Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review - Into The Woods, the movie

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A good adaptation is like a game of Jenga. You are going to have to pull out some blocks, there must be no mistaking that, but the trick is to pick which blocks to pull out so that the whole thing does not come tumbling down. I bring this up because any discussion of the recent movie of Into The Woods among musical theatre aficionados will inevitably come back to what was left out, so let us address that first.

Yes, a lot of material was omitted, including the crucial reprise of Agony - cut, I suspect, for time - and the classic No More - cut because the subplot that prompts it in the stageshow was condensed nearly out of existence. The second omission has obviously been a larger point of contention than the first, largely because No More has managed to become part of the consensus Sondheim canon. But here we return to Jenga - pull out the subplot that finally drives the Baker to sing No More, and you have to pull out No More or the whole thing topples.

Similarly, if you have to cut down the full character arc of the Witch into something more concise, then you have to cut a particular character death - if you have seen the show, you know which one - that serves no purpose in the show but to push that character arc forward. I have seen a lot of people complaining about that last change too, but without the attendant character development for the Witch, it would have just been a fruitless shock death and I was actually intensely glad to see it left aside.

James Lapine, for my money, did an immensely canny job of condensing his original show book for the movie, to the point at which every cut, however painful, was something I had to grudgingly admit to understanding, at least in the context of the structure Lapine was carving out for this version. Whenever I thought I had found a grievance that could not be answered, Lapine was at least half a step ahead of me, and whatever your problems with some of the resultant decisions they were at least decisions taken with some degree of care and forethought. Bravo. Gold star. Well, maybe silver. Silver is still good.

With that out of the way, the performances. And let me be very clear before we begin, I DO NOT CARE ABOUT CLASSICAL VOCAL TRAINING. This is musical theatre, not opera. If you care more about vocal tone than about the acting, you can just about jog on back to choir practice. We are trying to tell stories here, not show off.

That said, this movie happily had no Russell Crowe, i.e. no actor whose lack of vocal training was so obvious as to pull you out of the experience. Chris Pine as one of the princes charming came the closest, but even his strained delivery was effectively covered for by some very funny staging involving the two princes splashing about in a stream with their shirts open. In any case, his screen persona has just the right mix of charm and smarm for the character, so much can be forgiven when seeing him onscreen. Cold consolation for those listening to the soundtrack, but there you are.

As for the other actors, Anna Kendrick was far and away the best, combining vocal chops with a pleasantly put-upon performance as Cinderella. A close second, and more of a surprise, was Emily Blunt as the wife of the Baker, who gave an immensely charming rendition of Moments In The Woods and was generally superb throughout. James Corden was frequently just as charming as the everyman Baker, Johnny Depp turned out to be a disturbingly good choice for the Wolf with his combination of allure and deep underlying wrongness, and the child actors playing Red and Jack were both excellent. At any rate they were not distracting, which after a certain point is all you can ask of a child actor, really.

Then there is Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep throws herself into the role of the Witch with great aplomb and obvious enthusiasm, conveying the pain, exasperation, and fury inherent in the role, all of which fails to entirely compensate for the fact that she is not Bernadette Peters. I know that is an unfair standard to hold anyone to, but the fact remains that anyone taking on the role of the Witch will inevitably be compared to Bernadette Peters, and even Meryl Streep is no Bernadette Peters. Setting that comparison aside...yes, she is perfectly fine in the role. Far from the best I have seen, but also hardly the worst, and certainly the best big-name actress we could have asked for in the part.

The direction from Rob Marshall is serviceable, if uninteresting. It fails to fully reconcile the new cinematic format with the stagiest elements of the show, meaning that some of the transitions in the opening number that flow seamlessly onstage are rendered considerably more awkward in the film. Also, the movie never finds an effective solution for the problem of how to visually convey the Wolf, eventually giving up and deciding to essentially hand-wave the fact that the Wolf is just Johnny Depp in a little makeup.

