Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Going the extra Mile(s)

After I wrote yesterday's post on Miles O'Keeffe, I spoke with with Monica Surrena, the writer/director of King of the Road, Miles' most recent film. She said:

"Miles is a really easy going guy. Kind of soft spoken and was delightful to work with. Even though it was a student short, he took it very seriously, did many of his own stunts (except the outrageous bike stuff - that was done by Monte Perlin), and shared a lot of anecdotes about some feature films he'd been in. When he wasn't on camera, he spent most of his time sitting by himself, getting into character. 'Wild' Bill was based off of my dad. If you ever met my father, you'd see how well Miles took the real person and adapted it to the fictional down and out hero. Both he and John Bigham (who played Bill's sidekick, Igor) also worked together well and did quite a bit of improve on set. I've kept in touch him since the film, and if I do anything else, I'd like to use him again. He's a real pro."

Here's the trailer, showing Miles in action (love the spinning motorcycle bit):

The film's official website is here. Thanks again to Monica Surrena.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Giants of West Tennessee: Miles (and miles) O'Keeffe

NOTE: This is the latest in an ongoing occasional series about notable figures from my home region. These are personal reminiscences and opinions; where available, I'll include links so interested readers can find out more.

"My name is spelled with two e's, two f's and another e, and nobody ever spells it right."

If you're of my generation, you remember Bo Derek as the epitome of beauty, codified and made official by the movie 10. But if you're a genre fan of my generation, you also remember her next film, a project so godawful it still provokes open-mouthed amazement. 1981's Tarzan, the Ape Man borrowed its title from Johnny Weissmuller's debut film but everything else came from some bizarre other dimension. Directed by Bo's husband John Derek, it featured Bo as Jane, an unrestrained Richard Harris as her egomaniacal father, and as Tarzan, newcomer Miles O'Keeffe.

That would be the former Miles Keefe of Ripley, TN.

Genre fans also know Miles from a pair of roles later in the 80s. In Sword of the Valiant, he played Sir Gawain to Sean Connery's Green Knight. Sporting a blond pageboy wig, Miles shows us things you never knew you wanted to know, like how to use a can opener to urinate while wearing armor.

In the Italian film Ator, the Fighting Eagle, he's a fantasy swordsman battling evil, but it's the sequel, known in some places as Cave Dwellers, that really keeps him on the map. This film, riffed by Mystery Science Theater 3000, is available in the Volume 2 set. And on page 37 of The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, actor/writer Mike Nelson pens a tribute to his vision of Miles.

I've never met Miles, but he comes across as a solid actor whose basic dignity survives even the worst of his films. My buddy Hays Davis (fans might spot him as the person to whom Burn Me Deadly is dedicated) grew up in Ripley and provides this Miles-related anecdote:

"My friend Kathy went to the senior prom with Miles, and they graduated together from Ripley High School in 1972. I remember seeing Miles play the lead role in that year's senior play, Li'l Abner. After graduation they went their separate ways. Years later, in 1978, Miles went to a party at Kathy's house. He had missed out on an opportunity to try out for a Chicago rugby team, and wanted to try out in San Francisco. Their friend Billy made plans with Miles to drive there, and before the night was over Kathy had signed on as well. The three drove to San Fran in a Pinto, which was a real feat, as Miles was a big fellow. Miles stayed out west, and not long after, while at work one day, Miles was spotted by some industry folks who sized him up for the Tarzan role.

"I remember going with friends a time or two to the Keefes' house in Ripley. Their daughter Kelly was three years older than me, and their brother Coleman was another couple of years older, and all nice folks. While I knew them as the Keefes, the name O'Keeffe was the original family name, which had been revised years back. By the time Tarzan was released, Miles had reverted to O'Keeffe, along with at least some of the rest of the family, if I remember correctly."

I'm not sure if Miles is still acting; his IMDB credits stop in 2005, although he's listed as the star of the 2010 short film King of the Road. But like Mike Nelson, I am sure about one thing.

The man could beat me up.

