Archive for the ‘Films’ Category
Anyone else notice the remarkable similarity between the major plot points of Star Trek Into Darkness and William Friedkin’s 1985 To Live and Die in L. A.?
To Live and Die in L. A.:
William Petersen’s older, father-figure type partner, Michael Greene, is killed by bad guy Willem Dafoe. Petersen seeks revenge, but his new partner, John Pankow, is a stickler for the law. Eventually, Petersen is killed by Dafoe, but his partner, having seen the error of his ways, pursues and dispatches the bad buy. Along the way, a friend, Debra Feuer, betrays and almost gets them killed.
Star Trek Into Darkness:
Kirk’s father-figure, Captain Pike, is killed by bad guy Khan. Kirk seeks revenge, but his new (again) first officer Spock is a stickler for the law. Eventually, Kirk dies (although not in hand to hand combat), but his first officer, Spock, having seen the error of his ways, pursues and dispatches the bad guy. Along the way, a friend, Admiral Marcus, betrays and almost gets them killed.
It’s hard to see the plot of To Live and Die in L.A. as anything other than a string of cliches. Except, perhaps, its ending. Killing off a character before he can fulfill his goal, then having him replaced by someone else who goes on to fulfill that goal, is something that usually happens in the first act. Happening as late into the film as it does in Friedkin’s film is unusual. Here’s what Friedkin says about it in his book, The Friedkin Connection:
Halfway through production, it occurred to me that Petersen’s character, Chance, had to die. This was not in the script or the novel, but I though it was unexpected and justified, given that he lived constantly on the edge. He wasn’t a superhero immune to danger. In the final confrontation between Chance and Masters (Dafoe), it would be Chance who was killed. I didn’t have an ending until discovering during production that Vukovich (Pankow) becomes Chance in appearance and attitude after Chance’s death. (The Friedkin Connection, p. 391)
At first I thought that the similarity between the plots was nothing more than a coincidence. As they say, there are no new plots. There are enough differences between the two films that there’s no danger anyone will be sued, but the fact that the each of Friedkin’s major plot points, including its most unusual one, shows up in Star Trek makes me wonder:
Did the Star Trek Into Darkness writers steal their plot from To Live and Die in L. A. ?
TONS OF SPOILERS BELOW!
Last night the family and I sat in for the red (actually white) carpet part of the Star Trek 2 premiere up on Hollywood Blvd. We sat in the bleachers (having been warned so many times that if we left our seats for even a second we would be dragged away by security guards we wondered if we were back in kindergarten) as the stars walked by. They were all (mostly) there (missing: Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, and Benedict Cumberbatch), even the writers (who said that they had been rewriting as recently as three weeks ago–not a good sign, perhaps, but not unusual), and we bowed down to them all (for the benefit of the cameras).
Then we saw the movie.
Here are some of my, somewhat random, thoughts:
1. After all the denials and flat out lies about the identity of Cumberbatch’s character, it turns out that the rumors were correct all along. His character is Khan. “My name is Khan. John Harrison is a code name cover.” How different from the first film which includes Khan in its title. The big secret in that film was the ending. Knowing who the villain was helped promote the film. Yes, creating a mystery around the villain’s identity help to drive PR for the film, but ultimately it was anti climatic and left a bad taste in the mouth due to the flat out lying needed to keep the mystery going.
2. Cumberbatch’s Khan is played with one monotonous note (despite that tear that he sheds at one point, which I guess is supposed to give him depth and make him sympathetic, but has far less effect than would a tear falling from a robot’s eye), especially compared to Montalban’s. My wife, Kelly, a Cumberbatch fan, simply said, “He’s boring.”
3. Too much of Cumberbatch’s story is told rather than shown. It’s told as back story. For example, how he was found and why and what happened after that. He tells the story of how he was found despite not being the one who did the finding. That character is Peter Weller, Admiral Marcus. There’s a good reason why he doesn’t tell the story, but Khan was not there, so not only are we not shown this important part of the story (the equivalent of Star Trek never having done the Space Seed episode), but it’s told second hand.
4. Star Trek 2 is yet another example of post 9/11 cinema: movies that exploit our fears around that day by featuring images evocative of planes flying into buildings and innocent people being killed. Why do Hollywood filmmakers do this? To exploit our collective trauma for the purpose of making their fortunes.
5. The characters. Strip away the accents of Checkov and Scotty and little remains. Uhura’s character? She’s female. Black. Knows a lot of alien tongues. And loves Spock. Is this really an improvement over the original? But the movie does worse by Spock. He’s reduced to a stickler for regulations. And it’s partly because of him that the troubles occur: he convinces Kirk not to kill Khan outright as Kirk has been ordered to do by Marcus. This does not make much sense given that Kirk has already been stripped of his command due to a lax attitude towards regulations. Even if Spock is right, that a suspect deserves to be tried before execution, his orders are to kill. You’d think that if he has doubts about these orders then there would be a means to address them through regulation channels in Starfleet. Instead, he disobeys the orders once again.
6. Khan’s backstory is similar to that of Wesley Snipe’s character (Simon Phoenix) in Demolition Man, and just as stupid, which is why Cracked.com put Demolition Man at #5 on a list of 6 Movie Plots Made Possible by Bafflingly Bad Decisions.
7. To Live and Die in LA was fresh in my mind, having just seen it a few days ago, and it was interesting to note the similarities in the two films’ plots.
Partners A and B. Older partner (B), father figure type, is killed by bad guy. Surviving partner (A) seeks revenge, joins with new partner (C) who is a stickler for rules and regulations (aka the law). The surviving partner (A) dies, but the new partner (C) dispatches the bad guy (after realizing how dead wrong he was to be a stickler for the law).
This is the plot, in broad strokes, of both films. In other words, it’s a cliché. Star Trek 2‘s major variation is bringing the surviving partner (A), that is, Kirk, back to life. You might think that it’s only due to its being SF that this can happen, but “miracles” of this kind can pop up in every Hollywood genre. (The “homage” reference for this specific “miracle” is not just Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, but also the “Amok Time”episode of ST: TOS in which Spock seemingly kills Kirk.)
Is the only difference between ’80′s LA and the future world of Star Trek that in one the cops race around in gas guzzlers while in the other they race around in warp powered starships? Is this the best plot to reveal what’s unique about and specific to Star Trek? I think not. Roddenberry’s vision of the future entailed more than a change in scenery or replacing guns with phasers and bombs with photon torpedoes. Roddenberry’s society of the future is truly different than ours. Life in his future is better, not just its machines. I don’t think Abrams gets this.
Perhaps the most common action movie plot is that in which the hero’s attempt to bring in the bad guy is deterred by bureaucrats who are sticklers for the law. Was Dirty Harry the first movie to use this plot? It certainly was not the last, but despite it’s becoming a cliché this does not prevent a film such as Star Trek Into Darkness from bringing it out once again. It should be noted that this plot has a conservative bias, that is, it prevents the law and civil rights as being little more of a hindrance to law enforcement. Roddeberry’s Star Trek was not without its conservative aspects, but in general it took a liberal stance on most issues. At the core of J. J. Abrams’ reboot is the transformation of Roddenberry’s liberal show into a conservative film. Roddenberry’s show got away with non-mainstream stances because it was SF. Abrams does not have to worry about this because his film reflects what are currently mainstream views of justice. This does not mean that the majority of its viewers hold these views, although this may in fact be the case, but that it reflects the views most commonly found in mainstream media.
Compare Into Darkness with “The Devil in the Dark.” The latter is about an alien creature that terrorizes a mine community for reasons somewhat similar to Khan’s. It’s the last of it’s kind and its offspring are being killed (unwittingly) by the miners, so when it kills miners it does so to protect its offspring. Spock leads the way in attempting to understand why the creature does what it does, but in the end, he is willing to kill it to save Kirk. Kirk, however, stops him. This is almost exactly the opposite of what happens in Into Darkness.
Next to no one in the mainstream today questions the Establishment the way Star Trek did in the Sixties. Certainly not the guys who made Star Trek Into Darkness. In fact, they do the opposite: they clearly endorse what’s going on today* (see note at bottom for details). This used to be called propaganda.
8. J. J. Abrams seems to define action filmmaking as characters running and it’s obvious that the sets are designed to maximize this. My first couple of films in film school were mostly people running. If only I had stuck to that, perhaps I’d have a career.
9. One of the clichés of the original Star Trek series (unfortunately continued in ST: TNG) was that of the ticking time bomb. Abrams’ first Star Trek managed to avoid literal ticking time bombs, but it’s a sign of the second film’s dearth of creativity that he resorts to several ticking bombs.
10. Speaking of clichés. Cumberbatch is a bad guy who allows himself to be captured. Could he have gotten this idea from The Joker in The Dark Knight? Or maybe it was Loki in The Avengers?
11. In the end what do we have? A lot of running, volcanoes that don’t explode, bombs that explode, bombs that don’t explode. To borrow the title of another film that’s soon to be released: Star Trek Into Darkness would be more accurately titled, Star Trek: Much Ado About Nothing. Sure, it can be exciting from scene to scene, so long as you can keep yourself from thinking about what you are watching, but in the end it adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
12. I was very impressed with the production design, especially the pre-title Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish scenes on the alien planet and scenes involving the Enterprise engine. Scott Chambliss is the credited production designer, but I was not much impressed by his earlier work on Cowboys & Aliens and Star Trek.
13. Looking at the film’s 88% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as the projected $100 million or more boxoffice opening projections, I can’t help but think that I’m in the minority. Perhaps, but I’m not alone:
Star Trek Into Darkness is not the worst Star Trek movie. I would probably watch this film again before I rewatch The Final Frontier or Insurrection or Nemesis. That said, I would prefer not to rewatch any of these films – Star Trek Into Darkness included – because they are all very bad movies. (Badass Digest)
Into Darkness remains visually impressive, fast-paced and, if you can switch your brain off, fun. But it’s also derivative, unsatisfying and apparently terrified of doing anything new, which is a very odd position for a movie set in a new, unrestrained and exciting continuity to be in. (The Wertzone)
Have we been conditioned to expect so little from Hollywood that we cannot call this movie out for what it is?
BOXOFFICE UPDATE: 5/19/13
Star Trek Into Darkness just hasn’t performed as well as Paramount or anyone else was expecting at the North American box office. The J.J. Abrams helmed sequel is light years away from being considered a flop, but it won’t end up coming anywhere near the predicted $80 million weekend and 4 1/2-day total of $100 million. Instead, an increase of 30% on Saturday means it took an additional $27.2 million after Friday’s disappointing $22 million, while analysts now predict a Sunday gross of $21.2 million. That equals around a $70.5 million weekend and an $84.1 million domestic cume. Unfortunately, not even the higher priced 3D and IMAX tickets were enough for Star Trek Into Darkness to beat Star Trek’s opening back in 2009. (source)
14. It should not be overlooked that the film ends in such a way that a sequel involving Khan is almost certain. This is a wise choice given that the apparent reason for using Khan in this film above all the other possibilities was that he is the very best of the Star Trek villains. Given that, why would they want to kill him off just as he’s getting started? Perhaps this film should not be looked at as a Wrath of Khan remake, as many are doing, so much as a “Space Seed” remake with a few odds and ends from the movies and other TV episodes thrown in. Heaven help us.
