Smoking Lizard is EVERYWHERE! I do columns here on this blog that are a mix of my personal adventures concerning a subject and pieces that will help others interested in that subject. At the moment, I really only like five things…WRITING (and the supporting READING): Behold! I give you the Scribbler’s Saga column. I will relate parts of my life as a writer, provide a review of properties I’ve read and tools I’ve tested, post essays about writing and hopefully interview other writers.

Additionally, when I just need to fill my cyberspace with actual writing, whether short one-shots or small pieces of the greater whole: Author’s Assortment.

MUSIC: I’ve been talking big about composing music for a decent while now. As I figure out how to fish or cut bait in this area, you, Dear Reader, will read all about it in the Composer’s Counterpoint column. Posts may include my Woody Allen-esque frustration with thinking I’m better at music than I am, reviews of music, tools and the presently rare live shows. Again, part of the mission is to interview other musicians.

TABLETOP RPGS: Yes, I play Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, I can go on for hours about the time I played a thief that hot-prowled the villain’s house and walked out with a suit of armor. But, that was a long time ago. It’s time to make new stories. It’s time to see if I can create adventures other players want to play. As with the other columns the content of the Dungeoneer’s Diary, will mix the personal and journalistic.

ILLUSTRATION and VISUAL ARTS: While I myself don’t draw, I do okay with a camera and certain apps. The Imager’s Impression column will probably be less frequently advanced, but will discuss my appreciation of pictures and the people who make them. And when I make more images with my script kid tools, the results will go here.

MOVIES: Yeah, I thought I would skip writing about movies. Start laughing now. So anyway if I’m bloviating about movies, it  goes here in the Filmgoer’s Flamethrower.There will be times when columns will cross over, because working on a fun dungeon will spark a novel idea that may cause me to pull out the harmonica…Lastly, if you came to the site for my older content click on one of the many pages that will provide links to nearby archive sites. Happy Reading.

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Okay, the project named All Things Phantom Menace is now done (until I really have to see it again). With the novelization in the can, I can now move on to All Things Attack of the Clones or hopefully All Things Casino Royale (we’ll see).

Unlike the Shakespeare version (see post), there is very little about the novelization that will change the opinions formed by seeing the movie. You either roll your eyes the minute Jar Jar Binks enters frame or you slap your knees thinking you’ve experienced the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Still, they did try a little. It helps.

Mostly, the author added in quite a few scenes and moments concerning Anakin Skywalker before meeting the other pathetic lifeforms fleeing the invasion of Naboo. Anakin mentions getting flashed with Sebulba’s vents as the reason why he lost the previous pod race. So, the book starts on said race.

While I suspect that the author (Terry Brooks) working from George Lucas’s script still had to put as much of the kludgy writing style of the movie into the manuscript in the eternal dance between improving and just giving the audience more of what they want, I did like his descriptions of the desert flashing by under the pods. The two pod race sequences present a surprisingly vivid, a swirl of the red rocks, yellow sand flashing by under our hero’s pod at breakneck speed. A good moment to read.

There are many other small moments to enjoy about this book that play out in the small places between what’s required by servicing the script that we’ve already seen.

For instance, when the Trade Federation decides to gas the Jedi at the beginning a pair of birdlike creatures left in the room die first. Methinks PETA got to George Lucas and conducted a mugging to keep it out of the movie, but I digress. Or we actually see Anakin carve the japoor snippet for Padmé. A nice moment likely to always get cut out of the movie for reasons of time and flow.

Adding more in the way of slightly extra concerning Padmé’s thought process as the embattled leader of the sleepy and previously peaceful planet was quite entertaining to read. She’s depicted as blasting droid soldiers left and right to the surprise of everybody including Anakin. 

Dialogue is just simply not Star Wars’ best attribute whether in the movies or on the written page and this process continues here where Mr. Brooks added extra words explaining more about the plot at the expense of more spoken kludge. Novelizations typically get started as soon as the production “locks” the script at the beginning of production not after the martini shot goes into the can. The adaption thus has more material from which to draw and represents the script as it existed before the film editor applied a poetic ear towards cutting the spoken fat. I prefer to blame Mr. Lucas.

