Douglas Adams: What a Wonderful World

Despite being the ostensible protagonist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent is remarkably out of control of his destiny. Throughout, he survives various calamities equipped only with only a Babel fish, towel, and implausible happenstance. But most of its cast of characters are equally adrift in a senseless universe: Zaphod Beeblebrox is the ultimate irresponsible slacker, just hanging out as the universe unfairly happens to produce everything he needs. Ford Prefect just barely clings on to a dead-end travel writing gig in the backwaters of the galaxy. Mr. Prosser and Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz are mere salarymen dispassionately dispatching their duties, too jaded even to evilly enjoy their cataclysmic impact upon others (the symbolic mirroring between these characters was laid bare in the original radio series, where they were both portrayed by the same actor — curiously not the case in the TV show, when it ought to have been trivial to do likewise, considering how much alien makeup was involved).

If the many misfortunes that befall Arthur seem meaningless, and his escapes equally arbitrary, maybe it’s because Adams was one of the world’s most famous atheists. He was friend and matchmaker to outspoken debunker of supernaturalism Richard Dawkins — indeed, he introduced to him to his future wife Lalla Ward (who played Romana during Adams’ tenure on Doctor Who, and is still revered today as “the lord high queen of the nerds” by Topless Robot). It would be extremely convenient to draw connections between Dawkins and the Hitchhiker’s character Oolon Colluphid, were the chronology not so inconvenient: the series was written long before Adams discovered Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, and before they became friends after Dawkins wrote Adams an admitted “fan letter.” Colluphid, of course, wrote the highly influential and controversial trilogy Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?, and Well, That About Wraps It Up For God — an oeuvre only slightly less pointed than Dawkins’ own.

Lalla Ward and Richard DawkinsDouglas Adams the matchmaker: Doctor Who star Lalla Ward and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins

Absorbing Hitchhikers’ in prose, on stage, TV, or radio has long been the first baby step for many current and future atheists. The first few moments of all versions of the story feature numerous gags about God, the most well-known of which involves the infamous Babel Fish. When I first read the novel as a kid, I was of course pleasantly grossed out by the notion of sticking a fish in your ear. Whether or not a child reader grasps the overt allusion to the biblical Tower of Babel, most would be versed enough in science fiction to recognize that Adams was mocking the accepted convention that English is spoken throughout the universe. Star Trek and Doctor Who both made offhand comments to explain the language barrier issue in pseudo-scientific manners, which is perhaps the healthiest narrative approach — why get bogged down in technicalities, which only get in the way of telling a good story? But Adams decided to confront the conceit head-on, and not only subvert it but also take it to a startling philosophical conclusion. In literary theory, this would be a casebook example of deconstruction. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the original radio show:

The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain; the practical upshot of which is that if you stick on in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language – the speech you hear decodes the brainwave matrix. Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing”. “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy” says Man, and for an encore he proves that black is white and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.

Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Coluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.

Meanwhile, the poor Babel Fish, be effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

— The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, Douglas Adams, p29-30

The Babel Fish from the BBC Series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe Guide entry on The Babel Fish

The above excerpt is from The Guide itself, the book within the book (another gift to literary theorists). The Guide is full of useless information, when not outright incorrect, but one wonders if Adams was wistfully imagining a more advanced alien society possessed of greater secular wisdom than our own — one in which even lowly travel guides take it as a given that there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster, Invisible Sky Daddy, or Ceiling Cat watching over us. What is especially remarkable is how economical the above excerpt is. It’s elegant, concise, and above all, funny. In only a few lines, Adams co-opts two common theistic arguments into a logical equation that ≠ God: so-called “irreducible complexity” and the ultimate get-out-of-any-argument gambit, faith. To him, faith and belief aren’t enough when it comes to the really important questions:

“Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say ‘no’ for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it […] As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for […] I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance.”
— Douglas Adams, interview with American Atheist, quoted in Douglas Adams and God – Portrait of a Radical Atheist by Nicolas Botti

To the above, I say “can I get an amen?” The word “belief” is appropriate for matters of superstition, but not for matters of science. The self-professed “radical atheist” we hear from above is considerably more gentle and breezy when he playfully tweaks religion in Hitchhiker’s. But it’s easy to imagine how these books might incite the ire of the easily offended Religious Right currently dominating the US political scene. That is, if they were literary-minded enough to sit down and actually attempt to read a book — any book — which clearly they aren’t. Consider how the Monty Python film The Life of Brian was famously protested against for precisely the wrong reasons. Its detractors assumed the film mocked Jesus (when it is in fact quite respectful), but failed to recognize that the Pythons’ true target was organized religion itself. This also fascinated Adams:

“I am fascinated by religion. (That’s a completely different thing from believing in it!) It has had such an incalculably huge effect on human affairs. What is it? What does it represent? Why have we invented it? How does it keep going? What will become of it? I love to keep poking and prodding at it. I’ve thought about it so much over the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing.”
— Douglas Adams, interview with American Atheist

The same Christian fundamentalists that decry the ostensible witchcraft at the core of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (whether they acknowledge Rowling’s own Christian faith or not) would surely object to the capricious, overtly godless universe in which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is set.

Speaking of literary-mindedness, for a man who wrote for the all-ages adventure program Doctor Who, Adams incorporated very little actual physical violence into Hitchhiker’s. It’s interesting that when Arthur and Ford are tortured on the Vogon ship, the means is not waterboarding, electrocution, or solitary confinement, but rather the reading aloud of poetry. For all the power of language to harm, Arthur and Ford are unable to talk their way out of their predicament. This suggests that in the Hitchhiker’s universe, literature is either obscure and irrelevant (as seen in some of more unhelpful Guide entries, or when Arthur fails to enlighten some cavemen with a game of Scrabble), or outright hostile (such as the aforementioned Vogon poetry, and the official documents that doom Arthur’s house and planet to demolition).

Adams had diverse interests beyond tweaking the noses of theists, and incorporated many gags into Hitchhiker’s that would appeal mostly to physicists and statisticians. Two things in particular that preoccupied him were metaphysics and computers, and he was able to put them together in the Deep Thought subplot. Curious humanoids outsource their philosophical questions to a sentient supercomputer tasked with calculating the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The answer “42” is just as meaningless as the question “what do you get if you multiply six by nine?” According to my reading, mathematicians might make sense of this equation if calculated in base 10 — AKA the decimal system — and gamblers would recognize 42 as the sum of all sides of a pair of dice. Unfortunately, these clever mathematicians and gamblers would be no closer to an understanding of the universe as anybody else. The pursuit of the answer and then the question wasted billions of years and immeasurable lives. Thus in one single plot twist, Adams pins a donkey tail on entire religions and whole schools of thought — they’re not just absurd, but also extraordinarily harmful.

The supposed irreverent nature of British humor is a tired topic among American geeks that came of age quoting Monty Python and Doctor Who in outrageously fake accents — even the most crass gags (I’m thinking here of Mrs. Slocomb’s tales regarding her “pussy” on Are You Being Served) sound more witty, sophisticated, and erudite to us when spoken in foreign accents. Here’s Adams on this very topic (regional humor that is, not cats):

“I think too much is made of the difference between US and UK humour. I don’t think there’s a difference in the way those audiences are treated. […] There are things the British think are as English as roast beef that the Americans think are as American as apple pie. The trick is to write about people. If you write about situations that people recognize then people will respond to it.”
–Douglas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94

Ricky Gervais enjoys a pint at The Golden GlobesRicky Gervais enjoys a pint at The Golden Globes: “…and thank god for making me an atheist.”

The alleged great divide between American and British humor came back into relief again recently as Ricky Gervais closed the first of his Golden Globes hosting gigs in 2011. Most of his allegedly uncensored celebrity barbs turned out to be merely tired stabs at low-hanging fruit (certain Scientologists are gay, Charlie Sheen is a junkie, Hugh Hefner is an old creep that gets laid more than you ever will, etc.) that only resulted in more rolled eyes than bruised egos. But what upset outwardly pious Americans most was his closing quip “…and thank god for making me an atheist.” Anyone given to appreciating Adams’ cocktail of absurdism, logic, and philosophy would recognize Gervais’ brand of humor here. Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the current American landscape are holy rollers with persecution complexes.

Perhaps Adams’ atheism was the motivation behind his personal appearance as an archetypal modern man experiencing an existential crisis in the beginning of episode two of the Hitchhiker’s television series. If you believe Neil Gaiman, Adams stepped in simply because the original actor was stuck in traffic that day, but I prefer to imagine a greater significance. Just as Radiohead would later employ Marvin the Paranoid Android as a metaphor for the themes of paranoia and depression in their acclaimed album OK Computer, Adams plays a nameless everyman beset by the modern condition. Taking the long view of someone educated in evolution (which an alarming number of Americans believe to be more science fiction than actual sci-fi), he decides that it was all a mistake for life to leave the oceans in the first place.

Marvin the Paranoid Android from the BBC series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMarvin the Paranoid Android, looking a little more chipper than usual

But there’s a note of optimism to be had at the end of the series, which thanks to the wonderful narrative possibilities of time travel in science fiction, is not really the end but rather the beginning. Arthur, Ford, and the undesirable dregs of an ancient humanoid civilization land on prehistoric Earth and intermingle with brutish cavemen (interestingly, very much the same thing happens at the controversial conclusion to the 2003-09 TV series Battlestar Galactica, except much less funny). The series signs off with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” — which works as both a sarcastic comment on humanity’s humble, decidedly not divine origins (we’re descended from interbred hunters & gatherers, hairdressers, and telephone sanitizers) but also as a sincere comment on Arthur and Ford’s begrudging friendship.

Thanks for reading Part Three of The Dork Report’s look back at Hitchhiker’s. Catch up with Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Two, on its influence & legacy.