Back to the red carpet for one last observation.
I went to film school with Bryan Burk (producer on Star Trek and most of Abrams’ film and TV work), but I don’t remember him being so short. In fact, he’s shorter, by about an inch, than J. J. who is apparently 5′ 7″ (which would be 3″ below the average for U. S. males, but truthfully he looks even shorter). Can’t help but wonder if that’s the reason Burk and J. J. get along.
(*For the benefit of people from the future: what is going on today? Most relevant to Star Trek Into Darkness, the executive branch of the US government claims the right to unilaterally and secretly order the assassination of anyone, even US citizens, throughout the world just as Admiral Marcus orders the assassination of Khan. The US government’s executive branch is also carrying out indefinite detention, without charges or trial, of alleged terrorists; and claims the right to launch wars without congressional authorization. This is the status quo that Star Trek endorses.)
If Hellzapoppin‘ topped the Youtube hit list, the world would be a much better place. This film, based on a story idea by Marx Brothers scribe Nat Perrin (no surprise), and a Broadway play starring Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, the same wacky duo who run wild through the film, was released in 1941, same year as Citizen Kane. Which film is better? Why not watch Hellzapoppin‘ now so you too can judge?
Update 4/24/13: You can read a recent (albeit spoiler-filled) piece on the film here.
Everyone knows that when you go to San Diego Comic-Con, you spend a lot of time standing in line. You stand in line to get your ticket. (Luckily, this is a process that has speeded up quite a bit the last few years.) Then you stand in line to get in. Then you stand in line at booths for signings, merchandise, swag, whatever. And a big part of all of this is knowing that just because you stand in line for hours does not mean that the thing you are standing in line for will still be there when you get to the front of the line.
Standing in line for hours to see someone present what amounts to nothing more than a promo for something that they want you to buy tends to put you in a philosophical mood. It certainly makes you more conscious than you ever were of lines outside of Comic-Con. Is there any place where we don’t find ourselves standing in line: waiting for the bus, waiting at the bank to withdraw or deposit; waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store; we stand in line at the traffic light. Wasn’t it Socrates who said: “Life is just one fucking long line to the graveyard?”
But it also makes you more aware of something else: that there are many, many people who do not even have the privilege of standing in line. The truth is that many people never get into Comic-Con. Most because they don’t have the money, but many simply because there aren’t enough tickets. In other words, there’s a shortage of resources at Comic-Con. There’s just not enough to go around. But isn’t this true everywhere we look? We live in a society of scarcity.
However, the mother of all lines is the line for Hall H. This is a relatively new development at Comic-Con. I believe Hall H opened for the first time in 2006, and it was built mainly because of the demand for certain panels which were relatively new to Comic-Con: movie panels where directors attempt to generate buzz for their latest films. I say directors because most of the time the directors are there. The first ones I remember seeing at Comic-Con came before Hall H was built, and the big one was Sam Raimi for Spider-Man. He was all by himself. I don’t even remember him showing any footage. All he did was answer questions. That was in 2001. This year Raimi returned to Comic-Con with Oz, the Great and Powerful.
I don’t go to panels to see footage. I go to panels to see the people behind the products, whether comics, films, TV; and I go especially to be entertained. This year any panel that was hosted by Chris Hardwicke fulfilled the entertainment quotient, but there were no panels (if you don’t count Trailer Park) where I was thinking, “I wish I was somewhere else.” They were all at least a little entertaining or of interest in some way. However, there were still a handful of panels that stood out. Here are the best ones I attended. (Everyone talks about how much Comic-Con has changed since its origin as a comic book convention. The fact that most of the best panels I attended were not comic book related suggests that the time has come to change the name of this convention. The most obvious? Nerd-Con or Geek-Con.)
- The Campaign. This had the ideal combination: great host in Chris Hardwicke, entertaining panelists Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, and entertaining footage. They didn’t just show a trailer; they showed footage; and it was fucking hilarious. So, I’ll be first in line to see the movie, right? Nope. Why ruin the Comic-Con experience by seeing the film? And why ignore “The Comic-Con Effect, the scientifically proven psychological effect whereby all crap looks great at Comic-Con? (The people who line up to ask questions also help make panels entertaining. I felt sorry for the guy who said he was a failed stand-up comedian. They skewered him. Hopefully, he was a studio plant being paid to be humiliated.)
- The Expendables 2. We saw the first Expendables panel two years ago, and were entertained enough to be looking forward to this year’s version. Stallone and his friends did not disappoint. If only he could bottle the spirit that comes through on these panels and put it in a film, we’d really have something. (We were saddened to hear about the death of Mr. Stallone’s son on Friday.)
- Kevin Smith. There were a few dead stretches, but considering that this was mostly one man going non-stop for 90 minutes, it was amazing. Smith manages to be entertaining in a gut laughing kind of way without being a stand-up comedian. How does he do it? Perhaps it has something to do with his obsessions: body functions and fluids.
- Jackie Chan. I loved it when he used his mouth like a jazz musician to make sounds describing what he said should be the rhythm of an action scene. (Unfortunately, the panel ended on a dull note when Chan introduced someone he brought in from France.) This was the only panel I heard anyone discuss later on when I overheard the owner of Giant Robot talking to Matt Groening about the panel. Groening’s reaction? “Jackie Chan was here?!” That was probably the reaction of many people when they heard the news. Sorry you couldn’t be there.
- Marvel’s movie panel. Three words: ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. ‘Nuf said. But just in case it wasn’t enough, there was also Edgar Wright with the Ant-Man test footage we had heard about (the footage apparently was designed to answer the question: Can a ant-sized man still kick ass? A more interesting question: Would the Comic Con guards have been able to keep an army of ant-sized aliens out of Hall H? Of course, Wright should have shown his footage again); and Jon Favreau giving advice to new Iron Man director Shane Black (and Edgar Wright, wherever he was): “If you want to connect with the fans, you have to show your footage twice.” Black took the advice. (Is stuff like this scripted or truly impromptu? In any case, watching the footage again enabled me to confirm my first impression: it’s boring.)
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. If you’re going to live or die with your footage, this is the way to do it. Peter Jackson came all the way from New Zealand with more than 10 minutes of footage from The Hobbit. Bonus: we didn’t get to see Benedict “Sherlock Holmes” Cumberbatch on a Star Trek 2 panel because Paramount decided they didn’t have anything to show, but we did get to see Martin Freeman, Cumberbatch’s Watson in the BBC series Sherlock, who, of course, plays Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.
- The other Warner Bros./Legendary panels. Zack “Awesome” Snyder and Man of Steel; a Godzilla concept trailer with narration by J. Robert “I am become death” Oppenheimer; and Del Toro and giant robots. What more do you want?
- I was entertained just watching the hands of the directors as they talked.
We were disappointed that there was no Entertainment Weekly Visionaries panel this year. Hope they weren’t implying that there were no visionaries in attendance.
A note on the Firefly panel, which shows up on some lists as among the best of the show: I’ve never seen Firefly and I didn’t even try to get into that panel, but I have to wonder if all those people trying to get in were there as fans of the show or primarily as fans of the post-Avengers Joss Whedon. I’ve seen Whedon in action before, and I doubt he made his panel as entertaining as any of the panels on my list. Even though we passed on the panel, we did have a Firefly related moment Thursday morning. While in line for Hall H, we happened to end up immediately behind a friend of my wife who happens to be the wife of one of the crew members on the Firefly panel the next day. We hadn’t known she was going to be in Hall H, and we never saw her again at the show. Weird coincidences like this happen a lot at Comic-Con. Why not? It is, after all, a magical place, a Brigadoon for geeks and nerds.
A note about the first panel of the show, the Twilight panel. As most everyone knows, Gisela Gagliardi, who had been camping out with other Twilight fans, was killed after being hit by a car earlier in the week. David Glanzer, who I had heard of, but never seen till then, came out and said a few words about it, then the show started as if nothing happened. The truth is that what Glanzer said, or the way he said it, was a bit distasteful. Perhaps it would have been better if nothing had been said.
On Friday we found ourselves standing in line next to Matt (Life in Hell/The Simpsons/Futurama) Groening. Here’s a making of video for the painting Brecht Evens did for Matt Groening. (I could have put up the video of Evens making the watercolor sketch he did below, but isn’t it more fun to use the one with Groening? Hopefully, Mr. Groening agrees.) Don’t expect to hear much talking – the audio mostly gives you an idea of how noisy it can get on the convention floor.
Here are some of the sketches that artists were kind enough to do for me:
The Image Comics 20th Anniversary panel was our last panel. I was at the first Image Comics panel at Comic-Con, which must have been in 1992. Robert Kirkman was not with Image back then and joked that he was filling in for Todd McFarland, who also was not on the panel in 1992. I only remember Liefeld, Valentino, and Silvestri from that panel, but it’s also possible that Jim Lee, whose name was not mentioned during this year’s panel, was there twenty years ago as well as Larson and Portacio. I hadn’t seen any of these guys since that panel 20 years ago. They’ve aged better than most.
Every year people complain about this or that about Comic-Con. Some say they will never come back. I’m sure there are legitimate complaints to be made, but my only complaint was that it had to end.
But at least we know when the Geek Brigadoon will appear again: July 18-21, 2013. The countdown has already begun.
1. Every year people lose their badges. It even happened to me a few years ago. But there’s something you should do that will make it more difficult to lose your badge. This tip I comes from my wife’s friend.
When you register you get a badge and a badge holder. The reason most people lose their badges is because the badge holder falls off of the lanyard. But you can make the connection more secure by attaching the hook to the badge holder so that it goes through the hole in the holder AND through the metal latch/pin, as shown in the picture below.
2. My wife, Kelly, has more words and pictures about SDCC 2012 here.
UPDATE: JULY 19, 2012:
3. Even though I said above that I have no complaints, recent developments have led me to write this. My son desperately wanted a My Little Pony figure from the Hasbro booth. He stood in line for hours Saturday morning only to find it sold out when he got to the front. (He also wanted a Bruticus, which was also sold out, but that’s another story.) Not only was it sold out for the day, it was sold out for the convention. But somehow Hasbro has dug up some more and has been putting them on their site the last couple of days, but they sell out within minutes. The problem is that many of the people who buy these “exclusives” are not buying them because they want them. They are buying them to sell them on ebay. This Pony figure, for example, is going for more than $200. Even at the Convention you will see booths selling the “exclusives” at inflated prices. Hasbro has limits on the number anyone in line can buy. For Pony, it was three. Why not one? At least for the first couple of days to give everyone who wants one a chance to get one. (Image sold a collection of Walking Dead comics that could only be bought after winning a lottery. But they stopped using the lottery after the first two days.) And why not scan badges so that the same people cannot get in line again and again?
