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A Conversation with Angela Caputo
Angela Caputo is an award-winning journalist with years of experience. Yet in many ways, she feels like she is just getting started, just beginning to learn the ins and outs of her craft. Despite her humility, she has gained a reputation for some of Chicago’s very best reporting on issues of race and poverty, focusing on the criminal justice beat since joining the Chicago Reporter in 2010.
In the following conversation, Angela talks about one of her superpowers that makes her an awesome narrator of the city and shares what it takes to gather and deploy large amounts of data.
How did you learn to work with data? At what point did that happen?
During my early reporting jobs, I did very little work with data. While at one of my first jobs, I remember going through files at the County Clerk’s office and reviewing them one tax payment at a time, calling them up by pin and logging them into a spreadsheet. It was very different than getting huge sets of data and doing analysis.
Most of my learning happened after joining the Chicago Reporter –– now I work with datasets that contain literally hundreds of thousands of entries. It is a big part of what our publication does.
I have learned a lot in the office. We teach each other what we know, and then just kind of muddle through projects. That’s really how I’ve learned. Somebody will introduce you to something, but the only way to learn it and get better is to make a lot of mistakes and to practice.
When you get a big database, how do you make sense of it?
Just playing with it, decoding it, cleaning it up, making sure that you’re not counting duplicates, figuring out the categories, breaking out the variables so that they line up into one thing. Simple data cleaning, getting rid of parenthesis, crunching it down to basic numbers, so that you can really compare the same thing. That’s all part of the process.
What’s an example of a really cool dataset?
One example is LEHD data, [Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics], which is really amazing. It has a geocode, which links it to a place, and it goes down to the census block, so it zooms in pretty deep. That data shows you what jobs are on each block, and where the people in those jobs come from. You can see how old the people are that work in the jobs, what they make, and the type of sector that they work in.
I used that data in a story on jobs and economic development in the heart of Chicago, in the downtown area, where one in 3 jobs in the city are located. There has been huge public investment in the downtown, so I looked at who is working there. I found that 86% of the job losses between 2002 and 2008 were among people who live south of 41st street.
The communities that already have the fewest number of jobs per resident; also lost almost all of the jobs that were lost in and around the Loop.
I like to think that my writing journey is just getting started, that my greatest growth and development is still ahead of me. My novels are yet to be written, my most truthful poems are yet to be drafted, and my dissertation is only just now starting to fall into place. Yet although I am still early on my path, I do believe I’ve learned a few things about how to communicate in the written form. What follows are my top 5 lessons as a writer, each obtained slowly over time, and largely without realizing it:
1 Writing is a way of exploring the depth and breadth of my awareness.
We all have unknown known’s in our lives, fields of knowledge that go largely beneath our own radars. Writing – whether crafting an outline or just throwing words on a page – is a way to get in touch with those fields of knowledge. It is an exercise that allows us to explore exactly how much we really know about a topic, revealing levels of feeling and awareness that often operate at subconscious levels. As we discipline ourselves to write, we are probing this awareness, testing these feelings, and become more conscious of this knowledge.
“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.” – W.E.B. Du Bois
I’ve always found it so much easier to accept responsibility and be in a leadership role when I don’t have the title to prove it. I have great mentors and leaders in my life that have taught me that you don’t have to be in the limelight to be a leader for social change. (Almost all women, I might add) So when I was given the opportunity to lead a campaign at LAANE, where I’ve poured my soul into the work for the last four years, I was both excited and anxious.
My passion has been working on campaign and policy research. I started as a researcher on the Construction Careers Project, writing reports, digging deep for points of leverage to successfully move policies forward, and immersing into an industry. I had (and still have) great pride in my work, not only because I got to see the fruits of my labor and worked with an awesome group of people, but also because of the incredible amount of responsibility I had as a woman of color doing research. In the area of policy research, and most specifically labor research, there are very few people of color in that role. In the campaign world, folks of color can typically be found doing direct organizing or performing an administrative function. While there isn’t anything wrong with that, and I admire and respect my organizer colleagues of color, I fundamentally believed that as people of color in the social justice movement, we also have the ability to contribute to strategy and the production of knowledge. I felt great great pride in owning that responsibility. If not me, who else? The organization’s commitment to a racially diverse research department also allowed me to flourish.
