be a terribly gushing post; I don’t really know enough to gush. But I learned the
news of Stephen Sondheim’s death on Friday evening, and I feel I should type
something, even though I know so very little.
I came to appreciate
Sondheim late. I think that’s a key part of why I now admire his work so much. I
had to grow into it. Even when I was quite young, I knew of him. I listened a
bit and didn’t quite get it. To me, back then, it seemed stagey and slightly
But, like I
said, I’ve grown into it. I think I needed to. It’s often pretty grown-up stuff.
But, like I
said at the start, I’ve only grown a little into it. Scratched the surface.
There’s a life’s work there. So much to see and so much to hear. I'll be working on that in the coming years, if I'm spared.
the work he did. My current favourite is ‘Sunday in the Park with George’. I
have haunted YouTube on that one. It’s so strong on Creativity and Art plus it’s
got Mandy Patinkin in it and ‘Sunday’ right at the end.
But much as
I adore the work, I also adore the way he did the work and I take encouragement
from it. Two things, really. Stephen Sondheim pushed boundaries in all kinds of
directions and, importantly, experienced failure upon failure at times. But he
did not stop, and he could not stop. In my own attempts at writing, I’m not much
like Stephen, but in this one thing, I kind of am. I fail, I mess up, but I won’t
thing is about the level of real feeling in his work. My friend William
Gallagher was on a little uncharacteristic tirade, over on his blog last week,
about that cliché advice that goes ‘write what you know’. I’m with him on that
all the way. I think it’s bullshit too. For my own part, I edited that advice for
myself quite a long time ago. For me, the advice now says, ‘write what you feel’.
This works for me now. Oh, you don’t have to wear your heart on your sleeve or
go around weeping and wailing about everything in the goddamn world all the
time. But I tend to audit the stuff I do to try to ensure that there's at least
an ounce of ‘blood’ and emotion in there somewhere. If you, the reader, the
audience, can’t see it, all the better but it’s the stock that flavours the stew,
even if you don’t know what it is.
he tapped the deep well of his soul in his work.
that’s why I’ve had to grow into his work. I think empathy gets learned as we
go through our lives, to some extent at least and, until you’ve learned it, you
won’t get the Art that demands it.
Let me give
you the briefest of ‘for instance’s. When I was young, I would watch movies
where characters punched their way through glass windows, and I wouldn’t blink.
But, when I was eighteen, I accidentally punched my way through my own window.
And the blood, the wound, the painful removal of the impaled wrist from the
shard of glass, the stitches, the lingering scars, they all taught me a little
empathy on that particular subject. Now, when the detective goes through the
window in that old movie, I wince. Boy, do I wince.
So let it
be with Sondheim. If you don’t get him now, well, you may never get him but it
is entirely possibly that, someday, you just might.
weekend, a new play is taking shape inside my head. An idea that has lain
around for years has, with a little encouragement, begun to extend its tendrils
through my mind and through my senses. It’s a rather heady feeling, when it
happens, and I wouldn’t swap it for anything.
Stephen Sondheim, so full of learning and teaching and creativity and respect
and, yes, genius. Your refusal to fail and your willingness to share your heart
has set you on high and, now that you are gone, you will ascend ever higher and
higher as the years go by.
you work, you will remain with us for the longest time.
There’s a certain exchange in the film ‘Back to Future’ that baffles me a bit. I watched the film
again last weekend and there it is; that strange little dialogue interlude. Why
is it there? What does it mean?
to all of that shortly.
I saw ‘Back
to the Future’ on the first night it came out in the Empire Leicester Square.
My memory was that I was little underwhelmed with it. At that time, it seemed
to spend the first third setting up the middle third in a terribly obvious
fashion. Although the fun and pace picked up as it went, I didn’t quite forgive
it that. Plus, something happened after the showing that made me sad and that
may have also coloured my fading memory of the outing.
years, I’ve seen it on telly time and time again (pun intended), usually around
Christmas time. A couple of things have happened along the way. Firstly, it’s
become a bit of an old friend. I mostly find it when it’s half-way through, so
I’ve seen the second half way more than I’ve seen the first half and that second
half is pacy and fun. Secondly, I’ve come to appreciate some of the more subtle
touches that are everywhere in the writing and in the design. Somebody put a
lot of thought into the little things on that movie. Which is why this one
thing bugs me and makes me wonder…
get to all that shortly.
Before I go
on, I should say that I don’t rate Back to the Future Part II at all. Trish and
I saw it in a cinema in Harvard Square in Boston on the
first night it came out and it was a terrific disappointment in every respect.
