The Pint of Stout

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I sat in the dark corner of the drab, empty little pub staring at the pint of stout sitting on the grungy table. How long had I been sitting, staring?

“You gonna drink it or not? We’re running out of time.”

Considering that the irritable scowl on the bearded face of the dwarf sitting across from me had grown even more irritable, it must have been a while. He leaned over the table and half spat, half whispered, “I told you I’d get you here, and I did. Now you keep up your end of the bargain.”

He’d been irritable since we’d first met – when he approached me at that other dingy pub in Belfast offering his assistance. “I know where the stout is, and I’ll take you there, but once we get there you’ll use it to help me.”

I’d heard this before – in pubs in Ediburgh, Glasgow, Dublin… the same empty promises and the same wasted time, and lots of lost money. But this time had turned out to be different: the dwarf had actually done it: led me here, to the isle of Inisturk of all places, and now the stout sat before me.

I’d been searching for more than ten years, ever since first reading about it in some obscure Gaelic literature in that nearly abandoned section of the Taylor Library at Oxford. A stout made from the springs of the mythical isle of Brasil, an island that only appears from the mists once every seven years. The stuff of fairy tales, not academia or reality.

But for some reason, the idea latched onto me like a leech, and I persisted. I continued to research, dig through ancient texts, trying to find the truth. My professors laughed at me, as had my classmates. And when I ignored them all and published my research, Professor McDonald said that I had “committed academic suicide.”

“Wasting my time,” I muttered, watching a single drop of condensation make its way down the side of the dirty glass.

“What’s that?” the dwarf asked.

“They all told me I was wasting my time, that I was mad to keep pretending it was more than legend.”

“We don’t have time for this,” the dwarf said, grabbing the shot of whisky that sat before him and downing it in a swift gulp. “See? It’s not hard. Just drink the damned thing! That’s what you came here to do!”

What I came here to do. Right.

I turned my attention back to the stout. I lifted the pint glass, which was surprisingly cold, and held it up to the shaft of light coming from the dingy window over my shoulder. The onyx liquid seemed to absorb the light. But was that just my imagination?

“The Ballad of Ailbe Ailbhe said that the one who drank the stout of the isle of Brasil would receive untold gifts from God, “Beidh súile Dé ag titim air”… The legend of Cu Chulainn says that the stout is what gave him his mighty powers, that he kept a cask nearby as he fought Queen Mebh of Connacht. But all the stories end the same way… there was always a cost…”

A sudden pounding on the rough wooden pub door just to my right brought me out my revelry. With a curse in a language I didn’t recognize, my diminutive associate shot out of the seat and stood before the door, his hands raised and head bowed.

Ciara.

She’d been trailing us every step of the way, but the dwarf had kept us out of her reach. But now, she’d found us.

She wanted the stout for herself.

The irony is, she’d been the only one who’d believed me. I’d opened up everything to her, given her my heart, confessed all my hopes and dreams. She’d listened and absorbed and learned and then betrayed me. First, Ciara went to the dean accusing me of plagiarism, and then after I’d confronted her about it, she went to the dean again accusing me of assault.

All lies, of course.

“Drink the damned drink!” the dwarf cried, his hands now pressed hard against the door. Were they glowing? “I can’t hold them!”

I turned my attention back to the stout. God only knew what Ciara would do if she got her hands on something so powerful. It’s my fate, not hers. It’s my dream, and she – with all of her lies and masks and broken promises – she can go to hell.

My hands shook as I lifted the pint to my lips, and as the glass grew closer, the sounds of the struggle at the door receded until they were nothing more than a buzzing fly or a neighbor playing his music a bit too loud. The glass was cold. So cold. Why would they serve it cold?

Before I could drink, the door exploded in, flinging the dwarf across the room and slamming him against the wall beside my table. He slumped lifelessly to the floor, and then she was there, her da’s pistol pointed at my head, two ugly goons flanking her on either side.

“Put it down, Liam,” she said breathlessly.

“I can’t,” I whispered, the stout just an inch from my lips. “You know I can’t. This is the stout of Brasil! It’s real!”

“It’s not real, Liam,” she whispered, desperation in her voice. “Please put it down and come with me.”

“Or you’ll shoot me?” I asked, laughing at the irony. Just two weeks earlier, we were lying naked in bed playing Fortnite on our phones, and now she’s pointing an actual gun at my head? “You just can’t stand the idea of me getting the power.”

“I want you to get some help,” she said, shaking her head. “Please.”

But I’d come too far. Maybe she would shoot me, maybe she wouldn’t. But if I could take a drink – even just a quick one – then none of it would matter. Her bullets, her rejection, all of the rejection – none of it would matter.

I took a drink.

She fired.

Blackness.

This is a short story written for the Shenzhen Writing Group, Shenzhen, China, September 2018.

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Some Thoughts from One Expat to Another

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When I first moved to Kazakhstan back in 1999, I’d been there for about half a year when I noticed a couple of interesting things. First, if I was talking to someone back home about Kazakhstan, I had plenty to say, as if I knew what I was talking about. Second, when I would talk to other expats about our experiences living in Central Asia, we would often spend a great deal of time complaining about the different way people did everything.

Now it’s many years later and I live in China, but I was reminded of my early Kazakhstan experiences when I recently overheard a conversation in a coffee shop between a couple of expats discussing their separate experiences in yet another country.

I couldn’t help but listen.

Both of these expats talked about their experiences as if they were experts on their former country, as if they’d really understood the people and the place where they’d lived, and they also spent a great deal of time complaining about that experience. It was almost as if they were trying to one-up each other on who could tell the most horrifying expat story.

