The End Justifies (and redeems) The Means

Do you think an outstanding ending can make up for a mediocre story? 

Right up front I have to admit that I was never a very big Blackadder fan.  It never appealed to me in the same way Monty Python did.  But, then again, I never got to watch much of it.  Over here in the States, PBS would only show Blackadder during fund drives and even then they showed the episodes out of order.  I remember being so confused because in one episode, Blackadder was an Elizabethan snob and the next he was an officer in the British Army in WWI.  Of course, now I know that every season (or series for our British friends) took place in a different time period but no thanks to PBS.  And, NO!, I don’t want the stupid tote bag just show Fawlty Towers and shut up.

I had never planned to go back and watch all four seasons but I ran across an article talking about how amazing the series finale was and, still living in the warm post-orgasmic glow of the Breaking Bad finale and hungry for more, decided to give it a try.

I found the first series almost unwatchable.  Rowin Atkinson’s insipid imbecile version of Blackadder was always annoying and never funny.  The supporting cast, likewise, just seemed to do a lot of shouting.  In the second season, things picked up a bit when Blackadder became a blazing cynic and snide comeback artist.  And it was fun to see Hugh Laurie, whom I knew primarily as Dr. Gregory House, doing what he was apparently born to do.  Also good to see Stephen Fry.  But most of my snickers were polite at best.  During the third season, I actually got a few belly laughs and the fourth was funny all the way through, if not amazingly so.  I mean, to remember my friends talking about Blackadder back in 80s, it was funnier than Monty Python and more acerbic than Fawlty Towers.  To me, this was just a genial portrayal of life in the officer corps during the days of Empire, something that had been better portrayed in Python’s Meaning of Life.

And then the finale came and reset my opinion of the whole series.  SPOILER ALERT: In every season ender of Blackadder all the major characters end up dead or doomed.  So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the principals did the thing Blackadder had been struggling to avoid for the whole series: Go over the top and march bravely into the teeth of German machinegun fire.

Now this may have something to do with the aforementioned Jonesing for Breaking Bad, but the emotional connection I made with the series finale was so strong it swept back through me and elevated my opinion of all the previous series.  Except series one, which is just awful. 

This effect, which was similar to the shock induced racial memory from Childhood’s End where the sight of the Overlords is so shocking, it sends the memory backward through time informing the human race’s image of The Devil, reminded me of the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

 I was a huge Buffy fan but even I noticed the quality of the show fell off sharply after the third season.  That’s not to say they didn’t still have great episodes (Hush comes to mind) but there were some serious stretches of credibility with the Initiative, the knights of old riding horses to attack the RV the Scoobies are trying to escape in, Willow’s addiction to magic, and so on.  Watching Buffy in those seasons following the destruction of the mayor became a kind of crapshoot.  Every Tuesday night the first question was, is this going to be a good episode?  If not, then the second question was, will this shitty episode have some good scenes in it?  If not, then you had to hope there was at least a couple of good Whedonesque lines in it.  Something you could quote at the water cooler on Wednesday morning.  For instance: “Can you vague that up for me a little?” 

But the 7th season largely returned to form and the series finale was good enough and bittersweet enough to redeem the whole series.  It was like a perfect slice of cheesecake that redeems an overdone steak at an expensive restaurant. 

Or is it just me?  I can be a pushover so it could just be me that gets sucked in by a good finale and uses that as an excuse for every flaw and excess in the series that led up to that finale.

A Longer Stand

The Stand Original Cover

I don’t know how I didn’t discover this until now but Stephen King released a second version of The Stand in 1990 that adds four-hundred pages of new content!  That’s right, he added back ~80,000 words that had been cut from a book that is already the longest piece of pop fiction most people will ever read.  Interestingly enough, he says in the preface that the pages were cut for cost, not editorial, purposes.  The accountants literally weighed the thing and decided how much they could afford to produce for the price they could charge.

