Chew-Toys of the Mind

So Jim Macdonald and I were sitting around the office this afternoon, and – as happens with writers – we fell to discussing Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and how Hammett had managed to come up with one of the handful of infinitely reusable plots.  Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one; likewise Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.  Plots like these, once their first artist discovers them, can be remixed, remade, adapted, or otherwise messed around with almost ad infinitum and still retain their energy.

Red Harvest – originally a fix-up of four short stories from Black Mask magazine – was part of the inspiration (along with other Hammett works) for Yojimbo by Kurosawa.  Then Sergio Leone adapted/translated/stole/was inspired by Yojimbo to make A Fistful of Dollars, and Walter Hill subsequently did the same with Last Man Standing.

“If they were to remake Red Harvest as a Muppet movie,” Macdonald opined, “it would still be a good movie and I’d watch it.”

“If they did,” I wondered, “who would play the Continental Op – Kermit or Fozzie?”

And Macdonald replied, “Miss Piggy would play the Continental Op.”

“You mean, a gender-flipped Muppet Red Harvest?”

“Yep.”

And I had to concede that he was right.  Miss Piggy would absolutely rock a trench coat and fedora.  And she’s probably the only Muppet who could believably do hard-boiled noir.

From the Department of Exceedingly Mixed Metaphors

Here’s Forbes Magazine – which really ought to know better – in the midst of an otherwise unexceptional article about the impact of the mega-success of Black Panther on the movie industry’s current reliance on producing a year-round series of blockbusters:

This is an entire pre-summer slate of would-be event movies getting steamrolled by one very big tentpole.

Squint a little with your mind’s eye, if you can, and try to picture what would you would be seeing, if this were a literal image.

Right. You’ve got a chalkboard getting squished by a support pole (I’ll even make it easier for you by assuming a circus-tent-sized wooden mast, rather than a flimsy aluminum pup-tent sort of thing) attached in some fashion to a piece of heavy road equipment. Which puts us squarely in Toon Town, if it puts us any place at all.

The moral of the story, if there is one: If you’re going to commit metaphor, for goodness’s sake take moment to visualize the whole thing first

A Movie For The Rest of Us

The other day, for reasons having more to do with a desire to get out of town than anything else, I found myself watching Bad Moms at the Rialto Theatre in Lancaster, New Hampshire.  And I am here to tell you that this is a movie that is far better than it needed to be.  (My expectations going in were low, mostly because it was billed as coming from the team that gave us the – in my opinion – entirely unnecessary bro-comedy The Hangover.)

The second screen at the Rialto used to be the storefront next door, until the theatre acquired it and retrofitted it with a screen and modern theatre seating for about 45 people – a much smaller venue than the main theatre (which has old-school seats that date from the Fifties, or possibly even the Thirties, and also has the largest screen north of Franconia Notch), but a cozy one.  When I was there, the house was sold out, and the theatre operator said afterward that it had been selling out every night.

Counting my husband/co-author, I think there were three male persons in the audience.  The rest of us were female, with all age ranges represented (somewhere, the Triple Goddess must have been laughing with delight), arriving not just as singletons, but in whole gaggles.

And make no mistake – we, and not the guys, were the film’s target audience.

If most movie critics are dissing this movie . . . well, I think it’s pretty fair to say that they are not this film’s target audience.  After all, it doesn’t serve any of their usual purposes: There’s none of the explosions-and-excitement of an action flick; it doesn’t get you seriousness-and-sensitivity points like the cinematic equivalent of a literary novel; and it’s definitely not most guys’ idea of a date movie.

Bad Moms is, in fact, the distaff equivalent of a bro-flick (sis-flick? maybe.)  If the narrative arc of your typical bro-flick involves one last wild irresponsible fling before settling down into respectable-but-boring adulthood, the narrative arc of a sis-flick would appear to feature a breakout from respectable adulthood into a wild irresponsible fling.

(This trope is older than you’d think.  In the 1700s, the lord’s wife ran off with the raggle-taggle gypsies,O,  and if in some of the earliest versions she and the gypsies all met a bad end, it wasn’t long before the story took on a more cheerful configuration.)

What makes Bad Moms more than just a funny movie, though, is the hard truth at its core:  The modern world does its best to set moms up to fail.  It’s not acceptable for a mother to be adequate at the job, getting the maternal equivalent of a “gentleman’s C” if at the end of the day the kids are fed, washed, healthy, and out of jail; it’s not even enough to finish with a solid B+.  In the school of modern motherhood, it’s straight A’s or nothing.

Obligatory writing reference:  The funniest humor almost always has a piece of hard truth at its heart.  That’s what gives the humor its weight and striking power, like a snowball with a rock in the middle.

Bad Moms knows a true thing about modern motherhood, and calls it out for the rigged game that it is – and that is why all us moms at the Rialto laughed out loud and kept on laughing.

So We Saw the New Ghostbusters Today

Short verdict: Haters to the rear. It’s a good movie.

It’s not just a good movie, it’s a good genderflip AU, in that it doesn’t just paste the guys’ names and roles onto some female bodies actors and call it a day, it actually asks itself things like, “If this basic character type had been born, raised, and socialized female, what would she be like?” and “What sort of public reception would these people doing these things get if they were four women and not four men?”

So the Venkman character as played by Melissa McCarthy is not the at-least-50%-charlatan that Bill Murray’s version was; and the four ghostbusters, instead of getting citywide acclaim after their initial successes, are treated in the media (with the connivance of City Hall and Homeland Security) as being either frauds or delusional or both.