“The taxi drivers there are horrible! As soon as they realize you’re a foreigner, they’ll charge you double!”

“You think the taxi drivers are bad, you should try and do business with them! It’s all about nepotism and how much you can pay to get something done!”

“Don’t get me started on corruption! There was one time when I was just trying to get my visa renewed…”

As I was reflecting on both my attitude and the attitudes shown by a couple of random expats in a coffee shop, I was struck by a few things, and I offer these thoughts to any expatriates who might be interested.

Simply living in a country for a limited amount of time does not make us experts on the culture, people and problems of a country. Especially when we haven’t even taken the time to learn the language and primarily hang out with other expats. We may have some insights into that country, but not very much.

We are really only long-term tourists, and should keep that in mind before being tempted to share our deep and insightful thoughts about our host country. When asked, we should just talk about the food we like, the interesting historical sights we’ve seen, reflect on the truth that we still have much to learn about the place, and stress how kindly the people there treat us in spite of our ignorance.

This last part is key – when you’re talking to your friends back home, don’t focus on the horror stories, even though conflict makes for good storytelling. Instead, let them know how well you were treated as a stranger in a strange land. Let them know how much it meant for you when someone went out their way to help you or guide you. Let them know that many of the things that they’ve heard about the place are misconceptions or flat out false.

Especially these days, it’s vital that we learn the value of being good hosts as well as guests, and it’s even more vital that we share that knowledge with others who may have never gone far from home.

This might be the most valuable souvenir we can bring home from our short time living in another country.

Farewell, Star Wars

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Dear Sirs,

I’m shaking. I’m sitting here, shaking.

I just returned home from seeing the latest Star Wars movie, and I am physically shaking due to a mixture of anger, resentment, disappointment, and a desperate feeling of opportunities lost. I’ve never had such a visceral negative reaction to a movie or any sort of entertainment. Undoubtedly the reaction I’m experiencing is proof positive of my level of commitment and love for the amazing story that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Now, that commitment and love has been called into question, and it’s rocked me to my core.

Before I continue, allow me a moment to prove my credibility. I saw Star Wars in the theater 26 times back in 1977, three times in one day at one point. I had every toy Kenner released, including the Boba Fett mail-in action figure. I read every comic and novel, multiple times. I’ve even written a series of my own Star Wars stories, imagining what happens to our heroes as they branch out in their fight against the evil Empire.

I sent a couple of my best stories to Lucasfilm, and how I wish they would have incorporated my ideas into this movie rather than sending me a condescending “thanks but no thanks” letter. If they would have listened to me, then this could have been a much different review. As it is, I have to say goodbye to what was a wonderful entertainment experience for the past three years.

And it’s all because of the travesty that was The Empire Strikes Back.

I slept outside of the Hollywood Paramount with about five hundred other suckers for three nights to see this abomination. And it started out as such a positive experience! The atmosphere was festive, joyous, and full of life. People dressed as their favorite characters, showed off their homemade light sabers, and hypothesized about what we would see when the movie rolled. You could almost feel everyone bound together by the light side of the Force. But when it was over, it was as if the dark side had won, taking everything good in the world with it. At first I felt numb, but that numbness quickly gave way to anger.

That’s where I am now, thus the shaking.

[If you haven’t seen this movie yet, understand that I’m going to be talking about specific details. But even still, I encourage you to go ahead and read it and find out why you shouldn’t see The Empire Strikes Back. Save yourself three dollars. Trust me, you don’t want to contribute any more to the degradation of Star Wars.]

1. Darth Vader is Luke’s WHAT?

Has there been a movie villain that has provoked more fear and awe then Darth Vader? And what an incredible set up when Ben Kenobi tells Luke that Vader was responsible for the death of his father. It gave Luke such motivation to go after the Dark Lord and show him the power of the light side with the business end of a light saber.

But no, that’s not good enough for the hacks that made this movie. They completely screw it up by having Darth Vader claim to be Luke’s father.

Yes, you read that right. Darth Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith, is apparently the father of the hero of the Rebellion, Luke Skywalker.

Image-0-Header-1536x864-863587051769Did the filmmakers even read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye? Vader is pure evil. Evil personified. He murders people without thought, including Luke’s father, and that’s not just conjecture… it’s what Luke was told by the only known Jedi Knight. Are you seriously telling me that Ben Kenobi would lie to an innocent kid like Luke? It calls into question everything that happened in the first movie, and that is an inexcusable betrayal. “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic”, and now they are a bunch of liars?

“Maybe Darth Vader is the one who is lying!” Of course that is an option, but if that is what Lucas is getting at, it MAKES NO SENSE. What would be the point of Vader telling Luke such a lie? How does it help him to defeat the Rebellion? Unfortunately, we don’t know, and that’s because of my second criticism.

2. The Movie Doesn’t End

When the screen went black and the credits started showing, everyone in the Paramount sat stunned. What? They didn’t save Han? We don’t know if Darth Vader is lying? What kind of a movie doesn’t end?

What should have happened (if this were a good movie) is that Luke arrives at Cloud City in time to save Han, and then they all get away from the Empire, maybe injuring Darth Vader or killing Boba Fett in the process. It’s such an easy concept! But these morons decided to end without giving the audience a resolution. We DON’T learn what Darth Vader was really up to, and the good guys are just continuing to run from the bad guys like they did all movie. No victory, no climax, no ending.

I’m no screenwriter or movie director, but that is just bad filmmaking. The cynical side of me thinks that it’s just their way of making sure people come back to see what happens in their next movie, to make sure that we throw away even more of our hard-earned cash. Nice try, Mr. Lucas, but you can bet that I won’t be anywhere near your theaters when you come back to betray us once again in 1983.

