Sep 7

These are not the hammer.

Posted by A Writer

 

It took a while, but I've finally entered the Joss Whedon world.  It's actually hard to imagine that I've been out of the loop on this guy for this long; anyone who did Buffy, Angel, and Firefly (plus the Serenity bonus round…and even the screenplay for Toy Story!) has serious street cred, and Whedon's got more than most (hell, his father was a screenwriter for The Electric Company, which is cool, even if I don't really understand why that show would need a writer).  He's got a huge number of fans (Whedonistas, Whedonivas, Browncoats…and probably lots of other names, but you get the idea), a crazily impressive career, and now, to top it all off, he's got an Internet musical about a bizarro supervillain played by the former Doogie Howser.

Er…

Yes, I'm of course speaking (as every Whedonista knows) of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which came out a couple of months ago (I know, I know, I told you I was way behind the curve here).  It's really just your typical boy meets girl, boy loves girl but also secretly intends to take over the world, boy has to deal with arch-nemesis who also is interested in girl musical blog…which makes about as much sense in practice as it does in theory.  But for most of the show it really doesn't matter; Neil Patrick Harris is funny and appealing as Dr. Horrible, and everyone drops pop culture references, puns and jokes like they're going out of style (my favorite: the head of the League of Evil, which Dr. H desperately wants to get into, is Bad Horse. Nickname: "The Thoroughbred of Evil.").  Add in some funny inside jokes for people who have ever read a superhero comic book in their lives, and some reasonable production values (it's even got some decent music!), and you ought to have a solid satire of most of these supervillain origin stories.

Until, that is, the end.  And if you haven't seen the whole thing yet, go now and come back (I'll still be here, I promise), because I'm about to say a lot more about it (in other words, SPOILERS AHEAD).

Back?  Settled in?  Good.  Now then, how to put this…Um…

WTF???????

So Acts One and Two present a kind of light-hearted parody, with plenty of humor and fun…and even a mildly entertaining love story (albeit a vaguely creepy one, given Dr. H's evil tendencies).  And just when you feel you understand the mood of the show, and are ready for Act Three (again, SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!)…

…Penny dies, and Dr. H gets into the League of Evil, and the whole thing ends.  Everyone loses.  Really.  Roll credits.

I'm not sure what thing annoys me the most about this ending, so I'll just throw out my top three:

1.  It's completely incoherent.  The ending is utterly, completely and totally off from the entire tone of what preceded it.  Now I understand that Whedon is known for playing with genre conventions and winking at his audience the whole time (Buffy is pretty much entirely founded on screwing with typical horror movie tropes), and that he's never so happy as when he's killing off characters, but still–there's a difference between cleverness and tone-deafness, and this is a whole lot of the latter.  That Dr. H. goes on to get all the evil he ever wanted, but still feels vaguely angsty about the whole thing, doesn't change the complete illogic of the way the mood flips.

2.  It's pretentious.  Whedon actually claims that this work is a standard "tragedy," and therefore the ending fits within that tradition.  Uh, no.  First of all, I'm sorry, but this is called Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog for a reason, and it ain't to draw upon tropes from Euripides.  (The chief bad guy is freaking called Bad Horse, for God's sake!)  It's a light-hearted parody until we hit the last three minutes, when it takes a hard right turn into pathos for no particular reason, other than the idea that "bad stuff happens to good people" which is a. not always true and in any case hasn't been unique as an artistic concept in twenty years and b. a pretty lame message to deliver, if you've decided you need to deliver a message at all in a movie which has as one of its villains "Fake Thomas Jefferson" (no, I'm not making that up).  Second, tragedy is supposed to be transformative, cathartic.  What exactly is transformed in any of the characters?  Or the audience?  Do we feel purged from the experience of watching someone die thanks to a defective death ray?  Yeah, I don't think so either.

3.  It's at best absurdly conventional, at worst flat out sexist.  Penny is the only truly innocent one in the entire show, and as is the case with every standard horror movie, the innocent (and naive) has to die somehow.  (Of course, she does have sex before getting killed, so maybe that's the trope we're dealing with.)  Either way, the idea that Whedon, who has made a career out of creating strong female roles (though I'm a little more skeptical about how liberating Buffy really is than the Whedon fans seem to suggest), would even toy with sending the wrong message on either of these cases is mind-boggling.  And no, I don't buy that showing a single newspaper headline calling her "What's-Her-Name" is presenting some kind of deeply satirical message.  Gotta do better than that.

