Hold the Cheese

This past weekend we saw Pacific Rim, and — unsurprisingly — I have some thoughts about the movie.

At this point, I don’t think it counts as spoilery to say that the plot of Pacific Rim involves using giant armored fighting robots to defend against monsters invading Earth through a dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean.  As concepts go, it’s exceptionally well-suited for a treatment featuring  a heavy layer of cheese — consider, for example, what Michael Bay did with a similar premise in Transformers.

Michael Bay, though, is the King of Cheese, and Guillermo del Toro, the actual director of Pacific Rim, is something else altogether.  The man who directed Pan’s Labyrinth may do genre, but he does not do cheese, and Pacific Rim is more than just a loud and flashy mecha-and-monsters movie.  At the same time, it doesn’t for a moment pretend that it’s something else —  the film is dedicated to stop-motion animation artist Ray Harryhausen and Godzilla director Ishiro Honda, for heaven’s sake, and contains references and shout-outs to more famous monsters and monster-fights of film and legend than can be conveniently listed here.

What keeps it from being cheesy is that it takes the initial admittedly silly premise–that the obvious and appropriate response to monsters invading from the deep is to construct giant armored robot suits to take them down in single combat–and plays it straight.  It never goes over the edge into parody; and it never gives the audience that “look at how clever I’m being” smirk.  It does give the audience moments of genuine beauty in the midst of all the action (I don’t think there’s an accidentally ugly image in the whole film.)

In short, the movie respects both its audience and itself, and that’s the best way I know of for all art, and not just film-making, to avoid turning into a pot of Velveeta fondue.

Unnecessary Endings

Thanks to the magic of home video, I finally got a chance to watch Spielberg’s Lincoln — which is not, despite its title and its director, a sprawling epic biopic.  It’s actually, for the most part, a tightly focused docudrama about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, in which Abraham Lincoln employs every political tool in the book, up to and including bald-faced lies and outright bribes, in order to secure the crossover votes in the House of Representatives necessary to bring about the abolition of slavery.  The story ends with Mr. Lincoln leaving a gathering of his political associates in order to join Mrs. Lincoln for a night out at the theater, in a lovely moody shot of the President walking down a darkened White House corridor toward the lighted doorway at the end.

Unfortunately, the movie goes on for several minutes after that.

We get the assassination — well, actually, we get an audience at a different performance in another theatre being told that the President has just been shot.  (I suppose this was meant to be clever film-making, but it felt to me like a bait-and-switch.  Mileage, of course, may vary.) We get Mary Todd Lincoln weeping at the deathbed.  We get “Now he belongs to the ages.”  We get a final Inspiring Voiceover Montage.  And I’m damned if I know why the movie needed any of that stuff, unless it was for the historical enlightenment of the three or four people in Outer Mongolia who don’t already know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching a play at Ford’s Theater.

The whole thing reminded me of another movie with an equally unnecessary ending — First Knight, the Arthurian film with Richard Gere as Lancelot and Sean Connery as King Arthur.  Except for the assumption that any woman in possession of her right mind could possibly prefer Gere to Connery, First Knight was a perfectly serviceable film adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’s The Knight of the Cart, and would have worked just fine if they’d left it at that.  But the film-maker stuck a Mort D’Arthur sequence onto the end of it, presumably because nobody involved trusted the audience to remember what was going to happen a few years down the fictional road.

One of the good things about being in the business of making novels and short stories instead of films is that we can get away with putting a bit more trust in the intelligence — and the literacy — of our audience.

Of that vintage, at least. Perversely, as Gere’s gotten older he’s acquired a kind of sleazy shopworn charm that is attractive in its own right. But I digress.

Further Causes of Reader Disgruntlement: Tone/Plot Mismatch

Sometimes, clothing the plot of one kind of story in the tone of a different and contrasting kind of story can  produce startling and unusual effects that give pleasure to the reader.  Other times . . .  well, at other times, the reader is more likely to conclude that the writer was trying to be clever, and failing.  This tends to make the reader unhappy.  (See John Scalzi on the failure mode of clever.)

This was brought home to me when I watched the 2009 film Duplicity, a complexly-plotted movie about corporate espionage and double-dealing which left me sufficiently disgruntled that I spent most of a long drive home from the movie theater trying to figure out what had gone wrong.  My ultimate conclusion, at least as far as my own disgruntlement was concerned, was that the tone and the plot of the film didn’t match. The tone was romantic comedy with a side order of intrigue, while the plot more properly belonged to a Cold War era spy thriller in the Le Carre or Deighton mode — the sort of film that gets shot with a monochrome filter and you count it a win if anybody even vaguely likeable is still alive when the credits roll.

The proper ending for a romantic comedy/caper flick is for the sympathetic characters to finish it up drinking champagne and eating strawberries and chocolate in bed on high-thread-count sheets in a luxury hotel someplace with no extradition treaties. Nothing else counts as a win. With a Cold War spy thriller, just having the sympathetic characters (if there even are any) come out of things alive at the finish is enough to keep it from being a stone downer, and alive-and-together is enough to count as a win.

