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Writing Resources

BPLCentralSmalljpgIn anticipation of (and for after) tonight’s free storytelling workshop at Burbank Public Library (go here) on how to make yourself the hero of any new writing project, here are three writing resources.

Leaving aside books and manuals for style, grammar and the mechanics of writing, the best recent books for a general writer are based on lectures by my favorite writer, Ayn Rand, who wrote bestselling fiction and non-fiction for stage, screen, print, broadcasting and literature. Her writing lectures were adapted as two concise volumes, The Art of Fiction and The Art of Non-Fiction, which are available at relatively low cost (click titles to buy). The lectures, which I’ve studied, and these two books have influenced and improved my writing. I recommend them without reservation for the serious adult writer, though I think the advanced writer and the intellectual writer will gain the most value. They contain rare, great insights and indispensable tips, tools and comparative excerpts from literature. I’ve returned many times to these two books, which I find extremely useful for the smallest details and for addressing and solving the most serious writing problems. What I like best about these works is that Rand emphasizes writing she likes and why she likes it, as against only breaking down what’s wrong with most modern writing. When I began to write movie reviews on assignment, I returned to her brief comments on writing book reviews for the general reader and applied the ideas.

For day to day motivation and encouragement, I also suggest reading screenwriter Brian Koppelman’s 202 Practical Writing Tips, the majority of which I think are legitimate and/or valid, some positively brilliant.

I plan to go into more detail about writing resources, including daily rituals and the writing habits and history of the world’s best writers, in my new writing course this fall. Registration for my all-new Writing Boot Camp in suburban Los Angeles opened this week. The 10-week course covers general writing, essential principles and a checklist for perfect writing with emphasis on setting the proper pre-conditions, choosing a format, topic and theme, getting and staying motivated, best practices and good resources. Writing Boot Camp will be fun, lively and streamlined for beginning, intermediate and advanced adults. Each student will have an opportunity to have his writing evaluated. Space is limited, so register soon if you want to attend (click/touch here to register).

Registration is also open for All About Social Media, which offers an essential guide to creating, using and maximizing Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Contact me to let me know if you have any questions about the courses. I’m heading to the library for tonight’s workshop in the meantime.

Movie & Blu-Ray Review: Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997)

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Strand Releasing’s 1997 documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, is, in retrospect, a cinematic achievement. The 143-minute movie debuts on Blu-Ray on July 28.

Other than a new trailer and enhanced English SHD sound, this is the same product as the Collector’s DVD edition several years ago. But Objectivists, Ayn Rand fans and those who recognize the power and relevance of her novels We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943) and, in particular, her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), and her books and other writings, should invest in owning this film if they don’t already have it.

Given the historic events since writer and director Michael Paxton‘s Oscar-nominated movie was released in movie theaters, the reasons to see it have multiplied.

In silent movie clips, letters, pictures, drawings, paintings, interviews, dramatization and animation, Paxton pieces together the ideas, stories and events in Rand’s life in chronological order. This approach allows the viewer to discover, rediscover and appreciate her life, career and philosophy. It is factual, thoughtful and respectful, even reverential, without being overloaded, dense or dogmatic. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life depicts Ayn Rand (1905-1982) as the heroic figure she was.

Backed by documentary evidence, from her original name on a ship’s passenger manifest during her escape from Soviet Russia to highlighted stills with Rand as an extra on Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings, Paxton presents Ayn Rand’s life in terms of essentials. For example, he integrates a movie diary entry and early clip of the silent film era’s Gish sisters with their later intersection in Ayn Rand’s life. This theme of realizing heroic ideals and goals recurs throughout the faded photograph-styled motion picture, with movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper. Aided by actress Sharon Gless (Burn Notice), who narrates the film with grace, and Jeff Britting’s correspondingly ascendant score, segmented snippets, scenes and stories converge as a whole picture. Among those interviewed are Objectivist intellectuals who knew Rand, including her heir and Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff (for full disclosure, I am an Objectivist and I’ve met and studied, worked or become friends with some of those involved or who appear, including Paxton and Peikoff). The late CBS News journalist Mike Wallace is also interviewed.