Speaking of being betrayed, my third criticism is about an unfulfilled promise.

3. Luke and Leia

One of the greatest things about Star Wars was the idea that an average boy could rescue a princess, fall in love, and maybe get married one day. [Once again, read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye to see the correct direction this story should have taken.] It’s what the audience wants! The boy and the princess! Not what The Empire Strikes Back gives us – the princess and the pirate.

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Ignoring what the audience obviously wants, Lucas tears the boy and the princess apart in the first twenty minutes, and then has the princess fall into the arms of the pirate while the boy flies across the galaxy to talk to a frog in a swamp. I’m sorry – I know Han Solo is cool, but he IS NOT SUPPOSED TO GET THE PRINCESS. It doesn’t make any sense!

At least we left the theater with a hope that Luke might get Leia back. I have to admit that one of the good things about the terrible cliffhanger idea was that Han is out of the picture, giving Luke the opportunity to properly woo his princess. However, even as I write that, I know that this is not what Lucas and company will do, because it’s WHAT HIS AUDIENCE WANTS HIM TO DO. It’s like he made this movie with the intention of angering the very people that made Star Wars the biggest box office hit ever (almost $300,000,000! Can you imagine?).

This brings me to my third criticism.

3. The Swamp Frog

To understand this next bit of criticism, you have to remember what happened in Star Wars. The only person who could teach Luke about The Force was Ben Kenobi (our “only hope”), but he dies at the end of that movie. Yes, Luke hears Ben’s voice in the Death Star trench, but he doesn’t offer to teach Luke as a disembodied voice. In The Empire Strikes Back, we find that he has NOT been teaching Luke, which seems odd since Ben can appear as a ghost. Why hasn’t he been ghost-teaching him for the past three years? We don’t know, but that sort of plot hole apparently doesn’t matter to Lucas.

00muppstarsWhat Ben does do is tell Luke to go find Yoda, supposedly a great jedi, on a faraway planet, and so as soon as Luke is able, he goes. So far, so good. Luke (and the audience) expects to find a powerful warrior on this faraway planet, but instead he finds a frog in a swamp. And not just a frog, but a Muppet frog with a speech impediment. Seriously – a Muppet frog! And to underline this ridiculous turn of events, Lucas even brought in the voice of Miss Piggy and Fozzie the Bear to provide the Muppet frog’s voice! I kept expecting him to put on a tie and fedora and do a stand-up routine, or sing “Easy It’s Not Being Green” while playing a space banjo.

Speaking of color, this brings me to final critique.

4. Politics in Space

Apparently, some people complained that Star Wars wasn’t diverse enough (did these people not see all of the aliens in the cantina? How is that not diverse?), and so of course, Lucas bowed to pressure and included a token black character in this movie. Was this really necessary?  What’s next? Women fighting stormtroopers? Asian or Hispanic generals running the Rebellion?

George Lucas, Star Wars shouldn’t be about politics, it shouldn’t have to worry about representing every different kind of person onscreen. No, Star Wars should be about light saber fights, space battles, and the boy getting the princess. Again, it’s what your audience WANTS.

mpvGpMgBut he won’t listen. He’ll just continue doing these kinds of things in his next movie. I’m certain Star Wars 3 will show us that the notorious gangster Jabba the Hutt is actually a cute little space puppy voiced by Mel Blanc. Boba Fett will take off his mask to reveal that he’s actually Farrah Fawcett, and then she and Han will fall in love. Princess Leia and Chewbacca will turn out to be brother and sister from different mothers, and Lando Calrissian will be their father.

One thing Lucas has proven with this trash heap of a movie is that anything is possible, that we should not try to guess what will happen, because whatever we think, it’ll be something we didn’t anticipate, want or need.

But I won’t be around to find out, and I beg you to join me! Let’s show Lucas that we are done with his manipulations and disappointments by refusing to support any of his work until he apologizes for The Empire Strikes Back and pledges to put Star Wars back on track! For example, word is that Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, and Harrison Ford are working on an action movie set in World War Two, but I say we sit this one out! Show Lucas and his friends that we aren’t going to have any more of it! DO NOT SEE THEIR NEW MOVIE, and that will show him that we mean business.

Speaking of business, you’ve probably seen in your TV Guide that the stars of Star Wars are making the rounds of the talk shows right now, talking up the movie. I want to organize a mass effort to let the sponsors of those shows know that we will boycott their products if they let the movie be promoted on their programs. No Hamill on Carson! No Ford on Mike Douglas! No Fisher on Donahue! But if they persist, I’m currently compiling a list of the scheduled appearances, so I’m going to have like-minded die-hard Star Wars fans gather en masse to protest, holding up signs that say “Not Our Star Wars!”, “Keep Space White!”, and “Vader Would Be A Terrible Dad!”

Join me, and together we can make it so that Lucas can’t show his face in public without our reminding him of his failure! Join me, and we can be the spark that’ll light the fire that’ll burn Star Wars down!

Sincerely,
Jedi Master Marvin S. Lymphburg,
Keller Der Mutter, Minnesota

This fictional letter from a really disappointed fictional über-fan is fictionally from the real August 1980 issue of the very real Starlog magazine. But not really.

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Truth

I’d been waiting for that moment for years, dreamed about it, saw how it would happen from beginning to end. I’d waited, patiently, watching him from a distance when he didn’t know that I was there.

