Saturday, April 8, 2017

I'm So Sorry ...

I went to a big-screen showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey this past Monday, and for some reason, I started imagining the alternate reality where Pete the Retailer and Alex Robinson from Star Wars Minute did their podcast about Kubrick's masterpiece instead of Lucas's.

With no further ado ...

Highlights from 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute

Minute 1

(Theme music: disco version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

PTR: Hello, and welcome to 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute -- the daily podcast where we analyze, scrutinize, and celebrate Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm Pete the Retailer, from petetheretailer.com.

Alex: And I'm Alex Robinson, from comicbookalex.com.

PTR: Today, we'll be talking about minute one of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Minute one begins with a completely black screen showing while a bunch of really strange music plays, and it ends one minute later with a completely black screen showing while a bunch of really strange music plays.

Alex: This is some really strange music.

PTR: That it is. You know, the movie was originally scored by composer Alex North, but Kubrick decided at the last minute to throw North's music out and replace it with classical and contemporary orchestral music.

Alex: I did not know that.

(20 minutes later)

PTR: ... then join us tomorrow for another 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute.

Alex (crosstalk): 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute.

Minute 2

(Theme music: disco version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

Alex: Welcome back to 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute -- the daily podcast where we analyze, scrutinize, and celebrate Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm Alex Robinson, from comicbookalex.com.

PTR: And I'm Pete the Retailer, from petetheretailer.com.

Alex: Today, we'll be talking about minute two of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Minute two begins with a completely black screen showing while a bunch of really strange music plays, and it ends one minute later with a completely black screen showing while a bunch of really strange music plays.

(18 minutes later)

Alex: ... then join us tomorrow for another 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute.

PTR (crosstalk): 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute.

Minute 6

(Theme music: disco version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

Alex: Welcome back to 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute -- the daily podcast where we analyze, scrutinize, and celebrate Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm Alex Robinson, from comicbookalex.com.

PTR: And I'm Pete the Retailer, from petetheretailer.com.

ToCo: And I'm Tony Consiglio, from mini-comics such as Double-Cross!

Alex: Thanks for joining us today, Tony. We're glad you could make it.

ToCo: My pleasure. Now, am I getting this right? Are we talking about a different minute each day?

PTR: Yes, that's right.

ToCo: Because the DVD you sent me -- it just had the same thing 5 times, and no video.

Alex: Well, we'll get to that. So, to set the stage, today, we'll be talking about minute six of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Minute six begins with a completely black screen showing while a bunch of really strange music plays, and it ends one minute later with a completely black screen showing while a bunch of really strange music plays.

ToCo: Now, let me tell you, when it comes to a movie screen, Kubrick really knows how to paint it black.

Alex: Wrong podcast.

(20 minutes later)

Alex: So, Tony, will you be able to join us again tomorrow?

ToCo: Um, couldn't you just replay today's episode? Like, four more times?

PTR: I'm afraid that's not how we do it.

ToCo: Okay, if you say so.

Alex: 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute

PTR (crosstalk): 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute

ToCo (delayed): 2001 ... A Space Odyssey ... Geez, by the end of the week, I'll be dead!

Minute 14

(Theme music: disco version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

Alex: Welcome back to 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute -- the daily podcast where we analyze, scrutinize, and celebrate Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm Alex Robinson, from comicbookalex.com.

PTR: And I'm Pete the Retailer, from petetheretailer.com.

Josh: And I'm Josh Flanagan, of the upcoming Goodfellas Minute podcast.

Alex: My hat's off too you, Josh. I don't know how you guys are going to do that. I mean, sooo much happens in every minute of Goodfellas. Your episodes are going to be hours long.

Josh: Well, we're going to give it a go. You guys really inspired us.

Alex: Today, we're talking about minute 14 of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Minute 14 begins with the sun rising on the horizon, and ends one minute later, with a bunch of ape-men sitting around a water hole.

PTR: I know the first three days were tough, Josh, but a lot happens in today's minute.

