Dawson!

Cast of "Dawson's Creek"
If this was from the 2010s they would all be vampires

This house has been unwell for ages. Wee Beastie’s been sick 6 weeks, and Cal & I have been coughing too. It’s nothing major but it wears you down. It’s exactly the kind of state where it seems like I good idea to pull out the old Dawson’s Creek DVDs. We just watched the 13 episodes of season one.

I’ve always maintained that season one was good TV, to the bemusement of my nearest and dearest. After this rewatch, I stand by that call. It’s great! But that ain’t the rep the show has. When Dawson is talked about – well, the dialogue is a thing. A lot of people mock Dawson for the way the characters talk. But it’s meant to be like that! Sure they don’t talk anything like real teenagers, but neither do teenagers on any other TV show ever. (You might allow exceptions for Freaks & Geeks and the little-remembered Canadian gem Straight Up.) The thing is, Dawson’s teens used a style that called attention to itself in a way other TV dialogue didn’t: wordy, reflexive, informed by therapy and philosophy and experiences beyond the ken of teenagers. The characters all made teenage choices, but they talked about those choices like obsessive overly-analytical and highly verbose adults. You can dislike the style, sure, but don’t think it ain’t deliberate.

This stylistic choice is, in fact, the key to Dawson’s Creek. (And you didn’t even know it was locked! Just put up with me, shh.) It ‘s all about something I’m gonna call the supertext (no doubt there is an actual name for this but this is my blog post and it is about Dawson of all things so I make the rules). By supertext, what I mean is the stuff that’s going on at the high-end, structural level. Like: “This scene is where Jen tries to make friends with Joey and Joey resists,” that’s supertext.

On a normal show, the scene would be like, Jen: “Hey Joey! You’re wearing great clothes! Lets read some coffee table books about the Mayans!” Joey: “Um” *sideeyes*. That’s text. And the subtext would be: Jen: “I wanna be friends with Joey because I want to prove to myself that I can have normal relationships and maybe that I’m not a horrible person” and Joey: “I am totally intimidated by this hot chick from NYC who knows how to smile with both sides of her mouth”.

Well in Dawson season one, what they do is grab the supertext and drag it down into the text. So the above example ends up with the text being, Jen: “Hey Joey! Nice clothes! You know when someone new comes to town they usually try to make friends with someone else who seems sane!” Joey: “Ummm, but sometimes people just resist the idea of being friends with each other because of personal reasons” *sideeyes* Jen: “Well I intend to keep trying to be friends with you anyway!”

This is the whole structure of the show. The text deliberately draws attention to the supertext, it gets talked about by the characters who squeeze it dry of meaning. The subtext, meanwhile, gets left alone and remains active to inform and create drama. But – and here’s the magic trick – the supertext is just the subtext in universal form. The characters talk about their inner motivations and problems, but they do it at a remove by talking about story structures, expectations, universal narrative rules that just happen to be relevant to their situation. The show gets to have its cake and eat it too, deconstructing itself without breaking its fiction into pieces. It’s a nice trick, albeit far too clever-clever to sustain for more than a short time (and indeed this gets scaled massively down in subsequent seasons).

So this is the technique, and its used to explore a simple story: a love triangle comprising the innocent guy, the new girl with a history, and the oldest best friend who secretly loves him. (Yeah, the virgin/whore thing is there, but the show is partly an interrogation of that idea so it ain’t so bad.) And what it’s really about is uncertainty – how feelings are not easily discerned, attraction is vexatious, and love doesn’t come bundled up as a single coherent thing. That uncertainty angle is good stuff, but to tell the story you have to accept one dramatic conceit: that there can be a love triangle in existence with none other than Dawson Leery at its apex. And that, not the dialogue, is the real challenge for the viewer.

Because, look at that Dawson s1 core cast in order of choiceness: Joshua Jackson: full-on charm offensive, effortless charisma. Michelle Williams: a genuine star now. Back then, her developing chops were only sometimes on show. Her character was sometimes annoying but she was good value. Katie Holmes: limited range, and unable to hold the camera like the show wants her to, but when she’s within her zone she’s fantastic, off-kilter and unashamed and so, so angry. James van der Beek: ok this one is problematic. He’s not terrible exactly, but the supertext-text shenanigans force this character to be a certain kind of hopelessly self-obsessed. Making the role fun to watch would be a challenge for any actor and he just. Can’t. Get. There. He’s obviously in trouble in the final episodes when everyone around him is miserable and all he can do is squeak “It’ll be okay” while he furrows his brow at them.

Oh and the order of choiceness above? Unfortunately for the show, that is the exact reverse order of screen time given to these respective folks. Joshua Jackson gets crap all to do all season. Michelle Williams is part of the big love triangle so she’s around a bunch, but almost everything she does turns around Dawson, sucking the air out of her performance. Katie Holmes gets a bit more to happen for her, and the Beek, poor devil, has to anchor every episode and every big emotional turn. That’s the nature of the problem, isn’t it? It was a show with a lot of assets in precisely the wrong places.

But that doesn’t stop it from being good. Hell no.

Perhaps informative: while writing this I’ve been half-watching the first eps of s2, and man, it plummets downhill. The narrative/structural tricks that made season one work just make season two collapse in on itself. Dawson is no longer a stylized doofus constructed as a way to explore relationship anxiety; he just ends up being a gigantic tool. And the creators are too good not to know this (e.g. the producer, super-talented Mike White, whose very next gig was Freaks & Geeks). Witness: second episode, Dawson is alone for first time in new girlfriend Joey’s room, and he promptly reads her diary. No but wait, that’s not the bad part. The bad part is he proceeds to get very upset because Joey says in her diary that she didn’t like the cheap monster movie he made, and is petty and mean to her until she works out that’s why he’s being petty and mean, and then he aggressively tries to make her feel bad about it. I mean, it’s just inexcusably oafish and horrid behaviour and it’s the very first thing Dawson does this season. They know. But it doesn’t save the show that they know it.

