Posts Tagged ‘Ed Wood’
Affection for the detritus of the media takes many forms. After watching too many campus simpletons (both students and profs) laugh mockingly at Fritz Lang and John Woo movies, I’m opposed to condescension. I suspect Camp in its disdainful form. I don’t like people demonstrating their sense of superiority to the trash their parents and grandparents enjoyed. Knowingness leaves you with nothing. –David Bordwell
I couldn’t agree more with David Bordwell (I wrote about some of my own encounters with unappreciative audiences here, although you probably should not read it if you fall into that category.)
A lot of us possess a need to feel superior to somebody else, and some of us need to feel superior to everyone else. Much of our humor comes down to us laughing at someone else because we feel superior to them. Currently popular, Ayn Rand’s philosophy is based on the idea that some people are just better than others. The need to be superior even finds expression in The Incredibles: “When everyone is special, no one is special.”
This is humor at the service of the status quo, but it’s nothing new. It’s easy to imagine aristocrats assembled in the salon laughing till it hurts as they tell jokes at the expense of their servants. It works the other way as well, with servants telling each other jokes in which their masters appear foolish and stupid. Some of the most popular comedies in ancient Roman were about slaves who bested their masters. These jokes tell us that despite actual circumstances, we are the superior ones.
So it’s no surprise when many of us, most of whom have not even attempted to make a film, find it so easy to laugh at certain kinds of movies, that which we call “bad.” Of course, we don’t always all agree on whether a movie is bad. I remember watching the Douglas Sirk directed version of Magnificent Obsession at MOMA during a Sirk retrospective. Half the audience was laughing, but the other half was yelling at them, through their tears, to shut up. This half of the audience took the film 100% seriously, seeing nothing funny about it.
But what exactly are we laughing at when we laugh at a film that was not made for our laughter? A post on She Blogged by Night about, what else?, Plan Nine from Outer Space, provides some examples. The blogger asks what can be done to “fix” the movie, for it definitely needs fixing, as we all know. What, exactly, needs fixing? Here’s her list:
- Casting: Lugosi’s double doesn’t even look like him.
- Set dressing: That shower curtain in the cockpit? Belongs in a shower!
- Writing: Needed an editor to cut, cut cut.
- Editing: Was there any?
- Special effects: Hubcaps as UFO’s. Gimme a break!
- Acting: Don’t get me started!
- Etc. Let’s just leave it at that and go back to laughing at poor, inept Ed Wood, Jr.
So that’s She Blogged By Night’s take on Plan 9. What’s the common element of these all too familiar complaints? Judging the film according to the standards of Hollywood film studio verisimilitude. If a set is supposed to be a cockpit, it damn well better look like the real thing. If a hubcap is supposed to be a UFO, we better not see the string it’s dangling from. It’s not enough that we know what it’s supposed to represent. It’s necessary that it look the part 100%. It should look so real that we are not reminded that we’re actually watching a film until the credits roll. It’s hard to believe that in Japan a form of puppet theater developed in which no attempt is made to hide the people manipulating the puppets, let alone make everything look real. In fact, according to Noël Burch in To the Distant Observer (download the book in pdf form here), even Japanese film has a tradition in which the filmmakers do not aim for maximum realism or naturalism. But that’s Japan. Hollywood’s where the real filmmaking action is, right?
So, who benefits from this approach. Certainly not the guy down the street who dreams of being a filmmaker. If an audience expects the film to look “real,” it’s going to cost more. Heaven forbid that you do what Ed Wood did and skimp on production value. Therefore, you’d better have money, lots of money. In fact, you’d better have even more than lots. In short, it’s this attitude, of constantly demanding greater and greater verisimilitude, that makes it next to impossible to compete with companies that do have lots of money, namely the Hollywood film studios.
Meanwhile, the ones who are truly laughing are the people who are lucky enough to run the Hollywood studios. They are laughing all the way to the bank. Sure, they have to spend more, a lot more, but they’ve killed off their most of their competition. They have long since conditioned most of their audiences to laugh at movies that don’t have Hollywood’s kind of verisimilitude. But it was not always this way. People did not always laugh at Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession the way I saw them do at MOMA. The fact that the standards of Hollywood verisimilitude are always changing means that future audiences will never be able to look back at the films of yesteryear with the same eyes as those films’ contemporary audiences.
