Sunday, November 10, 2013

Unintentionally Writing An Alternate Timeline

In his 2003 Trojan Odyssey Clive Cussler makes reference to Rudi Gunn fighting in "the conflict to rid the [Persian Gulf] of Saddam Hussein"--but as it happened, Hussein was no longer around in this universe. Treasure, set fifteen years earlier (in 1991), referred to the "assassination of President Saddam Husayn."

The same novel also makes two (unfavorable) references to President Bill Clinton. However, as the Dirk Pitt novels, with their succession of fictional presidents, ran from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s, it is not at all clear when Clinton would have been President in Pitt's universe.

Of course, the reader of novels like these, while likely to be aware of the discrepancies, does not pay them much mind; they are simply not essential to the story. Nonetheless, they do point to a routine problem of the techno-thriller, and particularly the sort of techno-thriller based on politico-military crisis--its use of topical plots based on current events, which make them date rather quickly. The problem quickly gets compounded by the tendency of successful techno-thrillers to turn into series', and in the process, also depictions of an alternate universe. Because the writers strive to remain topical, they attempt to reconcile their other timeline with our own--typically with awkward results.

Take, for instance, the Jack Ryan novels. These have seen the U.S. and Soviet Union develop effective, laser-based strategic defense systems (The Cardinal of the Kremlin); the nuclear bombing of Denver and the establishment of a Middle Eastern peace which sees the Vatican's Swiss Guards policing Jerusalem (The Sum of All Fears); and the dismantling of the ballistic missile forces of the United States and Soviet Union, following which the U.S. fought a war with Japan that ended with an aerial attack that destroyed the Capitol, and many of the country's leading political figures (Debt of Honor). One might add that in the books Saddam Hussein was assassinated by an Iranian agent, and Iraq (and Turkmenistan) subsequently absorbed by an expansionist Iran, which also subjected the United States to an Ebola-based plague (Executive Orders), and China has also fought a war with Russia that ended with Russia's entry into NATO, following which China began a transition to democracy (The Bear and the Dragon).

After The Bear and the Dragon Clancy went back in time with a story about the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II, Red Rabbit (a homage of sorts to Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal), but then rejoined contemporary events with The Teeth of the Tiger, and the subsequent "co-authored" works, Dead or Alive, Locked On and Threat Vector. These books, in contrast with the events of Executive Orders, assume the Middle East peace of The Sum of All Fears unraveled, that the War on Terror and the subsequent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq happened as they did in our own time, while China is again an antagonist in Threat Vector. Much of this (particularly the incorporation of the 2003- Iraq war) strains credulity, but even the less implausible alterations to fit our timeline simply throw out what came before--diminishing the integrity of the whole.

Nonetheless, troublesome as the discrepancies, and the attempts to paper over them, happen to be, one should not overestimate the problem for fans. In contrast with other, harder types of science fiction, the techno-thriller is not about world-building.

Still, they are a reminder of the fact that bestselling series have a way of dragging on too long. And taking such a set of stories together I do find myself wondering if fans of these types of books do not compare these timelines with our own, and what they think of the differences: that interstate and especially great power relations have been less belligerent in real life than in these novels, while the wars the United States has fought have been more protracted, messy affairs, rarely ending in the tidy ways these books tend to picture.

At the very least, this would all seem to support I.F. Clarke's criticism of such "invasion stories" as having promoted an aggressive view of foreign and defense policy, and an understanding of war as a simpler thing than it has ever been, let alone what it is now.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Summer 2013 Movie Season: Other Takes

I got in my two cents on the summer of 2013 earlier than most last month, but wondered how other observers' takes compared, noticing in particular Scott Foundas' round-up of professional critics' views over at Variety, a recap by CNN's Todd Leopold, and a more genre-oriented take from io9's Charlie Jane Anders.

Reading these pieces I realized that I forgot all about RIPD (a huge flop, of course), and The Purge (a success on a more modest scale, if mainly due to a strong opening weekend, after which the movie faded fast)--not insignificant omissions, though they don't change the picture much.

Of course, different observers tallied things differently. I do think it's fair of io9's Charlie Jane Anders to count Pacific Rim among the summer's winners. The movie's North American performance has been only lukewarm, breaching the $100 million mark domestically only near the end of its run. However, it did much better overseas, earning more than that in China alone (it's already up to $110 million there, making it the year's fourth-biggest hit in that market), which helped raise the global gross to nearly $400 million.

By contrast, Anders' numbering Smurfs 2 among the winners struck me as a stretch, as the sequel made less than half original did globally, while Kick-Ass 2 likewise deserves its place in the flop list given its revenue to date (even if the low budget means it did not have to be a big moneymaker).

Still, that doesn't change things all that much either, and in the end it all seems a rehash of the usual--dismayed notes about the prevalence of sequels and "big, dumb" blockbusters and sequels to big, dumb blockbusters (already well established by the '80s, if more dominant than ever); about the robustness of the appetite of foreign markets for Hollywood's brand of spectacle, even as American audiences display a fickleness toward it (the tendency of which to periodically recur is almost as old, and again, more dominant than ever).

Todd Leopold, however, does make an interesting point in his remark about the increasing repetitiveness of the brand of spectacle we are seeing--the same sights (the White House, New York City) blown up again and again and again:
. . . there's only so much destruction audiences can watch before it all starts to blend together. "Man of Steel" destroyed New York -- OK, Metropolis -- yet again, right down to the fancy filigree on the sides of its skyscrapers. "Star Trek" ripped up San Francisco. "World War Z," "Pacific Rim," "After Earth," "Elysium" -- all featured massive, dystopian chaos.

"I think that this is a big problem with the whole summer and with the tentpoles that were made for this summer," says [producer Lynda] Obst. "There was a sense that we've seen it all before . . . They all seem to mirror the same sensibility."
It strikes me that this sort of action film may be approaching a technical plateau as Hollywood bombast bumps up against the limits of human nervous systems, and of filmmakers' creativity.1 It often seems that one simply cannot go bigger, faster, flashier or more intense to any effect worth achieving, while the inventiveness of the application may be running into diminishing returns. And that has significant implications for an industry which has always been organized around the sale of high-concept spectacle, but which has become more reliant on this than ever before for its financial viability.

On Mad Men's Paul Kinsey

Paul Kinsey is Sterling-Cooper's resident liberal intellectual, considerably to the left of his mostly Republican colleagues in his politics--making favorable reference to Karl Marx, participating in voter registration drives in the South.

Kinsey generally comes off as a prat, which seems unexceptional with this crowd, but it's notable that his prattishness is distinguished by its pretentiousness, down to the beard-and-pipe image he assumes in the course of the series. It is also the case that much of what he says and does is intended to impress women, while he uses the women he is with to impress his male acquaintances. (That he blew his chances with Joan because he couldn't shut up about their relationship pretty much says it all.) It's notable, too, that he got left behind when the main cast decided to strike off on their own and start a new agency.

In that he comes off as yet another anti-intellectual, anti-liberal caricature, and a reminder that Mad Men would not be so lavishly praised were its outlook not so deeply conventional.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Skyfall: A Critical View

(This review essay first appeared on this blog in four parts. Part One appeared on September 4. 2013, Part Two appeared on September 6, Part Three on September 9 and Part Four on September 11, prior to their consolidation in this single post.)

Collected in The Forgotten James Bond.


It was recently announced that Sam Mendes would be returning to the James Bond series to direct its next, as yet unnamed film ("Bond 24"). This will make him the first to direct two Bond films back to back since John Glen back in the '80s.1

This is, of course, a reflection of the commercial success of Skyfall, which far exceeded every expectation. Indeed, when it was first announced that Sam Mendes would be helming Bond 23, there were cracks on the web about how he would give us Bond and a female agent going undercover in suburbia and bickering endlessly. In some ways, though, this film is just as incongruous as if he really did pattern a Bond movie after American Beauty.

Sources and Inspirations
When I first saw M writing Bond's obituary in the trailer after Bond's apparent death, my thoughts went straight to You Only Live Twice--the book, not the film. Yet watching the movie I was struck by how much of it seemed to have been lifted from earlier Bond films, and not the storied '60s-era Bond films whose recycling thoughtful Bond fans have long taken for granted (like You Only Live Twice, and Goldfinger), but the less celebrated Pierce Brosnan Bonds.