(There’s a reason why Television Without Pity exists, after all. The gigantic home of TV snark – its importance much reduced in the age of YouTube and NetFlix – originated as a place for people to bond over just how awful Dawson Leery is. And he is, he really really is, just that awful. There is a measurable amount of joy to be had from shouting “shut up Dawson!” at the TV.)

So, I liked this show when it aired. Season one was great times. And no, it wasn’t the hot babe factor, I never gave a second thought to any of the women of Dawson’s Creek. (For contrast: Buffy.) But I definitely responded to something going on in that show. The tone and rhythm of it, the overthinking and the staring into the water and the unsettling nature of uncertainty, that felt true to me. It reminded me of my teen years that had recently ended, and it reminded me of my early 20s that were still ongoing. Watching it now, I still get that off it, like a contact high of being young and unresolved. That’s why I will defend Dawson season one against all comers. Sure, it’s nostalgia and my personal memories kicking in, but I feel it ain’t just that. There was something real at the core of it: in its bizarre way, it expressed something irreducibly true about being young and incomplete. And not only that, but by the end of the season it built up to an answer: you can’t get out of uncertainty by thinking (no-one on Dawson ever solves anything by thinking); no, you get out of uncertainty by finding new stuff to do, and doing it.

So, Dawson. Bite me haters, it’s the business.

Oh yeah, here’s another thing everyone’s forgotten about this show, including me: season one is full of sex talk. That’s another thing that disappeared in seasons 2+. In s1, sex infuses everything. There is content in these episodes that genuinely surprised me for how upfront it is.

1990s problems:

Dawson Drinking Game: every time Dawson says “I just want to know where I stand”, drink. That’s all you need. FATAL.

OH HEY ALSO DON’T FORGET THAT IN S2 KATIE HOLMES’S CHARACTER JOEY TOTALLY HAS A RELATIONSHIP WITH A GUY WHO HASN’T COME TO TERMS WITH THE FACT HE IS GAY *NUDGE NUDGE WHAT A COINCIDENCE NUDGE NUDGE*

Prometheus (USA, 2012)

Mostly awful.


More? Okay. Here’s what I put on Facebook and Twitter:

Prometheus: I really liked it! Except for whenever any character said or did anything.
Or when the film explained anything at all,
Or when it linked to or referenced any other movie.
Apart from that it was great!

(The visual experience was wonderful, and that is best experienced in the cinema. I sort of do recommend it, in a bizarre way. It’s a deeply incoherent film. And it is trying to do something, which is more than 95% of big films ever do. I dunno man. It’s a weird, weird movie.)


Still here? Ooookay. Let’s go.

BALD RIPLEY
Cinefantastique June 1992
Twenty years ago, round about now, I bought the June 1992 edition of Cinefantastique. It was the first solid information I would get on the sequel to my absolute favourite film, Aliens. I’d seen an early trailer on Entertainment Tonight but apart from that, I knew nothing.

The coverage was a revelation. Cinefantastique was not a puff-piece magazine, and it did not pull its punches.[1] As it recounted the bizarre story of the production of Alien3, I was forced to accept some uncomfortable truths. Principally, this: the loyal soldier and the brave girl saved by Ripley’s heroism? They die in the opening credits of the new film. Get over it.

Cut to: sitting in the movie theatre with my buddies. The lights go down. The film begins. And those opening credits that heartlessly destroy the loved characters from a previous film? I love those credits. I still think it stacks up as one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever seen. All around me, though, the reception is not as positive. Right there and then, everyone else finding out that the guy and the little girl are dead. The movie doesn’t care. It just kept going at them. No wonder they start to hate it.

The hatred didn’t last. About a decade later, it started to pick up some respectability, and while it’s still little-loved, it’s also rarely hated any more. But it took a long time for that first rush of thwarted expectations to even out. I often wonder if that magazine was the only thing that spared me from the same initial response. Expectations matter. More than that: expectations are part of the film experience.

Expectations have been a big part of Prometheus, too. Is it an Alien prequel or is it not? What will Ridley Scott have to say this time? What is that big human-looking face? Does the trailer really give away 98% of the film?

So what were we expecting?

LES COUSINS DANGEREUX

Let’s get this right out of the way, then: Prometheus is not an Alien film. And that’s fine.

“Star Beast” was into development when the word “Alien” was noticed just sitting there in the script, waiting. It’s a great name, both an adjective and a noun, and it completely captures the theme of the film, that… waitasecond, I’ve already written about this. Let me quote myself.

[In the 1979 film] there was a whole biologicial technology in evidence that was truly alien, whose provenance and purpose was left unexamined. Thematically, this was the ground on which the B-movie monster stalked. The idea of alien-ness – the beauty and terror of the deeply different – was portrayed in a dense ecology of incomprehensible detail, all clearly part of some unreadable plan. A monster rose up and killed the film’s lonely humans, but the message was not that alien life is inimical to human life; the message was that alien life is not measurable against human life. These are different orders of nature, existing at right angles to each other. And, by extension, the message was that humans are not the masters of all they survey. Even these star-spanning future humans command only a small and humble domain. It’s a message of warning against hubris. We humans are just one limited mode of seeing in a universe which makes no room for us. Or, shorter: we do not matter.

me

Ridley Scott has done something completely different here. In fact, what he’s done here is the direct opposite of what he did in Alien. In Prometheus, it is announced in the opening scenes that humanity does matter. We are being invited to visit these mysterious aliens, who have shepherded us throughout our history, and who maybe created us.

