Thursday, May 26, 2011

You Know It's Serious When This Happens

I cleaned my room last night. Which may not seem like a big deal, but it was the first time in two years, maybe? The cycle went like this: I got depressed and didn't clean. Plus, between the heat of summer and trying to save money on utilities due to unemployment, I tried to move as little as possible and not run things like the vacuum cleaner (although I did stay on the internet--oh yes, I did). When the weather cooled off enough to think about doing a little cleaning, maybe, the mess was so big that trying to think of where to start made my brain shut down in panic, which got me feeling more useless and depressed. And before I could get past that, it was too cold to clean.

Rinse, repeat.

It's different this time. It really is. Not only did I clean one room, but I also worked out, something else I hadn't done for over two years. And really, for the first time since just after I moved into the house, I'm starting to think about changes I want to make to the property. If I won the lottery, I would tear the whole thing down to the ground and rebuild it. But there are some things I can do to make it suit my personality more, and I'm thinking of ways to do them. It's starting to feel as if the future will not be a long downhill grind until death. Life might actually be good again, someday. It's weird to feel that, and embarrassing to realize that I fallen so far that it has become weird.

All this has come at a cost to my productivity. It's like I just woke up and all the stuff I was doing with Hero Go Home and Digger Breaks Through was a dream I'm trying to piece together in the light of day. I don't know if I'll make that June 1st deadline.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Multiple Personality Day

Strange day today. Happy, restful, but also sad and frustrating. Productive in some ways, maddeningly not in others.

I mentioned the other day that I'm slowly putting my life back together. What does that really mean? There's a list--not written down because it's too long, but in my head--there's a list of stuff I need to take care of. Long list. And over the last couple of years, since I made the Biggest Mistake of My Life, that list has done nothing but grow as poverty and severe depression put me into near stasis. Mail piled up unread, trash didn't get taken out, the yard grew wild as debts accumulated and bills fell behind. I might occasionally take tiny stabs at the list, but they were brief.

I've been gradually pecking away at small things on the list for a couple of weeks now. Cleaning things up here and there, catching up on utility bills, working in the yard. And I'm starting to cook more, improving my diet to lose weight, and even thinking about working out again. I'm still a L-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-N-G way from catching back up to where I was two years ago, but I'm taking small, positive steps, and more than I have in ages. So that's had me feeling good today. The smell of red wine and garlic from the steak I fixed for supper (a small, cheap cut, but still a steak) makes me smile every time I walk past the kitchen.

On the other hand, my wife and I went to the bank and signed quit claim deeds for each other's houses and cleared out our joint safe deposit box. And I guess we're close enough to the end that it doesn't really hurt the way it did, and I guess that's a good thing too. The only time I came close to crying was when I was looking over some extra prints of our wedding pictures that were in the box.

There was a time when we were so in love and eager to discover life together. Now it all seems sad and empty.

Other than that, it was strange, the stuff we saved in it. Some old rings of hers and mine. My high school class ring (which I got through my dad and not through the school's official company, so they misspelled the name of the school). Another ring my dad gave me right about the time I proposed so I could get used to wearing a ring. My birth certificate and my mother's. My wife's international drivers license, which she got just in case she ended up being able to come visit me in Korea. Negatives of our pictures. A bunch of paperwork related to our first daughter. The mortgage agreement for the home we bought as I was going to Korea for my last tour. A forgotten savings bond that had been a wedding present from a college friend of mine. Every item had a story.

Then came the frustration. I set myself a deadline of June 1 to finish putting together Digger Breaks Through, the short story anthology, but the rewrite on one of the stories is totally blocking me. It's another "Digger tells a story in the bar" story, and on a line-by-line basis, it feels pretty good. There are good moments in it. But overall, it just seems dead and flaccid on the page, and I'm not sure how to rescue it. I may just have to leave it out altogether.


Saw Thor on Saturday, and I was a little disappointed. The 3D wasn't great. There was plenty of depth to the picture, but there were some scenes, like Thor's coronation in Asgard, that the 3D effect caused to feel miniature. I'm pretty sure I would have felt a greater sense of scale in plain 2D.

