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The Shape of Water vs. “Let Me Hear You Whisper”

  1. When I first heard the Estate of Paul Zindel was claiming the makers of The Shape of Water plagiarized Zindel’s one act play, “Let Me Hear You Whisper,” I was annoyed. I was annoyed because I’ve already picked Shape to win the Best Picture Oscar in a pool. But I was also annoyed because I want it to win because it’s fucking great. But then I watched the PBS version of the play on Youtube and my annoyance changed to delight. Why? The Estate has set up a foil for Del Toro’s masterpiece, that is, something to compare it to, that highlights what makes it great. The opposite, or is it inverse, is also true: comparing Shape with Whisper shows what a minor work Zindel’s play is.
  2. Watch the 1969 PBS version of the Zindel play here.
  3. Ironically, the case filing accusing Shape of plagiarizing Whisper is itself plagiarized. Compare the section “Examining the details” here, with section 43 of the complaint, here.
  4. Here is an example of the lawyer taking wordings from the “examining the details section” of the Hollywood Nerd article and using substitution and rearranging to try to make it “original.” 
  5. This is the lawyer’s wording:
  6. Whisper, contrary to what the Estate claims, is not an original work. It’s almost certainly based on human-animal communication experiments in the 1960s with dolphins by John C. Lilly.
  7. The Estate’s filing says Whisper was written in or around 1969. Well, a 1967 French novel (Un animal doué de raison), translated into English in 1969 as The Day of the Dolphin, was also based on these events. Wikipedia: “The plot concerns dolphins that are trained to communicate with humans, and their use in warfare.” This is the plot of “Let Me Hear You Whisper.”
  8. There’s enough similarity between Whisper (1969) and Dolphin (1969) to hypothesize an influence. You might even say Zindel “derived” his work from the novel. Even if that is not the case, he could have derived it from the real events surrounding John C. Lilly. The point is that Whisper, one way or the other, is derived and not entirely original.
  9. Of course, the Estate’s filing cannot prove writers of The Shape of Water were aware Zindel’s work. The biggest similarity is story POV, that is, both stories are told from the POV of a cleaning lady. However, I do not think you can copyright the idea of telling a story from a  cleaning lady’s POV. It that were the case, Zindel’s story would violate the copyright of the TV show Hazel.
  10. The Estate’s filing is worded to make the two works sound as similar as possible. However, let’s suppose we ask people who are not lawyers to describe the two stories. I doubt their descriptions would end up as similar as the Estate’s. I’ve already offered one alternate description (“The plot concerns dolphins that are trained to communicate with humans, and their use in warfare”) which would set it up for its own plagiarism case because it’s so similar to The Day of the Dolphin.
  11. The Estate does not want to mention Creature from the Black Lagoon or its sequels. Those are the true inspirations for Shape. If anyone had cause to sue, it would be the creators of those films. However, Shape is obviously different enough that such a case would not prevail in court. The same is true for Whisper.
  12. Superficially, Shape and Whisper start of similarly, especially if you play tricks with the words describing their plots as does the lawyer in the filing. But ultimately, they are very different. Whisper is a critique of those who go along to get along. The main conflict in the play is between the cleaning lady and her immediate supervisor. The supervisor describes the cleaning lady several times as “nice.” This is less a description than a proscription. By nice she means someone who does what they are told and does not cause trouble. In other words, someone who does not put sand in the wheels of progress, which is what the experiments are said to be. The cleaning lady cannot remain silent. The title of the play, Let Me Hear You Whisper, alludes to the act of speaking up and the cleaning lady even yells at the dolphin, after she learns it’s been able to talk all along, for not speaking up. She tells off the scientists and threatens to inform the ASPCA. Experiments on dolphins are not the only ones conducted as this lab. Other animals are involved, too. The cleaning lady’s supervisor speaks of a cat she loved that was killed. She didn’t like it, but in order to keep her job she learned that she must not become attached to the animals, to care. She learned to go along to get along. The new cleaning lady, in contrast, does not. She may need the job, but quits because she thinks the work is immoral, even if she is not the one doing the experiments. In other words, the play is about a the birth of a whistleblower. Daniel Ellsberg would approve, and it’s probably useful to remember this play was written at the height of the Vietnam War.
  13. The Estate’s filing reads like a junior high student’s compare and contrast English assignment that forgot the contrast part. For example, the cleaning lady in Whisper may be less talkative than her co-workers, but she isn’t hesitant to talk or ask questions. Shape’s cleaning lady is mute, so she cannot literally talk, but she can still communicate with sign language but she doesn’t, at least at first. Whipser’s cleaning lady is not the brightest bulb on the tree. When the dolphin says, “Ham-per,” she has no idea what it’s saying and has to ask her co-worker: “What is a ham-per.” Her co-worker immediately knows. Shape’s cleaning lady only appears to be stupid. In fact, every one of the workers in the film are undervalued by their superiors. They are all prevented from fulfilling their true potential. Except Elisa, the cleaning lady. Having lived her entire life as a fish out of water, she fulfills her true potential and becomes a fish in water. I hope she meets up with Mr. Limpet.

