Thursday, December 27, 2007

'tis the season to be plotting

Christmas was pleasant. I made a necklace for my grandma. The SP made a jewelry box for my sister. To each other we gave personal protection devices and insulated clothing.

Since we were both working on handmade gifts, we begged/borrowed/stole several movies. While stringing beads I watched the Disney pic Ratatouille, which was witty, effective and fun. It also prompted me to look up James Beard's recipe for ratatouille, which is a sort of vegetable casserole from Provence. I'm not a frequent eater of eggplant or zucchini, but anything layered with olive oil and basil is a candidate for my kitchen.

We watched Lonely Hearts, a neo-noir piece based on a true crime story. I'd seen a trailer for this a while back, but must've missed it in the theatres. Do NOT miss it on DVD. It's both intense and underplayed, textured, twisted and mercifully subtle. I was particularly fascinated by Salma Hayek's "damaged goods" femme fatale. She's not just vamping and slinking around, she's clever and resourceful, viciously passive-aggressive, and successfully demonstrates the self-centeredness at the core of every sociopathic personality. From the editorial description on Amazon: "Director Todd Robinson is the grandson of the real-life Elmer [Travota's character], and did the film as an homage to the case that consumed his grandfather." I highly recommend it to those with a taste for noir.

Movie number three was "Waitress," which could be considered a comedy if you are a thinking person. It was funny in the way that real life is often funny, but at the same time it was frustrating, heart-breaking and occasionally sickening. Jeremy Sisko plays Keri Russel's "bad husband" in this movie, serving up even more sociopathic neediness. He's not quite the murdering kind, but he's a soul-sucking cretin who careens from whining to threatening to belittling in the space of as many minutes. Still, Russel's character hasn't been completely broken down, which is what allows us to like her. She hides money and makes plans to escape, and when she finds brief happiness in an affair with her (married) obstetrician, she uses his strength and affection to remind herself of her own worth, but tells him point-blank she doesn't want him to "rescue" her. The climax of this movie is merely three lines long, but it's vastly satisfying. The only part that felt a bit contrived was the denouement, because a predictable benefactor made everything better (a little *too* much better, in my opinion), but on the whole it worked for me.

Now, the last flick was the one that's been, erm, haunting me the most. I found a little indy production called Sugar Creek at our local Hastings. It was a low-budget thing, debuted at the Little Rock film festival in May of this year. Direct to DVD after that. I knew none of this when I picked it up: it was described on the back as a "supernatural western," the first one I've seen that wasn't a zombie spoof. For an ultra-low-budget pic, the look is rather well-done. The colors are washed-out and bleak. I'd guess that the writer/director is either into Civil War reenacting or knows people who are. Someone has obviously tried to make the clothes look period; the basic cut and fabrics are right, but the details are lacking (colors, trimmings, hair, lack of hats) and nothing is worn-in or distressed properly. That was the first thing that caught my eye.

The second was, this director has no idea how to do transitions or establishing shots. You spend the first third of the movie grasping for context. It's pretty obvious from the lighting and the tight angles that they had limited space in which to film; for three days and nights the characters chase each other through the same field and a patch of scrub forest. You get a couple shots of a creek, a brief dark scene in a saloon, a shopkeeper breaking up glass bottles in a sack (what shopkeeper and where are left to your imagination--the 90-second intro to Deadwood had more sense of setting than this movie), and a sleazy megalomaniac landowner in a big white house.

The landowner was one of three bad guys in this movie, which was at least one too many. They were all intent on proving how bad they were by striking poses, cussing, saying smarmy things to innocent bystanders, waving their dicks at each other, and delivering speeches on the nature of good and evil--usually culminating with a statement about how they were the biggest baddest evil around.

This is the mark of a mediocre writer, one who hasn't caught on to the show-don't-tell rule. If you want to demonstrate that someone is a Bad Guy, have him walk around doing his daily bad-guy routine. We don't need to hear him talk about it, we need to SEE it. Course I guess when you've only got a half-dozen characters and they're all marked for death, it limits your options as far as sacrificial extras go.

