Guns Don’t Kill People, Toxic Individualism Does.

Image via: https://www.kob.com/new-mexico-news/crew-member-sues-alec-baldwin-others-over-lsquorustrsquo-shooting/6297201/

After Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of his movie Rust, many people have been wondering why films even use real firearms. After all, (spoiler alter) Star Wars doesn’t use real lightsabers and Jurassic Park doesn’t use real dinosaurs. Why should westerns and cop shows use real guns?

Largely, I agree with this argument. Firearms present an unnecessary risk on a film set. But if we ban firearms in films, we’re avoiding the bigger issue, and it’s not just a problem in Hollywood.

I’ve observed a pervasive attitude in the United States that rules are for suckers, regulations only exist to hinder progress, and anything is legal as long as you don’t get caught. This is a shortsighted, toxic attitude. It’s the kind of thinking that led to nine people dying at the Astroworld Music festival last week and eleven people drowning in illegal basement apartments in New York during hurricane Ida. It’s the same narrative that has led to injuries at Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 and, before that, its plant in Fresno. It’s the same kind of thinking that killed Sarah Jones on a movie set in 2014. (No firearms were involved in that incident.)

I think this general attitude can be appropriately described as “toxic individualism.” It’s a belief that I have a right to say and do whatever I want at any time I want without consequences. It’s a belief that rules don’t apply to me. It’s a belief that personal choices are not influenced by social constructs nor do they affect the people around us. To be clear, individualism itself is not a negative concept. Some degree of personal independence is healthy and rewarding. But extreme individualism at the expense of everything else-individualism that tramples on other people’s rights-is downright deadly.

The issue on the set of Rust was not that the filmmakers were using firearms; the issue was that they were not following well-established guidelines for handling firearms. I’ve been on sets with explosive, guns, helicopters, boats, pyrotechnics, car crashes, fight scenes, and hundreds of extras wielding swords. I was perfectly safe on all of them. The most dangerous sets I’ve been on are the ones where production rushed the crew, ignored the safety recommendations of more experienced crew members, or flouted industry standards altogether. There is nothing clever, artistic, or thrifty about putting people’s lives at risk.

I’m not opposed to banning firearms on set, but that’s not going to solve the problem. We need to disabuse ourselves of the idea the rules apply to everyone else. The rules only work when they apply to everyone. And we need to start calling out our colleagues and employers who think they can cut corners and take shortcuts. It takes guts. Reports from the set of Rust state that crew members walked off the job shortly before Hutchins was killed. It’s not easy to stand up to Alec Baldwin or Elon Musk. It’s going to take a sea change in American culture for worker safety to take priority over profits. Fortunately, we don’t have to do it alone.

Individualism may be American, but so are unions. Unions built this country. They led the fight for the weekend, overtime pay, minimum wage, health insurance, and banning child labor. If the crew of Rust had been following IATSE’s firearms regulations, Halyna Hutchins would still be alive.

Eliminating toxic individualism will not be quick or easy. Like anything that’s worth doing, it will take time. Appropriately, it’s important to recognize that you aren’t alone in the fight. Educate yourself about your rights as a worker and a consumer, participate in the processes that negotiate these rights, and reach out to the unions and organizations that are trying to make America a better place for everyone.

Should we ban firearms on set? Sure. But while we’re talking about it, let’s talk about the root of the problem, as well. Let’s ban toxic individualism, too.

The Death of the Artist

In his book, The Death of the Artist, William Deresiewicz laments the decline and fall of the blue collar, professional artist. And while he unpacks a variety of legitimate and terrifying issues such as the unravelling of historic institutions and the job gobbling monster that is big tech (problems that affect everyone, not just artists), I feel like he misses a certain perspective about the motion picture industry. While the industry manages to sidestep many of the issues plaguing other artistic endeavors, it’s not avoiding them altogether. Because it’s a complex, multi-layered situation, I think it might be instructive to look at the motion picture industry through the three specific lenses: technology, art, and business. 

Technology (What is film?)

Deresiewicz differentiates between television and film, but it’s an arbitrary distinction. With the exception of the live or live-to-tape multi-camera shoot, production crews make feature films, television shows, and used car commercials the exact same way. Only a decade ago, we filmed thirty-second lottery commercials on 35mm Kodak. The question of “what is a film” has less to do with being “filmed” than how the content is delivered to an audience. 