Of course, the big question hanging over this and, indeed, over virtually every adaptation of very good source material is why a medium change was necessary in the first place. To its cost, this is a question that the movie never really answers, particularly when its source material was just so good when left alone as a stage musical.

However, resolved as I am to stop banging incessantly on about medium transfers, I am willing to ignore this for one simple reason - if it gets more people into musicals, and Sondheim musicals in particular, it will have been worth it. As a film, I honestly have no idea how well it works. As an advertisement for the dramatic potential of musicals, I can imagine and in fact have frequently seen far worse ambassadors than this one. So do go and see it, particularly if musicals have never really grabbed you before. Maybe it will inspire you to seek out more good material in the form. At any rate, I wish.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Comics vs. Stageplays vs. Film vs. TV

The stage shares a lot of characteristics with the comics format in that it permits simultaneous presentation of images in a way that novels and film do not. Unlike in comics, however, there is a limit to the number of simultaneous images the stage can present, which in turn is compensated for by the fact that it permits sound.

The implications of this might not be immediately obvious, but they are present and they are vast. First and most fundamentally, the inherent artificiality of the stage is a gift to magical realism of various levels of plausibility, since it has that extra layer of separation, that inability to make the audience truly believe that what it is showing them could be really there.This fact necessitates a great deal of suspension of disbelief right from the off, and therefore opens the door to far stranger and more radical techniques without necessarily damaging the realism of the setting since, as mentioned above, there is virtually none.

The Real Inspector Hound could only happen on the stage, since it relies on the interplay between the audience and the players on the stage. Indeed, two of the audience members are actors.
Also, think of the darkly subtle magical realism of Sondheim’s Assassins. All the historical assassins can appear together onstage to talk Lee Harvey Oswald into killing John F. Kennedy and the response of the audience is not “what? how did they get there? what’s going on?” but rather, “that’s incredible.” The inflated suspension of disbelief creates a layer of unreality through which such a technique can comfortably slip.

I would also like to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of television. I will be talking, for the most part, not about network television, which is and almost always has been an amateur theatrical set within the concept of despair, but about premium television like HBO or one of the major internet television providers such as Netflix, if only because that’s where the good stuff comes from.
The main point of comparison is to film, if only because in nearly all respects the two are practically identical, and so comparing it to anything else would simply involve me repeating myself.

Film is a very compact format, good for stories that mainly concern one character or one small group of characters. There can be subplots, but they must be fairly limited. At the same time, the discreteness of film can be an advantage. It is easier to perceive the shape of a story told on film, a film is easier to structure because there is less material to have to worry about, and in a film you know precisely where the end is. On the other hand, you don’t have as much time to play with the characters, you can’t follow the journeys of multiple characters, and you have to cut things down to a reasonably-paced narrative.

These last three are problems that do not afflict quality television, but it’s no fun to only look at the advantages, so let’s look at the disadvantages. Ongoing television series can have some of the same problems as ongoing comic book characters, in that if you don’t know where the end is going to be, you don’t know how to structure the damned thing. Thus ongoing stories tend to be very awkwardly structured. Some series, like The Wire, managed to avoid this by reserving each season for talking about how the drug trade affects different aspects of society, so each new season tackles a different front of the war on drugs. While characters may reoccur from previous series, they serve the new story. Each season is a complete story, well-structured and with a well-balanced ending.

This is why I like the mini-series better than the ongoing series as a format. Even if you have a fair amount of clout, you never have much more than an educated guess as to when an ongoing series is going to end. With the mini-series, you get all the advantages of a TV series (e.g. more time for character, more space for subplots and intertwining storylines) while eliminating the main disadvantage. It can also help combat another of the disadvantages of television, the difficulty of conveying metaphorical or multi-layered stories. Obviously, the longer you make a story the harder it becomes to maintain a central conceit, but a miniseries at least puts a limit on it that can help you make the conceit watertight. The more you stretch a metaphor, the bigger and more obvious the tiny holes in its surface become.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Notes on Layering Fiction

I have been contemplating my developing theory of layered fiction. I suspect that I have asserted before that stories of pure entertainment or pure metaphor are on a more or less equal level, though I will always prefer the entertainment because at least it is not actively trying to be obtuse. 

