Friends and Enemies

We weren’t going to see the Social Network but then we heard the inexplicable: that was good. You wouldn’t think there could be a way for this to be true. A 2 hour movie about the legal troubles of the socially inept uber-dork who founded Facebook?  But it is not just a good movie but a genuinely fantastic movie.

A lto f this has to do with the writer. Aaron Sorkin made a name for himself with the West Wing, pioneering the heavy expo-speak dialogue that made a show about the inner workings of the White House nto just compelling and dramatic but gave it humor, heart and context. Sorkin’s script for the Social Network does this with what feels like little effort. people have extnsive conversations about two or three topics at once, interwoven over time, while dropping pop culture references to highlight the emotional bits and it all just sings. That is how this story works and I can’t think of another writer today who could have pulled it off, making legalese, technical computer jargon and geek-speak seem natural and real.

The soundrack also carries a lot of weight and is masterfuly done by trent Reznor. It’s some of his best work and that’s coming from a fan form way back.

I was feleign a bit down abotu this years crop of movies, wondering what contendors would emerge for the Oscars but between Inception and The Social Network, I’m feleing much better about it all.

All The Same Stories Told Differently

Over at AMC’s filmcritic blog, John Scalzi makes a very good and needed distinction:

I’ve been pretty consistent in my opinion that Hollywood goes a little too often to the well of sequels and remakes, but, philosophically, I don’t really have any problem with filmmakers dipping out of the same well of inspiration or playing with the same basic ideas and running variations of those themes, especially when the filmmakers themselves have wildly divergent perspectives. As an example of this, I give you Michael Herr’s Vietnam War memoir, Dispatches, which served as a partial inspiration for at least two films. In the hands of Francis Ford Coppola, it was transmuted into Apocalypse Now. In the hands of Stanley Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket. That’s not a bad spread there.

Inception doesn’t have similarities just to Dreamscape, of course. You could spend a merry day name checking influences from a number of cinematic predecessors, including the aforementioned Matrix and Dark City and, of course, director Christopher Nolan’s own Batman movies. But for me, as a viewer, the question isn’t whether a filmmaker uses the same basic ideas as one film or borrows other ideas from another film and outright steals them from a third. The question for me is what the filmmakers do once they start putting those ideas together as a film. Do it poorly as a filmmaker, and you’ll be told you’ve created a cheap knockoff. Do it well, and you’ll be told you’ve breathtakingly reinvented the concept.

Just replace movie titles with book titles and the same could be said for all of literature, going back to the Epic of Gilgimesh. We all know that there’s nothing new under the sun* but the point isn’t to just photocopy the works that came before, but to reinvent them and do so with the full awareness that the act of telling a story puts you squarely in that weird space where you are confluent with history, art and human imagination. How you choose to fit yourself into that continuity is up to you and the choices you make as a story teller.

* Like all the best cliches, this one comes form the Bible. If it was true 3000 years ago, you can understand better why today we live in a world with 11 Doctors, 6 James Bonds and 5 Batmen.

A Phoney by Another Name

An interesting article at Salon about the debate over whether or not to adapt Catcher in the Rye into a movie touches on something I’ve been thinking on for a while, namely, movie adaptations of books. For the record, I’m, indifferent to the debate about Catcher in the Rye. I’m one of maybe two people on the planet who thinks that book is highly overrated.[1]

Whether or not Salinger ever wanted it adapted, he’s dead and its pretty much just a debate of not if but when. And since Hollywood doesn’t make original movies anymore,[2] When will very likely be soon and repeatedly. But why? When did having a book or comic or song or board game made into a movie become the cultural standard on which a work’s merit must be judged? Whcih isn’t to say that some adaptations aren’t great but not every story works as a movie.