I've got a VHS of MST3K's version of Cave Dwellers (a.k.a. The Blade Master, a.k.a Ator the Invincible 2) for one lucky commenter.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Gone (but not forgotten) in 60 Seconds

If one cinematic trend defines the 1970s, it's not the summer blockbuster (Star Wars, Jaws), the "New Hollywood" grit (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) or even grindhouse exploitation. It's the car chase movie. And the undisputed king is H.B. Halicki's 1974 film, Gone in 60 Seconds.

To make an independent movie in the 70s was a sign of drive and willpower far beyond those of independent filmmakers today. Indie directors didn't want to make navel-gazing talkfests like Juno or Garden State. They strove instead to give the people what they wanted: action, destruction, and anti-establishment heroes who, even when they fail, go out in a blaze of defiant glory. And it took more than a few thousand dollars and a digital camcorder: movies were shot on film and needed both big cameras and the raw stock. Then there was distribution. "Home video" did not exist, so except for television, the only market was theatrical.

H.B. Halicki was not a filmmaker. He was a raging self-starter who owned his own auto body shop at 17. And he bought cars. Lots of them. In fact, all the cars crashed in the film (93) were personally owned, and in most cases driven to their demise, by Halicki himself. He applied the same resolve to filmmaking, utlimately writing, directing, producing and starring in both this film and its 1982 follow-up, The Junkman. He personally took both the film and the wrecked Mustang known as "Eleanor" (touted as "the only car to ever receive star billing") to drive-ins across the country--including one patronized by a certain fictional vampire trying to learn his way around 1975 Memphis.

In Blood Groove, my vampire Zginski was introduced to the modern automobile via the film Vanishing Point. By the time of my new novel, The Girls with Games of Blood, Zginski has seen Halicki's film and is ready to find his own Eleanor. You'll have to read the book to find out how he does it, and what name he chooses.

In 1989, Halicki was accidentally killed on the set of Gone in 60 Seconds II. The footage he'd already shot showed he most definitely hadn't lost his touch. And although the clothes, music and scenery of the original film set it firmly in 1974, the visceral thrill from the 40-minute final chase is timeless.

What's your favorite car chase movie? Leave a comment before midnight on Sunday, June 27 for a chance to win an advance copy of The Girls with Games of Blood (and for one lucky commenter, I'll throw in a DVD of Bram Stoker's Dracula)!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Heroic Fantasy Challenge contest

Thanks to the awesome folks at Rogue Blades Entertainment, I'm one of the judges for their heroic-fantasy Challenge! contest.

The contest is open to submissions from June 1 to September 1, 2010. And the challenge is to base the story around this illustration by V Shane:

The basics (from the Rogue Blades website):

"The RBE Challenge! is a competition anthology open to anyone who writes heroic action adventure of ANY genre! Using V Shane’s above artwork and the title Discovery as inspiration, pen me mighty and mysterious tales of action and adventure. Speculative fiction is NOT required for Challenge! themes! Sword & Sorcery, Sword & Planet, Soul & Sandal, Western, Mystery, Dark Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Sci-Fi, even Horror and Romance! You name it, so long as it’s heroic fiction, you can submit it."

You can find more information at this link.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Sailing through Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes

After my recent dire experience with The Island, Peter Benchley's 1979 pirate adventure (see my post here), I was leery of another "best-selling" author tackling the same subject. I was doubly leery when that author was the late Michael Crichton, a writer whose brilliant and innovative ideas are invariably balanced by a nonexistent sense of pacing, characterization and style.

And yet, his 2009 novel Pirate Latitudes surprised me, much as his 1976 novel, Eaters of the Dead. This new book was discovered as a completed manuscript among his computer files after his death, and it has the feel of a pet project. As such, perhaps he paid more attention to crafting a plot that pays off, rather than a series of incidents that simply stop when the book runs out of pages (i.e., Jurassic Park). Whatever the reason, both Latitudes and Eaters avoid the pitfalls of Crichton's books set in the contemporary world.

Charles Hunter is a privateer in Jamaica's Port Royal, attacking Spanish ships under the protection of the British governor. When he gets word of a Spanish galleon anchored in an impregnable harbor, he hatches a plan to steal it, and its considerable treasure.

