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Archive for August 2011

Juxtaposition Blogathon: Double Features: CE3K = Jaws with BEMs instead of Bruce

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Don't be fooled! These posters are really for the same movie.

This post is an entry for the Juxtaposition Blogathon which is being held September 12-16, 2011 and is hosted by the Pussy Goes Grr blog.

Have you ever thought that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is really nothing but a remake of Jaws? No? Well, what’s the main difference? Instead of a giant shark that keeps popping up and killing people, CE3K has giant flying saucers that keep popping up and abducting people.

Still skeptical? Please continue.

1. Just like the shark, we see the saucers bit by bit. In Jaws, instead of seeing the shark all in one go, we see signs of the shark: bodies and buoys that are pulled down below the waves, shark bites on bodies, giant shark jaw skeletons. Most ominous of all, a shark fin. It’s well into the film before we see the whole shark. (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”) It’s the same for the flying saucers and aliens in Close Encounters. We see a giant ship in the desert, pots and pans shake and rattle in a kitchen, blinding lights, smaller flying saucers, etc. before we see the mother ship itself near the end of the film. (For what it’s worth, the fancy words for this sort of thing, showing the parts instead of the whole, or showing something that’s related to the thing instead of the thing itself, are synecdoche and metonomy.)

2. Both films have characters who represent science and expertise. In Jaws, it’s Richard Dreyfuss. In CE3K, it’s Francois Truffaut. Both films also have an everyman character who in the end wins out in some way over the expert. In Jaws, it’s not Dreyfuss who kills the shark; it’s Sheriff Brody, who not only knows little about sharks, he doesn’t even like water. In CE3K, it’s not Truffaut who is chosen to go with the aliens, but Dreyfuss, a simple lineman for the county.

3. Many people are called, but few are chosen. In Jaws, the shark affects many people, and there are many who attempt to claim the shark bounty reward, but in the end only three make the journey that destroys the shark and only two of them survive. It’s the same in Close Encounters: many people throughout the world have images seared into their minds and are drawn to the Devil’s Tower landing site, but only one, Richard Dreyfuss, is rewarded with a cosmic journey with the aliens. (I like to read this as a metaphor for movie marketing: we are drawn by images planted in our brains by movie marketing to movie theaters where we are transported to another world by films made by aliens from planet Hollywood. It also works as an allegory for Spielberg’s escape from suburbia to Hollywood where the stars live. Then there are those who see the shark in Jaws as a symbol of Hollywood, but that’s another matter.)

4. Some critics think that CE3K is a remake of Firelight, a film that Spielberg made when he was a teen. I haven’t seen Firelight, so I’m sticking with Jaws. It’s more fun.

So there it is, my little compare and contrast exercise proving that:

Jaws minus shark + flying saucers + aliens = CE3K.

Written by pronountrouble2

August 27, 2011 at 10:23 am

Kevin Smith, Snake-Oil Salesman?

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Kevin Smith

Last night, at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, Kevin Smith told his people, the latest sold-out crowd for his new film, Red State, in so many words, “If you build it, they will come.” It certainly worked for him, so why shouldn’t he say it? But it sounded like bullshit when I first saw Field of Dreams, and it sounds like bullshit coming from Smith. I remember a discussion between Orson Welles and Merv Griffin on the latter’s talk show in the early Eighties. Griffin said that nowadays everyone is heard from. Welles knew that was bullshit. Just the other day I read someone who was saying the same thing, that now, finally, thanks to Twitter and Facebook and the internet in general, everyone has a voice. I’m sure in a 100 years someone will be saying the same thing is finally true thanks to whatever happens to be the latest invention. Unfortunately, it probably will be no truer then than it was in Welles’ time or is in our own. When someone like Smith says, “If you build it, they will come,” it sure sounds inspiring, doesn’t it? But it’s still bullshit.

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August 23, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Juxtaposition Blogathon: Double Features: King Kong and The Searchers

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Do not be fooled! These posters are for the same movie!

This post is an entry for the Juxtaposition Blogathon which is being held September 12-16, 2011 and is hosted by the Pussy Goes Grr blog.


You don’t often find King Kong and The Searchers linked together, but this is an oversight which I intend to correct here. Consider these points:

1. In King Kong, aborigine Kong abducts a woman. In The Searchers, aborigine Scar abducts several women.

2. In King Kong, a rescue party is formed to save the woman, but eventually this search party dwindles in size to one. In The Searchers, a rescue party sets out to rescue the women, but eventually dwindles in size to two.