Many of the earliest films used painted sets and no one thought to apologize for it, and audiences did not think to laugh at it. For example, the original audiences for Georges Méliès’ Voyage À Travers L’Imposible did not rush to the boxoffice to demand their money back after watching this train wreck:
My suggestion for anyone who feels that Plan Nine from Outer Space needs to be “fixed” is this: the easiest way to fix this film, or any other film that does not measure up to the standards of Hollywood verisimilitude, is to imagine that the film begins with a message similar to this:
Remember when you were kids and you would make-believe that you were cowboys and robbers? You used nothing but sticks for horses. Filmmaking is only make-believe, folks. What difference does it make if you spend a million dollars or one dollar, as long as you get that it’s supposed to be a friggin’ plane cockpit?
We had a ton of fun making this film and I hope you have fun watching it.
Whatever happened to our sense of play?
1. Cowboys & Aliens is a film made by someone who is obviously a fan of the master of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen. In particular, it made me think of The Valley of Gwangi, an old Willis O’Brien project that Harryhausen made in 1969, that brings together cowboys and dinosaurs.
The aliens in this Cowboys & Aliens move quickly and are shown in shots that do not last very long, whereas the monsters in Harryhausen’s films move slow enough to be seen. The lighting, composition, and animation of a Harryhausen monster are almost always such that the monster can be clearly seen. This is probably the main reason that fans love to see Harryhausen’s models on display. Even minus their animation, they are distinct characters. The most notable exception to this is Clash of the Titans, in which Medusa is shot in shadows and closeups that rarely show all of her, but even there her movements are slow and deliberate and you do not need to worry about missing anything if you blink. Of course, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with aliens that move very fast, but the danger is that this can become monotonous. There’s no chance for the kind of suspense that Harryhausen gets out of the slowly coming to life and squeaky movements of Talos in Jason and the Argonauts or the tension that builds as the skeletons, ready to pounce, but not yet pouncing, spring from the ground one by one in the same film.
This is a Western. I would have loved to see variations of classic Western shootouts between an alien or two and a gunslinger. Or a version of the Mexican standoff, that Leone loved so much, but with aliens, Indians, and cowboys. These situations are all based on the rhythm of stillness and sudden release that is missing in Cowboys & Aliens. I thought one of the most memorable scenes in the film is the one in which the boy is trapped by an alien in a rock opening. It is effective is because the alien is in one place, threatening the character.
Is it an accident that this is similar to a scene from King Kong?
Cowboys & Aliens is hardly the first film to mix Western and science fiction elements. That honor appears to go to the Gene Autry serial, The Phantom Empire (1935). I remembered this film when speaking to my Dad about Cowboys & Aliens. (My Dad gave a copy of the film to my stepmother, a Gene Autry fan. She watched it until the science fiction elements entered, then said, more or less, “WTF!? Turn that crap off!” The Cowboys & Aliens producers should have taken note.) I saw The Phantom Empire, or at least part of it, many years ago when I stumbled upon it when it was being broadcast in the wee hours from a New York City station. Who could not be intrigued by a Western with a robot? The truth is that despite the advances in special effects evident since 1934, when The Phantom Empire was made, Cowboys & Aliens did not have any of the charm or sense of the marvelous as did the micro-budget Autry film. Read more about it here.
Former US President Regan said:
…I couldn’t help but say to him, just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this planet from some other species from another planet outside in the universe. We’d forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries and we would find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this earth together. (See him say it here.)
Sometimes Cowboys & Aliens plays like a direct illustration of Regan’s hypothesis. The alien invasion unites all of the main natural enemies of the Western genre: good guys, bad guys, and aliens. The film shows them overcoming their differences and uniting against the aliens.
(Update: 8/17/11: The notion of salvation through alien invasion has popped up again, but apparently economist Paul Krugman was not inspired by Cowboys & Aliens, but by a nearly 50 year episode of Outer Limits, “The Architects of Fear,” when he recently said:
No, there was a Twilight Zone episode like this in which scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace. Well, this time…we need it in order to get some fiscal stimulus. (Source.)
