EXCERPT: Michael Chase Walker’s QUEST FOR STORY: A Screenwriter’s Progress

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Chapter Two

If The Moon Had No Face

“Nowadays is a civilization in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonored. In which serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus-tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring, and the sacred grove to die saw mill. In which the Moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth and woman reckoned as “Auxiliary State Personnel”. In which money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet.”

Robert Graves The White Goddess

There is one indelible image I retain each evening gazing up at the night sky. It is that of a primitive dreamer, alone on a hillock, peering up at the Moon and finding the “face” of a benevolent deity peering back.

In modern culture we know this phenomena to be pareidolia, defined as:

The imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it

does not actually exist as in considering the moon to have

human features.”

We often read about urine stains, oxidized water spots, ice formations, and other “miraculous” manifestations of Jesus, or the Virgin Mary on a burnt tortilla, a malformed Lego, or a highway underpass and they almost always become objects of veneration for the breathlessly faithful.

Scientists attribute this trait to Sign Stimuli, an innate instinct for facial recognition in the mammalian, reptilian and avian species.

It is what we higher forms do. We scan for faces: happy ones, sad ones, frightening ones, friendly ones, threatening ones, and, above all, parental ones. Behavioral scientists have shown such filial faces to be imprinted in our DNA.

From birth we seek out the anatomical pattern of two eyes, nose and forehead of our parents, siblings, tribesmen, idols, both human and divine, friend and foe alike.[1]

Is this NOT what we do in movie theaters? We place all of our attention on the 40-foot projections of heroes, villains, gods, demons and movie stars and assign our allegiance and opprobrium accordingly.

In well-documented cases of cross-species transference, it doesn’t really matter if it is the same species — any punim will suffice! Cats befriended by dogs, wild turkeys by human caregivers, or in the countless legends of heroes adopted and reared by wolves, lions, goats or apes. Indeed, the face is the thing! (Romulus and Remus, Tarzan, The Jungle Book).

Science describes these Innate Releasing Mechanisms as a tool of survival. The propensity to detect patterns and portend events and make up legends from such unlikely sources as animal intestines, clouds, tealeaves, moss on rocks, or even a cluster of stars. We look, and often find, images, situations, and likenesses everywhere, and often in the oddest of places.

Whether a stroll down the block, mall, forest grove, or, rock concert we constantly survey, examine, judge, befriend, fall in love with, and shun, faces, of all shapes, size and colors.

There is considerable evidence this primitive pareidolia in the Man in the Moon gave rise to the first notion of a heavenly deity ruling over us from above.

It was not a passive relationship either. For the all-powerful Moon controlled the tides, the crops, the planting seasons, and women’s menstrual cycles.

To add to its majesty and mystery, it animated spectacularly each month from a big bright shiny “Man” into the majestic “horns” of a bull.

With such an ongoing drive-in movie on display, is it any wonder that the first creatures of human veneration were cows and bulls, or that the first temples of High Neolithic civilization (3500 B.C.E), the Sumerian ziggurats, were working barnyards where these blessed “Moon Beings” roamed, and the science of animal husbandry was born?

We still see vestiges of this ancient reverence in India today where proper Hindus will starve before turning to these sacred horned creatures for their meat.

Etymologically, it is from the Sanskrit Mé where we derive the root words: Man, Woman, Month, Moon, and menstrual. The Egyptian goddess Mé, or Maat, referred to the ethereal unseen power of the heavens rent upon the earth, a corollary to the Nordic Wyrd, the eastern, Tao, and even “The Force” in Star Wars.

According to Dr. Stanley Gooch, the late British psychologist and originator of the Hybrid-Origin Theory[2], it is from these lunar observances we derive our monthly and yearly calendar.

Gooch’s calculations were made by multiplying the average female’s 28-day menstrual cycle by the priestly-endowed number 13 to arrive at the approximate days in a year 28 X 13 = 364.

He goes on to explain how the number 13 was revered by ancient pagan societies representing the shaman, or priest, and 12 elite or noble members of a tribe. Later that number was anathematized by the church and changed to the more Christianized 12 so as to erase any trace of its pagan roots.

Today we continue that tradition in our courts, bar mitzvahs, jury boxes, minyans, elevators, skyscrapers, zodiac, and the pre-ordained number of disciples any self-respecting world teacher should amass.

Likewise, “Lucky Number 7” dates back to early stargazing civilizations (3,500 B.C.E) where it was considered a “godly number” symbolizing the known universe: Sun and Moon, and the five visible planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars Jupiter and Saturn with the Earth as the geocentric center.