Further reading:

Douglas Adams and God – Portrait of a Radical Atheist by Nicolas Botti

American Atheist interview with Douglas Adams

Official BBC site: www.bbc.co.uk/cult/hitchhikers

Official Douglas Adams site: www.douglasadams.com

Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report:

 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Influence & Legacy

Douglas AdamsDouglas Adams and the answer to life, the universe, and everything

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been adapted and extended into virtually every media yet conceived by humankind — if more advanced species elsewhere in the galaxy are able to plug the story directly into their brains, they haven’t yet shared the technology with us earthlings. Back on Earth, Adams personally wrote the radio series (which many of those involved consider the definitive ur text), novels, a television series, and computer game. Although nowhere near the level of cultural saturation of its rough contemporary Star Wars, it is fair to state that it is something personally beloved by millions, but also a rather valuable franchise that placed quite a burden upon its creator. Like George Lucas, Adams spent the rest of his life shepherding and protecting, and yes, profiting off Hitchhiker’s.

Before and after Adams’ untimely death in 2001 — not that there is such a thing as a timely death — Hitchikers enjoyed a complex parallel existence in stage shows, licensed merchandise (including towels and rubber duckies), and additional written works by other authors. The now-superstar author Neil Gaiman’s second book Don’t Panic — only slightly less humble than his first, a Duran Duran hagiography — was a combination biography of Adams and history of Hitchhiker’s as a whole, cleverly written in a reverent pastiche of Adams’ own style. DC Comics adapted the original stories into comics form 1993-1997, after which things went relatively quiet until a 2005 feature film failed to catch on with American movie goers. Director Garth Jennings’s movie has many flaws, the largest of which may simply have been showing up too late to the fading Hitchhiker’s party. But much of the casting is inarguably excellent, particularly Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent and the voices of Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman as The Guide and Marvin the Paranoid Android, respectively (read The Dork Report review). The movie may have failed to reignite fan fervor at its peak, but the neverending trilogy got even longer when the Adams estate posthumously authorized a sixth prose novel by Artemis Fowl creator Eoin Colfer in 2009.

Sam Rockwell, John Malkovich, Martin Freeman, Mos Def, and Zooey Deschanel in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyGetting the band back together for the 2005 feature film

But the vast influence of Adams’ original works is incalculable. I can’t speak to his influence in his home country, but he was an integral component of the holy trinity for a particular strain of Anglophile geeks growing up in America in the 1970s and 80s: Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the holy Doctor Who, forever and ever amen. Rolling Stone magazine gave away 3,000 free copies of the first novel in 1981, guaranteeing countless young unsuccessful bands called Disaster Area, one successful band called Level 42, and a generation of college kids heeding Ford Prefect’s sage advice to enjoy “Six pints of bitter, and quickly please, the world’s about to end.” The BCC television comedy Red Dwarf is a direct descendant (albeit, if anything, even more bitterly bleak and nihilistic). As a cultural institution, Hitchhiker’s was still hip enough in 1997 to inspire the Radiohead song title “Paranoid Android”.

Adams, together with fellow imp Tom Baker, forever stamped Doctor Who with its signature blend of hard science, absurdist humor, and barely submerged darkness. The ideal recipe is still debated to this day, perhaps most evident in Christopher Eccleston’s particularly bipolar vision of the character as swinging wildly between anguished and giddy — at once grieving his complicity in the death of his entire species, but not so despairing that he couldn’t fall in love with a cute young blonde earthling named Rose Tyler (The Doctor! In love! Almost as unthinkable as the romantic misadventures that would befall Arthur after the largely sexless early installments of Hitchhiker’s). But in 1979, for those British fans that preferred wit & whimsy over reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, they could switch the telly over to BBC Two to watch The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Peter Davison in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyFifth Doctor Peter Davison appears as The Dish of the Day in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

As my frequent Doctor Who asides above prove, it’s virtually impossible to discuss Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without a few detours into Whovian matters — not least because Fifth Doctor Peter Davison famously cameos in the television series as the exceptionally rare (and chatty) steak served at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I first read the novels as a kid, completely unaware of their radio or TV incarnations. I quite literally pictured Ford Prefect as The Doctor (specifically, the highly eccentric Tom Baker’s unforgettable performance as the Fourth Doctor). When my local PBS affiliate finally ran the TV series, I was quite disappointed to find that David Dixon is very nearly the physical opposite of Baker; and not nearly as… well, alien.

David Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and Sandra Dickinson in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyDavid Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and Sandra Dickinson in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

Trillian, who appears for the first time in episode two, was another huge disappointment. Whether by her own acting choices, contemporary cultural mores, or the whims of a randy costume department, actress Sandra Dickinson pitches the character as even dumber and more sexed up than a typical Doctor Who companion, which is really saying something (thankfully, 21st Century Who Girls generally enjoy much more substantial characterization). She and Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox both sport exaggerated American accents that make me scratch my head as much as our silliest mock British accents must irritate actual Britons (addendum: I have since learned that Dickinson is actually American, so I don’t know what it means that her accent sounded fake to me). Dickinson would later marry Davison, and their daughter Georgia Moffett would in turn wed actor David Tennant (making the Fifth Doctor the Tenth Doctor’s father-in-law — and this is without any real-life time travel). It’s as if Adams is still working beyond the grace as the behind-the-scenes matchmaker keeping it all in the Doctor Who family — and I haven’t even gotten around to discussing Lalla Ward and Richard Dawkins yet.

Lalla Ward and Tom Baker in Doctor WhoDouglas Adams as Doctor Who matchmaker Part 1: Lalla Ward and Tom Baker

But the single greatest repercussion of Hitchhiker’s has nothing to do with Radiohead songs, the relative eccentricity of Doctor Who leading men, or spinoff merchandise. It is, simply, the Apple iPhone. Allow me to be approximately the millionth person to point out that the eponymous guide itself has since become a very real thing, collecting lint in the bathrobe pockets of millions of Earthlings. It took a number of iterations of numerous interlocking components for it to happen, and it’s not hard to imagine that Adams was a direct influence on the visionary nerds that invented and assembled them. Computers were networked together in the 1960s, an infinite number of Ford Prefects began to crowd-source Wikipedia in 2001, and then devices small enough to carry all of this around began to appear in the 1990s (I remember really lusting after the magical Palm VII, which was capable of retrieving your email out of thin air). These elements finally came together in 2007 with the first truly usable portable information device, Apple’s iPhone — an invention I’m sure Adams would agree is more useful than even the towel. Wikipedia’s theoretically infinite hyperlinked database full of persistently and instantly available information proved about as reliable as the Hitchhiker’s Guide, loaded as it is with dense entries on fripperies like where to find the finest Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster, while having little comment on an entire lifebearing planet like, say, Earth. To quote the first edition: “Harmless.” Second, extensively revised & expanded edition: “Mostly harmless.”

Peter Davison and David Tennant in Doctor WhoDouglas Adams as Doctor Who matchmaker Part 2: David Tennant and father-in-law Peter Davison

So what is it that makes Hitchhiker’s so enduringly popular? It’s not too difficult to decode its DNA: Adams’ involvement in Cambridge University sketch comedy groups, his writing collaborations with Graham Chapman of Monty Python, and his appreciation of classic science fiction (particularly Kurt Vonnegut and the British institution Doctor Who). But Hitchhiker’s is not a sequel, parody, adaptation, or pastiche of anything in particular. Although it plays with many tropes of science fiction, it was a genuinely new thing. Adams had the following to say of American TV audiences, but I think it’s valid as a universal statement:

“Audiences in the US (through no fault of their own) are treated as complete idiots by the people who make programmes. And when you’ve been treated as an idiot for so long you tend to respond that way. But when given something with a bit more substance they tend to breathe a deep sigh of relief and say ‘Thank God for that!'”
–Douglas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94

Adams gave people something with a bit more substance, and they seized upon it. His ideas were so original that Adams spent most of his latter career patiently explaining where they came from. NPR’s Marc Hirsh has a more pessimistic take, equating James Cameron’s recent announcement that he would only make films set in the Avatar universe to the trap that Adams found himself in:

[Adams] spent the last 23 years of his life, starting from the original 1978 radio broadcast, continually rewriting the same story over and over for different media. And as much as I love the books and have enjoyed many of the different iterations, I can’t help but think that that’s an almost tragic waste of talent.
— Marc Hirsh, NPR (via Neil Gaiman)

True, he must have been frustrated to not be able to move beyond Hitchhiker’s for most of his career, but one need only look at bookstore shelves today to see almost everything he wrote still happily in print, including two novels in a new series starring holistic detective Dirk Gently. Writing and managing the Hitchhiker’s empire was evidently a slow and painful task for him, and he wasted a lot of time struggling to bring Hitchhiker’s to BBC TV and Hollywood, with mixed results. But outside of his nominal career as a writer, he would seem to have lived a rich life full of close friends (including luminaries as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Dave Gilmour), good deeds (q.v. his book Last Chance to See, on endangered species), and thinking deep thoughts.

Thanks for reading Part Two of The Dork Report’s trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Three, on its status as gateway drug for many future atheists.


Official Douglas Adams site: www.douglasadams.com

Official BBC site: www.bbc.co.uk/cult/hitchhikers

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: From Radio to TV

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy BBC TV poster

British viewers may not blink twice, but it is always interesting for this Yank to note the privileged billing given to screenwriters in BBC programs. The opening credits for the 1981 serial The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy prominently hail “By DOUGLAS ADAMS” directly below its dramatically rocky logo, overshadowing the cast, directors, and producers. This is certainly not the case for typical American television productions, which tend to bury the lowly writer’s credit in type so small and fleeting that it’s hard to spot even if you’re looking for it. Shows tend to be popularly known more for their cast or sometimes the corporation that produced it (exhibit A: the hard-earned prestige status enjoyed by HBO). A precious few creators may have become known commodities in their own right, such as the rare cases of Chris Carter (The X-Files), J.J. Abrams (Lost), and David Simon (The Wire), but by and large writers remain effectively anonymous on American television.