Krugman’s mistaken in citing Twilight Zone as the source for the idea, but he could just as well have cited President Regan or even Watchmen, the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons well-known graphic novel. Imagine Paul Krugman as Ozymandias!
But there’s also another theme. The town is called Absolution and it’s presumably for a reason. Perhaps we’re supposed to think everyone is guilty of some kind of sin, or something as simple as not appreciating their loved ones enough until they are abducted by the aliens. You might even say that at least some of the characters are a bit like the aliens in that they value humans more for their gold than their value as a human being.
The abductions appear to follow a pattern. Saloon owner and wife fight, wife is abducted. Harrison Ford and his son fight, son is abducted. But this pattern is not developed enough to amount to anything. There’s enough of it to suggest a pattern, but not enough to make us sure the pattern is not accidental.
In the end, I would have preferred no theme at all, to all of these under-developed and confusing themes. Ford tells the kid to yell when he spots their “people” coming back, that is, the ones that were abducted. The truth is that I did not care whether or not they returned.
3. I love the idea: a mashup of the Western and alien invasion film. What I love most about this idea is that the replacement of Indians with aliens allows for the reintroduction of the mystery and wonder that explorers must have felt when discovering new lands and the strange people, as well as strange creatures in general, that inhabited them. The mashup can bring the sense of wonder that is the bread and butter of science fiction back to our own planet. But I think it would have worked better if the Western part of the equation came from a pioneer type Western. That is, pilgrims setting forth in covered wagons looking for the promised land out West, not knowing what strange encounters awaited them. Perhaps even better would be a Lewis and Clark type expedition with a small group heading into uncharted territory. They don’t know what they will be encountering and aliens would fit right in. After all, even today there’s enough unknown in the West to allow for the existence of Bigfoot, but more common is the experience of finding pretty much the same thing wherever we go: a McDonald’s and a Starbucks on every corner.
Of course, the pioneer idea is a different film, but if we like the idea of bringing back a sense of wonder and mystery to our own back yard, then we should get rid of the Olivia Wilde character. Her character is similar to the Indian guide that helps the white men track rebel Indians or translates whenever there’s an enounter with an Indian tribe. She’s also a bit like Star Trek’s Spock, especially in the similarity of her sacrifice to Spock’s in Wrath of Khan. But why do we want a character who can explain mysteries away so easily? The aliens are not like Indians because in Westerns the first encounter between White men and Indians already occurred centuries ago. In this film, the cowboys are encoutering the aliens for the first time. A translator character is helpful for the cowboys, but it hurts the impact of the story.
4. It appears that this is the season for alien abductions. First Super 8, now Cowboys & Aliens. Both produced by Steven Spielberg who also made Close Enounters of the Third Kind and, as a teenager, Firelight, two other films about alien abductions. It seems he’s really into this subject. No complaints, although I do wonder if they would be made without Spielberg. But I’d like to see someone do a mashup of Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens.
5. Sure, it’s a great iconic image, but I’m not sure that I like Daniel Craig’s arm bracelet weapon. At least not how the film starts off with him already having it. It seems to give the cowboys too much of a head start. When you hear Cowboys & Aliens, you immediately wonder: how the devil can cowboys beat aliens? But when you see Craig with the weapon in the very first scene, you no longer are thinking that. Starting the film this way makes the film miss out on what could have been a great David vs Goliath story. One can only wonder how the cowboys could have won if they had not had the weapon or the help of the Olivia Wilde character.
THE POSTER THAT STARTED IT ALL
I love how the film essentially began with nothing more than a poster produced by Scott Rosenberg’s Platinum Studios. (Read the story here and here.) That poster was apparently pretty much the same as the image that was used as the cover for the comic:
So when critics refer to this film as yet another comic book movie, they are technically incorrect. They should be calling this a “poster movie.” The only precedent that I can think of for a poster movie is Glen or Glenda, as shown in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Ed asks the producer if there’s a script. “F@!k no! But there’s a poster.”
Was this scene the secret source of Scott Rosenberg’s inspiration?
There is a Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel, but this was produced years after the poster that originally sold the concept. According to my son, who may be one of the few to have actually read it, the graphic novel has little in common with the film.