3. Kong is killed, and the woman is saved. Scar is killed, and the woman is saved.

Perhaps you think these broad similarities are pure coincidence. Did you know that one of the producers of The Searchers was the main force behind King Kong?

King Kong was co-directed and co-produced by Merian C. Cooper. Cooper is also credited with the story idea, which he said originated in one of his dreams. (There’s the Surrealist connection.) Years later, Cooper was executive producer on The Searchers. Several years earlier, in fact, during the thirties, Cooper had formed Argosy Films with John Ford, and it was Cooper who convinced C. V. Whitney to put up the money to produce The Searchers. I have not been able to determine who it was that “found” the source novel by Alan Le May, but I would not be surprised if it was Cooper. The Searchers was the last film that Cooper and Ford made together, but one of their earlier collaborations was Mighty Joe Young (not directed by Ford, but produced by Argosy Pictures), which has an obvious link to King Kong.

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August 23, 2011 at 10:21 am

The Disney smile

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August 22, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Are they serious?, Rewrites

Tagged with ,

Earth-1 and Earth-2

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Pete Docter talking about his new Pixar project, The Untitled Pixar Movie That Takes You Inside The Mind


Timara Manson, from a USA Today article


UPDATE 2/27/12

Chris Rock, during the Oscars 2012 broadcast, said something similar:

“I hate when people go on TV and tell you how hard it is do animation. UPS is hard work. Stripping wood is hard work. I’ve done some animation and here’s how easy it is. I go into a booth and I go, ‘What’s the line?’ The guy goes, ‘It’s time to go to the store.’ And I go, ‘It’s time to go to the store!’ … And then they give me a million dollars.”

Watch it here.

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August 21, 2011 at 8:57 am

Comic-Con, Hollywood, and D23

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Last August everyone with an interest in San Diego Comic-Con was impatiently awaiting the announcement from the people behind Comic-Con about whether the show would be remaining in San Diego for the next few years, or moving to Anaheim, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. Many Comic-Con veterans used their web presence to torpedo the idea that Comic-Con should move. Typical was this claim, that “San Diego, for most Hollywood guys, is like going to a festival. It’s a vacation you can write off on your taxes.” (Source.) Even the producers of The Simpsons, a yearly presence at Comic-Con, got in on the act by including a gag in the episode, “To Surveil with Love,” in which Comic Book Guy asked: “Would you be jolly if you knew that Comic-Con was moving to Anaheim?” (Source.)

When the Comic-Con people finally announced on October 1 that they had reached a deal with the city of San Diego, the issue was forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until the programming was announced for the 2010 show. Very conspicuous by their absence in the programming were panels devoted to The Avengers, John Carter, or Marvel, Disney, and Pixar films in general. (Of course, the Disney corporation owns them all.)

It soon became evident that while none of  the Disney controlled properties would be featured at Comic-Con, they would be part of D23, Disney’s show for fans in Anaheim, happening this weekend. Many experts began to wonder if this was the beginning of the end as far as Hollywood’s interest in Comic-Con.

However, what they should have been wondering is this:

Why is Disney boycotting Comic-Con?

Would Disney have boycotted Comic-Con if Comic-Con had moved to Anaheim or Los Angeles?

We may never know what happened behind the scenes, but how far-fetched is it to imagine that Disney wanted Comic-Con to move to Anaheim, and when this did not happen they chose to boycott Comic-Con?

Update: October 15, 2011

Further supporting evidence that Disney’s absence from this year’s SDCC was, essentially, a boycott in retaliation for Comic-Con not moving to Anaheim or Los Angeles: there is an Avengers panel being presented at this very moment (roughly 7:30 PM ET) at the New York Comic-Con.

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August 20, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Rewrites: Cowboys & Aliens

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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.

2. Themes.

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!

Paul Krugman as Ozymandias in Watchmen

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.


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.”

The producer tells Ed that while there is no script, there is 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 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.”

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August 20, 2011 at 5:07 am

Are Hollywood Movies (Mostly) Conservative?

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The image above is meant to represent the circle of life. It’s an image of a journey ending where it began. It’s an image of things staying the same. Hollywood movies work just like this because Hollywood movies are conservative.

Here’s the common story: we begin with a family, a town. Everything’s fine. Then along come the bad guys, or bad event. The hero’s task is to set things right again. The hero usually fights for survival or freedom, sometimes both. The story ends with things are returned to they way they were before the bad thing happened. That’s conservative: the status quo is maintained.

Star Wars? It’s about rebels fighting to restore the Republic, not create something that’s never existed before.