But this has been the status quo for years about which many have been complaining for an equal number of years. Therefore, I will not be holding my breath in expectation of any change in this system for the better.
4. I’ve heard that some vendors did poor business this year. This doesn’t quite jive with my experience of finding so many sell-outs, but in any case vendors should obviously note what does sell at Con: exclusives, or at least the perception that you are getting something rare and wonderful. The easiest way to do this is with a personal appearance by an artist who signs the book. Exclusive means rare. Habro’s Con exclusives turned out not to be exclusive to Con. As I said, they are selling some of them on their website. But they remain hard to get and rare. Vendors who come to Con with nothing more than what Amazon offers, especially if it’s at a higher price, than what Amazon charges, are unlikely to attract much interest at a show like this. We go to see things that we can’t see elsewhere. This includes toys, books, comics, as well as panel events and even swag. We don’t want to be reminded of our ordinary lives before and after Con. It all has to be special. Offer me something special, and I will not only buy it at Con, I will line up hours in advance just to get a ticket that gives me a chance to buy it. If you are not offering me some kind of magic for my cash, you might as well stay home.
5. I might as well mention this, too: we had problems connecting to the internet with our Droid this year. This was a new development. We ran into at least one other person who had the same problem, but someone with the same carrier, Verizon, did not have the problem. He suggested that it was because he had 4G whereas our phone used 3G. Who knows? But the problem was real and persisted throughout the show. Hopefully, the cause will have vanished by next year.
PART 1: Why do reviewers treat Joss Whedon as if he were the primary creator of The Avengers?
1. People who read the mainstream press reviews of the film who know nothing about the origin of the film might be forgiven for thinking that the film is the sole product of Joss Whedon’s imagination because these reviewers never mention the primary creators, who are primarily Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and Joe Simon, who co-created, with Kirby, Captain America.) Why do these reviews give this false impression? Although the primary creators are mentioned in the film’s credits, their absence from 99% of the reviews suggests that Marvel’s PR pushed Whedon as the creator. That’s quite an achievement for someone who had yet to be born when The Avengers #1 appeared on the newsstand in 1963. Marvel could have emphasized the primary creators, and this emphasis would have been echoed in the reviews. But they did not. So instead of coming away from the film thinking what a great imagination Lee and Kirby had, movie-goers are more likely thinking about the “genius” of Whedon.
The film’s credits are also part of the problem. While the names Kirby, Lee, and Simon, as well as others such as John Buscema, Jim Starlin, and Roy Thomas, do show up during the seemingly interminable credits scroll, their lack of prominence clearly gives the impression to viewers that these creators were no more important to the film than someone such as Robert Downey, Jr.’s hair stylist. (Note, however, that none of these names are included in the full credits section for the film on imdb. Why is that? Perhaps because Disney or Marvel supplied these credits.)
Update, May 4, 2012: Kirby and Lee’s name now appear on IMDB, but in the writing credits section rather than as creators of the characters, which is how the names appear in the film’s actual credits. Other names are still missing. Guess how many credits IMDB does list for the film? 2001! Yet, there’s no room for people such as Joe Simon, Roy Thomas, or Jim Starlin, who are, as I already said, actually in the film’s credits. Whether or not they magically appear someday, the fact is that more than two weeks after the film’s release in the USA, they are not on the IMDB page for the film.)
But perhaps, despite not creating any of the film’s main characters, Whedon’s story is so original that he deserves the star auteur treatment. Let’s see if that’s true.
2. I’ve already pointed out that the comic book appeared in 1963 before Whedon was born (in 1964), so he certainly could not have created the concept of The Avengers as a team of super heroes. In fact, the team superheroes concept was not even new in 1963. Marvel itself had already begun publishing Fantastic Four in 1961. But the first superhero team was created long before that: Justice Society of America appeared for the first time in All Star Comics #3, dated Winter 1940. In any case, this film was setup by Marvel at the end of the first Iron Man film. Whedon was hired to make an Avengers film. He did not go to Marvel and suggest that they should do an Avengers film.
3. But if Whedon did not create the team superhero concept, perhaps he had the idea to team up characters that no one else had thought to team up before. Unfortunately for Whedon, most of the primary Avengers, the ones who had films named after them leading up to this film, were already on the team in the first issue in 1963: Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man, although Hulk’s membership was temporary. And Captain America joined the team a few months later, in issue #4. Even the film’s major villain, Loki, was in issue #1 as a villain. The film’s other team members, Hawkeye and Black Widow, were also Avengers long before Whedon was hired by Marvel. At best Whedon can be credited with going back to the first Avengers comic, but this is more of what an editor, as opposed to a creator, does. But it’s more likely that he was handed the membership list and told that this is what he had to work with.
4. Now we come to something that seems to depart from the early comics. In the film, Nick Fury, who works for the US government, forms the team. The team is his idea. The original Avengers form after fighting a common enemy (Loki) when one of them, Ant-Man, suggests they form a team since they fight together so well, and the Wasp christens them, “The Avengers.” The original team had no government connection.
In the film, it appears that since the government forms The Avengers, the funds to operate the team also come from the government. Not so in the comic. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, is the team’s benefactor and funding comes through a non-profit organization set up by him.
However, Nick Fury was already shown recruiting Iron Man for the Avengers Initiative at the end of the first Iron Man film. Once again, Whedon had nothing to do with this.
It appears that the general plot of the film is derived directly from The Ultimates comic books written by Mark Millar. There is already an animated version of that story called Ultimate Avengers: The Movie. It’s likely the decision to use this material for the film was made by Marvel before Whedon even signed on as director/writer.
5. American film critic Andrew Sarris is the one most responsible for introducing the idea that a director is the author of a film to America. He called it the Auteur Theory, as opposed to Auteur Policy, the term used by the French who were the true originators of the approach. I wonder if he thinks when he sees someone such as Joss Whedon hailed as a genius for a film like The Avengers. Does he have any regrets? Or is he simply proud for changing the way the public sees films?
UPDATE: MAY 24, 2012
In an interview on Hero Complex, Avengers production designer James Chinlund says:
I found the Marvel Studio to be an incredibly supportive and positive environment to work in, I have so much respect for the Marvel tradition it was an absolute thrill to step in and carry the baton for a while and help execute the design for “Avengers.” The process at Marvel is a very inclusive one, lots of voices and opinions, but all focused on a singular goal. In the early days there were epic roundtable presentations where we would present the work and discuss it with the Marvel team. I found these meetings to be always productive, Kevin [Feige, producer], Jeremy [Latcham, executive producer] and Victoria [Alonso, executive producer] all have amazing taste and such a profound understanding of the path they are on, I felt that every time I left the table the ideas were that much more focused.
This description of the filmmaking process as a collaborative art may seem obvious, but it nevertheless is not the image one comes away with from the reviews by critics brainwashed by the “auteur theory” who pin all of the credit for the film on one man, ie Whedon. Chinlund speaks of an “inclusive process” and “the Marvel team.” Although he mentions Whedon elsewhere in the interview, he does not feel the need to mention him in this paragraph.
Has the “auteur theory” gotten out of hand?
For what it’s worth, I wrote the above before even seeing the film at a free screening hosted by HeroComplex. I also see that I’ve mentioned Whedon far too many times, doing the same thing that I said mainstream reviewers did. So to make up for it:
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers.
PART 2: The Film
What the film does right
1. The interplay between characters: Thor and Iron Man beating the crap out of each other; Hulk unexpectedly punching Thor; Iron Man’s wisecracks at the expense of Captain America. The characters are neither campy nor overly serious and grim. Whedon (I’ll give him the credit) gets the balance just right. He captures the Marvel style almost perfectly. No surprise, Whedon having written Avengers comics before this movie. So many superhero team stories are like this: the team gets together, then the team breaks up and fights their separate fights, then they come back together in the end. This film is not like that. It knows that the best way to bring out the characters is by having them play off each other more so than play off their opponents. Loki is the official antagonist, but in a way his role is no different than any of the official Avengers. The heart of the film is the characters’ relationships with each other rather than their fight against space invaders. Loki is part of that and that’s why he’s treated at the end more like a naughty boy than a “war criminal.”
Stan Lee, in an interview done in 1967 for Castle of Frankenstein #12 (the issue is dated January 1968), cited the character interplay as one of the innovations Marvel brought to the superhero genre:
By getting this right, Whedon shows that he understands what made Marvel Marvel.
2. This is the first movie where they get Hulk almost perfectly right. But I think the secret to this success was to simply go back to the comics. For whatever reason, the people who made the first Hulk movies did not want to make the character in the comic books. Whedon and his team did. Kudos to them. (Lou Ferrigno, who played Hulk in the TV series, provided Hulk’s voice for the movie.)
3. The scale of the plot, like so many of the post-Jack Kirby Marvel comics, is cosmic. Big heroes need a big canvas against which to act, and there are fewer canvases bigger than an invasion of Earth by aliens from another dimension. (However, they should have been Skrulls, the default alien race invaders in the Marvel Universe. Is it true that Marvel could not use Skrulls because the rights to them are owned by another studio?) Super hero comics should stimulate our imaginations, and make us think big thoughts. A team of super heroes fighting off an alien invasion is at least a step in the right direction. It sure took a long time to get here, though. Remember the big fight scene in the first Hulk movie where Hulk fights off those most cosmic of all cosmic villains: dogs? Remember when Galactus was transformed into a cloud in Fantastic Four 2, thus proving that alien invasion plots can be screwed up.
It should be pointed out, however, that the alien invasion plot, despite having taken so long to find its way into these movies, is already becoming something of a cliché . Transformers: The Dark of the Moon movie as well as the upcoming Battleship both use similar plots. But it’s worth remembering that the aliens were invading Earth in The Avengers comics long before any of these movies way back in the Sixties.
4. The biggest surprise of the movie was neither Harry Dean Stanton, who, in a bit part, gets to ask Bruce Banner if he is an alien; nor the appearance in the post credits teaser of the Jim Starlin created Thanos. (Hero Complex has an interview with Starlin related to the film and this character. Finally, someone acknowledges that the film is based on work done by people other than Whedon and his crew, as well as pointing out that Jack Kirby is not the only creator to get screwed over.) The biggest surprise of the movie was seeing Polish film director Jerzy Skolimowski play a Russian general early on in the movie. Did anyone else notice him?
What the film does not do right
1. The plot is confusing. Critics talk of refrigerator logic: the kind that gets you through the film, but makes you wonder later what the hell was going on. Well, I didn’t have to wait for the refrigerator because I kept wondering what the hell was going on throughout the film.
