Category Archives: Drama

My Favorite Titles

When I was ten years old, my schoolteacher gave a lesson on writing stories. I have this distinct memory of her asking us to think about what makes a good title. Given that we were a bunch of hyperactive little shits, we bombarded her with outrageous names like “THE LAVA DRAGONS” that only escalated in ridiculousness. I remember trying to come up with the craziest, most random title I could think of. When the orgy of shrieks and swallowed snot was over, the teacher told us that the best titles often didn’t spell everything out for you. A good title, she said, created a sense of mystery. You don’t want to reveal everything all at once- you want to pique a person’s interest.

Our teacher then proceeded to tell us what she decreed was the best title in the history of art and media.

The Magic School Bus!” she cried to a silent, head-scratching audience. “Think about it! You hear it and you just think: What made this school bus magic? In what way is it magic? What can it do that a normal school bus can’t? It makes you want to read more, doesn’t it? It takes something familiar- a school bus- and it makes it magic!”

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No one said anything. I frowned at the woman; I figured she was just lame. Anything that had the word “school” in the title had to be lame. I was firmly of the belief back then that every teacher had no life outside of school, and that it was their mission to make everything in the world boring.

But what she said did get me thinking about titles, and it made me question my ideas. I knew that next time I had to come up with something cool, I’d think about how it sounded before just shouting it out. As the years went by, I began to appreciate that teacher’s words more and more. Even though I thought she was being dumb at the time, what she said nevertheless got through to me, and it stuck with me, to the point that I’ve held onto it for all these years.

I’ve never considered myself the most imaginative title-creator. It’s something I tend to fret over and struggle with when I’m writing a poem or a story. I spend ages trying to think up something witty and original when asked to think of a name for a pub quiz team, a 5-a-side football team, a video game character, or whatever. I’m deeply envious of people that can come up with something catchy on the spot. When I first met my friend Aaron while studying abroad in the USA, I complimented him on his penchant for lyrical, alliterative phrases and titles. Seemingly on the fly, he’d come up with things I’d never even think of. During the snowy nights at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, we’d be folding laundry and listening to music. Aaron had an indie playlist called “Hay Fever and Horn Frogs”. The title didn’t necessarily make sense, but it rolled off the tongue well and it was playful. There’s no such thing as Horn Frogs- they’re like Bananafish and Jackalopes- but in Argentina there are these little badasses called Horned Frogs.

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At the moment I’m finishing up work on my novel and having to decide on its final title. Most authors tend to come up with working titles as they begin the writing process, and give their manuscript its real title when it is finished. It’s generally considered bad advice to come up with a title before a fleshed out story. I for one feel unable to name something until it’s finished. I have to look back on the work and think about what the most important themes are. There are no set rules as to what makes a good title, but one way to go about it is to think about the essence of your work and create a title that embodies it.

I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite titles and why I like them. Here’s my list:

 

Long Day’s Journey into Night – play, Eugene O’Neil

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – novel, Maya Angelou

Look Homeward, Angel – novel, Thomas Wolfe

Tree of Wooden Clogs – film, Ermanno Olmi

A Streetcar Named Desire – play, Tennessee Williams

No Country for Old Men – novel, Cormac McCarthy

Things We Lost in the Fire – film, Allan Loeb

Beneath a Steel Sky – video game, Dave Cummins

Shadow of the Colossus – video game, Fumito Ueda

Out of this Furnace – novel, Thomas Bell

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – novel, Anne Tyler

Minutes to Midnight – album, Linkin Park

Dreams of Milk & Honey – album, Mountain

Physical Graffiti – album, Led Zeppelin

Where the Red Fern Grows – novel, Wilson Rawls

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – film, Guillermo Arriaga

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – novel, John Berendt

The Autumn of the Patriarch – novel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Places I Stopped on the Way Home – memoir, Meg Fee

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – novel, Jeanette Winterson

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – short story, Harlan Ellison

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – novel, Carson McCullers

Call Me By Your Name – novel, Andre Aciman

 

Looking at my list, I can already see that I have a real thing for lyrical and poetic titles. A lot of these titles are fairly long too. Heck, some of them are even complete sentences. I like titles to feel unique rather than punchy. But that’s just me. What are some of your favorite titles? Let me know in the comments!