Accordingly, one gets a strong sense of a personal life, including the affair with psychologist Nathaniel Branden, which is telescoped here for practical purposes, and her friends, associates and preferences. Ayn Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, is a steady yet elusive figure.

But the focus is on her intellectual development as a philosopher and progression as a writer, from childhood and studies in St. Petersburg and witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to her brief time in Berlin, on the trans-Atlantic voyage to New York City, months in Chicago, Hollywood years and on lecture tour. Finally, Ayn Rand triumphs in New York City, where she creates Objectivism and writes Atlas Shrugged. The movie deposits each part of her life into the big picture. Of course, it is larger than life.

Asked to write a screenplay for DeMille called “The Skyscraper”, selling an adaptation of her story Red Pawn, seeing her play, Penthouse Legend, morphed into something else, one sees the challenge, effort and struggle of the young writer Ayn Rand. The initial allure of a screen version of her anti-dictatorship novel We the Living, which was published in Hollywood’s Red Decade, draws attention from Bette Davis, who apparently indicated that she wanted to portray the heroine, Kira, until she was advised that doing so might hurt her career. A pirate film version was made in fascist Italy (the best movie based on an Ayn Rand novel; read my review here) in 1942. A Sense of Life recalls Ayn Rand meeting the only actress to portray Kira on screen, Alida Valli, who tried to persuade David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) to make We the Living in Hollywood.

The nation’s decline permeates the film. Ayn Rand begins life as an eager newcomer, distressed to have missed a sight of the Statue of Liberty while entering New York, where her life ends after it seems as if almost everyone in America missed the point of her novels and philosophy. Part of what makes A Sense of Life an accomplishment is its objectivity with regard to her legacy. Ayn Rand’s answers, estimates and explanations, presented in quotations, papers and audio-visual excerpts, speak volumes.

“If anyone destroys this country,” Ayn Rand says at one point in a late night interview with Tom Snyder on NBC in the 1970s, “it will be the conservatives. Because they’re all altruists.”

Whether appearing on the Today Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Snyder’s Tomorrow Show, Ayn Rand was extremely clear and concise. Those familiar with her books will find much to think about. Even those who are agnostic or hostile to her philosophy may gain from seeing her in action through archival material. Those who are new to Ayn Rand will learn about the philosophy in a general, not pedantic, sense. Each viewer will learn more about what moved her to create a system of thought so radical, controversial and enduring. Everyone watching the movie can judge Ayn Rand as she thought, wrote and lived.

This includes her relationship with her husband, whom she apparently adored, and her professional connections with those who advocated for the publication and adaptation of her books, including Warner Bros.’ advocate for making The Fountainhead, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ayn Rand’s family. Whether in a movie clip of Ayn Rand at her Richard Neutra-designed home in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley or footage of her congressional testimony against Communist infiltration of Hollywood studios, Paxton ranges over the sweep of her private and professional life.

However, this is earned in steps, not lobbed as a propaganda piece (such as 2012’s Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Altas Shrugged), and Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is gentle, not overbearing.

There is an emphasis on Hollywood, which deals in pictures, and the film regards her foremost as an artist who is a philosopher, not the reverse. Pictures evolve into its progression and vice versa: Ayn Rand meets legendary movie producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca), for whom she wrote Love Letters with Jennifer Jones and You Came Along with Lizabeth Scott, writes Anthem, campaigns for Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential candidacy, is deemed “too harsh” by Hollywood conservatives and suggests Garbo, with whom The Fountainhead director King Vidor subsequently met, to portray Dominique Francon on screen (which did not happen; the part went to Patricia Neal).

That’s merely when she was young. If Ayn Rand’s life is like something out of Ayn Rand’s fiction—meeting DeMille on the movie studio lot, meeting her future husband by chance in a Hollywood library, being invited to dine at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright—it is because she chose to pursue happiness. As she might have put it, she wanted to be selfish.

