November 2008 Archives
November 24, 2008
November 9, 2008
November 16, 2008
November 4, 2008
During election season, what stirs the male imagination more than female candidates? Hustler Video picked up on the instant popularity of Alaskan sex kitten/vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin by rushing into production Who’s Nailin’ Paylin. It follows in the footsteps of 1976’s Union of American Socialists (whose alarming storyline follows Constance Blomen and Willie Mae Reid surrogates through a depraved, expressionistic vision of post-Watergate Washington) and 1984’s Ferraro Fever, notable primarily for the Geraldine Ferraro-Nancy Reagan sapphic gymnastics that close the picture.
Unfortunately, Who’s Nailin’ Paylin lacks the variety and vivacity of older titles. The film suffers from an overall lack of focus and mostly atrocious casting. Much as I wanted to enjoy director Jerome Tanner and writer Roger Krypton’s absurd take on the circus the 2008 campaign became, the plot never jells and the humor never rises to the heights of great political satire. Instead, they rely on cheap stereotypes (portraying “Serra Paylin” as an airhead) and lame-brained humor.
November 1, 2008
November 4, 2008
November 2, 2008
November 1, 2008
November 17, 2008
Man, biopics must be hard to write. It’s one thing to write a biographical book, even with a sort of novelistic “creative nonfiction” approach. Among other things, a book with an unlimited page count can create a much richer portrait of an entire life. It can also, if done with that creative nonfiction approach, play more with the fluidity of time. An important, well-known incident in the subject’s life can spur remembrances of insignificant, unknown moments that might have led to the event. Biopics are almost always framed with a flashback structure, but cinematic flashbacks can (and often do) make things cumbersome. They pose the question, “What led to this moment?” but it takes anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours to answer the question. In a book, it doesn’t have to be more than a paragraph or two. “Remember this? It reminded her of that.” The end.
Biopics have the more difficult task of trying to encompass a person’s entire existence into feature length. I had similar problems with The Final Cut, but at least a screenwriter can just take an overview of a life and condense it down in some way or another. But if someone’s led a ridiculously eventful life, you don’t have many options in crafting a screenplay. As I see it, you can either try to dramatize each of these moments, or you can concentrate on one important moment and try to use that as an emblem of the full life.
The former strategy runs the risk of information overload, with no dramatic thrust, so it feels like we’re watching a series of scenes rather than a story; at worst, it makes us feel like we never get to know the subject despite it being a movie about the subject. I felt this way about recent critical darlings Ray and Walk the Line — good performances aside, both felt more like watching a greatest-moments reel than a dramatic story. The latter strategy tends to have a solid story, but it runs the risk of not even qualifying as a biopic; it also might still leave the central character as an enigma because the filmmakers assume we can fill in our own blanks about the subject’s life before or after the incident in question. I had this problem with Capote, which actually works better as a biopic of In Cold Blood than Truman Capote, who remains a mystery until some painfully on-the-nose dialogue near the end (despite giving us some insight into the character, the clumsy handling makes the movie worse, not better). Becoming Jane takes this same general idea while making a significantly better (albeit not great) movie by concentrating on her early romantic life and illustrating how it impacted her writing.
The only recent biopic I’ve liked as a pure movie experience was La vie en rose. Although it spans the bulk of her life, it never feels like it’s breezily moving from one moment to the next without taking the time to get into the character’s head and let us understand her. It also plays with time in ways that are more effective than the standard “present-day reflections on an eventful life” — the filmmakers wisely make the structure as frazzled and frenetic as Piaf’s life/mind. Yet, it plays so loose with Édith Piaf’s life, it barely qualifies as a biopic and would be better off as a fiction inspired by Piaf.
November 19, 2008
Considering the obsessive deconstruction of the genre, slasher movies are remarkably simple. You have a disparate group of young people, mostly teenagers or college students, and a psychotic killer who borders on mythical picking them off one by one. I won’t deny the powerful subtext permeating these movies, but did we really need the dozens of movies from Wes Craven’s New Nightmare to last year’s (admittedly brilliant) Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon to beat us over the head with the feminism, the gynophobia, the antiheroes, the monsters, the Ahabs? Do we need people to delineate true slasher films from pseudo-slasher offshoots like splatter films and torture porn? Why does it matter?
