Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Showing and Telling Katniss Everdeen

The fourth and final installment in the Hunger Games saga arrived in theaters this past weekend, and made $100 million, which by any normal standard is sensational, but is regarded in many quarters as a disappointment. This is not just as a result of the simple-minded insistence of the Hollywood Suit that any and all movies be record-breakers (real as this is), but also the better performance of earlier installments, which seems to have reflected some dissatisfaction with the movies' course. (The third book was generally not considered the series' strongest--a judgment in which I have to concur--and that problem was amplified by the mostly money-grubbing decision to split the last movie in two, making viewers buy tickets twice to get the whole story.)

Perhaps more important than the numbers and the tactics, however, is the fact that, with the series now complete, the assessments of the whole have begun, with Rob Bricken offering his opinion at io9. In doing so he correctly notes, among other things, the loss of some of the protagonist's complexity in the translation from book to screen, which raises a matter that occurred to me while watching the first Hunger Games film.

Where the balance of "show" and "tell" is concerned, Collins' book tilted heavily toward telling. Of course, this goes against the conventional wisdom that good writing is "show, don't tell," but it was necessary to developing the character's interiority, and supplying a certain amount of necessary backstory and world-building that could not have readily been shown. Converting the books into movies diminished the prospects for telling to rare, relatively awkward expository passages (like Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith explaining what tracker jackers are to the audience), forcing it to rely that much more on showing, made the loss of a certain amount of nuance inevitable--and in the process, reminded us all of just how important an item in the writer's toolbox much-maligned "tell" happens to be.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Wells on "Spiritual" vs. Material Advance

Writing in The Shape of Things to Come Wells remarked the attitude of the mainstream in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries toward the reality that social and political arrangements were lagging behind technology. "The favourite formula," he observed,
was to declare that "spiritual"--for the naïve primordial opposition of spirit and matter was still accepted in those days--had not kept pace with "material" advance. This was usually said with an air of moral superiority to the world at large. Mostly there was a vague implication that if these other people would only refrain from using modern inventions so briskly, or go to church more, or marry earlier and artlessly, or read a more "spiritual" type of literature, or refrain from mixed bathing, or work harder and accept lower wages, or be more respectful and obedient to constituted authority, all might yet be well.
It is the view that the individual is the only valid unit or level of analysis, and that the insights of social science into even that are to be treated with indifference or contempt. ("No one's written anything worthwhile on these matters since Aristotle!") It is, frankly, a matter of moralizing, or better still, pseudo-moralizing, in a narrow, uninformed, and (especially if one is in a position of authority) exceedingly self-serving way.

Alas, this view, retrograde in Wells' time, is still very much with us. ("There is no such thing as society!" "Personal responsibility!") We have not even got past it in our science fiction, or we would not still be consuming an unhealthy amount of Frankenstein complex cliche in our genre diets.

Poison Rags and Irritated Cortices

H.G. Wells, affecting the position of a historian of the twenty-second century casting an eye back at the twentieth, wrote in The Shape of Things to Come that
the ordinary newspaper of that time was not so much a news sheet as a poison rag. Every morning the common man took in fresh suggestions of suspicion and resentment and gratified his spite with bad news and malicious gossip.
All that, of course, fed the problem of hatred--national, racial hatred and the like. He explained this in physiological terms that seem old-fashioned in our brain-scanning era. (This recent Scientific American piece discusses the possibility of a "hate circuit" physically much more extensive than in Wells' description.)

Still, what he wrote about the behavior continues to ring true, not least that it produces "a chronic condition of vindictive disapproval" toward a particular subject. As a consequence,
[t]he patient seeks, often with the greatest ingenuity, occasion for offence, and finds a profound satisfaction in the nursing of resentment and the search for reprisals and revenges. He has what he calls his "proper pride." He disapproves of his fellow creatures and grudges them happiness.
Fortunately, hatred had come to play a much smaller part in human life. As he remarked afterward, where the mass media in that earlier "time subsisted by [hatred's] dissemination, in the interests of reactionary forces," in the later, more rational era,
Our current education is framed very largely to avert and anticipate this facile contagion . . . We are as sedulous now for cleanliness and ventilation in our mental as in our physical atmosphere.
Alas, this is one case where Wells' remarks remain relevant not for their description of what did change in the years that followed, but for their description of what has unfortunately not changed.