But that wasn't the major source of my disappointment. The big thing was, by the time it ended, I was wondering where the story was. Loki's motivation never really worked for me, and the stuff with Jane Foster was just sort of rote and by-the-numbers. When he suddenly declared his love for her, I was like, "Where did that come from?" And where was Balder? If they could include the Warriors Three, they should have had Balder in there as well.

So yeah, the effects were great, and Heimdall was bad-ass for a token black inserted randomly into a Viking story, and Thor's powers were depicted pretty much as in the comics, with the lightning and the hammer-twirling and the flying. But by the end of it, I felt as if I'd watched a bunch of scenes in search of a story. I wondered where the movie went.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Fever Has Passed

I seem to have burned out on the Korean dramas. After finishing the last one, My Lovely Sam Soon (the English title - the Korean title translates to My Name Is Kim Sam Soon, which actually fits the story better, but is also super-boring), I tried to watch another, but lost interest less than halfway through the first episode. After a while, they don't have the addictive newness that the first couple did.

But after burning through seven in the last few weeks, I think I've learned a few lessons about how Korean dramas work and why they are so popular.

1. They rely very heavily on plot formula. Every drama I've watched has followed the basic formula I outlined a couple of posts ago, with the seeming exception of Oh! My Lady! about an actor who falls in love with a woman who blackmails him to get a job with a theatrical production company (she learns he has an illegitimate daughter and helps him take care of her and keep her secret in exchange for him agreeing to star in a stage musical). Except that it, too, follows the formula. The difference is that the formula applies to his relationship with his daughter, not the romance with the older woman.

Lesson: Formulas work.

2. They rely on stock characters and situations. Out of the seven, four centered around show business as the main or secondary plot, with a possible fifth in Coffee House, with a novelist as the main character and another main character who becomes a writer on a radio show. Three featured a main romance between an older woman and younger man (though maybe Gumiho doesn't count, since she was a 500-year-old mystic creature). Five revolve around forbidden romance between rich man and poor woman. Three feature characters who find expression in food (two by learning to make great coffee, and a third who is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained patissiere).

Lesson: Stereotypes are shorthand that make people feel comfortable with the environment quickly.

3. Every character starts out as a stereotype, but almost every one--even minor characters--grows beyond it. Sometimes they cheat--Seung Yeon's family in Coffee House becomes much less cartoonish by the end, but we don't really see how or why--but even the worst characters are given moments of real human emotion.

Lesson: Stereotypes can't satisfy in the long run.

4. Character is everything. As stated before, the plots are formulaic and the situations are familiar. The budgets don't allow for spectacle. So character writing and performances have to carry everything, and this is where the Koreans shine.

I may still watch some now and then, but it's not going to consume all my time the way it has recently, which is good. I'm starting to put the pieces of my life back together, and I'm approaching this summer with a pretty positive attitude. The divorce process may kill that, but it will take a few months for it to finalize (got to get those numbers together this week--urgh), so my summer at least should be good.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Some Random Commercials

Watching as much K-drama on Hulu as I have been means I've also been seeing a lot of the same commercials over and over again. Some thoughts:

I have gotten to know the Geico commercials well enough that I can predict which of the three current endings--"Do dogs chase cats?" "What, do you live under a rock?" or "Is the pen mightier than the sword?"--it will show based on the Rod-Serling-wanna-be's walk to the camera.

A phrase I'm really getting sick of: referring to eating as "putting fuel in your body."

It is very rare that I refuse to buy a product because I don't like their commercials, but Northern has managed it with that idiotic commercial featuring women droning on about how it's "time to get real about what happens in the bathroom." It's not. It annoys me more than that animated bear with the cling-ons, which is a lot.

On the other hand, I'm actually thinking about trying the Quaker Oatmeal Squares in spite of the horribly annoying "homemade video review" commercials. They do look kind of tasty.

Don't have much use for cats, but I love the Fancy Feast commercial where the guy proposes by getting his really gorgeous girlfriend a kitten. On the other hand, I'm baffled by that Friskies commercial where the cat enters a phantasmagoric dreamworld when it starts eating. I mean, I get the concept. I just don't get who thought it was a good idea. Remember, Fancy Feast = lifelong love. Friskies = Cat LSD.

I really should be writing rather than watching all this stuff. But it's actually helping me break through a wall I had run into on a novel project I'd been toying with(the drama, not the commercials), so maybe it's not a complete waste of time.