I’m just finishing up reading The Three Musketeers and the second most striking thing about the book[3] is how it highlights just how all pale imitations of the source material all the film adaptations are. More than that, they never could be anything but second rate retellings of the story. It’s too big, too wide and to much to put in a single movie. A Television miniseries might do it justice, if it were on HBO or showtime. No timid Network would ever touch a story where the main characters were a bunch of wine-drunk sword fighters, manipulating mistresses for their living and picking fights with the guard of the Cardinal of France just for fun. The values-dissonance alone would drive the dimwitted TV audience of today into fits.

Catcher in the Rye would never work as a movie for a whole host of other reasons, mainly having to do with the fact that most of the book is just a running monologue of the main character’s rambling self loathing and whining. Yeah, I’m sure that will do well. Maybe they can run it against Avatar 2.

The point is, Catcher and Musketeers and a hundred other novels don’t need to be movies.[4] They work just fine as written. And if Hollywood started making real movies again and not just 3 hour long commercials for T-shirts and pop tarts, with nothing but gimmicks to prop up their lousy craftsmanship, maybe Salinger and other writers skeptical of what sort of a mockery would be made of their work wouldn’t be so fearful and reluctant to provide their talent to the dream factory.

1. And besides, its influence on writing and film making is, for better or worse, already apparent, so the only reason to adapt it now is to cash in on Baby Boomer/Gen X nostalgia.

2. They’re making a movie out of Battleship. The board game. With the little pegs and plastic ships, where you bore each other for an hour calling out grid coordinates. Yes, that one. It’s bad enough that Hollywood has grown so risk adverse that they’re rebooting and remaking films that aren’t even old, but that they’d rather make a movie out of a board game than greenlight something original, just so they can have something familiar to tie into.

3. The most striking thing about the book is just how great it is. Here’s a sprawling adventure story full of swearing, fighting, lust, intrigue, sex, scandal, and gallantry. what’s not to love? Half the book is made up of the various ways D’artangion and the Musketeers get money from their mistresses and then piss it away on wine, gambling and doctor’s bills, all while swearing that they aspire to greater things. Athos keeps saying how he’s going to quit the Musketeers and join an abbey. He’s like all those Americans who keep threatening to move to Canada, only he’s also a bad ass poet and sword fighter.

4. Mine aren’t among them. Never let it be said I was too proud not to cash in. Call me Hollywood. The film rights can be yours.

Next On Sci-Fi Theater…

Over at io9, Charlie Jane asks a very good question:

Is science fiction uniquely suited to blockbuster movies, because it’s a genre that lends itself to explosions and rampant breasts? And conversely, is the Hollywood version of science fiction too action-oriented ever to spawn more quirky, arty shows like Mad Men or Glee?

The question arose because of Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris, who pointed out the inescapable conclusion that TV shows are generally of higher quality than movies. He reached this conclusion by comparing the abysmal movie selection in the theaters with the stellar selection of dramatic television programming starting up their summer seasons. But this isn’t a recent problem. Going back years, maybe even decades, there’s certain expectations that arise when it comes to science fiction.

In the minds of most people, Sci-fi is just a shallow mess of cliches that lead to boobs and explosions. Literate people know differently but we’re not exactly Hollywood’s target audience.This isn’t entirely the fault of Hollywood execs, as movie goers still pay money to see movies like Transformers. As long as we’re letting the trash be the only example on the Big Screen, no one will give a rats ass about good sci-fi movies.

And until there’s a sci-fi show that doesn’t blow it’s wad of goodwill and potential on an ending that isn’t A)quasi-mystical, B) incoherent, or C) Both then no one will take it seriously on TV.

What we need to prove Sci-fi in a visual medium isn’t shallow is a science fictional equivalent of Mad Men or The Wire. Something that can get people talking and not be silly.

(I’d settle for the sci-fi equivalent of True Blood, a soap opera with T&A that has tight storytelling and good acting, but only as a stepping stone.)