It was my only purpose in life, my penance, to watch him and wait. Wait for the right time to tell him his place in things. At least three times I was tempted to be the one to initiate contact, but something would always stop me. At the time, I found it incredibly frustrating, and I would lock myself in my hovel and try to find peace about my waylaid plans. Each time, I would come out understanding that what had happened had been right, because things would have undoubtedly gone wrong if I had overstepped my bounds yet again. That’s the way the universe operates.

Or at least so I was taught.

Then, the opportunity was given to me. I almost told him everything, but I didn’t. He came to me, understand. I didn’t go looking for him, he came looking for me. After years of watching and waiting, he came to me. And I would tell anyone that asked that if there were signs to be sought, they were all there: I had him alone – well, mostly alone. Undistracted. None of his loud friends or busybody relatives bustling about to stop me.

It was perfect. It was time.

He even asked me what had happened. He actually asked me. The conversation had been going exactly as I imagined it would up to that point, and yet when he asked me, the words I had been practicing since I first came to this godforsaken place froze on my lips. It came on me suddenly – a feeling that I still mustn’t tell him. It still wasn’t time, even though everything seemed to be pushing me towards following my original plan.

I saw what would happen if he knew the truth right now. He sat before me, a boy filled with a beautiful optimism and purity, and those qualities would serve him well in life, but they would be his undoing if he knew the truth now. His goodness would make him obsess over the truth, he would go mad thinking that he could somehow make things right. He would run to him – and he wouldn’t be ready. And then all of his admirable qualities would be twisted and manipulated and turned into a dark abomination.

I saw him turn, right in front of me, in my home.  And he whispered that if this happened to him, it would once again be because of my impatience. As I was responsible for his father, I would be responsible for him.

And then I heard words that I had never rehearsed spill from my mouth, and I felt a guiltless guilt as I saw my lie spill over him. I knew that it was the right thing to do, even as I knew how deep his goodness ran, and how deeply he would feel betrayed when he found out the truth.

But he will understand, and he will forgive. That’s the man this boy will grow to be.

And when he’s old enough, he will be ready.

But not today.

“A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father…”

Wandering Stars

Bats on an asteroid? Whose idea was that?

I have to think a bunch of idiot dwarves were sitting around in their mines back on the dwarf world, discussing the things they’d miss most when they set out into space on their mission to strip asteroids of firegems. For some reason, they all agreed on little leather-winged flying rats.

Probably to help with homesickness out here in the belt.

That’s great for them, but for the rest of us, the bats aren’t so nice to have around. They swoop out of nowhere, they bite, and will even try to carry away small animals. They especially like to dive bomb me when I sit at the top of the arch of D’nash, like I’m doing now. So I stay low.

Other than the risk of bat-bite, the top of the arch is perfect for me. The dwarves refuse to look at it, which has something to do with their religion, so it lowers the odds that I’ll be spotted. My sister Meg told me that we should try to understand the dwarves to help us get along better with them, but I just don’t get it. Why bother having a religion if that religion doesn’t allow you to look at the monuments you build because of that religion?

Yeah, they brought their bats to the asteroid, they brought their religion, and they brought me and Meg and a whole bunch of other human slaves. They’re wonderful creatures, dwarves.

But as little as they pay attention to their religion, I figure that following their beliefs is still more important than a scrawny twelve year old human girl, so they don’t know or don’t care that I sit up here. Which is fine by me. If they did care, then I couldn’t get away with what I’m doing now.

I sit up as I see a flash of pink in the crowd below. What I’ve been waiting for – an orc administrator, wearing his standard pink jacket, pushing his self-important way through the crowded square below, totally unaware that he’d just been pegged to donate to the Human World Orphan’s Fund.

I just love orcs. Their skin has a delightful greenish color that reminds me of my vomit after I’ve eaten too much of Meg’s langua bean soup. Their eyes are as mesmerizingly black as the deepest, darkest, coldest mine, a color which – incidentally – matches the color of their black souls, if they have souls, which I don’t think that they do.

I mean, what’s not to love? They invaded my homeworld, destroying everything in the process, killed my parents, and then dumped Meg and me off as slaves for their stubby longbearded allies to take to the stars. I love them so much that it’s my pleasure to do what I can to inconvenience them whenever I get the chance. It’s just the kind of girl that I am.

Meg says I have a real problem with sarcasm.

If she only knew.

Looking back at the orc, this one is moving fast. Probably late for an important orc meeting, or maybe just late for dinner. Either way, it means I’ll have to move faster.

First, though, I scan the crowd until I see Turi, sitting obediently by a garbage receptacle, looking up at me, waiting for my signal.

He’s such a good dog. Slaves aren’t supposed to have pets, but I dare anyone to try and separate us. Three years ago I was walking past this goblin café on an errand for my owner when I heard this panicked yelping from around back. Meg says I’ve always been more curious than is healthy, but in this case, it saved Turi’s life, because I ran around back and found a horde of bats trying to carry this little brown fur ball off for dinner. He was only a puppy, but that day he became my puppy, and we’ve been inseparable ever since. We have a special connection, which makes what I’m trying to do here today that much easier.

I flick my hand and whisper, “go, boy!” and he immediately bursts into the crowd as if powered by dragonfire.

And that means I have to get down quick.

Fortunately, I’ve done this dozens of times. It’s just a matter of sliding down the arch while avoiding the razor sharp blades that stick out at random spots. They apparently symbolize the way dwarves are supposed to cut themselves in obedience to their gods or something.

What a weird religion.

But, as I’ve said, I’ve done this before, and so sliding down while avoiding the blades is not as hard as it sounds.

But avoiding the gaggle of dwarf nuns at the bottom, that’s another issue.