What it comes down to is that DHSAB is really disappointing, and it makes me seriously question if the rest of Whedon's work is as overrated as this.  I'd like to think it isn't–the Browncoats can't all be wrong, can they?–but given the worshipful treatment it's gotten everywhere, you have to wonder. And if the rest of his work demonstrates these kinds of bad decisions, I don't think I'll be wearing this anytime soon.

Feb 13

 

Unless you've been living under a rock (and if you have, I hope you didn't need a subprime mortgage to get it), you've probably heard about the whole Roger Clemens steroids fiasco.  Clemens, a supremely gifted baseball pitcher (probably one of the five best to ever play the game), was named in the Mitchell Report on steroids as a user, largely based on the testimony of his former trainer Brian McNamee.  The story's much more juicy (pun sort of intended) than that, of course; Clemens has commenced an all-out assault on McNamee (who admittedly isn't exactly a choir boy), who in turn has thrown Clemens' wife under the bus (told you this was good stuff).  Clemens hasn't been shy about doing the same thing to his wife, actually, and his mother or anyone else he can find to blame.  Even his best friend has bailed out on him.  Yep, things aren't looking good for Clemens, and the possibility of a federal perjury charge is getting more real every second. 

Now loyal readers might be double checking their address bar at this point.  This is a blog about language, literature, and music, not sports, after all…and a good thing too, since as much as I like sports the last thing I want is to start holy wars over whether Duke is better than North Carolina, or whether Ali would have beaten Tyson in their primes.  (Answers:  None of the above, and yes.)  But this week I've been inundated with news about the Clemens business, and today it reached its zenith with a hearing in front of Congress.  My take on the subject doesn't have much to do with the hearing itself, though, or whether the Rocket was using some additives in his jet fuel or not (seems like a whole lot of evidence against a whole lot of furious denial to me, but hey, it's not like the state's got a perfect record on this stuff).  No, I've been far more interested in the coverage…what different people say about the exact same event, and why.  Because the sports media, which naturally can't get enough of this business, is falling all over itself to classify what's happening early and often, with ever more ridiculous headlines:

"Clemens blames all but himself."  (Straightforward, to the point.) 

"Hearings: Untruth and consequences." (Cute.)

"Clemens shelled by Congress." (Now we've gone to Saving Private Ryan?)

"Is Clemens the Antichrist?" (Okay, this isn't really about the steroids business, but I love it anyway.) 

Wow.  Put these all together and you seem to have some serious consensus against the guy.  And it's not just the headlines; read the articles themselves and you'll see the writers lining up to savage the guy they couldn't stop praising a year ago:

"Question by question, disputed answer by disputed answer, Roger Clemens' house of lies came tumbling down upon him Wednesday…Clemens had nothing, just pathetic ramblings…and throwing everyone from his agents, to his mother, to his wife under the bus of blame."

"Wednesday was a day of losers. While the Mitchell report withstood its stiffest challenge yet, baseball lost. Roger Clemens lost and Brian McNamee lost. Clemens had his day under oath in front of the country, and he spent it flailing, splashing against relentless waves of facts he could not calm, even after 4½ hours."

"Clemens was a much more compelling personality….[he] spoke with passion and energy, and with what sounded like heartfelt conviction… He made a tremendous witness."

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  What the hell happened to the savaging?

It turns out, kids, that ultimately truth really is in the eye (or the pen?) of the reporter.  For Dan Wetzel and Howard Bryant, Clemens' appearance was an utter failure, "pathetic," "flailing," and the work of a "loser."  For Jayson Stark, though (who hasn't exactly been Mr. Objectivity throughout his career), Clemens was "compelling" and a "tremendous witness."  Same place, same time, same hearing.  Different Clemens.  

Why do I feel like I'm in a bad remake of Sliding Doors?

Of course, everyone knows that truth is ultimately dependent on those who perceive it.  It shouldn't be surprising that different observers will have different takes on the same event.  But the issue, ultimately, doesn't concern them–it's about us.  When you can have one person alternatively described as "pathetic" and "compelling," at the exact same moment, how are we supposed to parse the difference?  Check up on your sources, you say; do some research and discover the truth for yourself.  Well, sure…you can find out all you want about the backgrounds of your reporters, and decide whether one person's distant relationship by marriage to a given newsmaker taints his reports on that newsmaker or not.  Or you can go to one of the million online news sources and watch everything for yourself.  Maybe you'll let the meteorologist slide (he's probably not in bed with the hurricane, right, so at least he's not taking any kickbacks from Mother Nature), but anything which could even have a tinge of subjectivity gets vetted by your crack analysts (er…by you, in other words).  Problem solved, right?