 

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Written by David Kilmer

February 24, 2018 at 1:25 pm

Why Star Wars (ie “Episode IV”) sucks!

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Why does Star Wars suck? Let me count the reasons:

1. Star Wars is a story about a boy who wants to go to war and does. In fact, he becomes the greatest war hero ever. It’s a pro-war story. It’s pro-war because it shows war as fun, the equivalent of a theme park ride. War does not get more glamorous than this. Extremely violent, but bloodless and clean. The victims of the violence might as well be robots. In fact, a good percentage of the film is devoted to shots of bloodless robots, and these robots seem to have stolen the personality genes from the film’s official human characters. (Some will say this is also true of 2001, ie HAL is more “human” than the astronauts. But that’s the point of that film. Is Lucas really saying that his robots are more “human” than the humans everyone in the film is fighting to save? I’m more inclined to go with something like, “Blowing things up is cool!”)

2. The scene in which he learns his uncle and aunt were killed is a cheap plot device. How much does he really care about his relatives when they never appear again in the story? Compare this scene to the source, The Searchers, the film that Lucas pilfered for the “homage.” In that film, John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter really do care about the people who were killed. And they care about the children who were kidnapped because that’s what the film is about. In Star Wars, the attack on the farm is a cheap plot trick designed to get Luke off the farm without making him seem like an asshole.

3. Because no one ever questions the rightness of the rebels’ cause nor the wrongness of the empire’s cause. Because no one questions much of anything. It’s classic Manichaeism. The forces of the empire are faceless, robot-like. Nothing they do shows any indication of being motivated by anything other than evil. In other words, motivations are boring.

4. Star Wars vs Star Trek. The difference in the titles are telling. Star Wars is about going to war. While there’s plenty of fighting in Star Trek, at least there are those who question it. I can’t imagine an episode such as the one in Star Trek in which humans and Klingons are forced to stop fighting by an apparently helpless population of aliens. There’s no character like Spock in Star Wars. Certainly not Obi Wan Kinobi. Everyone wants to fight. Weapons of all kinds, whether fighting ships, swords, or bombs, are meant to impress. Where’s the wonder in life, the wonder in encountering new, mysterious things which happens all the time in Star Trek?

5. Star Wars is designed the way commercials are designed. While not explicitly a toy ad, it’s made like one. So it’s no surprise that Lucas made the most money from toys. Images, sounds, dialogue: it’s all presented to us like a fetish. A thing to be bought. Easily identified, understood, quickly.

Proof:

Star Wars was manufactured. When a competent corporation prepares a new product, it does market research. George Lucas did precisely that. When he says that the film was written for toys (“I love them, I’m really into that”), he also means he had merchandising in mind, all the sideshow goods that go with a really successful film. He thought of T-shirts and transfers, records, models, kits, and dolls. His enthusiasm for the comic strips was real and unforced; he had a gallery selling comic-book art in New York.

