Sunday, February 24, 2008

TCM's 31 Day-o-Ram

This was on the Turner Classic Movies site, and I thought it was wonderful. Apparently it's based on an invention called the Panoram, an early video jukebox which played what were, in essence, the forerunners of music videos. Everything old is new again.

The 31 Day-o-Ram plays an assortment of opening and closing credit sequences, musical numbers, and theme tunes for a number of Oscar-nominated and -winning movies. Along with some obvious ones (the themes from Jaws and The Great Escape) there are some less obvious, but equally deserving, selections: listen to George Delerue's wonderful opening credits music for A Man For All Seasons (and spot a young, or youngish, Leo McKern), and then be dazzled by the exuberance of Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor performing the 'Moses Supposes' number from Singin' in the Rain. And you don't even have to put a nickel in the jukebox!

Friday, February 22, 2008

My Brush With Oscar

It's a long and winding road from English novelist R. F. Delderfield to my meeting with an Oscar winner; but bear with me. . . .

In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a brief vogue, on British TV, for adaptations of the works of novelist R. F. Delderfield (1912–72). Several of his novels—typically sprawling epics encompassing several decades—were dramatised, and among these was his A Horseman Riding By trilogy (1978; although only the first two books were used for the TV series). It aired on PBS around 1980, and I was enthralled, so much so that I sought out the books and devoured them, thus beginning an admiration for Delderfield's work that holds strong to this day.

The main character of both book and series is Paul Craddock, played in the TV version by a young British actor—previously unknown to me—named Nigel Havers. In those pre-Internet days it was difficult to learn a good deal about actors, and all I knew, in the months after the series ended, was that Havers was featuring in a British film with the somewhat unpromising title Chariots of Fire. In spring 1981 the film was slated to open in Vancouver, and one rainy night I took my seventeen-year-old self down to the Captiol Six cinema on Granville Street to see it.

The Capitol Six—alas, no longer with us—contained, as the name implies, six cinemas. The main cinema, on the second floor, sat about 1200 people; two cinemas, on the third floor, accommodated about 600 each; and the fourth floor held three cinemas, each with seating for about 400 people. Chariots of Fire was on the third floor; hardly auspicious, but I was not daunted. I arrived while the previous showing was ending, and while I waited in the lobby I got my first taste of Vangelis's score; and it is not overstating the matter to say that I was hooked from that moment.

The film was wonderful, from start to finish. If I was disappointed that Havers's character—the fictitious Lord Andrew Lindsay—did not get the prominence I expected, I do not recall. I simply knew that this was a wonderful film, and over the next few weeks I saw it a half-dozen times. I bought the soundtrack album, and managed to wangle a large display poster for the film out of A&B Sound on Seymour Street when they were finished with it; the poster adorned my bedroom wall for some time, but was lost at some point, probably during a move. I also managed to get the press kit for the film—I still have this, thank goodness—from Golden Age Collectables on Granville Street, one of my regular stops on my trips to Vancouver when I was a teenager. The shop still exists, but is more devoted to comics now; during the 1980s it was a wonderful place to find movie posters, stills, and press kits, and several relics of visits there adorn the walls of our house to this day, including a wonderful three-sheet poster for the 1944 film version of And Then There Were None (in the downstairs hallway) and a lobby card for the 1959 Hound of the Baskervilles ('It's Ten Times The Terror In TECHNICOLOR!') which is to my left as I type.

The press kit—do film companies still produce these?—for Chariots of Fire contained a good deal of information about the film and the artists involved; there were pictures of those behind the camera, as well as in front of it, so I got to know what director Hugh Hudson and producer David Puttnam looked like. On Oscar night 1982 I was on tenterhooks, wondering how many awards Chariots—nominated for seven Oscars—would take home. I had baked a cake—decorated, to the best of my ability, with the Chariots logo—specially for the event, and as the night drew on I became increasinly anxious. Best Costumes, Best Soundtrack, Best Original Screenplay: all very well, but would it win Best Picture? When Warren Beatty won Best Director for Reds things looked a bit iffy; and then came the opening of the envelope: Best Picture, Chariots of Fire. The next few moments are a blur; but I distinctly remember my brother John saying 'Get her some oxygen, she's hyperventilating.' I was as pleased and proud as if I'd written and directed the movie myself; well, I was only eighteen, so perhaps can be excused.