Well, maybe.  Maybe you figure that you've got the education, the knowledge, the background to be able to get a sense of truth or falsehood from someone doing steroids, or testifying at trial, or describing wartime atrocities.  You're a well-rounded citizen, right?  But what about the deeper levels of knowledge?  Do you know enough to decide whether a medical professional got kickbacks from a pharmaceutical company, which might affect her prescription for your medical condition?  Do you know enough to figure out whether your special ed coordinator really is interested in the welfare of your child, not in getting the principal off his neck about his tendency to run over budget?  Are you savvy enough to know whether mechanics are telling you the truth about how safe or unsafe your brake pads are?

Uh-huh.  All of a sudden the Renaissance man theory is getting a bit strained, isn't it?

The point is not that you should be content to sink into the typical blissful ignorance which often characterizes a lot of your fellow citizens (and don't act shocked, all of you reading this feel the same way occasionally.  Smile).  We could all use a lot more healthy skepticism.  But it's clear that the position of objective fact-finder, the person whose job is to report on reality and put it in a context we can all use, is rapidly vanishing.  In its place we have a lot of very opinionated people (walk into any bookstore and you'll see their proxies screaming at each other from their respective bestseller tables) with very definite impressions of reality, and not a whole lot of ways to distinguish between them.  (We all know Ann Coulter is a lunatic, but what's the deal with Jon Stewart?  He seems trustworthy–I certainly trust the guy–but is that reasonable?)  And that leaves us either to become experts on everything–not very likely–or determined to know nothing, since at least that way we won't get fooled again, at least in theory.  The result is that we cede the field to the ones who very much know what agenda they want to promote, and truth suffers as a consequence.

Maybe this sounds too maudlin and sentimental, like I ought to be crying for the loss of the Walter Cronkites and Edward R. Murrows of the world.  And maybe it's too much of a stretch to see some overzealous sports journalists going at it and worry about the fate of veracity in 2008.  But spin it however you like, there's something more than a little troubling about the he said/she said mentality that seems to be infusing all aspects of our world, from pundits to the ordinary people who listen to them.  Whether Clemens had something injected in his butt so he could throw a baseball faster may not really be important in the large scheme of the universe.  But whether we'll ever be able to get a fair-minded appraisal of how likely the possibility is–whether Clemens is indeed compelling or an Antichrist–without needing a medical degree to be sure, is.

The truth is out there, friends.  Just make sure you've got all of your search equipment in order when you set out to find it.

Dec 18

It has no other master.

Posted by A Writer

 

I'm not a big fan of the term "fanboy"; it conjures up images of XBox/Playstation 3 Geek Wars with everyone normal losing (just kidding, l33t denizens, I like video games too.  Not as much as you, but I like them. Smile).  But I have to admit that this morning's news that Peter Jackson has reached agreement with New Line Cinema to produce The Hobbit has gotten me more than a trifle excited.  Why?  First, because it means we'll get to see two more films based on one of my favorite books from one of my favorite writers…and second, because it means we'll get to see the films based on the books, not based on the titles.  What made Jackson's handling of The Lord of the Rings films so spectacular was not the whizbang special effects (although those were admittedly cool) or the realism of the battle scenes (although those were absurdly sweet…have I hit full fanboy status yet?), but rather his understanding the fact that as cool as those things were, they weren't really the point of J.R.R. Tolkien's work.  Ultimately the heroic sacrifices and epic battles are being fought as much for the little, everyday places of The Shire as they are for the restoration of Minas Tirith's majesty–and thus even at the most elaborate, over-the-top moments of the film, Jackson never forgot the importance of Frodo and Sam's individual struggle to get through Mordor, both smaller and simultaneously more significant than the wars being fought elsewhere in Middle Earth.  In short, he was (usually) true to the spirit of the books, and that was probably his most significant achievement.  A friend of mine likened the accomplishment to walking through a minefield miles long with mines set at three foot intervals, somehow getting through the whole business tripping (perhaps) one or two of them at most.  Given the disastrous adaptations which have been hitting the screen in the past few years, a single blown mine here and there seems to indicate an act of miraculous genius.

