Author: John Ostrander

JOHN OSTRANDER: Casablanca At 70 – You MUST Remember This

SPOILER WARNING: I’m assuming that people reading this have seen the movie and thus will be free with me discussing elements of the plot. If you’re one of those who haven’t, do yourself a favor and DON’T READ THIS. See the movie instead and have your own experience with it. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did. If you need a plot synopsis, IMDB has a good one here

The movie Casablanca turns 70 this year and, to celebrate, Warner Bros is releasing it on Blu-Ray on March 27 and is also showing it, one night only, in selected movie theaters across the country on March 21. I’ve already got the tickets for Mary and myself.

I’ve seen the film at least twice now on the big screen and look forward to seeing it again – I’ve watched it countless number of times on DVD but the experience on the big screen is matchless. Those incredible close-ups of the three stars at the climax of the film are so stunning on a large screen.

My first experience with Casablanca, fortunately, was a showing at a second run small movie theater in Chicago (the 400) in an inspired double bill with Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam. I had put off seeing the film for the same reason I put off seeing or reading or listening to many things that I would later love – because people told me I had to see/read/listen to something and sometimes I’m a pig-headed idiot.

This was an audience that knew and loved the movie; they cheered and laughed at the best lines and scenes. In the famous dueling anthems scene, some audience members sang the Marseilles and the entire audience erupted into cheers when the French anthem triumphed over the Nazis. It was electrifying for the audience as well as the characters. What a great introduction to the film.

Over the years I’ve watched and became aware of different fine points of the movie. It was very much a picture of its time and reflected a reborn patriotism that came with the War effort. In a scene where Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, is waiting for Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, to come back to his nightclub after hours, he’s getting seriously drunk and asks his piano player and confidant, Sam (Dooley Wilson), “If it’s 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in America?” That line isn’t just drunken slosh.

Earlier in the movie, Rick okays a credit slip dated December 2, 1941. It sets the events of the movie five days before the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor causing the United States entrance into World War II. Prior to this, much of America is isolationist and Rick embodies that. He “sticks his neck out for nobody.” He’s cynical and aloof; he never drinks with customers or employees. That all changes before the end of the film.

The fulcrum of change is the return of Ilsa, Rick’s former love in Paris before the Nazis matched in. You can’t much blame Rick for being in love with her; as played by a young Ingrid Bergman, Ilsa is radiant. Rick, however, has been burned. He was jilted by Ilsa just as they were to leave Paris together.

Rick’s change comes late in the film when he and Ilsa have been reconciled and she declares that she still loves him. Torn, upset, she tells Rick that he will have to decide for her, for everyone involved. Rick simply says, “Okay. I will.” That, however, changes everything. At that moment Rick becomes the man of action once more and everything moves forward at a gallop towards the climax.

Rick disposes of all his holdings. We assume it’s because he’s going off with Ilsa but that’s not his goal; he’s getting her out of Casablanca (along with her husband). He’s not out to kill the villainous Nazi Strasser (even though he does). He expects to wind up in jail, a concentration camp, or dead. That, more than anything else, marks him as a real hero – the degree to which he is willing to sacrifice himself.

There’s more to be said about Casablanca and I’ll say them next week. Until then – here’s looking at you, kid.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell, R.N., CNOR, C.G. (Comic Geek)


This week marked fifteen years since the death of my sometime writing partner and lovely wife, Kimberly Ann Yale. Since here we talk about pop culture in so many different forms, I thought I would pose myself a question – WWKL? What Would Kim Like? What has come out since her death that she would really have gotten into?

Let’s start right here – on the Internet. First of all, she would have loved ComicMix and probably would have had her own column here. Kim was a terrific essayist – much better at it than me, I think. She was thoughtful, she picked words with care and grammar and punctuation really mattered to her. Me? If it gets past spellchek, I’m good.

In fact, I think Kim would have been all over the Internet. She would have had a blog or two or three, she would have been answering other peoples’ blogs, she would have been Queen of Facebook. Facebook was invented for someone like Kim. She would have had a bazillion friends on FB. I would have had to pry the computer from her.

Kim was also big into monsters and horror, vampires being her especial faves. I think she would have favored True Blood over the others because of the sex and the melodrama and the Southern-fried aspects of it all. (Kim’s mom was Southern and Kim fancied herself as a Southern belle. Kind of hard to do when you’re born up North but her mind worked it around.) The Dark Shadows movie starring Johnny Depp? Eeeeeeeeee! She would be camped out for it right now.

I think both The Walking Dead comic and TV series would have sucked her in but she would have been tickled by Shaun Of The Dead. Kim had a terrific sense of humor and the world’s most infectious laugh. Trust me – if you were a stand-up comic or doing a comedy in the theater, you wanted Kim in the audience.