Aside from BBC standards and practice for onscreen accreditation, and the fact that the Adams name itself had become a brand, one could argue that he merited such recognition for sheer work ethic alone. Between 1978 and 1981, Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at least five times: as a radio play, novel, record album, stage show, and television series (granted, some of these were collaborations, but the point still stands). All this while serving as script editor for the 17th season of Doctor Who, which entailed supplying three of his own scripts (The Pirate Planet, City of Death, and Shada) in addition to heavily rewriting many others. The Doctor Who tradition of divided loyalties would continue well into the 21st century as showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat would moonlight on Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and Sherlock. The only possible conclusion to draw is that doing Doctor Who is evidently easy, and provides lots of free time for extracurricular activities. I’m sure Russell and Steven will agree, right guys?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe opening credits of the BBC TV production of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy assert that the original radio series is the definitive article.

By all accounts, including his own, writing would not seem to have come easy for Adams. The sustained creative frenzy that produced Hitchhikers in all its forms would have burned any normal person out. That he pulled it off proves he may not have been a normal person, but it made him a more financially comfortable man that indeed never met another deadline again: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Indeed, Hitchhikers’ runaway success afforded him the wealth to buy as many Apple Macintoshes as he wanted, and to take his sweet time adapting and extending the Hitchhikers universe into more novels, audio books, an influential text-based hypertextual computer game, and a stage show.

I personally consider the books to be definitive, mostly because that’s how I happened to first experience the story. In fact, it was years until I learned that its original incarnation as a radio series so much as existed. Writer Gareth Roberts, an expert on Adams-era Doctor Who, observed that the first two Hitchhikers books aren’t technically novels, but essentially novelizations of his scripts for the radio show. Further bumping the books down the hierarchy of relative definitiveness, the opening credits of the TV series proclaim it’s “Adapted from the BBC Radio Series” even though it followed the novel, which itself roughly corresponding to the first four radio episodes. Got that?

The first episode was a (very expensive) pilot, and could very well have been all we have today. Even after a full series was commissioned, each subsequent episode begins with a cleverly done recap, typically featuring excerpts from the titular Guide that segue into a resolution of the previous episode’s cliffhanger. The integration of animation into the live action footage reflects Adams’ highly digressive writing style, now de rigueur to audiences raised in an online, hyperlinked culture. Perhaps the sole element of the TV series that everyone can agree is excellent is the faux-computer animation, which was actually created manually using traditional cel animation techniques by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios.

Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyAn example of the ersatz “computer” animation created outside the BBC by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios.

Neil Gaiman dedicates Chapter 13 of his book Don’t Panic, about the Hitchhikers phenomenon, to the painful production of the television series. Indeed, it seems to have managed to disappoint just about everyone: fans, critics, the BBC, and at least two warring factions on the creative team, including (and perhaps especially) Adams himself. He had wished to involve his trusted collaborators John Lloyd and Geoffrey Perkins, but all three were shut out by entrenched BBC TV lifers that looked down their noses at mere radio people. Further dooming things, production was handled by the BBC’s Light Entertainment division, despite the Drama department having all the experience and know-how anyone could ask for after having handled many years worth of Doctor Who serials.

Gaiman documents a high state of tension between producer/director Alan Bell and seemingly everyone else. Bell was reportedly skilled at bringing productions in on time and under budget, but less interested in story or directing actors. Gaiman quotes many veterans of the original radio series that felt Bell’s direction and staging was often artless and unsympathetic to the unique material. The pedestrian-looking resulting program must have stung, as the original radio team had all shown considerable technical ambition in realizing the unprecedented sound design of the radio series (Geoffrey Perkins details the extraordinary labor it took to create virtually all of the voice and sound effects from scratch in the book The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts — contrary to what one might assume, the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop didn’t contribute much). A second series was commissioned, but Adams’ standoff with Bell contributed to its cancellation before it came anywhere close to beginning. Bell claims Adams missed his script deadlines as usual, and Adams counters he simply would not start writing until negotiations concluded to include Perkins and Lloyd as advisors (this is a brutally condensed version of the whole sad story, available in full circa page 84 of the first edition of Don’t Panic). I take Adams’ side on this one, as my career as a web designer has made me all too familiar with the pitfalls of beginning work before you have a contract.

The pilot episode opens on a rather decent model landscape of a quaint English village, complete with ersatz sunrise. This bucolic scene is, of course, not long for this world. We soon meet Adams’ archetypal everyman Arthur Dent, played by Simon Jones, who actually resembles Douglas Adams in stature and coiffure. Athur’s home and home planet are about to become casualties of two coincidental bureaucratic mishaps. As if Arthur didn’t have enough to deal with this dreadful morning, his pal Ford Prefect outs himself as being a roving reporter for the eponymous publication The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, hailing “from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse”. Incidentally, everyone’s favorite star — once they learn how to pronounce it — is itself expected to explode “soon”. But Ford, if he’s out there, may rest easy, for in the minds of astrophysicists, “soon” means anytime between now and 1,000,000 years hence. Perhaps the exact date is available on a slip of paper in a subbasement of a Vogon planning commission office somewhere in the galaxy.

But back to the TV series. Much of the radio cast reprise their roles onscreen, and it certainly plays that way. Its prose origins are betrayed by a few recognizably overwritten scenes, such as when Arthur and Ford redundantly describe the hallucinations they suffer in episode two, as if the audience couldn’t plainly see them for themselves. The downside is that the TV series comes across like an abridged greatest hits compilation of Adams’ most quotable lines (“Time is an illusion; lunchtime doubly so”). The upside is… well, it comes across like an abridged greatest hits of the most quotable lines (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”).

While the outdoor location work is grounded in reality, the studio-shot sequences are theatrical in presentation, with long takes staged against traditional three-walled studio sets. The non-naturalistic lighting often works against the story, especially as Ford squints by the feeble light of a match to locate a plainly visible light switch in the brightly illuminated bowels of the Vogon ship. Arthur (who had admittedly just been through a lot) is unimpressed with the “shabby” vessel. Knowing the author and context, this word choice is very likely an ironic comment on the art direction. To be fair, later sequences are staged more dramatically (such as the forced-perspective gangways surrounding the massive supercomputer Deep Thought).

If you want to argue about how Hitchhikers looks on television, I think that sci-fi on the small screen ought not to be judged in terms of what was on the big screen at the time. Doctor Who still gets a lot of grief for its dodgy production values, but recall that it premiered in 1963, long before the stylistic and technological special effects breakthroughs showcased in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), and Alien (1979), so it’s a bit unfair to judge, isn’t it? It’s only a rather recent development that the production qualities of science fiction on television began to match the sorts of effects you can see in feature films. In this viewer’s opinion, the current best-of-breed visual effects on television haven’t yet topped Battlestar Galactica (read The Dork Report review), which featured outer space dogfights that matched or exceeded what is routinely showcased in Hollywood features — perhaps even by what is arguably the highest-profile genre series currently on the air, HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMark Wing-Davey (and the faulty animatronic head that cost more than his fee) as Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

As was (and is) the case with Doctor Who, you have to take the good with the bad. Is there any point critiquing Hitchhiker’s dodgy special effects, even considering the year (1981), medium (television), and budget (low)? Insofar was anyone could have predicted audience expectations, they likely tuned in more to savor Adams’ priceless words and ideas, not state-of-the-art spectacle. Here’s original producer Geoffrey Perkins on the topic of the paradoxical limitations and freedom of the radio drama format, and the unexpected repercussions when the serial was later adapted into other media:

“The line about [Zaphod’s] extra head was put in as a little extra throwaway joke which was to cause enormous headaches (sic) when the show was transferred to television. The extra head cost about twice as much as Mark [Wing-Davey] himself (though he thinks that was fair enough because it gave a better performance than he did!). In fact much of the time the head didn’t function properly and used to loll on his shoulder looking up at him, often ending up being operated by a man with his hand up Mark’s back.”
–Geoffrey Perkins, The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, page 50

It’s interesting, and I think significant, that he uses the word “transferred” to describe the adaptation process. At the time of the publication of the radio scripts in 1985, Perkins and Adams still viewed them as the definitive article.

Thanks for reading Part One of The Dork Report’s trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part Two, on its influence and legacy, and Part Three, on its status as gateway drug for many future atheists.


Official BBC site: www.bbc.co.uk/cult/hitchhikers

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Sad Dinosaurs: Calling Bullshit on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life movie poster

 

As a public service, The Dork Report will now summarize all 2 hours and 19 minutes of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life for you:

My mommy was pretty, my daddy was mean, sometimes kids die, I inhaled too much DDT, and it makes me so sad. Sad like the lonely birth of the lifeless universe. Sad like an anachronistic demonstration of animal altruism in the cruel dinosaur-eat-dinosaur prehistoric biosphere. Sad like the decay of all matter and energy as the universe inevitably collapses.

I call bullshit.

The degree of enjoyment I took from The Tree of Life was in inverse proportion to the sense of obligation I felt to see it, which is to say: very little vs. a whole lot. The very private auteur Malick had fallen silent for a number of years after he burst out of the gate in the 70s with Badlands and Days of Heaven, but has been on something of an uncharacteristic tear lately, producing three films in 10 years, with more in the pipeline. Since he chooses to not participate in publicity for his films, we may have to wait years until we find out what motivated him to return from this mysterious interregnum.

