If I have to choose...
No, I don't like a false dichotomy any more than the rest of you. But if I have to choose, I'll choose.
Specifically, if I have to choose between a technically-meticulous piece of work without a shred of soul, and a flawed but ambitious / quirky production, I'll have what's behind Door #2 each and every time.
Some of that, I'm sure, is Underdog Syndrome. I empathize with the guys who tried to do it their own way. God love the bastards; they deserve it. I love it to death when there is a real risk, a real shoot-for-the-moon quality about something that tells you people were trying not just to repeat themselves, let alone anyone else.
I got to thinking about this when working on a piece about an almost-forgotten animated production, Twice Upon a Time, which was co-financed by George Lucas and has all but slipped down the memory hole. I rewatched Time recently, and was knocked out by it. It's not perfect — what is? — but it is distinctive. It's clearly the product of people who were happy to take risks and managed to get away with a good many of them.
Lucas's involvement in the film was minimal, which explains how he was able to drag director John Korty away from something that original and get him to work on the thunderingly awful Ewok Adventure movie for TV. And then when Lucas finally got back behind the camera, he gave us the prequels, which are the absolute last cynical word in Film As Managed Risk.
I have a hard time describing the level of disappointment, and later annoyance and outrage, that I felt in '99 when I saw Episode 1. What bugged me most was how dull it was, how prosaic; how despite having a whole farrago of things zipping past the camera, the camera itself never seemed to be all that interested to be there in the first place. It was the cinematic equivalent of a house decorated by a nouveau riche, someone who clutters the place up with tapestries and paintings and rugs, and yet has no personal attachment to any of it. He put those things there because he thought that's what a filmmaker does, not because there was any compelling argument from within himself to do it.
The other two films simply repeated the same mistake with different scenery and props. Not in a single moment did I feel like there was an artist, or even a showman, at work. It was all technique and technology in the service of a story that had never progressed beyond a template that needed its blanks filled in. There were no happy accidents, no lovable mistakes. It had all the charm of a form letter from a ex-lover.
The irony, as has been said before, is that this happened with films Lucas had total creative control over. It was not because someone else had come along and gutted his work. Time had been caught in a struggle between Korty and one of its other producers, who wanted a more adult-toned production, and which resulted in two different versions of the film circulating amongst bootleggers. The movie also suffered because of the bankruptcy of the Ladd Corporation. But despite all that, it still shines.
With Lucas, I felt that once all disciplinary pressure had been removed (in the form of his peers, like Marcia or Brian de Palma), he was free to do what he wanted — which was to create something that outwardly resembled the entertainments of his youth but was inwardly without spirit. He was in a position that almost every single one of the people who have followed in his wake would have killed to occupy, and he blew it. Who in this industry — who in any creative field — have the kind of total control that he did, and on the scope he could command? Not ten others; maybe not even five. He didn't realize his worst enemy was now his own limited vision and his atrophied imagination.
I worry that this may be interpreted as leading up to a truism: that adversary is the mother of creativity, or something along those lines. Too easy. I'm thinking more along the lines that anyone who sets out to remove the obstacles before him, without knowing what others are now in his way to replace them — because they are always there, even if you can't see them — is only pulling the wool over their own eyes. Probably their whole head, come to think of it.
More excerpts from the Kurtz interview (see yesterday's post):
No one’s been able to read the audience, ever, so you have to kind of rely on your own instincts. In the case of Star Wars, George and I had dinner one night, and we were looking through the paper while we were editing American Graffiti. We were looking through the newspaper, looking at the film listings to see if there was anything out there worth going to see. And, there wasn’t. Discussion came around to Flash Gordon, and wouldn’t it be great to have a Flash Gordon kind of science fiction movie – that would be great. We’d love to see that. That’s sort of the gestation of Star Wars – and that was based on something that we wanted to see, that we would pay to go see! And no one was making it.
Programmers call it "scratching your own itch". Creative types do it all the time: they ask themselves what they would want to see or read that isn't out there, and then they go make it. There's some irony in that by the time they're done, they're often too exhausted to savor the fruits of their own work. (Do you know of any writer who re-reads his own novels for pleasure? I can't think of a single one. I know I count myself out of that group.)
... a lot of films that have come out since the ’70s have been quite shallow. Good looking films, but not much to say. Maybe that’s part of the problem, the filmmakers haven’t lived enough. Their entire experience is based on old movies, rather than life. As such, they’re referential all the time – referential to old movies rather than to life experience. So I suppose the only answer to that is material that isn’t that way, material that’s written by novelists or screenwriters that have a substantial amount of real life experience and have interesting things to say about various topics.
... the key is that the original Star Wars, and to a great extent Empire, resonated with the audience because there seemed to be something there that appealed to them. Saying something to them that they may not have even noticed – it was subconscious and they wanted to see it, they wanted to be immersed in that experience ...
Kurtz talks elsewhere in the same piece about the pre-film-school Hollywood, where apprenticeship and bringing one's own native experiences to the table were the ways you proved your value. I always felt that one of the by-products of such an arrangement was to be exposed to precisely the kind of real-life experience that is needed to create something of lasting value.
Yoichi Sai had something similar to say in an interview with Midnight Eye:
Technique isn't very difficult to learn. I want each person to grow under the strength of their own imagination. What I want to teach them is that there are many steps to this methodology of finding your own way. Frankly speaking, technical instruction can all be taught in no more than three months. You don't need to go to film school for four years. Three months is plenty.
He leaves it to us to ponder how many prospective film students actually have much imagination to drawn on.
If the name "Gary Kurtz" doesn't ring any bells off the top of your head, it ought to. He was George Lucas's producer for American Graffiti and Star Wars; he got The Dark Crystal into production; and in this remarkable interview at A Site Called Fred, he talks in great detail about his experiences with all of the above and more.
The interview is loaded front-to-back with fascinating material, but I've chomped out a few of what I feel are the most trenchant quotes.
... the studios are now all owned by big conglomerates who are interested in making money to the exclusion of everything else. Now, the studios always wanted to make money – that was one of their reasons for being in existence – but the men who ran the studios, no matter how difficult they were, they had some sense of what being a showman was like. They were willing to take chances on oddball projects, and you don’t see that as much anymore.
... I think one of the reasons that there’re so few good movies is that that process has been truncated so much. Too many films go into production before they’re ready.
It's hard for that not to happen when the studio is booking a release date into theaters the day the project is greenlighted.
... the way [Star Wars] was in the beginning, in the first place, it was that way because that’s all we could afford and it worked fine. I’m just not a great believer in messing with what is done. It may not be perfect, and as I said a long time ago, there’s nothing that is. No movie is perfect, and every filmmaker is going to sit and watch a movie that he made 10 years ago, or 30 years ago, or 50 years ago, and say, “Oh, I wish I could have done that better.”
... Jean Renoir said in a documentary interview that we did with him when we were all film students, that something that he learned from his father was that, for an artist, the most important thing is to know when you’re done, and leave it. Of course for a painter, it’s absolutely crucial, because you put too much extra paint on and you’ve ruined the painting. With a filmmaker, you have a certain amount of recourse and you can change it again, but the principle is still the same – to know when you’re done, and when it’s over, and when it’s finished – and you walk away. It’s critical, because you can be like Kubrick, and you can work on it forever, and it’s still not going to get any better.
He goes easy on Lucas, on the whole, but I suspect that's because he's seen the man a lot more close-up than most of us have.
He does, however, insist that Han shot first.
The most depressing thing about Lucas's perfectionism — or maybe obsessive-compulsive behavior would be a better description — is how it has come at the detriment of being able to properly appreciate one of the few genuine cultural milestone in both film and popular culture in the last 30 to 40 years. It's as if Ted Turner had withdrawn and destroyed every non-colorized copy of Casablanca. To say that it's Lucas's film and he can do what he wants with is is factually correct, but spiritually vacant and utterly heartless to boot.
It's hard not to react skeptically to word of the death of a man whose work you love and respect. When word began circulating that Satoshi Kon's death had been reported on Twitter by a colleague, there was shock and dismay. It couldn't be right.
Then Otakon's own staff confirmed it, after talking directly to Masao Maruyama of Madhouse (one of Kon's own colleagues), and the gloom set in for real. The man had only just hit his stride, it seemed. His newest production hadn't even been released in English yet (let alone completed), and there was word circulating he'd been in the middle of yet another project.