I wonder what she would have made of Cowboys And Aliens? She was the one who got me started watching westerns and they were among her favorite genre films and, of course, adding sci/fi to it would have really intrigued her but I’m not sure what she would have made of the execution. I only give it two stars and I think she would have agreed (Kim also worked as a movie critic back in Chicago for a small suburban newspaper, so she could really knew how to dissect a movie.)

On the cowboys and spaceships mode, I think she would have been into both Firefly and the movie tie-up, Serenity. And Nathan Fillion would have led her to the Castle TV series (she also loved fun mysteries and strong female characters).

Then there’s Doctor Who. Kim and I met at a Doctor Who con (actually, a combined Doctor Who / Chicago Comic Con) and she would have rejoiced at the Doctor’s return. I think she would have liked David Tennant’s Doctor the best; she would have described him as a “creamie” – as in cream your jeans. However, she would have liked all three incarnations that have come out since the series’ return and, as a writer, would really enjoyed Stephen Moffat’s writing and now running of the franchise. She would have also liked his take on Sherlock Holmes and on Jekyll and Hyde. I stopped watching the latter during its first season; not because it wasn’t good but because it really creeped me out too much.

On movies, she would have been amazed and ecstatic with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and would, as Mary and I are doing, been waiting impatiently for The Hobbit movies coming out. Viggo Mortensen would also have been counted as a creamie.

She would have been fascinated by how CGI made superhero movies possible and what happened as a result. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, especially The Dark Knight, would have sucked her in and, come Hallowe’en, she would have dressed up as Ledger’s Joker, no question in my mind about it.  I think, however, she would have been even more taken with Inception – Kim had an active dreamscape and tried to spend as much time in it as possible so the movie’s setting would have fascinated her.

She would have liked Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man (less so the sequel) not only because he was so good (and he was) but because she was also a sucker for redemption stories and Downey’s reclamation of his career would have stirred her. She would also have really liked Chris Hemsworth as Thor (creamie) and the whole Captain America film and she would really be anticipating The Avengers, not the least because Joss Whedon is helming it.

I could go on much longer but I think I’ve tried everyone’s patience enough. I may be just projecting onto Kim what some of my own likes and dislikes are but it refreshes her memory in my own mind and heart, keeping the flame alive. She was full of life and she would have brought that with her into the future. Like all those we treasure, she lives on in me and in all those she loved and loved her.

Memory doesn’t die with the body, and neither does love.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell


JOHN OSTRANDER: Our Final Frontier

SPACE: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

We’re a frontier nation. Always have been. If you weren’t happy were you where, if you looked for new possibilities, new challenges, there was always somewhere to go. That concept, that feeling, brought people from other lands to this one, from the pilgrims to the later great European migrations. As late as the Dustbowl and the Great Depression, people uprooted from where they were and went somewhere else, often California. African-Americans, seeking a better life, made an exodus from the Deep South into the Midwest, to Chicago and Detroit and other cities. Someplace else has always held promise to us as a people and, I think, helped define us.

Star Trek also evoked the concept of frontier with its opening narration. It’s the first thing we heard when we first saw Star Trek. Later shows and movies would alter it slightly, changing “five year mission” to “ongoing mission” and “to where no man has gone before” to “to where no one has gone before”; both, to my mind, improvements. By now we know it so well that we hardly ever really listen to that invocation anymore but it’s worth looking at.

Think of hearing those opening words for the first time – ever. There is a promise of adventure, of hope – they define frontier. They reflected an aspect of America at the time – a belief in ourselves and our ability to achieve great things.

I saw Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC, on The Daily Show this last week. I love watching Tyson – he is a terrific cheerleader for the manned exploration of space, not only enthusiastic but able to communicate that enthusiasm. He was selling his new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, but he was also decrying how we, as a people and a nation, have given up on space. After the moon landings, he noted, we settled back into the space station and the shuttle, boldly going over and over again where lots of people have gone.

Don’t get me wrong – I think the space station is a remarkable achievement and the shuttles were important and the loss of two of them and the lives within were tragic. Neither program, however, really ignited our imagination the way that the race to the moon did or the opening to Star Trek did. There is no reach outward. There is no frontier.

I think we need a frontier. I think that we, as a nation, have fallen inwards and are devouring ourselves. A frontier makes us look outward and upward; it demands the best from us if we are to survive. What we currently slog through in our lives is far from our best – and offers damn little hope of reaching something better than what we have.

Reaching outwards, to other planets, to other stars, presents risks and problems but we find ways of solving those problems and overcoming those risks and, in the process, makes us better.

I know there are those who say it is too expensive to explore space with people. Manned probes can get us there cheaper and without the risk to human life. However, I think that risk is what’s important. It’s humanity against the elements and, without that risk of death, is there really an achievement? However sophisticated the Mars’ probes are, they are not humans. They are machines. There is skill but there is no courage.