I love this story because I also began one of my projects, Star Man, with nothing more than a poster:
THE AFTERMATH (8/17/11)
The relative failure of Cowboys & Aliens at the boxoffice may not have come as a total surprise. Here is Jon Favreau at the Visionaries panel at Comic-Con more than a week before the film’s opening:
I think really what happens is if your movie makes money, you’re on a good list, if your movie doesn’t make money you are not on the good list and that changes all of the time. Right now after the IRON MAN movies I’m there, if this one works out I’ll be there, if not I’m in a different spot….
I started off with very little being an actor, I learned to live with not much and as I’ve built up I’ve never gotten cautious and even this movie to hear everybody cheer it is wonderful, because this was not the safe move, but I figured I was in a position to do something different, because as the movies get bigger to be honest with you they start to be the same. A lot of the movies this summer were versions of other things you have seen before and so I took a big risk. The secret though is that when it pays off, it’s wonderful, and if you fail and you are comfortable with that, then you’ve got to just keep doing it and then you stop taking the risks.
When Favreau said, “…if not I’m in a different spot” and “if you fail” suggest, in retrospect, that he was already preparing himself for the film’s failure and himself being “in a different spot.” Perhaps he premiered the film at Comic-Con knowing that this was one place where it was certain to be cheered and “to hear everybody cheer it is wonderful.”
Last night I had the good fortune of standing in line with my wife, 14-year old son, and more than 200 other people to see J. J. Abrams’ new film, Super 8, at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. The film is about a group of kids in 1979 making a George Romero-inspired zombie film with Super 8 film, the home movie format of the time, and I was especially interested in the film because one of my undeveloped ideas is about a father and son making, or failing to make, a monster film together in the Sixties with Super 8 equipment.
Abrams’ film has many good points, but it ultimately comes across as a monster with two heads that do not get along with each other. On the one hand you have the kids and their adventures making a film and defeating a monster. On the other hand, you have a melodrama which attempts to reduce these adventures and monster into some kind of externalization of the kids’ problems with a big catharsis at the end. I didn’t feel anything for these characters at that point probably because the film loses its focus on the way to that ending. I think that the best element of the film is the kids and their attempt to make a film, but this is not developed as much as it could be because the film drifts away from the kids to change into a film about family reconciliation.
The film should have been better, and so this is not a review, but a rewrite or “re-imagining” of Super 8.
As I said, the film resembles a two-headed monster with warring heads. One of the “heads” must go. Here are the possibilities:
- Cut the army and “real” monster stuff and stick to the story about a group of kids making a monster film. Contrast the genre horror in their film with the real-life horror of their home life. You don’t have to change much. It’s more a matter of cutting and emphasis. Instead of The Goonies meets E.T. meets Ed Wood, it would be The Goonies or Little Rascals meet Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. The important thing is to provide the kids with a sense of empowerment by means of the making of a movie. Abrams’ film ends up doing the opposite. The kids’ movie can never stand up against the production values of the blockbuster Hollywood movie. So of course the movie that the kids make produces laughs. It’s a bit like Burton’s Ed Wood, actually, except since they are kids, not much is expected from them. But we still laugh at their film, a film that is not supposed to be a comedy, and they are denied a sense of empowerment through something that they do. Instead, they are reduced to standing still in awe at the special effects of Abrams’ movie. My re-write fixes that.
- Cut the melodrama. In fact, get rid of kids’ backstory and get rid of the adults. Make it a bit like Peanuts where the emphasis is almost 100% on the kids without any adults to get in the way of their fun. The kids are making a classic monster movie, not a zombie movie, when they run into a real-life monster. They are not scared in the least, and take it as an opportunity for adventure. The conflict would be more with the army than the monster. Once again, it’s more a matter of cutting and emphasis than any major change to the film. All of these elements are there in Super 8, but are diluted by the backstory and the conflict with and between parents. The scenes with Charles, the kid director, and his family is the way to go if you must show parents in action. Show them as being more or less oblivious to what’s going on with their kids. By the time comes when the kids succeed in helping the misunderstood monster escape the army, the adults are still in the dark about everything that happened.