But while I heaved a sigh of relief that The Hobbit will be in good hands (Jackson may only direct one of the films, but his rumored choice to direct the other would be Guillermo del Toro, and that guy's not too shabby either), I started thinking about why I had to sweat this out as much as I did.  Fantasy and science fiction has never been more popular at the box office (I'll leave The Golden Compass out, which I have neither seen nor read and which has been underwhelming in terms of revenue), and you could make the argument that in some ways this is the golden age of speculative fiction and film.  So why are the film adaptations so lousy?  It's certainly not the source material; I, Robot is a wonderful book; A Wizard of Earthsea is an underrated work of fantasy; Beowulf is obviously a seminal piece of literature; and Eragon…well, okay, yeah, Eragon is a piece of crap to begin with.  Even Jeremy Irons couldn't save that garbage.  But for the most part, we're dealing with great books which have tended to get terrible treatment on the silver screen.  What gives?  And how do we save more works of fantasy from entering the Dungeons and Dragons territory (I mean the movie, not the game.  Any time that one of the Wayans brothers is the best part of your film, you know you've got problems.)?

Some of the issues vary from film to film, but I think there are a couple of universal problems which need serious consideration.  So I've whipped up a couple of handy commandments for producers, directors, and writers to live by.  Follow these precepts and you're less likely to turn gold into lead, which while an impressive achievement is kind of a bummer for people who really think gold is a good thing to keep around.

Thou Shalt Not Forget The Point Of The Book.  Now I know that movies are different animals from books, and that you just can't keep everything in a movie adaptation without challenging the four hour mark (Bollywood routinely blows this mark away, but…well, actually, if this is a Bollywood characteristic I shouldn't have to say anything more about what's bad about doing it, should I?); this is why removing Tom Bombadil from The Fellowship of the Ring movie was a good decision, even though I liked his character in the book.  Ultimately the book is not focused on him but on the Ring (in fact Bombadil's lack of interest in the Ring is a clue to this) and the Fellowship's quest to destroy it, and sticking around so Bombadil can chatter more funny stuff about weeping willows while smiling at his trophy wife just doesn't fit that focus if you want to save time.  But as I said before, the ultimate point of the books isn't lost in the films, and you get the sense that this is what Tolkien would have wanted in a film version of his work.  Compare that to, oh, say, I, Robot, (*spoilers ahead, though frankly the whole goddamn film is spoiled if you ask me*) where a book which was revolutionary because it suggested that robots would not take over and destroy humanity, and in fact might be better moral agents than humans, gets converted into an "OMG robots are so scary look they're trying to kill us and Will Smith knew it all along OMG they're so scary!!!111!!" dystopic flick (have I mentioned how tired I am of dystopias?) with a twist of "let's make Susan Calvin a hot chick so we can get a gratuitous shower scene" thrown in for good measure.  Or Beowulf, which I've already talked about elsewhere

In both of these cases, a great story is butchered for no apparent reason, with the result that the actual story will have to wait, possibly forever, to get told for real.  (I, Robot, in fact, is not even based on the book.  It was originally a half-assed script thrown together by some jackass which was ultimately tweaked and renamed when the I, Robot franchise came calling.  But hey, why should we use the Harlan Ellison version, which had Asimov's explicit approval?  As if Ellison knows anything about sci-fi!)  But the point here is that it is not necessary; the books themselves have plenty of action, drama, suspense, and plain old fun without throwing in random shower scenes.  When you start asking third-rate screenwriters to "adjust" first-rate authors, I promise something is going to get lost in the translation.  In the name of all that is holy, do your homework (like Jackson did), read the books, talk to experts, and find someone willing to draw upon the spirit of the work for the screenplay before seeing what happens when you throw the whole business into a blender with a high-heeled Angelina Jolie.

