e martë, 24 korrik 2007

Victory is Mine

Yesteryear’s franchises have been returning to our screens both big and small. In addition to all the recent remakes, we’ve seen (or will soon see) the new adventures of Rocky and Rambo, of John McClane and Indiana Jones. Television is not immune either, with the re-launching of Battlestar Galactica and soon, The Bionic Woman.

But in addition to these high-profile properties, at least one more is making a comeback this fall, and so far, it’s still below many people’s radar: V.

You remember V: NBC’s alien invasion saga that in just the two years between 1983 and 1985, managed to devolve from brilliant political drama to pulpy claptrap. V arrived first as a four-hour miniseries on NBC in May 1983. A masterwork by writer/director Kenneth Johnson, V detailed our visitation by alien Visitors, seemingly benign, but who bring with them horror and totalitarianism. V was not grandiose science fiction so much as political and historical allegory (its specific referent was World War II). The miniseries garnered a huge audience and much acclaim.

It stands to reason, then, that it also garnered a sequel. 1984’s V: The Final Battle was a six-hour affair and included a great many more action sequences than its predecessor. However, as Johnson departed the project long before its completion, the sequel lacked much of the original’s poignancy and creeping dread.

This would be something of a stop-over, as, in October 1984, NBC debuted V: The Series, an ill-fated, mess of a show that made V: The Final Battle look like, well, V.

The series was cancelled in the spring of 1985; not even a full season’s worth of episodes aired. Spin-off toys, novels, comic books, and trading cards were not long for production either. In just two years, the property had been ground into creative bankruptcy and, it would seem, borderline irrelevance.

Still, both here and abroad, V fandom limped along. The two miniseries came to be released on home video and later on DVD, where they were joined by a boxed-set of the weekly series. Over the years, rumors and announcements have given the faithful hope that V would be relaunched. One-time science fiction luminary J., Michael Strazynski was even said to be developing his own extension the franchise, as was V’s creator, Kenneth Johnson.

This October, Johnson will unveil his vision for what happened next—not after the cliffhanger of the weekly series, but after the conclusion of his miniseries. One of the present moment’s more unusual franchise reboots, Johnson has written V: The Second Generation, a novel adapted from his teleplay for a miniseries that has yet to see production.

Underlying the novel are two premises. The first is that, twenty years after the Visitors’ arrival, they remain in power, draining Earth of its water, siphoning off its people, and perfecting their propagandist hold on all of us save for the beleaguered Resistance fighters whose only hope is another alien race that has defeated the Visitors elsewhere.

The other premise—the real premise—is that only what Johnson committed to the screen in 1983 is cannon. V: The Final Battle, V: The Series, and of course, the comics and novels, never happened. With the novel, the author brazenly asserts his authority over the franchise, and it is a welcome act. Twenty-plus years of sealed fates and established history are undone. This is one the more intriguing dimensions of the novel. And it something very few of the many franchises currently being relaunched would risk. Imagine, for instance, if only the first Rocky “counted.” (You mean he never beat Apollo? He never fought the Russian? He never had another training montage?)

I was very pleased to receive a review copy of V: The Second Generation from the publisher, TOR. In accordance with TOR’s request, I am saving much of what I have to say for a longer review and interview with Johnson that I will pen later this summer. For now, I can say that Johnson’s vision of the Earth firmly held in the grip of propagandizing totalitarians is both effective and timely. In fact, both Johnson’s new novel and original miniseries may be more relevant now than when he launched the franchise in 1983.

Readers might also be invigorated by the action sequences. Johnson indulges in more action than he did in 1983—more action and bigger action. Reading the book, it is easy to imagine how satisfying it must have been to write such sequences, especially for an author who is really a filmmaker, and one who is often confined to television at that. After all, on the printed page, one word costs the same as all the rest.

V: The Second Generation will be available in both hardcover and paperback this fall.

e mërkurë, 11 korrik 2007


Recently, upon hearing Steven Spielberg say that Michael Bay was "born to direct" Transformers, I gagged. I didn't want to believe that the movies had gotten to such a state that Bay was born to direct a single one of them. Having seen the movie though, I have to concede that Spielberg is, of course, right.

But he's right for more than the obvious reasons. Sure, the movie is enormous, and while that's not everything, it's definitely not nothing. Though I've often felt that Michael Bay has done about as much to kill the action genre as he has making action movies, I have always admired him for his sheer ability to shepherd--however forcefully--these things into being. They're not, say, blog posts, after all. So if I don't honor him as an artist, or admire him as a craftsman, I do respect him as a general who marshals his resources to get these behemoths produced and on thousands of screens the day they're supposed to be there.