Some people have said we shouldn’t go back into space until we solves our problems here on Earth. That’s not going to happen; there will always be problems here on Earth. Solve one and another pops up. Many of these problems are hardwired into us as human beings. However, so are the virtues and strengths of us as a people and they are never better on display than we reach outwards – to another planet, to the stars, to one another.

We, as a people, need frontiers and, as Star Trek pointed out, space is the final, the ultimate, frontier. Let’s seek out new lives and create a new civilization. Let’s unwrap our imaginations and explore possibilities.

Warp factor baziilion, Mr. Sulu.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell



It’s spring training for baseball, a time when even Cubs fans can be hopeful despite knowing that, sooner or later, this year’s team will break our hearts as every Cubs team has done for over a century. Truth is, if the Cubs ever won the World Series, their mystique would be gone. Their legend is based on being losers.

As baseball season is upon us, and tonight is the Academy Awards, I want to look back not only at the game but at my favorite baseball movies. For my taste, there is something better about baseball films than there is in films for any other sport. There’s a duality to it; baseball is played by teams but it comes down to individuals – batter versus pitcher.

So here, in no particular order, are my favorite baseball films. I’m not saying they’re the best but they are my faves and I think every one of them is watchable. These aren’t the only baseball films I like and the list may not include your faves but there’s only so much space.

Moneyball stars Bard Pitt in his Oscar nominated role; the nomination is well deserved although his pal, George Clooney, will probably beat him out for the award. The movie does not deal with the game per se but with the business behind the game, focusing on Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane as he attempted in 2002 to win the World Series despite having very little money to work with. At the same time, it has most of a baseball film’s tropes – a team that has little chance, a maverick at the center of the story, a shot of redemption and so on. It comes at everything from a different angle but very worthwhile.

The Natural. Okay, it’s pretentious, it’s overwrought in places, heavy on the symbolism, Robert Redford at the start of the film is too old to be playing a rookie phenom and maybe even the score is over the top. For me, it works. When Roy Cobb hits the light-shattering home run at the climax and the Randy Newman score comes to its symphonic heights, I get chills. I stumble on it on the tube, I watch it all the way through. Great cast, too.

Bull Durham. Great comedy, great romance, sexy as hell, and terrific performances. Focusing on a minor league team is a great idea – players on their way up, players on their way down, players who aren’t going to get any better than this. Human, humble, great baseball scenes, loopy as hell. Costner, whatever else you may think of him, is almost always good playing an athlete and especially a baseball player. He does another great job playing a baseball player in a supporting role in The Other Side Of Anger. This is my second fave baseball movie.

A League of Their Own. “There’s no crying in baseball!” Tom Hanks, that line, and that scene alone merits the film’s inclusion here. Incredible cast overall – Geena Davis, Hanks, David Strathairn (almost always a MVP no matter what movie he is in), Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and Jon Lovitz in what may be the film role I most enjoy him in. Or enjoy him in at all.  The movie also covers a story I didn’t know about – a women’s professional baseball league in the 1940s while World War II was on. A little sentimental here and there, but first class. Makes you wonder why there isn’t a womens’ professional baseball league today. Maybe we haven’t come a long ways, baby.

The Comrades of Summer. I’d be surprised if most of you knew this one. It was a made for TV movie in 1992. Personal bias – it stars Joe Mantegna who I knew back in my theater days in Chicago. Great guy and a wonderful actor. In this movie, he plays Sparky Smith, a resentful and recently fired baseball manager in the States who gets hired by the Soviet Union that wants to field a team for the upcoming Olympics where baseball will be a competitive sport for the first time. He’s resentful, the players are largely untrained and well nigh hopeless and the odds are long. Classic baseball film material. Aside: there’s a Russian street hustler, Voronov, in the movie who contributed more than a little to my creation of Vilmahr Grahrk in some of my Star Wars stories for Dark Horse.

Field of Dreams. My favorite, hands down. I came at it sideways. When it was first released, I had no interest in it. Then I heard the soundtrack playing in a friend’s car. I didn’t klnow what it was and my friend identified it for me. James Horners’ score for this film is one of my top five favorite scores of all times. Beautiful and haunting. The film hit one of the rerun movies houses in Chicago (the old Three Penny Cinema of fond memory; it’s now a rock joint called Lincoln Hall) and I wanted to see how the music worked with whatever the film was about. So Kim and I went.

Knocked. Me. Out. It has the element of mysticism that The Natural strived for but not so heavy handed. It has James Earl Jones playing a J.D. Salinger type character (in the book by W.P. Kinsella – it was called Shoeless Joe – from which the film was adapted, the character is J.D. Salinger) and Burt Lancaster in a warm and wise small part. Once again, Kevin Costner is the main character, Joe Kinsella, which he handles with humor and heart.