I don’t know if it’s been instructive, but it has been interesting to chart the reactions, negative and positive, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained has garnered among the black intellgencia. I liked the slavery-spaghetti western mashup. But then, to me real events are there for the plucking, to be appropriated by pop culturists and re-imagined. As one of the few patrons sitting in the Rave theater in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza last year during a matinee, I damn near fell out of my seat at a particular scene in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, another example of the mashup. In this flick, ol’ stove pipe hat wields a silver edged ax like a three-armed samurai.
There’s a scene where Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy, makes a pact with the head vampire to work together to defeat the Union Army. In this way slaves would not only still be the labor force propping up the South’s economy, but food for the vampires. Damn. Well, that must have quelled the film being shown in various parts south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But I suppose since the film wasn’t a hit, like Django Unchained, what white Johnny Reb backlash there was to that scene was minimal. Though I imagine if the screenwriter or the director were black, that would have engendered some pin head commentary from the self-appointed arbiters of “American” culture on Fixed, that is, Fox, News or the Rushness himself.
For surely Tarantino as writer-director has pushed the buttons when you have the right wing Limbaugh denounce his film as it being ginned up that we are still a slave nation. Edward Boyer in a piece for Zocalo Public Square reported on a panel that took place at Eso Won Bookstore in Leimert Park about the film. He reported that the panelists did not like the film for various reasons including distorting the history of slavery, gore for gore’s sake –a critique that is pretty much leveled at all of Tarantino’s films, and so on.
In an article on CBSNews.com, Terry Moore, the artist-writer-publisher of the Strangers in Paradise graphic novels, a blend of Friends meets the political thriller, and Echo, a sort of female Iron Man (which has been optioned for film), said: This is a really great industry to find America’s best short story writers right now because where else are you going to find them?”
Well you could find short stories where they’ve always been, in prose anthologies and on the newsstand in the monthly Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine or literary rags, but his point has a certain resonance. That is given graphic novels are these days available in their own sections in Barnes & Noble – form as genre — and can be checked out from your local library.
My most formidable years were spent watching The Simpsons, reading Archie comics and playing video games. Some of the most valuable lessons I was taught (in addition to those I learned from my family) came from Lisa Simpson–vegetarianism, non-violence, and doing what’s right. And as I got older, I gained inspiration from testimonial literature, a popular genre in Central American literature where one came to tell the truth to preserve history. In my family, no one ever talks about the Civil War in El Salvador, even though we lost family and it was the cause of my parents immigrating to the US. Some things are never easy to talk about. The Holocaust is certainly one of those things. But sometimes, cartoons can be the window to understanding, experiencing, and re-living history. For me, Art Spiegelman‘s Maus marries these concepts.
Depicting Jews as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs, Spiegelman captures the story of his father’s survival through this terrible period in human history, and living to tell it. Along with Spiegelman, the reader is part of the frustrating and painful process of dealing with his father’s mortality and the task of telling his story right. It took Spiegelman 13 years to finish the graphic novel, and the arduous process of piecing a family story together is front and center as well.
Vladek drawn as a mouse ironically humanizes him and the story that so few lived to tell–the ghettos, the separation of a family, expecting to die every day, and the ability to fight to live for another day. Spiegelman knows his father’s death is imminent so he must capture every moment before time runs out. And it’s not without its quirks. Like many of us who come from families who have survived the worst (the Holocaust not withstanding), we grapple with the challenge of being part of a difficult story without, in many cases, living it. We find ourselves telling our parents or grandparents to “let it go.” My mother is constantly worried about me disappearing, just like my uncle Jorge three decades ago in El Salvador, for being activist. In Maus, you witness Spiegelman’s frustration his father’s inability to not live in survival mode. I found myself laughing, crying and laughing some more as I flipped through every page the first time I read it. What makes Maus so special, is not only its ability to re-tell history in another medium, but to find the humor and creativity in pain. As a Catholic, I could relate to this.
Climate change is a big, scary topic. It’s not always easy to talk about and it can be almost impossible to convince people to do something about it. Movies like An Inconvenient Truth have taught us that we cannot ignore the mounting changes in our planet’s weather patterns, we cannot simply sidestep our responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to our changing reality. Yet we have apparently not gotten the message. We emit, ignore, and sidestep. Still. More than ever.
So what is to be done? Well, we can learn some great lessons from a recent graphic novel developed by The Field Museum’s division of Environment, Culture, and Conservation. This piece – The Amazing Adventures of Chicago’s Climate Action Heroes – takes some very scary information and turns it into fun and enjoyable reading (click the link to download).
How do they do it? They use light, humorous, and accessible dialogue to show the ways that a diverse cast of characters is being impacted by the destabilization of our climate. Written and illustrated largely by Lisa See Kim, a communication specialist at the museum, the story merges the journeys of residents from four very different Chicago neighborhoods, showing how their everyday actions make them environmental leaders in their communities.
Author Mat Johnson writes “I grew up a black boy who looked white. This was in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, during the height of the Black Power era, so I stood out a bit. … I started fantasizing about living in another time, another situation, where my ethnic appearance would be an asset instead of a burden. We would ‘go Incognegro’, we told ourselves as we ran around, pretending to be race spies in the war against white supremacy.”
Walter White, who went on to become the head of the NAACP, did in fact use his ability to ‘pass’ to go undercover as a reporter in the South to expose the horror of lynchings which were never news in the mainstream white press. Incognegro is the story of a similar reporter, a gripping tale of KKK shenanigans, interracial love and moonshine, crazy town folk and crazier mountain folk. It’s got twists you won’t see coming even though I’ve warned you, and the bravery and huevos of the reporter will give you chills of pure take-that-you-racist-b——s joy. That it’s life and death (and there’s plenty of ugliness and death) only heightens this, it’s definitely a great book for the holidays.
It also plays with the constructions and meanings of race in fascinating and ultimately hopeful ways. Near the end you read
One of the more beautiful graphic novels I’ve read is Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (2009). The story follows Asterios, a self-centered “paper architect” (his designs have never been produced) and his transformation after a fire burns down his swanky New York apartment. Divorced, alone and devoid of possessions, Asterios hops on a Greyhound bus to the small town of Apogee, the farthest place his money will take him. Throughout the book, the reader is thrust back and forth between memories of his relationship with his ex-wife, his theories on life and design, and the present. At times, the story is narrated by his unborn twin brother Ignazio, who haunts Asterio, and even visits him in Apogee.
Image taken from instituteofidletime.files.wordpress.com (by David Mazzucchelli)
It’s not that Joe Sacco is the first comics artist, a sequentialist if you’ll allow, to produce stories different from the bread and butter of the likes of Marvel or DC; grim costumed avengers in dark spandex or muscled babes with booties to bounce fifty cent pieces off and make change. In the 1950s there was EC, for Educational Comics, published by William Gaines They produced lurid crime and horror comics packaged in covers with hanging bodies, eyes bulging out, decapitated female heads and originated titles such as Tales from the Crypt and Mad. They also published a different kind of science-fiction story in 1953 called “Judgment Day” written by Al Feldstein, and drawn and inked by Joe Orlando.
In the story a helmeted spaceman, Tarlton, a representative of the Galactic Republic comes to the planet of robots called Cybrinia. The robots are identically built, divided color-wise into orange and blue. Only it turns out the blues have less rights than their orange counterparts. Observing this, Tarlton decides the Cybrinians aren’t ready yet to be admitted into the Republic. Then in the last panel as he heads home in his ship, he removes his helmet to reveal he’s black. The then Comics Code, the supposed arbiters of what was fit material for America’s youth, tried to shitcan the story but weren’t successful
During the heyday of the underground comix era of the late ‘60s to the mid-‘70s, hippie publishers like the Rip Off Press, Last Gasp and Krupp Comics Works put out mostly black and white, with color covers, comics by a new wave of artists and writers. They were weaned on the antiwar movement, the Black Panthers and copious amounts of marijuana smoking. Some of these artists worked as assistants to mainstream, superhero artists.
For the past month, I have had the privilege of traveling with a friend through Patagonia, a gorgeous region with scenery and colors that seem to stretch far beyond human understanding and imagination. The long rides and hikes through endless landscapes and blue skies have served the perfect backdrop to reflect on life and these changing times; on current crises and burgeoning movements like OWS; on the work that fellow friends and activists and I have been involved in over the past year to fight for jobs, public sector services and free education in London; on where we’re at, what we’ve accomplished and where we should be going…
These reflections have been nourished by Angela Davis’s totally badass autobiography, written at the very young age of 28, that I’ve had the pleasure to read along the way.
The book is a beautiful personal insight into a time when the struggle against racism in the African American community was at a boiling point (1960s-early 1970s) in as disparate places as the Jim Crow South, the east and west coasts of America, as well as in other parts of the world such as Germany and post-revolutionary Cuba.
Davis takes us back to Birmingham, Alabama, where the author is from, and depicts in vivid detail a time when segregation was alive and kicking and Black families ran the risk of having their houses blown up (on “Dynamite Hill”) for moving on the white side of the street. Her recollection of the brutal murder of 4 black girls in a church bombing in Birmingham in 1963 is gut wrenching and extremely powerful as she takes us beyond the now well-known historic headline to describe her friends robbed of their childhoods while trying to navigate a world hell-bent on destroying them and the budding uprising of Black people in the South. Ultimately, it is not, as Davis explains, a couple of “bomb-wielding racists” that were responsible for their deaths, but “the whole society [that] was guilty of this murder” [...] “the whole ruling stratum in their country, by being guilty of racism, was also guilty of this murder.”
Reality needs fantasy to render it desirable, just as fantasy needs reality to make it believable.
Great movies and novels tap into our dreams and help bring our deepest desires to the surface. Even not so great movies accomplish this task. They provide a break from reality and an entry into imagined worlds, often giving life to our most absurd and explicit fantasies. So why should Dr. Pop celebrate these avenues of escape? Is not delusion an enemy of transformation? Isn’t Dr. Pop all about helping people to face reality? And to actually do something to make it better?
The short answer is: Yes and No. We at Dr. Pop are 1000% committed to positive social transformation. There is no question about that. Yet we believe that in order to be 1000% committed to anything requires radically embracing our fantasies, our dreams, and our deepest desires. In fact, we believe that ethical illusions can be used to draw people closer to their actually existing surroundings. This means embracing storytelling and seeing fiction as more than just a form of weekend entertainment. It means creating and discovering ways to bring the world of fantasy into our political lives.
This is precisely what Stephen Ducombe calls for in his book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. In the book, my latest favorite work, Ducombe challenges progressives to embrace spectacle as a way to manifest our ethics of fairness, justice, and equity. The ballot box, conventional protest, and enlightening panel will never be enough to transform our world, precisely because these political methods largely fail to tap into our dreams the ways that movies and novels so easily do. Instead, Ducombe argues, our politics must take on bolder and more fantastic forms. Our streets must be reclaimed, our stores must be occupied with song, and our imaginations must be channeled in ways that well-reasoned arguments will never achieve alone.
Among his key points, Ducombe claims that truth and power belong to those who tell the better story. To make his point he frequently points to the Bush administration which was able to maintain incredible power for eight years despite its obvious lies and deceptions. Yet what the Bush administration clearly understood is the need to entertain and to create spectacles that can be exploited for political ends. If these methods are bound to be used, the question then becomes – toward what ends?
Make no mistake, Ducombe is aware of the dangers of such fantastic methods and he cites Nazi Germany as a clear example of how political spectacles can facilitate real-life horror stories. Yet just because stories and spectacles have been used a vehicles for hateful destruction in the past is no reason to abandon such methods outright. Like Dr. Pop, Ducombe asserts that imaginative political acts can actually be filled with enlightened ethics and expressed in ways that expand democratic participation rather than augment dictatorship. For beautiful examples of these possibilities, look no further than Antonus Mockus, the former superhero mayor of Bogotá and unofficial muse of Dr. Pop.
What Mockus understands – and what all successful progressives must come to grasp – is that politics cannot be separated from human motivation, from the actions and events which speak to our inescapable irrationality and satisfy our emotional needs. And so we must learn how to mobilize human motivations in ways that increase transparency, expand social consciousness, and deepen participation. Only then can we expect to build a social movement whose events are deemed a better use of people’s time than NetFlix, Twilight, and Gossip Girl. Indeed, only then can we help people to find the courage to face reality by diving into the romance, honor, sacrifice and mystery of social change efforts.
In summary- Accomplishing goals as lofty as justice for all, means being comfortable with lofty methods. It means organizers becoming unafraid to don superhero capes, politicians daring to share fantastical visions, and everyday activists creating new, risky ways to shine light on the worlds around them. If you know of great examples of such courageous dreams in action, please share them through your comments below.
One of my favorite movies growing up was Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994). I still remember when I begged my parents to let me go to the movies by myself at Universal City walk while my siblings went to go check out an action movie. The movie still continues to be one of Spike Lee’s most underrated movies, probably because it was one of his first films without blatant race commentary. It is nonetheless an incredibly poignant story of a working class family living in Brooklyn, of course, and life on the stoop—the centerpiece of urban life in New York City. You have the neighbors who think they’re too good for life in the ghetto (yet they live in the ghetto); kids playing and teasing each other; and various odd characters that may or may not be up to no good.
The main character, Troy, a tough girl with four rambunctious brothers, was and is someone I could relate to as she’s always trying stick up for herself both inside and outside the home. She also seems to be the one most aware of the financial problems of her parents, who are constantly fighting about not making ends meet.
As a kid who didn’t know much about how folks live outside the city, one of the most interesting parts of the film is when Troy is sent to stay with family in the South. The South is a whole other world for Troy–structure, order, and definitely no stoop. When her aunt Song, criticizes the way her mother does her hair, Troy goes from having braids to getting her hair pressed for the first time. Her experience in the South becomes part of a major turning point for Troy as she soon finds out that her mother is ill and then must return to Brooklyn. Troy then steps up as the matriarch, not realizing that she’s forcing herself to grow up without mourning her mother’s death.
Despite the hardships the children face–poverty, instability, the loss of a parent–Spike Lee manages to still remind us that while things although might not always be perfect, let alone easy, life in the city does not have to be tragic.
I’ll often say this when I’m on a panel about writing mysteries; I’ll mention that any student or fan of the genre should read the Maltese Falcon by Samuel Dashiell Hammett who went by his middle name as a writer. Originally serialized in Black Mask, a pulp magazine where several well-known mystery writers got their start, the novel was published in 1930. Now the titular hero of the book, private eye Sam Spade, only appears in this novel and a handful of short stories. Hammett wrote far more stories and two novels with his nameless private eye, the man known only as the Continental Op. This short, pudgy balding man worked out of the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco, also the home of Spade.
While the Continental Op stories are not chopped liver, but for my money, the Maltese Falcon is the template for the characters and situations that come along decades later, even today, in mystery and crime stories. The patter, the cynical PI (“He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” Hammett wrote), the duplicitous femme fatal, the quixotic villains, and the fabled dingus that everybody is willing to do everything to obtain. For a couple of years not too long ago, me and writer Eduardo Santiago taught several reading and discussing the classics classes to incarcerated youth. This was part of a project by the Children’s Institute — our friend and fellow novelist Nina Revoyr who works there brought us onto the gig. The goal was the bring the love of reading to underserved communities, and you can’t get more underserved than young men in the joint.
Asking me for the title of my favourite book is like asking a moth for its favourite flame. The fascination seems the same to me, though I don’t gloriously expire in a flash of light when I get too close. Or maybe I do, it is certain that you’re never quite the same again after reading a great book.
I loved Science Fiction most when I was younger (and still, now that I’m older). I loved monsters and adventures and descriptions of entire new worlds that provoked me to imagine things I had never before imagined. That is my own favourite brand of happiness. I spent a lot of 110 degree summer days in front of a fan imagining things. But I still remember reading The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner when I was 15, and that is the book that first really blew my mind away, made me want to write. The phrase ‘Caddy smelled like trees’ still sings in my head, like Quentin’s never-ending sentences from a mind that just cannot cannot stop thinking and carries you on and on inside of it racing disjointed until it is forced to stop itself. That ride made my heart stop a moment, and then beat faster. It was like language itself opened up to me, the way it could drag you into another point of view, another life. The way it could be every bit as pivotal to a story just by itself, just through the wonder of it, and not simply as a way of describing things.
Recently I did a presentation to the staff of the Western Center on Law and Poverty about the search for the narrative. The idea being that attorneys and support staff, including the folks who raise the money for the organization, could benefit from a discussion about the basics of why and how to tell your good work in stories. I did ask the gathered who among them wrote outside the context of their work and was pleasantly surprised at the answers. The people in the room included three ex-reporters, including one for the L.A. Times who’d done an expose about the terrible conditions in some retirement homes. There was also a woman who with her husband had won money on TV game shows and together they’d written a how-to book on such.
Goes to show you everybody has a story. That like in fiction where you talk about a character’s backstory, those elements that determine who they are when we come on them in the tale, in real life there are events that have lead us to where we are today as well. Stories have layers. There have been studies by neuroscientists attesting to humans being hardwired for stories. From cave paintings, histories and deeds recounted around the camp fire to hand lettered illuminated manuscripts, storytelling has always been part of us. Maybe our brains seek order in an otherwise chaotic existence.
Related stories: The Right to Water in California
The real world event of what’s been called the Cochabamba Water Wars found its way into two recent feature films. Cochabamba is the third largest city in Bolivia and in 1999 to 2000, the residents got organized and mobilized to stop a multi-national from privatizing their water.
Quantum of Solace released in 2008 is a James Bond, Double-Oh-Seven adventure I saw at the Cinerama Dome with by buddy, fellow mystery writer Bob Ward. The picture has an exciting car chase for an opener and Bond’s Bourne Identity-like close hand-to-hand combat scenes are smashing as he might say. But the main villain in the film, Dominic Greene, is as bland as the white suits he wore. In fact what I distinctly recall discussing with Bob after the flick was, “Man, what was up with that? This is the franchise that gave us Goldfinger painting a woman in gold for revenge. The German-Chinese Dr. No and his kung fu grip mechanical hands. But Greene. Really?!”
Anyway, Quantum deals, in part, with the on-the-nose named Greene, a member of the evil Quantum cabal that Bond is chasing down, out to control the water supply in Bolivia through his fake eco-friendly front. There’s maybe one scene of some indigenous folks lining up for water but mostly Bolivia is represented by the fetching and deadly Bolivian secret agent Camille Montes who has a personal score to settle with her fellow countryman General Medrano, the officer instituting the coup as he’s in the pocket of Greene. Okay, it’s a Bond film so of course he has to do the heavy lifting, but there’s not even a scene where he leads the roused Bolivian compasinos against Greene’s fortress. I guess the producers concluded that wouldn’t be PC, the white savior showing up to lead the bedraggled brown folk — what with Bond having to exist as a kind of blunted post-Soviet Union imperialist for her majesty these days. Or did Bond defeat Greene merely to ensure the proper allied oligarchs would control the water?
Last year’s Even the Rain, from Spain, shown in the States in art houses and at film festivals, has a lot more depth and verisimilitude going for it than 007’s last outing. It’s a film within a film set-up and deals with a Spanish film crew arriving in Cochabamba during that fateful time to shoot a lefty film about Christopher Columbus. Essentially they will show Columbus in a revisionist light as he exploits, enslaves and commits inhuman acts against the indios in the so-called New World – all for their gold and labor. Indeed the focus of the story’s film is a priest, Bartolomé de las Casas, a cleric who eventually campaigned against the brutal treatment of native people. Daniel is one of the non-actors the director Sebastian casts for the film for his Indian face and forceful way to play an historical leader named Hatuey, is also an organizer working to stop a multi-national company from privatizing their water.
I have no set idea of what Utopia looks like and I blame my youth on this.
In fact, I can point to the day at my grade school, 61st Street Elementary in South Central, when, if there ever was a chance for such to seed, that notion was shattered. Our teachers hipped us to the Dewey Decimal system so we could find books in different categories in our well-stocked school library. Thus mentally armed, me and the other kids were let loose in the library and I recall vividly seeking out 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. To this day, decades later, I can’t tell you why I knew about this book. Disney had made a film in ’55 with Kirk Douglas and James Mason, but at that point at eight or nine, I’m pretty sure I hadn’t seen it on TV.
The book, a science-fiction novel, was first published in 1869. It’s about the mysterious Captain Nemo and his ocean spanning submarine the Nautilus. The brilliant biologist and mechanical engineer Nemo (Latin for “no one”) is sinking war ships in his crusade to end war. Revealed in a follow up novel of Vernes’, Mysterious Island, Nemo is actually Prince Dakkar, son of a raja, and has devoted his life to battling injustice and imperialism, particularly the British Empire for conquering his native India. Thus he is both freedom fighter and terrorist, seeking to enact his vision for a better world Okay, so that’s not exactly a utopian dream, but in sci-fi novels, the road to utopia, made as it is by flawed humans, oft derails into dystopia.
David Simon, creator and executive producer (with former Baltimore detective Ed Burns) of The Wire, wrote of two competing myths in America in an introduction to The Wire: Truth be Told by Rafael Alvarez (who wrote episodes of the show), a book examining the creative and actual arenas that underscored his series that resonated beyond the actual numbers of people who watched the episodic on HBO.
He stated if you were smarter, shrewder or frugal or visionary, the first with the best idea, given the process of the free market, you will succeed beyond your wildest imagination. Conversely, if you don’t posses those qualities, if you’re not slick or cunning, but willing to work hard, be a citizen and devoted to your family, why there was something for you too.
Simon went on to note that in Baltimore with its brownfields, rotting piers and rusting factories, are testament that the economy shifted then shifted again, rendering obsolete generations of union-wage workers and workers’ families. The Wire then is a story wedged between these two competing American myths. Physically, The Wire’s West Baltimore landscape of cracked sidewalks, busted out street lamps and streets dotted with boarded up row houses reflects the physical manifestations of the shifted economy, as well as a the signs of the underground economy that partially filled the economic vacuum – the drug trade.
Urban planners write about spatial justice, about how cities are laid out, developments developed, and you get results like park poor, healthcare deficient and public transit lacking urban cores. It has been shown how blueprints can codify class and race-based policies that short-change people of color and the working poor. Grassroots organization arise in response to these inequalities to organize residents to push back on such planning that has historically left them out of the process or marginalized their needs and concerns.
This is a followup to January’s DIT video and article on How to Make a Storyboard.
This time I’ll give deeper instructions by going into the details of a storyboard assignment that I used in my class. The information is provided in the short video below, as well as in a narrative form, which continues right under the video.
The assignment has three parts:
- Goals and Assumptions
GOALS AND ASSUMPTIONS
You can write out your goals and assumptions in a page or less. To do this, you will answer three basic questions:
- Rationale: What is the purpose, or rationale, for your project?
- Learning outcomes: What do you expect people to learn? What are the “takeaways?” The learning outcomes?
- Pre-Knowledge: Does your audience need any pre-knowledge — things they already need to know — in order to benefit from your product?
Here are examples of what a rationale might look like from three projects from the class:
As mentioned in my previous post – back to the future of dystopia – with an emphasis on re-zoning sci-fi style.
I can’t cite the direct literary root (or route), though this idea of a walled-off or secret city separate from hostile environs has threaded its way through various science fiction and fantasy novels and films over the years. Tarzan searched for and protected the Lost City of Opar in a few of his adventures. In Robert Heinlein’s novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, an entire planetoid, our moon, is populated with underground colonies containing, among others, criminals and political exiles.
Pissed off with their lot, some of these disparate forces band together for freedom against Earth rule and stage a revolt. Marvel Comics’ Black Panther is the super-hero, warrior king of the scientifically advanced hidden African kingdom of Wakanda. For centuries the one who wears the mantle of the panther has led the people to fight off everything from European colonizers to Dr. Doom.
The notion of the jewel of a city protected from the predatory outsiders is turned on its head in John Carpenter’s 1981 film Escape from New York. In this flick, due to runaway crime in the near future, Manhattan Island has been walled off and turned into a maximum security prison. Black helicopters patrol from the air, making sure no scofflaw climbs out.
Inside a kind of Lord of the Flies meets Clockwork Orange tableau has played out as various sub-cultures exist bumping up against each other amid the trash, crumbling buildings and warring gangs and tribes. It’s World War III between us, the Soviet Union and China, and the President of the United States’ plane is hijacked by revolutionaries, and crash lands in the prison-city. Ex-hero soldier turned bank robber Snake Plissken is sent in and has 24 hours to find the prez. The Duke of New York, leader of the latest gang, the Gypsies, is also on the hunt for the world leader. But the Duke lacks vision, he’s not out to unite the prisoners and fight for their freedom and sovereignty, he merely wants to use the president as a shield for an escape across one of the mined bridges. Read More…
Storyboards are a way to present the elements of a story in a sequence. They are used a lot by people who make movies and other media to help them “see” a story and how the pieces work together before they spend a lot of time and money on a project.
When you are working on a team, storyboards are one way to get people, literally, on the same page. Here is a 3-minute video on how to do that (the written-out version continues below the video).
James Cameron has a baseball cap with the letters HMFIC on its crown. As this is a family-friendly site, I won’t spell out what those letters stand for, but just consider his film Avatar has made a sweet billion dollars worldwide, and I’m sure you can deduce their meaning. Dr. Pop, aka Comrade Wife, our daughter Chelsea and I saw this wonder in glorious 3D at our damn near neighborhood theater in Culver City.
Like a lot of those who’ve seen the film, the special effects bowled me over from the ten-foot tall blue-skinned Na’vi to the bad ass, escapees from a Halo game, flying death machines of mass destruction the evil corporation wield as they wantonly try to subjugate the paradise planet Pandora. I was enthralled. Cameron has talked about having the idea for the film more than a decade ago, but had to wait for technology to catch up to tell the story the way he saw it in his head. As a kid, he reportedly read a lot of science fiction traveling to school an hour each way in Chippawa, Ontario, Canada. Well I’m betting he must have stumbled across some Edgar Rice Burroughs’ (of Tarzan fame) John Carter of Mars series of books in all that reading, eh?
In those books the Martians, who call the red planet Barsoom, are a mixed bunch of humanoids that include the ten (or maybe it’s twelve) foot tall green-skinned, four-armed fierce Tharks. Carter, a former Confederate officer who may be immortal, is kind of magically transported to Mars and becomes a warrior-savior figure there — fighting for justice rather than slavery, so that’s an improvement. Story elements from Burroughs to the Pocahontas bit are evidenced in Avatar.
I’m not hatin’ on Jim, but as a writer who wrestles with trying to inject originality in his stories, I do have to admit to envy given Cameron didn’t have to stretch when it came to the stock plot and characters in his film. From the cranky but dedicated scientist, the damaged, conflicted hero, the gorgeous, strong princess, to the one-dimensional villains, we’ve seen them before many times over. The not-so-subtle subtext of Avatar is essentially the noble natives winning over the expansionist imperialists. This in turn, according to Patrick Goldstein in his Big Picture column in the January 5, 2010 Calendar section of L.A. Times (and for a big city newspaper, it’s getting awfully thin isn’t it?) has the teabaggers and Palinites all a-twitter.
This is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. But this intersection of politics and sci-fi, of dystopian to hard-fought utopian visions of the future, are not the stuff solely of other recent big budget movies like 2012 and The Road. There’s more, and we’ll get to them in my next post.
For those of you who like comics, check out this interview on Robot 6 about my new webcomic Bicycle Cop Dave, patrolling the underside of gentrification that I’m writing with Manoel Magalhães illustrating from Rio — for FourStory, the affordable housing/urban issues blog.
Maybe you’ll check out the story after reading the interview.
Dr. Pop is really about storytelling — about who gets to tell the story, how it gets told and how to figure out what the point is. In the economy and in life.
Here are the 5 Elements of Great Storytelling, presented with illustrations and examples from the Dr. Pop website and other favorites, presented in the videoblog below.
1. What does your character want?
2. What’s the hook?
3. Use dialogue and quotes.
4. The essence of drama is conflict.
5. Fulfill the promise.
For other resources on great storytelling, check out:
Smart Meme is an intriguing and intelligent organization for whom story-telling is the political strategy. Dr. Pop agrees. Their tagline? Changing the Story, of course. Smart Meme has a great website and a lot of good thinking to offer.
A Story is a Promise by Bill Johnson (who, according to Gary also does great workshops for fiction writers). Recommended here is the 1-hour DVD where Bill reads from a number of well-known books and talks about several popular movies “to take viewers into the heart of what a story is, a promise made to an audience, and a promise kept.”