Another part of this attitude is my discomfort with the unconsciously elitist underpinnings of virtually all avant-garde art films. It seems to me to be little but a chance for the cultural and intellectual elite to build their own clubhouse, no plebs allowed, because to get any value from an avant-garde art film, you have to be one of those elites. You cannot watch it as entertainment, only as a complex code that only a privileged few understand.

At the same time, this is not an argument for making everything insufferably lowbrow. I think there is a compromise to be made, and that compromise forms the basis of my theory of fiction.

My theory predicates itself on layering. My aim is to create fiction that even a casual or uneducated viewer can at least enjoy on its own merits as entertainment but that maintains one or more additional layers of meaning that can be unearthed with a little effort on the part of the viewer. The idea is that the deeper you look, the more you will find. You get what you want to get out of the artwork, and if you have the time, the will, and-or the know how, you will find your effort rewarded, but the art does not fully exclude anybody.

This requires making every scene, every line, every shot, etc. do at least two things a once. It will require a little more thought and effort, sure, but we could use some more of that in entertainment these days.

In the next few weeks, I will expand on these ideas in a full-length video that examines the Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard movie The Cabin In The Woods with an eye on analyzing its use of thematic layering. Whether you like the movie or not, it is an extremely clean example of layering, and is thematically crystalline. I will explain. Keep an eye out for it.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Small Thoughts On The Collateral Damage of Superheroism

Returning to the subject of the conflicts examined in superhero flicks, there has been a fair amount of attention given to the insane levels of collateral damage inflicted by these battles. In The Avengers, for example, there’s a shot where we see a skyscraper begin to collapse and we never see nor hear of it again. That building collapse alone must have killed hundreds; the battle as a whole may have killed millions. Compare this to, say, Spider-Man 2 or even The Dark Knight, where there are definitely casualties, but each one is given agonizing attention and are relevant to the emotional or thematic drive of the film.

I realize this is largely just due to the inevitable scaling-up of the action sequences. A big climax requires big stakes, and establishing big stakes requires one hell of a lot of destruction. Nevertheless, what all of this serves to underline is that the concept of superheroes is inherently fascistic. That is, the idea of a breed of people who have extraordinary abilities thanks to an accident of birth is fascistic. Quite possibly unavoidable, since we already have some people born smarter or better-looking than others, but then parlaying those powers into unrestrained authority over those not fortunate enough to have been born with superpowers doesn’t really help the case for superheroes.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On Superheroes

I have heard a variety of arguments to the effect that this new crop of superhero movies are all the same. Obviously there are similarities in tone between, say, Spider-man and the X-men, or between Spider-man and Iron man, or between X-men and the Avengers, or between Thor and Green Lantern. There is undeniably some truth to this, and your toleration for those common elements is going to vary depending on how much you just like the genre. But it’s also dangerous to generalize - after all, there’s very little connecting “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers” aside from some superficial similarities between Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark.

But a closer examination of even those two characters reveal that sure, they’re both billionaires, but their relationship with their respective moonlight roles reveals that equating the two is like saying the lead characters of Lincoln and There Will Be Blood are the same because they both have prominent facial hair and are played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Iron Man doesn’t have a dual identity - he is just Tony Stark, all the suit does is make him harder to punch when he annoys you.

Batman, on the other hand, is more complicated. I’ve already written a bit about this, but Bruce Wayne really no longer exists - he is an act designed to draw attention away from his vigilante activities by night. All that’s left of him is the specter called the Batman.

As for the tone of the Marvel movies, yeah...they do get a little samey after a while, but while the combination of spectacle, snark, and strong characterization isn’t exactly original anymore, it’s a formula that works and that produces pretty entertaining movies. Certainly I prefer it to, say, the MIchael Bay formula of massive spectacle with bugger all else going for it, or the Fantastic Four movie’s approach of awkwardly trying to be a more whimsical X-men without really understanding what makes the characters special in their own right. So yes, you have Iron Man 2 desperately trying to be Iron Man 1 and failing, but then you have Iron Man 3 trying to be Lethal Weapon and mostly succeeding.

