The Plusses and Pitfalls of Non-Standard Narratives

In whichever mediums stories are told – in print, on a screen, orally – they usually have a similar narrative structure. The story is presented as it is, with perhaps some limitation on the point of view of the narrator, but without any particular artifice. Sometimes creators do something a little different and impose some kind of artifice on the narrative. That can be a thrilling creative choice, but it can also pose some potential problems. I was thinking about that over the weekend when I encountered two largely successful examples of non-standard narratives.

Evil Eye, by Madhuri Shekar, is an “Audible original,” one of those short freebies offered up to members every month.

EvilEye

Although Audible is mostly known for audiobooks, in my experience these have been closer to podcasts or radio plays, for the most part. Evil Eye is a story about an Indian-American woman struggling with her mother back in India who keeps trying to arrange a marriage for her. When she finally meets a guy without mom’s intervention what begins as a light rom-com kind of thing dives headlong into a story of revenge, reincarnation, and violence. It’s pretty damned good, even if Shekar doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Part of what made Evil Eye so compelling was that it was told entirely through phone calls and voice mail messages. It takes a little while to get a handle on, but it’s used pretty effectively. For example, there a portion of the story where one character basically disappears and another frantically tries to find them. The repeated voice mail messages to a phone nobody is answering, combined with the ratcheting up of the caller’s anxiety, is a great effect.

It doesn’t all work, though. The climax involves a confrontation between multiple characters that can’t really play out in a phone call. The work around is to have one character make a call, then leave the line open while the confrontation happens (in pristine audio detail). It’s clearly a cheat, but not one I hold against Evil Eye too much.

Can’t say quite the same for Searching, a movie that came out last year.

Searching

Searching is about a widower father searching for his high-school daughter who failed to come home one night. It’s fairly suspenseful and engrossing, at least until the writer/director decided it needed a happy ending, at which point the wheels really come off.

Searching’s gimmick is that it’s told entirely through computer screens – via deep dives into emails, Google searches, and Facetime calls (it’s an Apple household, naturally). For the first half of the movie or so this is really effective. The opening segment that sets up the family dynamic and the relationship (or lack thereof) between father and daughter is really excellent, reminding me in terms of storytelling efficiency of the beginning of Up.

Things start to a little sour after that, however. While the father is digging into the digital realm the gimmick works pretty well, but when he has to interact with other people it wears thin. Every conversation between the father and the cop leading the investigation into his missing daughter takes place over Facetime. Why? Because that’s how the movie is made, not because it really makes any sense. The father has a public confrontation with a possible suspect, assaulting him, but we only see it from crappy cell phone videos. Most problematic, when the father confronts his brother about potentially explosive allegations he does so only after rigging the brother’s house with surveillance equipment. Again, why? Because of the gimmick, not because it makes any kind of sense.

Indeed, sometimes you just have to be willing to drop the gimmick and get on with the story. The most famous example of non-standard narratives in literature may be Dangerous Liaisons, which is told entirely in letters between the two main characters. The fact that it’s one of the few books that’s been improved upon by putting on screen suggests that the gimmick isn’t the important part of that story.

Using gimmicks to tell a story can be fun. It can knock your reader of her narrative feet, shaking her up and forcing her to engage with the story in a different way. It can also help you get more deeply into a character than you might in a story told in a more traditional way. But gimmicks can become their own problems, boxing you in to certain narrative choices that might not work best for the story you want to tell.

Remember, kids: always keep control of your gimmicks – don’t let your gimmicks control you.

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Adaptation by Subtraction

One of the reasons novels are so hard to adapt into movies is because there’s just so much in them. Short stories are much easier to completely absorb into a two-hour film, but a book that runs several hundred pages? A real task. Often where filmmakers go wrong is in trying to cram as much of the novel onto the screen as possible, trying to please fans and make sure nothing important gets left out. In truth, that’s about the worst way to attempt an adaptation.

The best adaptations are ones where the filmmakers take the core of the novel and transport it onto the screen, maintaining the feel and ideas of the book, while jettisoning material that gets in the way. Having just read the novel on which it’s based I think the best example of that may be L.A. Confidential.

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Directed by Curtis Hanson, who co-wrote the script along with Brian Helgeland, the film was critical lauded when it was released in 1997. Nominated for nine Oscars it won two, including for the screenplay (it lost best picture to Titanic – not a choice that aged well), which was adapted from the James Ellroy’s 1990 novel of the same name. It’s one of my favorite movies.

