where the workers are forced to labor underground to keep the massive city machines working and the wealthy live above ground in leisure. Maria, a woman who lives below ground, provides the workers with some measure of comfort by preaching of hope and of a mediator (the heart) who will bring the workers (the hand) and the Manager/Architect (the head) together. Freder, the son of Manager/Architect, lives an idyllic life of leisure until he sees Maria who has brought a group of worker children to see the people in the Eternal Gardens where Freder is enjoying the company of many women. Freder's life is changed when he decides to go find her. While looking for her, he sees the hellish conditions the workers must live in and trades places with one of them. Freder's father, the Manager/Architect, learns of Maria and goes to a mad but brilliant scientist who has created a Machine-man that can take on the likeness of any person. The Manager tells the scientist to make the Machine-man in the likeness of Maria to destroy the workers. As I'm sure you can guess, Freder turns out to be the long hoped for Mediator.

And now for some pictures:

The iconic Metropolis skyline

The Manager, the Mad Scientist, and the Machine-man

The hellish conditions of the workers

Shift change. This scene of the workers going through their shift change is one of the most famous scenes in the film. The workers coming in dejectedly walk to their jobs while workers finishing the shift leave in a state of exhaustion. The workers move as one unit, emphasizing their status as mere drones

Maria showing the worker children their "brothers and sisters" in the obscenely lush Eternal Gardens

Freder helps a worker who has collapsed

Some of the film's influences:

The image of the mad scientist with one black glove has been used over and over again in films. In the film our mad scientist has lost a hand and has created a mechanical version. He covers it with a black glove.

Blade Runner's skyline was heavily influenced by Metropolis (1982)

Metropolis influenced Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1984), especially in the art design of the film

Equilibrium, a 2002 film starring Christian Bale, was heavily influenced by Metropolis, Blade Runner, and The Matrix

Lastly, our very own C3PO (Star Wars, 1977) was directly modeled after Metropolis' Machine-man


Metropolis has stopped short of being on my top 10 list of favorite films of all time because the story seemed a little weak to me. It turns out the reason for this is because there were major scenes missing from the film. The original film was heavily cut because it was deemed too long after being shown in Germany and much of the footage was lost. Every now and again new footage would be found but only a few minutes worth at best.

In July 2008, Fernando Pena, a film historian and Paula Felix-Didier, director of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires discovered that a version of Metropolis in the museum's archives had an unprecedented 30 extra minutes of footage. After some delay, the film was authenticated in Germany and the underwent a lengthy restoration as it was badly damaged. A few minutes of footage is still missing but this is the most complete version of Metropolis ever found. Finding a completed Metropolis is like finding the holy grail, and it is one of the most important finds in cinema history.


We got in line early and had to wait an extra half hour before they let us in. The line stretched around the block. The Castro Theatre is a magnificent old palace theater built in 1922. We managed to grab seats in the front row of the balcony.

This screening of Metropolis was accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, a three-man orchestra who specializes in live performances for silent films. Alloy had prepared an original score for the film back in 1991. They revised their score for this new version of the film. I'm something of a purist when it comes to original scores for silent films; I usually refuse to hear anything other than the original score since it's what the director intended but Alloy did a marvelous job. Their score was intense, percussive and really brought out the themes of a mechanical, industrialized society. They announced that Alloy's score will be included as an alternate soundtrack on the new DVD/Blu-Ray of the completed film when it comes out in November (Yay!).

Before the film's screening they brought out Fernando Pena and Paula Felix-Didier, the two people mentioned previously who found the film. They told the story of how they found the film and how difficult it was to get people to take them seriously. We were all worn out from waiting for so long but it was wonderful to hear their story.

The film was amazing. The newly found footage is still badly scratched and we could easily tell which parts had been inserted into the print. Oddly this was very helpful as we could see how the footage enhanced the storyline. Minor characters who mysteriously appeared in the film but we had no clue as to their identity were now fully fleshed out. The Mad Scientist's motivations made sense. Even just a few moments of new footage helped enhance the story line and character development. The end result? A standing ovation, an audience of exhilerated movie goers, and Miss Turtle weeping in gratitude.