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Spring 2018 Recap

Today I’d like to do a springtime recap! These posts are always super-fun to write, and they let y’all know what I’ve been up to when I’m not writing or scrapping metal. Don’t worry; there are no spoilers for anything I review here.

 


TV: Westworld & Evil Genius

 

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These are the two shows I’ve really been obsessed with this year so far. I’m actually enjoying Westworld’s second season more than its first. I won’t spoil anything for those of y’all still catching up, but I love the direction they’re taking the show in and the themes that come with that narrative avenue. The crux of Westworld is its exploration of the consequences of theme park robots remembering what happens to them before they’re destroyed, repaired, and reset, and I think that the concept of these “dreams” and “reveries” being the catalyst for self-awareness is such a fascinating, clever idea. It’s probably the most layered TV drama that I watch. It’s a show that I think about when I’m not watching it. I love going online after the episode finishes and watching video breakdowns of all the hidden meanings and revelations.

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Evil Genius, on the other hand, is a Netflix crime documentary, pitched to me by my kid brother as being to 2018 what Making a Murderer was to 2016 and The Keepers was to 2017, respectively. I loved both shows, and Evil Genius definitely scratches that particular, chillingly-macabre itch. It’s just as addictive, and like them, it’s a documentary that proved as engaging as a thriller flick. But where Making a Murderer raised questions about the U.S criminal justice system, and The Keepers was poignant and unsettling, Evil Genius is just plain weird. It’s a case of reality conjuring up something stranger than fiction. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong is about as frightening as a Cormac McCarthy antagonist, and her associates tantamount to a Who’s Who of Erie’s most despicable white trash assholes.

 


Cinema: I, Tonya

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This might be my favorite movie of the year so far! When I think back on all the media I’ve consumed in the past few months, I, Tonya stands out as something that was both an enjoyable and a creative experience. Margot Robbie gave a career-defining performance as redneck figure skater Tonya Harding. A complete performance. One that utilized every aspect of her talent in order to create a Tonya that was in equal parts flawed and sympathetic. Given the nature of the film as being both comedic and heart-wrenching, it had to have demanded a lot of her, and she just kind of gets it right. It works, and the performance made the movie. I love how creative she is an actress and how invested she is in her recent roles; it seems like she is selecting parts that she’s really passionate about and working as both an auteur and a performer. She reminds me a lot of a young Robert De Niro.

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I was very impressed with the choreography and cinematography of the ice skating scenes, which are the most exciting moments in the film. Watching them was like watching the car chase in The French Connection or the bank heist in Heat. They’re treated like action scenes and the way the movie pulls them off is simply breathtaking. It honestly looked like Margot Robbie was executing that triple axel.

 


Theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire & A View from the Bridge

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The Tobacco Factory and the Old Vic in Bristol have had some awesome plays on this year. In my last “creative roundup” post I wrote about going to see Macbeth. And recently I’ve been to see two more tragedies: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller. I was already very familiar with the former, having seen the Marlon Brando film version several times. But it’s a story that’s so damn good that it never gets old, and I jumped at the chance to see it on stage. Even though I write fiction and poetry, I’d say my two favorite storytellers of all time are Shakespeare and Williams. As far as narratives go, they’re my absolute idols. I love the themes that Williams works with, and the modern adaptations of his plays have the freedom to be more explicit and visceral. In the Brando film version, the darker elements of the plot are hinted at but never seen. So much has to be inferred when watching it (or indeed any other adaptation of Williams’ work from that period). But watch one of his plays nowadays and it is absolutely brutal. Everything Williams wanted to write about but had to dance around in the 1950s is unleashed in all its bleak and depressing glory. I thought that Kelly Gough in particular did a fantastic job as Blanche Dubois, in a performance that made me think about just what a tragic character she is.

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A View from the Bridge, on the other hand, was a play I knew literally nothing about. I’ve seen both The Crucible and Death of a Salesman on stage, and I know that Miller is an O.G. I went to see this one with my father and my nan, and it was only on the drive to the theatre that I learned the play was about Italian-Americans in the New York docks, which made me think: I’m gonna like this. The play turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever been to- not just this year, but ever. At the interval we all looked at each other, blown away by how good it was.