The book and movie both follow a trio of cops in 1950s Los Angeles as they try to unravel a conspiracy of corruption among the police, politicians, and wealthy businessmen. The events take place in the wake of “Bloody Christmas,” an actual LAPD prisoner abuse scandal, and are catalyzed by a (fictional, so far as I know) shotgun massacre of six people at a diner called the Nite Owl. Everything comes to a very bloody end.

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The film tells a tight story, hewing close to the Nite Owl killing as the driving force and covering only a few days. The cops – Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), and Jack Vincennes (he who shall not be named) – each take their own paths to the truth, which is far from convenient for any of them. They boil down into fictional cop archetypes – the by-the-book choir boy who has to get his hands dirty (Exley), the thug who wants to be more cerebral (Bud), and the glib hustler enamored with Hollywood glitz and scandal (Jack). As someone else wrote a long time ago, Exley and Bud make one good cop between them.

The book, by contrast, spreads out over several years (with huge time jumps pretty clumsily handled) and adds to the Nite Owl a huge, sprawling murder case that involves torture porn and not one but two serial killers! I’m probably biased from having come to the film first, but this part of the book didn’t work that well for me, as it was so over the top it sacrificed some verisimilitude for spectacle. It is also dark as fuck, full of language that wouldn’t pass any modern PC filter.

What’s amazing is that for leaving out all that stuff the movie still basically ends in the same place in terms of theme. Exley learns that sometimes rules have to be bent to deal with real evil (the lesson of every good fictional cop and, sadly, way too many real life ones), while Bud does his best to rise above his brutality, but winds up reverting to type in the end. Jack winds up dead in both tellings, although for very different reasons.

What the book does that no movie can touch is get us much deeper into the heads of the three cops around whom the story revolves. Bud in the book is basically Bud from the movie, but the other two get backstories that really sharpen their characters. As in the movie, Exley is a war hero, but in the book we learn he’s also a fraud – he framed the aftermath of an act of cowardice to look like bravery. The relationship with his father – an ex-cop turned real estate developer – also gets a lot of development and helps explain why Exley is who he is. The Jack of the book gets a lot more development, including a tragic fuck up in his past and a love interest that gives him more of a potential redemption arc.

Which is to say some things are lost in the adaptation, but not much. For the most part, Hanson and Helgeland got it right on what to cut and what to emphasize. But don’t take my word for it:

Ellroy approved: ‘They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes. The script is very much about the [characters’] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I’ve long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.’

That puts Ellroy in a pretty limited company of authors who are fans of the movies based on their works. Like I said – sometimes it’s not about what’s left in, but what’s left out that makes an adaptation successful.

Writers Can Do Research, You Know

You may remember last year when I finally got around to seeing Whiplash, the highly praised 2014 film about a young drummer and his abusive mentor, and that I didn’t much care for it. Based on that, when I saw a headline over at the AV Club about a “jazz musician who is not a fan of Whiplash” I smirked and decided to check it out. It actually led to a misconceptions about the nature of writing fiction that I wanted to highlight.

The review itself, which you can watch here, really isn’t as negative as the headline. In fact, the jazzer in question, Adam Neely, winds up by calling Whiplash “great,” so he doesn’t exactly take a dump on it. What he does is point out some things about modern jazz education that the movie gets wrong and laments that because Whiplash is about the only pop culture portrayal of that setting it’s likely to be what people think of it. I get it – I can similarly pick nits from just about any lawyer movie.

But before getting to that, Neely goes through a lot of stuff the movie gets right, highlighting a lot of inside details that ring true. He credits this to writer/director Damian Chazelle’s having been in a similar jazz ensemble in high school and goes so far as to say “these sorts of things could only come from playing in a jazz band.”

That’s where the writer in me started shaking his head.

It’s indisputable that Chazelle drew on his own experiences when writing Whiplash – he’s said so in interviews. However, the idea that only someone who had been through those experiences could write such a story fundamentally misunderstands what writers do. It’s a common mistake and one I blame on the one piece of advice about writing that just about everybody has heard – “write what you know.”

It’s not the worst advice, particularly for new writers. Learning the actual craft of writing fiction is easier when the story you’re telling is one you’re familiar with and takes place in the world you know. Having said that, it’s not an iron-clad piece of advice. After all, if all writers stuck to writing what they knew we’d have a lot fewer books and the genre of speculative fiction would shrink to near meaninglessness.