The film is about baseball, yes, and James Earl Jones has a terrific speech towards the end about the importance of baseball and the dreams it has. It’s about redemption and long odds and, most importantly, fathers and sons. The ending is perfect. “Want to have a catch?” I think every father-son relationship is imperfect (yes, probably every father-daughter one, too) and I tear up every time when that final scene plays out. It ends in hope and beauty – just as every baseball season begins in hope and perhaps some beauty.

There’s a few more I’ll mention in passing – the TV version of Bleacher Bums (not the movie version), performed by the original Organic Theater cast including the aforementioned Joe Mantegna. This is the definition of what it means to be a Cub’s fan. “No one ever went broke betting against the Cubs after the Fourth of July.” Soul of the Game about the Negro Leagues just as Jackie Robinson was about to break the color line. Delroy Lindo, Mykelti Williamson (currently seen in this season’s Justified) and Blair Underwood as the young Jackie Robinson. Great stuff. Dennis Quaid in The Rookie. Sort of The Natural without all the mystical hoohah. And the musical Damn Yankees for Gwen Verdon, Ray Walston, and the song (You Gotta Have) Heart. That’s baseball right there.

I think what unites all these films is a sense of redemption and of hope.  You need hope to get through life, even if you know better, even if you know that, in the end, your heart will get broken. Again. That’s what you have at the start of spring training, that this might be the year. Miracles happen. The Cubs might do it. I like myself better when I hope.

As the fabled Cub Ernie Banks used to say, “Let’s play two!” Batter up!

MONDAY: Mindy Newell


Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one. Every asshole has lots of opinions. What comes out of assholes frequently is a load of shit. Check the GOP Presidential debates for verification.

I say this, of course, in the middle of an opinion column sitting in the middle of lots of other opinion columns here at ComicMix. ComicMix, of course, sits in the middle of the Internet which, of course, is comprised mostly of opinion. So – which opinion matters? Outside of mine, of course. How can you tell?

I encountered a fan (well, not really a fan of mine) who wanted to tell me why I sucked. My basic response was: I should care because –? This offended the would-be critic; s/he had bought a book of mine and had a right to his/her opinion. I didn’t dispute that; the real question was – why should it matter to me? The fan got huffy; he/she/it thought I should want to hear that opinion.

Some fans – yes, I do. Others – not so much. One of my primary rules:  not everyone’s opinion matters. Not everyone’s opinion should matter. If everyone’s opinion matters, then no one’s opinion matters. How do you tell the difference?

Experience is a good place to start. Has the person giving you the opinion any experience in the field on which they are opining?

Does the opinion expressed have any facts to back it up? Real, verifiable facts, not ones made up to fit the circumstance (again, GOP presidential candidates; hell, all political candidates). Does it have some thought behind it? If they just want to express how they feel – okay, it’s how they feel but there’s no reason I should listen to it because there is no reason in it.

What is your experience with the person giving his/her opinion? Is it your history that you can trust, to a greater or lesser degree, what they’re saying? If I go to a movie and I read a review that mirrors my experience, then I know I can trust that critic’s opinion. It’s not that their perfect or that I am but I know our tastes are similar enough to make it less likely that I’ll waste my money.

Friends, relatives, colleagues – I know who they are and how trustworthy their opinion is on a given subject. We don’t have to agree, but I can listen with confidence. What they feel about it may be important to me but it’s because I know them. A stranger – well, not so much.

Also, just because someone knows something on one subject doesn’t mean they know anything on another. Come to me for an opinion on writing, story, or comics and I may have some thing useful to say. Ask me about NASCAR – well, I saw the Pixar flic Cars. Take anything I have to say on the topic with a lot of salt.

Editors – if I want to stay employed, I’d better listen to their opinions. I may disagree and I may express my disagreement but, in the end, the editor represents those who own the property or the rights so, unless that owner is me, I need to heed their opinions – even when I disagree.

One editor I had said I couldn’t use thought balloons because, after all, movies didn’t have thought balloons. I disagreed – I pointed out that they were different mediums telling stories in similar but different ways. To start with, movies moved. I couldn’t convince the editor; I worked without thought balloons.

Listening to opinions with which I disagree is important in general. I may not change my mind (or change the speaker’s mind) but I often walk away with a better insight into the opposing view and it can hone my own thoughts and opinions; I know better why I have the opinion that I do. These days, fewer and fewer people seem to do that. We look for only those who reflect our opinion, who agree with our dogma. Dogma is easy; no thought required.

We also should consider why we are being gifted with this person’s opinion. It’s the basic question a writer asks of his/her characters – what do they want? What’s the reason behind what they are doing? Does the person giving you their opinion care about you, do they want something from you, both, neither, more?

