Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review - Into The Woods, the movie

The Discerning Lyricist has moved! Look for us here to get the latest posts and essays!

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.