And that's really it. There's not a lot of digression, just a straightforward plot with lots of action and damn near every pirate cliche you could want. There are hurricanes, attacks by giant squid, sword fights and cannon broadsides. Hunter is as smooth with the ladies as he is with the waves. Each member of his crew has a specialty, and they all manage to save the day at least once. The villains are suitably rogueish (all could be played by Basil Rathbone), and only the sex and violence make it an adult book. It's Pirates of the Caribbean for grownups.

Crichton (or his staff) did their research as well, because there are plenty of obscure historical details worked into the story, mostly legitimately. But even at that, there's something thin about it, a sense that it's more a film treatment than an actual novel. We learn only enough about the characters to justify their actions, and although the settings are vivid, they still don't feel like places real people live. Still, perhaps that's enough. No one should expect depth from the guy who wrote The Lost World.

Here's the British book trailer (much cooler than the US one):

Friday, June 4, 2010

I finally answer THE vampire author question

As an author of books about vampires, I get asked one question more than any other, at signings and conventions and neighborhood cookouts: "So, what do you think about Twilight?" It's become a litmus test of sorts.

So I thought I'd answer it here, for the record, in handy condensed form. What do I think of Twilight?

I haven't read Twilight. None of them. My wife read them, but I haven't. So I can't speak to Stephanie Meyer's skill (or alleged lack of) as a writer.

I have seen the first movie. I thought Kristin Stewart was too intelligent and powerful an actress to play such a passive role, and it appears her recent performance as Joan Jett has proven me right. I thought the high school scenes really felt like high school. I thought the Cullens, in their albino-ish glory, were ridiculous, and as a parent I was appalled at both the way Bella's mother treated her, and the way she treated her father. But I was clearly not the intended demographic. In fact, never in my life have I felt less like the target audience.


I understand the appeal. It's the same thing that lies behind the enduring presence of Dracula, and Lestat, and even Bill from True Blood. Whatever her other shortcomings as a writer, Meyer understands that vampires are at their best when they function as metaphors.

When Dracula was first published, the grim Count personified the fears of his time. Women were beginning to demand rights, including the right to enjoy sex, so rigid traditionalist Stoker demonstrated what happens to women who do so. London was inundated with immigrants, so Stoker showed the dangers of foreigners. I'm not saying he was right about either of these things, or even that he did this consciously. But Dracula stood in for the real-world terrors of its English readers in a way that his literary predecessors (Polidori's Lord Ruthven, Varney the Vampire, LeFanu's Carmilla) never did.

It was nearly a century before another literary vampire appeared who managed the same trick. Anne Rice's Lestat, in his loneliness and narcissism, perfectly captured the alienation of the "wide-open" Seventies when he appeared in 1976. Using vampires to address the AIDS crisis never really created a single unifying figure, but True Blood equates vampirism with the issues of homosexuals trying to fit into society, especially in the alternately embraced and ostracized Bill Compton.

And significantly, in none of these stories are the vampires our point-of-view characters. Dracula is told from many perspectives, but never from the Count's. We see Lestat through the eyes of his protege', Louis (I know this changes in later novels, but that's a different topic). True Blood's main character is psychic waitress Sookie Stackhouse.

Which brings us to Twilight.

It's beyond obvious that Edward Cullen represents Bella's desire for, and fear of, sexual intimacy. What gets missed in a lot of the "I hate Twilight" discussions is just how powerful a metaphor this is. It taps into a universal experience--well, universal for half the human race--and presents it in a way that allows the reader (and it's safe to say most of them are female) to identify with Bella on a fundamental level. We see Edward through her eyes, and if parts of the relationship seem a little squirrelly from our perspective (he's how old, and he's watching a teenage girl while she sleeps?), we understand why she feels like she does. Thus the criticism of her as a weak, passive character is really beside the point: this story couldn't happen to anyone else.

So at the risk of taking a beating, I'll make the statement that Twilight works for readers the same way Dracula, Interview with a Vampire and True Blood works. It personifies what they fear most in a way that lets them safely work through that fear.

There. And for reading this far, here's a little tune as a reward. My friend Fred Schepartz first alerted me to this.