We see a mission go bad in the pre-titles action sequence, and Bond end up out of touch and apparently lost to the Service for an extended period, which concludes when a scruffy, damaged 007 finally returns to a suspicious agency, and an utterly unapologetic, unsympathetic M who nonetheless sends him straight back out into the field--just like Die Another Day. That mission has him up against a villain who stages a bombing inside MI 6 headquarters as the opening act in a revenge campaign directed against the head of the agency, for her betrayal of them when they were in her charge, specifically their abandonment to captivity and torture by bad guys--just like in The World Is Not Enough (which also took us to Istanbul).2

The enemy (Javier Bardem's Silva) is a blond, physically scarred former British intelligence operative not of British ethnicity who was left to the enemy by his mission-minded employers, and pretty much left for dead, but has since survived, and turned renegade and criminal. His identity is only revealed well into the movie, when, after his people have captured Bond and the woman he is with and taken them to an isolated, rubble-filled site full of broken statuary, he comes to meet him face to face and confront him with his past before doing them in. Then that enemy uses computer wizardry in a plan to attack the city of London in general and the most sensitive of British government sites in particular, the sheer modernity of which technique points up what many are thinking--that Bond is an old dog who has had his day, that the kind of work at which he excels is outdated.

Just like in Goldeneye.

There were, too, apparent borrowings from other, older Bond films, interestingly some of the series' least popular, both at the time of release and in the years since. The idea of presenting a dark "twin" to Bond who has a Spanish name, lurks on a Southeast Asian island and tests his shooting skills against 007 in a deadly contest, recalls The Man With the Golden Gun's Francisco Scaramanga. (It is worth remembering, too, that in the book by that name Bond had also just "come back from the dead," and gone after the villain to redeem himself in the eyes of the Service--and his own eyes as well.) The idea of casting a bleached-blond Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner as a villain in a computer-themed plot harkens back to A View to a Kill. The one new gadget Bond is offered is a personalized firearm with a biometric scanner, which saves his life when a villain gets a hold of it and turns it on him--just like in Licence to Kill.

And much of what the filmmakers did not lift from those Bond films, they got out of other movies--and again, not exactly the old classics one expects them to steal from, but relatively recent hits. The tale centers on a stolen computer list of undercover operatives whom the enemy is threatening to expose--just as in the plot of the first Mission: Impossible (which also had Ethan Hunt fighting a treacherous former colleague).3

The villain is not just gratuitously sadistic, and of freakish appearance and manner, but a Jungian "shadow" figure who challenges and even threatens to upset the hero's perception of himself. Halfway through the film the good guys have him in custody after a too-easy capture--and then, because it was all part of his inhumanly brilliant plan to be captured, has contrived it so that he simply walks out of his cell to create havoc through the movie's second half.

Just like the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Thrown into the mix are a number of other elements familiar from recent thrillers, like the new Q--one of the screen's more tiresome clichès, the tech wizard--a scrawny, bespectacled and exceedingly smug young man who spews techno-babble as he works the nerd-magic he constantly oversells.4 And the heavier accent on bureaucratic politics, which goes all the way to M sitting through a hearing in Parliament. And in general a heightened consciousness of the contemporary world's sheer media saturation, with Bond watching Wolf Blitzer on CNN, and Silva's use of YouTube to blow the covers of British agents working undercover.

However, we also get a finale which inverts the usual pattern. Instead of Bond going after the villains, he is fleeing from them. Instead of the final confrontation happening in their lair, it happens instead at his childhood home. Instead of a flashily futuristic fortress packed with high technology, the setting of this battle is a run-down old Scottish manor, where the gimmickry is of a decidedly old-fashioned kind--the means of escape a priest-hole dating back to the Reformation.5

One can see it all as a mix of the overly derivative with content that may feel like it does not belong in a Bond movie at all.

Very well, one might say to that, but does it work?

A Bit of Entertainment?
Uncertain as the mix of elements that went into Skyfall sound, the film does have its strengths. For the most part the pacing is good, the action competent and brisk and peppered with interesting bits--the use of the digger on the train, the dazzling stylization of the fight with Patrice (Ola Rapace) in the skyscraper. Shanghai looks stunning, Skyfall capitalizing on the city's ultramodernity more fully than any of the many, many others shot in it in recent years, so that the scenes set in it feel even more like the stuff of futuristic thrillers than the actual futuristic thrillers shot there.

It also has its fair share of humor (something sadly lacking from Quantum of Solace), and even an occasional flash of wit. Much of this is rooted in a fairly well-developed conception of the contrast between the series' traditional analog technology ("We don't do that anymore"), and analog heroics, and the digital age. Much as purists complain that the more gadget-packing installments in the series reduced Bond to a button-pushing automaton, he has never been so circumscribed by technology as he is in this film, a pattern that reaches its peak in his pursuit of Silva through the London Tube--which is exactly the point, and makes an appropriate contrast with the last battle. And while a comparatively minor matter, I thought that the theme song and title sequence the best we've had since at least Goldeneye, and certainly more likely to please traditionalists than most recent efforts.

Nonetheless, the pacing falters a bit in the overlong last third. And while the action contains plenty of good bits, I felt that a highly touted "fiftieth anniversary" film like this one, commemorating a series which created the action movie as we know it, needed more than that. Perhaps it could not revolutionize the genre the way the films of the early '60s did, but at the least it could deliver some stunt that would stick in the mind as exceptionally audacious--like Bond's skiing off a cliff in The Spy Who Loved Me.6 There was no such thing here.

At the same time the relatively grounded feel of the film makes the lapses in logic that much more conspicuous--like the appearance of British helicopters out of nowhere over Silva's hideout, or Silva's little crew's so thoroughly paralyzing the British security state that Bond's only recourse is to spirit M to rural Scotland to make his stand, or the nostalgic but nonsensical inclusion of the Aston Martin DB 5 from Goldfinger.

More importantly, suspense was generally lacking throughout. Drama and intensity were lacking too, what little we get supplied only by the actors--in the main, Bèrènice Marlohe, whose presence in the film as Severine is much too brief. There is no sense of build-up to a great revelation when, for the first time, Silva actually appears for the first time in the middle of the film, and his arrival is actually rather unmemorable.

The result is that his late appearance simply squandered the chance to develop this figure, though the broader conception of him is also flawed, in part by the problematic influence of Nolan's Joker. The figure in Nolan's movie was presented to us as a Jungian shadow archetype, an idea given human form (I thought, rather a brilliant one), not a flesh-and-blood human being--two quite different objects not easily reconciled, and neither of which was achieved here. And so in the end this comparative small-fry among Bond villains (unlike Alec Trevelyan, his revenge plan's not tied not tied to a suitably spectacular object like robbing the bank of England) succeeds in being eccentric and repellent, but not interesting enough or menacing enough to stand out in the series' now rather crowded rogue's gallery--let alone the tragic figure the writers seem to have intended him to be.

Meanwhile, the rapport between Bond (Daniel Craig) and Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is a far cry from that between Sean Connery and Lois Maxwell. What goes on between Bond and Severine is arguably rather worse, his seduction of a woman victimized by the sex trade--by following her into the shower just after they've met, no less--appearing casually predatory, and the sort of thing more likely to discredit than reassert the series' traditional handling of his sexuality, with Silva's murder of her after Bond promised to protect her making it look that much worse. (The Freudian implications of his poor marksmanship, the scenes with Silva, the idea of Bond as a man with mommy issues--more on which later--do not help either.) Indeed, the filmmakers remain deeply, even perversely sex-negative in their depiction of the screen's most famous womanizer, continuing to treat Bond's kiss as the kiss of death, so that once again every woman he beds in his adventures dies, and for the third time in a row he concludes a movie womanless.7

However, the film may be most problematic where it is most ambitious.

Striving For More
While a movie like Skyfall is about crowd-pleasing first and foremost, it is worth remembering that the Bond series has a longstanding hardcore following, and that Skyfall was made and marketed as a celebration of Bond's fiftieth anniversary on the screen. And the film does strive to mark that by asserting Bond's identity and place in the second decade of the twenty-first century, proving that he is still vigorous and relevant, while at the same time deepening the figure for us. To make this a story about Bond proving himself to the doubters, the writers go a step further than Goldeneye in knocking him down so that he can stage a comeback.8

Strongly connected with that struggle to "come back" is the incorporation of a measure of the personal drama we are more accustomed to seeing in movie festival prize winners and critical darlings than action-oriented blockbusters. The writers sought to create between Bond, M and Silva a family of sorts, with M as a mother figure to the two men, and Bond and Silva as brothers (so that Bond finds himself coming home again, confronting a "sibling," protecting a "parent," and then saying goodbye to them for the final time). This is all underlined by the fact that Bond's retreat to his family's titular estate is an occasion on which we are told more than ever before about his original, biological family in his half-century on-screen, and the one time when we see him confront that painful aspect of his past--so that he might be said to struggle with two different sets of familial baggage as a part of his return to form.

Analog Heroics in a Digital Age
When it comes to knocking Bond down, well, the writers certainly achieve that. His time away from the Service and thought dead is not a period of rejuvenation which sees Bond return home back in form, but an exhausted, aging man's letting himself go. Bond, the "best shot in the service," sees his skills with a gun go to pot, a mark of his generally flagging physical prowess. Additionally, not only does he fail the Service's tests at headquarters, but he is easily captured by Silva's henchmen, and then bested in a shooting match with said enemy, with the result that Severine loses her life, after Bond's promise of protection.

