A different kind of mirror character: Robert Redford’s The Natural

The NaturalI love The Natural. It’s a fantastic movie, a baseball classic. For me, it’s on that list of movies that, if I find it playing on television, I’ll drop everything and watch yet again. And recently, thanks to The Sundance Channel, I have re-watched the movie a few times, enough to notice some writing-related things that interest me.

Much of The Natural was filmed in various locales in Buffalo, NY, where I grew up, during the ’80s when I still lived there. In fact, some of my friends were at the stadiums as extras, part of the cheering crowds, when some of the game footage was filmed at War Memorial Stadium (a.k.a. “The Rockpile” – standing in for New York Knights Field) and All High Stadium (standing in for Wrigley Field).

You can see a full list of the locales and buildings around Buffalo that appear in the movie at this Forgotten Buffalo site. Check it out, it may give you an appreciation of the underrated architecture in my hometown.

In particular, watch for the gorgeous Buffalo Central Terminal, as it was in the early ’80s at least, in one of the more sepia-toned scenes from the film:

 

Another thing I love is mirror characters in fiction. These characters, sometimes known as foils, usually possess opposite values to your protagonist. Because of this opposite nature, they often manifest as antagonists (Harry Potter and Voldemort, for example). The manifestation that interests me more, however, is the sidekick (think Kirk and Spock).

The great thing about these mirror characters is they really help the reader understand the main character better. Through their contrasting nature, the characters CHARACTERIZE EACH OTHER. Think of color theory in painting or interior design. Two contrasting colors – say orange and blue – are often placed side-by-side, making them both appear brighter.

I introduced a mirror character of the sidekick (former best friend) variety in my most recent MS. She was meant to only exist in the beginning of the story, to demonstrate some of my main character’s qualities, to magnify them. I was therefore fascinated when she elbowed her way into the rest of the narrative, standing up straight and shouting emphatically, “Nope, I’m sticking around. I like this story.”

In my head, it went something like this:

 

My favorite moment in The Natural is one you might not expect. It doesn’t involve a mirror character in quite the classic definition, but employs another kind of mirror that is every bit as inspiring.

The moment is near the end, yes, in that final at-bat where Roy Hobbs gets the chance to win the game. But it’s not the home run itself. (Although, of course I do love that moment when the sparks fly off the lights and the crowd goes wild.)

Some may remember that Roy starts the at-bat against the starting pitcher for the Pirates, who, after nearly pitching a complete game shutout has clearly begun to lose his edge. When he falls behind in the count to Roy, we see the fearful reaction of the Pirates’ manager – telling us that he realizes, if he wants to win this pennant, he needs to call a relief pitcher in.

Roy HobbsWhile Roy waits, the manager reaches into his bullpen and calls on a young Iowa farm boy with a blazing fastball. As he steps to the mound, a low camera angle is used to magnify the big kid’s presence. He looms over us as the viewer, the muffled announcer in the background describing how un-hittable he is. Stopping just short of calling him a natural.

And that’s the moment. If you’re not caught up in the drama of that last at-bat, the anticipation that Roy will save the day, you see the mirror being held right in front of Roy – or, 60 feet and 6 inches away on the mound, that is.

Because this kid from Iowa, this fireballing pitcher, it’s Roy. That’s who he was early in the film, before he made a terrible mistake and his life fell apart. A life he’s trying to get back, to re-discover, in this single at-bat. Roy was a great pitcher first, before he got shot and could no longer do it, had to become a great hitter instead. It was Roy who, as a kid, faced the great Babe Ruth and struck him out on three pitches.

Now, Roy must succeed against the younger version of himself.

And if you recognize that, you also see that, while the movie has its share of literal antagonists – from the greedy owner to the superficial newspaperman to the owner’s lackeys – the figurative person Roy’s been battling against the whole film, his entire life, really, is HIMSELF.

Those types of moments, for me, are story magic. In books, movies, whatever – they’re the sort of thing that make want to keep writing.

 

 

 

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Does Stephen King ever feel guilty?

Mr. MercedesSo Mr. Mercedes from Stephen King came out today. I’m not that guy that buys every Stephen King novel the very day it’s published but, yes, I did purchase this one on its release date. Downloaded it to the Kindle so it can join the stack of many other waiting novels in the To Be Read pile.

Therefore I haven’t read any of Mr. Mercedes yet, but I did peek at a couple of the reviews. One thing I thought I noticed in one (and, sorry, I can’t seem to locate it now to link to it) is that part of the motivation King gives for the antagonist in his latest work (Mr. Mercedes himself) is his own work. That is, King’s own, earlier books, as if the world Mr. Mercedes occurs in is our world, where a guy named Stephen King has been writing a bunch of horror novels for years now. As I understand it – and apologies if this is wrong – Bill Hodges (revealed early on as Mr. Mercedes) has read King’s earlier horror novels (or, at least, seen the movies) and this is a contributing factor to Hodges deciding to mow down a group of unemployed job seekers at a job fair with his Mercedes.