That segues awkwardly but not illogically into something else I wanted to organize my thoughts on: super-hero methods. I think the preferences in any given time period in superhero storytelling as regards this feature will tend to reflect the dominant fears of the time. During periods of high street crime, I imagine you’ll be more likely to see heroes like Spider-Man and Batman taking down muggers and convenience store robbers. In times of war, you’ll be more likely to see heroes like Iron Man and Captain America taking on conflicts that threaten the globe. In times where we fear things like terrorism, like now, we’ll be more likely to see stories about heroes taking on large, cosmic, and largely unknowable evils, favoring heroes like Green Lantern and Thor. The Avengers movie managed to combine the second two.

However, there is one somewhat encouraging trend in these stories - increasingly, it’s less about a war on crime than it is about the hero taking on his or her own demons in the form of a specific enemy. That is, it’s more about examining the character than it is about about an uncomfortably fascistic power fantasy for paranoid shut-ins.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On Lex Luthor

I was listening to a Mark Waid interview recently where he said that he liked the idea of Superman and Lex Luthor having been childhood and/or teenage friends because it adds a lot to Superman’s character to have that little splash of darkness. 
However, I think that the guy he was debating against did have one very good point: while it probably helps develop Superman’s character, his loss is Luthor’s gain in terms of character development. I don’t like the idea that young Luthor was obsessed with things extraterrestrial because as I understand Luthor he is fundamentally a man. He has spent years rising through the social ranks, pulling dirty tricks but at every turn striving to become as powerful as a man can possibly become. Eventually, he reaches the pinnacle of his achievement: he is the most brilliant, most wealthy human being on the planet. And just at that moment of triumph, an alien being who is both naturally more powerful and naturally more beautiful in both body and soul than Luthor can ever be appears and outdoes him. This, to me, defines Luthor’s character. His evil arises from the fact that his principles are founded in petty jealousy and desire for revenge. But, like all good villains, his foibles disguise a pretty legitimate point - that anything as powerful as Superman, however benevolent, is inherently fascistic merely by placing itself that far above everyone else. 
What if Superman turned bad? That’s the classic refrain. But what Luthor understands that he thinks everyone else is blind to (and, to some extent, they are) is that Superman doesn’t have to turn bad to be oppressive. He doesn’t have to be The Plutonian to feel that cracking down on human flaws is fundamentally the right thing to do. His very presence is an affront to humanity. The fact that he is roughly omni-benevolent is a happy accident. And to be fair to Mark Waid, the solution he comes to in Kingdom Come is the best one I’ve heard--if Superman really does have a stronger and more accurate moral compass than anyone else, let him prove it by not using his powers, by living among us as equals.
Back to the topic of villains, in my experience the best villains define and crystallize the hero’s character through contrast. The Batman is largely defined by his principles. So the Joker challenges those principles and tries to get the Batman to break all of them. Superman is a super-powered alien life form whose powers are bestowed upon him through no achievement on his part who has never had any need for jealousy. So Lex Luthor is a pathologically jealous self-made man who cannot go any higher simply by virtue of being only human.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Talking Picture, Ep. 13 - The Chosen One, a Limerick Sequence

The Talking Picture, Ep. 12: Originality (The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale)

The Talking Picture, Ep. 11: Irony - A Limerick Sequence

The Talking Picture, Ep. 10 - Zombies, A Limerick Sequence

The Talking Picture, Ep. 9 - Remakes and Sequels, a Limerick Sequence

The Talking Picture, Ep. 8 - Michael Bay's Montage of Attractions

The Talking Picture, Ep. 7 - Men In Funny Hats

The Talking Picture, Ep. 6 - The Problem of Agency

The Talking Picture, Ep. 5 - Defeat, Deferred

The Talking Picture, Ep. 4 - The High Brought Low

Episode Four!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Saturday, November 1, 2014

On the Ending of Inception

A few quick words on Inception, particularly its ending. Even today, I hear confusion from some people as to what the ending meant, or even frustration as to Christopher Nolan’s alleged failure to provide us with a hard-and-fast answer to the question of whether Leo ever did manage to reach the real world or if the entire end of the movie is just another dream.