Bond likewise fails to keep the enemy's attack from reaching Britain. Not only does Silva bomb MI 6, but Bond's capture of him is really just Silva duping Bond, after which Silva is running wild and free in Britain, attacking Britain's intelligence headquarters and shooting up Parliament, with the British security state thrown into chaos by his cyber-wizardry. (Certainly no prior Bond film has set so much of its action on British soil.)

However, despite the impression one may get of a man and a world restored from the concluding scenes in which Bond surveys London from a rooftop in that way so many superheroes look down upon the cities they defend (in a suitably impressive shot simultaneously taking in Big Ben and Parliament and other architectural icons of Britishness); returns to an office like we haven't seen since at least The Living Daylights (wood and leather, a Miss Moneypenny in the anteroom, a military man in charge); and then faces us through the closing shot through a gun barrel that had been conspicuously missing from the film's opening; the truth is that Bond never actually makes that comeback. Instead of Bond's defeating Silva in the modern world, he retreats to the past--literally, to a bucolic space left behind in the march of technology--to make his stand.

I found the effect jarring. Bond may be a sportsman who loves skiing and diving, but he has always been an urban creature, not a country gentleman. Additionally, the heavy stress on Bond as a figure with aristocratic roots contradicts the less genteel approach seen in Casino Royale (in which he was someone who had no one to teach him how to properly dress), and to an extent, earlier conceptions of the character. As Jeremy Black noted, the appeal of the film version of Bond was, in part, a matter of his conveying a sense of "class" not too clearly or closely connected with money and birth--while in print, he was still a half-foreign exotic who looked out of place at Blades and felt silly being offered a knighthood, replying to the offer that he is, and always will feel at home as, a Scottish peasant. And staging the showdown this way struck me as taking that gap between analog Bond and digital Silva too far--so much so that rather than anything really Bondian, it comes off as a weird hybridization of the sniveling reactionary sentiment of an Evelyn Waugh with the antics of survivalist-commando figures like Rambo, or Predator's Alan Schaefer.9

Moreover, this course of action only half-succeeds. Bond manages to kill Silva with a thrown knife--rather than redeeming himself as a shootist (which would have been all the better since making that difficult shot would have brought a nice symmetry to the film, given how the opening train sequence ended).10 And M still ends up dead as a result of the wounds her attacker gave her, considerable damage to the Service on her watch done--which is to say that Silva has attained his object, even if it was at the cost of his life. (Strictly speaking, the bad guy actually won this time!) And anyway, the estate gets blown up, along with the Aston Martin Bond used to reach it.

All this being the case, he proves himself not the master of the world he once was, going anywhere and everywhere and always coming out on top (in spite of frequently being up against superior technology), but only a tenuous master of his family's grounds, on which he has at any rate turned his back.

After this shaky performance against this movie's forgettable baddie, even in combination with the two down-to-earth predecessors with which we can connect it, this Bond has yet to truly impress us as the larger-than-life figure he has traditionally been on screen.11 He does not even impress us as a man able to deal with the twenty-first century. Instead we have a worn-out, young-old civil servant continuing to come into the office--ostensibly for Queen and Country, but at least as much because he is just too restless to stick by his "still hearth," the only aspect of the film's evocation of Tennyson's "Ulysses" that works here.12

One Really, Really Dysfunctional Pseudo-Family
Just as problematic as the "comeback story" is the familial dynamic the writers strove to create among Bond, M and Silva. Judi Dench's M never struck me as being a parental figure to Bond, however--unlike the character in the book, or her predecessors on the screen. The old Ms sent Bond out on assignments from which they knew he might never come back, but we never doubted that there was loyalty between Bond and the head of the Service. M would at times be displeased by some thing Bond did--but it was like a parent's getting mad at a favorite child. By contrast, one would be hard-pressed to prove that Dench's M ever saw Bond as anything but the "blunt instrument" she calls him in Casino Royale, or that she ever had any compunctions about using him and throwing him away the way she has so many people over the years--in the previous films, or this one. (Her order to Eve to take the shot that wounds Bond pretty much says it all.)

And we all know how things went between her and Silva.

That pretty much makes her "Mother" only in the same sense as Mother in Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow series (while being even less convincingly maternal). At the same time, we never see any sign that Bond looked to this highly unlikely individual to be a maternal figure to him.

With the idea of a shared parent gone, there is that much less reason to think of Bond and Silva as brothers, with the issues that brothers have--like a sibling rivalry for parental affection or approval, or a sense that one brother got what was rightfully the other's. And of course, the two men had no preexisting relationship, and no reason to have any such feeling about each other (the way Bond did about Goldeneye's Trevelyan), with the aforementioned thinness of Silva's character doing that much more to limit such possibilities. Naturally the set-up doesn't work intellectually, or emotionally.

At the same time it is far from clear that Bond's return to Skyfall is cathartic, or in any other way a resolution of this other second set of issues; the development of the idea is simply too thin for that.13 When Bond remarks "I always hated this place" while blowing up his estate, it comes off as just another of the cracks that often accompany the mayhem he deals out. And because all we get are glimpses of Bond's childhood and the issues he has carried forward from it, the juxtaposition of that baggage with his more recent "family" trials (Bond holding M as she dies, in the chapel in this same place where he had to deal with his mother and father's death) is a contrast between highly underdeveloped images--which were probably not really all that interesting anyway.14

Naturally this too cannot provide the sense of renewal and preparation to face the future. At any rate, it is not at all clear what that preparation would be for, the film, like other post-Cold War Bonds, failing to insert Bond and his activities into some larger political context (a few perfunctory and inadequate references to terrorism aside). M's speech in Parliament justifying the kind of work Bond does proves hugely ironic, given that far from making the world safe from vaguely described external menaces, this film has been all about cleaning up the mess she made pursuing objects the script does not bother about. While the film's attitude is, of course, essentially celebratory of intelligence services like hers rather than critical, one can come away seeing the excesses of intelligence services and security states as the source of much of the evil Bond combats--precisely what those most critical of the real-world counterparts of figures like M and Bond would say.15

Bond at Fifty
Taken altogether, the whole package, far from proving Bond's relevance to the doubters, inadvertently reminds us of how backward-looking and anachronistic--and simply confused--the series has become, just as was the case with the previous "anniversary" Bond scripted by Purvis and Wade, Die Another Day. (That one, of course, marked the series' fortieth anniversary, and was the twentieth Everything Or Nothing Productions Bond film--two anniversaries in one.) The result is an equally underwhelming anniversary event.

Nonetheless, the film went on not just to break the billion-dollar barrier (still a considerable feat), not just to become the second-biggest hit of the year at the global box office (as no Bond film has done since Moonraker, as far as I can tell), but to outgross the series' previous best performer, Thunderball, in inflation-adjusted terms.

Skyfall also won critical adulation of a kind the series has not seen in a very long time, reflected in the film's profile at that year's Oscar ceremony. Skyfall's five nominations were only in the technical and musical categories to which action movies are normally confined--but many an observer used the word "snub" in response to the fact, while even the nominations that it did get were a reflection of the high esteem in which the movie was held. (And of course, many other awards committees were far more generous, including the British Academy, which gave it the BAFTA for "Outstanding British Film" that year.16)

Yet, big as Skyfall was, we didn't see much sign of '60s-style Bond mania, the film's success hardly reflective of that sort of cultural phenomenon. Rather I suppose it was a function of the film's strengths outweighing its weaknesses for most of the theater-going audience (I won't deny that, hollow as it is, it is often fun in a turn-off-your-brain way), and the kind of publicity that one can only partially buy.

Bond Twenty-Four will benefit from the goodwill shown Skyfall, but it will not have the same advantage, and so it will to a greater extent have to succeed on its own merits. Alas, I suspect that the adulation lavished on this film will leave the creative team complacent.

