I Don’t Take Yer Meanin’: The Angler

But what did it mean…?

I’m the guy who, at the end of a movie, will turn to the people in the group and say, “Yeah, the effects were good, the acting was fine, the dialogue was zippy. But what did it mean?” You’ve heard of Captain Obvious? I’m Admiral Pretention.

I’ve recommended stuff to read, or watch, to people who come back with quizzical expressions. “It was okay,” they’ve said, “but I didn’t see what the big deal was.” I pick up a subtext, probably imagined: You sure you’re not trying to make stuff more important than it is, and thus, legitimize your love for it?

This is a valid point. Sometimes it’s good to enjoy stuff on a purely sensory level. I don’t look into the hidden meaning behind tacos. I find t-shirts that try to be cerebral to instead be just annoying. Def Leppard is almost completely devoid of meaning, but they rock and thus I love them.

Ah, but stories! If they don’t have meaning, then they lack the crust that makes the sugar, apples and cinnamon come together into a delicious pie. Without it, all you’ve got is a goopy mess.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I remember recommending Watchmen, the seminal comic book of the ‘80s, to a friend. He came back, saying, “It was a good comic.” And that was it. I was the confused one that time. Didn’t he see what I saw? It wasn’t a comic … it was a treatise on human desire for power, justice, transcendence, and how small it all feels in the void of a cold, nihilistic world. I love comics, but Watchmen wasn’t just a ‘good comic.’ Da noive a’ dat guy!

I believe most people, whether they’re aware of it or not, long for transcendence. They want to know what they see around them isn’t all there is. It’s why they look at injustice and say, “Things shouldn’t be this way,” or why they cry at weddings and funerals. When people look around them and say, “I don’t think any of this adds up to anything,” they’ve truly lost hope.

I believe everything means something. Life is not just a collection of random events. This all really does add up to something of infinite value. And that’s how I like my stories. They may not take me to a place where we all agree, but if they make me reflect, even in a small way on the life around me, then I’ve spent my time wisely.

So, anyway, The Angler.

My friend Jess and I like to collaborate on screenplays from time to time. Another friend, John, a filmmaker in his own right, asked us to write a short script for him.

We came up with an idea about a kid whose courage has been called into question by his mom’s surly boyfriend. Toby then encounters a difficult problem in the basement of an abandoned hotel. It was a fun idea. Maybe a little ambitious, production-wise, for a short film. We eventually dropped it.

I liked the idea, though, and it didn’t let go of me (I rarely write stories from a premise I got in the previous 24 hours). And it’s got a haunted hotel-type of trope working for it. I love those. The Shining is a personal favorite (ask me what The Shining means and I’ll give you more conversation then you probably want).

But there’s also some meaning here. Toby Jones is a kid with a mother he loves in spite of her questionable choices. Mom’s boyfriend is bad news. He’s abusive, calculating, belittling, and he treats Toby like a scared mouse. So when Toby gets to the hotel and the surprise waiting for him in the basement, he’s got something to prove. Will he succeed? Will there be repercussions from his choices? There better be—choices with no repercussions don’t look a thing like life.

One thing for sure was, I couldn’t just have Toby find the surprise in the basement, then head home with his friend Jimmy and play Atari 2600 (it’s set in the ‘80s). It had to mean something. Toby had to come through this a different person (if he survived), or else the point of Toby, his mother, evil Jake, or for that matter me sitting down to write it, would be lost. That’s another thing about me: I hate wasted effort.

Did I just attempt to elevate this story to Matters of Universal Import? Well … I didn’t get my admiral stripes for nothing. And, at its heart I think it’s a pretty good scary story. I like the people who inhabit it. I hope others will also. And if they think on heady things like the nature of courage, of assuming the mantle of responsibility, of innocence lost … well, so much the better.

All image attributions as they appear on the page:
Still from Great Expectations ©1998 by 20th Century Fox
Image photographed by David Egan
Haunted House painting: source unknown
The Angler Fish illustrated by Omar J Cruz Rubio