So writers spend a lot of time writing about what they don’t know. How? Research!

Research

In much the same way that an actor who’s going to play a police officer, say, will learn about what police officers do and how they do it, a writer who wanted to write about cops could do the same thing. There’s an entire section of one of the writer forums I hang out on dedicated to research and people looking for answers to questions from people who have actual expertise in that area.

That’s even true when you’re writing fantasy. As I’ve said before, one of the great things about fantasy is that you can make up anything you want, but it’s still important to have some realism about the world you’re creating. In The Water Road I had a character take an arrow to the leg. Since it wasn’t meant to be a fatal wound, I needed to know how to get it out. I did some research, found out that it’s more complicated than I thought and that the kind of arrow used could say something about the character that loosed it in the first place. Reality informed my fantasy.

So kudos to Chazelle for getting those details right, but he’s not the only one who could have done so. Any good writer would have done their research before writing a story set in a particular world. It’s part of what we do.

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I do have to say one thing about Neely’s overall impression of Whiplash. It’s interesting that he points out one of the flaws in the film I did – that nobody seems to really enjoy the music they’re abusing themselves to make – but that for him, the musician, it didn’t harm the movie. For me it did, which just goes to show that even when two people agree on what’s wrong with a movie (or book or song or . . .), it means different things to them. Such is art.

Other Great Lawyer Movies

Several years ago, the American Bar Association Journal put together a list of the “best lawyer movies.” They’ve recently updated it, to their credit (there’s nothing quite so sad as an out of date “best of” list), and it’s full of great movies – Primal Fear, A Few Good Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.. I come not to scorn that list, but to supplement it, with five of my favorite overlooked lawyer movies.

A word on what “lawyer movie” means (to me, at least). It’s a movie where a lawyer is a main, if not the main, character and where the practice of law is important to the plot. It doesn’t have to revolve around a courtroom (although that helps) and, taking a cue from the ABA’s inclusion of A Man for All Seasons, isn’t limited to American lawyers. So, with that said, off we go.

Breaker Morant (1980)

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Breaker Morant gets bonus points for not only being a great lawyer movie, but a great war movie, too. Set during the Boer War of 1899-1902, it’s the story of three Australian soldiers (although the titular Breaker is of English extraction) put on trial for murder of enemy prisoners and a German missionary. They’re attorney, another Australian, has only every handled land conveyancing before. It is, ironically, a real kangaroo court, with the soldiers being scarified more for the sake of international PR than justice.

That’s because, the movie asks, what is justice in a war where there are no rules? It’s from the Boers that we get the word “commando.” By the time the movie is set they’re fighting a rearguard irregular action that eschewed pitched battles, uniforms and the like. The by-the-book military law ways of dealing with prisoners didn’t really fit with that kind of war. But is the British Empire more interested in enforcing the rule of law or using the Australians as scapegoats? The irony is the murder of the German missionary, of which we knew they are completely guilty, is the one count on which they’re acquitted.

It also contains what might be my favorite last line in all of cinema:

 

 

A Soldier’s Story (1984)

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Another one that doubles as a great war movie as well as lawyer movie. Only this time the war is World War II and it’s nowhere near the events of the film itself. Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, it’s the story of an African-American army officer sent to a Mississippi base to investigate the death of an African-American drill sergeant.

Through the investigation we learn about the sergeant’s unit, a group of African-Americans desperate to do their part to defeat Hitler, but who have been reduced to a semi-barnstorming baseball team (they might get to play the Yankees). There’s an exploration of racism (the fact that the investigating officer is black is just too much for some folks) and abuse of power that spirals into a genuinely satisfying twist. Plus, there’s a hell of a cast, led by Harold Rollins and Adolph Caesar, but also including Robert Townsend, David Allen Grier, and a young Denzel Washington.

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

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You don’t want to quit me, I’m your dream client: I’m the most fun, I’m rich, and I’m always in trouble.

Every lawyer has difficult clients, something that the movies aren’t always good at putting up on screen (to see a great portrayal of what it’s like to work with a fraud client watch Shattered Glass). Sadly, most of our difficult clients aren’t as fun or rich as Larry Flynt, though some of them are in trouble even more often than “always.”