- This is more of an alternative ending than a rewrite and does not involve cutting off one of the “heads.” There is a clear falling out between Joe and Charles over Alice. Charles says something like, “She only likes you because she feels sorry for you because of your mother.” The monster needs the kids’ help to complete its spaceship (it involves the piece of the spaceship that Joe took from the wreck), so Joe makes a deal with the monster that involves the monster agreeing to “act” (it could be nothing more than letting Joe know what’s going to happen so the kids can be prepared to film it) in Charles’ film in exchange for the kids’ help. Joe makes the deal without Charles even knowing about it until it happens. It’s Joe’s way of making up for “stealing” Alice from his friend. This ties things together better than the original ending and Charles gets his production value in spades!
So, those are my ideas for a rewrite. Here are some additional comments about the film:
- I’m curious about why the script has the army call what they do to the town, Operation Walking Distance. “Walking Distance” is the title of one of the earliest Twilight Zone episodes. It is about a man who travels back in time to his childhood where he meets his father and younger self. Is Super 8 Abrams’ version of traveling back to his childhood? If so, did his childhood really resemble a Spielberg movie? I suspect that Abrams identifies more with Charles, the filmmaker, than Joe, the best friend who steals the girl that Charles likes.
- The presentation of the film included a short clip at the beginning in which Abrams more or less says that he hopes that the people watching like his movie the we were about to see. This was amusing because Super 8 ends with Charles, the director of the film-within-the-film, addressing the camera just as Abrams did, saying more or less that he hopes that the people watching liked his movie that we had just seen.
- Am I wrong thinking that the kids in the movie watch the Army footage about Project Belttrap that they find in their teacher’s locker is Super 8 format film and that they watch it on a Super 8 projector? The date of this Army report is April 8, 1963. According to Wikipedia, Super 8 format film was not released to the market by Kodak until 1965. Of course, Kodak would have used the army to give it a test first by using it to document such secret projects such as Operation Belttrap. Much better to use an untested product on a top secret project than the familiar 16mm format. So I’m sure there’s no real error here on the part of the filmmakers. I suppose they can always say that the guy transferred 16mm originals to Super 8. I’m sure he would do that.
- The kids break laws. Alice drives a car without a license; Charles steals money from his mother to pay for film; Joe takes his father’s camera without his father knowing, etc. Is Abrams saying that making a film, or, perhaps, doing anything worthwhile, requires breaking society’s rules?
- The kids cooperate awfully well while making Charles’ movie. My experience as a kid with projects involving other kids was nothing like this. We always ended up fighting and yelling at each other, assuming I could even get a bunch of kids together in the first place. What we see in the film of the kids working together to make a film seems to me to be as much of a fantasy as the zombie film they are making. If only it had been like that!
- The audience reaction at the end was somewhat subdued, perhaps a bit less energy than the filmmakers would have liked for this kind of film. It seemed to me that the train wreck near the beginning was received with more enthusiasm.
Now I’ll use the excuse of the FTC guidelines regarding endorsements to shamelessly drop some names while saying a bit about my “connections” to Super 8. I was in film school at the same time as one the producers of Super 8, Bryan Burk. Everyone said that he looked like someone who spent most of his time in a tanning salon. Perhaps his family had one in their Bel Air home. One of my teachers showed his film, Stop Light, a 310 (a short film without dialogue made with a student crew of two) which he had made in that teacher’s class the previous semester. It was about a guy stuck in the middle of the night at an intersection with a red light that will not change. It was funny. I was also in a class in which he was production manager on the 480 (a short film with dialogue and a student crew of 8, only four of which were chosen to be made per semester) directed by James Gray, Cowboys & Angels. I saw Burk a couple of times when he visited the set of the 480 I was crewing on. (He was a friend of the director, Erik Fleming.) The following semester he directed his own 480 which starred Robert DoQui, a member of the cast of Nashville, one of my favorite films, and DoQui was the only good thing about it. I haven’t seen Burk since then, and I doubt he’d remember me.
While I’m at it, I might as well say something about James Gray, who, as I just wrote, was at USC when I was there. (This is the same James Gray who directed Little Odessa, etc.)