 

Normally, I don’t look at book length as a warning sign.  There’s no hard and fast number of pages that indicates when a writer is suffering from diarrhea of the fingertips, obviously, because a story needs to be exactly as long as it needs to be.  Saying that I Am Legend is better written than The Cryptonomicon simply because the latter is four times the length of the former would be a hilariously stupid way to make a determination of quality.  On the other hand, I have this feeling that the popular fiction industry, in both book and film form, has been steadily adding size to its products since the 1990s in a misguided effort to give consumers a feeling they’re getting value for their money.

 

Take two John Irving novels by example: Last Night In Twisted River and Until I Find You.  I’m a big John Irving fan so, yes, I’ve read every novel he’s ever written and these two represent my favorite and my least favorite among his works (Yes, including Garp).  At 600 pages, Twisted River is 250 pages shorter than Until I Find You.  Is that the reason it’s better?  No, of course not.  Every page of Twisted River, every scrap of plot, every piece of character development is necessary to make the story complete.  And, remember, at 600 pages, this is not a short book.  And the problem with Until I Find You isn’t that it’s 850 pages long, it’s that every scrap of plot is not necessary to tell the story.  As a matter of fact, I often found myself editing the story in my mind as I made my way through it.  And I had the time to focus on editing out scenes in the book because the narrative was meandering and unfocused.

 

That brings me back to how I feel about the 400 pages returned to The Stand. I’m excited.  I loved The Stand when I read it back in the early 80s, although I do remember being put off by its size at first.  I would walk by the bookstore in the mall and there would be this huge hardcover book with the most awesome cover I had ever seen – a couple of characters lifted from Hieronymus Bosch representing the struggle between good and evil – written by an author I had discovered only a few years before when I first read The Shining.  But it was looooong.  So I basically read everything else by King I could get my hands on and then reluctantly circled back to The Stand.

 

Here’s what I learned reading that book: When you enjoy how a book is written, when you’re reading for the pure joy of reading rather than racing toward the end to find out what happens, the length doesn’t matter.  Actually, in that situation, more is better.  The Stand was one of those rare books that I dreaded being done with.  Now it’s been over three decades since I read it last and I have a chance to read it again with 400 lost pages returned to the mix.  That’s an exciting proposition.

 

It also helps that these are pages that were there originally there and have been added back by the author to correct accounting based editorial decisions.  These aren’t George Lucas style “improvements” stapled awkwardly on after the fact.  And I have faith from the quality of what I read in the book the first time that the new pages will only enhance the story.

 

The Mean Season

Winter is a strange time for me and always has been.  A sort of pall descends on me with the cold weather and shortened days.  There is a direct correlation between a chill in the air and a chill in my creativity.  The colder it gets, the less I can organize my thoughts.  To wit: I just spent two weeks working on a blog post and when I went to post it, realized I had already put up an abbreviated version of the same post. 

My dour mood also makes it an inopportune time to watch movies as I come predisposed to hate them.  In service to this, I just burned through several films I had little interest in just to get them out of my queue.  Despite my mood, the majority actually performed quite well.  Two Guns was fun but nothing new, Upstream Color was brilliant but too strange for this time of year so I put it back in my queue for a later date, The East was pretty good for a deep thought movie.  Why do they save depressing films for winter?  Why not push them out in summer when you’re more prepared to handle bad news?  For that matter, we could use popcorn and superhero movies to lift our moods during the gray months.

Anyway, it’s Kick Ass 2 that I want to talk about here.

I wrote previously about rare cases when the movie is better than the book.  In that post, I talked about the difference between Kick Ass the movie and Kick Ass the comic book.  The movie is fun, inventive and noble.  You leave the theater with a sense of tragic uplift.  The comic book is cynical, brutal and cruel.  And more than that, it’s an unrewarding read.  If the payoff for your investment in a literary work is “everything is shit and nothing matters and everyone sucks” I think you can be forgiven for being more than a little pissed at having invested yourself in it to begin with.  But the filmmakers were smart enough to see the potential in Mark Millar’s tiredly downbeat story of losers who lose to the story of losers who manage to win – even if they do so at some cost to themselves. 

There is one horrific scene in that first movie that even I found hard to watch.  But I did watch it because it is absolutely critical to the story.  When I first saw the scene where Big Daddy and Kick Ass are captured and tortured, I kept waiting for the bluebird of happy endings to swoop down and make it all right.  It didn’t happen, of course.  Because it couldn’t happen.  Of course.  Big Daddy has to die to complete the story. 