Similarly, the reader of a Cold War thriller will accept betrayals and skullduggery and sympathetic people doing morally-ambiguous things because the fate of nations is at stake — if things go wrong enough, it won’t just be a few people sold out and bleeding, it’ll be whole armies of them, and civilians as well.  The reader of a romantic comedy is unlikely to be as accepting.

(Does this mean you should never play mix-and-match with tone and plot?  No.  It means that if you’re going to do it, be certain you can carry it off — and keep in mind the consequences of the failure mode.)

Film and Television Aren’t Your Friends

There are a few things — more than a few, actually, but this is a blog post, not an exhaustive list — that you’re going to get the wrong impression of, if you’re relying on film and television and not real life:

How dark darkness really is.  Scenes on television and in the movies that are supposedly set in lightless or minimally-lit places (the woods on a moonless night; a windowless room) are in fact taking place in a representation of darkness and not the real thing, and the representation has to have enough light going on that the viewers can follow the action.  You’re a writer, not a film or television director, so you don’t have access to that particular artistic convention.  You need to keep track of what your light sources are, and if you don’t want your characters to be tripping over furniture in the dark, have them remember to bring along a flashlight.

How much injury it actually takes to put somebody out of action.  If all you want to do is sideline a character for a few chapters so that, for example, other characters are temporarily deprived of their assistance, it’s not necessary to riddle them with bullets or put them in a coma.  A severe sprain, a minor dislocation, a bad case of flu or even food poisoning . . . any of those will work as well.

How loud gunshots really are.  Make that how LOUD.  Your characters aren’t going to be holding any complex conversations in the immediate aftermath.

At what speed the wheels of justice really turn.  Anybody who’s ever served on jury duty knows that the reality is a long way from its fictional counterpart.  There are fewer moments of high drama, and more moments that sound like a couple of highly-paid professional litigators playing a complex but boring game of Mother-may-I.  (If you’ve never served on a jury, do so if you’re called — the experience, for a writer, is invaluable.  Lacking that opportunity, you can sometimes find gavel-to-gavel trial coverage on television or the internet.)

The moral of the story, unsurprisingly, is that if you find yourself writing about something that you only know about through media representations . . . back off and do some research.

Sometimes I See Movies

Not as often as I might, because the nearest movie theater is still forty-five minutes of winding two-lane blacktop away, and some of those winding bits have moose in them, and none of them are fun if the weather turns bad.

(When the signs up here say BRAKE FOR MOOSE, they mean it.  Moose are like skunks and porcupines:  they don’t get out of the way of other things, other things get out of the way of them.  But skunks and porcupines can’t bash in the entire front of your car if you hit them.  So if there’s a moose in the road ahead of you, hit the brakes, sound the horn, and aim for where the moose isn’t.)

But I did get to see Skyfall last week, and enjoyed it greatly.  The separate parts of the globe-hopping narrative hung together well (not always the case in a Bond-franchise plot), the various extended chase and action sequences were of a proper and proportionate length, rather than being drawn out longer than necessary for pointless spectacle (more than one otherwise good action movie has been spoiled for me by the inclusion of sequences which might as well be advertisements for the video game); and the secondary characters are individuals in their own right, not just foils and mirrors for Bond.

Also, Judi Dench as M gives a bravura performance.  In a way, this movie is as much about M as it is about Bond himself, and Dench carries it off splendidly.  Even if you don’t care for action movies in general or Bond films in particular, I’d say that Skyfall is worth watching for her contribution alone.

Why Movie Novelizations Tend to Suck

Not all of them do, of course; nevertheless, when it comes to novelizations, suckitude is the way to bet.  Most of the time, though, it isn’t really (or at least, not entirely) the writer’s fault.

Reason number one:  The writer probably didn’t have that much time to work in.  The publisher wants the book to come out at the same time as the movie, and the studio doesn’t make the book deal until fairly late in the game (because in the grand Hollywood scheme of things, the novel tie-in is roughly as important as the Halloween costume and lunchbox rights.  Or maybe less.)  This leaves the writer facing the directive, “We don’t want it good.  We want it Tuesday.”

Reason number two:  The writer probably didn’t get a copy of the actual movie to watch before writing the novelization.  The studio doesn’t give those out to just anybody, and novelists aren’t even anybody.  The writer would have gotten a copy of the screenplay for the movie; if the writer was lucky, it would even have been the version of the screenplay that actually got filmed, and not some earlier — and superseded — version.

Reason number three:  The novelizer has to please not only his or her editor at the publishing house, but also the person at the movie studio who’s in charge of maintaining consistency and creative control.  This effectively prevents the writer from doing anything innovative or unusual with the material.