Ayn Rand’s selfishness, the highest Objectivist virtue by this admiring account, was consciously practiced. Again and again, with New York City as the pinnacle of man’s achievement and the Empire State Building as a visual focal point, unfolding from an artist’s portrait of Ayn Rand to the crowning achievement which is Atlas Shrugged, the woman at the center of A Sense of Life lived by the exalted ideals she identified, explained and dramatized. She visited steel mills in California, Chicago and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and rode on trains and studied architecture as research for her work. She gave herself a renewed sense of purpose in adapting Atlas Shrugged as an NBC miniseries after her husband died in November of 1979, when it became abundantly evident that America was falling apart.

As her career winds down and Ayn Rand is seen seated at an intellectuals’ round table surrounded by men, she had been invited to the Apollo 11 rocket launch putting man on the moon, an event which she attended, denounced racism—appropriately, a sign held by a somber-looking black woman reads “Integration”—and attended an invitation-only dinner at the White House with President Gerald R. Ford and the First Lady, Mrs. Betty Ford.

Before social media, proving that she grasped what most did not about objective communication, Ayn Rand had created courses, conferences, lectures, discussions and publications emanating her philosophy, Objectivism, and disseminating her ideas across multiple media platforms, from radio and television (Today, Tonight, Tomorrow) and theater and movies to an interview in Playboy and other print media. She even wrote a column for the stagnant Los Angeles Times. It’s all here. The evidence of her genius but also her strength is plain; she never lets up, she does not stop acting to advance her values, she never lets what matters go.

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life positions TV’s talk show pioneer Phil Donahue as a proxy for the general public with regard to understanding Ayn Rand and Objectivism. In her two Donahue appearances, one sees his evolution as a host, as the powerful pair discuss God, altruism and the death of her husband. Relentlessly clarifying confusions, Ayn Rand acts as a springboard to an entire examination of one’s deeply held premises.

Donahue challenges. Rand responds. Donahue reflects. The viewer thinks.

This is the effect of the film. I have seen it several times since I attended advance screenings and the premier in 1997. Whether on a home theater screen or a movie theater screen, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life plays like the absorbing, accessible and enlightening movie it is. It prompts the viewer to think—about her comments, ideas and books and her stories, heroes and themes—about whether and how these apply to one’s life. The film is a solid cinematic introduction to and retrospective of Ayn Rand, Objectivism and her books.

In it, one also learns the early history and first stage of a movement made by her philosophy. It’s not flawless—occasionally, musical cues are distracting and Anthem gets short shrift—and moviemakers should continue to explore her life. But, unlike her detractors’ psychologizing, almost everything asserted here derives from the facts of reality or conclusions based on the firsthand observation of its fascinating subject, Ayn Rand.

If you’re up to it, to paraphrase Objectivism’s creator, check those premises; Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is a good place to start.


The Blu-Ray Edition

As I wrote, this is the same two-disc edition as the earlier release, a DVD Collector’s edition, with a couple of additions and enhancements other than the film’s transfer to the crisp, higher-definition Blu-Ray format. Chapter selections are clearly marked.

The extras include a new trailer, which was not on the DVD, a rare photograph gallery, a deleted dance sequence evoking Ayn Rand’s unpublished work in progress “To Lorne Dieterling”, the complete filmed version of scenes from Ayn Rand’s play, Ideal, and more. Cast and crew bios, an interview with writer and director Michael Paxton, (whom I interviewed for the movie’s release; read the archived newspaper article here), stills, bonus footage and additional information are all included. Fans and Objectivists should not skip the additional interviews with Ayn Rand’s friends, scholars and associates, including Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, as they have more to say about her than is contained in the 143-minute movie.

In a July 2015 statement accompanying press materials, director Michael Paxton says that “telling stories about independent and heroic women have always been and continue to be a theme in my work as a filmmaker.” He should be proud that Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, which continues to earn interest in the themes, books and philosophy of Ayn Rand, is a heroic story well shown and told.

