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CSotD: The Voice of the Lobster

Doc and Raider sparks memories of my first post-divorce romance, in which two evenings a week were spent similarly lying in bed, though, in our case, we were watching Dynasty on Wednesdays and its spin-off series, the Colbys, on Thursdays.

Unlike the boys, we made no attempt to sort out the nonsense playing out before us. As a spin-off of an already wretched show, the Colbys never jumped the shark because it was born on the shark’s farside to begin with.

Which can best be explained by simply quoting the initial sentence of Wikipedia’s explanation of the Colby’s:

On Dynasty, presumed-dead heiress Fallon Carrington Colby (Emma Samms) reappears alive, suffering from amnesia and using the name Randall Adams. Drawn to California after recognizing the name “Colby”, she meets playboy Miles Colby (Maxwell Caulfield), not realizing that he is the cousin of her ex-husband, Jeff (John James). A mutual business venture brings the Colbys of California to the Denver mansion of Fallon’s father Blake Carrington (John Forsythe).

Which makes it hard to go downhill without considerable effort by everyone involved.

And yet, while Dynasty was already stupid enough to be hilarious, the Colbys did not come up to that level of writing or acting.

The chief takeaway was that I might never have noticed the extent to which Charlton Heston’s acting repertoire consisted entirely of biting his lip had my GF not delightedly called it out each time he used it.

Which was pretty much whenever he was on camera.

Anyway.

Anyway, I have tried a couple of times to get into Game of Thrones but, as somebody I won’t identify observed the other day, there seems to be a rather large convergence among fans of action comics and fans of professional wrestling and that’s okay but I prefer a more understated approach.

Which is why I used to refer to “I, Claudius” as “Upstairs/Downstairs in Bedsheets.” I don’t mind soap opera, but it’s better if you don’t try to turn it into Arthur Miller by throwing in Roman Senators or fire-breathing dragons, most of whom should be arrested not just on a 502 (the dragons) but also (all of them) on a 412.

What was great about the Sopranos was that they’d simply taken the 90-second kitchen scene from the Godfather, when Clemenza is making spaghetti sauce and teasing Michael to tell Kay he loves her, and stretched those ninety seconds of mundane, brilliant storytelling into 86 one-hour episodes.

Unlike the outwardly, obviously depraved crooks in “Breaking Bad” and several others of the genre, the Sopranos maintained an understated normalcy that seemed to conflict with the murderous depravity at the center of their lives, but which fits the Mafia types I’ve run into over the years.

Getting back to Doc and Raider, it doesn’t matter what they’re watching. What makes the cartoon work is that it’s a moment that happens and then vanishes but has been captured.

A particularly fine parallel is the two lobster scenes in “Annie Hall.” The first is spontaneous and hilarious, but, when Alvy attempts to recreate the moment with a different partner, it falls painfully flat.

The artist’s task is to capture it on the first take, because that’s all you get.

 

To expand upon this extended discussion of storytelling, you can catch an hour-long interview with Brian Fies about his book, A Fire Story, either online here or as a downloadable file here.

There is fire, but no dragons, in this book, which is what makes it work so well. Fies started out with “Mom’s Cancer,” a breakthrough examination of a perfectly average family’s experience with a horrendous disease, by sketching his mother during a chemo session, and what made the resulting book such a success was its chilling normalcy.

This time around, he has a much more dramatic canvas upon which to work, but he maintains that low-key Everyman style. Fies brings to those headline-making, massively destructive wildfires the same individualized, personal voice that Marjane Satrapi brought to the Iranian Revolution in Persepolis.

And I wish I could lay out the A-B-C’s of how you do that, because, while adding Roman Senators and fire-breathing dragons to a soap opera does not elevate it, so, too, telling your own story in your own voice too often results in a book only your mother will read, and only because she loves you.

I can tell you to read “A Fire Story” and “Persepolis,” as well as Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” but it’s a lot easier to provide examples of rabbits being pulled from hats than it is to explain how the rabbits got in the hats to begin with.

Still, the best advice, for budding writers, is to read. Everything. From Cervantes to cereal boxes.

And it’s the same thing you say to kids at the dinner table: You don’t have to finish it, but you have to at least try it.

All of which may be too late: Kids raised on tater tots and chicken nuggets and spared the horrors of international foods or unusual vegetables are unlikely to shift course later.

Ditto with reading.

But here’s something Frank Zappa said when I was interviewing him about kids and parents and schools back, as it happens, in the days when I was also hate-watching the Colbys:

You know, if you really want to learn, go to the library. Basically, I never even would have finished high school if I’d have had my way. I graduated with 20 units less than what I was supposed to have, just because they were happy to get rid of me. But I was actually just being thrown out of school. But I managed to get an education because I was interested. The Public Library. There it is! It’s still there, it’s still free.

 

And Neil Gaiman, also no slouch as a storyteller, has this to say on the same topic, and, like Zappa, he stresses what a welcoming place it can be for bright kids who don’t fit somewhere else:

Bingo. Go read his speech, and read the rest of this graphic version.

Then read some more.

With or without dragons.

Community Comments

#1 WVFran Allen
April/11/2019
@ 8:22 am

Always enjoy your work, but want to especially thank you for the link to Gaiman’s presentation. So much to ponder for parents, teachers, public policymakers, citizens…wow.

#2 Brian Fies
April/11/2019
@ 8:53 am

Thanks, Mike. I appreciate it.

#3 Kathleen Elizabeth Donnelly
April/11/2019
@ 10:55 am

‘412? WHAT’S A 412???’

‘Overacting.’

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