The film was screened as part of San Francisco's Silent Film Festival so it's not getting any kind of general release. I believe it's going to Los Angeles next. I think this is the only time I will be able to see the film like this: on a huge screen with a live orchestra. I feel so grateful that I got to go. I'm so lucky to have these opportunities, so goddamn lucky. And I'm so glad that I live here in my beloved city.

Monday, July 12, 2010

2010 Europe Trip: Planning and Traveling Alone

As many of you know I went on this trip alone. Two of reasons I decided to go alone were 1) I was going to do research for my novel and I wanted time to think, linger, explore, and take lots of notes without having to worry about whether someone else was having a good time and 2) I was going to see some of my favorite artists and paintings and I was really looking forward to having time alone to sketch.

People tell me how brave I am but I wasn't being brave. Not really. First off, I'd reconned Nuremberg previously and I knew I could be there alone and feel safe. Second, I purposely chose places I knew were safe for a woman traveling alone. I also chose places weren't too large and where I wouldn't have a problem with the language barrier. I made sure I stayed in a very central locations.

The only time I felt uncomfortable was when I was changing trains in Brussels to get to Bruges. When I arrived at the station everything was in French, I couldn't find my connecting train, and I only had 20 minutes to transfer. I couldn't even figure out where to ask for information. I finally found the right information desk and just managed to find my train. The second time I went through Brussels I had no problems.

I never got lonely. I talked to plenty of people in Amsterdam and Bruges. When I got to Nuremberg and Ansbach, I didn't talk to anyone because I was so focused on my research but that was how I wanted it to be.

My only mistake was that I overpacked. In Bruges, I mailed a bunch of clothes home because my suitcase had gotten so heavy I couldn't lift it. Mailing my clothes home was crazy expensive but I'm still glad I did it. Next time, I'll pack for four days and do laundry or stay in places that will do laundry for me. Paying for laundry has to be cheaper than mailing your clothes home.