“This is absolutely brilliant,” my nan said, and the woman behind us was like “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

There were a lot of young people in the audience, who were no doubt studying the play for their Lit exams, and when the play ended everyone was on their feet whistling and hooting. It was probably the loudest applause I’ve ever heard at the Tobacco Factory. If you ever get the chance to see this play then DO IT. It’s a classic tale of incest and revenge…

 

 

What I’ve Been Up To Recently

My vision for 2018 is for it to be my most ambitious year yet. 2017 was all about recovery; it was about finding my productivity and finding my happiness. But none of that was planned from the outset. It just sort of happened. And because of that progress, I now hold myself to a higher standard. I figured out that I want to live and do something with my life, and now it’s all about getting to work to achieve what I want.

One of the ways I want to improve my life this year is simply to do more. My problem the past few years has been my tendency to hibernate between my travels to the USA, counting down the days until I get to taste root beer again, until I hear cicadas at night. Now I want to make up for all the time I wasted while I was still in the UK and refusing to get out of bed. I want to fill my life full of vivid experiences. I haven’t got much money, but I have been looking to do small things in my spare time. I don’t want my weekends to slip by in a haze of basketball highlights and potato chips. It’s as simple as just saying “Yes” more often. It’s things like going for a walk with my kid brother Frank before he moves out, traveling to Stamford Bridge to watch Kanté tear it up with my old writing buddy from Winchester, or finally trying out Bingo and Trivia Night at the pub where I work.

Of course, I’m most interested in things that are creative, that light a fire in my soul. So here are three things I’ve seen this year so far, that I consider to be of artistic value:

 


Humanity – Ricky Gervais Stand Up Tour

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In January I went to the Colston Hall in Bristol- the place where I both sang and danced in three separate shows when I was a kid- to see my first stand up gig. I just couldn’t turn down the chance to see one of my favorite all-time comedians in the flesh. What was great was that Ricky Gervais was in the best form of his life- the quality of his material hadn’t dropped at all since the likes of Animals and Science. I can see how a comedian might not be able to keep up with the times, but Gervais is as sharp and relevant now as he ever was. During Humanity he told stories about celebrities, which to the average person like me, was so interesting, because it was like he acted as bridge between the real world and Hollywood. He’s worked with so many famous people, and yet he comes across as a very down-to-earth guy. It was like he was our man on the inside, sharing the juicy details of the bizarre existence of the famous. I don’t want to spoil any of the material, so go watch this show now (it’s on Netflix!).

 


Loveless – Andrey Zvyagintsev film

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About a ten minute drive from where I live is a cinema called The Curzon, in a Victorian seaside town called Clevedon. It’s one of the oldest continually-running movie theaters in the world. They’ve got this old organ from the 1930s and sometimes a fellow in a bow tie comes down to play it before the movie starts. I went to this cinema a few weeks ago to see a Russian movie called Loveless. It was the only night they were showing it, and I really wanted to see the film. I think it’s the first foreign-language movie I have seen in the theater, and maybe the first I’ve seen since my days in Film Studies class at City of Bristol College. The film was beautiful and bleak. It’s all about a kid that goes missing during his parents’ bitter divorce. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in recent times, and it gives a very cynical portrayal of domestic life in Putin’s Russia. It’s not about Putin or politics per se, but you can feel it ticking in the background. Fleeting glimpses of current affairs, from car radios or TV sets, contribute to a general impression of national sadness. The dialogue in this film was great; the adults rip into one another like Siberian Lynxes. It’s a whole lot of sex, swearing, and darkly-humored nihilism.

