Monday, October 6, 2008

Is "Bad" Contagious?

Last night, I watched my latest Netflix arrival, The New Kids, a "thriller" from the "80's" starring a bleachy-eyebrowed James Spader as a coked-up, Floridian "Redneck" teenage psychopath, who, along with his posse of dim-witted backwoods cliche friends, decides to "terrorize" a fluffy-mullet-headed Lori Loughlin and her short-shorts wearing older brother (the so-called New Kids) simply because Lori refuses Spader's creepy "I don't know you but I'm entitled, improbably rich, and James Spader, so love me" invitation to the school dance.

The "terrorizing" begins slowly, with said posse tossing around lascivious stares and pick-up lines at which any two-dollar hooker would roll her eyes, cutting the school water-fountain's long line, and hocking loogies onto the library's microfiche machines. As the tension grows (or something), the Spader group's rage quickly devolves into unjustified stunts such as grafiti-ing the amusement park where the New Kids live with their uncle and aunt, killing the fuzzy bunnies, ducks, and goats that live at the New Kids' very own petting zoo, and finally kidnapping the doomed Lori from the school dance, dousing her with lighter fluid, threatening to set her face on fire with matches (I love that she simply keeps blowing out the flames), pulling off her tight white dressy jeans, smearing her granny panties with calf's blood, shooting her uncle in the stomach, and rampaging through the darkened amusement park (mirror-maze included), while the "New Kids" escape, then pick off the bad-guys one by one in a not-so-high-stakes violent game of cat and mouse. (The very first scene of the film sets up how well-prepared the "New Kids" would be in case of a scenario such as this, when their (soon to be dead) military father tears them from their beds to jog, punch, crawl, and wear head-bands, montage-style, with him, which the kids happily agree to like members of some strange Manson-Family Exercise Cult). As one might imagine (after observing the extensive military preparation of his rivals), this duel ends badly for Spader, when his overly hair-sprayed head adds fuel to the fire of his drug-induced obsession after he's doused in gasoline by Lori's brother and gets his pretty face blow-torched off. Oh, and all of this is set to a power ballad with lyrics proclaiming several "80's" themed philosophical arguments such as the importance of being strong, doing your best, winning, and not being a big fat loser.

I really don't know what inspired me to rent this movie. Early Spader? Memories of the video-tape cover my eleven year old self was fascinated by in the horror section of the local video store in Lincoln, Rhode Island? That it was directed by the guy who made Friday the 13th (which, in retrospect, is probably not a great reason to rent a DVD...)?

If you can't tell, I didn't think this was a very good movie. Duh. But The New Kids was the type of "not very good" that makes me rethink some of my own material, questioning whether I've made similar mistakes in plotting, characterization, dialogue, mise-en-scene, verisimilitude or what have you.

In my experience, writing novels (or, I suppose, any kind of story-telling) is a bit like getting lost in the woods. When you're in the thick of it, (oh let's just go with the cliche) it's hard to see the forest for the trees. For me, it's mostly in editing that I gain any sense of perspective. And really, only after I've received feedback from trusted reader-friends, am I able to see the shape of what I've done and whether or not it "works."

I'm currently awaiting feedback on my second manuscript, not only from my editor, but from my writing-group, and I have to admit... this is a frightening time. Terrifying. Ultimately, I have confidence in what I created, or else, I would not have shared it. But then I go and watch an abomination of story-telling like The New Kids, and it makes me wonder -- what if I'm like that. What if I just didn't see it... What if I suck?

I've had similar experiences in creative malaise while watching the brilliant Strangers With Candy. If The New Kids makes me realize all the ways a piece of crap (I mean art) can be bad by being bad, Strangers makes me realize all the ways a piece of art can be bad, by pointing out the cliches which make up the badness. For anyone who lives in a dark closet (and if you do, I suggest opening the door), Strangers With Candy takes the "after-school special" formula and turns it on its head, making fun of the teenage "problem" story by exploding all the YA stereotypes: drug-abuse, sexual abuse, disabilities, pregnancy, disease... joining cults. You know, the usual? As someone who's written a couple of (admittedly un-good) unpublished YA books, I can say that watching Strangers With Candy while working in that forest I mentioned earlier was a real confidence-shaker. How does one continue writing, when you know someone out there might tear your work a new a**hole, or worse, satirize you into oblivion?

I suppose I'm writing about this now because, as I begin my next book, I fear the mistakes I've made in the past. It's paralyzing. I've plotted and planned, made notes for the journey forward, but still, it's frightening to step into the woods, because, as always, the path is difficult to see. Plus, Jason Vorhees, or Amy Sedaris, might be hiding behind a mulberry bush with a machete, or an empty scotch tape-dispenser. ("Hobo Camp!") For the past few weeks, the thought of opening the laptop has filled me with a sense of "Naw, not yet." Watching The New Kids only compounded this feeling...

Is it all part of the game? They say a good writer can benefit from reading(or watching) "the bad." (You know... they? Them? Those people who say things about writers?) Because being aware of what to avoid is the best way to avoid... those things. Still, it's difficult to prepare yourself for the ego-busting effect of the truly Bad.

I've since gone through my Netflix Queue and deleted all the films but the ones which I'm certain will inspire me, at least until I'm a little farther into my own journey -- when I can observe such atrocities from a distance, through binoculars, without fearing I've become one of them.

If I took anything away from The New Kids experience, it was a stronger desire to do my best, to win, and avoid being a big fat loser, which, I suppose is worth something at least. All I need now is a power-ballad soundtrack to get me through it... No synthesizers, please.

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