Good writers, like good gods, love all their creations no matter how annoying they are and therefore take care not to be cruel or dismissive with them.  Any writer (or god) who makes an offhand comment about killing off a character to do something as trivial as raise the stakes or to let the audience know no one is safe is not a good writer (nor a good god).  While it’s true that Shakespeare was probably a genius hack, I don’t for a second doubt that he tried every possible way to let Romeo & Juliette ride off into the sunset offering little more than a stiff middle finger to their acrimonious families on their way out town.  But their story could only end one way and he knew it.  Some deaths are mandatory. 

One of the reasons I break ranks with the Browncoats is that I hate the movie Serenity.  Why?  Well, it’s not very good for one thing but also because of Wash’s pointless death.  It didn’t serve the story.  It wasn’t tragic.  It was a meaningless and inappropriate affectation.  It was the act of a cruel god and I don’t support cruel gods.

All of which brings me to Kick Ass 2.  I was surprised and disappointed when Jim Carrey came out against the movie and refused to join the traveling road show to promote it.  My initial reaction was that he had taken the money to make a movie and was crying foul with his bank account fully flushed so he wouldn’t have to go on the campaign trail to promote it. 

Then I watched the movie and decided he was right.  Not that violence in movies has anything to do with the Sandy Hook tragedy.  He was right because this movie celebrates cruelty.

Whatever strength and acumen the filmmakers used to keep Millar’s cynicism at arm’s length in the first movie is long expired in the second.  Good guys go to bad, humiliating deaths all over the place with the camera leering at the action the whole time.  It’s not a fun movie or a tragic one.  It’s a psychopath’s circle jerk where a bad writer (or a cruel god) tortures and kills his creations just for effect.  Colonel Stars and Stripes’ death isn’t noble or uplifting and it’s certainly not tragic.  It stinks of the offhanded cruelty of a literary sacrifice, a cheap trick never employed in the first film.

Years ago, I watched an interview with Sam Fuller when he was promoting his very personal war film called The Big Red One.  Based on his own experiences in World War II, he said that once you made it past the first few months, your odds of dying in combat went way down.  It was all the new guys being brought up from the rear to fill out the division that took the bullets.  It became so predictable that the senior members of his platoon refused to learn the names of the replacements.  The interviewer had asked him if showing the deaths of the “new guys” in the movie was his way of adding tragedy to the story without killing off any major characters.  His response was something like, “Tragic?  Those deaths weren’t tragic.  We never even knew their names.  To us, they were just statistics.”

The killing of a major character is not to be taken lightly.  The last thing you want is for your audience to spend the remainder of the story wondering why the hell you did that.  Big Daddy’s death is perfectly in line with Kick Ass’s story.  It hurts but it makes sense (and Cage does an excellent job of reminding us he’s an actual actor) but Colonel Stars And Stripes’ death is just cruel and arbitrary.  The whole movie seems to gloat over the triumph of evil to the point where the ending of the film seems to discount the heroes altogether.  It’s almost as if the writers secretly wanted this to be Chris Damico’s movie all along.

R.I.P.D.

Okay, so what is it with all the hate for this movie?  It has a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes and, of course, it died at the box office, mostly due to a paucity of good reviews.  I watched it today just to kill some time but found myself engrossed and highly entertained.  This is an economical and funny supernatural comedy very much in the ilk of Men In Black that is fast paced and unpretentious.  The writing is good and natural and the funny bits land well.  The acting, especially on Jeff Bridges’ part, is extremely good.  And the story is engaging if not highly original.  This is basically Men In Black IV, but it’s a nice take on the MIB concept.

By comparison, The Room, a movie so inept it seems made for MST3K, has a 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Do the critics honestly believe that The Room is three times better than RIPD?  Watching The Room can only be turned into a pleasurable experience by openly mocking it.  RIPD on the other hand, would have been a lot of fun to see at the Alamo.  A beer and a pizza would have gone perfectly with Bridges’ curmudgeonly wild west Sheriff lines.  As a matter of fact, I’m a little bit pissed that I didn’t go see it when it first came out.  That’s what I get for letting other people make my movie viewing decisions for me.