Thou Shalt Not Let SciFi Touch Your Work.  Ever.  Even If They Say They Will Be Really Really Careful With It.  Now look, no one is more grateful for the SciFi Channel and their constant Star Trek reruns than I am…and Farscape was pretty good, until they inexplicably cancelled it in favor of keeping Richard Dean Anderson in a job.  But anyone who was unlucky enough to see the abomination SciFi called Earthsea knows that it's a bad, bad idea to get the rights to a book without asking the still-living author how best to produce that book on screen–because this trash is the result.  It's bad enough that they tried to squeeze three books into one short miniseries, and even worse that Ged's shadow (*more spoilers, but seriously, why would you care?*) somehow became the Toxic Avenger, but changing colors (literally–Ursula Le Guin always emphasized the importance of the fact that the vast majority of her characters in the book were dark skinned) is unforgivable.  Instead the producers decided to roll out Danny Glover to play the black wizard supporting the far more powerful white kid who needs his help (what, Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale weren't available?) while the rest of the super-white cast ogle each other in a series of nauseating Beverly Hills 90210 moments.  Now why Le Guin felt she needed to give up her rights in the first place is another story (and one I don't think she's very convincing in trying to explain), but the point is that SciFi is completely hopeless with this kind of stuff (and it's not getting better–look at Tin Man if you don't believe me).  Stay away from them like the plague.

All of which brings us back to Jackson.  Given how terrible the adaptation could have been, and how many mistakes he could have made with the seminal work of fantasy in our time, the fact that he made so few (yeah, Faramir doesn't work quite right, and Sam's advice to Frodo about the Ring in that same part of the movie is completely wrong…but that's still a pretty damn good track record on the whole) is well nigh miraculous…and that's yet another reason to rejoice that he's now in charge of the films of The Hobbit.  Ultimately, at least with Tolkien, Jackson subjugates his own ego to the work he is directing, and that's probably the biggest commandment of all: Thou Shalt Not Put Yourself Above Your Source Material.  The more that directors, producers and movie studios get this last commandment in their heads, the more we'll all be spared deadly robots and Toxic Avengers–and that, my friends, is (in the words of Gandalf) an encouraging thought, even for a fanboy.

Dec 16

I'm in the midst of grading final exams, and so don't have time for a long post today–but I couldn't resist mentioning something about this:

 

That's right.  It's the first reality show to involve choirs singing off against each other.  And each choir is assembled by a different celebrity–Nick Lachey, Patti LaBelle, Kelly Rowland, Blake Shelton, and…uh…Michael Bolton.

Who says the networks don't understand real music?

Sigh.

Dec 15

Regular readers of this site (or even the new ones who are quick on the uptake…meaning all of you, of course! :) ) will I think have picked up two things about my personality by now:

1.  I don't suffer fools gladly.  (I do suffer because of them, though.  I suffer even more when I'm one of them, which happens more than I like to admit.)

2.  I'm a bit of a contrarian, or at least a skeptic, when it comes to "conventional wisdom."

Both of these characteristics stem from my sense that we tend to, well, settle for things more than we should.  Vaccinate children for everything which we neither had nor needed to concern ourselves with twenty years ago (including chicken pox…vaccinating against chicken pox?!?)?  Sure…everyone says it's a good idea.  Accept widespread civil rights abuses to protect against imminent (so we're told) terrorist attack?  I guess…everyone agrees that some sacrifice in personal liberty is a necessity.  Believe that the contestants on American Idol are the best singers in America?  Well…if they won the vote fair and square…

Yes, there is safety in numbers, and comfort in feeling that you're not on your own.  When it comes down to it, in fact, most of us would much rather walk with the marchers than against them–and there's often a good reason for doing so.  Despite my serious qualms about the Amazon review system (and Harriet Klausner, patron saint of the "amateur" reviewer), I must admit that there is a benefit to it when dealing with significant numbers.  One person telling me that x book is terrible and I should avoid it isn't particularly helpful; fifty people telling me the same thing, some with evidence to support their claims, is more likely to give me pause–not because I'm a thoroughgoing democrat (although I suppose I might be :) ), but because the simple law of averages suggests that of those fifty people, a few of them are likely to have some similar tastes to my own.  Or to put it another way, they can't all be smoking crack, or at least not the same kind (and if they are, they might be on to something).  The bottom line is that it's reasonable to assume that there is something off about the book, film or theater production in question if everyone who read or saw that particular thing said similar things about what was off about it.  Sometimes, then, broad consensus is worth taking into consideration.   

The problem, of course, is that broad consensus is notoriously fickle and inaccurate–so that millions of people can think Sanjay is a good singer, while others who saw the Emperor's lack of clothes a long time ago think their fellow AI watchers really are smoking crack…which they are, by the way, if you saw some of his performances *shudder*.  (This fear of fellow citizens' crack smoking habits also applies to politics, but not in this post.  :) )  I thought of all of this while reading a book jacket the other day that promised "a frightening new vision of a dystopic future."  Now I would hope that a dystopic future is "frightening"–that's kind of the point–but what gets me is the "new" part.