This suggests a self-awareness from King, that perhaps he worries that his work may motivate some nut to do something awful some day. It reminds me of The Dark Half, when King seemed to be at his most self aware, having been “outed” as having the alter-ego Richard Bachman, the pseudonym behind which he wrote many horrific novels. In The Dark Half, Thad Beaumont’s alter ego is given literal life as a completely separate being, almost as if King wondered if his work had some sort of power that he didn’t understand, like he was warning himself to wield such power carefully.

It took me several false starts to realize that my latest work in progress is about brothers and sisters. In fact, early versions touched on this facet only superficially, but this latest revision has really honed in on this aspect as a major facet of the story. The main character is the oldest brother of three siblings, with two younger sisters. Yes, in real life I am the oldest of three, with two younger sisters myself.

Now, please don’t think this book is about me and my sisters, as it’s not. The middle sister is a binge drinking alcoholic, which my middle sister most definitely is not. The youngest sister, it’s revealed early in the plot, has died a tragic death several years ago. My youngest sister, thankfully, is alive and well.

I’ve been writing this book on and off for a while. The parts about what happened to the youngest sister affect the other two siblings greatly – they both feel responsible in different ways. In fact, this weekend, I was working on this project quite a bit when I received a really disturbing phone call. My youngest sister had a life-threatening medical issue and was being taken in for immediate, emergency surgery.

Obviously, I know that my writing about a completely different family that happens to have the same make-up as my immediate family didn’t cause my sister’s medical problems. Obviously, I know my writing doesn’t have that sort of supernatural power. I am not, after all, Stephen King. Or Richard Bachman. Or Thad Beaumont.

But, as I tried to get back to my work this weekend while I waited for news on my sister’s condition, I still felt guilty. Guilty that I was writing this story where the baby sister of the family dies, that I was using this sort of event as a catalyst for the arc of the other characters, even as my sister struggled to fight through a major medical problem in real life.

I love stories. The drama to them, the way they’re often drawn from real life. But the truth is, I don’t care how good the story idea is – I don’t want to have to experience an “arc” where I’m dealing with these types of things happening to my own sisters. I don’t want to sit in a dark room waiting for news, wondering if my sister’s going to pull through as I think about random things, like visiting her in college, walking her down the aisle when she got married, talking her through her options when she considered a change in careers, counseling her through her attempts to have children.

So I wonder, when real things happen to writers like Stephen King, do they ever feel guilty about the things they’ve written that were sourced from their lives and their relationships with real people? I guess I already know the answer is yes. That’s probably why Mr. King has written books like Mr. Mercedes and The Dark Half.

I’m not sure I’ll continue on this WIP now. Or, maybe I will and it will be that much stronger because the place it comes from will be that much more real. I guess only time will tell. As usual.

 

 

 

 

The Power of Symbolism: Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo”

We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo

Thanks to the exhaustion of two weeks of constant travel combined with free movie channels and perhaps one too many cups of DayQuil, I sat still long enough this morning to enjoy my second viewing of We Bought a Zoo from the brilliant Cameron Crowe. I always see more the second time I watch a movie like this, and I wanted to talk about the powerful symbolism he utilizes in the film.

Somehow, I feel like We Bought a Zoo hasn’t yet garnered its due as yet another Crowe classic. It’s no secret that Crowe’s movies, from Jerry Maguire to Almost Famous to my personal favorite, Vanilla Sky, always feature real-to-life characters and emotional, heart-warming or heart-wrenching stories. But just as prevalent are the symbols that deserve exploration from a writing perspective.

Maybe We Bought a Zoo isn’t as regaled because it was based on a true story. Or maybe because it featured a family drama amid animals in a zoo. Despite the many, many crazy animal-people out there, it’s possible some portion of Crowe’s typical audience may have thought this story wasn’t going to be as edgy as his others. Certainly, as the writer/director has grown older and probably become more of a family-man himself, his stories will change from relationship-oriented to family-oriented. This is a natural progression. (Though, there’s a still a sweet little love story in this film. Actually two of them.)

Crowe seems to realize this himself, and takes several moments of pointed dialog to remind his viewers his story is still about people, not just animals. More on that later. First, let’s talk symbols.

WARNING: Starting below, SPOILERS abound. If you haven’t seen We Bought a Zoo yet, what are you waiting for? It’s Cameron Crowe, after all. Go see it now, then come back. I’ll wait. Those of you who have already seen the movie or don’t mind a little discussion of its themes and symbols before you do, please read on.   Continue reading