The Most Interesting Man in the World?

"I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis."

So goes the catch phrase of "The Most Interesting Man in the World."

As we can tell from the commercials, he is worldly enough to enjoy a certain amount of variety in his beverages, to have become acquainted with the finer among them, and to have acquired particular tastes. Still, he does not turn up his nose at beer, and where beer is concerned, he does not insist on a particular brand. He merely prefers Dos Equis.

I recently found myself comparing this to Bond's well-known and frequently-advertised taste in alcohol.

It strikes me that the Dos Equis pitchman most definitely serves us a display of quasi-aristocratic consumption, but with the snobbish edge that gave us the "dry martini, shaken, not stirred" line blunted.

It also seems to fit our era better.

Perhaps that is progress of a sort.

Stay thirsty for that, my friends.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Noir and Science Fiction

In a recent round-up of new science fiction novels for The Hamilton Spectator, Alex Good remarks that
The strange bond between noir and science fiction has never been thoroughly explained. What is it about trench coats and laser pistols that make them work so well together?
It's certainly something worth thinking about. It strikes me as relevant that both hard-boiled crime, and science fiction, coalesced as genres at about the same time--the late 1920s, the 1930s.

However, I suspect that their appearing at the same moment is not the only reason for the sense of their kinship, but reflects something deeper, which we may find easy to overlook today, or simply prefer to overlook, namely the political radicalism in which they each had their beginnings. Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and company in the case of the former; H.G. Wells in the case of the latter; all had a sense of there being much wrong with this world, but not because of the traditional, conservative, tragic view of the universe as metaphysically rigged (the Fall, etc.), but because of an inconstant social reality that they believed could and had to be changed for the better.

Granted, Hammett gave way to Mickey Spillane. And when people think of early science fiction, they are apt to remember the more out-of-date attitudes of figures like Astounding editor John Campbell. Still, the old radicalism remained, perhaps more conspicuously in science fiction. Man of the right that Campbell indisputably was, he largely carried forward Wells' ideas about science fiction and how it ought to be written.1 Indeed, in what may have been the fullest expression of his own view in a critical essay, his 1959 editorial "Non--Escape Literature," the great virtue of science fiction was that, unlike the "literature of eternal verities" (for which he had such disdain), it grappled with the reality of that inevitable change, helping prepare us all for the "things to come," the bigotries of the highbrows be damned. Moreover, for all that has undeniably changed in the field since then, that idea has never gone away (however much it may have appeared marginalized). Nor is it imaginable that it could, so long as science fiction continues to be written.

1. I discuss the views of Campbell, and his considerable debt to Wells, in Chapter 2 of Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

James Bond, Gentleman of Leisure

I've already discussed Veblen's theory of the leisure class as a way of understanding the figure of James Bond, but a particular passage in Chapter IV of his book, titled "Conspicuous Consumption," strikes me as worth sharing more closely.

The consumption of the "gentleman of leisure," Veblen notes, besides being lavish in quantity and expense, "also undergoes a specialisation as regards the quality of the goods consumed" (emphasis added). The increase of "personal comfort and well-being" is part of this, but there is, as Veblen notes, the "honorific" aspect. The gentleman, after all,
is no longer simply the successful, aggressive male--the man of strength, resource, and intrepidity . . . he must also cultivate his tastes, for it now becomes incumbent on him to discriminate with some nicety between the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods. He becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel and . . . weapons, games, dancers, and the narcotics. This cultivation of aesthetic faculty requires time and application, and [results in] a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a life of ostensible leisure in a becoming way. Closely related to the requirement that the gentleman must consume freely and of the right kind of goods, there is the requirement that he must know how to consume them in a seemly manner.
Thus the clothes, the watches, the cars must be of suitable brands; he must not only have his martini, but he must take it specifically shaken, not stirred; and it is only appropriate that he favor Old World casinos over the "trap for peculiarly insensitive mice . . . tempted by the coarsest cheese" that is Vegas.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Calvinball Mythology, Applied