Alex: Action packed.

Josh: I was getting pretty tired of sunrises, so this minute was a relief.

...

Minute 18:

PTR: Today's episode of 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute is brought to you by Hallo Fresh.

(jaunty advertising music)

Alex: Hey, Pete! What's that amazing smell?

PTR: I just finished making dinner.

Alex: Mmmm! Flat trays of orange stuff, green stuff, brown stuff, and yellow stuff! My favorite!

PTR: Careful, don't burn your fingers. Those are right out of the heating unit.

Alex: Wow, this is so much better than those old space meals that we had to drink through straws. How did you make such an amazing meal?

PTR (aside to audience): Should I tell him? Should I tell him these trays of stuff came from Hallo Fresh? No, I'd better keep it secret.

Alex: Come on, Pete, tell me how!

PTR: I'm afraid I can't do that, Alex.

(Theme music: disco version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

...

Alex: Today, we're talking about minute 18 of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Minute 18 begins with the  ape-men sitting around their water hole, and it ends exactly 60 seconds later with the  ape-men sitting around their water hole.

...

Minute 56

(Theme music: disco version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

Alex: Welcome back to 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute -- the daily podcast where we analyze, scrutinize, and celebrate Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm Alex Robinson, from comicbookalex.com.

PTR: And I'm Pete the Retailer, from petetheretailer.com.

Jacob Siroff: And I'm Jacob Siroff, from ihatestanelykubrick.com.

Alex: Today, we're talking about minute 56 of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Minute 56 begins with the camera slowly tracking along the length of the U.S.S. Discovery One to the solemn strains of Gayane's Adagio, and ends one minute later with the camera slowly tracking along the length of the U.S.S. Discovery One to the solemn strains of Gayane's Adagio.

PTR: We're really glad you could join us, Jacob.

Alex: And what a minute to start off with! This is the controversial third straight minute of the camera tracking along the length of Discovery. Any thoughts?

Jacob Siroff: Okay, so, like every other minute of this movie, this one just proves that 2001 is one of the worst movies ever made. And by that I mean, it's a Kubrick movie. To me, there's Kubrick, and then there's all other horrible movies ever in the entirety of history.

PTR: Wow. That's an unusual stance.

Jacob Siroff: I don't care. And if anyone says any different, I'm going to prove them 100% wrong.

...


Minute 72

(Theme music: disco version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

Alex: Welcome back to 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute -- the daily podcast where we analyze, scrutinize, and celebrate Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm Alex Robinson, from comicbookalex.com.

PTR: And I'm Pete the Retailer, from petetheretailer.com.

Chris R: And I'm Chris Radtke of the Wookie Dance Party podcast.

Alex: Today, we're discussing minute 72 of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Minute 72 begins with Astronauts David Bowman and Frank Pool eating different colors of goo from rectangular trays, and it ends one minute later with Hal 9000 saying that he first came online in the year 1992.

PTR: 92.

Alex: So, Chris, any opinions on just what it is that the astronauts are eating?

Chris R: I can't tell. But it kinda looks like garbage.

...

Minute 143


(Theme music: disco version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

PTR: Welcome back to 2001: A Space Odyssey Minute -- the daily podcast where we analyze, scrutinize, and Hal gets lobotomized --

Alex: (laughter)

PTR: Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What's in There?

Discussion on the ever-entertaining Star Wars Minute Listener's Society page on Facebook recently turned to J.J. Abrams' Ted Talk about the "Mystery Box." Consensus seemed to be that the talk exemplified a problematic side of Abrams as a filmmaker -- an emphasis on mystery over substance and a habitual technique of keeping the audience in the dark without providing payoff for the many unknowns he introduces to hook the viewer's curiosity.

I certainly have occasional nits to pick with most of Abrams' work, and his Revolution show was an abomination of television. However, I love The Force Awakens, really enjoyed Lost and Super 8, and felt he had a 50-50 record with Star Trek. And the elements I have disliked in his work had nothing to do with mysteries and everything to do with good old-fashioned dumbness. So I figured I'd better check out this Mystery Box talk and see what everyone was going on about.

