Monthly Archives: January 2014

Batman & Robin, The Room, & auteur theory

tommy wiseau

JOEL SCHUMACHER’S Falling Down is one of the best films ever made; Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin is one of the worst films ever made*. It sounds like it should be surprising but it really isn’t; it’s not like Lou Reed making Berlin then turning around & making Metal Machine Music.

The issue here is auteur theory, a product of the French New Wave which holds that a film is primarily, or entirely, the artistic creation of its director. It might seem a little harsh to the writer with whom the film originated, the producer(s) who made it happen, the actors who actually make much more of an impression on audiences (& whose names sell a film better than a director’s), the composer who gives the film character, & all of the many, many “minor technical” but essential elements that make a film work, but auteur theory basically came to dominate the New Hollywood of the 60s & 70s, & its influence continues to be felt.

It is because of auteur theory that Joel Schumacher’s career never really recovered from Batman & Robin, despite his strong œuvre including St. Elmo’s Fire & The Lost Boys, along with the aforementioned Falling Down (I really can’t stress enough how good it is). The fact is that Batman & Robin is not a poorly-directed film. In terms of its mise-en-scène it is competent, & mise-en-scène is a director’s stock-in-trade. It’s just absurd to blame Joel Schumacher for the mess that was made of the film, when there are, really, two parties far more responsible: Akiva Goldsman, whose horrid script is to blame for this sort of nonsense, & Warner Bros., who insisted on a family-friendly, toyetic film after the relative failure of Batman Returns (& relative success of Batman Forever). Joel Schumacher wasn’t in Christopher Nolan’s position, hired to do his personal Batman film however he saw fit; Warner Bros. wanted the movie they wanted, & he was just there to make it happen, the way you might hire a baker to create your God-awful campy, nipply wedding cake design. Joel Schumacher, who commendably (though, as I’ve said, unnecessarily) apologises to Batman fans several times on the commentary track, would rather have adapted Frank Miller’s excellent, noirish origin story Batman: Year One. He didn’t get to do the Batman movie he wanted, because that’s how the industry usually goes, & to make things crueller, he was blamed for the mess Warner Bros./Goldman made of the movie. It’s hard to see Batman & Robin causing Schumacher so much career damage were auteur theory not so influential.

That’s not to say the theory is totally invalid. Some projects, like Batman & Robin, come to be because they’re big & marketable, while others are the result of genuine auteur-led personal passion. This doesn’t mean those passion projects can’t be equally bad. Take The Room, which simply wouldn’t exist without Tommy Wiseau, who is entirely to blame for almost everything bad about it, including the unconvincing performances (a director ought to coax an appropriate, or at least not distractingly bad, performance from their actors) but stopping short of the insipid R&B soundtrack, which he didn’t compose, although he still let it into his movie. But then The Room is a Wiseau Films production, written by Tommy Wiseau, directed by Tommy Wiseau, produced by Tommy Wiseau, & starring Tommy Wiseau. It can reasonably be called his baby. But then, had The Room been a normal project, there would have been a producer around vetoing the majority of Wiseau’s bad ideas, including casting. For most projects, the director has more creative influence than anyone else, but a producer has more creative control, &, of course, a writer usually does more to originate a project (by writing the script). It’s true to say that directors who are successful or independent enough do get to cherry-pick projects, which is why John Ford did a lot of Westerns, but that doesn’t mean the scripts he chose somehow became his, any more than a cover band writes the songs the play. If you had to pick one individual who gives a film its creative direction, yeah, it’s the director. But their main job is to direct, that is to say to make sure that the artistic efforts of everyone else are heading in a direction that helps the overall production. They’re not a novelist, because films are not novels. They’re probably the most collectively-made art form there has ever been, & to reduce everything in a film to one individual’s creative vision just misunderstands filmmaking; while one absolutely ought to praise Steven Spielberg for his superb job on (say) Jurassic Park, one shouldn’t lose sight of the superb jobs done by Michael Crichton on the original novel, David Koepp on the screenplay, John Williams on the score, Stan Winston on the practical effects, Industrial Light & Magic’s David Muren (& team) on the digital effects, & Jack Horner as paleontological supervisor, & the rest of the hundreds of artists & technicians who made the film so excellent. Steven Spielberg couldn’t have done it alone. How could he possibly have?

*Well, not really; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of dull, inept B-movies less enjoyable & wellmade than Batman & Robin. But for a mainstream production with a decent budget & a cast & crew of professionals, it’s one of the worst.

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Godzilla, Akira, & inter-national concordance

daigo fukuryu maru

IN MAY OF 2014, Legendary Pictures’ American Godzilla film will make its début, as announced in this incredibly exciting trailer. There are good signs all around: Legendary’s last film was Pacific Rim, which essentially inaugurated the American kaiju genre. It could be a prelude to Godzilla 2014. Aside from that, the cast includes Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, & Ken Watanabe, who between them have pretty immaculate taste.