Of course it would be the only members of the bizarre religion who are permitted to look at the arch as they pray. Only now, they’re not looking at the arch. They’re looking at this scrawny human girl sliding down the arch towards them.

Crap.

When I hit the ground, I expect the nuns to start doing the same to me, and I’m prepared to take the beating long enough to satisfy their anger and then scurry away. But hit with a flash of inspiration, I grab my left ear, bow, and say, “V’rak D’nash!” (which means “Praise D’nash” in dwarvish). I hold my breath and tense, prepared to feel their little rock-hard fists pounding me from all sides. But when that doesn’t happen, I risk a glance. To my shock, the nuns are smiling at me! In unison, they grab their own right ears, bow, and say “P’nash D’nash!” (“May D’nash be praised”), then turn and walk away, giggling.

Maybe Meg was right after all?

Not wasting any more time on my near beat-down, I dive into the crowd, pushing my way through the crowds of dwarf miners, orc pilots, and some multi-limbed creatures that I don’t recognize until I see the puke green head and bright pink administrator jacket just ahead.

But before I can make my move, my way is blocked. I’m about to use some of the dwarf words that Meg never lets me use when I realize that it’s not a dwarf blocking me. It’s a man. A slave, heading for the mines. He’s wearing the simple brown work bibs that mine slaves are provided, a rough fabricated material that is just enough to provide protection, but nothing you would ever choose to wear. He’s linked to six or seven other men with energy beams that prevents them from running away (although there’s nowhere to run on a mining colony). And he looks at me with blank eyes, the result of spending most of his time in the darkness of the mines. For a moment, his eyes seem to clear.

“Anna?”

Then he and the others are pushed on by their dwarf minders, who don’t bother with me. After all, I’m wearing the crest of my owner Jazrah on my tunic. I’m obviously on important business. I breathe a prayer of thanks to D’nash that my owner works in shipping and not mining, or else Meg and I might be a part of that chain gang. But I can’t afford to be distracted, and so I hop past the last dwarf and run up ahead.

I’m about to give Turi the signal when I remember the cams. Dammit, I forgot the cams, and the cams capture everything in public places like this. Stupid bats distracted me. I now have a choice to make: either call the whole thing off and try again later, or try one of Meg’s spells. I’m not supposed to use them in public, but I do it all the time and nobody’s ever been any wiser for it. What Meg doesn’t know won’t hurt her.

I do it quickly, reciting the magic words my sister taught me and making a circular gesture with my left hand. If the spell works (and it usually does), the cams should be on a loop for the next few minutes. It’s not the best way to deal with them, but it’s the only choice I have now.

Knowing that Turi is ready (he’s such a good dog), I take a deep breath and whisper “Go boy”, and the dog is off like a flash, jumping in front of the administrator so quickly that the only thing he can do is go down in a flurry of arms and legs, the stack of sims he’s carrying for his work exploding from him like a wall cracker during the Remembrance Day celebrations.

It’s a perfect move.

I leap out to play my part, grabbing Turi by the back of his neck. “Bad dog!” I scold, sticking my finger in his face. Turi’s ears go back and he lowers his head, whining. Good boy, I think as I turn to the orc. “I’m so sorry,” I say, lowering my head like a good slave.

It’s all I can do not to laugh at the sight of the orc trying to stand and pick up the slips he’d dropped at the same time.

“Let me help you,” I start, scooping up handfuls of slips and shoving them at the orc in what appears to be a random and chaotic movement, but is in fact a move that I’ve practiced hundreds of times.

The administrator, as I expected, is not very interested in my help. The blue veins stand out in his green head, a sign of intense anger in an orc. It occurs to me that if this was one of the larger and angrier orcs – a pilot or a warrior – he would have twisted my head off by now. That’s why I picked an administrator. They get angry, but the nature of their work requires more restraint.

“Just leave it alone!” he shrieks. “Leave me alone!”

This one is surprisingly loud. Loud enough to attract unwanted attention, meaning that the Red Caps – the dwarf constables with their distinctive red caps – would likely be along soon to investigate the fracas. This means that it’s time to make my exit, especially now that the orc’s money bag is now tucked safely in the back of my tunic. So, I raise my hands, dropping the slips I’m still holding, I bow my head, and I back off.

And then, when I’m the required three paces away, I give a short whistle and Turi and I do our best vanishing act into the crowd.

Leaving behind a small victory for enslaved humans everywhere: a much angrier and much poorer orc administrator.

Yay for us.

Lies

 

The sound of her keys jangling sets off an eruption on the other side of the door. It always does, and so she always jangles them a bit louder than necessary to help prime the eruption. Today is no different, and they’re all there when she opens the door, bursting to welcome her home. The twins, who only learned to walk a few months ago, lead the charge. The toddler is close behind, and the corgie is in the midst of it all, adding his barks to the delighted cries of the children.

Behind the young, noisy crowd, he sits on the floor, the big bulky Legos spilled all around him, with a multi-colored house featuring Mickey Mouse’s head the main architectural feat of the day. He looks tired, as he usually does, as anyone would when taking care of three small children all day long. But still, he stands and approaches her, wading through the pool of youth to offer his own particular greeting.

“How was the trip?” he asks, kissing her. He tastes like brownies.

“Same as usual,” she says, kissing him back. The kids are wrapped around her legs, giggling, asking for presents, but she still takes the time to let her embrace communicate that she’d missed him. “Let me get changed, and then you can take a break. Should I start a bath?”

His smile is tinged with relief. “Join me?”

“Is this a group offer?” She asks, gesturing to the giggling children.