My mother was always of the opinion that I should get a teaching degree so I would have “something to fall back on” if my theater or (later) writing career didn’t pan out. I loved my Mom and I knew she was trying to look out for me but underlying that suggestion was her opinion that I wouldn’t make it in the field I chose. I knew that if I had something to fall back on, I’d fall back. Sometimes you have to perform without a net.

We are constantly bombarded with opinions these days and it becomes easier to take someone else’s opinion for our own. The issues are so complex and there are so many compelling issues vying for our attention that it’s easier to latch on to some pre-made opinion than to form our own. The times, however, demand we do the thinking necessary or, at the very least, know whose opinions we listen to and why.


Monday: Mindy Newell Offers Her Opinion

JOHN OSTRANDER: Ghost Rider – What Is Owed?

Denny O’Neil used to have a T-shirt that proclaimed “Growing old is not for sissies.” As I get older, the hard truth of that keeps coming back to me. Case in point.

Two days ago, there was an article here in ComicMix about Gary Friedrich who lost his case against Marvel about participation in the monies made from the movie (now movies) of Ghost Rider, which he created at Marvel. Among other reasons cited by the judge, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest, was that Friedrich gave up his rights to the character when he signed checks that had, above the signature line, language requiring him to give up any rights to the character.

I’ve done that, too. You had no choice in the matter in those days. If you wanted to cash the check, you had to endorse it and you had to endorse it beneath the legal crap. There was no negotiation, there was no discussion. It was, to be blunt, coercion.

The name, Ghost Rider, had also already been used at Marvel as one of the Western characters they had – said character, again, being created by Gary Friedrich. Friedrich also had to sign a document giving up all rights – and why wouldn’t he? This was seven years before the first Superman film with Christopher Reeve showed up, six years before George Lucas made Star Wars and showed there was a ton of money to be made off of ancillary rights such as toys et al. You signed those documents because that’s what was necessary to get the work. No movies were being made, no toys were being made, there were no video games – the only money to be made was from the work itself. There was no indie market in those days where you could take your ideas. You made the deal that was there to be made.

The judge had to base her decision on what were the legal facts – and they said that Marvel owed Gary Friedrich nothing. Without Friedrich, however, the property doesn’t exist. From all reports, he’s not in good shape. He could use the money – even a taste.

What is he owed?

Injury to insult department. The judge has not only told Friedrich to stop saying he created Ghost Rider, he was ordered to pay Marvel seventeen grand in damages.

Friedrich owes Marvel $17,000.00!

He’s not the only freelancer in this position. Years ago, I saw Gene Colan and his wife at a convention and I steeled myself up to go say hello to someone I thought (and think) was one of the unique great talents in the industry. He was having eye troubles at the time (with which I would come to completely empathize) and he was, to be honest, a little angry and bitter. Like other old pros, he felt cast aside and forgotten by the industry and he warned me to make sure I had money in the bank or find something else I could do. I wish now I had taken his advice more strongly.

This is not to say there are not groups like the Hero Initiative out there who do tremendous work in helping people who have given to the industry but there are financial limits to what they can do. There is no equivalent to a union or a guild in this industry; if you even think of starting one, you’re gone. John Broome, fabled writer in the Silver Age, found that out.

What is owed to any of those who built a company, built this industry, and then got left behind?

I won’t pretend; I’m more or less in that boat and it scares me. I’m luckier than some; with Amanda Waller, who I created, I’ll see some participation for her use in the Green Lantern movie, just as I did for her use in Smallville and Justice League Unlimited. I think that’s fair and, fortunately, legally binding. Thank you, Paul Levitz.

But what about others, like Gary Friedrich, who worked before there was any such notion? There is, as always, a wide distance between what’s legal and what’s right.

What is owed to those who came before, who did the work on which later, more lucrative, works are built? The contracts, the law, says nothing is owed.

Does that seem right to you?

It doesn’t to me.

If you agree, tell Marvel, tell their parent company, Disney, that they owe the creator something, contract or no contract. Fans can do something and it can be effective. Gary Friedrich isn’t one of the big, great names in comics. But he created Ghost Rider and, legally or not, they owe him.

It’s what’s right.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell


JOHN OSTRANDER: 101 Mistakes

Almost every mistake I’ve ever made as a writer comes down to what I call a “Writing 101” mistake. I’ve been writing for a living for umpty-bum years at this point and you’d think I’d have graduated to at least Writing 102 mistakes, but no. It keeps coming down to the basics.

It usually happens because I think I don’t have to bother with the basics because, after all, I’ve been doing this for umpty-bum years now and it should all be second nature to me. Or because I’m behind in my deadline and don’t have time to bother with all that stuff.