As for planning I tend to go from macro to micro (yes, I plan almost everything in advance, I do this for some measure of security since I'm traveling alone):
  • Make sure there's nothing major going on the days you'll be visiting unless it's an event you want to participate in. You might want to be in Munich during Ockoberfest with 100,000 other visitors but you might not want to be in Amsterdam during the first stage of the Giro d'Italia (a major bike race) when roads will be cut off and thousands of people are in the street watching the riders go by.
  • Start with booking the flight then make a list of the days you'll be there.
  • Create a table showing each day and plug in how much each item is going to cost such as the hotel room, train travel for a day, meals, etc.
  • Decide how many days you'll need to be in each place and book your hotels.
  • Decide how you'll be getting from place to place (train, bus?) and how you'll get to and from the airport (subway, cab, bus?). Book anything major such as train travel. Find out information for how you'll get to and from the airport.
  • I took daytrips to Ghent in Belgium and Ansbach in Germany. I verified that the trains run every two hours or so and bought my tickets the same day since it was so easy to get there and back.
  • Decide how many meals you'll be eating and prepare a budget.
At this point, the major planning has been done. My next steps are:
  • Read online, in guidebooks, and ask people for places you want to go and things you want to see and decide generally what days you want to do those activities. Take into account that you might be jetlagged and plan accordingly. In Amsterdam, I chose to see the two major museums the first full day and took a canal cruise/saw the zoo a different day but I left plenty of time for wandering around neighborhoods, shopping, taking pictures, and exploring other people's recommendations.
  • Be sure to research any regional food specialties wherever you're staying and ask the hotel folks for recommendations.
  • Also research any interesting nightlife going on that you want to see. I went to the opera in Nuremberg and saw three plays when I was in London. You might be interested in pub crawling or going to a famous dance club or hanging out in an area known for its famous bars and restaurants.
  • Check to see how much daylight you'll have. It didn't get dark until 10:30 pm in Amsterdam and 10:00 pm in Bruges and Nuremberg. This will affect your planning.
  • Read online and guidebook maps to get familiar with the city. Look for landmarks, neighborhoods, parks, squares, the train station, airport, and public transportation stops. It's useful for orienting yourself and will cut down on the time it takes to get a feel for the place.
  • Walk everywhere and use public transportation. I love public transportation but I always make sure it's safe to use by consulting guidebooks and making sure I know which places I shouldn't be in.
  • Check for those all-in-one cards. Amsterdam and Nuremberg had cards where you pay one price and it includes public transportation for a certain number of days as well as museum admissions and attractions. These cards are available in the tourist office. You can also check online at the city's public transportation website which usually mentions if there's a tourist card. Hell, I think we even have something like this in San Francisco. Just take the time to run a quick calculation to see if it's worth the amount you're paying. My cards paid for themselves quickly since museum admissions were so pricey.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to sit and relax. Relaxing in your hotel room, at a cafe, in a restaurant, in a park, in a square is so nice and lets you do some people watching.
Some other tips:
  • Always bring your iPod or similar device and keep it charged. You never know when you have to shut out a conversation on a plane, excessive noise, or when you'll be waiting for a long time (like on the runway for the plane to take off) and don't feel like reading.
  • Reading fun books is always a good idea while traveling. I rarely read anything new unless it's an "airport" book I can discard later. Instead, I usually bring a book I'm particularly fond of and will read my favorite sections while traveling.
  • Try as much as you can to reduce weight. If you must bring something heavy, make it something important like your excellent camera. I brought my basic point-n-shoot but if I had the digital SLR I'm going to buy myself someday I would have brought that instead.
  • Check the weather. Yes, check the weather. For some reason, people don't check the weather before they leave and they're all bend out of shape when it's not warm and balmy even though it's in the middle of freakin' November. As for me, I planned for the weather to be a lot cooler but it turned out to be unseasonably warm. Bring layers in case this happens. If you're traveling during the "shoulder" season bring a pair of cropped pants and a couple of extra t-shirts a well as a warm sweater, jeans, and a jacket that can stand up to the rain.
  • Bring super comfy shoes that have already been broken in. Also, if you're traveling in the countries I really like to be visit, check for cobblestones. As charming as they are, they're killer on your feet and it can take almost a week for your feet to get used to them. I had to switch from my cute black clogs to my white sneakers my second day in Amsterdam. I spent the rest of the trip wearing them and looking like a tourist...Okay, I look like a tourist anyway but you know what I mean.
That's all I can think of now. Let me know if you have suggestions of your own.

Writing Life: Tips For Beginning Writers (Part 2 of 5) - Working Styles & WIP


When you're starting out and getting used to writing on a regular basis, learning about your working style is probably the next step. Everyone has their own style. Even if you're familiar and comfortable with yours you might have to change or adapt it for a particular project you're working on. If you stick with writing long enough your working style may change over time.

Most people divide working styles into three categories, often referred to as plotters and pantsers or a combination of the two. A plotter is a planner. This writer will outline the story, come up with maps, character biographies and clothes, histories of the time and place, etc. all before even writing down one word of the story. A pantser (that is, "fly by the seat of your pants") will write the story down without knowing anything about it. This person will allow the story to grow "organically," letting the characters and events pull him/her along. The combination type does some of both.

There are disadvantages to both styles. A plotter may become so engrossed in getting every detail right that the story might never get written down. Sometimes plotters refuse to use a wonderful idea because it doesn't "fit" with the outline. A pantser might get lost on some (or all tangents) until the story is a mess and then faced with the daunting task of having to fix it. Sometimes a pantser will use every single wonderful idea and end up with a jumble of incidents but no story.

Advantages: A plotter has a pretty good idea of what the story is about to begin with and there is security and worth in this knowledge. A pantser thrives on the surprises that come up and cool ideas flying around. Neither style is better than the other. The only thing that matters is you go with the style you feel comfortable with.

A combination person might start out writing without knowing what the story is about and then stop and do some planning then continue writing. Or part of the story might be outlined first and then written down and other parts might be written on the fly.