How is this new?

The idea of dystopia was first conceived, at least as a separate term, by John Stuart Mill (who kicks lots of ass, by the way…one of the few philosophers where you don't have to pull out the "he was a man of his time" excuse to defend some of his ideas (you listening, Rousseau?)) in 1868.  A vision of a world gone horribly wrong would have been new in, say, 1869.  I'll give you a few decades grace period, though; if you want to count H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895), go ahead.  But basically, by the time we hit the 20th century the idea of a post-apocalyptic, near future dystopia is well established.  And you can rack up the names from there, in books and films: Brave New World1984Fahrenheit 451Planet of the Apes (you blew it all up!).  Mad MaxBrazil (I don't care that it's directed by a Monty Python cast member, it's still goddamn depressing).  The MatrixV For Vendetta (advertised as an "uncompromising vision of the future"–I guess a compromising vision would be one where we weren't all soulless automatons ruled by faceless bureaucrats).  And of course, I Am Legend (now in its fourth incarnation; where else could you get Will Smith acting the same role as Charlton Heston and Vincent Price did?).  And the list goes on and on.  I'm sure this is indicative of our culture's disassociation with itself, and reflects our worries about our increasingly soulless society.  I'm sure that it serves as a warning to all those who have ignored the collapse of our civilization's basic morality.

But when it comes down to it, I just find the whole goddamn thing as boring as hell.

First of all, the dystopic visions are founded on the exact same speculations as the utopic ones, with the same flimsy evidence and the same rampant leaping to conclusions.  And while I will gladly accept that the near-future dystopia tales can have startling resonances with our current society (it's not that hard to imagine the government restricting civil liberties when it, well, already does that), I think being drawn to those resonances says more about our complaint reflex than it does about a greater claim to truth.  Think about it for a moment: life is often terrible.  Awful.  There are times when it seems hard to go on.  And yet for the vast majority of people, life is often also positive, exciting, fun–hell, sometimes even fun.  Now certainly there are a subsection of people who deal with worse things more of the time than the rest of us–but no larger, I suspect, than the subsection of people who deal with better things more of the time than the rest of us.  In other words, most of us get through basically okay, highs and lows in roughly equal measure.  Yet visions of utopia are dismissed as Candyland fantasies while visions of dystopia are called "brave" and "uncompromising."  Second, the "we're all going to die tomorrow" stuff has been done…a lot.  And if nothing else, it would be nice to, perhaps, try something new for a change (which ought to be a goal of all speculative fiction writers)–like imagining a world where destruction isn't the inevitable conclusion.

But maybe we like being depressed, you say.

Well, no; you could argue we just like being realistic.  But my point here is that the vision of a future wracked by death, disease, and universal despair is just as unrealistic as the vision of a future wracked by joy, happiness and cinnamon rolls (which is maybe the greatest possible future I could imagine), and so I'm starting to wish for some critical balance here.  My own work is hardly all sunshine and light, but I'd like to think there's at least the possibility of hope within it…and without that hope, I think I'd rather curl up and cry than waste time writing about how terrible everything is.  So for a little while, I think I'm going to bypass the section of the bookstore or video shop dedicated to the uncompromising visions of the future and look for works willing to compromise just a little on the possibility of hope.

Sort of a cinnamonrollia, if you will.  I could dig that kind of vision.        

Dec 8

 

Because I'm not a huge television fan (love the sports, Boston Legal and Law and Order are cool, throw in a concert from London or something once in a while and I'm all set) the Writers Guild of America strike hasn't really been on my radar screen, and it appears I'm not alone; most people seem to have barely registered the news, and those who have seem mostly confused by the whole thing.  Ostensibly the strike is about distributing DVD revenues and (most importantly) online content; the writers want a piece of the pie, the studios claim the pie might taste terrible and even if it's good, they might not have enough to go around if the writers take a bigger piece.  (It's not the most inspired analogy I've ever come up with, but I happen to like pie.)  The financial ramifications are real, but it's hard to build a rallying cry around the idea of "we write the online stuff too." If you've got one, let me know; so far the best I've been able to come up with is

What do we want?  Money from YouTube!

When do we want it?  Now!