 


Macbeth – Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

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The Tobacco Factory in Bristol is one of our go-to theaters, along with the Old Vic. I try to see Shakespeare as often as I can, and so far I’ve seen about 15 of his plays (almost half!). However until last Thursday, I had never seen Macbeth. I’ve wanted to check out this gory tragedy for years and years, but it just kept eluding me. In 2016 I saw the Michael Fassbender film adaptation with my roommate Aaron, but I loved it so much that it only made me want to see the narrative on stage even more! I got my chance this week and went along with my dad and brother. The Tobacco Factory is a modern theater, but it’s perfect for Shakespeare because the seats are arranged around a small, central stage area. You get to see the actors up close and it gives the plays this real sense of intimacy. I liked this adaptation of Macbeth– the stage floor was covered with a deep layer of blackened wood chips, the sound effects had the diseased, deathly tone of buzzing wasps, and the WW1-inspired costumes were low-key and utilitarian, in a way that contributed to the bleak atmosphere. Best of all were the three witches with their heads wrapped in gauze. It was creepy as fuck. Also, the play featured my favorite stage actor- Simon Armstrong- who I have seen in Bristol dozens of times in everything from Moliere to Chekhov. I also only just realized that he plays Qhorin Halfhand in Game of Thrones (the Night’s Watch ranger that Jon Snow serves under in Season 2!).

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: Sexual Jealousy & the Tonal Shift to End All Tonal Shifts

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to see a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol. I’ve been going to the theatre pretty regularly since 2009, and so far I’ve gone to every Shakespeare play I can when I have been home. My dream is that one day I will have seen them all, and much like my dream to one day travel all 50 U.S states, I can’t wait to discover the unique beauty of each one. I would say Shakespeare is probably my favorite playwright, alongside my man Tennessee Williams. My favorite Shakespeare story is probably Hamlet; I feel like I could watch that play again and again and it wouldn’t get old. I tend to favor the tragedies and histories over the comedies, but that’s just my personal taste, and is reflective of my wider genre choices. When it comes to movies I tend toward dark, character-driven narratives like Killer Joe (2011) and Bone Tomahawk (2015) that explore the disturbing parts of the human psyche that most people would rather leave unexamined. And The Winter’s Tale definitely starts in this vein.

There was something very straightforward about the opening of the play. A couple of months ago I went to see Othello at the Tobacco Factory Theatres, which- like The Winter’s Tale– deals with the theme of sexual jealousy. However, in Othello, there is a careful build up to the manifestation of the titular character’s suspicions; it isn’t until Act Three that the Moorish prince even begins to consider that his lady love Desdemona might be cuckolding him. For the first two acts or so we have seen the couple’s romantic equilibrium. Conversely, The Winter’s Tale begins in disequilibrium; no time is wasted in establishing Leontes’ obsession with his queen’s fidelity. It is presented as an ongoing jealousy, and we as the audience are thrown into the middle of it, watching it fester, and wondering at its conception. In Othello, we see how and where his jealousy is created; everything that happens in the play is a result of Iago’s machinations, the lies he feeds Othello and the other characters. It is Iago that has the most agency in the narrative, and that agency is powered by Iago’s own jealousy towards Cassio for having gained the promotion he believed was rightfully his own.