As for what to do about good sci-fi movies, I’m out of ideas. Until the franchises and remakes die off, there’s really no hope for original sci-fi movie making. The inglorious demise of Moon proved that. What should have been the biggest Science Fiction film since Star Wars or Blade Runner was swallowed whole and shat out by the likes of Transformers and Avatar.

As Charlie Jane suggests, this may be the result of the cognitive demands of a mythos-heavy genre show:

[…] maybe the thing that’s making television more ambitious, and a denser experience for audiences, is harder to do with genre shows because it’s asking too much of viewers. We can handle genre elements within the predictable formula of the self-contained story — but if you’re going to tell us a long, twisty story where every installment just takes you further into the world of the characters, then that’s asking enough, right there. You can’t expect the average viewer to deal with long-running narrative complexity and grapple with aliens or time travel. Or maybe the model of the long-running serialized drama doesn’t work with genre elements, because the mythos becomes too confusing for the average person.

This sounds like a compelling argument and there may be a microgram of truth to it but I think there’s something more fundamental goign on here.

There’s nothing original anymore. This isn’t just a cynical complaint, it’s an operating principal for being a successful creative person.  Understand this principal and move on to creating an interesting well developed story that uses the tropes and hooks we’re familiar with to do something with a satisfying dramatic arc. Dollhouse wasn’t too original for it’s own good. It was dicked around with by the usual suspects at Fox. Had it been on Showtime or HBO it’d be starting it’s 3rd season now. But that’s neither here nor there.

Let’s use True Blood as an example: this is a story that uses familiar tropes (vampires and werewolves exist). But what sets it apart from Twilight is the characters and how the writers develop that concept into a compelling story. You could do a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon style retrofuturist sci-fi series, complete with ray guns and rockets with a contemporary spin on it and not only would people love it, they’d demand more. The catch is, the writing and characters. There’s no intrinsic difference between vampires and aliens or werewolves and robots. They’re just different flavored metaphors.

But to do a successful show with either, they have to be up to the standards of good TV writing we’ve come to expect. That was not the case with the recent Flash Gordon series but it very well could have been, if someone had been put in charge who had vision. Syfy cut corners though, and that’s the first step towards doom, regardless of medium.

Not The Perseus You’re Looking For

Over at Salon, Martha Nichols asks, why can’t Hollywood make good mythic movies?

Watching the trailer for “Clash of the Titans,” I know as surely as the Oracle of Delphi that this movie will be foul. A remake of the 1981 film — fantasy classic to some, pure hokum to others — it will swoop upon us April 2.

Here’s what I wonder: Why has no halfway decent director made a film about the Greek gods and their attendant nymphs and heroes? I don’t mean contemporary retellings like “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” I mean a movie that re-creates the Greek gods on their own terms.

Think about what James Cameron or Peter Jackson could do with this material — the original stuff from Hesiod and Ovid and Apollodorus, which is so much better than toga-clad extras and grunts fighting giant scorpions.

We could expand this question: why can’t Hollywood make good movies? (which are our myths)

Like Martha Nichols, I’m a huge fan of mythology and like all mythology buffs, I was weened on that particular sub genre known as Greek Mythology.[1] This is where a lot of our culture comes form and some of the greatest, most dramatic stories are told there. But they remain only on paper. The thin shadows of these tales that get made into films are a disappointment, because they lack the scale, the grandeur and the sheer weirdness of the source material. The reaosn is simple: money.

Hollywood movies cost tens of millions of dollars to make.[2] And being concerned with the bottom line before anything else (if anything else, sometimes), producers want a sure thing. That means shaving off the sharp points that might cut or sting and hacking off anything that might offend the small minded bigotries of Real Americans.[3] So: no art for you. All that incestuous, bloody tragedy, that lascivious intent and dark, squirming beauty that makes the myths live is omitted. Instead, we get soldiers killing monsters and saving the (always white, usually blond) princess. Sweet dreams and good night. Don’t think too hard about what it might mean, it’s just shadows on the cave wall.