I don't see Joan Baez tackling that in an impromptu concert anytime soon.  Anyway, the point is that this isn't really a "sexy" strike, for want of a better term; it's not an easy conflict in which to pick a side.  And it probably doesn't help that the writers themselves, being writers, aren't really clear about what the hell they're doing either, or have decided to pass the downtime by making fun of themselves.  Former Simpsons writer Larry Doyle may summarize the prevailing attitude the best: "We are artists. We may not dress all cool like artists, or get chicks like artists, and none of us are starving, quite obviously, but Hollywood screenwriters are certainly artists, perhaps even artistes, and we suffer just the same… We suffer as we slave over our screenplays alone, staring into blank laptops, often blinded by pool glare."  It's funny, sure (I mean we pretty much knew he could write already, right?), but it doesn't exactly conjure up images of a holy fight against a Dickensian owner to improve hideous work conditions.  And if the writers don't take their own strike seriously, why should the rest of us?

But of course, that's the whole problem, you see: from the writers' point of view, the general public doesn't take them (or what they do) seriously enough to begin with.  That might explain why ninety percent of the pictures you'll find from this strike are of celebrities "showing their solidarity" with the writers, not the writers themselves (and by the way, they have to be the happiest looking bunch of people on a picket line I've ever seen).  And with good reason: do you know who the hell writes Boston Legal, or Grey's Anatomy, or Law and Order (without Googling, now, you're not fooling anyone over there!)?  I sure don't.  And since we don't know these people, the studios figure they can squeeze them a bit without worrying about the public relations hit they might otherwise take.  What's worse (from the writers' point of view) is that a combination of reality shows, sporting events, and reruns can go a long way to tiding the American public over, especially during a holiday season when people expect (and want) a lot of classic shows and movies anyway (if the studios ever lost A Charlie Brown Christmas there'd be hell to pay, though), and film scripts are set through early '09.  In other words, there's no public pressure for a resolution to the situation (Schwarzenegger doesn't count, unless he comes in like this).

Just like everyone else, I'm not entirely sure where to go on this one.  I'm a writer, I belong to a union (the AAUP), and I don't trust the large studios, so I guess my tendency would be to side with the WGA…except that I write books, not television scripts or film screenplays, and thus I, like most writers, am a free agent.  It's true that a vast number of film scripts come originally from books (that's why film options are getting picked up on anything that can keep a plot line together for a few pages these days), but very seldom are the original authors hired to write the screenplay.  WGA people tend to do that, and since they tend to make a lot more money then those of us in the "free agent ranks," it's hard to feel devastated about their situation.  You could even make the argument that a strike helps the up and coming author, since (if it were to last long enough) it would force the studios to look farther afield to find their new crop of writing talent.  Would I cross a picket line, even if I weren't in the union in question?  Probably not, but it's a measure of how poorly the WGA has made its case that I'm even a little ambivalent about the whole business.  Where's the inflatable rat when you need it?

Ultimately I think the WGA is right, the studios are wrong, and the creative talent (writers, actors, and directors) ought to get the lion's share of the money from all of the revenue streams, online or otherwise.  I'm always in favor of giving the greatest financial reward to the person making the greatest artistic contribution to a given work.  But so long as the union continues to let its members joke around about what they're doing, or let the Ben Stillers of the world stand in for the Larry Doyles, I can't blame the general public for approaching the whole mess with a collective yawn.  Pool glare blindness just doesn't seem like that pressing a concern, even when it's accompanied with a lot of self-deprecating irony.

Dec 6

 

[Warning: a few minor spoilers may be found below.]  Okay, full disclosure: I teach the poem Beowulf, and since it seems that every fantasy-related work I teach in that class is destined to have a lousy movie made about it, I wanted to weigh in here.  Thus far reviews seem to be running towards the positive side, about 70% on Rotten Tomatoes from both critics and users (who would have thought they could get along?) and a B grade average from the critics at Yahoo Movies.  Sounds reasonable; hell, the RT users gave The Shawshank Redemption 98%, so obviously they know what's what, right?  And just check out the raves the critics are giving the film:

"An animated action epic you can feel in your loins."   (Nice.  I felt The Polar Express in my elbow, mostly.)

 "…plenty of swordplay, monster-slaying and a naked Angelina Jolie turn the centuries-old poem into a bitching action movie." (Bitching!)