There are no aliens in Prometheus. There are only cousins.

Ridley here portrays an intergalactic order in which human existence is comprehensible, and part of a grand plan. We have a place in the plan, we just don’t know exactly what it is. This idea is thematically incompatible with Alien.

This makes it somewhat distracting that the film-makers, over and over again, draw links between the two. Places, scenes, moments, from the 1979 film are repeated in the 2012 film. These quotes are all shallow and surface material. The new film is tone-deaf to the content and mission of the old. It reimagines these surface elements to address entirely different, incompatible, concerns.

Prometheus isn’t an Alien movie. It’s an Alien remix.[2]

THE CHERRY ORCHARD
Among the many memorable characters created by Monty Python, my favourites have always been the Gumbys. The Gumbys are shouting, staggering, inept, thuggish, helpless morons. Perpetually bewildered, they break everything around them while bellowing obvious, tragic expressions of their discomfort and failure.

On the Monty Python album that a friend dubbed on to tape for me in early high school, the Gumbys appear in an amazing sketch: an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It’s two minutes, give it a listen if you never have:

Friends, this is a fair representation of the human action in Prometheus. Prometheus would in fact be a more coherent and satisfying experience if every line of dialogue was overdubbed with Gumbys saying “Sorry,” “I’ve broken it,” and “My brain hurts”.

I really feel like this can’t be emphasised enough. The dialogue and behaviour of every single character defies understanding. It is hard to think of any action by any character that even faintly resembles real human behaviour. This is not an exaggeration. Every line, every action. Every character. Every single scene. All of them. For an entire film. Beginning to end. ALL OF IT.

(Well, I can think of two exceptions, both involving Idris Elba’s space captain: (1) when he puts up a christmas tree, and (2) when he asks another character if they are a robot. That’s it. Maaaaaybe when Noomi Rapace’s space archaeologist puts herself on a medical chair, too. Maaaybe.)

Hey, that Cinefantastique issue was the first I ever heard of James Blish’s idiot plot: “a plot which is kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot”. I thought it a bit harsh as a description of Alien3, but it is a perfect description of what’s going on in Prometheus. Everyone is an idiot. The things they do aren’t just stupid, they are nonsensical in a way that almost loops around into coherence again, like a Lewis Carroll poem, where all the inexplicable ridiculousness becomes mutually reinforcing and disguises the fact that none of it makes any sense at all.

I can’t think of another film that is so completely front-to-end inane. Nothing but wall-to-wall Mr Gumby, start to finish. My brain hurts! I dropped it! Run away Mr Gumby!

What were we expecting? The characters in Alien don’t make great decisions but they sure aren’t idiots. But this isn’t an Alien movie! Okay then. Consider, um, Blade Runner. Or Lawrence of Arabia. Or pretty much any other film ever made.

TOMB OF HORRORS

Prometheus doesn’t have a plot, it has a location.

In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, you’d buy adventure modules to play with your friends. These were always pretty much the same: a detailed description of a dungeon or other dangerous environment, filled with traps, treasure, and monsters, and usually with some underlying logic that could be uncovered through careful investigation. Every group that sat down to play would have a different story unfold as they entered and explored this dungeon. Character was important, sure, but the organising principle of the experience was the dungeon map, and the key that explained it. Everything in the game arose out of the location.

Prometheus takes this same approach to its story. There is no story except characters exploring, and reacting to, the environment. It may be the closest we’re ever going to get to a filmic representation of the Tomb of Horrors experience.

As a result, the film pays a lot of attention to its sense of place. It carefully and clearly establishes its external geography, showing how everything fits together in the physical space. It then purposely upends this in the twisting interior, echoing the way in which the characters get swiftly disoriented in the labyrinth. And then, perversely, it underlines the lack of clarity about the internal physical space by repeatedly showing a very detailed map of the interior.

Prometheus succeeds magnificently as an exploration of space. The visuals in the film are stunning. The environment is realised in a completely credible, deeply fascinating, fully atmospheric way. It is lit and shot and computer-enhanced with great skill. This is a visual effects triumph [3], and a sign of Ridley Scott’s mastery of this aspect of filmmaking.

Did we expect anything less?

HORSESHOES OF THE GODS

Reading that magazine helped me set my expectations right for Alien 3. Prometheus presents a similar challenge. If you go in expecting Alien The Prequelling, you will be disappointed. To his credit, Ridley Scott did a good job of trying to shift expectations. What I was expecting (hoping for, really) was a film that would make me think.

This is what we want film-makers to do, isn’t it? To stretch themselves, to try and make a big statement, to do something that will give us some meat. To his further credit, Ridley Scott has done this here, he’s gone in boots and all and tried to do something huge.

The problem is that the ideas Scott is pursuing are, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. Go read Cavalorn’s LJ post [4] on the symbolism (major spoilers!) – I believe he’s identified what Ridley Scott was consciously putting into play for this film. And it’s just not pretty reading. Scott has left a lot of ambiguity around the answers to many of his questions, mistaking provocation for depth. The questions are provocative, sure, but there’s nowhere for any of them to go. They don’t mean anything. If the answer was given, you wouldn’t feel any different. It’s dead content, questions designed just to be questions. [5]

So don’t expect the love to grow for Prometheus, like it did for Alien 3. This is a movie that will shrink on reflection, and away from the immersive environment of a darkened movie theatre. Those expectations are going to be corrosive, because it’s a movie that can’t live up to them. The more it is considered, the faster it will disintegrate. (And not in a lifegiving way.)