Back to the Future III, we saw in an Adelaide cinema one morning while waiting
for our bus to Alice Springs. I think of it as an okay made-for-TV effort but
first Back to the Future, while nowhere near my all-time favourite list, still
has a place in my heart. I think, mostly, this is because of how it is always
weaving stuff in. It weaves and there always seems to be something new to see
in it. Some little trick or treat. For instance, Marty goes to Twin Pines Mall
to meet Doc and start his time travelling adventure. On his getaway from the shotgun
wielding farmer, he drives over one of the farmers beloved two pine trees. When
he returns to the mall near the end of the movie, it is now Lone Pines Mall. There’s
lots of that kind of stuff in there.
half of the movie cranks up the hazard and the challenges facing the
protagonists and there’s an absolute shedload of stuff to get through before
the day is finally saved. There literally isn’t a moment to lose.
us (at last) to that bit that baffles me.
It comes at
the height of the crisis. Marty has just arrived from the Enchantment Under the
Sea dance, having successfully paired off his father and his mother so that he
can have a viable future. Doc is behind schedule, and everything must be in
place before the lightning strikes the clock tower. There’s no time for idle
exactly what happens. Some apparently idle chit chat. Marty shows Doc the
photograph with the three siblings now fully restored.
Man really came through. It worked! He laid out Biff in one punch. I didn’t know
he had it in him. He’s never stood up to Biff in his life.”
What’s the matter?”
about this and then literally waves the whole exchange away with his hands and
the movie rolls on to its conclusion.
the scene in here so you can have a look, if you want.)
But why is
it in there? What purpose does it serve?
The script here
is too rigid, the editing too tight for this seemingly gratuitous little exchange
to be left in there by some kind of accident.
means something in the context of the film. But what?
At first, I
thought it was about parentage. Before I get into that, there is a slightly sanitised
TV version of the film which is the one that we see mostly in the afternoons around
Christmas time. The differences are not colossal but the level of swearing and
the general edginess is cranked-up a bit in the uncut version and that is
important in the context of the parentage question. You see, Biff has a salacious
interest in Marty’s Mum, Lorraine. When he forces himself into the car with her, outside of the dance, his intentions are clearly sinister in a way not normally
seen in a kid’s movie. And this isn’t really a kid’s movie anyway. Biff’s interest does not seem in any way born of the alterations that Marty has been making to the timeline. In fact, Biff''s threat seems fully-formed without any of Marty's interventions.
So, if George McFly has never stood up to Biff’s horrible advances in
the original timeline, what exactly happened on the night of the original Enchantment
Under the Sea dance? It’s not a nice thought to explore too deeply but, when
Doc looks at the restored photo and hears how George had never stood up to Biff,
is he thinking about exactly who Marty’s parents really are?
stand up for all kinds of reasons. I’ll leave you to work that out if you care
to (I realise you probably don’t). But, in the opening scenes of the film, adult
Biff still seems salaciously interested in Marty’s Mum. What exactly kept him
away from her over the years? We do not know, and we may, not without reason,
fear the worst.
It’s not a
happy train of thought to take from a light-hearted entertainment. Thankfully,
my current theory is much less sinister and perhaps that’s why I have adopted
it as my final answer as to why this scene is there at all.
Doc already knows that he
is in big trouble in 1985. Marty catches him, in an earlier scene, watching
the video over and over again. The one where the terrorists arrive to kill him.
At the time of our scene, he hasn’t yet received the letter from Marty which
warns him about his impending death, but he has clearly been wrestling with the
‘Timey-Wimey’ issues of changing the future. So much so that, when he gets the
letter from Marty, he tears it up and, importantly, puts the pieces in his pocket. He
hedges his bets. Why?
me, having thought about it far too much, is the reason why our little scene is
there. Doc looks at the future in that restored Polaroid photo and sees that all is well.
Even though Marty has wreaked considerable havoc on the past, in order to try to
save the future, all is still well. If George never stood up to Biff… until he suddenly
did, and the Time/Space continuum held firm, then perhaps Doc could also take a small risk
with the future and save himself?
film, when Marty finally realises that Doc has chosen to do just that, he asks him, “What
about all that talk about screwing up future events?” Doc replies, “I
figured, ‘what the hell?’”
funny line and it works well in the movie. But I now like to think that our strange
little scene, right in the middle of the melee, gives Doc a lot more justification
for doing what he did. It wasn’t a ‘what the hell’ moment, it was a calculated
risk. All based on that one restored photo and the fact that George had never-ever stood up to
Biff before Marty arrived.
Why should I bother
writing this? Two reasons –
well, three. The third one is that it was bouncing around in my brain this week
and I figured that writing it might exorcise it out.