Fast forward a year, to the spring of 1983. I had graduated high school two years earlier, but was tagging along as part of a SETS (Student Educational Travel Services) trip to England, France, and Holland. I had taken the trip in 1981, when I was in grade 12, and was being allowed to participate again largely, I think, because the teachers running it liked me and decided 'Why not?' As I was not one of the students I was allowed a certain amount of freedom, and found myself associating with the adults running the tour, particularly Mr Phillips—principal of a Richmond, B.C. high school—and his wife. On 28 March 1983 the three of us went to the theatre (Key For Two by John Chapman and Dave Freeman, starring Moira Lister, Patrick Cargill, Barbara Murray, and Glyn Houston—who, incidentally had a major role in the TV version of Horseman Riding By—at the Vaudeville Theatre), and afterwards we went to a late dinner at Fortnum's Fountain, the restaurant at Fortnum and Mason, the great shop on Piccadilly.

We were nearing the end of our meal when the door opened and two men walked in. It did not take me long to realise that one of the men was David Puttnam, whom I recognised from the press kit for Chariots of Fire, and whom I had last seen accepting the Best Picture Oscar as producer of that film. The men took their seats a few tables away from us, and for several minutes a war waged within my breast. I knew that David Puttnam, producer of one of my favourite films, was sat not twenty feet away from me: the question was, what to do about it? Should I go up to him and say—what, exactly? Perhaps he would be angry; perhaps he liked his privacy. And the man was eating dinner; he wouldn't want to be disturbed. Canadians are nothing if not polite, and I hesitated to approach him.

And yet—how many times in my life would this opportunity present itself? If I walked out the door without saying anything, would I kick myself for the rest of my life? Thus the battle raged, until Mr and Mrs Phillips indicated that it really was time we left. The decision was made. I stood up and approached the table.

Remember: I was a nineteen year old Canadian girl from the suburbs of Vancouver, in a foreign city, who had never met anyone remotely famous, let alone introduced herself to a stranger in a restaurant. Yet I heard myself saying, as from far away, 'Excuse me, are you David Puttnam?'

He turned and looked at me, and for a moment I thought No, it's a terrible mistake, it's not him at all, ohmigod. . . And then I heard 'Yes,' and I could breathe again, and I said 'I loved Chariots of Fire, I was thrilled when it won the Oscar', and he said kindly 'Yes, I was pleased too,' and I asked him for his autograph. Then an awkward moment ensued, as I realised I had nothing for him to sign, except my London Theatre Guide which I had picked up at at the play earlier that night. Any port in a storm; so I folded it out to a blank spot and he fished for a pen, and as he signed it I said 'I hope you don't mind me disturbing you,' and he laughed and said 'I've been waiting twenty years for this!'

When he had signed ('For Barb, Thank's [sic] for asking, David Puttnam') he motioned to the man sitting opposite him—who had been silent up until then—and said 'You should ask him for his autograph; he's much more famous than me.' By then I was in such a daze I doubt I would have recognised my own mother, and I looked at the man and said 'Hugh Hudson?' They both laughed, and David Puttnam said it was Bill Forsyth, and the other man signed my programme as well ('To Barb, from Bill Forsyth (NOT HUGH!)'), and . . . well, that was it, really, but when I left Fortnum's Fountain I was walking on air, and ever since that date, whenever David Puttnam's name has been mentioned, I say 'Hey, me and Dave, we're like that', and I remember that magical night in London a quarter-century ago (where has the time gone?) when I was this close to Oscar, and realise that if I had left the restaurant without asking I would indeed be kicking myself to this day.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Countdown to Oscar night

The end of the Writers' Guild strike means that the Oscar broadcast will go ahead a week tonight, and for me that's cause for rejoicing. The strike has had no real impact on me—I watch very little television, and what I do watch tends to be fare that's unaffected by a strike, such as news, sports, and whatever's on Turner Classic Movies—but I was worried that it would affect the Oscars, one of the red letter days in my calendar. It's not that I set an awful lot of store by what the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences decide are the 'best' of a given year—this same group named The Greatest Show on Earth Best Picture over High Noon, after all—more that I enjoy seeing movies celebrated for one night of the year, an acknowledgement that this art form I love can throw up moments of heartbreaking sublimity, moments which link people throughout the world, can cause a smile, bring back a memory, make us nod our heads and think 'Yes, I remember' or 'Yes, I can imagine.'