A few years ago Jonathan McCalmont remarked the tendency to try and turn every story into a larger mythology, which seemed all the more conspicuous in the particular film about which he was writing at the time, Ridley Scott's Alien prequel, Prometheus, precisely because Alien is such an unlikely candidate for this, and the film ultimately such a failure at developing it in this manner. (Myths, for better or worse, offer explanation, a thing that movie was very short on.)

McCalmont posited that this was a deep-rooted cultural need in an age which has ceased to believe in its inherited myths. (As he put it, "the market has stepped in to fill the gap.")

That's one way of looking at it, one with which not everyone will agree. (There are, after all, those rationalistic types who regard a turn to the mythic approach in the modern world as essentially a cheat, obscuring reality with pretentions of "timelessness.")

Another is to see the market's stepping in in this way as simply a way of milking every last drop from established intellectual properties. After all, fixating on the "timeless" in a particular story, however slight, is an excuse to overlook the ways in which it has dated. And attributing a greater significance to a simple tale is an obvious way of accomplishing that necessary task for making the audience come to the theater and buy a $20 ticket rather than waiting three months and downloading it in the comfort of their home for much less--making them feel that its release is an Event in which they want to participate. That sense that this or that movie is "something more" is equally a good way to justify prequels ("I really care how it all got started") and reboots ("It's timeless; this generation needs one"), which can in their turn also seem like Events.

Obviously the most successful example of this in recent years has been the multi-series Marvel mega-franchise, now including Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Ant-Man (and in a TV version, even humble Agent Coulson) separately, and together in the Avengers. And naturally that success has been emulated. Over at Rolling Stone, David Ehrlich offers a case for the application of this approach to the Bond series being the weak point of its latest, Spectre--its attempting to tie the four rebooted films into a unified whole.

In fairness, the idea of a more unified Bond series is not altogether alien to the franchise. Fleming united the action in his last five novels, with results that have an interest even when they are not always successful. And Gardner followed his example in his own, last three novels (unsatisfactorily, but still functionally). And of course, before Marvel got into movie-making in a serious way, the producers of the Bond movies did toy with the idea of an interconnection with a related series starring a female double-O type. (You remember Jinx Johnson?) Still, the Marvel films were on safer ground doing this, because they were never quite so ambitious as the rebooted Bond films, or so prone to alternating in their course (as the evolution of third Daniel Craig movie into Skyfall demonstrates), making the task a far simpler one. All the same, if Spectre does get chalked up as a disappointment in the end, the series will not come to an end, simply do again what it has been doing for nearly a half century now--correcting course, likely delivering a lighter, brisker, more standalone film.

Bond, Politics, Critics: the Spectre of Surveillance

It is no secret that Spectre has fared much less well with critics than its predecessor Skyfall. As a practical matter, the film's detractors have had plenty of arguments to support their less complimentary stance. However, one may wonder if the stronger political element in this film has not also been a factor in the severity toward the movie. Over at Informed Comment scholar Juan Cole remarked that the
latest entry in the Daniel Craig reboot of the James Bond film franchise, Spectre, turns Bond into more muscular version of Edward Snowden, as he takes down a vast 9-nation attempt at electronic surveillance and information-sharing that would also benefit a criminal cartel.
He also observed that reviews seemed to be ignoring the political theme to a "remarkable" degree, and even noted a parallel between Spectre and Quantum of Solace, which "turned Bond into a defender of the left-leaning, pro-peasant government of Evo Morales in Bolivia." While Cole does not make the observation in his piece, it has previously struck me that Quantum of Solace may have taken the beating with critics that it did in part because of the movie's political tilt--and that this might also be the case with Spectre.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Ready to Boldly Go?