(SPOILERS! Hereafter, I give away pretty much the whole Ted Talk, so you might want to view it first.)

In a nutshell, Abrams presents the Ted audience with a box from a magic shop he and his grandfather used to frequent. It's a "Mystery Box" purportedly containing over $50 of magic for only $15. He's kept it all these years as a reminder of his grandfather, and has never opened it. He likes the sense of design of the box and enjoys having it around, but if he opened it, the mystery would be gone.

The takeaway for most people on SWMLS seemed to be that Abrams was saying that what's inside a creative work isn't important. Rather, having a cool exterior and a sense of mystery is sufficient.

It seems like a really terrible analogy for storytelling, if one has any respect for the audience and for art as a means of expressing truths.

Another criticism of the talk was that it just kind of rambled along and never really went anywhere. Abrams never brought the analogy to a clear moment of focus, never explained exactly what he meant by it. He just put it out there and surrounded it with some clever anecdotes and funny jokes and talked a bit aimlessly about the creative process, storytelling, etc.

But here's the thing. J.J. Abrams' "Mystery Box" Ted Talk is itself a Mystery Box.

What do I mean by this? Well, Abrams is very direct about the fact that the actual contents of the box don't really matter. But he's also very direct about the fact that the box itself is tremendously meaningful to him. As a collection of objects, pieces put together by the magic shop owner, it's just a bunch of stuff. But in the context of his relationship with his grandfather, it becomes a quasi-religious relic for him, a symbol of great importance that he has invested with immense personal significance.

In other words, the Mystery Box is much more than the sum of its parts, because Abrams uses it to represent something deeply human and unattainable. His grandfather is dead -- there's no way to bring the man back. As a result, opening up the box and seeing the knick-knacks and tricks inside would only diminish the memories it stands for.

Creative work is the same way. Writing, filmmaking, art ... all of these consist of simple tricks and nonsense. Words. Special effects. Imagery that specifically creates a false sense of reality. The inside of the box may be a $50 value, but only from the perspective of the retail customer. Wholesale, it must have cost less than the $15 price, and since the shop owner probably couldn't move that particular merchandise otherwise, he was actually losing money by keeping it on his shelves. But dressed up in mystery, it took on greater value.

More importantly, J.J. Abrams' act of buying the box as a means of paying tribute to his grandfather gives it far more than $50 worth of value.

And sharing the humanity of that act with his Ted Talk audience spreads this deeper meaning farther still.

This is what creative people do. We take words and objects and make them into things with human meaning beyond what they previously possessed. Abrams' meaning of remembering his grandfather is far more substantial than the shopkeeper's meaning of increasing store revenues. But he wouldn't have had that meaning without the shopkeeper's earlier creative act of repackaging excess stock.

So why didn't Abrams come out and explain these aspects of his analogy?

Because his job as a creator isn't to tell us what to think. It's to give us the opportunity to find meaning in the world, beauty that we can translate into personal value.

His presentation was itself a Mystery Box. If he opened it up for us, he'd be doing the exact opposite of what he was talking about.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Bit of an Acquired Taste

Maybe this will clarify things about prequel "apologists" or maybe it will just get me more derision, but here are a couple of stories that I think bear light on the subject.

Not long out of college, I read a couple of books by Gene Wolfe: Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete. The first one amazed me -- brilliant, literate, and highly entertaining all at once. But the sequel just plain baffled my brain. I found it a total chore to get through, a maze of mythological allusions and deep dives into what I think was the history of the Peloponnesian Wars. The ending made no sense at all, and I finished the book thoroughly dissatisfied. Not long after, I got into a debate about the book on GEnie (yeah, this was pre-WWW for me) with a guy who said SoA was just as good as SotM, if not better. You just had to be willing to work at it more, he claimed. I pretty much blew him off, arguing that Wolfe had managed to make the first book not just comprehensible, but gripping, and that he should have done the same thing with the second one.