The People . . . (directed by the late great Milos Foreman) is a bio-pick, but it spends a lot of time in court, culminating with the most realistic depiction of a Supreme Court argument I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s the culmination of Flynt’s fight against (the late and decidedly not great) Jerry Falwell, who sued Flynt and Hustler over a parody ad that implied Falwell had sex with his mother. For that alone, it makes the list.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

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Every other movie on my list (and many on the ABA list) has great courtroom scenes. The Sweet Hereafter never gets anywhere near a courtroom, yet it still provides one of the best portraits of what it means to be a lawyer I’ve ever seen.

Mitchell Stephens (played by Ian Holm) is a big city lawyer with a drug-addicted daughter trying to build a case in a small, isolated Canadian town. A school bus has crashed through the ice, killing many of the town’s children and leaving deep scars on just about everyone. Stephens trudges from home to home, trying to sign up plaintiffs for a suit against the bus manufacturer and the school district. Thus, Stephens is literally an ambulance chaser, yet it’s clear he does believe in the righteousness of what he’s doing. He’s not just chasing a payday (though there is that). The melancholy of it all, being absorbed by the traumas of others, comes through in every scene with him. No other movie I’ve seen gets that aspect of what it means to be a lawyer.

Naturally, it all falls apart at the end (thanks to a surviving child, played by Sarah Polley, who’s gone on to direct some great films), which makes it the rare lawyer movie where the lawyer loses. Again, that’s a hard truth for most lawyers (most of my fellow criminal defense lawyers, at least).

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

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One of the reasons I like to talk about “favorites” instead of “best” is that movies (and all art) strikes different people in different ways and sometimes you love something even if it isn’t a critical darling. I don’t think anybody would call Intolerable Cruelty one of the Cohen Brothers’ best movies, but it is undoubtedly one of my favorites.

That’s largely down to the fact that for the first year of my legal life I was a divorce lawyer. Working for legal aid as the domestic violence specialist I split my time between working with abuse victims to get protective orders and getting them out of marriages. The people I was working with didn’t have enough property (and, thankfully, not many had kids) to fight about most time, much less enough to worry about something like the famous prenup that bears the name of Myles Massey (played with all his old-school movie star charm by George Clooney), but the beats and rhythms of what divorces cases are like are the same regardless of what’s involved. Maybe it’s millions of dollars; maybe it’s the commemorative Smurf glasses from Arby’s. I recognized that on the screen.

Plus, there’s an easy screwball feel to the whole thing (Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the woman who cooks up the scheme to bring Massey to heal, is great, too), with just enough bizarre touches (Massey’s wheezing senior partner, the Baron, etc.), that it’s just fun. Which is something you shouldn’t be able to say about a movie with a divorce lawyer as the main character!

Ideas Will Always Be Free Range

I have a file on my computer that’s full of “what if?” ideas that occur to me from time to time. Most of them will never find their way into an actual story – there’s a fair gulf between “cool idea” and “cool story.” In light of that, it can be cool to see one of those ideas show up on the big screen completely independent of your having it.

The Australian film OtherLife is based on a nifty “what if” question – what if, via a process involving programmable biotech (don’t call it drugs) dropped into a person’s eye, that person could experience rich and full “memories” of experiences in the blink of an eye? Think of the ability to cram an entire vacation into a few seconds! Actually, that sounds kind of shitty and easily manipulated, but it’s still a cool idea.

Otherlife

In the film the tech’s creator, Ren, is having problems with the system as it gets ready to go public. To help the company with funding, her partner wants to explore a Government-proposed use of the tech – to make criminals experience a long time of confinement without actually having to incarcerate them. Ren is furious (since her motives are purely altruistic and personal) and balks at the idea, of course. Things spiral out from there to a not all that interesting conclusion.

Mostly because that idea – of incarceration by memory – is a really interesting one. You may have guessed by now that’s the one that I wrote down in my “what if?” file years ago. But the film isn’t really interested in exploring the ideas behind that setup, instead using it to jump start the plot and put Ren through a very weird experience. It’s interesting enough to watch, but doesn’t really stick with you for very long, putting thrills and twists ahead of deep thought and head scratching.

Newbie writers sometimes worry about either not having an “original” idea or that if they discuss their own idea in public it will get “stolen.” Fact is, neither of those things is a problem. Ideas are only the beginning. It’s what you do with them that matters, how the characters you create are affected by them. OtherLife takes the “memories of punishment” idea and does one thing with it. If I ever get back to it I’ll do something very different. The world’s big enough for both (and more!) and all the richer for it, too.