It is recorded that the Pharaohs made purchases in bundles of seven. There are seven days of the week, seven sisters, seven colors of the rainbow, seven spheres, seas, continents, seven planets, seven heavens, and seven wonders of the ancient and modern worlds.

For inveterate gamblers it is, indeed, “lucky” that seven was of no apparent threat to the priestly cults, lest, it too, should suffer the ignominy of its poorer cousin, the number 13[3].

I find it deliciously ironic that we rely on so many advanced technologies in our workaday world and yet still set our clocks, business appointments, stock markets, and holidays around women’s menstrual cycles.

Monday takes its name from Mani, an early appellate for that primary deity, the Moon. Tuesday is named after the proto Germanic Norse god of War, Tyr, commonly associated with Mars. Wednesday is attributed to the Norse god Wotan, Odin, or Wodan. Thursday is derived from the Norse, and probably earliest of Bronze Age god/heroes, Thor. Friday takes its name from Odin’s wife, the goddess, Freya, or Frigga. Saturday is named after the god Saturn and his planetary namesake. And, finally, Sunday or Sun’s day, after the twin gods of Mani and Sol, sun and moon, from ancient Indo-Aryan and Norse mythologies.

The ultimate question before all aspiring mythmakers is, if we still rely on so many attitudes, myths, symbols, and deities of yesteryear, by what measure do we assign some to eternal truth and others to abject fantasy?

Or, can we reasonably assume with volumes of science, history and empirical evidence to support it, they are ALL constructs of the vast human imagination?

“It is one of the great lessons of our study [of religions] that for the vulgar, ill- or uninstructed mind, myths tend to become history,”

Joseph Campbell

[1] E. Kaila, Die Reaktionen des Sauglings auf das mensliche Gesicht

[2] The Dream Culture of the Neanderthals, 1981 Inner Traditions January 12, 2006

[3] Triskaidekaphobia from Greek tris meaning “3”, kai meaning “and”, deka meaning “10” and phobos meaning “fear” or “morbid fear”)

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Moses and Superman: Why Writers Revise Mythology for Relevance and Meaning

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Humans are constantly revising everything– it’s how we evolve — by hashing, rehashing, innovating, building upon and creating new spins on ancient memes, fairy tales, myths and even religions. It requires a deft melding of both the familiar and the new. Look at the proliferation of superheroes. Not since the Alexandrian conquests have we seen such a hotchpotch of multi cultural gods and myths blending together, reborn and renewed in shiny new epic adventures and incarnations. 

My favorite recent example is Cider House Rules– a stunning retooling of ancient Semitic folklore retold and reconfigured in a1940’s tale of the love hate story between a young “doctors” rebellion against his demanding patriarchal “father”, who “falls” from heaven (St. Clouds) to live in an apple orchard, fighting his destiny the whole way, only to realize “watching and waiting is a lot like doing nothing” whereupon he learns that action is required and thereby reclaims his destiny.

Another stunning example is Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (125 AD) where he sets down in writing the powerful love story of Cupid and Psyche. Reading this original retelling of the ancient myth it is impossible not to see its influence on practically every Shakespearean tragedy ever told from Much Ado About Nothing to Twelfth Night to Romeo and Juliet right on through the the underlying themes of Wuthering Heights,Bruce Joel Rubin’s Ghost as well as resonant throughout Perreault and Grimm’s Beauty and The Beast, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. As for Homer we can see it born and retold through the great classics of India: The Ramayana and The Mahabharata.  

 Not only are they organic, but they are us! Jung referred to them as archetypes or ancient memes that are so ingrained in our genes they resonate constantly throughout our subconscious minds. He further defines “urtürmliches Bild, or archetype, “ as a memory deposit, an engram, derived from a condensation of innumerable similar experiences… the psychic expression of an anatomically physiologically determined natural tendency.

Haha, never made the connection, but it’s perfectly translatable and traceable through Nietzsche’s Apollonian Dionysian theories, right on back to the drunken divine revelries of the Celtic, Nordic, Indo Aryan and Greek myths of Bacchus, Apollo and Dionysus. In the Orient you have the numerous tales of the drunken masters who prevail in spite of their inebriated states…

Regardless of the source, be it original or revisionary, we are constantly reworking memes, themes, morals, archetypes and ancient myths born from the human imagination and experience. The quality of the end result depends on the skill, intelligence, craftsmanship, and interpretation of the author and artist. Lucas famously created Star Wars using the dynamics of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces”. John Irving utilized the timeless archetypes of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Semitic folklore to lend a mythical quality to his Cider House Rules. Puzo and Coppola drew upon the Arthurian Cycles and Fairy tale structure  to create an immediate identification and empathy with a notorious crime family struggling to extricate itself from the underworld. Tarantino, at his best, is constantly playing off the literary traditions of “harrowings”  from the Celtic Imrams and injecting them into his Outlaw worlds.  When these dynamics are deftly employed you have a timeless hit, when they are ignored or forced you have a ponderous mess like “What Dreams May Come” or Gangster Squad.