It’s a failure. A huge, engrossing, foolish, stunning, disastrous waste of talent and skill that pushes you away faster than it can pull you in, that alienates you faster than it can speak to you. It’s a folly and all of its many flaws come down to the writing, on every level: the concept, the structure, the execution, the dialogue. The writing, of course; the simplest thing. A man with a pen and paper. The hardest thing, too.

Watch it, or don’t.


[1] Though I’ve long lost the actual copy, I remember so many of the details from that incredible set of articles. I believe that this was the origin of the phrase “development hell” as a way to refer to moviemaking by the hard road. Also memorable: interview with Lance Henriksen where he said “this David Fincher kid they pulled in to salvage this movie, he’s a talent. This film does not show what he can do. watch for him.” Henriksen called that one right.

[2] Yes, Ridley Scott would disagree, but why should we listen to him?

[3] Bias alert: I’m mates with a few people who worked on these visual effects, including the guy in charge of all the bits Weta worked on. So I am predisposed to kindness. I don’t think this is just bias, though – most reviewers seem to agree on this bit, while disagreeing on almost everything else.

[4] And how nice to see Adrian Bott’s essay being circulated all over the place. I was introduced to him in passing in 2005, but never said a word to him beyond hello. Mutual friends indicate he’s a very nice chap though.

[5] *cough cough* Damon Lindelof *cough* Lost *cough*

The Muppets (2011)

Cal & I were lucky enough to get a few hours to ourselves, and decided to check out a film. Our options gave us a pretty stark choice, and we opted for The Muppets over Lars von Trier’s (supposedly fantastic but probably a wee bit depressing) Melancholia.

This was a good call.

It’s a great film. Sure, not perfect. The pacing felt a little bit *too* rushed at the start, like you were waiting for it to catch up with itself. But all the bits were fantastic. It was classic Muppets action. Lew Zealand got one of the best lines in the film, and you know something’s going right (or terribly terribly wrong) when that happens. Heck, the film trusted its felt talent enough to hand over the screen to its chicken cast, who of course (unlike the other Muppets) cannot speak, only cluck. Everything stopped for a big chicken-only musical number which was performed in its entirety. And it worked.

And I even teared up a bit as the Muppets recreated their classic TV opening.

I only had one complaint about this film, one moment where it kicked me out of the zone. The Muppets are performing probably their most famous song, and it cuts to the audience in the theatre, who are all smiling and swaying along with the music. And I thought, NO! That’s not right. They should be SINGING ALONG!

Anyway. This card-carrying member of the Victoria University Muppet Club loved it.

Bonus: Yesterday I listened to this Q&A podcast with the writers of The Muppets – revelatory and laugh-out-loud funny. Obviously, filled with spoilers, but if you’ve seen the film I highly recommend it.

Also: Chris Cooper’s song in the film is a SHOWSTOPPER.

Alien Prometheus

All right. I am about to indulge in some full-throttle nerdery.

I’ve been watching over the last 3 days the trailer-trailers for Prometheus, the new science fiction film from Ridley Scott. It is set in the same world as his hugely influential film Alien.

The trailer-trailer displays a continuity of physical design, with people in Moebius-like spacesuits trudging through Giger interior spaces; the sound mix throws in the shocking and intense Alien note that anchored the very first trailers for the 1979 film. Heck, even the typeface is the same as that from the first Alien (and the Prometheus title echoes Jim Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens).

The early news of an Alien Prequel didn’t seem to fill many people with joy. The alien creatures seem played-out thanks to two lacklustre crossover films, and Ridley Scott himself is famously uneven in his output. But Scott’s approach has generated interest. He is exploring other aspects of the mysteries raised in the first film – namely, the nature of the “space jockey”, the enormous elephantine fossil encountered by the doomed explorers. The famous phallic-headed dual-jawed chest-violating alien, Scott says, will play no part in the new film.

Complaints about his uneven filmic record aside, it must be understood that Ridley Scott is the only person who could make this story happen. No other filmmaker could get blockbuster money behind a science fiction film that is “a prequel to Alien but without the alien”. From the perspective of the Hollywood system, this would be an anti-movie, almost a Zen koan, an idea that utterly negates itself. Only for Ridley does it make sense. He can muster the finances with his reputation, and assert a new direction for Prometheus because he is the creator.

(At least, he is seen as the creator. Alien was of course a group project. O’Bannon, Giler & Hill all have a very strong claim to creation of the ideas explored herein. Giler and Hill are on board as producers, and O’Bannon – who always lamented the lack of recognition he received for his part in the film – passed away two years ago.)

I find the concept of Prometheus, as so described, incredibly enticing. The first Alien film was a monster-in-a-dark-house flick, but undertaken so grandly and in such a violatory manner that the alien creature seized a place as a cultural nightmare. But the film raised many other questions; there was a whole biologicial technology in evidence that was truly alien, whose provenance and purpose was left unexamined. Thematically, this was the ground on which the B-movie monster stalked. The idea of alien-ness – the beauty and terror of the deeply different – was portrayed in a dense ecology of incomprehensible detail, all clearly part of some unreadable plan. A monster rose up and killed the film’s lonely humans, but the message was not that alien life is inimical to human life; the message was that alien life is not measurable against human life. These are different orders of nature, existing at right angles to each other. And, by extension, the message was that humans are not the masters of all they survey. Even these star-spanning future humans command only a small and humble domain. It’s a message of warning against hubris. We humans are just one limited mode of seeing in a universe which makes no room for us. Or, shorter: we do not matter.