Also not long after college, I re-read The Lord of the Rings. I'd first read it in seventh grade and found it absolutely tedious. Having devoured The Hobbit multiple times and knowing that everybody and his dog loved LotR, I expected the trilogy to be wonderful, and instead it put me to sleep. I spent all of high school and most of college thinking its popularity just represented people jumping on a bandwagon without knowing what fantasy ought to be like. But a friend of mine insisted I must have been too young to appreciate Tolkien's opus, and I respected his opinion enough to give it another try. And ... I still thought it was boring and overblown, full of cardboard characters and melodrama. But in my early thirties, yet another friend I respected let me know in no uncertain terms that I was wrong, so I tried it again. And finally, I saw what everybody else saw -- a phenomenally rich fantasy world layered with brilliant allegory on what it means to be alive and human.

In retrospect, I'm positive the Soldier of Arete fan knew what he was talking about. If I'd put the effort in, I would have found that book extremely rewarding. But here's the thing: I didn't want to put that much effort into it, and I still don't want to. Gene Wolfe is a genius. I've read a bunch of his books, and the man is on a whole other plane. But I don't get most of his stuff. I just don't get it, and I don't want to put in the effort that I know it will take for me to get it.

I'm not saying George Lucas is another J.R.R. Tolkien or Gene Wolfe. But when tons of smart people are able to speak passionately about the intricate elements of a fictional world and the meaning they find in that world's characters, it probably means there's something there. I was wrong to look down my nose at all the Lord of the Rings fans in high school. I was wrong to assume that the guy on GEnie was just full of himself.

And you're wrong to scoff and sneer at prequel supporters. You're simply wrong. It's fine that you dislike the movies. It's fine that they don't click for you. It's fine that you don't want to devote any brainpower to analyzing the films in search of things that might make you like them better.

But it's not fine for you to ridicule people who find something deeper in these movies. They're right. There IS something deeper there. You're wrong to tell them that they're mistaken.

There are millions of people around the world who have no business ever trying to read The Lord of the Rings. That's not because they're dumb or ignorant, but because the reward they'll get out of it is far less than the effort it will take for them to finish it. It's just not a book for everyone.

The prequels aren't for everyone. But they are for some people. Hate them however much you want, but at least try to acknowledge that you dislike them because their flaws make them indigestible to you personally, not because they lack any inherent value or aesthetic accomplishment.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

He Has Too Much of His Father in Him

Recently, I've seen people complaining variously that The Force Awakens wasn't true to the Star Wars "feel" because some scenes were too much like Guardians of the Galaxy or too much like Firefly.

Am I the only one who thought Guardians of the Galaxy and Firefly were the way they were because they were trying to be like Star Wars? James Gunn explicitly said as much in interviews about Guardians of the Galaxy, even.

People find the most ironic things to complain about.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

From a Certain Point of View

I recently ran across this article purporting to describe all the ways the prequel trilogy "forgot" about the version of Anakin Skywalker established in the original movies. The author's contention is that the OT films lay out certain concrete story elements related to Luke and Leia's father, and that by ignoring those elements, the prequels gave us a less interesting story.

Now, there's no argument that much better scripts could have been written for Episodes I - III. And I don't think there's much argument that all of us old-school fans would have been less annoyed by the prequels if they'd followed our expectations.
But if you assume that the story of the prequels leads to the story of the OT, most of the inconsistencies raised in the article disappear with just a little examination. For example, the article's author wonders why Owen and Beru talk as though they knew Anakin, even though they basically met him only once in their lives. But the answer to this is simple: Owen and Beru both lived with Shmi Skywalker for some period of time -- months or years in Beru's case, and almost certainly years in Own's case. So Shmi would have told them all about Anakin ... probably more often and in more detail than they wanted to know. It doesn't take any reaching or straining to get to that conclusion. Anakin was Shmi's entire life. He was everything to her. There's absolutely no way she didn't brag about him and wonder aloud how he was doing and where he was in his adventures while the Lars family worked and lived around the moisture farm. 

