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.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Hayao Miyazaki Controversy

In July Hayao Miyazaki recently published an essay criticizing the recent course of the country in the areas of foreign and defense policy, in particular the attitude high-ranking government officials have manifested toward the actions of the Japanese state before and during World War II (such as the practice of sexual slavery by the armed forces1), their handling of the Senkaku Islands dispute with China, and their loudly trumpeted moves to amend Chapter II, Article 9 of the Constitution (in which Japan renounces war, the use of force in international disputes and the maintenance of national armed forces)2.

The essay's publication coincided with the release of his first film since 2008, Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)--a drama about Jiro Horikishi, the designer of the Zero fighter plane of World War II, a story on which this subject matter bears directly--and a parliamentary election where the very policies he criticized have been very much at issue. Unsurprisingly, the essay and the film quickly attracted the ire of right-wing nationalists supportive of the policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who instantly resorted to words like "un-Japanese" and "traitor" to describe the author.

This reaction has drawn rather more news coverage in the American press than the release of the movie itself. It was the controversy that I actually heard about first (over at Kotaku), and which also attracted the attention of venues that do not normally pay much attention to the world of animè (like The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Foreign Policy).

Both the controversy, and the attention paid it, reflect the larger situation of Japan today, which in itself is reflective of the larger situation globally--the increasing stridency of "culture warriors" determined to make the crimes of the past respectable (Russian neo-Stalinism, the French education system's celebration of colonialism), and the loosening of legal restraints on the exercise of military force (such as Germany's legalization of its military's use of force internally last year). Still, Matthew Penney, who offers by far the most detailed analysis of the issue over at The Asia-Pacific Journal's "Japan Focus," presents a reminder that Miyazaki's attackers do not necessarily represent broader Japanese opinion. As he notes,
lost amid the talking points . . . are the strong anti-militarist, anti-revisionist voices that exist among cultural figures such as Miyazaki Hayao and a host of journalists, authors, scholars, and other public figures. Even amid increasing tensions with China, the percentage of Japanese who wish to scrap the 'peace clause' of the Constitution is by some measures lower than it was a decade ago. Kaze Tachinu fits with Miyazaki’s oeuvre and the film and discussions surrounding it are representative of anti-militarist views and critical views of history that continue to be mainstream in Japan.
One may hope that this does indeed prove to be the case, and that it matters enough to lessen the danger of the worse consequences one can imagine flowing from the situation--in East Asia, and elsewhere.

1. The issue was reignited when Toru Hashimoto--the mayor of Osaka, who, along with Shintaro Ishihara, leads the Japan Restoration Party--defended the policy as a wartime "necessity."
2. The official translation of the text reads as follows:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

A Note on Independent Film

The term "independent film" refers to a mode of filmmaking as old as the cinema, its meaningful use going back at least to the founding of United Artists. Inextricably intertwined with the larger history of the medium, its product has ranged from the quirkily artistic to the crassly commercial, and spanned the full range of genres and styles. The independent film boom that began in the 1980s was propelled by the work of Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh, whose 1989 hit Sex, Lies and Videotape established the market as we know it.

Nonetheless, for me the words conjure a very particular body of work by a very particular group of '90s-era filmmakers, directors like Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) and Kevin Smith (Clerks), Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion) and Doug Liman (Swingers), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) and Neil LaBute (In The Company of Men). I suppose this is because, in my totally subjective, unscientific impression of the field, they set the pattern for most of the product that was to follow. They have also had a greater effect than any of their colleagues on the style and content of studio releases than any of their cohorts--directly through their own, later studio-made films, and indirectly through the big studio filmmakers they influence in ways large and small--so that a great many studio releases also seem "independent" in this sense.1

The most characteristic products of this stream are movies about loser-slackers and frustrated creative types and dimwitted criminals, living at the bottom of the service sector (working in a video rental, perhaps), or the bottom of the media-entertainment complex (especially its film and publishing divisions), or the bottom of the underworld's hierarchy (running errands for small-time gangsters), with the plot typically having them navigating offbeat romances (no Harlequin protagonists, they), artistic endeavors (like trying to make a movie) and neo-noir intrigues (like fake kidnappings)--possibly all at the same time. All this is usually served up by writers and directors clearly eager to impress us with their worldliness and tough-mindedness; shock us with their outrageousness; stun us with their technical virtuosity.

Alas, it all translates to a lot of movies telling a very small number of stories, with the audience subjected to the same scenes over and over and over again (like the hero getting thrown out of the apartment he shares with his girlfriend after the inevitable fight over his aimlessness), peppered with not-very-interesting "big thinks," especially about the subject of capital "R" relationships ("You know, there's a million fine looking women in the world, dude . . ."); "quirky" dialogue-for-its-own-sake (What do they call a quarter-pounder-with-cheese in Belgium?); and ostentatious but pointless displays of cinematic technique typically on the wrong side of the thin line between rip-off and homage, and pop culture references as fast and furious as they are easy, and lazy exercises in metafiction (Swingers delivering all three in its evocations of Reservoir Dogs).