An all-male remake would have just been putting a new coat of paint onto the chassis of an old classic; by going with a true genderflipped version, the creative minds involved managed to take their inspiration from the old classic and use it to say some new things. And the haters were right to be scared of it, because – in its lightshow-with-explosions kind of way – it’s pointing a mocking finger at the very sort of male privilege that they’re so obnoxiously, and anxiously, defending.

So yeah, go see it. And stay through the credits.

Sometimes I Go to the Movies

Yes, I did see the new Star Wars movie, and yes, I liked it.  But I’d like to take a moment to talk about the other movie I saw recently, which didn’t get nearly as much media attention:  In the Heart of the Sea.  Jim Macdonald and I made a six-hour round trip (not counting the movie itself and a dinner afterward) down to Hanover NH and back in order to see it,  because it wasn’t showing anywhere closer and probably wasn’t ever going to be.  A based-on-a-nonfiction-book film about the fate of the whaleship Essex isn’t going to pull big audiences into the movie theatres at a season when they could be watching heartwarming dramas or the triumphant return of a major franchise, but if In the Heart of the Sea could be said to have a target audience, my husband/co-author and I are it.

It turned out to be a good movie, if not a movie to most people’s taste – very pretty to watch, with a haunting musical score, and it didn’t leave Macdonald muttering about nautical inaccuracies. (At one point near the beginning of the film, the sailors see a squall line approaching like a solid black wall on the horizon. “Does it really look like that?” I asked Macdonald in a whisper. “No,” he said. “It looks worse.” After which we get a truly impressive storm-at-sea sequence.)

I must confess that I, as a lit geek with a fondness for Moby-Dick, and a certain amount of awareness of its sources and analogues, did do a bit of muttering. For one thing, the whale that rammed and sank the whaleship Essex was not a white whale. That was a different whale, known in the sperm whale fisheries as Mocha (not Moby) Dick.  I’ll give the folks who did the CGI whale points, though, for depicting it as the actual Mocha Dick was supposed to look–not a solid white whale, but a mottled white-and-light-brown one, sort of a pinto effect. I expect that the CGI artists did their research in the same historical source material where Melville did his.

I did wince a bit, though, at the recurring “[N] days stranded” captions during the post-sinking portion of the film. Because you can’t be stranded in a small boat on the open sea. Being stranded requires being left or cast up on a strand — a seashore. (If somebody puts you there deliberately, you are marooned.) If you’re in a boat, you’re either adrift (if you aren’t at least attempting to make progress in some direction) or at sea (if you are, however desperately.)

Not that I’m picky about such things….

Zombies, Pandemics, and Other Disasters

The Walking Dead is, of course, the standout show of the current televised post-apocalyptic lineup. What makes it good is that the showrunners have discovered how to convince the American viewing public to sit still for an extended meditation on the various approaches to living a moral life – or at least surviving – in an imperfect world: For every so-many minutes of debate by the characters on morality and philosophy, throw in an equal or greater number of minutes of zombie-smashing and gunfire. The genius lies in the show’s ability to determine just how long viewers will sit still for philosophy before a zombie needs to shamble up out of nowhere and go rarrrgh! (Also, they have figured out that philosophy is a lot more palatable when coming from bikers with biceps. Which is probably a sentiment that Plato could have understood.)

Fear the Walking Dead is a limp noodle by comparison, mostly because all of the characters are operating on a stupidity level that makes me wonder how they survived before Southern California started sliding downhill into chaos. You know that things are bad when the junkie older son of the viewpoint family is one of the few people exhibiting sporadic flashes of intelligence and common sense. (Oh, and Ruben Blades is doing a thankless job of portraying the only other character with more depth than a wading pool. I hope it leads to better roles for him in better shows.)

But the show that I have a sneaking fondness for is the post-pandemic-apocalypse drama The Last Ship. It doesn’t have the groundbreaking quality of The Walking Dead, nor the trainwreck-in-progress morbid fascination of Fear the Walking Dead. What it does have, though, is a refreshing change from the usual Hobbesian post-apocalyptic universe, where all it takes is a couple of weeks without hot water and electricity for the world to collapse into a war of all against all that’s fit to warm a social Darwinist’s heart. In The Last Ship, people aren’t just taking the breakdown of civilization-as-we-know-it passively. They’re all working, in their different ways, to restore order and government and the social contract. Hell, even the bad guys on the show are trying to do that thing — they’re just doing it wrong.

And frankly, I think that for all the tempting darkness of the Walking Dead future, the idea of people banding together and striving for the restoration of order is the more realistic vision.

Links to the Past

Writers of historical or alt-historical fiction are always in search of pictorial references for people and places of times past.  Still pictures are good (and for most of history, they’re all that we have), but for over a century now we’ve had moving pictures, as well – and the internet, bless its digital heart, preserves them and displays them for us at our command.

Herewith, a trio of links:

London street scenes, 1927, in color: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qgxki8_R968

Street scenes from Berlin and Munich, circa 1900-1914, also in color: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-m9A8mY-U0

Driving around New York, 1928.  This one’s in black and white, and is a staged comedy short, but the backgrounds are the real thing.  (And it’s amazing how long some of the visual high-speed automotive tropes we’re still seeing in film and television have been kicking around.): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkqz3lpUBp0

I love the internet.