The Tree of LifeNo one was there to watch as the planets form from stardust… except Terrence Malick’s computers

Anticipation high, The Tree of Life was hotly discussed as his most beautiful, philosophical, and autobiographical film yet (the last point being especially tantalizing to film buffs looking for entry points into analyzing the man and his ouvre from a distance). The hook was further baited by the all-star cast (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and it-girl-who’s-in-everything-these-days Jessica Chastain) and an awards campaign branding it as one of the key prestige pictures of 2011. The willingness of top-drawer talent to work with Malick, even if they may very well wind up on the cutting room floor (as happened to George Clooney in The Thin Red Line), suggests he is revered as a director of actors. The perennially prickly Sean Penn, however, had none of this. He publicly derided the completed film:

While [Penn] considered the script “the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read,” he believes that “a clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.” Noting that Malick himself was little help when it came to explaining what he was going for, Penn adds, “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context.”
The A.V. Club

All of Malick’s films are inarguably staggeringly beautiful, but their flimsy substance would get laughed out of a high school creative writing class. The Thin Red Line provided a much-needed meditative counterpoint at the time to the comparatively sentimental Saving Private Ryan, but too much of the film was taken up with the private thoughts of inarticulate grunts struggling to understand why they were killing each other when they’d all be much happier as cinematographers filming wildlife and sunlight filtering prettily through treetops. The New World approached outright silliness in its portrayal of Pocahontas as a pimply teenager in leather lingerie, caught in a love triangle over two of her European oppressors, and became truly absurd as the film contorted itself to avoid speaking her name.

Jessica Chastain and an unnamed dinosaur extra in Terrance Malick's The Tree of LifeI want to equate these two shots to the famous jump cut from prehistoric man to a spaceship in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I just don’t respect The Tree of Life enough.

There’s something to be said about Malick deconstructing two of the most overused subjects in Hollywood history (the World War II picture and the Pocahontas myth) for his own personal statements, but critics must really strain for these to hold up to discussion in serious philosophical terms. The Niles Files makes a valiant attempt to tackle The Tree of Life, looping in Blake, Proust, Joyce, and many other big guns to extract some meaning from Malick’s pretty pictures.

The Tree of Life was part of a miniature trendlet in movies this past year, in which the painfully intimate was equated with the distantly cosmic. Sadly, two better films with similar concerns were unjustly crowded out of the award season — curiously, both featuring young women. In Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, a girl whose carelessness ruined several lives finds hope for redemption when an exact duplicate of the entire planet inexplicably appears in the sky. Like everyone that has ever lived, she wonders if maybe there’s a better world where things turned out differently. For Cahill, it would have superfluous to concoct a pseudoscientific explanation for the phenomena, but another filmmaker that same year turned to physicists to properly substantiate his cosmic visions. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is exactly that — a painful but stunningly beautiful examination of crippling depression. One young woman’s mental illness all but splinters her extended family, a destruction so cataclysmic it is reflected in the eradication of the world. Von Trier harnesses computer animation for images of profoundly moving beauty, rendering Malick’s mopey CGI dinos silly in comparison.


Official movie site: www.twowaysthroughlife.com

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Apart Hate: District 9

 

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is an old story told many times in fiction and history: an undesirable group intrudes upon the space and resources of privileged power possessors. This story never ends well. District 9’s highly allegorical culture clash corresponds to great many groups that have suffered in throughout history, many sadly ongoing: refugees, minorities, Roma, Jews, or immigrants. But hey, this time it’s aliens!

Peter Jackson produced writer/director Blomkamp’s feature length version of his short film “Alive in Joburg”. The concept is closely related to Graham Baker’s 1988 sci-fi cop buddy picture Alien Nation (developed by Kenneth Johnson for a TV series the following year), in which a fully-packed slave ship is suddenly abandoned on Earth. The slaves may have been freed, but stranded in a hostile, crowded alien world with no room for them, even if the natives didn’t find them distasteful. Alien Nation found its drama in the friction on both sides as the freed slaves are absorbed into human society in a variety of ways.

District 9“When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”

District 9 is far more vague about its aliens’ nature and more cynical about the possibility of their integration. The ship they arrived in may not even have belonged to them, otherwise they would presumably have been more inclined to attempt to repair it or at least live aboard. Were they an exploited labor force, or what we would call slaves? If so, what happened to their captors? The trailer includes at least one scene not included in the finished film, in which an alien interrogated by human police implies that they are preventing them from repairing their ship, when all they want to do is go home. This simple sentiment is never expressed by any alien character in the movie. In fact, more of them seem content to simply live in squalor. Why can’t or won’t they simply tell us who they are or what they want?

District 9 is comprised of an awkwardly stitched together melange of genres, less seamlessly than how Alien Nation merged the buddy cop drama with science fiction. For most of its running time, District 9 works as a fauxmentary made of ostensibly found footage. The fauxmentary has long been a format for farce (q.v. Zelig and This is Spinal Tap), but in later years The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead (read The Dork Report review), and Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review) all found ways to effectively employ the style for horror, drama, and science fiction. The ongoing wave of reality television and the run-and-gun handheld style in vogue since Paul Greengrass’ kinetic The Bourne Supremacy are no doubt contributing to the trend of including the “camera” as, essentially, a character in the film.

The fauxmentary pretense is upheld for quite a while, until it suddenly shifts to a privileged point of view for a scene in which three alien characters speaking in confidence, without the virtual “camera” present. This shift is jarring, as we’ve previously witnessed everything from the point of view of the absent protagonist. It signals the beginning of a more traditional narrative, albeit one still visualized with the same aesthetic. It’s as if Blomkamp stuck to a first-person point of view until it became inconvenient, so simply shifted to third-person while preserving the same visual aesthetic.

If the audience didn’t already contract whiplash, District 9 then dips into the body horror genre as Wikus (Sharlto Copley) undergoes a metamorphosis a la David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Even this doesn’t hold Blomkamp’s attention, and the film about-faces once again, this time into a standard-issue sci-fi action flick like Aliens (with a dash of Black Hawk Down). For its grand finale, it suddenly crashes back into fauxmentary.

District 9“District 9 – Paving the Way to Unity.”

The shifting genres and points of view mirror Wikus’ character arc. Initially a basically sympathetic company man, he turns villainous in our eyes when he displays vicious speciesism by destroying an alien hatchery with undisguised glee. His cosmic punishment is for his body to painfully mutate into that which he hates and fears the most (again, an archetypal Cronenebergian theme), after which he comes around to being sympathetic again. The ending is very effective in reminding us how far Wikus has transformed, body and mind, since we first met him.

District 9 is riddled with a number of irritatingly illogical elements, which are unclear if meant to be mysteries for the audience to ponder or if just outright plot holes or implausibilities. Most refugee situations in human history involve oppressed people with no political or military power. These aliens possess ferociously powerful weapons, but don’t use them to fight for better conditions or more food and resources. If they are so technologically advanced, why do they not also have some kind of functional societal order, as opposed to the self-defeating chaotic shanty town they’ve constructed for themselves? Perhaps the technology belonged to their mysterious and unseen captors, or maybe their ill-behavior is explained by the breakdown of order the occurs in any kind of refugee scenario. More questions: How can one little alien child, born on earth, have the know-how to reactivate the mothership? Why did it take 20 years for any of them to harvest the necessary materials from their own scrap? Surely more than two adult aliens could organize themselves to better harvest their own waste.

It would normally be reductive to search for a “moral of the story” from even the simplest film — the kind of assignment given to an elementary school reading comprehension essay. But since District 9 is clearly making an obvious point about racism and xenophobia, it has to be said that it shoots itself in the foot with its extremely problematic depiction of Nigerians as gangsters and cannibals. Granted, the Nigerian characters don’t come off that much better than the white South Africans we see conducting cruel genetic research on both humans and aliens.

Setting the film in South Africa was perhaps the least subtle way possible to present any kind of science fiction allegory for racism and xenophobia — at least since Star Trek: Enterprise dressed reptilian Xindi villains in Nazi uniforms in 2004 (just in case the slower members of the audience didn’t pick up on the unsubtle pun in the species’ name). It’s perhaps more comfortable to think that these types of situations have occurred in isolated places throughout history: in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, or Armenia. The alien refugee camps are of course most directly analogous to South Africa under Apartheid — the title itself alluding to the forcible eviction of District Six in Cape Town to Cape Flats in 1966. By contrast, Alien Nation made the more profound point that the same thing could happen anywhere.


Official movie sites: www.d-9.com, www.district9movie.com, and www.MNUSpreadsLies.com

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Untangling The Terminator Timeline

The Terminator franchise is cooked from a core recipe of cyborgs, time travel, bullets, and explosions, seasoned with themes of destiny, paranoia, and technophobia. Subtract or substitute too many of these ingredients and you wind up with something not-Terminator. Terminator Salvation is the first episode to dare to omit the foundational time travel element. Its “present” is the post-apocalyptic future we only glimpsed in the previous films, and the closest thing to time travel is the very conventional storytelling conceit of a flashback. It’s curious that in a media landscape where fractured, non-chronological narratives are the norm (particularly on television, most notably in Lost and Breaking Bad) that the Terminator series would retreat to a safer, more linear narrative structure.

While one might imagine that would result in a more straightforward continuation of the saga, I found it raised more questions than it answered. I’m either over- or underthinking things, or more likely expecting too much of a post-exhausted escapist action franchise, but the Terminator chronology seems more entangled with paradoxes than ever. Let’s start with a condensed overview of the four feature films to date, compiled from Wikipedia, Empire Online, io9, and the Terminator Wiki. For simplicity’s sake, I’m omitting The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series and any other spinoff comics, games, novels, or whatever other assorted ephemera that has since only muddled things further:

offscreen:

  • 1959 (T1, T2) or 1965 (T3): Sarah Connor born

The Terminator (1984)

  • The present: 1984 (Los Angeles)
  • Judgement Day: August 29, 1997 (specified in T2)
  • The future: 2029

offscreen:

  • 1985: John Connor born

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

  • The present: 1995 (John Connor is 10)
  • Judgement Day: August 29, 1997
  • The future: 2029 (same date given in T1, but SkyNet is markedly more advanced)

offscreen:

  • 1997: Sarah Connor dies of leukemia (T3)

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

  • The present: 2004
  • Judgement Day: July 24, 2004 (delayed from 1997 by events of T2)
  • The future: 2032

Terminator Salvation (2009)

  • Prelude: 2003 (Texas death row, prior to the events of T3)
  • Judgement Day: July 24, 2004 (not specified; I’m assuming it’s the same as predicted in T3)
  • The present: 2018 (the earliest vision of the future seen yet)

So across four films, our heroes succeed in delaying the dread Judgement Day only once, and never outright prevent it. Perhaps the supremacy of artificial intelligence is inevitable, like Ray Kurzweil’s predictions of the coming Technological Singularity.