"Beowulf couldn't be less faithful to the original epic poem, and that's actually a good thing for moviegoers. It's a lot more fun than the mythic adventure most of us read in school." 

Whoa, whoa, wait a minute.  What?

Uh-oh.  Turns out USA Today's Claudia Puig (I have no idea…if your name was Puig, you'd probably have to become a movie reviewer too) pretty much summarizes what everyone who loves the movie loves most about it: it's not Beowulf.  Really.  It's got a cool warrior, sure, and a whothehellknowswhatthisisbutit'sabad-ass monster, and a kick-ass dragon, and a hot woman, and sweet CG graphics (if you don't already know, that means computer-generated, and get with the program if you didn't know, you fossils!).  But it's definitely not the poem, and that's great.  Apparently.  You can tell from all the offhanded references to "wouldn't please the English teachers" in these reviews that there are some awfully bitter ex-AP English refugees out there.

Now I'll be the first to admit that Beowulf taught wrong wouldn't be a fun experience for anyone.  I read it for the first time in college, but if I had been a high school freshman trying to slog through too much "Ongeat pa se goda grund-wyrgenne, / mere-wif mihtig; maegen-raes forgeaf" I probably would have ripped off my own arm.  (By the way, that means "The hero observed that swamp-thing from hell, / the tarn-hag in all her terrible strength."  It's talking about Grendel's mother.  You know, Angelina Jolie.  The resemblance is striking.  Surprised)  But the fact that some teachers teach the poem too early, or don't know how to teach it properly (by forgetting to emphasize the fact that it is a bitching action poem as well, for example, or actually trying to make modern students read it in the original Old English instead of a good translation), isn't a reason to throw it out, or approve of a movie which thinks it's okay to do so.  What this appears to come down to is that a lot of people are going to see the movie, thinking "Thank God, it was called Beowulf but I didn't want to gouge my eyes out from boredom watching it the way I did when Mrs. Grumpleclown made me read it in high school, this is obviously a masterwork," and then going home and writing reviews about how freaking great it is.

Bitching!

But the problem with this is that in the meantime, the actual story isn't getting told.  This isn't the first time they've taken a shot at Beowulf, you know; a movie came out in 2005 called Beowulf and Grendel which was even worse (I've seen it, and all I can say is that when you have Grendel as a 7 foot tall Neanderthal who yells a lot and an inexplicable (and inexplicably) Scottish woman, hot though she may be, who plays the "must have sex in this tale somehow" role, you've got problems), and there was even a sci-fi try with the inimitable Christopher Lambert before that.  And in each case, the story itself has gotten lost.  This is an action tale, yes, and there is a curse, yes, but it's an action tale about a very flawed man whose only "curse" is to trust himself above all others, even in the end when he's well beyond his "taking out nine sea monsters at once" years.  Beowulf is a great hero, and an inspirational one, but he also falsely believes (despite warnings from Hrothgar) that he can conquer everything, even death itself.  In the meantime he's not doing anything to teach his people how to defend themselves, and the end of the poem is sad precisely because he doesn't realize his limitations, or more exactly, because he doesn't realize that he needs others to overcome them.  Result?  Beowulf's country after his death is in big, big trouble.  In the movie, it's really all Grendel's mother's fault, evidently, and since Angelina Jolie is hot, I guess we can't blame the men for being all hot and bothered by her even if she is a "swamp-thing from hell."

Look, I don't have any problem with playing with mythology; my almost-finished second novel plays with myths a bit too, and a lot of good fantasy fiction stretches and inverts standard conventions.  My problem is that we haven't actually seen the standard conventions of this tale yet, an honest to God Beowulf as the poet intended, and I think that story deserves to be seen on film.  Such a story would still be bitching even without Angelina Jolie.  Neil Gaiman (for whom I have a lot of respect–he can write and is a good guy too), who co-wrote the screenplay, says that this film is "filling in the gaps."  Except it's not; it's creating new gaps and then filling them.  If you want something which fills in the gaps, go read John Gardner's Grendel, which tells the Beowulf story from Grendel's perspective and which plays with and expands the original greatly without doing violence to the spirit of the work.  In fact, you could do a pretty good movie about that book too.  But in the meantime, make a movie just like the one you made, but call it The Revenge of Grendel's Hot Mom or something like that.  And leave your bitterness over your boring high school English classes at the door, please; take it out on The Scarlet Letter, if you must, but leave poor old Beowulf alone.  He's got enough to worry about.