Archive for June 2011
One of the big complaints (here and here) about the Green Lantern film is that while Hal Jordan has a wishing ring that enables him to create anything, with the only limit being his imagination, he in fact does not create anything that’s truly imaginative and original. Most of the things Jordan does with his ring are things he’s seen or been taught to do.
Here’s my rewrite:
The poverty of Jordan’s imagination should be emphasized. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot create anything original. He’s a copycat, and other superheroes know it. Other superheroes sue Jordan in court for violating their copyrights and trademarks, which makes Jordan feel very much like a second rate superhero. His ring’s powers are limitless, but only in so far as his imagination is limitless. Until he can unleash his imagination, his powers are impotent. How does he develop and strengthen his imagination? He must first learn why his imagination is so weak. If he can do this, he might become the most powerful superhero of them all.
Having actually seen the film, I have another idea for a rewrite:
1. Hal Jordan is a Don Knotts type, a bungling idiot. He’s not only not a test pilot, he’s afraid of flying. Unlike his father who died in a jet crash because he did not bail out of his jet but instead stayed in it to guide it so it would not crash into a residential area, Hal is no hero. Quite the opposite. He’s the target of every bully, every disparaging remark. He’s inadequate in every way. And everyone knows that he’s inferior to his father because he works as a janitor at the company his father worked for. It’s the only job he can get, and even that job is too demanding.
2. The childhood friend who becomes Parallax? Unnecessary. Instead, it’s Hal Jordan himself who’s possessed by Parallax, same as in the original comics. When Hal gains his super powers his first thoughts are revenge against everyone who made fun of him. Each time he destroys a city, another Green Lantern says, “Are you sure the ring didn’t make a mistake?” “The ring never makes a mistake.”
3. Eventually, of course, Hal defeats the Parallax in him and becomes a good guy. “See, I told you the ring never makes a mistake.” Of course, half the planet is in ruins.
4. But Parallax is not truly defeated. Sinestro sacrificed himself to save Hal Jordan. Result: although no one yet knows it, Sinestro, who they all think is dead, is now controlled by Parallax.
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.
A long time ago, I wrote this story just for the hell of it. I showed it to one of my teachers and he suggested that I submit it to The Advocate, an upstate New York literary newspaper with a circulation of 12,000. I don’t remember if I was surprised when they published it.
While the story is based on real people and real incidents, it has to be said that the whole of it is fiction. For example, while I did have a teacher called Miss Hook, she was my fourth grade, not fifth grade, teacher. I used her name for obvious reasons. (Did Jean Shepherd work this way?) Many years later, one of the characters in this story evolved into Sisyphus in Star Man.
The New York Times recently published a piece, “In Defense of the Slow and the Boring,” by their main film critics, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, on “slow and boring films.” These films are what some critics used to call “difficult films,” that is, films that are slow and therefore boring to the people who prefer their films straightforward with a fast and furious pace. The discussion is really about the two types of films that go back to Lumière (long-take, reality based cinema) and Méliès (formalist, playful fantasy), an opposition that has also been carried over into film theory with the two main early camps represented by André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer on the one hand, and Soviet Montage and Sergei Eisenstein on the other.
However, what interests me more is how the Times critics, as well as some of the comments, seem to think that there has been a change in America over the last few decades regarding film tastes. I don’t think so. I don’t detect much, if any, change. Perhaps people are more vocal about their opposition to “boring” films in addition to the people who support them, but I don’t think there’s been a substantive change in the percentage of people who dislike or, more likely, ignore them. I say this because that’s been my experience over the years, something that was apparent to me even when I first became interested in films beyond the multiplex.
Here are a few of my experiences:
- Upstate Films opened at roughly the time I first became interested in seeing “art” and “classic” films. This upstate New York movie theater in Rhinebeck showed everything from Bergman and Fellini to Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. None of my family or friends were interested in seeing any of these films so I ended up going by myself. However, going to the movies without family or friends was a new experience, and it took a while to get up the courage to see a film by myself. But the payoff was big, and I saw many great films at Upstate. However, I always felt that I was watching films not just in the dark, but alone and isolated. This feeling did not change for a long time (not until I was married). It did not change even when I was in film school where, although I went to the movies regularly with friends to see new releases, never once did any of my film school friends go with me to see an older film outside of a classroom setting. In fact, I have several memories of friends asking me with disbelief why I was going to see films such as White Heat or Meet Me in St. Louis or The Fearless Vampire Killers. None of these can be considered “slow” or “boring” films in the sense used by the NY Times film critics, but my friends still thought they were boring.