Stoker’s Dracula born from the dark imaginal realms of Absinthe, The Green Goddess, Opium or Laudanum and their addictive powers — as were Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats.

One needn’t have “missed” the point in order to expand upon it. Perhaps the larger point is whether it is the author, the fans, the publishing company, or another writer, as new technologies, trends, and new awareness and understanding develop the best characters and plots are being constantly revised to meet the Primary Images of contemporary society and culture. When I worked for Booker Plc in London they were very busy bringing Ian Fleming’s works into the modern age through the works of John Gardner. One of the more recent and fascinating examples of this in movies was how after The Bourne Identity came out it forever made the Pierce Brosnan Bond obsolete– the producers knew immediately they had to recreate Bond through Daniel Craig or risk seeing their golden goose become a cultural relic of the past.

Michael Chase Walker: An Open Letter to Aspiring Screenwriters

The-Shining-Top-Ten-Thrillers_thumb Congratulations ! With screenwriting you’ve quite possibly chosen one of the most difficult, challenging and frustrating crafts in the world today. No doubt that challenge will take you from bleeding through your forehead, to handling your own psychology and flaws, testing your cultural wherewithal and ultimately mastering its complicated and demanding structure and artistic demands– a quest that Robert McKee warns will take, at least, ten years or ten screenplays, or, what Malcolm Gladwell describes as an arduous 10,000 hours of perfect practice. In the end you should have a body of excellent work, or, if not , you will have learned more and become more than you can possibly anticipate. Any art form is more about your process and determination than it is about selling or finding an agent, producer, or financial reward. In essence, what you choose to write and how you go about mastering it, is writing you, every bit as much as what you choose to write about. Accordingly, the first quality any producer or agent wants is excellence, professionalism and expertise. They do not want to waste their time with amateurs, wanna be’s or immature talent no matter how promising. They are not looking for ideas either, because that’s what they perceive themselves to have in abundance, Ideas. As one high-powered producer recently said, “Ideas are a dime a dozen. I’m looking for someone who can solve problems on paper and not merely point them out.” In essence, don’t tell me what the problems are — FIX THEM! Anyone with even a modicum of experience in the motion picture industry has seen even the best and highest most commercial concepts fail, because the screenwriter failed to solve the problems. And every screenwriter of merit has failed many many times for many reasons– creatively, personality-wise, or through the rigors of development hell. Some of the best screenwriters of our time even refuse to write original screenplays because the likelihood of getting them produced has never been more impossible. Financially, they avail themselves for Adaptations of a published book or play, with a major director and star attached. Agents and studio executives aren’t really looking for the next best thing in screenwriting either unless they come out of the very best Ivy league University programs, or Off Broadway with an award-winning produced play, book, and other major credits. That being said, it should not stop or dissuade you from your goal, but merely point out what you’re up against. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me personally. Best, MCW

Reading Captain Underpants Or In The Night Kitchen

In the Night KitchenMaurice came out to me in 1985 when I was the Director of Children’s Programs at CBS Television and anxious to create an animated television series based on his book. When we became friends at the 1985 premiere of his brilliant “Where the Wild Things Are” Opera at the Ordway theater in St. Paul, Minneapolis, he spoke at length about his lifetime fascination with his parents’ and siblings’ posteriors. As they were not a demonstrably affectionate family that hugged or kissed openly, he confessed, he was preternaturally compelled to embrace them from behind to express his love and unwittingly receive their affection. He explained to me it was the psychologically driving force for most of the characters and situations of his books: rebellion, “wildness”, and love given, taken and received in alternative ways. He was one of the most open, courageous, ingenious, and brilliantly subversive artists I have ever known. As with “Captain Underpants” or Mickey in the Night Kitchen we are presented with wild stirrings and unconscious motivations of unbridled childhood urges and forbidden passions which are the well-spring of every child’s imagination. In this day and age when children’s books are handed over to insipid celebrity home movies, vapid morality,  and simpering pieties, I fear we will never again experience his towering, defiant and brilliant insights to the nature and unfettered genius of childhood again. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lori-day/reading-captain-underpant_b_4951921.html?utm_hp_ref=entertainment&ir=Entertainment