The first reason
is that there is a lot of stuff to be found down the Internet rabbit hole about Back to the
Future, including a lovely interlude about the terrorist’s van and the Mandela
Effect. But there’s not all that much there about this scene. So, I thought I’d try to add to
the canon a little.
And what about the
second reason, Ken? About why you would waste your valuable time on this when
clearly nobody cares that you do.
that’s as good a definition as any of what writers actually do. And, at the end of the day, like it or not Ken, you are a writer.
opened an aisle just for me, apparently. That’s really very kind of them. The
girl who guides me over to it is sweet but, you know…
It all happened
at once, the way things do in those made-up stories sometimes. We were walking
down into town on a Saturday afternoon. The little box was burning its usual
hole in my pocket, and you had news to tell. Good news. Great news.
You’d got a
gig. After all the months of waiting, auditioning, hoping, and praying, you’d
finally got an acting gig. Better still, you’d kept it a little secret from me,
and you’d gone and done it and got paid for it. You produced a cheque, an honest-to
God old fashioned cheque with a full and amazing four digits before the decimal
point. You didn’t know if you could pay it in at the cash till. You’d never had
anything to pay in before, but you sure as hell were going to try.
and I laughed back as we ambled along and there was this slab of paving with a
tiny edge sticking up proud from the footpath and you caught your foot on it
and you tripped and fell, and your head hit the edge of the concrete kerb stone.
It was nothing, really. In the movies, people get thrown off buildings and waylaid
with crowbars all the time and they just get up and fight on. They wince and they
rub the sore spot for a moment but that’s all. On they go.
go on though, did you? Not really, anyway. They kept you breathing for a time.
They kept you warm and sustained. But you were gone, really, weren’t you? When
they eased you off the machinery it was a blessing, they said, a pure blessing.
really see it that way.
I should have
asked you about the gig you did. You had worked so hard, waited so long. Acting
degree, audition after audition, working for free whenever you could. Anything,
anything to get on. I should have taken the little box out of my pocket and
asked you then and there. You might not have tripped then; you might not have died.
Whenever I go to the supermarket now,
I try to buy the minimum. There’s only me now to feed, only my clothes to wash.
I try but I inevitably get too much. I either think or hope you’ll be there when
I get home.
new checkouts in store today. Automated. Everywhere else has had them
for years but they’ve finally arrived here in my little place. Three of them in
a row. That suits me. I don’t need to see anyone in person these days, I don’t
need to be discussing the weather.
I place my
basket on the left side of the checkout and scan my first item, placing it
over on the right. I know how it works from the bigger supermarket where I go
on the weekends to buy too much stuff.
scanned your loyalty card?” the machine asks me.
I reply, a sudden unexpected smile running across my mouth, “I almost forgot.”
I fish out
my wallet and search for the card. Give it a quick scan.
your points add up.” the machine says.
they do,” I say, “I know it.”
I stop. Stare.
“Is it you?”
doesn’t say anything. I must scan some more things.
I scan and scan.
The machine says nothing more. It just beeps once with each item I send
through. Too much stuff. Far too much.
everything is scanned, I press ‘Pay’ on the touch screen.
payment type,” she says, in her lovely voice.
the gig you got? The voice of the checkout?”
you so much.
The queue behind
me is growing. People are looking at me with odd sideways glances. I select ‘Pay
instructions on the keypad.”
“I will. I
will. But first I want to show you something.”
I fumble in
my pocket and pull out the tiny box. I open it, the contents colour and sparkle in the high lux glare. I lay the box gently on the scanner.”
recognised. Pleased enter the code or select item from directory.”
that big of a surprise, I think.”
“Enter the code
or select item from directory.”
I pick the
little box up and place it carefully on the right-hand side, along with my milk
and my butter. I ease myself down on one knee, as we joked that I someday might.
“Will you please
item in the bagging area,” she says.
"I know it’s
quite sudden. I know it’s a bit naïve."
item in the bagging area.”
that I thought I’d lost you.”
is on the way.”
is on the way.”
has arrived. The small crowd parts to let her through. She puts her hand on my
shoulder. I think she might know my story.
here with me, John. We have a place.”
opened an aisle just for me, apparently. That’s really very kind of them. The
girl who guides me over to it is sweet but, you know…
… not as
sweet as you.
be wrong to let this little flash fiction piece go out without name-checking
the great Harlan Ellison, who has been an inspiration to me since I found first
found ‘Shatterday’ on the library shelf, when I was aged thirteen or so.
short story ‘Laugh Track’ from the collection ‘Angry Candy’ was an obvious influence
for this tiny effort.