Four TerminatorsFour movies, four Terminators: T-600 (Terminator Salvation), T-800 (The Terminator), T-1000 (Terminator 2), T-X (Terminator 3)

Perhaps easiest to straighten out is the evolution of the villainous SkyNet’s footsoldier: the titular Terminator. At the time of Terminator Salvation, SkyNet has only deployed the crude T-600, basically a tank on legs that could be mistaken for a human only at a great distance. Terminator Salvation also shows an intermediate stage in SkyNet’s plan to create “infiltration units”, cyborgs that can ingratiate themselves into human enclaves. The prototype turns out to be not very reliable — far more human than machine — so SkyNet’s skunkworks are already mass-producing all-machine successor, the T-800. Sarah and Reese successfully destroyed one of these in The Terminator, but fragments survived destruction and were (paradoxically) used to create SkyNet. So, not only is Judgement Day not averted, SkyNet is even more advanced in the version of 2029 seen in Terminator 2 than the 2029 we see glimpses of in The Terminator. Sarah and Reese arguably made things worse, for SkyNet developed the more high-tech liquid metal Terminator model T-1000. The events of T2 delay Judgement Day until July 24, 2004. Around 2032, SkyNet developed the even more advanced T-X (a hybridized model utilizing both an endoskeleton and a liquid metal skin) seen in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. SkyNet also evidences an enhanced sense of aesthetics, as the T-X is markedly more sexy.

The adult John Connor we see in Terminator 4 has not yet become the leader of the resistance that nearly defeats SkyNet in the future of The Terminator. So, in Terminator Salvation, what does he think when he’s presented with a plan to permanently defeat SkyNet? Does he know the plan is doomed to fail because he knows his future self will still be fighting SkyNet in the future? In which case, why bother to help? It might be in his best interests to actively thwart the plan.

Also, how does SkyNet know in 2018 that John Connor and Kyle Reese must be assassinated? Neither has yet become a leader. Neither has time travel been invented (yet), so SkyNet can’t know (once again, yet) what these two humans will become, or that SkyNet in the future will try at least three times to kill John before Judgement Day.

The easy way out of these questions already exists in the Terminator canon: according to the rules of time travel as established in the Terminator universe, the timeline is not fixed, and may be altered. This conceit only raises more questions: if the plan succeeds, he will never become the leader of the resistance. He will never send Kyle Reese back in time to become his father, and he will have never existed to put in motion his plan to save humanity. If he succeeds, will he be erased from history? If so, why do we not seem him grapple with this interesting existential question onscreen? Would this not be the entire point of finally revisiting the long-running character of John Connor as an adult? It would seem the filmmakers are more interested in special effects spectacle than character or deeper themes.

Edward Furlong, Christian Bale, Nick Stahl, and Michael Edwards as John Connor in The Terminator moviesThree movies, four John Connors: Edward Furlong (Terminator 2), Nick Stahl (Terminator 3), Christian Bale (Terminator Salvation), Michael Edwards (Terminator 2)

All of which brings me to my biggest philosophical problem with the core of the entire Terminator concept: what makes John Connor so important? Terminator Salvation is the first installment in the story to finally depict him in action as the mature rebel leader SkyNet is so afraid of. But the most influential acts of leadership we see are mere motivational radio addresses meant to inspire a defeated humanity to keep fighting, a far cry from the messianic military commander that will supposedly lead humanity to its salvation. His supposed destiny is described by the cynical General Ashdown (Michael Ironside) as a religious prophecy. I would have liked to see more doubt on the part of the resistance that he’s anything special, at least yet. But instead, he inspires blind loyalty (except for a colleague’s act of spectacular treachery in releasing a cyborg mole, whom they have every right to believe is a SkyNet agent). Also, why doesn’t anybody just call him “John” or “Connor” or “hey you”? He’s apparently so important that everyone always refers to him by his full name, perhaps so the audience is perpetually reminded of his portentous initials, which rather obviously reflect the character’s creator James Cameron, as well as another mythological savior of humanity from two millennia past.


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Apocalypse Porn: Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation movie poster

 

Terminator Salvation was released in a year curiously rife with apocalypse porn. The visions of world’s end in theaters that year varied wildly in tone: everything from illuminating art to alarmism to escapism. The competition to bum you out included Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which utilized the best special effects technology money could buy to depict the systematic destruction of international landmarks, and John Hillcoat’s The Road (read The Dork Report review), which imagined the scattered remnants of humanity scrabbling to survive in a world they may have themselves decimated, but long past a point where blame had any meaning. Technology is both destroyer and salvation in Terminator and 2012, but largely irrelevant to the stragglers clinging to life in The Road. All of humanity’s inventions are gone, and give neither aid nor harm.

For the Terminator series to be such a long-lasting mass entertainment is odd, considering it is set in a desolate, post-nuclear-war world ruled by a self-aware artificial intelligence. It would seem that a distrust of technology and fear of world war is a perpetual motivation to go to the cinema. James Cameron’s original science fiction nightmare is vintage 1984, with old-school optical special effects and stop motion animation that, depending on your point of view, are either quaint or relics of a lost era of handmade moviemaking. But its core concept was strong enough to become archetypal of an entire genre, inspiring countless derivative works. The Wachowski Brothers stole it outright for The Matrix, where self-aware computer programs turn against the human civilization that created them, like the Terminators before them. The Terminators stage a malicious holocaust of pure extermination, but the Matrix programs instead virtually enslave the human race while they feed on giant electrical batteries comprised of farmed human bodies. While the eponymous Matrix was a weapon of fratricide, The Terminators were instead locked in a game of time-travel chess. But in each case, the offspring of humanity are afflicted with profound Freudian complexes: they are fixated on consuming their parents.

Christian Bale and Sam Worthington in Terminator SalvationThat’s so $&#%ing unprofessional, you $&#%ing cyborg infiltration unit!

The cast of Terminator Salvation was more populated with famous names than it needed to be. Christian Bale is now the fourth actor to play the role of humanity’s savior John Connor, and with apologies to Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, and Thomas Dekker, the first marquee name. One need look no further to spot the biggest gamble this film makes: nobody went to see any of the previous three Terminator films because they were fascinated by the good guy. From the very beginning, the big draw for audiences (and the plum role for any actor looking to make a splash) was the villain. The eponymous cyborg antagonist James Cameron created quickly became iconic and launched bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger to Hollywood stardom and, even more implausibly, a political career.

Bale is coming from an entirely different place than a ‘roided-up Austrian amateur thespian in 1984. Bale is a capital-S Serious Actor, from the very beginning of his career as the child lead in Steven Spielberg’s still under-appreciated Empire of the Sun through to his modern resurgence in Mary Harron’s controversial American Psycho. Like Brando and Crowe before him, Bale comes across as an angry and humorless guy — possibly even unstable — in most of his roles and even his public persona. Indeed, rumors of his ill temper were seemingly confirmed by his infamous eruption on the set of Terminator Salvation in July 2008.

Terminator SalvationThis is as good a place as any to ask: why do the Terminator movies refer to these as “endoskeletons”? Isn’t that redundant?

A pessimist might even imagine Bale’s histrionics part of a publicity campaign to create awareness and positive buzz — not just for a movie that studio executives might consider an unsure prospect in need of a marketing boost, but even to cement his own sexy reputation as a loose cannon or Hollywood bad boy. In the end, a hissy fit thrown by a handsome and overpaid celebrity wasn’t enough to prevent minor box office disappointment and tepid reviews, (a modest 52% on Metacritic). At the very least, Bale’s tabloid presence helped most of the celebrity obsessed world become aware that there was a new Terminator film coming out, when previously only Comic-Con attending sci-fi geeks had been paying attention. Personally, knowing about Bale’s tantrum beforehand actually took me out of the experience of watching the film on its own merits. I was continuously distracted by wondering which particular scene stressed him out enough to blow his top.

Bale’s prickly persona might make him eminently suitable for roles like the driven resistance leader John Connor, but it makes his range seem quite limited. He employs the exact same set of mannerisms he used for Bruce Wayne in Batman and The Dark Knight (read The Dork Report review): a hoarse voice, tensed posture, and lowered-head thousand-yard stare. Bale may play the top-billed role in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation, but he is arguably not the real protagonist in either and is overshadowed by Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart), The Joker (Heath Ledger), and Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) — both in terms of screen time as well as actorly showiness. Perhaps it’s a deliberate choice on Bale’s part to seek out essentially supporting parts in which he allows his character to be subordinate to a cast ostensibly billed below his name. Fittingly, Bale was to earn an Oscar the next year for an actual supporting role in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, so at least in one case his real-life persona completed its redemption arc, if his Terminator role John Connor didn’t.

Moon Bloodgood in Terminator SalvationMoon Bloodgood checks behind her for her character’s motivation. It’s got to be around this wasteland someplace.

I have nothing to back this allegation up, but I’ve heard rumors that the original script for what became Terminator Salvation centered around the characters of Marcus (Worthington) and Reese (Anton Yelchin). Worthington and Yelchin would have shared the focus, while the character of John Connor was relegated to a cameo appearance, but the role was greatly expanded when Christian Bale became attached. This rumor could account for the relative richness (albeit truncated) of the Marcus character arc, as compared to the one-note Connor. It would have served both characters better had the movie focused on just one tortured male savior.