A year ago I wrote the following to a friend, about books vs. movies, and on reflection it says so much about how I feel about films that I feel it's worth repeating here:

'Anyone can watch a movie; then again, anyone can read a book. It's what they're watching/reading, and what they take away from it, that counts, that can be hard, that can make you learn something, look at the world in a different way. There are movies—as there are books—that are as lasting and of as much consequence and nourishment as cotton candy; but then there are films that do what books can do: transport to us to another world, another place, another time, show us people and things we'd never otherwise see. You know how much I love books, and reading, and the written word; but I'd be happy to hold up films as diverse as Stagecoach, Citizen Kane, Brazil, A Man For All Seasons, Young Frankenstein, La Regle de Jeu, Swing Time, Topsy-Turvy, Jaws, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brief Encounter, and The Killing Fields and say "These are all great, important, thought-provoking works in their various way, that tell us about ourselves, our world, and our place in it." I'm not saying watch them instead of read books; watch them as well as read books (although not at the same time, obviously).

'I love to get stuck into a book—any kind of book, fiction, non-fiction, biography, whatever—that lets me see things, and do things (vicariously) that I'll never get to do. I'll never try to trek to the North Pole, or climb Everest; but when I read about those things I'm there, man-hauling a sledge over a pressure ridge, or negotiating the Khumbu Icefall. When I read a great work of fiction—by which I mean a work of fiction I'm enjoying, engrossed in, not necessarily an Approved Classic Of Established Literary Merit—I'm with the characters, feeling for them, cheering them on or watching, appalled (as the case may be). But movies can do that for me too. I can read a book about Sydney Schanberg's time in Cambodia, and his efforts to find his interpreter, Dith Pran, and have my heart in my mouth at the same time that I'm appalled by man's inhumanity to man and overjoyed by the love one person can have for another; and then I can watch the film, and have all those same feelings, and still ponder it afterwards, with the added feature that now I can picture the streets of Phnom Penh, see the bodies in the field as Pran stumbles on his hellish journey, and see the look on the faces of the two men at the end (I can't watch the last ten minutes of that film without it breaking my heart all over again). One experience isn't, I think, better than the other; they're different, but equally valid in their ways.

'Yes, the vast majority of films are simply something with which to pass a few idle hours; but then so are most books, when you get right down to it (although there are probably a few more books around that make you think than there are films, if only because the written word had a couple of thousand years' head start on celluloid). I cry when I finish reading Maurice Pagnol's Le Château de ma mère, and the narrator, now a grown man, reflects on the fates of those he loved ('Such is the life of man. A few joys, quickly obliterated by unforgettable sorrows. There is no need to tell the children so.'), and I cry at the end of It's A Wonderful Life, when George stands on the bridge and pleads to have his life back ('Please, God, let me live again.'). I'd hate to have to say one was better than the other, or choose between them; to me they're both worthy of study and comment, of being cherished.'

The best films, like the best books, allow us to see and experience things which we will never know, but can imagine; which is why, a week from tonight, I will be glued to the Oscar telecast, watching as an art form that I love is celebrated.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Editing, Part One-and-a-half

In 1977, when we moved from Ottawa back to Richmond, B.C., I was somewhat amazed to find that what had been Lansdowne Race Track (as in horse racing) had become, in the four years since we had moved from Richmond, the site of a shopping mall, also named Lansdowne. One of the lynch-pins of the mall was a large branch of Woodwards department store (alas, no longer with us), and among the features of the store was a good-sized book section, overseen by a gracious lady by the name of Ellen Sacré.

It was only a few minutes, by bus, from where I lived, and I quickly became a habitué of the bookshop, spending countless enjoyable hours browsing the stock and talking to Ellen. In those far-off days, the only way to really keep in touch with what books were being published was to browse publishers' catalogues, of which Ellen had an endless supply, and I used to pore over them, noting down titles of interest and placing advance orders for particularly choice titles with Ellen.