Which is funny, because watching Otherlife gave me another neat idea! It has to do with people disappearing and then reappearing and what that does to them and those around them. It’s now sitting in my “what if?” file, quietly tucked away. Maybe one day it’ll become something worth developing.

On American Dystopia and the Great White North

Dystopian fiction can be tricky. Assuming you’re setting it on Earth, you either need to have the whole world go to hell, which isn’t all that probable, or the shit show is more localized, in which case you have to address how the rest of the world interacts with the place where the story is set. I’ve been set to thinking about this a bit thanks to two recent bits of television.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is as localized as dystopia can get. It’s told entirely from the point of view of the titular handmaid, June, and doesn’t concern itself at all with the outside world. Gilead is what she experiences; nothing more.

The TV adaptation probably couldn’t have worked if it maintained that rigorous POV, so it wisely broadened its world from the get go. In the first season, therefore, we learned that June’s husband and her best friend managed to escape to Canada, where there’s a growing population of expats from the area that used to be New England. But we don’t really know what that means in a global socio-political sense.

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That was evident in the recent episode “Smart Power,” where Commander Fred and his wife, Serena, take a diplomatic trip to the Great White North. They’re received professionally, if coolly, in the manner you’d expect for delegates from a nation with which the Canadians have at least some normal relations. But do they? We don’t really know. Things are complicated when an American agents of some kind offers Serena a new life in Hawaii, one where she actually gets to control her destiny.

All this is a bit confused because we don’t really know how Gilead relates to the rest of the world – or what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead (once some info leaks out during the Commander’s visit, we quickly find out, at least partly). How big is Gilead? We know it’s centered in New England, but what of the rest of the United States? Does Canada recognize it as an independent nation? If so, why? What does the United States look like?

None of these were really important in the book, since it was June’s story above all else. But by broadening the focus (something that had to happen for the TV series to continue), these questions become relevant and I’m not certain the show’s brain trust really has the answers.

The recent HBO adaptation of Farhernheit 451 suffered even more acutely from this problem. It makes explicit the story’s setting (Cleveland) and, via an implausible update that involves the works of humanity encoded into DNA, sets up an endgame where Montag has to help someone escape to Canada to rendezvous with some scientists. We’re never told if that’s just because that’s where they are or because Canada is the safe area we always assume it to be.

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This is particularly important to Farhernheit 451 given its semi-hopeful ending of an underground group dedicated to actually memorizing great works of literature to ensure they don’t disappear.* That still happens, but it’s now supplemented with the DNA thing. But if Canada is a safe haven, if it exists outside of the dystopia the United States has become – then why the need to preserve all knowledge? Isn’t it safe elsewhere in the world?

To a certain extent this is an issue with any speculative fiction worldbuilding. Writers need to have some idea what happens beyond the bounds of their stories, since those things should influence those stories in some ways. But it’s compounded dystopian fiction set in the “real” world because readers and viewers presume the world is as it is in real life, unless we’re told otherwise. That can lead to confusion, or at least some disappointments.

* Kudos to the writers for updating the preserved works to include writers who are women and people of color (and even some women of color!). However, the impact is a bit muted since only the minority characters are memorizing the work of minority authors.

On Death In Fiction

Riffing on the two sides of the debate in the wake of Infinity War – either all those deaths don’t matter because we know they’re coming back or it matters because the people in universe don’t know that. What do writers owe their readers?

This post was inspired by events that take place in Avengers: Infinity War. If you’ve not seen it yet and want to remain unspoiled, be warned, I’ll be talking about major stuff that happens.

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With that said . . .

Holy shit, that movie killed a lot of people. I’m not even talking about anonymous nobodies, set dressing to be collateral damage for the big final battle. I’m talking beloved characters, some major, deaths that could be universe shattering, even if we, as savvy modern media consumers do better.

The deaths basically come in bunches. Loki and Heimdahl meet their end at the very beginning, while Gomorra is sacrificed about midway. But the big shit hits the fan when bad guy Thanos gets all the Infinity Stones and snaps his fat fingers, disappearing half the beings in the universe. Among those who disappear into dust (like vampires on Buffy . . ., but they float up to hebbin, rather than down to the ground) are Black Panther and Spider Man. Serious shit.