There wasn't a production of his that I didn't admire in some way. Perfect Blue was the first time I'd seen someone take conceits from giallo horror productions and apply them to animation — not just the visuals but the pacing, the plot convolutions, the atmosphere of paranoia and dread. Paranoia Agent was episodic TV at its best, further evidence (along with shows like The Wire) that the format has evolved into a storytelling methodology on a par with the novel. Tokyo Godfathers wasn't quite as flat-out visionary as his other work, but I had an affection for it all the same; it showed he could do more with his direction and character designs than just bludgeon you with visual overload.
And then there was Paprika, which more than a few people (me included) believed to be Christopher Nolan's uncredited inspiration for Inception. (It's debatable at best, since the original novel wasn't even translated into English when Nolan started work on his project some eight years back.) Paprika deviated from its source material, but for some of the same reasons Mamoru Oshii broke from the original story for Ghost in the Shell to create his movie: to use it as a launchpad for his own ideas.
What I liked best about Kon was how even his most outré concepts were made accessible and engaging. I liked the way he populated Paprika with his own insights and imagery, far more so than the way Oshii did with Ghost. (You can only see so many basset hounds before you want to reach through the screen and shake Oshii by the shoulders.) Too many artists of substance are inward-looking, revisiting personal obsessions that can only mean so much to an audience. Kon strove to turn his inner mirror always outwards. Andrew Osmond's overview of his work dubbed him "the Illusionist", but like all magicians he understood the best magic trick is the one that lets you see reality all the more clearly. He dazzled you with brilliance, and not because he was also trying to baffle you with you-know-what.
It will be strange to see his last work in this light, and to ruminate on what else could have been. If nothing else, I hope his passing encourages that many more people — not just anime fans, but moviegoers, anyone interested in visionary art generally — to revisit his work, and to continue down the road he had been building.
Hey, Mom! Look what I found in the basement!
Within seconds of closing the covers on The Count of Monte Cristo I was already ruminating on how a book that widely imitated must have inspired at least a few people to revisit not just the plot but the very style of the book itself. Click the Way-Back Machine toolbar on your word processor, set it to 1840, and out comes a period literary artifact.
Such things are fun, and they are often the product of someone who's done a lot of homework about their subject ... but the original mindset responsible for that kind of work is as gone as the Roman senators. It's useful to try and imagine how we used to think and dream, even if only to measure the distance we've put between ourselves since then — but less useful to pretend that it's something we can resuscitate let alone get to stand up, walk around, pour drinks and break the ice at parties.
There are many things about TCoMC I would not want to deliberately recapitulate, like the way coincidence and convenience are part of the story's plot engine. This was respectable once upon a time, but has gradually been seen as contrivance if not outright authorial cheating — and I wonder how much of that was due to, for instance, the likes of S.S. Van Dine setting down rules for what was considered out of gamut in a detective story. Example: Nailing the suspect because of the brand of cigarettes he smoked was a cliché and to be avoided at any cost. Ditto coincidence and convenience.
The reason these things worked in the older stories was because they were the product of an age that had not yet declared such things to be bankrupt. It's why I didn't mind King Kong's shifting fur, or the matte lines around the TIE fighters in Star Wars: those things marked those works as a product of their moment in time. Today, the hallmarks are shabby CGI (or overblown, overdone CGI) and out-of-the-box Photoshop / AfterEffects plugins. In twenty years, we might well be trying to recreate those things for the sake of evoking nostalgia for this particular moment. (When the movie Galaxy Quest unveiled its official web page, it was the spitting image of a bad GeoCities fansite, complete with broken hit counters, animated divider bars and misaligned text. I laughed, very hard.)
Everything we do is a product of its moment in time, and that may explain why the best works transcend the limitations of their period and evoke timelessness. In the presence of something that compelling, we train ourselves to see something other than a copyright date.
Some more older movie reviews, from the back catalog, are online again:
I'd have them up faster, but several things conspire to make it difficult:
I owe a lot of my interests in offbeat movies to two people. One, obviously, is Roger Ebert; the other is Danny Peary. The latter's Cult Movies books (which could really use a three-in-one reprint) talked lovingly but also sensibly about movies like Liquid Sky, Seconds, The Terminator and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The last on that list opened with some words about "honesty" in filmmaking that may well have shaped my understanding of what people generally call trash cinema — movies that we know are not good for us, but we eat them up anyway.
Peary's argument, which is a little long to quote here, went something like this: Being honest about a trashy movie isn't much of a defense when you're using it as a dodge to avoid genuine criticism about a film. Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3D is currently basking in that kind of attention: sure, it's not great, but it makes no attempt to be anything other than a splatter film with poke-your-eye-out effects. Just as, to quote an example from my own catalog, Doomsday is not a great movie or even a particularly good one, but an awesome ride.
I go back and forth about this approach, because it can be problematic. The other day I watched an Australian flick named The Horseman, a grimy small-budget production that tried to merge art-house road-picture connections-between-the-generations filmmaking with a blood-spattered torture/revenge picture. The protagonist goes after the men who allegedly killed his daughter during the making of a porn movie. One of the tortures he metes out involves fishhooks and the one part of the male anatomy you would least want a fishhook to come near. This wasn't a "guilty pleasure" movie; it was too closely observed (and way too intimately, horribly violent) to qualify. That made it all the easier to criticize for falling short — far easier to attack than Piranha, for instance, a movie which allegedly seeks to do nothing but bring the goods. Most of the Angel Guts movies were pretty reprehensible, even if they were well-made and packed a wallop — there was a line, and they existed mainly on the other side of it.
Movies, and entertainments generally, all exist on different planes. They have to: they're created for different audiences, with different intentions, and with different outcomes. The movies we call guilty pleasures are going to be that much easier for us to defend because we enjoyed them, and not because there's some magical abstract quality about them. I find it easier to mount a defense for a movie I enjoyed, but at this point I know full well that's why. It's not because I have better taste than someone who attacks the same film.
Between working on The Underground Sun's 2nd draft, working (for actual money), and waiting for a whole Imelda Marcos's closet full of shoes to drop — which really can't happen fast enough, let me tell you — I have been making that much more of an attempt to read. Not newspapers, not blogs; books. The books I stuck on my shelf and told myself I would read someday, and which sat there and let their spines get sunned.
I finally got sick of stalling, and so I pulled out the first and fattest book of the bunch, figuring I could jump-start a reading habit by taking big bites and keeping the momentum going. It worked, I think: in the past couple of days I've made it some 450 pages into the 1200+ of the new Robin Buss translation of The Count of Monte Cristo. The experience of reading, and getting lost in, a book like that is a reminder of how reading creates spaces in the imagination that other things simply do not.
I've read the book at least twice before: once as a kid, when my parents had a "Classics of World Literature" library; and once more as an adult when the Gutenberg Project uploaded a public domain English translation. They were different texts, and from what I understood later on they had both been cut down from the original version. (I even ended up reading a severely abridged edition of the original in high-school French.) I've always had an aversion to reading anything in an abridged form; if I was going to add this book to my collection, it was going to be as complete a version as I could find.
The Buss version is not just complete; it's readable in a way that reminds me how many of our current classics I originally read in older, stodgier translations. Crime and Punishment was like that: the translation I read in college came off the page with all the grace of oatmeal falling out of a baby's mouth. Then I bumped into a newer one (Pevar/Volokhonsky), and read it in something like two single sittings — one of them being on a plane ride back from the other coast. It was no longer a struggle to see why greatness had been ascribed to it. The same thing happened with Monte Cristo; its newfound readability made it that much easier to get lost in.
I wonder now how many books in my life have been like this. I know Natsume Soseki's Botchan had been retranslated (after two previous attempts). Re-reading it in that new incarnation made it all the easier for me to recommend it to people without cautioning them about the translation itself. But I think now about all the stuff I read before which just seemed terribly stodgy — Rabelais, Moliere — the impact of which was lost on me at the time, and which I originally ascribed to me being young and impatient. Maybe it wasn't just me.
No discussion of Monte Cristo would be complete — at least from my end — without mentioning Gankutsuou, the anime adaptation which retells the story in the far future and from the point of view of one of the secondary characters. I loved it and hope FUNimation sees fit to release a Blu-ray edition; if any show in their current catalog would benefit from an HD presentation, it is this one.