In the four or five years that I spent hanging around the bookstore, I came to know Ellen fairly well, and she me; indeed, she used to point me out to customers, saying that I'd gone from reading Agatha Christie to Charles Dickens under her watch, as it were. She was the first grown-up—other than my parents and a couple of teachers—to take my reading seriously; and I remember that one day, when I was about seventeen or thereabouts, she said to me—for no reason that I could discern—'You should be an editor.'

I don't remember any more of the conversation than that: I have no idea what we were talking about that might have prompted such a remark, and in the years since I've occasionally wondered what it was that she saw in me, to inspire those words. So it strikes me, now, as a good time to say thank you, Ellen, for encouraging a book-struck youngster. If only everyone who loved books, and words, had such a mentor!

Editing, Part One

I had occasion, a year or so ago, to travel 30 miles north of Ashcroft and spend the day at David Stoddart Secondary School in Clinton, B.C., where I spent time with four different classes, talking to the students (grades eight through twelve) on various aspects of writing, publishing, and editing, with one class devoted to the discussion of ghost stories in general and 'The Monkey's Paw' in particular.

It was a fascinating day, and in some ways the most interesting class was the one spent with the students who edit the school's newsletter. I took along, by way of exercise, a page from a story that I had accepted for All Hallows and had edited prior to its publication in the journal (for the purposes of the exercise I did not identify the author). I had had to do some work on the tale, so I took along the first page as it was originally submitted, added a few errors of my own, and handed a copy to each student, asking the class to edit as they saw fit; then I went through the page a line at a time, asking what, if anything, anyone had changed on that line and then explaining the reasons behind my own changes.

The teacher told me afterwards that the students had found it very illuminating and helpful. During the class itself I heard from the students that they found editing quite difficult: not so much the actual editing itself, as trying to explain to people who were, after all, their friends and classmates why they had edited their work. They felt a certain amount of embarrassment at having to do this, explaining that the author often felt hurt. I explained, in turn, that an editor's job is to make an author look good, and that their friends, far from being hurt, should be grateful.

There is, of course, more to editing than going through a story and making suggestions as to what an author might do differently, or pointing out errors; there is also the job of getting the stories together in the first place, so that there's something to go through and edit. I currently do this for All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society, and for Ash-Tree Press, usually when Christopher and I decide, in a moment of reckless abandon, that we're going to do another anthology. In this post I'll confine myself to All Hallows, and leave Ash-Tree editing for another time.

All Hallows is an open submissions market, which means that we'll accept stories from anyone who cares to send one in; you don't have to be a member of the GSS to submit. These days most submissions arrive by e-mail, as attachments in Word, which method of submitting is encouraged: partly because I get eight to ten submissions a week, which is not so many that I can't read them on screen, and partly because if I do accept a story it's much easier when I have an electronic file, and don't have to typeset it. As to formatting: as long as it's legible (no strange fonts or graphic embellishments, please) then it's fine.

Most people who submit a story, whether electronically or by mail, attach some kind of cover letter, which I rarely read except in a very cursory manner. If a writer has a few credits in the field, then that's good to know; but I don't need to know what he or she does for a living, or the synopsis of the story (it's amazing how many people feel a need to summarise the story in their cover letter); and if your previous writing credits include non-genre publications then I'm not really interested. The story is what matters.

Here I should say that every story that comes in to All Hallows gets a chance, by which I mean I start to read it with an objective eye and clear mind. However, it soon becomes obvious who hasn't read the guidelines (which are faithfully spelled out on the Ghost Story Society's website). If a story isn't supernatural, or contains a lot of sex or graphic violence, or is about vampires, then I'm not interested, and won't bother finishing it, as there's not much point (and the author was warned).

I reject far more stories than I accept: I'd say that the ratio is about seven or eight rejects to every one accepted, if that. The vast majority of the stories which get rejected aren't necessarily actively bad—although I have seen my share of stories that wouldn't have passed muster for a high school writing assignment—they're simply . . . instantly forgettable. The writing may be—usually is—competent, but the story leaves no lasting impression; there's nothing there that I haven't read a hundred times before. The worst of these are the stories that take a cliché of the genre—the building that the protagonist takes refuge in, but which has disappeared the next day when he or she returns, and turns out to have burned down a hundred years ago—and then does nothing new with it. These stories are usually written by people who are not members of the GSS, whose names I don't recognise from my reading in the genre, and who clearly have very little knowledge of the ghost story.