Before I go any further I want to state why I am spending so much time thinking about this movie. The main plot thread worked. At the end, it all came together (mostly) and there was even a little "aha!" with some moral ambiguity that I found pleasing. But the director had no freakin' idea how to string his story together.

Lynette, in my writer's group, once said I was being too coy with the reader-- alluding to information that wouldn't be revealed until later. It was probably the best single piece of advice I ever got from her. Novice writers think that alluding to a mystery or lettre caché creates tension, but all it does is irritate and bore. When you put up flags that say, "Hey, there's a big tortured mystery here!" this reader goes, "aw hell, not the tortured-past again, will you just GET to it already?!" and I throw the book down and go read something that's not so manipulative.

Well, this director had the same problem. And what with his ineptness at showing changes in setting and POV, not to mention the interspersing of at least three flashbacks among the primary thread, it was virtually impossible to make any connection between the scenes. Even if I went back and re-watched the beginning, I don't think I could follow it now. The only reason anyone knows what's happening is because of the throwaway characters who sit around delivering expository speeches to one another.

What's really sad is, I can look back on each scene and say, "that scene was meant to show that the sheriff is a tough badass who doesn't believe in ghosts...." or "that scene was supposed to show us St. Clair had a death wish (or was crazy, maybe)and not really such a bad guy because his wife died and he set his slave free ..." but in the end they were either ineffective or downright digressionary. There were too many main characters and the secondary characters were little better than props to deliver enabling lines, but what this all comes down to is ineffective time-management. You've got less than two hours to tell your story. Which means, in every scene you have to be doing two things simultaneously: developing ALL the characters while moving the plot forward.

Now that I think about it, there are acutally two stories going on here, and the writer/director didn't seem to know which he was telling. The theme throughout is one of redemption and repentance, with mysterious Grim-reaper-like character stalking the Sorta-Bad, Sorta-Sad Man (and incidentally cutting down the Bad Men who get in his way). The implication is that one of the Revelation horsemen has come to collect the souls of the wicked. However at the end we find that the horseman is an old man out for revenge--who then takes pity on the last of his would-be victims because the Sorta Bad/Sad Man (the POV character, ostensibly) was only guilty of non-involvement and apologized for it in the end--after 95 minutes of more non-involvement. The guy wanders around waiting to die, all the while denying that he did anything wrong. He doesn't try to run, or fight, or reason--or at least not beyond a token resistance. How sympathetic can that be?

For me, the movie would've worked better as an allegory of the power of superstition, since the townspeople were all convinced that the horseman would kill them if they interfered. The St. Clair character should've been beefed up and made more ambiguous, the villain of the piece--perhaps even combined with the sheriff character, which would have cut the "I've got the biggest dick" speeches in half. The POV character, the Bad/Sad man brought there for atonement.... well, I'm not sure what could've been done with him. He was a sort of Christ symbol, down to the wounds in his side and the bloody rag around his head, but since he never sacrificed anything nor saved anyone (not really) the point was wasted.

Bottom line, the current-day story and the flashback story don't fit together except in the most incidental and plot-enabling ways. There is no similarity of theme and very little bearing on character construction, since the focus of the flashbacks is on a character that never appears in or influences the present-day action (except via that incidental plot-enabling murder). And since our POV character, the Bad/Sad Man, never speaks or acts in these flashbacks, we're not interested in him, either.

I know, it's an awful lot of attention to divert to a lost cause, and the author will probably find his way here and write long diabtribes defending his vision, but oh well. It's diverting to break the pieces apart and play script-doctor. Keeps the apparatus in shape. My next writer's meeting is January 5 and I ought to knock out the rest of Death by Feng Shui before then; plus another writer-friend gave me a manuscript to read and since Christmas is over I guess I can't put it off anymore.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

vegan á là Orwell

I was reading through my usual blogroll this morning and came across this interesting piece on Culinate, about a world charity called Heifer International. They provide cows and other farm animals to impoverished areas, teach the owners how to raise them, with the provision that any offspring of the donated animals are then given to other members of the community, so everyone gets a chance for better nutrition.