2. Some of the dialogue, especially in scenes with Loki, is atrocious. However, the truth is that it’s no worse than many of the comics that inspired this movie. So if the goal was to mimic those comics, mission accomplished.
3. The weakest members of the team are Hawkeye and Black Widow. Hawkeye may have come through better if he had not been reduced to a zombie for much of the film. If he had not been a zombie in the employ of Loki until the climax, he could have benefited from being at the receiving end of barbs from Iron Man, just as Bruce Banner and Captain America benefit. But the real problem is that neither Black Widow nor Hawkeye fit with the team, despite being on the team in the comics, is because they don’t have super powers. They begin as members of Nick Fury’s spy team, S.H.I.E.L.D., but eventually end up as Avengers. I’m not sure how that happens, but if some of the real super heroes in the Marvel super hero bullpen, such as the Vision and Scarlet Witch, could not have been used instead of them, then perhaps the fact that Hawkeye and Black Widow don’t have super powers should have been played up. Perhaps something like this: they never expect to be on the team, but they become members by accident because the moment demands their participation, and they perform above and beyond what, as mere mortals, was expected from them and become the equals of the real super heroes. This would have fit because the film already has Iron Man and Captain America questioning the hero credentials of each other. However, the film shows Hawkeye and Black Widow doing things that you would expect only from a true super hero without acknowledging that they are not really super heroes. (The same is true for Nick Fury. For example, one wonders how he, or anyone else, could survive the first scene of the film, let alone the rest of it.)
4. The aliens: Are they robots or organic beings? Or were they alien Iron Men, that is, organic beings in metal costumes? Whatever they are, they are a bore because they are something that someone such as Willis O’Brien, especially, or Ray Harryhausen would have been ashamed to have committed to film: monsters without personality. We don’t even know their motivation. (Yes, a hint of one is suggested in the post-credits teaser, but that’s something that should have come first, not last.) Doesn’t anyone know how to make good monsters anymore? CGI makes it too easy to create hordes of cookie cutter villains who all look and act the same. It’s rather sad to look at the hordes of artists who were enlisted to create these boring monsters. Did Whedon reject the use of Skrulls thinking that he had a better idea? If so, he was very wrong.
On the other hand, boring aliens help keep the emphasis on the superheroes and the relationships between the team members, which is what the film is really about. The aliens function as a foil and little more. Once the team comes together, the aliens literally vanish, their plot function completed. However, now that the team is formed, the next opponent cannot be similarly faceless. The Thanos teaser suggests that this will not be the case.
5. Loki. For the most part, he’s a cliché . He’s the villain who wants to rule the world and have everyone in it bow down to him. He should have more of the trickster about him, like the original Norse god from which he derives. There’s some of that in this film, but it’s not his primary trait. More of the trickster would separate him from the already overcrowded field of super villains who want to be world dictators, with still more coming soon such as General Zod in Man of Steel (Superman) and Khan in Star Trek 2.
6. Did we really need to see another villain, in this case Loki, turning people into zombie slaves? Is Loki’s mode of operation any different than that of the villains in countless TV cartoons and comics where villains turn people into slaves by controlling their minds? And just like many of those TV cartoons, the fate of the world in the end depends on one of the characters, a non-superhero scientist, somehow partially escaping Loki’s mind control to install a safety override on the device that creates the portal. This is the best that Whedon and his team could come up with?
Nevertheless, despite these major complaints, the film did a decent job translating what I loved about Marvel comics into a live action film. My ten year old self would have gone gaga for it.
1. To what an extent is The Avengers, as a team, a stand-in for the United States as Earth’s sole super power and police force? The plot of the film centers on a cube of cosmic power that the government wants to use to develop advanced weapons system. The Avengers are created instead, but their purpose is pretty much the same. However, the relationship of the team and the government is not exactly smooth. Only Nick Fury knows their whereabouts, and refuses to divulge it to government representatives. We of course side with Fury at this point against the shady government figures. However, it should be remembered at this point that they are elected officials in a democracy, whereas Fury is part of a secretive organization that can override orders from democratically elected officials. In fact, in the film these government figures order the nuking of Manhattan. In other words, democratically elected officials are bad guys; unelected figures who are part of a secret, para-military organization are good guys. Let me say it again: the members of government who have been democratically elected want to nuke Manhattan, but the members of an unelected, secretive, paramilitary organization are the ones who save the day. The fascists, not the democrats (with a small “d,”) are the good guys!
Of course, this is the standard mode of operation not just for comic books of the superhero sort, but of American pop culture in general where the heroes often are in conflict with the law and its representatives as much as the villains who operate outside the law. The masked superhero with a secret identity may be the perfect realization of the ideal American hero because he is part bad boy, outside the law and, in fact, untouchable by any law enforcer; part cop, upholder of the law. The Avengers end up being where most American heroes end up: neither completely part of the official law force, nor completely outside it. Of course, the home of the film’s producers, the United States, often operates in a similar way, sometimes ignoring, sometimes honoring international law, depending on its purposes. But don’t we all have ambivalent relationships with authority? Such is the world we live in. And that may account more than anything for this film’s popularity.
2. I grew up reading the comics this film is based on, alone in my bedroom. None of my friends read comic books, and comic books were considered just another weird subculture, despite the presence of Hulk and Spider-Man on TV at various times. In the Fifties they burned comics, and even decades after that it seemed that burning comics was the only use most people had for them. So it’s more than a little surreal to wake up in a world where a film that features superheroes that most people had not even heard of until a few years ago is setting box office records throughout the world.
3. The biggest lesson? That the best guy to make this type of film is someone who knows and loves the comics on which it is based. Of obvious as this may seem, it, sadly, is not always the case. I’m thinking especially of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Isn’t it obvious that the people who made that film had little to no love for the original comics, Fantastic Four 48-50, the Galactus Trilogy? They just didn’t get it, and it’s hard to make a good film about something you don’t get. Whedon gets it. That’s the difference.
4. One of my first thoughts walking out of the theater was that the words “Avengers assemble!” are never uttered. However, it’s clear that they don’t belong. We see the heroes assemble on their own and it’s the best moment of the film. If someone had shouted just before that moment, “Avengers assemble!,” it would have weakened that moment because it would be as if someone had ordered them to assemble. By coming together in a circle formation of their own volition, and without the benefit of someone uttering the famous catchphrase, the moment becomes an image of people with differences coming together despite their differences to unite against a common foe, Loki. Loki, in contrast to the way the Avengers are brought together, creates his team by turning people into zombies that work for him because they are controlled by him. When the Avengers assemble, making it seem as if they come together of their own free will creates a contrast with the formation of Loki’s team. It’s the difference between a volunteer army and one that is drafted.
5. I’m not the only one who thought the above “Avengers circle” moment was a highlight of the movie. However, I can’t keep myself from asking: Who would you rather have at your back, Hulk or Black Widow? There’s no denying that Black Widow and Hawkeye are weak links in this chain. If the same actors had been playing Scarlet Witch and the Vision, this moment would been a lot stronger. But as is, it does not survive “refrigerator logic.”
NOTE: Please link to this page rather than the Vimeo page.
Here are some quotes and paraphrases germane to O Lucky Man! from Gavin Lambert’s Mostly About Lindsay Anderson (pages 161-173). Most of this material is not covered by McDowell in the video above.
1. The first twenty pages of Coffee Man (the original title) were based on Malcolm McDowell’s own experiences…. To make these early scenes (and the rest of the film) ‘more epic,’ Anderson recommended writer David Sherwin to think Pilgrim’s Progress, Candide and Kafka’s Amerika, with the protagonist ‘journeying through a lot of adventures and encountering a lot of characters. It’s a form which hasn’t been attempted very much recently–middle-class artists lack the confidence for it.’
2. The protagonist himself, Anderson suggested, should be a naive innocent who never questions the success-worship of the world he was born into.
3. Progress on the script was slow, partly because writer David Sherwin was increasingly disoriented as he continued to shuttle between wife and girlfriend. Later that month, Sherwin’s girlfriend left him for her previous boyfriend in Australia, his wife left him for her previous boyfriend, and he became temporarily blocked. Anderson wrote in his diary: ‘The script is even more of a shambles–a disappointing nothing–than I had expected.’
4. Two weeks later, Sherwin’s girlfriend promised to return as soon as her boyfriend promised not to commit suicide if she did. This unblocked Sherwin, at least temporarily.
5. The idea to use songs by Alan Price to comment on the story at various moments was consciously Brechtian. The role Anderson conceived for Price had its origins in the Street Singer from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil’s The Threepenny Opera, a connection that Anderson only realized later, despite being familiar with the work.
6. A first-draft script was completed by October 10, 1971. Anderson commented in his diary that the script was ‘full of holes,’ but he, Anderson, needing a happy writer, cabled Sherwin’s ex-girlfriend, still in Australia, that the script was ‘BRILLIANT STOP DAVID LOVES YOU AND NEEDS YOU PLEASE RETURN.’ Ten days after receiving the cable, Sherwin’s ex-girlfriend returned to him, but on Christmas Eve she left him again and Sherwin made a failed suicide attempt with sleeping pills. Diagnosed as a manic-depressive, he was prescribed lithium and remained under psychiatric care for a week through the holidays.
7. Anderson: ‘Anglo-American cinema is essentially organized for the production of pre-planned narrative cinema, and anyone who takes on the risk of personal, poetic, changing and developing film-making, exposes himself to enormous problems. This is true of Kubrick and Schlesinger and even Peckinpah as well as myself.’
8. Anderson: “Warners [O Lucky Man's distributor] will not accept the idea of taking my name off the picture in the event of distributors finally making cuts of which I disapprove.’ [The three hour film was cut by distributors. Warners cut 20 minutes from it for the American release.]
9. At the end of January, Anderson began goading Sherwin, reunited (temporarily, at least) with his wife, to plug various holes in the script.
10. On his notion to have actors play more than one role, Anderson said, ‘Each of our characters might have been somebody else, if his luck had been different.’
11. During the casting process, Anderson wondered if his own life might have taken a different turn, and decided it was impossible. When an agent submitted a photograph of a handsome young actor for a small part, he asked his diary: ‘Were I honest and courageous, would I arrange to meet the boy? Would I attempt to seduce him? Such a thing is somehow just not conceivable in terms of what I am, in terms of what I (apparently inevitably) have become.’
12. Anderson, in his diary: ‘Nobody realizes what a mess of loneliness and inadequacy I am inside.’
13: Anderson: ‘The follies you read about every day when you open the paper are so absurd that the only way to comment on them is through laughing at them, because if you try to be serious about them, they dwarf you.’