Robin Hood (pick your version)? Despite the apparent revolutionary aspects of the story, it’s really a fight to restore the rightful king, King Richard, to the throne. Once the former king is back in his castle, Robin Hood is ready to retire. Once again, all is right with the world.

Finding Nemo? Father and son are separated to start the story; father and son are reunited to end the story. We’re back where we started.

Red Dawn. Soviets invade the USA; patriots fight back and take back America!

The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy travels to Oz, but ends up back in Kansas, happy as a cucumber.

Around the World in 80 Days. Phileas Fogg and friends make a complete circuit around the Earth to end up where they started. This is the image of most films: going around in circles.

Sometimes things change so badly that nothing can restore them, and this is what revenge is for. Even though the loved ones cannot be brought back to life (usually), the hero’s revenge restores a sense of balance in the world.

Examples? There are many. Death Wish, Dirty Harry, or…

How about the new Conan the Barbarian: “The story boils down to Conan trying to avenge his father’s death while his adversary tries to magically resurrect his slain wife….” (Source.) I like the part about resurrecting the dead wife. It’s almost always about trying to get back something that’s been lost. The hero tries to return to the way things were, either literally, or through revenge. As if revenge can truly restore anything.

One more: Vertigo. Remember that one? It’s resurrection time again, and it’s not even a fantasy film! Too bad it doesn’t work out for Jimmy/Scotty.

The majority of Hollywood films do not like change. They tell stories about heroes who fight to restore things to the way they were before the Bad thing happened and change occurred. These films are about maintaining the status quo, about heroes who long for the return of the original status quo. The paradox is that these films show heroes who are active and in conflict, but this activity and conflict in almost always in the service of maintaining the world as it is. If they are fighting for change, it is a change that will return the world to what it was. And this world that they fight for is a world similar to our own world. Yes, there usually is some token change, but it’s usually minor and it comes off as a change that must be accepted by the hero as part of the maturation process and as part of the way the world just is.

Disney called it the circle of life.

UPDATE: 9/22/11

Dan Harmon’s circle that represents the eight steps of a story

As described in an article at Wired Magazine here, Dan Harmon, creator of the NBC sitcom Community, uses a circle to represent the eight steps of a good story. It’s a variation of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and Chris Vogler’s Writer’s Journey, both of which have been popular in screenwriting classes for many years. I could have used Harmon’s circle to illustrate the post above about the conservative structure of many Hollywood stories. However, Harmon’s 8th step is a bit problematic, especially when applied to something as conservative as the sitcom where characters and situation almost by definition cannot change from week to week. Harmon’s circle image suggests a lack of change, with the end reflecting the beginning. Yet, there’s step 8: “Having changed.” To represent change, a better image might be a spiral: everything still goes around and around, but the end does not simply link back up with the beginning because things have truly changed.

Spirals doodle by Community writer Megan Ganz. Click on it to see her tumblr.

So why did Harmon settle on the circle? Perhaps because, despite his step 8, he intuited that there is no true change in the typical Hollywood story.


Harmon’s last step is “Having Changed.” This requires us, the viewers, to forget that characters are not real and therefore cannot change. But what if we don’t forget? We must realize, of course, that it’s the author, Harmon himself, who is creating the change, indeed, forcing it on his characters. Does this mean that we, the viewers, are we the real targets of the “Having Changed” step? Is the story supposed to be a moral lesson for us? This makes entertainment something like sugar coated schooling. Is that why we watch these shows? Or do we just ignore the “Having Changed” and focus on something else? Of course, the lesson learned by the character is usually something simplistic that we are assumed to already know and therefore we are made to feel superior to the character who did not apparently know and therefore has to change. So: do we watch to feel superior for a brief moment?

UPDATE 1/15/12

In The Power of Film, Howard Suber says something similar to what I said above:

As tends to be true for all popular arts, the vast majority of films and their protagonists are inherently conservative.  (The Power of Film, p. 96.)

Villains often want to change society, but it is invariably for their personal benefit. Heroes either want to keep society the way it is or restore it to what it once was. In this sense, villains are inherently radical and heroes are inherently conservative. (The Power of Film, p. 395.)

In other words, radicals are the villains and conservatives the heroes in Hollywood movies. And by definition, the film’s sympathies lie with the hero. This does not exactly fit Conservatives’ image of Hollywood, does it?

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August 20, 2011 at 1:30 am

Should Movies be Taken on Their Own Terms?