Reason number four:  A screenplay is a bare bone to make a good soup with.  It’ll run, typically, about 120 pages, of which a lot is white space.  A knock-down brawl or an epic swashbuckling chandelier-swinging duel may be set down on the page as just “They fight” — presumably on the grounds that the second unit director is going to be handling that sequence and will have his own ideas.  (The novelizers will count themselves lucky if the chandelier bit gets a mention, because viewers of the movie are going to remember it, and will complain if it doesn’t turn up in the novel.)  In any case, the fictional form that matches most closely a film in length isn’t the novel, it’s the short story or novella; but you don’t see novella-length tie-ins crowding the bookstores.  If an author has been charged with making an 80K or even 120K novel out of a standard-weight screenplay, and if he or she isn’t going to be allowed to make up additional story material to fill things out, then the only alternative left is going to be shameless padding.

So the next time you’re reading a novelization that isn’t one of the rare handful of actually pretty good ones, pause a moment and spare a kindly thought for the writer who strove to give the publisher and the movie studio the very best novel that they could get by Tuesday.

Some Things Just Don’t Translate

Written and visual storytelling are two different things, and something that works just fine in one medium may not work at all in the other.  Imagine trying to do the classic music-plus-montage transition sequence beloved of film-makers everywhere with nothing but words on paper, for example.  Writers being the creatures they are, some of them have probably tried it, and it’s possible one or two of them may have succeeded — but it’s bucking the odds.

Over on the written-to-visual adaptation end, you get all sorts of problems with adapting interior action — stuff that’s going on mostly inside the protagonist’s head — into an effective visual form.  The key word there being “visual”; voice-over narration is not usually a good answer.  In my opinion, any director who’s thinking about using voice-over narration should stop and think about it some more before going on with the project. The whole point of a movie is that it tells the story through visuals and action; throw in explicit first-person narration and you might as well have a radio play with illustrations. And that goes double for noir-detective-style first person.  Stuff that reads on the page as moody and atmospheric and full of character-building through voice and tone tends to come off as purple and pretentious when spoken aloud. Especially when spoken aloud with pictures.

Sometimes, granted, Hollywood does make changes in written source material just because it can; but a lot of the time, the changes are made because something interior and/or verbal had to be translated into external action in a visual medium.


All Good Things Must Come to an End

(In which I natter on about television, because I’m working on an editing gig and don’t want to distract myself by talking about writing.)

I think it’s fair to say that some TV series end better than others. Old-fashioned push-the-reset-button drama series and sitcoms didn’t have to do much work to tie off the story — M*A*S*H had the end of the war, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had the tv station close down, other shows just moved without a ripple into the eternal reruns of syndication — but the development of arc-based storytelling put a new burden on television writers, the need for giving the faithful viewers a satisfactory denouement, and I think we’re still seeing them figure out how to do it.

The X-Files wasn’t necessarily the first of the arc-based shows, but it was definitely the one that showed everybody else How Not to Do It. Its sins were many — lack of a clear backstory, failure to end at any one of several perfectly good stopping places, failure to redeem plot coupons the audience had been holding onto for several years in some cases — but it could, I think, have mitigated at least some small portion of its general Fail if it had only done one thing.

That thing? Establish some kind of victory condition early on, and see to it that at least some of the show’s sympathetic characters survived and met that condition. The X-Files disappointed us on almost every count: Mulder never found Samantha or got justice for her abduction/death/whatever; the big conspiracy was never revealed or thwarted or destroyed; Mulder and Scully never achieved vindication and professional recognition (in fact, their FBI careers basically go down the toilet); Scully never got to have and keep a kid; hell, not even the damned aliens got a satisfactory resolution, since they never got to do their Big Colonization Thing while we were watching, either.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, on the other hand, while it didn’t please all its viewers on all counts, succeeded in that one big thing. The show gave us, from the beginning, a main character with a big problem — to wit, her mystical destiny as “the one girl in all the world” — and at the end of the series not only have she and her friends defeated the final season’s Big Bad, she and they have succeeded in rewriting the terms of her destiny so that she is no longer forced to carry that burden alone.

From the Department of Annoying Tropes

I was a Navy wife for about a decade, and a Navy girlfriend for three years before that. And sometimes I get so very very tired of the “Darling, I love you, but I can’t handle your job” routine that seems to be obligatory whenever you have an action-adventure television character who starts out the series married, or even just going steady. It’s a goddamned insult to all the people who are living that life and by God coping with it, is what it is.  (My issues, let me show you them.)

I know why the powers that be do it, of course.  They want the (male) lead to be conveniently unattached, so that he’ll make a more convenient fantasy object for the viewers, as well as leaving the coast clear for the script writers to throw in a Babe of the Week or a Girlfriend in the Fridge whenever they run out of other ideas.  At the same time — because the powers tend to assume that the typical viewer is both casually misogynistic and casually homophobic — they want to make it crystal clear that the male lead is straighter than a ruler-straight thing.  Enter, therefore (and leave, shortly thereafter), the conveniently dissatisfied wife-or-girlfriend.

Personally, I think that the powers that be underestimate the tolerance of the typical viewer, or at least the typical viewer’s lack of a need for constant reassurance about a leading character’s sexuality.  Then again, I’m not gambling a million bucks or more per episode on my faith in human nature, either — one of the advantages to writing novels instead of series television is that the stakes are low enough to take some risks.