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Archive for August 20th, 2011

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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Written by pronountrouble2

August 20, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Rewrites: Cowboys & Aliens

with 2 comments

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.

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.”

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 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.”

Written by pronountrouble2

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.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

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?

Written by pronountrouble2

August 20, 2011 at 1:30 am