She sets her bag down in the closet and takes off her blouse. She’s about to take off her pants when she feels the familiar buzz of her cell phone in the pocket. She pulls it out and reads the message. She smiles, and then freezes. Did she hear someone in the bedroom?

“Honey?” She calls.

No answer.

She turns her attention back to the phone and feels a stirring as she taps out her reply. Then, swiping the screen to close the app, she decides to turn off notifications for incoming messages, just in case.

She finishes changing into her sweats, and pockets her phone as she rejoins her family.

She’s home.

Mostly.

 

Pureflix Announces Date for God’s Not Dead 4

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Following the success of God’s Not Dead, which was 2014’s highest grossing independent film, God’s Not Dead 2 which was the highest grossing independent religious sequel of 2016, and God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness which is the first Christian movie of the year to have seven words in the title, Christian film studio Pure Flix has announced a May 2018 return to the God’s Not Dead cinematic universe with a fourth installment of the franchise.

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Michael Scott addresses the faith-based film reporters.

According to Pure Flix founding partner Michael Scott, Pastor Dave: A God’s Not Dead Story will serve as a prequel reboot to the wildly successful faith-based film franchise, and was secretly being filmed at the same time as God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness so that it would be ready for a summer 2018 release.

“Audiences have continued to show support and interest in the GOD’S NOT DEAD films and their relatable characters.” Scott told a roomful of excited faith-based film reporters while gesturing at a small white board. “The increasingly diminishing success of these films shows that they’re hungry for more… and to us that meant PREQUEL!”

Pure Flix released the official synopsis of the new film on Easter morning at a special sunrise press conference at Pure Flix’s headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona. The event was hosted by Scott and Pure Flix co-founder and perennial star David A.R. (pronounced “ARGH”) White. Read it below:

Journey to an Arkansas of the early 1990’s in Pastor Dave: A God’s Not Dead Story, an all-new faith-based adventure with the most beloved pastor in the galaxy. Through a series of daring escapades deep within Arkansas’ dark and dangerous university underworld, Dave meets his mighty future best friend Jude and encounters the notorious atheist Jeffrey Radisson, in a journey that will set the course of one of the God’s Not Dead saga’s most unlikely heroes.

“This movie will be full of Christian pop culture references and nostalgia,” ARGH White told reporters as light from the rising sun streamed through the Pure Flix logo-emblazoned stained glass windows. “We’ve expended great resources to be able to secure the rights to a number of hit CCM acts from the 90’s, including the complete libraries of Stryper, Twila, Petra, Sandi Patti, White Heart, and Billy Sprague. All to help give the film an authentic 90’s Christian subculture vibe.”

When asked who would play the character of the much younger Pastor Dave (played by White in the movies), White simply grinned and said that it would be someone amazing. After being pressed a tiny bit more, White admitted that Pure Flix had recently invested in state-of-the-art motion capture technology that would enable him to play a young Pastor Dave himself.

“I’ve been playing this character for almost half a decade, so really, who knows him better?” White asked, slamming his hand on the desk for emphasis. “And the technology will make me look exactly like I looked when I first broke into the business back in the 1990’s.”

When asked if Kevin Sorbo and Benjamin Onyango would also be reprising their roles, White explained that he would be using the mocap technology to also play the roles of Jude and a young professor Radisson, as well as directing the film. He would also be playing most of the supporting roles.

To emphasize his point, White revealed an exclusive video clip of the upcoming film in which he played all the actors seen on screen.

While not much else is known about the film, White documented his experience making Pastor Dave: A God’s Not Dead Story on Twitter and Instagram throughout production — with everything from set photos to shots of his morning coffee. Thimblerig’s Ark has compiled all of his updates in one post, which you can view here.

Pastor Dave: A God’s Not Dead Story is set to open in 3,492 theaters on May 25, 2018.

What Ministry Resources Are Available For “I Can Only Imagine”, “Paul”, and “God’s Not Dead 3”?

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Last weekend, the movie industry was collectively stunned when the Erwin Brother’s I Can Only Imagine sold $17 million dollars worth of seats (which roughly equals $1.5 billion in concessions) on a $7 million dollar budget, the 4th best opening for a faith-based film ever.

This weekend, Affirm Films’ new Christian-themed film, Paul, Apostle of Christ, will open, followed Easter weekend by Pure Flix’s third film in the God’s Not Dead franchise, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. That’s three major Christian-made films opening across the nation in a two week period, films that have been made both as cinematic experiences as well as ministry opportunities.

This is one of the things that sets the so-called “faith-based film” genre apart from most other genres – the idea that the films are meant to be more than just entertainment, but entertainment with spiritual ramifications: an opportunity to learn about the Christian faith in a non-threatening, neutral environment for those outside the faith, or a chance for spiritual growth for people who are already followers of Jesus Christ.

To illustrate what I mean by this, on the website for I Can Only Imagine, we’re told, “A gripping reminder of the power of forgiveness, I CAN ONLY IMAGINE beautifully illustrates that no one is ever too far from God’s love—or from an eternal home in Heaven.” Paul, Apostle of Christ has a page on it’s website where James Faulkner, who plays Paul in the film, reads portions of Scripture as a tool for Christians observing the season of Lent. The makers of God’s Not Dead 3: Light in the Darkness sayGOD’S NOT DEAD: A LIGHT IN DARKNESS is a powerful reminder that in all circumstances, we are called to be a light for Jesus to a world in desperate need of hope.”