There’s just one concern I have about the upcoming film – & I’m hoping it proves to be unfounded. Try comparing the teaser trailers for the 1998 & 2014 American Godzillas. See, the 1998 American version pretty much acknowledges itself as a bullshit cash-in on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, whereas the 2014 film’s teaser goes for something much classier, more dramatic: that chilling Oppenheimer quotation, over little more than silence & the aftermath of destruction. I like the teaser trailer more than the full trailer because it seems to mean more. The original 1954 film, just nine years after the devastation of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, & the same year as American nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll, presented audiences with a giant, radioactive monster, seemingly supernatural in its wrath & raw destructive power. The film offers little of the expected awesomeness: no monsters fighting monsters, no slow-motion building collapses or sexy camera angles. A mother shields her children, trying to prepare them for death. A burns ward is overrun with victims. A scientist commits suicide, unable to live with his guilt. It often feels more like The Battleship Potemkin than King Kong. It goes beyond the metaphorical into the realm of the purely figurative: Godzilla is not a standin for the atomic bomb, he is the collective fear & guilt & impotence of the entire country given monstrous physical form.

It’s difficult to see how this will translate for American audiences. It was one of the reasons I was disappointed to hear about the proposed American remake of Akira, another film that gives physical form to concerns uniquely a part of the Japanese psyche (the other reason was because the script was hilariously Frankensteined together from seemingly every cliché going), & relieved when it seemed to sink into development Hell. & yet, for some reason I have hope for an American Godzilla. Perhaps it’s simply the Oppenheimer quotation in the teaser – the suggestion of an American mirror image of a Japanese nightmare: reciprocating the ’54 film’s terror with nuclear guilt. &, I suppose, Godzilla is sufficiently an international icon that he needn’t stand solely for the A-bomb: in the later Toho films, he was figured increasingly as a Japanese national icon, like a Captain America or a James Bond; the 70s & 80s saw a tendency to emphasise environmental concerns; & Gareth Edwards, director of the new film, has referenced 9/11, natural disasters, & divine vengeance as parallels for what he wants to achieve.

There’s probably no sense in which Godzilla can ever become naturalised as an American cultural symbol. But I don’t think we’d want him to. Godzilla is Hiroshima, & Hiroshima is Japan’s national-cultural nightmare. Other nations have their own; for the US it’s probably 9/11. But I don’t want to see a Godzilla in which Godzilla is a standin for terrorists, it feels cheap to me, & boring*. & in any case, is there really any sense in which 9/11 is equivalent to Hiroshima? If there is, it can only be described in the very broadest terms. Certainly, the two events do not match up closely enough that a cultural symbol for one can be transferred across to the other intact. The bestcase scenario would be for the 2014 film not to attempt to Americanise Godzilla, but rather to achieve a powerful cultural frisson out of the monster’s roots in Japanese nuclear horror.

*It’s exactly what the American Akira script attempted, incidentally.

Sherlock, James Bond, & the right way to write Doctor Who

hislastvow

APPARENTLY Sherlock‘s Season 3 finale, “His Last Vow”, has achieved more acclaim than any other episode in the show’s run, & is set to make Steven Moffat the most successful writer in TV history. It’s a shame, because it was rubbish, a huge pile of illogical twists explaining, or failing to explain, other illogical twists. A major character is revealed not to be what they seem, in a way that has no buildup & adds nothing to their character; a new villain is introduced, one who the show simply informs us is the nastiest threat Holmes & Watson have faced so far (he isn’t; Moriarty is); several things nearly happen then don’t; & Sherlock yet again does something unforgivable to get his own way, which the show brushes over pretty quickly. It’s clear that Steven Moffat wrote this chaotic sprawl of a finale not as something satisfying & character-drived, that would stand up to repeated viewings, but as a sort of summer blockbuster, a rollercoaster ride of thrills & unexpected chills. & obviously, he succeeded, looking at Sherlock‘s ratings & its reviews. But it felt somehow like an unsatisfying episode, & I think it’s because you simply can’t raise the stakes continually.

The Sherlock Holmes novels & stories generally have very low stakes, & they’re one of the most successful bodies of work in all literature, one of the most influential creations in fiction. They’re just mysteries, very wellconstructed mysteries. There isn’t even always a murder in Sherlock Holmes stories, & the worst possible outcome is usually that Holmes would have failed. He was battling against frustration & boredom. Sometimes he was in danger of being killed, & in “The Final Problem” & “The Adventure of the Empty House”, which are as dramatic as the Holmes stories get, he was in danger of being killed and failing to stop criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty & his gang. I like these low stakes. Mystery, as a genre, requires its protagonist not to be in immediate peril; they need time to make deductions, follow leads, & so on. It’s telling that only “A Study in Pink”, Sherlock‘s first episode, is a genuine mystery. Ever since, Moffat & Gatiss have raised the stakes so continually that “The Sign of Three”, wherein Holmes must write a speech for Watson’s wedding, felt like a relief, despite some irritatingly wacky sitcomisms. There have been so many twists & masterminds & terrorist cells & state secrets & scandals that would rock the nation that Sherlock now feels more like James Bond. But it’s an unsatisfying sort of Bond because those movies never did Sherlock‘s superficial trick of artificially creating drama by telling us things have never been this deadly; for Bond, it’s all in a day’s work.