Here’s a helpful clue. When you’re running late, you only have time to do the job right. Take a deep breath, clear out the cobwebs, looks at the basics, and work carefully. It winds up saving you time.

I need to have that pounded into my head with a very large mallet every so often.

What are the basics? To start off it’s the classic questions of who, what, when, where and how. By who I mean not just the characters’ names but who they are – their background, their history, their backstory. Those around a character help define them – who are their friends, their family, who loves ‘em and who hates them.

Think of your own life and who you know. How does that define you? Do you act the same way with your friends as you do with your parents? No, you don’t – they are different roles that you play and your actions adjust accordingly. All the roles are you but they are different aspects of you. Bruce Wayne as Batman is different from Bruce Wayne in public who is different from Bruce Wayne in private. As with you, so with your characters.

What can be defined in many ways; some of the most basic include what does the character do, what is their function in the story – protagonist, antagonist, supporting character? For me, the What also comes down to What Does The Character Want and what are they willing to do to get it. That governs every scene, every line of dialogue. Also, What Is At stake? Life, money, fame, ruin, get the girl, get the guy – what?

When would seem a no-brainer, but taking it for granted is a no-brain mistake. One of the legendary changes that Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams made when they took on Batman was to clear away the muck connected with the campy TV show was to make Batman once again a creature of the night. It was that simple, that elegant, and that basic. When can include time of year, era, the season and so on. The amount of time elapsing also matters. How much later does one scene take place after the previous one – immediately, soon, much later, a few days? You have to know.

Where would also seem obvious but a generic location tells us nothing about the characters or the story; a specific setting reveals a lot. How big or small is the house/apartment/office/coffee shop? What posters or art are on the wall or the desk? Details matter. Look around your own abode; what you choose to put in it says something about you. Same with your characters. My office currently says I’m a lazy slob. It says it pretty loudly, too.

Why does the story happen in the order that it does? Why do the characters make the choices that they make? That’s motivation. More often than not, there is no single motivation and the multiple motivations can be in opposition with one another. Back in college I was seeing this girl and she, teasing me, said that if I had to choose between her and a chocolate cake, I’d have to think hard. I told her, “Nonsense, my dear. You exaggerate. I would always choose you – with infinite regret for having lost that chocolate cake.” See? Conflicted.

We often want more than one thing at a time and often try to have it all and usually fail – because we can’t make a clear choice. Why do people make bad choices? Because conscious and subconscious are both acting upon us and they are rarely in agreement; what the heart wants is not necessarily what the head insists on. As with life, so with your characters.

And then there’s how. How does your character go about getting what s/he wants or think they want? How far are they willing to go to get it? Do they use direct action, indirect action, do they lie, cheat, steal, kill? Are there boundaries they won’t cross or are there just boundaries they don’t think they will cross. What are the specific acts? If the character tries and fails to achieve their goals, do they come back and try again? The story is meant to show us how far the protagonist/antagonist will go to get what they want. It reveals what they need or think they need. Are these acts consistent with who the character is – not just who they thinks they are, but with who they truly are? Who they are dictates how the character acts.

Each one of these – the who, the what, the where, the when, the why and the how – influences the other and as you play one off the other, the character, story, and themes come more clearly into focus.

One last word about mistakes. You are going to make them. I know writers who got frozen because of being afraid to make a mistake. It has to be perfect. Got news for them – nothing is perfect. Everything a mortal can do is flawed somewhere. You just do the best you can at the time.

One of the best teachers I ever had in anything, a man named Harold Lang, advised us to make big mistakes; you learn nothing from small ones. The operative word here, of course, is “learn.” Make new mistakes; don’t keep repeating the old.

Now if I could just remember that for myself. Ah, well; I’m off to make some mistakes.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell

JOHN OSTRANDER: Ch-ch-choices

“To be or not to be, that is the question.” So goes one of the most quoted lines in Shakespeare, probably in all of literature. It’s so well known that it’s become a cliché; people who know almost nothing of Shakespeare know that phrase. Most of the times when I’ve seen it acted, the actor playing the character who speaks it, Hamlet, makes it an intellectual question, maybe something for philosophy.

Except that it isn’t.

In context of the play, Prince Hamlet is contemplating suicide and every moment of that speech should be about whether or not Hamlet will choose to end his life – right then and there. If I was staging it, I’d have Hamlet with a sharp knife, playing with his wrist, maybe cutting himself, while he debates his choice.

It is the choices made and not made that drive the play – or should. And they drive story in general as well. How will a character act in a given situation? Even to choose not to act, not to make a decision, is in itself a choice.