And so Christian-made filmmakers will often develop ministry tools to encourage churches and individuals to take the film as more than just entertainment. This can be interpreted in at least three ways: one, that the filmmakers are genuinely wanting their films to make a spiritual impression on audiences; two, that the filmmakers recognize that ministry resources are another revenue stream and an encouragement to sell bulk tickets to entire churches; and three, a combination of the two.

The second option might seem cynical, but it can’t be disputed that filmmaking – even Christian-made filmmaking – is big business. It’s especially indisputable now that we are living in a time where three modestly budgeted Christian-made films featuring well known actors are being released in thousands of cinemas across the country in two weeks. These films represent hundreds of filmmaking professionals, thousands of hours of work, millions of dollars of investment, and so it makes sense that many decisions connected to these films are directly related to the potential big payoffs that will hopefully accompany them. But at the same time, they are also legitimate means for opening discussions about spiritual and theological issues, and this is where the ministry tools come into play.

What about the three movies being released now? What sorts of ministry resources are they offering? Are they giving away ministry resources, charging for them, or both?

cityonahillOn the I Can Only Imagine website, we are directed to a page that links to a few different things. The first is a link to City on a Hill’s website where the majority of ministry resources are offered, including: a small group study ($39.99); a journal ($14.99); a leader’s guide ($14.99); a church campaign kit ($79.99); and others. Back on the movie’s website, you can also purchase Bart Millard’s autobiography, A MercyMe album, an I Can Only Imagine children’s book, and a host of other things including a bunch of framed art.

The website doesn’t list any free ministry resources other than some free downloadables such as video clips and web banners.

paulA trip to the Paul, Apostle of Christ website finds a much smaller resource operation going on, with more resources being given away. Like I Can Only Imagine, Paul‘s website offers a few free downloadable social media items, but they also offer a couple of ministry resources including a reasonably comprehensive discussion guide and a more concise church leader packet, all available as free downloads.

Interestingly, you’ll find no church campaign kits advertised on the Paul website, but I did some digging around and found out that Outreach is selling one for $49.95.

Our final stop on the Christian-made movie tour takes us to Pure Flix’s God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness webpage and the first thing that struck me when visiting this website was that you can tell that Pure Flix has done this before.

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The main clue is the way they handle the campaign kit. It’s not just a simple Bible study or sermon guide selling from $49.45 to $79.99. Rather, it’s a kit to help your church buy out a theater and hold a premiere event experience complete with optional red carpet (extra $199) and backdrop for photos (extra $370 for a 9’8″x 7’2″ Jumbo Sleeve Banner). How much for this experience? Roughly $2,500. This is being billed as an experience where your church or organization would need to purchase at least 250 seats – essentially buying out the theater – and the cost would include many of the same things you get in a typical campaign kit.

Interestingly – and this is what sets Pure Flix apart from the other companies – you cannot purchase a church campaign kit without the theater buyout.

Here is a video they include explaining their strategy:

So your church’s options are two (A) buy out the theater and give away the tickets or (B) buy out the theater and charge your church members and guests to attend. Either way, Pure Flix is passing the costs down the line and insuring that they will sell out theaters. Is it a good ministry model? A good movie business model? Both?

Interestingly, on Pure Flix’s “premiere partner” FAQ page, they have this question and answer:

 

I Can Only Imagine Spurs Copycat Productions

imagesA Thimblerig’s Ark Exclusive

This weekend, The Erwin Brothers shocked all of Hollywood when their $7 million budgeted biopic about a Christian musician bowed to the tune of a $17 million take at the box office. The movie’s numbers stunned all the analysts who had predicted it would make a much more modest $1.5 million to $8 million, and unconfirmed reports say that at least two studio executives who passed on the project have resigned and started frozen yogurt shops in their respective hometowns.

Thimblerig’s Ark is fortunate enough to have eyes and ears all over Hollywood, and so we were not so shocked or stunned to find out that wheels were immediately set in motion all over Tinseltown this weekend in an attempt to capture faith-based lightning in a bottle, as they always seem to do when a movie shocks and stuns them. Who can forget what happened after the phenomenal success of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” back in 2002? Six months later we had to endure a spate of copycat movies trying to jump on the wedding bandwagon, with “My Somewhat Large Kazakh Wedding”, “My Huge and Dominating Somali Wedding”, and the surprisingly entertaining counter-programming attempt starring Mr. Bean,  “My Tiny Little Iberian Divorce.”

Our sources tell us that soon after the numbers started rolling in, representatives from all the major production companies started rolling out to Nashville to strike deals of their own with Christian songwriters in an attempt to have the next “I Can Only Imagine”. Yes, as we were tucked all snug in our beds with visions of Bart Millard dancing in our head, deals were being struck and IPs were being purchased all across Music City.

Here are just some of the movies that are reportedly now “in the works”:

1. “God of Wonders”  written by Marc Byrd and Steve Hindalong was reportedly purchased by representatives of Lucasfilm, who – our sources tell us – were impressed by the intergalactic themes of the song. Inspired by the partnership model set by the Erwin Brothers, George Lucas will reportedly co-direct with Steven Spielberg, and there’s talk that they will take a common last name “Lucberg” to complete the brother effect. Sources say that The Lucberg Brothers have north of $200M set aside for this big budget sci-fi worship project.

2. “God of this City” written by Chris Tomlin has been picked up by Christopher Nolan’s Syncopy Inc, with Nolan attached to direct. Our sources tell us that Nolan was attracted to the urban feel of the song, and imagines a biopic of Tomlin – shot entirely with practical effects – where we learn about the singer’s rise in the Christian music industry – having a string of number one hits, selling out coliseums and amphitheaters – while also learning Tomlin’s lesser known story of dressing as a dark avenging angel and fighting crime on the side. Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are rumored to be considering the part of Chris Tomlin.