(There are clear parallels to the (heavily picked over) Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos, where the fundamental secret about the dark alien gods is that they do not care about humanity; our inability to comprehend our cosmic insignificance tends to deliver us into madness.)

All of these elements were left unexplored in the other films in the series, which instead took the route of using the implacable alien creatures as symbolic engines, on which to layer this or that human-vs-? metaphor. In the second movie, they became the fourth-generation soldiers who eschewed a traditional battlefield and thereby negated military power and all the structures of hierarchy and control so embedded (referencing Vietnam & Afghanistan in the 70s). In the third movie, they became the idea of contamination, both in the sense of infectious disease, and of dangerous and wrong thoughts. In the fourth movie, they became (curiously enough) nature, or more precisely biological systems that through sheer complexity do not submit themselves to human control; and reproductive systems, the propagation of the human race, most of all.

There’s much to value in this approach, but the power of the first film was very much located in the directness of its meaning: the alien elements represented themselves.

Scott has noted in his discussion of Prometheus that the space jockey was untouched by the other films. Truth. But the mystery of the space jockey has been addressed in a number of ancillary stories. Of course none of these “matter”, but they can serve as examples against which we can measure Prometheus and speculate about what ground it might cover.

Thanks to licensing requirements, in all of these stories, the “Aliens” title is dominant, and as a result, the Giger creatures are inevitably prominent. In the extremely good 1980s comics written by Mark Verheiden, the space jockey is a conquerer, using the aliens to subjugate worlds (and this fate ultimately befalls our earth). In the less-well-known novel Aliens: Original Sin, the space jockey is one of a species of negotiators, entering a mutually beneficial trade deal with a human network. And in the even less well-known (and abandoned unfinished) comic series Aliens: Apocalypse – The Destroying Angels, human explorers discover that the space jockeys once dominated the galaxy using aliens as tools, with pre-human earth as part of their domain.

It will be curious to see how Scott charts his own course outward from the space jockey data given in the film; and
more pointedly, the way he uses these elements in a thematic and symbolic way. It’s also worth noting that the designers of the first Alien film deliberately loaded the space jockey with a specific symbolic weight. They tried to evoke positive feelings, sympathy and respect. It wasn’t meant as a threatening image, and had a kind of nobility to it. These were deliberate design choices, to contrast with the cold, unyielding threat of the other, nastier kind of alien.

(In the original schema for Alien, the space jockey was to be clearly portrayed as an innocent victim of the aliens; but script simplifications transformed this poor victim into the pilot of a craft carrying a cargo of deadly aliens, the very creatures that destroyed it. The ambiguity around the space jockey’s relationship to the cargo adds greatly to the sense of mystery, and immediately complicates any moral message. The original story would have been a lesser film on this count at least.)

So. As noted above, I find the concept enticing, and recognise that there is much to explore with the elements Scott has chosen as his focus. However, I am feeling great trepidation.

Because of the face.

It’s the central image in the poster, and was the first image released as a publicity still: a giant human face in an alien environment. This sets off enormous, raucous alarm bells for me.

See also the tagline from the poster: “The search for our beginning could lead to our end.” Our beginning? In another interview Scott namechecked Eric Von Daniken, whose Chariots of the Gods supposed that alien beings came to earth and taught us new technology. Is that what he’s doing here?

The face is not alien. The face denotes a different order of mystery, one that loops tightly back to earth and history of the human race – a tiny segment of time on one tiny planet in one corner of a vast universe. The face is hubris. The face asserts that in the vast deeps of space, among species whose nature we can only guess at, we still matter. We are not nothing – we are everything.

This, to me, is the biggest danger posed by Prometheus. Put another way: the message of Alien is, not everything is about us. I fear that Prometheus will show that Alien was about us, after all.

That would be a tragic reconfiguration of the 1979 film. And while the Alien films will always sit there pristine (if they can survive a Predator giving a helicopter ride to an Giger Alien, they can survive this), whenever I engage with them from now on I will hear Prometheus talking at me.

I hope it says the right things.

Lis Sladen RIP

Spare a thought for Elisabeth Sladen, who died yesterday aged 63.

She played the best-loved of the friends of Doctor Who, Sarah Jane Smith, in the mid-70s. The character had such longevity it not only returned recently, but became the anchor for an entire new spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures.

I genuinely felt upset by this news, which doesn’t happen often. But even if you don’t have my affection for her performance and her character (the embodiment of Vonnegut’s injunction that you’ve got to be kind), you should still recognize what is lost with her. There are few television series that provide worthwhile entertainment for pre-teens, and fewer still that give centre stage to a woman over 60 years of age.

This is a sad loss.

Read the thoughts of her young fans here.

Easy A (USA, 2010)


When you are waiting for a baby, sometimes you go to the cinema and watch low-stress high-school flicks. I like high-school flicks. This is one of them.

Premise is that Emma Stone’s character pretends for various reasons to have sex with a variety of young men, and is vilified as a slut. The A of the title is a reference to The Scarlet Letter. It’s an interesting enough premise – anything that takes on the hypocrisy around teens having sex deserves props just for that.