First off, I’d like to say that the ending is perfectly timed. When the spinning top wobbles, the image cuts out before we get to see if it will continue wobbling and eventually fall or just right itself and carry on forever. This is reality vs. the dream world in a nutshell, and withholding the final verdict from us creates ambiguity.

But that’s precisely what those confused by the ending or particularly expressing frustration at it are missing: the ambiguity is the point. Leo doesn’t care anymore whether he’s in the real world. This level of reality is where he gets to be with his children. This level of reality is where he has a life. So even if it’s not entirely real (and who’s to say?), it’s the reality he will choose to live out.

This is the choice that all of us face to one extent or another. True, we could all be living in the Matrix, we could all be living out a lie and really just be brains in vats. But as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter. As long as I can make a good life for myself here, it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not. It’s where I live, and I will make the most of it.

Nolan really knows how to end a film, though. I think part of the reason he’s so universally acclaimed is because, psychologically, we as humans tend to remember the first and last items in a sequence better than anything in the middle. I imagine Nolan understands this and thus understands also the value of a good ending. He certainly puts a lot of effort into them. Sure, the ending of “TDKR” was lacklustre, but the ending of The Dark Knight is perfect. The endings of Batman Begins and Memento are terrific. The ending of “The Prestige,” well, your mileage may vary depending on how thoroughly you’ve thought out the mechanics of Hugh Jackman’s magic act. By the end of the film, I had thought about it and had already realized that the Hugh Jackman character had basically been drowning a replica of himself every night for the length of his entire performance run in a wonderfully grotesque metaphor for how he’d been tearing himself apart piece by piece after the death of his wife, so the final shot where we realize that the long rows of tanks each contain a dead Hugh Jackman didn’t have much revelatory value for me. Sure, it’s still a cool ending and the sudden cut to black, plunging the audience into darkness at the precise moment of maximum horror, is an effective technique (and consequently one that the ending leans on heavily). 

On this spectrum, the ending of Inception falls toward the upper end. It makes an unavoidable misstep in teasing us, provoking an automatic and involuntary reaction just when it needs us to step back and look at the situation more analytically. At the same time, if you’re basically a sociopath like me, you’ll have no problem looking at it analytically. So for me, it works in a way that the ending of The Prestige doesn’t, but for someone who didn’t get Inception that would probably go the other way around.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Sports

I have noted in the past that fantasy league sports clubs are basically Dungeons and Dragons for the deeply closeted. This is true, but I would like to switch to actual flesh-and-blood sports and see how it stacks up to my personal passion, fiction. First, I think it is important to understand that the comparison is not so ludicrous as it would initially appear, and I say that for this reason - the winner is not really the point. Okay, it is important, but it is not the most important aspect of the game or else you could just look up the scores in the paper the next day and be content with that.

No, clearly watching the game is a crucial element, and I assert that is because of the drama. The minute twists and reversals, each of which could affect the outcome of the game as a whole, all stretched over multiple hours. Now I hope you see what I mean when I say that the ending is not all that matters. Getting a play-by-play description of a football game rather than watching the real thing is like having the major plot points of a Game of Thrones episode dryly recounted to you in lieu of watching the actual episode.

But here is where I feel fiction enjoys a definite advantage over sports - the narrative of a football game is made up on the fly. Certainly I can appreciate the visceral appeal of watching a story that no one can spoil for you because no one knows the ending themselves. By the by, I suspect this is also why sports fans get so up in arms about steroid abuse and suchlike - it gives the advantage to one potential ending over another, making the product less spontaneous and hence less exciting.