1. I saw Gray’s 310 which, I think, was called Territorio. At that time, a 310 at USC was an 8 minutes long film or video without synchronized dialogue. Gray’s film was about a homeless guy fighting other homeless guys for territory. (Homelessness seemed to be the subject of every other student film at the time.) Although I know of at least one person who saw it and was impressed, and the fact that it got Gray a 480 directing gig means that more than one person was taken by it, the film did not make much of an impression on me. However, there was one memorable scene. That would be the one in which the main character jerks off. Seriously.
2. I was in the 480 class in which Gray directed Cowboys & Angels (written by John Albert), a 12 minute film with sync dialogue, although I crewed on another film in the class, Joel Was Here. Once again, the film did not make much of an impression on me. It was more or less the Jodie Foster storyline of Taxi Driver, about a guy hired to track down a runaway teenage girl. The original grade Gray was given for the film was an “F” because he broke a class rule by setting a scene in a club which included a very visible topless dancer. But Gray appealed the grade, got an “A,” and the film was a hit at First Look, the USC student film screening. Lesson? It pays to break the rules, especially when it comes to nudity. Put simply: boobs work. Also, it doesn’t hurt to imitate Scorsese (or whoever is hot at the time).
3. Gray also broke at least one other rule on his film. Each 480 was supposed to have two crew members who did everything on the film that involved sound, from boom operator to sound design to final sound mix. The director is not supposed to intervene except to offer ideas and provide a general idea of what he wants. He is not supposed to literally do the sound design himself. However, during the shoot one of the sound guys, Bryon, was seriously injured in an auto accident. (He did not return to school for at least a year.) This allowed Gray and the film editor to take over the sound design. Todd, the official sound guy, did not really do the sound on that film. (I wish I had had this arrangement on my 480, Shadows on the Wall.)
4. I remember talking to Gray only once, when he visited the set of the film I crewed on that semester, Joel Was Here. Godfather III had been recently released, and most critics had trashed it. Going against the prevailing opinion, Gray told me he had been moved to tears by the ending of Coppola’s film and did not understand how anyone could not be similarly affected. I had been unfortunate enough to have seen the film when it opened, Christmas Day, but declined to express my opinion. I’m not entirely sure how this conversation arose, but I’m pretty sure that Gray, seeing me fiddling with my sound boom with little else to do while the DP set up the next shot, just started talking to me about the film out of the blue.
5. I was visiting the roommate of Shane, the DP on Gray’s film, when Shane played for the first time a message Gray had left on her answering machine. The message was pure verbal abuse of a kind that I had not heard before, and, luckily, have not heard since. Later, I asked her if she would work with Gray again. Despite the abuse, she said she would because he knew what he wanted. This was a funny thing to say because the final version of the film was very different from the script because the film changed a lot during the editing process. Not exactly the sign of someone who knows what they want, but typical of how most of us actually work.
In an interview at /Film, Abrams says:
But there was a kind of movie that I loved when I was a kid where I would be laughing one minute, crying the next minute, I would be amazed the next, and scared the next. And by the time the movie is over I felt like I had been through this sort of roller coaster of various emotions and it was a wonderful, satisfying thing. The goal of Super 8 was to try to make a movie that was not just a comedy, not just a horror movie, not just a science fiction film, not just a love story, not just an emotional family trauma or a weird sort of paranoid thriller, but all of them.
In other words, the two-headed nature of Abrams’ film that led me to rewrite it is exactly what Abrams wanted. This is also an example of what I think, despite my rewrite, is the best way to make a film: create a list of things that you like, then create a framework that links them together. It’s like a variety show, but the more you emphasize plot and the logic that links events in the plot, the more limited you become in what you can include in the story. I do not know if Abrams’ began his film with a list, but his description above suggests that this was his method. Doing it this way may produce a film that lacks the power that can only come from a united front where all elements build to a climax, but such an emphasis on unity often leads to something bland. Whatever Super 8 may lack, it’s not blandness. Hardly any film is satisfactory to everyone, but it usually has at least one or two elements that you like. Perhaps the ideal film is one that combines your favorite bits and pieces of your favorite films. When are films going to be interactive?
Turns out that “Walking Distance” is Abrams’ favorite episode of The Twilight Zone.