- Around the same time that Upstate Films opened, I discovered that our town library had access to the mid-Hudson library system’s collection of 16mm films. But there was a big problem: the library did not have a 16mm projector. So I saved up my money and sold my copy of Amazing Spider-Man #1 (don’t ask) to buy a 16mm projector. Over the next few years, I successfully twisted arms a few times and several friends watched some of the films with me. This did not always turn out well. For example, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Metropolis came in two reels. My friends laughed throughout the first reel and left during the reel change. Then there was Alexander Nevsky. One friend, who now teaches philosophy at the American University in Germany, laughed during the first reel and left during the first reel change. These were all college educated people. When I went to film school, I hoped, even expected, things to be different. But I was wrong. How badly could things go when an audience is made up of people studying film? David Shepard, for one, knows. As part of semester one of a course on World Cinema, Shepard screened The River by Pare Lorentz. In the darkness, many, not just one or two, voices started heckling the film. They just couldn’t take a film with blank verse narration seriously. Shepard stopped the film and chided the class for its narrow-mindedness.
- Miraculously, I convinced one of my friends, Andrew, to go with me to see Alphaville, my first Godard film, which was showing at Upstate Films. After the screening I talked to the owners of the cinema, with whom I was acquainted. Andrew was bewildered by the film and asked them if they liked it. They said they did not. “So why did you show it?” “We can’t just show films that we like.” Andrew was a college graduate and had taught in Venezuela as part of the Peace Corps program. As far as I know he’s never seen another Godard film.
- When talking to a high school teacher’s aid, Mrs. Fowler, about a film I had seen the night before, I mentioned that it had subtitles. She said that she would not watch a film if it had subtitles. “I don’t want to have to read while I’m watching a movie.” I suppose it could be worse. She could have said, “I don’t like to read at any time, let alone during a movie.” (However, writing, or texting, during movies appears to be catching on.)
- In college I went with two of my roommates to see the Faces by John Cassavetes. One of my roommates, who was with a friend, left about ten minutes into the movie. Later I asked him why he left. He said he didn’t like black and white movies, and preferred films such as Dirty Harry. He was an engineering major from Pakistan. (For what it’s worth, this screening was part of a Cassavetes retrospective and Cassavetes made an appearance after the screening of the last film, Opening Night. At least two others were with him, his cinematographer, Gary Graver, and his wife, Gena Rowlands. Cassavetes was very nice and appeared to be a bit embarrassed when all of the questions were directed to him. He said, “Why don’t you ask Gary a question? He’s worked with Orson.” But no one did.)
For a long time I’ve thought that not watching a film for silly reasons such as its being black and white or having subtitles was what it seems, irrational, but lately another theory has suggested itself to me. What if these reasons are reality filters? Filters in the sense of limiting our possible experiences. Why would anyone want to limit their life experience? Because we all have limited time and energy. There is only so much we can afford to do with our lives. And in the end, aren’t our own filters just as irrational to others as not watching a film because it is a film in black and white with subtitles, or, simply put, a bore?
Quiz time! Who said this:
For me he’s just a hoax. It’s empty. It’s not interesting. It’s dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of — is all the critics’ darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it’s a total bore.
It’s not your Aunt Vera. Find out the answer here. You may be surprised.
Matt Zoller Seitz writes about similar experiences in “From Russia with Love is not unsophisticated. You are.”
What’s wrong with Tim Burton’s “re-imagined” Planet of the Apes? Practically everything, but there are two big problems: it doesn’t evoke a sense of wonder, and it doesn’t create a sense of strangeness or weirdness about this planet of the apes.