Friday, May 13, 2011

More Korean Drama and a Formula

So I've watched three more, and thankfully, they're not all the gut-wrenchers that Kumiho and Secret Garden were.

Coffee House was fun, about an asshole author who torments his gorgeous female publisher and his gawky younger assistant. The main female lead was lovely, but often wore ugly clothes. Ham EunJung as the assistant alternates between sweet and stupid. Her character is sometimes a bit too slow-witted, but I found myself really liking her by the end, to the extent that I wished the author had ended up with her instead of the more conventionally pretty one. And she does a nice bit of acting in her final scene with the author in the last episode. She starts to cry, stops, wipes her tears and gives a little smile to say, "See, it was nothing. I'm fine now." And starts to cry again, harder.

She also does some fine physical comedy; I think she just used the simple physical trick on swinging the same arm and leg when she runs, but it does an effective job of making her look totally clumsy. I was amazed to find out she's a member of a girl group whose videos show her as glamorous and sexual, two things she never is on the series.

Prosecutor Princess was okay, starting out as a sort of Korean Legally Blonde before descending into melodrama. And once again, I found myself liking the secondary female lead more than the main (I actually liked the secondary male more than the mains, too, though that doesn't mean I would rather have watched a show centered on them, if that makes sense). From a legal standpoint, it was pretty ridiculous, though I don't know how much of that is cultural difference in the Korean legal system and how much is simply bad writing.

And last night, I finished Coffee Prince, a Korean version of Just One of the Guys. There were some nice turns in the writing which were sold well in the performances. The pacing of the show slows to a crawl in the mopey middle, to the point where I started to get frustrated with it, but it picks up again in the last third. The performances are pretty good, too, though I think more than performances is the chemistry the cast members have with each other. The final episodes are full of playful, telling moments where you get the idea these people not only love each other, but are really comfortable with each other and having fun.

I had never really thought too deeply about the ways in which the Romantic Comedy both fits and deviates from the basic three-act story formula I learned back in screenplay class, but the Korean romances provide a fascinating study. Because unlike a feature film, with 16-20 hours to fill, every step in the progression gets its own in-depth treatment.

I plan to think more deeply about this, because one idea I'm noodling for my daughter's birthday present next year is writing her a book about writing, with all the story construction stuff that I wish they had taught me in high school instead of that simplistic "rising action/falling action" nonsense. I had the idea a few days ago, too late to write it up for her birthday yesterday. It was a good birthday nevertheless. I went by to drop off her present and ended up staying to grill hot dogs in the backyard. It was nice.

But back to the formula: It seems to go something like:

Two protagonists, call them A and B, each have a goal (feature films often focus on one as the main protagonist, while Korean dramas with more time to fill give both characters equal weight) and each face outside pressure forcing them into choices they don't want

They encounter each other while pursuing their goals, find each other interesting, though often also infuriating

End of Act One: The Pretext, or the Ill-Considered Choice - something happens that gives the two characters a reason to spend more time together as they continue to pursue their separate goals. This something is very often a lie.

They continue to pursue initial goals, but also get to know each other better. A is attracted to B, but resists.

Midpoint: The Flip - Character A realizes that he/she loves the other, and suddenly pursuit of the goal is less important than pursuit of the other character.

Tension rises as A waits for B to reciprocate feelings; this is often complicated by the Pretext, which helped keep them together early, but has now become a burden that threatens to ruin their relationship. B still resists feelings for A, until...

Character B professes love for A, just before...

End of Act Two: Truth or Betrayal - Either the truth comes out or there is a betrayal by a romantic rival. Often, both happen at once, as the rival reveals the truth.

Heartache, break-up, reconciliation.

Both characters have professed their love for each other privately, and in the climax must also do so publicly, while overcoming the outside pressures that disapprove of their love (romantic rivals, social class, age, race, religion, political affiliation, whatever). The story also circles back to the initial goals, as the characters either give up their goals for the sake of love, or find that their love gives them the wherewithal to succeed at their goals where they formerly failed.

One other interesting twist on the standard formula in a romance is that, though there is an outside force they must overcome, it is not the main antagonist for much of the story. Instead the two characters are each other's antagonists, pushing against each other. And in Korean dramas, especially, the characters are also their own antagonists, competing with each other to see who can sacrifice more for the other. This is the cause of much of the heartbreak, as they hide the truth from each other in the name of protecting the other person.