Over at io9 James Whitbrook, in response to the recent announcement of a new Star Trek series to air on CBS, offered up a list of "seven things we want in the new Star Trek TV show."

I'm in agreement with much of what he's asking for ("Something new," "Lots of weird and wonderful aliens," "More boldly going," etc.), but there was one thing he all too predictably didn't mention--namely a humanistic, progressive vision of the future. A future that was a mirror to our present, while transcending it; which encouraged us to see more fully, and see that we can--and must--do better than we have. Which sides with reason over obscurantism, principle over prejudice. That, too, defined the old series at its best, and seems the more desperately needed in this era of young adult dystopias and dark and gritty everything.

And while I'm not a particular fan of endlessly bringing back the same old IPs, it wouldn't be altogether inappropriate if it was a new Trek which finally cleansed the small-screen space opera of the pernicious legacy of that show that left it moribund for years, BattleStar Galactica.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Best James Bond Novels, After Fleming

The question of what were the best "post-Fleming" James Bond novels is a complex one. Just what standard ought we to apply?

Are we looking for more fiction just like what Ian Fleming produced? If so, then Kingsley Amis' Colonel Sun comes closest--helped by the fact that Amis had prior, and direct experience of meeting Fleming, helping prepare his own fiction for publication (reviewing the galleys of The Man with the Golden Gun).*

It helped, too, that he produced his book just a few years after Fleming wrote his last word, before his work dated nearly so much as it was to do later. Indeed, every writer who came after Amis had little choice but to downplay Fleming's attitudes (even Sebastian Faulks, writing "as Ian Fleming"), while changes in the broader political context nullified many an old concern. (What need for imperial policing when there is no empire? And did the hand-wringing over the welfare state unsurprising in the age of Macmillan make any sense in the age of Thatcher?)

Moreover, those unavoidable changes apart, the fact remained that, as a writer aiming not for pulpy adventure but "thrillers designed to be read as literature," Fleming was prone to an oblique narrative style, and character drama. And with only a few exceptions, the result has been that his tales seem slow and lacking in action from the perspective of those accustomed to today's thrillers. (Or at any rate, that was how this reader of today's thrillers found them when first trying Fleming.) That Fleming tends toward a bleakly irony view of life does not necessarily make this more appealing.

By and large, today's reader is likely to prefer something more accessible and less literary, brisker and more action-packed; something more like the Bond films which are the basis for almost everyone's perception of Bond today, even those of us who eventually read the books. And indeed, most of the post-Fleming books have something of this about them. However, if the standard is that of a Bond novel that reads like a Bond film, then the writer who comes closest is Raymond Benson, whose works are easily readable as Brosnan-era Bonds in book form, particularly in the climax to his Union trilogy, Never Dream of Dying.

If one is looking for a better balance (the characterizations of Fleming, the fireworks of the EON productions, a decent amount of polish), then I can think of none better than John Gardner's first, Licence Renewed--while also giving a good word to the novelizations. Christopher Wood's novelizations of the scripts he co-wrote for The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker were, some distasteful or strained bits apart, a pleasant surprise in that respect.

* At the time of this writing, the author had not yet read Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis (released only this September).

Sunday, November 1, 2015

James Bond's Identity

As Ashley Fetters makes clear in a recent GQ article, the idea of recasting James Bond as something other than a white male has been around for decades. However, recent years have seen more than the usual fuss about a possible, sharp divergence in the casting of 007. (There was, for example, the campaign to get Idris Elba cast, and Rush Limbaugh's highly publicized response to the idea of a black Bond.) The arrival of Spectre in theaters has meant a spike in that talk, with Roger Moore's remarks about a gay or female Bond adding fuel to the fire.