Reviews I’ve seen have been giving this three stars. That’s about right. It’s well-executed and smarter than most stuff aimed at teens but it’s off-balance. It’s a bunch of good bits but there’s something about the assembly that doesn’t ring true.

Way I see it, this film is hamstrung by the very culture war it ostensibly takes on. It ends up playing nice and moral, even though it’s dealing with the failure of conservative morality. It doesn’t allow itself any teeth, and it has to fake its structure in order to rationalise its set-pieces.

Like, the core of the idea? That’s a meaty premise. Power in there, and some uneasy truths. But the film can’t own them and has to get its story going using a fakey-fakey imaginary high school social scene. It works like this: main character, brainy normal ignored Olive, lies to say she’s lost her virginity. What happens after this is that the entire school gossip ferociously about her, and she becomes an instantly notorious celebrity.

This is, needless to say, Not How It Works In Reals. This is fantasy-adult version of high school. Which is in itself fine, it just means we’re in symbolic high school movie not representative high school movie. However, look at the way those symbols get lined up: one sexual encounter = reputation for sexual promiscuity. This is the Family Values view of reality, embedded within and framing a story that tries to attack that same view of reality. The whole film is a contradiction in terms; it’s no wonder it doesn’t hold together.

That faultline goes right through the characters. Olive is a great character, mouthy and smart and creative and self-possessed. All the other high schoolers are bland, at best, or empty caricatures, at worst. The film keeps referencing John Hughes’ films, but for all their faults Hughes’ teens always had character. This film: no. How can they feel genuine when they have to exist as part of a fakey-fakey social world? Instead, the well-written character mojo runs through the adults, particularly Olive’s parents and her favourite teacher. In their chipper, smart dialogue (all the most fun sequences in the movie involve these adults) we can see that the main influence on this movie isn’t The Breakfast Club or Say Anything; it’s Juno. But that just cycles back to that key difference again. Juno added up to a coherent argument. This film can’t allow itself to do that.

So, I wanted more from this film. I do find the core premise fully engaging: a girl who recognizes that sexual experience is status currency, positive for men and negative for women, and then proceeds to upend status relationships in the male hierarchy while subverting the negative consequences that are put upon her. But this film only toys with these ideas, and never really engages with them. And sure, I wasn’t expecting a Show Me Love*-style dramatic exploration of how normative sexual culture operates among teens. But I wanted something that had more to say than this, something closer to The Breakfast Club, to Fast Times, to Superbad, even to American Pie.

Now, that’s a lot of paragraphs of negative. I feel like I need to redress the balance here: I liked this film a lot. It entertained me. Watch it on DVD if you like high school flicks. Enjoy Emma Stone’s great starmaking turn. Laugh at the genuinely funny stuff all the adults get to do. But don’t think too hard about it, in case you end up making long rambly blog posts. Like me.

* I prefer the alternate title for Show Me Love, but I try to avoid setting off the internet filters at people’s workplaces so I have not mentioned it.

Harry Potter 7a (UK/USA, 2010)

The above scene does not appear in this film, because it is being held over for Harry Potter 7b.
This one is Harry Potter 7a: I’m In A Tent.

Saw this at weekend. First reaction: bloody pleased they didn’t release it in 3D. The last thing this film needs is 3D. (Of course, they will release it in 3D soon, perhaps before 7b gets its release in the middle of next year, in 3D.)

This is the last of these films and of course you know what you’re in for, you’ve either seen the earlier ones or otherwise. The main drawcard for me continues to be “watching the young actors growing up” but shortchanged by the focus on the lead trio at expense of supporters – at least Neville gets a line. The lead trio do a creditable job, with Rupert Grint in particular finally seeming settled into his role and holding the screen like a proper-type actor. It’s funny, actually, all three of them prove to have marvellous screen presence when they’re not delivering Rowling-dialogue. There’s a sequence at the piano, and a sequence dancing, where the “young actors performing dialogue” becomes “authentic characters on screen”. In short, the material doesn’t help them, which is easy to forget given the greatest performing talent in the world is filling even the bit parts all around them. (Several major actors die off-screen and are quickly forgotten, because there’s another two dozen super-thesps still to get through.)

So I enjoyed the film as I’ve enjoyed all of them since part 3 – the young actors are older, there’s lots of incident, the uneven rambling style of the novels makes for oddly-structured films that are almost refreshing as a result.

The test of this one, story-wise, was whether they would find a way to sell the biggest mis-step in the original novel. The trio is tested, and found wanting, leading one of the three to abandon the other two. In the book it’s poorly motivated, unrelated to greater themes, and generally unconvincing. In the movie they find nothing to rescue the sequence. There’s enough fuel there to spark a disagreement, and Rowling’s original version at least approaches something meaningful, but the film-makers can’t find a way to adhere to the source material and yet make this crucial emotional beat make sense. It is the absolute heart of the film in many ways, and it just generates roll-eyes.

Also, Dobby the house-elf is still an annoying git.

Anyway. It’s exactly what you expect it to be. So you don’t need me to tell you anything about it.

[So, smart guy, what would you do differently with the breaking of the trioship? Okay, I’ll have a go. MINAR SPOLIERS: to be honest I’d ditch Rowling’s source material and rework it and let everyone bray about it if they wanted. Fromt the start, Ron should be making some recommendation about what to do or where to go that fits his character (he’s representative of emotions/heart); Harry should refuse for reasons that fit his character, like early commitment to a purpose; Hermione should see both sides but using logic she’ll consistently side with Harry. As his jealousy over a perceived attraction between Hermione and Harry grows, and no other plan is working, Ron would restate his original suggestion more forcefully. Harry still refuses, but for the wrong reasons – because he lacks Ron’s emotional sense and he’s unable to let go of his initial plans easily. Hermione still agrees with Harry, also for the wrong reasons – because she’s afraid of the risk to Ron if she says yes, maybe, especially after he already got hurt. Faced with this, Ron walks out because *he feels like he’s not contributing anything useful*, as well as suspicions and pride and so forth.