In that regard, feature films suffer from a major constraint: they need to be long enough to justify the price of admission but short enough to satisfy an audience before their legs fall asleep. To do that, many films rely on tropes and cliches to keep a story moving forward. The boom in quality television over the last decade has allowed filmmakers to explore more interesting stories in more depth than they ever would have been able to on the silver screen. 

Are movie theaters dead? Well, not quite. Some nostalgic urge to hit the town and see a show will linger indefinitely. Movie theaters have yet to kill live theater, and a black and white silent movie won the Oscar for best picture in 2011. I can guarantee that ninety-minute visual storytelling will live on. It is true, however, that certain low-to-mid-budget genres are not currently profitable. Nevertheless, I’m not fully convinced that it’s a bad thing or that the trend won’t change.

Art (Are filmmakers artists?)

Deresiewicz defines four paradigms of artist: artisans (or craftsmen), bohemians, professionals, and producers. It’s the professionals—working artists who own houses and have dental plans—that Deresiewicz is most concerned about in his book. Chapter after chapter outlines how writers, painters, and visual artists fight for the crumbs of an ever-shrinking pie while struggling to find time to develop their art. And yet, in 2021, television and film are actually doing okay. 

One of the big things I need to point out here is that television and film straddle the worlds between art and commerce more than other industries. True, you’ve probably heard of writers who cut their teeth in the newspaper industry (when that was a thing), but very few renown painters started off whitewashing fences. 

On a film set, any given crewmember may have spent the previous day filming a television show or commercial. Disappointingly to most crewmembers, that often means that they’re capable of delivering a much higher quality product than the used car company requires, but it also means that art and commerce move around freely in the same space. Similarly, scenic painters, carpenters, costumers, and camera operators are highly educated, incredibly talented artisans operating at the top of their game. Not only do they need the vision to offer their own artistic input, they need to be able to shift gears to cater to someone else’s vision or mimic a historical style. 

In that way, filmmakers really match Deresiewicz’s first paradigm—the artisan—and I think it’s a good model to follow. Although it really doesn’t matter to the IRS, Deresiewicz’s paradigm poses an interesting question: “Are filmmakers artists?” That’s hard to say. If Deresiewicz is looking for talented individuals who work in a creative discipline and can afford middle class lifestyles, then yes. We’ve found a winner. But if you define artists as individuals who create things that make you question and challenge the world… well maybe not. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but the latter is far less economically viable.

It’s also worth pointing out that filmmakers have always been “gig” workers. A crewmember (even a director) may have multiple employers in a single week. By and large, the thing that enables filmmakers to buy houses and get dental plans is unions. As people are trying to cobble together livings by working Uber and Door Dash, I can’t stress enough how beneficial it would be to unionize. 

Business (Are moving pictures safe from a flood of amateurs?)

On page 220, Deresiewicz states, “Film and television have a final advantage over arts like music or writing. Amateurs do not pose any threat because no one is ever going to mistake what they do for the real thing.” I have to disagree with him there. As technology has decreased cost, it’s become easier and cheaper for people to produce video content. Whether their productions can be considered art or even “feature films” is another matter. Birdemic is a prime example. 

If you think I’m being dramatic, you haven’t noticed how much content Gen Z watches on YouTube. Poor production quality has become synonymous with verisimilitude, and young viewers have managed to lower their standards below even “reality TV” quality. True, in the world of fiction, no one’s going to mistake Tommy Wiseau for the next Spielberg, but it’s a troubling sign if you recognize the names Tommy Wiseau or Birdemic.**

The bigger problem here is that as audiences accept lower quality, they refuse to pay for higher quality. Consequently, production companies refuse to pay as well. Just earlier today, I was speaking with a coordinator who lamented that the latest money-saving trend is to not hire location managers. And after a year of looking at everyone’s terrible lighting skills on Zoom, I’m afraid the bar for quality has been irreparably lowered. 

Where does that leave us?