Director McG’s Terminator Salvation is by no means equal to James Cameron’s two original films, but it’s really not all that terrible, and certainly better than Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. My theory is very simple: it’s too grim. The first three movies all had some degree of humor, but Terminator Salvation’s trailers and TV commercials made no attempt to tart it up as a good time. By far the highlight for the audience I saw it with was the sudden appearance of a famous T-800 model Terminator, not entirely successfully realized by applying a CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger head atop bodybuilder Roland Kickinger. If a little less than convincing, it at least provided some relief from the oppressive apocalyptic despair. Also, a newly recorded voiceover cameo by Linda Hamilton was a nice touch for nostalgic fans. The always entertainingly eccentric Helena Bonham Carter appears in an significant cameo, with Bryce Dallas Howard in a totally inconsequential part that could have gone to a newcomer. Following the established rules of action flicks (perhaps best exemplified by Cameron’s Aliens), the cast includes the requisite cute kid, but thankfully she’s mute.

Bryce Dallas Howard in Terminator SalvationYes, Bryce Dallas Howard is in this movie, for some reason. Still doing penance for The Lady in the Water, perhaps?

I was able to go along with the plot for the most part, but found the reduction and oversimplification frustrating. A global war against artificially aware machines is condensed down to a hand-to-hand battle with a single T-800 on a factory floor — a self-conscious retread of the climax of the original film. But perhaps this is a better dramatic choice than what Cameron did in Aliens, which excessively multiplied the single alien threat of Ridley Scott’s original, effectively diminishing the core premise that was appealing in the first place: an almost indestructible creature driven by pure biological instinct, not malice.

Another fatal flaw with Terminator Salvation is a consistent problem with many characters’ comically blasé reactions to extraordinary situations. Connor’s right-hand man Reese rescues a guy who claims never to have seen a Terminator before, or even know what year it is. But Reese simply answers his questions, and never wonders just where the hell this weirdo’s been the past few years. Also, I understand Williams (Moon Bloodgood) bonding with Marcus after he rescues her from gang rape, but she risks the safety of an entire human outpost when she decides to free him. This choice goes beyond understandable impulsiveness and into the realm of lunacy.

Also curious is an apparent lack of imagination in realizing futuristic technology. We’re told the Terminators communicate over old-school shortwave, so evidently SkyNet hasn’t taken over the satellite network and blanketed the planet in Wi-Fi or 3G. Maybe the robots found their reception was as bad as Manhattan AT&T subscribers. I won’t go into how the gleamingly sleek SkyNet HQ includes fancy touchscreen graphical user interfaces designed for humans, or how Connor miraculously witnesses a nearby nuclear explosion without being atomized by the shockwave, or at least going blind or contracting radiation sickness. Such a thin line between suspension of disbelief (for the purposes of thrills & spills) and sheer stupidity would bother any viewer with half a brain, whether the other half is cybernetic or not.


Official movie site: terminatorsalvation.warnerbros.com

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Based On a True Story: Mike Daisey

I agree 99% with the popular consensus regarding Mike Daisey: he lied. But the tiny 1% nobody seems to be talking about is bothering the hell out of me: if his now infamous monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a work of fiction, why can’t we talk about it as a work of fiction?

Until recently, Daisey was forging a reputation as a popular monologist in the tradition of the late Spalding Gray: fusing the mechanics of autobiography, journalism, and theater to tell stories with the power to move individuals and sway popular opinion. That is, he was, before his enormously popular show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was dramatically revealed to be largely comprised of half-truths and fabrications. Daisey initially required theaters to advertise it as “a work of non-fiction”. When he began to feel the heat, he initially claimed he had merely taken dramatic license, but finally issued an actual apology.

The imbroglio has been Tweeted, blogged, podcasted, and analyzed to death over the past two weeks, but here are the key incidents: Daisey’s original stage monologue (with a free transcript on his website), an episode of the venerable radio program This American Life featuring a version of it, followed by their astonishingly gripping retraction. My favorite analyses of the ensuing fallout came from Daring Fireball (Separating the Baby From the Bath Water) and Derek Powazek (How to Spot a Liar).

The general consensus among the cognoscenti, digerati and NPR set alike, is that Daisey made a fatal error in presenting his piece as journalistic report. I agree. But most of these analysts go on to express horror and outrage that Daisey’s show goes on. The monologue inspired a popular petition on Change.org (now there’s a petition against the petition). Theaters are not canceling Daisey’s future shows and are refusing refunds for past showings. Gruber, in an episode of his podcast The Talk Show, attributes this to the theater business running on a tight margin, as if it were simply a matter of economics. Interestingly, The Understatement reports that many theaters are also daring to defend the “essential truth” of Daisey’s work.

Mike DaiseyMike Daisey went to great lengths to preserve the fiction that “The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs” was nonfiction (photo credit: mikedaisey.blogspot.com)

Which brings me to the tiny sliver of this whole story that I believe needs to be addressed: there is a massive disconnect between journalists and, for lack of a single term, artists/writers/performers/monologists/etc. So Mike Daisey largely lied about what he saw in China; so what? Should his admittedly powerful monologue be wiped from the record? Can we not talk about it as a work of literature? Here is the point where, perhaps, the English majors of the world ought to take over from the journalists.

Ira Glass states in the This American Life retraction that Daisey’s use of the literary device of speaking in the first person triggered his brain to register it as truth. Other outraged journalists seem to not want to even entertain the idea that Daisey’s work might be an effective work of fiction on its own terms. Daisey was free to present his first-person account as truth (or as Stephen Colbert might term it, “truthy”) within the context of his play itself, but he erred by also doing so on This American Life, Real Time With Bill Maher, CBS News, and other news venues. He deceived accredited journalists with hard-earned reputations in order to preserve the fiction that his piece was nonfiction.

But what if he hadn’t? What if he had, from the beginning, pitched The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as what it actually is: a fictionalized dramatic account, told in the first person but, to use a familiar phrase, based on a true story. Most of what Daisey claims he personally witnessed are actual ongoing events at Foxconn and other factories in China. Workers’ conditions are harsh and unjust, not only to western sensibilities, but also in violation of Chinese regulations. Many commenters have mused on how Apple Inc. may have been harmed by Daisey, both financially and in terms of reputation. It most likely has to some measurable degree, but no matter how much I may personally use and like many of their products, I don’t believe Apple is any more possessed of sensitive feelings than any other multinational corporation. Apple is no more deserving of protection from a work of fiction than — to fabricate a hypothetical example — Exxon might be if a writer were to publish a novel telling the story of an environmental activist visiting the 1989 Valdez spill.

The current refusal to consider that Daisey’s discredited work might still have merit as a piece of literature smacks to me of two things:

  1. Excessive apologia to Apple. Apple is justly beloved for designing great products and seems to be making a great effort to improve its environmental impact and supplier responsibility. But no one needs to worry about their feelings being hurt.
  2. A general distrust and fear of fiction and literature. On a grand scale, you often see this when video games are blamed for school violence, rock lyrics for drug use, or comic books for juvenile delinquency. When a problem is too big to deal with, often the easiest thing to do is ban or burn a book. Now, of course those are extreme cases, and all that’s happening here is a few journalists discrediting one man’s dramatic monologue. Perhaps journalists spend too much of their careers dealing with verifiable facts, and are ill-equipped to deal with the sometimes messy business of analyzing literature.

Daisey is not a journalist, and his situation right now is not the same as that of Jayson Blair, who was rightly run out of town for his numerous fabrications published by the New York Times up until being discovered as a fraud in 2003. He’s more akin to James Frey, whose supposed memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed in 2006 to have been better classified as a novel. Had it not been marketed as his true life’s story, it probably would have been lost in the fray of bookstores’ crowded fiction aisles. Daisey’s medium is the theater, worlds away from the media journalists work in. No theatergoer or novel reader expects absolute verifiable truth from literature. The tools of literature have the power to entertain, instill a sense of catharsis in the audience, to illuminate, and perhaps even to move people to action. All of these goals seem to have motivated Daisey to do what he did.

It’s now near-impossible to appraise the merit of Daisey’s work on its own terms. Interviewed by Ira Glass in the This American Life episode Retraction, he stated that The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is the “best thing I’ve done.” Clearly, he knew he had really hit on something that touched a nerve in his audiences, and it brought him a great deal of acclaim that later curdled into notoriety. He wrongly felt that the notion his work was factually true was essential to its continuing popularity, which provided him many benefits: larger audiences, fame, and likely a greater income than the vast majority of struggling theater artists are ever likely to glean from their work. I think it’s clear now that had he presented his work as fiction, it would have reached far fewer people, but still have had its undeniable impact on those that did experience it. The shame is that now we’ll never know.

The silver lining is he contributed to an ever increasing spotlight on the complex issue of China’s labor practices, and a growing awareness that the consumer electronics industry could not exist as we know it today without it.

Relentless Withholding: Michael Mann’s Public Enemies

Public Enemies movie poster

 

Khoi Vinh rightly observes in Minimalism, Michael Mann and Miami Vice that “Mann has produced a taut, stylistic and often brutally impersonal filmography that seems most interested in the concept of work” (via Daring Fireball). I wholly understand and laud the aim of a minimalist, “relentlessly withholding” narrative, but I don’t believe it’s ignorant or populist to demand more. Mann has proved again and again to be a master at managing both character development and cold hard plot, particularly in his masterpiece Heat. So to my eyes, Public Enemies marks a regression. The danger in perpetuating multi-million dollar movies without an interest in human beings is entire multiplexes full of soulless special effects showcases like Transformers. Vinh goes on to appreciate Mann’s construction of the film as a form of design, not least because Mann commissioned Neville Brody to design a typeface New Deal, and the whole article is a must read.

The curse of avidly following any particular artist is that one is set up for disproportionate disappointment whenever their latest work doesn’t measure up to their very best. Mann is one of my own personal favorite filmmakers, and for the record, I would cite Thief, Heat, The Insider, and Collateral as his best and some of my favorite movies overall. As for the rest: Manhunter suffers from the usual criticisms levied against Mann (dated, stylized, and overserious). The Last of the Mohicans is overrated (famous mostly for its catchy score and capturing Daniel Day Lewis on film at his most hunky). Ali was a relatively conventional biopic. And finally, I was downright shocked by how garish, empty, and, well, just how bad Miami Vice was (on first viewing, at least).