I think this is a great idea. One thing that doesn't really get discussed during war coverage is how the invading armies or insurgents slaughter all the food animals and destroy the crops. A community can't recover from that kind of loss without other animals being imported, and in a very poor area, a cow is worth more than--well, anything. In addition to providing goats, cows, llamas or chickens, Heifer International also teaches about beekeeping, to improve crop pollination and provides small meat animals for breeding, such as rabbits.

Of course there was a line in the article that bugged me: "...some people who do not support meat-eating would rather that Heifer only provide help with animals that can be milked, hens that lay eggs, or crops." I'm not sure if that means people outside the organization who would like to support it, or people receiving help from Heifer, such as vegetarian Hindus, who are not able to make use of meat rabbits.

Being the cynical carnivore I am, the dominoes started tumbling in my writer's mind. In about five minutes I conceived a story scenario in which an aggressive vegetarian faction, combined with rabid environmentalists and the corn industry, has become the dominant lobbying party in America, and Congress has officially made it illegal to raise or kill an animal for food (using them for pharmeceutical and cosmetics testing is still ok, though).

I can envision underground meat parties, people raising chickens in their bathrooms, new breeds of pigs that live in dark basements and are blind and hairless--more like overgrown slugs, really--and street gangs raiding the houses of little-old-lady cat hoarders and stealing her animals to make sausage. Police would detect illegal meat-raisers by sniffing around basement windows with methane-detecting instruments.

Of course, most people would adhere to the no-meat dictate, because people are--excuse the expression--sheep, and tend to reinforce the prevailing ethics of their time. So they'd all be eating massive amounts of grains, fruits, and vegetables, and they'd all be massively fat. Leanness would be considered freakish, a sign of poor health and possibly deviant behavior. The human life expectancy would be a good bit shorter, what with all the diabetes, gout, cancer and heart disease. Probably the birth rate would drop, too, since obese mothers have trouble conceiving, tend to deliver low birth weight babies, and are more likely to die of gestational complications.

The animal population would spiral out of control, with cows and pigs roaming the streets and chickens instead of pigeons roosting in Times Square. The exception would be domestic turkeys, which are so retarded they cannot breed naturally and would exist only in zoos or as exotic, expensive pets.

Meanwhile the earth would be in even more environmental trouble than it currently is. The best pastureland would be given to the animals for grazing, and the ariable farmland would be getting more and more stripped, due to incessant over-planting. I suppose somebody might get smart and use animal dung for fertilizer, but given the chokehold Big Biofarming would have on the industry in such a scenerio, they could probably convince the public that animal fertilizer is dangerous and ineffective as a fertilizer (which in some cases it already is). The extreme levels of methane in the air would hasten global warming.

There would be an abrupt increase in extinctions among wild animals in North America, because the fast-breeding domestic animals would crowd the wild ones out of competition. Food would become more and more expensive, more genetically engineered, more constructed in labs--Big Biofarming would have the market cornered, after all. Humans as a population would get shorter, and dumber, with each generation, from lack of protein. Mutations and birth defects would skyrocket, from the GMO grains and soy. But the animals, at least, would be protected.

Sounds fun... but nobody'd ever publish it.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

disgusting details about fat, scurvy, and fiber

I’m about 60% through the Taubes book now and it’s steadily getting more intriguing.

I like the bit in Chapter 18, Fattening Diets, where the author describes the diets of sumo wrestlers: about 5500 calories a day, very very low in fat (16% of total calories) and high in carbs (57%). And that’s for the top-ranked sumo wrestlers. The lower-tier competitors, who weigh about the same but have less muscle mass than their brethren, eat about 5100 calories a day, but up to 80% is carbs (this means proportionately less protein, hence the reduced muscle) and as little as 9% fat. (p307)

That right there should end the debate about whether it is fat or carbs that make you fat. And please note that the sumo are not fat because they eat so many calories; no, they crave enormous amounts of food because all the rice kicks their insulin levels sky-high and they are hungry all the time. Trust me; I lived with a guy who was sumo-sized for several years and this was exactly how he ate. He liked his meat ok, and he could take or leave butter, but he'd polish off a loaf of Wonder Bread literally overnight.