Click to Buy Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life Blu-Ray edition

 

Book Review: Shane by Jack Schaefer

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Published in 1949, Shane by Jack Schaefer is an uneven but irresistible Western about a boy’s coming of age. With elements of hero worship, the short novel is narrated in retrospect by a Wyoming homesteader’s son named Bob, an only child whose parents take kindly to a dark stranger with a mysterious past.

The child describes Shane as possessing “a kind of magnificence”: “He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, a trap set.” When Shane agrees to stay on the farm and whacks at a stubborn old tree stump as he bonds with Bob’s father, Joe Starrett, amid a looming property dispute with a bullying cattle driver, the boy’s mother questions whether any of this is good for the family, including the boy and especially Shane, whom she and everyone falls for in a way.

It’s all there in Schaefer’s clipped prose. Even the kid is aware that, for all the mastery, fancy duds and shiny gun, “it puzzled me that a man so deep and vital in his own being, so ready to respond to father, should be riding a lone trail out of a closed and guarded past.” Tension builds as the cattleman villain, who seeks government contracts, taunts and baits Shane into a confrontation that envelops the whole town. As Joe watches over his property, the wife worries, the kid snoops and the cowboys, townies and homesteaders take up sides. The loner contemplates whether taking on the villain is worth being thrown off his own trail.

As the narrative alternates between life at home with Shane and the parents and the gathering storm, suspense builds and the boy learns life lessons from the man he idolizes. That Shane is portrayed as a better man than Bob’s father complicates and limits the story and makes it too elusive to have a lasting impact but there is good writing here. “Listen, Bob,” Shane tells the kid one day. “A gun is just a tool. No better no worse than any other tool, a shovel — or an axe or a saddle or stove or anything. Think of it always that way. The gun is as good – and as bad – as the man who carries it. Remember that.”

Schaefer interjects Shane into the Starrett family with aplomb and the result is a complex portrayal of a young Western family at the mercy of a stranger, which is what makes Shane a rare psychological mystery about how he impacts the boy, the Starretts and the town, which is “still not much more than the roadside settlement”. The character, portrayed by Alan Ladd in the 1953 motion picture version, is so remote as to render the plot almost surrealistic, though when he lets loose, Shane comes into focus. “And then the summer was over,” Schaefer writes in a plain, evocative transition. “School began again and the days were growing shorter and the first cutting edge of cold was creeping down from the mountains.” The way out West stays and lingers in Shane, culminating in a conflict that shapes a landscape, a family and a man and, mostly, delivers a simple campfire story that’s well told.

Book Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum

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In the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W. W. Denslow, the Chicago author writes that he aspires to create a “modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” Since it was published in 1900, his Oz stories, and this one in particular, have earned an enduring literary and cinematic legacy. Whether Baum achieves his goal is open to debate. But his main character, Dorothy, embodies the virtue of loyalty to herself in this coming of age tale about developing good character as the essence of adulthood.

Not that Baum had that in mind or even explicitly identifies the theme in his short children’s novel (I read the Signet Classic edition). But that’s what his fairy tale means, with Dorothy, who lives “in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife”, as the child on the brink of becoming an adult. As in MGM’s classic 1939 musical, her loyalty to herself is often displayed through her fierce protection of her smart and scrappy little dog, Toto.

The fantasy’s three wise men, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, carry the action throughout the strange, dark world of Oz. Baum’s original tale is less fanciful than the film, of course, without music and Technicolor and with the Wicked Witch of the West relegated to a single short section toward the end of the story. Here, unlike the film, the witch does not track the quartet with a crystal ball; their misfortunes and challenges arise organically most of the time. This allows for the depth of characterization that comes from a resourceful trio that each already embody the qualities they seek.