3. “The Warrior Is A Child” by Twila Paris. There is little information about this collaboration, but sources tell us that helmer Patty Jenkins met with Paris for several hours at a back table in Nashville’s Frothy Monkey, pounding out details. One source suggested that certain words were overheard (“armor”, “sword”, “mystical beam of light”) that suggest that Jenkins is planning on taking Paris’s life story mythological, possibly piggybacking on the success of Wonder Woman to make the classic CCM artist’s story into a rousing action adventure film.

4. “Awesome God”, “Step by Step”, and “Screendoor on a Submarine” by Rich Mullins. A reboot trilogy planned around the life of the late singer/songwriter Rich Mullins is apparently in the works with helmer Michael Bay. Bay was said to have met with representatives of the Mullins estate in a double wide trailer outside of Wichita, Kansas where he laid out his plan to tell Mullin’s life story as an “explosive trilogy triptych” using each song as a framing device for each movie, the final movie being filmed entirely underwater in a screened-in submarine. Reportedly, the earlier low-budget indy film “Ragamuffin” will be decanonized and now officially referred to as a “Mullins Legend”.

5. “Friends” by Michael W. Smith. One of the most surprising acquisitions has to be Martin Scorcese’s purchase of Michael W. Smith’s evergreen song, celebrating the joy of Christian friendship. Does this signal a change of direction in the venerable director’s career? Is he moving away from serious dramatic films into the realm of lighthearted buddy movies? Or, will Scorsese take this staple of Christian high school graduations in a surprisingly dark direction? Only time will tell.

Christian Film Distributors, What Are You Doing To Your Audience?

This month, three big Christian-made films are being released within a two week period.

I Can Only Imagine, the new film by the Erwin Brothers (Woodlawn, Mom’s Night Out) about the life of singer Bart Millard (of Mercy Me fame) is being released on March 15.

Paul, Apostle of Christ, the spring’s annual sword and sandal Bible movie starring Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) as Luke the apostle, is being released eight days later on March 23. [editor’s note: it was originally the 28th, but the date was moved up in February]

And God’s Not Dead 3: A Light in Darkness, the third film in the Pure Flix God’s Not Dead franchise, is being released a week later on March 30.

March 15, March 23, and March 30.

Guys, what are you doing to your audience?

First, it’s important to point out the key audience for these kinds of movies. While the people behind the movies probably hope that the films will be seen outside the Christian subculture, the truth is that all three were custom made for the Big Christian Audience. And if believers don’t turn up for any one of these films, then they will have miserable opening weekends, shortened in-cinema lives, and unfortunate box office returns.

So then why release them so closely together? If all three films are depending on the same audience, why put yourself into a position where you’re forcing that audience to choose between them?

Consider the average costs associated with going to see a film in 2018.

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According to Deadline, the average price of a movie ticket last year was about $9.00. Time tells us that the average price of babysitting is about $14.00/hour. And then if you want snacks at the movies, you’ll pay around $5.00 for the restrained purchase of a small drink and $7.00 for an equally restrained small popcorn.

Forget about a box of Junior Mints (another $4.00 if you don’t sneak it in after buying the same box at the Dollar Store for, yes, a dollar).

And then we have the miscellaneous costs. Transportation, parking, and dinner before the movie.

Now, let’s imagine a couple with children decides to support these films, but leave the kids at home. They will potentially spend about $80 each time they go, and that’s not including the miscellaneous expenses. So, if they support all three of these films, they will be spending close to $250 in the month of March in movies alone.

I don’t know any couples with children who budget that kind of money on movies.

Heck, you could pay $12.00 a month for unlimited movies on Netflix, including faith-based movies, all while staying in the comfort of your home eating snacks bought in bulk at Costco.

Samson-Malaysia-PosterAnd guys… all of this congestion… it’s so unnecessary! Looking over the calendar of faith-based films being released this year, there really aren’t that many on the docket. Samson, the last big faith-based release, came out in February, but there aren’t that many big budget releases happening this year aimed at Christian audiences.

And yet, we have these three, all jockeying for position, all wanting the same butts in the seats, and all bottle-necked around Easter.

The Christian faith’s most sacred time of year.

I can only imagine that this blog post will somehow find it’s way to the folks who make these sorts of decisions, and so I’m going to close by addressing them directly. And I’m going to call them Monica and Chandler to make it seem more personal, and because I’m currently binging old episodes of Friends.

Hi Monica and Chandler,

I really appreciate what you guys are trying to do by making and releasing films for Christian audiences. I’m grateful that you are exploring how to use the medium of film to promote the Gospel, and how you are improving the product you release with each passing year. Things really are getting better!

But you really need to do a better job thinking through this distribution thing next time. After all, it’s in your best interest to maximize the return on the investments made by the film’s backers, as well as to give your audience the chance to support the work that you do. It’s like if three studios released three superhero movies at the same time. None of them will do as well as they would have if there’d been some breathing room built into the releases. I don’t even work for Hollywood and I recognize this.

I have to confess – most of us don’t know or understand the mechanics of doing what you do, we just know the finished product. We don’t understand the politics behind the relationships of your companies, we just know that we want to watch what your company produces.

But if you claim to share our faith and share each other’s faith, then you need to work together in this sort of thing. Spread things out. Give us some breathing room. Allow us the chance to get our affairs in order between films. Even though we may not turn up to see your films every time like you’d like, you should really remove all the obstacles that would prevent us from doing so, should we want to.

It just makes sense.

Thank you!

Nate
(on behalf of the Big Christian Audience)