Which is a shame because if you were to make a straight up, bloody myth, with gods and goddesses scheming and plotting for petty reasons and thwarting the dreams of man, you could make millions.[4] There’s a reason these stories have persisted for three thousand years: they speak to our hearts and tell us about ourselves. Whenever you watch a  movie and feel it’s lacking something but can’t tell what– this is what! It lacks the tragic beauty of myth.

1. Fun fact: the Greek myths aren’t all Greek. They come from a wide range of cultural source material, some of it Egyptian, some of it Persian, all filtered through a loose conglomeration of Greek authors who lived centuries apart and came from different Hellenic cultures, even. Greece isn’t a huge place but it was by no means a monocutlure. it was more like the crossroads where a dozen different cultures (Spartan, Mycenaean, Thracian, Athenian, etc.) all met and swapped their best stories. It was the original crossover comics, the first mash ups. You think adding zombies to Jane Austen novels was fun? How about a movie where the Athenians fight the zombie armies of Hades? You don’t really even have to stretch the myth too far to fit it in.

2. These days, the big tent pole action pictures start their budgets at 100 mil. Avatar cost 500 mil. Half a billion dollars. There are countries in Europe with GDP smaller than one movie. This is why the story that movie tells is so bland and predictable. In order to recoup that much cash, there was no room to take chances.

3. We used to call them yokels. Now, they’re the GOPs base and their Queen, Sarah Pallin, is jealous and petty, like any good would-be goddess.

4. And as Nichols points out, making the cast more multicultural would actually be closer to the source material, so your world market comes built in.

The Wookie Always Wins

Paul Campos over at Lawyers Guns and Money makes an interesting observation about the lingua franca of our modern world, pop culture references:

[…] at this point I find that the only two film references that I can always count on the vast majority of the class to get are The Wizard of Oz and the first Star Wars trilogy. I’m wonder about the extent to which technology has and will gradually change this circumstance — that it is or will make pop culture, both in its high art and low schlock manifestations, more reliably intergenerational as pedogogical references or just subjects of general conversation.

Technological innovations in distribution like Netflix and streaming video are certainly going to provide a much larger window onto the collective pop culture scene than was previously available. Netflix alone has recently been granted access to stream the entire back catalog of MGM. There are silent movies on YouTube, in their entirety. This is a far cry from even when I was a kid, and we only knew the movies that could be rented on VHS. If ti was out of print or hadn’t ever been issued to begin with, it may as well have not existed. However. This doesn’t mean the kids these days are going to know what you’re talking about when you mention China Town or Dirty Harry or even The Shining. Just because they can watch those movies doesn’t mean they’re going to. Other than the odd teenage cinophile, there’s no reason to expect every teenager[1] to have seen The Princess Bride, even if it is one of the best movies ever.The flip side of this are the outliers. Movies like Star Wars and Wizard of Oz and Indiana Jones, those pieces of art that have become embededed in the culture at large. Everyone gets a star Wars reference or an Oz reference, even if they’v enever seen the movies because parts of those stories have become so pervasive, you pick it up through osmosis, or just repetition and homage.[2]

This is part of a larger set of assumptions that educators and librarians are runnign into when it comes to the younger generation of students. I keep seeing this in the university where I work, where everyone assumes the Millennials[3] are all computer experts. The problem is, this expectation has been around since they were children and what I’m finding more and more is, since everyone assumes these kids already know how to work with computers, they’ve never bothered to train them to do anything. So they come to college and something as simple as format a word document is beyond their ability to comprehend.

Basically, it’s safe to assume that they’ll get the Star Wars references but if you want to riff on The Venture Bros.or Firefly, you may need to test their knowledge before hand. You may be surprised at what they have seen but will definitely be shocked at what they haven’t.

That, and for the love of Steve, add a basic computer literacy course to your school’s curriculum.