Here are some tips for learning your style:
  • Experimentation is everything. If you want to try something, just do it. Sometimes I get embarrassed about stuff I want try even though no one is going to read it. For example, right now I'm writing a piece of fan fiction, something I've never done before. It's been instructive and satisfying but I almost didn't write it down because I was embarrassed about trying it out (Maybe I'm the only person who feels this way sometimes). Experiment with outlining, using index cards, jumping in and letting the story grow "organically." Try playing around with writing "in the style of " some author you love or imitating the structure of a story you really like when you're first starting out. Everything you do will be instructive and you don't have to show anything to anyone.
  • Write it down. This seems obvious but I've been guilty of this time and again. I'll run through ideas, scenes, stories in my head and think they're pretty cool but they're nothing until I get them on the computer screen. Remember when you write it down it may come out differently than you expected.
  • Learn about other writers' styles, both famous and people you know. I love the creative process and enjoy talking to people about how they work. I love reading books on writing and how published writers work. Take what you can use and play around.
  • Try different ways of working: handwriting the story, typing on a computer screen (or a combination of both). Try creative writing software (almost all of them let you play with a demo for a couple of weeks or a month). I use Scrivener and it has revolutionized the way I work. It gives me so much pleasure to open up my story and see everything in one place, including my scenes, notes, and research. Try writing tools such as books with writing prompts or books with checklists, cards, and a very structured way of putting together your story just for fun. You may not like it but you might find an idea that works for you.

Years ago, I bought a wonderful book about the creative process by Twyla Tharp, the dancer/choreographer, entitled "The Creative Habit." Though the book is written in the context of dance, it's for anyone who wants to be more creative so I suggest checking it out. In it, she talks about your "Creative DNA," that is, how you tend to approach the way you work on a project. She used writing as her example. How do you sense your story? By any kind of sensory perception? Many writers tend to "see" their story or parts of it but others might "hear" instead, such as two characters talking or "hear" what's going on in a setting. If you tend to "see" your story, how do you see it? Is it all about details, minutiae? Such as:

"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another smaller V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down - from high flat temples - in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan." - Dashiell Hammett, Maltese Falcon.
Or do you see sweeping epics such as:
"This is a novel. Its characters and scenery are imaginary. There was no Venneford Ranch, no prairie town of Line Camp, no Skimmerhorn cattle drive in 1868, no Centennial. None of the families depicted here were real, nor founded upon real precedents. There was no Lame Beaver, nor Skimmerhorn nor Zendt nor Grebe. On the other hand, certain background incidents and characters are real. There was a great convocation in 1851 at Fort Laramie. There was a drought in 1931-1935....The South Platte River did behave as described." - James A. Michener, Centennial.
Some people see stories in what Tharp describes as "Sitcom," people sitting in the living room or kitchen having a conversation. Others see their stories cinematically, like watching a movie. There might be styles that could be called "Mini-Series" or "Trilogy" or "Comic Book" or "Monologue." There are other styles. These are just examples to get you thinking.

Thinking about and identifying your "Creative DNA" can be helpful. It doesn't mean you're a slave to it. It just helps to be aware of what feels natural and when you're experimenting with a style that is different.


Once again, this is just me. Your working style will and should be different. I'm most definitely a pantser. I've come up with four separate story lines for my novel even though the basic structure of the story remains the same with three different endings and two different beginnings. Let's not talk about the middle. After over a year of regular work I'm just now understanding that the story is about. I have dozens of scenes I wrote that I probably won't use. I'm just now learning about the locations of the story and fleshing out some of the characters' back stories.

I've been flailing around for a while but I wouldn't have it any other way. Why? Because I'm constantly surprised and this is the main reason I love writing so much. The characters are doing things, saying things that I had no clue was going to happen. The story is falling into place and all those weird loose ends are making sense and fitting together in ways I couldn't imagine before. I'm learning this story as I write it down and it's gotta be one of the coolest things EVER!