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Here’s an excerpt from Leonard Maltin’s blog review of the new Conan the Barbarian:

I try to take each movie I see on its own terms; this isn’t my favorite kind of entertainment, and some of its violence is extreme, but on the whole Conan the Barbarian is pretty good, for what it is. (Source.)

This is a common sentiment. But does it makes sense? Should a movie be taken on its own terms? What exactly does that mean?

Let’s take this sentiment to its extreme application. You probably already know what I am thinking: should Hitler have been taken on his own terms? If Germany had won the war, and the Third Reich was still going strong, would that have made Hitler right. On his own terms, it would have.

Why should a movie be any different? Why should the movie dictate the terms by which it is judged? If every move sought nothing more than to make a five year old laugh, must we say, “Judged on its own terms, which I must do to be fair to the movie, it is a roaring success.” Case closed. This means we are doomed because nowadays nothing a critic says matters all that much in any case. It’s irrelevant if a critic has a means of judging a film’s quality independent of the movie’s own terms, because the real judge of a movie’s value nowadays is, of course, its box office. If a lot of people pay to see a movie, it must be good, right?

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August 19, 2011 at 7:30 am

My Favorite Comic Books

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My list of top ten comics was rejected by The Hooded Utilitarian for their recent poll of comics creators and critics, asking them to list their top ten favorite comics. Their poll result is here, but my list is below. Despite being rejected, it’s interesting to me to see how many of my faves were mentioned by those who were invited to participate. I also thought it interesting that even the top vote getter, Peanuts, received only 24% of the vote (50/211). Is that enough to claim that there is a consensus for this list of best comics? I don’t think so. All that you can say is that the largest minority grouping thinks Peanuts is tops. But the much larger majority (76% of the vote) disagrees. The headline should refer not to Peanuts being number one, but to the fact that there was no agreement about which title should occupy the number one slot.

Anyway, here’s my list. The one I submitted was limited to ten titles, but I’m not bothering to meet that limit here.

There are always more comics to add to my library. My want list is here.

Yellow Submarine Promo

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Here’s a contemporary promo for Yellow Submarine, one of my favorite films. It’s hilariously pretentious (“From a script described as an open-end Rorschach filled with Joycean puns;” “Just as Swift and Carroll changed the history of literature, as Chagall and Picasso brought new life to art, The Beatles are revitalizing the art of animation,”) but it’s nevertheless interesting for the audio-only clips of director George Dunning and art director Heinz Edelmann (at least it seems to be them).

Note that the promo lasts only about 7 minutes. The rest of the clip’s time is taken up by Yellow Submarine‘s trailer.

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August 19, 2011 at 6:02 am


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August 18, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Are Screenwriters as Important as They Think?

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Hollywood screenwriters are up in arms! (See video above.) They have declared war on Disney and, in particular, Disney executive Andy Hendrickson who, according to an article in Variety, said, “People say ‘It’s all about the story.’ When you’re making tentpole films, bullshit.” He said that for a film such as the Tim Burton directed/Disney produced Alice in Wonderland, which made a truckload of money (hence it’s a tentpole movie), “The story isn’t very good, but the visual spectacle brought people in droves.”

I agree with Andy Hendrickson. I’ve already written a piece in which I stated my position on the subject of the screenplay and the plot. In short, I think that the plot is vastly overrated. It should be seen as merely one possibility among many for organizing scenes, spectacles, acts, just like Ed Sullivan united the acts on his show, or the Ring Leader unites the acts in a Three Ring Circus.  The more a writer insists that these disparate elements be united in more and more obvious ways, the more acts you leave out of the show, and the weaker your show will end up being. The weaker your plot, the more diverse the acts the plot will allow under the tent. It’s no accident that movie executives call certain kinds of movies tentpoles, an image that derives from the circus.

Plot and character are like the string in a necklace, and the elements of a film, the actors, characters, scenes, actions, dialogue, are the jewels on the string. If your string is more like a rope, it will overpower the jewels. Each jewel in a film should be relatively autonomous. If you are an agent booking a variety show, you should not plan on telling what each act should do. But this is what the screenwriting books by writers such as Syd Field and Robert McKee teach us.

Look at some of the earliest long form stories in the Western cannon. Such as The Odyssey. Such as The Divine Comedy. They are exactly what I am talking about: a series of scenes connected by character and the frame of a journey. The scenes can be anything. There’s nothing that says that Odysseus must meet the Cyclops or Circe. There’s nothing that says that Odysseus’ journey home must last 10 years or 100 years. Dante’s trip through Hell could last into infinity. Odysseus could become the eternal wanderer and his adventures could go on forever. The limit is really what the audience for the story is expecting.