Stick up a
note on Facebook and Twitter, “No new blog post this week but here’s one from
way back when…”.
writer is easy when you’ve got something to write. Having ideas is easy when
you’ve got a couple of ideas. When you have nothing to write when you have no
ideas… not so much.
But the real
writers are not just fair-weather scribblers. Sometimes they must ride out a
drought or shelter from a hailstorm. Sometimes they just have to face down the
blank page and make something happen. There’s just no other way.
around a moment. There actually is a new blog post this morning. It’s just,
right now, at 9.44am, I have no idea what the next word of it will be… or the
word after that.
writing (for me at least) is like push starting a car. You’re back there heaving,
and the car feels so heavy and it’s got so little movement and your back is breaking
and you’d better just call the roadside rescue and sit this one out. Maybe you’d
better. Except that if you can keep on pushing through the backbreak, something
might spark, something might click, and you’re off and running towards
something or other.
(This is a waste of time, I should
stop now, have some cornflakes.)
(No, I can’t).
the desk. A bit cluttered. Write a paragraph about something on there.
my beloved Bluetooth headphones. Status BT Ones. I hinted the fuck out of them
for last Christmas and got myself a pair. I love to listen to podcasts in the
kitchen when making the dinner and I love to watch a crap movie loud late at
night when the rest of the house is sleeping. These puppies were gifted to me
to let me do that better. And, partly, they do and, partly, they don’t. The ‘podcast
in the kitchen’ part is a dream. I do my weekly Kermode and Mayo (the ones that
I didn’t get in the car) or just play some Tom Waits or something.
thing, though. Not so good. The headphones connect and the sound is wonderful.
They just don’t always stay connected. Accidentally flick your head a little
and the sound becomes broken and disjointed. And the trouble with TV sound on
headphones for a movie is this: it’s either perfect or it’s absolutely no good
at all. There is no middle ground. So that’s a bit of a disappointment. Every
now and again I try them again and they work for a while and it’s perfect (just
like the kitchen podcast is perfect.) But then, out of nowhere, it’s all “ah-oh-eh-oh-ah’
again and the effect is ruined.
effect is a fragile one. When me and Sam went to see the most recent Star Wars
film, it was in the afternoon in one of the smaller screens in the local
Multiplex. For some reason, the sound channel carrying the dialogue stopped
working halfway through. We could hear the sound effects and the music, but the
character’s lips moved, and no sound came out. I went and found a young man in
the sweet shop who promised he would attend to it. I went back to my seat and
watched the partially silent space opera unfold. Then, suddenly, the dialogue came
stopped mid-frame and the sweet shop guy appeared in front of the screen. “Sorry
about that,” he said, “I will rewind the film for you. How far back should I go?”
The consensus was that fifteen minutes would be about right. He vanished and, a
few moments later, the film on the big screen started cranking back, just like
it would on your DVD or streaming.
The point is
that ‘cinema rewind’ has forever since coloured my view of the cinema
experience. Before that, there was a naive impression of huge film reels and coordinated
change over of projectors. The ‘rewind’ drew back the veil and showed the mundane
reality of digital projection at work.
These things are fragile. They're either perfect or no good at all.
once again, I don’t know what to write now. I had no idea I was going to write
that ‘Star Wars Rewinded’ bit so I suppose that’s the 'car pushing' effect in
action. What now though?
were in the pub, having an Americano ‘cos the sun/yardarm thing is not quite
right yet. The conversation has momentarily lagged. What would I tell you?
I got an
image for the poster for the new play. I’m very happy about that. I was surfing
Flickr looking for something that might work when I came upon the perfect
image. It was both exciting and nervous making. If the owner of the photo doesn’t
allow me to use it, then it’s all for naught. I banged off a message, knowing
full-well that Flickr messages are not often read and even less often replied-to.
Wonder of wonders, a short time later, a reply came back. Yes, I can use the
image. This is bigger than it might seem. It’s like a sort of benediction. A
note from the fates that this play-thing might just go quite well. And why
wouldn’t it? I have such a stellar cast and such a lovely venue in The Linenhall.
Plus, the rehearsals are so good. Funny and collaborative is the best of ways.
It’s all very exciting.
I want to say about it for now but, rest assured, you’ll hear more about it soon.
1,000 words are in the bag (or they will be when I’ve done this bit). God knows
they aren’t particularly good words and there isn’t a lot of value in here for
you, the valued reader. I’m sorry about that. I’ll do better next week. Part of
the reason I’ll do better is because I pushed myself to do this one today. The
writing muscle had been stretched. That will serve me well for next time. At
least, that’s how it usually works.