In recent interviews David Simon, creator of The Wire, has complained about how some people’s response to his show comes down to “Who is the coolest character?” type questions, rather than the larger questions and themes that the show was dealing with. Here’s a quote from his interview at hitfix:
But to revisit the other thing, let me say this: my apologies to anyone who was saying, or trying to say you’re not cool if you didn’t get to The Wire early, and I only want you to watch the show on my terms. What I was saying is The Wire has been off the air for 4 years now. That it would be celebrated with things like who’s cooler: Omar or Stringer, at this late date, and that the ideas of the show would be given short shrift, those were the target of my comments.
My question for Simon is this: has he heard of Bertolt Brecht? His complaints touch on issues that Brecht dealt with long ago and which were rehashed by film critics in the Sixties and Seventies in response to films such as O Lucky Man! Does Simon know anything about this history? Why don’t his interviewers ever question him about it? Or are they likewise ignorant?
Here’s a new post about the film by Pablo Kjolseth at MovieMorlocks.
This is something that requires a book, so it’s going to be a bit rough because I’m not going to waste my time writing a book that no one will read anyway. (You would have thought that someone would have written a book, but as far as I know there is no book on this subject.)
So, here goes:
Am I the only one who sees the themes of freedom and survival everywhere in Hollywood movies? In film after film, we see a hero fighting to free himself or others from some type of enslavement, fighting to stay alive, or both.
But why are these themes so common? Is life really nothing but an attempt to stay alive? That is, is everything we do nothing more than maintaining the status quo of our existence? There’s another type of story which used to be more common. The hero attempts to get ahead, to improve their status in life, only to find out that they were better off staying where they were. This is the plot of films such as The Wizard of Oz and Damn Yankees. Even Citizen Kane can be categorized with these films. However, it seems that this type of story today is much less common than stories in which the hero merely fights to stay alive. There’s no longer any question of improving their lives when their life is under attack. Often, it’s not just the hero’s life, but the life of the entire planet that is at stake. Perhaps this shift is the result of the decline of our society.
Then we have stories about the fight for freedom. This usually takes the form of an Robin Hood type outlaw fighting a corrupt government. An early example is Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood (1922). But these stories about the fighting for freedom never explore the concept of freedom, and more or less assumes that everyone already knows what “freedom” is and that it’s worth fighting for? For example, there’s never any question that “freedom” means something different to a factory owner than it does to a factory worker. By ignoring these differences, the films preserve an illusion that “freedom” is universal. The result is that these stories ultimately reinforce the society that made the films, a society which is based on inequality and therefore lacks of freedom.
A) In what sense can it be said that watching stories in which characters battle for their freedom, frees the people sitting watching the screens that display these stories? Although the spectators are not chained to their seats, the end the result is the same as it would be if they were. That is, they remain tied to one place, dreaming of a virtual world acted upon by virtual characters, therefore reduced to being non-actors in their own world. At least while they are engaged with the story. But nowadays, films don’t necessarily end when the end credits role. The fan does not leave the fictional world when the film or book ends. Thanks to facebook, twitter, discussion groups, etc the fan can remain in their chosen fictional world practically forever.
Is this truly the life we dreamed of when we first began to dream?
B) The Hunger Games, released today in the USA, is an especially obvious example of a film about freedom and survival. And of course these themes are present in the earlier films and TV shows that are similar to it.
This is a very brief list of some of those earlier works, limited to TV and films:
1. The Most Dangerous Game (1932). The film was based on a short story (1924) by Richard Connell, and there have been numerous remakes and reworkings including Hard Target, John Woo’s first American film. Shipwreck victims on an island are given the choice of being killed immediately, or entering a game in which they are hunted by the island’s proprietor. If they last till dawn, they win their life and freedom.
2. The Tenth Victim. Based on a short story by Robert Sheckley. This story is different from all the others on this list in one important aspect: the game is to the death and for the benefit of a TV audience, but the players enter the game voluntarily.
3. The Outer Limits: Fun and Games. Adapted from a short story, “Arena” (1944) by Fredric Brown. This story was also used as the source for Star Trek’s “Arena” episode.
3. Star Trek: “Bread and Circuses,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Arena.” Superior beings force the Star Trek characters to battle to the death.
4. Death Race 2000 (1975). Death sports as mass entertainment.
5. Rollerball (1975). A roller derby type game, but to the death.
6. The Running Man. Based on a short story (1982) by Stephen King.
7. Battle Royale. Not a Hollywood movie, but a Japanese film based on a Japanese book. Teenagers forced to fight to the death to provide entertainment for the masses.
The common element of these stories, man forced to fight man, can, of course, be traced to the gladiator games in the Roman Coliseum which of course has produced films such as Spartacus and Gladiator. (Some might point out that horseracing today, especially in the USA, resembles the world of The Hunger Games because horses are forced to race against each other. Although it’s not a race to the death, quite a few of the horses end up dying due to racing. Of course, any situation in which soldiers are placed and told kill or be killed is also pretty much it.)
C) In my post about Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, I asked, “Are revenge narratives merely the means to provide the hero with a circumstance in which he or she can kill with impunity and justification?” The Hunger Games suggests a more general question: are stories of any kind merely what Freud called Secondary Revision, that is the work of the Unconscious by which primal desires that are unacceptable to the conscious mind are altered in such a way that they are presented in a disguised, but acceptable, fashion. In the case of The Hunger Games, the primal desire would be murder. So we create a story which allows a good hero to kill others. The story protects us in a number of ways. First, it’s the character, not us, who does the actual murder, meaning we cannot be held accessories to murder. Second, the story provides clear justification for the hero’s killings, ie. a license to kill. Third, the fact that we it’s a mass phenomenon is probably important. We get reassurance from the fact that we are not the only ones attracted to this.
Don’t think this is remotely true? Check out this quote:
Nearly two dozen teens bite the big one in The Hunger Games, sure to be cinema’s most popular source of adolescent bloodshed. There’s no darker vicarious thrill than watching someone perish on screen, as many an action junkie will certainly tell you. (Source.)
Is the secret behind The Hunger Games‘ success a dark view of human nature?
D) As some have pointed out, the world of Hunger Games doesn’t quite make sense. If a government does not want its citizens to rebel, why give them even more reasons by forcing them to sacrifice kids? Instead of forcing tributes, perhaps a more sensible setup would be for the government to offer payment to volunteers. You can be sure that in a world of poverty, there would be no shortage of volunteers. Then create an additional incentive to play the game by providing the winner a huge prize. But the real kicker would be to offer betting on the outcomes. Why? Because instead of rooting for the home team, everyone who bets would be rooting for the one they think will actually win. And make the betting free for everyone. This creates the possibility of a hero whose own district does not support because they think he or she has no chance of winning. But, of course, they are wrong.
E) Like many artists, author Suzanne Collins appears to have constructed The Hunger Games out of bits and pieces from her favorite books:
Are there books you’ve gone back to and read over and over again?
It’s embarrassing to admit how many times I’ve reread the following: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Germinal, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and A Moveable Feast. (Source.)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: girl’s coming of age story
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: ditto
1984: Authoritarian government
Lord of the Flies: kids killing kids because at heart, by nature, man is evil. (Which, of course, is an argument that can be used as a justification for an authoritarian, 1984-like government: i.e. such a government is necessary to protect man from himself.)
Germinal: exploited working class miners
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, who, of course, also wrote “The Lottery,” which I would guess is also a Collins fave.
I happen to think the How Green [Was My Valley] is one of the very greatest American films. Probably no Best Picture winner in the history of the Oscars has been a more fitting recipient of that award. Why lump it in with Shakespeare in Love?! (I think you know what’s coming.)…
I’m going to be heretical and say that How Green [Was My Valley] deserved to win over Kane [for 1941's Best Picture Oscar]….
For years Kane has been sitting atop many lists of the greatest films of all times, including polls of professional film critics. The notion that Kane really is the greatest film of all time has become so engrained that people seem seldom to question it. Back when that idea arose, critics were unaware of the films of Yasujiro Ozu, probably the world’s greatest film director to date. Play Time was for years ignored and only recently has begun to be recognized for the masterpiece it is. With the rise of film restoration in the 1970s and the spread of film festivals and retrospectives, we now know vastly more about world cinema than we did before. Yet Kane has settled into its top slot for many people, including entertainment journalists. I can think of many films I would rank above Kane. (Source.)
That’s not me saying that; it’s film critic Kristin Thompson writing on the blog she shares with her husband, David Bordwell, Observations on film art and FILM ART. For those who are familiar with her and Bordwell’s writings, the opinion expressed above is not unfamiliar. They’ve been dissing Kane while promoting the likes of Ozu and Play Time for as long as I’ve been reading their books. However, is it really true that “the notion that Kane really is the greatest film of all time has become so engrained that people seem seldom to question it?” Of all the people that I know, and all the people that I’ve known, I can think of no one who sincerely thinks or thought that Citizen Kane was “the greatest film of all time.” (It’s currently #39 on the IMDB list.) And I went to film school. If hardly anyone likes Citizen Kane that much, why do we have this notion that nearly everyone thinks it’s the best? The answer, of course, is obvious: it’s topped the once a decade Sight & Sound poll since 1962. But if we look closer at those polls, we might come away with a different notion.
The stats for the last poll, published in 2002, are available online. In fact, the magazine did two polls, one for critics; one for film directors. Of the 145 critics lists posted, 46 of them include Citizen Kane. In other words, just 31% of those polled mentioned Kane. Of the 108 film director lists posted, 42 mention Kane. That’s 39%. Last time I checked, neither 31% nor 39% constituted a majority. A majority of critics, 69%, and a majority of film directors, 61%, disagree that Kane is the best, but unable to agree on a single best film.
So later this year when Sight & Sound most likely will be publishing the results of its 2012 poll and Citizen Kane most likely once again tops the list, we should realize that Thompson, despite presenting herself as some kind of maverick in dissing Kane, will actually be part of the large majority that will disagree with Kane‘s rank. Perhaps we should come up with a phrase describing this phenomenon whereby a minority’s selection is promoted as if it’s the pick of the majority. Why not call it the “Tyranny of the Minority?”
For what it’s worth, I happen to be in the minority.
Sight & Sound‘s 2012 poll results have been published. Vertigo tops the list with an even lower percentage of the total than Kane did in 2002 (31%; 46/145 for Kane in 2002 vs 22.5%; 91/846) for Vertigo in 2012. )Once again, hardly a consensus (most common comment will be: “Vertigo is not the greatest film. Not even close.”), and the trend is towards not greater, but less consensus. If the trend continues, in the near future the difference in votes separating the top and bottom films will be next to nil. But this is lost on most. All they see is a headline saying that film critics have voted for Vertigo as the greatest film of all time. One blogger reacted by writing, “the majority of critics are backing a new horse.” Sorry. 22.5% may be a plurality, but it is far from a majority when more than 75% disagree.
The essay by Ian Christie, on the poll results, begins with “And the loser is – Citizen Kane. After 50 years at the top of the Sight & Sound poll, Orson Welles’s debut film has been convincingly ousted by Alfred Hitchcock’s 45th feature Vertigo – and by a whopping 34 votes, compared with the mere five that separated them a decade ago.”