Likewise, neither Odysseus nor Dante are necessary elements of these stories. Both The Odyssey and Divine Comedy could be done as travelogues with a narrator addressing the audience directly as each new land in the Mediterranean or station of Hell is approached. It could be done in the manner of Tex Avery’s “The Isle of Pingo Pongo,” a series of gags united by the frame of a travelogue spoof (WARNING: racist stereotypes):

So characters are not necessary to make a good film. How about plot? Here’s a definition often used in screenplay manuals:

a narrative structure that divides a story into five parts, like the five acts of a play. These parts are: exposition (of the situation); rising action (through conflict); climax (or turning point); falling action; and resolution.

This definition assumes the presence of characters. But if characters are not necessary, then neither is plot. I submit that the plot, like the character, is best seen as a device to organize the various elements of a film, the film’s package. The less emphasis that is put on it, the better off the elements in the package will be. What do people remember best about a film? Is it the plot? Or is it a scene? A moment? Such as: Psycho‘s shower scene, the car chase in The French Connection, the spaceship landing in Close Encounters, King Kong fighting off the planes, Indiana Jones running from the boulder, the Death Star blowing up, Jack Nicholson trying to order toast in Five Easy Pieces, the walk in The Wild Bunch, the presentation of Simba to all the animals at the start of The Lion King, Charlie Chaplin doing the roll dance in The Gold Rush), a line of dialogue (“Rosebud,” “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” “You’ll need a bigger boat,” “You talkin’ to me?”, Danny Kaye trying to remember if the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle in The Court Jester.

If I’m wrong and people remember plots more than they remember moments, then why is the film, “Precious Images,” so powerful?

Why are there so many clips from movies on Youtube? It’s not because Youtube doesn’t allow full movies to be uploaded. It’s because moments and scenes from movies stand on their own and are usually the highlight of the movie they are from. They do not need a plot to support them. In many cases, the plot only serves to dilute their impact. Hollywood knew this years ago when it produced compilation films such as That’s Entertainment, which includes scenes from musicals, and before that, compilations such as When Comedy Was King, made from silent movies. Youtube merely continues this tradition.

What’s the story in this clip? There is none. It’s united by music, actors, and theme.  It’s complete, as is.

I’m looking at the list of top Domestic Grosses adjusted for ticket price inflation. There are several Disney movies on this list. I grew up watching clips from Disney on television before I saw most of the films. Clips from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (#10 on the list), 101 Dalmations (1961) (#11), Fantasia (#21), Mary Poppins (#24), The Lion King (#25), Sleeping Beauty (#30), Pinocchio (#38), Lady and the Tramp (#68). Each of the scenes that I saw on television stood on its own. It did not need the support of a plot. The film on the list with the weakest plot is Fantasia. In fact, there is no “plot.” Some individual sequences have something of a story, but each sequence is completely separate, and the film as a whole does not have a unifying plot. What unity the film does have, other than unity you get by bringing the sequences together under one name, Fantasia, is provided by the idea or theme (illustrations of classical music) and Deems Taylor. Compilation films often attempt to unite the separate sequences with a framing device that involves a group of characters, each telling a story. Examples: Dead of Night and Tales from the Crypt. Fantasia shows that such a framing device is totally unnecessary. But my point is this: when you allow the plot to weaken, and allow each element of a film to be relatively autonomous, you unleash the full potential of each scene, sequence, element of the film.

Let’s embrace the freedom of a jazz improviser who treats the given musical theme merely as a take-off point. The only limitations are the talent and imagination of the artist.

Here’s an example of jazz improvisation by Norman Mclaren using the drawing direct on film technique. If you skip ahead to the 45 second mark you will begin where the film really begins.

So, Disney exec Andy Hendrickson is correct, but what he said applies to more than just tentpole movies. Plot should be treated as a supporting character, and not as the film’s headliner. This enables greater variety when casting your show. However, screenwriters should put down their weapons and return to their word processors. Someone still has to write this stuff.

Ed Sullivan did not worry about plot.