To me that reads as much more coherent a motive than what we read/see, which is Ron (corrupted by Sauron’s ring) expressing frustration that there’s no plan and also I’m jellus. First reason just seems petty – is obvious cover for second reason which just isn’t enough on its own to convince.

If JK Rowling then said “nooo you must use my words exactly” then I’d do exactly the same thing but I’d do it entirely as subtext. Rupert Grint could sell it. Clever editing would help Emma W and Daniel R to do the same.

Solved! And that’s why I’m in Hollywood making movies and not sitting in NZ writing a blog. Oh wait.

Apollo 13: Mission Control

Went to interactive theatre piece Apollo 13: Mission Control last week. It’s on a third season in Wellington and has toured around the country and to Oz; tours further abroad are being planned. It’s been hugely successful, and deservedly so.

The basic setup: the show takes place in Mission Control for the Apollo 13 mission. The audience are the staff of MC. Seated behind consoles with buttons and lights and networked telephones, the audience have a job to do. (Some audience just sit in the “press gallery” – slightly cheaper tickets, no console.) Mission Control’s command staff lead the audience through the situation as the astronauts (video-feed projected on the front wall) experience a series of problems. One of the astronauts is also an audience member, selected from the crowd before the show.

It worked well. The large, diverse crowd was engaged and enthusiastically got to work solving logic puzzles, suggesting problem fixes and reporting on developments as they happened. The performed characters roamed around the room, issuing instructions, grabbing news, and identifying problems needing resolution. From time to time this action was broken with a broadcast from Walter Cronkite (played, charmingly, for laughs) or other such extra incident. Cronkite interviewed the astronauts; later, Cronkite interviewed members of the Mission Control staff (i.e. audience members). There was lots going on, and good humour reigned.

The characters are all drawn pretty broadly so they could play strong against the general hubbub and with very little time to make their mark. I was particularly interested in how they drove inter-character drama, with the general mayhem regularly breaking into scripted/semi-scripted conflicts between the performed characters, whose different values set up regular disagreements.

The physical interactive elements were highly appealing. Switches and lights on the consoles worked; you could use the phones to call other consoles, and (in the comms team) to those outside Mission Control. (The highlight of my companion’s experience was a conversation he had by phone with someone in Australia – or, to be more accurate, a performer backstage putting on an Australian accent. He was the only one who enjoyed that phone call first-hand.) Pencil and paper were essential tools, and several times audience members used the chalkboard at the front of the room or searched through the filing cabinets for relevant information. All of these elements contributed to a powerful sense of place.

It was, to be sure, a resounding success. I was highly impressed with what is obviously a well-oiled machine, staffed with gifted performer/improvisors. The show’s high-concept is splendid and unassailable – the kind of idea you might spend your whole life waiting for, the perfect marriage of concept and execution. This show deserves to run and run, and I expect it will tour a lot of places in times to come. Look out for it. Go see it – go be it.

That said, I want to say a bit more about it. Because, personally, I want more. Not because Apollo 13 isn’t a success, it clearly is; but because it’s so obviously just scratching the surface of what is possible with this kind of show. As some of you will know, I’ve been developing an interest in interactive theatre for a long time; back at least as far as the “game theatre” event Aliens Apocalypse in 1999, and more recently for last year’s Affair of the Diamond Necklace show. There’s lots of really interesting stuff happening in performance interactivity at present, particularly over in the UK where it crosses over with the creative games/urban games movement. All of these approaches are opening doors that have previously passed over, and entering territory that is largely unexplored. It’s an exciting time for those interested in the different ways you can relate a performance to an audience.

And in Apollo 13 I saw some really smart, really innovative stuff – some genuine risks being taken, which in interactive theatre is a huge and appealing plus all by itself. But I also saw some of the same challenges that face other attempts to navigate this territory.

The first challenge: smooth transition from audience activity to performer activity. Here, as with Diamond Necklace, there were pre-scripted sequences where performed characters interacted and the attention of the audience was expected. These were seamlessly integrated into a context where the audience did not have any attention expectation and could look where they liked and talk to whomever they wished. In short, these were moments where the audience was reminded it had to be an audience. In Diamond Necklace, we cheated, because our fiction placed us in the court of a King and Queen who could explicitly demand attention with but a word. That excuse doesn’t hold in Mission Control, so the transitions have to stand on their own. Many of them worked smoothly, but some really jarred. Once, the lighting changed to throw spotlights on two characters entering opposition; it threw me out of the moment.

The second challenge: content distribution. When you’re offering an experience like Apollo 13, different audience members will necessarily have different experiences. As soon as you have differences, you have inequalities. It is extremely difficult to ensure anything like an equal distribution of content through an audience, without maintaining extremely high staff-to-audience ratios. This is properly seen as, at least in part, a feature and not a bug: some people don’t want much interactive content, they want to do a few things but mostly to watch others do more. However, it’s not enough to decide that’s the end of it. Achieving equality of access to content is also hard; there are major bottlenecks and no method of oversight. In a show like this, where the content available is strictly limited, audience members are in a zero-sum game; every Australian phone call had by my companion was a phone call everyone else misses out on. Just by the way the evening worked out, I had less content thrown at me than those of my console-buddies; I had a great time regardless (and it gave me more time to just observe), but I wonder if some audience members would feel hard-done-by if this happened? I felt this show didn’t do a great job of managing this issue, but it did ameliorate it by having lots of shared content that was the same for everyone so there was a good baseline participation level even if many other events passed you by.