1. Or even people in their mid twenties. I’m surprised at the number of people just five or six years younger than me who had never seen Labyrinth and had no idea that something like the Dark Crystal even existed. And these weren’t exactly sheltered people. It’s just not something they would have thought to look for and so never were exposed to it.

2. My wife had enver seen Casablanca until a few years ago. After watching it she wass startled at just how many lines and scenes she knew, because that movie had been so thoroughly assimilated into our culture.

3. I detest generational tags like this but that’s to be expect form an old Gen Xer like myself.

All You Need is Hate

Over at the Onion Av club, they have an interesting discussion of movies, TV shows and music that people have fallen out of love with. As much as I’m loathe to admit it, Sam Adams has a point about Tim Burton. I still think Beatlejuice is a great movie and enjoy Sweeny Todd but I have to admit, Burton is a hit or miss director. Even if we exclude Mars Attacks!, He’s hitting about a 50/50 average, with most of the good stuff falling into his early career. I’m still looking forward to Alice in Wonderland though.

But, alas, I have fallen out of love with a few filmmakers and musicians. Once upon a time, I used to love Bjork, swan dress and all. But only recently, I’ve found that I can’t stand to listen to any of her music, even Vespertine. I’m not sure if her Mathew Barney-inspired last album has retroactively tainted her music or what but Bjork has lost me.

I’ve already documented (possibly in a bit too much detail) my falling out with George Lucus. Let’s just let that one go. The Star Wars trilogy was completed in 1983 and as far as I’m concerned, he’s done nothing since but fiddle with speakers.

I’ve also come to realize that David Lynch is just not a good director. None of his movies even attempt to be satisfying films, or psychological pictures of the inner workings of a character or even just a decent story. I couldn’t even make it more than half way through Inland Empire before I was just bored. He just makes weird art filmic things that invovle actors and ocasionally there’s even something that apes the basic outline of a plot but in the rare event that shows up, it’s quickly ushered out back and beaten to death with a tire iron.

There is hope though: for years I was pretty much bored with Star Trek but the new movie reminded me what I saw in the first place and managed to reinvigorate my love for the older movies as well, even ones I had previously written off as sentimental and week stories.* It’s possible Bjork’s next album will remind me of what I saw in her music or that the rumored live-Action Star Wars TV show said to be starting up filming in Australia will remind me of the Star Wars of my youth. I wouldn’t count on it though.

*Except Nemesis. That one still sucks.

Uncle Larry and the Thundersmurfs of Pandora

John Scalzi reviews Avatar and makes explicit what we already knew:

Cameron has enough of a track record that even without seeing this film I pretty much know how it will be: Amazing visually and technically, with a story that ranges from barely passable to moderately intriguing, with the weaknesses of the story compensated for by a better than average cast of actors and very well integrated action sequences. That’s pretty much a given at this point.

But what about that story?

The story was serviceable, and serviceable, lest we forget, is actually a positive.

No, a serviceable story is not positive, especially when we consider how much money was spent on this particular film. Cameron could have hired any number of willing screen writers, dialogue masters, sci-fi novelists or monkeys with typewriters to help him make the story as impressive as his visuals. But he didn’t. I’d bet money the idea never even crossed his mind. Because to Cameron and most movie producers, big sci-fi action films don’t need a compelling story. In fact, movie audiences have been trained to not even bother looking for one, and so the stories have become mere plot coupons to carry the audience from one exploding set piece to another without boring them too much. You see this more than most with Avatar, where many of the reviews gloss over the story and spend most of the time talking about the effects. That’s all the movie is really about. The fact that it all hangs on a shallow skeleton of a story is not even mentioned, or if it is, apologized for, as if a complex and engaging story is somehow a sin. “Heavens, let’s not irritate the mouth breathers by making them think too hard about what they’re seeing!”