This, the sheer there-ness of Transformers, is about its only admirable quality. This is unfortunate, but not unexpected. It is, after all, a movie Michael Bay was born to direct. As is in Bay's other films, everything is too much. The Autobots and Decepticons are overdesigned such that you never have the impression of really seeing anything. A few details stand out here and there (windows that become a breastplate and so on), but on the whole, each robot seems less like a designed creation than an undifferentiated mass.

This is doubly true when the robots are in motion--whether fighting or transforming. When they move, we get little more than a blur of colors and the occasional shape.

How the Transformers interact with the humans is also revealing. One of the movie's more annoying tropes is a scrappy, skimpy robot who fights Shia LaBeouf (whose performance is one of the film's few and genuine bright spots). Here is a simple truth that does not inform the blocking but should: metal is stronger than flesh. And to offer a corollary, when flesh is caught in, or pierced by, metal, it hurts.

I'm sure Bay and co. would say that divesting the fight of such basic authenticity is part of its being aimed at younger audiences. And maybe it is. But I think it's part of something else, too. Failing to ground the fight in even this most threadbare realism has less to do with how Bay depicts the robots than how he depicts the people. That is, it is one more piece of evidence that convicts Bay for his inability to portray human beings as human beings. Here and elsewhere, Bay's movies suggest that to him, a person, a human body is a toy as abstract as their CG-creations.

Say, will there by crap I can buy?

Indeed, how the movie treats its people is even more vintage-Bay than are the robots or even the action. In my book, I write about how hostile Bay's movies are to their intellectual characters, and how, with his movies and in the press, Bay himself represents a nasty, nasty strain of anti-intellectualism. Fortunately, he eases off that gas pedal in Transformers--some. While he doesn't berate such characters as much as he has in the past, he still displays a dim-witted approach to intelligence. (it's almost funny to note how, when it comes time to be smart, Anthony Andersen puts on glasses).

Sadly, Bay makes up for the film's anti-intellectualism deficit with a streak of anti-authoritarianism. To be fair, this is an action movie staple. But whereas the heroes of Dirty Harry or Die Hard mouth off to a bureaucratic superior to stress their rugged individualism, Transformers depicts authority figures as boobs for basic comic relief. The former may be anti-authoritarianism for dummies, but it's better than the latter, which is anti-authoritarianism for pussies.

To wit (and I use the word "wit" lightly): an ersatz George W. Bush asks an Air Force One flight attendant to rustle up some Ho-Ho's. Better yet, we have LaBeouf's teacher, a dweeb with appropriately dweeby sweater and glasses, and LaBeouf's parents, bumbling clods who prompt one of the Autobots to remark, "Parents are irritating. Can we take them out?"

Similarly, the detective who interrogates LaBeouf is so over-the-top, he acts and even looks like Ben Stiller's freak Globo-Gym boss in Dodgeball. Likewise, John Turturro's character, a government operative who works for "Sector 7" is "lubricated" (that is, pissed) upon by a Transformer, and is later held out as an easy object of ridicule when he is shown in his boxers and a tank-top emblazoned with a corny Sector 7 insignia, much like Superman's shield. Protecting the earth from the scum of the universe used to be the job of the Men in Black. Now it's a job for Men in Underoos. Government cutbacks, I guess.

Lambasting these types--particularly parents and teachers--is old hat for Bay, as is his unfunny stereotyping. Whereas Bay has made fun of gay and black people in The Rock, and blacks, Japanese and Samoans in Armageddon (and who the hell has a problem with Samoans, anyway?), here it's Indian telephone operators--one picking his nose at that. The intercutting of this "character" into an otherwise "tense" firefight makes me wonder if Bay will end his career having left any races or ethnicities un-exploited?

The bigger point, however, remains this anti-authoritarian comic relief. Again, it's different from the sort normally seen in action movies because, here, the brunt of it is reserved for those in authority over teenagers. Transformers is chiefly a property aimed at the young, having originated as a cross-promoting cartoon and toyline in the 1980s. Infusing the movie (or more accurately, corrupting it) with this kind of humor, puts the film in league with television shows such as Saved by the Bell and its many descendants aimed at children and teens--shows that replaced the Saturday Morning Cartoon with vibrant, live-action depictions of in-control teens and totally-out-of-it grownups. (For more on this, see sociologist Juliet Schor, who discusses similar depictions of adults in television commercials.)

...And this is what I looked like
during the funny parts.

One could argue that Transformers isn't really for adults, just as Armageddon wasn't for scientists, just as Die Hard wasn't for intellectuals. But there is a difference between not being for a group and being actively hostile towards it. Die Hard, for instance, is not anti-intellectual; it is merely non-intellectual. Armageddon and Transformers, on the other hand, are actively spiteful toward the people they are not "for." So when we laugh at this comic relief, we are, I believe, coarsened--even if just a little.

If there's one reason I'm not as worried by this as I might be, it's the reaction of the audience with which I saw Transformers tonight. To their discredit, they did laugh at the parts that were meant to be funny. But to their credit, they also laughed at the parts that were supposed to be emotional. This is because those parts felt phony, as they usually do in a Michael Bay film. The portentous musings of Optimus Prime, as well as the absurd solemnity of Steve Jablonsky's score belong in the Michael Bay Hall of Tripe. There, behind red velvet ropes, you will find them alongside Armageddon's animal cracker love-scene and faded JFK mural, and Pearl Harbor's depiction of Roosevelt, fueled by conviction, rising from his wheelchair.

That moment has always stayed with me because it reveals a question central to Bay's work: does that claptrap really work on him as a moviegoer, or is it just what he thinks will work on us? The distinction may seem small, but it's not. It marks the difference between being a genuine cornball and a mere hack. The former is better; at the very least, to be a cornball is to have some heart. But the fact that cynicism and stereotyping are such indelible parts of his work makes me fear that it's the latter.

It's sad, really. He is not completely ungifted; Michael Bay can shoot--or fix in post--a sky like nobody else. But sadder still is the thought that occurred to me during one of the many fights that left me sufficently distracted to think (even if I couldn't hear myself doing it): right now, in the world, there are kids who think this movie is great.

It's almost enough to make you wish summer was over already.

e hënë, 2 korrik 2007

We've Got the Wrong George.

If George W. believes the world is a Western, the least he could do is let us keep our Scooter Libby prison movie. While not pardoning Libby, Bush has commuted the 30 months Libby was to serve. Reactions and analysis are starting to come in. So far, my favorite is Josh Marshall's at TalkingPointsMemo. I'll see his conclusion and raise him this: if the conviction should stand, but the sentence was excessive, then how about all those imprisoned on more minor drug offfenses? And isn't this coming from the governor who's executed more prisoners than like, any other?

I saw a disaster of a different sort this weekend:

I was thrilled to see Earthquake on the big screen--and at long last, in Sensurround. I think our ears have been desensitized by home theater, so the effect wasn't as momentous as it would have been in 1974. Still, it was a hoot.

The audience threw itself into the calamity with sheer abandon. Watching Ava Gardner chew what's left of the scenery, and on a beautiful print no less, made for quite a Saturday night.

Of course, the rest of the cast is a treat, as well, including the ever-earnest, ever-trustworthy George Kennedy. Unlike that other George, George Kennedy would not have stolen the election, disregarded the threat posed by al Qaeda before September 11, outsourced the job of capturing bin Laden, barred his critics from reelection campaign appearances, nominated Harriet Meiers, stood by Alberto Gonzales, authorized illegal wiretaps, or brooked the outing of a CIA operative.

George Kennedy would not have let New Orleans fall--and if it had, "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie" would have instead been, in classic disaster movie tradition, "You knew and you didn't warn anybody!" On the off-chance George Kennedy's integrity flagged, and he commuted Libby's sentence, Kennedy would later exclaim what he exclaims in Earthquake: "Alright, it was dumb, but that's how I figured it!"--words that will never pass the lips of W., self-inspection that will never pass his subconcious.

George Kennedy in '08. He's an even better choice of actor than Fred Thompson. George Kennedy's run could validate that true Republican ideal: meritocracy. Remember, in just four Airport movies, George Kennedy's Joe Patroni went from maintenance supervisor to pilot. Of the Concorde.

And finally, something that wasn't a disaster: my recent book signing went well, and my thanks to those who attended. For proof that it actually happened:

Taking questions...

...Signing copies

UPDATE: I'll be out of town for a few days--off to Columbus, Ohio to visit my wife's family. Then I'll be back to gear up for the last scheduled signing: July 12th at the Borders in Santa Barbara (900 State St, 7pm). Drop by if you can. 'Tis the season to be thinking about action movies, after all.