I think the critics were just suffering from action movie fatigue and overhype strain.  I know I was.  Man of Steel and Into Darkness were both disappointing.  Oblivion and Last Stand were equally disappointing and The Hobbit was an unexpected flat-line from my perspective.  I’ve written here before about the sameness that is creeping into the action movie genre.  Never much for originality to begin with, I get the feeling I can tell you what’s going to happen next given only a few minutes taken from any place in the movie.  I didn’t even bother to watch the end of Iron Man 3, I was so certain what was coming.

In the 1970s, action movies were gritty, intense and most likely to star Roy Scheider or Gene Hackman.  Die Hard and Lethal Weapon changed all that in the 1980s when action movies became louder and flashier but with less substance.  I’m not saying that was a bad thing.  Gritty is awesome for a while but then you want to have some fun.  And the 80s, if they were about anything, were about having some fun.

In the 1990s, advanced computer graphics changed the game again, stepping up the flash and the bang and once again reducing the content to little more than a series of snarky quips.  You can chart the drop in quality with the rise of Michael Bay until it reaches its natural nadir by turning one of the most horrific attacks on the United States, Pearl Harbor, into a movie that is little more than a video game.

Then came the superheroes.  And, once again, I am not saying that’s a bad thing.  I love me some comic books.  I love that we finally have the ability to make a comic book movie that is awe inspiring instead of just awful.  It’s just that there are so many of them and they all essentially tell the same story. 

This is my issue, this is a problem I have: when the sameness starts to get to me, I look for something different.  RIPD and The Lone Ranger both looked like they were maybe a step away from the tried & true path.  But they both failed miserably.  And this is where it becomes my problem: whenever I sit down to fashion a story, I look for a way to make it different.  I want an angle that isn’t plumb in the mainstream.  And that’s not always a good idea.  As much as they complain about redundancy, people turn away from the different and lean in for the familiar. 

New stuff is out there for a while, flying under the radar of the general public, gathering critical mass until it breaks through one day and becomes the norm.  All that vampire porn was out there in the Romance sewers for years before True Blood opened the floodgates.  Likewise, Philip Pullman wrote Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in the U.S.) in 1995 and the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997.  The Young Adult market exploded in the early 2000s and all those authors who had been toiling away in something like the basement of the publishing industry started getting big checks and lots of attention. 

Now everyone wants to write vampire porn and young adult supernatural but the markets are flooded with titles.  Good luck getting noticed there.  No, I think the only thing you can do is write what you like, create the books you want to see on the shelves to paraphrase Gandhi, and hope that your stuff gets swept up in a similar groundswell.  And if not?  Well, at least you have the joy of writing the book.  They can’t take that away from you.

Dune vs. The Shining vs. Ghost Story

Everyone who reads this blog knows I’m a Stephen King fanbois.  I don’t deny it.  Hell, I adamantly defend it, but I also happen to be a big fan of Kubrick’s The Shining.  As mentioned in other posts, I believe that the novel of The Shining was mostly unfilmable, especially in its time.  What Kubrick did was discover the essence of that story and render that to the screen.  On my seventh viewing, I finally got it and now it’s one of my favorite movies.  I even shared The Shining with my kids – but not without one of those long-winded introductions they love so much.

I’m also a fan of David Lynch’s Dune.  And, once again, I’ve reported in other posts how disappointed I was when I watched the movie the first time.  And, just as with The Shining, it took some time and many viewings to get that Lynch had done the same thing Kubrick had.  He took an essentially unfilmable work of fiction and gave us his impression of it.    

My central thesis when it comes to complex stories like Dune and The Shining, is that you can’t capture the whole thing in a single two hour movie, so the director creates an impression of his reading of the story instead.  And I would argue that’s a totally valid way of presenting the source material… in some cases.

Which brings me to what I believe is the greatest horror novel of all time: Ghost Story by Peter Straub.  This fascinating, vivid and complex story has more layers and distorted perceptions than your personal reality can hold.  It’s also a brilliant character study stuffed inside a nearly perfect Gothic novel.  And what’s more: It was eminently filmable.

I still clearly remember when the movie was announced because the casting was so perfect.  Although the book’s protagonist is young, the most important characters driving the story are elderly.  So when I heard Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman and Patricia Neal had been cast in those pivotal roles, I felt assured we were going to get a top quality movie out of the process.

I’m not sure who didn’t get it, whether it was the writer Lawrence D. Cohen or the director John Irvin, but, seeing as how Cohen was responsible for two clunky adaptations of Stephen King novels (It and The Tommyknockers)*, I have to assume he was the one who turned this multifaceted gem into a smear of dried oatmeal.

Using what I imagine to be a sledgehammer on his keyboard, he managed to deftly remove all of the layering, all of the history, all of the nuance, all of the allusions to the monsters of supernatural literature from the story.  He even changed the nature of the beast tormenting the Chowder Society into… a ghost.  I guess the irony in the book’s title eluded him.

Whoever’s fault it was, they didn’t distill the book down to its essence and give us their impression of it.  They turned it into a standard Hollywood horror movie and inserted the character names from the book.  As a result, the movie stunk and the wider world of readers who could have been drawn into Straub’s other work remained on the sidelines. 

The book is highly recommended.  The movie, you should avoid.

 

* I know Cohen also wrote the script for Carrie, which is not a bad movie, but keep in mind that the novel is pretty much single faceted.  It couldn’t have been much of a challenge to turn that one into a screenplay. 

 

It Redux

We all have a friend or acquaintance or relative who doesn’t own a television and we all know the exact tone of voice they use to inform us of this fact.  I have to admit that this used to fulminate in me the exact amount of shame intended when it left the speaker’s mouth.  Back when Mork & Mindy and The Greatest American Hero and The Love Boat ruled the airwaves, it was right to be embarrassed about watching television.  There was no way to defend 46 minutes spent with Bo & Luke Duke.

But if you tossed out your box full of glowing white dots after one particularly awful episode of Maude, you missed out on The X-Files, Millennium, Carnivale, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter (season 1), The Wire, The Sopranos… I’m just pulling these off the top of my head and I could go on doing that all night (but I won’t) because television in the last fifteen years just all of a sudden grew up.

The reason this subject even came up is because, owing to my fascination with the novel, I attempted to watch the miniseries of Stephen King’s IT tonight and I was flabbergasted at how unwatchable it turned out to be.  Now my negative feelings about the novel are well documented as is my near fanbois crush on its author, but I never would have expected something as stilted and awful to come out of it like this miniseries.  It was so bad, I started taking notes which I won’t post here because they’re just mean and I have a No Mean Posts policy.

I bailed about thirty minutes in when Seth Green entered as Richie Tozier and even he was awful.  Seth Green!  And that was the thing that got me started thinking.  Seth Green is a comic genius and a decent actor.  Richard Thomas is an excellent actor.  Annette O’Toole and Tim Reid and, really, every other lead in the cast are and were accomplished actors.  Why were they hitting their marks, over emoting and giving stilted line readings?  They knew better.

That was when I remembered something that happened way back when I first signed up for Netflix.  I got nostalgic and immediately began ordering up the shows I had loved when I was in high school and college, some of them listed above.  My interest quickly died out when I had to sit through these incredibly slow paced offerings.  Rockford going to the police department?  Okay, so a shot of him going out the door, a shot of him getting in his car, a cut to the street in front of the department as his car pulls up to the curb and takes an unlikely open spot, a shot of him going into the building.  And… finally, he starts talking to Detective Becker.  And the pacing of the line readings is just very slow. Why?  Because they have time.  As much as six extra minutes per episode.  Also, this is the pre-cable, pre-MTV generation.  We hadn’t yet gotten hooked on quick cuts and jerky, wandering cameras and rapid fire, overlapping dialogue. 

You think television underestimates its viewers these days?  Try watching something from the seventies.  Those establishing shots are everywhere.  I found myself leaning forward during one scene in Greatest American Hero like someone waiting for the last note of “Shave And A Haircut” because a conversation simply would not end.  They had gotten the point across, the drama had been inflated and deflated, the exit lines had been spoken, and Robert Culp just stood there.  I wanted to yell, “Get out, stupid!  The scene’s over!  You’re holding up the show!”