In one of my favorite films, Casablanca, the female lead (Ingrid Bergman at her loveliest) confronts ex-lover Rick (Humphrey Bogart at his manliest) over letters-of-transit that will enable her and her heroic husband, Victor (Paul Heinreid at his Paul Heinreidiest), escape from Nazi-controlled Casablanca. Rick has refused so far to surrender the letters-of-transit because of lingering resentment at having been ditched by Ilsa. Problem is, she still loves Rick so she won’t shoot him to get the documents. She falls into his arms and tells him that she can’t choose, that he will have to choose for her, for all of them.

Rick holds her and then simply says, “All right. I will.” From that point, the movie rockets towards its fabled conclusion. Rick has been essentially choosing not to act up until this point. He now makes choices that will resolve all their fates.

Every story is full of choices that the characters make. They’re not always good choices; in fact, it’s often bad choices that make for a more interesting story. There are big choices, there are small choices, there are choices made for all kinds of reasons – and all that reveals character.

Think of your own life. What is more important? What a person says or what a person does? It’s what they do and that reflects choice and that reveals character. What a person says is also a choice and an act – they defend, they deny, they explain, they confront, they rationalize and so on. We all like to think we would know how we would react in a crisis situation but the truth is we don’t. We only know how we think we would act. You don’t know until you’re actually in the moment. That’s when you learn who you really are. That’s when we learn who a character really is. That’s the story.

This is a big year for story. The national political scene is one huge story. Choices are made constantly. Who do you choose to trust, who do you choose to believe, who will you choose to elect? Each choice is an act and each act tells us something about the character/person making that choice – in this case, ourselves and our country.

Each choice has consequences for the character or the person – good, bad, or indifferent. They link together, these choices made or not made, and they determine how the story comes out, what the destiny is. It’s true in fiction because it’s true in real life.

Choice defines our humanity and our freedom. Where there is no choice, there is no freedom. It doesn’t make it easy but it sure makes for a better story – whether we read it or live it.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell

JOHN OSTRANDER: Playing Favorites

Last Tuesday night, two of my favorite series returned with new episodes – Justified on FX and White Collar on USA. Both in the same time slot, 10 PM EST. This is why TV recording equipment was created – so you no longer have to choose.

Mary and I recorded both but one we watched as it was on and the other we watched the next night. We’ll get to which one was watched “live” but first let’s talk about the shows themselves.

Is one show better than the other? Yes, but both are generally well-written, directed, and acted. And the premieres both were good examples of the two shows.

White Collar deals with a thief, con man, and rogue named Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) who has been sprung from prison by the FBI guy who caught him, Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) to help solve crimes. Neal’s on parole so he (usually) has to wear an ankle bracelet that allows the FBI to monitor him. The two other principle characters are Neal’s buddy, Mozzie (Willie Garson) and Peter’s wife Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen). Neal is not quite reformed and keeps edging towards activities that could get his parole revoked and himself sent back to the slammer. He’s not helped in staying on the straight and narrow by his buddy, Mozzie.

The show owes a lot to the movie Catch Me If You Can which had Leonardo DiCaprio as a counterfeiter and conman chased by Tom Hanks’s FBI agent. DiCaprio is also caught and eventually turned into an FBI consultant.

The show’s main strength is the bromance between the rogue and the cop. All the main characters turn in good performances. Mozzie is a delightful character and Tim DeKay does really fine turns as the FBI agent. A big plus also is the relationship between the FBI guy and his wife – they really love each other and it’s nice to see a middle-aged couple being romantically in love.

The premiere of the season picked up where the cliffhanger left us off last time. A nasty baddie has kidnapped Burke’s wife because of shenanigans that Neal, the rogue, has been doing on the side with his pal, Mozzie. And Peter, the FBI guy, knows they are responsible. Peter’s anger, fear, and sense of betrayal drive the episode as Neal and Mozzie have to work to make things right. By the end, it was very satisfying. The best show on television? No, but consistently pleasurable.

Justified. Ah, where do I start? An Elmore Leonard inspired series about a U.S. Marshall, Raylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant) sent back to Eastern Kentucky where he grew up for shooting one or two many bad guys in Miami, even if the shootings were “justified”, and he’s not happy to be home. He has an ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea) who is a little less ex these days, a former girlfriend Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), a boss who’s not crazy about him (Nick Searcy) and a former co-worker in the mines, a sometimes friend and more often opponent, who has turned to the outlaw side, named Boyd Crowder played by the inimitable Walton Goggins, topping his work on The Shield.

This season also picks up after the end of the previous season which was remarkable. It had one of the best villains, male or female, I have seen on TV in the person of Mags Bennet. Margo Martindale won an Emmy for her work as she damn well should have. I was wondering if they could match that season but the first episode cleared that up for me right quick.

Raylan was shot at the end of last season and this one starts three weeks later and Raylan is still feeling the after effects. There’s a sinister crime boss from Detroit who has established himself in a memorable fashion and a sociopath for hire named Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) who has a sadistic little game that he likes to play with his victims involving an icepick.