1. John Glen actually helmed five movies in a row--For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985), The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1995).
2. Indeed, given that Skyfall screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were the team behind The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, one would not be unjustified in suspecting that they were simply reusing their own ideas from earlier writing sessions.
3. Mission: Impossible, of course, did copy its most famous sequence (the break-in at the CIA) from an old classic, 1964's Topkapi, based on Eric Ambler's novel The Light of Day. That was a much more sophisticated bit of theft, as demonstrated by the fact that "everybody" who now steals it thinks they are only stealing it from Mission: Impossible.
4. In fairness, though, we at least didn't have to hear him rant against the Star Wars prequels.
5. I'm sure much of the audience saw this wondered just what a priest-hole, and for that matter, the Reformation, was.
6. I refer here to the way the early films incorporated set pieces into their stories and the scale on which they staged them, their use of new editing techniques (e.g. quick-cut), and their presentation of action scenes of types we had never seen before (the underwater fights, the ski chases, etc.).
7. Of course, Bond does have sex with a woman who doesn't die early in the film, but it is worth noting that this is during his period off-the-grid when one might say that James Bond isn't even trying to be James Bond, just a drunken jackass impressing other drunken jackasses in a bar. And at any rate, including her in the figures still gives him a lousy average.
8. In fact, the closest precedent for this was, again, You Only Live Twice, where Bond went to pieces after Blofeld's murder of his wife in the preceding novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service--though in general, the Bond of the novels tended to decay after going for too long between missions.
9. Predator in particular seems worth mentioning here, as Arnold Schwarzenegger's protagonist pointedly reverts to the primitive to fight an enemy that is nothing less than an alien from a civilization so advanced that it can use interstellar travel for hunting expeditions--which is not too far from how the film treats the distance between him and Silva.
10. Another plausible reading of this scene is that, when faced with a shot like the one M had Eve take back in Istanbul, Bond simply decided to resolve the situation in another way--perhaps reflecting the difference between M's attitude toward him, and his attitude toward her (or at least, her office). And indeed it may be that the writers intended this. If that was the case, their failure to develop the dynamic between these three characters not only deprived the scene of the power it should have had, but left its meaning much more ambiguous.
11. After all, the epic struggles of the classic films--Bond's battles against SPECTRE and Blofeld and Goldfinger and others of their ilk, which did make him seem larger than life in just this way--have been discarded in the reboot. Since then we have seen a green double-o fight a relatively minor battle against Le Chiffre, and then take up a struggle against the Quantum organization which could have become epic, but which the series aborted after the unfavorable reaction to Quantum of Solace.
12. Bond's rebooted record, after all, hardly seems to merit the intense romanticism of the poem given its substance and brevity (no Odysseus, he), while the image of Bond as an aged king heading out on a final journey ("We are not now of that strength") is problematic, given the heavy emphasis on Daniel Craig's Bond as younger and more contemporary than his predecessors.
13. We are not even told the circumstances of his parents' deaths, though we may infer that it was a result of the mountain-climbing accident mentioned in Fleming's You Only Live Twice, and referenced by Trevelyan in Goldeneye.
14. I remember losing all interest in L. Sprague de Camp's Conan the Barbarian stories when I realized he meant to plumb the character's childhood and adolescence. When a character becomes iconic as a Gary Stu, the best thing to do is often to accept him as one and leave it at that.
15. Of course, one can argue that this was all just an exercise in postmodern irony. But that's just the problem: you can say that about almost anything where the pieces don't quite fit. One could, alternatively, say that this has been a subversion of the Bond series from within (Bond deliberately being presented as ridiculous and perverse and all the rest), and in fairness, I've occasionally wondered if that wasn't happening before--as when reading John Gardner Bond novels like Licence Renewed (1981)--but that's a subject for another time.
16. Javier Bardem and Judi Dench were also nominated for BAFTAs for their performances, while being similarly recognized by (among others) the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, the London Film Critics Circle Awards, and the Satellite Awards, the last of which awarded Bardem the prize in that category.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Do Our Science Fiction Movies Hate Science?

Yes, according to an essay Ryan Britt published in The Awl last month. In his thoughtful piece, with which I mostly agree, he discusses the distinction between the super-abundance of science fiction we get in Hollywood blockbusters, and the "serious" science fiction film we much less frequently get from that source--namely that the latter
derives its story and aesthetic from a concept that does not yet, as we know it, exist—aliens, robots, spaceships, time-travel—and the rest of the movie examines the repercussions of that science fiction idea. Serious science fiction . . . has people or society at its center. And this may sound axiomatic, but the serious science fiction film takes its concept seriously.
Britt is less clear on the defining characteristics of the Hollywood science fiction we tend to get, but it's not hard to get what he's talking about: films that have no real interest in such concepts, except as a basis for spectacle and action and terror. Naturally he has no problem coming up with excellent examples of each, with perhaps the most striking the difference between the first Star Trek film back in 1979, and J.J. Abrams' recent Star Trek: Into Darkness:
The original Star Trek: The Motion Picture . . . has at its center a basic science fiction conceit, which the movie in turn, takes seriously: How would an artificially created creature of extreme intelligence and power cope with the idea that it was created by hopelessly flawed organic creatures? You might call this film slow, boring, or even worse; pretentious, but in almost every single way, it is the most serious science fiction film of any of the big screen Star Treks. This summer’s Star Trek Into Darkness, in comparison, is mostly people punching each other.
Nonetheless, as he notes, the line can get blurry, and the pervasiveness of "un-serious" science fiction has changed the face of the serious films, with the result that (as with the recent Elysium), "serious SF movies are often just as violent as their dumb cousins—and can be frighteningly anti-science," with the result that there is "an anti-technology knee-jerk tendency in nearly all Hollywood SF."

All true, and quite well-stated by Britt. And a much needed corrective to genre boosters who look out at popular culture and misread it as demonstrating that science fiction has conquered the world. It is much more accurate to say that the situation has been exactly the reverse, that the world as we know it--the world which sees only broken promises and terrible blowback in the Future but does not dare to seriously ask why, let alone what is to be done; the world with its stupid Frankenstein complexes and lowest common denominator standards--has instead conquered science fiction. And that is a thing to be regretted.

Whitewashing the Past: On the Manga and Animè Front

In Japan, the conflict over history and militarism has extended into the world of manga and animè, with Hayao Miyazaki recently drawing fire for his recent public remarks on the subject, and for his most recent feature film, The Wind Rises, which deals with the subject of the World War II era.

Less publicized, but perhaps even more telling, is the fight over the classic manga, Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa's autobiographical story of growing up in Hiroshima during and after the city's destruction by an atom bomb (which was made into a noted movie in 1983). Long controversial because of its uncompromising depiction of the bomb's dropping, and its references to atrocities by Japanese military forces during the war, the education board in the city of Matsue decided to pull it from the libraries of primary and junior high schools on the grounds that the atrocities mentioned in the story "did not take place"--a decision equivalent to pulling a World War II novel because it shows atrocities by the German army on the grounds that no such thing took place.

The local controversy became a national controversy when Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Hakubun Shimomura supported the decision--unsurprisingly given the ultra-rightist and militarist leanings of a government seeking to abolish the clause in the Japanese constitution outlawing war, and whose Deputy Prime Minister, Taro Aso, has openly called for the emulation of Hitler's tactics in revising Germany's constitution during the early 1930s to that end.

The decision, of course, was met with considerable public opposition, as described by Dan Kanemitsu, and I am pleased to be able to say that the attempt at censorship has been rescinded. I am less pleased to say that the board has covered its retreat with talk of a procedural error (though it does indeed appear that the proper procedures for such a decision were flouted).

I am also less than pleased to report that Deputy Prime Minister Aso has refused to resign over his comments--which are, incidentally, very far from being the first resignation-worthy thing to have come out of the mouth of this notoriously ill-spoken politician. Instead he remain in his job and the public eye, reminding us all that even in the supposedly meritocratic modern world persons who appear unable to competently read their own language can hold the highest office in a G-7 country if they come from a sufficiently wealthy and powerful political dynasty.

And of course, this will not be the last attempt by a lunatic fringe that seems less and less fringe to try and get its public to drop inconvenient pieces of the twentieth century down the Memory Hole. Not in Japan, and not anywhere else.

Whitewashing the Past

It seems that in recent years there has been a trend toward "rehabilitating" the crimes of the twentieth century--Stalinism in Russia, or colonialism in France, or in Japan, the nation's conduct in World War II. The record of empire is being sanitized, the atrocities expunged.

One does not have to wonder long as to why this is the case. These have been years of discontent, with the economic and social stresses long building up through the age of neoliberal globalization coming to a head in 2008, resulting in unemployment and austerity not seen in the major countries in generations. With the political left moribund, this has flung the door wide open to rightist populism, weak on bread and butter issues but very vocal about cultural and symbolic issues--like having schools teach versions of history that bolster the standing of traditional elites and traditional values rather than what actually happened, talking tough on the international stage, and carrying (and using) a big stick.

And of course, the same stresses seem to have led to a greater readiness to use the military instrument--France more active again in Africa and opening up a base in the Persian Gulf, Germany unprecedentedly interventionist in such scenes as the Syrian and Malian civil wars, and China and Japan behaving more confrontationally toward one another over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. There is even fear of disorder inside the industrialized world, taken seriously enough in some quarters that earlier this year the Swiss Army conducted an exercise aimed at holding back the flow of refugees a meltdown of the eurozone might produce (while I leave it to the reader to guess at the significance of the German legal decision permitting the armed forces to use its weapons on the country's soil in a domestic emergency). This is all easier to do when the use of force and the threat of force is seen as politically legitimate, something easier to achieve with a bowdlerized version of how a nation has employed force in the past.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Charles Stross on Syria

Over at Charlie's Diary, Charles Stross has commented on the prospects of a Western intervention in Syria in a piece written prior to the surprising refusal of the British Parliament to support such action, but still relevant as this situation unfolds.