As usual, the discussion has been conducted on the shallowest possible terms, as is usually the case when matters of identity are involved, with everyone lining up behind their predictable position just as reflexively as Limbaugh.

The truth is that, if one treats the question as something other than a litmus test for our preferred side in the culture wars, what exactly we take the name "James Bond" to denote is something we ought to take into account when we respond to this question. Do we think of Bond as a character who may be fictional but nonetheless has a specific cultural context, personal history and individual qualities that manifest themselves in his way of looking at the world and dealing with people and situations--and they with him? Or do we think of him as something much less definite and much more abstract than that, such that most of the details can be changed without damaging some essential James Bond-ness?

When Ian Fleming created Bond back in 1953, he wrote a character, one by and large more thoroughly developed in the book and on the screen; and especially in that original setting it was inconceivable that a double-o, and still less this particular double-o, could have been very different from what he was in race, gender--or social class. This was all the more the case for the books being not just about the adventures of one man, but through that one man, the place of Britain in the world, and of the place of the country's traditional elite at home and abroad.

Accordingly, anyone presuming to render James Bond as an actual character would have to leave those aspects of his identity unaltered (unless they were going for Brechtian theater-like alienation effects which would, again, underline the traditional idea of the character). And of course, much of the justification and promotion of the character has been based on the idea that after '70s-style silliness this is all a return to the original.

Still, that highly touted faithfulness extended only so far. Fleming's Bond was at the least a semi-aristocrat (even if the aristocratic aspect was "smuggled in," as Kingsley Amis put it), while he was often deeply ambivalent about what he did, especially when killing was involved. By contrast, with Craig the upper-class aspects are downplayed (even if the filmmakers suddenly decided in Skyfall that instead of semi-aristocrat he was just plain old aristocrat), while befitting these "dark and gritty"-loving times, the ambivalence is diminished, this Bond having no trouble at all killing in cold blood.

Indeed, over the years the series saw so much change that many viewers were convinced that Bond was not really a person but a code name--in a way that they never thought was the case with, for example, Bruce Wayne. Over at Fuse Jason Lipshutz goes so far as to say that
"James Bond is not a specific nationality, color or gender, even if those qualities have been uniform over the past five decades. Bond is a sensation of effortless cool, a pristine combination of sophistication, physical strength and good looks."
Siding with the conception of Bond as an idea--an aesthetic even--and its consequent reduction of just about all other traits of the character incidental, he makes a case for Rihanna as the next Bond.

However, while there are some grounds for each perception of Bond, the fact also remains that each has implications going far beyond a bit of casting--and commensurate disadvantages. Bond the character belonged to an earlier, different world, and can have much less meaning for our time. Any Bond fit to go into the field today would likely have no memory of a time before the pull-out from "east of Suez," and the final end of empire; while after Thatcher and Major, Blair and Cameron, he could not convincingly be an expression of reaction against the more egalitarian world promised by Labor in its post-war heyday. The concerns to which he spoke have vanished, and it is not clear how he could speak to new concerns. Indeed, with the most recent films the filmmakers have turned away from any consistent line on them, and even from noticing them at all, offering down-sized, less global stories instead.

But "Bond the aesthetic" is a virtual admission that there is now very little to this figure around which a $20 billion brand has been built up.

Neither option being totally satisfactory, the producers have opted not to tie themselves to one or the other, turning this way, turning that, as seemed convenient (e.g. "What we tried last time didn't work out so well, so let's do the opposite!"). So will they go on doing for as long as possible, and that seems more likely than anything else to determine the series' post-Craig lead--while the problem of having to deal with the issue seems the thing most likely to keep Craig in the role. I've said it before and I'll say it again: action heroes stick around longer than they used to, and if Vin Diesel can keep playing Dom Toretto into his fifties' without an ill word said of him for it (and might even go back to playing Triple-X), then there seems no reason to think Craig (whose version of Bond has embraced the idea of Bond as tired and run-down and worn-out and a dinosaur) cannot get away with soldiering on as Bond into his fifties', and even beyond, in a way that predecessors like Roger Moore did not. And that, given the odds against his getting a 25 million pound paycheck for anything else he ever does, he will, for all the grumbling, take the money at the end of the day and endure the next grueling round of shooting.