I don’t want to spoil things but two of the highpoints for me were when Ava makes a point with a cast iron frying pan and Raylan turns the tables on Wynn Duffy at their climatic showdown. Deeply satisfying.

The show’s writers have said that, as they approach each episode, each scene, each line they ask themselves, ‘What would Elmore do?” It shows. Leonard himself is one of the Executive Producers of the show and likes the character well enough to have his latest novel, RAYLAN, be about him.

Raylan Givens is about as cool a character as I have ever seen on TV. He means what he says and if he says he will shoot you, you’d better believe him. Both he and Neal Caffrey are charming but Raylan is definitely more dangerous. The big difference between the two shows, I think, is that White Collar could have just as easily played on network TV. In fact, the networks should be looking to USA to see how this type of show is done – the cable network has a number of good shows, such as Suits and In Plan Site that would have done well by them.

Justified would not play on network TV. There’s sex, language, and violence and they got the warning labels to prove it. All are necessary ingredients in the show and all help make the show fly.

Both shows are eminently worth watching and, in case you haven’t guessed, we watched Justified first.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell

JOHN OSTRANDER: Seeing Movies As Movies

I read an article in Entertainment Weekly about the collective failure of the Christmas movie season overall. Some, like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, did well and some, such as The Adventures of Tintin, did much better overseas (where Tintin is a better known commodity) than domestically. EW opined a variety of possible reasons, including the economy and the concept that there wasn’t a real “tent-pole” movie. However, there were some really good films out – Hugo (which I loved), for one, and The Muppets. I have a thought on another possible contributing factor.

I know a number of people who will wait for the DVD of a movie or to see it on their computer, tablet, or smartphone. It seems to me a whole generation would almost prefer to see it that way now. And I can’t help thinking that’s a mistake.

Mind you, I’ve seen many movies that I missed in the theater via DVD, Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. A smaller intimate film can work just as well on a small screen. I probably won’t get to see Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy until it gets to my TV screen and I think that will be alright. However, I know other films suffer.

For example, I’d seen John Ford’s The Searchers for years on the small screen and loved it. One of John Wayne’s best performances (and, yes, folks, the man could act). Several years ago, I got a chance to see it in a movie theater in a restored print. The impact was startling. Yes, I knew about John Wayne’s charisma but you don’t really feel it until you’ve seen a close up of Wayne in this movie and the image is the size of a house. And the final shot – Wayne with his back to us, framed by a door that slowly shuts – well, until you’ve seen it on the big screen, you haven’t really experienced it.

Seeing the climax of Casablanca, with those big head shots of Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, and Paul Heinreid cross cut from one to the other, has far greater emotional impact on the big screen.

It’s not just the images, either. With the surround sound you get in the theaters today, you’re really enveloped in the movie. Think of the opening of Star Wars, the original one (a.k.a. Episode IV, a.k.a. A New Hope) – the blast of the initial theme, the crawl that recedes into infinite horizon, and then the first space ship darting out and it seems forever only to be followed with an even bigger space ship, and the sound and the music and all sucking you in. Magic. The first time I experienced that, I was hooked.

I don’t see how you can get that on a smaller screen. When I watch movies on DVD that I’ve seen in the theaters, I bring with me the memories of what that theater experience was and it enriches the viewing that I’m having with on the smaller screen. If it comes to a choice to seeing a movie only on DVD or a movie channel or not to see it at all, I’ll take the small screen experience and do it happily. It gives me an experience of the movie – but I know that it’s not the same as seeing it in the movie theater where it was intended to be seen in the first place.

There’s one final aspect of the theater experience for movies and I’ll be the first to say it’s not always positive – it’s a communal experience. It’s a shared experience with others. Yes, some of those others can be boorish morons. I’ve had the people near me who continue to chat through the film, having a running commentary about the film or about some imbecilic portion of their daily life that could just as easily wait until they were outside. It’s become a good reason why I should never be allowed to carry a gun. Yes, I’ve had people who forget or refuse to turn off their cel phones and who chat or text through the film, oblivious and/or indifferent to the fact there are other people in the theater. Maybe if they could pull their heads out of their digital asses, we’d all be happier.

But I’ve also been with audiences that add immeasurably to the experience. We laugh, gasp, cry, cheer and so on together. The film finds bonds in common between us and that is something devoutly to be wished in this day and age when so many things around us keep tearing us apart, putting up walls, and suggesting we are all enemies.

The people making the movies meant for us to see it in a theater. That’s where its truest experience lies. I’ve heard of so many people today who simply shrug that off and all I’m saying is that I think that’s a mistake and they’re shortchanging themselves.

Treat yourself if you can. Go out to the movies.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell