Friday, March 30, 2012

The Stardust Palace

This week's challenge kicked my ass, but once started, the story wouldn't let go, so I soldiered on until I finished. The game, this time, was setting. Chuck gave us five possibilities, and our choice had to not only drive the story, but be so pervasive, it was almost a character in itself. I chose "lunar brothel" and came in at exactly 1000 words and just under the deadline. Enjoy.

The Stardust Palace

Baker ground his cigarette against the cinderblock wall and when he was sure it was out, slid it into his front pocket. The sun sat low on the horizon, and shadows stretched long. Full dark wouldn’t arrive for two days, but folks were already antsy. Earth loomed large in the waning light, but for the two weeks it would take this god-forsaken rock to rotate back to the sun, Terra Firma would light up the sky like the Vegas strip at midnight. A thousand souls would gaze at the brilliant blue sphere and despair.

Baker stepped out of the shadow, unseen by the angry patron. His stealth would have been impressive given his size, except the asshole screaming into the speaker was blind drunk.

“That’s enough, Flynn.”

He hadn’t raised his voice, but the wiry man staggered back in belligerent surprise.

“Baker! I ain’t looking for trouble, but you know I already paid. I get a dee-duction taken out every week.”

Baker stood unmoving, arms crossed.

“C’mon man.” Flynn whined, “I just want my time.”

“Rules apply to you same as everybody else. You drink after you get your time, or you don’t get your time.”

“That’s bullshit, man! ‘Nother way for the Company to cheat me!”

“Sober up. Come back next week.”

“Bullshit, man…”

Flynn turned, blinking into the sunlight, harsh even in the last days of the cycle. He left pissed and bitching, but he left. Nobody messed with Baker.

Baker slouched into the faux bricks, flicked his vintage Bic, relit the cig, and pondered the irony of life on the rock. Humankind had built a colony inside the lunar eco-dome, and the walls still looked like cinderblock. Somewhere on Earth, an engineer was laughing.

“That habit is going to get you in trouble.”

Even through the tin of the speakers, Misha’s voice was cultured and exotic.

Baker shrugged, “CP knows where I am.” Ashes floated as he saluted the nearest Company camera. “They’re welcome to take me any time.”

Her low chuckle sent an involuntary frisson of pleasure down his spine.

“The Company Police? Not likely, my dear. No, I fear you are going to stray too near an oxygen vent and incinerate yourself.”

“I’ll try to avoid that,” he said drily. “What’s the evening look like?”

“The usual fare. Flynn was the only problem on the book.” Misha’s voice was light. “The other issue I mentioned will need handling.”


He took a deep drag and ground the cigarette out a second time. With a nod to the camera, he dropped the butt into his collection near the door and punched in the entry code.

Baker stepped through the looking glass into the Stardust Palace.

“Good evening Mr. Baker.”

He nodded to the hostess on duty and entered the parlor. Red velvet chaise lounges sat atop handmade Persian rugs. The d├ęcor, 18th Century bordello, felt more contrived than the cinderblocks. The only nod to reality was the screen on the opposite wall, rotating salacious images of the girls available that evening.

When Sunshine appeared, all wide-eyed innocence, Baker tapped the screen twice. The picture disappeared, and a moment later, Sunshine stepped into the room in a buttery negligee.

Her sultry expression wavered when she met his eyes.

“Baker. Is there a problem?”

“No darlin’,” he drawled, “just feeling lonely.”

Her eyes darted around the room.

“But I thought you and Misha…”

He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Long night’s comin’. I need a little Sunshine.”

She didn’t smile at his joke, but she didn’t argue either. His authority trumped her reluctance, so she squared her shoulders and led him through the door, stopping in front of a guest room.

“Uh uh. Your room.”

“I…uh…don’t…I mean we don’t entertain in our private quarters.”

“You don’t entertain clients in your private quarters. Surely, I rate higher than Flynn.”

Baker’s tone was light, and he was still smiling, but Sunshine twitched like a rabbit ready to bolt.

“Well, yes.”

Baker placed a firm hand on her shoulder and led her to her own door.

She offered one last protest. “My room is messy. I could take care of you better in one of the VIP suites.”

The effort was wasted. Baker dropped the pretense.

“Open the door.”

She entered the code with shaking fingers, and Baker pushed her roughly inside.

“Sit down, Sunshine.”

She obeyed, huddled on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor.

“You know why I’m here.”

She nodded miserably, “I’ll leave on the next transport home.”

“Home?” Baker snorted. “You Earth girls never get any smarter. Ivy League, right? Journalism?” He shook his head, angry now. “Editor calls you special. Persuades you to go undercover in the infamous Stardust Palace, and you just have to prove yourself. Congratulations! You make a convincing whore.”

Sunshine aka Sharon Billingsworth reached blindly, haphazardly, gathering her things. Baker grabbed her right arm, twisting it almost to the breaking point. He produced a vintage Swiss Army knife and opened it one-handed. Sharon flailed, screaming, but Baker outweighed her by 150 pounds. No help was coming.

The blade sank into her forearm, peeling back the skin.

“NO!” Her shriek echoed through the living quarters.

He pulled the bloody chip from beneath her skin and released her. She fell onto the bed sobbing.

“Don’t fret. It’s not a tracking chip. It never was. It contains instructions for the wire transfer to your editor.”

He watched horrified understanding cross her face.

“All our girls are educated. Keeps the boys in line. They’ll work a week in hell for an hour on top of a fresh-scrubbed Earth girl. You’ll see.”

“I won’t!”

Baker wiped the blade on his sleeve. “An option, yes, but if you don’t earn your keep, you’ll have to move into the colony. All-male dormitories. No security. No income. Same end result without the comforts of home.”

He leaned over, brushed a blonde strand behind her ear, and whispered, “Welcome to the Palace, Sunshine.”

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Two women and a movie

Two years ago, I read The Hunger Games on the recommendation of our school librarian. It grabbed me from the beginning, and even before I finished the first few chapters, I recommended it to my friend and colleague, Linda. She plowed through it as fast as I did and even bought and read Catching Fire, the second in the trilogy, before me.

I clearly remember the day she finished The Hunger Games.

“This would make a GREAT movie!”

And then, several weeks later, “They’re making a movie! I CAN’T WAIT!”

I was excited too, but two years is a long time to wait. In the meanwhile, I recommended the novel to every kind of kid in my classroom: the honors student, the reluctant reader, girls, boys, scifi/fantasy readers, realistic fiction readers, romance readers, kids interested in politics, kids who could care less about politics. I recommended the book to adults too. Word of mouth spread like wild fire…it always does with a good read.

After a while, I would ask, “Have you read The Hunger Games yet?” and three or four kids in the room would chime in with “OMG! That book is so good!”

Linda and I periodically discussed the movie, analyzing the choices as actors were cast, wondering how they would deal with various plot points and whether they would dial back the violence to allow a larger audience to see it. Our discussions always ended with “I CAN’T WAIT!”

Fast forward to yesterday, opening day. My boys, both of whom have read the book, bailed on me and went to the movie with other people. Bruce wasn’t interested, and Linda had other plans. My frustration reached a fever pitch around 9:00, and I had just decided to get in the car and go by myself when Linda called.

“Okay, I’m done with my stuff and Robert is dropping me off. Meet me at Wendy’s in 15 minutes with a corkscrew, some plastic cups, and a bag of ice!”

There is a reason why this woman is one of my closest friends in the world.

We chattered like excited school girls all the way to the multiplex and arrived in time for the 9:40 showing. Linda had a very large purse and brought her own refreshment into the theater. I was driving and opted for a soda and some $10 M&Ms from the concession stand.

Our movie started right about the time UK tipped off, and thanks to the statewide insanity over basketball, we had great seats. The lights went down, and Linda turned to me.



The first preview was for a remake of Dark Shadows by Tim Burton with Johnny Depp. I LOVE Johnny Depp in bizarre roles with weird make-up. Seriously, read my review of Alice in Wonderland. The trailer for Dark Shadows was hilarious, classic weird Johnny Depp. Can you imagine him as a soap opera vampire?


We were frothing at the mouth by the time the previews ended and the movie started. I dispelled the froth with a large swig of Diet Coke. Linda uncorked the bottle in her purse, refilled her red solo cup, and read the opening text on the screen out loud…

North America has become Panem, a country composed of twelve poverty-ridden districts which provide resources to the ruling elite in the Capitol. Each district must send one boy and one girl between the ages of 13 and 18 to the Capitol to participate in the annual Hunger Games. The teens are chosen through a lottery called the reaping.

The movie opens in District 12, Appalachia, on the day of the reaping. District 12 looked exactly as I imagined it. The mountains were beautiful juxtaposed against the poverty of Katniss’ family home. The town reminded me of a 1950s era mining camp. Then, superimposed over that, was the stark dystopian future in which it existed with Peacekeepers reminiscent of Storm Troopers and large Orwellian telescreens.

From the beginning, Katniss, District 12’s female tribute, is the strong heartbeat of the story, and kudos to the moviemakers for getting her right. She is smart, courageous, resourceful, self-reliant, and self-sacrificing, imbued with a sense of responsibility for family and community. She is everything the heroine of another monster franchise which shall remain nameless is not. She is not defined by the boys in her life, nor is she rescued by them. She fights alongside of them, and more often than not, they look to her for rescuing.

And forgive me for editorializing, but hey, it’s my blog. Katniss is an image of femininity sorely needed in a time where politicians use women’s health issues as a lightning rod to obscure their lack of vision (or repugnant vision) for the economy and foreign policy, a time where pundits on both sides freely throw around pejoratives like “slut,” “prostitute,” and “bitch” when a woman has an opinion they don’t like. Katniss is the image of capable femininity that scares the living hell out of the kind of man who needs male privilege because he doesn’t have the goods to earn it fair and square.

But I digress…

Having said all that, I honestly thought Peeta, Katniss’ male counterpart, wasn’t quite strong enough in the movie. As a player, he can’t match Katniss’ skill in the woods, but he is wily and has a better grasp of human nature than she does. Josh Hutcherson just doesn’t have the chops to play opposite Jennifer Lawrence, and his Peeta came off a bit weak. Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is strong, and I look forward to the second and third films where he will have a larger role. I won’t post spoilers, but for those of you who have read the whole trilogy, the disparity in the strength of the actors playing Gale and Peeta poses a potential problem for those movies.

Woody Harrelson was an inspired choice for Haymitch, former winner and mentor to Katniss and Peeta, although my younger son thought they cut too much of his part out in the movie. I tend to agree. Donald Sutherland was excellent as President Snow, the epitome of the evil despot packaged as benevolent father figure. His conversations with Seneca Crane, the head gamemaker, gave me chills.

Most of the gore in the arena was implied and not explicit, making way for a PG-13 rating. I would still be wary of taking young children. Sometimes, what is unseen is more frightening than what is seen. I remember being particularly horrified by the tracker jacker scene when reading the book, and not seeing Glimmer’s body up close in the movie suited me just fine.

Explicit violence notwithstanding, I honestly don’t think the movie captured the tension of the book. The horror of using children to keep a country subdued and defeated just wasn’t there. There were glimmers, especially in President Snow’s scenes, but overall it was lost. Frustrating because there were so many opportunities to show it: Haymitch’s disappearance into a whiskey flask, the Avox servants, Cinna’s subversive packaging of Katniss and Peeta. Lenny Kravitz was wasted as Cinna.

One of the aspects of the novel that made it brilliant, at least in my mind, was the way it captured the zeitgeist of reality TV. Whether it be celebrity scandal, American Idol, or hard news, the media frames everything for us. They give us the storyline and tell us how we are supposed to perceive what they are presenting.

In the novel, Haymitch invents a star-crossed romance between Katniss and Peeta in an attempt to frame their story and make them more appealing to the audience. Audience appeal means sponsors. Sponsors mean timely help in the arena. Haymitch is the architect, but Peeta sells it because he really is in love with Katniss. Maybe it was because they cut too much of Haymitch or maybe it was because Josh Hutcherson wasn’t up to the challenge, but I thought that important storyline was muddled in the movie.

The movie is entertaining. It doesn’t suck, but as movie adaptations go, I’ve seen better. Both of my boys agreed with me that the book far outshone the movie.

Isn’t that always the way?

What did Linda, my partner in crime, think? Funny that. We whispered back and forth during the first part of the movie, but then I became engrossed and assumed she was as well.

After the final scene faded to black and the credits started to roll, she stayed seated, so I did too. Sometimes, when you wait out the credits, you are rewarded with an extra scene, a teaser, or something. Since she wasn’t moving, I assumed she thought there must be some little nugget. I like reading credits, and I noted that Suzanne Collins, the author, was listed as one of the screenwriters. I said as much. No response from Linda.

Finally, I turned and looked over at her, and there she sat, smiling beatifically and SOUND ASLEEP!

I had to nudge her twice to bring her to consciousness.

“Linda! How long have you been asleep?”

“I don’t know. She was running in the woods and I dozed off. Every time I opened my eyes she was still running in the woods. I knew she was alive and I went back to sleep.”

Two years of waiting, and she slept through the whole second half of the movie. Take what you will from that. Luckily for her, she is going again tonight with her girls. She plans to leave her big purse and plastic cup at home, so maybe this time she’ll see the end.

May the odds be ever in her favor.