Johnny Depp in Michael Mann's Public EnemiesJohnny Depp as John Dillinger: “We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow.”

Atypically for the genre, all three of Mann’s biopics are focused on a limited timeframe. The Insider, Ali, and Public Enemies all examine famous figures as adults, during the most active and famous portions of their lives. Public Enemies can’t help but be hamstrung by the rules of nonfiction, which is by definition less dramatically interesting than fiction. Fiction is carefully crafted by an author, and nonfiction is messy serious of events that won’t slot into Aristotle’s Poetics, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, or Robert McKee’s screenwriting formulae that we as a culture find cathartic in art almost by detault. Ali is also a casualty of this equation; it’s a biography, not a narrative. That doesn’t explain the brilliance of The Insider, which I consider a triumph. Perhaps it’s because its subject Jeffrey Wigand is not in the same league of fame as Muhammad Ali or John Dillinger, allowing the audience to discover more than they may already know. I would argue that The Insider is actually about something bigger than the life story of one man; it questions whether integrity, purity, and honesty have a place in a modern world run by corporations.

Before I enumerate my complaints about Public Enemies, it must be said that it’s wholly engrossing. Mann’s customarily deep research results in a characteristically high level of verisimilitude throughout. Many sequences were shot in the actual historic locations, including a raid on a safe house at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, a jailbreak from Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana, and Dillinger’s death at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. The action is visceral and the suspense is nail-biting, especially a sequence in which John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) brazenly strolls through the Special Crimes Unit offices the day before he is to die. One might assume this astonishing event to be a fabrication for dramatic purposes, but Roger Ebert says it’s “based on fact”).

Any follower of Mann’s work will be unsurprised to see that Public Enemies is visually beautiful. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti previously shot Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider on film — how quaint! — but here turns to digital video, with which Mann and Dion Beebe experimented on Collateral and Miami Vice. The scenes set in a dimly-lit F.B.I. telephone surveillance office look particularly striking on digital video. Stanley Kubrick sought natural light so dearly that he famously helped develop special lenses capable of shooting by candlelight for Barry Lyndon, so one suspects he would have loved the technology now available.

Terrifying, petrifying gunfights have been a trademark of Mann’s since his earliest feature The Keep. He has perfected it by Public Enemies, in which the tight choreography and extreme violence is matched only by the concussive sound design. These sequences hark back to the innovative urban firefight in Heat, when to the filmmakers’ happy surprise, the actual production sound proved more earsplitting than was possible with post-production foley effects. When I saw Public Enemies in the theater, the first reel was marred by terrible sound (an improvement over my first viewing of Miami Vice, which was almost inaudible throughout). Once resolved, the volume was loud enough to almost physically feel the force of bullets splintering walls, tree trunks, and background performers. Mann used to reserve his epic gun battles for climaxes, such as when Frank (James Caan) raids the mobster’s house in Thief, and Graham (William Peterson) single-handedly attacks The Tooth Fairy’s (Tom Noonan) lair in Manhunter. The shootouts grew to massive scale and epic lengths in the later films, like the unnerving nightclub raid in Collateral, and especially the cataclysmic downtown LA shootout that occurs roughly in the middle of Heat, which the film remorselessly builds towards and then thoroughly explores the ramifications.

Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard in Michael Mann's Public EnemiesJohnny Depp and Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies: “I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn’t know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you… what else you need to know?”

In contrast, much of Public Enemies is a long, sustained chase — a structural conceit Mann seems to have been embracing ever since Collateral. As Fernando F. Croce observed on The Auteurs, “Mann has gradually shifted from an image-based artist to a movement-based artist. Make that a sensation-based artist” … “Mann’s characters are dreamers posing as tough guys.” Mann punctuates the constant forward motion of the plot with action set pieces including at least two jail breaks, several bank robberies, and a chaotic raid on a safe house. Both jail breaks are clever, in which the audacious Dillinger largely exercises brains over brawn, and designs each at least partly to humiliate the lawmen. In the first, Dillinger gets himself deliberately locked up in order to bust his associates out. In the second, they make their getaway in the sheriff’s own car.

Dillinger died in 1934, marking the twilight of the classic gangster era in more ways than one. His activities instigated the creation of the F.B.I. and the passing of laws that inhibited criminal enterprise, making him very unpopular with the organized crime families that were happily operating with relative freedom before he started showboating and stirring things up. His criminal career coincided squarely with the Great Depression era. Mann refrains from showing the stereotypical Hoovertowns or desiccated farmsteads directly, but the largely unspoken economic strife hangs over everyone nevertheless. One of the reasons Dillinger became such a folk hero is that he carefully cultivated a Robin Hood persona by very deliberately taking care not to rob individuals, but to steal from banks and, by proxy, the vilified federal government.

Contemporary media hype made Dillinger a celebrity, and ultimately one of the last romanticized criminals to be able to hide out in public. Mann depicts this idolization subtly. For instance, when the gang refreshes themselves at a farmhouse after breaking out of jail, the woman of the house quietly begs Dillinger to “take me with you.” Note she specifies “me,” despite having children in tow. Most people still know his name today, despite him lacking a memorable nickname like his peers Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. Incidentally, Baby Face portrayed in Public Enemies by actor Stephen Graham as dangerously unhinged and murderous. He has the criminal mind, but unlike Dillinger lacks the discipline to make it work for him. The dynamic is similar that that of Neil vs. his wayward henchman Waingrow in Heat. Dillinger can’t do what he does alone, but any association with a man like Baby Face courts disaster.

In Knives Out for Michael Mann, Kim Masters dishes the latest dirt on Mann (via In Contention). Anonymous gossip has him as one of the most difficult and even irresponsible directors working today, and studios may no longer wish to front his high price tag for movies that aren’t profitable. I usually protest when I hear studio executives complaining about “difficult” filmmakers — of course filmmakers are difficult — they’re the artists and studio executives are businesspeople. Without difficult artists, the accountants and MBAs that run the movie industry would have no “product” to sell. I usually dismiss the comments of executives that get paid more than the artists they supposedly enable to express themselves. But if the rumors about Mann are true, he’s more than just difficult. In the case of Miami Vice, he reportedly disregarded the safety of his crews by filming in the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Katrina bore down — followed by an actual gun fight on the set. Conditions were so bad on the set of Public Enemies that Depp reportedly stopped speaking with Mann.

Marion Cotillard in Michael Mann's Public EnemiesMarion Cotillard as Billie: “They’re looking at me because they’re not used to having a girl in their restaurant in a $3 dress.”

According to Scott Shoger’s Hollywood Goes Gangster, Dillinger was a movie buff, and was even semi-seriously planning a movie about himself not long before his death (an intriguing fact we don’t see in Public Enemies). The last movie he saw was Manhattan Melodrama, for which Clark Gable he won an Oscar. Being Dillinger’s last movie ticket gave the film an undeniable marketing boost. Mann shows Dillinger in a state of reverie as he watches key excerpts that had some personal relevance to how he saw himself. Shoger also states post-Hays Code Hollywood had an unwritten agreement to not produce explicit biopics of actual gangsters, lest they contribute to their celebrity and glorify the criminal lifestyle. This self-censorship more or less held until Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967). As such, only a few movies have told John Dillinger’s story, including The FBI Story (1959, with Jimmy Stewart), The Lady in Red (1979), and at least two simply called Dillinger (1973 and 1991).

In thinking about Public Enemies, I can’t help but keep going back to Thief and Heat, and it doesn’t survive the comparison. Maybe the real John Dillinger just isn’t as interesting as two of Mann’s previous fictional thieves (or in Mann’s parlance, “guys that pull down scores”): Neil (Robert De Niro) in Heat and Frank (James Caan) in Thief. Public Enemies is all surface, without the rich characterization of Thief and Heat. Public Enemies left me grasping at the tiniest of fragments in search of depth or subtext: a little look by an actor, a telling line of dialogue, anything. But there isn’t much there. Roger Ebert appreciates the refreshing lack of backstory conventional in both the biopic and gangster genres. I agree with him in principle, but would like to point out that neither Thief nor Heat features backstory — both flesh out its characters with what you might call “now-story.”

While Public Enemies often feels tragically lacking in dramatic interest, virtually every single character in Heat has a backstory, even the getaway driver Donald (Dennis Haysbert) that dies before the car goes one block. Here, we don’t learn anything about anybody. Aside from Dillinger himself, the one character we probably needed to learn the most about is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Purvis is a cold fish outwardly, such as when we dispassionately guns down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) after giving him one last chance to surrender. We can infer that he’s a cold, steely G-Man with a particular expertise in sharpshooting. Bale’s performance conveys sadness and guilt over what he’s doing — the questionable morality of defeating gangsters with torture and often even outright summary execution. Heat’s cops and robbers are both fascinating, but who cares about Purvis’ safety, or if he achieves his aims? The only scene in which Bale and Depp share the screen marks one of the few sparks of life in the entire movie, but it’s frustratingly brief and unfortunately visualized through the old cliché of characters speaking through bars. The old Mann would have turned it into a several minute long conversation, a centerpiece of the film.

Another frustrating cypher is the man Purvis drafts as as controversial expert on Dillinger. Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), was an actual historic Texas Ranger, but unless I missed something, the movie doesn’t identify him at all, and in fact suggests that he’s from the wrong side of the law, being that he’s so familiar with organized crime and the archetypal gangster mindset. We learn nothing of him aside from the fact that he’s clever and suspiciously insightful at predicting Dillinger’s behavior. He’s a bit sinister, and rough and streetwise in manner and dress, so perhaps the point is just that he’s not the type that J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) would consider good G-Man material: young, clean cut, college educated sorts like Hoover’s man-crush Purvis.

Christian Bale and Billy Crudup in Michael Mann's Public EnemiesJ. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) recruits Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) for “A modern force of professional young men of the best sort.”