(Another possible solution for interactive theatre in general is, instead of trying to handle distribution better, you just try and have so much content that everyone has more than they need; best way to get that is to turn your audience into content-generators, like in a live-action role-play. But that’s far from straightforward, and I haven’t yet seen a general-audience interactive theatre event that has even tried to do so.)

In any case, it’s got the creative brain-bees all a-buzzing. Lots to think about. These two challenges are, as I say, not problems with this show, but rather challenges for anyone trying to step into this space – I’m leaving out all the things Apollo 13 does so brilliantly and solves so effectively (obvious example: audience buy-in). This sets a high standard right off the bat. I’m really excited to see it come out of my home town.Many congratulations are due to Hackman for this incredible show. It’s really quite fantastic. Go see it -go do it! – if you can. And I’m going to keep thinking about it, and will look forward to what Hackman do next.

(See also Steve Hickey’s writeup. He went along just the other day, and had a very positive experience.)

The Room (USA, 2003)

I first heard about The Room in this AV Club article from March last year. It’s an indie 2003 melodrama that has become a midnight-movie audience-participation sensation, because it’s so bad and so weird. This weekend I finally saw it for myself, going with NotKate and R the Judge.

The Room was written, directed, and produced by its star, Tommy Wiseau. His character, Johnny, is engaged to Lisa, but Lisa embarks on an affair with Johnny’s best friend. This tears Johnny apart. Alongside this core triangle there are many unexplained asides including a character announcing she has breast cancer (never referred to again), a character tearfully admitting his involvement in the drug trade (never referred to again), and a character having an embarrassing underwear-related incident (the character later gives a detailed description of the incident to another character in case you slept through it the first time; after this, it is never referred to again).

We saw it at the Paramount and the cultish midnight movie crowd were enthusiastically in attendance. Two young men came in costume as Johnny and Lisa. Masses of plastic spoons were hurled at the screen. Everyone chanted “go! go! go! go!” as the camera panned across the Golden Gate Bridge. I suspect I lost about 1/3 of the dialogue in the film to the din of audience catcalls. It was a bit wild.

Even in this chaotic environment, this film got to me.

First up: it is a terrible piece of filmmaking. The script is awful, the performers are all over the place (including Wiseau himself who is on another planet entirely), the set dressing is absurd, the cinematography is rubbish, the pacing is bizarre. It’s a whole other level of bad filmmaking.

But these weaknesses I think enhance the crazy power of the film. By the end my mouth was hanging open. I was astonished by what I’d just witnessed (and, thanks to the audience engagement, been part of.) The Room is Wiseau’s unique view of the world. It is impossible to imagine that this story is not drawn heavily from autobiography. As the AVClub article says, someone hurt Wiseau, badly.

The title is perfect, because this film is immensely contained. Almost everything happens in one room, and the plot and the characters likewise seem trapped there, venturing out into sunny San Francisco from time to time but returning over and over to that one space. Despite Wiseau’s prominence in the material around the film, we see a lot more of the unfaithful Lisa. She is a compelling villain; her vicious lies and extreme selfishness seem to stem primarily from the fact she’s a woman.

Others have noted that nothing much happens in the film; there’s a lot of incident, but very little plot development. I’d describe it slightly differently. I think that lots happens in this film, it’s just that it’s largely the same thing happening over and over again with slight variations. Johnny finds out about the affair three times in three different ways. The characters declare their core statements repeatedly: “I’m going to have some fun,” “He’s my best friend.” The same sex scene happens twice, using the same shots edited together in a slightly different order. All of this is in no way linear. (In fact, another AV Club article points out that time in this film doesn’t advance; although lots of things happen, the wedding is a month away at the end of the film just as it was at the start.)

It has instead the character of obsessive rumination. These are the tortured thoughts of someone lying awake at night going over and over everything that could have happened, all the different ways their partner might have betrayed them, all the good times that are irreversibly tainted, all the ways they might resolve this situation. You’re trapped in these inwardly spiralling thoughts for the duration of the film. It is a deeply intense experience. For me, it made the climax of the movie hugely shocking and viscerally powerful.

I almost want to think of the film as a piece of outsider art. Wiseau was helpless before his drive to create this film as an expression of his thoughts and feelings. He has radically exposed himself, and seems oblivious to this fact. What he has made does not fit within the standard mode of production for film or storytelling. It’s a deeply personal expression that creates its own world.

And, lest it seem like I’ve forgotten: it’s deeply terrible. It deserves every bit of the loving mockery it has gathered.

I found going to see this in the cinema was an incredibly worthwhile experience. I don’t know that I’ll ever go again – being trapped in Tommy Wiseau’s sweaty, clenched nightmares is not exactly my idea of a good time, even if there’s a bunch of other people there shouting out amusing comments. The Room lived up to its billing as an amazing late-night experience; to my surprise, I think it lived up to Wiseau’s personal hopes far more than he might ever have realized, and exposed far more of him than he could possibly have understood.

(Aside: this is one of the very few times I’ve seen Happy Birthday sung on-screen. In fact, I can’t recall another specific time. All due to copyright claims and related issues.)