And of course what they’re seeing is pure racist tripe. It’s the noble savage, wrapped up in a burrito of white guilt/anti-imperialism with a dollop of muddled racial essentialism on top. Or, as Michael Berube summarized it:

…the disabled jarhead goes into the Matrix, dances with wolves, falls in love with the princess, and (as Janet says) learns to paint with all the colors of the wind.  And people are complaining that they’ve seen this movie before?  Good grief, people, can’t you see that you’re getting at least five or six movies for the price of one?  I mean, you’ve even got some Antz in there, you’ve got Vasquez from Aliens reunited with Sigourney Weaver (hey, and some guys from the Company, too!), and you’ve got a bunch of Ursula LeGuin narratives incorporated by implication. The visuals really are stunning, and how great is it that they actually called the mineral ”unobtainium”?  It’s like calling it “macguffinite ore.”

But at least it looks pretty. (And yes, I’m “over”thinking it).

I realize I’m pissing into the wind in demanding better stories for my money.* The market for such a thing is against me. Audiences don’t demand better stories, and so directors and producers don’t make them. And until they do, we will see only thinner and thinner spectacle. Bread and circuses, chariot races around gladiators stabbing bears, noble savage myths about Thundersmurfs. It’s the same shit, warmed over again.

* $10 13 for a 3D-induced headache is not my idea of a good time. Maybe I’m getting old and cranky, and will soon start muttering about children and lawns, but I refuse to pay money for the privilege of minor head trauma. If James Cameron wants to beat me up, fine, but I won’t let him mug me while he’s at it.

The Year the 80s Died

We lost Michael Jackson a month ago* and yesterday, we lost John Hughes. Hughes is a much bigger loss for me. I had only a passing interest in MJ’s music during the 80s. I was exposed to Thriller and Bad only because they were like icebergs in the North Atlantic. You couldn’t drive a cruise ship through there without hitting at least one.

But Hughes spoke for my generation. He made the films that managed to both give a voice to the angst and loneliness that teenagers have always felt, and to show us a model for how to not take ourselves too seriously and find a way to make a connection, any connection to others who were in the same boat. Whether its escapist fantasies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Weird Science, or the farcical melodrama of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, he gave us movies that made all us sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies and dickheads feel like we belonged.

* As the Onion pointed out, we actually lost MJ quite some time ago But that’s ancient history now.

Save Us, Crystal Dragon Jesus, You’re Our Only Hope!

Remember V? The miniseries form back int he fabulous 80’s, where lizard people in prosthetic masks came to Earth, imitating Nazis so they could steal our water? Seems they’ve gotten a darker and edgier reboot. You can read a summary of the first episode over at io9:

Based on an early-1980s miniseries, “V” is about what happens when dozens of gigantic alien ships arrive on Earth, hovering over major cities. A beautiful woman alien called Anna, played by Morena “Firefly” Baccarin, broadcasts the visitors’ messages from an enormous screen built into the bodies of the ships. She assures the people of Earth that the aliens want only to harvest chemicals from our waste products, which she says are valuable to them. In exchange, they’ll share technology with humans – especially medical technology, which they’ll set up in thousands of free clinics across the globe.

The only ones who doubt the good intentions of these preternaturally beautiful aliens are DHS agent Erica Evans and Catholic priest Jack Landry (played by 4400 alum Joel Gretsch). Erica and her partner Dale (the excellent Alan Tudyk) immediately start investigating them, and Jack gives a cautionary speech to his congregation about how humans should wait to judge the aliens by their acts rather than their words.

The political undertones are wingnutteriffic. Media-savvy aliens promising a strawman version of universal healthcare (no doubt a cover for how they will cull humanity to serve as food) and the only people who can save us are a Catholic Priest and an Agent of the Department of Homeland Security. Fancy that. The power of Christ + the machismo of the Fatherland, come to save us all from the liberal-fascism of being eaten by socialists form outer space.

Next we’ll get an all new Thundercats movie (I hope it’s in 3D!) as an allegory on gun control with PETA as the villain. Wake me when something new comes on.