Needless to say, the attempt at worldliness merely demonstrates the narrowness of their concern and vision (reflected in the small range of their subject matter and attitude), the tough-mindedness is all posing, the shock mere tastelessness, the technical displays derivative and pretentious.2 And so instead of smart and cool and edgy, the filmmakers come off as alienated-but-not-very-bright adolescents wallowing in the cynicism and nihilism that come so easily to a would-be artistic type at that age, and frat boy pranksters at their meanest and grossest, and wimps talking big and hoping that will be enough to keep anyone from challenging them to a fight, while in their propensity to affirm the conventional wisdom by story's end despite all that, they also prove themselves awfully superficial and, well, conventional.

In fairness, this does reflect the fact that many of the filmmakers are young people making movies about characters not dissimilar from themselves (frustrated moviemakers making movies about frustrated moviemakers, etc.), and drawing on inspiration from work that speaks to them.3 However, it also suggests that far too many of them are not even trying to transcend their limitations, instead taking the path of least resistance, and so producing a great deal of material which is not merely mediocre, but lazy and stereotyped in exactly the way that independent film is not supposed to be, given the indie movement's raison d'etre of offering an alternative to commercial studio fare.

1. I cite as examples of the tendency toward this particular range of subject matter and sensibility such films as Gary Fleder's Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995), John Herzfeld's 2 Days in the Valley (1996), Quinton Peeple's Joyride (1996), Neil Mandt's Hijacking Hollywood (1997), Peter O'Fallon's Suicide Kings (1997), Robert Meyer Burnett's Free Enterprise (1998), Peter Berg's Very Bad Things (1998) and Valerie Breiman's Love & Sex (1999); Francois Velle's New Suit (2002), Danny Camden's Sol Goode (2003), David Rosenthal's See This Movie (2004), Rob McKittrick's Waiting . . . (2005), Peter Spears' Careless (2006), Paul Soter's Watching the Detectives (2007) and Marianna Palka's Good Dick (2008); and last year's hits Chronicle and Project X.
Where studio fare is concerned, one can find it in Martin Brest's Gigli (2003), in "Bucket Brigade" comedies like The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) and Superbad (2007), in the "spoofs" of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, and the prevailing comedic sensibility more generally. Alex Hopper in Battleship (2012), prior to becoming a standard save-the-day action hero, is a standard indie slacker anti-hero, especially in his chicken burrito adventure.
Is this a memorable collection of films? Of course not. But then that's exactly the point, and I hardly seem to be alone in this assessment, as making lists of Pulp Fiction rip-offs, at any rate, seems to be something of a pastime among film critics.
2. The 2006 Law and Order: Criminal Intent episode "Weeping Willow" is a veritable encyclopedia of the clichés of this body of work, complete with obnoxious film students, a crime staged by idiots that predictably goes wrong (in this case, the tried and true fake kidnapping), gratuitous references to Quentin Tarantino, and big thinks on media and fame long past their sell-by date.
3. The continued currency of Quentin Tarantino with college-aged youth (who were not yet born when Reservoir Dogs came out) astonishes me. Of all the filmmakers they could study, this is what they pick? It all puts me in mind of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People's Vincent Lepak.

NOTE: This piece originated as an enlargement of my October 2011's post, "A Fragment on Indie Film," which you can read here.

Thoughts on Chronicle

Some years ago an acquaintance showed me a script by a friend of his--who was, by the way, no stranger to Hollywood--that he told me was nearly made into a superhero film. (He even named a couple of stars, at the time solidly A-list, who would have been in the lead roles if the project found the sought-after backing.) My impression was that the film was always a longshot. It combined the dramatic material of a small-scale independent movie (an insecure loser loafing about a small town in anticipation of a confrontation with an old enemy) with superhero battles (the loser and his enemy happening to have special abilities), so that I had a hard time seeing anyone willing to put up adequate financing.

Naturally, I was surprised to see 2012's Chronicle. Certainly the story is different. It is less devoted to superhero conventions if in some ways more trite (in its use of the "found footage" gimmick that ultimately becomes quite illogical, and its treatment of the theme of the misuse of power), the hero seethes rather than whines, and the tone is--if you will forgive the overused word--darker (while also being more pretentious and less funny). Still, it offers that same combination of indie-style drama with effects-heavy displays of superhero abilities I wrote off as unlikely.

Naturally I wondered how they closed the gap between even the $12 million they raised (rather more than I pictured the producers of such a film putting up), and the realization of such a concept. The solution was shooting much of the mere 83 minute film in Cape Town, South Africa with a cast of virtual unknowns (no A-listers here), and the conservation of the bulk of the resources for the big finale.

The result, of course, was one of the more noteworthy low-budget successes of recent years, the film grossing ten times what it cost (a rare achievement these days), while also winning a good deal of critical acclaim. Now a sequel is reportedly in the works.

I suppose I underestimated Hollywood's flexibility--but perhaps not by much. What I guess I really underestimated was the continued appeal of the superhero genre for the studios, which gave the production just enough wriggle room not only to get made, but to get the wide distribution that made it a possible franchise.

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