After having seen Inception, I'm now qualified to at least comment on the idea that Paprika (my review) was a better treatment of the same idea, or at least a more fanciful one. This is a little like saying an omelet is a better hamburger, or something to that effect.
Heck, I myself was saying "Oh, it's Paprika" before the movie came out. Then I got into the theater, slid down into the seat, shut up, and actually watched it. After something like fifteen years of watching movies and reviewing them (albeit non-professionally), I've learned that it helps to push other things out of your mind when you're in the film, and then bring them back in when it's over.
When I walked out of Inception, I saw more differences than similarities. Both movies used the dreamspace as an arena, but to markedly different ends and with entirely different mechanics. That doesn't make one cleverer than the other, or a better use of the dreamscape. If the whole point of the dreamscape is that it's malleable and that it can be most anything you want, then both films work just fine in that respect. They use the dreamscape as raw material to serve their larger ends.
(Side note: the fact that the dreamscape in Inception is relatively grounded in reality I actually found refreshing, because it set up that many more ground rules, and made their work in the dream world that much more like work, with real consequences and boundaries to be observed.
(Side note 2: From what I've gathered, there are people who while watching some movies register a certain subconscious dislike for them ["subconscious security", anyone?], and then cherry-pick any negative criticism they can find to support their feelings. The same applies in reverse, of course, where people look for anything they can find to justify a movie they like. I'm of the feeling that if you like a movie, just like it because you like it, then the hell with any justification for it. If you hate it, same deal - just don't expect, in either case, other people to automatically follow.)
I enjoyed both films for what they were, just as I didn't think about the 1984 movie Dreamscape while watching either one — or, for that matter, when I was reading Yasutaka Tsutsui's novel, which apparently Wolfgang Petersen is interested in adapting himself into a live-action production. I wonder if that project's going to be scotched because people will think "Oh, it's Inception."
There's plenty of reasons to criticize either movie, but I'm not convinced this is one of them. It's a red herring at best.
And with everything else that was going on, I forgot to post a couple of choice snaps from the show.Read more
Between everything else that's been going on (the catalog runs to several single-spaced pages; I won't reprint all thathere), I somehow — somehow — managed to kick off the all-new, revised version of The Underground Sun.
Call it Underground Sun 2.0. It's only a couple thousand words, and it's more notes than actual text, but it's the right couple thousand words and the right actual text. It took a lot of effort to push off the table all my preconceptions about the story, but it's paid off: I finally have an idea of how to start it, how to shepherd it along, how to keep people interested in it, and how to give it the ending it deserves. And, most importantly, how not to write something that essentially repeats many of the same points as my previous work.
I still have a whole slew of unanswered questions, but I suspect they will untangle themselves as I move along. What's most important is that I now have a new and better framework for how the pieces I have will be deployed. The last time out, it was so seat-of-the-pants I didn't have time to think about the real implications of the story I was telling. End result: I went facefirst into a wall, and no amount of wild plot gyration could save me.
I wonder if it would be interesting, or just horribly narcissistic, to create a special "collector's edition" version of the book. The regular version would be just the novel. The deluxe version would be that plus the original version of the story, like a "workprint edition" of a film (I'm thinking back to Alien³, to be honest). Something else to think about when I'm actually done with it and can wave it under people's noses...
I hope to have something positive to say about the Really Cool Thing I Can't Talk About Just Yet by sometime next week.
The suspense is a-kickin' my butt.
Or, I Survived Otakon And I Got A Lot More Than A Lousy T-Shirt.
Every show's a fun show if you bring the right things to it. I brought myself, my friend Dan, a sense of humor, bottled water, meal bars, protein shakes, hand sanitizer, double changes of clothing, a digital camera, and a wad of cash scraped from a few secret savings. Oh, and my books, although I found out at the last minute that hocking those was going to take a serious backseat to some work related to the Really Cool Thing I Can't Talk About Just Yet. I sold a whopping total of one copy.
At least the guy who pulled the fire alarm on Saturday had the good sense to wait until I was done watching the premiere of Welcome to the Space Show. Between this and Summer Wars, we apparently have not one but two Miyazaki-esque instant classics to look forward to.
More when I'm not lagged.