Although not artists in the Van Gogh or even the Andy Warhol sense, filmmakers do work in creative fields, and they can make a decent living. Artisans produce work that is beautiful and functional. Their work may be thought provoking but is seldom a “think piece.” In other words, film—and all twenty-first century art—needs some utility or usefulness (see The Death of the Artist pages 272-273). Within this paradigm, artists are producers. I like this concept. It’s more democratic and egalitarian than the concept of elite geniuses sprinkling culture to the plebes. Artists are useful members of society who produce goods that can also be beautiful and thought-provoking. 

Consider the gorgeous pattern on this 1100-year-old Peruvian tunic. It is beautiful and useful, and I doubt that the person who made it had an MFA. Source: https://museum.gwu.edu/indigenous-american-textiles https://museum.gwu.edu/indigenous-american-textiles

That being said, our society is continuing to devalue labor and expertise. There’s no easy fix for this, but there is, perhaps, a silver lining. Art, throughout the ages, has always helped humanity cope with change and reframe tragedy into something that we can—if not understand—at least articulate. In the twenty-first century, art is not only doing this job metaphorically but literally instructing us on how to make a new economic paradigm. If you have a chance, check out Deresiewicz’s book. And if not, at least take a moment to check out some art. 

**In many ways, Canon’s 5D Mark II, the first SLR camera to shoot full high-definition video, marked a depressing turning point. In 2009, every film school grad with $3,000 suddenly thought they were a director of photography. Today, the image quality and editing ability of a smartphone are more advanced than the professional digital equipment I used in the early aughts. But to reiterate a point Deresiewicz makes over and over again, just because some can paint or film or sing does not mean they have the professional experience or artistic eye to be an artist.

Pedagogy. Or is it pedagogy?

On #WorldEmojiDay, I’d like to talk about…pronunciation. Last year, I returned to school to study creative writing. Since most people with MFAs actually end up teaching English, Drexel University offered a writing instruction or “pedagogy” class. And it made me wonder, how exactly do you say pedagogy?

I’ve heard everything from to PED-a-GOG-y (rhymes with doggy) to PED-a-GO-gie (rhymes with hoagie) to to PED-a-GOD-gy (rhymes with dodgy) to PED-a-GO-gee (rhymes with Emoji—which is why I was thinking about this today). I heard that last pronunciation most frequently, but it kind of bothered me. 

In my Merriam-Webster’s Rhyming Dictionary, the only words that rhyme with Emoji are Moji, shoji, anagoge, and Hachioje. Moji, shoji, and Hachioje are all Japanese and spelled with a “j.” As a native English speaker, “pedagoji” would not have been my first guess. Anagoge is Greek, like pedagogy, but it is spelled differently. Also… I’ve never heard of it. 

But looking at the spelling and word origin, the similar Greek words, synagogue, demagogue, and even pedagogue, are pronounced with a hard “o” and spelled “gue.” Since pedagogy and pedagogue have a shared origin, “pedagoggy” does make some sense… although it sounds completely ridiculous. Seriously. Say it out loud. 

That brings me to my initial guess. In the academic world, we study -ogies: biology, mythology, gerontology, psychology, geology, Egyptology, immunology, hydrology, chronology, neurology, archeology, et ceterology. Here the “o” has the schwa or “uh” sound, not the “oh” of emoji. It seemed to be the obvious choice to me. Psychology. Pedagogy. The study of teaching should rhyme with the study of the psyche or myths or gerons… or whatever. But that -ology comes from the Greek logia (study) or logos (story or word) while -agogy comes from the Greek agogos (guide). So maybe the unique pronunciation is an important distinction. 

(Sidebar: I don’t see why anyone would go for pedagoagie.)

But that brought me to one of the more important lessons of modern, English pedagogy. Enforcing pronunciation, spelling, and grammar rules are actually a form of oppression. “Proper” English is a way of separating groups. It tells you where someone came from. It tells you if English was their first language. It tells you who had enough money to go to college and who had enough free time to study English. The reality is, most people in the world get along just fine with double negatives, dangling modifiers, and frequent switches in verb tense. A lot of the time, they don’t even use words. 😉

However you deploy English has less to do with what’s “correct” than what group you want to be a part of. English “rules” are actually guidelines that are very audience specific. Grant proposals, ad copy, emails, news reports, social media feeds, and blogs all follow slightly different rules. The most “well written” research paper in the world will not sell more copies of The Hollywood Reporter

That can make English pedagogy a little more nuanced than your sixth grade English teacher may have claimed. There are trends and best practices, but the rules are actually kind of fluid. As far as the pronunciation of pedagogy goes, if you want to fit in, pronounce it however the cool kids do. You can justify pretty much any version. But if you want to be a bastion of liberty, forge your own pronunciation. Maybe that’s the best argument for pedagoagie. 

The Danger of a Single Story

Stories are critical to our understanding of ourselves and of the world. But stories are not TRUE. The world is chaotic and indifferent. Humans are contradictory and ever changing. Singular events like the migration of a humpback whale or a dance at senior prom or a parking ticket have no real meaning. In order to make sense of ourselves—where we’ve come from and where we’re going—we tell stories. 

Seeing that humpback whale off the coast of Cape Cod may reignite your love of marine biology. Wonderful Tonight may perpetually remind you of your first true love. That parking ticket may be just one of the myriad ways the universe lets you know “the man” is out to get you. This is storytelling, putting the events of our lives into context and using them to shape our identities. 

Some psychologists and anthropologists argue that storytelling is uniquely human, that it is, in fact, what makes us human. That theory may just be another story, but storytelling is certainly a strength. What is “Hamlet” or “the stock market” or “human rights.” You can’t feed a monkey the S&P 500, and yet it’s a critical part of our world. 

Stories, however, can also be dangerous. Stories are not reality. They are not TRUE. Stories simplify things, omit details, take a certain point of view. As psychologist Jerome Bruner said, “To tell a story is inescapably to take a moral stance.” In her Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” novelist Chimamanda Adichie explains the hazards of the stories we tell and the stories we omit. It is worth a listen. I’ll wait.

The danger of a single story is not merely that it limits our understanding of the world or that it limits what we think we are capable of. The biggest danger, I would argue, is that if we only hear one story, we start to think it is TRUE. 

In 2020, we are being asked to re-evaluate many of the stories we have been told for decades, in some cases centuries. These stories address race, gender, patriotism, service, loyalty, victimhood, history, bravery, citizenship, equality, essentiality, responsibility, heroism, and many more things. They address our very identities. Remember, stories, by their very nature, are critical to our understanding of ourselves and the world. This process won’t be comfortable. That’s okay. New stories bring us to a fuller, more colorful understanding of the world. New stories bring us closer to the TRUTH. 

I’d like to leave with this anecdote. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the United States was publicly, virulently white supremacist.

In part to thumb their noses at the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) establishment, a Catholic fraternal organization took Christopher Columbus for their patron. By the late 19th century, Americans had been celebrating Columbus as a mythic hero for 100 years. The WASPs liked to tell a story of Christopher Columbus discovering America but conveniently ignored the fact that he was an Italian (Catholic) funded by Spaniards (Catholic). Italian, Irish and other Catholic immigrants wanted to remind WASPs that Catholics played a major role in creating the United States.

A century after the Knights of Columbus were formed, we may question their choice of patron. Here is Kurt Vonnegut’s reflection on Columbus from Breakfast of Champions in 1973:  

“As children we were taught to memorize [1492] with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them.”

What’s the TRUTH? Well, all of it. The world is chaotic. It is not simple and neat. It’s natural for us to associate these stories with our identities. To think that an attack on Columbus is an attack on our selves. But it’s not. It’s just a new perspective. It moves us to a fuller and more interesting understanding of the world. It moves us away from the dangerous, myopic belief in a single story. 

O.M.G.

I’ve been busy. You might think that being stuck at home for two months would give me free time to blog. Not so.

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Actual photo of me working, yesterday.

In addition to teaching and learning and writing a novel, I helped organize the website launch of Drexel University’s MFA in Creative Writing program literary journal.

www.drexelpaperdragon.com

Check it out! Submit some of your work!

You can also follow us on Twitter @drexpaperdragon

Between all of that and some pandemic everyone keeps talking about, I haven’t really had time to advance my presidential campaign. You may think this is the point where I officially withdraw, but if you read my previous post… I was never officially running. I guess my point is, you won’t hear my stump speech any time in the near future.

Hopefully, we return to normal (or better) in the near future. In the meantime, I’ll see you online.

2020 Presidential Election

Today, I am officially announcing an exploratory committee to run for the president of the United States in 2020. Is this a joke? No. What’s up with the exploratory committee? I’ll get to that.

As children, we were all told that we could be anything when we grew up, even the president of the United States. This year, I suppose I am a grown up, at least according to the constitution. I am now 35, which is the minimum age you must be in order to become president of the United States. As a citizen, I think it is important to participate in the political process and part of that participation is understanding how the process actually works.

In order for you to “officially” be a candidate for president, or any other office for that matter, you need to meet various requirements. In the case of president, you must raise or spend $5,000 on your campaign. Then you have ten days to file a “Form 2” with the Federal Elections Commission and appoint a campaign committee including a treasurer.

Although it’s a fairly low bar, it is the first of several safeguards from “prank” candidates. It also makes anyone who does not have $5,000 to throw around seriously consider whether this is worth it. That is the first reason for forming an “exploratory committee” rather than “officially” filing to run.

“Ballot access” or actually having your name appear on the ballot for an election is the next hurdle. It varies by state, in some cases by county, and differs between the primary and the  general election. Generally speaking, you can either be appointed your party’s official candidate (however there are limits to what parties appear on a ticket) or you can collect a certain number of signatures. In the case of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, if you belong to one of the major political parties, you need 2,000 signatures from voters registered with that party. If you are not running under a major party, you “must obtain signatures from qualified registered electors of the district in an amount equal to at least 2% of the largest entire vote cast for an elected candidate at the last election within the district.”

Due to the fact that I am currently working 2 jobs and am a grad student, my wife has advised me not to run. However, these initial stages of the exploratory process have already been informative, and I am curious to hear more from readers about their experiences with political campaigns.

I would also like to reassert that I meet the base requirements to be president of the United States. I am a natural born United States citizen. I am 35. And I have lived her for at least the last 14 years. I may not be the most qualified person for the job, but I am certainly not the least. If my “official” candidacy does not pan out, you can always consider me for a write in.

bipartisan4

In Praise of Naps

@wdavisliterary posted this on Twitter a few weeks ago: “The Four Horsemen of Procrastination”

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From @tcviani on Instagram

It’s a solid observation, and it was meant in good fun. I did, however, have one quibble. Naps are part of the writing process. I cheekily said as much in my reply. She responded as well, saying that napping is “totally” procrastination. And To be fair, the act of napping is not the act of writing. But napping IS part of the writing process (the creative process more generally) as are showers, bike rides, long walks, and getting lost on public transit.

I’m not much of a fighter, but this is one battle I’m not going to take lying down.

Things are going to get Biblical

There are a lot of themes in the Bible, but the importance of dreams seems to permeate all 60+ books. There’s Old Testament Joseph and his famous technicolor dreamcoat; Jonah who was fast asleep before being thrown overboard to a whale; Job, whom God scolds for not listening to his dreams; and New Testament Joseph who decides to divorce his miraculously pregnant fiancé before settling down for some zzz’s.  After a good nap (and some meddling angels) he changes his mind.

It’s this last point I want to emphasize. Joseph had a problem he wasn’t sure how to handle. After he thought about it for a while, he took a nap. The Psalms also speak about this magical, problem-solving nap. “…Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4). “Hear my cry for help… In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice” (Psalm 5:2-3).

The general theme here is that your problem is too big for you to comprehend. Don’t even bother trying to solve it. In fact, you’re better off getting a good night’s sleep. Somehow, miraculously, the problem will solve itself.

Seriously, though…

Research into creativity has revealed that there is real wisdom in ancient, well, wisdom. Your brain needs time to ruminate on ideas. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson refers to this as the “slow hunch.” Over time (minutes, days, years?) you slowly, subconsciously consider the same problem as you age, mature, learn, and change. You open yourself up to “serendipity” (another of Johnson’s terms), as your brain forms new, unexpected connections. (It had never occurred to me that when I did a bible study with my wife five years ago, I could use that information for ammunition in a Twitter argument about screenwriting.)

In his work The Art of Thought, Graham Wallas shares this reflection from the prolific German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz.

…happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table… They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.*

Hermann_von_Helmholtz
Image via: Wikipedia Clearly von Helmholtz had something going for him other than looks…

Wallas goes on to describe Helmholtz’s three stage process: preparation, where you consider the problem at hand; incubation, where you do not think about the problem at all; and finally, illumination, where the solution simply pops into your head. Sound familiar?

Physical activity is great way to keep your neurons on their toes, but don’t worry if there aren’t any “wooded hills” near your writing desk. Johnson thinks dreams may be just as beneficial as fresh air. In fact, he wonders if that most analytical of dreamers wasn’t on to something.

Sigmund Freud, he says, had it backwards. Dreams aren’t repressed memories trying to come to the surface, but our brains searching for meaning through all of the clutter (sights, smells, conversations, thoughts, obstacles, emotions, etc.). Although the evidence is anecdotal, the sewing machine, the periodic table, and the theory of relativity were all conceived by people sleeping on the job. It’s not just science and technology. Artists dream up crazy stuff all of the time. Famously, The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde all started in dreams.

Sometimes a Nap Isn’t Just a Nap

When it comes to creative processes, the best approach is not always head on. Ideas are ephemeral things and you may spook them. Instead, the research seems to suggest that one great approach is, well, napping. Now to be clear, you can’t use this as avoidance (which is what spawned the initial tweet). But what has actually proven to be very effective is gathering all of the pieces in your mind: the inputs and outputs, the technical hurdles, your fears, and in regard to writing, your subject and audience, characters, stories, motivation, and criticisms.

Hold them there. Look at them objectively. Write them down if it helps. Then, forget about them.

Go for a walk. Do some painting. Cook dinner. Take a nap. As long as you’re going to hit your deadline, take a day or two to just let everything simmer. And if you do, you’ll be surprised to see how things miraculously work themselves out.

I hear your protests, but don’t say anything now. Just think it over. Sleep on it. Get back to me in the morning.

 

*Miller, Susan. The Norton Book of Composition Studies. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 2009. 236

Smoking Pipes to Smoking Guns: The Deepfake

Two years ago, I wrote a post about some new technologies that were allowing video editors to create realistic videos of things that never happened. Today, we call them “Deepfakes.” I think it’s worth a re-read. In it, I argue that education–particularly arts education–is the most effective way to combat the Deepfake. After all, Deepfakes aren’t really new. We’ve been dealing with “fake news” and propaganda for hundreds of years. How would you have responded to this story from February of 1898? The U.S. went to war.

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Image Source

But it did have me wondering. What do we do with a Deepfake? How should we treat some kind of shocking video or audio revelation? I don’t exactly have a checklist, but I think we need to look at scandalous revelations holistically. What else supports this shocking news? Do the facts add up? Where did the evidence come from?

The problem is (and I acknowledge that Hollywood is largely at fault for perpetuating this myth), we are obsessed with the “smoking gun.” There will be some single, irrefutable piece of evidence that proves our point and wins the day. But as I say repeatedly on this blog, movies aren’t real life. “Smoking gun” evidence rarely exists, and when it does, it’s usually not enough to prove much of anything.

Strangely, Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape offers a perfect case study for Deepfakes. Here we had a presidential candidate caught red handed saying absolutely repugnant things about women, about mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and loved ones. The Democrats thought this was it for his campaign. They finally had hard evidence of what a narcissistic, sexist pig he was. But it didn’t matter.

Everyone already knew all of that. They knew he didn’t respect women. They knew he was vulgar. They knew he was lewd. It didn’t matter. Trump didn’t even try to deny it. He could have decried it as a Deepfake, but he didn’t need to. The smoking gun was just that, all smoke and no fire.

Is it possible for some video of dubious origin to crop up at an inopportune time in efforts to sway the public’s mind? Yes. Should the NSA stay abreast of Deepfake technology? Of course. But I think the situation is overblown. McKinley didn’t need video evidence of the Maine explosion to invade Cuba in 1898. Bush didn’t need video evidence of WMDs to invade Iraq in 2003. The question is less about what kind of evidence we have and more about what kind of sources we gather that evidence from. Keep that in mind as the conversation continues.

The Contemporary Samaritan

This Sunday’s gospel reading comes from Luke, chapter 10, verses 23-37. It’s a very well known story, commonly referred to as the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” It contains a powerful, difficult message to help your neighbor, whoever that person may be. Even if you don’t know them. Even if you don’t like them.

Jesus was a storyteller. He could have just said, “Try to be nice to everyone,” but that’s not exactly what came out. Instead he offered a powerful example of how to be nice, what extent you ought to go to, and who frequently falls short. It’s actually an uncomfortable, divisive message. Remember, Jesus was a revolutionary. He wasn’t put to death for telling people to be nice. But somehow I feel that we lost the real power of his message over the millennia.

So on this weekend, when our president is trying to deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible, I thought it might be a good idea to revisit Luke’s gospel with a more contemporary interpretation.

The Contemporary Samaritan

“There was once an entrepreneur and veteran who ran a small coffee shop in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Everyone agreed it was a sound business investment and would  really help increase property values while providing jobs for local residents. One night, after working twenty-three hours straight, he momentarily let his guard down while taking out the trash. Robbers jumped him and forced him to empty the safe at gunpoint.  They beat him up so he couldn’t call for help and left him for dead on the sidewalk.

It so happened that a politician was on his way from a fundraising event in a motorcade with several members of the press. They passed the man lying on the street and one of the reporters asked what the country should do about it. The politician said this was exactly why he promoted a tough-on-crime domestic policy, which he would enact right after the next election. He offered his thoughts and prayers to everyone suffering from the lawlessness that had been enabled by the lax policies of his political rivals. Even though there were six dozen people in the motorcade, no one from the press or the politician’s personal staff stopped to see if the man was okay.

A short while later, a red-blooded, God-fearing American came down the street. He had voted for Hillary in the last election. He didn’t really like the Clintons, but he really didn’t like Trump. He didn’t think his vote mattered anyway. That’s why he didn’t vote in the midterms and never bothered to research who was running for county commissioner or D.A. He saw the man on the sidewalk and briefly thought about giving him some money. He looked like he was in bad shape. But the man would probably just use it on drugs, and his cousin (who had a thing for painkillers) already owed him seven hundred bucks. Hadn’t he given enough to people who couldn’t get their shit together? Besides, he wrote a check to the food bank for $100 every year at tax time.

Shortly after passing the badly beaten entrepreneur, the man thought he should probably call the cops, but then it occurred to him that the cops might want him to stay, and he’d had a long day and really needed a beer. So he kept walking.

At last, a Mexican who had overstayed his work visa came upon the man. The Mexican felt bad because he used to be in a gang, and had bloodied a few people up over the years. He was trying to make up for it, so he decided to stop and help. He gave the man first aid and took him to a hospital. At the hospital, he left his contact information in case man or the police needed to get ahold of him, even though the Mexican realized that if they really wanted, the police would be able to track him down and deport him. After that, the Mexican, even though he had a degree in civil engineering and had spent the last ten hours driving for Uber, went to work his second job as a dishwasher.

And Jesus concluded, ‘I really tried to spell this out for you.'”

Screenwriters, do yourselves a favor.

HBO recently released Craig Mazin’s miniseries ChernobylWhile nothing in this life is perfect, Chernobyl comes pretty darn close. From acting to directing to art direction to sound design, Chernobyl is a masterclass in filmmaking.

But the biggest story is probably the story itself. In the television world, screenwriters hold the creative power and, as writer and executive producer, Mazin made a variety of bold and effective decisions. For example, the explosion takes place in the first few minutes of the mini-series. He doesn’t make the audience sit through a lengthy first act or ordinary world, and it’s spectacularly powerful. But his reasoning behind the decision is what will really make things click for filmmakers.

In addition to the show, Mazin recorded a companion podcast with NPR host Peter Sagal to accompany each episode. In it, he explains his creative decisions. He shares insight about story structure, adapting true stories, portraying gore on screen, sound design, and even accents. It’s entertaining, engaging, and informative. It’s unfiltered information coming from a filmmaker at the top of his game.

Taken together, Chernobyl and the companion podcast are worth far more to aspiring filmmakers than anything you can find in a university catalogue. The podcast is free and HBO Now has a 7 day free trial. You have no excuses. If you want to learn about the craft of filmmaking, Chernobyl is a must.