Another complaint is that Ben speaks as though it was his idea to train Anakin, whereas the prequels reveal that the burden of doing so was thrust upon him by the death of Qui-Gon Jinn. How do we reconcile this? Well, the prequels also reveal that Obi-Wan idolized Qui-Gon and blamed himself for Anakin's fall, explicitly saying, "I have failed you, Anakin." We, the audience, don't put a lot of stock in Kenobi's announcement of his own culpability -- it's obvious to us that the entire Jedi order failed Anakin, starting with Qui-Gon. But Obi-Wan isn't the kind of person to point fingers at friends and colleagues, and he took the role of teacher to Anakin's padawan learner very seriously. Rather than admit that his mentor made a mistake by thrusting this responsibility on Obi-Wan when he wasn't ready, and rather than admit that he spent his life in service to an order that got so many things wrong, Kenobi bends over backwards to assume blame himself. He has a compelling subconscious reason to do so, above and beyond the fact that he's a stand-up kind of guy: if Qui-Gon blew it, and if the Jedi blew it, then Obi-Wan's entire life has been spent in service to futility.

The fact is, the great majority of our OT Anakin knowledge comes from Ben ... and Ben explicitly acknowledges that the things he has told Luke have only been true "From a certain point of view." Once we understand that Obi-Wan failed Anakin -- and KNEW he had failed him -- it becomes clear that Kenobi has spent 20 years struggling with his guilt and trying to find some way to reconcile his Jedi beliefs with the seduction of his friend. The idealized version of Anakin that emerges from this inner conflict is his solution: blame the Dark Side for the corruption of this terrific guy, and keep telling yourself that once the Dark Side seduces someone, it's game over, with nothing else to be done. In this way, he can preserve his faith in the Jedi order and his friends, and he can absolve himself of the responsibility to track Darth Vader down and attempt to bring him back to the light.

The prequels undoubtedly would have been much more adventurous and enjoyable if the Anakin we imagined from Ben's descriptions had been real. But that doesn't mean the prequels forgot about the OT Anakin. It just means what we already knew from Ben's dialogue in Jedi: the Anakin of ANH was a sugar-coated version of reality. We simply didn't know the degree of sugar-coating until we saw the prequels.

Now let's circle around to the other part of the article's thesis: that our OT-inspired expectations of Anakin Skywalker would have yielded a more interesting story than the story in the prequels. Frankly, I think this is bunk. A fair chunk of Star Wars fandom dismisses The Force Awakens as a mere retread of A New Hope. But I've yet to hear anyone say that TFA was as badly written and acted as the prequels are always accused of being. Even detractors generally admit that J.J. Abrams delivered some good popcorn-flick dialogue and managed to draw good-to-excellent performances out of his cast. So why don't we take a moment and imagine what the reaction would have been if Episode VII had featured the same clunky dialogue as the prequels, delivered with the same flat quality of performances. Imagine that all the practical effects had been obvious CGI instead.

Abrams would have been crucified, right?

And if we flip it on its head, how would people have responded to the prequels if they'd been full of snappy dialogue and compelling performances? The love story from Attack of the Clones is usually cited as the abominable nadir of Star Wars filmmaking, but what if it had been delivered with fantastic chemistry between the two leads and every line written to perfection? Jar Jar's annoying omnipresence and intolerable, offensive accent aren't elements of the prequels' storyline. They're bad choices in presentation. Remove them and replace them with genuinely clever dialogue, and there's no way he would be remotely as hated.

In the end, some people try to find fault in every aspect of the prequels that they can. But in truth, the story these movies tell is solid, consistent with the original trilogy, and much more subtle and socially relevant than the story we all expected.

Lucas just told the story in highly problematic, inaccessible ways, and ultimately, that's the crux of it: the prequels were badly directed.

We really don't have to go any farther than that.


Friday, May 13, 2016

You're Free!

If, unlike Pete the Retailer, you like fantasy books, my novel The Last Tragedy is free from May 14 to 18!