The depiction of Jar Jar Binks frankly doesn’t improve with the translation to the page. If much of the criticism concerning this character lands because some people feel too many real-world nasty stereotypes (Jamaican, cowardly etc…) were given free vent in a world that changed under some people’s feet, learning more about Jar Jar by way of the inner monologue common to novels isn’t going to change things.

Most of the rest of what is hard to like about the Phantom Menace are the stuff of an impressive nerd fight, that won’t change just because I read the book. No matter the form, I still ask the question – of all the star systems without proper air forces affected by the Senate’s taxation plan, why does the Trade Federation choose to blockade and invade Naboo? What does the Trade Federation get out of the deal? And did Darth Sidious choose the planet for them opting to grind some kind of axe against the planet that is allegedly his home? Never mind, I spend too much time contemplating these things.

As a read this novelization is like so many others of its ilk, an acceptable read despite that we’ve already seen the movie. There are flashes of brilliance that almost help me forget where this story really came from, but then these are dragged down by the things that dragged down the movie. Though, I can see a frazzled parent reaching for this book as a way to sneak up on a child bitching and moaning about summer reading lists and book completion quotas. Truthfully, that’s why I picked this book despite yes, I saw the movie, but that’s a story for another day…

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Wow! Imagine reading Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the FirstBEFORE seeing the movie by George Lucas! I guess that covers the pull quote for this review. Anyway, I like Shakespeare and I like Star Wars, even the much-derided Episode One (well…in the sense of enjoying going to the dentist after the cleaning ends). Obviously, I’m all over the Shakespearean homage.

Truthfully, the play’s the play and nothing substantive changes (Mr. Doescher’s readers might get nasty in tragic ways if the plot changes…like that time I spent six months re-writing a three-hour version of The Return of the Jedi. Never mind). I have and will continue to savage the actual movie well into the future (see post). What I really like about this version that trades on the tropes and limitations of the Elizabethan stage for which Shakespeare and Marlowe dove in head first is how the union-mandated iambic pentameter, asides, soliloquies and verbal description of the action serves to make it very clear that perhaps we get to blame the movie a little bit more on decisions made after the script was locked.

The reader upon being told that a Shakespeare homage edition was contemplated might chuckle a little bit and ask many relevant questions.

How does the stage director depict the pod-race that eats up ten minutes in an otherwise lackluster movie that seems to hang its hat on the scene?

People run in and out reporting to Qui-Gon Jinn the results of the latest lap, while the pod racers occasionally run through in the foreground inside cardboard pods much like the hobby horses last seen in Monty Python’s: The Holy Grail.The Shakespearean battle scene that I thought it most reminded me of was Bosworth Field from Richard III (“Rescue, My Lord, Rescue!”), but there are other possibilities…Shakespeare liked him his battles and frequently did the same things over and over.

There’s a lot of people communicating across Galactic distances in holographic beams, so how do handle that, Buster?  

Guys, spotlights. A modern stage just flips the switch and there you are. If by some highly inexplicable time travel accident this script lands on Shakespeare’s desk and he, as was accused in movies like Anonymous, appropriates it as his own, the stagehands of the day had lanterns, mirrors and such. People can work it out.

Anyway, as I read the play, I couldn’t help but enjoy it far more than the movie that spawned it. Mostly, it was because Mr. Doescher dove in head first with the Jar-Jar Binks problem. In the movie, this amphibian Falstaff archetype either really pissed off the viewer as being too forced acting as the comedy relief. Too over the top with a mostly Jamaican (we think) patois that sparked some to go nuts trying to find hidden racial insensitivities in Star Wars. Or for the younger viewers for whom George Lucas always said the series was the primary audience, Jar-Jar was greater than sliced bread because kids tend to respond to people tripping over themselves to get a laugh.

 Doescher gives Jar-Jar one hell of a raison d’etre, to unify the Gungans and human Naboo in a vision of a shared planet that rises to meet all challenges together. Thus, he speaks the best possible rendition of his movie dialogue translated into iambic pentameter and then gives an aside to the audience delivered in what in the Star Wars galaxy is the local equivalent of Received Pronunciation (also in iambic pentameter). Jar-Jar doing things intentionally and telling the audience why goes a long way towards feeling better about the character.

Another character that gets a small amount of interesting of asides is Artoo. We just have to take it on trust that Threepio isn’t intentionally mistranslating our favorite astro-mech droid. In the play, Artoo reveals he might be the smartest character in the room sussing out Jar-Jar. Everybody else just talks over and around our least favorite Frog Clown.

All through the play, the dialogue plays out clever with a capital C. There are references to other Shakespeare lines and more importantly references to dialogue the actors played in other movies. Basically, Mr. Doescher has used his library card well.

Truthfully, I missed many of the promised Samuel L. Jackson-isms probably because I don’t know, brain freeze (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). However, I didn’t fail to miss some biggies posted thirty feet tall in neon. Qui-Gon Jinn picks the last fight (in the movie set to “Duel of the Fates”) with Darth Maul dropping in extra dialogue much like Kung Fu movie fighters pointing out the people with whom they’re going to mop the floor. 

Pay attention, just before the saber merge Qui-Gon says the words “I have skills.” If we could only have a daughter for the Jedi master to rescue from traffickers (and perhaps a more forgiving screenwriter), you think maybe he’d survive this one. And when Maul skewers the Jedi, the exit line is “et tu, Sith.” Perhaps not as rhyming as “et tu, Brute,” but I’ll take it.

This play, even starting from the hardest Star Wars movie to watch, is simply excellent fun for people who enjoy both Shakespeare and The Galaxy Far, Far Away and Long Ago. Now to see if Disney actually releases it onto the stage…    

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

More than twenty later, this film still resonates as the Star Wars movie most of us hated when we saw it. I myself am not immune to such passions. In that time, there has also been backlash to the original backlash in favor of the movie, but other than what I will list below that kinda almost worked…it’s still the movie that dragged the rest of the Fall of Anakin Skywalker trilogy into [BEEP!].

The plot. Political turmoil between the Trade Federation (I swear they made a dig upon Star Trek here), the rest of the galaxy represented by the Galactic Senate and the small, peaceful and lush planet of Naboo results in a blockade of said nice planet. Two Jedi, Qui-Gon-Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), get sent on the sly to muscle a settlement, but find dark and nefarious forces at work that reveal the Trade Federation more interested in taking over temperate, green and comfortable to live on planets.

In the running around on Naboo’s surface said Jedi make friends with a Gungan (an amphibian humanoid species sharing the planet with the human Naboo society). They rescue the elected Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) escaping in a damaged ship landing for repairs on Tatooine where we meet nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), presently a slave born under strange circumstances. There’s a lot of gambling and doubling down between Qui-Gon and the blue Toydarian Watto that leads to a pod race that provides the parts to repair the ship and free Anakin.

We move to the galactic capitol where the Queen pleads for redress with Naboo’s representative, Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), at her side. The Senate being used as a chew toy by the as yet hidden Sith Lords ends up telling the Naboo to drop dead as “we really should send another blue-ribbon investigating committee.” The Queen calls for a vote of No Confidence that results in the election of Senator Palpatine as the new Chancellor and then goes home to lead the big battle with her new Gungan allies to free Naboo, a battle where Anakin foreshadows his son, Luke, blowing up the Death Star twenty-three years later, by blowing up the droid control ship with a proton torpedo shot to a conveniently exposed reactor.

The people who have made hating on Menace and the rest of Episodes 1-3 into a cottage industry focus most of their geek wrath around two tentpoles for their scorn, derision and slight regard: Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and baby Anakin. There are other reasons to feel disappointed, some that will be listed here. There are also points of logic that conversely suggest lighten up, a failing common to many Star Wars fans.