I've learned that instead of taking notes to figure out the story or characters, it's far better for me to write down scenes. Scenes allow me to explore what a character is doing in context of the story and to learn more about everything in general. All those scenes I won't be using and alternate story lines have been useful. Since I've learned what the story is about I feel like I can use some structure now such as preparing a timeline and delving deeply into character studies.

I've also learned that I can't think about my story too much. I see my creative process as the surface of the water with a vast ocean below. Some ideas will float around on the surface but it's best for me not to think in terms of "this happened, then this happened." Instead, I'll see snippet of a scene and then trust that when I go write it down the scene will come out whole. It always does.

Anyone who knows me won't be surprised that I see everything cinematically. It's all about the IMAX screen in my head. I think in terms of lighting, camera angles, pulling in for a closeup, tracking shots, you get the idea (I love cinematography!). I keep thinking I should take film making and acting classes to enhance my style.

Lastly, I have a peculiar focus on where and how my characters are moving in space: their posture, how they're breathing, where they are in a room and in relationship to each other if there's more than one person. Sometimes I get hung up on these details because I can't figure out how to get a character from one room to another without boring the hell out of myself with every detail about how the character is moving (or not moving) through space.


Your Work in Progress is very important. Choose whatever you want but choose carefully. Even if you're writing a short short story you're probably going to spend a lot of time and creative energy working on it and if you can't stand it you're never going to finish. This is doubly true if you're working on a novel. You are going to get sick of it. You're going to want to throw the whole thing out because it's all you've been thinking about for months, years. You must love what you're working on because that love will be the only thing that will bring you back and keep you moving forward until it's finished.

Me? I've been working on my novel for years now. I wrote the first draft and then put it away for a year because I didn't know what to do next. Since I picked up again, I've been working on it for more than two years with the last year being steady, regular work. I love this story so much. I love these characters and I can't wait to get back to it so I can learn more about what's going to happen next. Choose your WIP carefully. Don't settle for anything less than a story you love that much.

Next Post - Learning

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Writing Life: Tips For Beginning Writers (Part 1 of 5) - Basics

Though I haven't published anything so far (except here!) I have been writing regularly for quite a few years. I've been thinking of what I've learned so far and decided to write some thoughts down. Originally, I was going to do a journal entry for my own clarity but I decided it would be more fun to do a blog post instead. None of this advice is cut in stone and what works for me and what I've learned may not work for you.

My writing life so far: I've drafted a first novel and am working on the second novel, I have at least 10 short stories under my belt that don't have anything to do with my characters created here on this blog (all in first draft form), I'm going to use one of my short stories to draft my third novel later this year, I have something like four more novels rolling around in my head, and I write on these two blogs. Will I ever publish? Yup. I'll definitely get there too.


Write all the time. Read all the time. Never give up.

Those are the three basic, classic pieces of writing advice and they are probably the most important. You're never going to get anywhere unless you write a lot. You're never going to learn anything unless you read. And you can't ever give up.

One reason this advice is so important is it takes a long time to grow into a writer. Your writing when you first start out is going to be very different two, five, and ten years later. I read somewhere that you don't really grow into a writer until maybe 10 years after you've started. I've been writing regularly for the last seven years and I'm only just now feeling like I'm getting a grip on my writing. Of course, there are exceptions. Some people are brilliant from the get-go and progress very quickly but you won't know if you fall into that category until you get started.

Writing all the time is the bedrock of the writing life. Easier said than done. There's work, family, and a million other things on your schedule. I'm an odd exception to all that. Other than work and my volunteer gig with the penguins, I have set up my entire life to revolve around my writing. This could be considered a selfish act. So be it. I live in a wonderful city that provides endless ideas and stimulation, I'm not in a relationship, I have no children of my own, I don't watch television, I'm essentially a solitary person in my day-to-day life, and I carefully chose my activities to ensure that I have plenty of time for writing. I have obscene amounts of free time to myself.

I realize most people can't do that but making time to write still has to be a top priority if you want to be a writer. If you're just starting out or trying to get re-started I recommend you try to carve out two hours a week. Two hours a week may not seem like a lot but this is where I started and after you've been writing two hours a week it becomes easier to build on this time. If you don't build on this time you'll still see some results. If two hours a week is still too much then start with one hour a week. Where can you find this time? If you watch television is there a one or two hour block you can give up? That's probably the easiest place to find your time.