The Three Musketeers, Today

To go by the innumerable film versions, one would scarcely imagine that Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers is as much satire as swashbuckler. Dumas, a man of the nineteenth century (indeed, the son of a prominent general of the French Revolution), spent much of the novel having fun at the expense of those pillars of the Old Regime--monarchs and aristocrats, soldiers and churchmen, and all they represented, not least their moral squalor.1

The result is that, as the reader quickly finds, the musketeers popularly associated with not much more than high spirits, loyalty and camaradrie are basically a pack of thieving, deadbeat, colossally entitled hoodlums--and that on their better days.2 Charming as they are for all that in print, the movies tend to curtail this (especially after D'Artagnan's memorable first meetings with his future comrades, which they dare not drop and can scarcely modify), filmmakers finding this all a bit much for characters presented as "our heroes"--while in our relatively conservative times, they also hesitate to mock soldiers and priests. And of course, along with contemporary conservatism, there is contemporary feminism, which looks askance at such types as adulterous airheads, damsels in distress and villainnesses who fight with traditional "women's weapons" like lies, seduction and poison--so that in Paul W.S. Anderson's 2011 version Constance is a secret agent (and unmarried to a doddering old man); and Milla Jovovich's DeWinter is Resident Evil's Alice in period costume. Meanwhile, rather than all the derring-do being driven by the heroes' effort to stop a potentially war-starting exposure of the French Queen's astonishing indiscretion (a striking indictment of the stupidity of the politics of an era in which war was the sport of kings), what we get is their disrupting Cardinal Richelieu's scheming to create the appearance of adultery.

Alas, in the process the satire is reduced to nearly nothing, and a good deal of texture gone too, leaving us with just a sanitized early fragment of the adventure (few moviemakers bother with more than the first third of the story). This being the case one may wonder at the eternal eagerness to refilm it for the umpteenth time.3 (Just check out Dumas' IMDB page.) But those who have been paying attention know that faithfulness to a classic, or even an interest in what makes it a classic, has less often been part of adaptations than one might wish, for all the tediously pious protestations of the PR people. Those looking to film the story simply seem to think cloaks and rapiers are cool, and have a name everyone knows attached to them, which spares them the trouble of making stuff up like a writer should, or still worse, trying to sell something under--horror of horrors--an original title.

Even going by this standard Anderson's version is uneven, but it does at least reflect an all-too-rare recognition of the truisms that if you have to leave behind a big chunk of what makes a story worth telling in the first place, you ought to replace it with something else; and that the millionth version of the same story ought to have something setting it apart from the nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine versions preceding it. In this case, it is an abundance of clock-punk that performs the role, and at the least, it gives the production an interesting look. Still, filmmaking would be a whole lot better off if there was a little more readiness to say "Do it right or not it all," a bit more broad-mindedness toward classic stories' content, and moviemakers did not have to slavishly wrap up original ideas in the trappings of established names.

1. In this Dumas is a lot like Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, another, contemporaneous classic of French and world literature distorted out of all recognition in the popular memory by the film versions.
2. Living by sword and by gun and disdaining industry and those who do it; regarding it as unthinkable to be unattended by a servant, while usually being flat broke; quick to arm and quick to anger and thinking themselves quite entitled to take what they want and take advantage of anyone they need to do in order to do so; they comprise rather an unflattering portrait of aristocratic, "leisure class" mores.
3. Even Richard Lester's attempt to shoot the fuller story wound up split into two films--with the stuff after the first third generally going into the second film, The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge (1974).

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