This ignores something that a lot of people seem to be ignoring: due to a change in definition of who should be polled, the number of participants increased substantially from 2002 to 2012: 145 to 846. This itself makes comparing the new poll with previous polls problematic. In any case, comparing the margin of victory in terms of absolute number of votes would make sense only if the total number of votes was the same. This was not the case. What is true is that Kane beat Vertigo in 2002 by 5 votes, which was 5/145 or 3%. Vertigo‘s 34 vote margin equals 34/846 or 4%, which, of course, is only a slightly wider margin than #3%.
Of course, it’s obvious that some poll participants did not take the task very seriously. For example, does Ken Hollings really think Plan 9 from Outer Space belongs on a list with Metropolis and 2001, two of his other picks? More likely he was being willfully perverse, as were many others. Who knows what the results would have been if such perversity had been left out of the list gathering?
Some have criticized the poll from the opposite POV. When they see films such as Man With a Movie Camera, Passion of Joan of Arc, and Sunrise place in the top 10, they suspect fraud at the polls. That is, they don’t believe the voters voted with their hearts. Rather, they voted the way they felt they should vote. Who could truly love a movie such as these three dusty, out dated silent movies? The proof they cite is the dearth of references to any of these films during their daily journey.
I’m tempted to dismiss this thinking as idiotic. For one, it ignores the fact that only 11% voted for Sunrise, and only 8% for the other two. It sounds like little more than the view of someone who cannot understand that different people like different things. Like my son, who is upset when his parents do not share his enthusiasms, which include Green Lantern and Tron.
But let’s take this view seriously. Should people who like these movies be talking about them all the time? Even some of the time? My ten favorite films include six of the titles in the top 10. I count both Man With a Movie Camera and Joan of Arc among my favorites. But if I were to talk about them all the time, I would wake up one day to find myself alone with myself. Talking about your favorite anything too much is a sure way to label yourself a bore. The same holds for blog or essay writers. No one wants to hear someone talk about the same things over and over.
However, it’s wrong to think that people don’t talk about these films. There have been whole books written about most of the films people seem to have the most doubts about. For example, here are two about Man With a Movie Camera, Constructivism in Film – A Cinematic Analysis: The Man with the Movie Camera by Vlada Petrić and The Man With the Movie Camera: The Film Companion by Graham Roberts. There’s too much out there for anyone to know everything, but it’s ultimately if the curiosity is there, you will find it. If it isn’t, you won’t.
But there’s an even greater reason why we don’t talk much about our favorites. In fact, there are many people who never even bother to come up with a list of their favorites. Why? Because we’re more concerned with the latest and greatest. What are the new releases? Our society, our economy, is based on the new. Most sales are made on new stuff, not yesterday’s models. Remakes almost always receive more notice than reissues.
I need to reiterate what I started with: the Sight & Sound poll is not based on a consensus. The low percentage of votes received by the top rated films is a guarantee that the majority of responses will be along the lines of, “They must be crazy! Those are not even close to my list of greatest films.” Given this fact, that the list is the result of minority opinion, the responses which question the validity of the list are 100% predictable. I wonder if the list is not a bit subversive, given its emphasis on older movies in a society which is based on the idea of progress, that is, the newest product is always better than the older product. This applies to movies just as much as anything else. It’s also true that most movie lovers do not think of these films when they think of movies. They are too concerned with the newer films than to bother watching old, creaky, often black and white movies from the inferior past. This is why this list is so interesting. It completely undermines the belief that we are always doing things better today than yesterday. It may even be depressing for some, especially those who work in the industry. Do they wake in the middle of the night wondering if their work has any value whatsoever beyond their paychecks?
1. Despite Welles (aka The Kenosha Kid, at least in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow) famously saying “I prefer the old masters; by which I mean: John Ford, John Ford and John Ford,” which Thompson cites in her post, Welles’ list of top 10 favorite films that he submitted for the first Sight & Sound poll in 1952 only includes Ford’s Stagecoach, which Welles said he watched dozens of times in preparation for Kane:
#1 City Lights (directed by Charles Chaplin)
#2 Greed (directed by Erich von Stroheim)
#3 Intolerance (directed by D. W. Griffith)
#4 Nanook of the North (directed by Robert Flaherty)
#5 Shoe Shine (directed by Vittorio De Sica)
#6 Battleship Potemkin (directed by Sergei Eisenstein)
#7 La Femme du Boulanger (directed by Marcel Pagnol)
#8 Grand Illusion (directed by Jean Renoir)
#9 Stagecoach (directed by John Ford)
#10 Our Daily Bread (directed by King Vidor)
2. Speaking of David Bordwell, here’s are some quotes about his critical approach from Daniel Frampton’s Filmosophy:
But for Bordwell, the ultimate self-conscious narration (sometimes serving up hardly any story) is “parametric” narration: style-centered, permutational, poetic. …These kinds of films are open rich texts, with mutliple layers of signifiers which almost resist interpretation – and for Bordwell the concept of parametric narration allows us to acknowledge the rich nature of these films. That is, by understanding the genre of parametric narration Bordwell believes we can better appreciate these kinds of film – but in analyzing typical art-cinema or parametric narratives Bordwell only seems to want to rationalize them. Radical cinema is reduced to principles, systems, all towards trying to bring articstic cinema into the rational fold of classic cinema. Again Bordwell classifies according to a diversion from the norm. Parametric also means “not just metric,” not classically simple, just more than simple! How low-impact can you get, how…boring …. (my emphasis; Filmosophy pages 104-5)
Cognitivists would say that a filmgoer’s principal pleasure is derived from problem-solving, from the nerdy “interest” they have in working out the film. The filmgoer’s main emotional engagement with narrative film is that of “interest;” we are simply in a state of “action readiness” towards the stimuli of film. Yet reading Bordwell making sense of La Guerre est finie is quite strange, in that he seems set on reducing Resnais’ film to literality; working it out in order to gain relief from its willful strangeness (and perhaps win a prize for solving the film). (p. 108)
[Bordwell's] resistance to interpretation in Narration in the Fiction Film is not just a holding back in order to theorize more clearly, but indicates a lack to the system he sets out. Working out a genre of parametric narratives does little for our experience and interpretation of film. We may “understand” these kinds of films better — understand their structures and modes — but this is a limited and limiting kind of “understanding.” Bordwell’s clarifying ambitions dull these films. They become puzzles to be set straight, mazes to be spoiled by leading you through them: problems to be solved. (p. 109)
This begs the question: are films redundant once we have “understood” them? Why would we want to go back? Are films really puzzles to be solved? As [Robert] Stam [in Film Theory] observes: “Why do we go to films? Is it to make inferences and test hypotheses?” … It seems obvious that we do not always go to the cinema simply to “work out” what is going on in the film. (p. 109)
Last night my family and I were lucky enough to see an advance screening of John Carter hosted by Hero Complex in Burbank. The screening was followed by a Q & A with the film’s director, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) hosted by Geoff Boucher.
Here are some of my thoughts on the film.
1. My father has been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creations, including the John Carter of Mars series, for longer than I can remember. He has not yet seen the film, but he’s been griping about one thing ever since they announced it: the title. He does not like John Carter. Does anyone? In my mind, the name “John Carter” conjures up images of a doctor (such as the character Dr. John Carter on the television show, E.R.) or a detective (Get Carter) rather than an adventurer who travels between worlds.
Burroughs’ novel was published in book form as A Princess of Mars, and a princess of Mars is indeed a main character. However, this was not the work’s original title. According to Wikipedia, Burroughs “struggled to find an appropriate title for the novel: My First Adventure of Mars, The Green Martians, and Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess were all early attempts to solve this problem.” It was eventually published in The All-Story magazine as Under the Moons of Mars before being published in book form as A Princess of Mars. This publication history probably makes justifying the movie’s title change a bit easier. However, regardless of this, the question remains: Is John Carter is a good title? The film was originally titled A Princess of Mars, then John Carter of Mars, and the actual film concludes with the latter title. According to Stanton, the film is “about a guy becoming John Carter of Mars.” This makes sense. The film plays on his name and where he’s from. At first, the Tharks, through a misunderstanding, call him Virginia. At another point in the story, the princess calls him John Carter of Earth. Finally, he realizes that he has become John Carter of Mars and calls himself that. The film, in effect, has two titles that book-end the film: John Carter at the start; John Carter of Mars at the end. The change in title reflects the change in the character. However, none of this changes the fact that the official title, John Carter, is more boring than John Carter of Mars. Note that the poster above reads “JCM,” i.e. John Carter of Mars.
2. The film is not a “faithful” adaptation. During the Q & A after the screening, Stanton said that the relative obscurity of the source material made it easier to make changes. It’s fine to make changes if they lead to a better film, but I don’t know if that is what we are dealing with here. Many of the changes involve incorporating material from the later novels, especially the second one, The Gods of Mars. The original story is already confusing. There are the Green Martians, Tharks, and the Red Martians. Then there’s a war between factions of the Red Martians. Barsoom, Tharks, Dejah Thoris, Tars Tarkas. It’s like taking a course in a foreign language. But the film makes this already confusing story even more confusing by adding parts dealing with Red Martian religion, and a mysterious group of bald headed priest types who appear to be the puppeteers behind everything that happens. I suppose they’ll be explained in the third film.
There’s enough intriguing elements in the film that there will probably be a large number of people who, not catching all the plot elements during a first screening, will be lured back to the theater a second or third time, hoping the confusion will be replaced with clarity and revelation. However, it seems more likely that nothing will be understood completely until the final installment of the series.
3. If the source material is going to be approached with an idea that one does not need to be faithful, I think the best approach would be to aim for less, not more. The best part of the film is the Tharks. I would have made Carter an unmarried millionaire, bored with his life. When he’s thrown in the Thark society, he must start from scratch again, while all the time trying to get back to Earth and his mansion. As he slowly becomes accustomed to the Thark society, he moves up in status as well until he finally ends up top of the heap. In the film, Carter more or less follows this path, but it comes a bit too easily and quickly because they want to move the story along a different path. For example, he doesn’t have to learn the language because a female Thark gives him a magical potion that enables him to understand everything everyone says, both Green and Red Martians. In my story, the story would become a version of Brigadoon. Just as he is accepted completely by the Tharks, and finds love among the Tharks, he’s transported back to Earth. The film would end with him looking up at Mars in the sky, vowing to find a way to return.
4. Was John Carter the source for Superman? When Carter is transported to Mars, he finds that because of the lower gravitational pull, he has super powers. Besides super strength, he is able to jump very high and very far. Superman’s powers were originally explained the same way, but instead of being the Earthling who travels to another planet, he’s an alien from another planet who travels to Earth.