From the start, Lucas was determined to control the selling of the film, and of its by-products. “Normally you just sign a standard contract with a studio,” he says, “but we wanted merchandising, sequels, all those things. I didn’t ask for another $1 million-just the merchandising rights. And Fox thought that was a fair trade.” Lucasfilm Ltd.,. the production company George Lucas set up in July 1971, “already had a merchandising department as big as Twentieth Century-Fox has. And it was better. When I was doing the film deal, I had already hired the guy to handle that stuff.”

Lucas could argue, with reason, that he was protecting his own investment of two years’ research and writing as well as his share of the $300,000 from Graffiti which he and Kurtz used as seed money for developing Star Wars. “We found Fox were giving away merchandising rights, just for the publicity,” he says. “They gave away tie-in promotions with a big fast-food chain. They were actually paying these people to do this big campaign for them. We told them that was insane. We pushed and we pushed and we got a lot of good deals made.” When the film appeared, the numbers became otherworldly: $100,000 worth of Tshirts sold in a month; $260,000 worth of intergalactic bubble gum; a $3 million advertising budget for presweetened Star Wars breakfast cereals. That was before the sales of black digital watches and citizens’ band radio sets and personal jet sets. (Source.)

6. Star Wars vs The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The connection between these two films is the character of Han Solo who, of all the characters in Star Wars, would be most at ease alongside the good, bad and ugly characters of Leone’s film. He’s a mercenary with mercenary attitudes, just like Eastwood and the gang. That is, until he miraculously sees the light. There’s plenty of war to go around in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but those characters are under no illusions about its being a good war.

7. Star Wars feeds off of and reinforces the myth of the Good War. It doesn’t do so intelligently, that is, it doesn’t present arguments for such a view. It merely assumes it. Despite the Sixties and early Seventies being seen as a cynical age, the fact is that the main American myths were never in danger of being pushed aside. The majority never doubted that World War II was won by angels against devils. A simple case of black vs white. And Star Wars does nothing to question those beliefs. In fact, it plays on those beliefs as if they are a religion.

8. Darth Vader is nothing but a hired gun. If he’s such a badass, why does he have to work for someone else?

9. Star Wars is bathroom break-friendly. No matter what point of the film you leave to take a pee, when you return to the film the answer to your question, What’s going on now?, will be the same: They’re trying to blow up the Death Star? What are they up to now? Still trying to blow it up. Have they blown up that Death Star, yet? Not yet. So they finally blow it up, and that’s it, until the Empire builds another, and they have to blow that one up, too. Who’s the destructive ones here anyway? It’s funny how weak the sequence is in which the unfortunate planet that plays the role of demonstrating the awesomeness of the Death Star is blown up, compared with the destruction of the Death Star, that is, the awesomeness of blowing something up without any moral qualms at all.

10. Death triumphs, no matter which side “wins.” The film concludes with smiles all around. What great satisfaction it is to kill. As Chaplin says at the end of Monsieur Verdoux, kill one, and you’re a villain; but kill a million and you are a hero.

11. Much of it plays like a video game. But it’s actually worse than that. It plays like a video game that is being played by someone else and all you get to do is watch him play. Despite being released before the heydey of the video game, even before 1977 there had already been several video games with space themes. One of them was Spacewar!, which was written way back in 1961. It was a two player game in which spaceships battle each other while avoiding the gravity pull of a nearby star. It even had a hyperspace feature which could be used as a last ditch attempt to avoid enemy missiles. There were several arcade versions of Spacewar! released in the Seventies including one called Space Wars which was released the same year as Star Wars. How much do you want to bet that Lucas was an early fan of these games?