Or is it? It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that there’s no way Marvel is going to let all those characters stay dead. The MCU is an impressive feat of storytelling, but it’s first and foremost a money-making property. Black Panther and Spider Man already have other movies in the pipeline – you think they’re going to dump those for the sake of the story? Fat chance.

Which has led to an interesting discussion on line about the end of the movie. On one side are the people who say these deaths (at least the dusty ones, maybe the others) don’t really mean anything because we, the audience know they aren’t permanent. On the other are people who insist that they do have meaning because the other characters in the MCU don’t know these characters will come back and so it’s a big deal for them. Who’s right?

Maybe neither, at least completely. Some of it depends on what the creator is trying to do. If it’s just shock the audience, it’s a pretty hollow means to do so, but that’s not the only thing you accomplish when you kill a character.

Go back to the aforementioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy dies at the end of the fifth season, sacrificing herself to save the world (again). It’s no shock that the next season of the show was not a Buffy free zone – she came back from the dead in the first two episodes. That was to be expected. But the show worked through that in very interesting ways. Most importantly, Buffy’s friends thought by bringing her back they pulled her from hell, when in fact she was in heaven (or at least at peace). In other words, it mattered for the rest of the season (and the show, really) that Buffy had died and then gotten better. It wasn’t a simple reset button.

To pull a somewhat vague, non-spoilerly, example from my own writing, I have a book where a major character dies at the end. That death resonates through the next book, motivating what other characters do. I didn’t kill that person off just for a “gasp” moment or to make sure readers know that nobody in that world is safe.

On the other hand, the recently completed season of Agents of Shield ended with an emotional death that, it turns out, really wasn’t, except the people in the universe completely knew it (even if viewers, myself included, were scratching their heads for a bit). That’s just cheap manipulation and is a hollow exercise.

Then there’s always the Deadpool take – announce you’re going to die in the opening credits, show said death twice, have a prolonged death scene later in the film, then wink it away post-credits. But would you expect anything less from that fucker?

Which path will the next Avengers movie take? Too soon to tell, of course (except, I think it’s safe to say, not the Deadpool avenue), but one hopes it’s closer to the Buffy example.

The bottom line, as a writer, is that death, like anything else when it comes to plot, is a tool. As with any tool, it can be used well or poorly. But given the emotional heft that death can have, folks should think long and hard about deploying it as a simple plot point. As with all things – think it out first.

Weekly Watch: Whiplash

Sometimes I come late to movies and the wait probably colors the experience. When Whiplash came out a few years ago it seemed like a movie I needed to see. It was critically praised, an Oscar winner, and about music. Sounded like it was right up my alley. But it slipped under my radar until, a few weeks ago, it popped up on TV (uncut) and I TiVoed it. After watching it, I kind of wish I’d just completely forgotten about it.

Whiplash, simply put, is one of the most overrated movies I think I’ve ever seen.

Since it’s been a while, there’s no need to avoid spoilers. The movie’s about a kid at a music conservatory, a drummer, who gets plucked from lower division drudgery by a famously abusive, prickly director to be part of his competition band. Lots of yelling and music occurs and our hero is broken down by his would be mentor. The ending is nicely ambiguous, as he either triumphs over this asshole or simply becomes just like him. It’s the best part of the film by far.

That’s because most of the other things that make up a movie – mainly the characters and the story itself – are lacking. Take the main character, who is so dull I can’t even remember his name. He has the charisma of a wet sponge, yet somehow manages a date with Supergirl (he dumps her later in the most on the nose “it’s not you, it’s me” speech ever put to film). His only goal appears to be getting famous, which he’s decided to do in 21st Century American by . . . becoming a jazz drummer. Sure, kid, whatever.

More formidable is his mentor, Fletcher, for which J.K. Simmons won an Oscar. Simmons gets to yell a lot, complete with vulgarities and insults that range from homophobic to anti-Semitic. There are no layers to this guy, no hint as to how he’s come to be the way he is. There’s a hint of a soul, when he finds out that a former student has hung himself, but it’s gone pretty quickly. Oh, and he’s nice to a little girl, but, you know, even Hitler liked dogs. Simmons’s performance at last has life to it.