What do we learn of the main man himself? Dillinger was a self-created celebrity ahead of his time: media-savvy and always ready to produce a good, concise catchphrase at the drop of a hat. The most telling revelation about his character comes from a dying colleague John “Red” Hamilton (Jason Clarke), who, in his dying moments, chooses to armchair psychoanalyze his partner in crime, saying he’s unable to let anyone down. Really? When did the film illustrate this aspect of his character? All we can infer from his onscreen behavior is that he’s loyal to the woman he loves (although not so loyal that he doesn’t later go out on a date with a hooker while his girlfriend is in prison — although to psychoanalyze him ourselves, this action is probably a not-very-subconscious decision to allow himself to get caught, AKA “suicide by cop”). Just as he was able to casually stroll through his to-be captors’ offices without being caught, Dillinger is a ghost that goes through life without making any kind of impact. Neil in Heat may have had no friends, family, or even furniture, but he had a code: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Like Neil in Heat and Frank in Thief, Dillinger doesn’t have an exit strategy from his lifestyle until he meets a woman. Neil found love and wanted to pull a final score and then disappear forever. Dillinger wants the girl and an ongoing crime spree. Only when she is taken from him does he consider a final score to retire on.

A surprising number of name actors appear in tiny roles, including David Wenham, Lily Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Dorff, Emilie de Ravin (from the TV series Lost) and even singer Diana Krall in a cameo. One possible explanation is that they simply wanted to work for Mann in any capacity. Or maybe their roles were larger before the editing process. One in particular that stands out is Giovanni Ribisi as Alvin Karpis, a high level fixer and organizer, sort of like the skeezy but coldly professional Nate (John Voight) in Heat.

Mann often catches a lot of flak for his typical paucity of female characters, but also for the few he does feature being rather problematic. It’s obvious that Mann is interested in stories about men (gangsters, cops, thieves, etc.). In my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily make him a misogynist if his stories don’t always feature full, richly drawn female characters. But curiously, Billie in Public Enemies may not be one of Mann’s most interesting female characters across his body of work, but she is more complexly drawn than any of the male characters in Public Enemies. We learn a little about her, certainly more than we do about anyone else, but I still don’t get why she would drop everything and run off with a gangster. Billie remains in love with Dillinger and faithful to him even when tortured and sentenced to a two-year jail term. True, she’s a young woman trapped in a dead-end job and the subject of racism (she’s part Native American). A good contrast is the character of Eady (Amy Brenneman) in Heat, whose complex relationship with the criminal Neil I found not only plausible but sadly moving. Cotillard is fine, but I think Brenneman’s touching performance as a crushingly lonely woman vulnerable to a charismatic but controlling older man really helped me understand her desire to run away. Both Eady and Billie are willing to abandon their lives, such as they are, or even implicate themselves for a man that could be arrested or killed at any moment.


Must read: Neville Brody’s fave film fonts and opening sequences, from The Guardian

Official movie site: www.publicenemies.net

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Which Way Is Up: Michael Mann’s Miami Vice

Miami Vice movie poster

 

The simple truth is that I hated Michael Mann’s Miami Vice on first viewing. On a technical level, it was marred by hideously poor sound reproduction — for which I blamed the particular theater I happened to see it in, but a friend of mine had the same complaint about a totally different venue, suggesting something was wrong with the prints themselves. I found the film much improved when watching the unrated director’s cut available on DVD and Blu-ray — not just sporting more audible sound but even improved fluidity in the storytelling. I don’t recall the original theatrical cut well enough to identify what may have been added, altered, extended, or rearranged, so any number of factors could have contributed to a more forgiving reappraisal: approximately five extra minutes of breathing room, better sound, and an original opinion so low there there was no way to go but up.

The film is based on the original television series of the same name that ran between 1984-1989, created by Anthony Yerkovich and produced by Mann. Its premise was famously encapsulated by Mann’s alleged two-word pitch “MTV cops” — a legend that may or may not be true but has the benefit of being right on-the-nose. Kitschy even at the time, Miami Vice drew its stylistic tendencies — and sometimes even its guest stars — from MTV. It’s a world apart from Crime Story, another Mann crime drama and an early experiment with serialized storytelling that wouldn’t really take hold until much later with Twin Peaks and The Sopranos. It ran concurrently with Miami Vice but was cancelled after only two two seasons (1986-87).

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in Michael Mann's Miami ViceOK, you win. Your suit is shinier than mine.

Miami Vice the movie, however, is the product of Mann the writer and director as opposed to episodic television producer and showrunner. The film is more of auteur work than the collaborative medium of a television series, and as such begs comparison with his other major films also set in the world of crime and punishment: Manhunter, Thief, Heat, Collateral, and Public Enemies. But whereas most of these presented sympathetic (or at least complex) portraits of criminals, Miami Vice is a more traditional policier firmly on the side of the good guys.

Miami Vice follows the high-stakes exploits of Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), two Miami-Dade Police detectives in the war on drugs. The story begins in medias res, plunging the audience into an undercover operation that goes awry, followed by an effort to assist a colleague whose cover was blown while embedded in a Columbian drug running operation. This second operation is just the tip of an iceberg: FBI Agent John Fujima (Ciarán Hinds) reveals that there is a mole in the FBI. Crockett and Tubbs are deputized as federal agents for purposes of continuing the investigation.

Like typical Mann protagonists, the detectives’ jobs are the sole focus of their lives. In the DVD bonus features, a real undercover operative states how disconcerting it is to lead another life as a high roller, wearing the finest clothes and driving the best cars, but return home off duty to his family in a crappy used car. It would have been nice to see what kind of lives Crockett and Tubbs lead off duty, if any, and learn a little of what life is really like for undercover cops. Instead, we watch the entire onscreen team live, eat, and sleep together in a large unfurnished house, much like master thief Neil McCauley’s (Robert De Niro) spartan abode in Heat.

Colin Farrell and Gong Li in Michael Mann's Miami ViceCrockett travels in style.

Both men become professionally compromised by their relationships with women, escalating to the point where their lives are threatened by their emotional needs. Neither looks outside their narrow work sphere for love: Tubbs is romantically involved with a colleague, and Crockett becomes mixed up with gorgeous money laundress Isabella (Gong Li). She’s dispassionate and inscrutable when we see her at work, but reveals worlds of emotion behind her eyes when alone with Crockett. Frankly, Gong Li is a little hard to understand, her character being a Chinese immigrant to Havana, requiring her to speak two languages in a film already rife with a plethora of blended accents. Justly wary of his partner’s infatuation, Tubbs warns him, “There’s undercover and then there’s which way is up.” Ignoring his partner’s advice, Crockett abets her escape from the federal sting operation, an act the movie judges as morally acceptable because he loves her.

Returning players from the Mann repertory include Domenick Lombardozzi (from Public Enemies) and Barry Shabaka Henley (the ill-fated jazz club owner in Collateral, who also appears as a parole agent in Mann’s latest TV project Luck). New additions include Eddie Marsan, perhaps one of the most versatile actors in the world, as a government informant with a thoroughly convincing Southern twang, and John Ortiz (also a lead in Luck, and don’t miss him opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan in Jack Goes Boating). His villainous character here at first seems on a par with Javier Bardem’s powerful and threatening turn in Collateral, more savvy and perceptive even than his boss Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar). But he ultimately proves pathetic and weaselly — the audience’s ability to take him seriously not helped by a caricatured accent just this side of Speedy Gonzales.

Mann took the opportunity to continue his experiments with digital cinematography begun in Collateral, and many of the locations were actual. Nevertheless, the production was enormously expensive for a movie without significant CGI special effects, even though it was ultimately profitable worldwide. A significant chunk of the expense is likely attributable to Mann’s customarily deep research in the service of verisimilitude, right down to unusual speedboats and implausibly exotic (but real) types of weapons.

Gong Li and Colin Farrell in Michael Mann's Miami ViceCrockett (Colin Farrell) leans in to better understand Isabella’s (Gong Li) accent

In “Knives Out for Michael Mann”, Kim Masters dishes the latest dirt on Mann, running a parade of anonymous, damning onset anecdotes. In particular, he was supposedly inconsiderate of the safety of the cast and crew during a shoot already made physically dangerous by everything from Hurricane Katrina to locations in gang-controlled territory. Mann may not be solely to blame, however, for Slate fingers actor Jamie Foxx for demanding higher billing and a raise after winning the Best Actor Oscar for the Ray Charles biopic Ray. He also allegedly demanded a last-minute rewrite that compromised the ending, and refused to fly to location shoots. The latter, at least, may be excusable — for The Daily Beast attributes his reasonable-sounding objection to an on-set actual shooting incident.

The score is rather disappointing for a Mann film, especially compared to the great Dead Can Dance neo-medieval soundscapes for The Insider, the Kronos Quartet dissonance in Heat, and James Newton Howard’s Mogwai-inspired post-rock score for Collateral. Jan Hammer’s iconic theme for the TV series is inexplicably absent, but there is a truly awful cover by the band Nonpoint of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, a signature song of the original show.

Another carryover from the province of the original series is the unfortunate fashion victims. The 21st century Crockett and Tubbs are seemingly locked in competition to see who owns the shiniest suit or the silliest hairstyle (Crockett rocks a mullet and Tubbs a precision-chiselled hairline). One is seen to drive a rocket-propelled european sportscar, which is apparently not meant to be a humorous allusion to the Adam West’s 1960s Batmobile.

The film ends with a mundane final shot, very uncharacteristic for the director that ended Thief and Heat with magnificent tableaus. Crockett enters a hospital, cut to credits. I get the point: he believes love is impossible for a man in his position — he effectively imprisons his girlfriend in another kind of deep cover, all in favor of him going back to work, at his partner’s side as they check up on an injured colleague. It’s true to character, and thematically significant, but visually anticlimactic and not what we pay for when we go to see a film from such a famously exacting and stylistic filmmaker.


Official movie site: www.miamivice.com

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