As anyone familiar with his political commentary might imagine, Stross is not in favor of "sending in the bombers," pointing to the dim prospects of its achieving a good outcome in an already deeply fractured country on grounds that appear questionable (given the uncertainty about responsibility for the August 21 chemical weapons attack), and the likelihood of its leading to "yet another colonial war in the Middle East." And as it happens, his feelings regarding the situation are much in line with those of war-weary and austerity-weary Western electorates hardly eager to go to war yet another internally divided Middle Eastern country on the basis of ambiguous WMD claims by governments they decreasingly trust--the French and American electorates included.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Legacy of Battlestar Galactica, Ten Years On

It was in December 2003, that the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries first aired on Syfy--almost a decade ago, which makes this an obvious time to take stock.

The show's creators may indeed have been as ambitious as their fans in the press made them out to be, but to go by their actual work the ambition looks like pretension in a mediocre piece of writing that also happened to be a model of how to make a show seem better than it really is:
the cheap button-pushing that looks like intellectual, political or dramatic daring to superficial viewers; the obnoxiousness for obnoxiousness's sake on the part of the dramatis personae so often mistaken for a "courageous" willingness to present unlikable characters (while their verbal abuse of each other is praised as sharp and witty dialogue); the head games that can make a show's lapses in logic or coherence instead appear to trusting viewers like part of some intriguing mystery that will be satisfactorily solved later; the soap opera-like subplots which distract the audience from a story going nowhere by fixing their attention on such questions as who is sleeping with whom (or trying to); and the fan service that makes watchers more forgiving of the flaws that do come to their attention.
In this regard one might also note the nearly Medieval conservatism that got it branded "dark and gritty" (regarded as terms of praise, these days), and the high quality of the technical aspects of the show, from set design to visual effects to cinematography.

However, even before the story ran its course and exposed the show for the shallow thing that it was to even the most credulous viewer, there ultimately proved to be no great hunger for space opera of this sort. NBC's experiment with airing the show in network prime time was a signal failure, which foreshadowed the series' later failure to launch the long-running franchise for which Syfy obviously hoped. (Caprica barely completed two seasons, while Blood & Chrome ended up a web series instead of a TV show.)

And so far from marking some renaissance of the form on television, it not only arrived at the tail end of the TV space opera's most intense and productive period, but may have helped bring that period to an end.

The overselling of the show that led to the NBC airings likely made the networks leerier of hardcore science fiction like this (and indeed, they have tended to steer clear of it in the years since, even as their interest in genre material briefly boomed in the mid-2000s). The franchise's capture of so much of the Syfy channel's attention and resources--before its turning out to be a dead end--closed off opportunities that might have been filled by other concepts that could have gone on to greater success. And of course, the tendency to imitate it seems to have been at least a factor in the downfall of Syfy's other major science fiction franchise, Stargate (which came to an end with the BSG-inspired Stargate Universe, canceled after an anemic two season run, just as Caprica was).

This left the field to the lighter fare that, with few exceptions, has dominated the scene for the past several years, with not just the networks, but the Syfy Channel sticking with shows like Eureka and Warehouse 13 and Haven.

It would be going too far to say that this show killed off science fiction television of its type--but the show played its part in this nonetheless.

Friday, August 30, 2013

And The Worst Movie of All Time Is . . .

The RiffTrax company recently conducted a poll regarding the Worst Movie of All Time, the results of which have now appeared at Blastr. Notorious Z-grade movies like Troll 2, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and Plan 9 From Outer Space make the list (at #14, #20 and #23, respectively), as does the newer Birdemic: Shock and Terror (at #12) - exactly as one might expect given that RiffTrax was set up by the people who brought you Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yet, most of the movies are recent, high-profile blockbusters - with the whole Twilight series taking the #1 spot, Batman and Robin at #2, Catwoman at #3 - and, well, you get the picture.

There are some indisputably awful films here. However, the prominence of big-budget, high-profile, relatively recent theatrical releases reflects the flaw in this method - the fact for a "bad" movie to be recognized, it has to be widely seen, whereas a bad movie is more likely to be unceremoniously dumped on the market, unseen and forgotten. (Indeed, I suspect even Plan 9, Manos and the rest only made the lower rungs of the list because MST3K introduced them to a whole new generation of viewers, atypical in being bad movie aficionados.)

There also seems to be a lot of pure spleen being directed at films not so bad as their harshest detractors claim. Should Spider-Man 3 really have made the #4 spot (making it worse than Plan 9)? Star Wars Episode 1 #13, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull #15, X-Men 3 #16? It strikes me that these movies are simply being denigrated for disappointing a vocal minority of their viewership - one which came to them with unrealistic expectations (most pointedly in the case of Star Wars and Indy, but yes, also in the case of X-Men). Perhaps something of the same kind also goes for the Super Mario Bros. movie from 1993 (though I know that this one has its fans among a certain age group). Bad as they were (such that I have a really hard time defending them), even Batman and Robin and Catwoman hardly seem to warrant their places so close to the top.

Other resentments would seem to be at work here as well, notably in the bestowing of two slots on Transformers 2 and 3 (#10 and #20, respectively), which I suppose to be a function not just of the fashionability of Michael Bay-bashing, but a reaction on the part of those who feel he did badly by a franchise they grew up on. I wondered for a moment if the reaction to Twilight was not similarly motivated, but it seems to me more plausible that that movie's detractors are coming from a different place, that they are simply annoyed with the phenomenon (which I think also explains High School Musical's winding up at #11).

What do you think? Are there any picks you thought unreasonable? Or for that matter, any really bad movies you thought should have made the list in their places?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

On Writing a Thriller: Investigations

Certainly one of the more challenging aspects of writing a thriller is developing the investigative plot thread typically part of them--figuring out how the secret agent who has to crack a conspiracy with the clock ticking actually makes their way to that point. The writer is obliged to make it compact and dramatic and conclusive, while centering it on the figure of a single protagonist (if only nominally), and at the same time make it all logical and realistic. And at the same time, avoid being predictable or repetitive.

This, of course, is a tall order, and writers rarely fulfill it. That is not at all surprising, given the ways in which all these imperatives clash--the plausible and the dramatic, for instance. Naturally writers tend to work around the problem, presenting rather less investigation, less ratiocination, less putting together of the pieces than appears the case at first glance. Putting it another way, they rely on sleight-of-hand to make a simple, implausible and sometimes incoherent sequence of events look like a winding, compelling intrigue.1

Even if we do not ordinarily think of them this way, the truth is that we all know the devices well. The writers put crucial clues right in front of their protagonists, courtesy of incredible coincidences--having them walk right into a plot, or catch a crucial bit of conversation when they eavesdrop, perhaps--and give them the benefit of convenient villains, who are far too given to foolish gestures, elaborate games and arrogant speeches for their own good. (The James Bond series epitomizes the tendency, particularly in classics like Goldfinger and Thunderball.) The authors spare their protagonists much of the trouble of putting the picture together by having someone else do the hard and usually undescribed work of unraveling most of the mystery, drop it in their laps and then exit the stage so that the latecomer gets to be the big hero. (John Buchan did this for Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps.) They endow their heroes with unlikely bases of knowledge and intuitive faculties that let them connect very small, very widely dispersed dots in ways that reason simply cannot, and an incredible self-assurance that props up pronouncements that simply do not hold up to any serious scrutiny. (Two words: Sherlock Holmes.) And sometimes they do not even make that much effort, not bothering to have their heroes connect the dots at all. (The story goes that in the midst of filming the movie director Howard Hawks, uncertain as to who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, telegrammed Raymond Chandler asking who did it--and that Chandler replied that he had no idea.)

While actually immersed in a thriller, however, we tend to overlook all this. After all, the investigation itself is usually buried in a narrative of danger and romance and travelogue and all the rest of the things that make up the reading experience. (Indeed, the mystery is often just an excuse to connect up scenes of whatever the author happens to find cool--action scenes, witty banter, philosophical interludes and so forth.) We are supposed to be left guessing at everything that's happening, so we usually defer our judgment until later. (The whole point is to keep us in suspense, after all.) And then after everything seems to have been made clear, we tend to take the concluding explanations at face value, because if we had a good time getting there we're likely to be generous, and because going back and checking is more work than we usually bargain for in a mere "entertainment."1

And because if we were really picky about such things, demanding the same level of plausibility and rationality in our fiction that we do other things in life, we probably wouldn't read thrillers, or any other sort of fiction for that matter--the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" existing for good reason.