Having watched the two plays in a relatively close time period, I have to say I find The Winter’s Tale’s treatment of sexual jealousy to be much more compelling. During the intermission of Othello, as I cradled my tub of strawberry ice cream in the warmth of my palms, I remember remarking what a numpty Othello was for having zero faith in his wife and damning her as a slut on the basis of mere rumor. Whereas in The Winter’s Tale, no explanation is given as to how Leontes became so jealous, and that provides a wonderful opportunity for us to examine the subtext and speculate on its origins. It suggests an insecurity of Leontes that is so exemplary of the machismo identity. There was something relatable about that uniquely male brand of jealousy- the fear of sexual inadequacy. Who among us- that is to say, males- has not felt something akin to this at least once or twice in our lives? It is an imperfect quality innate to our experience that can be traced back thousands upon thousands of years down the evolutionary timeline to our primal, animal selves. Perhaps one day a salesman at a convention feels a sudden rush of anxiety at the way his wife touches the bicep of his colleague as they chat away, out of reach. Perhaps a high school sophomore exits gym class to the mess of recess, and through that thicket of his peers, spies his crush laughing emphatically at the jokes of one of the other males. He resents the guy’s ability to make her laugh like that. This kind of jealousy occurs every day in a billion other scenarios- be it over a girl we don’t even know, or a wife we have loved for years. It speaks to our insecurities and our fears, and some of us may be more susceptible to such anxiety. This, in my opinion, is what makes Leontes a fascinating character. He may be a misogynist and a fool, but there is something so compelling, so human, about his raw and unbridled jealousy. Modern readers, I am sure, will agree that what is revealed about Leontes, King of Sicilia, is not so much his innate hatred of women as it is own symptoms of anxiety. For him, he can’t ignore what his mind chooses to see. For him, her fidelity is an obsession. The whole thing reminded me of a poem written by Hugo Williams called “Blindfold Games”, in which the narrator imagines his former lover and her new boyfriend making love. He is so obsessed with it- the idea of her own, independent, and self-serving sexuality- that he almost craves it, and describes in a very voyeuristic way how “I only have to close my eyes/and he is taking her by the arm/pushing her towards the bedroom”. The director of this particular production of The Winter’s Tale seems to be channeling Williams here. One technique I loved was that, as Leontes was giving his soliloquies about his suspicions, the director had the actors of Hermione and Polixenes remain on stage. He had them remain completely still, and the lighting dimmed over them, and then at certain points in Leontes’ paranoid ramblings, Leontes would go over to them and position them like statues, showing that the positions they took reflected what he imagined them to be doing. At one point during a soliloquy, Leontes positions his wife Hermione on all fours on a bench, and then has Polixenes grab her by the hips and start simulating the doggy style sex position, the faces of the actors remaining completely blank, the back and forth thrusting mechanics of their copulation seeming robotic. This helped establish that it was all in Leontes’ crazy imagination, that we the audience, had no evidence that the characters were actually fucking like rabbits somewhere out of view. In this way, Leontes is choreographing their lovemaking, reinforcing the idea that this may all be his paranoia. I thought this was a really creative technique on the part of the director, and right off the bat the play is established as an intense, psychological drama.

The first half continues much in this fashion. The intensity doesn’t let up for one minute- in fact it might be the single most entertaining first half of a Shakespeare play I have yet witnessed. I swear it had everything. There was the bit where the pregnant lady gets beaten into a premature birth, and the bit right before the intermission where the old dude gets hilariously mauled by a bear in the forests of Bohemia. Although I knew going in that scholars regarded The Winter’s Tale as one of The Bard’s “problem plays”, I didn’t know what exactly that meant, and I went into the play not knowing anything of the plot. I always like to go into a play fresh, and I only read about plays after I have seen them. And so halftime came and it felt like we had to catch our breath. Where the bollocks are they gonna go from here? I thought. I got a lemon sorbet and said to my dad “This is definitely a tragedy”. I actually said that. My prediction for the second half was that years would pass and the exiled daughter of Leontes would return to Sicilia only for the two of them to have filthy baboon sex without realizing they are related, whereupon they’d find out and the play would conclude with Leontes gauging his eyes out and Perdita jumping into a frozen lake with a bowling ball chained to her ankle. How wrong I was!

The tonal shift that occurs in this play has troubled viewers for centuries it seems. The second act is complete, light-hearted and bawdy comedy. It’s actually quite a shocking and sudden transformation from a first half that is nothing short of harrowing. It’s like someone taped over the final hour of Schindler’s List with the last hour of The Hangover. Of course Shakespeare is Shakespeare so the play was still entertaining and the jokes were reliably funny, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the first half much more than the first. We were all in this super-serious mood at that point, and it’s kinda uncomfortable when that is subverted and suddenly you find yourself watching a bunch of merry farmers molesting large-breasted tavern wenches and lighting their own farts. I’m exaggerating of course, and the plot is very much continued and concluded, albeit in a much lighter way. The play cannot be considered a tragedy, as I had initially thought it to be, because its ending is straight out of the Much Ado About Nothing school of rom-coms- where everything gets wrapped up neatly, everyone is married off to the person they are meant to fall in love with, and everyone is reconciled. I don’t mean to make it sound corny- it is still extremely well done, and the director did a superb job of making the final scene actually quite moving. I thought the actors of Leontes and Hermione in particular did wonderful jobs- they must have been absolutely exhausted after the performance. Ultimately, I really enjoyed this experimental Shakespeare story, and found it to be full of interesting talking points.