Monday, May 02, 2011

You'd Think I Would Run Out of Tears

So after almost three years of separation, my wife finally wants to make things official and file divorce paperwork. And while I know intellectually that things can never go back to what they were, and that we can never be the kind of people we were for each other, it was still a blow. I sometimes buy lottery tickets, and when I idly think about what I would do with the money, one of the things I want to do is take my daughter to Disney World. But I can't imagine just the two of us going, and there isn't anyone I would rather take with us than my wife, and I know it would end up being more uncomfortable than fun, because the entire time, I would be hoping for some kind of affection that is just not there anymore. So I guess it's a good thing I haven't won any jackpots.

But in addition to the loss, there's the shame of having to do a full financial disclosure and let her see exactly what a hole I've dug myself into. And of course, in order to do the disclosure, I have to actually look at the figures myself, something I've avoided to keep from depressing myself even further.

And in the midst of this, my favorite shows have been on hiatus, so I decided the other day to try out a Korean drama on Hulu. I have been idly considering the idea for a while now, given that a writer's group friend of mine has been watching them enthusiastically, and I have spent a couple of years in Korea and know a little bit of the language.

So I tried watching this action show titled A Man Called God, but it was so awful that I couldn't even finish the first episode. But I got bored a couple of days later and decided to give another show a try. I picked My Girlfriend Is a Kumiho (Nine-Tailed Fox), which looked like it would be funny. And the first episode was okay, kind of a live-action version of a standard magical girl anime, like Video Girl Ai or something. It had some good scenes, and the girl was cute, so I watched the second episode the next day.

And got totally sucked in. Because although the scripting and acting and production values aren't always up to American standards, the plotting is brilliant, and relentless in the way they tighten the screws on the characters, making their situation more tragic and desperate. In the entire second half of the series, it seems as if all of the main characters are either crying or on the verge of tears. It's exhausting, but also addictive.

And maybe it is just my own fragile emotional state, but I ended up being a total sucker for the tear-jerking. Not just because of recent events, but because I've wanted to cry pretty much every day for the past, I don't know, three or four years? I'll be walking through the store, looking for the right spot to shelve an item, and my throat will close and my eyes will start to well up, and I have to stop to take a breath and reorient. Sometimes just for a single random moment, but it's Every. Single. Day. Usually several times.

The Hulu page for a particular show will recommend similar shows, so after I finished Kumiho, I tried another show called Secret Garden. And though at first I didn't like it as much, I did end up watching all twenty hours in three or four days, missing out on a lot of sleep and writing.

And it was surprising how similar the two shows were, not just in the ways they use the plot and characters to tighten the emotional screws and put me in tears episode after episode, but also in surprisingly specific ways. Both shows, for instance, use the story of the Little Mermaid to develop the theme of the doomed romance. Both shows feature main characters who work on action films, so major plot elements revolve around casting and filming and stunts gone wrong. And both use comedy relief involving elevators (I like both scenes a lot) in the first episode to set up major plotlines later.

Secret Garden is subtler and better scripted, I think, but though it's cruder, Kumiho is more tightly plotted and more relentless about tightening the screws and investing the audience in the outcome. In fact, one of my biggest problems with the series was that it tightened the screws a little too far to allow for a satisfying resolution (an idea I might explore in more detail in a later post).

Overall, though, I really liked both series a lot, though I liked Kumiho a little more, if only because it stars the awesome Shin Min-A, who is super-cute. I mean, weapons-grade cute. If the point of a romance is to get you to fall in love (at least temporarily) with the main character, she totally did that for me.

But imagine, if you will, the kind of emotional and intellectual roller-coaster ride it was watching these shows. On the one hand, I'm totally sucked into the plot and the characters, laughing and crying right along with them. And all the while, I'm also relating the tribulations of the main characters and their seemingly doomed romance to my own failed marriage and impending divorce, so I'm crying even harder. And while I'm doing that, I'm also kind of embarrassed that I'm a 48-year-old man falling so hard for such a nakedly melodramatic soap opera of a show. And on top of that, I'm also analyzing the writing and story structure, even through the tears, thinking, "I totally need to remember how to do this so I can use it myself."

My heart and my mind are both broken, it seems.