What’s altogether not clear is why either character has anything to do with music. As one reviewer concluded:

What Whiplash ultimately champions isn’t really musicianship but empty, grandstanding virtuosity. Under Fletcher’s tutelage, Andrew never learns anything about nuance or dynamics; as designated by Chazelle, the measures of his artistic accomplishment are strictly speed and ferocity. The movie ends with Andrew executing one of those horrible, endless jerk-off solos that give jazz a bad name, though it’s presented as the ultimate victory.

Wet sponge only wants to be famous. When challenged about his career choice there’s no mention of love of music or trying to connect with the mysteries of the universe. He has no music background at home, so it’s not as if he’s trying to fulfill someone else’s dream. Just why would he put up with all the shit Fletcher sends his way?

Likewise, it’s never clear why Fletcher went into teaching music rather than, say, being a football coach. Make no mistake, his tactics aren’t about making better musicians or better people, they’re about one thing – winning competitions. I know from my own musical life that winning such things often means cranking up flashy technique at the expense of, you know, the music and that’s certainly true for Fletcher. Again, he’s not into the music itself, only the end goal of winning. More than that, the anecdote that underlies his philosophy of life/teaching isn’t true.

Which is what makes the film’s pivotal point so fucking stupid. The band is set to play at a competition a couple of hours into the hinterlands outside New York City. Fletcher, perfectionist that he is about these shows, doesn’t bother to charter a bus to take the band there. No, it’s every man (and it’s all, or at least mostly, men) for himself, with a helpful hint to leave earlier to beat the traffic. Naturally, wet sponge can’t manage that and manages to walk away to a car wreck to take his place, bleeding on stage. Rather than have the stand in take his place (the band hauls around multiple drummers, but every other spot is just a single – for whatever reason), Fletcher lets him play, which of course he can’t. It’s horribly dumb.

As, really, the whole movie is. Some of the cinematography is nice (sweeps across the horn section, nice lighting, etc.), but it’s service of absolutely nothing. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, clearly has a thing for jazz (he went on to make La La Land), but he doesn’t seem to enjoy it very much (as this article argues, the movie gets its jazz mythology wrong). As such, Whiplash isn’t much more than a lovingly shot portrait of an abusive relationship where neither party has any real motivation. If there’s anything more pointless than a drum solo, maybe that’s it.

Whiplash

 

Rethinking The Room?

A few months ago I wrote a post where I explained why The Room – or, more particular, the fandom that’s grown up around it – drove me nuts. I wrote:

But from what I’ve read from people who have made The Room a cult favorite it’s not because they see it as an undervalued gem. Nor does it appear to fall into the “so bad its good” category, as everybody involved takes the thing completely seriously. No, it seems that people just really enjoy watching an artist fail, enjoy watching a horrible product because it’s horrible.

I’m not about to join the fan club, but I’ve had a rethink about it, thanks to this piece over at Electric Literature. Called “Why We Love Bad Art,” John Sherman, riffing on Susan Sontag, goes straight to The Room and makes an interesting case:

Not all failure is equal, and the nature of artistic failure depends on the nature of the attempt.

***

The Room is an awful movie, but it’s trying to be a great film, and this generates its basic charm. By extension, Wiseau is an awful filmmaker trying to be a great one, and his blindness to his own deficiencies is what allows him to be canonized in the so-bad-it’s-good tradition. Whether due to narcissism or a lack of taste, or both, pure Camp cannot fathom its own shortcomings.

I can see that. Art that fails, but does so nobly with great passion, has something in it to be admired. By contrast, something that’s a cold and calculated attempt to make something popular or financially lucrative that fails is just shit. I get that. I’m not sure I really get that vibe from most of the people I’ve heard talk (or read about) The Room.

Sherman mentions Mystery Science Theater 3000 and how it made a whole thing out of taking pot shots at bad movies. I’m not sure the analogy works, however, as most of what MST3K (in any variant) took on were only worth watching because of the jokes being made at its expense. Sure, in at least some instances the folks involved had a soft spot for one of those movies, but for the most part they savaged them because they sucked. There’s a difference between “so bad it’s good” and “so bad we can enjoy making fun of it.”

And so we return to the distinction I made in the original post, between loving something even though common opinion is that it’s bad versus not admitting you love it because it’s bad. Art doesn’t always find the audience the creator intended, but maybe it always, eventually, finds an audience of some kind? Perhaps people should just let themselves love it and not think too much about it.

Like I’ve been doing!