Sherlock‘s stakeraising is probably more indebted to American television dramas, the expensive & backstory-laden sort that the last decade produced so many of. Traditionally, television was premise-based, like a sitcom, so that viewers could miss several episodes – in an age without DVD, iPlayer or Netflix – & still enjoy the show. So Number 6 tried to escape, & failed, in every episode of The Prisoner, & it was impossible for viewers to fall behind. But since there’s simply no reason for a modern television viewer to ever miss an episode, shows are now more free to engage in complex plots without fear of alienating audiences, & while the result has been a golden age which has produced some of the best television in history, it has, on the other hand, created something of a demand for constant twists & surprises, because the characters simply having a normal, everyday adventure just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s like needing harder drugs.

& one of the shows hit hardest by this glossy American highstakesism is Doctor Who. In the show’s classic period, The Doctor could barely control his TARDIS & consequently just drifted through time & space, meeting people, getting into scrapes. It was a brilliant take on the classic Walking the Earth trope, & gave the show almost unlimited scope: if the producers felt like doing a Western, they could just do a Western. Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner, however, has seen a focus on mysteries, arcs, twists, & all of the hyperdramatic elements that have sucked the life from Sherlock. Because plot isn’t really what makes stories charming, or sad, or exciting, or addictive: it’s characters. Writers should use plot to get the most from their characters, but Moffat has it backwards: he’s happy to sacrifice a character’s integrity for the sake of a big, shocking TV moment. & such shocking moments, done well, can make for fantastic television. But when every single episode purports to be The Doctor’s most dramatic adventure yet, then nothing feels dramatic. As Nigel Tufnel puts it in This Is Spın̈al Tap, “You see, most – most blokes are going to be playing on 10. You’re on 10, here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up. You’re on 10 on your guitar. Where can you go from there?” Nigel Tufnel’s solution, of course, was to go to 11. It seems Moffat thinks he can do the same. It’s a shame, because he’s clearly a total fanboy of Doctor Who & Sherlock Holmes, but he has epitomised Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, & killed the thing he loves.

Interest, identity, & a scientist named Stephen Senn

stephensenn

BEFORE I CAN get on to the rather more appealing subjects of TV shows, Superman comics & world myth, I thought it appropriate to inaugurate my blog with something like a statement of intent, that would provide a context for future posts.

I toyed for a while with the idea of a declaration of interest, such as that of Swiss scientist Stephen Senn, which a friend linked on Facebook a while ago & which I found to be quite an admirable, & also somehow a cute, idea. Since science strives toward objectivity, such a declaration would enable a responsible reader to identify examples of bias in Senn’s work.

On the other hand, it also struck me that such a declaration of interest could actually make for less objectivity, encouraging readers to interpret through a lens of details about person & place*, which in its most extreme form leads to the belief that the worth of an idea or statement of an idea consists not in the thing itself but in the credentials of an author. This will be obvious to anyone with a tumblr**. & tumblr aside, doesn’t prefacing a body of work with a biography encourage a biographical reading? I feel very uncomfortable with blogs that start with a long list of the ethnicity, sexuality &c. of their author, as if one is supposed to be bearing these things in mind while reading. The declaration of interest could encourage either a more biased or a less biased reading of the content proper, which is ultimately the reader’s responsibility. One hopes for sensible ones.

Mind you, having studied English literature I know that it is very difficult to seperate a work from the biography of its author, & such a quest for absolute objectivity might be doomed to begin with, especially given that I’m bound over the course of my writing to reveal some of credentials anyway each time I use anecdotal evidence (as, for instance, revealing my area of study earlier on this sentence) in the course of making a point. So I’ll put down the details of my identity that seem reasonably likely to come up in the natural course of my cultural analyses, & if in the future this blog should prove so influential that a biographer needs a starting point, they can easily scroll down to my first post here. I’m an English major, with a minor in linguistics, of Welsh/English heritage, currently residing in the Northeast of Scotland. I’m young***, politically liberal, & an atheist. That should do for now.

*This is, obviously, under the assumption that this blog ever receives traffic other than from my Facebook friends, who will in all probability already know these details about me.

**My main tumblr blog is entitled Mediocre Batman, & I use it chiefly to host my rather primitive webcomics.

***I was born after the fall of Communism but before the release of Jurassic Park.