12. Today Star Wars is considered the ideal template for Hollywood movie scripts. If you write a script that’s even remotely similar to an adventure or science fiction or fantasy genre film, you will be judged against Star Wars by your script’s readers. This wasn’t always the case, as this passage by Michael Pye and Lynda Miles from 1999 demonstrates:

But he does not tell a story. This is the basic failing of the film. It lacks true narrative drive and force. It is a void, into which any mystic idea can be projected; entertainment, brilliantly confected, which is quite hollow. Its only idea is individualism-that a man must take responsibility for others, even at great personal cost and peril. Its idea is, in classic form, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

The iconography is bizarre. Darth Vader, the dastardly villain, is black. That is commón in science fiction. In the supposedly liberal Planet of the Apes series, the wicked and stupid gorillas are the military, and they are black. The honey-colored chimpanzees are the wise, good scientists. The closer to the color of a California WASP, the better the character: it is a fair rule of thumb. But Darth Vader’s forces are storm troopers armored in white. The wicked Grand Moff Tarkin lives in a gray-green world, with gray-green uniforms; he is clearly a wicked Nazi. Yet when our heroes take their just reward at the very end, there are images which parallel the finest documentary of Nazism, Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. “I can see,” Kurtz says, “why people think that. I suppose it is like the moment when Hitler crosses the podium to lay the wreath.” Critical confusion is not surprising when there are allusions to Nazism as both good and bad. French leftist critics thought the film was fascist; Italian rightists thought it was clearly communistic.

Nor is the vague, pantheistic deism of the film coherent. Star Wars talks much of The Force, a field of energy that permeates the universe and can be used for both good and evil. It is passed on with a sword, just as the sword Excalibur is passed on in the Arthurian romance; the influence of chivalric stories is strong. But when The Force is used by Luke Skywalker to help him destroy the monstrous Death Star, he is urged only to relax, to obey his instincts, to close his eyes and fight by feeling. The Force amounts to building a theology out of staying cool.

Star Wars has been taken with ominous seriousness. It should not be. The single strongest impression it leaves is of another great American tradition which involves lights, bells, obstacles, menace, action, technology, and thrills. It is pinball-on a cosmic scale.

13. Even Lucas agreed Star Wars sucks:

Ned Tannen says, “The fact that Star Wars is the biggest hit ever made and that he doesn’t think it is very good—that’s what fascinates me about George.” (Source.)

Now I should do (and definitely could do) a list of reasons why Star Wars doesn’t suck, but I’m tired and I’m sure you can do that list better than me.

(This post was written in November 2012, but not published until February 2017.)

Written by David Kilmer

February 10, 2017 at 3:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

TCJ’s Best Comics of 2016 Poll

The Comics Journal asked 31 for their list of the best comics of 2016. The lists are here. However, they did not tally the results. So I did it for them.

tcj-comics-poll-2016

Written by David Kilmer

January 4, 2017 at 3:30 pm

Silence

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Some films that came to mind watching Martin Scorsese’s Silence.

  1. The Searchers (similar plot twist; see also Taxi Driver and Hardcore.)
  2. The Silence (Bergman’s silence is also Scorsese’s.)
  3. Sophie’s Choice (dilemmas, dilemmas.)
  4. The Bridge on the River Kwai (parts of Scorsese’s film recall this film’s WWII Japanese POW camp and its commander.)
  5. Andrei Rublev (vallis lacrimarum, i.e. vale of tears)
  6. Saving Private Ryan (these kind of quests never end well.)
  7. Star Trek: “Bread and Circuses” (The Searchers plot twist, again.)
  8. Manchester by the Sea (similar Job-like story.)
  9. Arrival (communication problems, alien and domestic.)
  10. Shōgun (TV mini-series. Fish out of water, culture clash.)
  11. 7 Women (what is it with missionaries?)
  12. The Passion of Joan of Arc (burn, saint, burn.)
  13. The Last Temptation of Christ (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”)
  14. The Keys of the Kingdom (more missionaries)

The rest is silence.” Just a smart-ass way of saying: You’ll have to see Scorsese’s film to see why these other films popped into my head.