Fry

Weekly Read: The Lost City of Z

I generally roll my eyes at people who see a movie based on a book and then tut tut that “the book was better.” Even as a writer, it comes off as snobbish to me. The written word is a different medium than film, which makes adaptations their own things. One’s rarely “better,” even in a subjective sense, than the other. They’re just different.

The film, The Lost City of Z (released last year), got a good amount of praise when it was released. I’ve even seen people list it as being snubbed in the Oscar race. It’s the story of Percy Fawcett, who repeatedly search the Amazon jungle for evidence of a lost city in the early part of the last century. The wife and I put it on our list of flicks to see and, the other weekend, were able to pay per view it. My thoughts at the time was that it was a fine flick, but it suffered in comparison to such jungle fever dreams as Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

It did interest me enough to go read the book upon which the movie is based. Also called The Lost City of Z, it weaves the history of Fawcett’s expeditions in with the attempt of author David Grann to track down evidence of Fawcett’s final expedition (no spoiler alert – Fawcett’s disappearance in 1925 is one of the everlasting mysteries of the golden age of exploration). I’m glad I did, not just because the book provides more detail than any movie possibly could, but it makes clear that large hunks of the movie are complete and utter fiction.

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about whether the film itself, or the book, is “accurate” from an historical standpoint. There was a lively debate at the time the movie came out with historians arguing that it portrayed Fawcett in a much more positive, progressive light than the historical record supports (also, he sucked at exploring). Naturally, the director’s response to this was, in essence, “it’s art and you can’t talk like that about it.” That’s not what I’m really interested in. However, I will note this observation from one critique of the movie version of Fawcett:

The original book, by David Grann, was much more intelligent and nuanced, as one would expect from a staff writer on the New Yorker. But everything has gone wrong in its clumsy adaptation for the screen by director James Gray, who has written his own script and then filmed it with great reverence – almost always a mistake.

That sounds about right, although “clumsy” is perhaps too kind. It’s simply bizarre for a movie based on a particular non-fiction book – it even uses the title! – to break from the book in so many fundamental ways. I’m not talking about the inevitable compression that happens to turn a biography into a movie – that Fawcett had 8 Amazon expeditions, not 3, or that he and his son had a third person on their final voyage makes sense. I’m talking about things that get the character so wrong I don’t understand why the writer/director used the name of a real person.

For example, one of the most obvious diversions from the book is the in the film Fawcett is portrayed as having fallen into exploration after being tapped by the military and Royal Geographical Society to survey a river on the border of Brazil and Bolivia. In fact, Fawcett caught the exploration bug while stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) when he fell hard for a story of buried treasure (he didn’t find that, either). He’d already attended a 1-year course at the RGS before the surveying mission came up.

Or take the depiction of Fawcett’s relationship with his eldest son, Jack. In the film Jack is shown as an angry kid, raging against his father as a failure after an expedition collapses spectacularly (bonus point – the book never mentions that Fawcett resigned from the RGS in the aftermath, as the film portrays). They’re reconnection as they plan the last expedition is a moving part of the film. But, according to Grann’s book at least (the source material for the film!), the two were always close and Jack wanted to join his father in his explorations almost as soon as he could.

But the most egregious example involves World War I. Fawcett was well into his Amazon explorations when the war broke out. He went back to England and, eventually, to the Western Front. The film portrays Fawcett leading a Paths of Glory style assault over the top (after consulting with a Madame Blavatsky type – she died in 1891) during which he’s wounded by gas. No just wounded – blinded. A doctor even tells the blind Fawcett that he’ll never see the jungle again. This is utter fiction, unless Grann decided to skip the episode completely in his book. Fawcett wasn’t wounded, much less blinded, and didn’t sit around the English countryside recuperating for years until his son convinced him to give it one more go. Why the director (who also wrote the script) decided to put it in is anybody’s guess.

Somebody could have made a really interesting movie out of the Grann’s book. Even without the modern day overlay of Grann’s own expedition, the atmosphere of doom that clung to Fawcett’s final expedition could have really worked as the backbone of the movie (cover what else needs to be covered in flashbacks). Or, alternately, somebody could have used Fawcett as the basis for a truly fictional character and played around with the details as he saw fit. The Lost City of Z the movie isn’t either of those and it suffers for it. The Fawcett of the book is much more interesting than his celluloid counterpart.

But it did lead me to the book, for which I thank it. For, in this instance, the tutters would be right – the book really is better than the movie.

lost city z bookLost City of Z film