1. How rarely we actually do this is demonstrated by the sorts of summaries we are likely to find of much of this genre when we go looking in books, or on the Internet. Even when the author has no compunctions about writing in spoilers, they rarely reconstruct for the reader the way in which one thing led to another.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Writing Life: An Economist's Perspective

On the whole, economists have tended to regard the arts as beneath their notice. Classical economics (the tradition of Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, etc.) has tended to equate economic value with the production of tangible goods of "practical" use (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), and to slight the arts accordingly, and I suppose the habit stuck even after economists abandoned the old emphasis on tangibles to celebrate "the service economy." This attitude would also seem reinforced by the conservatism to which "reputable" economists have tended to adhere, which tends to stereotype intellectuals, and artists, as leftist social critics afflicting the comfortable, and resent them accordingly. (Indeed, Joseph Schumpeter and Milton Friedman, among others, have been openly nasty in their published remarks about these groups.1)

John Kenneth Galbraith was an exception in this regard (as in a great many other things), repeatedly visiting the theme in his books, perhaps most pointedly in 1973's Economics and the Public Purpose. Galbraith considered the artist a species of "independent entrepreneur" operating within a competitive market, much like the owner of a family-run farm or small service business. And like these other institutions, the artist survived in an economy dominated by large corporations in part because they were engaged in lines of business which did not easily lend themselves to organization--and because of their frequent willingness to work for less money than what they might make with similar effort elsewhere.

Writers certainly fit the model Galbraith described, novelists not being salaried employees of publishing firms, but subcontractors who work with their staff as the publishers deem convenient--and the data regarding their careers is in line with such a reading of the situation. As a recent survey by Tobias Buckell demonstrated, it is not at all atypical for a writer to labor for a decade to produce a book on which they can get a five thousand dollar advance, and another five to seven years spent on several subsequent books to work their way up to a twelve thousand dollar advance. As far as I have been able to tell, there is no comprehensive data regarding the investment of working hours in the production of a novel, which must be regarded as including besides the actual writing the time spent planning, researching and editing the book (and ought also to include the time spent publicizing it). Taken together, all this makes it clear that, despite the lengthy training required and the high risk involved in beginning and carrying on such careers, writing is not a handsomely rewarded occupation, a handful of publishing superstars apart.

And of course, as Galbraith notes, writers do not get much support from other quarters. Indeed, society offers an elaborate complex of reasons for not offering such support, Galbraith noting such widely held beliefs as the idea that the "true artist" can only expect to be appreciated by the few, and accordingly, meagerly compensated; that affluence, acclaim and public support would only be injurious to their performance; that the "truly inspired artist will excel, whatever the barriers to overcome"; and that the artist must, accordingly, be an "unworldly and monkish figure."

There is plenty of room for argument with such a position, and indeed Galbraith regards it as rationalization rather than explanation, reflecting the prevailing values of the "technostructure," which celebrate economic growth and technological change, while trivializing the aesthetic.2 Indeed, to put the matter into perspective, Galbraith contrasted the artist's lot with that of the scientist. Two centuries ago, he noted, it was the scientist who was expected to be "unworldly and monkish," a standing which changed when the scientist became economically useful--with the Industrial Revolution that made the application of theoretical science indispensable to economic life. Consequently, for all the anti-intellectualism we see directed at scientists, the scientist is no longer expected to forgo material well-being or public support. By contrast, the artist, who once had a "strong claim on public resources," now occupies something like the scientist's old niche--in line with the perception of their comparative "uselessness."

Galbraith was not only more attentive to the arts than other economists, but also more sympathetic to them, and so highly critical of this case of affairs. He also expected that the values of the technostructure would be effectively challenged, and the situation redressed. Alas, history was to prove him overoptimistic on these points--as on so many others.

1. As Diego Gambetta and Stefan Hertog have shown, survey data indicates that economists are well to the right of the general public--unsurprising, perhaps, given that mainstream economics has been more fully shaped by elite attitudes than other fields. At comparable levels of education, only engineers (another group whose education has been strongly shaped by the needs of business, as David Noble demonstrates in America By Design) are more politically conservative.
2. I have previously presented my take on this issue in my essay "Science Fiction and the Two Cultures," which was republished in my book After the New Wave: Science Fiction Since 1980.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels, Part II

The endless tirades against the Star Wars prequels were, of course, narrow and highly repetitive. One of the least compelling complaints was that their stories contained references to political details and events, which made the movies boring or confusing or somesuch.

This is an odd thing to say given that the original trilogy was, after all, about an armed rebellion against an emperor.

I suspect that the complainers were simply muddled in their thinking and inarticulate in their speech, that what they really meant to say was not that there were politics in the prequels, but rather that they foregrounded some of the intricacies of those politics. Where in the first film references to diplomatic privilege in the opening scene, or to the emperor's struggle with his bureaucracy, could easily go over the heads of the duller-witted viewers without marring their enjoyment, here such things as the doings of the Trade Federation and the Galactic Senate are central to following the story.

Yet, one should not make too much of them, those references not inappropriate to the plot, or of an indigestible sort. The Phantom Menace opens with the Trade Federation blockading the planet Naboo because of a dispute over the taxation of the spaceways.

Is this really such a hard concept to grasp? Or so out of place in a movie such as this one? One would think that Star Wars fans would be quite comfortable with the idea of a blockade. Smugglers like Han Solo have to find business opportunities somewhere, after all.

Which is not to deny that such details can seem a bit lacking in the sort of romance for which one comes to these films (especially if one idealized the Republic the rebels were seeking to restore). But more fundamental, I suppose, are the politics of these details.

Here we have a vast republic in which Big Business in its greed is trampling on everything and everyone, unrestrained by the government, which has had its courts and its legislators corrupted to such an extent that even after the violence on Naboo in the first film, none of those responsible are ever punished, never mind the institution of any reform. Meanwhile, the most backward forms of exploitation and oppression continue to flourish--or perhaps, even resurge--at the margins (like slavery on Tatooine), and the whole system appears increasingly decrepit. Naturally the mess creates openings for reviving violent, irrational, reactionary elements (the Sith) that present themselves as partners to an economic elite determined not to compromise with the rest of society.

The Big Business-Sith alliance goes on to manufacture a crisis (the Separatist Crisis), and seize on the growing desire of a frustrated public for strong leadership that would master the chaos. The result is a dramatic expansion of executive power (Supreme Chancellor Palpatine granted "emergency" powers) that opens the door to militarization (the "Grand Army of the Republic"), repression (extending to the brutal liquidation of elements which might resist to this process, like the Jedi) and the establishment of a formal dictatorship (as the Galactic Republic gives way to a Galactic Empire, "for a safe and secure society"), which is welcomed by many (liberty dying to the sound of thunderous applause).

The analogies with present-day anxieties, fears, possibilities and events is not easily mistaken, with these drawing particular attention when Revenge of the Sith came out, with many conservatives taking umbrage at the echoes of the Bush administration's rhetoric in the language of Anakin Skywalker.

Of course, one ought not to exaggerate the leftishness of the vision. If one believes in the primacy of economics in political life, the Emperor's turning on the businessmen who did so much to put him in power is unconvincing. A Marxist will certainly wonder where the Republic's working class has been in all these events. And rationalists of all types will be dubious about the connection of the Republic's destruction with mystical cycles. Indeed, one can even argue that there is a conservatism about the films' outlook, presenting at least one obvious cure to the utter corruption of the Republic's political system as worse than the disease--without hinting at any alternatives, either in the way of sociopolitical arrangements that may be more desirable, or more modest measures that might rectify the situation.

Nonetheless, the fact that exercises of corporate power and government corruption of familiar types were prominent in the films, and their dangers pointed up, doubtless exaggerated the ire of many toward these movies.

Monday, August 26, 2013

And Now For Something Slightly Different (Maybe): The Summer Movies of 2014

Last week I commented here that the summer of 2013 was par for the course as recent summer fare has gone (sequels, superheroes, zombies, Pixar, comedy of the same types from the same people). Looking ahead it struck me that
With The Amazing Spider-Man 2 kicking off summer 2014, and followed up by more superheroes (X-Men with Singer at the helm again, Guardians of the Galaxy, the Michael Bay-produced Turtles), more Transformers and Fast and Furious and Expendables, more remakes of old properties (Godzilla, the Planet of the Apes), more sequels to animated hits (another Planes movie is on its way), and even more comedy from the very same actors and directors (Melissa McCarthy will be back in her directorial debut Tammy, while Jake Kasdan, Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel reteam in Sex Tape), [one should] expect much, much, much more of the same this time next year.
Still, I did notice four major releases that seemed as if they might be just different enough to warrant comment.