Frankly, it doesn’t matter much to me now, but it probably would if I ever attempted to write a slasher script. That’s the problem with genre work: you have to understand the genre, even if your goal is to subvert or satirize… In ancient times, when I majored in music, I had a theory professor who would teach us things like symphonic form. He’d map out the structure of a symphony and then say, “Okay, now, here’s Beethoven’s third symphony — and here’s how he broke all the rules.” One day, a classmate asked, “How come we’re studying the perfect form of all this stuff, but all the memorable composers broke the rules?” His answer was a cliché, but a valid one: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”
November 21, 2008
I tend to go harder on comedies than I do on other genres. After 15 seconds of soul-searching, I came up with three reasons why. The first is obvious: I like to pretend that comedy is my genre, so I fiercely protect it from folks willing to pound out lazy clichés in place of actual humor. As they sit back, nodding and chuckling to themselves, I burst through their window and impale them on an indescribably deadly object. I take comedy seriously, and I’ve worked my ass off trying to assess something as subjective as humor in the most objective way possible. It all goes back to the golden age of The Simpsons: not everyone will laugh at every joke, but every single viewer will find at least one joke funny; if they don’t, they simply don’t have a sense of humor. Most “comedy” writers don’t have the ambition to utilize such field depth in their writing (admittedly, it’s a huge pain in the ass for someone to do alone), but even that’s okay as long as they work well within the limited styles of humor they choose.
After awhile, certain people — and I like to think I’m among them, although you may disagree — become so attuned to what makes humor work, it goes beyond whether or not they subjectively find something funny. Personally, I have an intense dislike of broad farces — but I can understand, objectively, how they work in terms of story structure, character development, and style of humor, and I can identify whether or not the script does well within what it wants to be. It’s the same as judging any genre. With comedy, like horror movies, you’re pretty much dealing with a bunch of subgenres that have to be considered on their own merits, whether I find them subjectively funny or not. I could say Farting Farce is a bad comedy because it doesn’t make me laugh, but that’s like saying Big Sloppy Action Movie is a terrible script because it doesn’t read like a Merchant-Ivory costume drama. I can divorce myself from what I find funny and say, “Yeah, somebody who likes farces would probably love this.” Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s a better-educated guess than you’d get from somebody with no sense of humor.
So I’ve honed that skill. I’ve done some of the worst stand-up, improv, and stage acting in the history of time, because there’s nothing like the sound of 300 people not laughing (I swiped that from probably the only insightful line Aaron Sorkin penned during his Studio 60 reign of terror, and he probably swiped it from somebody much better than he is). I’ve forced the most impartial people I could find (e.g., coworkers or classmates but not friends) to read my writing, because who cares what my friends think? Any asshole can make their friends laugh, and 90% of the time, they’re doing it with inside jokes that aren’t objectively funny. The trick is making other people laugh, which is something many “comedy” “writers” fail to do.
At long last, here’s reason number two: ignoring the issue of whether or not I find something funny, too many comedy writers tend to coast on important dramatic principles like character development and plot coherence because they think, “Hey, it’s a comedy! As long as the characters are wacky and the jokes are funny, who cares if the plot makes sense or the characters’ actions are clearly motivated?!” This philosophy is, for lack of a better word, fucktarded. Take a moment, if you like any comedy at all, to think about your favorite moments in comedies. If you’re not a chuckleheaded idiot, whatever came to mind was probably a moment that’s funny because of who the character is rather than what he or she is doing (or what’s being done to them).
The third reason is a little simpler and more personal: I’m a bitter asshole. Juno was terrible, but I only took it personally because it got made and its terrible screenplay won a fucking Oscar. I’m really, really hard on my own work, and I’d wager I probably make it worse by tinkering constantly instead of just leaving well enough alone. I’ll read through something I wrote and ask myself why I ever thought it was funny. It always shocks me — and should shock you — that when I read these “comedies,” I think, “Holy Christ, my shit is better than this.” It’s not an ego-driven thought, and I’m only pointing it out here because it illustrates how fucking bad this shit is.
That said, I have something to say to all the budding comedy writers out there: your shit isn’t funny until it’s funny on the page.
November 24, 2008
In a post-Matrix/Fight Club/Shyamalan world, apparently everything in the action genre is about upping the narrative ante to the point that nothing makes a goddamn bit of sense. You want to know how fucking terrible action scripts have gotten? I read a script about a group of thugs and assholes involved in some kind of… I don’t even know; it was half terrible noir, half fetishistic valentine to Japanese culture (by that, I mean it’s the type of script some pasty white guy would write after watching a bunch of anime and yakuza movies and assuming he’s an authority on Japan), centered around the kidnapping of the daughter of…someone.
See, it got confusing because the lynch-pin of the twisting and turning plot is a somewhat interesting concept involving a portable machine that allows people to swap minds. It’s like Face/Off, only with minds instead of faces and stupidity instead of goofiness. This could lead to good confusion — something intriguing and unusual, maybe even a moderately thought-provoking meditation on the nature of existence or mind vs. body vs. soul. But fuck it, it’s an action movie — let’s just keep character development to a bare minimum so it’s more surprising when one person’s body turns out to be occupied by another dude’s mind. That’s right, everyone gets the short shrift this time around, because if any character had a definable personality, we’d know the instant they swapped bodies with someone else.
But, okay, so it has thin characters and plot twists. It’s an action movie — that’s not so bad, right? Wrong. Here’s the kind of story this is: two women who bare a passing resemblance to one another get an elaborate series of plastic surgeries so they look like twins, then the main character — a male — switches bodies with one of the twins and has lesbian sex with her. For no other reason than “Whoa, man. Twins.” Remember the lack of character development? I understand the guy’s motivation, but what about the other “twin”? Narcissism? Doesn’t cut it. Past sexual abuse? Usually causes women to seek out something a little less healthy than a mirror image of themselves — maybe she abused herself as a child, but that’s meeting the writer more than halfway. It’s also the kind of story where the mind of a child is trapped in a random, unnamed body guard in the ultimate deus ex machina; the kind of story where the voiceover narration is spoken by one character whose body, it turns out, has been occupied the entire time by a different character — and even that wouldn’t be so retarded if not for other voiceover sequences where we hear the thoughts of characters’ minds in other bodies, only it’s their “real” voice, not the voice of the body they’re occupying. It’s only written this way to give us a Shyamalan-style twist, but I’ve said this a thousand times: don’t use a twist if it undoes everything that came before it. Christ!
November 26, 2008
On Monday, I talked a little about how much I liked a post-Apocalyptic western. I’ve also mentioned, on occasion, my disappointment about wasted potential. This seems to happen much more with sci-fi than other genres, but I’m not sure why. I’m not what you’d call a huge sci-fi fan, but I do enjoy imaginative forms of unreality — bleak futures, alternate Earths, alien worlds, etc. The problem comes when a writer creates a vivid, unique world…and tells a shitty story within it. The Time Machine was pretty great until he travels into the future, which is problematic since nobody but me will see a movie called The Time Machine that’s about a 19th-century tinkerer trying to rescue his slain girlfriend. The Final Cut isn’t what I’d call great, but it had good ideas and could have made some very interesting statements about paranoia and the “Big Brother” culture. Instead, it settled for ripping off The Conversation and delivering a shockingly stupid ending.
More often than not, the problem with sci-fi stories — the reason they let audiences (i.e., me) down — comes down to the metaphor. Obviously, symbolism is one of the most important tools of the writing trade. It turns a bland conversation where people shout exactly what they’re feeling into a conversation where people shout about linoleum tiles to avoid confronting exactly what they’re feeling. It makes a moment where someone overhears a meaningless conversation into a moment that makes them realize their entire life is a lie. Symbols allow writers to express their unique views about the world.