Occasionally I'll get a story submitted which is fairly predictable, but which I accept, usually because the story is told exceedingly well, contains interesting characters, and is short enough that the predictability doesn't weigh against it. In most cases, though, predictable stories get a polite 'Thanks, but no thanks' letter. I also occasionally get a story which is very good, but which simply isn't suitable (for whatever reason) for All Hallows. In those cases, I'll say this in my reply to the author, and encourage them to try the story with another publication, and will offer suggestions as to where he or she might send it.

And then there are the stories which are good, but which for some reason don't quite work. If I can put my finger on why I think it doesn't work I'll say this to the author, and offer what suggestions I can as to how he or she might make it work. I usually feel a bit awkward making comments of this sort, and qualify them by saying that I do not set myself up as some sort of guru of the ghost story. However, what I do bring to the table is an objective eye, and one that has read a lot of ghost stories over the years. Sometimes an author is too close to a story to be able to see it objectively: she or he knows precisely what was meant, but what's clear in an author's head doesn't always make it onto the printed page, and occasionally an editor can spot an awkward transition or a missing piece of the puzzle, and point this out. When I do this—when I see a story that has promise, but which I feel needs something more—I always make it clear that I'd be happy to see the story again, should the author choose to rework it; and on a gratifyingly large number of occasions I've had stories re-submitted with my suggested changes taken on board, and have accepted the stories. I should also mention that, my reservations about offering suggestions notwithstanding, a large number of authors have expressed their gratitude for my suggestions; so I expect I'm doing something right.

Once I've accepted a story for All Hallows the unspoken agreement is that it doesn't need any rewriting or changes, so when it comes time to edit the story for publication I'm looking to correct mistakes of spelling and grammar, and make the story conform to house style (which means, amongst other things, Canadian spelling and punctuation). Authors whose stories appear in All Hallows always see a proof copy before publication, although by the time I send out a proof I expect the author to do little more than note any errors and perhaps make a tweak here and there. Of the authors who seem to think that the proof stage is a chance to rewrite the tale—and this has happened more than once—I will say nothing, except to note that by the time the story is in proof form I've already spent anywhere up to an hour editing and formatting it, which is why I'm not very happy when you decide to change the main character's name, or rewrite the ending, or add a long section in the middle detailing exactly why the heroine is travelling to York.

My main peeves? Besides plots whose outcome is obvious from the second paragraph, these would be people who obviously have no idea what sort of stories All Hallows publishes; people who clearly haven't done their research (I remember one story in which a character travelled by train from London to Manchester—in 1789; and another in which a character living in Birmingham, England talked of visiting the seaside 'only a few miles away'); and people who clearly have very little idea of basic grammar, or spelling, or word usage. I sometimes read a story which would be a disgrace to a grade ten student and wonder what kind of writer could possibly think that this story was ready to send to an editor for possible publication.

All Hallows is not a paying market; but that doesn't mean it's not a professional one. Stories that have appeared in All Hallows have been chosen for inclusion in 'Year's Best' anthologies; they consistently receive Honourable Mentions in Year's Best Fantasy and Horror; the journal is seen by major editors in the field, and is sent to awards bodies for consideration for genre awards; at least one author has received a book deal because an editor saw a story of his in the journal and liked what he saw; and the magazine itself has won a special Stoker Award, an International Horror Guild Award, and been nominated for a World Fantasy Award. So as markets for ghost stories go, an author could do much worse.

The bottom line, with stories for All Hallows, is that I'm looking for well-written stories that will appeal to some 400 people who have, between them, read thousands upon thousands of ghost stories. I want engaging characters; an interesting plot; clean prose which shows the author is familiar with basic concepts of grammar, spelling, and usage; and that indefinable something which makes the story linger in the memory after the last page has been turned. I can't always put my finger on it; but I know it when I see it, which is why I approach each story submitted for All Hallows with an open mind. Long may those submissions continue; but please—read the guidelines first.