Edge of Tomorrow
Due out next June is Edge of Tomorrow. While the film has Tom Cruise playing a "space marine" type battling aliens and dealing with time travel, which sounds like typical enough summer fare. Still, this harder type of science fiction has been more of a gamble than superhero adventures. Even more striking, the movie is based on the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill--not a form to which Hollywood has paid much attention in the past.

I certainly have my reservations about this one. I'm not a particular fan of Doug Liman's work (Swingers, The Bourne Identity), and even viewers more favorably disposed toward it were disappointed in his principal attempt at science fiction, 2008's Jumper. Additionally, I'm generally dubious about Hollywood efforts to make Americanized versions of Japanese properties. While I haven't read the original Hiroshi Sakaruzaka novel, anyone who has watched much animè knows that a very great deal of what we see there is not easily brought into line with Hollywood conventions, or the tastes of the American mainstream.

I am not holding my breath for a masterpiece, but the results may be interesting nonetheless.

Coming out in July is Maleficent, a live-action version of the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty (1959) told from the point of view of the villain, the sorceress who put the princess in that other tale under a spell. Of course, it is not an unprecedented concept. The Shrek series made billions with an unconventional spin on familiar fairy tales, and we have seen quite a few live-action releases on the same theme these past few years as well, like 2011's Red Riding Hood and Beastly, and last year's Mirror, Mirror--with the fantasy adventure Snow White and the Huntsman last year becoming one of 2012's bigger hits, enough so that a sequel seems to be on its way.

It does not seem a sure-fire hit, but there could be a good-sized audience for this one nonetheless.

Jupiter Ascending
The week after Maleficent, the Wachowski siblings' Jupter Ascending hits the big screen. Their standing is largely based on the first Matrix film, which, fourteen years later, seems almost to belong to another era.

The opprobrium which greeted the Matrix sequels (excessive in my view), and the critically and commercially underwhelming responses to Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas, may make fans doubtful, while the fickleness of general audiences regarding space opera hardly needs elaboration here. Additionally, the descriptions of the film I have seen so far seem unlikely to win them over--Mila Kunis as a janitor named Jupiter Jones with the same "perfect genetic makeup" as the Queen of the Universe, who has accordingly seen her as a threat and sent Channing Tatum to kill her. Is this going to be an all-too-rare bit of retro-science fiction-al, galactic empire fun, or the kind of hokey mess that will remind us all why these sorts of films are so rare, before winding up the object of an enthusiastic cult in love with its mix of oddness and badness?

Either way, it sounds like a longshot with critics and audiences, even if I find myself hoping that it's one that will pay off.

Fifty Shades of Grey
The last of the four movies listed here is also the most idiosyncratic of the lot, the film version of Fifty Shades of Gray scheduled for release in August 2014.

Again, I do not know the source material. However, it is the case that Hollywood has not scored a real, full-blown blockbuster on the basis of a sexual theme since the early '90s. This book does have a large built-in audience, much of which can be persuaded to regard the movie's release as an event, so it might be a hit--but I doubt that it will be as successful a film as it has been a book (arguably, the "adult" equivalent of the Harry Potter phenomenon). Indeed, even if it does connect with audiences I doubt it will make its year's list of top ten earners, and will probably be hard-pressed even to make the top twenty.

And that, of course, assumes the movie's actually getting made on time. So far, there has not even been official word on the cast, which makes it seem quite plausible that the release will be bumped to some later date.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Late Summer Box Office (The Weekend of August 23-25, 2013)

In its second weekend, critical darling and potential Oscar contender The Butler remained in first place, taking in another $17 million in ticket sales.

Holding onto second place in its third weekend (relatively good legs, that), We're The Millers grossed $13.5 million, for a total of just under $92 million, and is clearly well on its way to "the century club." Meanwhile, the Simon Pegg-Nick Frost-Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) reteaming opened in the fourth spot to gross a little under $9 million in its first weekend of release in the States.

The Cars franchise spin-off Planes, in fifth place in its third weekend, earned $8.5 million, bringing its total up to $59 million--pretty good for a relatively low-budgeted film ($50 million, versus the $150-200 million production budgets of most recent Disney/Pixar product) that was originally intended for a straight-to-video release.

Doing rather less well than The Butler, and the aforementioned comedies, action-themed films did rather less well. The young adult book-based urban fantasy The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, opened in just third place and made just $9.3 million in its first weekend (and $14 million). Much the same thing went for the holdovers. Elysium, which opened bigger than We're The Millers on the same weekend of its release, but which is fading rather more quickly, made just the number six position with $7 million, and seems unlikely not only to match the gross of Neil Bloomenkamp's previous District 9, but even to reach the $100 million mark. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, also in its third weekend of release, took in $5.2 million, for a total of $48.3 million, meaning that it will not get close to matching the gross of the original--just as Scott Mendelson predicted, a case of the "Tomb Raider Trap." And Kick-Ass 2, already down to tenth place in its second weekend, added just $4.2 million to its take, now standing at $22 million--the failure of this sequel to even match, let alone outdo, the original, suggesting that its post-theatrical popularity has been overrated.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The 2013 Summer Movie Season In Review

This third weekend of August, with the last megabudgeted wide-release behind us (Elysium came out last week), the last, more modestly produced superhero film just out (Kick-Ass 2 came out this weekend) and the grosses and rankings posted thus far unlikely to change very much between now and Labor Day, it does not seem too early to take stock of the season.

Glancing at both the films, and the financial data, continuity rather than rupture seems to prevail in yet another summer dominated as it has been by high-concept, big-budget spectacles based on familiar products, if not well-known franchises. In line with the last decade's established pattern, superheroes (Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, to a lesser degree The Wolverine) and zombies (World War Z) have done particularly well.

By contrast, science fiction films of other types have done less well, with the audience for such thing as futuristic and space-set stories proving fickle. Again, it was a high-profile sequel to a recent hit that did best, Star Trek: Into Darkness pulling in $227 million in North America and matching this abroad--but its American ticket sales were markedly lower than those of its less-costly predecessor, less than what the producers hoped for, and a reminder that enthusiasm for the brand cannot be taken for granted. The earnings of April's Oblivion topped out at about $90 million, while Pacific Rim and Elysium are fighting for only a little more than that, and After Earth flopped outright. Audiences also proved less than enthusiastic about the Percy Jackson sequel, Sea of Monsters.

It has been much the same story with the season's more grounded action films. Once again, only the latest Fast and Furious sequel held its own against the speculative-themed blockbusters, pulling in $238 million domestically and $782 million globally--a new high for the franchise, even in inflation-adjusted dollars. Meanwhile, despite the advantage of its PG-13 rating, bigger budget, summer release date and Roland Emmerich name (and Channing Tatum's alleged draw), White House Down did less well than March's Olympus Has Fallen. After nearly a month Red 2 has made considerably less than the original, making it unlikely ever to catch up. And the Western-set Lone Ranger, a high-risk gamble no matter how one looked at it, proved to be a bad one, crashing and burning on Independence Day weekend, and pulling in less than $200 million worldwide to date, making it one of the costlier flops of recent years.

This has also been the case with comedy, with sequels to two family-themed animated hits (Monsters, Despicable Me) cleaning up. Among live-action films, the Bucket Brigade was prominent, with This is the End and The Heat, while Adam Sandler and company had another hit with Grown-Ups 2. (By contrast, the more action-oriented animated features Epic, the Pixar spin-off Planes and Turbo were lesser performers, to varying degrees, while The Smurfs 2 and The Hangover III indisputably disappointed in comparison with their predecessors.)

That said, there were a few hits that did not quite fit into this pattern: Baz Luhrmann's remake of The Great Gatsby, the caper film Now You See Me, the horror movie The Conjuring. In fairness, however, Gatsby, the biggest commercial success of the lot, earned a mere $330 million globally, making it just the 13th largest hit of the year, and it is hard to see any of these films changing the market very much.

So once again, we have had a season dominated by sequels, superheroes, zombies, and Pixar, while the Bucket Brigade and Adam Sandler remain the studios' go-to guys for live-action comedy. With The Amazing Spider-Man 2 kicking off summer 2014, and followed up by more superheroes (X-Men with Singer at the helm again, Guardians of the Galaxy, the Michael Bay-produced Turtles), more Transformers and Fast and Furious and Expendables, more remakes of old properties (Godzilla, the Planet of the Apes), more sequels to animated hits (another Planes movie is on its way), and even more comedy from the very same actors and directors (Melissa McCarthy will be back in her directorial debut Tammy, while Jake Kasdan, Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel reteam in Sex Tape), expect much, much, much more of the same this time next year.

Lying About What We Read

Ours is an age of intense anti-intellectualism--and at the same time, endless intellectual one-upsmanship, with seemingly everyone exaggerating their intellectual prowess. People lie about their grades, and the courses they took and finished, and the degrees they have. They lie about the range of their technical proficiency, and the number of languages they speak.1

And, as Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz so memorably sang, "They lie to feel important, about all the books that they've read." Not long ago, Michelle Kerns took on the issue over at the Examiner, presenting a list of "The Top 10 Books People Lie About Reading."