Most of my fellow nerds will comment in the Anakin section of the bashing session that a nine-year-old protagonist makes the rest of the movie difficult to believe even before we get to the technical part about did Mr. Lloyd successfully do his job? The rest of the characters are pretty much acting like adults, even the fourteen-year-old Queen Amidala (possibly a thematic callback to our real history where teenaged monarchs frequently kicked ass and took names because teenagers weren’t actually considered children until about a hundred years ago). 

The nine-year-old boy with the great skill at the flight controls wins the pod race, but is then shunted into a spare Naboo cockpit for the space battle making his almost accidental entry into the furball almost as if Anakin as an archetype vies with Jar-Jar for being the Accidental Fool…someone Inspector Clouseau would very much understand. I think a lot of the people commenting how weird Anakin played out on screen would eventually land on – “guys, you can’t have it both ways, either Anakin is this great pilot that makes a conscious decision to blow up the Trade Federation’s Battle-Donut that no one even thinks about ordering to stay out of the way in the spare space fighter, or he’s the young waif to whom things happen accidentally.” How much danger can you put a nine-year-old protagonist in anyway? I have yet to discover that formula myself and thus avoid writing YA novels as if I might catch the measles.

And twenty plus years later just say the name Jar-Jar Binks. You can say it straight or with the growly delivery of that old guy in The Graduate urging for a fulfilling career in Plastics; you’ll get the same result from everybody older than the age of nine at the time the movie originally dropped. 

Variations of – “Ugh! Who told George Lucas that this clutzy, tries too hard at comedic relief and eats up too much screen time at the expense of what passes for the main plot was a good idea? And that’s before we get all nasty about his forced mostly Jamaican patois in a movie where we’re also choosing to be angry that the primary villains who aren’t Sith all speak like Asian villains from a Fu Manchu movie.” Kids who were in the target audience at the time who are now twenty-ish swear Jar-Jar is the funniest thing ever. I was thirty. Jar-Jar bombed about like taking out Rotterdam.

There is so much more to bash about the movie and I’ve heard them all at the counter of various comic book stores, at least for the first few years until there wasn’t anything new to be had raking this one over the coals. Didn’t like Padme’s dresses. Hated the stilted dialogue almost completely devoid of contractions. Goes back and forth between thinking the pod race sequence the only thing that keeps the first half of the movie moving or perhaps it was a cheap stunt to trick the audience into enjoying the dead air in the story.

I promised you, Dear Reader, that there are some good and interesting things about The Phantom Menace. Here are a few…

The effects and music. Industrial Light and Magic always goes whole hog for a Star Wars movie, the franchise that willed their organization into being. We may get nasty about – “Really, Tatooine again!” – but the sand looks like it always does…gorgeous.

This time around when composer John Williams set his pencil to paper the highlight ended up being “Duel of the Fates.” Set under the big lightsaber rumble on Naboo we get a classic piece of acrobatic cinema. Who cares that, yet again, a Jedi has to lose someone and get angry to win the fight…despite strict dogma against getting angry?

The actors playing the Jedi, McGregor and Neeson, showed why they’ve torn up Hollywood…in other movies. It is alleged that with nothing on the page to play when having dinner at Shimi Skywalker’s (Pernilla August) humble house, that Mr. Neeson starts creating heat between the Jedi Master and analogue for the Virgin Mary. Just a light hint of maybe…

Ewan McGregor infuses his young Obi-Wan Kenobi with an infectious smile running interference for a brash character that still has many years ahead to his worst day, turning his best friend Anakin Skywalker into a Benihana entrée. Wait, good acting in a Star Wars movie? It happens.

The other fascinating aspect of this film that carries through the whole early trilogy is the genius move of establishing Senator Palpatine and Darth Sidious as owning both sides of the emergency that brings him to power. In a movie where the fans have already read ahead, there is an official attempt to separate the two characters that we don’t see Sidious take off his robe to become Palpatine. However, there’s no actual attempt to hide this with, say, Batman lowering his voice and growling.

Owning both sides of the war struck me personally at the time I first saw the movie. It had to do with Evil Stepdad 2.0 who was a conspiracy theorist for whom the true masters of the universe were alleged to own both sides of all conflicts because you always win if you’re both the Good Guys and the Space Nazis at the same time. He kept on and on about this creating a hugely integrated world view that largely predated QAnon. And then to see this concept onscreen in a Star Wars movie…

However, while we’re on the subject of Galactic politics, whatever cool and interesting we got from Palpatine owning the whole war making the results irrelevant, we gave back in the depiction of the Neimodians of the Trade Federation. For the life of me, applying any concept of the why of War whether from Sun Tzu or von Clauswitz I couldn’t figure out why the Trade Federation escalated their blockade over being taxed too high into an invasion…other than someone having read Syd Field and arbitrarily deciding – “we need an invasion to let the rest of the movie make sense.”

Sorry, I couldn’t resist one last dig at a movie that pretty much belly flopped from the Ten-Meter platform at the Olympics… 

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

Many writers talk about the critical voice in the heads and then say something along the lines of “shout that little bastard down and keep writing.” When the message naturally leads to an excuse not to write, I agree. Sometimes, the little guy has real things to say and maybe we should listen. Maybe it’s really a different voice with the same voiceprint?

Several weeks ago, I’d put the day’s words for the night and still had enough in the tank to randomly cast about for whatever might be next and give it a few hours of pre-writing development (too many syllables for think shit up). Somewhere in this a stray thought about famous Italian luthier, Stradarvari of Cremona (it’s not that stray a thought, there is a dormant music column on this blog) lands. This typically leads to similar thoughts about Amati of Cremona. 

Imagining the competition between these two rival luthiers (stringed instrument maker, including more recently guitars) in the same city leads to “ooh, what if a girl named Amati fell for a boy named Stradavari…the Romeo & Juliet of expensive violins!” And this is where the critical voice gets busy throwing hard elbows, I pitched the story wrong even to myself.

Busting out Romeo and Juliet implies a certain kind of tragic story of freshly minted Renaissance teenagers who when faced with the crushing weight of their respective families’ mutual animosities choose suicide to preserve their love. Nearly every commentator in the more than four hundred years of the play has continuously asserted that the two leads have to be teenagers (Romeo being 14 at most and Juliet maybe 13) in order to answer the question – “who commits suicide when they can’t have their way romantically?”

The play was written in the late 16th Century and set in 15th Century Italy both eras in which no one had much of proper medicine, understanding of juvenile psychology or hope that more than half of all children would survive to adulthood. Teenage marriages, especially for women, happened frequently in order for her to get started on her eight or more pregnancies. Careful reading of various profiles of historical ladies on Wikipedia seems to show that enough of the time the responsible parents arranging these matches would hold the girls back a couple years until their later teen years. 

The people living then might not have understood adolescence as we do now, but they did get the part about the immediate hit of puberty being good for stormy domestic relations and slammed doors. Certainly, they knew that the older the newlyweds were at the beginning of that marriage the more likely the response to not landing on the lover they wanted would be to, in this wisdom from The Kings Speech – “can’t they just carry on privately?” The sane approach to disappointing arranged marriages. Thus, Romeo and Juliet are in their early teens where they can only see their love being everything and die for it.

The above doesn’t really fully explain why setting this type of four-hanky tragedy among the luthiers of Cremona, just doesn’t work. It boils down to violin makers being the wrong sort of occupation to use the Romeo & Juliet outline. They were essentially well compensated craftsmen of the Upper Middle Class, not the lords and ladies of the original play with the legal right to and social obligation to carry swords and duel. More than a few people have also commented that the Montagues and Capulets spent so much time brawling in the streets that the two factions weren’t much different than street gangs with money. This makes the update to street gangs without money for West Side Story an easy leap.

People named Amati, Guarneri and Stradavari could get caught up in the rumbles of two powerful wealthy families roiling the streets if you assume that feuding Noble Family A patronizes Amati and feuding Noble Family B patronizes Stradavari. Neither luthier operation would sell to the rival family to keep and make the peace, or they would wink and nod moving the product out the back door. None of this leads to stabbing each other on the streets…especially since the cynical reasons for pitching a musically themed version of Romeo & Juliet is to close the square for Great Soundtrack built-in what with at least three pieces titled Dueling Violins.

Yes, the pride in one’s own product versus those other guys would lead to conflict but nothing lethal. You could see the two master craftsmen throwing a fist or two and then arranging the concert. Maybe there’s an affair between the adults but now we’re already too far from the Shakespeare play. There’s one slight possibility given my three minutes looking it up on Wikipedia, the third Amati trained the first Guarneri and the first Stradavari…so two apprentices throwing down to take over the old master’s business. Still not the Shakespeare play.

It matters because the middle of the play requires Romeo to get into a big fight with Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, that results in a Capulet death. Dramatists and other writers have always depended on having the characters’ own decisions cause their grief. Romeo shrugs off various insults because – “dude, I just married your cousin.” His good friend, Mercutio, takes the gauntlet because – “really, that’s the last straw!” – and then dies making Romeo too angry to stop himself. Doing these scenes with people that don’t have the easy access to the steel can be done…at the expense of too many pages used up on expository backstory.

So, when my critical voice saw this immediately and yelled at me to stop pitching it as anything like the Shakespeare play, what did I actually think up? A sitcom in most cases. A sexy romantic movie with an awesome soundtrack in a few other cases. And if I really need it to be a tragedy, I’ll just give Mrs. Stradavari-Guarneri breast cancer and we’re done.

Why is it potentially a sitcom? The property trades on the comedic conflict of the two sets of in-laws figuring it out when they come over to the kids’ house for Sunday dinner. Barbs from Master Guarneri that Master Stradavari never did his frets correctly leading to – “Papa, no business tonight please!” And then there’s a violin duel.

What sitcoms are the closest? Mostly I was thinking Dharma and Greg, where a hippie girl lands on an uptight boy attorney leading to interesting family dinners. But you can see aspects of many sitcoms, like if Darren Stevens had his parents visit more than a couple episodes of Bewitched

For the sexy drama version, now we’re cooking with gas. Stormy passionate women (or men, it’s the 21st Century, gender-switching will be attempted and have the same chances of working with an audience) raising their voices to get exactly what they want. Doors slamming with almost the regularity of the average farce. Lots of kissy-kissy scenes backlit at sunset while on picnic among the field of pretty flowers. Followed by a determination to build the best violin ever in order to have something that plays up to the abilities of this tempestuous partner who combines the talents of Isaac Stern and Jimi Hendrix. Okay, there have been times when perhaps I’ve watched too many Cinemax movies from the out-and-out Skin-Max era (not really there aren’t any angry housewives played by former Playmates who scheme to kill their overbearing husbands and there is too much good music).

On second thought, I’m an SF and Fantasy writer. Let’s take the sexy drama version and really jump down the rabbit hole with both feet. The passionate luthier couple must make the violin that the Devil might want to swipe on his way to Georgia (probably the baggage handlers destroyed his original instrument) and play up to the quality of the instrument in order to save the world from the Evil Counterpoint. Or the average trance created by misusing the average love potion or…even our excellent chance of rehashing a work lovingly referred to as Orpheus 5.0 (Wrinkle in Time being Orpheus 3.5, just sayin’). We’ll still need the hot and steamy…

None of which exactly pitches as Romeo & Juliet Set Among Anything or Meet Tony the Tiger. And that was my original point; the archetypes we sometimes fall back on to explain our work when we only have 30 seconds to get past a gatekeeper aren’t always an exact fit. But there typically is an actual story lurking in the collective unconscious that does fit what’s on the page, the problem is that this hypothetical story archetype is itself derivative of the main archetype that only fits as well as that extra pair of shoes in the back of the closet. Naturally, this story is usually almost as unknown as yours. Mileage always varies.Anyway, I appreciate your forbearance as I give a little insight into the voices in my head fully grokking the double entendre that a writer in Work it Out on Paper Mode is only a bad breakfast burrito away from needing medical intervention. Knock on wood at the absence of getting caught. And…as always, you’re invited to write your own stories.