Chapter 19, Reducing Diets, talks about a guy named Stefansson who lived with the Inuit (Eskimo) for a decade before WWI, during which he ate their native diet of fatty meat and little else, and suffered no ill effects. If anything, he was healthier than he had been on his previous “balanced” diet, as were the Inuit and all the foreigners who came to live with them and adopted the diet.

Laboratory attempts to replicate this diet on volunteers, in the 40’s and 50’s, yielded much the same results. The volunteers lost weight, eating as many or more calories than they had before the experiment, except with the carbs greatly reduced, and while they were losing body fat and inches, they gained muscle, felt more energetic, suffered no hunger pains, and in the case of some female college students, saw their skin clear up.

All of that I knew, and could attest to personally. Here’s the kicker:

None of the volunteers on this diet of meat and fat suffered from malnutrition. They didn’t get beriberi (thiamin deficiency), or pellagra (niacin deficiency) or even scurvy. This surprised me. I’ve heard repeatedly that humans and guinea pigs are the only two mammals who can’t synthesize vitamin C in their bodies, and I always assumed that vitamin C was the only thing I might need to supplement myself with. There is little or no vitamin C in meat, milk, eggs and cheese.

So why did I never seem to be bothered by scorbutic symptoms? I figured it was because I ate enough green stuff, although if I’m being strictly honest with myself, I don’t eat much. More to the point, why didn’t the Inuit and their guests get scurvy after years on such a diet? I'd never seen this question addressed before; it was one of the questions those post-WWII researchers were trying to answer.

Turns out that “high blood sugar and/or high levels of insulin work to increase the body’s requirements for vitamin C. The vitamin-C molecule is similar in configuration to glucose and other sugars in the body. It is shuttled from the bloodstream into the cells by the same insulin-dependent transport system used by glucose. Glucose and vitamin C compete in this cellular-uptake process, like strangers trying to flag down the same taxicab simultaneously. Because glucose is greatly favored in the contest, the uptake of vitamin C by cells is globally inhibited when blood-sugar levels are elevated.” (p325)

In other words, the starches in our diets flush the C out of our systems, while inhibiting the use our bodies can make of the C we get. That would explain those studies that show how mega-doses of C just get flushed out in the urine. The high-carb diets prevent our bodies from absorbing it. So the greater proportion of carbs in your diet—including root vegetables, legumes, and particularly fruits—the more C you need to injest just to break even. And all that pureed fruit juice will do you no good: your body will just soak up the sugars and flush the vitamins right out of there.

I had no idea. But maybe it helps explain why I hardly ever get sick.

Also, that old saw about excessive protein damaging your kidneys? That came from a guy named Newburgh who force-fed soybeans, eggs and beef to rabbits. Rabbits are herbivores—one could hardly be surprised if a diet of this sort gave them health problems.

The human subjects who participated in various high-fat, high-protein diet studies, which Taubes discusses in the last third of the book, suffered no kidney problems, and no problems with bowel disruptions. Lest I venture into the realm of Too-Much-Information, I can verify that my guts work smoother, produce less waste and less odor, when I eat fewer carbs and starches. A friend of mine, who was once diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, reported the same improvement with his change in diet--which makes me cringe for those poor bastards with IBS who are told to increase their fiber.

Frankly, I never saw the point of eating a high-fiber diet. That argument is based on two things: one, that the fiber will fill you up and you will feel less hungry; two, that fiber is ‘nature’s broom’ and will sweep out the nasty bad meat waste.

First of all, eating things that are not food will not stop you from being hungry. The Donner party chewed on shoes, ate paper and boiled rugs for broth, but it didn’t stop them from starving. If you dilute the food of rats with water, they will keep feeding until they bloat, but they will not stop until they have consumed their usual number of calories. It’s a nutrient-balance thing; volume has little to do with it.

Second—what meat waste? The protein is going to my muscles; the fat is soothing my liver, processing vitamins, making my skin and hair silky. So I have to wince when I hear dieticians, particularly the vegetarian variety, pushing fiber on people. All you’re doing is making your bowels and small intestine work harder for fewer nutrients.

Not efficient, to my way of thinking.