So, is there a connection? According to Wikipedia:
Siegel and Shuster have themselves discussed a number of influences that impacted upon the character. Both were avid readers, and their mutual love of science fiction helped to drive their friendship. Siegel cited John Carter stories as an influence: “Carter was able to leap great distances because the planet Mars was smaller that the planet Earth; and he had great strength. I visualized the planet Krypton as a huge planet, much larger than Earth”. (Source.)
5. During the course of the film, the princess, Dejah Thoris, goes from being mostly covered by armor, in the style of a warrior princess, to being rather scantily clothed, which is more than a little reminiscent of the costume change Princess Leila undergoes from Star Wars: A New Hope to The Empire Strikes Back. Stanton, in the post-screening discussion, said this was meant to represent the character rediscovering her “vulnerability.” Whatever. Even Geoff Boucher made a joke about some guy in the audience enthusiastically nodding in agreement.
6. It’s interesting to compare the setup of John Carter to that of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (I wrote about the latter here.) Both films are about fish out of water Earthmen, characters who find themselves held captive by strange aliens on a strange, alien planet. Despite being among everything alien, in POTA Mark Wahlberg escapes and is leading a group of natives to a place he’s never been within 24 hours of his capture. In JC, Carter attempts to escape, but fails several times, in part because he doesn’t know which way to go. He gets lost, as you would expect when you are on an alien planet with alien customs. When he’s finally released, he needs the help of native guides because he has no idea where to go. But the film goes further than this. When Carter first gets to Mars, he cannot even walk, much like a baby. Carter’s baby status becomes even more obvious when he’s thrown into the Thark nursery along with the other Martian babies. At this point in the story, Carter is like a newborn baby which sees everything as strange and alien. In effect, he has been “reborn,” and the rest of the story is going to show Carter “growing up.” Stanton said that at first he thought Taylor Kitsch was too young for the part, but a younger John Carter actually fits a coming of age story such as this better than the thirty-ish Carter Burroughs envisioned.
It’s also interesting to note that both Planet of the Apes and John Carter have their hero helped by a female alien who is a misfit among her people, yet at the same time the daughter of a high ranking male. Perhaps Pierre Boulle, author of the source novel for POTA, was influenced by JC. But my main point is that JC, despite the cheat of using a magic potion to allow Carter to understand all Martian languages, gets it right whereas Burton’s POTA gets it very wrong. Walhberg acts as if he’s taking little more than a trip downtown; Taylor Kitsch, as Carter, acts and reacts like he’s on an alien planet.
7. At some point the princess admits to Carter that she ran away. It’s a bit more complicated than usual, but it still comes down to a classic situation: she ran away because she does not want to marry the man that her father has arranged for her to marry. (We don’t see her run away and we get the impression that something was cut out. Perhaps one of the six deleted scenes that Stanton mentioned that will appear on the home video version will cover this.) This part of the film begins to resemble It Happened One Night, as the hero and princess show how incompatible they are while on the road, but we know where they will eventually end up. At this point, I would rather have been watching Colbert and Gable in Capra’s film. But Woolah partially redeems it.
8. This is Woolah, John Carter’s dog-like friend, who can move extremely fast.
This is Lockjaw, a bulldog-like character, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, that first appeared in Fantastic Four #45. Among his powers is the ability to teleport himself, which is sorta like moving very fast.
Could Burroughs’ Woolah have been the inspiration for Lee and Kirby’s Lockjaw?
9. Jumping is what John Carter does best on Mars, but I wasn’t impressed by how it was handled. I wanted to feel like I was there jumping with Carter instead of admiring him from a safe distance, but the film did not convey to me how it must feel to jump like a superman. However, there is a film that does a pretty good job of this. Here it is, Osamu Tezuka’s “Jumping.”
10. There’s nothing to suggest that in addition to traveling through space, Carter travels in time. However, if it proved to be the case that his trip was possible only because he did travel backwards in time, and he were to discover than present day Mars is as dead as any planet can be, it would make his loss, which he experiences after returning to the same Earth he left, even more poignant.
11. My Dad likes to talk about how the only time he was with an audience that applauded at the end of a film was when he saw Star Wars in 1977. If he had been there with us to see John Carter at the Hero Complex screening, he would would not have to change his story because the audience did not applaud at the end, at least not until Andrew Stanton appeared. Whether this bodes ill for the film’s prospects remains to be seen, but I would not bet in favor of the film.
12. Why didn’t Disney bring John Carter to Comic-Con last year? I propose my theory here.
13. People like to think of stories such as this as nothing but escapism. You open the book, read the story, then close the book. End of story. The book has no long lasting affect on your life outside of its affect on the imagination. However, I think it’s more interesting to see this story as a metaphor. It’s not so much a wish-fulfilling power and sex fantasy as a story about a guy who discovers his true powers in the course of discovering his true identity. This is the story of every one of us. The limit of this story is not so much its escapism, as its ignorance of the limits of the actual world of its readers and viewers. The story was called A Princess of Mars, not The Princesses of Mars. In other words, there can only be one John Carter. The upper levels of society have a limited number of slots. In theory, the same cave that transported Carter to Mars could transport millions of others. But there would still be only one Princess for all of them, despite all of them having super powers. Someone such as Andrew Stanton identifies with Carter because he found that when he jumped, there was a place to jump to. But for millions of others who can in fact jump just as high as Stanton, there is no place to jump. The slots are already filled. The Princess already has her Prince.
14. Some might see Carter as a Christ figure. Of course, Christ lies behind many American heroes, including Superman, which was heavily influenced by the John Carter stories. And yes, the two share initials. However, there is at least one significant aspect of the film’s story that is not part of the Christ story and that is Carter’s “I stick my neck out for nobody” attitude. He demonstrates this attitude on Earth as well as Mars. The film shows Carter growing beyond this egotistical stage and deciding that it’s worth fighting for the Princess’ and her city’s cause. In other words, the film identifies maturity, or growing up, with helping other people as opposed to thinking only of oneself. Carter’s initial egotism separates him from Christ (and Superman). However, it aligns him with many other American heroes such as Spider-Man and Han Solo. It’s called the Refusal of the Call (in Joseph Campbell’s terminology.)
The ending also separates Carter from Christ. Yes, after Carter marries the Princess, he leaves, involuntarily, returning to Earth. But only for awhile. The film ends with him returning to Mars and the Princess, which is a very un-Christ-like thing to do, as well as a bit unusual for an American hero: think of all the broken hearts left behind across the universe by Captain Kirk.
What’s really going on is the shaping of the original material by Burroughs into a form that most resembles the currently popular “Hero’s Journey,” based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. Here’s the short version in the words of David Brin:
…the hero begins reluctant, yet signs and portents foretell his pre-ordained greatness. He receives dire warnings and sage wisdom from a mentor, acquires quirky-but-faithful companions, faces a series of steepening crises, explores the pit of his own fears and emerges triumphant to bring some boon/talisman/victory home to his admiring tribe/people/nation. (Source.)
What’s interesting about Carter is that Carter begins with no allegiance to a nation. He fought for the South in the American Civil War, but refuses to fight for the United States against the native Americans. He does not want to fight at all. It’s an interesting story, but of course it’s not an unfamiliar story: Avatar, Dances with Wolves, and, a film that’s a favorite of Stanton’s, Lawrence of Arabia. (The film was pitched as Indiana Jones on Mars, but should have been pitched as Lawrence of Arabia on Mars.) These are stories about characters who come from the land of the colonialist, but end up fighting alongside, even leading, the colonized. Pretty much the story of John Carter. To reduce Carter to a Christ figure is to miss a lot.
15. Some people love to express their views on the reasons for a box office flop. (Perhaps they hope to be hired as well-paid “consultants” next time out.) Some of these people are saying John Carter “flopped” because it’s not original. That is, the books were already adapted to film, primarily as Star Wars. (Others say it was too much like Avatar, which Cameron admitted was partly inspired by the Carter stories.) All you have to do is look at the box office results of the last twenty years to prove how absurd that is. As we know, sequels and adaptations dominate. Originality is not what drives Hollywood. If you must compare it to Star Wars then it’s the clarity of that film’s plot that should be noted: damsel in distress sends a message asking for help from a specific person; that person responds, but the task is completed by others he picks up along the way. Message sent; reply received. John Carter‘s plot is already a mess, but even more so in comparison with Star Wars. (Added 3/18/12.)
Here’s a new quote from Stanton about the title change, which is (mostly) in sync with what I had to say about it above:
At the time there was panic about Mars Needs Moms. That wasn’t convincing to me to do anything. Then they did all this testing and found out that a huge bulk of people were saying no off the title. You can’t lie about that stuff, that’s the response you’re getting. I was like ‘Eh, that’s what the movie is.’ But I don’t want to hurt people from coming to the movie. Then I realized the movie is about that arc [of John Carter's character], and I said, ‘I’ll change it if you let me change it at the end. And if you let me keep the JCM logo.’ Because it means something by the end of the movie, and if there are more movies I want that to be what you remember. It may seem like an odd thing, but I wanted it to be the reverse Harry Potter. With the latest Harry Potter they had Harry Potter and the Blah Blah Blah Blah, but you just see the HP. I wanted the JCM to mean something. (Source.)
If Disney gave Mr. Stanton rope, he certainly ran with it. Accustomed to reworking scenes over and over at Pixar, he did not take well to the usual constraints of live-action — nailing it the first time — and went back for at least two lengthy reshoots. “The thing I had to explain to Disney was, ‘You’re asking a guy who’s only known how to do it this way to suddenly do it with one reshoot,’ ” he told The Los Angeles Times. “I said, ‘I’m not gonna get it right the first time. I’ll tell you that right now.’ ” (Source.)
Two comments: First, it’s not unusual to reshoot stuff in Hollywood, but whenever this quote from Stanton is pulled out, the article seems to be implying that re-shoots are rare and done only when the production is “troubled.” In any case, Stanton’s re-shoots did not help. Why? The script. It’s too diffuse. His pitch to Disney, Indiana Jones on Mars (although the pitch should have been Lawrence of Arabia on Mars), implies a clear cut film, but this film is about as clear as a smoggy day in Los Angeles. Why couldn’t they come up with a good script? Were they too close to the film? Articles have appeared which talk about how the three writers were all smitten by John Carter as children. But passion does not ruin films. At the screening, Stanton spoke of how he felt free to change the story because its fan base, which would be upset if one name was changed, was relatively small, but the things he changed were the wrong things. Instead of distilling the story to its essence, he diluted it by adding even more story from the Burroughs sequels, probably in the hope of setting up his film’s sequels. The result? John Carter of Confusion. Even though they say “One area in which [Stanton] exerted his influence was marketing, where he frequently rejected ideas from Ms. Carney and her team, according to people who worked on the film,” the reason the ad campaign was so lackluster was probably because of the film’s confusion. There was no clear concept to sell. (It is true that Stanton had a lot of power as a director, which is somewhat unusual for a first time live-action director. At the screening Stanton said that Disney pretty much left him alone, saying that they were afraid of him and didn’t want to upset the hotshot from Pixar, the one who had made films that had added billions to Disney’s coffers. However, at no time did he say something like, “If this film fails, I alone will be to blame.” In fact, he sounded a bit bigheaded.)