For example, Scarecrow confides to Dorothy that, with his head filled with straw, he wonders: “how am I ever to know anything?” The Tin Man, among the most developed characters, tells her that when he was a woodsman, he fell deeply in love with a Munchkin girl that lived with an old woman who “was so lazy she wished the girl to remain with her and do the cooking and the housework.” Intent upon stopping their union, the old woman enlists the Wicked Witch, who keeps cutting off the man’s body parts until his whole body is made of tin. But he keeps coming back until, finally, the girl cannot return the love of the one who is no longer the man with whom she fell in love. One day, it rains and he is left without his oilcan to rust in the woods. As the Tin Man tells Dorothy: “It was a terrible thing to undergo, but during the year I stood there I had time to think that the greatest loss I had known was the loss of my heart. While I was in love I was the happiest man on earth…”

The Cowardly Lion, too, considers himself deficient in certain ways while struggling to find courage. Each of the three represents the three basic literary conflicts; Scarecrow, who through no fault of his own is born without a brain, represents man versus nature; Tin Man, who is decapitated by an old woman’s wicked accomplice, represents man versus man and the Cowardly Lion, who goes after little dogs to mask his own fear, represents man versus himself. With Oz as the place to get mystical resolution, each eventually discovers that there is no such thing. Instead, they learn that it’s a hard life and that they will have to achieve their fullest virtues in action and earn their way to a joyful life. As the wizard, who is flawed but kind, tells Dorothy, “everyone must pay for everything he gets. Help me and I will help you.”

For her part, the witch is cruel. When she learns that the girl whose house landed on and killed her sister is traveling with an entourage, she tells a pack of uber-wolves: “Go to those people and tear them to pieces.” The witch is both magical and evil but her powers are less than omnipotent and, as a villain, she is an ultimately small and insignificant slavemistress. The violence depicted is jarring and the subtext of a modern girl trying to make sense of the world around her is compelling, and, if Baum’s story remains unusual, dark and strange, it is also engrossing and still relevant over 100 years after it was published. The theme of making one’s own character in a cruel yet beautiful world remains a striking piece of fiction, especially for a character that’s a girl. At one point, take-charge Dorothy, whose journey in Oz differs in significant ways from the MGM film adaptation, steps up and plainly asks: “Can you straighten out those dents in the tin Woodman, and bend him back into shape again, and solder him together where he is broken?” This can-do Midwestern spirit permeates a classic American children’s tale.

Book Review: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

TUDRipplecoverThe Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen (English translation by H.P. Paull, illustrations by Ripple Digital Publishing Corp.) is a brilliantly written fable. I recently re-read it and found that, in its own way, the tale repudiates collectivism and egalitarianism – the idea that everyone should be regarded as equal in everything – with a clever inversion.

Without revealing the story’s twist, the duckling is born ugly, which he can’t help. Other ducks ridicule, even assault, him just for being different. His own siblings spurn him. At first, his mother defends him until, seeking others’ approval, she finally says she wishes he had never been born.

After more rejection and abuse, he flees his family for another group’s domain, where he is told that he will be tolerated as long as he doesn’t marry into the collective. He moves on to a group of wild ducks, facing the threat of the huntsman. With shots firing, and birds falling around him, the Ugly Duckling chooses to think; he hides, waits and bides his time to leave when it’s safe. When he does depart, he is exceedingly cautious. He takes nothing for granted. It’s the first hint that he might be better than everyone else. This is made explicit in the next part of the story when he is castigated by a hen for thinking he’s better than others as he finds himself among a trio of misfits. “Do you consider yourself more clever than the cat, or the old woman?” asks the hen. “Don’t imagine such nonsense, child, and thank your good fortune that you have been received here.”

The Ugly Duckling refuses to be humble. In encounter after encounter, he senses that he might be special. He sadly moves on after each episode, seeking happiness, and the lonely path he takes exacts a heavy toll. That he sees himself as he truly is only when he makes himself ready to give up climaxes the moral of the story, which is a kind of fable about authentic self-esteem. Adversity makes you stronger is certainly part of Andersen’s point but The Ugly Duckling is not, as is sometimes claimed, merely about being different. It is also a tale about discovering and becoming aware of one’s potential. The notion that one should accept himself as he is, recognizing limitations and strengths and accepting that life is hard, and pain is temporary, is obviously relevant to those who are different. But this story is also, and not as obviously, meaningful to the one who is better than others yet unaware of the truth.