Fiction, on the other hand, while less visceral and unpredictable, is at least a narrative that has been crafted by a professional writer, manifesting their intent in words, images, and what have you. Even when after a game the headline writers may brand the result a Cinderella Story or whatever else they managed to pick out from the catalog of cliches that day, it is a narrative that they as an author have imposed on the real life narrative. Giving significance to a narrative requires human input, and that is why I think fiction trumps sports every time.

On a related note, I find the whole premise of athletics - or at least the most basic athletics - questionable. We may find the Fastest Man Alive, but we have to remember that the word Man is the thing that is not like the others. No matter how fast we run, other animals can run faster. No matter how high we jump, other animals can jump higher. No matter how quickly Michael Phelps can swim, put him in the pool with a shark and he is going to get fucking eaten. Something that celebrates what actually sets us apart as a species would be a more appropriate celebration of our shared heritage as a world people. I will even settle for games that have rules and strategies like Basketball, Baseball, or yes, even Football.

Friday, June 6, 2014

On Story Climaxes

I was thinking about the Doctor Who Fiftieth Anniversary Special and how it manages to have a double climax. First, there is an emotional climax that resolves the story with the form-changing aliens which not only brings ten and eleven together but gives the War Doctor his sad determination to go on with his course of action, concluding with the two younger doctors resolving to do this thing that they know is abominable together so that no one of them would have to carry the burden alone. Only after that do we get the action climax which gives another emotional hit.

This got me thinking about other double climaxes, and the one that comes to mind most easily is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy has hit what we think is his lowest ebb when he and Marion are locked in the tomb with snakes by Beloq. This is his katabasis, but he rises like all good heroes and engages in a thrilling chase with the Nazis, at the end of which he gets the Ark. The movie could so easily have ended here. But it seems likely that the filmmakers thought they should give the audience more for their money, and so we get an even better climax, indeed the climax to end all climaxes. After all, no earthly climax can beat the wrath of God in terms of grandeur. The final climax, of course, is the Ark ceremony in which the hubris of the Nazis leads to the wrath of God horribly destroying them in a localized but vicious cataclysm.

But I do wonder which order is ideal in terms of multi-climaxes. Obviously, the two have to be different. The difference in Raiders is that the first climax is about what Indy does, demonstrating that he has done all a human can to recover the ark. The second climax humbles both the hero and the villains, showing that they are meddling with forces so much more massive than them that it is genuinely scarier than any number of cobras.

I do not know the answer to my own question of how to arrange double climaxes correctly. However, one of the things I was not all that wild about in The Avengers is that everyone but Tony Stark and Bruce Banner had finished their arcs by the time the actual battle began. The arcs of Widow, Hawkeye, Thor, Maria Hill, Nick Fury, and Cap had all finished, which meant that if you were following them and their struggles then the movie was over for you as soon as the first climax - the battle aboard the Helicarrier - was finished.

Though this does not tell us what we should do, it does constitute a nice little instruction on what not to do. Do not resolve the emotional arcs of your characters before the action climax, because then the action will seem hollow and token. It may well be hollow and token, but you must at least maintain the illusion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

On the False Bravery of Cynicism

I cannot abide those who make extremely gruesome or horribly graphic works of art on the slender justification that “the world is horrible, we’re just a mirror for that horribleness.” This stand itself is not necessarily what bothers me. Certainly it’s facile and horribly inconsistent with the central philosophy of art as a concept, but that doesn’t make it reprehensible, just stupid. What does make it reprehensible is that those who say it often see themselves as rebels, boldly showing the world its darker side on the apparent assumption that we can’t see it perfectly well from here, thank you. But there is nothing of the noble rebel about their position. They see a holocaust and think themselves the allies, but no. They are the Vichy. When they bear witness to evil their first instinct is not to fight it but to collaborate with it. That is what makes them wicked. Not the cowardice itself, which is understandable even if it is not admirable, but the cowardice disguising itself as bravery through a flimsy facade that tries to escape detection by means of sheer bragadoccio. But no, there is nothing brave in it. If you see evil, fight it.