Here’s another quote from the NY Times article cited above:
On Sunday, Rich Ross, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said in a statement, “Moviemaking does not come without risk. It’s still an art, not a science, and there is no proven formula for success. Andrew Stanton is an incredibly talented and successful filmmaker who with his team put their hard work and vision into the making of ‘John Carter.’ Unfortunately, it failed to connect with audiences as much as we had all hoped.”(Source.)
I’ve already said that Stanton spoke of how Disney left him alone because they were afraid of making him angry, but perhaps they were also in awe of him based on his track record. I can’t help but think of certain talents of the Thirties who were likewise treated as gods when they were lured away by others, not just to direct films, but to found entire studios, that is, Ub Iwerks (co-creator of Mickey Mouse), Burt Gillett (director of the incredibly popular Three Little Pigs Silly Symphony), and David Hand (director of Snow White.) The subsequent efforts of each of these ex-Disney figures disappointed nearly everyone. Why? Probably because the ones who lured them away failed to appreciate the slippery nature of credits in the animation business as well as the collaborative process that produced their films. No one person was the auteur of these films, not even Disney himself. Likewise, whatever the credits say on Stanton’s Pixar films, there is no single person responsible for story or direction at Pixar. John Carter may have had input from the Pixar folk, but it was not a true Pixar film. Perhaps Stanton should have begun with a smaller project which would have given him time to build up a new team.
Here’s another quote to chew on:
In recent weeks, as a weak marketing campaign failed to generate audience excitement for “John Carter,” Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, made it clear in conversations with senior managers that he would not tolerate finger-pointing; this may be a colossal miss, he told them, according to people who were present, but it’s the company’s miss and no individuals would be blamed — including Mr. Stanton. Learn from it, was Mr. Iger’s message. (Source.)
So what should we learn from this? Don’t mix Westerns and Science Fiction? After the failure within the last year of two big budget films that did just this (the other being, of course, Cowboys & Aliens), I can imagine many Hollywood execs thinking exactly this.
Or perhaps execs will think that films having anything to do with Mars are out? We already know that Disney feared Mars in the title so much because of the Mars Needs Moms flop that they made Stanton change the title from John Carter of Mars, so you can be sure that future years will see many Mars film concepts torpedoed simply because of the Mars connection. Kim Stanley Robinson and Ben Bova can kiss goodbye any hopes they had of films based on their Mars novels. Maybe our imaginations have dried up like the water on Mars and we are no longer possess imaginations capable of putting an imaginary form of life on Mars. Heaven help the Total Recall remake, assuming it takes place on Mars like the original version.
However, mostly, I think, the lesson will be that it’s dangerous to give a director too much power on a big budget film. Should this be the lesson? I wonder if the problem was really the exact opposite. Perhaps Stanton had grown too accustomed to how he worked at Pixar, as part of a team. He didn’t stick to his gut convictions and was persuaded to make changes that he should not have made by his friends at Pixar who were not really part of his team on Carter. If this was indeed what happened, then it’s too bad. Stanton’s lone collaborator should have been his teenage self. At the screening, he spoke of how he wished he could travel back in time and tell his younger self not to blow it. But I think his younger self would have had more cause to say, “No, don’t you blow it.”
It is a common practice in Hollywood to pitch stories in the form of a short, single sentence. According to a long piece about John Carter and Andrew Stanton which originally ran in the October 17, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, ever since Stanton read Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing he begins a project by distilling the movie “to one crisp sentence before making them. For Finding Nemo, it was “Fear denies a good father from being one,” and, for Wall-E, “Love conquers all programming.”‘ However, unlike the one sentence summary of the Hollywood high concept movie which are meant to demonstrate the commercial potential of the idea by showing how simple and brainless it is, Stanton’s sentences are meant to summarize the movie’s theme, the abstract concept behind the story’s action. For John Carter, the one sentence distillation was “We survive to fulfill our purpose for others.”
“We survive to fulfill our purpose for others” sounds like the answer to a question, that question being, “Why do we strive to survive?” (One of Hollywood’s big themes, which is not really a theme at all in the sense that Lajos Egri meant it, is survival. That is, most Hollywood films tell stories about characters attempting to survive. They never ask why. Apparently, Stanton wanted to tell a story in which this question was asked. However, if this is indeed what John Carter is about, the theme doesn’t really come across. If John Carter is asking himself why he should go on living at the start of the film, he certainly does not act like it. When we first see him, he’s prospecting for gold, and soon after that he’s repeatedly attempting to escape from the army. If he had no reason to go on living, why would he keep trying to escape? Why would he be looking for gold? It would have made more sense to begin the story with him living happily with his family. When they die, he wants to die because he sees no reason to go on living. He goes into the mountains to kill himself, but he ends up on Mars where he finds a new purpose for his life.
However, I can’t help wonder why he would have to go to Mars to find a purpose in life. Stanton’s theme doesn’t really fit this story, perhaps because that’s not the theme Burroughs had in mind. Perhaps one solution would be to make Carter not just someone who does not want to go on living, but a misanthrope like Ebeneezer Scrooge. His Barsoom experience would then be somewhat like Scrooge’s experience with the ghosts and when he returns to Earth, he has a different outlook on his fellow humans. But in the film, after he returns to Earth, all he wants to do is to return to Barsoom because he prefers Barsoom to Earth.
The story definitely doesn’t follow Joseph Campbell hero’s journey archetype where the hero brings some sort of boon back to his home after his journey. Carter does not bring anything back from Barsoom to Earth other than his longing to return to Barsoom. In the end, the story comes across as a vague critique of American society simply because Carter prefers Barsoom. But the critique is so vague that it can hardly be called a critique. It resembles a film such as Dances with Wolves or Little Big Man, but only in a vague sense. Another film that it resembles is Brigadoon. But all of these films have sequences in which it is clear what the hero does not like about his “home.” It’s like Stanton was telling a story that he didn’t really understand or want to tell.
On February 21, 2012, the School of Cinematic Arts at USC hosted “An Afternoon with Italian Horror Maestro Dario Argento and SUSPIRIA.” First, we were held spellbound for 92 minutes by the splendiferous visual and aural design of Argento’s masterpiece, Suspiria, as a 35mm film print was given an increasingly rare screening on the big screen in the Ray Stark Family Theatre. This was followed by a Q & A with the maestro, after which Argento stayed to personally meet us one on one. The video above includes most of the Q & A.
Recommendation: If you ever find yourself offered an opportunity to see either Suspiria on the big screen or Dario Argento in person, you should thank your lucky stars. And sit in the front row!
You can read an article from American Cinematographer on the cinematography of Suspiria here.
Argento is the man after whom “The Argento Shot” is named.
At the end of X-Men: The Last Stand, Magneto, now as powerless as the rest of us mortals, sits alone at a chessboard in a park. Instead of this, let’s show Magneto in an old age home prattling on and on about how he used to be Magneto. “My power was strong enough to move the Golden Gate Bridge.” The slightly perturbed victim of Magneto’s endless stories says, “Yeah, yeah, and I used to be Stan Lee.” And it is Stan Lee.
A lot of people are just discovering that animation great Bob Clampbett worked on an aborted John Carter of Mars project way back in 1935, thanks to the Youtube test footage for the cartoon, which originally appeared on the 2000 Beany & Cecil DVD (which, by the way, happens to be one of the all time great DVD’s).
However, many of us learned about this project way back in 1976, courtesy of Jim Steranko’s Mediascene. Issue #21 of the mag was a “special animation issue” which included articles on Chuck Jones, Winsor McCay, Max Flieischer, and other titans of Hollywood cartoons. But the real eye opener for most of us was a giant two page article by Carl Macek which fueled our imaginations with one of the great “what ifs” of animation and film history. As a pull out quote in the article put it: “Had the John Carter series been filmed, the entire focus of animation might have been altered significantly.” It made us realize that just because someone has a great idea, it does not mean that Hollywood will help it become a reality. The story of John Carter made us wonder what other great films remained just dreams in the Hollywood Dream Factory.
Here’s the article. Feel free to click on the images to make them legible.
And here’s the test footage, which, as I already said, originally appeared on the great Beany & Cecil DVD.
Near the beginning of the 2005, Tim Burton directed film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willie Wonka fires all of his workers. One might expect the film’s resolution to include at least a token gesture towards a return to the level of employment of the locals that existed at the film’s start. But if you did expect this, you would be disappointed, for even though Charlie ends up winning the factory, even though his grandfather was one of the fired workers, in the end no one suggests that the workers should or will get their jobs back. In fact, the issue is completely forgotten by the film, as if it were never an issue to begin with. If it were raised, the big question would be: what happens to the Oompah Loompahs, the scabs Wonka hires to replace the fired workers, bringing them in from a mysterious country that apparently only he knows about? (They don’t work for peanuts; they work for cocoa beans!) The film gives every indication that the Oompah Loompahs will continue to work in the factory. They appear to be happy. They sing, they dance, obeying Wonka’s every command. Happy workers, are, after all, irreplaceable.
Is the disappearance of this issue an indicator of something larger than the film? Perhaps a sign of how the filmmakers regard laborers? Or does it reflect the concerns of our society itself?
Charlie wins the factory despite not knowing that he’s in a contest and the factory is the prize. The kids that lose are all portrayed as worthy losers. Why are they unworthy? Because they disobey Wonka. It’s that simple. unlike the singing and dancing Oompah Loompahs, the kids will not make good workers because they don’t take orders very well. They act according to their own desires which make them seem like sinners worthy of punishments that would not be out of place in Dante’s Inferno. Happy workers they will not grow up to be. Charlie, however, does not disobey Wonka. Proving he has what it takes to be a happy worker, Charlie wins the contest, but becomes, somewhat paradoxically, much more than just another happy worker. He becomes the factory’s owner.
The ultimate lesson of the film? Suck it up to your boss and you will get far. Very far, indeed! On the other hand, if you don’t follow orders, if you upset the boss in some way, expect to be replaced by an Oompah Loompah. Not exactly the lesson you would expect from a Tim Burton film, is it? (Perhaps not. I’ve already written how another one of his films, The Nightmare Before Christmas, which ends up sending a surprisingly conservative message. But perhaps it’s just the Hollywood tendency to make conservative films, which I’ve written about here.)
Just watched Christopher Nolan’s overly serious, and a bit tedious, version of Christopher Priest’s novel, The Prestige. My recommendation is that everyone instead watch John Weldon’s National Film Board of Canada animated short, “To Be,” which exploits similar ideas. It’s witty, clever, and provocative; and it didn’t need a multi-million dollar budget and 130 minutes to work its magic.