No sense of wonder
Someone such as Spielberg is very good at this (i.e., when limiting the contenders to Hollywood genre films–outside of that restricted space, few can touch someone such as Andrei Tarkovsky). Think of the aliens and spaceships in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Think of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The people in those films react as people normally would when encountering things and events that are a little out of the ordinary. They express curiosity and awe.
Here’s how Wahlberg reacts to what he sees on the monkey planet:
Can you guess what he’s looking at in each of the above shots? More importantly, which one shows him looking at talking apes?
Is it the first one? Nope. In that one he’s looking at his ship as it sinks:
Is it the second one? Nope. He’s looking at other humans:
How about the third one? No, he’s not looking at anything, really. He’s thinking something like, “My friends are out there, somewhere.”
If you guessed #4, you are correct:
It’s not just the actor that gets in the way of a sense of wonder. It’s also the direction and the writing. At no point does the script help Wahlberg with dialogue such as “Talking apes! It’s amazing. I wish my friends could see this!”
Instead, the film makes it seem that this is all in the course of a normal day’s work for Wahlberg. Talking apes? No big deal. He’s already been working with a super intelligent ape, so this is hardly different. All he’s interested in is getting out of there. He shows no scientific curiosity about this fantastic planet, yet the opening of the film shows him working with scientists.
Second main problem: no sense of the strange
I experience a greater sense of strangeness and disorientation when it’s my first day on a new job than Mark Wahlberg apparently experiences on a planet run by monkeys. After being on this strange planet for less than a day, he’s already leading the natives through the jungle:
Why? Because he has a compass.
How can you have a sense of the strange if you know exactly where you are going? If you act as if you’ve gone down these paths many times already? If you act as if you’ve seen the original Planet of the Ape movies a zillion times? You might expect the film to lead the character into some sort of disillusionment. It doesn’t, except perhaps at the very end when he travels back to Earth expecting to return to his familiar home, but instead finds it very different. Here’s his reaction to that:
Same old, same old.
However, this problem is not exclusive to Wahlberg. Here’s a shot of the other main characters watching Wahlberg’s spaceship lift off:
Do they look like they are watching a spaceship fly away? Do they act like someone who has not even seen a gun, let alone a spaceship, before Wahlberg’s arrival just days before.
Perhaps Burton is the biggest believer on the planet (our planet, not the monkey one) in the The Kuleshov Effect, thinking it capable of compensating for not having Johnny Depp in the cast. If so, his belief is painfully misguided.
So here’s my own “re-imagining”
- The original novel took place on a monkey planet that used technology contemporary with ours. The apes drove cars, flew planes, used guns. I want an ape society that is a reversal of the power relations of our would. As Heston’s ape character says to General Thane, “In the time before time, we were the slaves, and the humans were the masters.” Now it’s humans who are slaves, and apes who are masters. Making ape society more primitive than human society obscures the reversal aspect, and we don’t want that. So it’s an ape society with apes playing baseball, driving fast cars, and drinking beer while watching TV.
- To maintain the sense of the strange, the ape world will be revealed slowly through the eyes of the outsider. Shortly after he sees a talking ape for the first time, the outsider will be hit and knocked unconscious. Treated for his injuries with narcotics, he will remain groggy and semi-conscious for a stretch. Everything will appear as if in a dream. He does not believe that he saw a talking ape. His vision will be blocked by bandages, bars, etc. The light will be either too dark or too bright to see anything clearly. He will be disoriented and see and hear only bits and pieces. Little about what he sees makes complete sense to him.
- The apes will not speak English. It will turn out to be a sort of pidgin English, a mix of English as well as other languages, but this only gradually becomes apparent. The important thing is that the human outsider has trouble understanding what is going on.
- Gradually more of the ape society is revealed to the outsider. At first, he thinks the apes act very strangely, but slowly, bit by bit, their customs start to seem familiar and he realizes that ape customs seem familiar because they are actually variations of the human customs that the outsider knows very well.
- As in the original film, the outsider eventually figures out that he is on Earth. The slaves that were oppressed have in turn become the oppressors.
- The outsider leads a revolt of the human slaves. Some humans suggest that it’s not right to make the apes slaves again, but they are overruled and the revolt succeeds. The humans re-enslave the apes.
- But we end with the apes plotting a revolt. The cycle continues.