Georges Méliès

Georges Méliès agrees with Andy Hendrickson:

For Méliès the scenario had little importance. He preferred to invent details first of all, out of which a final narrative developed. He liked to include a few tricks–“one trick leads to another,” he once said–then one principal grandiose effect and a final apotheosis. “You could say that the scenario is in this case simply a thread intended to link the ‘effects,’ in themselves without much relation to each other. I mean to say that the scenario has no more than a secondary importance in this genre of composition… I was appealing to the spectator’s eyes alone, trying to charm and intrigue him, hence the scenario was of no importance.” One is reminded of Nevil Maskelyne’s words on magical items: “beads held together and supported by the thread of dramatic interest.” These ‘effects,’ or ‘beads’–tricks, sets, costumes and props–were hastily scribbled down on any available bit of paper. (From Marvellous Méliès by Paul Hammond; p. 57)

Will Martin Scorsese’s homage to Méliès, Hugo (based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick), honor this aspect of the pioneering filmmaker’s art? We will know soon enough, but my bets are being placed against.

The Wage Slave’s Glossary

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This is the cover of a new book coming out in which one of the authors says:

This little philosophical book, which is also wittily illustrated by Seth, again tackles such phenomena as work, labor, leisure, freedom, and the good life. Instead of singing the praises of idling, this time around we criticize and analyze what the Lowell Mill Girls were the first to name wage slavery, not to mention what Mark calls the work idea itself. Putting down our Gimlets, we train a gimlet eye upon the ideology of working (as reflected in, e.g., management trends, white-collar culture, the history of industrial capitalism, and popular music) which helps make our screwed-up social order appear natural, inevitable, and eternal.

Not sure if this is a book that will leave you laughing or a book with a sober face, or a little of both, but there it is. Learn more about it here.

However, I’m using this book primarily as an excuse to post one of my favorite clips, from the first Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts:

I haven’t read the book, but nevertheless, the meaning of the term “wage slavery”  is not lost on me. Why do we become wage-slaves? Back in Roman Empire times 90% of the population were engaged in providing the necessities of life while 10% were free to do what they wanted. Today, a mere 5% of the population does the work of those 90% back in Roman times, yet, we probably work as much as that 90%. Why? First of all, our system requires us to work to get the money we need to buy the necessities of life. Yet, how many of us stop working after we have provided for our necessities? Indeed, what would happen to our economic system if we stopped buying things that we don’t need? What if we recycled and repaired things instead of throwing them out and replacing them with something new? What if we ran our cars into the ground before buying the latest and greatest model?

Answer? The system would collapse. Our system depends on redundancies and waste. Do any of us purposely create more work for ourselves in our households? Not unless we are seriously insane. Yet, that is precisely what our economy depends on. We are put in the position of opposing the machine that does our job because, thanks to our system, the machine that replaces us means joblessness and poverty instead of more free time to do what we please.

How did we get stuck with such an absurd state of affairs?

Written by pronountrouble2

August 17, 2011 at 10:39 am

Lorenzo Mattotti on Monsters

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Art by Lorenzo Mattotti from The Raven

In this excerpt from an interview with Lorenzo Mattotti, one of my favorite comic book artists, Mattotti gives Guillermo Del Toro a run for his money in the Cool Quotes About Monsters Department. The interview was posted on the Fantagraphics Books blog site in conjunction with Fantagraphic’s release of The Raven by Lou Reed and Mattotti, a book that adapts works by Edgar Allan Poe.

Eric Buckler: The book is full of creatures. Can you talk about where some of these come from, how you craft those creatures?

Lorenzo Mattotti: Creatures are always our insides. It’s part of a long work that I have always done in my sketchbooks. I think in 30 years, I’ll continue to make drawings like that in my sketchbook. They are always drawings about my insides, so they are metaphor, they are symbols, symbols of our natural inside. So, I don’t think they are different creatures from us, they are not animals, they are us. They are our brains, they are our ideas. The drawing gives us the possibility to change the form to make signs that interpret the reality. They are the concretization of our imagination. So, maybe sometimes they explain much better than a realistic image would. So, the creature from inside you. You may think that they are creatures of another world but they are creatures of our world; the spider, the monster, the stranger, the character. The distortion is the distortion of our brain.

Buckler: So, you lent the creature inside of yourself to this work to help translate it?

Mattotti: To what?

Buckler: You said that the creatures were a concretization of the creature inside of you?

Mattotti: They are a concretization of ideas, of sensations, of emotions. I don’t have an animal in my brain, I have emotion, contradiction, tension, pieces of sensation and emotion. And when I draw, my creatures are the concretization of emotions. I do not know before I draw what will happen on the paper, they go out in a very natural way. They are the symbol of sensations that I have inside.

For What It’s Worth Department:

My USC Film School adaptation of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” can can be viewed here.

Written by pronountrouble2

August 16, 2011 at 8:36 am