Some of the books that made the list are unsurprising, given how often they are name-dropped precisely because of their notorious length and difficulty--like the "loose baggy monster" that is Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, the Modernist behemoths Ulysses and In Remembrance of Things Past ("Has ANYONE actually read this, other than Proust?" Kerns asks), and of course, the Bible.

My guess about these books is that many perfectly intelligent people start these books really meaning to get through them, and then simply fail to persevere with them all the way to the end, especially when they are not obliged to read them for a course.2

Others, however, struck me as very surprising, not least George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which takes the number one spot on the list. Certainly it is, like the books previously mentioned, the sort of thing much more often cited than understood, but it's also short (three hundred pages or so in most editions), and it struck me as highly readable, so that I would have expected that, given how often it makes school reading lists, a much higher percentage of people would have actually got through it. Ditto Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which I found to be relatively accessible by the standards of pop cosmology.

What people are not reading thus established, what is it that they actually are reading instead? J.K. Rowling and John Grisham, it seems.

What can we take from these lists? I suppose that, while one can argue about the reasons for it, the fact remains that the relatively small number of people who make a habit of reading fiction have little patience for the difficulties presented by those books held in highest esteem by the makers of respectable opinion, or place quite so much stress on the more esoteric pleasures by which the critics set such great store (with even Orwell and Hawking perhaps sufficient to defeat many a worthy reader).

These lists also indicate that, despite the reality of the reading public's tastes, it faithfully pays tribute to what that they feel should define their standards as readers, or which they would at least like others to think define those standards. And that when the conversation turns highbrow, we are more likely to encounter pretension than substance--suggesting that not merely the image but the reality of our intellectual life has been corrupted by the outrageous exaggerations of semi-literate public figures passing themselves off as men and women of letters, the endless "selling of oneself" that grows out of the absorption of all of life by the marketplace, the spiraling insecurity that goes with ever-widening differences in status and anxieties about the same, and even the distortion of our ideals by the caricatures of intellectuality we get from pop culture.

None of these strikes me as a great revelation. But Kerns' post is still worthwhile as a more than anecdotal reminder that those things "which everyone is assumed to know . . . almost everyone does not know," with the contents of the Great Books no exception.

It is a reminder, too, that those who really do bother to read and to think for themselves, however much they may feel as if they fail to meet the standard of accomplishment set by Hollywood morons and other douchebags, have no real cause to feel insecure. Anyone who has bothered to read this post all the way through, and actually understood it, is likely far, far ahead of the pack.

1. Language fluency is an area where delusions and misapprehensions seem particularly commonplace, and oft-exposed. I have long been astonished by the fact that the entire British task force sent to the Falklands in 1982 contained only one fluent Spanish speaker. James Adams, Secret Armies: Inside the American, Soviet and European Special Forces (New York: Bantam Books, 1989), p. 192.
2. As Kerns notes in her 2009 posts, her lists are based on a poll in Britain, but it seems to me that most of what it says carries over to the U.S. fairly well.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: Pacific Vortex! by Clive Cussler.

New York: Bantam Books, 1982, pp. 266.

Clive Cussler's Pacific Vortex! occupies an interesting place in the Dirk Pitt series. While the first book he wrote, it is only the sixth that he published, actually appearing after 1981's Night Probe!1

As all this suggests, the book is evidently an early effort. Certainly many of the elements for which the series are well-known are present in this tale of Pitt going on vacation in Hawaii and getting caught up in the deadly intrigue surrounding a missing U.S. Navy submarine - the James Bondian adventure, particularly heavy on maritime action; the over-the-top villains with their nautically themed conspiracies. Yet, as Cussler himself acknowledges in his foreword, the plot is rather less intricate than in later books (let alone epics like Cyclops). The events of the story are limited to the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands, while the narrative is much more closely focused on Pitt's person and actions.

The writing also tends toward the thin rather than the lean. Ideas, descriptions, scenes are less thoroughly fleshed out than they would be in Cussler's later work, and in some cases, less fleshed out than they should be. The rationale for the villain's actions seems underdeveloped, as does his organization. The underwater complex that is the scene of the final confrontation, while adequately portrayed for the purposes of the climax, feels like an eccentric's hideout rather than the site of a community of hundreds it is supposed to be. Pitt's romance with Summer Moran is likewise underwritten, all the more so given the crucial event in Pitt's life that later novels have made it out to be.2 And Cussler's comparative casualness with technical detail gets to be a bit much. The story's MacGuffin, the submarine Starbuck, is held to be capable of a hundred and twenty-five knot speeds, without a single word offered as to what revolutionary technology enables this incredible performance.

Pitt's world also seems less fully "peopled" than it would later become. The fictional version of the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA) is less fully realized than it would be in his later work (though admittedly the organization plays a smaller part here than in most of his stories), and the entourage of characters readers are accustomed to seeing surrounding Pitt still only in development, and used in only limited ways. Admiral Sandecker puts in just a brief appearance at the start, while Al Giordino turns up only in time to take part in the finale. Rudi Gunn is merely mentioned, while Hiram Yeager, Julien St. Perlmutter and Loren Smith do not even seem to be a notion as yet.

Still, if the book comes off not only as a rough prototype for what Cussler would later write, but more generally displays many of the weaknesses common to authors' early efforts (as well as editing that would, in spots, make reviewers scream for blood if it appeared in an indie book), it also displays many of the virtues of those efforts. The action and plotting, while less inventive or elaborate than those of many of the later Pitt novels, nonetheless feel fresher. The same economy with prose that makes this shortest of Pitt's adventures feel thin in places also gives it a brisk pace that compares favorably with later works, like the flabby Trojan Odyssey. And the appeal of the essential concept, the talent of the author for telling this kind of story, are equally evident. The result is not the grandest or best of Pitt's adventures (I remain fondest of Cyclops, Treasure and Sahara), but one I found reasonably satisfying nonetheless.

1. That the first Pitt adventure written was not the first published is not unusual, many an author producing not just several books, but several in the same series, before getting one through the publishing industry's gauntlet - invariably kinder to the repetitive hackwork of an over-the-hill pro than the more original work of a first-timer. To cite but one example, Iain Banks' Consider Phlebas was actually his fourth Culture novel.
2. Those who read the more recent works will also be left wondering when Pitt could possibly have conceived the twins with her who figure so prominently in the novels from Valhalla Rising on. I understand that Cussler has admitted to "goofing" on this score.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

From Page to Screen: The Politics of Game of Thrones

George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is a political story, and not merely in the sense that its characters are engaged in political conflicts, that those conflicts have been inspired by political history (like England's War of the Roses), or that one might learn tactical lessons from their conduct (which is what seems to have engaged most of those who write about the show's politics). The saga is also political in its having something to say about the world on the page, and to the extent that that world reflects the one in which we actually live, our world as well.

Where a great deal of fantasy, high and low, romanticizes the past in that way critics like Michael Moorcock have long found problematic, Game of Thrones strikes me as a staunchly anti-feudal story. Reading it I am overwhelmed by the sheer creaking, wobbling, arbitrary, bloody instability of a system in which adultery can start a civil war. It may well be that the character of the people in charge makes a difference, that there is such a thing as an honorable lord--but as we see in Eddard's case, their honor does not redeem a bad system. In fact, to the extent that his uprightness makes him insist on the absurd principle legitimizing rulership in Westeros (lineal succession), his honor not only costs him his life, but does much to set the seven kingdoms ablaze.

In its depiction of that blaze, Martin's saga is also an anti-war tale, keeping the reader ever conscious of the brutality and brutalization that follow in its wake. In the first volume Martin seems unable to muster much enthusiasm for Robb Stark's bid to become the King in the North, and for good reason, that quest soon enough proving foolish. We see the men of the Night's Watch driven to and past the breaking point, and turning on their commander and their hosts when they snap. We see what the contending armies do to the countryside as Brienne and Jaime and Arya journey across the desolate Westerosi landscape--Martin's depictions of which are some of the most powerful anti-war writing I can remember encountering in popular fiction in recent decades. And while this is not a story told from the bottom up (our cast of characters are generally the elite of the elite), we never forget that the bottom exists, or how it suffers through it all--life in Flea Bottom certainly bad during the siege of King's Landing, but never really good, even in those times when court poets and gentleman historians write of good kings on the throne bringing peace and prosperity to the land.

Such things come through less forcefully in the show. It may be the case that this is deliberate on the part of the show's makers--but it may also be a reflection of the show's format, the focus on the progress of the main storylines (which have the episodes zipping among a handful of viewpoint characters), and the material limitations of a television production in comparison with a film epic, constraining the series' effect in these respects.

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