But that’s not the problem with the IT miniseries.  It’s at the root of the problem but it’s not the actual problem.  We’d had MTV for almost ten years by the time IT came out.  We’d had Hill Street Blues and China Beach and Twin Peaks by then.  

The problem with IT?  Good enough for TV.  That’s the problem. 

These days, we’ve grown used to seeing 22 short films during a television season but back then, back in the “good enough for TV” days, everything was done to a lower bar.  With a few exceptions (the previously mentioned Rockford Files comes to mind, which still holds up to this day, believe it or not) the writing, the cinematography, the lighting, the direction is all done down to a level that I can only describe as, yep, you guessed it: “Good enough for TV.” 

What is James Lipton’s withering attack on Tobias in Arrested Development?

Tobias Fünke: Are you calling me a coward?

Warden Stefan Gentles: There’s only one man I’ve ever called a coward, and that’s Brian Doyle Murray. No, what I’m calling you is a television actor.

Tobias Fünke: Ouch.

So what caused this swing toward high quality television after three decades of insipient mediocrity?  Who knows, but I think it had to do with three things:

1) Writers are treated like crap in Hollywood with one exception: Television.  In TV, the writer is the executive producer.  The director who would rewrite his script in the film world actually works for him in the television world.  Writers had steered clear of TV for years because of its reputation for low quality but then guys like Stephen J. Cannell showed you could actually make quality product there.

2) Then cable happened and all those new channels were looking for a way to compete with the Big Three.  They started trying things, pushing at the sides of the box, looking for an edge.

3) And, finally, along came the inexpensive, high quality digital cameras (and the attendant digital editing bays) that could provide a filmic experience on a television budget. 

For a while, we would get a few out of the box shows of superior quality (Twin Peaks, X-Files, Millennium, etc.) mixed in with the usual dreck.  That was enough to draw the good writers with the new ideas and then, when the new digital cameras came in, that brought in the directors who wanted to make movies and the lighting experts would light a scene darkly and the cinematographers who weren’t afraid to put the color black on the screen. 

Still, you have to wonder why in 1990 when King was established as the world’s most popular genre writer they would approach this miniseries with such a lack of passion.  They obviously had the budget, they hired top name television actors, so it wasn’t made on the cheap.  Stephen King is credited as one of the writers and the show was directed by John Carpenter’s cohort Tommy Lee Wallace.  Who knows?  Sometimes projects just don’t gel.  Or maybe I’m just viewing it in retrospect with the altered vision of 20/20 hindsight.  Maybe there’s just no way to go back and watch a show from the past without seeing it through a lens misshapen by the roads you’ve traveled and the things you’ve done in the intervening years. 

The Trick, The Clockwork and The Butler

The interesting thing about writing mystery stories is that you start with the trick.  Or at least I do.  Once you have the trick (It was the butler all along!), you work backwards from there, filling in the frame of the story, dropping in the false blinds and red herrings, until you have a basic chassis on which you can hang the actual novel.  The next question is: Who gets it?

I’ve just put together the chassis for a new murder mystery, one I’m quite excited about, and have gone through the process of choosing which detective(s) will get to solve it.  Are the mechanics of this trick more suited to the 1940s?  Is it a Roy Doyle story?  Or is this something that would better suit Murray & Campanella?  Or, better yet, is this a place to start a new character?

I was tempted to go with a new character because that’s fun and you’re just wide open creatively the whole time instead of being hemmed in by the character traits you previously established in other books.  But, in the end, I think the story belongs to Murray & Campanella.  Plus, it doesn’t hurt that they’re my two favorite characters to write dialog for.

I’ve given myself two weeks to write as much as I can before Christmas break at which time I will switch back to the second Battalion Black novel in an effort to finish it out in a blaze of glory.  At the same time, the first book will be making its snail mail way to Tor Books as a hail Mary.  Then I’ll probably finish this M&C novel before beginning the third and final installment of the Battalion Black series.

God that’s a lot of writing ahead of me.  Glad I don’t have carpel tunnel syndrome yet.