One thing I've learned this past year, and this goes along with writing all the time, is the concept of endurance. Before I joined my writing group "Shut Up & Write" I was flailing around. I had a tough time sitting down and focusing. I didn't realize I didn't have the necessary endurance built up to write regularly. In our "Shut Up & Write" sessions we get together at a cafe for an hour and write. We don't do critiques (we have separate sessions for that), we don't share what we're writing other than to mention very briefly about what we're working on ("I'm Mock Turtle and I'm writing a novel"), we just write. Sometimes we talk a little before and after the sessions but the main thing is to write for an hour. Since going to these sessions regularly I've found my endurance for writing has increased dramatically. I can write for hours, all day long now if I want to. Also, because I've built up this foundation and practice, I can write for very short periods of time and still be productive. Many times I'll start a scene during my morning commute on MUNI or for a few minutes during my lunch break. I write it down on 4x6 index cards, and then type it up when I get home. This keeps me connected to my story and helps me feel productive because I've been doing some writing throughout the day.

If you don't live in the Bay Area and don't have access to "Shut Up & Write," I highly recommend you start one in your area. Whether you decide to do it formally by contacting our organizer for tips, etc. or you decide to do an informal version in your own home by yourself, I still think it's a very worthwhile endeavor. If you're going to go this route, I highly recommend you go to a cafe or library or somewhere else to do your writing when you're starting out. It's very helpful to be away from the distractions of home. Writing with other people, even for an hour, is also invaluable.

Reading all the time is something I don't do and need to do more. The idea is you learn to write by reading widely. Not only in your chosen genre which is very important, but also in completely different areas as well. Reading brilliant works is a no-brainer but there's also much to be learned from reading lousy books. There are plenty of writing books which discuss reading in this manner. Usually when I find a scene or dialog or description that really stands out for me, either good or bad, I'll stop and try to figure out why it stands out. I'll ask "Why does this work?" or "Why is this so terrible?" and take some notes.

I also recommend reading poetry and graphic novels/comics/manga on a regular basis if you don't usually read them. Reading poetry will give you a different perspective on language and how to use it in ways you might not have thought of. Graphic novels/comics/manga tell stories in a very different way using pictures with words. This will also broaden your perspective and give you some new ideas. When I say read them on a regular basis I mean pick them up every now and again. Some writers recommend you read poetry every single day. I don't do that but I can see where it would be helpful.

Never giving up is just that: no matter what happens you keep going. If the project doesn't work, you start the next one. All this means is you have more to learn. I used to envy people who had to write; it's a compulsive need they have. Stephen King is a famous example of such a person. I didn't have that need to write when I first started out but now I've turned into the person who must write, no matter what. This was something that happened to me gradually over a period of time of regular practice and learning about my own working style. I know now that I will never stop writing, that even if I never publish I will still go on writing short stories and novels because the process of writing is so satisfying for me.

A word about writing practice and morning pages. When I was in my early 20s I picked up a book called "Writing Down The Bones" by Natalie Goldberg which is a fabulous overview of writing practice. I spent some time experimenting with writing practice which is where you free-write for a particular period of time with a chosen topic. While I don't really do writing practice now, I think it's a great way for a beginner to experiment to see if it works for you and see what comes out of your writing. This would be a wonderful way to begin if you don't have an idea for a project in mind. I used to free-write just before starting on my writing session for 15 minutes as a way to warm up but now I just dive into my story because I can't wait to get started on it. As for morning pages, I'd read about them a few years ago and went back to trying them earlier this year. I don't hand write them, handwriting is frustrating to me, but I was writing three pages first thing in the morning and it was very helpful with clearing my head and making me feel calm. I don't think about what I'm writing, it's basically a massive three-page brain dump. More like therapy, really. I recommend trying it out if you find yourself ranting and raving about stuff going on in your life rather than working on your project.

Next Post - Working Styles & WIP