 

Written by David Kilmer

December 22, 2016 at 10:37 am

Posted in Films, Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

Moana

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While watching Moana, I felt there was a problem, but the film is the very definition of entertaining. It draws you in, takes you on a journey through a whole new world, and leaves you with a smile on your face. In other words, it leaves you no time to think while your watching, but once the lights come up, it cannot stop the brain from doing its job.

So there’s a problem with Moana. I’m not sure what, but I’m going to try to figure it out.

Moana is made up of two parts. There’s the setup, then there’s Moana’s hero’s journey. I have the feeling that there’s some kind of barrier between the two that separates them, like the barrier reef that separates Moana’s island from the larger world. Perhaps the film’s problem is simply a lack of unity between these two parts. Let’s see.

  1. Setup. The situation is this: the islanders have used too many resources. Fish have disappeared; coconuts are rotting.
  2. Solution: fish beyond the barrier or leave the island for a new one
  3. Problem: the King says no. His reason is simply personal: a personal tragedy makes him stand firm
  4. Solution: get rid of the King. Replace the absolute (but benevolent, of course) monarchy with some kind of democracy. That is, revolution is the logical solution to the problem depicted in the story’s setup.

But for some reason the story goes in an entirely different direction: it turns into a single hero’s journey. In the discussion after the film at my screening, the two directors and screenwriter specifically referred to the hero’s journey and Joseph Campbell. Like so many Hollywood creators nowadays, they know the hero’s journey template backwards and forwards. And they wanted this story to follow that template even though the logic of the story as they set it up did not lend itself to this type of story.

So what did they do to get it going in the direction they wanted it to go? Well, the film doesn’t actually begin by depicting the situation. It begins with a myth, the story of a Hercules/Prometheus type figure, Maui, and he is blamed for the “darkness” falling on the land, the reason why the coconuts are rotting and the fish have vanished. What did he do? He stole the heart from a goddess. Why? Who knows?

What this does is shift the blame for the ecological catastrophe the islanders face to a mythical demigod and therefore the solution to the problem is also placed in the realm of magical thinking.

The solution to a real world problem is shifted into the realm of fantasy. This division in the film’s structure is actually quite common in Hollywood films. But this film makes the division even more blatant than it usually is.

More problems:

5. Why is Moana chosen by the Ocean? Because she saves the baby turtle. She shows empathy for other creatures and therefore passes the Ocean’s test to become the Chosen One. Such a low bar test , however, implies that the other islanders are all unworthy because they all lack basic empathy. They just don’t care about other living beings, and this sort of fits the situation: they’ve used up resources, killed off all the fish. But the film does not have the courage to depict them as lacking empathy. Once again, the natural causes of their problem are bypassed and the demigod Maui is blamed. Before we meet him, we expect him to be a badass evil guy. He turns out not to be evil, but it’s never explained why he stole the heart of the Goddess other than getting carried away. Something like: he did it because he could. In any case, blaming him lets the islanders of the hook. But it also produces a film that lacks unity.

6. Perhaps the greatest problem with the film, however, is that it is formulaic. I’ve already said that the filmmakers referred to Joseph Campbell and his hero’s journey. But other screenplays gurus seem to be in control of their minds, too. Every time Moana saved a turtle or the chicken, it made me think: “How many copies of Save the Cat by Blake Snyder does the screenwriter ownThe topper may have been this, said by the screenwriter during the post-screening discussion: “The audience has expectations for these types of films that they want fulfilled, but in a new, surprising way.” “Expectations” = formulas.

This film never had a chance to be as good and original as it could have been because the filmmakers felt they needed to take the story down the well-trodden road of the hero’s journey, and it lacks unity because they could not or would not risk offending people by showing the islanders themselves as the cause of their environmental problem. Given that our own, real world faces a problem similar to the islanders of Moana, is this really the type of story we need?

Bottom Line:

Application of the formulas: B+

Originality: C

Clear Thinking: F

 

Written by David Kilmer

December 10, 2016 at 9:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

Mad John Elder

Written by David Kilmer

September 17, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Haunting Image from The Haunting

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Written by David Kilmer

August 1, 2014 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized